“Why did he do it? How long was he planning it? Was he in contact with the Seosten? Was he another shapeshifter, like the one who took over Paul? Were any of the others involved?”
Sands’s voice was a droning sound in the background as I gazed through the viewport of the room that I had taken to sleep in. The view was, I was sure, spectacular with the gorgeous starfield stretched out before us. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t focus on it. I just stared through the window, or video screen, whichever it was, without actually seeing any of what I was looking at.
“I don’t know,” I answered quietly, my voice sounding hoarse even to myself. Even now, a full day after what had happened, I couldn’t comprehend it. I couldn’t understand it. It had taken all this time just to get things stabilized, just to get the wounded the care they needed and to… to clean out the… bodies. The bodies of the people we had been trying to protect, the people we had saved, before Isaac… Bile rose up in my throat, and I had to take three quick steps to the thing that we had figured out was a trash incinerator. The foot-wide hatch at about waist height slid open as I leaned over to throw up in it. It wasn’t the first time, and wouldn’t be the last.
Sands was there, hand on my back as she helped me straighten up once more afterward. Her voice was soft. “Sorry. I–I’m sorry. I was just thinking out loud. I just–I’m trying to figure it out.”
“We all are,” I replied quietly, wiping my mouth as my head shook. “I just… we didn’t know. We just–” Taking a breath, I turned to look at the other girl. She looked as lost as I felt. “They didn’t know. Jazz and Gordon, they didn’t know any of it. I know that much. He would’ve killed them if it wasn’t–” My voice caught a little bit and I had to look away. “If it wasn’t for Professor Katarin.”
Sands gave a quick nod. “I know, I know they don’t. I-I saw them. I just…” Trailing off, she shook her head slowly while closing her eyes. I saw a couple tears. “They died. He died. Professor Katarin, all those innocent… we saved them, Flick.” Eyes opening then, Sands looked to me pleadingly. “We saved them, they were free, and now–now so many of them are just… dead.”
Swallowing hard, I stepped over and wrapped my arms around the other girl tightly, hugging her. “I know,” I whispered hoarsely, barely able to speak through my own tears as the memory of the day before grew overwhelming yet again. Anything else that I’d been trying to say was swallowed by my grief, and it was all I could do to simply stand there embracing the other girl.
We were still standing there like that as the door slid open with a smooth whoosh, revealing Larissa. The woman looked tired, standing there with one hand on the doorframe. “Girls,” she whispered. Her mouth opened like she was going to ask us how we were feeling, but no words came out. In the end, all she did was move over to where we were, pulling both of us to her.
I didn’t know how long the three of us stood there like that, and it wasn’t the first time that it had happened since everything went wrong. But we all needed it. I held on as tight as I could, shivering as I fought to avoid thinking about those moments. It had been such a short time, not even a full minute. Yet the screams, the sight of those lasers, the… it would stick with me for my entire life. As would the look on Isaac’s face as he had given me that thumbs up in the middle of it. That look… it was the look of evil, the look of a complete and total, irredeemable psychopath.
Releasing the two of us, Larissa gestured to the door. Whatever she did created a dark green forcefield over it. Then she nodded to me. “Tabbris, sweetie, would you come out? It’s safe.”
There was a brief moment of hesitation from the Seosten girl, and I quickly gave her a silent bit of inward encouragement. It’s okay, Tabs, I thought to her, go ahead. We’re still right here.
So, she did, stepping out of me in a brief display of energy and light before it faded to show the girl herself there. She stood for only a second before Larissa picked her up from the floor, pulling her into an embrace. “Hi there, brave girl,” she whispered while holding Tabbris close to her chest. The other girl wrapped her arms and legs around her, holding tight to Larissa.
If Sands was jealous, she didn’t show it. Instead, she just gave me a brief look before stepping that way to embrace both her mother and Tabbris, just like when she’d first met the Seosten girl.
And this time, I joined in, moving to hug onto the others. My little partner was squished between the three of us. But she didn’t seem to mind. I heard her make a soft noise of surprise, head lifting to glance over her shoulder to me with eyes that were wise beyond her years. Then she closed them before lowering her head to Larissa’s shoulder once more, giving a soft murmur.
It wasn’t the first time that Tabbris had been out since everything happened. The night before, when I had finally tried to sleep (or at least rest some) we’d locked the door and set up an alert spell that would tell us if anyone came near. Then Tabbris had stepped out of me and the two of us had simply cuddled in bed like that, with the younger girl tucked in against me as I held onto her. Maybe it was a little bit of a risk regardless of our precautions, but it had been something we’d both desperately needed. I wasn’t sure that I would’ve been able to sleep at all otherwise. After everything that had happened, everything that the two of us had seen, we just needed it.
