Killing Darlings

I’d mentioned before how my writing process is a lot of ‘write a lot’ followed by ‘cut a bunch’. Sometimes I really like the pieces I’m cutting. That’s what the phrase ‘cutting darlings’ means.

This isn’t the same as killing off a character.

A notable example of an idea that didn’t make it into the final cut was the NPRP: Natan Personality Replacement Program. He was awesome. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit him in satisfactorily. I tried to revive him for Phoenix Emperor as the personality of Natan’s clone body, but still, that didn’t work, and he got cut entirely.

In the following deleted chapters, there are elements that I kept, such as Vathion playing with his new ship and his conversation with Bibbole. However, everything else in this excerpt was ultimately deleted because it didn’t work. As such, if there are spelling and grammatical errors, that would be why.

Here’s the best scene NPRP was in. And a drawing I did for it.

ORIGINAL CHAPTER 1 of SYMBOL OF HOPE

His ships were finished – all of them in twelve days, and without even a hint of problems. Though it took slightly longer than he had first been quoted, the turnaround was still incredibly short. Vathion was quite proud; not only were his ships beautifully repaired, but they had been repainted from their original busted and dented white and red to black with Natan’s crest on one side of each fin in red. The Wilsaers, of course, had been upset that he had wanted so few colors. Vathion had also gotten the Wolfadon phaser arrays and the Tricannons he had wanted, as well as shielding and more guns, as he had discussed with his Fleet engineers.

Pretty much, everything that he had wanted, Vathion had gotten, and thought that he had paid a fairly cheap price for it. In the end, Vathion had used ten out of the eleven Rebel ships captured.

Now, he was back at Marak with all his ships just in time for the first episode of the Natan Fleet Show that would star him. Mirith had left the morning after she had come to see him, meaning that Hiba had somehow managed to get the entire episode filmed in just under two weeks. The man could move fast when he wanted.

Vathion stood proudly in front of the mirror, “I’m good,” he told his reflection, briefly admiring his violet hair, green eyes, violet Bondstone, and dazzling smile. “I’m awesome; better than Dad any day.” (no mirrors!

“I agree, Stud Muffin! The episode is starting,” Kiti’s voice called, and he grinned then stepped out of the bathroom to flop onto his bed. He was dressed in a loose shirt and shorts. Sitting up briefly, he packed the pillows behind his back and settled in again. Immediately, a drink was delivered to the table beside his bed and following that, a bowl of snacks.

Comfortably settled, Vathion called, “Turn it on, Kiti. Let’s see how good a job Paire did.”

Regret niggled in the back of his mind as he settled in, ‘I wish Jathas was here to see this…’ His side, where Jathas normally would have curled was cold.

The first thirty minutes of the hour long episode was mostly recap of Vathion’s life with Paire’s Kai playing the part of Jathas. Hiba had apparently glossed over the fact that Jathas had silver eyes. Or Paire had not told him. Though it was interesting to view where he had grown up and the people that he had grown up with as a third party. His mother had agreed to have a character based after her in the show too. Mirith did a wonderful job of playing herself and keeping Paire in line, and most of everyone else in the school played themselves, reenacting a typical day at school; which was usually filled with “do you have your homework? Here’s your next assignment…”

Then had come the night after the play.

His mother had also agreed to let Hiba’s people see the inside of their house briefly, for, while Vathion recognized it as a set, it was close enough to the real thing to be believable. Vathion – as played by Paire – strode across the room to the wallscreen for the phone and answered. Unsurprisingly, the actor that played Natan appeared on the other side, the screen splitting to show both ends of the conversation, which was a typical ploy Hiba used.

Jerking back ‘Natan’ called, :Heyla! Kiti! I said call Hasabi, not give me a mirror!:

Choking, Vathion quickly set his drink down. “How did Hiba get that line?”

Sourly, Paire replied, :It’s just a costume. Mom just sent you the play.:

“Did I sound like that?” Vathion asked, “When I talked to Dad, Kiti?”

A moment and Kiti replied, “A little sometimes, Stud Muffin, but you’re still hot, no matter what. And your legs look better in the uniform than that actor’s does.”

The actor playing Natan grinned charmingly and replied, :Yep, I got it. I bet you blew their socks off.:

Vathion shook his head and sighed at that.

Paire took a breath and lifted his chin in a stubborn jerk, :Yeah, Dad, they thought it was you on stage.: His tone made it obvious what he personally thought of that.

A silence fell briefly and Natan’s actor recovered, :Oh, come on, you’re not looking at it the right way! Just think of all the chicks you could hook up with!:

Paire folded his arms – and shifted his weight to his other hip, having not sat down at the screen to talk, :Did it ever occur to you that I’d like to make my own way instead of hanging off your coat tails for everything?: Natan’s actor looked like he had just been stabbed in the gut.

Vathion cringed and he set his snacks aside, stomach queasy. “And this was the last conversation I had with him…” He pulled his knees against his chest, “Just goes to show that you never know…”

Thankfully, Hasabi’s actor, a beautiful woman with long green hair and green eyes, drifted in from the kitchen, :Oh, Natan!: she said happily, and took over the conversation. Paire was booted off to the kitchen to needlessly watch dinner cook.

Finally, the end of the scene came, with Paire standing at the kitchen door, fiddling with a tassel :…I love you too, Dad,: Paire said shyly with a watery eyed look that had melted many hearts in school – that Vathion had blatantly stole from Paire. Jathas would have said that Vathion did it better.

Stretching out on the bed again, Vathion sighed, “At least I told him that one last time. I should call Mom. Kiti, remind me to call mom after the episode. And Gramma! Crap. I haven’t talked to them since before that battle!”

