Phoenix Emperor

 

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Chapter 1

Hasabi ran at full speed.

Only minutes had passed since the Haikon had arrived and the firefight had begun.

It had only taken her that long to realize that Ha’Likka wasn’t going to give up so easily. Speeding from her room, she pounded down the halls, passing confused Palace staff and visitors. Moments later, the announcement; a diagram showing where the Haikon’s debris was expected to hit.

Every single screen in the Palace was flashing red.

Seven minutes until impact.

:And where are we supposed to go in seven minutes?: she asked Eika helplessly.

Hasabi hurried down the strangely empty hall where government officials usually had guest rooms.

“Please evacuate the Palace as soon as possible.” The AI was absurdly calm, repeating its message and a reiteration of the time.

Six minutes.

She turned left, jogging down the south hall.

Straight ahead, the door to Daharn’s rooms were closed. She hit the door with her whole body, expecting it to open. It didn’t budge.

Drawing back, Hasabi kicked the door. “Daharn!”

Something rattled on the other side.

Grabbing the handle, Hasabi shook the door. “Daharn!”

Whatever was blocking the door moved. Shoving against an unexpected lack of resistance, Hasabi staggered in.

Daharn, on his hands and knees near the door, groggily reached towards her. Two security men were sprawled in the center of the room. She covered her nose as the scent of blood hit her.

Five minutes.

Hasabi stepped in and grabbed his arm.

“There he is!”

She turned partially. Two Hyphokos sped towards her, neither slowing as they approached. One darted for Hasabi, climbing her leg. Daharn suddenly stood, grabbed her hand, and started dragging her down the hall.

“What – Where are we going?”

“Down,” the Hyphokos on her shoulder said. “We have to get down!”

Hasabi’s shoulder hit the wall as Daharn took a sudden right, heading for the main hall. “Wait – slow down!” she called as he released her wrist.

“Run!” the Hyphokos clinging to her shirt told her firmly. “Run faster! Go down!”

Four minutes.

Heart pounding with panic, she chased Daharn. He swiftly left her behind at the grand stairs. She caught up at the top of the stairs and looked down to see him jumping the banister to the next level down.

:Ancestors!: Eika gasped. :Do they not – Hasabi, trust me for a moment, please.:

“Okay.”

She felt sick suddenly, her body no longer under her control. Her pace increased, hand covering the Hyphokos still clinging to her. Hasabi vaulted the banister, landing hard on the landing below, well beyond what she would have dared to jump herself. She caught up with Daharn, passed him.

“Left!” the Hyphokos in her hand said.

Her body turned the corner.

“Second door!”

Three.

She slammed into the door, forced it open with her shoulder. Daharn’s weight broke the door from its hinges. They both stumbled into the government office. Daharn threw the door aside and took the lead again, heading though the rows of desks. He kicked another door at the back of the room and broke it down before Hasabi got there. The room had gotten dark with an eerie red glow.
Terrified, Hasabi surrendered entirely to Eika’s control. They sped past Daharn again only to find they were in an interior room with no exit. The walls were lined with filing cabinets, drawers were open and papers scattered on the floor.

Unable to help herself, Hasabi sobbed into her hand.

Two.

Daharn grabbed one of the cabinets and tore it away from the wall. Beneath it was a trap door in the floor with a handle. He ripped that aside.

“In!” the Hyphokos she was holding said. “Hurry!”

The Emperor was already through, dropping out of sight into darkness. A musty odor wafted into her room. Eika piloted her body into the hole, finding that there was not an easily accessed floor.

Landing hard on the ground below. Dust choked her.

“Go! Go!” the Hyphokos she was holding coughed. “Go!”

Blind, Hasabi stumbled forward, running into a wall with her outstretched hand. The floor fell out from under her. She landed on an inclined smooth surface, sliding face-first down the tunnel. Hasabi twisted around, trying to protect the Hyphokos in her hands. Hitting the bottom with her feet, Eika shoved her upright and running again.

“Hurry!” Daharn’s voice called. “This way!”

She ran blindly in the dark. A blast of hot air cut off as the tunnel behind her was crushed.

The floor shook. She tumbled to her knees and rolled, deafened as the world was destroyed above her.

She curled around the limp Hyphokos in her hands. She couldn’t tell if they were alive, her own heart beating too hard for her to take a pulse.

:Ancestors! Protect us!:

* * *

“Hasabi? Wake up.”

Opening her eyes, she sat up, thumping into Daharn.

It was pitch dark. “Daharn? Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he sounded muffled, as if covering his nose.

“Oh no – I hit you.”

“I’m okay,” Daharn said, lowering his hand. He touched her head, then fumbled down to her shoulder. “I’m okay. Are you?”

“I think so.” She touched his hand. “What happened to you in your room?”

“I don’t know… My security were about to escort me to safety. One of them hit me, and then I woke up here. Where are we?”

“Under… the Palace. I think. Some Hyphokos came for us. There was a trap door under a filing cabinet.” She looked blindly around and touched her abdomen, verifying that Eika was still merged with her. The other two Hyphokos were missing, as far as she could tell.

“What?” Daharn asked. “We’re in the basement?”

“No… I think we’re lower than that. We slid quite a ways.”

“It’s really dusty in here.” In a lower voice he added, “and dark.”

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark,” Hasabi said, a little irritated with him.

“I’m not.”

She rolled her eyes. “I know lies when I hear them,” she said. She started crawling, hands sliding across the thick layers of dust as she explored her immediate area. She found a wall and began following it, staying on her knees. It was too dangerous to try standing and walking, even though it would have been far more comfortable. She wasn’t as young as she used to be, that was for sure.

“Why did we end up down here? I mean, what happened? Likka had just gotten here – what happened after that?”

By the sound of his voice, Hasabi could tell that she had left him behind. “Natan got here, started a fight with her and then broke her ship apart. Pieces fell on the capital, but a majority of it was stopped. It could have been worse. Some fell on the Palace.”

“Wh- where did you go?” Daharn asked. “Don’t leave me behind!” She could hear him crawling after her, grunting as he tripped on his robes. “Are we stuck here then? Until someone digs us out?”

“I’m looking for an exit,” she said, holding her exasperation. “I don’t know if we’re trapped. We’re alive at least and I’m sure Natan and Vathion will take care of things up there until they find you.”

Daharn gave a mumble that didn’t sound reassuring.

Hasabi turned around and crawled back towards the last place she heard him, found his hand by accident, but grabbed it. “They will take care of things and we will be found,” she said firmly. “We will get out of this alive.”

“Okay,” Daharn said, though he was obviously unconvinced.

She started crawling again.

:Hasabi?: Eika asked, having finally woken.

:Are you ok?:

:Mostly I think. That was a rough landing.:

Silently agreeing, she continued crawling, but her hand contacted dirt. She released Daharn’s hand and slowly stood, patting the dirt all the way up to as high as she could reach.

“Where are you going?”

“There’s dirt…” Hasabi said as she carefully climbed, exploring the blockage with her fingers. She couldn’t smell fresh air, though and had very little hope that this was a good direction to go. Her fingertips found the ceiling. She brushed against the wall to her left, then inched along, keeping contact with the ceiling the whole way. There was a small opening at the top corner of the right wall, but reaching in, she found it was only a pocket and more dirt piled behind it, packed solid with age. This was not a new feature.

Sliding down to the floor again, she nearly stepped on Daharn and used his head as a balance when he bumped into her thigh.

“We’re blocked this direction,” Hasabi said. “Let’s try the other way.”

