The transport is nothing fancy, which is vaguely reassuring.
The party's over and I'm back to being just me, plain old Liz Parker. I may have a new rank and new responsibilities, and I may have been the subject of countless court toasts last night, but this morning I'm just another soldier grabbing a ride back to the action.
The palace is actually pretty quiet, since the only other people up and about are the staff stuck with 'morning after' cleanup. So the transport is unusually empty, just me and two other soldiers who got re-routed when their last transport developed engine trouble, stranding them in-city.
The odd thing is, I know them. We've served together before.
Olandric and Dravi are two Antarian brothers I met during a maneuver in the Outer Provinces a couple years ago. They're quite a bit older than I am, career soldiers who never had time for family outside of the military, and if I were in a life and death situation I can't think of anyone I'd want at my back more.
The thing a lot of civilians don't understand about war is that most of it is waiting.
Waiting to be trained. Waiting to be shipped out. Waiting for meals. Waiting for exercise rotations. Waiting for weapons certification. Waiting for instructions. Waiting for the enemy to do something. Waiting for the signal to act. Waiting for transport to somewhere else where you might get called on to do something there.
All the exciting stuff, the traumatic stuff, the moments of glory and seconds when all is lost or all is won, are just that - moments and seconds. When it happens, it happens fast. And with the technologies and powers available to both sides in this war, it's generally over a lot faster than you realize when you're in the middle of it.
One of the biggest battles in this war involved two spacegoing armadas in one hell of a free-for-all, and lasted only twenty-seven minutes, Earth Time. That's right, in less than half an hour ET, over seventy-five thousand people died and enough metal was blasted out of Antarian skies to create an artificial asteroid belt round a nearby uninhabited planet with sufficient gravity pull.
I watched it from the surface of one of Antar's moons where I was testing some new kind of weapon. It was night, and the constant bursts of fire lit up the Antarian night like tiny, twinkling stars. It was pretty, like fireworks.
I remember praying to some unknown deity that I'd misunderstood Kyle, that he hadn't told me just days before that he was pulling sector patrol duty that week, that he wasn't in one of the small ships thousands of miles above me, invisible in the clear night sky until they exploded.
Later, when I heard that his ship hadn't been accounted for, that he was officially MIA, I felt this suffocating pressure on my chest, and my eyes felt horribly dry. I went and found a quiet corner to sit in, and I watched the minutes pass by, wondering which of those twenty-seven crucial minutes was Kyle's, which one spelled out his destiny.
And I wondered if he'd seen it coming, if he'd had a premonition. Knowing Kyle, he would have charged in anyway. Sometimes I wonder what I would have done in his place. If I knew what was coming, if I could see my doom laid out before me, could I face it with half the courage I believe he did? Could I be that strong?
Of course, I may never know the answer to that question.
As we dock at the station, it happens.
The three of us are sitting idly, holding our packs and waiting for the disembark signal, when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I motion for Olan and Drav to be still, and for a minute I just concentrate on taking in our surroundings.
"Something's off," I murmur as they look to me for answers. Immediately they take positions on either side of me, and we all scan for anomalies.
Everything looks in order. These shuttles were automated a long time ago, and can be directed manually or by remote but normally require no hands-on operation. Except "Nav desk," I whisper. Heads swivel towards the navigations console, and they see it at the same time.
Our coordinates are all wrong. According to these, we left Antarian space an hour ago.
"I think we've been shanghaied," I say lightly, knowing that the gravity of the situation hasn't truly sunk in yet. "Any guesses why?"
There's a pause as we run scenarios in our minds. Then, "Someone wants you pretty bad," Olan answers, so bluntly I'm a little stunned.
"How do you figure?" I ask, wondering how he knows about the codes Michael gave me last night, and then answering my own question. "Oh, you mean the raid. I guess that little tidbit made the rounds pretty fast."
Despite everything, Drav grins. It's a hard grin, one that doesn't impart any warmth. "I can't tell you how much I wish I'd been there."
