Athena was right, of course. It was a bumpy trip. The moment the prototype ship’s jump was triggered, it started shaking violently. Almost like it was trying to tear itself apart. It was like sitting on top of an overloaded washing machine or something. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had been through it before. So had Sariel, though she had been in stasis at the time. For everyone else, this was new. And apparently not the most pleasant first experience. Worse, it would start shaking violently, then stop and be still for a few seconds, then start again and repeat that.
“Is it supposed to be doing this?!” Sands called out a bit nervously while gripping her seat armrests. She, like the rest of us, was strapped in tightly. The seats in this thing were lined facing one another along both walls, like one of those military transport jets or something. “Cuz I don’t think I like the experimental ship running an experimental jump drive shaking like this! It feels like a bad thing!”
Tristan was the one who answered from his own spot a few seats away, “Hey, it’s not so bad! Just be glad we actually get to be strapped in this time instead of fighting a telekinetic asshole!”
“Trying to fight,” Vanessa murmured in correction, her own voice barely audible over the rapidly rising sound of the ship jerking back and forth. “We didn’t exactly do a very good job at it.”
Theia, meanwhile, just raised her arms above her head like she was on a rollercoaster with a loud, “Wheeee!” With Roxa and Pace sitting on either side of her, she even lifted one of each of their hands up with her own. Then the ship would stop shaking, and she would pout, lowering their arms. “Aww.” It started up again, and her arms shot back into the air, carrying the other two with them. “Wheeee! Awww… Wheee! Awww… Wheee!” The fact that she was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat (as far as I knew, she basically never took it off) helped add to the impression of her being on a casual day out at the amusement park.
For their part, Roxa and Pace each half-raised their other hand to go along with Theia, exchanging looks with one another.
While all that was going on, everyone clearly trying to distract themselves from the fear of what would happen if this jump went wrong, I found myself looking over to where Sachael was. The white-bearded Seosten was watching me with a neutral expression. If the repeatedly violently shaking ship was bothering him, he didn’t show it at all. As our gazes met, he offered me a single, simple nod without speaking.
What was he thinking? What kind of person was he? All I knew about the man was that he was still loyal to his people, but willing to bend the rules in his off-hours. From what Sariel and Athena had said, Sachael was really devoted to the idea of separating his work life from his private life. When he didn’t consider himself to be on-the-clock, he was a lot more chill.
As for what his opinion about me was, I had no idea. And it didn’t seem like he was eager to speak up about it. After that simple nod, the man turned his gaze to look toward Sariel. Again, his expression remained completely unreadable. I had no idea what he was thinking.
“I-it’s longer this time!” Tabbris piped up, drawing my attention to where she sat beside me, with Tristan on the other side. “It didn’t take this long before, even though we had to go further!”
She was right. And it wasn’t just taking longer, the shaking was noticeably worse too. The ship seriously felt like it was about to tear itself apart and send pieces flying in every direction.
Athena, at the front of the ship near the console that controlled everything, simply called back, “Everything is fine! The ship was prepared to go to Earth before, it had a smooth path plotted out. This time it doesn’t. It will be a rough ride, but the ship will hold together. Give it a moment.”
She sounded distracted while explaining that, and I belatedly realized she was using her power. That scattershot precognition that allowed her to see the results of actions she took several seconds in advance. She was using that to make sure the ship wasn’t about to fall apart. Which made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. But still, I really hoped this would be over soon.
Mom, who was sitting on my other side, put one hand on my shoulder. Her voice was firm. “Whatever happens, if we see a real Fomorian, you don’t fight it.” She squeezed firmly, looking up to Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, and the others to make sure they were listening. “That goes for all of you. I don’t care if you outnumber it twelve to one. If you see a real Fomorian, you run away from it. You can fight their creatures, but if there’s an actual Fomorian, all of you run away. You fight to get clear and you run. You don’t jump in to help, you get away. Is that understood?”
