Vathion clicked his keyboard for the next personnel file, reviewing the facts his, or actually, Natan’s people had managed to dig up about his new employees. He had done this kind of thing in Battle Fleet. Natan had made sure that all aspects of commanding were properly represented in his game. However, Vathion had never had to hire quite so many at once, and never wanted to again. The battle had been two weeks ago, but he was still cleaning up the mess. Most of his ships had been severely damaged, it was only luck that some had not been completely destroyed.
He shoved a hand through his hair. He had taken a shower a while ago, but the confinement to his office and forgetting to put deodorant on had negated his efforts to remain cleanly. The good part was that no one was likely to need him anytime soon, given that the entire fleet was docked at Marak. Huran, Clemmis, and Piro were out patrolling the area. No other incidents had occurred.
Vathion still couldn’t even say for sure whether betrayal had been Gatas’s intention or not, and without solid evidence, he couldn’t fire Gatas or send him to trial as a traitor without instigating a mutiny amongst his bridge crew. Vathion didn’t want to even contemplate the headache of having to hire a completely new bridge crew.
He sighed and scrolled onwards, searching through the file for any tags that might say who this woman worked for on the side.
As expected, this pilot was owned by someone too. The ratio of spies was a lot higher than usual. ‘Probably because no one trusts me. I thought my life was lonely before.’ At least his ships had been repaired swiftly and efficiently. This repair had not only reversed ninety-percent of the armor and structural damages that had accumulated over the years, but had evened out the capabilities of each ship according to class. No longer was the Natan Fleet a ragtag batch.
Vathion thumped his elbow on the desk, leaning his chin in his palm. “This is going to take forever…” He sighed.
“You haven’t eaten anything today,” Kiti pointed out.
“I’m not hungry.” Lifting both hands this time, he rubbed his eyes.
“You’ve also been up all night.”
“What are you? My mommy?” he demanded, slamming his fists on the desk. “I’m fine!”
His screen went dark.
Glowering, Vathion sat back from the screen, “Quit being juvenile, Kiti.”
“I am a program. I am not capable of being juvenile.” She put some harmonics into her voice.
He got to his feet, breathed once, then again. “What’s your problem? You know I’m stressed out enough as it is. Now you want to do this?”
“Vathion…” Kiti’s voice softened, “Your vitals aren’t in normal ranges. I would like you to go see I’Savon.”
“You were vomiting blood an hour ago,” Kiti finally appeared on the screen in front of him, wearing the full uniform. “That’s not healthy, Vathion. Please go see I’Savon?” Her mint-colored hair was pulled back on one side in a braid down in front of her shoulder, a new hairstyle; one that reminded Vathion of his mother.
Swiftly turning away, he rubbed his hand across his eyes and swallowed. ‘Mom… its only a matter of time before she dies now. Especially if she catches my scent.’ Tipping his head back, he stared at the ceiling.
“I’m all alone. Dad’s dead. Mom’s dying. Jathas is dead. The only other friend I ever had was Mirith, and I – I can’t talk to her.”
“She’s not here. She’s with Hiba right now. I don’t want Hiba knowing everything that’s going on with me. If the public ever finds out about how much of a wreck I am… It would go just as badly as them finding out Dad’s actually dead.” He glanced at her image on the screen, finding her biting her lower lip, looking away. “What’s wrong?” he asked, knowing it was bad news.
Kiti bowed her head and disappeared. Interstellar News came on.
“This is an utter disaster! We’re all going to die if this keeps up!” said the woman being interviewed. Whether she was actually qualified to comment was not obvious, but she did have opinions. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Empire if this little upstart continues to fool around! Look at what he’s done to the Fleet! He’s stepping all over Ha’Natan’s legacy. His hard work!”
The image changed, showing a Gilon man wearing dockworker’s overalls. “He grew up in a broken home! He can’t be normal! How is he even trained at all? I’m worried about the future of the Empire and the Fleet if this kid remains in control.”
“He has no idea how to design ships! Putting a third wing on a Hauler just isn’t done! It’s just not traditional!” someone who looked like an engineer said.
“He never seemed that smart in school,” one of Vathion’s old teachers said, “Well, he got good grades, but he never paid attention. Only club he was in was baton. Not really that useful a sport. Now if he had been in the engineering club or something…”
The screen blurred in his vision. He quickly wiped his eyes.
“Not only has he lied about his age, he’s lied about Ha’Natan’s death!” someone said hysterically.
The image changed to a view of what Vathion immediately recognized as Paire in the middle of a debate with Baelton’s Stationmaster, obviously from his first episode of the Show. Vathion had forgotten that had been released. A highlight pointed at something just behind Paire’s left shoulder, then magnified. There sat Natan’s urn, only partially hidden behind a book.
Whatever else was said, Vathion did not hear as the room spun and went black.
* * *
I’Savon’s expression was tight-lipped as she stood over him, peeling his eyelid back to shine a light into it.
Vathion blinked, pulling his head free to look around, verifying that he was in one of the isolation rooms in medbay. The room smelled like antiseptic and Savon’s anxiety. Looking past the railing on his bed, he caught a glimpse of one of the diagnostic screens lining the wall to his left. He shifted his arm, feeling the medibrace chafing his arm. A tube full of clear liquid ran from the medibrace into the wall above his head.
“How’d I get here?”
“You collapsed,” I’Savon stated flatly as she finished making a note on her datapad, then folded her arms beneath her breasts. “You realize you were severely dehydrated? In addition to a multitude of other problems related to not eating and sleeping? I’m surprised you’ve even bothered to bathe given your apparent distaste for taking care of yourself.”
Moving to sit up, Vathion stopped short. “What?” he looked down at the strap banded across his chest, then at Savon. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I figured you were going to try to run away as soon as you woke up. I’m not letting you out until you get some rest and that IV is finished. If you’re a good boy, I’ll untie you.”
Turning his head, he looked up at the bag of clear liquid. “I’m fine.”
Savon slammed the datapad onto the table beside the bed, “Like hell, Vathion! Your stubborn streak is going to kill you if I don’t do something drastic to get your attention! You have a bleeding ulcer! Your brain scans are off the charts. I don’t even know what to make of them! From what Kiti said, you had some kind of seizure. You’re not stable, you’re not healthy, and you’re a bloody liar!”
Head dropping back on the pillow, Vathion clenched his fists and breathed. “I… I have to go clean up the mess I made,” he said carefully, “with the media. They’re probably working themselves into hysteria right now…”
She placed her hands on the edge of the bed beside him. “How would going out there like this make them feel any better?” I’Savon asked. “Oh, I can see it now! Middle of a dock-side interview, you suddenly double over and puke blood all over your lovely fangirls! It’d be great!”
Leaning back, Savon sighed, shoving her hair back from her face.
Closing his eyes, Vathion held his breath a moment, then let it out, trying to regain control. It was not working very well. Something soft dabbed his cheek. He opened his eyes to find Savon perched on the edge of the bed, expression softened. “I’m sorry,” she said, “Yelling at you isn’t making anything better.” She brushed her hand through his hair. “Why don’t you talk to Paymeh? Holding everything in isn’t going to help…”
Clenching his teeth, Vathion breathed out hard before answering. “I don’t like Paymeh.”
“Vath, just because of one mistake…”
“No! He took the only friend that knew all my secrets. And I don’t like him personally. He’s manipulative and I don’t like it.”
Savon frowned again, “Maybe you should talk to the counselor then?”
“And let him know what kind of a wreck I am? What’s to stop him from telling others?”
“What’s to stop me?” Savon pointed out.
Turning his head away, Vathion clenched his fists.
“You’re not a very trusting person.”
“Yeah, well, you try growing up as the unwanted son of the most famous person in the Empire. See how many people you can talk to without them either thinking you’re crazy or worshipping you when all you wanted was a friend. Natan didn’t even want anyone knowing about me. I’m just a screw-up and a liar.” He stopped himself before he could blurt out anything more. The room was spinning again.
Savon said nothing as Vathion stewed in bitter silence.
Getting up, she picked an injection needle off the bedside table. Flicking it, she squeezed the plunger then picked up the tube to Vathion’s IV.
“What is that?” he asked, having a feeling he knew what it was.
“A mild sedative. You’re working yourself into another fit.” Carefully, she inserted the point of the needle in, undisturbed by Vathion’s restrained thrashing.
“Stop it!” he shouted, “I – I order you to stop it!”
Calmly ignoring him, Savon finished administering the dose and stood. “Like I told you, you’re not getting out of here until you get some rest and that IV’s finished. I also need to monitor you in case that really was a seizure you had earlier. Even if it wasn’t, it proves you’ve driven yourself beyond your limits. You’re too stubborn to rest on your own, so I’m going to ensure that you do.”
Furious, Vathion kicked against the restraints, “I’ll fire you for this!”
Savon gave him a look, one brow quirked slightly. Picking up her notepad, she headed out the door. The lights dimmed.
He scowled at the ceiling, willing his body to ignore the drugs. “Mild?” Already the ceiling was wavering in his vision. He did not want to sleep. If he did, he knew he would have that dream again. The one of being trapped in his own body, watching himself do stupid things and unable to do anything about it.
He sat up with a gasp, heart pounding, body cold and aching.
Savon pressed a cool hand against his forehead. “Vathion?”
Breathing heavily, he p, then shoved his fingers through his hair, slicking it back with cold sweat. “I’m fine.”
“The more you say that, the less I believe it,” Savon said with a slight frown. “Either way, the Emperor is calling.”
