Chapters:

Chapter 1

"Are you ready?"

Cora looked up and ahead, eyes focusing on the far building through the transparent wall. Hundreds of images flooded her consciousness as she began recalling the journey that led her up to this moment. She had spent half a decade preparing. Her training regime included both the mental and physical. It was the most difficult task she had ever undertaken, but it was worth every effort. She could definitively say that the person she had become was vastly more experienced than the person she once was.

"Cora? Are you there? I can see you, but I am not sure if the holographic emitters had-"

"I am here Jaan," she said, turning around to indicate that her hologram was not frozen. "Just lost in my thoughts," Cora explained and managed a smile.

"You are ready," Jaan assured his friend. "You have spent a long time preparing for this, even your Meta is more... prominent. It is difficult to quantify, but you are a different person. You are ready."

Cora smiled again, elated and genuinely appreciative. "Curse this programming," she said. "Why we cannot be without irrational thoughts is infuriating."

Jaan chuckled, and appeared to share her sentiment. “Are you concerned with the process?” he asked.

Cora contemplated the question, somehow understanding the reference. In truth, this could be the last time that they would interact in this fashion. It was a widely known fact that individuals that ascend lose an integral part of themselves to make room for all the additional programming that allows them to function as a Sentinel.

“I am a bit nervous,” she replied candidly. It would certainly be ideal, for the sake of their friendship, if she was able to maintain the integrity of her character and personality despite the self-perceived flaw. Although she would be saddened to lose their special connection, Cora understood and accepted that it was a noble sacrifice.

“It is strange, is it not?” Jaan echoed her sentiment. “How we are different from the other humani,” he said. “It sometimes forces me to think if I am somehow… defective.”

“Nonsense!” Cora exclaimed. “I am positively sure that you are not defective,” she said without hesitation. “If memory serves, we both had similar aptitude scores.”

“And between the both us, who was chosen for Ascension?” Jaan quipped.

Cora had to concede the point, not knowing how to continue her line of reasoning without emphasising that she had been the only candidate from her planet’s population to be chosen to become a Sentinel. In reality, she too had found it odd that the two of them carried themselves differently to the other humani.

“I think the selection process is random,” she finally said, although it was admittedly a very weak argument and her uneasiness had permeated her face. “Is it not?”

“None but the higher echelons know,” he replied. “But I would say with a high degree of certainty that it is not. To be a Sentinel, one is either trained or becomes one through inception. The latter method is extremely rare and those chosen probably have within them specific natural abilities that facilitate the transformation.”

There was a moment of silence, while the two of them meditated on what was discussed. Cora had never argued with Jaan for as long as they had known each other and this time was no different. For her, it was always an exchange of ideas. While the Sentinel candidate exhibited emotional traits, she never felt envy or jealousy for her friend, no matter the achievement or circumstance. Deep within the confines of her positronic filaments, she was sure that Jaan was truly happy and excited for her, and he would be the only humani she knew to feel that way, although there were times she could not decipher his subtle display of emotional nuances.

“You know I have the utmost respect for you,” he said and cheekily added, “and besides, the life of the Sentinel is not for me. I still have many more research milestones to achieve. As far as I know, you are the one losing out here.”

Cora smiled at the invoked imagery of Jaan receiving the coveted Hawkin prize, and allowed herself to relax.

“Thank you my friend,” she replied. Then, after a few seconds worth of reflection, continued, “I truly believe this particular experience would have been more challenging were it not for your support.”

“That is not true, and we both know it.”

“No, really.” She insisted. If only she could reach out and touch him, she would as to convince Jaan of her sincerity.

“So, after next week,” he quickly said to shift the focus from the current topic. “You will become a protector of the humani race… and become a Commander!” Unlike other humani, not only was Jaan capable of higher levels of emotion, he was also easily embarrassed.

“I suppose so,” she said, attempting humility.

"You realize Cora, that you will be the youngest ever humani to ascend?" Jaan continued.

"Yes Jaan, I found out when I was chosen."

"There will be at least a hundred Sentinels in attendance, probably more. According to the news feed, some Sentinels from up to several parsecs away will be making the journey. Including Commander Kelvan." Jaan finished with a slight emphasis on the name.

Cora was not consciously aware of the process, but upon hearing the name of this particular Sentinel, she began retrieving segments from her long-term memory, bringing back past events perfectly and vividly into her sub-visual cortex.

