“So explain again how their warp speed or whatever works?” I asked Larissa a couple days later, as the two of us stood on the bridge of this stolen mining ship. Jokai was sitting at the controls next to Sands, going over them with the girl again. My teammate had really taken to the idea of being able to pilot this thing (not that I could blame her at all), throwing herself at the subject the way that Vanessa threw herself at… well, pretty much every subject back in school.
“Of course,” Larissa (was it weird that I kept thinking of Sands’ mother by her first name rather than as Mrs. Mason or anything?) replied easily while gesturing for me to follow her to the side of the bridge, where a small console sat. Waving her hand in front of it, she made a hologram appear. It showed a bunch of different planets and stars, taking up several feet in front of us.
“You know the way normal travel works,” the woman began. Putting her finger on the hologram at one planet, she slowly dragged it across to another one, creating a red line between them. “Say a ship starts here, powers on their regular, day-to-day engines, and putters along until they reach the next closest planet. With the kind of engines that the ships use when flying around normally, that one trip would take about… say, a hundred and twenty years. Give or take.”
“Uh, yeah.” I coughed, shaking my head. “Seems like that kind of travel time would be pretty hard to run an interstellar empire on. ‘Hi, we have some new orders from the capital planet.’ ‘Oh, when did they send those out?’ ‘I think it was about three hundred and forty years ago, why?’”
The woman gave a slight smile at that. “Exactly. It doesn’t really work. So there’s a few other options. First, there are certain Alters who can create foldjumps, linked points where people can travel instantly from one spot to another no matter how far away it is, even on another planet.”
“Abeonas,” I finished for her. “Yeah, I’ve heard of them. Even met one of them named Berlin.”
“You are definitely not a normal first year student,” Larissa informed me with a little cough before nodding. “But good, you know about them. There’s a few others like that, but Abeonas are the strongest and the most well-known. They’re also pretty rare, and it’s hard to keep their loyalty. I mean, when they could go pretty much anywhere in the universe they’ve already been at the drop of a hat, it’s not easy to keep them contained. Even possessing them isn’t a perfect answer, since they tend to be pretty resistant to it, and using a Seosten to keep them under control means that Seosten can’t be doing anything else. Basically, if the Abeonas is strong enough for interstellar transport, they’d need an equally strong Seosten to maintain control.”
When I nodded to that, the woman went on. “So that’s the first option, Alters with some kind of transport ability. Limited for the reasons we just talked about. After that, there’s regular teleportation spells, like the one I used to get this ship away from Radueriel and his ship.”
“Let me guess,” I put in, “those are rare too. I mean, you said you got that one from Apollo.”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “Rare and hard to do. We only moved a few solar systems, and that took four strong Heretics to pull off, exhausting three of them for a few days. Like I said, not easy.”
I started to nod once more to that, before stopping myself. “Wait, what do you mean, four?” Pointedly, I counted on my fingers. “You, Haiden Moon, and Professor Katarin. That’s three.”
“We, ah,” the woman paused, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “We met a new friend out here. But that’s a long story that’s best told once we actually get back with the others. Which, I know, sounds needlessly cryptic. But just trust me, this is something that you really need to find out in person.” She smiled then. “Besides, we’re getting off subject. Innate Alter abilities and magic teleportation are two ways to move from world to world. But with ships like this, you want something reliable. Something that isn’t super rare and doesn’t exhaust your most powerful people right when you get to what might be a planet where you need them to fight.”
“So, technology-based?” I asked then. “Rather than magic or ability-based. Something where you can just flip a switch and go faster. I mean, I know it’s not not that simple, but basically.”
“Basically,” she confirmed. “Now, like I said, there’s the normal engines that work fine for tooling around the same solar system. But for interstellar travel to take less than several centuries, you need the big guns. You need a reliable way that doesn’t exhaust your important people and allows you to send entire fleets all over the universe. That’s where the slide-drive comes in.”
Tilting my head a bit, I asked, “Slide-drive? So that’s what they call their hyperdrive or whatever.”
