For the first hour that Vanessa and Tristan Moon had been on the ship known as the Sunstrider, they had been with their father, listening as he told them all about the ship, about how space-travel worked, some of the planets he had been to, and more. The man had so much to tell his kids that he repeatedly bounced between subjects seemingly randomly with no rhyme or reason save for whatever popped into his head at the time.
The twins didn’t mind. They could have sat at his feet and listened to their father talk for days on end. He was their dad, their dad, and they had found him. They had found him. Sitting there, listening as he told them stories, was pretty much heaven as far as they were concerned.
Eventually, Haiden had needed to step away for a bit. As much as he wanted to spend every second with his children, he and the other adults did need to talk about other things. So, for the next two hours, Vanessa and Tristan had made their way through every nook and cranny of the ship that they could find. Flick, Sands, and the others had helped to show them around, before letting the two explore on their own for a bit. Through those two hours, the twins had spoken to everyone on the ship, learning a lot about how the whole thing worked, particularly from Jokai.
They’d been through the entire ship, looking into every room, and all of it had led to one important question. A question that Tristan himself voiced, as the pair found their way to one of the Sunstrider’s side-rooms, where their father and Mrs. Mason were deep in conversation.
“Hey,” the boy spoke up as soon as the two adults looked to them. “Where’s Professor Katarin?”
That made both of the adults’ head whip around in unison, their father and Mrs. Mason staring at the two of them open-mouthed for a moment. For a brief second, the two looked almost like deer in headlights, the question making them briefly freeze up.
“Yeah,” Vanessa echoed as she noticed their strange reaction. “Where’s Professor Katarin? And Isaac. Wait, where is Isaac? Where are they? I thought they were just here on the ship before, but we’ve been over the whole thing and they’re not anywhere. Unless we missed them or…” The girl trailed off, frowning as she bit her lip, staring at her father and Mrs. Mason while a heavy worry suddenly began to weigh on her the longer she saw their expressions.
“What?” Tristan pressed, taking a step that way as the same worry settled into him. “Why are you guys looking at us like that?” he demanded. “What’s going on? What aren’t you telling us?”
“Oh.” Mrs. Mason grimaced, quietly muttering something about agreeing with what Sands had told her about Flick’s plan to start keeping a record about who knew what.
“It’ll be okay, Larissa.” Taking a moment to squeeze the woman’s shoulder, Haiden added, “I’ll talk to them. Why don’t you, um, give us a few minutes here?” He nodded toward the door.
Mrs. Mason stepped out, giving the twins a brief, encouraging look before leaving the Moons.
“Dad?” Vanessa stepped up by her brother, head shaking. “You’re scaring us. What happened?”
“They died, didn’t they?” Tristan cut in, arms folded across his chest as he stared that way. “Isaac and Professor Katarin, the Seosten killed them. That’s what happened, isn’t it?”
With a sigh, Haiden shook his head before taking a seat on a nearby bench that faced the viewport, which showed a rapidly moving starfield. “C’mere, guys,” he urged with a gesture.
Somewhat reluctantly out of fear of what they were about to hear, the twins approached. Splitting apart, they each sat on one side of their father while watching apprehensively.
And then he told them. Slowly, quietly, and patiently, Haiden explained to his kids exactly what had happened. He told them what Isaac had done, how Ulysses Katarin had been killed and how they had eventually tracked the psychotic traitor down. He told them about how Isaac had been working with the Seosten through what was probably the entire school year, how he clearly was involved in the murder of Professor Pericles (putting the deaths of two Crossroads teachers at his feet, even if he was only directly responsible for the death of Katarin), and how he was now imprisoned back at the Aelaestiam base, where he would stay for the time being.
Once the man had finished explaining all of that, the twins slumped. No one spoke for a minute or two, remaining silent as they absorbed the information, allowing the horror and pain to wash over them. Haiden stayed there, one arm around each of his kids as he quietly held them.
“He…” Vanessa spoke up finally, the first to move as she turned her head to her father. “He’s a monster. He’s a monster. How could he–why would he… I…” She swallowed, her voice turning plaintive. “I don’t understand. Professor Katarin? Why… why would he k-kill Professor Katarin? I mean, I know why. He had to stop you from finding out what Professor Katarin knew about Manakel. But… but…” Her voice trailed off, and all she could do was shake her head helplessly. Because knowing why someone did something, and really understanding were different things.