Kohaku spoke up then. “Joselyn is correct. None of you, not even together, are prepared to face a full, battle-ready Fomorian in combat. And none of us are prepared to extract you should you be captured. If you try to jump in to help, you’ll be nothing more than a distraction. That isn’t intended as an insult,” she added quickly. “You are all amazing students. You truly are. You’ve advanced far faster and further than any of us could have anticipated, and all of us are more proud of you than we can say. But this is something beyond that. If you see a full Fomorian, you retreat immediately. No macho bullshit. Run away and leave them for us to deal with.”
The rest of the adults voiced their own agreement with that. They all wanted to make sure we weren’t going to try to go toe-to-toe with a Fomorian. But before any of us could respond, Athena abruptly called back, “Brace!”
Her warning came just in time. As all of us grabbed our armrests, the ship’s shaking suddenly jumped into overdrive. Seriously, it made the previous shaking feel like nothing. My stomach was twisting itself into knots, as the sound of metal screaming in protest filled the air.
Another sound filled the air too. It was Theia again, arms still held high above her head (with Pace and Roxa’s lifted too) like she was on a rollercoaster, calling out an enthusiastic, “Whoooooo!” Yeah, she was still having a grand old time. I was pretty sure if this actually was an actual ride in a park, she’d jump right back in line for it.
Meanwhile, I was almost afraid the ship really was about to blow apart and take all of us along with it. Which would have been a pretty bad way for this whole rescue mission thing to turn out.
But it didn’t blow apart, of course. Just as the ship’s horrific shaking hit its peak, it just as abruptly stopped entirely. Seriously, one second it felt like we were about to explode in slow motion, and in the next second everything was completely still. Like someone had flipped a switch.
“What…” Columbus started, looking around the moment everything stopped. “Did we break it?”
Theia, however, shook her head. She still looked exuberant, though her voice was completely matter-of-fact. “We are here, of course. If we broke it, we would all be dead.”
“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, eyes glancing around the interior of the ship as though making sure everything was still completely sealed. “It stopped shaking because we made it.”
Athena spoke then. “Yes. We are here.” With those words, she hit a few buttons on the console, and screens appeared around us to act like windows, showing the exterior of the ship. Not that there was much to see. We were, as planned, in the middle of nowhere. I could see stars all around us, of course. Brilliantly bright now that we were away from Earth. But there were no planets nearby or anything. It was the middle of empty space. Like drifting on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Only about a million times more dangerous if anything actually went wrong.
And this was the easy part, I had to remind myself. Before too long, we’d be where the real monsters were. I just hoped we were actually ready for that.
Apollo, who had been silently checking over a different console through all of that, finally spoke up. “We’re on target. We hit the exact coordinates. Whoever designed this thing knew what they were doing.”
“I mean, it was Radueriel, right?” Shiori piped up. “It had to be Radueriel.”
“No.” That was Pace, actually. The Latina girl, who had switched her green-dyed hair to a full rainbow after cutting it quite short, was shaking her head. “If it was his, he’d already be trying to get it back. Think about it, he had to know you guys took it from Kushiel’s place, a toy like this? And he has no interest in grabbing it? Not even in negotiations? If he made it, wouldn’t he want his prototype back? That’s… that’s the impression I got of him from when… from everything I learned with Theia.”
The Olympians onboard all exchanged looks, before focusing on Sachael. He, in turn, offered a simple shrug. His voice was even. “Sorry to say, I don’t know who designed this thing. But the girl there is right. Useful as it is, I would think that someone as protective of his designs as Radueriel is would have insisted on having it back as part of the truce agreement.”
Yeah, that was pretty close to the same thing I had thought before. It made sense. Or rather, it didn’t make sense for this to be Radueriel’s design with as little interest as he had shown in it. But again, if it wasn’t his, then who? Should we be worried about someone else in the Seosten Empire who could design a ship like this that could jump anywhere almost instantly? How many more of these things had they already made? Was there a fleet of instant-jump ships just waiting for the truce to end so they could appear over Earth before we had any warning they were coming? Was I paranoid for even thinking that was a possibility? Well, yes, maybe it was paranoia. But was it unfounded paranoia? I didn’t think so. Not after everything I’d seen.