Sliding his feet to the side of the bed, he made to get up, only to have the back of his shirt grasped. “I’m not done with you,” Savon said.
“I have to answer the Emperor.”
“Answer him here.”
Vathion glared at her, “You realize that the Empire is currently in turmoil over everything I’ve done. The Emperor is probably calling to chew me out about that. You think he’s going to like it if I answer the call from an isolation room in medbay? You know what kind of message that will send?”
Sighing, Savon released him. “Then answer it from my office.” She stepped into the hall, blocking his escape out of medbay. Glowering at her, he headed to her office at the end of the hall. Taking a seat at her desk, he said, “Kiti, transfer the call in here.”
Immediately the screen lit with Daharn’s slightly chubby face, his long straight mint hair pulled back in a tail. Vathion was relieved to see he was in his private office, not even his Tassels in sight. “Vath, where have you been?” Daharn asked.
“Sorry. I was discussing what to do about the clone with I’Savon,” Vathion said.
Daharn nodded. “I was calling to tell you that I’ve come to a decision about the Toudon sector. I’d like you to check it out.”
Tipping his head slightly, Vathion quirked a brow. “This isn’t due to the mess I made, is it?”
“Vath, I know you’re upset, but Natan had to deal with the same thing. You’ll be all right. I endorse you. Clemmis does too.”
“Clemmis?” Vathion blinked incredulously. “What’d he say?”
Daharn snorted with a hint of a smile. “That you were a necessary evil. Just go to Toudon. I’ll see what I can do… I doubt you’ll ever have it easy. Not because of anything you’ve done, but because of who you are.” He paused. “What was the decision on the clone?”
“I’m going to have her destroy it,” Vathion said, “There’s no reason to keep it around.”
Daharn nodded. “Keep in touch. I look forward to seeing your report.”
Saluting, Vathion cracked a bit of a smile.
The screen went dark. Vathion sighed.
“You lied to him.”
“I don’t want him needlessly worried,” Vathion said as he got to his feet. “How is the clone doing, anyway?”
Savon folded her arms beneath her breasts, frowning deeply. “It’s doing fine. Growing normally as far as I can tell. I wouldn’t know, though, since full-body clones are mildly illegal. How long has the Emperor known?”
“Since I found out,” Vathion said, “About the second day I was on the Xarian.”
Her brows rose in surprise. “I suppose I underestimated you.”
“It’s not uncommon.” He gestured at the curtained off area in the back of Savon’s office. “Incinerate it or something. I don’t care. I just want it gone.”
Her mouth fell open. “How can you so blithely order that?”
“Because I have to!” Vathion shook his head. “This room reeks of him. Worse than my quarters did when I arrived. I’ve been wearing his clothes, surrounded by all his stuff. You think this isn’t hard on me? You think that my body isn’t screaming at me? I do what I have to do, I’Savon. Just as you do.” He stepped towards the door, only to stop when she blocked it with her hands on either side of the frame.
“I’m not done with you yet. I know this is probably inappropriate to talk about after the last topic, but if I don’t talk to you now, I likely won’t ever get the chance.”
Vathion stared at her.
“Something’s wrong with your brain. I don’t know what, but I think it’s going to kill you or drive you completely insane if something doesn’t get done about it.”
He folded his arms, staring at her.
Unnerved by his silence, she continued, “The only way to keep you going for longer is if you take better care of yourself physically. I can’t say how long you’ve got.”
“What brought you to this conclusion?”
She straightened, slipping past him to her desk. On her vidscreen several images appeared. “These are your scans. There are two lines here, the bottom frequently firing above the top. It almost looks like you’ve got a hyphokos merged with you, but I double checked while you were out. You don’t. And both lines are strong, which even if this was the brainwaves of a hyphokos,” she tapped a key and brought up another chart, “It would look like this. This is mine, with Kiena bonded. Kiena’s thoughts are here,” she pointed at a faded line slightly lower on the graph. The lower line never fired above the dominant line.
“Any thoughts on what to do?”
His expression darkened.
“Don’t give up.” She reached out to grasp his shoulder. “I’ll figure something out.”
Brushing Savon’s hand off, he headed out the door.
* * *
It was the middle of first shift by the time he stepped onto the bridge. Vathion looked around. Chira, and Arih were not on the bridge. Technically, Codas didn’t have to be either, but he was familiarizing himself with some of the new sensors that the Wilsaer had installed.
“You’re very late,” Bibbole pointed out.
“And you’re my comm officer, not my mom. Maybe you should mind your station and not my business.”
Codas turned to look at him. “Why are you so angry?”
“Just tired of being nagged,” Vathion said as he logged into his station and checked over the general situation.
“You know,” Erekdra said without turning, “When we can smell your stress from here, it doesn’t give us much confidence that you know what you’re doing.”
Looking up, Vathion took a breath, stretched his fingers and sighed quietly. “Did it occur to you that maybe you’re contributing to the problem? You’d decided before I even arrived that you weren’t going to accept me.”
“Knowing that you’re sixteen,” Bibbole pointed out. “Only recently has your scent changed to that of an adult.”
“So you blame me for not wanting to kill my mother,” Vathion mused, sitting back in his seat. “And for not being born at the time of your choosing. And for Natan blundering into his own trap. I see.”
Codas winced. “No need to go that far…” He turned back towards his station.
Vathion watched them a moment, “My point is that you’re holding me to standards I have no control over. Then you’re surprised when I fail to meet those standards. I’m doing my best. But my best isn’t going to be enough if I don’t get some support from you. I can’t run the ship by myself.”
“You confined Gatas. Who’s next?” Bibbole asked.
Scrubbing his face, Vathion said, “I’m not going to argue with you about that. There’s no point.”
“Then let him out?” Bibbole suggested.
“No. You weren’t there, yet you assume I’m in the wrong.”
“You’re stubborn,” Bibbole said, turning to face Vathion, “And egotistical.”
“Two traits that Natan was admired for,” Vathion mused. “Funny how that works.”
Frustrated, Bibbole threw his hands into the air. “You realize that the news networks have been calling nonstop, Ha’Vathion. They want answers.”
“Well I haven’t got any they’d like. Tell em to piss off. I’ve got work to do.” Vathion stopped at his chair. “Call crew in. We’ve got somewhere to be.
Bibbole faced Vathion. “You want us to trust you, but you go out of contact all the time! Where have you been?”
“Why does everyone have to know my whereabouts at all times?” Vathion asked.
“Considering that the last time you went MIA we had an emergency,” Bibbole snapped back, “I think that I at least need to know where you were.”
Holding his temper by the shorthairs, Vathion breathed. “I was onboard. Kiti would have contacted me if there was really a problem. The media having panic attacks isn’t my problem.”
“It should be!” Bibbole slammed a fist on the edge of his station standing in his chair, ears folded back, “Vathion, running off is irresponsible.”
“I was in medbay!”
Codas stared at Vathion, mouth open.
Straightening, Vathion looked away, “Does that make you happy, Bibbole? Maybe next time you should just take what I tell you and leave it.”
Bibbole folded his ears back in distress. Taking another breath, Vathion continued, “Now. Tell the media to piss off and tell my crew to get back aboard. I’ve got more work I need to do, so I’ll be in the office.” He stepped past his chair.
“Vathion,” Kiti said softly as soon as the door closed, “You still haven’t eaten. Please eat something?”
“I’m really not hungry.” He shook his head, taking a seat at his desk. “Transfer the files I was looking at to this screen.” Nothing happened. He sighed. “All right. Fine. Give me something to eat.” He swallowed hard, “something… light?”
The files appeared this time and Vathion began going through them, swiftly as he could, approving as he went. So far, nothing had shown up out of the ordinary.
A bowl of warm, mushy cereal appeared at his elbow. Taking the bowl, Vathion winced as he swallowed the first bite, then made his way through the rest of it as he slogged through the remaining files.
Setting the bowl aside, he closed the final file. “I can’t believe Hiba put that in there… It wasn’t there during my conversation with Baelton’s Stationmaster…. But it was during my call with Hiba.”
“I’ve removed the urn to a safer location.”
Vathion sighed and thumped his elbows on the desk, putting his face in his hands. “What am I gonna do about it? What can I do about it?”
“Nothing,” Kiti said regretfully, “You were ordered to Toudon.”
“All crew have boarded,” Kiti reported.
Getting to his feet, Vathion shoved his hands through his hair. “I should get a shower. Should have.” He sighed and stepped onto the bridge. “Tell Marak we’re heading for Baelton. Coded transmit to Fleet, Jump to the half-point towards Baelton. Stop and head towards Toudon.”
“Why?” Erekdra asked.
“I thought everyone was done questioning my orders.” Vathion took his seat. Rubbing his eyes, he crossed his legs, then tapped his screen to wake it up. “Just do what I tell you. I’ll explain when we get there.”
“Sorry to argue with you, sir,” Chira stated flatly, “But honestly, right now you’ve really not given us much reason to do what you say.”
“The Emperor ordered us to Toudon. So we’re going to Toudon. Now do your job.”
Vathion could smell the tension in the room. It was nearly thick enough to slice with a knife. Breathing a sigh, he shook his head, and looked to find them staring at him. “Look. If this is about the media disliking me, so what? Dad went through the same thing. Everyone thought he was an upstart and nothing but trouble, but after he started getting results, things smoothed out. Gilon and Hyphokos don’t much like new. I’m new. There’s nothing I can do about what they think, other than just get on with getting results. Okay? So can you all quit with this and get back to work? Or do you want to waste everything my father did?”
