Heritage of the Lunatak Empire
On the Dark Moon, Shade's damaged mind was recalling a different launch almost a hundred years before. There was excitement in the air as dignitaries, specialists and many soldiers filed on to the Excelsior. They were travelling across the reaches of space, searching for a magical item that would bring power back to the royal family. Shade especially was excited; she had always wanted to meet Luna, princess to the throne of the Lunataks, and now she was getting that chance. A big banquet was being held in the mess hall and Luna had insisted that two members from each moon sit at the head table with her to discuss the mission. She and her father had been chosen to represent the Darklings.
She remembered the others well. Seated on one side of the queen were the Gravitons; an historian named Sky Pie, and a politician named Oil Doily. Beside them, much to their chagrin, were the Darklings. On the other side of Luna were the Psions, Psindis and Toran, a high ranking priest and his prize pupil. Then there were the representatives of the Icewalkers, the warrior couple Chilla and Ren. In the latter's lap was their young child, whose name she hadn't caught.
The ship lurched forward and everyone cheered, knowing it meant they were on their way. "Ladies and gentlemen! I'm not one for speeches, so with the launch of the Excelsior, I say let the food be served!" Luna said, her voice rising above the conversation, not a difficult task given its pitch. A second cheer rose at the statement.
Dinner was every bit the lavish affair Shade expected, with foods from each of the moons provided. There was a poorly done comedy routine to entertain the guests, though most of them were focussed on the conversations and political manoeuvring going on. Shade found herself pretending to be listening to a history of the Graviton mining expedition that had discovered gravitanium, the metal that they used as body armour. It was a boring lecture and she filed it away in case she had trouble sleeping later that night.
The remainder of the conversation largely centred on what little information there was of Third Earth and its inhabitants. Shade had seen the head of a Berbil once at the national museum, and seen a crude drawing of what Mumm-Rana looked like. The unspoken question, as no one dared angering Luna, was whether they would be able to get the belt back at all. Would the Lunar way of taking things by force work in this circumstance? Without any real knowledge of Mumm-Rana and her abilities it was hard to guess, though Shade would wager it unlikely.
There was a low rumbling noise from within the government pub. Only moments ago paramedics had arrived and taken away head council member Roly Poly, leaving Pop Stop temporarily in charge. The rest of the council had been revived and assembled for an emergency session, the matter of which was so dire that the taps had been shut off. One meaty fist crashed against a table, sending an empty of bowl flying. "This ees outrageous! Aristarchus must be held accountable!" the member said angrily.
"Maybe we should do as they say," another timidly suggested.
"Maybe you should shut up!" the first one snapped. "Eef we do as they say this time, what's to stop them from making more demands? Eef anything, we should ally with Tycho."
"I don't care who we side with, as long as Aristarchus pays for this," a third voice said over the fighting.
The conversation grew louder, each voice trying to outdo the others. Finally Pop Stop had enough. "I say we put eet to a vote! All een favour of siding with Aristarchus say 'aye.'"
"Aye!" a few people shouted.
"All een favour of siding with Tycho?"
"Aye!" the crowd roared.
"I thought so. Send word to the king. We mobilize tonight!"
Tycho's wearied sigh spoke volumes as he returned to his room. Darius was laying on his stomach on the bed reading some documentation, he looked up on the king's entrance. "That bad?" he asked, his voice containing a hint of hope.
"Very much so," Tycho replied. "When you indicated that Raehan was unattractive, you were vastly understating the truth. She looks as though she builds our ships by hammering things into place with her face. She also loves her work, in fact I don't think she's capable of talking about anything but her work. I know more about space travel and its effects on the body than I ever wanted to know."
"So we're oh for two," Darius said.
"At the rate I'm rejecting them there won't be a woman left on the planet to marry. What's left on my agenda for today?" Tycho asked.
"Politics, of course. There's a message waiting for you from the Gravitons and your teleconference with Nitro Iespyk in about an hour. I'll go fix you some tea while you peruse the Graviton message."
"Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you Darius," Tycho said, kissing the other's forehead.
"You'd be lost, let's face it. I make your world go round," Darius teased, leaving the king to his own devices while he went down to the kitchen.
The Honour of the Moon was quiet, Zanaya noted as she prowled the halls. Everyone was where they needed to be, either on duty or in their rooms. Conversation was at a minimum and, aggravatingly, no one seemed to know why they were headed to Third Earth. The captain knew, obviously, and she suspected that Knave knew or at least that he was involved in it somehow. She couldn't get near him, though, to find out because he could somehow pick up her scent.
Passing the medical bay she wondered if it would be worth her while to perform sabotage, and whether she could pin it on Knave. She'd been on the bridge during the brief exchange between him and the captain and suspected that she could orchestrate his death if need be. Or would killing the captain be more in line? She also, it occurred to her, had to find a safe place to hide when she needed to rest. The bridge was fine for when she was awake, but it was likely she would be trodden on if she fell asleep there.
Her travelling took her to the command quarters where one room was devoid of inhabitants but lavishly arranged. This was curious and piqued Zanaya's interest. Were they rendezvousing with someone? An ally perhaps? Whatever the case, this room would be perfect for herself. She decided to take a brief nap here.
Foolishly, perhaps, Cameo walked into the engine room. He hadn't intended to go looking for Psikaris, but here he was, and there she was, covered in dust peering up from under a console at another Lunatak. "Try it now!" she called out as the other tapped a few buttons. The man shook his head at her and she slipped back under. "It's got to be one of these connectors," Cameo heard her grumble, "something's just come loose. Wait a minute, I think I... yeah, we got a frayed wire tucked in the back here. Should just take a second to replace and... There. It working yet?"
"Well done!" the other engineer said. "I've got power levels right where I need them. Thanks for the help... Oh! Can I help you sir?"
It took Cameo a few seconds to realize he was being talked to and tear his eyes away from Psikaris, while she worked on replacing the panel she'd removed. "Oh, um, yeah. I just came to see..."
"Cameo!" Psikaris exclaimed, standing and hugging him.
"Actually, I'm Cameo," he said weakly, "I came to say hi to you. You got a minute?"
"I don't know, do I?" she turned to the other engineer who merely waved them away. "I'd meant to tell you I was coming on this trip," she said as the two of them left the engine room and turned to the relative privacy of their quarters. "As soon as I saw there was an opening for an engineer on the flagship, I had to snatch it up. I'm lucky I remembered to pack, if you want the truth."
"That doesn't surprise me at all. A chance like this doesn't happen every day," Cameo said, taking her hands in his. "It's amazing just being with you, here. Working together, I mean," he instantly cursed himself for saying the words and also for not saying others. If she noticed, she didn't show it.
"How many years have we been working out of the same hangar, and I haven't even cleaned your windows," she smirked. "You have any idea what we're doing here? All I've heard is that we're going to Third Earth."
"Oh Karis, I want to tell you, but it's classified. Even the captain barely knows all the details. There's... there's something else I want to tell you..." Cameo said, struggling to make the words go from his brain to his lips. It was like wading through tar, and he was just about to confess his love when the door hissed open and Knave stomped in, face full of rage.
"Fun time's over. You can make out with your girlfriend later," Knave said, climbing the ladder to his bunk. He drew back the curtain and began rummaging through his bag.
"Girlfriend?" Psikaris said, startled. "It's not like that between Cameo and I. We're just friends catching up. What's eating you?"
"I'm busy coming up with painful ways to kill captain Havallance. I've got thirty four so far," he replied.
"What a horrible thought," she gasped. "Look, Cameo, we'll catch up later when Prince Charming isn't around."
Cameo nodded weakly and watched her leave, his heart aching at her words. Just friends. She had used the two most dreaded words. He had been so close to pouring his heart out to her, and she had stopped him in his tracks. But maybe it was because she didn't know how he felt. Maybe she felt that things could progress between them. She would, too, if it wasn't for Knave. He rose up on his feet and faced his fellow hybrid. "I don't care how you treat me," he snarled, "but that woman deserves better than that."
Knave hopped down to the floor, his fists clenched. "You're bossing me around? Don't forget your place. I may not be allowed to hit captain Havallance, but I can beat the snot out of you to remind you whose family is House Iespyk."
