|Thicker Than Water||Part XXX|
The target had inexplicably reversed course, and now hurtled toward their torpedoes at full thrust. Arrem frowned at the scene playing out above the master situation table, the floating holographic symbols belying the vast distances and speeds involved.
"Sir, target ship's jump vane is locked and active."
"Do they seriously mean to commit suicide?" Rousseau, his second-in-command, murmured from her customary position opposite him.
Maybe, maybe not, but their obvious desperation gave Arrem no pleasure. Six hours on the hunt with the end finally in sight...he wasn't about to let his quarry escape justice by choosing their own fate. Even if it was instant oblivion by unknown physics or certain death in some forgotten corner of the universe. His grip on the edge of the table tightened.
The power readings from the farship spiked; it would jump any second. Two torpedoes from their salvo remained. "Detonate the lancers now!"
As he gave the order, a third torpedo fell under a lucky shot. The symbol for the fourth turned into an expanding spherical shell that engulfed the target symbol. Arrem squinted at the ebbing explosion on the viewscreen, hardly visible against the brightness of the star.
Rousseau, adept as ever at guessing his thoughts, turned to telemetrics. "Can we confirm target destruction?"
"Uncertain, sir." Lieutenant Kittakurra's long tawny fingers danced in the air before her, drawing a symphony from the avalanche of incoming data. "The target's gone from sensors, but there's a lot of noise this close to the star."
One way or another it was over, yet he still didn't have peace. If the farship had been destroyed, there would be debris, vapor; maybe peace would come when he held a charred piece of the Dream of Dawn in his naked hands. "Keep scanning the area. Saschenko, bring us to a holding position two thousand kilometers from the detonation point."
The foreign sun stung his eyes as he tried to memorize it, this important segment of time.
"Captain, we have an intermittent remote contact, bearing 1-2-0 mark 0-8-5, distance fourteen light-seconds. It's faint, but the profile suggests it may be artificial."
There was no way that debris from the explosion could've been thrown so far in so short a time. Arrem examined the new symbol over the table; it orbited the star and presented no power signature.
"Back-trace its trajectory," Rousseau ordered. Her dark eyes found his. "I think it may be an escape pod."
Just like that, blood roared in his ears once more. Kittakurra quickly confirmed Rousseau's suspicions: the object originated from the coordinates where the farship had reversed course. There had been something more to that bizarre maneuver; he should have figured. "Set an intercept course. Kittakurra, find out if that pod's the only one."
There were three. Oh, clever, Arrem thought with cold satisfaction as they closed in on the first.
"Sir..." Rousseau was at his side, her voice low and cautious. She alone on board knew what this truly meant to him. "They obviously no longer pose any threat, nor can they escape. Our mission"
"Lock on target." Arrem kept his gaze straight ahead. "Tachyon cannons prepare to fire."
Arrem's eyes slid shut at the hiss of his own personal snake in the grass, Observer Ellis Young of the Onyx Hand. The fire was snuffed out of his veins and he turned, presenting a mockery of a smile for the man of mousy frame and calculating eyes. No part of him a soldier. "Good of you to finally join us, Mr. Young."
"Yes, the lift malfunctioned at a most inconvenient time," Young said, dripping with venom. He surveyed and dismissed his surroundings as he walked to the table. "I trust that I need not remind you of your duty, captain. The fugitives are to be taken alive if at all possible." He eyed the display. "I dare say that escape pods...may not tax your capabilities in that regard."
"Quite." Arrem's career wouldn't have progressed nearly so smoothly if he hadn't honed his tolerance of the Onyx Hand's esteemed representatives. Even now, when every fiber of his being yearned to toss the weasel out an airlock and finish what he'd started. "Recover the pods. Make certain that any survivors are secured."
As his crew hopped to their new orders, Young clasped his black-gloved hands. "An adequate close to our pursuit. I will be witnessing the handling of the prisoners...I believe I shall walk until repairs are effected on the lift system."
Arrem didn't unclench his jaw after the doors closed on the back of Young's long gray coat. He'd already stretched the parameters of his mission to the breaking point and the Admiralty would only tolerate so much, even with antagonizing the Onyx Hand as an added perk.
He looked past Rousseau's sympathetic expression to take in the whole bridge of the Kinjori battle cruiser Sayr-Yaal. His bridge. "Bring our pilots home. And I want a probe deployed to continue scanning the detonation site. Saschenko, once we have the last pod, set a course for Novaterre and proceed at best speed."
The call had come from the Bastion, the orbital headquarters of the Armada, and on a secured channel no less, so Arrem had cause to be surprised at seeing his twin sister on the other end. Captain Anyid Ilvarra served as the Hegemony's chief military liaison to Roseholm Dao on the Cygnese border. A much more prestigious assignment than his own, as their father was fond of pointing out. Arrem was only happy for her.
He smoothed down his regulation-short hair before he answered. "Annie, hi. When did you get to the homeworld?"
"Hello yourself, Arrem," she said pointedly, because properly raised adults shed childish diminutives. "I am well, as are Peter and the children, thank you."
The rebuke was so familiar it had no bite left. Arrem only snickered, and Anyid too gave a ghost of a smile before she sobered again. That had been the second clue as to the importance of what she was about to say.
"To answer your question, I requested a leave of absence." Anyid raised a hand to forestall him. "I've been informed that the Onyx Hand has located the Dream of Dawn."
Ky. Festering rage overtook him. He and Anyid had thrown themselves into finding their brother's killers ever since that tiny obituary, in vain until now. Arrem leaned in closer to the screen. "Where is it?"
"Its crew has accepted contractual employment with the Alyan Navy."
Mercenaries. His lip curled in contempt. The Alyans weren't members of the Near-Solar Community, but they clothed themselves in the rotting legacy of the Solar Federation regardless. It was no surprise that a nation lacking self-respect would sink so low. "Have you told father?"
"Would he care?"
Arrem grimaced with her; they were hardly innocents either. "Is there an operation planned?"
"Apparently the Onyx Hand still wants Lirelle Wice retrieved." Anyid's eyes held a savage gleam. "I've pulled considerable strings to ensure that the Sayr-Yaal will be tasked with this mission. The Admiralty understands that the situation in the field may be...unpredictable. Thus, certain discretionary actions by her commanding officer may well be sanctioned after the fact."
Almost no need to read between the lines. Nervous energy coursed through his limbs. "When do I leave?"
"The mission will be officially issued tomorrow. In ten days, the Dream of Dawn will be due to travel through unclaimed space from the Xiuhcoatl theater to Mnemosyne. That will be your window of opportunity."
He nodded. "I won't fail."
"I'm certain we won't." They stared at each other across light-years, shared grief chained over their hearts. "Not this last time."
Prowling through the narrow corridors, Ellis gave himself a second to wallow in hatred for his so-called crewmates. That they felt same for him was obvious in all their smug, sneering faces. It'd been clear since his first day aboard that Ilvarra had no intention of working with him in good faith. His latest little stunt with the lift...if Ellis hadn't had timely help in getting past sealed doors, the mission would've been a total loss.
Of course, this mission had been fucked before it began. Ellis couldn't fathom how the Directorate could've allowed this of all ships to be assigned to it. Any other dullard commander in the Armada would've simply handed Ky Ilvarra over without a second thought.
He subvocalized the activation command for the microphone nestled at the base of his throat, hidden by his high collar. The device transmitted on a ultra-low-power tight-beam, virtually undetectable, and the return signal went to the implant inside his right ear. The conversation would be completely secret. "Young here. I reached the bridge in time. Three escape pods from the Dream of Dawn are being brought into bay one. I'm headed there now."
"What is your assessment?" The implant tickled, like someone whispering right to his eardrum.
"If Ky Ilvarra's one of the survivors, I very much doubt that his brother will release him into Onyx Hand custody," Ellis 'said'. "No matter how nicely we request it."
"Quite touching really. Ky always seemed so isolated to me. I knew that the disregard of his family troubled him more than he was willing to admit."
Ellis almost made the mistake of grunting aloud. He couldn't care less. "Yeah, sweet. So what are we supposed to do now?"
"No need to be pessimistic, Ellis." He hated when she used his name. "We're well equipped to deal with complications should they arise. I'm seeing to the necessary preparations."
"Are you going to tell me what they are?" Ellis asked with little hope. He didn't trust his temporary 'partner' either. Everything about her screamed danger; she'd sneaked aboard inside a cargo container, for god's sake. She would throw him under the bus in an instant if that's what it took to complete her objective.
"Should the need arise."
He gnashed his teeth together, wondering if the microphone would pick that up. "Fine. I'll keep you updated."
"Please do. Dana out." She was unfailingly polite, and Ellis wouldn't be surprised if she sincerely meant it, which made the way she lived her life actually worse. In the coming days he'd have to tread more carefully than he ever had in his whole life.
Still, opportunity thrived in adversity. If he managed to preserve his hide and deliver the youngest Ilvarra to the Directorate even under these circumstances, then that would be his ticket out of this naval hellhole. His talents would be justly recognized, and oh, to imagine the fun that the Onyx Hand would have with a man who was already officially 'dead'...not to mention the delicious prospect of either Ilvarra brother realizing the role that the other had played in it. Ellis permitted his mouth the slightest curve. Perhaps he was fortunate after all.
When the porthole was suffused by the soft white glow that could only be from a Kinjori tractor beam, the memory of every mistake Ky ever made tried to squeeze into his brain at once. Fennic, a better human being by any metric, had told him not to be sorry; Ky wondered if he'd known at the time just how hard a thing he was asking.