When they had no reply, Vathion turned back to his screen. “Honestly, if I really wanted to, I could replace you all. I’m not going to do that because I do value your experience.”
“What about Gatas?” Arih asked, partially turning to look at Vathion.
“He attempted to usurp command from me. I won’t put up with that.”
“He was doing what the guidelines stated should be done,” Bibbole retorted.
“Sitting in my chair?” Vathion slapped his palm on the arm of his chair. “He can temporarily take command from his own seat if he was just responding to a threat while I was absent! But he took off in such a hurry that he left a good number of crew on Marak. Does that not strike you as mildly odd? Most of those left were pilots, which means we would have gone into that battle nearly completely unarmed! Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Especially when Piro, Huran, and Clemmis are also capable of responding, Piro in much less time than it took us to get out there.”
Of course they didn’t have any answer to that, but they still didn’t believe that Gatas could actually heist the fleet. Vathion sat back, then got to his feet. “I’ll be in the office.” Turning, he headed that direction.
Taking a seat at the desk in the office, Vathion put his face in his hands again. He slid down to pillow his head on his arms. “Oh God,” he whispered. “I’m dying? Am I really dying?”
Thankfully, Kiti remained silent.
“I want to talk to someone, but I can’t…” He closed his eyes tightly. Mirith was really the only one he might have been able to talk to, except… Sitting up, he asked, “Kiti, is there some way you can prevent someone on the other end of a call from recording it?”
He put his head back down and clenched his fists. “Nothing to be done but to get back to work… Just work until I die.”
It would take an hour for them to reach their destination. As such, Vathion had two tasks to do. He needed to go over the AI he had programmed for his new fighter ships, make sure it was complete before letting his pilots into them, and he needed to talk to the new wing and squad commanders.
Vathion shoved his hands through his hair, and straightened his uniform. “Call the wing and squad commanders for all ships,” he ordered Kiti. The wallscreen across from his desk lit up with a mosaic of images. “Ladies, gentlemen,” he greeted. “You’ve likely received your new assignments. I wish to discuss this with you.” His pilots didn’t look particularly open to discussion. He ignored their expressions.
“You are all very experienced pilots, which is why I have promoted you.” His squad commanders looked confused now. “With the upgrades to the fighters and carrier ships, new tactics are also required, and in order to implement these tactics, a new command structure needs to be formed. Previously, there has been one commander for an entire ship’s fighter contingent. All decisions were deferred to that person, and as a result, they were required to keep track of up to a hundred little battles at a time. This will no longer be the case. Wing commanders have been assigned a squad commander for every ten fighters. This means that your squad commanders will keep track of their ten fighters, and Wing commanders will keep track of their Squad commanders.”
Now his pilots looked shocked and marginally relieved. “So, as you can see, the numbers on your fighters are not a demotion. Any questions?” Vathion asked. When there were none, he pressed a key to send the file he had prepared. “These are some of the new tactics I’ve come up with. You are, of course, invited to come up with more on your own. The NF-MK001 Raptors are brand new designs. There is nothing like them anywhere else in the Empire. Be creative.”
He signed out, leaving the others still connected to each other.
“Open the Raptor AI file.” Vathion sighed and let his shoulders sag. That had been marginally fun. He enjoyed surprising people. Especially when the news was good. Now, though, he had the tedious task of coding to do. To save time, he had used bits of Kiti’s programming to use as the bones of his Raptor AI. Currently, it looked as if those would run smoothly with the framework he had constructed. The only thing left to do was test it. “I’d need grade-four implants though,” he sighed. He had bought some for himself, but it would mean going back down to medbay to get them.
“Ha’Vathion, you already have grade-four implants.”
Blinking, Vathion tipped his head. “What?”
Kiti continued calmly. “You were given grade-four implants when you were twelve. It was required to allow me to use the emergency pilot program to remove you from danger if you lose consciousness.”
“Oh.” He sighed, putting his hand to his face. “Right, should have figured.”
After all, that was the kind of thing Natan did.
He closed his eyes and shoved his hands through his hair, then pillowed his head on his arms.
* * *
The bridge was quiet. Vathion couldn’t quite recognize the people at the stations, but they seemed to be doing their jobs, so he left them to it.
“What a mess…” He sighed.
“Mess? Everything was fine last I checked. Did I miss something?”
Vathion looked to his left. Natan cocked his head to the side, then grinned at him.
“Uh, Gatas is more of a pain than I can handle. I got the Fleet trashed and spent all my money fixing it. The public hates me. My crew generally dislikes me. You’re dead and now everyone knows it. Mom’s dying. And I’m apparently dying or going insane too. …Yeah, that’s about it.”
Natan blinked at him several times. “I suppose that is a bit of a mess. I just always tolerated Gatas. Sure he’s whiny but he did his job well.”
Vathion sighed, “He tried to steal the Fleet from me. He constantly undermines my orders. He’s poisoned the other officers against me. If this wasn’t a privateer fleet, I’d have been replaced.”
“Tried to steal the fleet? What’d you do to him?”
Vathion rubbed his face, gazing at the floor. “Sent him to his room.”
“Ha! Grounded him, eh? That’s pretty funny!”
He stood, “You’re no help at all,” Vathion shook his head, feeling like the room was spinning.
Lifting a finger, Natan opened his mouth. “Wait… I’m dead?” He looked confused. “I’m not dead. Why’s everything so fuzzy?”
“Hell if I know. I’m probably dreaming.”
“What?” He looked around blindly for the source of the voice. It sounded like Kiti…
“Please sit down, you’re going to hurt yourself,” she said.
Vathion looked around again, realizing that he was not actually on the bridge, but in bridge office, standing next to the desk. “Oh.” He let himself fall into the chair and folded his arms on the desk, pillowing his head again.
Natan still stood next to him, looking mildly confused. “Where am I?” he asked, then he too faded.
* * *
Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he stepped out onto the bridge again to take his seat. At least his inadvertent desk-nap had refreshed him somewhat.
“We’ve nearly reached our destination,” Fae’Erekdra reported tersely. Vathion nodded.
“Ca’Bibbole, tell everyone to stop here.”
“And when they ask why?”
“We need to train with the new equipment before we get into a fight with it.” Thankfully, Vathion had managed to keep the sarcasm from his voice.
Bibbole’s ears flicked back in acknowledgement. Apparently, he found Vathion’s reasoning sound. ‘For once.’
“Full stop achieved,” Erekdra announced.
“All right,” Vathion turned to his screen. “Since we’ve only got a limited number of missiles, we’re going to forego firing any of those. However the phaser arrays and other energy weapons should be fine. We have any good targets in the area to practice on?”
Vathion hmmed softly, “Guess I could have our fighters sneak out and grab us some asteroids from Marak to blast. That’d be good training for them. Tell the fleet to begin defensive formations alpha through delta without the Raptors.” He pressed a button to send Bibbole the file he had prepared. Getting to his feet, he glanced around, “I’m on call.” With that, he headed to his room briefly to change into his father’s flight suit.
The lift ride to his destination was short. Stepping out, he confidently strode towards the odd-number-out fighter parked on the shuttle bay floor. His engineers had suggested it, and the Wilsaer had, surprisingly, backed them. This ship, like the rest of the Raptor wing was painted like a bird of prey. Not that the Gilon would realize that it was a meat-eating bird, as it was an alien species. Vathion’s fighter was titled War Eagle. The Xarian Raptors were numbered Eagle one to sixty and were divided into six color squads. The other Raptors were currently stacked in their housings along the walls, only the transports and Vathion’s fighter remained on the shuttle bay floor, since there was nowhere else to park it.
As he approached, War Eagle’s canopy popped open. He climbed in, settling into his seat. Technically, it could seat three. Vathion wasn’t sure what he would use the second seat for, but figured it was probably good to have it, given that things did happen from time to time.
“War Eagle, wake up.”
At his command, the canopy closed, the wallscreens surrounding him lit up with a slight glow. “Turn up transparency.” In response, the screens changed to show the shuttle bay around him.
Stretching his fingers, Vathion sighed softly, settling back into his seat. “AI start.”
“Good afternoon, pilot,” the AI’s voice purred. “Please state your name?” He had blended this voice on his own. Hearing it speaking more than the test phrase made him realize something he hadn’t before. The AI sounded nearly identical to Mirith; a sort of sunny-sexy. Not quite as bouncy as Mirith usually was, but it was close. He closed his eyes and shook his head.
‘I should just give up and say it… I love her.’
“Vathion,” he said, responding to the AI.
“Pi’Vathion, would you like to name me?”
“Yes,” he paused, “I name you Aila.”
The AI, which he thankfully had not programmed a graphic for, said, “Thank you, Pi’Vathion!” She sounded just like Mirith then. “Registering implant codes. Check. Registering brain wave patterns. … Hyphokos are requested to disengage.”
“Just take the top line wave pattern,” Vathion ordered.
Aila paused, then reported, “Scan has been sorted. Check. Refitting contours to pilot. Check. Are we going for a ride?”
“Yes,” Vathion said.
“Running diagnostics on all systems.”
This time, Vathion had to wait nearly a minute as text scrolled up the front screen. “All systems are go. Initiating pilot interface.”
For a moment, Vathion sat stunned as the data from Aila’s sensors was directly fed to him through his implants. He knew on an instinctual level that outside his craft, it was exactly sixty-nine degrees. It wasn’t that he was the ship in the same way that he was a physical body, but he knew that his every thought was powerful.