"Fight you? I'm not going to fight someone I have to share close quarters with for the next two weeks. When we get home, if you still want to go I'll go. And I'll teach you that rank means nothing in a fight," Cameo replied, leaving to try and catch up to Psikaris.
"My son did what?" Aristarchus snapped, glaring harshly at the monitor in front of him, noting the wince of the man on the other end. The question was rhetorical, he had heard every word that was said, and none of it pleased him in the least. The brash young man had ruined everything, all his carefully made plans would have to be advanced. Aristarchus cursed the woman that had given birth to such an insolent pest, in fact he fully intended to do so the next time he saw her. His angry gaze turned back to the Lunatak on his screen. "Inform Kaprenius that when he returns to the moon he is to see me at once and that anything other than an apology from him will be fatal." The man gulped hard and closed the transmission.
This was the last thing he needed. Timing was everything in the game of politics, and an act like this could be dangerous. He could already imagine the reaction of the Graviton people. Sure they seemed lazy and harmless, but when they were motivated they were a group not to be messed with. Aristarchus had even heard rumours of a super weapon they had been developing. One which could reduce a planet's mass and send it hurtling towards the nearest heavenly body. A weapon like that could win the war. But now? Now it may have been given to Tycho. Things would definitely have to move up.
He turned on his monitor again and summoned his aides. After briefing them on the situation he addressed each one in turn. "You, contact Mystan on the Psion Moon. Tell him everything and that phase three will be in effect as soon as he can arrive with his men. You, contact Stalker on the Darkling moon. Tell him to eliminate any incoming fleets from either the Gravitons or the Icewalkers. She will be rewarded for her efforts. And Rodin, make yourself useful. Go to Tycho's quarters, use your invisibility powers and inform me of any and all comings and goings. Understood?" The three bowed as their turns came and scurried off to carry out their orders.
Nitro's visage appeared on the monitor right on schedule, for which Tycho was grateful. The Icewalkers were punctual, if nothing else. "With your permission, let's skip the formalities. I'm sure your agents have heard of the attack on the Graviton council?" he asked.
"They have. A most distasteful display of force," Nitro replied. The report had arrived moments before. "What do you intend to do about it?"
"I have spoken with their leaders. Begged them to hold off retaliation until I could speak with you. We don't have much time, they are rightfully angry." Tycho remembered the conversation vividly, it had been tricky to get even that much out of them.
"We?" Nitro inquired.
"Yes. We." Tycho hated politics and negotiations. Tycho knew that he needed the Icewalkers on his side, and Nitro knew that Tycho knew that. Though they were a people who did things for honour, they also were Lunataks, which meant they had the characteristic mercantile streak running through them. "I appeal to you and your people to help the throne in this our hour of need. I've heard rumblings that Aristarchus has the ear of the Psions and the Darklings, but I would rather have the support of the most powerful of the moons. With your might combined with the Gravitons tenacity and my own people's army we should be able to easily rout the forces of Aristarchus. Your help will not be forgotten or ignored, I can assure you. You have but to name your price."
The king knew what was coming. He knew Nitro's character and the reputation of his people in war. "I would suspect that many of the rebellion's leaders have committed crimes against the Ice Moon. In addition to some financial considerations and resources we insist on prosecuting them," Nitro said with a gleam in his eye that Tycho knew meant that he hoped the Darkling responsible for his son's execution would be among them.
"I will grant you jurisdiction over any Psion and Darkling leaders that we may capture. The people of my own moon, especially Aristarchus, are mine to judge. I have already granted the Gravitons permission to take custody of Kaprenius for his actions against them. I also require that I be allowed to attend or send a representative to any trial you hold to ensure that they are conducted properly," Tycho said. He and Darius had been over this part of the negotiation.
"Of course. You are the king, you are entitled to be anywhere you please," Nitro said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
"Then we are agreed. Have your people here in the morning and we can deal with any threats from there. I will inform the Gravitons of the situation."
"Good day then to you. Sleep well," Nitro said, ending the transmission.
When Cameo caught up to Psikaris she had delved back into her work, hunched over a console making sure it was working properly. As usual she was so engrossed in her work that she wasn't aware of his presence until he spoke. She jumped at the sound of her name, causing her clipboard to fall from her hands. Hurriedly Cameo stooped to pick it up for her. "Sorry for startling you. I just wanted to apologize for Knave. Once you get through that tough exterior he's really not that bad," he said, his hand touching hers for a scant second as he returned the clipboard. "Though that sounds like what he wants to do to the Captain, get through the exterior to see what's inside. Sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
The woman sighed and patted his shoulder. "Don't worry about it. I work around engineers all day, I deal with guys like him all the time. Just be careful," she said.
"I will. I promise. Look, I know you're busy and all, but would you like to grab some dinner together later?" Cameo asked, hoping he could express himself better over a full stomach and with less distractions going on.
"Sure. I'd like that. Just come and get me whenever you're hungry," she replied, turning back to her work.
"Awaken him," Darius said firmly. Leaving Tycho to deal with Nitro, he had decided to head down to the genetic engineering lab and wake the panther hybrid. Events were speeding to an inevitable confrontation and any extra allies he could obtain could tip the balance in Tycho's favour.
He had found the scientist Erdwin putting his notes in a locked vault, presumably before heading to bed. The man was less than thrilled to see Darius at such an hour. "I really don't advise that, uh, Darius sir. A little more time and I can iron out the wrinkles, maybe in the morning?" he asked, hopefully.
Darius' body grew in size, his eyes turning a deep red as long claws extended from his fingers. "Now," he said, his voice a deep growl. Every action was carefully planned to give the man the indication that there was no other option.
"Of course. The wrinkles are only small ones, easily corrected once the subject is awake. Ehm, right this way then," the scientist shuffled over to the tank, nervously glancing over his shoulder. Erdwin was quite relieved that Darius had resumed his normal form. The scientist removed the cover from the containment tank and began manipulating the controls. He gave the changeling one final look before draining the fluid from the chamber.
Memories of his own awakening flooded through Darius' brain as he watched the panther. He remembered how confusing it was, waking up in a strange place with so many strange faces. There had been people he knew, though he couldn't place how, and things he knew about though he couldn't remember ever having done them before. The voice of Tycho's mother, Platia, had been soothing, coaxing him out of the capsule. He'd seen her infant son and felt a kinship then and there. Darius often wondered if their being so close in age, relatively, had helped their bond.
For a moment the panther lay still, eyes shut, to the point that Darius wondered if something had gone horribly wrong. Then he saw it, a hint of movement on the man's face, a twitch of the lip. Eyes opened and frantically looked around. Darius tried to appear as non-threatening and friendly as possible which seemed to help a bit. "I imprinted your face in him too, I thought that might be useful," Erdwin said, trying to please. Darius nodded absently but held a hand out for the panther to take.
"Dar... Darius?" the panther asked, sounding as though he were trying his vocal chords for the first time.
"That's right," he replied, "I'm Darius. I'm a friend of yours. I know this all seems a little scary and unfamiliar, but you can trust me." The panther's hand tentatively reached out from the capsule to touch Darius' own. His eyes were wide and flicked around the room taking it all in. Darius wondered if he'd looked that scared too. "Do you have a name?"
"A name?" the panther asked, finally stepping from the tank. "I think it is Panthis, I'm not sure. Why is it so familiar?"
"Typical Thunderian name," Darius thought to himself, "how unimaginative." He tried to put a positive spin on the whole process to the man, though it was difficult to account for his capture from a Thunderian escape pod and their subsequent brain washing. But he deserved to know the truth, it would come out anyway, better he hear it now than later. He also, as they headed to Tycho's quarters, tried to explain a bit about the current situation and the world that Panthis was walking into.
Coldwin listened intently to the mission briefing. His flight would be the second wave headed to the Royal Moon, rendezvousing along the way with a Graviton attack force. He'd never seen the rotund people in combat but had heard tales. They were fearless, fortifying their nerves with alcohol, and would fight to the death when riled. Over the years they had perfected the gravity carbine, a device capable of increasing or decreasing the weight of an object, and reduced it in size to fit on a ship. When used on enemy fighters it could be enough to make them crash together.
The only expected resistence was the possibility of Aristarchus' forces. He was rumoured to have Plundarrian Mutants at his side. Their ships were heavily armoured but slow and difficult to manoeuver. The Psions were likely to be met closer to the Royal Moon and were smaller in number, still licking their wounds from the last battle.