He had not many minutes left and they had to count. Assuming that the other escape pods had also been captured, he needed to find a way to appeal to the captain. The ship was still Armada, and Ky knew all about the virtues they claimed to hold dear. He waited for them to set the pod down, then released the safety harness biting into his chest.
The hatch hissed and spilled light in along its edges. Ky stood up and faced it, anticipating the command that shortly came in from outside.
"You inside, stand clear of the hatchway with your hands up!"
The hatch swung open. A pair of marines in full combat gear stood on the other side with rifles leveled, which he supposed was flattering. "I'm not armed," he called out. "But I am an extractor, so you probably shouldn't touch me."
"Yeah right. Extractors are Onyx Hand," the one on the left growled. "Come forward, slowly."
"I'm ex-Onyx Hand. Weren't you briefed?" Ky stepped out of the pod into the mostly empty bay. His heart sank as he spied the squarish shapes of the two other pods, open and empty. "I'm serious. Surely you know how extractors work?" He edged his right hand forward, palm facing out. "Here, just...tap my hand. You'll see I'm telling the truth."
"Keep your hands up!"
This was bad; he had to get them to believe him before they laid their hands on him to search or restrain and an incident happened.
The shout, raw with disbelief and familiar, turned Ky's head before he could think. A woman stood agape, color drained from her broad face; she wore commander insignia, her height and looks pleasantly unassuming in the manner of a surf-worn stone. A wave of terrible, yawning nausea passed through him as the world turned inside-out.
"Gillian." He hadn't forgotten her, even after the passing of years. She'd been to his house.
"How...Ky, is it really you?"
"Commander Rousseau," Ky corrected himself weakly as she came closer. If she was here, that meant...with a start he realized his eyes were watering, and he clamped down on it with a vengeance. "Am I aboard the Sayr-Yaal?"
"Sir, I strongly advise you to keep your distance," one of the marines said.
"Both of you stand down! At once!" Rousseau snapped, punctuating the order with an impatient gesture.
Ky wished he felt better now that there weren't guns pointed at him. Rousseau stopped and raised her hand, only to apparently remember what he was and drop it again. "Ky...yes you're correct. But how are you here? Your death was reported almost seven months ago."
"I know, that was the Onyx Hand's lie."
"I see." Rousseau's expression cleared and she shot a deadly look over her shoulder. Ky noticed, for the first time, the man in gray standing by the far wall with both hands clasped behind his back, sharing the room but not their space: an observer, the eyes and ears of the Onyx Hand. One stationed on every Armada capital ship and base. His stare gave Ky a chill.
"Ky" Rousseau seemed unable to stop saying his name, "do you need that seen to?"
It took him a second to realize she was referring to the bruise on his face. "It's fine."
"Very well, I" Rousseau paused at the interruption of a crewman. They spoke discreetly, something urgent that put lines on her brow, and then she addressed one of the marines. "Sergeant, see to it that he is escorted to guest quarters. He's to be confined but treated with the utmost courtesy, is that clear?"
"Wait, what about my crewmates?" Ky asked. "I know they're here, I want to see them."
"Of course. Your companions will be brought to you." Rousseau paused to think. "Ky, we were obviously not prepared for this. Please, will you agree to stay put for the time being until we can figure out what to do next?"
"Do I have a choice?" Ky asked rhetorically, finally letting a bit of anger surface. But at Rousseau's pained look, he sighed and relented. "Fine, as long as we can stay together. That includes Lirelle Wice."
"You have my word," Rousseau said, tipping her head crisply. She turned to leave with the crewman. "The captain will be glad to know you're here."
Ky didn't respond. There was a limit to how gracious he could be right now.
"This way, sir." The marines now perceived him differently, like a switch had been flipped. Now Ky had been rescued, not captured. Their newfound deference would've been funny had there been anything funny at all about the situation. The observer continued to observe as Ky exited the bay, like insects skittering over his skin.
The words played over and over in Arrem's mind like a sacred mantra, a ray of sunlight struggling to pierce the morass in his brain. "Are you absolutely sure?"
Gillian looked at him strangely. "I...haven't biometric or genetic corroboration, if that's what you mean."
"No, sorry." Arrem shook his head to clear it. Of course Gillian could identify Ky; she'd been a guest of the Ilvarras for a fair number of holidays, since her own family lived on the far outskirts of the Hegemony. "Where's he now?"
"I've ordered all three of them transferred to a guest cabin. I assumed that, given the circumstances, in lieu of the brig..."
"Good, thank you." Arrem felt sick at the thought of how close he'd come to pulling the trigger on those pods. Without Young's intervention, his hands would've been stained with Ky's blood without him ever the wiser. Would Young even have said anything if...
In an instant, fury replaced horror. "The fucking Onyx Hand knew. God, we were idiots to take them at their word that Ky was gone." Arrem cursed his stupidity every way he knew how. "This entire mission of theirs has to be another goddamned trick"
"Captain." Gillian interrupted his tirade with a gentle hand over his clenched fist. Arrem looked at her gratefully; here in the privacy of his ready room they could be friends, though their road had been rocky. "Will you go see him?"
The very obviousness of her question brought him up short. "Yes, of course," he replied, hearing the lack of conviction.
Old shame settled into Arrem's heart, because he'd been putting it off. It was like the year before Ky's 'death' all over again: him and Anyid playing around with the notion of reconciliation and never getting around to it, while Ky grew ever more distant and hostile. "What if it's too late?"
"'Too late' would've been when you thought him dead. He's your brother," Gillian said, as if what he'd said was inconceivable.
Arrem smiled a little. "It's not that simple." He'd met her parents once, and one of her three siblings, also once. That limited contact was enough to tell him that her upbringing had never been poisoned by exposure to the peerage. Hell, the Ilvarras had only ever nibbled at the edges of high society and just look at what the brief taste had done to them.
"I doubt it's as complicated as you've made it in your head."
He'd let so many chances to reach out slip by. Sometimes he even imagined that he could've stopped Ky from joining the Onyx Hand, from letting them mutilate him. The last time Ky set foot in the family house, changed, counted as the second-worst day of Arrem's life. "I've never been much of a brother to him before, and now that he's finally found a place for himself..." Arrem trailed off; it was becoming obvious that Ky had chosen to leave the Onyx Hand for the Dream of Dawn, which was now gone. His fault. "It'd be selfish to impose."
"I can't attest fully to your relationship, but I can't help feeling that this is a gift," Gillian said. "How many second chances does anyone ever get?"
"You're right." Arrem was reminded again of why they worked well together. "Besides," he added with a chuckle, "if Annie finds out I had Ky on my ship and didn't talk to him, she'd flay me alive and give what's left to Helena to play with."
Gillian scowled on cue at the mention of his wife's name; the two of them got along like water and sodium. She recomposed herself with admirable speed and settled back, resting her hands in her lap. "Sir, there's another urgent matter you need to be aware of."
Right, he still had a ship to run. Ky overshadowed everything. "What is it?"
"Lirelle Wice has the provictus of her bloodline. We've confirmed its authenticity."
Apparently the day was one for shocks. Arrem was now doubly grateful for Gillian's sound judgment. The Wice lineage was first generation; their downfall had reverberated around the Hegemony and so would their restoration. Once they were back in Kinjori territory, he wouldn't want to be the common idiot who had stuck the last daughter of Wice in a brig. "Was this something else the Onyx Hand neglected to share?"
"Young was with me when we made the verification, and he looked as surprised as anyone," Gillian said. "I'm inclined to believe that they didn't know either. Even the Onyx Hand would think twice about crossing someone of her standing."
"It doesn't make sense. The whole Seos affair went public months ago. Why did she stay in exile?" Arrem racked his brain. First, Ky had put his life in incredible danger to join the Dream of Dawn, and now it seemed the ship boasted Lady Lirelle Wice among its crew despite the power and wealth that was hers for the taking back home. What was that ship?
The marines brought Ky to a crew cabin furnished for four. Fennic was already inside, whole and seemingly unharmed. Relief almost cut Ky's legs out from under him.
"Ky, thank god! What's going on? Where's Lirelle?" Fennic rushed forward, eyes wide and very green. "I thought if the Kinjori caught us we'd be dead."
Ky waited for the door to close and the lock to click, then dropped heavily on one of the bunk beds. He felt like a snapped rubber band. "We've gravely misjudged the situation," he said, dropping his head into his hands. "Fuck."
"What? Dreamer and Sabrin and Tallas"
"They're safe. We aren't. Don't let your guard down."
Fennic nodded and sat down next to him. "Where's Lirelle?"
"She'll be here. I was personally assured of that by the first officer." Gillian, whom I once saw in a fluffy bathrobe talking eyeshadow with my sister across a pile of toast. Talk. Ky took a deep breath. "This is my brother's ship."
Fennic gasped. "Your brother..."
"Arrem," Ky supplied. From Fennic's expression, Ky already knew that he had the wrong idea. Fennic thought that 'brother' meant someone like Emder for Lirelle, or Dreamer for Selene. If only he didn't have to be the counter-example.
"But...why would he come after us?"
"He didn't know I was aboard the Dream. He thought I was dead...remember my obituary?" Good god, was Arrem trying to avenge him? The notion slithered around Ky's chest, dredging up emotions black like tar from the earth. Some of it must have leaked to the surface, judging by Fennic's look of worry and apprehension.
"Okay, so now that he knows you're actually alive, that's good isn't it?"
