I can't watch as Tess heals Kyle. It doesn't matter that it's been years, that we're not kids anymore. It still hurts that once again, there's something she can do that I can't. So instead I watch the kid next to her.
And he is just a kid. Barely a teen by the looks of it, although it's hard to judge because he isn't completely Human.
Oh, there's Human there, of course. At first glance it even looks to be his dominant racial genotype, with his Human build and Human features and bright blue eyes and cheeks that flush with exertion and excitement.
Still, when I look closer, I can see the hair that's so black it shimmers Antarian blue-silver when the light catches it the right way. I can see how his skin fades to impossibly pale as he calms down somewhat. His English has a slight Trejantisian accent, which makes sense given that Tess seems to have raised him in Trejie territory. And his almond-shaped eyes blink just a little too quickly, a little too smoothly, to pass as human.
But his eyes are blue. And his voice is pure Max Evans.
I always wondered what I would say if I ever met Max's son. Would he be old enough to understand? Would he know English? Would he be able to look at me and know how I feel? How even the mention of him could set my teeth on edge? That it took me years to get the image of Max and Tess having sex out of my head?
I hold my breath as he stands up, clearly confident that his mother knows what she's doing, and walks towards me.
He's taller than I expect. Antarian heritage; it has to be. Neither parent was tall, not even by Human standards.
"You won't leave us here, right?" His eyes are large and liquid and so trusting I feel uncomfortable. He's also the first person I've run into who didn't look like my face was a painful thing to see; either he thinks it's an alien quirk or he's seen this kind of damage before. I'm relieved that he isn't freaking, but it's still a little disturbing.
I think about his question. As I think, I see Kyle sit up and submit to a thorough going-over by Tess. I see the way he responds to her, and I know I can't kill her now, not in front of him, and not in front of her son.
I want, more than anything, to kill her. For what she did to Alex, I want to hurt her. I want to hear her scream. I want I want
I want to go home to my family.
I want to go home and have a family.
She has a child, I think, numbly. Max's son. One that'll see his death coming if I leave them here, or see his mother die if I take him and leave her.
God help me.
I'm so sorry, Alex.
The boy waits anxiously for my answer.
"No, I guess I won't," I say, slowly, and now Tess does look at me.
"Can you still mind-warp?" I ask, my voice flat with suppressed emotion.
"Get us to our ship and we'll give you a ride back to Antarian space."
I continue as though she hadn't spoken. "I won't make any promises about what happens then."
The boy freezes, eyes wide and darting between his mother and I. "Mom? What's she talking about?"
"He doesn't know?" I ask sarcastically.
She shakes her head. "Not the entire story." She doesn't bother asking me not to tell him either.
My eyes narrow as I turn to him. Should I tell him? Part of me wants to, is eager for the chance to denounce her as the murderer I say she is. But another part of me wants to spare him from this knowledge a little longer. It's those eyes. Somehow, despite everything, there is innocence in there.
Out of nowhere a random image of a young Antarian village boy, lifeless and brutalized and holding a remnant of innocence in one hand, flashes before my eyes.
This flash isn't like the others; this one shakes me to the core. This one demands that I keep my promise to end the taking of innocence, to take a stand for the incidental casualties of this war, the ones who need my protection.
It's all I can do to keep my knees from collapsing out from under me from the force of it.
And then an explosion knocks me off my feet anyway.
Frantically I try to gauge how long we have before the station starts falling apart.
It won't be long.
Ignoring my protesting muscles and aching head, I stand and begin to run back to the shuttle bay door.
"Tess!" I shout, without looking back.
"I know!" I hear, behind me and to the left.
The air shimmers slightly, and either this is something to do with the mind warp or I'm about to have another flash.
I can't help but sob slightly when I 'see' Max running next to me and 'hear' the military jeeps in pursuit.
I really don't need this right now. And it probably would be too much to expect Michael and the cavalry to come riding to the rescue this time. Damn it.
The klaxons going off around the station aren't helping my headache any, either.
The shuttle bay is full of Trejantisians rushing about to prep every ship possible for escape. They pay no attention to us as we move towards the one at the end, its Antarian design contrasting sharply.
Then Tess gasps audibly and her son asks me to help her.
"There are too many of them. She can't keep it up."
I look back at her, and it's true, she looks like she's about to fall down. Only Kyle's firm grip is keeping her upright. Shit. I'd forgotten that, unlike projecting, mindwarping involves actively getting inside someone's mind. The more minds, the more energy it requires.