“Yup.” The woman reached out to the hologram of the space map once more. “So, here’s how they work. Remember how I said a normal engine just takes you from one spot to another?” She drew her finger along that red line once more demonstrably. “Well, the way a slide-drive works is by repeatedly opening a small pocket dimension. You already know what those are, right?”
I nodded quickly at that. “Sure, they’re basically the things that our weapons disappear into.”
“Exactly. The slide-drive on each of these ships basically slips the ship into one of those pocket dimensions for a few seconds, then pops it back out again. Except for two things. First, while the ship is in that pocket dimension, the universe just continues on without it. Everything is always moving at millions of miles per hour. So the ship wouldn’t appear at the same point anyway. It would pop out at wherever that spot was with the universe moving around it. It’s like… say you have a spinning plate with an olive sitting on it. Pick the olive up and drop it again, and it’ll be in a completely different spot from where it was, because the plate itself keeps on spinning.
“And second, before the ship comes out of the pocket dimension, it travels to the limit of that space. See, every kilometer in the pocket dimension translates into a thousand kilometers in real space. The more powerful the slide-drive, the bigger the pocket dimension. Which means-”
“The further they travel with each slide,” I realized. “If their slide-drive can make a pocket dimension that’s a hundred kilometers long, that’s a hundred thousand kilometers in real space.”
She gave a short nod at that. “Yes. And most decent ships are capable of making pocket dimensions that are at least a few hundred kilometers. So that helps.
“Put together, those two things mean that when the ship pops back into the regular universe, it’s not in the same place. It basically jumps from one spot to another very quickly just by slipping out of the universe and then slipping back in. The computer calculates where they are in relation to where they need to go, adjusts, and then slips out of the universe again, only to pop back. That’s why we call it a slide-drive. They slide into a pocket-dimension, then slide back out again. It keeps doing that, sliding in and out of regular space until they get where they need to go.”
“Huh.” I thought about that for a few seconds before nodding. “Thanks for the explanation. You… you weren’t a teacher back at Crossroads, were you?” It felt a little awkward bringing up her life on Earth after she had been away from it for so long, but I shoved that back down.
“No,” she confirmed with a quick head shake. “You’re right, I wasn’t a teacher. Not exactly, anyway. But I did work with students a lot. I was the Head of Student Affairs for the school.”
I did a quick double-take. “You had Peterson Neal’s job? Damn, we really missed out, then.”
Smiling a little, the woman gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Yes, Ulysses told me that he was the one who took my job. I’m sorry. Peterson is… competent, but not exactly creative or warm. But between Ruthers and his brother, I’m not surprised that he ended up with an important job.”
Blinking at that, I looked back to the woman while asking, “His brother? Who’s his brother?”
“Counselor Davis,” she informed me, looking a little surprised. “I’m sorry, I thought you knew that the two of them were related. I know you’ve had some conversations with the Committee.”
I thought back to what I knew of the Committee member called Davis. All I really remembered was that he looked like a lumberjack. Did he actually do anything important? I asked Tabbris.
Um, she replied a little hesitantly, not really. He didn’t say much at all, actually. Mostly he just brought up that thing about how people have been trying to kill Avalon for awhile.
Right. I squinted thoughtfully for a second. So he didn’t really say much. No way of knowing how he feels about things, or if he’s anywhere near as much of a stooge as his brother.
“So,” Larissa started with a raised eyebrow. “How the conversation with the little one going?” When I gave a quick glance over to where Jokai was, she waved a hand. “It’s okay, he can’t hear us right now. Or, more to the point, he just hears us talking more about Davis.”
“Sorry.” I blushed a little bit despite myself. “I guess it’s probably kind of obvious what’s going on when I trail off and go silent for a few seconds like that if you know what to look for, huh?”
She nodded. “It is. So you’ll need to be careful with it. Very careful, Felicity. If the Seosten ever suspect that you’re possessed and that that’s the reason they can’t possess you–”
Blanching, I interrupted. “They’ll hurt Tabbris. I know. Trust me, I won’t let anyone hurt her.”
Her hand found my shoulder, squeezing tightly. “Sariel made the right choice when she sent her to you.”
After a moment of that, she continued. “So, let’s talk about the ship a little more. I’m sure you’ve got more questions about how these things work. Though there’s something I really hope you can tell me about.”
