The so-called ‘Black Friday’ was considered, by most American humans, to be the single busiest shopping day of the year. The crowds shoving each other aside and even trampling those who fell behind, the noise, the casual violence and insults all in search of saving a few dollars off a trinket here or there, it was pretty much their idea of the ultimate capitalistic chaos.
On the world of Kesth, it would have been considered a slightly below-average day.
Kesth was a market world. The market world, to be precise. At one point in a long-distant past, the planet (fourth from its local star, and still close enough to be considered tropical across most of its surface) had been the seat of power for the ‘Unified Worlds Organization’, a rising interplanetary government which spanned several solar systems and comprised of close to a hundred billion beings spread over close to twenty livable planets. A hundred billion and twenty planets, however, was peanuts compared to the Seosten Empire, who showed up and casually absorbed the fledgling planetary alliance with about as much effort as a great white shark expended while swallowing a passing guppy. Their billions were next to nothing compared to the hundreds of trillions who were controlled (in many cases literally) by the Seosten.
Not that they even had need to bring much of that into play. They had simply infiltrated their government, their military, and even their schools and press. One Seosten-controlled school teacher could, over the course of one short decade, do as much to ensure their victory as several thousand soldiers in open combat. Let alone those who changed their laws, turned their various religions against their own best interests, or made their media turn their own people against one another at a time when they should have been united for their own survival.
So, the UWO had fallen, absorbed into the Seosten Empire. However, the forward-thinking Seosten leader who had been assigned to the planet had used her power and influence to create one of the largest, most intricate teleportation networks in the entire Empire. It was a system which allowed people to get from almost anywhere, to almost anywhere within allowed space, while using only Kesth as a single world stepping stone. This, combined with the world’s temperate climate and lack of any connection to previously established Seosten worlds, had helped to create what became the largest, busiest market world in the entire Empire. Trillions of beings from all different planets moved through the crowded shopping districts every year.
It was through one of the thousands of densely packed market squares that three figures walked. Clad in dark robes and hoods that marked them as part of a prolific religious caste that was not shy about sharing their beliefs (a fact that actually encouraged even the casually violent shoppers around them to keep as much distance as possible to avoid encouraging such behavior), Haiden Moon, Larissa Mason, and Ulysses Katarin walked. Not that they looked anything like themselves even under the robes and hoods. All three possessed enough shapeshifting or disguise powers by that point to keep themselves from being immediately recognized. And as far as their status as Heretics went, that had been hidden as well.
“No wonder they don’t let anyone know about this particular spell back on Earth,” Larissa murmured, glancing at the intricate tattoo-like design adorning her wrist as the trio worked their way through a crowd of shoppers of every shape and size. “If they all knew there was something that could make it so that Alters don’t immediately recognize us as Heretics, it would actually give us a chance to observe them instead of fighting immediately. And if that happened–”
“Everyone might figure out that they’re not all evil,” Haiden finished for her with a wry headshake. “Yeah. Kinda figures that would be something they’d suppress the hell out of. They probably think it’s bad enough when some of us get powers that hide that. If people knew there was a spell that anyone could use that would do the same thing, it’d be pretty bad for them.”
Walking slightly behind the other two, the larger figure of Ulysses spoke up, his voice a deep rumble. “Just another reason for them to keep Dries locked up, I suppose.”
Dries Aken, the newest member of their little band, was back on their stolen ship. As much as the man had improved over the past short while, a bare couple of months was not even close to enough time for the man to have fully recovered from literal centuries of Seosten imprisonment. He wasn’t ready to be out in a crowd. So he had stayed behind while they came for supplies, and to look for rumors about any more of either the broken banishment shards or the prison where Sariel was being held. The latter was a longshot, but stranger things had happened.
But even if Dries couldn’t bring himself to be there in person, he had, at least, provided the spell which allowed the trio to easily walk among the population without being seen as Heretics.
“Okay, remember, we’re here to pick up actual food supplies,” Larissa pointed out. “with flavor and spice and everything. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting pretty sick of simple rations.”
“Agreed,” Ulysses rumbled in his deep voice. “Say what you will about all the problems we have on earth, but I really miss tacos.”