Kiti replied cheerfully, “Okay, Sugar Cake.”

The second half hour started with Vathion’s first appearance on Baelton. :Ha’Natan’s on vacation,: Paire told the reporters when he was asked lots of weird questions about where Natan went.

Twitching nervously, Vathion swallowed, “This doesn’t look good at all…” he nibbled his nails lightly, after that heartwarming scene, Vathion’s appearance as admiral and claiming Natan had gone on vacation looked really suspicious. “Unless everyone takes it for face-value that Natan really did ditch me again…”

Kiti reassured, “I think it looks like you’re annoyed that he ditched you again.” Even though he wasn’t quite convinced, Vathion appreciated her reassurance on a level.

Paire played it all rather sourly, even when he grinned and posed. The actors who played Zandre and Logos were impassive as ever. They actually looked kind of bored with the whole thing and followed Paire as he careened around Baelton being Spectacular, which was obviously not how Vathion had been at school.

Scrubbing his hair, Vathion whimpered, “God, I shouldn’t have signed that contract! I shouldn’t have! Damn you Hiba!” And now, it was officially known that he was sixteen. Thankfully he had not crossed any boundaries except the bars on Marak, though Hiba had made a point of showing that if he ordered anything it was water, which was quite true. Hopefully the public would not hang him for lying, or implying that he was older. He was going to have to do something about it though.

“Just tell them the truth, I guess,” he muttered, folding his arms.

Then, the firing spree Gatas had gone into was shown, followed by Paire ranting at Gatas. To Vathion, the rant looked memorized and obvious that someone had told Paire that he should be pissed. Still, it was not quite the dressing down Vathion had actually said, it was close enough to count and focused on Gatas exceeding his authority.

This was followed immediately by the discovery of the four ex-Natan Fleet employees dead on the docks, and once again, Vathion was sure Hiba had gotten the exact conversation from someone. On the screen, the Stationmaster of Baelton ranted at him, :I want this mess cleaned up!:

:It’s not my problem, as they’re no longer Fleet employees,: Paire said stiffly, fire blazing in his eyes, :However, I will pay for damages and to send their bodies back to their families.: The shot panned back slightly and Vathion felt the blood drain from him.

There… hidden partially behind a book was Natan’s urn.

Leaping off the bed, Vathion tripped on the blankets, tumbled to the floor, rolled to his feet again and continued staggering into the study. From the door, the urn was visible, the book set in front of it. He went to stand at the chair and turned to look. The urn was hidden behind the book. Looking over at the wallscreen, Vathion took a breath and tried to speak and failed. Clearing his throat, he finally called, “Kiti! Show me the view from that camera!” he pointed at the one that the wallscreen got.

The screen lit up – and there, partially visible was the funeral urn with its red and black seal.

“Oh God… oh my God!” Vathion collapsed to his knees. “Oh my GOD!”

Perhaps this was what the humans meant when they said ‘Shit hit the fan.’

Burying his face in his hands, Vathion sobbed, “Oh my GOD!

Kiti’s voice called again, “Ha’Vathion, what’s wrong?”

“Kiti! Hiba SAW it! Hiba saw the urn! He put it in the show!” Vathion leapt to his feet, panic forcing him out into the main room where he paced around, pulling at his hair and hyperventilating around his shrieks of terror, “What am I going to do? What can I do? It’s OFFICIAL now! Oh my God!” A wall dispenser opened, and Vathion turned towards it, just in time to get the jet of fire suppressant foam right in his face.

Standing there, sputtering, Vathion blinked, breathed, and blinked more. Kiti’s image – fully clothed – appeared on the screen beside the dispenser, holding a fire hose, “Are you going to calm down now or do I have to spray you again, Ha’Vathion?” she asked firmly, her other hand on her hip. “What you’re going to do is get to work,” she told him, “You have things you have to do. You don’t have time for panic attacks. Shall I read off your to-do list? First: call your mother and grandparents, second: finish AI program for the fighters, third…”

Lifting his hands, Vathion shouted, “Okay! Stop. Alright. I’m done. I’m alright now.” He took another breath, he collected his thoughts. First, he really did need to call his mother. Remembering to breathe before panic took over again, Vathion headed back into the office, trying to remember how many calls he had made from this room with that stupid thing visible. Turning, he pointed at the urn, “This is all your fault! If you hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be in this mess. Stupid jerk!”

Pulling out the chair, Vathion flopped into it, still dripping bits of white foam as he stared at the offending book that had not quite covered what he had wanted to hide. The title was “How to Catch a Spy,” a silly mystery novel…

Leaping to his feet again, Vathion slapped his fist into his palm, “That’s it!” he grinned, “Play it off like I’d meant to let it leak! Like Dad really had faked his death and all the rumors I sent out weren’t to cover his real death, but to send it out that he was dead. Kiti – did Hiba have that same book covering the urn in the show?”

Kiti’s voice issued over the speakers, “Yes, Ha’Vathion.”

Instead of touching it, Vathion left the setup exactly how it was. “Alright, perfect, then it looks like a message now… But how to keep people from really thinking he’s dead…?”

Sitting again, he pulled his chair out into the center of the room and began spinning in it. “How… how… I’ve got to go answer questions from the media – fess up to lying about my age and possibly lying about other things, which they’re not going to be happy about, but who gives a flip about them…”

“Ha’Vathion, there’s a call from Marak. They’ve got the last Rebel ship you brought in still on hold. What do you want done with it?” Kiti asked.