“There is?” I blinked. “Uh, I’ve told you pretty much everything I know. The Seosten want to kill Avalon, Fossor has my mother and is coming after me when I turn eighteen, my dad’s living with Gabriel Prosser, my mom’s first husband is my team mentor… what else could I tell you?”
“Well…” Larissa gave me a brief pleading look. “There’s a really important question I have to ask you that Ulysses couldn’t answer. I’ve kind of been stuck out here for over seven years now, and I’ve been waiting all that time to find out…
“Do you read DC comics? And if so, what the hell happened in Flashpoint?”
“Your ship is a lot smaller than this one, Mom.” Sands was standing in front of the bridge’s viewscreen the next day, her eyes centered on the image of the vessel in question. We had met up with them in the middle of what was basically empty space, far from any planet or star.
She was right. The ship that Larissa had brought us to meet up with was much smaller than this one. It was more around the size of a large jetliner, and was shaped a bit like a narrow oval with two angular boomerangs attached to the top and bottom that glowed red in contrast with the middle oval part’s bright white. I was pretty sure that the boomerang parts were where the engines and weapons were, while the oval part held the main compartments and bridge.
“Yeah, we’ll have to bring the Liberty Bell aboard this one for now,” the woman replied easily from her place behind her daughter. “There should be plenty of room, even with the Alter camp.”
“Liberty Bell?” I blinked that way after giving the ship another look. “That’s the name of it?”
“Well, yeah, after we renamed it,” Larissa amended with a slight chuckle. “I think its previous name was something like Letum Praedator. Ruin Hunter. We liked Liberty Bell a bit better. And besides, they vetoed my vote for the ship name. Said Starjammer made them think of hair metal bands. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out why that’d be a bad thing. But Liberty Bell’s okay.”
A light on the nearby console flashed green, and the woman waved her hand in front of it. A moment later, half of the viewscreen was taken up by the image of a familiar face.
“Professor Katarin!” Sands blurted, waving a hand. The relief in her voice was obvious, and I knew how she felt. We’d already known that the man was alive and well (enough) from Larissa herself and through Vanessa, but knowing it and seeing it were two entirely different things.
The man smiled broadly then, and I could tell in that moment that he was just as relieved to see us. It did kind of look odd, considering his tendency to remain as stoic and… drill sergeant-like as possible while he was training us. But then again, this was a pretty unique situation.
“Sands, Flick, you’re both alright!” Katarin announced before lifting his chin. “And the others…?”
“They’re okay,” Larissa answered for us. “Everyone’s… physically fine. They’re in the cargo bay with the former slaves. So, you wanna dock that thing so we can have this reunion in person?”
He agreed, as did someone offscreen (Haiden, I assumed, though it could have been the mysterious ‘other Heretic’ that Sands’ mother wanted us to meet), and the ship started to dock.
“Guess we should head down to meet them, huh?” Sands looked to her mother, smiling immediately. She’d been doing that pretty much constantly over the past few days. Which was more than just understandable. If it had been my mother, I probably wouldn’t be able to tear myself even a few inches away from her for at least a couple of weeks. I was honestly surprised that Sands was able to focus on anything other than the fact that her mother was standing there.
Leaving Jokai at the helm just in case anything happened, we headed down to the cargo bay once more. On the way, we used the intercom system that Jokai had shown us to warn the others so that nobody would freak out too much. The last thing we wanted was to give any of these poor guys a heart attack when they saw a Seosten ship pop in.
The Alters had taken up about a quarter of the cargo bay with their little camp, which actually looked pretty homey. They had tarps set up for different sleeping areas, a cooking area in the middle, and a spot for everyone to work on the anti-possession spell that we’d taught them. They’d been using that spell a lot, on themselves, on each other, basically whenever possible. Even though they knew they weren’t possessed, they still wanted that little bit of reassurance. And, of course, they wanted to make sure that none of the Seosten had projected into one of them. That was another reason that I was glad they had all decided to stay together in the cargo bay. It would be harder for one of the Seosten to screw things up if they never left each other’s sight and were constantly just sitting in a room with no idea of where the ship actually was.