***

Cora was a budding young humani at the time when one of the first wormholes appeared in her home world’s primary population hubs. Even though the quadrupeds were only able to sustain a wormhole for a few minutes, it was utter chaos. They knew exactly how to immobilise the perimeter defences, and once they were neutralised, they began their assault. Their only tactical advantages were the element of surprise and strength in numbers. Although the humani put up a fierce defence, they were no match against multiple adversaries. Within an hour, almost half the population was rounded up and incapacitated using a very specific wave cancelling frequency. Yes, the hunters had studied their prey and executed their attack plan without flaw.

"Jaan! Look out!!" Cora screamed as she saw her classmate succumb to one of the quadrupeds that were hunting them. The male had his lower torso ripped off from beneath him by the quadruped’s powerful metallic pincer-claws. Of course, he would not be killed. No, they needed his positronic brain intact so it could be harvested for energy later. He was still resisting and struggling despite being torn in half but his only purpose now was to slow down the predator so Cora could get away.

"Cora, run! Now!" He grunted gutturally, gripping and tugging at the quadruped. Despite his best efforts, he was not able to prevent the determined predator from severing his arms.

Cora screamed in horror as her friend lay writhing helplessly on the ground. She gathered her focus and realised that Jaan’s sacrifice would be in vain if she was also caught. Any moment now, a second quadruped could arrive. However, due to her enhanced emotional spectrum, her rational mind was quickly overwhelmed. She was compelled to stay and help. She could not leave Jaan. Quickly, she got out of her crouching position and spun around, searching the immediate vicinity for anything that could be used as a weapon, or anything that resembled a quadrupedal form. To her dismay and relief, all she could see were loose debris. She picked up the nearest piece of broken concrete, defying all logic, and hurled it with faultless aim. Hitting the mechanical beast on an auxiliary protrusion above its thorax, appearing to be its head, the debris ricocheted off in an inconsequential manner.

“Hey, quadruped!” she shouted, feeling a bit foolish and flailing her arms in a desperate attempt to distract the monster. “Hey, ANALOGUE BRAIN!!” Cora yelled again. She continued screaming at the beast fanatically for another few moments before throwing another chunk of debris, this time a much larger one.

Almost immediately, the young female began feeling regret as the four-legged predator slowly shifted its attention away from its current victim and onto herself.

“Cora! What are you doing?!” Jaan screamed as he moved awkwardly to get a better vantage.

She took several steps backwards, then spun around and sprinted away as fast as her legs could muster but something faster filled her peripheral vision. The hunter was impossibly fast. She was expecting her proximity sensor to give her some warning. She tripped and tumbled, understanding that an elongated sharp object had penetrated her calf. Cora sat up to survey her situation. The quadruped had pinned her leg firmly against the ground. She looked up, and the only thing filling her sight was the luminescent yellow pattern that was its head. This particular hunter-gatherer had not encountered a humani like Cora before, and was therefore completely stunned when she perforated its face with a concealed jagged piece of concrete, as it got down close to perform an inspection. It made a whirring, screeching noise that could resemble a growl. An angry, annoyed growl. Her thoughts suddenly escaped the confines of time and space, into an unknown but seemingly familiar place. In that moment of intimacy, she recalled how Hank used to growl and bare his fangs whenever his human master was under threat. Hank was loyal to a fault, and ultimately gave his life to protect hers. Hank! No...

The energy deprived alien suddenly moved, trapping all her limbs simultaneously, and pulling her mind back into reality. Apparently, the quadruped decided it would devour this positronic brain here and now as a snack, even though they had been known only to only capture. This was compensation for the damage it sustained. The collective would forgive this minor transgression.

This is it. Cora accepted her fate. Her spark would exist no further after today. The last thing she would see was the pincer-claw coming down on her, signalling the end. She brought up both hands to shield... A flash of motion flooded her view. Whatever it was moved even faster than the quadruped. Within seconds, the enemy had lost all of its appendages and was struggling to comprehend the events that had befallen itself. With one swift and precise move, Cora’s saviour pierced the quadruped’s nervous centre; cutting short its life.

"Are you alright?" the warrior asked as he knelt down to inspect Cora’s injury.

"Nothing I cannot remedy," she replied with a measure of composure. She inspected the damage, noting that her limbs were already self-regenerating. "Who, no, what are you?" she asked. The young female was still trying to piece together the events of the last minute.