“We find the right supplies around here,” Haiden put in then, “and I’ll make you all the tacos you could ever Daddy.”
Pausing (an act that made the crowd behind them almost crash into the trio to shove them aside before they noticed the robes and decided to go around), the other two looked at the man in bewilderment. Larissa started, “All the tacos you could ever Daddy? I really am behind on Earth slang.”
Haiden was frowning as well. “No,” he murmured, “I didn’t mean to say that. I’m not sure what… Daddy, my dad. Dad. Please.”
Snapping his gaze over to meet Larissa’s, Ulysses quickly pointed off the side, where a restroom stood. “Come on, let’s get out of the way.”
The restroom was enormous, and varied. It was meant to accommodate the needs of dozens of very different species, with very different waste disposal methods. It was also busy, like everything else on the planet. But it didn’t take long for them to convince the occupants to make themselves scarce. Which left the three of them in the empty restroom, while Haiden shook his head. “Sorry, guys, I don’t know what…” The man trailed off, turning to grab the nearby sink. He gazed into the hologram of himself that served the same function a mirror on Earth would have, muttering something inaudible and incomprehensible as he stared into his own eyes.
Somewhere in the background, he heard the other two talking. But Haiden’s attention was focused inward. As he stared at himself in the mirror, he felt emotions that weren’t his own, thoughts that were foreign to his mind. He felt like crying, but couldn’t tell if it was from joy or sadness, or even both. The face he saw, while clearly his own, inspired a feeling of awe that he couldn’t explain. His hand seemed to rise of its own volition to touch the hologram, tenderly brushing his own image while unexplainable tears leaked from his eyes. “Dad…” he murmured.
“Wait a minute.” Ulysses’ eyes widened. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he was actually–”
Whatever the other man had been about to say, Haiden didn’t hear. His attention had been drawn to the side of the sink, where a figure had abruptly appeared seemingly from nowhere.
For a moment, he stared uncomprehendingly at the blonde teenage girl, mouth working as he fought through some vague, clouded memories. There was something about her, something that immediately struck him harder than almost anything ever had. Something that made the tears that had been leaking from his eyes truly his own. Slowly, he raised a hand, pointing. “You…”
The girl gave what was, to Haiden, the most beautiful smile he could ever remember. She looked like an angel. A real angel, not what the Seosten liked to portray themselves as. Her eyes shone with just as much emotion as he was feeling himself, and she slowly reached her hand out toward him. When she spoke, her voice cracked a little, a single word reaching his ears, a word that changed absolutely everything the moment he heard her say, “Daddy.”
“You…” Haiden started, memories filling his mind, memories that he had thought long-since erased. “You’re my… you’re… oh my God.” Heedless of the other two Heretics in the room with him, the man reached a hand out to meet the one that the teen girl was extending to him. Their fingers connected… and went right through one another, as if the figure was a ghost.
“Haiden?” Larissa stepped that way, her own eyes widening as she began to get some idea of what was going on. “Haiden, is someone projecting to you? Wait, is it Sariel? Is–no. No, she wouldn’t say Daddy, you–” She gave a choked noise of realization then, trailing off into silence.
Ulysses had been trying for as long as they had been traveling together to tell Haiden the names of his children. Yet the effect of the broken banishment orb meant that their identities immediately vanished from his mind, and nothing they had been able to do could get that much through. All that Ulysses had been able to get across was that both of Haiden and Sariel’s children were alive and living together at Crossroads. The man could retain basic, general information about their activities, but nothing specific about their names or identities.
In this case, however, the name came to Haiden’s lips as clear and sudden as the ringing of a church bell, and just as beautiful. His mouth opened, and he breathed it out as surely as he breathed the oxygen that gave his body life. “Vanessa.”
The truth was likely that the girl’s literal presence in his mind had overridden the spell that had removed her identity from his memory. But some part of Haiden wanted to believe that it was simply the act of seeing his little girl, his angel. Tears sprang to the man’s eyes, as he stared at her, afraid to blink and risk losing sight of his daughter for even that long. His hand rose once more, moving as close to the girl’s as he could manage without actually going through it.