And we still have a couple hundred feet and a several hundred Trejies to go, maybe more.
"Just a little longer. Khivar did something to me, I can't project. You have -"
"You can project?"
It's the boy, and I know he's thinking hard because his biological father gets the same look when his mind is working an idea. I shrug, and in a moment he's jogging next to me, at my side.
"I can't now. Khivar did something to my head," I tell him.
"It's probably just the serum they use. It messes with your brain," he says, as if he knows what he's talking about. His bleak expression suggests that he does. "I can help," he continues, and reaches out as though it never occurred to him that I wouldn't want him to, that I wouldn't trust him. "It's just like resetting a control panel."
For a split second I consider pushing him away, and almost reflexively my hand tightens around the weapon at my side, but I force myself to relax.
I get another look at Tess. She's about to drop, and as satisfying as that might be, there are more important things to worry about right now.
What do I have to lose?
My mind is clear. And his energy, so bright and strong and young, feeds mine.
Tess collapses and Kyle hoists her in his arms.
No one around us notices.
That's probably because we all look like Trejies now.
When we get to the transport I look around to see if anyone's watching. As far as I can tell, they're too busy trying to save their own lives. I lead the others around the back to the smaller hatch that's really for mechanical access rather than passenger use. Once there, I press my hand into, and then wave it over, the panel housed next to the door.
A lid slides to one side, revealing a recessed piece of something that looks like crystal.
"Lieutenant Liz Parker. Release hatch," I say, low but clear, leaning in as close as I can get, making sure my breath hits it directly. If this doesn't work, I'll try again, pressing my cheek directly against it.
This is no Earth-style microphone, conveying the sound of my voice or a voice to some inner mechanism; such a device would never survive hull attachment to a space going vessel. Hard as diamond, this crystal is the mechanism that signals release of the outer hatch, its own minute reaction to the physical vibrations of my voice acting as trigger.
Inorganic gadgets, like tape recorders, don't work on this sort of technology, because they only seem to recreate comparable sound waves. The crystal requires a much greater level of precision. But the important thing is, it works. It's kept Trejie forces out of the transport, and it's letting us in.
The hatch slides open, we step inside, and I hurriedly drop the projection before the Antarian waiting on the other side fires that weapon he's aiming in my direction.
We're soldiers. We don't hug and cry, especially not when we're in the middle of a situation. But it's a homecoming of sorts, and there's no denying we're glad to see each other.
He doesn't look behind me, though, and as I study his features, I realize: he knows.
"Olan, Drav -"
He cuts me off. "I know. We were in contact when he," and his voice trails off slightly, but he takes a breath and finishes the sentence. "When he died."
I pause. "I tried -"
Again he interrupts. "The last thing he heard was you laughing, do you know that?"
I shake my head, unable to blink or look away, guilt pricking at my eyes.
"I couldn't save him," I say, softly.
He smiles, sort of. It looks painful. "But he saved you, didn't he?"
I know what he wants - no, needs - to hear, and I'm glad enough to give it to him. "He did."
"Then he died for something, and that's all any of us can ask."
All I can do is nod.
On the bridge, I take the command console before it even occurs to me not to.
Huh; I really am growing into my rank.
No one says anything anyway. Olan heads immediately for navigation to check our proposed flight path against the data banks. Tess sits at weapons. I don't argue. She looks like she knows what she's doing, and frankly, it's a little late for doubts now. Kyle sits at an ancillary console between us, the only seat left now that the boy's taken the comdesk.
The boy - "What's your name?" I ask, belatedly.
"Ander," he responds, and it's all I can do to keep down the bile that immediately rises to my throat.
Ander. Alexander. Oh, god. She she named him after why would she do that?
Staying in this seat may well be the hardest thing I've ever done.
I can't kill her now. I can't. But like I said, when we get back to Antar
I make no promises.
Olan fires up the engines he's had on standby and we prepare for launch.
No one seems to notice. They probably figure we're just some enterprising Trejie group who took an available ship. Sooner or later, it'll occur to someone that this transport was sealed off and inaccessible, and they'll have a good idea who's inside.
The question is, does anyone care anymore? Khivar's dead and his headquarters are about to self-destruct. Of course, if anyone puts it all together - say, someone who lost anything or anyone important to them in the station - we might still find ourselves with a dozen or so fighters on our six.