Eventually, Tabbris whispered something about being tired. She gave Larissa one more squeeze before reaching out to me. As I took her hand, she disappeared once more. I ‘felt’ her resume her place inside me, her presence by that point as reassuring as a warm blanket.
“Come on, girls,” Larissa finally announced while giving us one more squeeze. Her voice was tender as she stepped back, gesturing to the door. “I know it’s hard, but you need to eat.”
“Eat?” Sands blanched visibly, head shaking. “How are we supposed to eat anything, when… when…” Squeezing her eyes shut, she shuddered. “How many, Mom? How many died?”
“Fifty-seven,” the woman answered quietly, “counting Ulysses. Thirty-one males, twenty females, and six that count as ‘other’ or both.” As much as she was clearly trying to keep her voice steady and clinical as she answered, I could still hear the utter horror and sadness in it.
Fifty-seven people. I wanted to collapse. My knees shook, and I had to reach out to grab the nearby wall so that I wouldn’t fall. The bile in my throat was back. “They trusted us,” I managed, my own voice sounding hollow and brittle. “They trusted us to protect them, to… to help them.”
“Oh, baby.” Larissa reached out, her hand gently brushing through my hair the way I remembered my own mother doing back when I was a little girl. “You did. You did help them.”
“Not enough.” I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice. Not that I tried that hard. “Not nearly enough.” Shaking my head, I looked over to the woman, trying to push down the worst of those feelings as I shakily announced, “They didn’t have to die. They shouldn’t have died.”
“You’re right,” the woman agreed quietly. “They shouldn’t have. But it’s not your fault. You understand? That goes for both of you, all three of you. Sandy, Flick, Tabbris, it’s not your fault.”
As much as I consciously understood that, and knew that the others did too, it was going to take a lot more time before I emotionally accepted it. Still, I found myself giving a little nod. There was more I wanted to say, more I wanted to ask about what had happened. But it was a conversation that was better had with the others. So I just asked, “How are… the others doing?”
She nodded over her shoulder. “Let’s go find out. Haiden’s bringing them out to get food too. They’ve been… just as broken as you guys are about the whole thing. Probably even worse.”
That wouldn’t surprise me. Isaac had been their teammate, even Roxa’s for a couple months. The idea that he could possibly do… what he’d done, that it had been him doing it, had probably destroyed them in a lot of ways. It had been bad enough realizing what Columbus had done, and he had been possessed at the time. This? This had been Isaac’s choice. Just Isaac.
Together, we left the room and made our way down the corridor to the room that had apparently been the mess hall. It was connected to a small kitchen that had obviously been meant for the ship’s officers to use, and there were several tables set up in there. There had been enough food stored for what had obviously been a relatively small complement of crew to eat well for a couple months. Which meant that it was rapidly dwindling with the number of people we had.
The hatch whooshed open at our approach, revealing Jazz and Gordon sitting at one of the tables. Roxa was standing nearby with her arms folded, head down. Through the open doorway that led into the actual kitchen, I could see Haiden. From the smell, he was cooking some meat.
As we stepped into the room, Jazz glanced up. Her face instantly crumpled, and she looked like all she wanted to do was crawl into a hole. Instead, she pushed herself up, stepping away from the table. When the girl spoke, her voice cracked. “I’m sorry,” she whispered a bit brokenly. “I’m so sorry. We didn’t know.” Desperate tears filled her eyes. “I swear, I swear we didn’t know.”
Without hesitating, I took a few steps that way and embraced the other girl. I had barely known her before all this happened, but after everything… she needed it. “I know,” I announced while hugging her tightly. “We know, Jazz. I promise. We don’t blame you. We don’t blame you at all.”
She resisted at first, clearly surprised before slumping a little against me. I had a feeling she had slept even worse than I had, and she actually needed a lot more rest to begin with. When she spoke again, the girl’s voice sounded even more broken than before. “Maybe you should.”
Larissa took over for me, pulling Jazz into another hug while shaking her head. “Oh, sweetie, no. No, it’s not your fault. We didn’t… none of us understood. None of us knew what he was…” She trailed off, giving a little sigh then before simply hugging her as she repeated, “It is not your fault. It is not your fault.”