Taking a breath to calm his racing heart, he closed his eyes and thought about his engines starting, lifting him off the shuttle bay floor slowly. There was only the slightest sense of movement. He opened his eyes, finding the fighter tipped slightly forward for takeoff. Vathion clutched the arms of his chair. With a thought, he glided his fighter towards the open shuttle bay doors. He paused at the containment shield, then took a breath and slid through it.
His sensors registered the shield passing across the skin of his fighter. He was immediately chilled by the sudden drop of temperature and shivered. “Raise internal temp,” he ordered, teeth chattering. “Alter feedback. Filter that out.”
Immediately, warm air began blowing across him. He swallowed. “Trick of the mind. I’m not cold. Not really.” He swallowed again and touched the engines, pushing forward carefully. He felt a very vague sense of movement, but figured that was mostly because of his link with the sensors. He wasn’t going nearly fast enough to have really noticed a change in speed.
“Incoming call,” Aila announced.
Vathion sighed. Of course…
Bibbole’s face appeared on the screen. “What are you doing out there?”
“Testing my programming.”
“That’s not your place.”
Glowering, Vathion said, “I’m going to trust a couple hundred people’s lives to this program and you want to tell me that it’s not my place to put my life on the line first? I’m fully capable of getting back into the shuttle bay if anything goes wrong. So far, everything’s fine.”
Except that he needed to test the jump capabilities of his Raptor next, and speed, which would require him to move further away from safety. Right now, though, everything seemed to be running within acceptable parameters. In fact, they were well below anything he should have been worried about. Turning away from the Fleet, Vathion engaged his scanner scrambler.
In the background, Vathion heard Li’Codas sputter. “He disappeared.”
Snorting, Vathion increased the thrust of his engines, darting away from the Fleet. He could feel the G-forces now, pushing him back against the seat. If there had been air, he would have felt it rushing across his sensors. As it was, he felt the tiny particles of space dust hitting and bouncing away. Mentally, he ordered Aila to shift Bibbole’s image out of his way to concentrate on what he was doing.
“Ha’Vathion, I repeat, this is very…” He stopped and frowned. “You’re not listening, are you.”
The hyphokos sighed.
Briefly, the image shorted out as Vathion hit jump speed.
“Woooo!” he shouted as he popped out the other side. “Ancestors!” he gasped, “That was awesome!”
“What?” Bibbole asked, looking mildly disconcerted.
Flicking the scanner scrambler off again, he boosted back to high speed, and passed the Fleet again.
“Something’s buzzing us!” Codas asked.
“It’s just Ha’Vathion,” Bibbole said.
“What? At those speeds?”
“Watch this!” Vathion called and boosted into jump again, skipping in and out of real space several times like a rock across a pond.
Dropping out again some distance away he made his way back to the Xarian. “Whoo! Bibbole, tell all ships, pilots are to report to their shuttle bays, dressed for flight. Undock all Raptors. Aila, transmit code modifications to all Raptors”
As he approached the Xarian, Vathion slowed and entered the bay carefully. He set down near the entrance. Kiti was in the process of unloading Raptors from their racks, setting them into neat rows. Vathion unstrapped and climbed out of War Eagle.
‘At least, I’ll have died knowing what it felt like to pilot a fighter.’
Moments later, the pilots began entering. Vathion waved for them to come to him. As they gathered around, he flicked his gaze across them, noting that over half had Hyphokos merged with them. “Before you can go to your assigned fighters, I need to tell you a few things,” Vathion called, “These ships are nothing like what you’ve piloted before. That’s not to say that your experience means nothing. That just means that you’re going to have to think a bit differently and figure out how to apply your previous training in innovative ways.” He put on a grin. “This is the Natan Fleet, after all. We’re pioneers.” Only his squad and wing leaders looked excited. He went on. “Now, there are a few safety measures that must be adhered to. Pilots will be Gilon only.” He was given strange looks. “I know these are fighters. Loss of life is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we have to take along passengers who will only hamper you.
“The Raptors are capable of doing Jump. Due to their size, we couldn’t equip them with inertial dampeners to support Hyphokos at those speeds, even merged. Additionally, the AI’s aren’t really built for modifying the life support systems to that degree.” The looks had turned to shock. “Believe me, you won’t need the boosts in awareness and reflexes the hyphokos give you.” Folding his hands behind his back Vathion concluded, “For this flight, since it’s training, you may take your hyphokos with you, however, on actual missions, you may not. Please go to your assigned fighters now.”
Obediently, his pilots broke away, jogging along the lines of Raptors to stop at theirs. Stepping back, Vathion dropped down into the open canopy of his Raptor once again. “Aila, transmit general unlock.” Immediately, the canopies of the other Raptors opened.
Waiting until everyone was settled, Vathion said, “Aila, transmit general program start.”
Closing his canopy, he opened visuals of each pilot, waiting while they went through the startup checklist and were then plugged into their machines. Many sat in dumbfounded shock. After waiting a moment more, Vathion addressed them, “Now, as you’ve all realized, you are hooked directly to your ship’s sensors. This means that you are the only one who can pilot your individual Raptor until I reset the AI. That’s a bit of a pain, so if you could avoid getting killed or fired, that’d be a big help.”
A few pilots chuckled.
“Now, to begin training. You may have noticed that you’re lacking visuals and controls. Order your AI to turn up transparency. To start your engines, use your head.”
Vathion waited a moment more to see if anyone got it. Farynn, his wing commander was the first. She was a smart woman. He had high hopes for her. When everyone was ready, he said, “Now, think about lifting off vertically.”
Once everyone had figured out what he meant, Vathion glided backwards out the shuttle bay. Taking the hint, the wing followed him.
Turning his ship around, Vathion boosted away from the Xarian. “All right, now I would like you to assume a standard formation. Pilot Captain Farynn, take command. Remember, be innovative!”
With that, he shot off towards the Midris to get their fighters out training.
“Farynn, tighten the formation more. You guys know each other,” Vathion said, then started as he realized Aila was moving, heading back to the Xarian. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Hey! Where are you going?”
“I’m sorry, Ha’Vathion,” Aila said, “But you have been awake for more than a standard day and have not eaten in twenty hours.”
“You’re starting to sound like Kiti,” he huffed.
“Your vital signs are showing stress. Additionally, my oxygen supplies are limited. I must insist on refueling at the least. That will take at hours.”
Aila landed in the shuttle bay, opened the canopy, and shut down.
“Liar,” Vathion said flatly. “Don’t try to fool me with that kind of crap.” Unbuckling, he climbed out of the pilot seat and staggered as he dropped to the shuttle bay floor. After the dizziness passed, he straightened and headed for the lift, glowering at the floor.
Once he reached the officer’s hall, Vathion headed to the bridge. Stepping in, he glanced around at his third shift crew. “I’m off duty now. Tell first shift that they’re to continue the patterns you’ve been doing,” he said, “If I’m needed, call.” Turning, he headed across the hall to his room. Dropping to his face on the bed, he heaved a sigh. He was so tired he ached, but still could not quite get his eyes to shut. “Kiti… chamomile tea please?”
Rolling over, he stared at the ceiling, “Are you still angry at me?”
“I’m a program.”
“Oh enough with that!” Sitting up he unzipped his suit. “You’re still angry with me.” His tea arrived promptly and he picked it off the floor as the Daisybots delivered it. “If you want, you can feed me too.”
Sipping the tea, he wrapped his fingers around it, still feeling cold, despite having had the heater on fairly high the whole time he had been training. “Psychological,” he muttered, “it’s just in my head.”
As were a lot of things, apparently.
He kicked off his boots and set his tea down briefly to finish shucking his flight suit and everything but his pants. Settling on his bed again, he took another swallow of tea. At least he felt marginally at peace. Almost like his inner demons were pleased with his work today. “I wish you’d leave me alone so I could rest,” he whispered, staring down at his cup. “I’m exhausted. I’m going to make bigger mistakes than the ones you’ve been pissed at me for if I don’t get some restful sleep.”
Wincing he swallowed another gulp of tea. “But I guess this is just a sign. Talking to myself… Savon’s right. I’m going crazy. My brain’s developed a split personality. The other one’s just not manifested into something with a voice yet. But it keeps me awake, berating me for my stupidity. I don’t…want to be at war with myself. So please stop judging me so harshly. Everyone else in the Empire is doing enough of that already.”
Looking up, Vathion found that a bowl of stew had been delivered to him. Setting his empty mug aside, Vathion picked up his dinner and carefully ate. Finishing, he stripped his pants and dropped into bed.
* * *
It took Vathion almost a full minute to realize that he was awake. Slowly, he opened his eyes to find he was sprawled across the bed as far as he could reach. The lights were still dimmed and he closed his eyes, letting sleep overtake him for another ten minutes. It was when nature finally made it impossible for him to remain asleep that he sat up and yawned. “Kiti?” he mumbled. “Low lights?”
The lights brightened enough that he could get across the room to the toilet. He washed his hands once he was done and yawned again, “What time is it?”
“Noon, Heartland time.”
“Thirteen hours,” Kiti sounded rather cheerful. “Perhaps talking to yourself has its benefits?”
Rubbing his eyes, Vathion stared at himself in the mirror, the purple of his Bondstone shining brightly. “Apparently.” Taking a breath and letting it out, he shoved his wet hands through his hair before turning towards the shower. “No one had any pissyfits, right?”
“No. I informed Bibbole of how long you were working yesterday when he requested to know where you were.”
Vathion had to grin slightly, “How’d he take that?”