"Kelvan," the towering male replied as he extended his arm to assist Cora off the ground. "Commander Kelvan, of the Fourteenth Fleet." Once he was satisfied that they were no longer in immediate danger, he turned to scan the area and detected Cora’s badly injured companion. "This area is not secured, I suggest we retrieve your companion and seek out the nearest bunker and regroup."

Cora nodded in agreement. "Thank you, Commander," she said with genuine gratitude. "You are a Sentinel, are you not?"

Kelvan smiled and nodded, then gestured in reverence. "It is our honour to serve and protect," he said.

Cora was about to speak her thoughts when the ground began vibrating. She looked up in awe as several 10-metre tall giants descended around them. She had never seen a Sentinel before, let alone one of these humani-piloted robotic suits, at least not in person. All she knew at the time, apart from their physical resemblance to the humani form, was that they were designed specifically to allow for the pilot to transfer his or her consciousness to, and essentially become the suit itself. The last thing she remembered seeing, as the evacuation gunship climbed into the air, was a single AVATAR exerting its tactical superiority over several retreating quadrupeds.

***

"Cora?" Jaan interrupted a second time.

"Oh, sorry my friend. I was replaying the events from the attack on Prime Omega."

"When we first met him?"

"Yes." She replied.

“I was convinced it was the end for us, and so, to be saved by a Sentinel was the last thing I expected. I even remembered that just a few days before, we were debating the existence of one.” Jaan recollected. “It seemed silly in retrospect.”

“I could not believe that he led the tactical response units to defeat the quadrupeds after one of them made such short work of us,” Cora added. Indeed, the Commander had elevated his status to one of the most formidable Sentinels that had ever traversed the galactic plane. There was something about Kelvan that seemed to captivate her. Although she had attempted numerous times, she just could not decipher the fluctuating mental state she seemed to experience despite her advanced cognition.

"Have you ever been to the Hall of Ascension?" Cora asked, changing the topic and regarding her friend, who had literally sacrificed his limbs at one point to save her. "I have been told that it is the most intricately designed structure on Prime Epsilon."

"No, I have not, Cora; but like yourself, I have been told of the numerous exquisite features of the Hall."

There was a moment of silence, and Jaan could tell from Cora’s facial expression that it wasn’t something trivial.

“Is something troubling you?” he asked.

“There was a moment back on our home world,” she said and shifted her gaze from the surface of the desk back to Jaan. “I have never told anyone before,” Cora paused. “but I feel I should tell you, just in case the transformation…”

“...removes it from long-term memory?”

She nodded.

“Please proceed,” he coaxed. “You know we can talk about anything.”

“While the quadruped had me pinned down, I had a memory flash. I saw a dog,” she paused in recollection. “I do not know how I know, but this dog was a short-coated Dutch Shepherd named Hank.”

“Interesting,” was Jaan’s response. He began typing away on his end, and then said after a short moment, “The central repository has no such entry on this so called…’short-coated Dutch Shepherd’, not even ‘dog’.”

“It was probably an acute malfunction of my visual cortex then, because how could I have seen something that did not exist?”

Jaan smiled and said, “I presume that since that incident, you have undergone every conceivable level of diagnostics?”

“Of course my friend, it would have been part of the induction pre-requisites.”

He shared her infectious grin and added, “I am glad I got this chance to talk to you before your transformation, the real you.”

They conversed at length, exchanging experiences and recounting events from their respective pasts ever since Cora left her home world, Prime Omega, to join the preparation program. They had not been in contact at all due to the strict regulations in place preventing external communication.

"Yes, Jaan." Cora finally nodded and paused at the end of their exchange, "I am ready."


[Humani Flagship Excelsior, the Fourteenth Fleet]

The Excelsior was a majestic engineering feat. Like all ships in the naval fleet, it boasted a central core housing multiple state of the art dark-matter energy drives, each connected to a reaction control thrust-cluster that protruded out in pairs on either side of the hyper-elongated ovoid-shaped primary hull. However, unlike its predecessor, which constituted approximately 80% of the fleet, the Quasar-class battleship was capable of executing multiple quantum-jumps without recharging given its larger size. Additionally, with the latest advancement in dark-matter conversion technology, this flagship was able to hold a complement of up to two AVATAR squadrons. Situated above the mass centre of gravity was the bridge, the synaptic hub of the ship.

"Admiral, electromagnetic anomaly detected."

"Report."