I shake my head. "Don't say that, Drav. It was it was bad. It should never have happened."
He looks at me curiously. "If you had to do it over again, would you?"
I start to explain, to tell him that I should have found another way. Then I shrug. "Yeah, I would," I admit quietly. It's hard to lie to someone who knows the truth.
He nods and we get back to business. "They probably figure you know what's going on."
"What do you mean?" I ask, wondering if there were any leaks from all the meetings I've been attending. It's possible.
"Word is, the Alliance is planning a major strike. Now here you are, you've been promoted, you've just taken out one of Khivar's guys with your own hands and you've just spent several weeks in close seclusion with the General's staff at headquarters. Are you telling us this is a coincidence? That you don't know anything?" he persisted.
I stay silent for a minute, reflecting on how strange it is that everyone seems to know so much about my life without really knowing anything about it or me, and then answer quietly. "Yes."
Neither believes me.
"Okay," Olan says anyway, and with that one word I can tell that he's gearing up to protect me, to get me and whatever secrets I know back to safe ground, no matter the cost.
Drav nods in agreement. I don't press the issue. They'd be surprised if I did; whatever is in my head, they figure, is more important than both of their lives combined.
If only they knew. Michael told me these codes are pretty damn important. Even had his doctors do this thing to my mind where crucial information gets overlooked in the event of mind rape. Apparently it's standard policy for senior field officers.
"We probably have a few minutes before those doors open," I think out loud, mentally calculating how long it takes to secure docking clamps. "What do you say we find out a little more about what's going on?"
I put down my bag and heading for what is traditionally considered the command console on a bridge. Touching a few pressure-sensitive screens, I decide that our course route had to have been switched just before launch back on Antar, because there were no interruptions or course changes logged en route. This is bad; it means there's a traitor close to home. Michael will freak when he finds out.
I wonder if I can use it somehow.
I take a minute to code a hidden subroutine that will allow me to refuse command of this vessel to anyone but me. It's a long shot and I have no idea how it could help, but it can't hurt.
"As far as I can tell," Drav reports from the nav desk, "we're about two days by shuttle to the nearest Alliance outpost, and about a week from SecCom." He doesn't say the obvious, that the default plan is to escape as soon as possible and steal a shuttle to make the trip, perhaps one less obvious than the Alliance transport we're standing in.
Fighting is not an option when we're this outnumbered and outgunned.
After a moment and a few clicks, he adds, "There's a lot of radiation from a nearby solar event. If we can get far enough ahead of any pursuit and then maintain frequency silence and minimal emissions, we should be able to lose them in that."
That's probably why this - whatever this is, this station - is here, because it can 'hide' from Alliance sensors.
Olan calls over from communications. "There's a lot going on around us. There's enough traffic that they have several frequencies practically overloaded, and a bunch of sub-frequencies that seem isolated. My guess is that those are the secure lines here."
"Any chance of getting an SOS out quietly?" I ask, although I can guess the answer.
"I doubt it," he replies. "Do you want me to try?"
"No," I say quickly. "Try this instead: forward a request from me for my 'usual room' at the Royal Arms. Send it on open and secure channels, as if ready to confirm check-in and make payment."
That's the hotel at SecCom where officers and ambassadors make themselves comfortable. I haven't actually stayed there yet, but with security as tight as it is, no one should know that except me. Whoever's taken us should, in theory, receive and respond to the open call as if representing the hotel, to keep up the illusion as long as possible. They'll notice the secure feed, but they won't comment on it right away, because that would mean admitting they - not being the hotel - don't have the code key to open it.
We don't wait long.
"Arrival acknowledged," a pleasant mechanical voice notifies us in various common languages. Olan turns up the volume so we can hear it clearly. Suddenly it switches to a live speaker, who greets me in Antarian and English by name and rank, then continues in English.
" And in honor of this special occasion," the 'concierge' informs us smoothly, "this visit will be our gift to you. No payment is required, or indeed, will be accepted."