Then there was the wild card. The Darklings. It was rumoured that they were siding with Aristarchus, but no one knew for sure. They were a secretive people, and difficult to meet in combat. Their ships were painted jet black, the windows tinted likewise. There weren't even any lights inside the cockpit, the pilots relying on heated controls seen through infrared goggles. For all intents and purposes, against the black backdrop of space, they were invisible. The easiest way to combat them was to try and get them against a moon. To make matters worse, they could create patches of darkness to throw off their assailants. If they didn't appear on scanners they would be impossible to fight.
The flight commander went over the flight route one more time and gave them an hour to get ready. Coldwin rushed to his locker to fetch his good luck charms and went to the flight deck.
Tycho had fallen asleep by the time Panthis and Darius arrived at the royal quarters. Since the apartments consisted of a number of rooms accessible through a single entrance, Darius was able to quietly lead the panther around, showing him where things were. There was a small kitchenette, a private dining room, a collection of bedrooms, and a library. Panthis seemed to take everything in with wide-eyed wonder, absorbing all the information that Darius was feeding into him, it made him wonder if he wasn't overwhelming the new Guardian.
Darius finished the tour at one of the bedrooms, wanting desperately to check in on Tycho before he himself retired. "This is your room," he explained. "You can do as you please in here with absolute confidence that no one will ever enter it without your permission. Remain vigilant and sleep well."
"I will remain awake and stand guard, as is my duty," Panthis stated firmly.
"Whatever you want," Darius shrugged. "You know where I am if you need me." The panther saluted, an action that Darius returned, and stood near the main door.
Darius sighed again and headed to peek in on Tycho. He hoped that the Thunderian would relax a bit as he became accustomed to his surroundings, he'd been overeager to please back then too. Tycho was spread eagled on top of his bed, having been too exhausted to even change out of his formal clothes. Darius made a mental note to chastise him for his carelessness later. Seeing that everything else was in order, and having a reasonable amount of confidence in the self-appointed guard, Darius went to his own bedroom and locked the door. Soon he was fast asleep, dreaming vague memories of his former life, scampering through fields, hunting for food and evading predators. A part of his mind pointed out that his current life wasn't all that much different.
The screen before Coldwin dictated any possible piece of information that he could ever want. His position, his trajectory, his speed, where his wing mates were in relation to him, how much fuel and laser power he had, he half expected it to spit out the latest sports scores. The flight to the Royal Moon would take several hours, looping over the planet Plundarr rather than going around it. The Gravitons would be meeting them en route.
He looked at the picture of his wife and son again, wishing that he didn't have to leave them again so soon but understanding why. The political situation was beginning to reach a boil and it was crucial to pick sides. Tycho, he felt, was too weak for the job but he did his best and led with his heart. Aristarchus was a worm, a slimy creature that was better off being smeared into the ground.
His thoughts were jerked back to reality as his radar began chirping followed immediately by his squad commander. Three large Plundarrian warships were rising through the atmosphere and would soon be upon them. They were big and bulky, but any pilot could fly circles around them with relative ease. "Flight plan 17," the commander's voice said, showing no trace of concern. "Stick to the plan and we'll be on the Royal Moon in time for breakfast."
Coldwin confirmed that he had heard, along with the others in his flight, and plotted out the intercept position. As the hulking craft slid through the smog filled cloud cover of the planet below he watched his wing mates likewise moving into position. Each ship was spaced far enough apart that the enemy couldn't just fire randomly and hit something, and close enough to provide support should the Mutants have smaller fighters.
The three warships paused at the very edge of the atmosphere, lingering long enough for them to take stock of the Icewalker force poised to attack. Then their large cannons opened fire, coming very close to hitting the evading fighter craft. Coldwin followed his squad leader in the assigned formation, sliding to either side as needed when the massive guns were pointed in his direction.
"Enemy craft behind us!" a panicked voice crackled over the intercom, startling Coldwin mid move. "Darklings!"
"Squadrons five through fifteen. Take care of the Darklings, but watch your backs. The rest, continue on the warships. Someone get the Gravitons on the horn and tell them we need back-up!" the main commander's voice barked.
Coldwin snarled, as the Darkling fighters slowly entered the radar screen. They'd been set up! And if the Gravitons didn't get there soon they would be avenging rather than assisting. His squad wheeled closer to the nearer warship, strafing the side of it and then spinning away. His screen indicated that the ship's guns had destroyed a pair of his friends while sustaining minimal damage.
"The Icewalkers need us!" Roly Poly said over the intercom. His people preferred to use larger crafts, each holding a half dozen Gravitons at a time, and were heavily armed. He turned to the video screen in front of him that showed the faces of four other ship captains.
"Who cares?" one of them said, a relatively skinny gentleman named Knock Rock.
"He's right," a woman replied, "Our issue ees with the Royals."
"They are our allies. Duty says we help them," another male said.
"I agree. We tried to stay neutral, but Kaprenius made us side against his father. That means we hurt his allies and help ours," the fourth said.
"Two to two. Looks like I get the final vote. The Mutants tried to make an example out of me. I say we make an example of them. All Graviton ships, intercept the Darklings and the Mutants!"
A warning bell was sounding in Coldwin's ears, informing him that his right gun had been damaged. He promptly ignored the bell and focussed on the task at hand. One of the hulking warships had been badly damaged and was hurriedly evacuating its occupants. Somewhere, he knew, a self destruct code would be implemented, otherwise they risked wiping out a city in the ensuing crash. Coldwin pulled back on the controls, putting distance between himself and the coming explosion.
His radar told him what he already suspected, the Icewalkers were absorbing heavy losses while the Mutants and Darklings were still going strong. Although they had been fighting for almost half an hour, it felt like an eternity had gone by.
A third of his squad, a quick glance told him, had perished already and Darkling fighters were slipping through and picking off helpless ships from the rear. Turning to face them didn't help, either, as that then left them vulnerable to the cannons from the Mutants.
"The Gravitons are coming. All units regroup at the following co-ordinates, we'll meet up with them there. It looks like we aren't all going to die today after all," the main squad commander announced.
With the arrival of Graviton reinforcements the Mutants decided to retreat, allowing the remaining Icewalker fighters and their allies to focus their attack on the Darklings. The latter fought valiantly, killing a number of opposing craft before being forced to acknowledge that they were outnumbered and running.
As the last of the threat fled, Coldwin allowed his hands to loosen their viselike grip on the control stick and exhaled deeply. He could hardly believe how fortunate they'd been that the Gravitons had been so close when the ambush had been sprung. Numerous times he'd felt certain that he was going to be sent to the bar in the sky, where all good dead pilots sat around trading stories. A call came over his headset, instructing his flight to fall in line with another and resume course for the Royal Moon.
Tearing Psikaris away from her work wasn't easy, as some of it was portable. Cameo had suggested she find them a seat while he got their food and was only mildly surprised when he saw her pull out a technical manual and sit at a table in the corner.
The food in the cafeteria consisted of three choices. There was a simple, but nutritious meal that consisted today of soup and a piece of bread. This meal was free of charge. For a little extra money one could upgrade this meal and receive some stew and an extra piece of bread. For the wealthy, and the higher ranking officers, there were delicacies that Cameo could only dream of ever having. The lineup wasn't too bad, it still being a little early, so he didn't have to wait long to get served.
"What do you want?" The cook asked, his face betraying a look of disgust at having to feed the likes of Cameo.
"I'd like two of the stew meals please," he said, presenting his and Psikaris' meal cards.
"Of course. Sir," the cook snorted, reaching for his utensils and doling out small portions of the stew into bowls.
"Hey Eratma! You ought to be nice to this guy, do you know who he is?" a voice behind him shouted to the cook. Cameo glanced back and saw a fellow pilot who had been nicknamed 'Zero' because he'd never been shot down. "This is Cameo, he's the one who saved this very ship last year against the Control Force. Remember that? If it wasn't for this guy, you'd probably be in a Control prison somewhere."
Cameo chuckled slightly. It was an exaggeration, but then Zero was known for such. The flagship had been surrounded by Control ships outside the Plundarrian system and Cameo's patrol had happened to be nearby. Of the five members in the patrol he'd been one of two to survive until back-up got there. He'd heard his name had made it on to Control's twenty most wanted list.