"Everyone harness up." My voice doesn't shake, thank god. "It's going to be a bumpy ride."
I watch as Olan pilots us past the debris and around the explosions and toward the bay doors.
I really wish now that I'd taken more than the basic required piloting courses. I hate feeling this helpless. And it doesn't help to know that Olan is just another grunt, and that he didn't get much more training than I did. It doesn't help at all.
A number of explosions right next to us rock the shuttle, and I frown, because they felt too focused. They didn't feel random, not the way the explosions rocking the station do.
Shit. There are ships heading towards us rather than away from the station. They must have been outside the station when the generators overloaded, Trejantisian ships with fully functioning and pissed off Trejantisian pilots, evidently led by someone who's figured out our little scam.
Shit! We need a real pilot here, damn it.
The irony of it all is that Kyle used to be one of the top pilots in his class. And here he is, and I can't trust him with my ship - wait. "Tess?"
She looks at me but doesn't say anything.
"Has Kyle had any chance to pilot anything since - since coming here?"
She nods. Off to one side, Ander speaks up, eager to help out and obviously proud of both his mother and Kyle. "Mom sneaks him into the simulators sometimes. He's really good. He lasted longer than any of the other -"
"Thanks, that's what I needed to know," I interrupt, trying not to sound too harsh. "Kyle, come over here. You're our new pilot."
I deliberately avoid meeting any eyes as I release the catch on my harness and, trusting Olan to keep us from bucking too hard, stand up.
"Kyle, time to fly," Tess says after a moment, and I realize he hadn't moved yet. I look over to see her unclasping his restraint.
"Come on, Kyle," I say, encouragingly, "this is so much better than the sims, I promise."
Slowly he stands up and I panic for a second as he looks down at the console, puzzled, but suddenly his expression clears and he slides into the seat, closing the harness almost absentmindedly as he skims over the controls in front of him, getting a feel for how they feel in his hand, how they move.
Swallowing hard, I take his seat at the ancillary desk. It's not much different, and in fact I've rerouted all the command functions over here. I'm only going to release enough for Kyle to steer the transport.
But that's enough to save us or get us killed. Either way, there's no turning back now.
We're almost out the launch area; they'll wait until we hit open space before the main assault, so they don't put the ships still leaving the station in danger.
"Olan, release flight controls to me."
Taking a deep breath, I tap a few keys and pass access along to Kyle.
"Go for it, Kyle. Get us home."
I know it's a chance, and a huge leap of faith, but I'm hoping he's retained some of those famous instincts along with his engineering skills.
I can't believe I'm trusting Tess. For all I know this is a trap and she's brainwashed him to do something like fly us into the holding area of another ship or something. I don't think so; every sense tells me she's as scared of recapture as we are, although of course I can't trust her motives. Hell, her mere presence grates on my nerves, and I hate that she has some kind of influence over Kyle, that he goes to her instead of me.
I want to hurt her, to kill her, so bad. But right now I need her. Fuck.
I face the screen in front of us and, with a deep breath, release secondary weapons to her.
She doesn't say anything as her console lights up, just places her hands in position to start firing.
There's no respite from the onslaught.
I target anything that seems to be aiming at us, blasting indiscriminately, hitting more than I miss but really just trying to discourage attack.
Tess seems to know what she's doing. I've given her the short-range stuff, and she's making good use of it against smaller fighters that dip in and out of view like dragonflies.
Kyle is silent as he dances us between ships and asteroids alike. He never looks at the scanners, but of course with the radiation from those solar events - solar flares, actually - they're next to useless anyway.
He looks like a kid playing a video game. I try not to speak, not wanting to break his concentration.
Soon, however, the web gets too dense. Kyle begins looping and darting, trying to feint his way through the line of offense. But it's too much for one small transport to handle, even a military one designed for defensive fighting.
And finally it happens; there's a huge explosion behind us. We can't hear it, of course, but the shock waves from the station finally blowing apart make the ship buck like a wild horse and I can hear the tortured shriek of distressed metal hull plates.
Kyle's still concentrating on the ships ahead, and I realize that he doesn't understand what's happening.
"Sorry, Kyle," I apologize, and take back navigational control of the ship. The jerking movements slow as I orient us to ride out the wave instead of fighting it. A line appears between Kyle's eyes as the ship no longer responds to the controls in his hands.
