Playing the Hero

 

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SAMPLE CHAPTERS 

Chapter 1

 

Taking Lisha in hand, Vathion twirled her to face him before swiftly dipping. For a moment, he gazed down at her, her blue hair pooling on the floor, eyes wide with anticipation. She had fought him every step of the way to get this, and he was still pissed about being forced to. However, he had already destroyed one of her other scenes and destroying this one too would bring down the wrath of the entire class that had helped modify the play.

Deciding that he had waited long enough, Vathion closed in – for the sloppiest kiss on record before abruptly releasing her. Lisha collapsed to the floor in an undignified heap and sat bolt upright, hands balled into fists. Quickly, he swept out his baton and grinned at the audience.

Onward mates! For the Empire!”

The crowd went wild.

Finally, the curtains closed.

If he had been given the choice, Vathion would have remained behind stage, or picked a different character, but he had been firmly overruled by the female contingent of his class. His own best friend, Mirith, had started it too, which was the real kicker but she knew how to get him to go along with her schemes. Vathion enjoyed acting, but it was mildly insulting to have to play the part of his own father, Ha’Natan, the charming daredevil Hero of Gilonnia.

The problem was that he hated Natan.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He hated playing Natan.

Giving that irresistible Natan grin, Vathion offered his hand down to Lisha. She accepted his hand with a dark look as the curtain opened for the bows. Lifting their joined hands as he and Lisha stepped forward, Vathion bowed in unison with his co-star, retreated as the other actors came forward to bow, and finally all of them took a final bow and the curtain closed again. His pinned on grin fell from his lips.

“What was that?” Lisha demanded, jerking her hand loose. She was slender, with fairly large breasts for a Gilon girl, stuffed into a skimpy blue dress that left little to the imagination, her dark blue hair tied in a tail at the back of her head.

Shrugging, Vathion said, “Hey, you got the kiss like you wanted, and that drop was in character. Which hurts more, your butt or your pride?” He sheathed his baton in a practiced move as he turned away from her. Giving a nonchalant wave of his hand, Vathion strode off the stage and out into the hall that ran beside the school’s auditorium. Lifting his hands, he began to pull his blue contacts out, putting them away in the case he had snuck into his coat pocket. Natan had blue eyes, not green. They had forced him to paint his Bondstone too, since Natan’s bond, Paymeh, had blue eyes too. All of this had been just so that he would look like the real Ha’Natan. He scratched at the paint on the glassy coin-sized organ in the center of his forehead.

:That was pretty funny,: Jathas, Vathion’s Bond, sniggered mentally, :You didn’t do bad with the ad-libs either, they were a lot funnier and more natural than the lines you forgot. Sorry I wasn’t quick enough with them for you.:

Giving a slight shake of his head, Vathion thought back at his hyphokos friend, :Not your fault, I can’t rely on you to remember everything for me. Otherwise tests would be a measure of how much you retained rather than how much I did.:

Jathas laughed softly. :Okay.:

The audience filled the hall near the doors to the auditorium, blocking easy exit. Vathion paused as he pondered how he was going to find his mother and get out before Lisha caught up to him; or worse – Paire, her boyfriend.

“Vathion,” a voice called out. He looked back to see Paire, the drama teacher’s pet and the one who had been stuck with the unfortunate role of Ma’Gatas, coming up behind him. Paire was nice enough when not provoked, but Vathion was glad that in another week Paire would be graduated and gone.

Grinning, he dropped an arm around Vathion’s shoulders, which only he could do, since they were of comparable height; somewhere around five feet and seven inches. “You did a great job!” Paire said with a glint in his eyes. They were cousins on Vathion’s mother’s side, but that didn’t mean they had to like it, or each other.

Vathion shook his head slightly. “I think you would have done better,” he said honestly.

Paire removed the amber wig and fluffed his sweaty cyan hair, some of it falling into his sleepy ocean blue eyes. The stage makeup, simulating Ma’Gatas’s scars, gave him a slightly older look for the moment. He picked at it, “This stuff smells terrible,” he muttered, then turned back to the topic at hand. “I just don’t fit the part of Ha’Natan. He’s rather energetic.” He prodded Vathion’s ribs. Vathion squirmed, uncommonly ticklish. “Besides, you look just like him – and do that line so well,” Paire concluded.

He rolled his eyes. “You’re a passable look alike too, and also senior in the class. I shouldn’t have gotten the role.”

“You’ve got the hair, though.”

Vathion shoved his dark violet hair out of his face. He’d had it cut just before the play into the shaggy, slightly wavy mop that Natan had made quite popular. The twin locks framing his Bondstone were the most annoying part about it. “Quite by accident, I assure you,” he deadpanned.

Giving a slight shrug in return, Paire grinned and ruthlessly poked again as he guided Vathion towards the crowd gathering at the end of the hall.

Clearing his throat, Vathion said, “I think you did a really good job as Gatas. I think everyone was actually sorry to see him go.”

The real Ma’Gatas was alive still. The students of the senior level drama club had decided that someone needed to die and they had, of course, picked Gatas. He was glad that Paire was at least making an effort to appear as if he was not mad about Vathion getting to play the highly coveted lead role. Vathion had tried to give Paire his moment by making a show of mourning the loss of his second in command before bouncing back to hit on Lisha briefly before getting distracted by the plot line of the play.

A laugh, and Paire let Vathion go. “Of course they were!” he said, lifting his hands in a flippant wave that was, admittedly, one of Natan’s gestures – though generally done with a lot more energy than Paire did it. “I believe every character has a good and bad side, even if they are griping cowards, and it helped that you played along so well!” He lowered his arm again, pushing lightly on Vathion’s shoulder, keeping him aimed towards the crowd that was steadily growing larger at the end of the hall. “Come now, you should go talk to your fans! They loved your performance!”

Leaning closer, he whispered sharply, “You really pissed Lisha off, you know.”

Stopping abruptly, which forced Paire to halt as well, Vathion shook his head. “She ticked me off, pushing for that kiss. Ha’Natan hasn’t played around like that in years. Besides, she’s your girlfriend. I don’t poach.”

Before Paire could comment, they were rushed by the audience. “Wow! You really look just like him!” the mate of the drama teacher enthused, “You ever thought of becoming an actor for real?” She was just as rabid about acting as her mate.

Flushing, Vathion shook his head. “I’ve got other plans,” he said enigmatically, cursing how much he sounded like his father, even just speaking normally; especially in these last few years since his latest growth spurt.

A strange man dressed in flamboyant lime and pink pushed forward then, inflicting himself on Vathion’s vision. If he had not known better, Vathion would have mistaken him for a Wilsaer, given how terrible his fashion sense was. The man extended a gold-ring encrusted hand and grasped Vathion’s firmly before the young Gilon could get away, pumped a few times – and did not let go afterwards. The intense smell of perfume wafted over Vathion, making his eyes water.

“Hello! Hello! Hell-OH young man! Vathion Mayles, correct? Yes, yes! You’re sure you’ve got other plans? Like… what? Perhaps service in the Navy?” he leered, pulling Vathion off balance and down several inches, his ruby eyes glittering. He rudely sniffed Vathion’s personal scent, which was quite strong after two hours of running around in black under hot stage lights. “Or maybe a privateer? Own your own ships and kite about the Empire for Justice?” He grinned knowingly. His short hair was bleached, and may once have been red but was now definitely pink and frizzy. His Bondstone, set between his deep red eyebrows, was clear. Vathion wasn’t surprised.

Vathion fought to free his hand from the man’s. “Sorry, but I don’t know you.” Just as he got free, his wrist was grabbed again and turned over to expose the calluses he had acquired over the years of training in the use of the baton that hung at his hip.

“The name’s Hiba,” the man said as he flicked a card out of his sleeve, slapping it into Vathion’s hand, then grinned again. “Call me if you’re ever interested in setting anything up.”

Shaking his head, Vathion turned and reached across with his left hand, grabbing Paire’s sleeve, “Here, Mister Hiba – this is Paire Danton, my cousin, he’s looking to be an actor and is graduating in a week. Didn’t he do such a wonderful job playing Ma’Gatas? Absolutely tragic, wasn’t it?”

He shoved the startled Paire between himself and Hiba and stuck the card into Paire’s hand. Vathion grimaced frantically over Paire’s shoulder – though the expression ended up looking just like one of Natan’s silly grins.

Paire’s eyes widened with surprise. “Mister Hiba you say?” He grinned and immediately began his pitch.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Vathion turned – only to encounter Lisha. Lifting a hand, she swept it out to slap him, but he ducked back and caught her hand in his with a loud clap. Grinning, Vathion pulled her in to tuck her under his arm.

“You were so great! Wonderful acting, Lisha! Really!” He tugged her closer and turned towards the audience members who immediately pulled out their cameras. Lisha was forced to smile for the pictures and Vathion leaned close and purred in her ear, “Really, quite amazing work with the writing too.”

Her expression changed and a light blush touched her cheeks as she looked up at him; he gave that seductive little smirk Natan always did, eyes half lidded. As he had expected, she lost her claws in the face of the inherited charm. He turned back towards the cameras with a grin and raised his other hand behind Lisha’s head, two fingers poking out from behind her hair. There was even someone from the local paper taking pictures. Vathion grinned all the broader when the flash went off. Lisha was sure to see that one.

Releasing Lisha, he propelled her towards her groupies. They probably wanted to ask the obnoxious girl if Vathion was a good kisser.

A hand grabbed his arm, and Vathion looked down to find his mother’s large emerald green eyes and long matching hair. “Here you are!” she said and huddled next to him, in danger of getting swept away by the crowd. Smiling, she took advantage of an ebb in the crowd to wrap her arms around his shoulders and pull him down to kiss his cheek. She was only five feet tall, and looked tiny next to his over-average height of five foot seven. His father was even taller at five nine, but Vathion was not done growing yet.

Drawing back, Hasabi grinned, still restraining him to her eye-level, “Oh, you look just like him! I recorded it all so we can send it to your father.” Thankfully the noise of the crowd covered her soft voice and only he heard. “He’ll be so proud!” she kissed his cheek again. Flushing, he hugged her back.

“You think he’ll like it?” Vathion asked, unsure.

Hasabi nodded. “He’ll love the end. That was funny!” She kissed his cheek again. “Come on, let’s get home and get some dinner.”

Grinning, Vathion nodded. “Okay!”

Standing back slightly, Hasabi dusted off his shoulders and straightened the short jacket and panel of cloth with red tassels that rested on his shoulders. “You look so good in that uniform.” Leaning up on her toes, Hasabi whispered, “I think he’ll be getting you into one when you graduate.” She winked, eyes flicking towards Hiba – who was still talking to Paire but looking at Vathion.

Vathion shook his head. “Only if you come too.” He fiddled with one of the hanging ends of his Tassels.

A sly smile crossed his mother’s lips and she whispered, “Edict from the Emperor couldn’t stop me! Come on, I’m making your favorite tonight!”

In an inadvertent mimic of his father, Vathion pumped his fist, “Yeah!” Vathion glanced around, flushing at the eyes on him.

Hiba leaned over and asked loudly, “You sure you’re not the son of our dear Hero Ha’Natan?” He grinned from ear to ear.

“What’s wrong with you?” Vathion snapped, flushing even darker as an uncomfortable pocket of silence fell around them. People looked at Hiba accusingly.

Paire cleared his throat and murmured to Hiba, “His dad’s dead.”

Hiba briefly looked uncertain, glanced at Hasabi, then smiled again.

Thankful that Paire had inadvertently covered for him, Vathion turned away. Flailing his fist, he began forging his way through the crowd, “Come on, Mom. Let’s get dinner!” he crowed like a call to arms.

“For the Empire!” Hasabi chimed.

Cringing, Vathion eyed her over his shoulder and sighed. It wasn’t a fight worth starting – especially not in public. Catching up to him, Hasabi latched onto his arm and pulled him along out the doors, ditching the after-play cast party. Parties just did not interest him – all he did during them was sit silently brooding in a corner. There was just too little he had in common with his classmates and too much he could not say for fear of having his life completely ruined by Ha’Natan’s fans and followers.

Besides, Natan was probably going to talk to him about the play tonight, and he was sort of looking forward to bragging to his father about upstaging Paire and Lisha. They were not his favorite people in school.