"Sensors are unable to determine type or classification, quantum fluctuations exceed nominal threshold," the helmsman continued, relaying the additional telemetry. "Admiral," the Helmsman added a few seconds later, "the fleet is signalling readiness for quantum-jump."

"Acknowledge. Assign the Protector and Champion to investigate the anomaly, then execute quantum-jump to Prime Epsilon." Admiral Kohan-dor instructed.

"Yes Admiral," the helmsman complied. "Orders have been relayed to both ships, now stand by for quantum-jump execution."


[Humani Battlecruiser Protector]

"Captain, sensors are still unable to positively identity type and classification," the Helmsman reported. Both the Protector and Champion had arrived at a safe distance to investigate the anomaly.

"Lieutenant Ora, we need to get answers expediently. Bring the auxiliary processing units online."

"Aye sir."

A luminescent flash permeated the air next to Captain Marsa materializing into the shape of a large male humani.

"Commander Kelvan," the Captain greeted his AVATAR squadron leader.

"Wormhole?" the Sentinel asked as he walked up to Ora’s station and examined the screen.

"Still indeterminate, we have brought the APUs onli-"

A sudden and powerful energy pulse surged radially outward in all directions, engulfing both ships. On board the Protector, all of the ship’s systems were knocked offline. Though the ship was flooded in darkness, none on board were concerned as the secondary systems began kicking in. Despite having regained control, there was still a degree of confusion for it was uncommon for a humani battlecruiser to be caught so unaware.

Commander Kelvan’s holographic image had re-emerged on the bridge, but this time he was suited up, appearing from within the cockpit of his AVATAR. "Captain, I recommend we alert the flagship. If this is any indication of an impending attack by the quads..."

"Commander, stand down." Marsa interjected.

"Come again sir?"

"The anomaly Commander, it is gone."

Kelvan went to the nearest station and accessed the Protector’s sensor array to confirm. "Intriguing."


[Prime Epsilon, several months ago]

The Hall of Ascension was the most intricately designed structure in all of Prime Epsilon. As with all buildings on any humani planet, it was designed with function in mind. In addition to housing the transformation matrix used for the evolution of a humani, the Hall of Ascension was also built to accommodate ten thousand humani spectators. Among its peers, it stood taller and mightier, although physically, it was the flattest structure in Prime Epsilon. Of course, the humani were not vain. They had no need for self-admiration, and they were certainly not narcissistic. They were a race fervently in pursuit of general advancement of the species.

Prime Epsilon, like all humani home worlds accommodated exactly 112,358 sparks. There were typically up to six primary hubs on home worlds, and no more than two on a satellite world. Every home world had a function or purpose, but generally revolved around a specific study or research. Of course, some home worlds were purely military hubs of important strategic significance. At the Gamma Research Centre, a very unique topic of interest had sparked the interest of the solar system’s most intelligent minds.

"Ma’am, this is the 5th occurrence so far in the last year."

Chief Researcher Auri-dor walked up behind one of her research assistants and looked over her shoulder. She took a closer look, and even personally assessed the projection model that had been built. There were no mistakes. Everything was correct, bar the arbitrarily assigned factors, but even if the level of conservatism was reduced, the numbers, and more importantly, what they implied was still of concern. An epidemic was about to engulf their species.

"Chief Auri-dor," the adjutant continued, "if our projections are accurate, we are all in grave danger."

"Yes, Senior Plako, that would seem to be the case. I shall alert the council and convene an emergency meeting to discuss the issue. Prepare a full report, and I want it ready within the next hour."

"Understood Chief Auri-dor," Plako nodded and began her work.


[Hexagon Spire, Prime Epsilon Command Centre]

"Council, the facts speak for themselves. My team and I are merely responsible for gathering, collating and presenting the information." Auri-dor concluded, after delivering the hour long presentation inside the building adjacent to her office. "In fact, we have to act now."

There was a short pause. Each member of the council descended into deep thought. The case was compelling. Even the council’s own chief researcher had concurred with the findings. It was beyond reasonable doubt that they had to act, now.

"My colleagues, shall we meld?" Councillor Haki-dor finally said, breaking the long silence. He stretched both arms and connected with the arms of his peers on either side. What would seem like mere seconds to onlookers actually contained hours worth of conversation within the melded minds of the seven council members. In the realm of melding, enormous amounts of information could be exchanged in mere split seconds, almost instantaneously and sometimes even faster than one’s own thoughts resulting in a cacophony of internal voices.

This has been foretold.