"I...yes, I suppose so." It was leverage he could use, that's all. Arrem apparently didn't want him dead.
Fennic worried his lip. "You've never talked about him."
Ky had hardly thought about him either, not since the Dream saved his life. "There's really not much to say. Arrem and I...well, we didn't exactly have a close relationship." A single inoffensive sentence encapsulating a lifetime of Kinjori family values. Fennic didn't look satisfied. "Aside from DNA there's nothing shared between us."
After a few beats, Fennic said, "That's awful."
"It's what we all wanted," Ky insisted, needing to dispel the sad pity on Fennic's face. "He and Anyidmy sister, they're twinsthey're much older than I am and very different. They had their lives and I had mine. The arrangement suited everyone." None of those statements was completely true or completely false.
Fennic plainly didn't believe him at all. Ky stared at the deck between his shoes as the seconds ticked by, wondering what kind of horror story Fennic was concocting to fill in the blanks. It made sense that he would, given his own background. Ky readied himself to promise that it'd been nothing like that.
Thankfully the door interceded. They both shot up as Lirelle entered, and for a minute they were occupied reassuring each other of their well-being.
"I spoke with the first officer," Lirelle said. She pulled a polished green stone free from the neckline of her shirt. "I made her aware of certain relevant facts should they continue to detain us."
"I take it that's the provictus." Ky hated himself a little for the way his breath caught. It was just a pretty rock, even if his ass-backward culture thought it valuable beyond price. The pendant was the heirloom of the Wice family and Lirelle's proof that she'd solved the puzzle of her mother Madia's 'disappearance', the abdication of personal and national duty that had disgraced her bloodline.
"Yes." Lirelle nodded wearily. "I'd hoped to avoid it, but I am prepared to invoke my family name for whatever good it may do us."
"Wait, I don't get it," Fennic said.
"The Wices are one of the eighty families who originally claimed Kinjor four and a half centuries ago." Ky explained. "Being the bearer" and sole survivor, "of that bloodline, which is symbolized by her possession of that pendant, entitles her a certain degree of influence."
"I'd call it more theoretical than actual, considering my long absence. In any case I have no intention of testing it within the bounds of the Hegemony itself. Hopefully it'll suffice to cow the captain of this ship while we develop a more viable plan."
Oh, it surely will.
Fennic raked his fingers over his scalp, setting pale strands in disarray. He looked frustrated at both of them. "Why didn't you ever tell us that you were...famous?"
"Infamous. Because I wanted it forgotten," Lirelle said, bitter as ash. "This...privilege destroyed my family. My mother died trying to escape it, my brother died trying to regain it, and myself...well, once we're free of this ship I'll be more than pleased to bury the Wice legacy once and for all."
Lirelle hadn't even mentioned that her returning to Kinjori society would be like tossing a bloody steak into a pit of starving dogs. She was young, unattached, and childless with a name that could satiate the most ravenous of ambitions. Ky didn't envy her in the least. "That may yet be possible," he told her. "The captain is my older brother Arrem."
Her reaction was as shocked as Fennic's had been. "That cannot be coincidence."
"Agreed." Ky huffed, something hysterical bubbling in his throat. "A train wreck of this magnitude can only be of Kinjori design."
"This is a disaster! There's no way we can risk touching Wice now." Ellis stuffed the words with as much vehemence as he could, which barely amounted to anything since he couldn't fucking say them out loud. He forced his body into stone stillness amidst the anthill activity of the bridge.
"Calm down, Ellis. Her retrieval was always of minimal priority on this mission. Ky's last report indicated that she does not have the data on the Altairan device we valued."
"Well, isn't that just peachy." Or it would've been, if he'd been told that from the beginning. "So what are we doing about the junior Ilvarra? Now we have to worry about both Wice and his brother protecting him."
"Please be assured that I have matters well under control. Have faith in my competence as I have in yours."
"Of course." His response was automatic, and Dana signed off. The thought that she was laughing at him nagged. Ellis would mind the games far less without the constant reminders that he was the least important piece on the board.
In too little time, Rousseau came to personally escort Ky to the captain. "No guards, commander?" he murmured as he trailed behind her.
"You're not" It was good Rousseau caught herself, because he was definitely still a prisoner. Ky took some grim humor in Rousseau not knowing how to treat him; she couldn't ignore him like she had in the past, nor could she disdain him like she would any other member or ex-member of the Onyx Hand. She finally settled on a firm, "You agreed you would cooperate for the time being."
"And you trust the word of an Onyx Hand agent?" Ky couldn't help needling. It seemed he was the one falling into old habits.
Rousseau stiffened, though she didn't break stride. The rest of the walk was spent in silence.
Ky hesitated outside the captain's quarters, and then was annoyed at himself for hesitating. He wasn't here for a touching reunion. Raising his chin, he pressed the chime.
His brother looked the same, thankfully in full uniform which added a measure of professional distance. How long had it been since he and Arrem stood like this, face to face? Ky resisted an anxious gulp when the door slid shut behind him.
"Ky." Arrem made an abortive reaching-out motion like Rousseau had. His face fell when Ky drew back, though he soldiered on. "God, it really is you. I didn't think..."
His brother didn't say his name like that. It struck him, like a punch in the gut, just how not ready for this he was. Ky took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Arrem. It's good to see you."
Arrem frowned, then looked sad. "You don't have to pretend."
"If you say so." Ky rather begged to differ. His past was eating his future in live action, and he was hanging on by his fingernails. "How is Helena?"
"Helena?" Arrem blinked, in the dumb way he did whenever somebody reminded him he was married. "She's fine."
"Anyid and Peter? Sola? Keffren?"
"They're fine too. Ky, please."
"Alright." He'd never even met any of his sister's kids anyway. "If I may ask, was my...was the farship able to jump?"
"Our preliminary sensor analysis suggests it was."
Goodbye. Thank you. Ky's eyes slipped closed. Just for a second, the most he could spare in this place.
"Ky, I can't begin to tell you how sorry"
"There's no need," Ky interrupted. He had one of the two pieces of information he'd wanted out of this meeting. "You didn't know. How could you have, given the Onyx Hand?"
"Yes, the Onyx Hand." Arrem looked relieved that they'd encountered a safe topic. He sat down behind his desk and waved at the free chair; Ky obeyed. "We didn't question the news when it came, Annie and I." Ky almost smiled at Arrem's unconscious use of the cutesy nickname; his brother's one tiny act of rebellion in his life. "I don't know why we didn't, maybe we were too..."
"Stricken?" Ky suggested evenly.
Arrem eyed Ky like he suspected he was being mocked but wasn't sure. In the old days that would've earned him a sneer or a dismissal. "I don't expect you to believe me or care, but we were."
Ky would've dearly liked to say that he didn't believe it, and been sincere. But then there was a particular strain of emotional weakness in him that his siblings and father had always been able to detect, and if he thought any more about it he would lose control of the situation. "What will you do now that you know the truth?"
"I have no intention of handing you over to them."
Lovely sentiment, but hardly important. "I wish for you to release my crewmates before we reach Kinjori territory. There's no need to involve them in any of this."
Arrem hesitated, his features rearranging to form something complicated. "I can assure you that your friends won't be harmed."
"If you're already willing to disobey orders by sheltering me, then why not" Ky figured it out. What he couldn't figure out was why he was so disappointed. "Ah, I see. You weren't actually ordered to bring me in, because I'm 'dead'. My crewmates, however, you were ordered to capture, so you'll be delivering them without delay into the merciful hand of Kinjori justice."
"Lady Wice is perfectly capable of interceding on her own behalf," Arrem argued. "Once the Admiralty's been made aware of the situation, I'm sure that a reassessment will"
"Did you never ask yourself why she didn't return to the Hegemony after she'd redeemed her bloodline? Oh of course you didn't," Ky muttered. He held Arrem's gaze. "Arrem...Remmie, I'm begging you, please. Let Lirelle and Fennic return to their escape pods, and they'll be rescued by the Alyans in a few days. If you do this you'll have my full cooperation, anything."
Arrem was quiet long enough that Ky even began to hope. Which naturally was the point he opened his mouth to say an insipid, "I'm sorry, Ky."
Ky's composure cracked a bit. "You're still the same," he hissed. "Ever the obedient little soldier."
Arrem didn't even try to keep his hurt from showing. "I don't blame you for thinking so," he said. When Ky answered with nothing but a flat glare, he sighed and reached for the comn panel on his desk. "We can talk more later."
Arrem's fingers hovered over the panel. "Will you just tell me one thing, Ky? What really happened at Windfall? What was it about the Dream of Dawn that made you leave the Onyx Hand?"
"Do you mean what argument they used that you or Anyid or father never thought of?" Ky asked. "They didn't. At Windfall I made a choice to correct one of my mistakes, and afterward they chose to save me from the consequences. If you want to know why, you'll have to ask them. Will that be all, captain?"
Finally, Arrem pressed the button. "I'm still happy to see you," he added, almost defiantly. Ky stared past him until Rousseau came.
"You don't believe your brother can be convinced to disobey his orders?" Lirelle paced before the bunk where Ky sat slumped over, hands hanging between his knees. Fennic was seated next to him; less than an arm's length away, she noted to her displeasure. Fennic's eyes bounced back and forth between them, his face a mask of concern.
"I don't know," Ky answered quietly.
"You said that he contrived to take this mission personally. That must suggest he feels some affection for you, regardless of your past estrangement."
"Well then, what would his reaction be if we were to engineer an escape? Hypothetically," Lirelle added before Fennic could ask. She had no plan yet, and couldn't begin to formulate one until she knew how the captain would react. "Could he be convinced to look the other way?"