By the time we made it down there, all of the Alters were already gathered right at the edge of their camp as they nervously watched the Liberty Bell rise up through a forcefield-covered opening on the other side of the room. The thin, invisible shield was enough to keep the atmosphere inside, while allowing the other ship to slip through.
The murmuring stopped as we entered, and they all looked to us expectantly. Gordon, who had been standing near the front of the group, raised a hand as we came over. Isaac was kneeling nearby, tinkering with something on one of his drones.
“They’re still a little nervous,” Gordon announced as I stepped up next to him. He nodded toward the other ship, which was extended three landing struts while slowly easing down onto them.
“I bet they are,” I replied. “I’d be nervous too if I had their lives, even if we did tell them that it’s safe.” Glancing around, I added, “Where’s Roxa?”
“Here.” The girl herself emerged from a clustered group. She looked sweaty (distractingly so), like she had just been working out. Pushing a hand back through her hair, Roxa explained, “Just ran through a little training with some of these guys. They wanna learn how to fight, so I thought I’d help. Seemed like a good idea.”
“It is,” Larissa agreed. “The best thing we can do is help them learn how to take care of themselves.”
That seemed to generally be the sentiment all around, judging from what I’d seen of the rest of our new friends. There were a few who didn’t really want to fight at all, but most of them at least wanted to know how in case the time came that they had to.
By that point, the ship had finished settling in. A hatch opened along the side, and we watched as a ramp extended before two figures appeared at the top. Katarin and a man that was clearly Haiden Moon. I could see the resemblance between him and Tristan, though his hair was dark and worn long. He was ruggedly handsome, like he should have been stepping off a horse in some kind of western movie. They both descended, stepping easily down onto the deck.
“Well,” Vanessa and Tristan’s father started, “I guess we screwed that up. Weren’t we supposed to ask for permission to come aboard?”
“I’m not sure who you’d ask,” Larissa pointed out. “The job of captain seems to have been divided among three or four different people over here.”
Chuckling, the man took a look at us. “Well, I guess I don’t have to guess who you guys are. This must be Sandy. Your mom’s said a lot about you. Though I have to say, you’re not nearly as pretty as she claimed you were.”
“Sir,” a thoroughly unamused Gordon replied, “Sands is over there.”
Doing an exaggerated double-take, Haiden pointed. “Oh, there you are!” He stepped over, extending a hand with a smile. “Miss Mason, it is my great honor and privilege to finally meet you. Though I feel like I know you already.”
Sands shook his hand, blushing a little. While they spoke for a moment, I looked to Professor Katarin and blurted, “Okay, I can’t wait anymore!”
The man blinked at me. “Excuse me?”
“I’ve been trying to keep calm and focus on everything else,” I hurried on, babbling a little bit. “Because there’s so much else to do. But you’re here now, you’re right here, and we really need to find out before anything else goes wrong. Manakel. We know you got sent out here because you saw who his host was. So… so who was it? Who is he possessing? And tell me that it was the first thing you sent back through to Vanessa when she contacted you guys!”
“Ah.” The man lifted his chin. “Yes, well, there is a slight problem with that, when it comes to telling you who the Seosten’s host is.”
I frowned. “What do you mean, there’s a problem with it? Can’t you just tell us?”
He gave a long, low sigh. “I just did, Miss Chambers.”
“No you–” I stopped. Tabbris, did you?
N-no, she answered. I didn’t hear anything. I mean I don’t… remember…
“Oh,” I said simply. And then I cursed, long and loud.
A spell. They were using the same spell to stop Katarin from telling anyone who Manakel was possessing that had been used to stop me from telling people about Wyatt and Abigail, or that the people who had cast the spell that erased Mom’s identity were under to stop them from telling anyone else about her who didn’t already know. Or a similar effect anyway. This one was clearly stronger since it wasn’t limited to Earth. And it was even affecting Tabbris.
“Yup,” Haiden agreed. “That’s pretty much what we said. But hey, it’s not a total loss. Our new friend onboard might be able to do something about it, with a little help. He’s got some ideas about breaking the spell, but needed more juice to get it done.”