"Sure he is. He's also a half-breed, so why're you sticking up for him. You know his kind only dilutes the bloodlines. His other half ain't even Lunar," the cook said, grudgingly topping up the bowls regardless.
"I'm not too clear on biology and crap like that, but I know the people I want watching my back in a firefight, and this here is one of them," Zero said, slinging his arm around Cameo's shoulders and tussling his hair.
"Now, now, Zero. No need to make a fuss over me," Cameo said, gracefully taking his tray and paying his bill. Only in the pilot fraternity, he thought wryly to himself. These were men and women to whom trust was everything, and they stood up for one another. Often, it was said, they were closer than any two people could be. Closer than family and closer than lovers. Which reminded him that there was a woman waiting for him. He wove his way around the tables until he reached the one she was seated at, making notes as she flipped through the manual. He set the food in front of them and returned her card. "So, what're you reading?" he asked, to delay revealing his feelings.
"I'm trying to learn the engine," she muttered, distractedly taking a spoonful of stew. "In case we need to boost the weapon systems I should reroute some of the life support systems through this junction, being careful not to overload them, which means keeping an eye on this gauge."
"Yeah, well, just make sure you don't lower the life support too much. We might need that. Then again, if we're in that kind of situation it might be a case of losing life support or death, eh?" he joked, feeling as though he needed some life support himself.
"I suppose so," she replied, not tearing her eyes away from the page.
"Look, 'Karis, I need to ask you something. We've known each other for years, right?" she gave an affirmative grunt, finally shutting the manual on her notepad and looking up at him. "And, well, I really care about you and I hope you do too. Care about me I mean, not about you, not that you shouldn't care about you I mean. I guess what I'm saying is that I think we should go out."
"We are out," she replied as the meaning of his words hit her like a ton of bricks. "Oh, you mean 'out' out. More out. Look, Cameo, you're right. I care about you, but I'm hardly what you'd consider girlfriend material. I'm independent, need plenty of space to myself, and you will always rank second to my work."
"I'm not your brother," Cameo said, wrestling with the feeling that she had removed his heart from his chest and was crushing it in her hands. "I know who you are, we grew up together, remember? I know your personality, your likes and dislikes, and I wouldn't change anything about you. You're the most beautiful woman I know and you're probably the smartest one too."
"I just think you'd be better off asking someone else," she sighed. "You need someone that can better appreciate..."
"Don't talk yourself down, let me be the judge of what's right for me. The question is, am I the right person for you. I will cherish you, be there when you need me, and respect you when you need alone time. Trust me, I love you," he said.
Her eyes met his, staring intensely at him. Every second before she spoke seemed to take hours, his palms felt sweaty and his heart rate was through the roof. He hated the anticipation that came with a scenario like this. Finally her head drooped and shook slightly. "I still think you're making a mistake, but what the heck, I'll give it a try. Just don't say I didn't warn you," she said, patting his hand. Cameo let out a loud whoop, drawing the attention of those around him. He didn't care about the stares from the others. They didn't matter, not right now. His life was complete.
"You won't regret this," he assured her.
Far away from the lovebirds, both in mood and physical location, was Knave. He had rested for a little while, but had decided that his anger needed venting and hunting the cargo bay for rodents would sate his bloodlust. As he entered the hold he saw a young Icewalker gathering food stuffs for the mess hall. Apart from him, though, the room was empty. Errand complete, the lad scurried out of the room, barely acknowledging Knave along the way. This was fine to the hybrid Lunatak and he settled himself in the middle of the room extending his senses in all directions around him.
That was one thing his feline side was good for, for all the grief it had brought him, enhanced senses. He could hear movement in the far corner of the hold and grinned a grin he reserved for prisoners he was about to torture. His feet scarcely made a sound as he crossed the floor, his ears twitching trying to pin down the location of his prey, and as he got closer his nose caught a faint whiff of a familiar scent. A scent that should not have been present.
Knave quietly, and now more focussed, rounded a stack of crates and spied one that was ajar. His fingers flexed and his eyes narrowed to thin slits. He launched through the air at where his keen senses told him his victim was, satisfied when he heard her cry of alarm and grunt of pain as their bodies collided. It was the Psion woman, he could see her ghostly outline at the moment of impact. She struggled to dislodge his weight from her body to no avail. Knave easily out massed and out muscled her and found her throat with one hand. As his claws slowly sank into the yielding flesh she increased her fighting, pounding on his shoulders and chest with her fists. "Stop that and die with dignity," he snapped.
"Wait!" she gurgled, allowing herself to turn visible. He could see thin rivulets of blood oozing from around his fingers. Though he relished the thought of killing her, he surrendered to his curiosity. "I can be of use to you," she said. He removed his hand from her neck, though the look in his eyes indicated that he could replace it very quickly if she tried anything funny. "If you let me live I can do you a favour." Her hand began lowering the zipper of her jumpsuit, indicating clearly what she had in mind; this act, however, did not have the intended result.
Knave's laughter rang out through the hold. "My father had the same idea. All I needed was a woman to satisfy my urges. Even let me borrow his harem for a day. The problem is, I found that inflicting pain is far more pleasurable than any carnal act could be. I highly doubt you're offering that joy to my life. You get one more chance before I gut you where you lie." His eyes narrowed again, razor sharp nails moving to rest on her belly.
"No, no..." Zanaya's voice trembled. Skilled assassin though she was, she had relied too much on her camouflage to get the job done. This here was a killer who exceeded her abilities. She knew she was the smarter of the two and, given time, could outwit him. "I can help you with that though. I know what happened between you and the captain this morning and I know you would like the chance to carve him up."
"Go on," he said, shifting his weight.
"It seems to me that your biggest problem is that bodyguard of his. I can eliminate her for you, allow you your chance to teach Captain Havallance a lesson, kill him if you like."
"You expect me to betray the empire for personal gain? Kill the captain I'm sworn to follow?" he asked. She was in dangerous territory. An Icewalker was raised to be loyal and honourable and rarely broke that allegiance. She'd heard there were ways of challenging, but wasn't certain on the protocols.
"Not kill, not necessarily. A man of Captain Havallance's stature should be treated with respect, but then so should you. Your family outranks his. He should pay homage to you, and yet he slights you. Threatens you. He also... no, I shouldn't speak of what I overheard him say. It wouldn't be right." Zanaya's inner self smiled broadly when she noted the expression on his face. She was so close to having him wrapped around her finger, though the claws of his fingers reminded her how thin a line she walked.
"What did you overhear?" Knave asked, pressing his nails into her stomach. Not hard enough yet to pierce the thin cloth covering, but coming very close.
"He was talking to his second in command and said that you, these are his words, not mine I remind you, 'half breed freaks of nature' should not receive any of the glory for this mission to Third Earth. He intends to either arrange for an accident to occur or abandon you on the surface."
Knave was crestfallen, his heart conflicted with the words. He wasn't sure how much of it to believe, her being a Psion desperate to save her own hide, but the words sounded plausible. His own conversation with the captain was more than enough to back-up her assertions. He wasn't sure what to do, though revenge was front and centre in his mind. "Fine. I'll believe you for now, but from now on you do exactly what I say. Understood?"
"Believe me. I know the consequences," Zanaya replied, touching the blood at her throat. He nodded sharply as if to verify her thoughts and stood over her.
"Good. I need time to think about what we're going to do. Havallance will be made to suffer for threatening to kill me. When the time comes you will have to find a way to remove Krystalin. Dead is preferred since she will be livid when she finds out about the captain. Every day at this time I will find you here or else I will come hunting for you and you don't want that. If you need me, my quarters are near the engine room. I'm a light sleeper so don't think of trying anything."
Zanaya had little choice but to agree to his terms, it was an assassination being paid for with her own life. She started to sit up when he fixed her with a glance. She raised an eyebrow in inquiry.
"You spoiled my blood sport. The carnal sport will have to do," he explained.
Morning was breaking in the royal capital city. The Icewalker and Graviton fleets had arrived, causing quite the stir within the community. In the royal quarters, Tycho was curled in a ball, debating whether or not he should pretend to be asleep as Darius entered the room. Ultimately he decided that the changeling knew him well enough to know the truth and slowly opened his eyes.
