“Okay, seriously, now that we have time, you’ve gotta tell me what the deal with Arthur is.”
About three days into our little trip toward what was probably going to be the closest thing to hell that I could possibly imagine, I was standing in the small kitchen area, watching Athena bake a cake. No, seriously, she had an apron and everything. It was incredibly surreal. I’d asked her about the point of the apron and she had said that demonstrating proper safety and etiquette measures was important as a teacher, even if she personally didn’t really need them.
I saw the slight smile cross the woman’s face as she remained quiet for a few seconds, sliding a pan into the oven before straightening up to look back at me curiously. “The ‘deal’ with Arthur?”
“You know what I mean.” Folding my arms across my stomach, I pressed, “Where is he? You said you trained him to help break the Bystander Effect, but he was ambushed and his power was broken. That’s what you said. You didn’t say he was killed, you didn’t say he was dead. You said his power was broken ‘for the time being’. What does that mean? And where is he now?”
I had tried to bring this up before, but it was always the wrong time, or we would get interrupted. Now, we were on the ship and I couldn’t think of a better time to get some actual answers.
For a moment, Athena regarded me in contemplative silence, like she was deciding exactly how much she should tell me. Then the woman gave a faint nod. “I have told you of Chayyiel.”
“The Olympian who was a kid when the experiments happened,” I remembered from the discussion that had happened on the station. “She was Hestia on Earth. The one who still looks like a kid even though it was like a million years ago because it froze your aging processes.”
“Precisely,” Athena confirmed. “As I said before, Chayyiel was the daughter of the program’s director. There is much more to that, but that can come later. For the moment, all you really need to know for this story is that she has a highly developed sense of honor and fair play.”
Blinking, I shook my head. “She’s still on the Seosten’s side and she has a sense of honor?”
“She also has a highly developed sense of loyalty,” the woman informed me. “Chayyiel does not always, or even often, agree with a lot of the measures that are taken. But she believes in the Seosten society in the long run. She believes that any changes must be made from within, and that the Seosten are still the preferable winners over the Fomorians. When she encounters open abuse or anything she deems too dishonorable, she puts a stop to it. Those under her direct employ are some of the most well-treated subjects within the Seosten Empire. But she cannot change everything overnight, and despite her power and the respect she commands, particularly since becoming a member of the Seraphim, there is only so much she can do.”
“A member of the Seraphim,” I echoed, “which is part of the ruling caste, your senate or whatever.”
Athena’s head dipped once in confirmation then. “Just so. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. You wished to know what happened to Arthur. Chayyiel is a large part of that.”
“Her… power, she could have all his skill and see any weaknesses he had,” I murmured quietly.
“Which,” Athena pointed out, “were not many. But they fought several times, always to an essential stand-still. Neither could entirely best the other, and Chayyiel’s sense of honor meant that she refused to have others brought in to assist her. Arthur was one of her strongest challengers, and if she was going to win, she wanted to do so herself. That, and I also believe that she was considering…” She trailed off then, biting her lip in brief silence.
“She was considering what?” I asked, even more curious now.
“She was considering,” a voice that definitely wasn’t Athena’s spoke up from the nearby doorway, “making him her new primary host.”
Spinning a bit at that, since I hadn’t sensed anyone coming (not even my item sense had gone off, despite the fact that the intruder was definitely close enough to have triggered it), I found myself staring at a man standing there who looked like Westley from The Princess Bride.
Aside from that apt comparison, the guy wasn’t familiar at all. Which, considering we were on a spaceship in mid-transit, was clearly a problem. But the much bigger problem? He was holding Tabbris in both arms.
Earlier, my little partner had shown me how she had used the power to move items around my body to affect individual objects within something else that was touching me, like a bag. Or, in this case, the container for my staff. Now, a thought instantly transferred it into my hand at the sight of the intruder holding Tabbris, and I started to blurt a threat.
“Stop.” Athena’s hand found my shoulder, bringing me up short. That was all she said at first, that single word while she held me back from the man. When I glanced that way in confusion, she was staring at him. Her gaze was utterly unreadable, as she remained silent.