He remembered her. He remembered his daughter. He could crawl through a thousand miles of desert, he could suffer any pain, weather any punishment that the Gods or Fate sought to inflict upon him. But please. Please let him have this. Let him keep his memory. His child. He would tear the eyes from his own head and spend an eternity blind to the world if he could just retain the image of his daughter. Please. Please.
“Daddy.” Vanessa was crying too, blinking big, wet tears as she stared at him adoringly. “Daddy, I found you. I found you, Daddy.” She choked audibly, closing her eyes for a moment as she visibly shuddered. “My Daddy. Oh God.” Opening her eyes once more, the girl babbled, “I’m sorry, Daddy. I wanna hug you, but I’m not good enough to fake physical sensation yet.”
“It’s okay, baby,” The name suddenly came to him, his memories opening up in ways that he had been trying to make happen for a decade by that point. “Nessabird. My brilliant Nessabird.”
The girl’s tears came anew. “You remember,” she blurted, the joy in her voice warming his heart. “You remember me.” It was clearly all Vanessa could do not to try bodily throwing herself at him.
“Of course, I remember my little baby bird.” Haiden looked her up and down, swallowing hard as the pain of all the time they had lost threatened to intrude on his indescribable delight. “Not so little anymore. But still my bird. My genius girl. You’ve… you’ve grown up.” The Vanessa of his memories was a tiny girl. This, the girl–no, young woman in front of him was… “Beautiful,” he announced aloud, staring at his daughter. He could have stared at her for hours, the same way he had when she was a baby. He remembered now. He remembered standing in the twins’ bedroom, watching them sleep while he simply absorbed the incredible thought that they were his children. “You’re beautiful.”
Vanessa was blushing, ducking her head as she squirmed. “Daddy, I… I tried to find you. I tried to find you for so long. I’m sorry. I’m sorry it took so long, and now you’re just–it’s just like this.”
“Oh, baby bird…” Haiden reached out, almost cupping the girl’s face. So close, and yet they still couldn’t actually touch one another. But she was here. He knew her name, he knew her face. He remembered her. “Ulysses says that you’re a brilliant student, that you’re learning everything faster than they can teach you over there at Crossroads.” As he spoke, the man glanced sidelong toward his two companions. Ulysses and Larissa were standing quietly nearby. It was obvious that they couldn’t see Vanessa, but they also weren’t going to interrupt.
Now the girl’s face was even redder, and she shook her head quickly. “I just had to learn, Daddy. I just… had to learn everything I could to find you. That’s… that’s all that mattered. Finding you and Mom.”
Biting his lip, Haiden slowly started, “How are you… what did you…” He hesitated, ridiculously afraid that questioning his daughter’s presence would drive her out of his head.
“It’s a long story,” she informed him, voice a little shaky. “Tristan, he’s here too.”
Tristan. He remembered. He remembered his son’s name. He remembered his son’s name! That simple fact, what would have been inconsequential to most, made the man’s knees weak. He spoke their names aloud, relishing them, cherishing them. “Tristan. Vanessa. Tristan and Vanessa. Vanessa was the name of my sister. She died a… a long time ago, during training. Tristan… We named him Tristan because he was so loud when he was born. You, you were quiet, but Tristan was just… ” His smile was so wide it almost hurt. Almost. “He was the noisy one. Always needed attention. That’s why we called him that. Tristan, Celtic for outcry. Tristan and Vanessa.”
The simple fact that he could finally remember those names would almost have been enough. After all the time he had spent trying and failing for the past decade, this by itself was a miracle. But there was more. So many memories of his children filling his mind now that the key had been turned. He knew them. He knew his children. And one of them was in front of him.
Vanessa, who seemed to have been waiting for him to get through that, spoke up then once his attention returned to her. “Uncle Apollo says that me being in your head probably broke through some of the memory locks, especially since it’s been a few years since the orb went off.”