"There's a young lady to see you. It's Eluosi Brythago. I tried to tell her to go away, but she's very insistent. She's sitting with Panthis in your library. I didn't really know where else to put her," Darius explained, looking very tired. "And before you ask, Panthis is the Guardian we were working on. I had him wakened because of the current situation. I figured it was prudent."
"Thank you, Darius. I'm sure you acted wisely," Tycho yawned and stretched his limbs. There was nothing for it but to confront the young lady and determine what it was she wanted. He stood and dressed in the cleanest attire he had, making a mental note that his laundry needed to be done soon or else he'd have nothing to wear, and proceeded down the hall.
She was, as Darius had said, seated in the library, currently reading a book on an earlier king, Lunaris the Second. He'd been a decent king, who had met with a bloody end when he had slipped from the roof while gazing at the stars. Panthis stood rigidly by the door and turned sharply at the entrance of the king. Immediately he fell to one knee, and crossed his arm over his chest. Eluosi closed the book and placed it gently on the shelf. "I'm early, I know," she said simply, smoothing out the simple purple dress she'd worn for the occasion and crossing the room to meet him.
"I'm afraid this probably isn't the best time for our date," Tycho started before his words were waved off.
"You mean the issue between you and Aristarchus? Don't look surprised, word gets around. I've got people who tell me things. Besides, the fleet of ships arriving an hour ago would have tipped off anyone with a brain that something big was going down. You boys are always thinking with your fists, aren't you?" she sighed a melodramatic sigh. "The only reason I agreed to be a candidate for marriage was the faint hope that I could stem the tide of violence a bit, and this seems as good a time as any to start."
"I don't think you understand. Aristarchus is the one instigating. I'm just defending myself," Tycho said, caught off-guard by her manner. He gestured for Darius to fetch breakfast since it appeared that there would be no getting rid of Eluosi so easily.
"Ah yes, answer his violence with more of your own without dealing with the root of the problem."
"The root of the problem is that I'm Lunar King and he's not. I've tried offering him other positions but there's only one he's interested in. Even if I stepped aside he'd have my head on a platter within a week, not to mention the damage he would do to the empire," Tycho tried to explain. He still felt tired, and this type of conversation wasn't helping. He drifted over to couch motioning for her to join him.
"I know that. He plans on the conquest of the universe. He'd have everyone drafted into his army for war after bloody war," Eluosi said, seating herself back down, "but you're not much better. How many innocent lives have been lost in your so-called attempts to unite the empire?"
Tycho had a terse reply prepared, one that would remind his date for the morning just how many lives he'd managed to save by preventing minor battles between the races. His thoughts were derailed when there was a loud explosion. The door into the royal apartments was blown aside as a pair of simian Mutants, a rodent like creature, a Psion and two Royal Lunataks entered. Tycho recognized the Psion as Mystan and one of the Royals as Kaprenius, though the others eluded him.
Panthis moved first, spurred by his loyalty to Tycho. He tackled one of the simians and received a painful pistol blast to the head. Kaprenius stepped around the corpse and purposefully moved towards Tycho. "Good job, Rodin. With Darius out of the room, picking up this one is a snap. Bring them both, I'm sure daddy dearest can find a use for the girl. If they resist, kill them," he said, his eyes locking with Tycho's, daring him to call his bluff, but the king knew when he was outnumbered and followed along willingly.
The coma induced dreams of Shade carried her memories forward in time, from the banquet on their departure to that fateful moment on the bridge of the Excelsior. The shuttle carrying representatives from each moon was leaving the hangar. The preliminary mission was one of reconnaissance, locating Mumm-Rana's pyramid and scouting the area for danger. A pyramid had been spotted, surrounded by heavy thunderclouds, and so a less direct route was called for.
The Darklings had narrowed their choice for the mission to two; Red Eye and another, whose name was Nuitache. The two had drawn straws for the honour and Shade found herself curiously hoping Nuitache would win. There was evil on that planet, she could feel it like she could her own skin. The evil was watching them, waiting, preparing to strike. Psindis had dismissed her concerns when she had brought them up to the elderly priest.
Shade watched as the shuttle dipped through the upper atmosphere near a ridge of mountains. That's when the trouble started. The first thing she noticed was that the evil presence was gone and she knew that it was focussed on Luna's shuttle instead. A cry was heard from one of the bridge crew, a Graviton woman who was seated at the weapons position. The captain ran to her station and looked at the monitor for himself. Shade didn't need to hear their conversation to guess what the fuss was about.
Thick black clouds were gathering, lightning visible even from their vantage point in orbit. Shade's heart leapt as Alluro's voice was piped through. "...ost navigation... to thirty percent... like a giant hand holdin... my God!" and then static. The captain severed the connection and paced back to his chair, staring through the window. The black clouds dissipated back to where they'd come from, as mysteriously as they'd arrived.
"Your orders sir?" the communication officer asked quietly.
"Let me take another ship down. I must know if my father's alive," Shade said.
"You saw what happened down there," the captain glowered, obviously still shaken by what he'd seen. "If I let you take one of the fighters down there you'll be torn to pieces too. No, we'll go back to the moons and see if anyone is foolhardy enough to take part in a salvage and rescue operation. Queen Luna is presumed dead. End of story. Set a course back to Plundarr."
When Darius returned to the royal apartments, pushing a cart of food, he spied the scorch marks on the hallway and the lack of a door. Instantly his heart began racing as he sprinted into the library. Panthis still lay on the ground, a large pool of blood surrounding his body, but of Tycho and Eluosi there was no sign. That was a positive. They were still alive, but he doubted they would remain that way for too long. Dispersing the bulk of his mass into the air, Darius changed his body into that of a small winged insect and raced back through the halls towards Aristarchus' house. He prayed that he wasn't too late.
The Lunar king was indeed in Aristarchus' home. He was bound at the wrists and ankles and being held firmly on his knees by the simian guards while Aristarchus, Kaprenius, Mystan and the other Royal stood and watched. Slowly Aristarchus approached his prisoner, drinking in the sight of him so firmly in his power, savouring the moment. "How the mighty have fallen," he said with the slightest hint of a sneer. "The mighty King Tycho, my prisoner at last. Soon your lifeless body will be displayed for all to see, that the people might see what happens to those who deny my will. The girl will join you too unless she acknowledges that I am the true ruler of the Lunataks. Perhaps I will kill her first, so that you can die knowing that her blood is on your hands. Would you like that? No, I doubt you would. That's the problem with you. You don't understand that you sometimes have to do unpleasant things to get to the top."
Tycho raged silently, unwilling to grant Aristarchus the satisfaction of a response. The older man took Tycho's chin in his hand and forced the eyes to meet his own. "Is that fear I see on your face?" Aristarchus asked, grinning. "And well you should fear me. But I tire of this already. Take him to the basement and prepare him for his execution. I will change into more formal attire. I wish to broadcast my ascension to the throne and the execution of a traitor at the same time."
It was disturbing to Cameo to find the shared room empty, with Knave nowhere to be found. He knew little of the man, save what was common knowledge, but his information included a wild temper and a thirst for blood. This was a literal thirst, if the stories that his fellow pilots told were true, and that worried Cameo somewhat. He'd upset the man and needed to know if he would be murdered in his sleep tonight. That didn't feel like Knave's style, however. No. He was more likely to give you fair warning.
His mind wandered to whether he should seek him out, but decided that more pleasant thoughts should govern his mind. The two were polar opposites in Cameo's life right now. Psikaris brightened the room with her very presence, she made him feel happy and warm inside. Knave, on the other hand, was insufferable, and seemed to enjoy spreading around the misery when he was upset.
The problem was the Cameo could understand the man's frustrations. It wasn't easy being a mixed race Lunatak, less so on the Ice Moon where such couplings were more common, but even still there was a deep rooted prejudice. He knew that his and Knave's situations were compounded by the fact that their other halves weren't even Lunatak, but alien. The two had much in common but...
He shook his head. They'd been raised differently. He'd only seen pictures of his father, but his mother had loved him very much and had taken great pains to try and shelter him from the cruelties of the outside world. She'd been the one to encourage him to join the military. She had known that that was a place where one's actions spoke louder than the blood in their veins. Knave? He'd been all but locked in the dungeons, loathed by his father, and given the barest of educations. If only he could get Knave to open up.