“I thought…” Daharn stopped himself there. Hasabi was glad. His timid whining was starting to get on her nerves. Honestly, she was scared too. That didn’t mean she could just sit down and be terrified. No one knew where they were. It was best if they found the sky somehow. Maybe there were other survivors?

“Oh!” Daharn said suddenly. “Who are you?” He sat back, removing his head from her palm.

“I’m Benry,” a Hyphokos voice said. “What’s going on?”

“We fell down the hole you led us to,” Hasabi said.

“Then we’re in the ship.” Benry said. “What happened to Frei?”

“I don’t know. Was that who I was holding?”

“Yes. Why didn’t he merge with you?”

“I had Eika already.”

The Hyphokos muttered something that sounded like a curse word. “If the blast knocked me out while I was merged, then he’s probably dead.”

Hasabi gave a soft hmm. “Sorry.”

“Memory lives on,” Benry said. “We knew it was dangerous to try to find you.”

“I don’t… understand what’s going on?” Daharn asked. “Why were you merged with me? Where was Ferrian?”

“Ferrian left you to die,” Benry said. “He was part of the High Council faction. They must have decided you weren’t worth keeping anymore. When we noticed that all the other High Council puppets were sneaking out, Frei and I were pretty sure you had been left. We went looking.”

Touching the wall, Hasabi slowly slid down to a seat and felt Eika disengaging. “You must be from the Inclusionists,” Eika said.

“Yes. What about you? Space?”

Eika hesitated a second. “No. Separatist.”

Benry gasped. He asked something in the Hyphokos language.

“You will speak in Gilon,” Eika said firmly. “No, the Separatists are not a hoax.”

Benry said something else in Hyphokos.

“You will speak in Gilon. They are intelligent and this concerns them. Daharn is not your tool to just use, just as he isn’t the High Council’s trash to throw away when he’s inconvenient. He is the emperor of his people and as such deserves respect in this situation.”

“You ride in one too,” Benry said acidly.

“With her permission and full knowledge of what I’m privy to.”

“What’s going on?” Daharn asked again.

“There are four factions of Hyphokos,” Eika explained. “High Council, who are theoretically the ruling body of our people and their followers who believe that Gilon are just convenient tools for their use. Inclusionists who-”

“As a representative, I would like to speak for myself,” Benry objected. “Inclusionists believe that Hyphokos shouldn’t control so much as guide Gilon. You’re a young species still and just turning you loose without any sort of oversight is… Uhm. Irresponsible.”

“What was irresponsible was tinkering with their genetics to make them into our tools to begin with,” Eika said. “Which is why the Separatists left. We objected to the original High Council’s plan to interfere in Gilon biology just to create meat bag tools when we had perfectly functional mechanics and didn’t need to do this.”

Hasabi gently lifted Eika from her lap. “Right now isn’t the time,” she said.

Sighing, Eika relaxed in her hand. “True.”

“You said four,” Daharn reminded.

“Spacers. They’re weird. Who knows what they think.”

Eika sighed again. “The Space Coalition believe that Gilon are intelligent on their own and should be allowed to be partners with Hyphokos. They’re still a little backwards in thinking that they’re allowed to use you without informing you of everything involved in that alliance, but at least it’s better than outright controlling your behavior on a daily basis.”

“My what?” Daharn asked breathlessly. “That’s… absurd…” he didn’t sound very convinced of his own words.

She could feel Eika getting stiff with emotion. Hasabi gently brushed her finger against Eika’s side, reassuring her. “He’s never thought about it like that before. Give him some time,” she said.

Reluctantly, the Hyphokos relaxed again. “It’s just sickening.”

“What plans do the Inclusionists have?” Hasabi asked. “With Daharn and myself that is?”

“With you? We hadn’t really thought about you as anything important,” Benry said. “With Daharn… Frei and I weren’t given orders to save him. We just… Tried to anyway because… Vathion may not be controllable. He spent time with Likka. Who knows what she did to his head.”

“Shh,” Eika said, squeezing Hasabi’s finger. “You’ve known it was bound to happen.”

“Doesn’t make me any less mad,” Hasabi muttered. “Vathion will make whatever decisions are necessary,” she told Benry.

“You say that, but even you don’t know what he may think is necessary,” Benry shot back. “Let’s not pretend that he didn’t set up this situation. Whether it was intentional to sacrifice people along the way or not…”

“I don’t think he meant to,” Daharn said. “He warned me that she might make a run for Baelton… I didn’t think she would be able to get her ship there, but he insisted I take precautions anyway.”

“What about all those names you called?” Benry asked. “You think those people survived?”
Daharn was silent for a moment. “I know they didn’t. That was the point. They were Likka’s staunchest supporters.”

“Yet you took Vathion’s word for that,” Benry said.

“No. I’d had that intelligence for months already. I just didn’t know what to do with it. They were all in Rebel territory. We couldn’t touch them. Vathion said we could get Likka to kill them for us. So I agreed to the plan.”

“Is there a way out of here?” Hasabi asked. “We can’t stay down here forever.”

“Yes. Though it may be too dangerous up there,” Benry said.

“We’ve already found a wall of dirt,” Hasabi added.

“Then you’ve gone the right way. There’s a door that leads to a room you can stay in,” Benry said.

“No one will find you down here for a while. I’ll go make arrangements.”

“You’re kidding,” Hasabi said flatly. “I’m pregnant and need to be with my mate. You’re not keeping me here.”

“It’s probably still on fire up there. Any other exits from here go through High Council territory and the ship’s AI will notice you. There’s no power in this section, so you’ll be safe. I’ll come get you.”

“So we’re supposed to sit down here and starve?” Hasabi asked.

“No! I’ll come get you!” Benry said. “Just stay here!” he called, voice receding down the hall.

Eika wiggled free of Hasabi’s grip and disappeared into the darkness.

“What now?” Daharn asked sullenly.

Hasabi swallowed. “Get some rest, I guess.”

Daharn sighed. “I ache all over. I think my ankle is sprained. You never said how I got down here.”

“Benry used your body.”

“Used?” he asked in a small voice.

Deciding to let him contemplate the implications of that on his own, Hasabi shifted and put her back against the wall, knees lifted and hands cradling her stomach. It was too early to show yet, but she hoped the baby was safe.

 
Chapter 2

He stood helplessly in front of the medbay door. His whole world was falling apart.

Debris had hit the Palace. Emergency crew and volunteers had gone to put out the fires and looking for survivors. People were being dug out. The death count was rising.

:Kiti, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t do anything.:

Pieces of the Haikon were still spinning and bouncing through Heartland’s space; a danger to everyone.

Natan covered his face with both hands. They smelled like blood.

:Natan,: Kiti said. :They’re bringing Farynn in.:

Using his sleeves to wipe his face, Natan straightened, put on his best brave face and turned towards the lift as the doors opened.

A medical assistant hurried in, guiding a grav stretcher. Another nurse was holding a mask to Farynn’s face. Her eyes were open. She was pale. She looked at him and he thought she saw a grin pull her lips just before she disappeared into the medbay.

His hands shook. He clenched them.

The lift opened again.

“I hope you’re happy,” Tendel said.

“Overjoyed,” Natan retorted and stepped over her.

She caught his pant leg and scurried up his side to merge. :What did you think was going to happen anyway? You left the planning of all this to a child and look at this mess.:

:It came out better than it might have,: Natan defended and shut down whatever doubts he might have had creeping in the back of his mind.

:It still got your mate killed. Your son probably isn’t going to survive this either. And even if he does, is he really sane? You realize all of this is your fault. You urged Likka into an arms race. You annoyed her until she came up with worse ways to get rid of you.:

Natan stood in the lift, staring at his hazy reflection in the doors. The lift hadn’t begun moving because he didn’t know where he wanted to go.