“Put it in storage,” he ordered absently, “Bloody – don’t have any money left to do anything… Unless I talk to Mom. Got to call Mom. Kiti, call Mom.”

He turned his chair and pulled it up to the desk as the screen flashed and clicked a few times. Finally, Hasabi answered. Her hair was braided beautifully and she was wearing a very lovely crimson dress. “Wow… Mom, you look beautiful,” he admired.

Blushing, she smiled, “Thanks, I was about to attend a memorial dinner with the emperor – a private thing. You’ve got…” she gestured with a hand near her hair, then shook her head. Her lips pulled downwards, “Honey, the urn was…”

Vathion glanced aside and wiped at the foam stuck in his hair, “I know, I didn’t realize, but I’ll handle it. I’ve partially figured out how. Anyway… I know… um… Can I have a loan?”

Hasabi stared at him for a long moment, then laughed again, “Actually, I was just thinking about that earlier today. I don’t need that much money and I don’t know what to do with it. I was going to ask if you’d take care of things for me. Natan left me so much…I’m sure your father wouldn’t mind…”

Nodding, Vathion smiled, “Thanks. It’ll be for the Fleet.”

Carefully typing on the keyboard, Hasabi sent a file, and Vathion opened it in the corner of his screen, finding her financial information listed there. “Okay, I trust you. I love you…”

“I love you too Mom,” looking at her face, Vathion sat silently for a moment, studying it, “I love you,” he repeated, “No matter what else I’ve ever said to the contrary, Mom, I love you.”

Blinking away tears, Hasabi shook her head, “What’s this sudden emotion about?”

Looking down, he sighed, “Just… recalling the last conversation I had with Dad. I said some pretty mean things to him… but in the end I did manage to say that I loved him.”

“Hon,” Hasabi whispered, lifting a hand to touch the screen, “He never gave a thought to whatever else you said.” Kissing her fingers, she pressed them to the screen and Vathion did the same, “I love you.”

“Mom. I’m going to come see you again,” he told her, “Before my birthday. I will. I won’t do what Dad did. I’ll come see you.” Before she died.

She just smiled. “I’ve got to go. You stay good. And quit lying to the reporters.” She disconnected.

Vathion clutched his chest and curled over his hands, “Maaaa!” he howled, “You break my heart!” Getting to his feet again, realizing that he was still soaking wet, he sighed and staked back into the bedroom to get some dry clothes. “Second on to-do list was what?”

“Call your grandparents, and finish the AI for the fighters,” Kiti supplied as minibots brought out a fresh uniform.

Pulling his new pants on, he left the old on the floor, “Right, I’ll do that when I finish my other things. I’ve got to test drive my fighter to finish coding the AI. I guess that’ll let the reporters stew long enough, too.” Pulling off his wet shirt, he dropped that to the floor and paused, frowning, “I’m going to have to talk to I’Savon before I pilot that thing…” to get implants so he could pilot, the AI he was coding would require grade-four implants, which worked their way deeper into a Gilon’s mind and gave the user a better link to the systems. Grade-fours were usually used to connect to mechanical suits used for dangerous jobs, and now for Vathion’s fleet. He already knew the basis of piloting from Battle Fleet – the first two levels of the game had been played as a pilot, first level was as a recruit learning the commands and wing formations, second level was commanding a wing. Not that he had ever needed that skill.

His eyes narrowed as he stared at the wall as he thought further on what grade-four implants did and frowned, “Savon…” he muttered as something nibbled at the back of his mind. Taking a breath, Vathion asked, “Kiti. How is it that I can talk to you in my head?”

“You have Grade-four implants. You received them when you were twelve.”

Planting his hands on his hips, he blew a breath, “Well. That means I don’t have to use the implants I bought for myself. So now I’ve got an extra set… What can else you do with Grade-fours, Kiti? Other than talk to me in my head?”

Kiti promptly replied, “In case of full loss of consciousness, I can take control of your body and move it from a danger zone. Ha’Natan’s revival before the crate fell prevented me from protecting him.” She sounded truly upset for a moment.

Eyes widening, Vathion grinned, “And what about a body that has no higher brain functions and never did?”

“…I suppose I could control it,” she admitted, albeit hesitantly.

Slapping his hands together, Vathion rubbed them. “And there’s my solution. How to catch a spy indeed! Give me some civilian clothes,” Picking the requested clothes off the floor, along with his belt, Vathion first secured the belt and slid his baton into its loop. Running his fingers through his hair, Vathion bundled the clothes into a wad and asked, “Where’s I’Savon?”

A mere second of pause and Kiti replied, “In her office in sickbay, tending the clone of Ha’Natan.”

Grinning, Vathion turned and strode out of his quarters and down the hall to the lift. Gatas was still secured in his rooms and would be until Vathion decided otherwise, though people were allowed to visit him. The only one who had taken advantage of that so far was Erekdra, but who was Vathion to say anything?

The doors opened and Vathion strode straight across the hall to the sickbay doors and found the place empty, which was good, because he did not want witnesses. The first room of Sickbay was full of small alcoves with beds loaded with sensors along the sides. On the other side of the room was a door that led into a short hall with small rooms for patients that had to have surgery and those who had to be isolated. At the far back was Savon’s office. He headed straight towards her door. Pressing the buzzer, he waited a moment before reaching for the button again.

He did not quite complete the motion before the door opened and the sexy silver-haired, maroon-eyed doctor, I’Savon, stood there, holding the frame. She gave a toss of her head to flip her silver hair out of her face. “Ha’Vathion, what a surprise…” She smiled, but it did not look inviting.