“Uncle Apol–” More of his memory unlocked,sliding easily into place as if they had always been there, and the man physically staggered. “Sar… Sariel. Sariel.” His eyes were wet once more. “Your mother… my wife… my wife is Sariel. She was–” More memories came, flooding into his mind like a tidal wave. One after another, his mind opened doors that had been jammed shut for the past ten years. He knew. He knew his wife. He remembered all of it. He could see her face. He could hear her voice. He could feel her breath. He could…
That time, Haiden really did slump to his knees. “Sariel,” he whispered tenderly, emotion cracking his voice. “Sariel. My wife. My wife’s name is Sariel.” Even saying it aloud, seeing her face in his mind as he reverently spoke the name that had been denied him for so long, was overwhelming.
Vanessa had moved to grab Haiden as he slumped, clearly remembering too late as her hands went right through him. But Larissa was there, her hands catching his arm as she quickly asked, “Are you alright? Is she still–”
“She’s here,” he confirmed, staring at the girl in question. He raised a hand to point to what was clearly empty air for Larissa. “She’s right there. I see her. I remember her. I remember my daughter. I remember my son.”
“She found a way to get into your head, huh?” Ulysses had stepped closer, moving beside Larissa as the woman helped Haiden stand once more.
“She did,” Haiden confirmed, nodding. “She said they had… wait, help from… Apollo. Sariel. Sariel was Artemis. Apollo, you met Apollo?” His eyes snapped that way. He had never met the his wife’s former partner himself, but she had spoken of him fondly fairly often. Fondly and, at times, with deep regrets.
Vanessa gave a quick nod. “Yes, Daddy. Like I said, it’s a long story. But–” She closed her eyes, swaying a little bit as her image flickered slightly, going in and out rapidly a few times before coming back.
“Nessa?!” The sight of his daughter’s image flickering like that made Haiden all-but panic. “Are you alright?”
She gave a quick nod. “I’m okay, I’m f-fine, Daddy.” She had to take a moment to collect herself. “I swear, I’m okay. But this is hard. It’s really hard, and I don’t know how much time we’ve got. So I have to give you the message.”
“The message?” Haiden echoed. “What message?”
Vanessa started with,. “It’s–Is that Mrs. Mason with you?”
Blinking, Haiden glanced that way. “Larissa Mason, yes,” he confirmed. “Yes, it’s her. Why?”
Swallowing, the girl explained, “It’s about her daughter, Sandoval, and some others.”
The man shook his head slowly. “What about Sandoval?” He held up a hand to forestall Larissa’s hurried, blurted questions. “What happened to her? Is she okay?”
“We–” Vanessa clearly stopped herself, shaking her head. “We don’t know. They’re out there with you. I mean, not with you, but in Seosten space.”
“They’re in Seosten space?” Haiden echoed. As his mouth opened to say something else, Larissa was already grabbing him.
“They’re what?!” the woman demanded with wide eyes. “Sandoval, she’s here?! How–why–what? Who are they? She’s here, she’s– Haiden, we have to get to her! We have to get to her right now! Now!” She was panicked at the suggestion that one of her daughters had been taken by the Seosten.
Ulysses pulled the woman back, quieting her before nodding for Haiden to go on. Swallowing, he turned to do just that. “Nessabird, what’s going on? What do you mean, they’re out here in Seosten space? Who is they, and what happened?” From the corner of his eye, he saw Ulysses about to say something before the man stopped himself from interrupting.
“Like I said, it’s a really long story,” his daughter started with a little wince. “We don’t have time to get through all of it. I think–I think I’m starting to lose the connection already, so I’ve gotta tell you the important parts. They were sent out there by a banishment orb. Like the one that took you, only it wasn’t broken. They–” She cringed. “God! There’s so much I want to tell you, I can’t just–” Visibly catching herself, Vanessa took a breath.
“Apollo says to tell you that they’re on the planet called Eulcine Seven. They’re not hurt, but they need your help like… immediately. If you take too long to get there, it’ll… it’ll be too late.”
“Eulcine Seven,” Haiden murmured. He’d been out here long enough to know the name. “It’s too far away,” he muttered. “That’s beyond the space that the Seosten allow trading ships or portals to connect to. Even from this place, we couldn’t get there for… weeks.”
“You don’t have that kind of time,” Vanessa insisted. “Apollo, he said there’s a couple spells he can give you. The first one will let one of you teleport all the way there, past their shields. The other one will let them teleport a mining freighter through a few solar systems.”