:Can’t run from yourself, can you?: Tendel asked, her tone pitying.

He wanted to tear her out.

Clenching his fists again, he decided to go back to the bridge. It wasn’t like standing in the lift was going to get anything done.

:Less likely for you to break anything else, though,: Tendel pointed out.

“Would you just shut up?” Natan snapped, just as the doors opened. Hassi withdrew, her eyes wide. He put on a smile and tapped his Bondstone as explanation before brushing past her.

:Way to go, Natan. Perfect.: Tendel said.

:I can say those kinds of things to myself just fine. I don’t need YOU adding to the noise. Go away.:

:And miss this show?: Tendel retorted cheerfully. :This is the most entertaining thing I’ve seen in years. Can’t wait to see what you mess up next.:

:I will punch you,: Natan promised. Entering the bridge, he glanced around, finding first shift still at their places. “Status.”

“Raptors and Ferrets are out picking up pieces. The larger pieces of the Haikon are being pulled away from the planet,” Codas reported.

“Clemmis asked what we should do with it,” Bibbole said.

“Take it to Marak I guess,” Natan said. He stood next to his seat, one hand gripping the back of it so hard his fingers hurt. “What’s the damage on the planet?”

“Everyone is too busy to do much reporting,” Bibbole said. “Rough estimate is at least three thousand, given the areas hit.”

Natan leaned heavily on his chair. ‘My fault.’

Tendel didn’t bother saying anything. Her silence said enough.

Lifting his head, Natan took a breath. “Do they have any heavy equipment out there to pick up debris?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Bibbole said.

“Find me some construction companies. Ugh. Just hire them all. Get them out there helping to clean up.”

Bibbole nodded once, his hands already sending messages.

Pressing his fingers to his eyes, Natan made himself breathe. He still smelled like blood. Lowering his hand, he looked at it, realizing he had red crust under his nails and in the creases of his palms.
‘He’s going to die. Its my fault.’

Clenching his hands, he lifted his chin, determined to just bury himself in work. ‘Hasabi was down there. My days are numbered too. She’d be mad at me if I left things destroyed like this. I’ll do what I can until I lose my mind. Stupid Widow Syndrome. Blasted Likka. She’s taken everything from me, including revenge.’

“Bibbole. Let the station know that I want Likka’s body bagged and sent here,” Natan said.

“Why?” Bibbole asked, cringing.

“Autopsy,” Natan said. ‘Not so I can stab it a few times myself.’

Bibbole nodded and turned back to his board, sending the message.

“Is the Fleet helping clean up too? We should be if we’re not,” Natan said. He stared at the ceiling.
Someone touched his shoulder.

Turning, he found Logos standing beside him. “Kiti will let you know if you’re needed,” he said. He bodily turned Natan towards the door.

“I need to-”

“Take a shower,” Logos interrupted. “You’re covered in blood.” His grip tightened on Natan’s shoulder, helping to steady him. Across the hall, Logos took Natan into his quarters. “Hasabi was down there.”

Natan covered his mouth with his hand, feeling sick. His vision blurred.

* * *

She woke up when something touched her.

“Sorry,” Daharn said.

“What are you doing?”

“I was going to… lay beside you if that’s okay,” Daharn said. “It’s a bit cold in here.”

Admittedly it was a bit chilly. She nodded, then reached over to take his hand. “Sure.”

“Where did Eika go?”

“After Benry,” she said.

He settled down behind her, chest against her back and arm around her waist. It wasn’t very comfortable having his scent so close to her. She didn’t know him that well, but made herself stay still. It was warmer than laying on the floor by herself. “I’ve been… Thinking,” he said. “Can you explain some things for me?”

“Sure.”

“What exactly is going on?”

“I’m actually not sure about that. I know the Hyphokos have a disagreement on how Gilon should be treated and have been.” She took a breath and let it out slowly. “I know that by the end of this, whatever is going on will be public and the Hyphokos can’t hide it anymore.”

“Do you have some kind of plan?” Daharn asked.

“Not right now. Nothing past the need to get out of here and get back to Natan.” Even though she could see nothing, she cut her eyes towards Daharn, wondering if Benry had come back. She felt a little guilty for suspecting him, but her gut was telling her not to trust that Hyphokos. “How’s your ankle?”

“Still sore.”

“Well, you did jump the railing on two flights of stairs.”

“I what?” Daharn sat up.

Hasabi laughed behind her hand. “Wish I could see your face right now. But it’s true. Benry took over and had you running top speed. You also kicked down a door and pulled a full filing cabinet off the floor and threw it.”

“Oh my…” Daharn slowly lay down again.

“I had to let Eika take me over to keep up with you,” Hasabi said. “Hyphokos can override our motor control and pain receptors, make us do things beyond what we normally can do.”

“That’s a little disturbing… I wouldn’t believe it but I suppose the evidence is there. No wonder my shoulders and back ache.”

She snorted.

“Should we try looking for a way out ourselves?”

“Let’s wait a little longer and see if Eika will come back. She may find out how to escape and then come get us.”

“Okay.”

Hasabi shifted to pillow her head on her arm.

“It’s so quiet…” Daharn said. “Eerie. I don’t know I’ve ever been anywhere so quiet.”

“That’s really why you woke me up, isn’t it.”

He was silent for a moment. “Sorry…”

Hasabi laughed softly. “When you have children you’ll value the silence a lot more.”

Daharn sighed. “I… don’t want to, though.”

“Don’t want to what?”

“Have children. They… frighten me. Ferrian has been on my case about picking a mate and I just feel unsettled every time I think about having children. They’re sticky and loud and demand so much time. I don’t even have time for the things I want to do for myself, how would I have time to spend with a child and a mate? They deserve my attention too. Right?”

“Yes they do. And kids take a lot of attention.”

“Its a permanent decision too. I may like her now, but in ten years? Or less? And most of the women I’ve met have been just awful. There was one I was almost interested in, but her laugh was horrible and nothing I said made her actually smile. She didn’t like me. She liked my title.”

“Sounds a lot like what Natan said.”

Daharn snorted softly. “Yeah. I’d asked him about how he met you… how he knew you were the one. After that, I’d started noticing. Or more, started being able to identify why I didn’t feel anything for these women.”

“Eika and Paymeh arranged for Natan and me to meet,” Hasabi said. “Eika said there wasn’t any pressure for us to actually get together. She just thought we would get along well.”

He had nothing to say about that, apparently.

“Paymeh and Eika left us alone for every date we had.” Hasabi smiled as she remembered the first time she met Natan. Her fingers curled into her palms, nails biting flesh. “I need him,” she whispered, forcing air past the heavy knot in her chest. She had gone sixteen years without having him around and only a few hours of being with him and she couldn’t bear it anymore.

Sitting up, she got to her knees. “Come on.”

“I thought we were waiting?”

“I’m tired of waiting.”

“H-hasabi…” Daharn hesitated.

Reaching back, she grasped the first thing her hand came in contact with. Pulling the front of his robes, she started forward. “I’m tired of waiting!” she snarled.

Daharn tripped twice before stopping. “Wait, let me tie…” She paused, listening to him shuffle with his clothes. “There.” His hand landed on her ankle. “Where are we going anyway?”

The problem was that she didn’t know. Anywhere was better than here though. She hoped anyway. Moving forward again, she set her hand on something wet and cringed. “I think I found Frei,” she said.

“Oh.” Daharn said, obviously disgusted.