“Well enough, I suppose,” Kiti admitted, “He didn’t seem very happy.”
“I’m coming to realize that no one is going to be happy with me and I should stop trying.” He leaned against the shower wall and the warm water sprayed across his shoulders. “I’m going to die soon anyway, and if I die with their approval… well, great. If not…”
“I don’t think you’re going to die…” Kiti sounded mildly upset.
“Go crazy, then.”
“You’re getting better…”
“One night of sleep doesn’t count as better,” he felt obligated to point out. “Besides, maybe I was just too exhausted?”
Kiti suddenly sprayed him with ice cold water.
“Gyah!” Tripping out of the shower, he scowled, “Quit that!”
The water began steaming a moment later and Vathion climbed back in distrustfully. “Why don’t you make breakfast?”
“I already did.”
“I’ve decided that you will be fed at eight, noon, and five.”
Snorting in amusement, Vathion shook his head, “You sound like you’re taking care of a pet.”
“You certainly haven’t been acting civilized lately.”
Finishing his shower quickly and in silence, Vathion stepped out to dry off and get dressed. He found breakfast waiting on the bedside table; toast, eggs, and fruit. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he began nibbling at it.
“Stud Muffin, Mirith is calling.”
“Oh.” Picking up his shirt and pants, Vathion pulled those on quickly before taking the remainder of his breakfast into his office. Mirith’s image appeared on the wallscreen immediately.
“Hey Vath,” she smiled hesitantly.
Shaking her head, she sighed, “I was worried about you. Everyone’s so… ticked off right now. I wasn’t sure if you knew or not.”
“I know about it.”
Mirith sighed, “I yelled at him for that. He just smiled. Like everything was going according to plan. I called him a Rebel.” She sighed and rubbed her face. “He didn’t like that at all.”
“He fired you?”
She bit her lower lip, “Not …quite. But he’s really not happy with me. So I left. But… I’m kind of stranded now. I made it to Baelton.”
Vathion looked down at his toast.
“I’m sorry to ask you this, but could you spare some money to get me back to Marak?”
Lifting his eyes, he shook his head, “How about I bring you here?”
Her eyes widened. “But…”
“I – I need you. I…” he closed his mouth and sighed, “I just need you. I don’t have anyone else to talk to and… you know what everyone else thinks of me. It’s just as bad here.”
“Oh Vath,” her hand pressed against the wallscreen. “I’ve made all kinds of statements and interviews here. I’m doing everything I can to change their minds.”
“It doesn’t matter. They don’t matter. My sanity is what matters. And honestly, Mirith, I’m losing it.” He licked his lips. “I’ll come pick you up.”
“What?” she gasped, “the whole fleet?”
“No, just me. I’ll be there in about an hour or so.”
“But…” she began to protest, then blushed as he kissed his fingers and pressed them to the screen where her lips were.
“Just come to the small shuttles dock. Look for the most fantastic ship there.”
Unable to help it, Mirith smiled slightly. “Okay. Will there be room for my bags?”
“How many do you have?”
“Hmm. We’ll see. Bye.”
Disconnecting, he shoved the rest of his toast into his mouth and dusted his hands, heading out into the sitting room.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Kiti asked.
“You’re objecting to me having not only someone to talk to, but someone who will ensure that I take care of myself?”
“And I know Bibbole’s not going to like me just running off like this, but I swear I’ll be back in a few hours. Maybe less. Mirith doesn’t have a hyphokos.” With a spring in his step, Vathion went to get his flight suit and jogged down the hall to the lift.
* * *
Mirith knew she was getting looks, sitting on her bags in the small shuttle bay. She had taken a big risk calling Vathion from a pay-vid on the docks, but his answer had not been what she was expecting. Now, with nothing else to do but wait, she had decided to not bother hauling her bags around aimlessly for an hour or more. “An hour and a half… he’s got to be kidding. Isn’t he at Marak anyway? That’s like two days by shuttle…”
That was when the whine of engines caught her attention. It was not that the bay was empty, it was that the particular tone was higher pitched than she had heard before. People began shouting in shock. Standing, Mirith turned to look and saw the strangest looking ship she had ever seen. “Wow… he wasn’t kidding.” Picking up her bags, she started towards the ship, painted as a sharp-billed brown and white bird. War Eagle was written on the side in Terran.
War Eagle landed gently in one of the temporary parking spaces and the canopy opened. Vathion hopped out immediately and strode towards her. “Hey, were you waiting here?” he asked, taking two of her bags.
“Yeah, didn’t have anything else to do,” Mirith replied. “You’re sure all this will fit?”
He grinned at her. “You might have to sit in my lap.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” Mirith pretended to pout.
Hopping on to War Eagle’s wing, Vathion strode across it to the cockpit and dropped the first two bags into the back seat, then reached down for the third and Mirith’s hand. The people in the bay busily took pictures if they had cameras on them. Vathion ignored them and instead climbed into his Raptor and tucked Mirith into his lap. The canopy closed.
Sighing, he wrapped his arms around her, putting his face against her shoulder. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“Is it really that bad?” Mirith had to ask.
Turning in his lap, she wrapped her arms around him, pressing her lips to his. “It’ll be all right,” she said gently, petting his hair.
“At least for a while… maybe. Let’s get out of here.”
Mirith looked around, “How do you pilot this? It’s got no controls.”
Flashing a slight grin, Vathion replied, “With my head. Under my seat is a bin. It’s got a flight suit in it. Think you can get into that in here?”
She laughed, “Yeah, I think I can.” Reaching beneath, she pulled the garment out and after a bit of fumbling, managed to figure out how to get it on over her pants and shirt. “This right?” she asked.
Vathion tugged at it then finished zipping it up. “Yep. Looks like it fits you well enough. I had to …ah. borrow the Eagle Wing captain’s flight suit for this.”
“Do I really need one?”
“Otherwise you’d pass out.” He could have explained in detail why she needed to wear it, but she probably would not have understood all of it.
Settling down in his lap again, she slipped an arm around his shoulders. “This isn’t hampering you, is it? And I thought Ferrets were smaller.”
“Hm? No.” He grinned, the look of distraction leaving his expression. “And this is a Raptor. My special command model. The others are lawn chairs with rocket engines strapped to them, but this one’s for… well, I don’t know, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Transparency up.”
Mirith gasped. The fighter rose off the shuttle bay deck and headed out into space.
Boosting out of Baelton’s traffic, Vathion continued to accelerate.
Worried, Mirith looked at his face, “This thing can do Jump?”
“Yep. Though I’m not sure what it looks like to passengers, but it’s really neat when you’re the pilot.” He grinned at her again, expression distracted. “Hang on.”
Pouring on the speed, he initiated Jump. Mirith gasped as there was a hitch and all the screens went blank. “Vath?” she clutched his shoulders as she realized his expression had gone completely blank.
Then the ship lurched again and Vathion broke into a grin, “Whoo! That was cool!”
Mirith sighed in relief. “You had me worried. Everything went dark. Including you.”
He nodded, “Sorry.” Pausing, he glanced up briefly, “Actually, I’ve got an extra set of grade-four implants sitting in medbay. Those will be yours.”
“Mine?” she gasped. “But that’s expensive?”
“Honestly, I’d like to make sure you’re safe.” Lifting his hand, he touched her cheek, “You’ve got the toughest job on the ship, after all.”
Catching his hand, she kissed his fingers. “You’ll be all right.”
“Not from what Savon said.”
Breath catching, Mirith swallowed, “What’d she say?”
He fell silent briefly, then took a breath, “Mirith, Promise me something?”
“I’m always promising you things.”
Leaning away from him, she gazed at his face. “I was kidding. I’m sorry.” She touched his cheek gently.
He remained silent.
Staring at her face, he swallowed, “I want you to get over me and get on with your life.”
Her jaw dropped.
Lifting a hand, Vath cupped her cheek, “Savon thinks I’m dying, or going insane.” He pressed his fingers to her lips before she could speak. “Either one isn’t very pleasant, and I don’t want to drag you down into it with me. I’m only in this good of a mood because I finally got some sleep and because I finally have someone to talk to. I would have called you before, but I didn’t want Hiba knowing everything. I only send him what I want to send him from what I do on the Xarian, so he’s not going to know about what Savon said. He’s not going to know most of what I say to you. So please, when it happens, I want you to move on… when you’re ready to. I want you to have a life. Live for me.” He pulled her against his shoulder, “I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have said…”
“No,” she whispered. “No. No. No. Don’t say that! Don’t say that you shouldn’t have told me.” She clutched him. “Vath… I don’t want to move on. Maybe Savon will find a way to help you?”
He sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything else. You are who you are. Stubborn.”
She lifted her head, tears glistening on her cheeks. “I just don’t get it! I thought… you were healthy. You were on the track team and you were in baton classes since forever! Was this something that just… crept up on you?”
Vathion licked his lips, “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ll let you see the scans. You got good grades in bio-science.”
“Doesn’t make me qualified to be a medic, though.”
“It’s enough to tell you what you’re looking at, maybe?” Vathion shrugged slightly.
Caressing his face, Mirith kissed him gently, then laid her head against his shoulder. “Okay. I’ll look at it.”
“Bibbole’s gonna yell at me when I get on the bridge,” he sighed, “Him or someone else.”
“I can go in there with you?”
“Maybe I’ll train you as my second in command?” he mused, then shook his head, lifting a hand to shove his hair back, “Except I already promised Clemmis I’d take someone from his list.”
“What about Gatas?”