Outside, the night air was cool and Vathion ran his other hand through his hair, fluffing the violet locks before picking at the paint on his Bondstone. Eika, Hasabi’s hyphokos Bond was waiting atop the car. It was the only way the exceptionally small Hyphokos could avoid getting trampled or run over other than being merged with Hasabi. When Hasabi came close, she leapt and landed gracefully upon his mother’s shoulder.

“Quit picking at it, you’re going to hurt yourself,” Eika admonished as she tucked her shiny black braid back behind her long flexible ear. She had painted green designs up her hands and feet, the color a bright contrast against the deep red she had acquired with age. Only a small stripe of yellow remained down her spine.

Hasabi unlocked the car doors and they climbed in. “She’s right. We’ll take something to clean it off when we get home.”

“It’s just uncomfortable. Jathas can’t see.”

The trip home was uneventful, and thankfully short. Stepping out of the car, Vathion reached in to help his mother from the car and Eika scurried out afterwards. the car doors locked automatically behind them.

Hasabi hurried inside, “I’ll get dinner in the oven,” she said.

Stepping in through the front door after her, Vathion peered down the front hall to find that his mother was already in the kitchen. Taking off the belt that held his baton, Vathion dropped it over the back of the couch on his way to the vidphone in the far corner of the room. A link was already open and sending a file. He glanced at the destination; his mother’s parents, the Gannatets next door, and his father.

His ankle-high boots clacked on the hardwood of the floor as he pulled the chair out from in front of the desk and took a seat. The vid blinked with a call. Vathion pressed the icon on the screen to answer.

“Heyla!” Ha’Natan shouted in surprise, “Kiti! I said call Hasabi, not gimme a mirror!”

Unlike Vathion, Natan was not wearing his coat and Tassels. Vathion suspected that otherwise he and Natan probably did look incredibly alike. They both had mops of violet hair, pointed features, and tall, thin builds. Natan grinned, showing the faint wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth.

Paymeh, Natan’s Hyphokos bond, sat on the desk beside his Gilon and slurped something from a teacup. Cocking his long tapering ears, Paymeh blinked his dark blue multifaceted eyes. Being an older Hyphokos, he was mostly red with only a thin stripe of yellow down his back.

Sighing, Vathion shook his head. “It’s just my costume.”

The icon in the bottom of the screen flashed and popped out of existence, announcing that the files were sent. Odd how just a comment like that from his father could put him in a bad mood.

“I think mom just sent you the play.” Lifting a hand, he picked at the paint on his Bondstone some more, but it wasn’t coming off and he began to wonder what the people doing the make-up for the play had used.

Grinning, Natan nodded. “Yep! Can’t wait to see it! I bet you blew their socks off.” He pumped his arms above his head, then looked down at Paymeh and sniffed. “Hey, gimme some of that.” He took the cup from the Hyphokos and gulped a swallow before handing it back.

Putting his elbows on the desk, Vathion rested his chin on the heels of his hands, “Yeah, Dad, they thought it was you on stage,” he said sullenly, eyes half lidded.

Shifting, the violet haired man on the other side of the wallscreen dropped his smile briefly. “Oh come on,” he kicked his feet under the desk with a loud klong of the metal toes of his boots against the already dented wall, audible over the vid. “You’re not looking at it the right way. Just think of all the girls you could hook up with!”

Scowling at his father, Vathion said, “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 paused and sat back, folding his arms on his chest.

“Is that your father?” Hasabi called from the kitchen, and then leaned out the door briefly, “Oh! Vath – watch the oven for a minute?”

Getting up, Vathion gladly surrendered the chair to his mother. Once in the kitchen, he kept as quiet as he could so he could listen. “Oh, what’d he say this time?” Hasabi asked once Vathion was out of sight.

Sighing, Natan said, “Nothing he’s not entitled to think. Am I pushing him too hard? I just want him to lighten up some. He always looks like someone kicked his pet!”

Vathion pursed his lips as he walked over to the oven. :I don’t, do I?: he asked Jathas.

:Eh… you do. You should lighten up some, Vath. And you really should quit comparing yourself to Natan too.:

They had been Bonded since Vathion was seven, a very young age for them both to have done so, but Vathion would not trade it for the world. Jathas was the only one who knew all Vathion’s secrets and desires, and the only one who understood them.

:You’re just fine as yourself,: Jathas concluded.

Crouching, Vathion rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the casserole that sat behind the tinted glass of the oven door.

“Natan, he’s all right, he’s just busy all the time.” Her voice lowered and Vathion stood again and snuck closer to the kitchen door to hide against the pantry and eavesdrop on his parents, “I think he’s just mad about never getting to meet you.”

“I’m working on it, Hasabi!” Natan said immediately, “I don’t like it either, but things just keep happening and… maybe next year.” He sounded defeated, “Things out here on the border are heating up again and though it doesn’t sound like we’re doing much, there is something I’m working on that I can’t just…”

“I know,” Hasabi interrupted. “You don’t have to tell me.”

Silence fell for a moment. Then Natan said weakly, “It’s not excuses…”

Closing his eyes, Vathion folded his arms across his ribs, fingers tucked under. He hated those three words with a passion. Usually Hasabi’s answer had been “okay” but lately, it had just gotten harder, what with all the reports of defections, like Kimidas station, and the destroyed fleets, Vathion feared every time he turned on Interstellar News that the next story up would be the destruction of the Natan Fleet.

Then, as if that were not enough stress, Vathion was nearly an adult, and while their family had managed to stay alive this long, Vathion was terrified of the change in his scent that would trigger his mother’s decline into death.

It was this stupid war. It had been going on for far too long, but there really was not much anyone could do about it, other than continue to fight. It had all started back a generation ago when Gelran – the current emperor’s uncle – had assassinated a noble for some minor infraction. Assassination just wasn’t done in Gilon society. As a result, Gelran had been publically dressed down, stripped of his title, and disowned, his little brother Armalan put in his place. Gelran had then enlisted the ex-head of the Navy, Ha’Likka, to assist in taking over. She had been recently discharged for medical reasons, and it was whispered that she was scent-deaf and that she had murdered her own mate.

Vathion did not know whether that was true or not, but either way, it was disturbing. Regardless, due to the associations Gilons naturally made, when Gelran left and Ha’Likka went with him, many others left as well and the empire was ripped in two. Whether anyone really wanted to defect or not was not really up to them, fear and loyalty kept the war going on both sides.

Hasabi shifted, making the slightly wobbly chair thump on the floor as Vathion skittered back across the room to check the oven and make sure dinner wasn’t burning. He got back to the door just in time to hear his mother’s answer, “I know. It’s just getting hard to believe you even exist anymore. Natan, I love you, Vathion loves you, but, we’re lonely. Can’t you come for a day? I need you.” Her voice lowered again, “I don’t know if I can last much longer without you.”

“I’ll send something,” he said, sounding distraught.

“I don’t want something! I want you!”

“But… I can’t just visit. I’d never be able to leave.”

Vathion jumped slightly as Hasabi slammed her hand on the desk. Raising her voice, she said, “Then why not take us with you? Vathion’s out of school in a week, and I talked to the Dean just the other day – Vathion really doesn’t need to stay for two more years. He’s got all his credits to graduate, he’s wasting time there, and I’m tired of being alone!”

Risking getting spotted, Vathion peered around the corner, spying his father sitting with his shoulders slumped, head bowed. “Hasabi – it’s dangerous out here…” Natan objected, though not strongly.

Surging to her feet and blocking his view, Hasabi shouted, “I don’t care! I want to be with you, Natan! That’s all I ever wanted! You’re playing with our lives! It was risky enough for you to leave back then, but it’s been so long – it’s starting to wear on me and I doubt it’s done you much good either!”

Silence fell again as Hasabi sank back down into her seat and Natan looked up past her at Vathion. He winced at his son’s expression even as the boy ducked back out of sight. Lips pulled in a long line – not quite a frown, Natan remained silent, thinking, and finally sighed. “A week? And he’s out?” he asked, “get it settled, Hasabi… I’ll send a transport.”

Hasabi lifted her head, a smile coming to her lips beneath her tears. Vathion peeked out from the kitchen once more, expression open and a spark of excitement coming to his eyes, and Natan sighed, lips unable to stay in anything resembling a frown for long. “You two really know how to manipulate me,” he said, “I love you so much.” He looked first at Hasabi, then his son, who had not ducked back again.

“I love you too,” Hasabi said, wiping her tears with the corner of her sleeve.

Shifting out of the kitchen door completely, his Tassels slightly askew, Vathion played with one of the ends as he offered faint smile, then looked down when Hasabi turned to eye him, “I love you too, Dad,” he admitted and retreated back into the kitchen to check the stove.

For a moment longer, Natan was silent, staring at the kitchen door, then closed his eyes, as if imprinting that moment into his mind. Vathion rarely said those words. “One week, then. I’ll see you in a week.”

 

Chapter 2

“Hey Vathion!” Mirith called as they got off the bus, “Quit ignoring me!” she demanded, catching up to him. Stopping, he looked towards her, then glanced behind her as the bus started off again, leaving them alone on the corner of the street. Mirith was his best Gilon friend, and in a class of her own when it came to females of his species.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked, “After the play, you ran off before I could talk to you, and today your improv’ in class was terrible, you didn’t say a word to me at lunch, and now on the bus, you just sat there staring off into space like there’s somewhere else you’d rather be. C’mon! Lighten up! It’s nearly summer and Mom and Dad are planning another trip to the mountains. You’re invited of course.”

Vathion took a breath and summoned a smile for his best friend. She was shorter than he – but then, most people were. Her large brown eyes were currently pinched at the corners as she stood leaning towards him, fists on her hips. The way her backpack hung from the straps over her shoulders made her shirt pull tighter across her breasts. As for the rest of her body, it was a fine shape – she did not overeat and did interesting things with flowers to enhance her natural scent, which the other young men in her grade had noticed.

“Sorry, got something on my mind,” he said, deciding to tell part of the truth. It had been a long day at school. But at least it was the last day of classes for the year before summer break, and the last day of classes for him at all. Tomorrow, he would be leaving Larena, flying to Ika station, then heading to the Serfocile-owned Baelton station where the Natan Fleet was currently parked, and finally meeting his father.

“Oh come on! I’m your best friend! If you could tell anyone other than Jathas about something bothering you, I’d hope it would be me,” Mirith dropped her head to the side, her hair falling across her shoulder. She’d dyed it blonde some time back but was letting her natural green return. She was right for the most part. However, he still had secrets from even her – such as who his father was and what he really did with his spare time.

Today, it had been those multitudes of things she did not know that had been weighing on his mind. It had been the realization that he was leaving and probably never coming back that had distracted him so terribly.

Now, he was nearly depressed about the prospect of finally getting to meet his father. It meant giving up everything he had grown up with, including Mirith. Out of all of his friends, he would only be able to bring Jathas. He might see some of the spacers that hung out in the Café, but they were adults and not the same. Those he went to school with would completely freak when they found out who his father really was and that would be the end to his attempts to be normal. No one would ever treat him the same again.

It was Mirith’s opinion he was really worried about.

She had been his best friend since he started school. Very much a tomboy, she held a firm belief in justice and standing up for the weak. As a result, she had been his protector when he was little. By the time he’d started standing up for himself, she had hit puberty and had started hitting on him in very obvious attempts to get in his pants. Unfortunately, despite being of the proper age now, Vathion had not developed the hormones to allow him to be the least bit interested in her. Though he knew that was a lie, he was a little interested, but any thoughts of such things were quashed as quickly as possible. Those kinds of scents were dangerous in his house. If his mother died, it would be his fault because he’d grown up.

At least, once they met his father, Hasabi would be safe from Vathion’s oncoming adulthood. Then, if Mirith were still interested, he would make a move on her. That was his plan anyway.

Taking a breath, Vathion shook his head, then looked up at the sky in an effort to keep his cool and not get choked up, “Dean Farlis called me into his office today,” he admitted, “Gave me my diploma.” ‘And thanked me for not being like my father. Makes me wonder what Dad DID to the man.’

“What?” Mirith demanded, stepping forward as her hands went to his shoulders, “But why?”

Vathion managed another smile. “I’ve got all the credits I need to graduate.”