Putting a hand on her wrist, he pushed gently and loomed over her. Instinctively, she backed up, and the door closed behind him. “Don’t give me that innocent tone,” he told her, “I know what you’re hiding in here, and that’s why I’m here.” She paled. Turning away, he dropped the clothes on her desk, “How far along is it?” he asked, noting that the smell of his father was being drawn from the room.

Folding her arms on her chest, she leaned against the wall beside the door, “It’s about nine weeks since creation – physically twenty or so…”

Vathion nodded, “Good enough. Implant it with the last of the grade-four implants I bought,” he turned to face her, “The emperor knows, but no one else that Dad or you haven’t told yourselves. Daharn said I could do with it what I wanted, and I want to make it look like my father is alive, so…”

I’Savon lifted her head and stared at him, “But – it’s got no mind! The plan was to squish it! Not Natan!” she dropped her hands to her sides as she strode over, “You can’t use it as anything other than a door prop, a messy one at that!”

Snorting, Vathion put his hands on his hips, “Oh, but I can use it. Implant it and I’ll show you.”

She stared at him for a long moment, then turned heading over to a cupboard on the right wall beyond her desk. Vathion took note of the holoscreen she had on her desk. It was an older version. Shaking his head, he pointed at it, “Did Dad buy that for you?” Savon looked back with a scowl and nodded once, “What a piece of crap. I bet the picture is cloudy by now. It wasn’t even the best fifteen years ago when it was made. I’ll get you something newer.”

Frowning at him, she finally found the case she’d been looking for in her cupboard and turned to put her hands on her hips, “If you’re trying to bribe me, Ha’Vathion…”

“No,” he interrupted, “I’m not. I want my doctor to be able to read her notes. It’s a case of self-interest. Now,” he gestured at the left side of the room to the curtained off area that housed the growth tanks. There were two regeneration tubes there, used only for serious emergencies.

Stalking over to the curtain, I’Savon pushed it aside. The nude body of the previous admiral hung by his armpits on a stand within the otherwise empty tank; he was wet, probably from a recent bath. Opening the case door, Savon stepped in to place the tube on the back of the clone’s neck and jammed the button on the end. There was a hiss as the nano-implants were injected.

“Kiti,” Vathion called, “did it take?”

Kiti’s voice issued over the com, “Yes, Ha’Vathion. Processes reordered to allow Emergency Code One to operate.” The body of the clone lifted its head, blinked, unhooked itself from the stand and stepped out of the tube. “Warning, I can only run this program for three minutes.”

“That’s hardly long enough to do anything,” I’Savon stated, arms dropping to her sides, looking on in curiosity.

Lifting a finger, Vathion smirked, “However if I had a ship’s computer with no other functions to handle…”

Savon’s eyes widened. “But no AI program written can imitate a real person. No one would believe this is Natan, even if it smells like him. Speaking of which, are you feeling alright?”

Waving a hand, Vathion dismissed her concern, “I’ve been sleeping in his bed since I got here. I’ve gotten used to the smell. Kiti, get it dressed and go ahead and sit it down somewhere. As for the AI, no one’s ever tried programming one like that, but if anyone can do it, I can. I know my father,” he turned towards her and shifted his shoulders slightly with a slow calculating smile that was just like the one Natan had usually worn when he was up to something, “and I know how to act like him convincingly. No one would know the difference.” He advanced on her in a cocky stalk, another move that was practically patented by Natan, smirking at the blush that crossed her cheeks. “It’s all in the body language,” he pulled his finger up her arm lightly, then stepped back, dropping the act. His stomach was knotted and sour, this time with a hint of pain.

Meanwhile, the clone had taken a seat on the floor next to the wall, the eyes dull and breathing regular. It was not alive and never had been. In a flash of anger and disgust, he kicked one of its feet and would have done more if Savon had not pulled him away, “Hey!” she shouted at him, “Stop damaging my property.”

“Mine,” he snapped at her, “My property.” Taking a breath, he turned away, “Stupid jerk, I hate him.” Heading towards the door again, he paused before exiting, “I’ll have it tell you when I need it to go. For now, keep it hidden. When it’s time, it’ll give you the instructions.” He stepped out and strode down the hall, leaving Savon standing there.

Folding her arms under her breasts, she sighed softly, “Liar. You don’t hate him…”

Chapter 2: Confused Definitions 

 

Vathion took a slow breath and grinned. He was alone in the quiet enclosure of his fighter. Its sleek black interior swept up from the floor board to just past his head in a solid bubble of darkness lit dimly by little lights behind his shoulders. There were no windows, just slightly shiny walls.

Paymeh had been avoiding him since he had returned from getting the fleet fixed. He admitted, at least to himself, that it was nice to not have his father’s Hyphokos around, reminding him of a bunch of things he really would have liked to have forgotten – at least for a short time. And, at least while he was alone, Vathion could admit that maybe he was being a bit hard on Paymeh, and had been rather cruel to Savon earlier. Sure, Jathas had died, but… maybe Paymeh had honestly mistaken him for his father? Savon certainly did not deserve to be treated badly; she had done what she was told to do. He would figure out something to make it up to her.

Shaking his head, Vathion shifted a bit to get comfortable in his seat. “Wake up, Princess,” he stated as the password to start the AI.

“State user name,” the AI replied.

“Vathion.”

“Welcome Vathion.” The voice was that of a woman’s, one Vathion had blended on his own as what he imagined his dream lover would sound like. Unfortunately, it had ended up sounding a little like Mirith. “Voice pattern locked. Brain wave patterns locked. This fighter has been keyed to you. Please state your new password now.”

Vathion smirked, “Green Toad,” he stated in Terran.