“Oh, little bird.” Wincing, Haiden pulled his daughter closer against him, head shaking as he quietly explained, “Isaac is broken. He’s broken in more ways than we’ll probably ever understand. As far as we’ve been able to put together, he was a monster before they ever found him. We managed to get him talking, and he… the things he told us, the things he bragged about now that he had an audience…” The man swallowed hard, taking a moment before adding, “The Seosten went looking for a monster that they could plant in the school, one to do their dirty work. They found Isaac, and as broken as he already was, they made it even worse.”
Leaning into her father, Vanessa shook her head. She couldn’t find her voice at first, unable to do anything except nuzzle up against him. Her arms went around the man and she held tight while giving a soft whimper. Finally, all she managed was a weak, “I liked Professor Katarin.”
“Me too.” Tristan’s voice cracked a bit, and he gave a quick head-shake while speaking quietly. “I liked him too. God damn it.” Eyes flooding a bit, the boy repeated, “God damn it.”
For awhile, the three sat there. Haiden told his kids a few stories about Katarin, both from while they had been out in Seosten space together, and things he had heard about the man before, back on Earth. They talked about the deceased Crossroads professor for over an hour, remembering his life as much as they could. Many would have said that it had been far too long since Ulysses had died for this to be considered a memorial. But that’s what it was. It was their own, private memorial to the man who had affected both Vanessa and Tristan more than they had ever been able to tell him, even in the very short time that they had all known each other.
“Do you think they have more?” The question finally came from Vanessa, as she turned slightly on the bench to look urgently toward her father. “I mean, who says Isaac’s the only one that the Seosten recruited? What if there’s more students like him at Crossroads, just waiting to–” She gave a soft gulp, eyes wide as she finished, “–just waiting to do more damage, like he did?”
“Hey.” Haiden squeezed the girl closer, head shaking. “We’ll worry about that when we get back, okay? One problem at a time. Or one set of problems, anyway. Let’s free your mom first.”
The twins agreed with that, and the three settled back to talking about Professor Katarin some more, and about the other things they had been through. Haiden and Tristan did most of the talking, regaling each other and Vanessa with stories of the space adventures both had had. She’d heard some of her brother’s stories already, of course. But the girl never minded hearing them again, despite her perfect memory. Listening to her brother’s excited voice as he told the same story time and again was always worth it. She sat silently through all of that, rather than talking about her own past. Because the only stories that she could have told them about her time growing up were about being shut into mental institutions and group homes for telling the truth about what she had seen as a child. Her only stories were about being seen as crazy until she finally stopped telling anyone what she had known to be the truth.
Maybe she could have told them about the time that one of her counselors had suggested that she was lying about what had happened because her father had sexually molested her, and she had reacted by slamming a water glass into the man’s hand so hard that it had shattered.
But no, she told none of those stories. The space stories were far better. And they allowed Vanessa to simply sit and watch her brother and father. Her brother and father. No matter what had come before, no matter what names people had called her for what she had said, no matter how crazy everyone had thought she was, none of that mattered. Sitting there, listening to her father and Tristan talk about their own adventures in space… it made everything worth it.
And once they freed Sariel, the four of them could be a real family again, finally. It was the same thought, the same hope, that had driven Vanessa on for so long. It was what had urged her to learn so much, to spend so much time in the Crossroads library after finally having everything that she had known for so long confirmed and explained. Getting her family back. That had been her driving goal all this time. And now they were so close.
Mom, the girl thought silently while watching Tristan and their father excitedly describing a type of ship that they had both been on before, hang on, okay? We’re coming for you, I promise.
Please, Mom… just hang on a little bit longer.
Three days. Vanessa, Tristan, and Haiden had been on the Sunstrider for three days. It would take about a week for them to reach the facility where Athena’s spell had indicated that Sariel was being held prisoner. Part of that time had been spent with the woman herself as Athena alternated between asking the twins everything about themselves that she could think of, or simply testing their mental and physical capabilities. She was incredibly interested in absolutely everything about them, especially in how their Seosten-sides were developing. The idea that they only gradually developed their possession abilities (which still hadn’t actually fully kicked in) in their late teens was particularly interesting to her.
At the moment, however, they weren’t around Athena. Instead, the twins were with their father and their little sister, down in one corner of the main cargo hold. Tristan had set up a table tennis board that one of Tabbris’s friends back on the Aelaestiam station had sent with them, and was busy playing with the younger girl. The sound of the ball bouncing off of their paddles and the table was steady and repetitive in the background.