“Thanks.” The man gave a roguish smile, winking at us while he set Tabbris on the floor. “Wouldn’t wanna have to fend off your protege, Auriel. She seems fierce.”
“It’s Athena, Lucifer,” she informed him in a flat voice. “I don’t go by Auriel anymore.”
Well, that was something. My head snapped around, whipping back and forth between the two as I sputtered a bit in total incomprehension, even as Tabbris darted over to me. She caught my hand, holding tight even as I returned the squeeze before pulling the girl up against myself protectively.
“Funny,” the man replied, “I don’t go by Lucifer anymore either. The name’s lost something of its appeal.”
More silence then, and more stillness. That stretched on for another handful of seconds before Athena abruptly moved. Her hand left my shoulder, and she was past me before I knew what was happening. In a blur of motion, the Seosten woman was suddenly right in front of the intruder.
And then she embraced him. Her arms went around the man, and the two were hugging incredibly tightly. It wasn’t a romantic hug, as far as I could tell. They weren’t lost lovers or anything. It was the embrace of long, long-lost friends, of family. I could see some kind of tension fade out of both of their postures as they all-but collapsed into one another. Each held the other up, their own strength entirely devoted to keeping each other on their feet. And each clearly trusted the other enough not to let them fall in the process.
It was one of the first times I had ever seen her get emotional, or seem… well, for lack of a better word, human. Seeing this guy, it clearly deeply affected her.
“I am sorry.” That was the first thing that Athena said, the first words that finally came from her mouth after a long few moments like that. “Lucifer, I am so very sorry about what happened to you, about what they have done.”
“They’ve done just as much to you,” the man… Apollo… reminded her. “You’ve lost plenty, Athena. And I told you, it’s not Lucifer.”
Leaning back a bit, the Seosten woman regarded him without letting go. “Apologies. I… refused to stop using that name, because I did not want to allow them to destroy it entirely. Lucifer is not what they have turned your name into. You are my… you are my friend. You have been my friend for so very long, and they… Puriel and his…” Her face twisted in anger, and she shook her head. “You are not that.”
“I dunno,” the man replied with a shrug, “they got a few things right. I do like apples and snakes.”
“Umm.” I couldn’t stop myself from speaking up then. “Hi? What–how did you…”
“Sorry.” The voice came just as several people came within range of my item-sense. Apollo and Athena stepped in opposite directions, allowing Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan, to come in. Haiden was the one talking. “He insisted on surprising you. Something about wanting to see your faces.”
“Her face, mostly,” Apollo corrected, jerking a thumb toward Athena. “It’s been awhile, I really wanted to see what she’d do.”
“That,” Athena replied flatly, “is why he does most things. To see how people react.”
Vanessa spoke up then, as she and Tristan moved beside Tabbris and me. “Uncle Apollo came to help get Mom out of Kushiel’s lab. He came to help us save her.”
Bewildered, I asked, “But how did you get here? You were back on Earth, right? How did you get all the way out here? Not that I should really be surprised by this point, honestly. But still.”
“Eh,” the man replied, “it wasn’t too hard. I have a connection to every member of my organization. It wasn’t enough to project myself through the magical shield that they’ve been using to block Earth. But between that and the spell I put on the twins here so that I could get to them if they were in trouble, it did the trick. Let’s just say I needed all three of them to be in the same general area to make it work.”
Jolting beside me, Vanessa suddenly put in, “That’s right, you said that you had a connection to someone out here, one of the… the other students?”
“Oh my God,” I blurted, “Torchbearers.”
The others all blinked at me, while Apollo himself gave me a broad smile. “The reports were right,” he remarked, “she is a bright one. Wish she was one of mine.”
“Jazz’s people, the Torchbearers,” I repeated, my gaze meeting his. “You’re the one that created them, aren’t you? I mean, Lucifer, lightbringer, Torchbearer.”
Apollo gave a brief bow. “You see? Very bright. Yes, they were a group that I created and had a bit of a hand in through their history. As I said, I have a connection to all of them. It was enough to let me know exactly where she was, but not enough to teleport to her. Not until the twins were out here too.”