“Okay, so the jump was on-target.” That was Lillian, who had been staring out one of the ‘windows’ for the past few seconds. “Can this thing actually get us to the Meregan world now?” From the sound of her voice, the small woman had her doubts on that subject. Which was fair, after we’d just spent the past few minutes feeling the thing shake itself apart around us.
“It can,” Sariel confirmed, her fingers moving over one of the control panels that had slid around in front of her seat, sort of like a tray table thing in an airplane. “The slide-drive isn’t exactly top-of-the-line. It’s barebones and barely adequate. But it is working. We should get there in one hour.” Before anyone else could speak up about how long that would take, she added, “We’ll be taking a few separate slides just to throw off any investigation once we’re done. We won’t be coming back to this spot after we grab Elisabet and Dexamene anyway, but the Fomorians could still potentially trace our entrance point back to here. We don’t want that. So we’ll take the long route around and throw them off with those extra slides.”
“That’s the plan, anyway,” Apollo put in. “Which means we’ve got about fifty-seven minutes now for everyone to relax and breathe, then sixty seconds to psych yourselves up, thirty seconds for that to turn into blind panic, and then another thirty seconds to calm down again. Ready? Go.”
“You remain as inspiring and helpful as ever, Apollo,” Athena quietly noted before glancing at Sachael. She paused then, looking briefly as though she was carefully choosing her words.
Actually, wait, was she using her power to judge what the best approach would be? That felt–well not exactly manipulative, but… huh. Was it bad? That was a tough question. And the fact that she’d paused long enough to be noticeable, how many options was she playing through, if that was the case?
Either way, cheating or not, the woman finally addressed her Seosten-loyalist former crewmate. “Which does make it feel a bit like old times, doesn’t it?”
Seeing Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and Sachael like that, I wondered what it had actually been like back on the Olympus. With Kushiel and certain others around, it definitely hadn’t been a picnic. And yet, there had certainly been good times. They’d been together fifty years or so even before coming to Earth. Which, I knew for them was seriously a drop in the bucket. And yet so many of them defined basically everything they were around either that, or their ‘god’ identities back on Earth. Athena used her Earth-goddess name rather than Auriel because she loathed the person she had been. Apollo didn’t go by Lucifer because he saw himself as more connected to Earth than the Seosten since he had left them. Mercury still used that name because it was the first one that the SPS-afflicted man had seen as his own after taking over the original Amitiel.
But Sariel didn’t. Sariel used her Seosten name consistently. Actually, I’d almost never heard her use the name Artemis. For a moment, I wondered why that was. Did she not like the identity? Was being Sariel more important for her than holding onto their old names was for the others? Was I just reading way too much into it?
My gaze drifted over toward Jophiel. The Seosten woman had been silent through all of this since entering the ship, her gaze unfocused as she looked off into the distance. I had no idea what she was doing, other than worrying about Elisabet, but she seemed more… passive than I would’ve expected.
“Meditation spell.” That was Lillian, whispering toward me when she saw the direction of my gaze. “Way of keeping calm and clearing your mind before something important. Think of it as a magical tranquilizer that instantly wears off when it needs to.”
Realizing I’d missed whatever Sachael had said in response to Athena, I glanced over to my mother, grabbing her hand to squeeze it. Really, I was hiding the fact that I’d palmed one of the privacy coins and was using it to make sure only her, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon could actually hear what I was about to say. Though the only person I really didn’t want to hear was Sachael. “I don’t suppose Bob’s linked you back into the Committee now that you’re free?” I was joking, mostly. “That’d be pretty useful.”
Mom blinked at me briefly. “Bob?” she echoed blankly, clearly trying to think of someone with that name who would be the least bit relevant to what I was talking about.