Ah, so that's how they're getting around not accepting the secure transmission. Of course, if I didn't know anything was up before, I would now. We have unwritten policies, nothing official but I'm not allowed to accept free luxuries, and the legit hotel wouldn't have been stupid enough to offer. "Thank you," I speak up, after toggling the two-way com. "I appreciate it. So my usual suite is available then?"
"Of course," he says, not missing a beat.
"I look forward to it. Will someone meet me at the docking bay to take my luggage?" Like I'd let some stranger touch my bags. But I was wondering how far they'd take this.
"There will be a representative waiting for you when you dock."
I'll bet. "Thanks."
I turn off the com and consider what I just heard, and try to imagine all the factors that will affect our odds for escape. But it's all a little overwhelming, so I don't allow myself to think too much right now.
"Olan, Drav," I get their attention. They join me at the command console, where I'm revising my earlier subroutine. "After we dock, I'm going to lock all command functions here except to us, by voice pattern."
They nod in understanding. They don't even have to submit vocal samples, because automated transports like this one work on voice; it already has all of ours on record.
"But first, let's see if we can get away with something. Back at SecCom there's a small restaurant called Eden's. We're going to call to confirm reservations for the three of us there."
"I don't get it; what's the point? We know we've been taken," Drav points out. "Why push it?"
I can tell he's trying to be diplomatic, and technically I don't owe him any explanations. But these are unique circumstances, and yes, I do.
"No, the point of that little exercise was to see if they could open the secure message. From what I can see, they didn't even try, they just bounced it back untouched. Well, here's the thing: that little restaurant I'm talking about is a front for a communications experiment. They run Snakes. You know, communication trackers."
Trackers are very invasive and very illegal and I'm going to argue very persuasively to have the system dismantled some day. But Olan and Drav, soldiers at heart, recognize what I'm talking about and approve. In their minds, privacy is a peacetime concept, and we're at war. And I have to admit, Snakes have provided us with crucial information at times because they just happen to be there and reporting back to us when sensitive materials get passed around on "private" lines by people who don't know better.
They're like those criminals back on Earth who discussed their plans by cell phone. Pure stupidity, but it happens.
"Right now I'm hoping that if we send a message addressed specifically to them, at some point it'll bounce off a line they've attached a tracker to and they'll pick it up."
Olan's already keying in the send sequence I gave him, a coded message that would tell anyone back in Antarian space our location. After a tense minute, he looks up. "I got an automated reply. They've 'confirmed' receiving your reservation but say they're having technical difficulties so they'll arrange payment later."
I nod and let out the breath I've been holding. I figured they wouldn't bounce it back to us because that would completely blow their little surprise. So now it'll stay active within their com system, and with any luck at all, it'll find its way back to Alliance space in the not too distant future where someone with the right codes will crack it.
I laugh inwardly, though, because I'm counting on a traitor to do my job for me. That's right, I'm hoping that whoever the traitor is on Antar, he or she is in contact with someone here, and that he or she doesn't realize that sooner or later a tracker will get in the mix of legit and illegal messages being passed back and forth, lighting up this one like a beacon.
"What do we do now?" Olan asks.
I've been thinking about this moment. I don't see any way around getting caught, but if possible I'd really rather not get these guys killed. For one thing, they're my best bet at getting out of here alive.
"Are you guys up on your telepathy? I mean, you're competent at connecting with Human minds?"
They both nod confidently.
"Okay, here's the thing: I do know more than I can say."
That has their attention.
"I'm not going to tell you what; that's need-to-know only. But I will tell you that I was aware of the possibility of some kind of ambush, so this isn't a complete surprise." Well, maybe a bit of a surprise. I left the last briefing amidst warnings about keeping a low profile because I'm a hot target right now, but I confess that I didn't really take Michael that seriously when he suggested I bone up on hostage training.
"They know there are three warm bodies in here," I continue, thinking out loud. "Chances are, they only need the one."
I take a deep breath. Both men wait, expressions stoic. They'll sacrifice themselves if I ask. It's a heady realization, and a terrifying prospect. I make a decision.