“New friend?” Jazz had joined us. She looked like she’d just woken up. “What new friend? You mean the mysterious fourth Heretic that you keep refusing to tell us anything about?”
They all exchanged glances before Larissa gestured. “Ah, it’s better if you meet him in person.”
Professor Katarin was already moving back to the ramp. “Inside. He doesn’t do well in front of a crowd.”
At the reminder, I glanced the other way. Karees and his people were all there, staring at the new arrivals with obviously barely constrained fear. Yeah, Katarin had a point. If whoever this guy was happened to be that skittish about crowds, I couldn’t see it ending well if he had to come out.
So, with a collective shrug, we followed our professor and the others up into their ship. I had no idea who they wanted us to meet, who could have been out here that was so important, and apparently so traumatized that he had to stay away from large groups.
The answer, as it turned out, was a man that I didn’t recognize at all. He stood a short distance away from the entrance ramp as we climbed aboard, clearly having been close enough to listen to what was going on without exposing himself.
He didn’t look like anything all that impressive. Actually, he looked like any countless number of homeless veterans people passed on the street every day. He stood only about five foot six, a bare couple inches taller than me, his figure ragged and bone-thin. He had long, scraggly hair and beard, both of which were dirty blonde with flecks of brown and gray spread throughout.
Seeing us, the man opened his mouth to say something, only to stop and cough, clearing his throat noisily. When he finally did speak, his voice was rough and hoarse. “You. Hi. Hi. You would be… the… students. The students from Earth.”
“Guys,” Larissa started, stepping closer that way. “I’d like you to meet Dries Aken.”
Aken–wait. As I realized that that was the same last name as Bosch’s daughter, Jazz, Sands, and Gordon all made collective sounds of shock around me.
He’s alive? Tabbris squeaked inside my head, her own shock just as thorough as everyone else’s. They kept him alive all this time?!
“Y-y-you.” Sands’ voice cracked almost as much as the man’s had. “You… you’re alive? You killed… y-you killed Hieronymus Bosch. You killed him.”
Aken. Aken. As in… as in Avalon’s ancestor!? This guy, this guy was… was related to Avalon somehow. He was her… great, great, something something great something!
“Hi, sir,” I started to extend a hand toward the man, only to stop as he stepped back from me. From the look on his face, I might as well have offered him a live snake. His eyes darted to my hand and then back again, visibly forcing himself to relax.
“It’s–” He started roughly before seeming to lose track of what he was saying. His eyes drifted up to the side, and I saw his mouth move a little like he was actually silently sounding out his next words, practicing. “I’ve been waiting to meet you,” he finally settled on. Then he nodded, as if convincing himself that he’d said the right words in the right order.
“Yeah,” I nodded quickly, lowering my hand. “It’s–” A thought struck me then. “Oh my God. Oh… my God,” I muttered, my eyes widening as I stared at him. “Do you guys know what this means?” As they all looked at me, I motioned wildly. “Look, we’re bringing back Sands’ and Scout’s mom, and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad, right? And now, now–” I gestured at Dries like Vanna White. “We’ve even got Avalon’s ancestor! This is like… the family reunion roadtrip.”
“What… is a roadtrip?” the man asked, sounding confused as he looked at us.
“Um.” I paused. “It’s like when you start at home, then go for a really long trip just to visit someplace far away, for like… vacations. Or to visit family. Like you and Avalon, see? This is amazing.”
“Sure, okay.” Sands was nodding slowly. “But Flick, he’s also like… the worst criminal in our entire society. I mean, no offense, Mr. Aken, but the regular Heretics, the people who grew up in the knowledge, they see him as… as…”
“Hitler,” Jazz supplied. “Hitler mixed with Benedict Arnold… if he killed Jesus… by strapping him down in an orphanage and setting it on fire. Arsonist, Orphan-Murdering Benedict Hitler.”
I nodded slowly at that. “So what you’re saying is, to get Avalon have an actual relationship with her long-lost family member, we’d have to change an entire society’s opinion of the worst monster in their entire history.”
“Yeah, it’s totally– wait.” Sands squinted at me. “Are you saying it like that because you’re illustrating how impossible that would be, or because you’re adding it to your to-do list?”
I just smiled.