I feel as much as I hear the hull groan under the stress, but somehow it holds together, and the three of us watch as the debris field that buffets our ship also hits the Trejie forces around us, taking out a lot of the smaller ones and sending many others in the opposite direction.
It's a sight to behold, and for a split-second I think I finally understand why Kyle always liked his machines, and why captains feel such kinship with their ships. Right now, I feel as though the transport is a living organism, fighting with us and for us, somehow more willing to survive than the flashier but suddenly pathetic fighters in front of us.
But my triumph is short-lived, because one ship has survived the barrage. It looks relatively unscathed, and it's heading right for us.
"We've been scanned. Probably targeted," Tess reports.
I flinch and wait for it. "Oh, shit," someone says. It could be me.
We watch the monstrosity fill our screen in silence, knowing that nothing short of a miracle is going to save us now.
"Good fight," I say, remembering another time, another place, and feeling as nauseous - but also as justified now as I did then.
And really, it was justified then. As I am now.
"Good fight," Olan sighs behind me, and it sounds like a prayer.
And then it explodes. The ship in front of us, I mean. The transport rocks a little from the force wave, but it's good for it.
Well. That was unexpected.
So is this: there's another ship behind them. An even bigger ship. And it too is heading straight for us. In fact, it's so close I can't make out any markings or obvious identifiers.
No one moves. I think we're all trying to figure out what's going on. After a minute of silence, Kyle begins to fidget.
I frown; what are they - whoever they are - waiting for?
"Liz," Olan calls over from communications. "They're trying to hail us."
I look up and consider our options. I can't think of any. "Okay. Let 'em talk."
A second later a familiar voice fills the bridge, and I know I'm hallucinating. I wonder what other side effects Khivar's methods will have on my system?
"Lieutenant?" Olan asks, and I look at him oddly. He's only called me that once or twice, the day after the party when we left Antarian space. Why is he getting formal now? "Aren't you going to answer?" he persists.
"What, you mean I really heard that?" I ask, astonished. He nods. "Oh. Okay, open a channel then."
Again, I hear it.
"Liz? Are you there?"
I open my mouth to answer, but it's so dry I need to moisten it.
"Liz?" Then, in formal Antarian: "Identify yourself or we will fire."
Finally I can speak.
There's silence, then an explosion of sound, and I have to laugh at the cheers I can hear in the background. Behind me, Olan is grinning. I just know it. And I can see that Kyle is smiling, if a little uncertainly; I think he's feeling overwhelmed. I know the feeling.
Tess's eyes are closed; she knows this won't be a happy homecoming for her.
"Liz? Say something."
My voice sounds strange when I do.
"Nice one, Han Solo," I quip, because otherwise I'm going to start crying. "I particularly like the Millennium Falcon rescue bit."
There's a moment of silence, and I wonder if it's been too long.
The sound of laughter warms me from head to toe. "Well, you did just take out the Death Star," Michael snickers. "Just wait 'til I tell Max that I finally figured why you go for the alien types. Star Wars fantasies, huh?"
"Of course," I respond, silly with relief. "Be a good boy and tell him to get out the bounty hunter costume for later? I'm in the mood for a go on the Pleasure Barge."
We laugh together then, and I know it's just the energy of the moment, the adrenaline rush, but it's good.
"Excuse the interruption," Olan says quietly, awkwardly, more to me than anyone else but sounding oddly formal nonetheless. I have to smile; it must be a shock to hear the leader of your military force exchanging obviously suggestive jokes about your king, even if you don't understand the cultural references.
"Michael, meet Olan," I say, putting him on the spot. "One of the real heroes of the hour."
"Olan made it?" Michael says jovially, all proud commander now. "Excellent. Well, Olandric? What can I do for you?"
I can't resist, I undo my harness so I can turn enough to see Olan's eyes bugging out at the casual use of his full name by a member of the royal house. I snort.
"Sir, uh, excuse the interruption, General Rath, sir" he tries again, and I think this is the closest I've ever seen this seasoned soldier to stammering. "Permission to come aboard? The Lieutenant requires medical treatment."
Immediately Michael's all business. "Liz? You're hurt? Don't move a muscle, we'll send medics over."
I glare at Olan. "I'm fine," I bite out. Then, remembering my pilot, "Oh, but we do need doctors. Michael, I - I have a surprise," I say happily, then, sobering, "make that three."
He gets the message; I don't want to say more over an open frequency.
"Be right there."
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