It suddenly occurred to Cameo that he wasn't entirely certain of Psikaris' upbringing. She'd never really discussed it much. Their families had lived near each other, probably due to their mixed race commonality. He knew that her parents had had three children, Psikaris, Psychro and an older brother who had died in combat. She seemed to have turned out all right, though Psychro had his womanizing. He would have to talk to her about it some time when there wasn't so much going on.
The door opened and Knave entered. Though he'd obviously just showered, blood still stained the fur about his hands and chest. Their eyes met for a moment and Cameo knew he was safe for the time being. Whatever bloodlust Knave had, he had clearly used it up. While Knave climbed up on to his bunk and pulled the curtain across, Cameo decided to wait for Psikaris to get back.
Tycho was propelled down a flight of stairs, bouncing hard off a bannister and tumbling for several steps, coming to a stop at the bottom. He struggled to his knees and glanced around. The basement was filled with torture instruments, many of them having had plenty of use over the years. Tycho had heard rumours of such a place but never been able to prove anything. The simian guards were laughing to themselves as they came down the stairs, taking their sweet time in doing so.
"Heh, which one do you think Aristarchus will use?" one asked the other, opting to use a common dialect so that their prisoner could understand it.
"I hope for the flattener. You know, the one that starts at the feet and slowly flattens the victim? Heh, heh, heh. It's slow and very painful," the other replied, grabbing his belly as he chuckled.
"Nah, he wants the head in one piece. I bet he just lets him bleed to death in here. A shame too, because I rather liked when he burned that other one alive." The simians took him by the arms and strapped him tightly to a table, being none too gentle about it. "Let's go wake the girl."
Tycho followed their movements with his eyes and saw another table nearby with a cloth covering it. When it was pulled back he saw Eluosi laying there, her eyes were closed and mouth gagged. One of the apes produced a syringe of some sort, injecting her and causing her to awake. She struggled hard against her bonds and was cursing up a storm despite the efforts of the gag. Some of the epitaphs he'd never even heard of, mostly insulting the parentage of the two Simians.
"Wakey wakey. Aristarchus is coming soon and we wouldn't want you to miss any of the fun, would we?" one of the simians asked, causing both to erupt with laughter.
"Let's see what happens when we put hot coals on her feet!" the other howled, moving towards an oven nearby. He was almost there when there was a loud roar from the base of the stairs.
Finding Tycho hadn't been too difficult for Darius, and when he saw the scene and heard what the apes had planned he couldn't stand by and allow it to happen. His shape grew, drawing on mass from the air and objects around him, growing larger and larger until he was easily double the size of the simians. He punched the nearer ape with all his strength, his fist caving in his head. Still enraged, Darius violently tore the simian's arm from its socket and advanced menacingly towards the other Mutant.
This ape wasn't stupid, however. The room was full of weapons for him to use, even though he was clearly out muscled. He grabbed a pot of boiling oil from the stove and drenched the changeling in the stuff. There was time for him to get out of the way, but the Mutant knew that such an act would leave Tycho vulnerable to the spray. Darius cried out in pain, shape changing frantically to try and get the stuff off of him, looking up in time to see a metal pole swinging at his head. He almost dodged the blow, ducking and rolling to the side, but was grazed with enough force to interrupt his movement.
Tycho fought with his straps, trying to help his lover, to no avail. Mutants weren't useful for much, but what they did do they did well. Darius was clearly disoriented, both from pain and blind rage. He suddenly leapt through the air, shape changing as he did, and turned into an ooze like substance that wrapped itself tightly around the head of the simian. The creature clawed at the ooze, trying to catch its breath. Gradually the struggles became weaker and weaker, finally stopping altogether. Another count of twenty and the ooze reverted back into Darius' natural form. The form looked ragged and tired, but content at having his king safe at last.
"Release us," Tycho said, as his companion began undoing the straps. "We're going to have real trouble getting out of here. This is Aristarchus' home. Every person in this place is bound to be loyal to him and will help him re-capture us. We're going to need help."
"The video camera!" Eluosi said as her gag was removed. "We can broadcast a request for help on there."
"She's right," Tycho said. "Aristarchus wanted to broadcast my execution live across the city. We can use it to call our allies."
The scowl on Nitro Iespyk's face told the story. He hated being kept waiting, especially by a non Icewalker. Tycho had promised to meet the convoy of ships shortly after it landed and was nowhere in sight. To make matters worse, there was a contingent of Lunatak soldiers with weapons trained on he and his men. If this was an ambush, it wasn't very well thought out.
The monitors around the landing pad, and everywhere else in the city, flickered and Tycho's face appeared. He looked in bad condition and was bleeding slightly from a cut on his forehead. If he was using the royal frequency, which would allow him to interrupt all other broadcasts, then it had to be important.
"Ladies and gentlemen. A few hours ago Aristarchus attempted a hostile takeover of the throne by abducting myself and noted actress Eluosi Brythago. We have escaped death and commandeered his video transmitter. However, we are still trapped in his basement. I would ask anyone loyal to the throne to come to our aid. I especially appeal to the Icewalkers and Gravitons who have recently arrived. Aristarchus will destroy the empire if he is allowed to get away with this. Please hurry."
Nitro turned to his countrymen, each one agreeing on the course of action. Whether the soldiers liked it or not, the Icewalkers were going to help.
Aristarchus growled at his son when the latter told him of Tycho's proclamation. It was the boy's fault that things had been sped up in the first place and he needed someone to blame. "Evacuate the house, have our people fall back to the emergency shelter," he told Kaprenius, "then we'll assemble every ally at our disposal and level the capital if we have to. I want Tycho dead."
"The question is," Tycho said as the trio fortified the door at the top of the stairs with anything they could find, "how did Aristarchus manage to sneak into the royal palace and sneak back out with two prisoners?" The question had been bothering Tycho ever since he'd first been captured. Kaprenius would have been able to get in the palace without problem, as would the Psion priest, but two Mutants as well? And to get that close to his quarters without attracting any attention at all? Then there was the explosion. Surely someone must have heard it. Ultimately these were questions that couldn't be answered until they were free from their prison.
"The real question is how many sympathizers does he have on the inside," Darius replied, hefting a table into place. His skin was badly blistering, the result of the impromptu bath, and his changeling physiology was desperately regenerating it, but the progress was slow. If they survived this, he would be fine in a day or two.
Tycho regarded Eluosi and felt a pang of guilt. She hadn't deserved to get dragged into this power struggle, she'd simply been in the wrong place at the right time. The guards hadn't mistreated her too badly, though, and that was a relief. She'd obviously taken a blow to the side of the head, her cheek was starting to swell up, but otherwise seemed unscathed. As if reading his thoughts she smiled weakly at him as she passed a chair up the stairs.
Even though she knew it was risky, Zanaya decided to chance having a shower in the crew quarters. She waited until the night rotation left for their posts and the afternoon shift went to sleep. Sure that she would have almost full run of the shower in the women's section she carefully undressed and stashed her clothes somewhere they wouldn't be seen. Her camouflage powers were good, but she couldn't extend them to inanimate objects if she wasn't in contact with them.
She felt filthy on every level. The hybrid had been none too gentle in his frantic coupling. One that she had offered him, a dark corner of her mind reminded her. He'd managed to spread her blood across her body, and added plenty of fur to the sticky mess. She scrubbed vigorously, while silently praying that no one would come to investigate the running water.
She also had to admit that she was fascinated by him, a fact which hadn't made their union remotely enjoyable, but still. He was a challenge to her; someone who could detect her despite her best efforts, someone who was going to force her to change her tactics when she decided to end their partnership.
Finally deciding that she had spent enough time as she dared, she turned off the water and listened keenly for a few moments. Footsteps! Someone else was walking through the shower area. Zanaya's heart hammered within her chest as the footsteps hesitated outside her stall. She supposed that the person had noticed that there were no clothes hanging up and was curious about this. Zanaya knew how to kill people in many ways with only her bare hands, but was reluctant to do so at this juncture. A murder might attract unwanted attention to the possibility of an intruder on board. Even still, she couldn't be discovered.
"You alright in there?" a young bubbly voice asked, having not heard any movement to follow the shower being turned off. Zanaya shook her head. The girl would have to die to protect the truth. With luck, another Icewalker would be blamed. One Icewalker, with Thunderian blood, would probably suspect otherwise.