The AI replied, “Password accepted.” A moment passed and Vathion settled back in the pilot seat, feeling as if he were in a cocoon. All around him was velvety black – stealth material – the seat gave slightly, fitting him perfectly and remembering his shape. He was more reclined than seated, hands resting on padded panels on either side of his knees. There were no controls, nothing to operate, since the fighter worked at the speed of thought. The skill of multitasking, piloting while firing the weapons, was just going to take time to learn, but the pilots would learn, he was sure.

His pilots were going to love their new toys.

“Turning up transparency on sides,” the AI announced, “Would you like to name me?”

Pondering this as his eyes flicked around; the sides were indeed turning transparent until he could see the shuttle bay he was parked in as if he were sitting in a reclining chair on the deck. There were other fighters sitting still and silent, their pilots were on the docks enjoying their time off. Vathion would have to give them a briefing before they took off for training. “Aila,” he said finally.

Aila replied, “Name accepted. Would you like the personality feature enabled?”

“Sure,” Vathion personally liked what he had coded.

“Okay,” Aila replied, sounding less disinterestedly sultry and more sunny-sexy. Even more like Mirith. He sighed at himself. ‘Maybe I’ll have to admit it… she might be something more than a friend.’ Certainly it was a possibility after…

“Are we going for a test drive now?”

Grinning, Vathion replied, “Sure are.” Taking a breath, he tried starting the engines. The ship purred around him, in his mind, in his blood. “Oh…” Vathion murmured, “That’s nice.”

His pilots were really going to like their new toys.

Now, he tried a careful lift off – since this was the first time he had ever piloted anything other than the simulations on Battle Fleet. This program was slightly different, though. It was a deeper link. A thought was powerful.

He carefully set his ship down again before lifting up once more. Taking a breath, Vathion folded in the landing gear and physically stretched to get more comfortable. Turning his eyes towards the doors, he guided his ship out. It was almost as if he were strolling – he could nearly feel the force field crawl across his skin. A pilot would know when he was hit, that was for sure.

‘Free…’

Vathion stared out into space, feeling small and insignificant in the face of all those stars and bits of rock and dust and ice and radiation. He scooted further out, then turned to face the distant sun and stared at it for a long moment.

“Free,” he whispered, “This is what it feels like…”

Aila laughed softly, “There’s a call coming from the Xarian, Vathion.”

Blinking, Vathion replied, “Put it on screen.”

A small square popped up with a view of Ca’Bibbole. “Ha’Vathion?” he said, blinking, “What are you doing out there?”

Grinning, Vathion replied, “Test driving,” he answered. “I’ll be back in,” he paused, “two hours, so if there’re any calls for me, just tell them… something, I don’t really care what.”

Bibbole’s ears flicked. “Ha’Vathion – you can’t just go… test driving… How are you able to anyway?”

“Dad gave me implants when I was twelve,” Vathion replied. “And I can too just go test driving. I paid for them, I want to enjoy them too.” He stretched his fingers and mentally shifted the image of Bibbole over slightly so he could see what was in front of him again. The Hyphokos was still getting a straight on view of Vathion’s face, but likely getting the impression that he was being looked through at the Great Beyond. Vathion picked up speed, heading towards the sun.

For a moment, the communications officer frowned, “Ha’Vathion – please be a bit more responsible, we’ve got reporters hounding the com system for an interview with you. You really do need to explain your actions… Ha’Vathion…”

Feeling the urge for more speed, he gunned it and felt the pull of G’s pressing him against the seat despite the dampeners. Ahead, loomed the first asteroid belt and deftly, he moved to dodge obstacles. The freedom of movement and speed and space was dizzying and he just sat there grinning with all his attention on piloting. “Ha’Vathion… aw, hell,” the Hyphokos sighed and thumped an elbow on his station and put his chin in his hand, “I guess space is just in your blood,” he bemoaned, though Vathion did glance once to catch the glint of humor in the lizard’s expression. “One taste and you’re hooked.”

Vathion whispered at last, “This thing’s fast! Did you know you can Jump in it too? If you want a ride I’ll take you, Bibbole… We can’t go to top speed, but what we can do is…Pretty amazing.”

Snorting, Bibbole flicked his fingers, “Ha, piloting’s never been my cup of tea. Natan dragged me out once. Scared the piss out of me with his antics.”

Codas called across the room, “By God! Look at that thing GO!”

Bibbole turned briefly, then looked back at Vathion, “You’d better concentrate on where you’re going,” he admonished.

“You can leave the link open,” Vathion said absently.

Left, right, up – no down! Vathion dodged through the wheeling spinning rocks. Bits of dust plinked off his hull. He warmed his guns and fired, using his phasers to blast a piece of rock from his path. Turning on the sensor feeds, his mind was flooded with information. He could see everything around his ship. He was aware of every gun he had, and began firing them in sequence as he dodged and dived.

He was the ship.

Codas was shouting, “Holy – wow! That thing’s awesome! Who’s piloting that?”

“Ha’Vathion,” Bibbole replied.

Vathion did a loop, dived through a hole in an asteroid and picked up speed, aiming straight down and out of the belt. “Holy – Look at that speed! Vathion is driving that thing? That’s Jump spee-”

The signal was lost for a moment as Vathion slipped out of reality into a colorful riot of taste and sound that filled his mind.

“-eed!” Codas’s voice picked up. “He Jumped!”

YEEEE HA!” Vathion shouted and skipped out of reality again.

When he popped in again, he shouted, “Now I’m invisible!” and activated his scanner scrambler.

Bibbole was laughing even as Codas whined loudly, “I can’t see him anymore! Where’d he go?”