"I couldn't say."
Ky's attitude gnawed at the last threads of Lirelle's patience. She couldn't physically shake him out of his apathy, the scratch of his mind in hers reminded. "But would the notion be worth broaching at all," she pressed through clenched teeth, "or is he the kind of man who would see it as an insult to his honor?" When Ky still didn't volunteer anything, she finally snapped, "Agent Ilvarra! Do you resent your brother so much that you won't speak of him even to help us?"
"Lirelle..." Fennic started.
"Is that what you think is happening?"
"I haven't the slightest idea what is happening." Lirelle rubbed at the ache between her eyes. "I expect your brother to summon me in short order. Surely you've grasped how I need you to be of use before then."
Fennic rose to his feet and touched her arm calmingly. "Ky, you know him. Anything you could tell us..."
"I'm not sure what I know, in truth." At last Ky raised his head. "The Arrem I knew wouldn't be here. The last time we spoke was almost six years ago, just after I'd become an extractor. It was made very clear then that they wanted nothing to do with the abomination." He huffed. "As if that were new information."
"How could they do that?" Fennic asked, appalled. "They're your family."
Ky's mouth twitched at the corners. "Thank you."
"You and he may be alienated, but you still have insight," Lirelle said. "Speak."
"Mine is not a remarkable story."
"I've lost three friends today and the day is not yet over," Lirelle growled, ignoring the stab in her chest. "I'm not seeking to be entertained."
Ky didn't immediately respond. He wrung his hands, apparently thinking. "My father didn't want a third child, my mother did. Obviously she won that argument, after a prolonged battle, but then she died in the Ekogo sabotage which...well, rather shifted the balance of public opinion." Ky shrugged wryly. "Since then my father's done his best to ignore the fact of my existence, and by every indication the twins were of like mind."
The destruction of the cruiser Ekogo by Altairan rebels was in 2964; Ky was seven years old. Lirelle kept her face impassive, because she needed him to keep talking. "They ignored you?"
The twist to Ky's mouth turned razor-sharp. "To the extent that they could. I didn't make it easy."
She could well imagine. "Perhaps your brother's come to regret his earlier stance."
"Is it that unbelievable, after all this time?" Fennic asked.
"It doesn't matter if he does." Ky straightened, bracing his hands on his knees. "Arrem's not an agitator, in any sense of the word, which does mean that your name will carry much currency with him. Whether the prospect of currying favor with the Wice bloodline will outweigh his call to duty? I honestly don't know, as I've said, though I doubt that whatever affection he has for me will play into it."
"I see," Lirelle said, though she wasn't so sure. "What's your assessment of him as a commander?"
Ky was quiet for a few beats. "Rousseau's the one to watch. I've heard her and Anyid talk shop at my father's house."
"Wait, you've met her before too?"
"She's a friend of the family," Ky told Fennic dryly, before turning back to Lirelle. "Rousseau's smart, but she's also loyal, and sentimental. If she weren't, she'd have eyes and ears in this room. These are qualities you should use to your advantage."
Fennic's mouth was set in a grim line. "I wish you wouldn't talk like that. Those aren't bad things."
He's behaving like one of the Onyx Hand again. There was something cold, almost reptilian in the way they comported themselves, whether by training or by self-selection. Until now, Lirelle hadn't noticed how much of it Ky had discarded since joining the Dream. "Sorry," Ky said, and it seemed he truly was, "but this is a matter of survival."
Fennic was shaking his head. "No. You always think that the real you won't be good enough, and it's just not true."
"Alright," Lirelle interjected, seeing the storm building behind Ky's eyes. "Thank you, Ky."
Ky gave a smile that wasn't. He slid backward until he was leaning on the bulkhead, tucking one of his legs up. The silence hung heavily as the hours of the day hit all three of them at once. "Wonder what's going on with the Dream right now," Fennic murmured.
Lirelle sat alongside him and slung an arm across his thin shoulders, letting his body curl into hers. She didn't really believe that unstable potentials led to other dimensions or more fantastic places. She only had the contradictory faith that Dreamer, Sabrin, and Tallas were still alive, somewhere, and that grief could wait. "Perhaps it's beyond our imagination."
"Yeah? I hope they're having fun." A beat. "I wish we'd stayed together."
"As do I." If they had known that their pursuer was Ky's brother. If there had been some point when they could've broken through their preconceptions and realized that, if they communicated with the cruiser, they may have had a chance to turn away from the cliff before they reached it. The thought might haunt her for the rest of her days.
Arrem rolled the mostly empty tumbler between his hands. He reminded himself that way forward was always going to be tough.
"I take it your meeting with Ky didn't go well?" Gillian asked ruefully.
"It went precisely as well as I expected it would." Arrem drained the last bit of whiskey and set his glass down, resisting the urge to pour himself another. "I can't fault him for feeling as he does. The Dream of Dawn was his home."
Gillian nodded. "I wish there was some way I could make this easier."
"It shouldn't be easy. Easy would mean he's faking it."
"Yes, I think I remember that. The incident at Chez Falais."
Arrem half-smirked, half-grimaced; his little brother could be scarily creative when he applied himself. "I need to message Anyid about the developments here. With any luck it'll reach her before she leaves the Bastion, and she'll be able to rally the troops in advance of our arrival."
"We'll need to find a transmission window that won't reveal our presence to the Alyans." Gillian gave him a careful look. "Sir, Ky was an Onyx Hand agent, and after that it appears, a defector. Neither of those facts will endear him to the Admiralty."
"They've accommodated worse," Arrem spat. Seventeen years in the service had more than worn the shine off the Armada for him. "One only needs to find the right incentives. In the meantime, I also want Young monitored, and a block placed on his communications."
Gillian didn't even blink at the blatant illegality of his instructions. "I'll see to the appropriate adjustments in our maintenance schedule."
Arrem slid his hand across the table, fingers stopping just short of hers. "I appreciate your support, commander."
"It'll always be a given, captain."
After she left, Arrem turned to his desk-mounted screen and started a new recording. "Hi Annie. I'm en route to Novaterre and expect to arrive on the forty-third." He laughed, soft and sad. "As for the mission, you won't believe this..."
The Sayr-Yaal jumped, and then twice more within the hour. They would probably reach the Kinjori border in days.
The door chimed in the late evening, after they'd been fed. Commander Rousseau stood on the other side. "Lady Wice" Lirelle bit back her reaction to the title, "Captain Ilvarra requests your presence in the stateroom."
The most sumptuous space on the ship, the stateroom was a large rectangular room dominated by a conference table trimmed in glossy hardwood and lined with sleek leather chairs. High-quality screens lining the longer walls offered the illusion of sweeping vistas, presently set to a view of storybook forest. Mounted on the far wall was the bronze relief of the Great Seal of the Kinjori Hegemony, a stylized hawk.
Ilvarra, at the head of the table, stood when she entered. "Captain Arrem Ilvarra, Lady Lirelle Wice," Rousseau announced formally. Lirelle resigned herself to hearing that condemnation again and again.
"Thank you, commander. You're dismissed." Ilvarra gestured at the chair to his right. "Please have a seat."
"Given the circumstances you'll not find me enamored of pleasantries, captain," Lirelle said as she sat, before Ilvarra offered to pour her something from one of the crystal carafes sitting by the tastefully restrained table arrangement. "I would favor directness."
"I understand." Ilvarra resumed his seat and interlaced his fingers. Lirelle saw Ky echoed in his medium-brown hair and swept-up eyebrows, pointed nose and thin lips. Yet, the two men were as night and day, no chance of mistaking them. "Nevertheless, please allow me to express my profoundest regret at the attack on your ship," Ilvarra said. "We were...misled by the Onyx Hand."
Lirelle waited. Blue-gray eyes flickered away. "I'm certain that they'll attempt to claim Ky again, which neither of us wants to happen. I plan to appeal to the Admiralty to intercede, and despite past events I hope that you'll support us when the time comes?"
He wasn't what she expected. "Ky informed me of your change of heart," Lirelle said cautiously.
A wince. "I don't suppose he said it so charitably. At least he believed me...didn't he?"
Lirelle did not know.
"I see." Ilvarra drew his own conclusion. "It's not relevant at present, anyway," he said like he needed to convince himself. "Well? Can we count you as an ally for Ky's sake?"
"I will do whatever is necessary to protect my crewmates," Lirelle said, making clear exactly where she was standing.
"Yes, of course. Thank you." Ilvarra had more to say but he hesitated, his right thumb drawing circles into his left palm. "I...sorry but may I ask if you and Ky were close?"
Caught between kindness and the truth, and the question of which would better their situation, Lirelle eventually decided on, "We've established a fine working relationship."
A small crease appeared on Ilvarra's brow. "But you and he were comrades...friends?"
"Yes," Lirelle didn't specify which. "Why this line of inquiry, captain?"
"I'm sorry, I just" Ilvarra's open distress caught her off-guard. "I want to know how he's been these past months, except..." His mouth quirked ruefully. "I know what would happen if I asked him."
"You should scarcely expect to find me more sympathetic."
Ilvarra's shoulders slumped. "I take it Ky's told you about our history."
"Enough," Lirelle lied. "It's not a topic he ever visits."
"I am sorry, for everything," Ilvarra said quietly. "I realize it makes very little difference now but it still needs to be said. We drove him into the Onyx Hand, while you saved him from it. For that I'm eternally in your debt."