“Two years early!” Mirith said, “Why didn’t you say something about this earlier? This is great news! We’re going to graduate together now!”

He shrugged. Mirith was only a year older than he, seventeen, but she was brilliant in a school full of overachievers and geniuses. Of course Natan would never have his only son in a school that did not give the best education available anywhere in the Gilon Empire.

“You should be jumping for joy! Not looking like – like someone kicked your pet!” She bounced on her toes.

Drawing himself up, Vathion snorted. “I don’t have a pet,” he said haughtily. “I just didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Mirith shoved her hands into her hair – which made her breasts look like they were going to pop out of the flattering square neckline of her shirt, “You! You – don’t make me tickle you! I’ll find out what’s wrong! Sooner or later, you know that, don’t you?” Mirith shook a finger at him. “Possibly over cookies?”

“Cookies?” Vathion mewed. Mirith’s cookies were even better than Vathion’s mother’s and it was difficult to resist.

:Would it really be that bad if you did tell her?: Jathas suggested, having been silent for most of the day.

Vathion shifted his book bag on his shoulder, hoisting it up higher. He’d cleaned out his locker, so the bag was uncommonly heavy.

“If you tell me what’s wrong?” Mirith begged, hazel brown eyes widening even further as she leaned in towards him. He suspected that she’d noticed his occasional glances towards her breasts and was now trying to use her limited leverage to get him to agree.

Finally, he shuffled a foot and looked aside, “All right.”

Sly grin breaking across her features, Mirith looped her arm with his and latched on, heading him towards her house. “So, did you see the latest episode of the Fleet Show?” she asked conversationally.

Vathion rolled his eyes. “Filler,” he said.

“Yeah. Still funny though!” Turning her head, she peered up at him as she continued, “What with his saying he named one of his ships after a squished pet fish?”

Pulling a face, Vathion declined to comment – as he had plenty to say about that episode, but since Mirith did not know, and possibly would not believe him without proof of some sort, there was no point. Especially considering that the only form of proof she would accept was his calling up Ha’Natan personally and introducing them.

Since the rest of Natan’s fleet were named after his zodiac and people in his family, the names of his two ships Hasabi and Vathion were a subject of much debate; only exacerbated by the previous night’s Natan Fleet Show episode where Natan’s actor, Mayban, had claimed that Hasabi was his mother’s Hyphokos and Vathion was a pet fish he’d had as a child and accidentally killed. There had been speculation on the news for years that Ha’Natan had hidden his child somewhere – as well as speculation for how he’d managed to do it. This was considered a very crackpot theory, though, even if a few scientists had gotten together and studied the possibility of such an occurrence.

Their conclusion had been that Natan had to have artificially inseminated a woman in order to avoid contact with her scent. They had expressed extreme pity for a child born of such a union. So of course there were nutcase fans scouring every planet in the Empire for him or her. Interstellar News had not been called about Vathion, yet though a few other candidates had been offered. However, after background checks, they had been tossed out. Vathion’s identity was safe enough, since no one knew Natan’s last name. All the information on Natan’s family had been “lost” by the Imperial government some time ago. Not even Vathion knew his paternal last name. Instead he and Hasabi used his mother’s maiden name; Mayles.

He missed catching Mirith’s sly glance at him. She knew he had a slight dislike for the show. She even teased him about it sometimes, saying his railing against it sounded like jealousy.

“Besides, what was with that girl?” Mirith continued.

“Oh, the Six, Gold, Doughnuts, and Alcohol?” Vathion said, using the woman’s stats, since he did not remember what the character’s name had been. She was a one-shot, probably looking for her start in show business, and playing a partying, egotistical bimbo on the Natan Fleet Show was as good a start as any.

Mirith snorted. “Reminded me a lot of Lisha,” she said. “What with her whole ‘KISS me, Ha’Natan!'” Mirith spun away abruptly to face him and he stopped, watching as she flung her arms up into the air gleefully.

Finally breaking into a laugh, Vathion shook his head. Mirith, overbalanced on her toes, swayed forward and landed against his chest. Lifting his hands, he caught her.

“You did really great in the play, you know?”

Startled by her tone and the nearness, her body pressed against his as she stepped closer, Vathion stared into her eyes. “Promise me,” he said, the words slipping free before he could stop them.

She stared up at him, waiting for him to continue.

“Promise you’ll always be my friend, above everything else?”

Her own expression sobering, Mirith’s lips curved into a gentle smile. “Of course.”

On impulse, Vathion leaned down, pressing his lisps to hers in an awkward and unpracticed kiss. Mirith melted against him in a way that made his heart beat faster.

:Maybe it’ll be all right to give in just a little bit?: he reasoned to Jathas, then realized that his Bond was cheering in the back of his mind and trying to be quiet about it.

A passing car honked at them, and Vathion, flushing to the roots of his violet hair, pulled back to stare wide-eyed at the vehicle as it continued down the road. Mirith remained where she was – grinning like she just got first prize. Staring down at her in confusion, Vathion wondered if it was possible to be any more embarrassed – and found out when she stood on her toes to whisper into his triangle-shaped ear, “I got you horny!”

Realizing she was right, he could do little but stumble after her as she stepped away and dragged him down the street towards her house. :But I can’t! Not yet! Have to meet Dad first! Then Mom will be fine and everything will be fine!:

:Calm down,: Jathas ordered, :I doubt she’ll make you do anything you don’t want to.:

Reaching Mirith’s house, she pulled him down the white-pebble path to her front door. Her house was like most others in the neighborhood, the short fence surrounding the front garden was painted sunshine yellow, the flowers within the garden were arranged in a pattern and planted so that they would bloom at certain times to make different patterns. Mirith’s mother was pretty good at selecting flowers like that.

Getting her door open, Mirith pulled him inside and shut the door behind. “Mom and Dad won’t be home for another hour,” she offered.

“Miri,” Vathion swallowed, leaning back against the door, something in his bag poking him uncomfortably in his back, “My mom,” he said, voice cracking.

As if he’d thrown ice water on her, Mirith’s eyes widened, then dulled and her shoulders sank. “Vath… I’m sorry… you’ve tried really hard, I know you have, but… Nature is just cruel sometimes. You can’t stay a kid forever.”

“I know, but…” Staring at her face, Vathion took a breath and cleared his throat, “I won’t be able to go on the trip with you. Mom and I are going to go somewhere. We’re leaving tomorrow. And… After that – everything will be okay with Mom. I’ll be able to do what I want then.”

Straightening, Mirith stared at him for a long moment. “Where?” she asked.

Baelton,” Vathion admitted finally. He really did not want to lie to her. He would have told her too, if she would have believed it. “I… probably won’t be able to see you for a while though.”

She turned away, pulling her backpack off to set on the floor under the coat rack to the left. Her house was built on similar plans to Vathion’s, with the living room to the right and a hall straight off the front door. “So, you want cookies still?” Mirith asked, looking towards him and managing a smile.

“Yeah,” Vathion answered. ‘I hate these secrets.’

:Then why not tell her?: Jathas asked.

Vathion ignored him.

Setting his bag down, Vathion followed her into the kitchen.

“So, you got your grades from the finals back today, didn’t you?” Mirith asked as he took a seat at her dining table while she got the cookies out and brought him a glass of milk.

“Yeah,” Vathion sighed, “I got a B in language. Gonna catch hell for that one.”

Mirith snorted, “What? Someone going to spank you?” she teased.

Looking towards her, Vathion snorted. “He’d have to catch me first!” Her reply was to grin mischievously; apparently she was over his rejection.

She quirked a brow at that but thankfully didn’t ask.

“It was barely a B anyway. Aola’s just a stickler for pronunciation!”

Mirith sat down beside him and picked up a cookie, shoving it into Vathion’s mouth as he opened it to continue griping. Mirith continued speaking, “Sheh is a Linguist. Of course sheh is snippety about proper grammar and punctuation. We’re very lucky to have sheh teaching at our school. Even if no one knows where the hell to find Humans. What exactly did you call her, anyway?”

Vathion swallowed the mouthful of cookie and said, “An honorable scallop. I meant to say scholar!” He lifted a hand to catch the crumbs he accidentally sputtered on the table, trying to not waste.

Breaking into a laugh, Mirith said, “No wonder she looked so pissed!”

“Come on! Those words are really close in Terran!” Vathion defended after swallowing, then picked up his drink to wash it down. Mirith just continued to laugh at him. “Not like I’m planning on being any sort of translator or anything. Certainly can’t be a Linguist like her.” Instead of studying, Vathion had been working on his father’s birthday present – a hack code for standard AI’s – as well as memorizing his lines for that stupid play, and studying for the rest of his finals. There was also a little recreational hack he had done on the video game his father had given him, Battle Fleet, involving the Graviball graphics and the characters he did not like; such as his second in command and a few Imperial fleet captains and admirals. Honestly, though, Vathion figured his father could really use something like the AI hack to reap information from Rebels directly. So, he should be glad!

Lifting a brow, Mirith blinked, “Her? Oh, I guess sheh would have told you sheh‘s gender. You’re Aola’s pet after all.”

“What do you mean by that?” Vathion demanded, turning to look at Mirith, reminded once again that she smelled rather good when she leaned in close to answer.

“Only that you’ve been taught by sheh since fourth grade and sheh‘s always making you translate stuff for the rest of the class, and sheh interrogated you the longest during the exams.”

“Oh, so you mean that I’m her pet because she torments me the most?” Vathion said, leaning towards her in return.

Drawing back suddenly, Mirith turned away to take a bit of her own cookie, leaving Vathion to lurch forward in surprise. :Oh, now she’s getting back at me by TEASING,: Vathion observed to Jathas.

His Hyphokos suddenly disengaged, dropping to the floor, then climbing up onto the table to get a cookie of his own. “Hello Jath,” Mirith greeted the lizard-like creature. “Decided to join the conversation?”

“Abandoning him,” Jathas said cheerfully as he pointed a stubby finger at Vathion, his long ears up and facing towards the two like exclamation points, “And getting cookies of my own. They’re too good to enjoy vicariously!”

“Why thank you!” Mirith said.

* * *

 

Meandering towards his house, Vathion balanced on the curb, arms out. Lifting his eyes, he gazed around, taking this moment of solitude to actually look at things – how often it seemed that he just rushed through life, from one thing to the next without noticing the scenery. It made him feel a bit empty.

His neighborhood was a well kept one, consisting of a main street with cul-de-sacs on either side. Association groups regularly lived together in one of these rings and each had neatly trimmed gardens surrounding the houses. Gardening was an age old Gilon and Hyphokos pastime, dating back to the dawn of history when they had first discovered how to do it. Some historians believed that Gilons had become intelligent not just because of Hyphokos influence, but because of their love for collecting pretty flowers in one place, which had lead to farming, and from there, industry.

“Vathion!” called Mrs. Ameda Gannatet from her front garden on the left side of his house. She was getting on in her years with gray hair kept short in an almost military no-nonsense style. Her stormy blue eyes were surrounded by wrinkles, as was her wide mouth, set in a triangular face that had always seemed vaguely familiar to Vathion, though he could not place why. She waved at him and Vathion stopped, turned, and headed towards her.

Smiling as he came up, he dropped his bag briefly to give the old woman a hug, closing his eyes as her scent wafted over him. “Hi Missus Gannatet,” he greeted, breaking into one of his rare true grins, “Guess what!” His time with Mirith had lifted his mood, which was nice, considering that it had been pretty black by the time he got off the bus.

Holding him back at arm’s length, she smiled at him, eyes lighting in a way that truly made him think that she was using him as a replacement for someone – just as he was using her. Not that Vathion minded if she did use him, it was mutually beneficial to them both and Hasabi approved of his spending time with the old woman and her mate.

“What dear?” she asked.

“I graduated today! Two years early,” Vathion announced, but refrained from telling her why other than, “Mom and I are going to go see Dad finally!” She at least had been told – by Hasabi – that her mate was still alive, just elsewhere. A breath of excitement washed through him again, but it turned cold as he caught the old woman’s expression.

She looked pained and upset, but managed to smile at him, though he could tell there were tears in her eyes. “That’s wonderful news, darling,” she said, voice strained.

Confused, Vathion hugged her again, “I’ll call, if you want,” he offered, trying to make it better somehow.