Darting invisibly around and through Marak traffic, Vathion headed back towards the docks and finally got to the shipyard the Rebels wanted so badly. Amongst the bare structures sat several ships in progress, and one of them was his – the last Rebel ship he had captured and not totally destroyed. Slowing, Vathion turned his ship and attached himself to the wrecked hull like a parasite. “Bibbole, I’m going to be doing a bit of work now. I’ll be back. I’ll give you warning enough to set up a dockside interview.”

The Hyphokos sighed, “Alright, I’ll give your fans the usual runaround.”

Grinning, Vathion shifted the image of Bibbole back to directly in front of him and replied, “Thanks. But don’t worry too much about it. I’m making a little something that’ll keep them busy for a while.”

Nodding, Bibbole signed off and Vathion had his ship tap into the wiring on the battleship he was attached to. “Hehe, let’s see how convincing I can make it…”

***

Savon sighed as she stepped into her office – and stopped.

The clone was dancing around in the center of the room, singing a bawdy song at the top of his lungs, inventing notes as he went. Natan had never been a good singer, even sober, with assistance.

“Natan?” she stammered.

Abruptly, the clone stopped and spun to face her, grinning mischievously, “Alas, dear-heart, no. I’m the cleverly designed Personality Replacement Program created by Vathion! Isn’t he great?” The clone then returned to dancing as the mood struck it.

Savon shivered then forced herself to take a breath to reclaim her senses. Putting her hands on her hips, she took a breath and stated, “Ha’Vathion said you’d have instructions.”

At this, the clone stopped dancing and turned to face her again, a cocky smile on his lips and hand on one hip, his left dangling by his side where it usually would have been draped on the hilt of his baton. “Why yes, of course, doctor! Ah, let’s see… He said I was to make a big scene of sneaking around on station. Yes, that’s what he said.” The grin widened, “I like that idea. Sneaking sounds fun!”

She stared at him, well aware that if this thing was programmed to be as much like Natan as possible, the word ‘Sneak’ was in his vocabulary but he had no heavenly clue what it meant. Unable to help herself, she put her hands to her face and scrubbed, “Oh God…”

The clone sidled up to her and purred in her ear, “You called?”

With a scowl, Savon shoved the clone away, “How are you supposed to get to the docks?” she asked.

Flinging his hands up, the clone grinned, “Why, with your help of course!” Dropping his hands again, he gave her a goofy air-headed smile.

“Right,” Savon sighed. “Kiti, where is Ha’Vathion?”

Kiti’s voice issued over the speakers in the room, “He’s arranging to meet with the media on the docks to answer questions.”

Cringing, the doctor looked towards her charge, feeling nervous rather suddenly.

The clone turned away dramatically, “Now’s our chance! Let’s run away together!” he announced and pirouetted out the door.

Hurrying to catch up, Savon gave a strangled sound, “Natan…”

***

Vathion took a breath, glanced from Aialst to Luth, then pinned on his grin as the airlock doors opened. Kiti had announced that the clone had taken off in Vathion’s fighter, Aila, about five minutes ago on a pre-set course to dock on the other side of the station. Now, all Vathion could do was hope that his programmed-Natan would not give itself away. He had already sent Logos and Zandre to go meet the bloody thing and let it be seen with them, which would add credibility to it possibly being the real Natan. Vathion shuddered and was glad he had programmed in a shut-off switch for the personality while he was at it. He had taken that much pity on Savon and sent her the password to turn it off partially while taking it to the ships docking bay and full turn-off so she did not have to deal with trying to lock it up afterwards.

Stepping out Vathion widened his grin at the mass of people awaiting him. The girls screamed – and there were a lot more of them in the fifteen to eighteen range than before – waving their banners and signs, “Ha’Vathion!” they shouted. The reporters waved their microphones and shouted the same but in more confused tones.

Heading down to meet them, he was nearly mobbed by the reporters, “Ha’Vathion. What is your real age?”

“Why did you lie?” another asked.

A third shouted over them, panicked, “What about all those rumors about Ha’Natan’s sudden disappearance? Is he dead or what?”

“What about the urn?

Lifting his hands, Vathion made a calming motion and the noise dulled slightly. He raised his voice, “I guess I do have to explain myself on the age issue,” he started, “I’ll start with the truth – I am indeed sixteen, and my reasons for lying are quite simple. Would you have trusted me with the Fleet if I’d been honest about that before I’d demonstrated my abilities? I wanted the chance to prove myself before the truth got out. I do hope that you’ll all forgive me, but I simply needed a bit of time.”

“What about the funeral urn?” the third insisted. Vathion had thought long and hard about what he was going to say on this subject, but still had not come up with anything of real value that people would believe after he had been caught in one lie. “Is your mother still alive?”

That was a thought that had not occurred to Vathion – a lie he could have used, but quickly decided not to. Telling them all that ignored biology had finally caught up with Natan would only make matters worse. Besides, he already had a plan in motion.

Thankfully distraction came as another reporter asked, “What else have you lied about?”

The first reporter asked, “How are you qualified to run the Natan Fleet when all we saw on the show was an average young man?”

“What about that deal you made with the Wilsaer? How did you do it?”

“What is with those third wings on your heavy-class ships?” someone from the crowd shouted.