“A mining freighter?” Haiden was even more confused. “Why do we need to–”
“He says it’ll make sense when you get there,” his daughter put in. “He’s got all these coordinates and spell details that I need to give you, Daddy. We can’t get cut off, if we get cut off and I can’t get the connection back before it’s too late, I… I…”
“It’s okay, little bird,” he quickly reassured her, barely resisting the urge to reach out to his daughter once again. “Tell me what you need to tell me. I won’t interrupt, I promise.”
So she did. While Haiden produced a small pocket computer and recorded the details, Vanessa relayed the exact specifics of the spells that Apollo was giving them, one bit at a time. The spells were complicated, and would take an unbelievable amount of energy. If it had been just himself, the man was afraid that he wouldn’t have enough. As it was, this was going to take a lot out of all of them even working together.
It was more than just the spells, as well. Vanessa had to relay precise coordinates and timing. She told them exactly when to use the spell and exactly where to point it. There was absolutely no margin for error. None. Apollo had the whole thing planned out, down to the second and inch.
“Don’t worry, Nessa,” Haiden promised his daughter as soon as she had finished relaying the details. “We’ll get Sandoval and the others out of there. Who else… I mean, is Sarah there?”
“No.” Vanessa’s head shook. “It’s Sandoval and a few others. Gordon Kuhn, Roxanne Pittman, Felicity Chambers, Isa-”
“Felicity Chambers?” Haiden interrupted, blinking over at Larissa. “Isn’t that the girl that–”
The woman was already right there. “Felicity? Felicity’s there with Sandoval? They’re both there? That means–” Her eyes widened. “We have to get there now! We have to get there!”
“We will,” he promised her, turning back the other way. “Vanessa, are you–” His daughter’s image was flickering severely, going out for longer stretches before popping back in briefly. “Vanessa!”
“Daddy!” The blonde girl was clearly struggling. “I can’t hold it, Daddy! I’m sorry! I’ll come back, but Uncle Apollo says it’ll take awhile before I recover! Tristan says hi! He says he loves you, we love you! I love you, Daddy!”
“I love you too!” Haiden blurted, forgetting himself as he lunged that way, intent on grabbing his daughter. “I love you both so much, I–” His arms went through empty air. The image was gone. His daughter was gone. But alive. Alive and well. And in his mind. He remembered her. He remembered his children, his wife, his family.
Part of him thought that he should be sad that he had been torn away from his child so soon. But his joy at simply seeing her at all was too complete for that. The very thought of ever being sad again, now that his memories of his family had been returned was… inconceivable. Logically, he knew that there was still a long ways to go, and that their suffering wasn’t nearly over. Yet, it was impossible for him to be sad in that moment. Because for a man who had been starved of his memories for so long, having them returned was the most generous, glorious gift he could ever have imagined. Seeing his daughter, speaking with her, even if it was only for a brief time, it energized him in a way that he couldn’t possibly explain.
“Sandoval… Sandy…” Larissa’s eyes were wide, reminding him that she had her own problems. “She’s out there with those monsters. And if Felicity Chambers is there too, then… then…”
“Chambers makes sense,” Ulysses put in then. “They were trying to figure out why she was immune to them for awhile. Guess they… they finally got lucky and sent her over for their tests. But you…” He frowned at them. “You know why she’s immune already. You freaked out when you found out she was out here, that they had her.”
“Trust me,” Larissa insisted, pulling Haiden and Ulysses by the arms. “We have to go. We have to go now. We need to get those spells done, before it’s too late.”
The baby, Haiden knew. The Seosten baby that his wife had sent to Larissa to be put in the Chambers girl. She had told him about it, told him everything she could. That was why the girl was immune, what the Seosten were trying to figure out. If they discovered that the reason Chambers was immune was simply that she was already possessed by a kid…
He was already heading through the restroom door before making the conscious decision to move. Seeing his daughter, remembering her and the rest of his family, it had revitalized him. He knew what he was working for now. He knew who he was fighting for. “Come on,” he called back. “Let’s get those spells ready.
“We’ve got some kids to rescue.”