“Yes,” she whispered, petting his hair, “Yes, I would like that. Please call.”

“Missus Gannatet? Is something wrong?”

Sniffling, Ameda fished a smile out from somewhere and managed to make it look genuine, “I’m just overwhelmed – how fast you grew up, Vathion!” she patted his cheek lightly, then touched his hair, and he felt as if she was not really looking at him, but someone else, “Already graduated and going off to space. Be careful out there. Try to keep your father out of trouble. Now run along, dear, before your mother gets worried about you.”

Reluctantly, Vathion picked up his bag again, then gave the old woman another hug before turning and heading back to his house where he stepped onto the white pebble path to the front door. It was a Gilon’s dream home, and the only thing missing was his father, and it made Vathion wonder why Natan had bothered choosing to have a child if he had not wanted to be with them. He sighed, unlocked the door, and glanced back towards his neighbor’s house to find Mrs. Gannatet gone. Sighing again, he stepped in.

A strange, strangled noise startled him, and he paused, waiting to hear it again.

Hasabi’s strained voice called. “Vathion, come here…”

Kicking off his shoes and dumping his heavy bag on the floor next to the door, Vathion continued into the living room and over to the corner where they had their wallscreen set up to take calls. A man sat in view on the other side of the screen, wearing what was unmistakably the Natan Fleet uniform. That man was Ma’Gatas, Ha’Natan’s second in command on the flagship Xarian. Ma’Gatas looked grim, the scars on the left side of his face pale against his slightly yellow tinted skin, his excessive weight made his jowls heavy and chin – which had never been strong even in his youth – double and sag down his neck. He had thinning amber hair clipped close to his scalp, and large, nearly bulging, cyan eyes. Vathion was only familiar with Ma’Gatas’s portrayal on the Natan Fleet Show.

Hasabi was seated in front of the screen, heart-shaped face in her hands, shoulders shaking, and it had been her stifled sob that had stopped him at the door. Vathion rushed to his mom, putting his arms around her shoulders, not registering the look of shock on Gatas’s face.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” Vathion asked gently, all thoughts of Mrs. Gannatet’s confusing behavior driven from his mind.

Shaking her head, Hasabi wrapped her arms around him in a hug, “Talk to him,” she said, gesturing at the screen and let go, getting up and stumbling off into the bathroom, he could still hear her sobbing. Looking back towards the screen, Vathion reluctantly took a seat.

“I am Ma’Gatas,” the man introduced needlessly, “Second in command of the flagship Xarian,” he hesitated, “I’m sorry, but… Ha’Natan is dead. He has named you his son, and heir.” Vathion felt the blood drain from his face, and all he could do was sit there with a blank look, unable to respond. Tears stung his eyes as Ma’Gatas continued, “A transport is already on its way. It should arrive in twenty-six hours.”

This shook him out of his numbness and into shock, “Wait – wait – what?” he asked, leaning forward, placing both hands on the desk in front of him to brace himself, “you mean…”

The man repeated, “You’ve been named Ha’Natan’s heir and will be inheriting his possessions.” Mentally, Vathion went through the math, realizing that an entire fleet of twelve battleships was an incredibly large financial burden to suddenly take on, especially at sixteen.

He did not recall falling out of his chair at that point, but apparently he had, for he had to climb up off the floor and straighten the seat before retaking it. The man had a small smirk on his lips. “I… okay,” Vathion said finally, unable to think of anything else to say, clutching the edge of the desk.

Ma’Gatas nodded slightly, his seriousness returning. “I’m sending the files Ha’Natan wanted you to have now.”

Nodding, Vathion watched as the man’s face disappeared and the swirling envelope logo replaced it, meaning that it was receiving mail.

Jathas stirred in the back of his mind and finally murmured to his Bond, :Truly amazing! You should be excited! You own the Natan Fleet.:

Glowering, the boy opened the first document, “Not quite the right attitude here, Jath, my father had to die to give me that!” Just saying it made his eyes water, and Vathion blinked rapidly in an attempt to clear his vision. The Hyphokos fell silent, not quite understanding this view of death. Hyphokos had ways of taking the memories of a fallen member of their people and incorporating it into their own, so in essence, the body could die, but Memory Lived On. Too bad it was impossible for them to do it with Gilons.

Vathion sniffled and typed in the password to open the protected files, then began to read, eyes widening as it turned out to be the autopsy report on Natan’s death. Crushed by a crate in cargo bay four?

“What the hell was he doing there?” Vathion knew well enough from his Battle Fleet game – a gift from his father when he was younger and still remaining his favorite game – that cargo bay four was always used for spare parts, mostly for the Ferrets in the shuttle bay one deck above. There was nothing interesting at all in there, but the report said he had been found at the beginning of first shift when the crew came in, so it could not have been a late shipment.

Getting up, Vathion flipped on the wallscreen and scoured through the various channels, looking for some mention of Natan’s death. There was nothing. Apparently it had not hit the news yet. Hopefully it would not. It was distressing enough to his family. A sickening thought hit him – that busload of school kids raving about the filler episode in the show learning about Natan’s death multiplied across the Empire. He paled and shivered.

Sitting back down, Vathion saved the file to a disk and uploaded the update on Battle Fleet that was his father’s parting gift, his eyes stung. The second document was apparently Natan’s autobiography – quite an extensive file – but Vathion did not read past the first few lines to see what it was, then closed it. The third was a letter to Vathion and Hasabi. Saving those to his disk too, Vathion told the house’s AI to print out the letter. Lastly, was Natan’s will; he printed that too. Taking both, he headed to the bathroom door and sat beside it, listening to his mother sob.

“Mom, Dad wrote a letter,” he said gently, trying to coax her out of the bathroom. He knew she loved Natan – everyone loved Natan, but Vathion also knew that Natan loved her, otherwise he never would have agreed to have Vathion – there were no accidental Gilon children, despite Vathion’s occasional gloomy thoughts otherwise.

She did not open the door, but quieted her sobbing a little.

“Dear Hasabi and Vathion,” he read out loud, throat tightening and tears making his eyes blurry.

 

* * *

 

If you are receiving this, then I’m dead. I know that sounds rather casual of me to say, but then, I’ve been dodging the Great Beyond for the last thirty years of my life and it’s not quite so scary anymore. I just wanted to tell you both that even if I haven’t been a very big part of your lives, I love you, and think of you often. I’d hoped that I would get to visit you sometime soon, but it always seems that every time I try to take a bit of time off, I end up in the midst of some new Adventurous Emergency that hits the news the next day and gets made into a Vid episode.

Hasabi, I just wanted you to know that I miss your cinnamon rolls. I experimented in making some for myself, but when my attempts don’t end in charcoal, they just don’t taste right without you there, smiling at me over your tea. Those three weeks we spent together were the best of my life… I bless you for putting up with me. I was a wreck back then – rude, inconsiderate, losing my faith, and losing my will to fight. You gave me a reason to live and to clean up my act… and gave me so much more. You gave me a son, and I wish that I could have stayed with you. I wish that I could have been there to see him born and grow up. I’ll always feel like I let both of you down by not being there.

It was my dream to have a family in a society that wasn’t war-torn and on the edge of fear and panic – I wanted to sit in the garden and drink tea with you while our son played with his Bond and I’d teach him all about model ship building.

Vathion… I’m sorry for not being there for you when you needed me – for playing the bad guy about your grades, and just all out never being there. You can’t know how much I wanted to be. I wanted to.

Over the years, I’ve watched you grow – through pictures and calls, and it hurt how much you looked like me – you must have gotten hell at school; pestered with ‘Do the pose!’ and ‘say it! Say “Onward Mates! For the Empire!” like that stupid Vid show…’ which I really do say, but not as often as that hammy actor Mayban does. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life – watching someone else pretend to be me. Or am I really that crazy and stupid? Paymeh says I am, but I can’t help it. We’re up here, so far away from what we want; even if we’re next door to it – we just can’t ever reach it… Peace, order… That’s what we want, but it seems that no matter how hard we try, we’re always a step away from it. Just one step, and then another.

It seems hopeless from this end, but I keep trying, for you, for Hasabi, for all the other children and wives of this bloody war. Honestly, I’ve been miserable. I’m torn between wanting to be with you and wanting to play the Hero and save the day so that everyone will have hope and dreams for the future, so that they’ll keep on fighting. And I’m sorry, but, the ugly truth of it is that my feelings don’t matter in this wide universe and if I want my dream to come true – even if I die – I have to play the part…

 

* * *

 

Vathion sniffled and lifted a hand to wipe his face with his sleeve and blinked a few more times as he came to the end of the first section. Hasabi still had the bathroom door firmly closed and he could hear her sniffling still. From there, Natan had gone on and on about his favorite conversations with his son and Hasabi, and Vathion could hear his mother giggling from time to time, sounding strange amongst her sniffles. Natan had apparently been unable to let his beloved and son sit and cry for long – he had to go out with a laugh and pose. So like him.

He paused and swallowed, licking his lips to wet them as he resettled against the wall beside the door. “Hasabi, I’ve got everything set up for you, and I’m really sorry,” the boy flushed, reading that out loud to his mother. “Vathion – you’ll do fine. I’ll watch out for you both, wherever I am.”

Reaching the end of the letter, Vathion folded it up and sat silently staring at the wall opposite of the bathroom door. Kitty-cornered to it was the door into the kitchen with the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the window over the sink and making the dust dancing in the air visible in the shafts of light.

“His will,” Hasabi said from the bathroom, “Did he send that?”

Licking his lips, Vathion said, “Yeah.” Flipping through the printouts, he came to the last page and read out loud, skipping past the mailing address stuff which had been dual sent to the Imperial Agency for their records as well as the Mayles house when it went through the Xarian‘s AI, and a third line indicated that the message had also been forwarded to an anonymous mailbox.

“First – my money goes to Hasabi Mayles. She knows my account numbers and whatnot. Second – I, Natan Gannatet, acknowledge Vathion Mayles as my son, and declare him heir for my title as Earl of Teviot with right to wear my Tassels. Third – Vathion Gannatet receives all my possessions.”

Vathion noted that Natan had wasted no time in changing his name and handing him the Tassels denoting a member of the Gilonnian nobility. Gatas had already told him that he owned his father’s fleet, which meant that he had final say on who was hired and who they got repairs from, but that did not mean he had to be on the fleet. Odd about that last name though. Taking a breath, he shook his head and honestly had not believed it before, but there it was in writing; he really did own his father’s fleet. He read the next line and stopped, staring with his mouth open.

Hasabi called, “Vath?”

“Fourth,” Vathion continued, voice small – Ma’Gatas had not mentioned this, “I name my son Ha’Vathion, Admiral of the Natan Fleet.”

Slowly, the bathroom door opened, and Hasabi crawled out, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and looking down at the paper. Vathion could not speak any more. “I knew he’d get you into that uniform someday.”

Blinking, he shook his head, “But – but – Mom! I can’t! I can’t do this! I’m not… I can’t!”

Her fingers pinched as she held him close. “Stop that! I didn’t raise a coward, and you didn’t get it from your father. You’d better start packing. You’re going to be on that ship for a while.”

“But – I can’t!” Vathion’s voice squeaked upwards. “I’m not old enough!” Tears stung his eyes as he looked towards his mother, “I’ve just barely graduated from school!”

Hasabi pinched him again and sat back, her hair, tied in a tail high on her head, swinging. “You stop that,” she said. “You stop it now. You can do this. Your father trusts you to do it. Get up and go start packing. Take your game with you, I’ll give you the number to call me with, so don’t forget to talk to me.”

Looking up at her as she stood, Vathion stared, “What about you?” he sniffled.

Hasabi shook her head, “He said he has everything set up for me. I’ve probably been given somewhere safe to live until…” she said softly, “The number I’ll give you can reach me anywhere.” She offered her hands down to him and he slowly got to his feet, “I’ll be all right. He’s made sure that I’ll be safe. Go pack. I’ll make dinner.”

“But why can’t you come with me?” Vathion asked and she gave him a long hard look. Still, he persisted, “Wouldn’t you be just as safe with me on the Fleet?”

Her eyes narrowed; a dangerous sign.