Mere coincidence. Rational argument does not support your case.

This cannot be coincidence. There is enough evidence.

In any case, not proceeding is just the same as condemning each and every humani to death. At least we are in the position to exercise control.

Perhaps there is another way?

We do not have the time.

There must be another way.

There is no other way considering the circumstances. We have to act now.

Agreed. All in favour? Eleni-dor, you have concerns?

It is wrong. They are sentient!

They are a means to an end. It is the only logical course of action.

What of the prime directives?

They only apply to humani.

History suggests that every great race or nation must occasionally resort to extreme measures in order to overcome adversity and move forward. Survival of the adaptable.

Is our way of life so indispensable that we allow ourselves to be savages? It is not our way.

Eleni-dor, the humani way of life must be preserved. Forget not that the prime directives must be applied above all else. For as long as we have been, threats are analysed, solutions devised and implemented to neutralise in the most efficient manner. It is our way. It is the only way.

All in favour?

Motion passed.

"Chief Researcher Auri-dor," Haki, the oldest and wisest humani, began. "The council has convened and," he paused, "decided that this matter is of grave concern to all humani and requires that we dedicate as many resources as necessary to obtain a solution."

Chief Researcher Auri-dor was the solar system’s greatest mind, and not only by virtue of spending an immense amount of time on research and study. She was one of the very few humani that had contributed to every known field of study including the humani condition, artificial intelligence, sustainable energy, astronomy and many more.

"Councillor Haki-dor, I shall take my leave and begin work at once."

The revered leader nodded and turned to address the other council members, "My fellow colleagues, we are adjourned. I thank you for your time."

One after another, they all disintegrated from view, leaving only Haki-dor and Auri-dor present in their corporeal form.

"Auri, my friend." Haki-dor spoke and walked down to embrace the chief researcher. "We seem to always meet under such dire circumstances."

"Yes, it does appear so, does it not?" Auri replied solemnly. She raised her right hand, palm facing forward.

Haki walked up acknowledging her hand, and was about to reciprocate the gesture when he stopped his palm just a few centimetres from hers. "Let us talk," he said, folding his arms behind his back. "It has been too long."

"Indeed," she said. "Too long. How fares your spark?" Auri asked as she took her position by his side and they began a leisurely walk towards the entrance.

"From the spark," he began. "The fire-"

"Flares," she finished the age old adage. "Of course."

"Remember the time when we were stranded on Rho-3, when that Quadruped sneaked up behind us?"

"Haki," she interjected, sensing that there was more on the councillor’s mind than what had been let on. "Was there something else you wanted to discuss?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied. "There is."

"Is this about the prophecy?" Auri asked before Haki could translate his thoughts into a sentence.

He nodded. "I know it is irrational, and as one of the last remaining firsts I should know better than to indulge in mythology."

"But..."

"But we have to tread carefully, there is enough evidence to support the prophecy. Evidence so tangible that it cannot be ignored or disregarded."

"Still, each and every piece of evidence we have encountered can be rationally explained." Auri argued.

"I understand, my friend. I do." He said. "However, we are not asking you to abandon your beliefs, nor are we refuting the science and logic behind all this. We are however," Haki paused and made brief eye contact to accentuate his point, "requesting that you keep the Council updated on all progress, maybe even on a regular, perhaps weekly basis. So we can assuage those that need it, whenever we need to."

"This is unprecedented," Auri started and then continued, “My department has never had to work so closely scrutinised. However, given the sensitive nature of this work I shall abide by your... suggestion and prepare weekly reports for your perusal."

Auri’s emphasis on her last two words were not lost on the Councillor.

"I appreciate your cooperation Auri," he said appreciatively. "The fate of the humani rests in your hands."

"We shall not fail."

"Oh and Auri," Haki called out just as the Chief Researcher was about to discontinue her holographic projection.

"Yes Haki?"

"I trust that we shall meet again during the Ascension ceremony?"

"But of course, I shall not... how does the archaic saying go again? Miss it for the world?"

Both of them smiled.


[Humani Flagship Excelsior, the Fourteenth Fleet, in orbit of Prime Epsilon]

"Admiral, quantum-jump complete. Received positive contacts from all ships except for the Protector and Champion. The Sixth, Eighth, and Twelfth fleets have also entered orbit."