"But I think you'll be more useful to me alive," I say. "So we're going to try a diversion. I'm going to pull a dual projection, so they can't see where you really are but think you're standing next to me. While I hold their attention and hide you guys, I want you to grab some cover. Take enough rations to last a while, and see if you can find somewhere to hole up for a few days. As soon as you think the coast might be clear, contact me wherever I'm being held. We'll figure something out then."
They're both looking at me, and I know what they feel. Doubt, that this is the best plan. Shame, that it means leaving me alone with the enemy. Relief, that I'm not asking them to go directly against that enemy, outgunned and outnumbered. And last, best, and the very emotion I want to see most: determination. They'll do as I ask.
"Oh, one last thing. It's really important. When you contact me, stay shallow. No digging. That's an order," I say, letting my voice rise in emphasis, to let them know this last part isn't a joke. And it's not. If Michael's doctors really did implant some kind of mental booby-trap, I don't want these guys to get caught in it by accident.
Olan and Drav look at each other in chagrin, and I can tell that they'd already decided privately to take a chance and find out what I know in case it could help us all out of this situation. I don't fault them for this - one of the greatest violations civil society can dream of - because I know why they're thinking it. They're trying to save my life.
Besides, they're here because of me. I think it kind of means I owe them a little leeway. You know, to balance out the karma. Kyle would be proud.
"Okay," Drav says, finally, and I relax while they quickly grab their packs and stuff them with extra rations.
We turn as we hear the telltale hissing of airlocks setting. Any second now, those doors will open and the enemy will be on the other side.
"Can you feed me any energy?" I ask suddenly. In answer, my companions touch my hand and immediately I'm filled with a crackling sensation, like static electricity but softer, fuller.
"Show time," I say, and walk to the doors. Olan and Drav stand off to the side, and I concentrate. In something less than a second, they're standing behind a magically appearing bulkhead but also 'standing' next to me.
Without warning the sound of marching fills my head, and I can almost taste the sweat of a company of soldiers making their way through underbrush, muttering under their breath. In my mind, the old chant begins.
War is death. We are at war. Therefore, I am death.
My stomach jumps with tension but I paste an expectant smile on my face, and start 'talking' with them. When that door opens, I want it to look like we've been caught off-guard.
"Oh, you really have to try the pasta. It's an Earth classic, and you'll love it, I swe-"
I step outside, head turned towards 'Olan', but stop talking as I take in the view ahead of me. 'Olan' and 'Drav' look like they're behind me on the ship but I feel a breeze as the two Antarians slide past me, and I concentrate on keeping them in my peripheral vision so I can hide them until they reach a wall of the shuttle bay.
There's a man waiting on the other side of the door, flanked by a small contingent of armed soldiers. Trejantisian, all of them. He starts out in Trejantisian but soon switches over to English.
I could be wrong, but he sounds like the 'concierge' I'd spoken to earlier. Huh.
"By the authority of His Majesty, Khivar, True King of the Five Planets, I arrest you, Lieutenant Elizabeth Parker, Earth Ambassador and Advisor to the False Court, for war crimes against Trejantis."
His voice is loud and commanding. It takes every ounce of training I have to stay calm so I can make 'Olan' and 'Drav' rush forward with rapidly charging 'weapons'. But before they fire, they are fired upon, and they fall to the ground, looking extremely dead.
"Retrieve their bodies," the man barks.
But before they get the chance, I step outside the door and close it. It locks with an audible hum, and it will not open again until either I, Olan or Drav speak the codes.
Speaking of which, I can see that they've entered a shaft or something in the wall, and I let that projection drop.
One of the armed soldiers steps forward to open the door behind me, but cannot.
I don't bother hiding my contempt. It makes it easier to push away the fear. "It's sealed, you idiot."
I've let the other projection drop now that no one needs to see the 'bodies', and fight the urge to sit down and rest. My blood chemistry is going nuts, pumping adrenaline like crazy, but this psychic stuff is still a serious drain on a first generation Power like myself.
