The dream shattered.
Fragmenting into a thousand bright shards of light, the beloved image slipped away with the swiftness of a dying zorn star, and was swallowed into the gray fog of dawning consciousness.
He resisted with all his might. He couldn't let her go. Not yet. But even his legendary will power was helpless against the sudden, piercing intrusion of reality. As the last fragment--a corner of her smile--faded into nothing, he felt a terrible sense of loss.
A primitive howl of pain welled inside him, clawed at his innards, demanded release.
And was never voiced.
There was something else. A sense of something not quite right. A vague hint of threat.
His warrior's instincts struggled through layers of numbing exhaustion to bring him to full awareness. Yet another part of him craved with an intensity that denied all the laws of survival to sink back into that blessed dream world where everything was right and exactly as he wanted it to be.
He dragged his eyes open with reluctance.
The vastness of space yawned before him. The velvet darkness was lit with intermittent bright flashes from the vast storm nebula he knew lay directly in his path. It was a barren stretch of the star system. There were no hiding places to shield a hunter--or prey for that matter--and it was easy to make good time, two reasons he had finally allowed himself the luxury of sleep. He shifted his cramped body to a more comfortable position and adjusted his command seat. His eyes moved automatically over his instrumentation as he searched for an indication of what had awakened him.
There was nothing.
Puzzled, he checked his control panel again. A myriad of lights winked back at him. None gave off a warning. All were reassuringly normal. He was dead on course and, at this speed, should make up for some of the time he had lost coming through the Gerianali Channel. Any pilot worth his merits knew the Channel was a favorite hunting ground for the vicious dag pirates, loners who preyed on the drug trade vessels and, of late, on legitimate traders as well. He had taken the appropriate camouflage precautions but still, only hanans into the Channel, he became the object of someone's very persistent attention. Precious time was wasted as he toyed with his pursuer and tried to identify him. In the end, he had lost patience. There was no more time to spare. His unwelcome company was easily shaken in a tyuine cloud vortex.
Or so he thought.
He checked the time. He was going to be late.
It would accomplish nothing, but he rotated the transparent bubble of the vessel's control center anyway, to perform a complete visual inspection of the area through which he traveled. Again, nothing. Except, it seemed, in his mind. Yet his instincts, developed and honed in many a battle, rarely failed him.