Tristan nudged me. “See, now we’ve got two full Seosten on our side. This is gonna be a great rescue.”
I felt like telling him not to jinx it, but pointing that out probably would have made it worse. So, I just shook my head while focusing on Apollo himself. “Where’s Jazz? Does she know you’re here? Does she know anything about you?”
“Nope,” he replied. “Not yet. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a little chat with her myself. There’s a few things that she and I need to talk about.”
I wanted to ask more about that, but that felt like prying. So I quashed my curiosity for the moment.
Athena was the one who spoke next. Her voice was almost as calm as ever, but I did detect a bit of emotion in it. Which gave a slight hint of just how much emotion she was actually feeling. “I’m glad you’re here. You should be here. It’s time to get Sariel away from them.”
There was no joviality in Apollo‘s voice as he replied, “Oh, it is long past time to get her away from them. They’ll pay for everything they did to my sister.
“They wanna cast me as the devil? I’ll show them just how hot my hell burns.”
It was about four days later, and a week since we had set off from the Aelaestiam base. A week of travel to get to Kushiel’s secret lab. During that time, Vanessa and Tristan had spent most of it with their dad, while the rest of us made sure we were as ready as possible (physically and mentally) for what was about to happen. Not that the twins were spared any of Athena’s training in that time. She made sure to put all of us through our paces too. As did Apollo. They both worked us to the bone to make sure we were as ready as we could possibly be.
Also, there were the stories. Apollo had so many stories. And he loved to tell them. Some involved him directly, while a lot actually didn’t. They were just stories he’d picked up over the millennia. He’d been making a point of telling us a few of the funny ones, clearly trying to take our minds off what was about to happen. One of those more recent stories was about some guy named Lars, who had become a Natural Heretic bonded with something called an Eki, which were protective guardian figures who gained power from the sun and had a lot to do with fire and heat powers.
This Lars guy had no idea what was going on in the world. No one ever explained the whole Bystander/Alter/Heretic thing to him, so he had to figure out as much as he could on his own, including the fact that everyone he knew would always forget anything supernatural that he did. But he still wanted to help, so the guy did what came natural. He dressed up as a superhero and went out to fight bad guys. Yeah, that sometimes happened with Natural Heretics, apparently. As far as the Bystanders were concerned, they were just those kooky people who dress up in costumes, call themselves superheroes, and go around stopping petty crime. They never remembered the crazy things he accomplished. But he kept right doing them, even if no one remembered and everyone thought he was silly, at best. Which was pretty admirable, really. So-Lars was a real hero.
Yeah. Lars’ the solar-powered superhero’s name was So-Lars. Whenever I managed to tell Shiori about that, she might end up with a new favorite superhero, all other qualifications be damned.
The point was, everyone liked listening to Apollo’s stories. Well, everyone except Dries, that was. Yeah, with Apollo and Athena, we had two adult Seosten on the ship with us the whole time. Which meant that Dries wasn’t all that happy. He understood, but he wasn’t very happy. I had talked to him a bit, and he told me that he appreciated and accepted that they (and Tabbris) weren’t the same as the Seosten who had imprisoned and tortured him. But knowing something and feeling it were two different things. Their presence made him uncomfortable, even more uncomfortable than he normally was around people. It sucked, but I understood where he was coming from. So, the man spent most of his time locked up in his room, avoiding everyone as much as he could.
Now, the rest of us were on the bridge. In this case, ‘the rest of us’ meant Larissa, Haiden, Athena, Apollo, Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Gordon, Vanessa, Tristan, Jokai, Tabbris, and me. And our cyberforms, of course. The metal animals were off to the side, seemingly deep in conversation.
“One last jump. Is everyone ready?”
Larissa was the one who had spoken, looking our way as she stood beside the pilot’s seat. “Once Jokai pulls that lever, it’ll only take a few seconds to get there.”
Athena nodded. “Once this ship arrives, we can activate the beacon, and the rest of the Aelaestiam fleet will jump in. We have our own disruption ships that will block any portals into or out of the facility, so they won’t be able to take the prisoners and run. But they will know that we’re there, and they will have their own fleet to act in defense. Not to mention the ships that will come very quickly as soon as they receive the alert. Ships which drastically outnumber ours.”