Locating where the rest of the Hyphokos corpse was, she shuffled sideways to keep from crawling on it, then continued forward, scrubbing her hand on what remained of the dusty carpet to clean it off. Daharn kept up, using her ankle as a guide to know where she was in the pitch darkness.

This direction seemed to be longer than her first choice. Hasabi wished she had counted her steps between the caved in wall and finding the body. It was too late for that, though. Forward was all she had left. Reaching ahead, her hand did not encounter more dusty carpet.

“Why did we stop?”

“There’s no floor ahead.” She blindly groped, finding a solid edge just past her stationary fingers. “I think its a lift.” Hasabi laid on her stomach, scooting further out to touch, searching for a clue. A foot below, she found a surface. “Hang on to my ankles.”

Daharn fumbled for her other foot and finally found it when she tapped his hand with her toe.
Scooting to the left, she reached her hand against the wall, finding the pully system for the lift. “Ok, this is the roof of the lift,” she said. “There should be a trap door that leads into it. We can get down to the next level through there.”

“Why would we want to go down?”

Hasabi bit her lips together.

Shuffling back, she bumped into Daharn.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you angry.”

“No… You’re right. Let’s see if there’s any other direction to go first.” She drummed her fingers against her thighs as she tried to think. She had no idea of what the layout of this place was. Which way would be a good direction to turn? “We followed the right wall to get here. Let’s just keep following that.”

“Okay.” Daharn didn’t sound too convinced, but he returned his hand to her ankle and let her take the lead again.

Keeping the fingers of her right hand against the corner of the wall, she crawled. The air didn’t smell any better this direction. She had a feeling there wasn’t going to be an exit this way.

“I feel like we’re just going in circles,” Daharn said softly.

Hasabi could neither confirm nor deny this statement. Feeling mildly irritated that Daharn was acting like such a baby about all this, she gathered her patience and said, “We’re still alive and we have knowledge of one way out of this immediate area. We will get out of here.”

“But if we-”

She kicked back, catching his shoulder. “Stop it,” Hasabi said firmly. “Your attitude stinks. If you give up, you will die down here in the dark.” Taking a breath, she sat back and reached for him, finding his head. “Besides, it isn’t like you’re alone.”

His hair scrubbed beneath her hand as he nodded. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I just don’t like having things be so out of control.”

“You have a very narrow definition of control then,” Hasabi teased.

“What’s your definition then?”

Hasabi started forward again. Her hand encountered an opening with floor beyond it. Exploring that blindly, she said, “Imagine having to raise Vathion? He was into everything, questioned everything. Momma why is this plant yellow? And he wouldn’t accept the simple answers. He wanted the facts. So I had to learn the facts. I had to anticipate where he was going to go next and determine if it was worth stopping him or not. Thank the Ancestors he got interested in code. That was one thing I knew about at least. I think this is a door into a room.”

“We should check it out then?” Daharn suggested.

“Okay.” She led the way into the room, feeling around carefully on the floor. Her head hit something. “Ow.” Reaching up, she fumbled, cutting her finger on something sharp. “I think the ceiling fell in here,” she said. “Watch your head.”

“I smell blood?”

“I’m okay. Its just a scratch.” Crouching lower, she ducked under the debris, feeling further back until she found the far wall. “Dead end.”

“Don’t call it that please.”

“No exit here,” Hasabi rephrased. “Back out.”

She followed him this time as he shuffled in reverse. “We’re in the hall again,” he said. “Are you sure you’re ok?”

“Its just a scratch,” she said. Taking the lead once more, she put her right hand against the wall and started forward.

“You are sure we’re going the right way?”

“As right a way as we currently have right now,” Hasabi retorted.

Daharn sighed. “No wonder you and Natan got along so well. I hope Vathion doesn’t do that too.”

“Oh, he’s even better at it,” Hasabi said cheerfully.

“Wonderful. Do you know how annoying that is?” Daharn asked.

Hasabi snorted a giggle.

Groaning in despair, Daharn said, “Now I really don’t want to see all three of you together.”

“You just need to cultivate an appreciation for puns,” Hasabi said. She found what felt like another door recess, but it was closed.

“Did you find something?”

“No.” She moved on. Her knees were really starting to ache. “Except that I’m not as young as I used to be. Ow.”

“Did you run into something?”

“No. Just my knees.” She continued forward, trying to ignore the pain. “We’ll find light and we’ll be able to stand then.”

“Yeah,” he said faintly.

Even though she knew she wouldn’t see anything, Hasabi looked back at him. Only darkness… But she could feel his grip on her ankle, so he was there still. Keep moving. That was all she could really do. Putting on a brave face, even though no one could see it, she reminded herself that she would see Natan again, she would see Vathion again. She refused to die here. This wasn’t about being heroic and getting Daharn out. ‘I’m going to be selfish for once. I’ve given up so much for other people. I’m going to get what I want.’

Keeping one hand on the wall, she felt the indention of another door, but it was closed as well. Mentally updating her map, she guessed that they had traveled at least three hundred feet. Beginning to get a better feel for the space around her, she thought the hall had opened up to the left. “Daharn, stay here, keep hold of me though. I’m going to check something.”

“Okay.”

Scooting left, she waved her hand out until she found a corner. “The hall branches left here,” she said.

“Are we going to take it?”

“No. It leads back to the side of the ship we were already on.”

“How do you know this is a ship?” Daharn asked.

“Benry mentioned it. Also the layout. The hallway made a sharp arc down by the lift. The doors are at regular intervals on the right side.” Hasabi crawled back to him and found his hand. Turning his palm over, she drew with her finger. “Like this. I think we started here, close to the central bracing hall. That’s where the cave-in was. Which means we fell into here through an escape pod port.”

“Can we get out like that?” Daharn asked.

“Maybe. But right now, everything above us is probably on fire. Also, Daharn, there’s a ship under the Palace.” She could almost feel him blinking at her.

“But… How?” he whispered. “It would have had to be there before the Palace was built.”

“Yeah,” Hasabi agreed. “And it’s built like one of ours. Or maybe ours are built like this one.”

She heard him swallow. At least he was thinking about it, she supposed. Eventually he would have to believe and accept that maybe something more was going on.

“If this is a ship,” he said finally. “Lower levels might have power still. That sounded like what Benry was saying.”

Smiling, glad that he had caught up to her, Hasabi nodded. “You want to go back to the other lift and try crawling down?”

“We’ve come this far. It’s just as far to the lift on the other end of the hall as it is back,” Daharn said. “This is assuming we’re in a ship just like one of ours.”

“Assuming that end isn’t caved in too,” Hasabi added. Guessing by the direction Daharn was facing, she started crawling again, finding the right hand wall and following it again. She felt the indention of another door and passed it. Her fingers encountered pebbles. “I think ahead its caved in,” she said.

Daharn sighed in frustration.

Her hand came against more dirt and she carefully stood, feeling her way over the piles.

“If its caved in, let’s just head back to the lift,” Daharn said. “At least we know its safe to walk.”
She felt him keep a hand on her leg as he carefully got to his feet. “Ow,” he muttered as his knees cracked in protest.

Catching his hand, Hasabi moved to put her right hand against the wall again and shuffled her feet forward, daring to take longer steps now. His palms were gritty with dust and sweaty at the same time. “I am looking forward to a bath,” he said. “A very long one. And I don’t think I ever want to be in the dark again.” He squeezed her hand. “At least I have good company… Thanks for not giving up, Hasabi.”

“I – you’re welcome.” She didn’t really know what else to say. Her hand encountered empty air. She continued forward carefully until she found the corner, then walked with more confidence again.