Hanging his head, Vathion turned and started off down the hall, heading towards his room. Pausing at the door, he looked back, “Dad sent his autobiography too,” he informed his mother, who was still standing by the bathroom door, her face tear-streaked and eyes watery. Perhaps she was trying to make a show of being strong just to goad him into standing up and doing what he had to.

No. Not a show, Vathion realized as he stared at her. She was strong. She would be all right once she got past the shock, though Gilons rarely outlived their mates.

‘I should have done it with Mirith when I had the chance.’

She nodded and made a shooing motion. Turning, Vathion headed into his room to start packing. “Make sure to take your game!” Hasabi called down the hall.

Sighing, Vathion downloaded his save files onto a disk and took the cartridge with the actual game on it out of his datapad, dropping them on the bed along with the disk that had his father’s last messages. Finding his travel cases, Vathion stared at them. He would probably be wearing the Natan Fleet uniform more often than not, but there were some outfits that he particularly liked and did not want to lose. He dropped his disks and game into the smallest suitcase, then turned and opened his closet.

His uniform from the play stared back at him – nobility Tassels, stars, and all. Taking it out, he folded it and dropped it into his suitcase, followed by a couple shirts and some shorts and pants – leisure clothes, mostly just stuff to lounge around his quarters in or wear while he worked out. As he hunted through his drawers and under his bed for things he could not live without, Vathion frowned at himself.

:My father is dead and all I can think about is damage control. Jathas, I must be heartless,: he complained to his Bond. :I thought grief was all consuming.:

Jathas emerged from him; uncurling and slipping free of Vathion’s syote sack and out from under his shirt. The spry little Hyphokos was smaller than most, measuring barely four inches in length with long flexible tapering ears and short cropped shining black hair hanging down around his blunt-nosed diamond-shaped head. His coloring was mostly pale yellow with a minimum of crimson on his belly and finger and toe tips, showing him to be rather young.

Settling to his knees on the floor, Vathion still towered over the Hyphokos, but ignoring that, Vathion wrapped his arms around his Bond as the Hyphokos hugged him.

“It’s okay,” the lizard whispered soothingly, closing his multifaceted silver eyes. “You’re just being intelligent about it. Besides, it’s not like you knew him very well. It’s okay though. I’ll be with you, no matter what happens, I’ll stay with you.”

Sniffling, Vathion tucked his face against his Bond’s neck, “Thank you,” he whispered, “I’m going to need it, I think.”

Jathas flicked his ears in agreement.

 

Chapter 3

It was not until after dinner that Vathion finally made the connection. He had been sitting in his room looking at the things he would not be able to take with him, wondering about his mother’s sensibilities when she had stormed in and thrown his work clothes into his suit cases and some random items from around his room, like an autographed Graviball and a photo album he kept on his dresser. She had not said a word, but Vathion had not had the heart to argue with her about it when her eyes were red from another bout of tears and she was still sniffling.

So there he sat, on the edge of his bed, wondering how he was going to get to sleep and it was only sunset when the thought had occurred to him. Dropping his head into his palm, he hissed.

“What?” Jathas asked from where the Hyphokos was sprawled on the carpet, coloring a drawing he had just finished of someone’s impressive garden.

Getting to his feet, Vathion turned and threw open his suit case and fished out Natan’s will. “The Gannatets,” he said, “they’re… why didn’t I notice before? I’m so dense!”

Sitting up, Jathas frowned at him, “Vathion – there’s no need to talk abo-” Vathion stepped over him, heading out the door of his room, and the Hyphokos sprung up to follow, “Talk about yourself like that!” he finished, scuttling on all fours after Vathion’s heels. “Where are you going?”

“Mom, I’ll be at the Gannatet’s,” Vathion called, did not wait for an answer, and barely missed shutting the door on Jathas.

Dodging in front of Vathion, Jathas stood on his hind feet, hands outstretched, “Now wait a sec, Vath, don’t do anything rash!”

Pausing, Vathion shook his head, “Not rash. They deserve to know. If you’re going to come, then do so, but don’t stop me.”

Jathas’s ears folded down, and the tip of his tail twitched before he sighed and stepped aside. As Vathion passed, he leapt up and grabbed hold of Vathion’s leg which he climbed up to his Gilon’s shoulders and hung there. “You’re right,” Jathas agreed finally, “They do need to know, but it’s not like anyone told you who they were.”

“Everyone just assumes I know everything – like Dad does,” Vathion muttered. “Just because I’m his son doesn’t mean I’m perfect like him.”

Before Jathas could think of a good answer, Vathion had reached his destination and knocked. It did not take long for the door to open, and Midris Gannatet stared at Vathion in confusion. “It’s a bit late for you to be out, son,” he said. Midris was tall, perhaps only an inch taller than Vathion, with white streaked dark hair that in the right light looked violet. Vathion had never thought about it, but Natan really did look like the best part of his parents put together. Ameda was thin and agile with those same blue eyes, Midris was a bit on the bulky side but had the height, hair, and the grin, when he decided to show it.

“Yeah. Um. Can I come in?” Vathion asked nervously.

Confused, Midris stepped aside, and the young man stepped in. “Is that Vathion?” Ameda called, then stepped into the living room from her own kitchen. “Vathion! What a surprise,” she smiled, having regained her composure in the intermittent hours between their last meeting and now. Vathion felt awful, knowing that what he was about to tell them would probably destroy them with grief.

“Gramma,” he greeted, which stopped her in her path – he had never called her that before. Jathas dropped down to the floor as Vathion took a step forward and handed the paper he had brought to Midris, then grabbed Ameda into a tight hard hug. “I wish people would tell me things!” Vathion sniffled, “It would have been nice to know! I hate being the last to know!”

There was a thump behind him as Midris abruptly sat down. “This – this is… a joke… right?” he stammered, sounding shrill.

Opening her eyes, Ameda stared over Vathion’s shoulder at her mate, “Midris?” she asked even as she disengaged from Vathion and went to kneel beside her mate. “Midris, what’s wrong?”

Slowly turning, Vathion could not help but stare at them, tears blurring his vision as he tried to hold them back. “I’m sorry. I had to tell you. It was only fair – he probably didn’t send you guys anything.” Vathion refrained from saying that it was not surprising – since Natan had been such a bad father, why should he be any better as a son. This was not the right time to say things like that.

Ameda choked, falling against Midris’s shoulder as she read the paper. “This – isn’t true!” she stared up at Vathion, eyes wide. “Oh please – say it’s just one of his sick jokes!”

“Ma’Gatas sent me that,” Vathion whispered, “This afternoon. I’m sorry – I should have come over earlier. I…”

“Hasabi – is your mother all right?” Midris demanded.

Snorting and swallowing, Vathion jerked his chin up in a nod. “Well enough. I think being separated so long helped. We’re leaving tomorrow… He said he had everything set up for her in his letter.” Not that Vathion really knew what all that entailed, but Hasabi had. Apparently Midris did too, and nodded.

“At least he’s looking out for her.”

Stumbling to her feet, Ameda came back to him and threw her arms around his shoulders, “Oh Vathion!” she sobbed into his shoulder and he lifted his arms to help support her. “I hate this war! It’s taken both my sons from me and now you!”

Shaking his head, Vathion said, “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go, but Mom’s making me, and I can’t just leave the Fleet hanging like that… Gramma, I’ll call as often as I can. I promise.”

Midris finally managed to get to his feet and came to his mate and grandson, putting his arms around them both. “You’d better,” he whispered.

Licking his lips, Vathion slipped an arm around Midris as well and closed his eyes, letting the mingled scents of the Grandparents he had never known he had ease his heart some. Likely they were taking just as much comfort in his smell, since Hasabi had often told him he smelled more like his father than he did her. “Please… please don’t tell anyone about this? About… Dad… it would cause chaos and panic and who knows whether it’s a Rebel plot or something and letting it get out would just play right into their hands.”

“We won’t say a word,” Midris promised, “We’re already used to not speaking about him… Stay safe, Vath, for our sake. You’re our only grandchild.”

Managing a laugh, weak as it was, Vathion promised in return, “I will – I’m rather fond of my skin, I’ll keep it intact.”

 

* * *

 

Vathion leaned his head against the window, watching as the early morning landscape passed outside. It was a familiar route, one he took nearly four days out of the week to and from his job at the Intergalactic Café. :A little late to send my boss a notice,: he said to Jathas.

:Hm. Maybe a note once we get there? I mean… it’d be polite, I guess. But I think he’ll figure out that you’re not coming back to work soon enough.:

:True.:

He had not gotten much sleep – having spent half the night with Ameda and Midris – Hasabi had joined them after a few hours, looking wretched. It had not been until early morning that Vathion had gotten the nerve to get up and get out of bed, and after taking off his shirt to shower, had thought better of dropping it into the dirty clothes. Instead, he had wrapped it with a picture of himself and his mother and snuck over to the Gannatet house to set on their front step. It was all he could really give them that would be of real sentimental value.

He stared at the sunrise, knowing that he would never see this again. :It’s still not registering. Or maybe I don’t really care about sunrises as much as I should?:

:Or maybe it’s pretty, but you’ve always been more interested in space?: Jathas suggested.

:I didn’t say goodbye to Mirith. She’s going to be pissed.: He shivered with a cold that was not physical. At least he had Jathas, without which, Vathion felt he would have fallen completely apart and been unable to function at all.

:I doubt that,: Jathas said, currently merged with Vathion, :you’re stronger than you think. Just quit comparing yourself to Natan! It does you no favors.:

Hasabi freed a hand from driving and touched his where it lay in his lap. “It’ll be all right.”

“Mom, why can’t you come with me?” Vathion pleaded again, turning to look at her. She had her hair pulled up into a bun on the back of her head but her bangs and some shorter strands had already escaped it. Eika was merged with her, the Bondstone in her forehead bright green as the hyphokos’s eyes.

Hasabi shook her head without taking her eyes off the road. “I’m sorry, I can’t. Vathion. If I’m taken prisoner it would prevent you from doing what you needed to do. Your father set this up with me a long time ago. Someone will pick me up at Ika station and take me to somewhere safe. He set that up with me so that you and I would be protected no matter what happened to him.”

Hanging his head, Vathion looked down at their linked hands, “Can’t I go with you?”

Again, she shook her head, “No. Vathion, no more of this! You’ve got a fleet to run, and I’d only get in the way. Please understand, Vathion, please!” Tears were visible in her eyes and she quickly blinked them away. “You’re old enough to be on your own, hon. You’ll do fine.”

‘You just don’t want me to watch you die.’

Turning his hand, Vathion clasped hers tightly, but she removed it and took hold of the steering wheel firmly. Flopping back in his seat, he closed his eyes and turned his face away.

“Vathion, quit pouting. It doesn’t suit you,” Hasabi said. “You are capable of doing it. I believe in you.”

She pulled into the lane that led to the parking garage and rolled down her window as they came to the booth to get a ticket for parking. “What about the car?” Vathion asked as they went past the raised bar and into the multilevel garage.

“Midris will come pick it up,” Hasabi said. “He’s taking care of the house too.”

Scrunching down in his seat, Vathion watched as they went up a level and found a parking space.

Opening the door, he stepped out and moved around to the trunk as Hasabi popped it and began pulling out their luggage. His mother came to join him and pinched his arm, “Vathion, I told you to stop pouting,” she hissed, then moved to hug him. “It’ll be all right,” she reassured gently then let him go and picked up her baggage. “It’ll be all right,” she said again in a slightly lower volume, then waited while he gathered his things before heading towards the main building.

Sighing, Vathion hauled his luggage after his mother, having a tough time carrying all the extra bags she had insisted he pack after they had gotten back from the Gannatet’s house. He could live with three outfits for years, but she was absolutely sure he would need every scrap of clothing he had as well as every book he owned and a bunch of other dead weight stuff. Somehow, he managed to make it into the main building and hurried to catch up with his mother at the ticket check-in counter to get his bags loaded onto the next shuttle up to Ika station.

Setting his bags down, Vathion turned – just in time to get a Wilsaer in his face.