“I’m going to fire him. Even though I know everyone else is going to throw a fit about it. I just don’t like him, can’t work with him, and he tried to steal the Fleet, even if no one else believes it. Nothing I say on the matter is going to be believed, so all I can do is just… do what I’m going to do and to hell with them.” He laced his fingers together, arms around her. Their ship glided through space at high speed, heading towards the remodeled Natan Fleet. There were multitudes of bright specks of light dancing around the fleet in flocks of birds.
“Why’s the Fleet out here? Where is here?”
Vathion snorted, “We were training. I had everything changed, so they needed to learn their new equipment.” Silently, she nodded. “Additionally, Daharn ordered me out to Toudon. He told me to not worry about my reputation; that he’d do what he could. I’m honestly not expecting much.”
She caressed his neck. “It’ll be all right.”
They reached the Xarian’s shuttle bay then and slowed. Carefully entering, Vathion set War Eagle down in her parking space on the deck. “Much as I’d like to stay in here with you a bit longer, I need to get back to work.”
Sitting back, Mirith looked at his face, “Okay.”
The canopy opened and Mirith carefully got out, hopping to the floor and held her arms up to receive the lightest bag while Vathion took the other two.
Remaining silent in the lift and hall, Vathion stepped into his quarters briefly to put Mirith’s matching pink luggage down. “Unpack wherever you like. If you want to move something, move it. It’s not like it’s mine.”
“Everything in here is Natan’s. My stuff has disappeared. Except for the things that were in my pocket when I arrived.” Before she could say anything, he leaned in to kiss her, then broke off, stepping back to remove his flight suit quickly and retrieve his coat, Tassels, and baton from the couch. “I’ll be back later. If you want something to do, you can ask Kiti for a new game in Battle Fleet.”
“Okay.” She smiled slightly, “have fun?” She wiggled her fingers a little as he headed out the door. Shoulders sagging, she sighed.
Clearing her throat, Mirith looked up at the ceiling. “Um, Kiti?”
“Is I’Savon busy right now?
“She is playing a puzzle game on her private terminal,” Kiti reported cheerfully.
“Could you ask her if she has a minute to talk to me?”
“She will see you in her office.”
Smiling, Mirith stepped out into the hall and paused, “Where’s her office?”
“Go to the lift,” Kiti directed.
She headed down the hall to the lift and stepped in when the door opened. The lift began moving and Kiti continued, “I’Savon’s office is straight through medbay, in the very back.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
When the lift doors opened again, Mirith followed Kiti’s instructions and headed directly across the hall and into medbay. The wide semicircular room was portioned into eight alcoves along the curved side of the room. The flat side across from the door to the hall housed cabinets of medical equipment. Two assistants busily worked on checking and replacing equipment. At the sound of the door opening, they looked over.
“May we help you?” the young man of the pair asked.
“I’m just here to see I’Savon,” Mirith smiled and started across the room, heading for the door on the other side.
“I’m afraid she’s busy right now,” the other assistant said. She was an older woman.
Unexpectedly, the door Mirith had been heading towards opened. “Thank you, Hanna,” Savon said arrived. “But I was expecting her.” Looking at Mirith, the doctor quirked a brow slightly and headed back the way she had come. Taking the hint, Mirith followed. The hall beyond the door was lined with seven more doors, three on either side of the hall and one at the end. Savon headed for the one at the end.
“I’m curious to know how you got here,” Savon said once the door had closed.
Moving to walk beside Savon, Mirith answered, “I called Vathion… begging money to get back to Marak. He brought me here instead.”
“Hm. What made you want to talk to me?”
“He told me to.”
She quirked her brows in mild surprise. “He told you my theories?”
Mirith shook her head and clasped her hands together, her eyes darting around Savon’s office. It was relatively small with a curtained off area that housed the growth tanks for seriously wounded patients. “He told me a little. He said you think he’s either dying or going insane.” Turning her eyes back towards Savon, she asked, “Is there anything you think I can do to help?”
Pulling out the chair at her desk, Savon gestured for Mirith to take a seat. “I’ll show you what I’ve found and what I know, but that’s about all I can do. I don’t know what this is. I have a few guesses so far and no idea which one is right, given that I don’t have access to Vathion’s medical files from before he arrived on the fleet, and I don’t have a baseline from him before this. My guesses are that when Paymeh bonded with Vathion, the feedback that killed Jathas damaged Vathion, making parts of his brain fire constantly, and out of sync with his normal functionality.”
As she spoke, Savon pulled up Vathion’s brain scans.
Hand lifting to her mouth, Mirith gasped softly, then came forward to take the offered seat.
“I’d like to ask you a few questions about Vathion’s behavior previous to arriving on the fleet. Did he ever show signs of mental instability?”
Putting her hands to her head, Mirith blinked hard. “I – Honestly, I didn’t know who he really was until after I saw him on the news. And, well, sometimes he seemed distracted by things that he wouldn’t tell me about, but he always seemed to have reasons. He just wouldn’t talk about them. And now he just seems really stressed. Nothing at all like he used to be. He never smelled this stressed before. Even for big tests or when he had a whole bunch of assignments due and then other things dumped on him with no warning. I mean, those were just the kinds of things they did to us in school. He handled all of that really well as far as I remember. But then, I was still only seeing his public face and now I’m seeing what’s underneath.” She closed her mouth and swallowed, realizing she had been babbling.
Savon finished typing and looked up, “Go on?”
“Um, except for being stressed about his mom,” Mirith said, looking down at her fingers as she twisted them in her lap. “That seemed to stress him a lot too, but not as much as he is now, what with Gatas and all…” She glanced up to look at Savon, finding the doctor typing again.
“If you’re afraid I’m going to debate with you on the fairness of Gatas’s confinement. First, I don’t much like him, second, I’m trying to figure out how to help Vathion and that’s more important.”
Mirith nodded, a smile tugging at her lips. It did not last long, and she returned her gaze to her hands, “That’s really all I can think of right now. He’s nearly a completely different person than he used to be. Even more serious than before. I mean, he was pretty serious in school too, but now it seems like he thinks everything that happens in the universe is his fault.”
“I think I can rule out head injury,” Savon said, “And from what you said, this sounds like it might be related to stress.” She looked up and sighed, “Thank you for your help, Mirith. I’ll keep you informed of anything I find out, seeing as how he’s finally done something smart and hired someone to take care of him.”
“Hired?” Mirith laughed.
“Or whatever.” Savon shrugged, “Anyway, I’ve got some research that needs doing now.”
Mirith stood, glancing at the display once again. “Maybe… some antidepressants?” she offered, “He’s been sour and serious before, but not to this level.”
“It might help. Thank you for the suggestion.” Savon stepped over to the cabinet set on one side of the room. “Hold still for a moment please.” She brought a datapad and scanner over. “I’d like to take some baseline samples from you, since you’re here.”
Obediently, Mirith remained still as a drop of blood was taken, as well as several other readings using the hand-scanner. Then Savon pressed a tube against the back of Mirith’s neck and pressed the button on the end. “Vathion gave me orders to give these to you. You won’t feel any different.”
Mirith snorted. “Yay, grade-fours. Why I would ever need them…”
“They’re useful. Kiti has an emergency program that allows her to take control of your body if you’re unconscious. This allows her to get you out of danger.”
“If I remain unconscious.” She looked down, “Vathion told me about… Ha’Natan, by the way. Just so you know.”
The doctor nodded and tapped on her datapad a few times. “Good, I suppose.”
“I didn’t tell Hiba.”
Savon looked up. “Hiba’s nosy and will find out things no matter how secret they’re kept. He could have found out from anyone. Considering how many people know the truth.”
“I’m done with you now. Thank you and I’ll keep you informed on anything I find out.” Stepping over to the door, Savon let Mirith out.
Sighing as the door shut behind her, Mirith returned to the lift, rubbing the back of her neck.
Vathion watched the blips on his screen move around as the Fleet continued their second day of training. At least, he was until a hand blocked his view. Blinking, he looked up to find Mirith leaning over his shoulder. “That’s enough for today,” she said softly into his ear. “It’s third shift. You’re really going to ruin your sleep schedule if you keep this up.”
“It’s not third…” Vathion protested, then stopped, moving Mirith’s thumb to look at the time. “Okay, so it is. But only just.”
Taking Vathion’s hand, Mirith stepped around to pull him to his feet.
Deciding to ignore the looks his crew were giving him, Vathion said, “Shift change. Ca’Hassi, inform third shift that they are to continue the training sequences I had you doing.”
Lacing his fingers with Mirith’s, Vathion left the bridge.
Once the door had closed, she removed his Tassels and coat. “Get anything done today?” she asked.
“More training.” Vathion sighed. “I’ve been devising new standard attack patterns to make more effective use of our new equipment. Unfortunately, turns out that some of the hypothetical capabilities were over exaggerated. I’m not making a lick of sense, am I?” He looked down at Mirith.
Smiling, she cupped his face with her hands, “That’s okay. I like hearing you talk.”
“Ha. Fine. I’ll bore you to death then.”
She quirked a brow in challenge.
“When the engineers and I worked on these engine designs, we thought we could get the ships to go something around twice as fast as their original designs. This led me to decide to put the third wings on the Haulers. Well, the wings were a good idea, but none of the ships go quite as fast as I had hoped. I suppose in the end it’s all right, since they go fast enough. The Raptors are really the jewel of the fleet now.”
Mirith grinned, pulling Vathion towards the bedroom as he talked. “Well, there’s more of the Vathion I know.”