“Can you reach for the other wall? So we don’t miss the lift. We should be passing that open door shortly.”

He stepped away from her side, lifting her arm out as far as they both could go, leaving only their fingers touching. “Whoever built this place must have been huge,” he said. “Can you still reach your wall?”

“I don’t need to, really.” She stepped closer to him. “But you’re right. The ceiling is absurdly high.”
“Here’s that open door. Was this it?”

“No. Next opening. And the floor isn’t there, so don’t just step in.”

Daharn grunted in acknowledgment. “Here,” he said, and stopped, bringing her hand towards the edge of a door. She carefully reached in and checked beside it, finding the gears for the pulley.

“How are we going to go about this?”

“I’ll find the hatch and open it,” she said. “We’ll figure out from there.” Again, she carefully went to her hands and knees.

“I’ll keep hold of your ankles?” he offered.

“Yes. That would be nice, I think. In case the lift can’t hold my weight.” She heard him whispering as she climbed carefully out onto the top of the car. Groping around blindly, Hasabi guessed that the hatch should have been slightly towards her left near the front corner. It would have a mechanical lock on it, since in the case of an emergency the engineers who originally ran the ship would need to access it without power. Fingers finding the wheel, she took hold of it and pulled. It didn’t budge. She pulled harder and gasped when she felt the car itself shift under her.

“If that’s stuck, then how did Benry and Eika get out of here?” Daharn asked.

“Must be a smaller hole somewhere they can escape through.” She pulled again, feeling the wheel start to give.

“We didn’t check any of the inner rooms,” Daharn said. “The central pillar access ways could be accessible still. At least on this end of the ship.”

“Keep that in mind,” she said. The hatch shrieked in protest but unlatched. She pulled it open.

“Light!” she gasped.

Daharn leaned closer to look, releasing her ankles and putting his weight on the car.
The lift gears gave out. He tumbled forward onto the roof of the car with her as it careened down the shaft. She closed her eyes in terror and grit her teeth to keep from biting her tongue. She hoped

Daharn had thought to do the same.

 
Chapter 3

Breaking through the clouds, Natan adjusted Aila’s course to circle in a wide arc across Heartland’s capital city. What was left of it anyway. Only hours after the battle and already something had gone wrong. His attempts to get construction companies out helping the clean up had only partially succeeded. Of the people sent to the Palace, only one company had shown up.

Heartland’s capital city sprawled across the plain in the bottom of an old crater basin, a glittering jewel of a city now scarred by a black streak and pits where pieces of the Haikon had fallen.

In the early morning light, the wreckage was still smoking. Of the Palace, only the northern and southern wings were still standing, kind of, if he squinted. A large, unrecognizable piece of Likka’s ship had smashed through the front doors, destroying the oldest, and only original part of the building that was left after centuries of Gilon civilization. Emergency vehicles, temporary medical tents and shelters had been erected on the northern side.

“Ancestors,” Logos muttered. “Natan… did you have to fly that recklessly?”

“I wanted to knock Tendel out so I could talk to you,” Natan said. “Sorry.”

“If she’s that annoying, then tell her to go away.” Logos burped sickly.

“If it were that simple… I’m her assignment.” Natan made another turn over the wreckage of the Palace. “A quick death was too good for Likka,” Natan said coldly and aimed for a cleared area next to several trailers and a slew of motionless construction equipment. Ash billowed as he set the fighter down on the charred dirt.

“What made you decide to come here yourself though,” Logos asked. “If you’re thinking of digging for-”

Natan was glad Logos had stopped there and he didn’t have to tell him to shut his mouth. He took a breath, watching the dust settle outside the fighter.

Sunlight shot through the overcast sky to illuminate the wreckage. People picking despondently through the wreckage looked over, many abandoning their task to gather nearby. Natan watched the shadows crawl across the ground a moment before answering. “Look at them,” he gestured. “They’re just wandering around. No one’s really doing anything useful and the news is saying that there are no survivors here. No I’m not going to go out digging.” His voice caught.

Opening the canopy, he stood.

A humid breeze kicked up, blowing his hair into his eyes, and he shoved it back. The smell of ash dominated the scent of the city and Spring carried on the air. Opening the zipper on his flight suit, Natan pulled his arms free and tied the sleeves around his waist. “Heartland – should rename it to hot-land! Aah!” He fanned himself and looked back at Logos as he put on a grin. Anything was better than thinking about what he had lost here.

“Prince Vathion?” a man asked as he approached Aila’s wing. He had blue hair and a gold Bondstone.

Natan grinned down at him. “Nope! You in charge here?”

Despite the slight disappointment that crossed the man’s features, he still looked relieved. “I’m Andres Homens of Homens Construction. Ha’Natan, its a pleasure to meet you.”

Stepping out of the cockpit, Natan dropped to the ground from Aila’s wing. In the distance, he could see reporters rushing their direction. Several of the people in the crowd already had datapads out, taking video and pictures. Logos quickly joined him. Aila closed her canopy. “Let’s go to your office and see what’s going on, Andres,” Natan patted the man’s shoulder.

“This way,” he said. He led the way towards one of the nearby trailers.

He hopped up the step into the trailer and closed the door as Logos took a position beside it. “So what’s the problem? Why isn’t anyone actually trying to clean this mess up? There may still be people buried in there.” Natan asked as he tossed himself onto the couch, stretching his arms to take up the entirety of it. Andres perched on the edge of his desk chair, clutching it between his thighs as he leaned forward.

“Well sir… There doesn’t seem to be any need to keep working here. We’re not finding any more…” Andres hesitated. He swallowed. “People… Alive. No one could have survived in the center of all that.”

“And you think people wouldn’t want the ashes of their family who are buried there?” Natan asked, deciding to go for blood. Andres paled and looked down. “There is more work that needs to be done here. We still need to get the rubble cleared so we can rebuild.”

“Rebuild?” The man snapped his head up, gaping at Natan like a dying fish. “After what’s happened?”

“Absolutely!” Natan lifted both hands into the air and sat forward. “Its crucial that we do!”

Andres’ mouth fell open further as he sat back.

Natan closed the distance, looking the man in the eyes. “Gilonnia needs this. Having our capital – our Palace destroyed implies that we’ve been defeated. You know that’s not the case. We won. But we need to show everyone that we are going to move on and become stronger. One people united.”

Andres nodded slowly, a blank look in his eyes.

“So we need the site cleared and we need to start drafting plans for a new Palace,” Natan said.

“What about the dead?”

“There will be a memorial,” Natan tried not to sound flippant. “Thought that was a given.”

“Who’s going to be in charge of this?” Andres looked away. “I hate to sound… petty. But my men have families.”

Natan lifted a hand. “I understand. Don’t worry about getting paid. How long will it take to get this site prepared for building?”

“We’ll have to clear the rest of the debris and level everything out. There’s a huge pit where the Palace was… Buildings settle, you know?”

“I actually didn’t know,” Natan said, grinning. “You learn something new every day, right?” He sat back.

The man smiled, the stress around his eyes easing, his shoulders relaxed. “I have a cousin who does plans for big buildings. He would love to have a chance to redesign the Palace.”

“Have him submit something. We’ll have a planning committee set up to approve the final design. This isn’t a decision that one person should be making after all. I know, right now doesn’t seem like there’s much hope, but Ha’Likka is dead, Gelran has been captured. We’re working on rounding up the remains of Likka’s supporters. Vathion is working on putting the government back together. We aren’t leaderless. We aren’t hopeless. It’s a matter of picking ourselves up, dusting off, and realizing what we do have, rather than what we don’t.”