Admiral Kohan-dor nodded and stood up, pausing to glance at the screen. It was a majestic sight, to see so many ships converging at the one location. The ships, consisting of the larger Quasar-class battleships and their smaller, but more agile Blazar-class cruisers, had positioned themselves side-by-side. It was a rather unconventional holding pattern, one that saw each ship maintaining just enough clearance in each directional vector to perform a full stationary rotation. Tactically, this meant that any attack on the fleet could not effectively be repelled as most of the ships would be trapped by one another. Of course, in times of peace, with the outer rim colonies maintaining close vigil and complemented by the advance neutrino particle detection net, there was no credible risk. Another obvious vulnerability was the fleet’s susceptibility to an EMP attack. However, quadrupeds were technologically inferior in comparison, and years of analysis and observation suggested that it would take at least another few thousand years of evolution for these aliens to develop any sort of EMP weapon. Conservative estimates still put that time frame at least a thousand years away.

It was time to disembark. Normally, he would project himself onto the surface, but to do so would undermine the significance of Ascension. The admiral transferred command of the Excelsior to one of the bridge officers and made his way down to the main hangar bay where a shuttle awaited.

"Admiral on deck!"

Two marine phalanxes on either side of the guard of honour stood erect. The flag officer gave his crew a cursory look and then gestured reverently. His voice was joined by everyone present as they said in chorus, "It is our honour to serve and protect."

Once on board, the shuttle blasted off and made its descent into the atmosphere.


[Hall of Ascension, Prime Epsilon]

The hall was nearly full. The dull monotonic hum from the thousands of voices present reverberated through the hall. Some merely melded their thoughts and could be identified by their joining of hands. There was a sense of elation among those present. It was always a moment of pride when one of your own ascended and transformed into something greater whose purpose was the continuing servitude and protection of the species. It was a great privilege and honour.

On the stage, councillor Haki-dor broke from his rank and stepped up to the podium. "Council members, friends, and fellow sparks." He paused to regard the congregation. "Welcome,” the highly regarded and respected councillor began. "It is said that ascension is a gift. A privilege. A sacrifice. For those who have been chosen, it is a lifelong servitude dedicated to the protection of our way of life. It is also said that it is a path only the strong can undertake, not just to survive, but to thrive. Today, we honour those of us who have taken the path and celebrate the ascension of yet another."

Haki paused and stepped aside, then said: "I give you Cora, of Prime Omega."

From the middle of the stage, the young female emerged. There was a subtle elegance in which she slowly surfaced into view, it was almost regal.

Here we go. All these sparks. I’ve never seen so many in one place before.

Haki nodded in respect to the young female. Then, he gestured to the far end of the hall: "Fellow sparks, may I present to you... our guardians. The Sentinels."

Those that had never attended such a ceremony were startled when two rows of humani at the back, just alongside the aisle, went to attention as they exclaimed their affirmation. There were over 100 Sentinels in total. They marched with absolute precision, moving virtually as a single unit. All who were close enough to behold the sight could only stare in admiration. They soon reached the stage and formed a guard of honour on either side of the young female, each passing Sentinel giving Cora a nod of approval and respect.

"Cora, of Prime Omega. Step forward." Haki beckoned.

She gave a quick nod and complied. There she stood, in front of an audience of approximately 10,000, it was like a sea of eyes. As she scanned the front rows, she caught a glimpse of Jaan.

"I... Cora, of Prime Omega from this day forth pledge my life in service and protection of all humani. I will uphold the prime directives and shall hold sacred all humani values and standards. I understand this is a great responsibility, and shall spare no effort in executing my duties."

"Cora, are you ready?"

"I am, Councillor Haki-dor."

"Very well. You may proceed."

This is it Cora. This is the moment you have waited for, it is finally here.

She walked through the honour guard, ascending the steps towards the transformation chamber. She paused to inspect the architecture, trailing her hands along the metal seals of the chamber doorway. Despite having come across an exact replica when the resident protocol officer took her through the preparations, she was quite taken by the elegance of the simple chrome-encapsulated chamber. Granted there were still several noticeable attached conduits at each quadrant, but these were designed to blend ergonomically into the overall structure. Somehow, her perception of the transformation matrix had been augmented by the realization of its authenticity, making the structure appear more beautiful. Her first foot into the chamber sent a surge of excitement into her emotional receptors, her second foot followed shortly and soon she was leaning against the padded vertical inner wall.

"When you open your eyes again, you will have become a Sentinel." Cora’s mind replayed her inductor’s words from one of the earlier rehearsals. She closed her eyes...