The man in charge stares at me dispassionately, then turns and begins to walk away.
Immediately I feel a prodding in my back.
"I can take a hint," I say, and allow myself to be pushed along in his wake without too much trouble. I hope Olan and Drav have found good cover, because they're on their own now; I can't do projections if I can't see what I'm 'hiding'. Taking a deep breath, I focus my energies on the confrontation ahead of me.
Khivar likes to make an entrance.
First they make me wait, trying to impress on me just how busy he is and unimportant I am. Then I get to watch his personal guard enter and set a seat for him. Only then does he grace us with his presence, solemnly walking into the mid-sized chamber and taking a seat in a large, ornate chair. Not even Max - or Isabel, for that matter - has anything this gaudy.
Everyone else remains standing, including me, although I think one guard is hoping I'll fall on my knees because he jabs me in the calves with some kind of stick.
Khivar says something in Trejantisian, eyes on me, voice hard. The room empties in seconds. I can't help but be nervous, and I find myself resenting his power over me. But I'm never going to make him lose control if I let him have it all.
I have to keep up the act.
"Yo. What's up, Pretender?" It's all I can do not to laugh at myself. I sound like some street kid back on Earth, flexin' and giving attitude.
His eyes narrow. Well, as much as an Antarian's eyes can. It's more like a squint.
I take a moment to study him a little closer. Like Max, he's starting to show more recessive racial characteristics as he ages. I can see strands of silver Antarian silk streaking through Trejantisian-black hair that weren't in the last intelligence pictures.
Khivar is a hybrid, the offspring of an Antarian-Trejantisian union between two noble houses who cared more about money and power than nation and species. According to the files I read on him, he grew up in the Outer Provinces, far away from the capital cities, and made quite an impression when he was presented at court as a quietly imposing young man.
He's angry at my little jibe, for reminding him that he doesn't belong to one race or the other, for suggesting he has no right to any throne. The irony is that he'll never know I actually admire him in a lot of ways. He'll never know that I've sympathized with him, because I've been the outsider, neither one nor entirely the other, for so long now that I can't remember being otherwise.
He'll never know that Vilandra loved him not for his battle prowess but because she once saw him stop some bullies who were picking on a smaller child. Isabel told me that, one lonely dark night when we didn't know if we'd live to see daybreak.
I'll sure as hell never tell him that in another lifetime, I might have supported him in his cause to re-shape Antarian society. I've studied Antarian history, both what the books say and what they don't, and I think the monarchy had gone bad long before the civil war. It's partly why I never fell into the habit of calling Max 'Zan', because I won't let him get lost in that side of his personality, not if I have any say in the matter.
But I won't condone the war practices of the peoples who support Khivar either. He rallied the Trejantisians knowing full well that their idea of war is to undercut the enemy by destroying food resources and attacking civilians - children, the sick, the elderly - until their society just falls apart. It's cowardly, and maybe I'm prejudiced by the actions of a few but I will forever hold what I've seen against them and him.
"So speaks the whore who came between a king and his queen," he retorts, also in English.
It's all I can do not to laugh. Ooh, like that hurt. "Don't be an idiot," I chide him. "We both know she had him. I was left to pick up the pieces after she screwed up."
He stares stonily as I remind him of Tess's failure.
"Hey, is the bitch around here anywhere? I have something for her. A little thank-you for something she did to a friend of mine." Yeah, no kidding. I'd love a little payback for what she did to Alex.
Suddenly he smiles at me. It's unnerving. "You chatter like a child. Don't you even want to know what's going to happen to you?"
I shrug. "Why? After meeting you, I can't imagine it'll be too original." I think I'm starting to get to him, but then a look that can only be described as malicious passes over his alien face.
"Maybe a demonstration will make more of an impact," he suggests, and I look over to see a couple of his men dragging something in. No, someone. My heart starts thumping painfully. It's Human. A man. He crouches close to the floor when the guards release him, crossing his arms in front of himself defensively.