Hey, hey!” the creature said. This particular alien was typical of his species with bright green hair down to his hips, the ends ragged and fried in places from getting it caught in machinery. That hair clashed stunningly with pale yellow skin, red eyes, and a jumpsuit of sickly orange and gray. There was a bright pink bow tied onto his thin and flexible tail just below the puff of matching green hair that grew there. Otherwise the Wilsaer looked like a Gilon, at least until they moved, which was when the alternate bone structure made itself known. Wilsaer were capable of walking efficiently on all fours as well as their feet. Aside from that, their tails and flexible fin-shaped ears differentiated them from their bipedal allies. Most noticeably, the Wilsaer smelled like burnt engine grease and fried hair. Though, if someone was completely colorblind, Vestas Paamob would have been considered handsome by Gilon standards with an easy smile and finely shaped, if squared, features.

Vestas grinned from where he stood on the floor – a rare sight for a Wilsaer, who could defy gravity with personal belt units and cling to walls and ceilings with bare hands and feet.

What’s this?” Vestas continued in his language, which was a hodge-podge of several other languages. “You going up to the station?” Though it sounded random, Vestas’s choice of words reflected his respect of Vathion’s willingness to learn the proper forms and tenses to communicate with the Wilsaer, and he was honoring Vathion by orienting himself to Vathion’s point of view. He’d been crawling across the ceiling when he had spotted the young man.

Shaking his head, Vathion said, “Out beyond,” using the current slang; what he said was not what he meant at all. Literal translation to Gilon would have been, “To the bathroom.”

Vestas cocked his head to the side, flicking his fin-like ears down, then up again, tail kinked up at the end, tip twitching, “Oh! What’s the occasion?” he asked, posture excited and curious, he wanted to show Vathion off to his buddies who were lucky enough to be in space still.

He was being stared at by the ticket teller as he said, “I’m the new admiral of the Natan Fleet,” Vathion answered honestly after reading Vestas’s posture and listening to the words he chose to say. Besides, there was no point in lying. Everyone would know soon enough.

This surprised Vestas and he flicked his tail accordingly, “Ah! Well. If you ever need help, just look for a Wilsaer. Use my Name and they’d be glad!

Giving a slight smile, Vathion said, “Thanks, Vestas, you’re a good friend.

Cheerfully – as it was hard to get a Wilsaer depressed – Vestas flipped his ears, “You’re a good student,” he clarified, “It’ll shock the piss out of them when you talk back! Hehe! I want to hear News of it!

Of course he did, Vathion mused then smiled slightly again with a glance around at other people who were walking past in the spaceport and looking over curiously. “It already freaks out Gilons,” he agreed. “Would I see you around anywhere?

Perhaps? I’m getting tired of the Mud Ball,” Vestas smirked and flipped his tail confidently as he added, “The others will miss you, though. They like not having to order anything – you already know what they like!

Laughing, Vathion shook his head, “Lazy,” he agreed, then looked back towards the man behind the counter – who was supposed to be checking in their baggage. Meanwhile, Vestas, feeling that the conversation was over, leapt up to the ceiling, caught it with his hands, and pulled his feet up afterwards, continuing on his way towards the alien embassy on Larena.

“You speak Wilsaer?” the man behind the counter asked, eyes wide.

Vathion shrugged, “You have to know at least seven alien languages before even knowing half of what a Wilsaer’s saying.” And probably still not understand them, due to the clan slang. “Vestas was my language tutor,” he said. “Are you finished?” he gestured towards the unchecked bags. Blinking, the man got back to work quickly and passed them through to the next checkpoint where they had their carry-on bags pawed through and finally they were in the waiting area for the transport to Ika station.

Taking a seat next to his luggage on a bench, Vathion folded his arms and sighed as his mother sat beside him. “It’ll be an hour before the transport to Ika shows up, hon. Go find something to eat. You hardly touched your breakfast. I know you don’t like cold cereal.” She pulled his head down and kissed his cheek. “Go, before I start embarrassing you,” Hasabi threatened when he made no move to do as she had told him.

Glowering, he got to his feet and hurried to get out of her range before she began to make good on her threat. He knew all too well that she could and would do it. Heading down the hall, Vathion found a shop that sold tea and muffins, and he purchased some before returning to his mother, taking a seat beside her again. Hasabi borrowed his tea long enough to swallow some anti-nausea pills, “I hate flying,” she told him, “Watching the ground speed out from under us…” She shivered.

“Thanks mom,” Vathion muttered around a mouthful of muffin. Swallowing, he continued, “You realize that there hasn’t been a crash in the last two hundred years?”

Smiling, Hasabi said, “I know. I just like to know there’s solid rock beneath my feet, that’s all.”

Vathion toyed with his muffin a moment before deciding to take a swallow of his tea. “I don’t know if I’ll like it up there.”

“Don’t be silly,” Hasabi insisted. “Space is in your blood. I’ve seen how you look at the stars, Vathion. You’ll love it out there.”

Shaking his head, Vathion looked towards her pleadingly, “But I don’t know how to pilot, I don’t have the nano-implants to do it, and I really don’t know how to command a fleet!” He blushed as he realized he had raised his voice shrilly just as some people were passing. They glanced towards him, then looked again. Ducking his head down, he flushed.

Laughing, Hasabi shook her head, “You do too,” she insisted, “You remember that full physical you got when you were twelve?”

Blinking at her, Vathion nodded cautiously. “You mean…”

“Um-hmm. Your father had the doctor implant you then. And don’t worry about piloting, you probably won’t ever need to, but if you do, it’s just like the first level of your Battle Fleet game,” Hasabi reassured, petting his hair back from his eyes, “Now, drink your tea. You’ll feel better.”

Though that made him wonder what type of implants Natan had gotten for him. They were probably not the standards – perhaps Grade-three? They were the most widely available if most expensive on the market. Now Grade-fours were something to drool over, with the right AI, you could have complete contact with it. Imperial Pilots just got Grade-ones, maybe ‘twos.

Pursing his lips he muttered, “Maybe I don’t wanna feel better?” Vathion did as he was told and chugged his steaming drink, then inhaled the muffin as the spaceport checkpoint continued to fill.

“Vathion Mayles?” someone called and he looked up to see his language teacher, Aola. The Serfocile and her Partner carefully strode through the crowd and Vathion rose to his feet and gave her a polite gesture of greeting. Another Serfocile, apparently of the same age and gender as the first, stepped up beside Vathion’s teacher.

Linguist Aola had silvery blue hair, like sun-touched lake water tied into a plain, but long braid that she had draped over one arm. Lifting out of that hair was a pair of thin fronds she could use in the Serfocile underwater language which used tones and body language. She had a rounded face with large dual-lidded almond shaped eyes of green, her nose was flat with thin slits of nostrils that could be closed off. Aola’s flesh was a blue-gray and she was tall and slender with swimmer’s muscles.

Otherwise she and her companion were built like sexless Gilons, but for their hands and feet being webbed and their ability to regenerate their fingers. The only way to tell gender was by whether they had slightly reflective brown-green spots on their legs or not. Not meant that they were male. Vathion had only glimpsed Aola’s legs once, and he was sure she had not meant for him to, but he’d never indicated that he knew and called her Sheh, which was a polite term to use when you did not know what gender a person was.

Her companion was Translator Steffan, her partner for many years, though he had once been her student. Vathion knew for sure that Steffan was male. Steffan had mixed blue, green, and white hair, currently cut short, the remainder of his once ankle-length hair now being prepared for weaving; Serfocile hair being strong enough to use for textiles as well as fairly fire resistant. Serfocile were all expert weavers, creating beautiful patterns that could not be found anywhere else. Aola and Steffan wore their own creations – walking advertisements for their skills.

“What’re you doing here?” Steffan asked; he had always been more informal than his partner. But then, he was Translator rank, which meant he had to learn languages the hard way rather than swipe them directly from the minds of an alien. The difference between Translator and Linguist Apprentice was how fluent the individual was, the highest rank being Linguist who had the mind-touch ability.

Aola chose to ignore the breech in proper behavior and instead nodded in greeting to Hasabi.

Vathion, knowing what he could not get away with in Aola’s presence, said in correct pronunciation and grammar, “My mother and I are going to Ika station, Sheh Steffan.” He nodded towards Aola, “And you?”

“As you have graduated,” Aola said, “We are returning to Ika station’s Serfocile embassy, and from there, to Baelton.”

Steffan grinned, flashing his sharp fish-rending teeth, antennae quirked quizzically, “What’cha goin up there for?” he asked and Aola slapped his arm. His antennae flipped back apologetically, but did not stay there for long.

Vathion said, “My father has requested my presence,” he decided to bend the truth, as there were other Gilon gathered and Aola’s presence had drawn attention. He had seen what happened when you lied to a Serfocile – one of his classmates had not had his homework once. It had not been pretty.

Nodding, Aola said, “Ah, then best of luck to you on your trip, Vathion. And to you as well, Hasabi Gannatet.”

He gave a nod of his head and polite gesture of thanks for her well wishes, which was looked upon with a benevolent smile.

She paused before saying, “And I hope you learn the difference between Scholar and Scallop before you meet the Humans. Cecilus help us if you embarrass yourself out there, it would reflect poorly on my teaching.”

Her companion’s thin lips were pressed together firmly, but his antennae twitched. Aola gave a polite gesture and moved on as Steffan burst into giggles and winked at Vathion, “She’s proud of you, Apprentice,” he informed the young Gilon, “She just doesn’t like to admit it.” Patting Vathion’s shoulder, the Serfocile moved off to join his companion as she glided through the crowd that parted for her like water.

Flopping back down into his seat beside his mother, Vathion let his shoulders sag as Hasabi laughed behind her hand. Before she could say anything, though, the call went out over the PA, “First Class passengers for the ten-thirty takeoff, please proceed to board the transport.”

Hasabi got to her feet and began gathering her things. “Wait – we’re first class?” Vathion asked.

She smiled, “Perks of being related to your father,” she said. “Come on.”

Gathering his things, he hurried after her.

 

* * *

 

:There’s just something about flying that tires you out,: Vathion thought at Jathas. He stood staring at the crowd that had swallowed his mother and her escort.

:Or maybe you didn’t sleep last night.:

:Sorry. I really didn’t mean to roll on you.:

The flight up from the planet had only been an hour long and the gravitational dampeners had prevented any of the passengers from feeling the effects of exiting the atmosphere.

He swallowed. Jathas was probably right. He rubbed his eyes.

Only a few moments ago, he had been standing in the concourse next to his mother. Then a man had approached and pulled Hasabi into a hug – having apparently known her by sight. In response, Hasabi had nearly burst into tears, and after letting her go, had offered his hand to Vathion. “Ha’Vathion,” he said, “Good luck.”

Wincing slightly, but shaking the man’s hand, Vathion nodded. “Thanks. Take care of her.”

“I will,” he agreed and took some of Hasabi’s bags as they started off.

Still, long after they had disappeared amidst the crowd, Vathion could not think of anything non-corny to say other than “send me lots of pictures” or “make sure to wear sunscreen.” He knew he should have been hugging her and telling her he loved her and that he would miss her. But he did none of that. Instead, he just stood there, staring until they were out of sight.

“Excuse me!” a female exclaimed, and Vathion turned to face a middle-aged woman wearing a skimpy black dress and her gray-streaked blue hair in loose curls around her shoulders. She smiled alluringly at him – sending the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. She leaned closer and sniffed in a way that was decidedly rude, “It really is you! I hope you remember me just as fondly!”

Sliding back a step, he nearly tripped over his luggage and belatedly straightened and cleared his throat, “Ah, no. Actually, no clue who you are. Sorry, but I’ve got a transport to catch!”

She reached for his arm, “Oh! Leaving so soon! But I haven’t seen you in forever! Natan!”

“Ha’Vathion,” another voice said, and both the woman and Vathion turned to look at the man that now had imposed himself between the woman and her poor unsuspecting prey. The man, who was an inch shorter than Vathion but twice his weight, had maroon hair streaked with silver tied back in a tail, and looked quite striking in the black and red uniform of the Natan Fleet. He snapped his hand down after holding his salute for a second and said, “I am Se’Zandre, your transport is waiting sir.”

Vathion caught a hint of Zandre’s personal scent, wafted by his salute, and quickly identified it as family, if removed slightly. Back in slightly familiar territory, Vathion collected his wits and nodded. “Lead the way,” he said and grabbed a few bags, leaving the rest for Zandre. He really had not expected anyone to meet him, but at the same time, it wasn’t surprising. :Guess I should have known they’d send someone. I’m not just another kid now.:

:You were never ‘just another kid’, Vath, despite how hard you tried,: the Hyphokos said.