“I could swear I showed you the design once. Several years ago.”
“You had some weird drawing on graph paper,” Mirith admitted, “I remember it.” She unclipped his belt and pulled his shirt over his head, dropping it on the floor.
“Yeah, and the Wilsaer really improved the design. Back then I only had access to Gilon tech. Repurposing equipment doesn’t always work. The problem with the carrier ships is that they were modified off Dad’s original designs. We did what we could, but the underlying structures are the same. It’s like a car, you know? You can put a sports car engine in a minivan, but that doesn’t fix all the problems that come with a minivan being a minivan.”
Snorting, Mirith shoved him face down on the bed, then straddled his hips, hands going to his shoulders. “Okay, so essentially, you put new engines in the Fleet, but they still wallow in the water like Dad’s yacht?”
“Exactly!” Vathion exclaimed into the bedding.
“But why does that make the Raptors special?”
“Because,” he pulled the blanket away from his face, “They were built from scratch. Well, not totally from scratch, the Wilsaer don’t exactly have manufacturing facilities. They stole the base structure from some aliens they encountered. Same people who made the Tricannons, I suspect, since that weapon came pre-installed on the model.”
Nodding, she dug her thumbs in beneath his shoulder blades.
Breath catching briefly, he sighed. “If I pay you, will you keep that up for another hour?”
“You don’t have to pay me,” leaning down, she kissed his ear.
Pushing onto his elbows, he knocked her over onto the bed and rolled to face her. His hand brushed her cheek gently, other hand propping his head up. “Miri…”
He stopped, simply staring at her for a time. Sprawled on her back, hair flared around her face, Vathion could not help but be awed. “Miri,” he tried again, “thank you…”
“For what? I’m your friend, aren’t I?”
Smiling slightly, Vathion shook his head, “You’re more than that. You always have been.”
“Does that make me your girlfriend?”
He grinned. “More than that.”
“Really? What’s more than girlfriend if we’re not mated?” She cocked her head slightly.
“Partners in crime?” Vathion offered, caressing her cheek again, “I – if I live long enough… you’ll be the one. Can I at least ask that we wait a few years? Mating at sixteen… wouldn’t fly. Even though my reputation’s in the toilet already.”
Mirith pushed up onto her elbows to kiss him. “Not if. And I’ll hold you to that.”
“I promise to hang on as long as I can. And if I can’t please, move on with your life?”
“I want a time! Specific!”
“For?” Vathion he lifted a brow. She gave him a look. He rolled his eyes. “All right. My nineteenth birthday, at sixteen hundred.”
“That’s at the end of your shift.”
“Yes. Gives me plenty of time to prepare.”
Rolling off the bed, she grinned, “Time for bed now.”
“Aw,” Vathion sighed. “You aren’t going to keep me company?”
“Of course I am, silly. I have to change into my bedclothes first.”
Sitting up, he grinned. “Bah. Don’t need bedclothes.”
Wagging her finger at him, she shook her head. “Behave. You need rest, not more excitement.” Turning, she headed towards the bathroom.
* * *
He was actually up in time for first shift.
More amazingly, Vathion found himself entering the bridge with the smallest hint of a smile tugging at his lips. Waking up to Mirith fussing over him was far more enjoyable than he had expected it to be.
“I heard that you brought a woman on board,” Bibbole took it upon himself to say.
Bibbole said, “This ship isn’t your personal party pad.”
“It was Natan’s for years,” Vathion replied cheerfully as he logged into his station and took a look at the Fleet status. Their energy capabilities were down twenty percent. If they did not get into a fight, it would not be a problem.
Bibbole turned to look at Vathion in shock. Chira actually cracked a snigger.
“I think we’ve gotten enough training for now. Let’s get over to Toudon before we’ve got to resupply. We can at least take a look briefly,” Vathion said.
Bibbole sighed gustily and said in an irritated tone, “Your flippant attitude isn’t winning you any points.”
“I don’t care.” Vathion broke into a grin.
“What is wrong with you?” Bibbole slapped his hand down on the top of his station, tail thrashing behind him.
“Bibbole, leave him alone,” Codas said. “He’s got a point. We are being a bit hard on him. He’s sixteen. So what if he brought his girlfriend here. At least he’s not half as horny as Natan was, bringing all kinds of floozies aboard.”
“Multiples at a time, as I recall,” Vathion mused, “You guys are just going to have to get used to Mirith. She’s the only one that will be around.”
“That a final decision?” Erekdra asked, turning partially to look over her shoulder at him.
Glancing up, Vathion snorted, “Yeah. But it’ll be a few more years before I make it permanent.” He glanced at Bibbole, finding the hyphokos giving him a look. “I’m not stupid. Babies take time and just herding you all is time-consuming enough!” Looking back down at his screen, Vathion continued to mutter, albeit still cheerfully, “I’ll be lucky if I get to spend a few hours with her a day before passing out. You all exhaust me. And try my patience. Why aren’t we moving yet?”
“Yes sir,” Erekdra replied and turned back to her station. “ETA on Toudon, one point five hours,” she reported.
“Have Eagle squad one out on point. Everyone else, have Raptors prepped for five minutes to launch.”
Bibbole got to work.
For once, Vathion found that he had nothing else to do. Silently, he stared at his screen, then finally opened his files on their training. “You realize,” Vath mused aloud, “over the last two days, we’ve revolutionized how Gilons will fight wars?”
“Wars? You kidding?” Codas snorted, “Once this is over, it’s over. We’re not doing this again.”
Vathion shook his head, “Wish I could agree.”
Chira glanced back at him. “How do you figure we’ve revolutionized war?”
“The main fleet, while capable of defending itself, is really just a delivery service for the Raptors. Once the Raptors get out there, the battle is ours,” Vathion shrugged, “Everyone else is going with the Bigger Is Better model, but regardless of how big their ships are, or their missiles, they can’t hurt us if they can’t catch us. We’re faster and more agile than they are. They’ll waste their time chasing after the main fleet while the Raptors peck them to death. In fact, if we wanted to, we could kick the Raptors out and not even be within scanner-shot of the battle. Like the Wilsaers do.”
Chira nodded, “I see… But you really think we’ll have other wars?”
For a moment, Vathion thought on that, then finally answered, “I know a lot of languages, but in order to actually understand those languages, I had to learn some of that culture’s history. Take us for example… You would have to know where we come from in order to understand why we still have words for things that exist only on Heartland, or don’t even exist at all and even Aola didn’t know where the word came from. As a result… I’ve found that the only species that has managed to exist so far without fighting itself is the Serfocile, and I think they’re lying. As for our war, I don’t think it’s about Gelran’s greed. It’s about something else, and when that comes to light, it will undoubtedly rock the foundations of our society. There will be other wars.”
“Grim prognosis, but you’re wrong,” an unexpected voice said from behind him.
Blinking, Vathion turned to face Gatas who stood at the open bridge door. “Gatas! How? I didn’t let you out!” Getting to his feet, he staggered back a step.
Rage engulfed him, boiling up from some foreign source. He opened his mouth to speak words that were not his own. Vathion pulled his body back into his own control, ducking his head.
Drawing his blaster into line, Gatas sneered as he pulled the trigger. The impact hit Vathion’s shoulder as he ducked to the left. The impact knocked him off balance.
Another shot was fired.
His collision with the floor shocked him. Vathion focused his eyes to find Gatas standing over him.
Heavy jowls trembling, Gatas shouted, “I’ve had enough of you! I’ll finish you once and for all, you little brat! Then I’ll have my reward!”
Lifting the gun, he aimed for Vathion’s face.
“Gatas has a blaster on the bridge!” Kiti exclaimed.
Mirith leapt to her feet, still clutching the datapad she had been reading even as she dashed out of Vathion’s quarters. Startled by the door opening, Gatas swung around to face her, blaster shaking in his hands.
His reaction was too late. Her first swing cracked the edge of the datapad across his face.
Gatas staggered, nose crunched to the side and beginning to bleed. The blaster dropped to the floor, but no one else moved to get it. Mirith brought the datapad around again. Too stunned to duck, Gatas took the second strike across the other side of his head. The heavy man dropped to his knees, bleeding from a cut as part of the datapad’s casing cracked and flew off. When the datapad connected a third time, it broke in half across his temple and Gatas dropped to the floor in a heavy heap.
Staggering to a stop, she blinked and breathed. “Ancestors,” she gagged, hands covering her mouth. The room reeked of blood. Vathion staggered to his feet, left shoulder a bloody mess.
Zandre and Logos burst into the room now, phasers raised and ready. They stopped only a few paces in, Zandre’s mouth open in shock.
Breathing, Vathion pointed first at Gatas, “Take him to the brig.”
“Arih, is Chira okay? Where’s the medical team?”
“On their way,” Kiti immediately answered.
Arih, broken from her shock, tumbled from her seat and crawled across the floor to her sister, “Chira?” she whispered, one hand covering her mouth, the other reaching. “Chira?” her voice dropped to a whisper. “Chira?”
Savon and her assistants entered, shoving past Zandre and Logos as they cuffed Gatas’s hands behind him and dragged him from the room.
“See to Chira.” Vathion ordered as Savon rushed to him. He pushed her off. “I’m functional. Kiti, air the room out.” Reaching out with his good hand, Vathion pulled Mirith closer, “Shh,” he cupped her cheek with his hand, putting his forehead against hers. “Shh, don’t cry. You saved my life. He was going to kill me if you hadn’t done that. You didn’t kill him. It’s okay.”