Laughing, Vathion replied, “Ah, the episode. Hmm. What you saw was what my life looked like on the surface. It wasn’t that I didn’t want or couldn’t get many friends, it was that I didn’t have the time for friends that weren’t pushy enough to make me blow off everything Dad piled on me. Mirith, for example, inflicted herself upon me.” He grinned, “Not that I minded. My fooling around on the internet in computer class was really me talking to my real programming teacher, Hell-Razor. I had Linguist Aola and her partner teaching me languages since I started first grade, I was working at the Intergalactic Café as a homework assignment from her and I spent a lot of time there with the local Wolfadon pack when I was a child. I’ve been in baton fencing class since sixth grade, and saw the teacher after school for one-on-one sparring. If you look at the textbooks we were using in the beginner classes, say, freshmen biology, you’ll see that it’s a college level book and the teacher has a Ph.D. It’s the same for the rest of the curriculum, courtesy of my father. Dad has been training me as his backup since I was born – in that sneaky underhanded way he does everything.”

Drawing a breath, he continued with another question, “On the topic of Wilsaers… The Wilsaer language was not one of the ones my Linguistics teacher taught me, I picked it up on my own working in the Café, figuring out their slang by listening in on their conversations. It was when I started participating in their jokes that one of them decided to take me on as a pet.” He grinned, eyes flowing across the crowd, trying to appear as if he had looked them all in the eyes; trying to win their confidence in him. In his survey, he spotted Logos and Zandre hurrying along the docks towards Vathion and his crowd chasing a tall figure in a hooded jacket. They were trying not to be obvious about their pursuit, but in exchange for that, their quarry was getting away. If Vathion had not recognized the clothes, the charming grin pinned to his face was unmistakable. The hood was at least covering the clone’s head, but that was about all he was doing for disguise.

Breath seizing in his throat, Vathion turned up the charm to full blast, “Wilsaer’s pretty darn complicated, involving a lot of body language, which makes it difficult to translate. But enough about them! What do you think of the ships? Pretty cool huh?”

<<Kiti! What the HELL is he doing over here?>> he demanded of the ship’s AI.

There was a pause and Kiti replied, <<Sneaking.>>

“Ha’Vathion, you put a third stabilizer wing on the heavy-classes!” one fan wailed, “Why!”

“Because I wanted to,” Vathion grinned desperately. “My money, my deal. You’ll see why soon, probably. Next rebels that want to tangle with me are going to get it! It won’t matter if they outnumber me, I don’t get caught the same way twice!” He raved, flailing a fist in the air.

Zandre and Logos jumped the clone as a few people caught the direction of Vathion’s gaze and turned to look. Whispering went through the back of the crowd. Vathion took a breath.

<<Kiti! Tell that thing to get back to the fighter, do what it’s supposed to and get the hell BACK to the sickbay!>>

“But anyway!” he said loudly, trying to maintain their attention. Turning, he leapt atop the nearby box and prepared to snap his Baton out as Luth and Aialst came to stand on either side and snapped salutes right on cue. “I’ll fight on!” he shouted Spectacularly, “For God and the Empire!”

The howls and screams of his fans did nothing to sooth his temper.

Finally subduing the clone, Zandre and Logos hauled it out of sight which was Vathion’s cue to scram before he got cornered into answering more questions than he had originally intended to.

He was so going to kill that clone! Even an AI of his father was annoying! He had programmed it far too well.

***

Even if they had been warned that the clone was going to be acting like Natan, Zandre certainly had not been prepared for the reality. Dressed in civilian clothes, the two of them had left about twenty minutes before Vathion had told them he would be appearing on the news – the same time the clone had been bundled into the Fighter in the Xarian’s bay. Their appearance in civilian garb without Vathion had stirred a lot of questions. Logos had simply stated that they were going out for a drink since they were off duty, and off they had gone. Instead of heading towards the lifts, they had gone over to the other side of the docks, to the Small Transport Bay, and had been just in time for the clone to come hopping out of the cockpit of one of the new Fighters.

This particular fighter was not numbered, but it was painted distinctively as a swooping bird-like creature with letters on the side that no Gilon – except probably Vathion – knew the meaning of.

The clone had posed dramatically once he had landed and grinned at Zandre and Logos even as he loudly called, “Heyla!”

If the few people occupying the bay were not staring at the ship, they were staring at the pilot, and Zandre hurried over and grabbed the hood of the jacket the clone was wearing and shoved it over his head, “Would you quit drawing so much attention to yourself?” he hissed at the clone being piloted by an AI.

Lifting large blue eyes, the clone grinned in that very Natan-esque fashion that was hard to duplicate and Zandre blinked even as the creature said exactly what Natan would have said in a situation like this, “Why, whatever do you mean? I’m being Sneaky!”

“You haven’t got a lick of common sense,” Logos replied, “Shouting at the top of your lungs isn’t sneaking. Now come on and hand over what you’re supposed to and get back in that bloody ship.”

That was when disaster struck. A large group of miners came in, looking grim. A few cast glances towards them, obviously recognizing the group. Simultaneously, the broadcast of the interview Vathion was conducting came on the station screens – as seen from the Marak News’s camera. After a chat amongst each other, the miners started towards the two bodyguards and clone. Taking advantage of Zandre and Logos’s distraction, the clone slipped from their grip and strode right on past the miners with a cheerful wave.

“Why’d you let go of him?” Logos hissed at his partner as he realized what had just happened.

“I thought you were holding him!” Zandre shot back, and wasting no further time, they hurried after the clone. “I don’t know how the hell Valef thought he was going to keep Natan out of trouble by himself!”

Logos shook his head, “He was going to have to! We couldn’t all go missing!” They quickened their pace as it became obvious where the clone was heading. Vathion, by virtue of his height, had definitely spotted them and did not look pleased. He had that fire in his eyes and desperately held grin that looked all the more charming to those who did not recognize the signs of Imminent Temper Explosions.