"Ky betrayed the Onyx Hand to save my life."
She'd never thanked him for it, telling herself that he didn't deserve thanks for righting his own wrong, just as she didn't deserve thanks for her part in stopping Vesuvius. Except Ky had been a victim first, turned hero at Windfall, and suddenly it became vitally important that his brother know it. "They had planned to use him to execute me, by infecting him with a virus tailored to me without his knowledge. Once he uncovered the truth, he extracted the cure from one of their operatives and brought it to me."
Ilvarra's eyes widened almost comically as she spoke. "That...that's amazing," he said, giving a ghost of a laugh. "I shouldn't be surprised that Ky would do such a thing. He was always...headstrong."
Lirelle had walked in not knowing whether she could appeal directly to Ilvarra's brotherly affection, yet here it shone bright as the sun. "Captain, if you're truly concerned for Ky's well-being, then you should release him."
The temperature in the room plummeted. "Beg your pardon, but if you and Mr. Fennic wish to depart now, then we can discuss the possibility without your invoking"
"I speak only for Ky's sake. Don't take him to the Hegemony."
Guilt warred with anger on Ilvarra's face. "I understand why he'd feel that way, but..." He shook his head in agitation. "No. Ky belongs...he deserves to have a proper family. The wrongs that we committed...mine, my sister's, my father's...were a goddamned atrocity. Every second that he spends exiled from his home perpetuates it, and that's not acceptable."
Lirelle recognized his words all too well. "You can't think that forcing the issue will yield a positive result."
Ilvarra shook his head again. "That's not what we're doing."
"It is," Lirelle said firmly. "You're insisting that whatever reconciliation you hope to effect take place only on your terms."
"There's no other choice. If I let Ky slip away now, he'll disappear and I'll never see him again," Ilvarra said, and Lirelle couldn't deny that it was true. "I have to seize this opportunity. Anyid and I only need a chance to demonstrate to him that we've changed, that we can be a family...then things will be better."
"No," Lirelle said, not unkindly for the yearning she saw in him. "You're making the same mistake I did when the Wice name was disgraced. You're mistaking veneer for substance."
"I assure you that I am fully sincere in"
"You misunderstand me." Lirelle hooked a thumb under the cord of her provictus and lifted it into the light. Ilvarra fell silent, his attention drawn like iron to a magnet. "When it seemed that my mother had broken our bloodline, I thought my family was ended. Never mind that I still had my brother Emder, who was as close to me as anyone could be. I convinced myself that our bond wasn't real unless we had the mantle of the Wice legacy behind it."
Lirelle tucked the pendant away. "I recovered that at the cost of Emder's life," she said thickly, "which was not an equitable trade. Captain, you'd put your brother in a cage and label it 'family', thinking that would make it real when really...you'd merely be making the same trade I had. The Onyx Hand won't be stopped by legalities."
"They're not omnipotent. We can stop them." Ilvarra glowered.
"A far more difficult prospect within the borders of the Hegemony."
"Enough. Thank you, Lady Wice, for your counsel. I'm sorry for the tragedies you've endured." Ilvarra's hand went to the comlink in front of his ear, summoning Rousseau.
"I urge you to think upon your course of action carefully," Lirelle said as the door opened. "Forcing Ky to Kinjor won't make him any more your brother, nor will releasing him make him any less."
She'd pushed too far, too quickly, not that there was another choice with the clock ticking. Captain Ilvarra, however, was not what Lirelle had expected based on the tenor of Ky's memories. She reminded herself that she and the others were still prisoners, and that it would do no good to muddle the waters. It was disconcerting enough that she no longer viewed Ilvarra as an enemy, which felt like a betrayal.
A night spent in the company of his own thoughts did nothing to improve Ky's mood. Breakfast tasted like cardboard and his mind drew mostly blanks while Lirelle tried to strategize, because he was waiting for the door to chime with Rousseau on the other side. This civility was all a damned lie, piled on top of lies, worming inside and rotting his soul.
When Rousseau came, he tossed her a baleful look and shuffled along dutifully without a word.
This time, Ky swept into Arrem's quarters and flopped onto the chair without invitation. His brother was freshly groomed for the day, uniform jacket hanging open. He gave him a cautious look. "Ky, good morning."
It was likely that Arrem had rehearsed what he was going to say, and yet it still wasn't happening. God. "Have you changed your mind regarding my request?" Ky asked, the words feeling like grit.
Arrem cleared his throat. "I'm aware none of you want to be here."
"I hate being here."
"I know," Arrem said quietly, with only a small hitch in breath. "Ky, the Dream of Dawn is gone." Arrem's eyes shied away from Ky's murderous expression. "My fault, yes, but it doesn't change the fact that without a ship...how long would you be able to stay ahead of the Onyx Hand? In the Hegemony we'll have resources, as does Lady Wice."
Ky made a noise of disgust. "So now you're not only handing her over, you're exploiting her kindness and making me an accessory."
Arrem had the temerity to look confused. "That's not..."
"I already told you I'll cooperate if you let them go." Ky raised his voice as his hands curled into fists. "You don't need her, or Fennic! Don't pretend that you're holding onto them for my benefit."
"Damn it, I just didn't want you to"
"To pretend to go along with this? To do something I didn't want to, just to keep them safe?" Ky sneered. Anticipation raced across his nerves as red crept onto Arrem's face, the first hints of anger and frustration breaking through. "I didn't realize you'd become this delusional."
Arrem exhaled, visibly reining himself in. "I didn't want you to make a rash decision because of me."
"Well, that would rather fit my pattern of past behavior wouldn't it," Ky said with a snort, ignoring the pang of his words being true. "You and Anyid should have locked me up for my own good ten years ago. I'm sure we'd all have been better off."
"No, but we should have done something."
You didn't. It was Ky's turn to avoid his brother's gaze. "Do you feel better now that you've said that?" Pressure built at the base of his throat, beneath his rib cage squeezing his lungs. "I sure as fuck don't."
"Spare me," Ky spat. "I don't need your apologies or your regrets and I definitely don't need your brand of self-serving compassion." He saw the blows land, and went for the knife. "The last time I was supposed to be part of this family I almost died, and where the fuck was all this bleeding heart crap then?"
"What?" Arrem turned white. "What're you talking about? When?"
Ky had never spoken of that day; neither Lirelle nor Fennic had ever glimpsed it. "When do you think? After dad started going on his 'business trips' to piss away the settlement from mom's death." Arrem and Anyid had been out of the Academy by then and no longer dropping by on weekends. Just him and the old man in the house meant no more appearances to keep. "I know you knew about them."
Arrem nodded, his reply feeble. "Yes but we...I swear we didn't know how bad things had become."
"Starving fucking hurts," Ky said shortly. "I was hanging on though, until the one winter when I almost didn't." He shrugged, casting a significant look at Arrem's horrified face. "I had an especially bad week. For some reason, my usual options weren't panning out at the same time. On day five I was so hungry I couldn't see straight, and to cap it all off a couple of punks jumped me and dumped me in an alley."
Regardless of how many years passed, he would never be distanced from that memory. The kiss of the wind, the unyielding stones at his back, the throbbing of his empty gut where one of their boots caught him. Of course, none of that had compared to the sheer hellish exhaustion, every cell turned to lead. "I was too tired to stand up," Ky summarized. "I had to crawl out of there, and I suppose finally look pathetic enough for someone to help."
Arrem sat stone-still, his folded hands trembling the slightest amount. "Ky...my god..."
"Stop." He was possibly less than steady himself, and there was more to say. Ky shot to his feet and planted his hands on the desk, leaning forward. "Here's the important part, captain. That whole week? I never once considered calling you or Anyid. You didn't cross my mind in that alley, or at Windfall when I was signing my death warrant. I don't give two shits about us sharing a last name or some fucking DNA.
"I'm telling you this because you have fantasies." Ky shaped the word viciously. "The ones where you save me, save the family, and finally live up to who you're supposed to be." Bullseye. Arrem flinched, his expression crumpling. "I know because I pay attention to people's weaknesses and you're just such a sopping soft target. I saw your fucking hope yesterday. I thought maybe I could appeal to it, that since you cared so damned much you'd actually care about what I want for once, but I forgot that that's not how it works with you.
"So here's how it really is." Ky unbent, injecting steel into his words. "You were past twenty when you had a chance to make a difference. You don't get another one. That said, my offer still stands: let my crewmates go and I'll stay, and we can have as many of these little chats as you want. Otherwise I'm gone, one way or another."
Arrem believed him; it was worth the fluttering hollowness in his chest, the ragged edges that didn't fit together, if he'd made his point. Ky stood waiting while his brother scrubbed a hand over his face, looking every bit his age and then some. "Understood."
"Good. Are we done? This is fucking embarrassing."
Closing his eyes, Arrem activated his comn. "We're finished here, commander," he enunciated after Rousseau's acknowledgment. "And have the skiff prepared for launch. Our guests are leaving."
It seemed they had a bargain.
Rousseau's back was one long line of tension. She had picked up on the fraught atmosphere between him and Arrem immediately upon entering the room, and Arrem's curt dismissal hadn't helped. "All your brother wants to do is help you. The least you can do is give him a chance."
"My understanding is that 'help' generally involves improving someone's life," Ky intoned, trudging along behind her in the corridor.
Rousseau spun around. "The Onyx Hand lied to him. That's not his fault."
Ky had talked to and about his family enough for two lifetimes. "You really need not concern yourself with my personal affairs, commander."