Andres began trembling again. “Prince Vathion is all right? No one’s seen him since… and there have been rumors that Likka killed him.”

Natan sat back and threw his hands into the air. “That’s a bunch of stink! He’s on the Xarian recovering!”

The man breathed in relief.

Natan pushed off his knees to stand then patted Andres’ shoulder. “I’ll leave getting everyone moving to you.”

“You can count on me.” Andres followed Natan out.

Dropping to the ground from the trailer door, Natan landed next to Logos and grinned.

“So what’s going on?” Logos asked once they had left Andres behind.

“Honestly, I don’t know why they’re having such a problem with getting moving on cleaning up here. I’m going to pay them to do it, though.” Natan sighed softly. “I implied to that guy that he would have a contract in rebuilding the Palace.”

“Ouch… You sure rebuilding on this site is a good idea?” Logos asked and looked back over his shoulder at the wreckage.

“What? Are you afraid of spirits?” Natan teased and poked his friend’s arm. “I’ll arrange for appropriate consecration before the rebuilding starts. And a memorial of sufficient grandioseness to quiet any irritated spirits that might be lingering here.” He waved both hands in the air in a wide arc.

“First, that isn’t a word. Second, I hope you’ll have someone else design it?” Logos asked with a whimper.

“What? I can design things!”

“You can design ships,” Logos said. “But I’m afraid your idea of a memorial might irritate the spirits more.”

“Bah!” Natan waved the topic away. “You don’t even know what I was thinking of!”

“I’m sure it involved breasts. And fire.”

Natan burst out laughing. “Actually no. But I do like that idea.” In the back of his mind, he could feel Tendel beginning to wake. He had hoped she would remain unconscious longer.
Logos rolled his eyes.

He shrugged his shoulders and started back towards War Eagle. “For now, let’s get back to the Xarian.”

:Not yet,: Tendel said groggily.

Natan paused. “Not yet?”

:I know you did that on purpose, by the way.:

:What’re you going to do about it?: Natan asked snidely.

Tendel struggled free of his syote sack and climbed out the neck of his shirt. “Do not leave yet. I have something I need to take care of. Why don’t you go have dinner somewhere and be back at your transport by six.” She huffed a breath at his face before bounding down his arm and landing on the ground. She scurried off in the direction of the Palace wreckage.

Logos shaded his eyes against the sunlight. “Didn’t realize she could move that fast.”

“Wish she would do it more often. And stay away.”

* * *

“Aren’t we going to wait for Tendel to come back?”

“Nope,” Natan said. His eyes were on the wreckage of the Palace. The construction equipment had been deployed. Natan noticed that most of the men driving the equipment didn’t have Hyphokos bonds. ‘Probably why this company showed up when no one else did.’

The Raptor’s canopy popped open and slid back. Natan pulled his arms into the flight suit and zipped up as he settled into the pilot’s seat. Logos buckled into the back.

“Tendel’s going to be pissed,” Logos muttered.

“Too bad you’re all the way back there, you missed me caring.”

“You sure leaving her is a good idea?”

The canopy closed and Natan relaxed into the feedback from Aila’s sensors.

“I can’t do anything useful here. I need to go,” Natan said.

Igniting her engines, a cloud of dust and ash billowed up around them.

Logos shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You’re not useless,” he tried.

Tipping Aila’s nose upwards, Natan punched the engines hard enough to slam Logos back in his seat. They rattled through the clouds and gradually the sky went from blue to black. Sighing, Natan lifted both his hands towards the stars. “Home,” he said. “Though, its not like I see the stars from inside a ship, but I know they’re out there.”

“You’re avoiding talking about it,” Logos pointed out. “Don’t block me out, Natan.”

“What the hell am I supposed to say?” he demanded, bringing the Raptor to a stop. Removing his belt, he twisted around in his seat to look at Logos. “Hasabi is dead and Vath is dying and Heartland is ruined! How are we supposed to recover from this as a species? And with the government practically flattened, how are we going to pay the Serfocile back for their help and what we owe them for Baelton?” His volume was increasing as he spoke. “And even if we only had a fraction of these problems, we’ve still got Varas on our back steps, salivating at the chance to murder us all for no reason!”

Logos lifted his hands, his eyes wide. “Woah – hey Natan -”

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” Natan shouted. “You just got on to me about not talking, well I wasn’t because what’s the bloody point? It just pisses me off and I’d managed to bottle it up nice and neat so I wasn’t yelling at anyone!” He turned around again, throwing himself back into his seat, whole body shaking. “I want to throw up. I want to give up. I want to just quit, Logos. What’s the bloody point of doing anything? We’re screwed. Won the battle but at what cost?”

Logos was silent.

Staring down at his hands, Natan closed his eyes, feeling like he could smell Vathion’s blood still, despite having taken the longest shower ever.

“Vath will be okay,” Logos said.

“What do you know.”

“Natan… He’s a lot like you. He’d say things just like this. But he would keep going. Just like you’re going to.”

“You hate me.” Natan opened his eyes, opening his hands. “Making me keep fighting even though I don’t want to.”

“I can’t make you do anything,” Logos said. “You’re too stubborn to give up though. Vathion isn’t going to let this kill him. Savon will put him back together and you’re going to have to sit on him to keep him from running off and over exerting himself before he’s ready to be mobile. Vath is going to need you.”

“I failed him. I lied to him, abandoned him, and failed him, and now his mother is dead and I’m an idiot, Logos. A selfish idiot.”

“I’ll grant that last bit.” Reaching over the back of the seat, Logos popped the back of Natan’s head with his palm. “Quit wallowing in pity. I’m still here. I’ll be with you until the end.”

Natan hung his head and used his sleeves to wipe at his face.

“What’s the plan next?”

“Its about time I made a public announcement.” Natan smiled. “I want to see Vath too. Even though he’ll be exactly the same condition as before.”

“Not true. He’s going to be better than he was yesterday.”

Taking a deep breath, Natan turned to look back at Logos. “And tomorrow he’ll be better than he was today.”

“You know he’s going to be pissed when he finds out how much you hovered,” Logos said, but smiled.

“I guess I have that to look forward to.” Natan pulled his restraints back on, took a breath and connected back into Aila’s sensors. “Logos. I want you to find a mate,” he said, “Name your kid after me though.”

“Ugh.”

Natan grinned, he could practically hear Logos rolling his eyes.

The rest of the ride was silent. They arrived at the Xarian’s shuttle bay and Natan guided Aila to her parking space and set down. Unbuckling, he stood as soon as the canopy cleared his head. Unzipping his flight suit, Natan pulled his arms free. They climbed out and Logos fell in beside Natan.

Entering the lift, Natan stared at his reflection on the doors, his dull black Bondstone reminding him that Tendel would show up again soon. The doors opened again and he headed across the hall to medbay leaving Logos in the lift. Going straight through to Savon’s office, he entered and found her seated at her desk typing. “Heyla Savon,” he said, leaning against her desk. “How’s it going?”

She looked up at him with a frown and removed her reading glasses, setting them on the desk. “So, you were out joy riding,” she said, and wrinkled her nose at him.

“I may have taken joy in the riding, but I was also working.” Natan waved a hand in a circle.

“How’s Vathion?” He pushed off the desk and moved the curtain aside.

“He’s fine, Natan. Don’t you have more important things to do?” Savon said with a sigh and came to lean against the glass.

“I just…” He looked at Vathion’s face. The young man wore a slight frown, brows drawn together towards his broken Bondstone, which dully reflected purple and silver. “Worry,” Natan finished.