It was clear to everyone involved that Tristan was, at least to some extent, taking it easy on his younger sister. Though Tabbris was a full Seosten and had access to just as much, if not more, of the perfect physical adeptness that had been codified into the species’ genetics millennia earlier, she had also spent most of her developing life as a disembodied presence inside Flick. Particularly for a Seosten, she was remarkably clumsy and unsure of her own body. It had been getting better over the weeks spent at the Aelaestiam base, but it would take a lot more time than that before the girl would be anywhere near what she should be.
Which was a major reason for their game right then. Table tennis was a relatively easy game to play, but required a lot in the way of hand-eye coordination and reflexes, both of which Tabbris needed to exercise while she had the chance.
Tristan had actually taken it upon himself to make sure that his sister was exercising and performing physical activities inside her own body, always urging the girl to run the cargo bay with him, spot him while he did push or pull-ups (and then urging her to do a few while she ‘happened to be there’), or even getting her to keep him company through kata and yoga. He was her personally designated physical fitness and health coach, and the boy actually took the role seriously. Well, as seriously as he took anything.
“Alright,” Tristan taunted the girl while rolling the ball around in fingers. “Hope you’re ready for this one, cuz the loser of this round has to be Tails next time we play Sonic.” The Earth Club back at the hidden space station had sent, among other things, a couple of video game systems with them.
“Joke’s on you,” Tabbris retorted while lifting her chin to the boy. “I like Tails. He helps Sonic even though he’s not the real hero, and he can fly.”
“Still can’t beat Sonic, Foal,” Tristan informed her before serving the ball. “Just like you won’t beat me.”
Foal. He had started calling her that, because he said that she reminded him of a little baby horse, just figuring out how her legs worked and adorable through her clumsy first steps, yet strong and fast once she got herself going.
Soon, those two were deeply involved in their game. Vanessa and Haiden, meanwhile, stood before a large holographic image that floated in the air in front of them. The holographic object was about fifteen feet long by eight feet high. The main part of it was shaped like a three-dimensional trapezoid made of metal, with various bits and pieces sticking off of it here or there, such as two pipe-like parts that extended up from either of the top back corners, a series of small, bulbous attachments along the side that lit up various colors, or the half dozen long, thin metal rods along the diagonal front that continuously rose and lowered out of and back into the main body. Each time the thin rods rose all the way up, one of the lights along the side of the device turned blue, before turning green as the rod lowered once more. The overall effect was incredibly chaotic, especially as the rods were not in sync with each other or with the handful of spinning fan-like attachments at the back.
Finally, at the very top of the trapezoid, just between the two vertical pipes that extended from either corner, there was a metal cage-like structure, shaped like a ball and about two feet in diameter. A wire mesh filled in the space between the metal bars of the round cage, while a glowing red ball of energy was suspended directly in the center. The orb hummed with power.
“Alright, Nessabird,” Haiden started while looking to his daughter as the sound of the table tennis match continued in the background. “Sure you’re ready for this?”
The blonde girl’s head bobbed up and down quickly, as she chirped, “Ready!”
At a command from Haiden, the holographic image split apart. Every depicted component, including dozens of intricate-looking pieces that had been inside, spread out over the open space around them. They jumbled themselves up, spinning around each other as if shuffling their positions to be even more confusing before finally stopping. The pieces varied in size between a few feet across, all the way down to the size of a pin. They all floated there, waiting.
Slowly, Vanessa started to walk through the floating components. Turning in a circle, she observed them carefully, mind working through her memories before the girl slowly reached up to touch one part. Rather than letting her hand go through it, the hologram proved solid enough for her to touch. Gently, the girl pulled it over to an empty space nearby, before returning for another part. Guiding the two together, she let them touch, and the two pieces were instantly connected.
This was her test. The hologram was a miniaturized depiction of this very ship’s primary engine and reactor. Vanessa had memorized every single component, as well as how they worked and fit together. Now, she was putting the broken-apart engine back into one piece from that memory. It wouldn’t work that way in real life, of course. The actual engine of the ship was entirely too large to move it around the way that she was doing. But the basic concept was the same. If she could take the engine when it was split apart into every separate component like this and put it back together again properly so that it actually worked, she could eventually accomplish the same with the real thing.