"Look, you've had a difficult life and your brother was partly responsible. But that was years ago and he's sorry beyond words, you must see that. He's been tearing himself apart trying to figure out how he can possibly make amends." Rousseau sighed, disappointment clear on her face. "You have a real opportunity here to change things for the better. What's the use of holding onto all that old bitterness?"
He was too raw for this shit. "You've always been very insightful, commander," Ky said mildly, tilting his head. "I hope Arrem fully appreciates the fact of your place at his side."
Rousseau's eyes narrowed. "That's not relevant."
"I only meant that you should have my brother's full regard. It's the least that you deserve, since he's never going to leave Helena."
Rousseau sucked in a sharp breath, flushing dark with anger. She quickly looked in both directions; they were alone in the corridor for now. "You're mistaken, and this won't work."
"I've been away for a long time, I admit, so perhaps you could enlighten me. Are you in fact still waiting for him, or have you resigned yourself to your present position"
"I'm exactly where I want to be," Rousseau snapped.
"Under him?" Ky offered a placid smile.
If he were anyone else, Ky would be laid out flat on the deck. "All this time," Rousseau ground out, "and you're still a brat."
"It'd be less galling if he loved her, wouldn't it? And if he weren't so very sorry, for being cruel. He doesn't mean to be, but you see it's beyond his control." Ky wasn't devoid of sympathy. Questionable personal judgment aside, here was a skilled naval officer past the experience qualification for her own command, yet continually overlooked for promotion in favor of a revolving door of hotshot scions who needed to feather their caps before they went into industry.
She didn't have the right connections, not for the Armada and not for Arrem's father. "Be brave."
"You" Rousseau gasped, her hand rising in an abortive movement before she sank to her knees. Ky startled, question in his throat before the voice made his whole body stutter to a stop.
Rousseau fought a losing battle, eyelids drooping and arms failing in slow motion to keep her propped up. Heart rabbiting, Ky slowly swiveled his head. She walked toward them, dressed in a crewman's uniform and ordinary brown hair, looking no worse for wear after their last encounter on Adelaine Habitat. "Dana."
"It's been too long. Stay where you are please." Dana gave Rousseau's prone form a casual once-over. "All traces of this sedative will be completely gone from her system after one hour, the trade-off being that it's slow to act and short in duration." She met Ky's eyes. "Remove her memory of this event."
"Connect with her unconscious mind and remove her memory of the past few minutes," Dana said like she was asking for the salt.
She was an odd one. In the past, at times she had acted as though she were fond of him, reassuring and terrifying both to a green recruit. Ky stretched his neck and recalled the iron grip of her fingers; he hadn't a prayer of catching her off-guard a second time. "Why?"
Dana smiled. "Surely you don't need me to explain that." She leveled her right arm at Rousseau, which was when Ky noticed the small device encircling her index and middle fingers. "This will not be a sedative."
Jerkily, Ky knelt and reached for Rousseau's hand. Dana couldn't have a way to confirm what he actually did in Rousseau's mind, could she? The Onyx Hand wouldn't need extractors if they had a machine that could read memories. He could make a show of it and lie, which he was good at, and put help on his trail in an hour.
Even with a plan, Ky still hesitated. "Quickly now," Dana said.
He didn't need to pretend much. The bridge to Rousseau formed, a howling chasm dragging him in. Pride mingling with frustration, longing with regret. Arrem, burning bright as fire, warmth and pain. The worst of both worlds. Ky pushed, choking, until fresh air flooded his lungs.
It's done, Ky tried to claim. His vision returned as Dana stooped to press something to Rousseau's forehead. "What...what're you doing?"
"I'm afraid you've lost our trust, Ky." Dana switched it on.
Rousseau began to convulse, a thin line of spittle dribbling from the corner of her mouth. "What the fuck?" Ky cried, tasting bile as he struggled to his hands and knees. Just a few seconds, and her body went limp. "What the fuck did you do?"
"I didn't kill her. Come along now." Dana produced a tranq clip and advanced.
The quiet competence of the bridge comforted in its small way. Arrem stood with his arms crossed and allowed himself to drift, surrounded by his people. Pulling himself together after Ky took some effort.
They didn't know. Ky hadn't been doing well in the house, that much was obvious. The kid had been skinny and surly, borderline unbearable to be around but he was always around. He and Anyid never even suspected that their little brother had basically been abandoned, and what kind of people did that make them?
Well, it was over now. The skiff would take Ky and his friends away from them, and if it hurt that was a small price to pay.
His comlink chirped with Corpsman Mulligan. "There's a medical emergency. Commander Rousseau's been taken to sickbay."
Arrem was headed for the lift before Mulligan finished his sentence. "I'm on my way. What happened?"
"We're not sure."
Gillian was found collapsed and unresponsive on deck eight. No one was with her, no one had heard any struggle, and no one had seen Ky. Arrem stayed out of the doctors' way, barely holding on to his composure as his thoughts churned furiously inside his skull.
"I don't know that we can help her," Doctor Thiesse told him. "She's comatose, but we can't identify the cause. Her neurological readings are unlike anything on record, and without knowing what happened to her it's too risky to attempt treatment. We're monitoring her for now. If her condition worsens I recommend that we put her into stasis."
Arrem forced himself to speak. "Have you considered...could it have been some kind of telepathic attack?"
"Telepathic? It's not possible to attack someone through telepathy." Thiesse's wizened face softened as she took him in. "However, telepathic contact does leave traces in the brain. There are tests we could run."
It wasn't Ky. It's impossible.
"Come with us."
Fennic jolted at the brusque order. Four soldiers were at the door, in black armor with mean-looking rifles at the ready. Ky hadn't returned, and a glance at Lirelle confirmed that things had gone very wrong.
The soldiers marched them to the ship's sickbay. A tall, broad-shouldered man in an officer's uniform stood there with his back to them. "Lady Wice, I would like for you to explain this."
Fennic edged into the room behind Lirelle, trying not quite successfully to ignore the white-suited doctors and antiseptic smell. He felt Lirelle's hand on his arm and leaned into it gratefully. "Captain?" she asked.
So this was Arrem, Ky's brother. He walked past the two of them to one of the beds, on which was still, pale form of Commander Rousseau. The screens reassured Fennic that she was alive.
"The last we know, she was escorting Ky back to your quarters. She was found alone, in this state, with evidence of recent telepathic activity in her brain and Ky's cellular residue on her hand!" Arrem's voice grew into a shout, making Fennic wince. But when he looked at Arrem's face, all he saw was grief. "Now I'll ask you again, do you know what this is?"
"Lirelle," Fennic whispered shakily.
Ky told them. That when they met at Windfall, he'd pulled information from an assassin's mind and incapacitated her somehow in the process. And before that was what happened to Lirelle's brother Emder, though that had been an accident. Fennic's heart thundered as he peered down at Rousseau's mannequin-like face.
"You must know more about extractors than we do," Arrem said, and now the cracks in his facade were unmissable. "Tell me an attack like this is not possible."
Lirelle's grim face said she was considering the possibility.
"No, it's not," Fennic spoke up. Two sets of eyes snapped to him. "Ky would never do this."
Strange to see a man who resembled Ky show emotion so nakedly. Arrem seemed about to speak, only to be interrupted by a momentary flickering in the lights and screens. A few seconds later, it happened again, lasting longer. Frowning, Arrem stepped away and raised a hand to his ear. "Ilvarra to bridge, what just happened?"
The doctors nudged Fennic and Lirelle out of the way to check on Rousseau and the machines around her.
"Ilvarra to bridge, report," Arrem demanded more emphatically, before striding over to a wall-mounted control panel and summoning a holographic interface in mid-air. Lirelle shifted subtly to take a look without setting off their guards.
Another burst of flickering, and now the atmosphere changed somehow, raising goosebumps on Fennic's skin. Lirelle bumped his arm and said in an undertone, "The engines."
Eyes shut, Fennic realized he could no longer detect the ever-present rumble. "Did we stop?"
Lirelle gestured for him to wait. "Captain, is there a problem?" she asked.
Arrem thumped the panel with a muttered curse. Heading for the door, he directed a passing black glare at the two of them. "Take them back to their quarters and keep them there."
"Wait, captain, I can help." Lirelle bucked against the soldiers who seized her arms. "I know more about computer security than anyone else on the ship"
"Captain!" A petite crewman appeared, panting like she'd ran. "We've got disruptions in our command systems across the board. Internal comns are down. So's propulsion, tactical"
"What caused it?"
"We don't know yet. And there's more. Just before it started there was an unauthorized activation in launch bay one. The skiff, one lifesign aboard."
Fennic's heart skipped a beat, and for a moment he felt as though it had been ripped out. Beside him Lirelle stumbled, forgetting about fighting her captors. "Lock down the bay," Arrem ordered, sounding distant.
The crewman shook her head. "We tried, the controls weren't responding." She hesitated, her expression helpless. "Sir, it's too late. The skiff's already cleared the bay and accelerating, heading for the potential. We received one transmission." She offered a pad, which Arrem took with unsteady fingers.
Ky's voice played. "Don't follow me."
A viscous silence engulfed the room. Arrem slackened like a a puppet with its strings cut.
"Captain," Lirelle urged, her face a determined mask. "There's no possibility that the entire ship's mainframe has been disabled. Judging by what I've seen, I assure you that these malfunctions are being caused by something small, designed to delay us only temporarily. If we act quickly, we can restore ship functionality and catch the skiff. Let. Me. Help."
"You may do as you wish, Lady Wice," Arrem said coldly, not sparing a backward glance as he left sickbay. "I'm needed on the bridge."