“I’m taking care of him.”

He caressed the glass again, then turned to face Savon. “You’re in a terrible mood today.” He cupped her cheek.

Savon pulled away and folded her arms. “You’re interrupting my work. Constantly.”

Moving around her, Natan peered at her holoscreen. “Oh, writing reports on how you did what you did! Nice!”

“Maybe I can publish these,” Savon said, and sighed with a roll of her eyes.

He looked at her. “You keep talking about publishing stuff. That’s what research doctors do right?”

“A bit. I’d like to be a little more than a ship doctor.”

Putting his arms around her, Natan grinned. “You’ve always been more than a ship doctor, Savy.

You’re a miracle worker. What’s it matter if anyone else acknowledges what you’ve done?”

She lifted a silver brow at him. “You’re one to talk.”

Grinning even more broadly, Natan rolled his eyes. “Yeah well. I promised my parents.”

“I promised myself,” Savon said. “Now will you go away?”

“I want to read your reports before you send them out.”

“No.”

Natan pouted. “I don’t want to edit them or anything.”

“You can read them after I’ve sent them out,” Savon said firmly and pushed free of his embrace. She returned to her chair and folded her arms on her chest, crossing her legs. “How’s that synthetic scent working?”

“Eh? When did you give me a synthetic scent?” Natan asked.

“Yesterday. I made it from the shirt Hasabi sent you sixteen years ago. It’s apparently not working well if you’re still forgetting things. I’m sure having Vathion’s scent hanging around isn’t helping.”

Natan stared at her face. He knew she had lied but couldn’t figure why. “Not really, but I want him around. And I haven’t forgotten things intentionally. I’m pretty sure Tendel took some stuff without permission.”

Savon slowly raised one of her silver brows. “So that prompted you to abuse her physically.”

“She told you that?”

“She told Kiena.”

Natan folded his arms. “So, she told your bond, who told you.”

“That sums it up.”

“Seems rather odd, this chain of information.”

Savon took a breath and let it out, then paced away from him a few steps. “Usually that kind of information would stay within the Hyphokos association.”

“So why would your bond tell you?”

“Maybe in case you didn’t tell me yourself.” She shifted in her chair. “You’ve gotten violent lately.”

“I – what?”

“Violent. I’ve been informed that this is the third time you’ve physically abused Tendel. You broke a wallscreen in the hall two days ago. You’ve yelled at Hassi four times since then too.”

“I haven’t yelled at her!” He stared at Savon in shock. “Unless she’s counting earlier this morning just after I dropped Vath off here, I wasn’t talking to her.” Natan closed his eyes and put his hand to his forehead, “Also the fact that Tendel took some of my memories doesn’t mean anything?” He held his hands palm up towards her. “You think that everything Gilon have belong to the Hyphokos? Our bodies, our thoughts; our lives are at their disposal?”

Savon pulled back slightly. “Abusing your crew and destroying property isn’t a way to deal with your problems.”

“I would never break Kiti!” Natan objected, slapping his palm against the wall. “And I haven’t been yelling at Hassi! Why do you keep getting distracted from the point that Tendel has been messing with my memories?”

“Because there’s a more rational explanation for your behavior!” Savon shouted back at him. “You’re falling apart and you should consider stepping down before you completely self destruct, or do something embarrassingly stupid that destroys your reputation.”

Natan put his hands to his hair and pulled. “Arhg!” He stomped to his feet and paced around the room. Taking a breath to calm himself, Natan turned to face her again. “Fine. Don’t bother listening to the highly disturbing part about Tendel mucking with my memories.” He threw his hands into the air and left her office. “Kiti… what’s going on here?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Did I break a wallscreen?”

“Uhm…”

He looked up at the ceiling in shock. “When? And when did I yell at Hassi? I have nothing to yell at her about!”

“Nothing you said to her made much sense.”

“Ancestors bless…” He headed back through medbay to the lift and sighed. “Kiti have the Ca’ call all the news stations to the docks. Tell Logos and Luth they have an hour to get ready. I’m going to take a shower and change.”

“Absolutely,” Kiti said cheerfully.

Natan strode down the officer’s hall to his room. Once there he yanked his shoes off and stripped the flight suit. He left the rest of his clothes in a trail to the bathroom. Unfortunately his shower couldn’t wash away regrets.

* * *

Tendel figured Natan had taken off as soon as she left him.

“Animals,” she pronounced sourly. They left much to be desired when it came to logic and rational thought. They wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if not for Hyphokos intervention. That was the bottom line truth, so said the histories she had been given.

Passing through the narrow tunnels that still stood after the disaster, Tendel made her way into the colony burrow beneath the Palace foundation. After this final act of barbarism by Likka, she wanted to visit her family, make sure they were still alive, then report to the High Council. She hadn’t sent word she was coming. They would undoubtedly know by the time she was done with her mother.

The tunnel she was in widened suddenly when she entered the colony. Hyphokos, when not merged or living with a bond, preferred to live underground in communal holes. They were much less likely to be eaten by confused predators. Unfortunately, Hyphokos weren’t built for digging as their original symbiotic mounts had been. This meant the Hyphokos had to dig out their burrows with machines, now as ancient as the colony ship they came in. Following the twisting paths to the burrow she had been born and raised in, Tendel entered to find her mother and elder sister attempting to fix a digging robot.

Wondy, her sister, had the blades and casing strewn around her. Her mother had stripped the wiring harness out of it.

“Tendel,” her mother greeted, flicking her ears. “Come help.”

“I don’t do that,” Tendel said stiffly.

“Of course she doesn’t,” her sister said. “She’s too busy playing mind games with the Gilon to know how to do anything useful.”

“Wondy,” her mother admonished.

Tendel looked away to hide her doubts. The niggling thought that maybe she didn’t even know how to control the Gilon crept in. Natan was certainly proving to be a challenge. The High Council had used her before for tasks like this. She would have been assigned to Daharn if Ferrian hadn’t had more experience.

Her elder sister flicked her ears dismissively, her hands continuing to work at their task. “So what did they tell you to do to this one? Make him crazy?”

Lifting her chin, Tendel said, “Yes. Actually.”

“Well I haven’t noticed a difference.” Wondy looked up. “If anything, he’s been more inspiring than usual.” She smirked.

“My work is subtle and you wouldn’t understand my methods even if I explained them,” Tendel retorted.

Snorting in amusement, Wondy said, “He’s actively working against you? That’s hilarious.”

“Th- he-” Tendel sputtered.

“Wondy, stop tormenting your sister. Tendel says she’s getting results, then she’s getting results.” Her mother yanked a wire, finally pulling it free of the bundle.

Forcing her ears to remain perked, Tendel lifted her chin again. “The Council is expecting me.” She turned away.

“Come back for dinner, Tendel!” her mother called.

Heading through the twisting tunnels to the old colony ship they had arrived on, her ears drooped. The High Council used the bridge as their seat of power though the remaining ship wasn’t in good repair. Her mother’s unconditional support was somehow more painful to bear than her sister’s open animosity. Wondy was right, though… Natan knew what she was up to and was actively working against her. He had started keeping records in triples in weird places. He could talk his way back into the hearts of his crew no matter what she did to make him misbehave in front of them. The only thing that seemed to be working to drive a wedge was whenever he spoke against Hyphokos, but she was hesitant to use that. What if they started believing?

The only thing that was sure to kill Natan at this point was the fact that his mate was dead. Even that could take months, depending on how stubborn he was about it. She glowered, knowing full well he would do it just to spite her. They didn’t have months. They needed Natan out of the picture. They needed Vathion gone. This whole case was turning into a mess she couldn’t control and soon it would get beyond any Hyphokos’ ability to fix.

