The Empyrean Gate: Part I
Liam fought back up, thrashing as a cord tightened around his arm. He slipped out his limb in time and climbed through the landslide to the mouth of the cave, closing before him. He managed to clear the rubble when his leg jerked back. A vine of cables coiled around his knee and up his thigh, while a layer of netting reached around his other foot, pulling him under like a monster swallowing its prey.
He tried to claw his way out but a wave of debris came over him. The pressure bore down on his physical armor, his last line of defense as his forcefield flickered out. He fought to take a breath, gasping against the crushing of his chest. A plastic sheet unfolded above him like the wings of a suffocating angel. The pit collapsed in a slow fold above him, obscuring his view of the stars.
He couldn’t die here. Not now. Not yet.
A woman shot out from behind the plastic sheet, shredding it with a bright laser machete. She slung aside clumps of plastic and sliced through the web tangling him.
She extended her hand to him. “Come on!”
Liam grabbed her hand and she fired the boosters on her boots to hoist him up. They whipped back, dregs of plastic clinging to his armor.
“Your armor,” she yelled. “Take it off!”
He hesitated. Her gaze was bright but steady under her helmet, her eyes hot pink. She was as if from another world. On a fantastical whim his mind wondered if she was an Empyr, somehow on this side of the universe—but he knew that wasn’t possible. She could only be human, and her request was inconceivable.
He kicked his feet, his limbs straining with the pull. “I’ll get torn apart!”
“You won’t make it out otherwise.” She tightened her grip. “Trust me on this. I’ve got you.”
He was now pulling her down with him, but she held on, steady and strong. She’d taken the risk to follow him down here, into the jowls of death. He realized that if he could trust anyone, he could trust her in this moment.
He released his armor, keeping his helmet but shedding the rest like molted skin. She pulled him free as the plastic crushed and swallowed the human-shaped shell he’d left behind. They vaulted above the crest of plastic, the pit stretching below them, an irregular, jagged landscape alive with agitated hunger.
He couldn’t see his ship—or Kin’s—anywhere.
They cleared the perimeter and descended near a hoverbike, the woman setting him delicately on his feet before landing herself. Her helmet unfolded into her collar, revealing a bun of purple hair atop her head.
“Second rule of the plastic pit,” she said, guessing his thoughts. “Always park out of its reach.”
His contacts scanned her face and identified her as Yona Kabul, the steward assigned to this satellite.
Liam retracted his helmet. He brushed away the bits of plastic stuck to his person. She was untouched.
“What’s the first rule?” he asked.
“Never enter the plastic pit.”