Along the way, Vathion spotted a board that listed the shuttles in the bay they were entering. The Natan Fleet transport had been there for an hour, and of course it had attracted attention. He was suddenly very grateful to his mother for insisting he wear something presentable as he spotted an Ika station News reporter standing at the edge of the crowd. The woman was giving a report that there had been no comment from the station other than that it was scheduled for a pickup. She paused to look beyond her camera at Zandre and Vathion.

She hurried forward immediately, even as the two tried to change course to avoid contact. “Sir! Wait!” she shouted desperately and caught up when Vathion and Zandre were blocked by the crowd of curious onlookers. Vathion could see the transport parked in the bay ahead, so close, yet so far.

“Sir!” she called again as her camera bobbed up beside her, pointed at him – he was sure he looked absolutely terrible on Vid and likely it was live. She stumbled to a stop when he looked at her, “You’re not Ha’Natan, are you?” she asked him interposing herself between him and the crowd, and Vathion controlled his face – removing the death glare he knew he’d greeted her with.

“I’m Ha’Vathion,” he said, deciding it was better to get them straight on his name and new title right off, then he glanced around finding Se’Zandre waiting for him patiently, looking grim and daunting, “Look, I’ve got to go. We’ll probably meet again later.”

“Wait! But – does that mean you’re -”

Lifting a hand, he placed a finger over her lips and grinned desperately at her. She was young, perhaps twenty-five or so, and blushed quite prettily at him, obviously besotted. “I have to go,” he told her and turned, hoisting his bags and shoved through the crowd, “Scuze me! Sorry!”

Quite drained already and knowing this was only the beginning, Vathion dashed for the transport after Se’Zandre. Thankfully there was no further delay, for the door automatically opened as Zandre neared it, then closed directly behind Vathion.

Jathas was laughing joyfully in his mind. :That was fun!:

Vathion reluctantly admitted that it had been – just a little. Turning, Vathion looked over the cabin of the transport and slid aside as Se’Zandre went past, looking grim and efficient as he stowed Vathion’s bags.

“What’s in this? Bricks?” he asked, grunting as he heaved one.

Sighing, Vathion shook his head, “Close. Books.” Zandre turned to look at him and Vathion shrugged helplessly, “Mom helped me pack. Needlessly.”

After a moment, the guard snorted what may have been a laugh, then stalked over to take the bags Vathion was still holding and stuffed them away too. “Pick a seat. Get comfortable, it’s going to be a long ride.”

Wandering down the row, Vathion finally found a seat near the front that had the most leg room and flopped into it, then shifted and stuck his feet out into the aisle. “They don’t make these things for people with long legs, do they?”

Zandre shook his head and glanced back as he slid into the pilot seat, “Not really.” He glanced aside. “Look. There’s something fishy going on. I don’t know what it is – or was.”

Snorting, Vathion lounged back in his chair as best he could, “Oh really. And when is there not? Especially when Natan is involved?”

It took a moment for Zandre to answer him, for he was speaking on the comm to station, informing them of imminent departure and the need for crowd control so they could leave. Finally, Se’Zandre swiveled his chair around and said, “Your father didn’t let me in on his plans – probably because he knew I’d be against them. So I don’t know what really happened. Just know me and Logos are on your side. We’ll be giving you the same trust we gave Natan – unless you prove us wrong.”

Quirking his lips sourly, Vathion scrubbed a hand across his eyes, “Reassuring. Thank you, Se’Zandre.”

  

Chapter 4

He was tired, dirty, hungry, and sore. That was the short and blunt version of how he felt. The tiny cramped transport could seat twelve but had little in the way of leg-room. It had not been built for comfort or overnight occupation; thus, no shower.

Twenty-seven hours had not seemed like a long time at first, but now that he had been trapped in that same little gray passenger cabin with the only change of scenery being the trip to the lavatory closet – and closet it was since there was not enough room even for his elbows – he was quite cranky. During the trip, he’d had plenty of time to sit and think about his old friends and everything he was leaving behind on Larena, as well as his mother’s imminent death. With him on the verge of adulthood and her now without a mate at all, it was likely only a matter of time. Vathion gave her maybe a year, likely less.

‘Then I’ll be an orphan… with Jathas as the last person that stuck with me from my old life. No matter what Mirith promised.’

There had been three Jumps involved in the trip, and though they had only lasted a minute, they had disoriented him enough that he had been unable to stomach the thought of eating. Zandre, on the other hand, had pigged out and offered Vathion plenty of opportunity to eat along the way. He had mistakenly nibbled some before the first Jump, and seen it again directly after. He had sworn off eating the rest of the trip and had not missed it much. Bigger ships had more room for dampening shields. The transport was lucky to have Jump engines at all.

Around midway through the trip, Jathas had abandoned him to go sit up front with Se’Zandre, asking questions about how the shuttle was piloted. Vathion listened in, only to return to brooding a moment later. Apparently a limited AI actually piloted the ship and Zandre was only there to escort Vathion.

At last the trip was over – they had arrived in the shuttle bay of the flagship Xarian, and Vathion was so eager to get out to a place where he could stretch his legs, he stood impatiently at the door of the shuttle. Finally, the door opened and not waiting for the ramp to fully extend, Vathion leapt out, landing lightly on the decking. Jathas launched after and hit Vathion’s back hard enough to make him stagger forward a few steps. Zandre, on the other hand, waited for the ramp to extend fully before he followed and watched with vague, tired amusement.

“Stinker,” Vathion accused but Jathas, cheerful as ever, grinned as he lifted his ears and snuffled in Vathion’s small triangular ear.

Laughing, the young man dropped his bag and tried to pry the young Hyphokos off. In his efforts, Vathion merely succeeded in getting Jathas latched around his head, covering his eyes, for as he pried one pair of appendages loose, the other pair had moved to new holds.

“Ahem!”

Coming to a stop, the two looked towards the source of the new voice. Well, Jathas lifted his head and Vathion peered between his Bond’s hands.

The man was Ma’Gatas, three times Vathion’s age, and perhaps more than twice as grumpy though Jathas would have said that was not possible. He walked towards them a few more paces, his limp obvious and left elbow permanently cocked out to the side.

Ma’Gatas scowled, showing the deep wrinkles that framed his mouth, his thick, heavy eyebrows drawn together over his large nose. “If you two are done fooling around,” he said gravely, “there is a meeting you need to attend. Thank you, Se’Zandre for escorting young Mister Vathion here without permission. You may go.” Those brows were really the only place his hair color could be clearly seen, as the rest of his amber hair was buzzed short, close to his scalp.

Saluting, though not very enthusiastically, Zandre started off towards the lifts. After passing Gatas, Zandre looked back at Vathion and mouthed “I’ll see you later.”

Jathas released his Gilon and dropped to the floor, landing beside Vathion’s bag. The young man frowned slightly and picked up his bag. As he did so, his gaze swept across the shuttle bay, recognizing his surroundings as eerily familiar. The far wall to the left was shielded to hold air in the bay but allow ships to pass. The doors that normally covered the bay’s opening were shutting even now. The floor was painted with markings that designated landing spots for the thirty Ferrets that were housed here, leaving a wide lane down the center for takeoffs and landings. Along the left and right walls were lines of Ferrets ships. Oddly enough, there were no mechanics working, no pilots inspecting, no crew in sight. There should have been someone in here at least ready to receive the transport. In fact, there were crates set beside the lift that took cargo between cargo bay four and the shuttle bay.

On the other side of the bay, about twenty feet away, were the doors to the pair of lifts that serviced the ship. Vathion had just rested his eyes upon them when one of those doors opened.

Displayed in the opening was a woman of slender build and very nice curves for a forty-year-old. Letting the doors open fully, she stepped out, her cloud of naturally silver hair floating around her face and shoulders. She lifted a hand and flicked it back out of her maroon eyes, her Bondstone lit with a matching color. In her arms, she held an older hyphokos who looked particularly ill.

Vathion did not have much time to take in the woman’s delightful form, for the Hyphokos in her arms looked up, dark blue-violet eyes focusing on him. “He lives on!” the Hyphokos howled in its language. Abruptly, the creature leapt from the woman’s arms, an expression of mad-glee on its features.

“Paymeh!” the woman with silver hair shouted as she stumbled, trying to catch the mad Hyphokos. It slipped from her grasp, though, heading straight towards Vathion at top speed.

Vathion straightened – dropping his bag again as Jathas clutched his Gilon’s shin possessively. Ma’Gatas tried to block the hysterical Hyphokos, but Paymeh easily darted between his feet.

It was almost as if time stopped for a second and Vathion helplessly watched. A second later, the stranger merged, hitting Vathion with enough force to knock him to the ground. Jathas shrieked then, voice echoing in the large area as he desperately tried to make his way towards the open sides of Vathion’s shirt.

All Vathion could do was watch as his best friend collapsed and began writhing violently before just as suddenly stopping and remaining in a motionless heap. Life faded from Jathas’s eyes, leaving a frozen expression of horror and panic on the lizard-creature’s face.

Vathion breathed once; his vision immediately went black as pain hit. Shivering, he reached for his best friend, blindly clutching at one of Jathas’s ears, trying desperately to get his voice to work, but the words were gone. He could barely think at all.

Standing in shock for several seconds, the silver-haired woman finally rushed forward the last few feet to kneel beside him, cool hands pressing against his neck, looking for a pulse, and pulling his eyelids back. She was saying something, but for the life of him, Vathion could not understand.

“Jath -” he croaked at last.

Slowly, Vathion became aware of Ma’Gatas griping, “We don’t need this kind of delay! Get up, boy!”

The woman snapped back, “Ma’Gatas, he’s gone into shock. He’s in no condition to attend a meeting of any sort. Ha’Vathion,” she turned towards him, “Focus on my voice,” something cold touched his neck and his vision began to clear as the pain in his head receded.

“Jathas…” Vathion whimpered looking towards his Bond as the woman pulled his hands away.

The doctor, as was now obvious to him by the pin on the collar of her jacket, pulled him up, “Kiti, take Ha’Vathion’s luggage up to his quarters. Call my assistants to take Ki’Jathas to the morgue.” Carefully, she helped him sit up then pulled him to his feet, struggling to get him in motion. He staggered, having to lean heavily on her, even though she was three inches shorter. “Have you eaten?” she asked him and he shook his head, regretting it immediately.

Things were moving too fast. He could barely see straight and now found himself in the lift with the woman. Beyond, he could see Jathas lying on the floor.

:Jathas!: he cried, unable to quite believe it.

Ma’Gatas stuffed himself into the lift with them and hit the button for the officer’s deck before the woman could stop him. “Ma’Gatas!” the woman objected, “He needs to rest! I need to take him to the sickbay! Paymeh may have caused considerable damage!”

Vathion was too tired and in too much pain to object to their destination either way and just stood there, leaning against the woman. His vision fogged in and out of focus, and in his head, he could feel the strange Hyphokos setting up shop – rewiring things he has no right to touch.

:That’s Jathas’s space, you jerk!: he managed to scream at the invader. Paymeh – as he recalled the woman calling the insane Hyphokos – ignored him.

The lift doors opened again, and Vathion was taken bodily by Ma’Gatas – while the medic objected. Hauled by his upper arm, he stumbled down a long, curved hall and through a door into a vaguely familiar room. The medic was still striding along behind, “Ma’Gatas! I object to this! You have no right to treat him this way!”

Ma’Gatas completely ignored her, dumping Vathion into a chair, like some tramp caught stealing. Vathion nearly continued on over the other side of the chair, but caught himself with an elbow on the table. Tingling pain shot up his arm, and desperately, he clutched at it, trying to focus on that as a way to find his way past the confusion of thoughts that had invaded his mind.

Dimly, Vathion realized that the furniture in the room was a wood dining table and the seats were garden chairs. People were seated around the table. None of them looked happy.

Ma’Gatas, still standing beside him with a hand on his shoulder, grip pinching a nerve, started speaking, “As you can see, once again, Ha’Natan has left us in a very bad position – and he isn’t even here to get us out of it.”