"Who is that? Since when do Trejantisians take Human prisoners?" It's common knowledge that Trejies are xenophobic and racist. They might take the odd Antarian prisoner, but consider Humans beneath wasting resources on. Well, beyond studying us, that is, and our languages and cultures, because those sorts of things tend to simplify invasion.
Khivar gestures and one of the guards reaches down to lift the prisoner's head.
I stare in unabashed sorrow. He's pale, his cheeks hollow, and his hair and beard have been left untended so that they tangle about his face. But the worst are his eyes; blue and clouded, they stare up at me with the guileless innocence of a child.
He's either insane, or they've destroyed his mind. Or both.
"You're an animal," I whisper in loathing and disgust.
Khivar's upper lip lifts in a snarl. "An interesting sentiment, coming from a Human." He spits the word with intense distaste.
"What are you going to do with him?" I had to ask.
"Him?" Khivar regarded me, then the prisoner. "I'll probably return him to the generator rooms. Oh, don't worry," he taunted, "I make sure someone checks on him at least once or twice a week."
I was aghast. "You leave him alone? Like that? Around all that machinery?" One thing about space travel: generators reach unbelievable temperatures to achieve the kind of power necessary to traverse space. On Antarian stations, workers are required to don protective suits and carry cool liquids at all times.
But it's not just the superheated pipes and conduits. There're all sorts of ways you can hurt yourself around the gears and mechanisms and chemicals that make an engine go, whether it's hydrogen fueled or ionic particle combustible or whatever.
Then and there, I make myself a promise. It's not a new one, but it gives me a renewed sense of purpose.
Khivar pretends insult. "I'll have you know he enjoys his work as an engineer. He has a real knack for it, and we give him room to develop his talent," he rattles on, as if proud of his prisoner. The utter contempt in his expression kind of kills the illusion, though.
I watch as they drag the poor guy off. And suddenly I feel a pressure in my mind, a tentative 'Hello?' that tells me Olan made it.
'Not now. Hold on.'
Khivar is staring at me when I turn to see why he'd fallen silent again.
"What? I have to tell you," I mock him, "I'm a little disappointed. If nothing else, the tales of your intelligence at least made me curious. Please don't tell me I came all this way only to be bored to death by a - a puppet dictator wannabe."
Okay, he's pissed off now. A muscle in his cheek twitches, and for a moment I think I've done it, I think I've made him lose control. Can it be so easy? Will Michael's brainchild be tested so soon?
But he just gestures to a guard, and the next thing I know I'm being dragged off down a corridor and thrown into some kind of holding cell.
Once I'm sure I'm as alone as I'm going to be, I lay on the scuzzy-looking bench they provide and concentrate on finding the tiny thread in my mind that means Olan didn't break the connection. After a few frantic moments, I find it.
'I'm here. So's Drav. We're holed up in a ventilation shaft above the shuttle bay.'
'Excellent. Listen, our mission parameter's changed slightly. At least, mine has, and I was kind of hoping you'd feel like helping.' I'm kidding and he knows it. It's standard operating procedure, to keep calm by downplaying everything as long as possible. It's preferable because if you let the situation get to you, you lose emotional control and inevitably, mental control. So we're trained not to be too serious if we can help it.
I can hear the humor in his tone as he answers as any seasoned soldier, joking back with me.
And an echoing chuckle that means Drav is listening in too. 'Well, I was planning to catch a nap, and I wanted to check out this great sale I overheard some scutworkers chatting about, but if it's that important, maybe I could make the time,' he jokes.
I smile, but my response is serious. 'Here's the thing. I'd like to destroy Khivar and this entire place, but there's someone I need you guys to get out of here before we do.'
I can tell I've piqued his interest. 'Who?'
'A prisoner. Human.'
'A human? All the way out here? What does Khivar want with him?'
'I'm not sure. But we have to get him out of here. I have to keep my promise.'
'Promise? What promise?'
I've forgotten that we're speaking in our minds, where it's harder to censor what the other person 'hears', especially if your emotions are running high. And mine are off the charts.
'To bring Kyle home.'
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