"As are we," Lirelle told Fennic, motioning after Arrem's back.
"Lirelle!" Fennic grabbed her wrist. There was fact, and then there was understanding. "You can't possibly think that Ky"
"We must hurry."
The pulling pinch on his neck restarted his brain. His joints immediately registered complaints; his wrists had been bound behind him and chained to cuffs around his ankles. "Welcome back," Dana's voice greeted from somewhere above.
With difficulty and little dignity, Ky worked himself into a sitting position. They were in a darkened cockpit, control consoles active and the black of space outside. Dana had removed the tranq clip when she didn't have to, which meant she felt safe and he was, in all likelihood, fucked.
He raised his eyes to Dana, who looked expectant. "Thank you," Ky managed; she valued courtesy and in his situation even a desperate thread was worth trying.
"You forced my hand," Dana said conversationally as she assumed the pilot's seat. "I'd preferred not to have intervened so early, but your brother was about to release you."
"No, he..." The deal was my freedom for Fennic and Lirelle's. "Where are we?"
"On our way home."
Ky tested his bindings; no luck. His palms were clammy. "These aren't necessary."
"Oh, Ky," Dana said, wryly like they were sharing an old joke. She plucked unhurriedly at the helm controls. "Tell me, that tale of your brush with death in your youth. Was it true?"
"You were listening." Ky wasn't surprised, but anger spiked regardless.
"I work in intelligence. Well?"
"What do you care?"
Dana's head swayed, a gesture Ky couldn't parse. "I do," she said. "You aren't obligated to tell me, of course. True or not, it was an inspired avenue of attack, to wield his sentimentality against him when it had been the main obstacle before your goal."
Ky had better weapons against Arrem, except for the lines he wouldn't cross. He scowled at Dana, clutching the hollow pit in his gut that hadn't come from inspiration, and answered her question. Maybe damage resonated with damage. "It happened."
Dana hummed neutrally. "Perhaps I should have targeted him instead of Rousseau. I did consider it."
No surged through Ky's body, screaming at him to act. The bite of the cuffs cleared his mind just as suddenly and he found Dana's gaze on him again. "Interesting," she remarked.
Shuddering, Ky forced down the urge to be ill. The past had its roots in him. "I doubt you'd understand."
"Probably not. You're not like us, Ky." Dana's expression was even sorrowful. "It is slightly unfortunate, because if you were I don't think you'd be in your present situation."
Fucking hilarious. Ky slumped in his chains, white haze edging into his vision.
"May I ask one more question?"
"When you were in the alley, what made you choose more suffering and struggle over peace?" Dana's question contained only curiosity. "You would have left a beautiful scar on the world."
Yes, a tragedy as beautiful as poetry. The bloodline that had forsaken him, forever branded by his passing. His corpse dragging his family name and all their carefully cultivated social standing into the dirt with it. Ky would be lying to claim that the thought hadn't occurred to him at the time, since children tended to be foolish and melodramatic.
However, the moments that passed before he began to crawl were not for the Onyx Hand to have. Ky lifted his head and gave Dana a non-answer she would accept: "Wouldn't you rather be an open wound?"
The corner of Dana's mouth pulled up, before she returned her attention to the helm.
After their little heart-to-heart, Ky felt entitled to a question of his own. "Why haven't you terminated me already?"
"Terminate? You're an extractor, one of the select few able to bear the gift. You need never underestimate your value."
He could say nothing to that. The Onyx Hand had him, and soon enough they would break him, as he entertained no illusions about the class of man he was. The blinding white closed in; he was freezing all over again.
Lirelle was guts-deep in the Sayr-Yaal's computer system, a cable running to her dataport and a cloud of screens bathing her in blue-green. Several of the ship's technicians flanked her, peering at her with various degrees of awe and devotion. "It's not a software issue," she announced less than an hour in. "Data transmission's being materially disrupted."
"We've checked the trunklines for sabotage," one of the techs said.
"It's nanotech-based." Lirelle launched into an explanation, the gist of which was that she had identified the problem and now offered the solution. No one questioned her, or the fact that she came aboard as a prisoner. "Captain, with your permission?"
Arrem turned his head and nodded once.
While Lirelle sprang into action, issuing a stream of orders that the crew scrambled to follow, Fennic gingerly stepped onto the raised dais that constituted the rear of the bridge. At its center was a large octagonal table with concentric circles etched into its surface; Arrem was on the other side, lost and unnervingly still. "Captain?"
"You know my name?" Fennic blurted out.
"You were Ky's friend," Arrem said, a constellation of history behind the words.
Fennic stepped forward. "It's not him doing this."
"You sound certain of that."
"Yeah." Ky could be ruthless, and he held a sliver of darkness at his core that curdled Fennic's blood to contemplate, but there was one thing Fennic could never believe him capable of. "Ky would never leave us behind."
Arrem's fingertips grazed the tabletop, tapping. "You're not Kinjori."
Why is that important? "No, I-I don't think so."
"Thus you don't get what it means that Ky is Onyx Hand. Excuse me."
Dejected, Fennic returned to Lirelle's side, though she was in her element and didn't have much use for him either. Completely out of place...and he wasn't the only one. A man in a gray coat and black gloves loitered near the lift on the far side of the bridge. None of the other crew members talked to or approached him; he simply watched.
The Onyx Hand Observer, Lirelle and Ky had both warned. Fennic shivered and ducked his head when the man's gaze alighted on him. He tried to subtly grab Lirelle's attention.
"One second." Lirelle pulled up a new screen and input a series of commands with blinding speed. "Captain, we're re-initializing the system. Command functions should be restored momentarily."
The crewmen in the oddly shaped chairs re-secured their harnesses and raised their hands, holographic interfaces blossoming before them like fireworks. The entire front wall of the bridge transformed into a star field.
"Locate the skiff and put us on a pursuit course. Ready interceptors for launch."
"Sir, the skiff..." The apologetic voice cut through the chorus of aye sirs, coming from a young woman with blonde curls piled atop her head. "It's over two hundred million kilometers distant. We can't catch it before it jumps."
The observer cocked his head, something glinting in his expression.
"Maybe it's for the best," Arrem murmured, mostly to himself.
"Lirelle!" Fennic hissed.
"What is it?" she sounded weak, defeated.
"That man over there's the observer, isn't he?" Lirelle followed his discreetly pointed finger and confirmed it. "Why isn't he upset?" Fennic whispered in a rush. "If Ky's flying away on that skiff shouldn't he be upset? Look at him."
Lirelle looked, her focus sharpening to a knife's edge. "Look at him. You have to stop the skiff," Fennic begged. "I know you can figure out a way."
The observer noticed their attention and scowled in contempt. And satisfaction.
"Fennic, I will need you to trust me now." He didn't get a chance to ask what she meant.
"Sir, number one torpedo launcher is powered up and loading!"
"What?" Arrem rushed to the tactical station. "Wice! Is this you?" he demanded.
"Keep clear," Lirelle murmured, pushing Fennic away. His wild eyes tripped on the cable running to her neck.
"Lancer away! It's locked on the skiff!"
A holographic display of the situation appeared above the octagonal table, the symbol for the torpedo separating rapidly from the Sayr-Yaal. Arrem took it in, horror all over his face, before he charged to a nearby soldier and pulled the man's pistol. He aimed it with a snarl.
"Killing me will do nothing. Only I can stop the torpedo." Lirelle stared down the barrel, not a single flaw in her resolve. "Ky is not in control of that skiff. Tell them I'll destroy them unless they disable their propulsion."
"There's only one lifesign."
"There are any number of methods for obscuring a lifesign. Contact the skiff."
Arrem shook. "What if they call your bluff?"
"It's not a bluff," Lirelle said without hesitation. "That skiff is ferrying Ky to a fate worse than death." Her voice softened. "Captain, the Onyx Hand wouldn't have gone to such lengths unless they wanted him alive. Young knows."
Observer Young's face contorted in rage. "How dare you! I have no idea what you're talking about"
Gritting his teeth, Arrem slowly lowered the gun and buried a hand in his hair. "Get that out of here." Young was dragged away, spitting about the rights of his position. "Open a channel."
"This is Captain Arrem Ilvarra of the Kinjori battle cruiser Sayr-Yaal." Arrem's words rang out clear and strong. "Whoever you are, I will not allow you reach the jump potential. Power down your engines and eject your antimatter reactor, or be destroyed. You have until the torpedo arrives."
"Remmie, what the hell are you doing? Have you gone crazy? Don't, please"
"Close it," Arrem said quietly, turning his back on the situation table with a leaden motion. He leaned against it with his hands braced on the edge and stared into space, devastatingly blank.
The torpedo bore down on the skiff, which was designed for long-range transport and lacked point-defense weaponry. Dana eyed the red symbol on her display and huffed in irritation. Sixty seconds to contact, fifty, forty.
"Thank god." Ky's faint voice floated over. "Thank god."
No operative could account for all variables, plan for all contingencies. A reality that unfortunately didn't mitigate the disappointment of a well-executed operation spoiled in the eleventh hour. "What gave me away, do you think?" Dana tossed the question over her shoulder. "I thought I was giving a good performance." Thirty seconds, twenty, ten.
A few finger strokes to cycle down the engines and dump the reactor. The torpedo sailed past without exploding.
Dana crouched in front of Ky. He glared at her, defiant despite his fear. "It's over. Is this the part where you kill me?"
"Ky, we've discussed this." If only she could ruffle his hair. "Your life is to be preserved for the Onyx Hand, which is what I've just done."