That went on for awhile, before Vanessa eventually took a brief break once the engine was half-completed. She and their father stepped over to where the other two were now sitting. Drinks were passed around.
“Dad,” Tristan started. “I don’t understand something.” He paused, glancing to the girl beside him before continuing. “How does Tabbris exist? I mean, Mom’s in prison, right? How did she have a kid with someone? That doesn’t–I mean–” He bit his lip hard. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Before Haiden could say anything to that, Vanessa spoke up. “They made her have Tabbris, didn’t they?” The girl was staring at her father, her eyes knowing. “They want her to have more children. Because it’s not just a prison. When the others were talking about it, they said lab. They said that Mom was at this… this Kushiel’s lab. What–what was that about?”
Haiden heaved a long, heavy sigh. He had thought that the talk about Katarin was bad. This… however… he swallowed, looking back and forth. “Okay, guys, we need to talk about… what we’re going to be walking into when we get to that lab.”
It took some time, but the man gradually explained what kind of lab Kushiel was running, and how it wasn’t just an ordinary prison, but was actually a place where genetic material was harvested from the males, tested and modified, and then used to impregnate the females. The women would go about their days until they either gave birth to a new Seosten, or until the pregnancy failed as happened in the vast majority of Seosten pregnancies. In either case, whether the pregnancy was successful or (far more often) not, the female would immediately be clinically impregnated once again, forced to carry a child over and over. At no time would they spend more than a couple of days at the most where they were not pregnant to some extent. Even the ones who successfully gave birth would have the child taken away to be raised elsewhere before being put right through the same thing all over again. Only in those cases, the genetic samples of both the father and the mother would be marked as highly viable. If anything, successfully giving birth meant that both parents would be put through even more tests and experiments.
It was, without a doubt, one of the most horrifying things that any of them had ever heard of. Even talking about it now, Haiden couldn’t keep the outrage from his voice, which shook with each word. Tabbris, who had started out sitting a little bit away, was cuddled up against Tristan, head against the boy’s shoulder as she shivered.
“That–Mom is… Mom is…” Vanessa’s mouth opened and shut a couple times before she cringed, dropping her gaze as a white-hot fury filled her, anger unlike any she had ever felt.
“They have to die,” she announced flatly. “All of them. All of the ones that could–that would do that… they all have to die. And we have to free the prisoners. Not just Mom. All of them.”
Haiden nodded, kneeling in front of his now-seated children. All three of them. “Yes,” he agreed while laying his hands on Vanessa and Tristan’s shoulders. “That’s the plan. We get your mother and the rest of the prisoners out of there. And then Kushiel and her people pay for what they’ve been doing. But the prisoners are the priority.”
“And the kids,” Tristan put in, squeezing Tabbris closer as he looked to her. “Any of the kids that they’ve got there… any–we have to get them out.”
Biting her lip, Tabbris slowly lifted her eyes before nodding. “I… I d-don’t know how Mama got me out. I was too little. But… but I think there’s other kids there. They–they run experiments on the successes before they send them away, to find out everything they can about what made them… umm… what let them be born so that they can… umm… duplicate it.” Her voice was hollow by the end.
Moving his hand to the young girl’s cheek, Haiden spoke softly. “Hey. We are going to get them out of there, okay? Sariel, all the other prisoners, and all the kids. All of them. We’re going to save them. Because that’s what family does.”
Meeting the man’s gaze, Tabbris hesitantly echoed, “That’s what family does?”
“Well,” Haiden amended, “it’s what this family does, anyway. This… extended, convoluted, very strange family tree, with branches just growing in every direction, and made from different kinds of wood too.”
Shifting hesitantly, the girl asked, “Am I… am I a branch?”
Haiden winked, teasing her a little. “I think you’re more of a leaf. Maybe when you get a little bigger, you can be a branch. You start out as a leaf and grow into a branch.”
Solemnly, Tabbris informed him, “I don’t think that’s how leaves work.”
“She’s right,” Vanessa confirmed. “That is absolutely not how leaves work.” The two sisters exchanged brief, silent smiles.
Grinning at that, Haiden shrugged pointedly. “Well, like I said: screwed up family tree. A tree that’s about to fall on top of Kushiel and crush her whole God damn prison.”
“Well,” a voice announced from nearby, drawing all of their attention that way abruptly. “I sure am glad to hear you say that.”
Apollo smiled. “Because this is one leaf that would hate to have to rescue his sister all on his own.”