Mirith trembled, tears streaming down her face. Vathion wiped at them. “Bibbole,” he said, “tell the fleet to halt here. Scanner scramblers activate, silent mode. If they ask why…” he gestured at the room, “Tell them.”
Bibbole looked mortified. “Sir,” he said, but it was barely audible.
“Ha’Vathion, I must insist,” Savon said as she came back to him. Her assistants had put Chira’s body on a stretcher, Arih was standing there, sobbing.
“Arih, go, you’re relieved of duty for now. Bibbole, get replacement weapon officers in here. Yes, Savon, I’m going to go with you. Come, Mirith. It’s okay. I’m all right.” His eyes darted around swiftly to verify that nothing else needed his attention.
Putting his arm around Mirith’s shoulders, Vathion gently guided her into the hall.
“Are you feeling light-headed?” Savon asked, hovering at his left shoulder. “Dizzy? Nauseous?”
“Back off, Savon. You can hover over me in medbay, but right now, I’m trying to concentrate on walking.”
“You could have used the other stretcher we brought.”
“Oh great idea. Let everyone see me hauled around on a stretcher. I can walk, I’m going to walk.”
They reached medbay and entered to find Arih collapsed on the floor, sobbing just outside the closest alcove. The assistants were cleaning up the few tools they had used. The body on the bed was covered with a sheet. Softly, Vathion cursed.
Savon immediately pulled Vathion to the right and shoved him onto the bed there. “If you hadn’t turned your shoulder, this would have hit you in the face,” Savon pointed out, hands steadily clipping off the charred fabric from his coat and shirt. Her face was very pale. “Chira never had a chance. She caught it in the head. There was nothing anyone could have done to save her.”
“Tell Arih that,” he winced, the numbness from adrenaline receding. Reaching over with his good hand, he caught Mirith’s.
She wiped her face with trembling fingers and licked her lips. “I’ll go to her,” she said and kissed his fingers lightly. Turning, Mirith headed over to Arih’s alcove and whatever she did from there, Vathion couldn’t see.
“I’m glad you brought her,” Savon said softly. “I hope you haven’t…”
“I love her. I wouldn’t drag her into death with me,” Vathion whispered back hotly. “Ah-shh!” he yelped as Savon began rinsing off his wound. He kicked the bed with a heel.
“You’re going to have a nice scar here,” Savon stated, her face had regained color now that she could see the extent of the damage. “I don’t think it was a direct hit. Scan says there’s no bone damage. You might not have full radial movement in this shoulder, though. The muscle was burnt too.”
“Well, now I know what dinner feels like when it gets left in the microwave too long,” he winced as she sprayed something across the wound. “What was that?”
“A clotting agent. You’re going to come down here twice a day to get this bandage changed, Vathion. You hear me? You’re going to be very careful in the shower too. If you don’t do what I say, I’ll put you in a chest-cast. Wouldn’t that be inconvenient.”
“What’s with all the threats?” Vathion sighed, “All right, I’ll do what you say, okay?”
Savon did not appear to believe him, but finished bandaging his arm after cutting the remainder of his shirt and coat off. Once she was done, he sat up and carefully donned the replacement clothes Kiti brought. Savon presented him with a sling.
“Do I have to wear it?”
She stared at him, silver brow rising into her bangs.
Shrinking back from her, he pulled it over his head, then hopped off the bed. Savon slapped a trio of pill bottles into his hand. “This one’s for if you have trouble sleeping, this one’s for pain. This one you take daily.”
He sighed and pocketed the medications. Heading over to Arih, he found her in Mirith’s arms, quietly sobbing. Vathion knelt and carefully reached out to touch her hair. “Arih…”
Lifting her head, she coughed, her eyes and face red. “You were right…” her voice cracked. “Gatas… wasn’t on our side. We… we were so blind. I’m sorry.”
Vathion shook his head and caressed her hair back from her face. “Don’t blame yourself for this. It isn’t your fault. You’re off duty for two weeks, go see the counselor. Make whatever decision you feel is right for you. I’ll support you. She’ll be accorded all honors as well.”
Arih nodded, “Thank you, sir.”
Leaning in, he kissed her forehead gently, then caressed Mirith’s cheek gently, “I have to get back up there and deal with things, find out how he got out in the first place.”
“Take it easy, okay?” Mirith insisted. “You’re no good to anyone dead.”
He stuck his tongue out at her, then stood, heading out the door and into the lift.
“Where are Zandre and Logos?” he asked after stepping into the lift.
“In the brig, securing Gatas,” Kiti replied. “I’m sorry, Ha’Vathion. I thought he was lying on his bed still. I only noticed it was looped footage when the bridge door opened.”
Vathion’s lips pursed in thought. “How could someone hack into you without you noticing?”
“I don’t know. I’m looking for the leak, but… I’ve saved an image of my security code in Battle Fleet,” Kiti said. “I’m very sorry this happened. I didn’t realize anything was wrong…”
“Don’t worry about it Kiti,” Vathion soothed. “I’ll look at it and we’ll figure this out.” He sighed and rubbed his eyes. His shoulder had begun to throb in time with his heartbeat. When the doors opened, he headed to the bridge at a fast clip.
“Ha’Vathion,” Li’Codas stated as soon as Vathion entered, “long range scanners have spotted a courier ship bound towards Baelton. The Raptors on scout have moved to shadow.”
Cursing, Vathion settled into his chair. “One thing after another. Tell the scouts to catch that ship.”
“But sir, it’s not been identified as a Rebel,” Codas objected.
“Well, if you’re so sure it’s a friendly, why’s it heading through Toudon to get to Baelton?” Vathion snapped. “Only reason it would be doing that is if it came from Kimidas.” The man looked mortified and ducked back to his work. Vathion settled back in his chair again and pulled up his screen. His shoulder sent a shot of pain up his neck and down his spine as he removed the sling in order to access his keyboard. “I want the shuttle bay secured and security ready. Get some techies in there with cutters.”
“Cutters?” someone asked. Vathion looked up, finding his replacement weapons officers were Wo’Etho and Wo’Tionus from second shift.
“What? We’re supposed to wait until they want to come out? You two,” he gestured left-handed at the two weapons officers, “are ordered to quit questioning me all the time. I’ve put up with it this long, and it’s only gotten Chira killed and me shot. So do you comply?” Vathion asked. “Do all of you comply?” He was definitely no longer in a good mood.
“Yes sir,” Wo’Tionus said first and without hesitation. Wo’Etho repeated shortly afterwards. The other members of his first shift answered as well.
“Good. Codas, what’s long-range look like on Toudon?”
“Nothing but dust and ice.” He paused, “But there’s something odd about it… you probably want to look at it yourself.” He sent the image to the main screen. Vathion squinted slightly, not seeing what Codas had meant at first.
“Well,” Vathion mused. “Why didn’t anyone notice that before?” The cloud, being a free-floating object in space was usually distributed evenly, and even when the occasional ship went through, it settled again fairly shortly afterwards. Now, the debris cloud was crisscrossed with distinct trails; wakes from ships.
“Scout leader says they’ve got the ship and got it silenced; they’re bringing it in,” Bibbole said. His ears were still laid back in distress. Everyone was still upset, and Vathion belatedly realized he should have sent them off on shift change too. Chira was their friend as well. But, there was something important going on and changing now would only cause confusion. He made a note to remind him to change soon as they had verified that the area was clear.
“We’ve arrived at Toudon perimeter,” Erekdra announced, her voice tight.
“Halt here. All ships on high alert, send out one scout team each. Tell them to put some distance between us. I want as much advance warning as I can get.”
A moment later Bibbole reported, “Courier ship is secured in the shuttle bay. Tech teams have been sent in.”
Vathion switched his screen to a video feed of the shuttle bay to watch as his team of technicians cut their way through the hull of the courier ship. The thought that maybe it was not a Rebel ship crossed his mind, but after a breath to calm himself, Vathion decided that if it was not he could buy the people a new ship and be done with it. Better to be cautious.
It took nearly ten minutes to cut through the hull of the ship, despite being only lightly armored. As soon as the hole was cleared, his security bustled in. A shiver went up Vathion’s spine as he spotted Se’Mel amongst the crew entering the courier ship with phasers ready. Thankfully, everyone emerged a few minutes later relatively unharmed. A yellow haired woman was escorted out. She wore the Rebel navy uniform with the tabs of a communications officer on her collar. Followed by what appeared to be a young girl, perhaps fifteen, with short silver hair. Then two men.
Only one of the men had made an attempt to resist but had been subdued fairly easily. They were taken to the brig immediately.
Vathion wiped a hand across his face. :Almost seems too easy,: he remarked to Kiti. Taking a breath, he let it out slowly. “I want that ship under constant watch now. No one goes in unless I’m there to give permission personally. Zandre and Logos are to work on the courier ship’s computer. Get whatever data they can off it, access only from brig station. No one else is to touch it. Shift change. You guys get some rest. Sorry I left you on duty for so long.”
He fell silent then, waiting for his people to change. Tionus and Etho remained where they were as the rest of first shift left. In the meantime, he needed to start hacking into the Rebel’s computer and see what they had on file as well as the save file Kiti had made of her data.
:Vathion, take your pain medications please?:
Kiti preemptively delivered a glass of water, and suppressing his sigh, Vathion bent down to take it and fished in his pocket for the bottles Savon had given him. He squinted at the labels, unable to remember which one was which. ‘Hell with it. Let the Rebels cool their heels in the brig with Gatas for a few hours.’ He took one of each.