Ky bared his teeth. "Fuck you."
Dear god, the boy was fun. Most people were so dreary and colorless, their last breath was like the universe exhaling in relief. "Au revoir, Ky Ilvarra," Dana said with a smile, pulling the tranq clip from her pocket.
Déjà vu. Ky stared at Arrem across the desk. His clothes had decisively crossed over into grungy and he had a fresh set of bruises to keep the fading one on his face company.
"Are you alright?"
"It's nothing. Thanks for the torpedo. It was the right call."
"That was your friends, not me." Arrem rubbed his red-rimmed eyes; not so spit and polish himself, anymore. "I didn't know you well enough to recognize that it wasn't you. And I didn't have the resolve to do what needed to be done."
"I don't blame you." Years of estrangement could yield nothing else. "Have you found her?"
"We found no one else on the skiff. We've identified the cargo container she stowed away in, but there's no sign of her there either."
Ky clenched his jaw against the crawling sensation on the back of his neck. "So she could still be aboard."
"I have multiple teams continuing the search." Arrem didn't sound confident.
"It's a big ship," Ky agreed. For once, he was glad that Fennic and Lirelle were under heavy guard. Dana likely had no real interest in them, but she wouldn't blink at seizing bargaining chips. "She claimed you had decided to release me along with my crewmates."
"Yes, and that's still the case. The skiff will be ready to fly again shortly," Arrem said with sad acceptance. "I can't protect you, and you don't want me to try."
Ky inclined his head. Better late than never.
"So who is she?" Arrem asked.
Ky closed his eyes, letting out a long breath. "Her name's Dana, I don't know if that's a first or last name or neither. She's a wetwork specialist for the Onyx Hand whom I've crossed paths with a few times before. The last time was when she was my...silent partner at Windfall." He briefly sketched out those events to Arrem.
"So this mental damage, it can be healed?"
Ky couldn't share the hope in Arrem's voice. "Dana healed. When my crewmates went to find her body three days later, she was gone. It's possible she was found by someone else, or she walked away on her own. But Rousseau...what was done to her was technological. It may be nothing like my abilities."
"And you can't...link with her and..."
"Extractors can't heal," Ky stated definitively, watching Arrem's face fall.
Arrem did love her, in his way. "The Onyx Hand must be familiar with the damage that an extractor can cause, if they invented a device to mimic it," Ky pointed out. "If there's knowledge that could help Gillian, it would lie with them."
"Not exactly the most accessible source."
"It's a direction to explore," Ky said. "And it may not be needed."
He got a wan, but grateful, smile in response. "I don't know what I'd do if she..."
"Why haven't you referred her to the Admiralty? It's past time she made captain, but you know it won't happen on its own."
Arrem spread his hands. "I've offered. She doesn't want it."
"She doesn't want to move on." There was a matter that Ky had vaguely meant to bring up with his brother for many years, assuming first an impossible set of circumstances that culminated in their having an actual conversation. He made an effort to start gently. "Because she doesn't know the truth about you."
Blood fled Arrem's face. "How did you..."
At least he didn't try to deny it. "Come now, you've said yourself that I've probably fucked half the male population of Oasha. Did you really think no one would talk?"
"It's not important." Ky sighed and crackled his knuckles, wishing Arrem would progress beyond the shock and horror phase a bit faster. "Calm down, I won't tell anyone."
Arrem shook himself loose, covering his face with his hands. "I'm sorry."
"What did I say about that?" Ky reminded him, annoyed.
"Sor Right." Arrem gave an extremely strained chuckle. He dropped his hands and met Ky's eyes. "I used to dread you finding out, I envied you at the same time. You always owned who you were, never lost the will to fight."
"Yeah, I lead a charmed existence." Ky barreled ahead. "Arrem, what're you even doing? You should be Captain Lagrier by now, holding down a cushy desk job, brown-nosing Helena's relatives and raising a litter. That was why dad had you marry her."
"I know! God..." Arrem twisted the gold band around his finger. "Helena..."
"She's a harpy and she doesn't love you," Ky said dismissively. Arrem certainly preferred the latter part. "But she's crystal clear on what she wants out of the marriage and you're..." He shook his head in disgust. "Hiding here?"
Arrem winced. "I just can't"
"You're already committed." When Ky first heard about the engagement, he'd reacted with schadenfraude and sent the most obnoxiously saccharine gift he could find. Then the years dragged on, and it became less and less funny. "Helena won't be deferred forever. Sooner or later she'll resort to getting a DNA sample and" The words lodged in his throat. "And then my life will happen to another kid."
"I..." Arrem rocked back like he'd been punched.
"A kid with one missing parent and the other not fit to be called one."
Arrem's mouth snapped shut. "I would never allow that to happen."
"Your window for preventing it is narrowing."
"Ky, even if Helena does exactly as you describe, I would never abandon a child of mine," Arrem said, with an unwavering strength that blindsided Ky. "If you believe only one thing I ever say, believe that."
There was a chance that he'd judged too harshly, to a certain degree. "Fine, good," Ky murmured with a nod.
"Have you been holding onto that worry for a while?" Arrem asked, too knowingly for Ky's comfort.
Ky shrugged, admitting nothing. "It needed saying. I figured it was now or never."
Arrem wet his lips."I don't suppose I could appeal to you to stay in touch," he said, voice artificially light. "We could update each other on our lives or...talk about movies or some such. Eion Avyor's directing a new version of The Hollow Empress."
Ky rolled his eyes. "Avyor's a hack."
Arrem's eyebrows shot up. "Isn't he?" he exclaimed, before he remembered himself.
"Stop making that pathetic face at me," Ky groaned. His skin felt too tight, trapping heat beneath. The framed holo on Arrem's desk was currently flipped to Arrem, Anyid, Gillian, and several other Academy friends, crowded together on a long set of mossy stone steps. Ky picked it up, let the familiar wave of bitterness come and go, and kept looking. "Arrem, all that shit I told you before? I meant it."
Swallowing, Arrem said, "Of course."
"Shut up. I've also learned that blood ties may not so easy to sever, and..." Picking the right words was difficult. "For the first time, in a good long while, that notion doesn't seem...completely terrible."
"So," Arrem surmised haltingly, "don't call you."
"No," Ky quickly confirmed, setting the holo down. When he raised his head, he found a glimmer of a smile. "But hey, with the passage of time, anything can happen."
"You let him go?"
Arrem admitted that he, by the strictest definition, cowered from the screen. Though when facing his sister's wrath, that really reflected less a lack of courage and more common sense. "It was the wisest course of action," he protested. "An Onyx Hand agent boarded the Sayr-Yaal, almost abducted him, and escaped without any of my crew catching even a glimpse of her! We were not prepared to safeguard him, had we brought him into the Hegemony."
Anyid thinned her lips. "And you are absolutely certain that there was an agent."
"How could Ky commandeer the skiff while hog-tied?" Arrem asked incredulously. "She was here."
"Then we have a rather severe problem." Anyid steepled her fingers, expression grave. "The Onyx Hand has demonstrated more boldness and capability than the Armada was aware they possessed. When they unveiled the extractors I was willing to accept that we were behind the curve, but now I fear I may have underestimated."
Arrem nodded. The relationship between the Armada and the Onyx Hand, never good, had deteriorated so badly over the past decade that the security of the Hegemony might be compromised. Considering how intertwined the two organizations continued to be, the storm on the horizon filled Arrem with foreboding. "Have you examined the files I sent?"
"I've forwarded them to some trusted acquaintances." Anyid's face softened. "Arrem...I'm sorry."
The thought of Gillian sat like a stone in Arrem's stomach. A letter to Admiral Belfons was in his personal database, waiting for the day she woke up. "I'm not ready to mourn yet."
"Nor I," Anyid said. "Back to the matter of Ky...your initial message was vague concerning his state of mind."
"He thinks we're selfish assholes who ruined his life more than once," Arrem said bluntly, taking a page from Ky's book. He decided to save the rest for when they were face-to-face on Novaterre; after learning of Ky's survival Anyid had immediately adjusted her itinerary.
"I see." Anyid heaved a sigh. "I wish I could claim innocence."
"You and me both. However, he also told me that he's open to the prospect of future communication, so long as they're on his terms."
"Fair enough, I suppose," Anyid said, albeit unhappily. "Where will he be?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well, that won't do," Anyid said, her frown implying that he was an idiot for not securing more details. "I'll make some discreet inquiries," she decided. "It's unfortunate I've already used so much leave time this duty cycle. We should discuss coordinating that as well, perhaps by Midwinter depending on results."
Arrem watched Anyid make plans with a sinking feeling. If he couldn't dissuade or at least moderate her, he foresaw Ky being most displeased.
The Kinjori skiff was easily the sleekest ship in the spaceport. The matte black craft backed out of the bay and unfolded swallow-like wings as it turned, shooting away to vanish among the stars.
"Well," Ky said, forcing some cheer. He was glad to see the last of the Kinjori. He was. "What now?"
"Let us secure transport back to Mnemosyne." Lirelle said quietly as she re-tied her ponytail. "The terms of our employment with Admiral Sufh are not contingent on our having a ship."
Ky suddenly had trouble speaking, for the lump in his throat. "Yes," he managed, "good idea."
"We'll be okay," Fennic promised.
"Shall we?" Lirelle asked, one hand on the handle bar of the antigrav sled.
Ky grabbed hold of the other side of the bar. Together, they took the sum total of their worldly possessions in tow.