The stall door opened and Zanaya moved quickly, she grabbed the young woman's head and jerked it sideways, pleased to hear an immediate snap. The assassin dragged her victim into the shower stall and regarded her with mute detachment. The girl looked fairly young, probably was on her first assignment. Zanaya took great pride in clean kills, even when they were the enemy. Killing was her profession, but everyone deserved to die with some amount of dignity. Quietly gathering her own possessions, the Psion left the room.
How many hours had it been? Two? Three? Tycho sat against the wall, his mind numb with fatigue and from the blow he'd taken. They could very dimly hear people running through the corridors above them and the occasional rumble from an explosion. He could only guess at what was happening. Aristarchus, if he were smart, had left, taking the bulk of his forces with him. There were probably some ground forces left behind, people too slow to get out or those who didn't hear the message, and they were doubtless encountering any forces loyal to Tycho that had come. Eluosi was leaning against his shoulder, her steady breathing helping to calm his own tense nerves. Darius was asleep near the door, his regenerative powers seeming to work better when he was in a dormant state.
"Some first date. I hope the second has less explosions," Eluosi said, a grin on her face.
"I couldn't agree more," he replied, amused that she could make light of the situation.
"You need to loosen up a bit," she needled, "If we were in any kind of real danger we'd know it. It's been long enough that it's safe to say Aristarchus is dead or gone. I think he'd have come down here otherwise to ensure that you were dead. Give him the victory one way or another. That would be typical of him. Solving his problems with the barrel of a gun."
"How cheerful a thought," Tycho replied, remembering another girl telling him that he needed to keep things light and fun. He wondered if Paracia was having 'fun' right now. "You're probably right. A man like Aristarchus thinks that the best way to deal with problems is to kill them."
"You're not that much better than he is. You've put people to death for criminal acts. That's something I've always rallied against. Needless death. Who says that those are hardened criminals you've got on execution row? Why can't they be reformed and rehabilitated?" She said, leaning forward so she could look him in the eye.
"I wish they could. I do. I hate killing. But for every one person who could be rehabilitated there are a dozen men like Aristarchus. Men who will only use their second chance to kill again. Would you have me send Aristarchus to a counsellor? I would expect him to send me the head of the counsellor," Tycho sighed, matching the determined look. He'd had very similar arguments with himself.
"So you're saying you wouldn't. That's the difference between you and I. Even for all that he and his people have done to me today, I still hold out hope that Aristarchus could be made a valuable part of the community. All the people of the moons are but lumps of clay, needing the right hands to mould them into their appropriate shape. But I guess I'm not going to be able to convince you either way," she said.
"I doubt I'll ever see it your way."
"My father is a fool," Kaprenius muttered, more to himself than the burly Reptilian Mutant next to him. The duo were taking little used passages towards the basement, quickly dispatching of the resistence they encountered along the way. "We will never have a better chance to be rid of the king than this. Well, if he's too cowardly to see the truth then I will have to open his eyes for him." The reptile grunted, as if in response.
They rounded a corner and saw the door to the basement. Readying his gun, Kaprenius pushed on the handle, finding himself annoyed when he realized it was barricaded. He stepped aside and gestured to the Mutant. "Remove the door," he said, trying to control his emotions. Excitement and anger mixed together to create an energy about him.
The Mutant grunted again and punched the door until his meaty fists broke through. Once this was done Kaprenius pushed him back and stuck his gun through the hole. "Farewell, worms!" he cried, unloading multiple grenade-like projectiles into the room. A series of explosions and cries cut off told Kaprenius that they didn't need to worry anymore about Tycho; King of the Lunataks.
This wasn't the present, Knave knew, this was the past. A memory. A dream of the last time he'd seen his mother alive. He was eight years old again and the two were standing in the office of Nitro. His mother had spirited him away in the middle of the night with promises of a better place. A new home on a new world. A place where he wouldn't be hated and feared by his peers and where there was more to see than rock and ice. They'd been caught while she tried to disable the locking controls on a fighter craft and been brought roughly to this room. They were encased in ice up to their waists, with arms at their sides so as to trap the hands too. Nitro was angry, his body radiated it.
He approached Knave's mother first. "I warned you, Amber. I warned you there would be consequences if you tried to escape again. Do you remember that? Do you remember what those consequences were?" his finger jabbed at her and she snarled in response, making a futile effort to bite said finger. "Allow me to remind you, and educate my boy at the same time. Three times you tried to escape, and each time I allowed you to live, hoping to bend your spirit to my will. Theft of a starship and betraying your clan are crimes which ordinarily carry heavy penalties. But I am a man of mercy. I forgave you. But then you tried to take our as yet unborn son with you. I told you then that if you ever crossed me like that again it would carry the penalty of death. I can tolerate many things, but I have my limits."
"You only kept me alive to share your bed. What kind of life is that? You promised me death, give me death. Spare me your ramblings," she replied, her voice filled with contempt for the man.
"I will give you death, don't worry about that. But what of the boy? He too has crossed me. He tried to abandon his people. Should I kill him too?" Nitro's cold eyes stared at the Thunderian woman, gauging her reaction. He was pleased when she displayed fear for him.
"No! Please, it was my fault. Let him go," she said.
"Very good. Listen boy, I want this to be a lesson to you. For our people, family and honour are everything. Your mother, though she has little honour, loves her family. And because of that your life is being spared. Remember that always. The sacrifices that were made so that you could breathe another day."
Knave hadn't understood fully what was being said, but clearly understood the part about killing him. He'd seen death before, in this very room no less, and it didn't look like something he would enjoy. Any relief he might have felt, however, was quickly destroyed when his father had spoken again.
"On the other hand, I cannot let you get away with your part in this," Nitro said, producing a long slender blade, the family weapon of choice, and placed the tip over Knave's heart. "Therefore, by the power handed down to me by generations of our people I sentence you to carry out your mother's execution." He turned the weapon around so that the butt of it was facing Knave, then he gestured to the guards to remove the ice from around the boy.
His hands trembled as he bore the weight of the icepick. He looked into his mother's horrified eyes and began to sob noisily. Nitro's hand clamped about his wrist and pulled him agonizingly closer and closer to where his mother stood. She told Knave that she loved him and forgave him for what was about to happen. Then she closed her eyes, unwilling to see the killing stroke. Knave struggled against his father's grip, desperately looking for any way out of this, but his father was too strong and powerful. He felt, rather than saw, his arm pulled back and thrust forward.
That moment was one that Knave would never forget. The sound of flesh being rent, his mother's dying scream, the splash of blood across his body. He sank to the floor, eyes clenched tight as tears flowed freely down his cheeks. He wanted to stand and strike his father dead at that moment but couldn't find the energy. A hand closed about his shoulder. "You're an Icewalker and an Iespyk. Stop your crying and get up."
Krystalin shook Knave's shoulder again. "Get up," she snapped. Instantly Knave's eyes were open and his fist crashed into the woman's face. She staggered backwards, ignoring the startled gasps from Cameo and Psikaris, and returned the punch. His world spun around him for a few moments, aggravated by her grabbing his shoulders and hauling him to his feet. "Do that again and I break every bone in your face," she said.
"I tried to tell her that you're not a morning person," Cameo said meekly. "There's some big meeting in the crew quarters. Captain wants everyone present." Knave nodded, still a little disoriented and followed the group out.
Roly Poly surveyed the manor home of Aristarchus with a certain amount of satisfaction; everything was going about as smoothly as they could have expected with such an operation. The combined forces of the Icewalkers, the Gravitons and the loyal natives were making quick work of the minimal resistence they were meeting. There had been two significant casualties, one an Icewalker who had been trying to get some civilians to safety, and a Graviton that had been felled by a lucky shot. The same tally could not be said of the opposing detachment of guards. Many had died, though most were wounded or had fled long ago.
Out of the corner of his eye Roly Poly spied what looked like Aristarchus fleeing the grounds in a swift moving land vehicle. He was just about to order his men to pursue when he heard a rumble, and felt the ground beneath his feet shaking violently. The south west portion of the manor began to buckle and dropped down, crushing several who had been fighting in that area. A chill went up his spine, one unrelated to the Icewalkers standing around him. "The king!" he shouted, "Aristarchus must have buried him, quick! Dig him out!"