Oh, right, she wouldn’t know about that. Belatedly, I explained that we’d named the Reaper in the lighthouse Bob, thanks to Koren.
Once she understood, Mom chuckled a little under her breath. “Ah, I used to call him Pops. He always felt like a… grandfather to me, of sorts.”
“That’s funny,” I replied with a chuckle despite myself, “Aylen sees him the same way.” Then I saw the way Mom blinked at me, clearly unknowing, and realized she had no idea what I was talking about. Right, maybe I hadn’t been able to tell her everything that had happened over the previous year. Bringing up the whole ‘friendly Fomorian’ thing had felt like something that could wait until we were free. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up right now.
“Never mind,” I murmured. “I’ll tell you later. But you definitely don’t feel Committee-energized?”
From the look on her face, Mom was tempted to pursue the previous subject. But she let it go with a shake of her head. “No, I haven’t felt anything like that. I don’t know if he even knows that I’ve been–that my memories have been restored, let alone that I’m no longer with Fossor.”
“If he doesn’t, we’ll have to find a way to give him an update,” I assured her, squeezing my mother’s hand a bit more before quietly adding, “Not just because of the power thing. But because he misses you. He–I…” Hesitating, I explained how Bob had helped me before, by instantly teleporting my friends and I so we could fight Lemuel’s were-pack and eventually get the choker that allowed us to identify who had been possessed. Avalon, Shiori, and Tabbris piped up now and then too, helping to explain that whole situation.
By the time we were done, Mom was shaking her head. “You mentioned most of that before, but not the detail about Pops. He–he really stepped up.” She sounded sad, and I realized he was yet another person (yes, person goddamnit) my mother cared about who had been taken away from her for a long time. “I’m glad you talked to him. He… needs more people to talk to him.”
There was more to that, I realized. It sounded like Mom wanted to say something else about Bob-Pops needing people to talk to him. But she visibly put it aside, exhaling before settling on simply adding, “He deserves better.”
We talked a bit more over the remaining time. Not all with the privacy spells, of course. I didn’t want to be that rude or obvious about it. I’d just figured that, whatever else he’d said about not reporting everything that happened to his superiors, it was still best not to let Sachael (or the Calendar duo) know too much about Bob and the fact that he was (sort of) communicating.
Either way, pretty soon all of that was irrelevant. Because we were getting closer to the Meregan world, as all of our conversations kind of petered out. We were thinking about what was about to happen, about what we were going to see and potentially have to do basically as soon as we got there.
We were nervous. All of us, even the Olympians. A glance around showed me that much pretty plainly. It was immediately clear that none of us wanted to be here right now. No one wanted to go running into a Fomorian-infested planet. We were all thinking about all the ways this could go wrong, about how bad it could potentially be. And I was pretty sure that no matter how detailed our imaginations might be, reality could probably get even worse.
Finally, Apollo counted down while we all braced ourselves for what we were about to see. “In three… two… one…”
We came out of the slide, all of us telling ourselves that we were prepared for the worst. And yet, nothing we had braced ourselves for could have prepared us for what we saw.
There was a battle going on. An insane space battle the likes of which I’d never seen outside of movies. It was even more intense than the battle between Athena’s fleet and Kushiel’s research station defenses back when we had been rescuing Sariel. We were just beyond the outer edges of it, with the planet dead ahead. But between us and the world were dozens of enormous ships. Half were the biological sort the Fomorians used, while the other half were definitely technological. Lasers, missiles, various spell effects, tentacles, explosions of gore and acid, gigantic whale-like monsters that swam through space with their mouths open, all of it was laid out in front of us. We’d arrived in the middle of a massive warzone.
“What–the Seosten are here?!” Lillian blurted, her gaze snapping toward Sachael.
“No,” Athena immediately replied, her gaze riveted to the sight before us. “Those aren’t Seosten ships.”
“Then who the hell are they?” Haiden demanded, leaning forward to stare at the screen at the front of the ship.
Athena’s answer filled the small space around us.
“I have no idea.”