Breaking into a run, Zandre threw himself at the clone and knocked it to the floor long enough for Logos to catch up. Each taking an arm, they fought the clone, but where Natan would have had a chance of getting free, the clone had none of the muscle Natan had taken so much pride in developing and keeping. Hauling the thing back out of sight as Vathion waxed brilliant in being Spectacular, the two guards dragged the struggling clone back down the docks.

“God smite it! Are you sure this isn’t really Natan?” Logos hissed.

The clone sniggered, “Of course I’m not! I’m the Natan Personality Rep-”

Zandre got a hand over the thing’s mouth. “Hush!” he told it. The clone laughed, and continued to even as they got it back into the shuttle bay. By now, the miners were gone, but there was a group of Imperial pilots looking over the Fighter with much interest. “Damn it!” the man hissed. “Logos, keep a hand on it while I go draw them off.”

Pulling away from Zandre’s hand, the clone replied, “Hey, no need! I’ve got the remote start command!”

The Fighter peeped its required warning before the engines turned on and the pilots hurriedly got away from the Fighter as it lifted off the ground smoothly with a blast of heated air. The landing gear folded in and it sank back down to an inch above the floor, the cockpit opening as the clone broke from Logos’s grip again and started off towards the ship.

“Wait – the disk!” Zandre was forced to call loudly.

Pausing, the clone shuffled in his pocket and tossed the disk towards them, then turned and jogged past the pilots and hopped into the opened cockpit of the Fighter. The top closed as Zandre fumbled to catch the blank disk, a mere prop, but they needed a reason for Natan to be on the station. The fighter turned and in a barrel roll, shot out of the shuttle bay at a reckless speed and Jumped, only a short distance from the station.

Sagging, Zandre looked at his partner and sighed, “You know, I have a feeling it couldn’t have possibly been any more difficult to get something so simple done.”

Logos merely nodded wearily in agreement.

Turning, Zandre stuffed the disk into his pocket as they headed back down the docks, intending to really go get a drink this time. “I don’t want to see what kind of mood Ha’Vathion is in right now,” Logos muttered.

Zandre took his turn to nod, “Probably mad as hell.” Silence fell and after it had hung in the air between them for a while, he added, “I hope the clone can’t heist the controls to that ship…”

“Oh God…” Logos whispered.

***

Seething, Vathion stalked through the empty Sickbay and into Savon’s office, only to find it empty as well.

Forced to wait, he dropped into the seat behind Savon’s desk and fumed as he turned on Savon’s holographic display to see what kind of shape it was in. As he had suspected, the letters were fuzzy and he could see right through the picture. Connecting to the station news, Vathion watched them replay the interview and then a clip of the Zandre Clone-Tackle captured by a fan girl standing at the back of the crowd. She had not gotten a good picture of the clone’s face, but some of his hair had been visible and the guards were definitely recognized. A pilot from Clemmis’s ship was interviewed and said he had seen Natan go jetting off in a freaky looking fighter with foreign writing on the side and that Natan had tossed a disk to Zandre in the bay. The rumors of what Natan could possibly be doing on Marak were rampant, and coupled with the fact that Vathion had not said one word about Natan being dead or not…

The disaster had been averted for now. Even if it had not been quite the way Vathion had intended.

And the door opened.

Sauntering as if he owned the place, the clone entered, grinning broadly. “How’d I do?” he asked immediately, “Great, wasn’t I? I’m the sneakiest of assholes around, yeah?” Savon stepped in as he finished that, looking harried and tired.

Getting to his feet, Vathion slammed his hands on the desk, “No!” he shouted at the clone, “No you are not sneaky! You didn’t do what I told you to do at all! What the hell were you doing down near the Xarian? Your orders were to get out of the fighter, hand Zandre the disk, and stand there and talk for a second, then get back in the fighter and take off! Those were your orders!”

The clone rolled its eyes and strode around the room, “Ohh, but that was so boring,” he grinned as he came up beside Vathion, then suddenly threw his arms around the young man, “Besides, I wanted to see you be charming!”

Panic took over and Vathion stiffened, finally shoving the clone off and moved to put the desk between them, “No!” he shouted, “No! You keep your hands off me. You’re a program! Not the real Natan. Personality Shutoff,” he ordered and the clone ceased its attempt to edge around the desk to Vathion and pouted at him. “I said shutoff,” the young man growled.

“Personality has shut off,” the clone retorted, still pouting.

Turning away, Vathion looked towards Savon. “You keep it in here – locked up. If I need it again, I’ll tell you.”

“A request, Ha’Vathion,” the clone called.

Stopping, he looked towards the body being run by the AI. Vathion knew he had programmed it, and knew it was not the real thing at all, but it was wearing one of Natan’s more serious expressions. It walked across the room, its scent nearly drowning Vathion in biological need. Resolutely, he held against the urge to crumble and let Natan take care of everything. The effort made his stomach churn.

Coming to a stop in front of Vathion, it lifted its hands, and put them around the young man in another hug.

This time, Vathion could not summon the ability to be angry enough to shove the clone away and only barely managed to remain stiff in the embrace. “I guess it’s too much to expect you to even accept a bit of comfort from me,” the clone said and Vathion felt like throwing up.

Don’t touch me,” Vathion stated firmly and turned, breaking the hold and stalked off through Sickbay again. Savon closed her eyes tightly and scrubbed the heels of her palms in them even though she was amazed that Vathion had the strength to deny his biology like that. She could guess how much it was costing him, though, and sighed as she nibbled her lower lip.

“Probably won’t be long before he falls over from combined starvation, sleep deprivation, and stress,” Savon muttered, putting a hand to her forehead.