Vathion remained silent, hands to his head as he tried not to moan in pain. Bonds weren’t supposed to hurt that much! Then again, Hyphokos usually did not claim a Gilon that was already Bonded.

:Jathas!: he called again. There still was no answer.

Vathion hid his choked sob by pretending it was a cough as he became aware of what Ma’Gatas was saying, “So, as second in command, I will be taking over.”

“Hold on,” Vathion grated from behind his hands as he massaged his head. Ma’Gatas thankfully shut his mouth as the teen slowly pulled his wits together, “Dad’s will said specifically – the Fleet is mine. Also said I am to inherit the title of Admiral.”

Finally lowering his hands, Vathion pushed Ma’Gatas’s pinching grip aside and turned to face the people who sat at the table with him. “By law, it is my decision who runs this outfit.”

Those people were none other than the first shift bridge crew of the Xarian. It struck him as wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. His first shift bridge crew stared at him in silence. Many of them frowning with closed postures, arms folded across their chests.

Lifting his dark green eyes, Vathion shoved his short violet bangs back from his forehead, his Bondstone showing a deep sea blue with purple edges.

Glad that his vision had finally cleared enough for him to focus on who he was facing from the head of the table, Vathion said slowly, “Let’s get this straight. I don’t know why Dad did this,” the room swayed, or perhaps he did, and Vathion clutched the table, “I’ve only had maybe four meaningful conversations with him in the last year; they were over the vid, and all started with ‘so tell me why your grades have dropped?’ I think, in total, they add up to ten minutes and that’s counting the awkward pauses.” Vathion admitted that he was exaggerating slightly, but he was not in a good mood. At least things were starting to resurface – things he should have known right off; such as the fact that Paymeh was Natan’s Bond.

:Idiot! How could you mistake ME for Him?: Vathion demanded of the Hyphokos – who was not listening.

Taking a breath, Vathion’s eyes flicked around the room, it – of course – was not like any ship’s conference room Vathion had ever seen in Vids, other than the one depicted in the Natan Fleet Show. This one was painted white with murals of pretty flower gardens within boarders that looked like large windows – hand painted. The table in the center of the room was real wood; as were the porch lounge chairs they sat in.

“So there it is,” he concluded, “My father was a complete and total nutcase. And I admit that completely.”

Beside him, Ma’Gatas had folded his arms and was nodding. Vathion highly disliked the overly pleased expression the man was wearing.

Ca’Bibbole, a Hyphokos, and the head Communications officer frowned, “Ha’Natan was brilliant,” he defended, “He’s always had reasons for doing the things that he did.”

Bibbole’s coloring was mostly crimson except for a thin stripe of pale yellow down the center of his back. His body was small and light with three dexterous fingers and a thumb on each hand and foot. His eyes were bright red – the same red that showed on Li’Codas’s Bondstone, the man who was head of ship ops and seated next to his Bond.

The ship’s doctor had her arms folded as well, expression displeased. Her name, Vathion recalled finally, was Savon. She was head of the entire fleet’s doctors.

“Ha’Vathion,” she said, “I know things are probably a bit confusing to you right now, but that’s really no way to talk about him.”

In the back of his mind, Vathion felt his new Bond, Paymeh, stir as if shifting uncomfortably. Firmly, Vathion closed connections with the irate semi-symbiotic lizard. This seemed to help his headache. It wasn’t something Vathion had ever done to Jathas, and it was generally considered juvenile. However, it seemed only fair, considering that Paymeh had done. Jathas being the last friend Vathion had; one he’d had since he was five, and his Bond since he was seven. It was official now, Vathion realized. He had lost everything – his name, his home, his family, his life, his freedom, his few other friends, and lastly, his Bond.

Fury filled him, and he was sure his expression mirrored his inner feelings. He was not on balance enough to hide them behind a blank mask or smile. He was mad and there was nothing anyone could do to make him feel better.

“Whether he was insane or not,” said another of the officers – En’Lere, the senior engineer of the Fleet, “doesn’t matter so much at the moment. We’re still in a war zone, and ready or not, we can’t just sit out of the battles. The Empire needs us to restore order.” The man was slightly overweight, bald, and in his fifties, but a man that was not to be taken lightly. “So, what’s your decision?”

Unfortunately, the man had a point, and Vathion winced. He was not sure about commanding one ship, let alone twelve, and in a battle situation…

I’Savon shook her head, “You have Paymeh, and us,” she pointed out evenly, reading his expression, “I trust Ha’Natan’s decision on this.” Though Vathion detected a hint of a quaver in the doctor’s voice, “There is little else we can do, since he willed his title and fleet to you.” Savon shot a pointed look at Gatas.

Shifting, the second-in-command scowled around the table, “I think this should go to vote,” he said. “It’s obvious that… Mister Vathion is young and certainly doesn’t have any experience commanding.” Gatas lowered his hands to his sides and lifted his chin as he looked down at Vathion, “Turning over command to me would be the most intelligent thing to do. You can return home and not worry about any of this.” Turning away before he saw the spark of fury rising in Vathion’s eyes, Gatas faced the others at the table, “Your votes in favor of my plan?”

Out of the nine in the room, four raised their hands. Vathion eyed the four: Gatas, one of the orange-haired weapons officers, Lere, and Codas. However, Codas’s hand was only raised a little and lowered further as he caught Vathion’s look.

“So, is it agreed that we’re going to follow… Mister Vathion?” he asked and watched the indecisive looks around the table. Ma’Gatas spoke again, “Vathion,” he said in a condescending voice, “As your second in command, I urge you strongly to leave the fleet and return to your home where you will be safe.” He paused and glanced around with a slight smile, “We are far more experienced than you, and as this is a war zone, it would be best if we had an experienced hand on the wheel.”

Vathion burst out laughing at the very idea. “Home? I haven’t got one! Since Paymeh so kindly killed my Bond, and with Dad dead, it’s probably only a year before Mom dies! I was seen leaving Ika station, and I will be found again. I certainly can’t go back to Larena – I’d be mobbed!” Rage and pride finally reaching the boiling point, he slammed his hand down on the table, “No! Over my dead body, Gatas!”

Jathas had been so excited about the idea of being famous…

The senior officers recoiled, staring at him in shock.

“But surely-” Gatas started to object.

“No!” Vathion slapped the table again as he rose to his feet, looming over Ma’Gatas, his voice dropping to a lower tone as he found that shouting was only making his head hurt worse. This had the added effect of making the others in the room pay closer attention. “Absolutely not! The Fleet was Natan’s property to give and run as he pleased and that he has left it to me is a matter of law that you will not violate. This fleet belongs to me. My money supports it. My money pays your salary!” He stabbed a finger at Gatas’s soft chest.

Vathion felt very cold inside, and after a few more insistent shoves from Paymeh, he opened the link.

:Finally! You insolent little twerp!: the Hyphokos snapped, irritation shading more purple into the faceted gem-like organ on Vathion’s forehead. Though the others could not hear what the Hyphokos said, they could definitely see that there was an argument occurring between the two newly Bonded. :Natan’s got his reasons all right, so just shut up and do what I tell you.:

:Piss off, stupid parasite!: Vathion snapped in return. :I will never trust you and I will make your life hell. Just as you and Dad conspired to make MINE hell!:

The Bondstone turned darker purple, matching Vathion’s hair as Paymeh disengaged and leapt atop the table. “The battle will continue. Natan wants victory, and his killer found.”

The doctor leaned forward again, “So he was murdered!” This had come as a surprise to Vathion too since the autopsy report said it was an accident as there had been no proof of poisons in his blood and the Xarian surveillance files just showed Natan walking to the bay by himself on his own power. However, the expressions on the faces of the other officers were grim. They had suspected, apparently.

Paymeh huffed, “Yes. Killer is on ship still. Been here a long time, but hidden. Natan nearly got hit four times before giving his will to Ma’Gatas,” the Hyphokos nodded towards the second in command and Gatas paled. “Natan knows the fleet is in good hands, Vathion has his confidence.”

Shoving away from the table and straightening, the young man pressed his lips together, looking over the group, “By my father’s will, I am the Admiral of this fleet,” he told them coldly, “and I will not step down. But right now I’m tired and time-lagged from the Jump in. I’m going to bed.” He was too numb in the head for what Paymeh had said to make much of an impact on him. He would think about it tomorrow.

With that, he turned and headed for the door.

He was still wearing the clothes he had left home in, which were definitely not the ship’s uniform and needed cleaning. He felt grimy and wanted a long hot shower before getting some sleep.

Maybe this was all just a nightmare, and he would wake up and his father would call and demand to know why he had gotten a B on his language exam.

Keeping his head high, Vathion stalked out of the room that was as hauntingly familiar as the shuttle bay had been and out into the hall. He headed one door to the right – to the room across from the door to the bridge, where the captain’s quarters were usually located.

The first room he entered as a sitting area with walls covered by wallscreens. There were three doors that led out of this room – not counting the door he had just entered. The first was to the left, leading into the kitchen. The next was on the opposite side of the room of his current position, giving access to the bedroom and likely the bathroom too, and the door on the right led to the combined library, private sitting room, and study. The room also had a distinct scent lingering in the air. It was a scent Vathion couldn’t immediately place but knew on some level.

All of these rooms had furnishings in a color scheme that Vathion was surprised to find that he actually liked. His father had been eccentric, and as a result, Vathion had been expecting to find a set of rooms that looked like a Wilsaer had puked in them. Instead, the carpet was a dusty gray, a nice restful color that was not industrial or metallic, and the wall-sized wallscreens showed peaceful garden scenes. The furniture was upholstered in a darker gray fabric.

Taking a breath, Vathion headed between the couches, chairs, and low tables to the bedroom. Stepping in, the light came on and Vathion stopped, leaning heavily against the door frame, suddenly weak in the knees. That half-recognized scent was stronger here, attacking his sinuses with a vengeance, bringing tears to his eyes.

Pushing off the door frame, Vathion stumbled into the bedroom, found the door to the bathroom by accident, and somehow made it in. He glanced briefly towards the mirror over the sink, noticing the dark violet color of his Bondstone. Paymeh’s eyes were blue… Shaking his head and unable to understand fully, he gave up trying to figure it out and shed his clothes to take a shower.

It was not until he was curled up in his father’s bed, surrounded by the lingering scent of Natan that clung to the bedding that it suddenly struck him.

Natan was dead and probably murdered and now Vathion had just taken his place; his worst nightmares come true. Jathas was dead and definitely murdered, though no Hyphokos was going to see it that way and he would never have as true a friend ever again. The remainder of his friends were back on Larena, having graduation and end-of-term parties, and Mirith was probably wondering where the hell he had gone without telling her goodbye like he had promised to.

‘She’ll find out soon enough.’

Clutching the pillow, Vathion curled around it and silently cried. ‘Probably biology – and fatigue,’ he reasoned, trying to deny the loneliness that ached in his heart.

Only by virtue of his extreme fatigue did he finally fall asleep.

 

* * *

 

He sat staring at the wallscreen as his son stared at him; lips turned downwards at the corners, a sorrowful but angry pinch to his dark green eyes.

“Did it ever occur to you that I’d like to make my own way instead of hanging off your coat tails for everything?”

Curling his toes under, he sat back in his chair and folded his arms, feeling hurt that his son would be that resentful. He had done everything he could to let the boy have a normal life and get him the education he wished he’d gotten. It hurt so much to see that look on his son’s face all the time. He just did not know what to do anymore. He was lost and lonely and in danger, and in the end, he had promised them…

Hasabi… Vathion…

“A week…”

“Damn you for making a liar out of me!”

Vathion jerked awake, startled by his own shouting. Sitting up, he stared at the far wall in the strange room he found himself in. Only the strip of dim lights glowing around the ceiling gave him anything to see by. Finally recognizing his surroundings, Vathion swallowed and rolled over onto his back, hearing Paymeh’s call from the other side of the locked bedroom door.

“Vathion?”

Vathion did not want to see that blasted lizard; the one that had killed his best friend. He would never forgive Paymeh.

Rolling over again, Vathion pulled the pillow over his head and tried to go back to sleep.

He saw himself again, on the other side of the wallscreen, dressed in the Natan Fleet uniform, fiddling with his tassel as he shyly said, “I love you too, Dad.”

“I love you, Dad,” Vathion sobbed in his sleep.

“Damn you.”