“Which means we have to be fast,” Haiden put in. “Athena’s fleet can do some damage and stop them from getting away for awhile. But we’ll be on the clock the entire time. We jump in, get their attention on us, and follow the plan. You all know it backwards and forwards by now. If all goes the way it’s supposed to, we should end up down in the facility.”
“Which,” Apollo put in, “is a bit like having step one of your master plan involve finding a way to break into hell to kick the devil in the shin.”
Turning promptly at that, I put my foot out to tap against his leg before giving a shrug. “Eh. Not as thrilling as you might think.”
“Well, you’re a cheeky one, ain’t ya?” the man retorted, grinning back at me the whole time.
Larissa took over then. “From there, we free all the prisoners that we can, while the fleet does its job. Then we get back here with the prisoners, and jump away again. Hopefully before Seosten reinforcements show up. But we have to be quick. In and out as fast as possible.”
From the pilot’s seat, Jokai made a noise of approval. “We have… the teeth now.”
By teeth, he meant weapons. While the Sunstrider had been completely defenseless before, aside from its heavy armor and shields, Athena’s people had taken care of that little problem. Some of those ‘special supplies’ that she and the others had been working on were the parts for weapons. Weapons for the ship itself. And during the week we’d been on our way, some of her people had been hard at work installing them on the ship itself, and wiring the controls up into the bridge.
Which meant that the ship could finally fight back. Or, as Jokai had put it… we had teeth now. And the ship’s already heavy armor and shields combined with having actual weapons meant that it was pretty damn tough for what had amounted to a mining ship so recently. It still wasn’t quite as battle-ready as an actual combat ship, since, among other things, it didn’t have near the crew that one of those had. Whatever damage it took would be a lot harder to deal with than it would have been with a full crew complement, and it just couldn’t pack the kind of punch that those ships could. But still, we had weapons, and Jokai was pretty happy about that.
“Yes,” Larissa agreed with a little smile, putting a hand on the man’s shoulder. “We most certainly have teeth. And Kushiel is going to find out just how hard we can bite.”
Athena nodded. “She will. But she will learn it from Apollo and myself.” Pointedly, she added, “The rest of you will focus on retrieving Sariel and the other prisoners, as many as possible. Leave Kushiel to us.”
“Scary angel lady and scary angel uncle versus scary angel lady?” Tristan’s head bobbed up and down. “Sounds like a good match to me.”
“Everyone got it?” Larissa asked. “No one has any questions?”
Gordon spoke up then, his voice even. “Let you guys do your thing until you open the way down to the station. Once we’re there, free the prisoners, get back to the ship. Avoid Kushiel. Understood.” He gave what I swore was almost a smile. “And when everything goes wrong… improvise.”
“Exactly.” Haiden gave him a thumbs up. “And most importantly, stick together. Everyone stick together. No one goes off on their own. Got that? Right. Let’s do it.”
He nodded to Jokai, who reached out to the nearby lever, his hand grasping it briefly before yanking the thing down. The stars jumped around us, as the ship launched forward.
As promised, that last trip only took a few seconds before we were suddenly there. The view on the screen at the front of the bridge resolved into the image of an orange gas giant with one rocky moon about a third the size of Earth floating nearby, and a second, ice-covered moon a short distance away from it. From what we had been told, the two moons revolved around one another while also revolving around the planet itself. The gas giant, designated Novem-Tres-Tres-Zeta-Kappa-Duo (the planet had never been important enough to be given more than a alphanumeric designation) had been surveyed and deemed unworthy of being mined. And that had been the end of it. The universe was big enough that one gas giant wasn’t worth paying much attention to.
That, apparently, had been the point. We weren’t sure exactly when Kushiel had set up her lab there. But I had a feeling that she had been behind it being written off in the first place. She had probably started getting her secret torture prison/lab and defenses installed almost immediately.
And she had apparently done a very thorough job, at least on the defenses part. Because the ship came under immediate fire the very second that we arrived. Barely an instant had passed as the view resolved in front of us before a handful of enormous, bright green lasers shot straight at us from what looked like seemingly empty space. The ship rocked under the first couple shots before Jokai snapped us to the side, letting the remaining few pass under the ship.