Instantly his men scrambled in the direction of the ruined wall, the Icewalkers and Royal Lunataks assisting as the probability of the situation sunk in. All worries about Aristarchus melted away and concern for the moon king formed, for if Tycho were not found alive then Aristarchus would be the new king.
Perhaps it was the blow he'd taken to the head, or perhaps it was a state of not-quite-awake, but Knave found himself replaying the haunting dream of his mother's last moments in life again. It was strange that he was remembering it, he'd stopped dreaming about it long ago, and he couldn't quite figure out why. She had sacrificed her life, even knowing what the price of failure was, to save him. There was no greater sign of his mother's love than that, an act that certainly his father would never have done. If he was honest with himself, he couldn't think of anyone that *he* would be willing to do that for, and that saddened him on some level.
She had visions of a new life for the two of them, he could remember her extolling how different their life would be on this new home. They would be free to do as they pleased, live among others who would care for them. They could be happy and at peace.
"What a crock," an angry voice within the hybrid's head spat. "You've seen the look of disgust on the faces of Thunderian prisoners. The mere thought of one of their own copulating with a Lunatak was so abhorrent to them that they couldn't even look at you. Life among Thunderians would be no different than living with the Lunataks. Those Thunderians hide behind their precious Code of Thundera, they like to feel superior to all others. At least with the Lunataks there's no secrecy. You know who your enemies are, and there's no shame in using violence against them. Your mother wasn't looking for a better life for you, she was looking for a better life for herself, she had to know that you would be loathed and despised, that your life would have been worse off than on the Ice Moon. Your father showed you more love in opening your eyes to the truth, allowing you to kill such a traitor to the empire."
Knave's step faltered, forcing Cameo to catch him and inquire as to his health. He brushed off such concern and forced himself to remain in step with the others. This seemed to satisfy them enough to leave him alone to his thoughts.
When had it happened? When had he started viewing his mother as being wrong and his father as being right? His father was wrong, wasn't he? It was his fault that his mother had been in that position in the first place. He'd raped her and enjoyed it so much he kept her alive to use whenever he pleased. Then he'd forced his son to kill his mother, an image that had burned its way into his mind, to the point that he could almost feel the warm blood on his flesh.
"She was wrong. She deserved to die. She was shown mercy and given everything she could have wanted, and how did she repay it? Through treachery. By spitting the kindness back in the face of her masters," the voice, one that had been taught by the best tutors that Nitro could afford, replied.
It was true. She had been given everything. Everything except her freedom. And what kind of life was it anyway? To be trapped in a foreign place, apart from those you care about, to have your body used like it was some kind of plaything? That wasn't a life. How could anyone be happy under those circumstances? He couldn't really blame his mother for wanting to get away from it all.
"And you're so much better?" the voice said, asking a question he didn't want to hear.
"Yes. I am!" Knave said aloud, ignoring the strange looks his travelling companions gave him at the outburst. He was better than his father. Wasn't he? He would never do anything quite so heinous as...
"What about Zanaya?" the voice purred, causing the hair on his back to raise.
The truth stung. He had mistreated Zanaya. She was very similar to his mother in many respects. Away from her home. Used for sex and other uses. He wasn't that much different than his father, and the thought scared him. He could almost imagine Zanaya locked in a room, only emerging to pleasure him, siring him children. But he wasn't as heartless as his father. He could be different. He just had to apologize to Zanaya and never force himself on her again. That would fix things. It had to.
"Not heartless? That's why the prisoners in the dungeon fear you so?"
He meted out justice. Punished those who were traitors to the empire, hurt anyone who dared defy him and his people.
"Like your father did with you and your mother. Face it. You are your father's son, whether you like it or not. It's too late to change. Embrace it."
It couldn't be true. The future had to be malleable. He could change. he was reasonably certain that he hated his father. The same father who had authorized Captain Havallance to kill him. He would never turn out anything like that man. He could not allow it.
There was darkness. Tycho could feel the darkness around him like a glove, and the darkness felt hard as rock. He tried to sit up but found his movement constricted by something. It felt rough to the touch and warm with a slight pulse within it. It was that pulse, one familiar to him, that caused his memory to replay what had happened.
Kaprenius and his Mutant companion at the door. The weapon going off. Darius' shout. Then blackness. Near his feet he heard a moan and he felt around for the source. His hand drifted across the floor until it touched silken hair against a soft cheek. The moan came louder at his touch and he recoiled. "Eluosi?" he asked into the dark. There was no answer but he was positive that he was right. The dead Simian mutants had been too far away during the attack and it couldn't be Darius. He wondered if the woman could hear him. She seemed to be unconscious, but maybe hearing his voice explaining would comfort her on some level. At the least it would help him to organize his thoughts.
"Eluosi, it's me, Tycho. We're safe. I'm not sure how to explain this, but we're inside Darius right now. When Kaprenius attacked, he transformed himself into a diamond hard substance and shielded us. He tried to explain his powers to me one day but I couldn't understand them completely. I understand that he can borrow mass from the air and objects around him when necessary, and I think that's how this shield is constructed. Actually, I'm a little scared that he hasn't turned back, or tried to communicate with us. But I have faith that he'll be alright. And so will we."
Tycho examined the space more carefully. There was just enough height in the shell to raise his head a few inches, but space at his side and at the feet. It was in the latter space that Eluosi was laying.
"I'm sorry I got you in this mess," he added. "You shouldn't have been made a part of this, you didn't deserve it."
The crew quarters were filled with people, leaving a skeleton crew to run the ship. The wall separating the men from the women had been retracted and the captain stood with a pair of brutish looking men by the washroom door. As Krystalin and the hybrids entered, they could hear people whispering among themselves; a woman had been murdered. Krystalin left the trio to stand by her commander, who waited for the noise to die down.
"I'm not going to mince words here. We've had a murder on board this ship. Frostella of House Whitestar was found in a shower stall a few hours ago with her neck broken. My chief of security," Captain Havallance gestured to Krystalin, "will be conducting an investigation. Anyone with any information at all must report it to either her or myself. The service for Frostella will be tomorrow at noon." He stepped aside and the woman took his spot.
"The doctors are going to look at the body for me. Each of you will come in to my office one at a time and tell me where you were when it happened," she said. "The hybrids will go first."
A murmur went through the crowd, suggesting that they shared the sentiment that one of the three must have had a hand in the murder. Krystalin's eyes met those of the trio and narrowed sharply, daring them to make some sort of protest, though none came.
The corridors of the great temple of the Psions were empty at this late hour. Psipe, one of the elders, walked briskly across the stone floors, his sandals slapping nosily. Toran, eldest of the elders, was where he was expecting him, kneeling before the altar of the gods. "Master Toran. We are undone! Kaprenius acted in haste and has ruined everything. Soon the truth of our actions will be learned and the full might of the other moons will turn against us," he said, his voice rising with panic
Toran stood, his joints protesting the movement, and faced the younger man. "It is as the oracle foretold. Aristarchus' seed would spoil our plans if not kept in check. I cautioned Mystan and Aristarchus about this very matter. Still, we are not discovered yet. There remains hope. As it so happens the oracle visited me an hour ago with another vision. There were two windows. Six moons flew towards them. Aristarchus' hand closed one, blocking their entry, but he was too slow getting to the other. The moons entered and he was destroyed. The oracle believes that the windows represent our windows of opportunity while the moons represent six Lunataks, and that if Aristarchus does not act in time, seizing the throne we assume, that we will be undone."
"Or it's warning us that we should invite Aristarchus over to close all our windows for us," Psipe replied. "We have had this discussion before, wise one. I do not doubt that the gods have sent a message to us through a mortal vessel, but the vessel is weak. The vessel carries its own biases and motivations. Who is to say that the oracle is not leading us astray with false interpretations? What if the gods are telling us that Aristarchus needs to be destroyed for the sake of the moons. Perhaps the moons represent the five moons of Plundarr and the planet itself?"
"We can not say for sure either way. All we can do is have faith in the will of the gods. They will guide us as best we can," Toran said, settling back to a kneeling position in front of the altar. He didn't even hear Psipe's footsteps as he left the room.
On to Heritage of the Lunatak Empire - part three
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