Outside the entrance into the ship, Tendel paused, closed her eyes and breathed.

First, she needed to report some positive things for the High Council.

“I can do this,” she told herself softly.

The old colony ship was full of dust despite the Hyphokos attempts to keep it clean. The ship had generally stopped functioning years ago, the Ehir going quiet and only maintaining the reactors. What the council had expected of a Shaxian Ehir, Tendel wasn’t sure. They still had their original personalities, after all. They weren’t like an AI; programmed for a task and unable to voice opinions. That was one thing the Gilon had come up with by themselves that had proved useful at least. Unfortunately, Natan had taken it further, creating an AI that acted almost like a Ehir. It was creepy, but at least Tendel could use him to hack it and modify her privileges, giving her full access to everywhere and everything on the ship.

Heading towards the fore-lift, Tendel got in. “Bridge,” she said.

The lift did not immediately move.

“Don’t you ignore me, you – hurg!”

The lift suddenly went into motion. Even though the Ehir refused to speak to them, it made its displeasure known in other ways. When the doors opened again, she was halfway between floors and forced to crawl up a several foot gap to get to the level she wanted. Some of the malfunctions could be blamed on the fact that the ship was six-thousand years old. However, the Hyphokos had done their best to maintain vital portions of the ship, this lift being one of them.

Tendel dusted off once she got out of the lift, muttering curses under her breath at the obstinate Ehir. Straightening tangles from her hair as she walked, Tendel felt she had made herself presentable by the time she got to the bridge. This time, unhelpfully, the door opened well before she arrived, leaving her a view of the room for quite some distance before actually being within proper speaking distance. Though she thought she could hear a high-pitched beeping coming from the room in an annoying, arrhythmic beat.

“Come in,” Lenle said. She and the other three High Council members were perched on the captain’s chair.

Tendel hesitated briefly as she realized one was missing. Ducking her head slightly, she hurried around to the front of the captain’s station and kept her eyes lowered as the High Council arranged themselves.

“You have come to report in person,” Lenle said blandly. “Is that wise?”

“I had the opportunity to do so,” she said. “Natan came to the Palace.”

“We noticed,” Lenle said. “Not a place the creature should be. Nor is this a place the Gilon should be exploring so thoroughly. You are to shut this effort to clear the Palace debris immediately.”

She didn’t manage to keep her ears completely still.

“You object to this assignment?” Lenle demanded.

“Not object,” Tendel said, lifting her nose slightly. “Natan’s attitude isn’t so easy to adjust.” She inwardly cringed as she realized how that sounded.

“Then this task is not suited to you,” Lenle pronounced. “We shall assign another.”

Tendel lifted her head. “That won’t be necessary,” she interrupted. “Nor would it be successful. Natan knows why I am there. He would not allow another to take my place.”

“Not allow?” Ireas snapped, moving to the edge of the station to stare down at Tendel. “Gilon have no say in this matter.”

“Natan is very stubborn,” Tendel said. “He’s not like the others.”

“An oversight on our part,” Usar said with a flick of her tail as she lounged on her side. “We should have kept a tighter rein on the chattel when they went into space.”

“I objected to allowing that,” Quarn put in. Although that was a decision thousands of years ago.

“We’re well aware,” Lenle spoke over her. Turning back to Tendel, Lenle settled herself. “Continue your report.”

“Natan is dying,” she said. “His mate was in the Palace. If I’d known that she was important to him when I had spoken to her the first time I could have made more headway.”

“Another oversight,” Usar said. “Who was in charge of finding such information?” She glanced towards Quarn.

“My people went to Larena.” Quarn sat up.

“Where the troublesome creature obviously was not,” Usar pointed out. “Surely Ferrian would have known?”

“Enough,” Lenle interrupted. She was obviously getting irritated. “Perhaps another pruning of the ranks is in order,” she suggested.

The other three exchanged glances.

Tendel tried not to shift uncomfortably. Talking to the High Council was always an odd experience. She felt like she was talking to the same person in five different heads. Now there were only four? Five was traditional, since they needed an odd vote to break stalemates. Not that the High Council voted anything other than unanimously. Still, the news of them rejecting one of their number was mildly unsettling.

Clearing her throat, Tendel straightened. “Natan’s attitude is unlike any Gilon we’ve encountered before,” she said. “He is aware of why I am there and actively works to thwart me. He keeps records in duplicate, and even though I have successfully gained full access to his ship, he still manages to hide information from me that he intends to pass on to Vathion once the abomination awakens. Currently, with his fragile biological state, it has been easy to coax him into violent behavior but this has been a tactic I am loath to use since I am usually his target. He is able to talk his way out of trouble for his outbursts within his crew and the only topic that successfully drives any distance between them is our treatment of Gilon and our motives. Again, I am loathe to use that subject since I have come to notice a trend within the Gilon crew that indicates they may begin listening to him if he goes on that subject with any seriousness. So far, the only way we will be rid of him entirely is when he dies due to the loss of his mate.”

“I knew emphasizing that scent bonding thing was a bad idea,” Lenle said.

“No, that was supposed to be me,” Quarn said.

“You’re both wrong,” Usar objected. “And it was the best thing we did to them. It is still our best way of controlling their breeding and population.”

Ireas spoke up, “And yet it causes them to become extremely violent towards anything they think is a threat to their kin.”

“Inconveniences,” Usar said, nodding. “We should discard them. This whole situation has gotten completely out of control since Likka discovered the truth about us.”

“There is still doubt that she shared it with Vathion,” Lenle mused.

“He no longer has a syote sack. We cannot control him.” Ireas said.

Tendel’s gaze jumped from one High Council member to the next, beginning to get confused as to who held what opinion on any subject.

Usar slammed her fist on the station. “Then we must be rid of it. That thing is an abomination. Should it die under Natan’s watch, then that one’s influence will be destabilized. We can still make this work.”

“Yes. Once both of them are discredited or dead, there will be no one in between placing Ferrian in charge again.”

“Hosha,” Lenle reminded. “She’s piloting Hosha now.”

“It doesn’t matter what the damn thing is called!” Usar objected.

“Yes. We can still salvage this,” Ireas agreed and straightened to look at the other three. “Voting: kill Vathion.”

“Agreed,” the other three said in unison.

Lenle turned to look at Tendel. “You are to kill Vathion and destabilize Natan.”

“If Natan were to be the one to do it…” Ireas mused.

“Yes. Make Natan do it.” Usar agreed.

“That will require some time,” Tendel cautioned.

Lenle waved her hand. “The time for finesse has passed. Just get it done.”

“We must proceed cautiously,” Quarn disagreed. “Last time we rushed things, we had to completely rewrite the memories of an entire city. It would be impossible to go to such lengths now as we have allowed the Gilon to spread beyond this one world.”

Lenle growled a sigh. “A mistake in and of itself.”

“Would those in space cooperate with a rewriting?” Ursar asked rhetorically. “We have been unable to obtain a foothold in their associations.”

“If she causes Natan to kill Vathion, then there will be no need for us to worry,” Quarn said. “He will be seen as insane and no one will listen when or if he says anything to implicate us.”

“It would be even better if he were to be reduced to a drooling hatchling shortly after the deed was done,” Lenle added.

“Yes,” all four of them hissed at the same time in glee.

Tendel tried her hardest not to shrink back. “I hear and obey,” she said quickly, hoping to escape the room before she was subjected to further rambling arguments among themselves.