“Ghost turrets,” Athena announced flatly. “Invisible and intangible automated weapons platforms that become solid just long enough to fire once, then return to their intangible state while teleporting somewhere else within their line of sight to fire again. They are only vulnerable within the split second while they are firing.” To Jokai, she added, “They will attempt to surround the ship to catch it within an inescapable crossfire, as they do not have to worry about hitting one another. Their systems will coordinate their teleportation to never end up in each other’s line of fire.”
“Etiam,” Jokai muttered, hands dancing over the controls. The Sunstrider spun into a quick barrel roll as two more shots came. One missed, while the other glanced off the shields.
More shots came in rapidly, starting to fill the screen from all sides. Just as Athena had said, the ghost turrets were starting to encircle us, firing repeatedly. But through it all, as the ship rocked, Jokai didn’t move again. He had stopped actively dodging the incoming fire. His eyes watched the screen, mouth moving soundlessly as he seemed to mutter to himself. The ship shook twice, then three times. The shields were holding so far, but it wouldn’t take much longer before they would completely fail. And yet, Jokai still remained motionless save for his eyes and mouth.
“Jokai,” Haiden started quietly, his voice breaking the silence (aside from the sound of the ship shuddering under being shot by those turrets repeatedly). “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, dude,” Tristan put in, “are we gonna shoot back, or wh–”
“Sileo!” Jokai’s retort was sharp, sharper than I had heard him before. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the screen, which was showing various incoming shots from all sides. “Sileo,” he repeated then, quieter and more thoughtful. His hands stayed where they were, motionless as he watched through two more full barrages, still without any attempt to move or avoid them.
Then it happened. Just as I honestly started to get a little worried at that point, Jokai abruptly snapped into action. His hands jumped back to the controls, and the ship suddenly spun out of the way as more lasers went past. Even as he avoided those shots, Jokai’s hand caught hold of the targeting control for one of the new turrets that Athena’s people had installed near the front of the ship. He gave it a quick adjustment before hitting the trigger to send a pair of our own blue lasers out into what looked like the middle of empty space. Without wasting another second, he adjusted his aim three more times, shooting more of those lasers from a couple other turrets in rapid succession, all seemingly aimed at absolutely nothing.
Then there was a sudden, incredibly bright explosion. Followed by a second one, and a third, and then a fourth that all came one right after the other. Each of Jokai’s supposedly blind shots had struck one of the invisible turrets in the instant that it became tangible right before firing.
“What–how–wha?” Sands blurted out what we were probably all thinking in that moment.
Apollo was the one who spoke up, smiling a little. “It’s the pattern,” he explained. “A lot of Eulson people have an innate understanding of seemingly random patterns. It’s reflexive. He watched the platforms for a few seconds to understand their size, speed, and other factors in relation to their target, us, and then worked out the next part of their movement pattern to know where they’d go.”
Unable to hold back her grin, Jazz quickly put in then, “That’s how he escaped from the prison camp in the first place. And why they made him a pilot before. Because he’s really good at recognizing patterns and using them.” I could hear the (understandable) pride in her voice.
Smiling a little, Larissa nodded. “Very good, Jokai. But we’ve still got problems.” She raised her hand to point to the screen, where lights had appeared on both the rocky and ice-covered moons. Lights that quickly resolved into small ships, fighter-sized, launching toward us. At the same time, several much, much larger ships, of the capital variety, emerged from behind the gas giant. Jokai may have destroyed the initial defenses, but the Seosten fleet had woken up.
“Those are not automated,” Athena announced, before adding, “Fortunately, neither are ours.”
With that, the Seosten woman pressed something in her hand. A second later, a new ship appeared on screen, directly to our left. Or port, I supposed. It was joined by two more, then another two our right, one below us, and so on. The Aelaestiam fleet had arrived, summoned by the beacon that Athena had just activated.
“Hoc est bellum,” Apollo murmured as the lasers and missiles began to fly from both sides, the space in front of us lighting up like the Fourth of July.
“This is war.”