“She’s right,” Haiden confirmed while coming out of the kitchen area with a large tray. “Now fuel up. I want to see everyone eating something, okay? It might be hard to keep down, but try. Your bodies need it.”
Numbly, I found a seat while the man put down the tray full of plates of various bits of food. Hesitantly, I reached out to pick up what we had been calling forks ever since we found them. Except these pseudo-forks had six metal tines all arranged in a small circle, and when the ‘fork’ reached your lips, this little tube thing would come up the center to push the food off the tines and into your mouth. With a sigh, I took one of the plates and mechanically started to put food on it. Haiden and Larissa were right, we needed fuel. Even if the thought of eating did make me want to throw up.
“From what we’ve been able to piece together,” the man explained once he was satisfied that everyone was at least trying to eat, “Isaac managed to upgrade the drones for his weapon so that they would fly the ship, and operate the weapons while he was… indisposed by the Heretic kill-reaction. Essentially, they were operating on auto-pilot, targeting anything that moved while following preset instructions about getting the ship away.”
“And now he’s gone,” I muttered under my breath a bit darkly, setting my pseudo-fork down with a heavy sigh. “With that ship in all this space, literally? We’ll never find that son of a bitch.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Larissa intoned quietly, giving Haiden a quick look before the two of them nodded to each other. Then she continued. “We may not be able to teleport to the Liberty Bell, but we do have ways to track it. As long as he keeps the ship, we can find him.”
“And we will,” Haiden added. “As soon as we take you guys and the rest of these Alters to a safe location, we’ll go get him. I promise, he’s not getting away with any of this.”
My mouth opened to say something to that, but Jazz beat me to the punch. “Screw that,” she blurted. “He’s our teammate. Was our teammate. After what he did, after everyone he–” she caught herself then, blanching before giving a violent shake of her head. “You think we’re just gonna sit on our asses somewhere ‘safe’? We owe that son of a bitch. We fucking owe him.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Larissa objected, head shaking quickly then. “Listen to me, guys, I understand. We understand how you feel. None of us know why Isaac did what he did, and I know you want payback. But he’s even more of a threat than he already was. After… after all those kills, with all that power he absorbed, we have no idea what he might be able to do now.”
“He’s unpredictable,” Haiden agreed with a soft voice, “in every single sense of the word. And,” he added a bit pointedly, “we have no idea who else might be with him when we do catch up. We don’t know whether he’s going to the Seosten, or just running. But my gut says he’s going to someone. Like I said, most of those shots from the ship were just automatic. But that first one was purposeful. That was the one that actually mattered to him. He was trying to kill Ulysses.”
Gordon spoke then. Even his eternal calm voice sounded shaken by everything that had happened. “And the only reason to do that would be if he really didn’t want us to hear what Professor Katarin had to say about who this Manakel guy was possessing back at Crossroads.”
“Because he didn’t want Manakel to be taken,” Roxa put in. “Probably because it would’ve exposed… oh.” Her eyes widened with realization at the same time as I felt my own gut sink.
“He killed Paul.” Jazz’s voice was quiet. There was no shock there. I was pretty sure she’d come to the same conclusion earlier. “Isaac killed Paul. That’s how they replaced him. He killed him.”
Sands straightened, glancing to me quickly before speaking. “Which means he probably knows who Manakel is possessing. At least, he might, right?” A tiny bit of hope had crept into the other girl’s voice. “Which means, if we can get his fucking psycho ass back here and make him talk–”
“We might be able to find out the truth, even… without Ulysses,” Larissa agreed quietly. I could tell that this was a conversation she and Haiden had already had without us. “Which is why we have to do this right. We have to get him, and get out of there without losing anyone else.”
“But that’s why we need to be there,” I pointed out, unable to keep silent anymore. “I mean, yeah, it’s personal. But it’s also smart. I mean, look, you wanna grab Isaac so we can make him talk, right? Well, you said yourself there’s no way to know who else will be there. What if Radueriel is there, or one of the other powerful Seosten? What if there’s a whole army? You guys are a hell of a lot stronger and better than we are, for sure. But there’s a reason even the strongest generals use other people too. If you take us, and let us focus on the smaller threats, the ones that could distract you at the wrong time, you can focus on actually getting to Isaac.”
Larissa’s mouth opened, but Haiden coughed. “They’ve got a point,” he muttered, looking to me briefly before nodding. “If Radueriel’s there, we’re gonna need to focus on him. And if he is there, or any of his… comrades, you know they’ll kill Isaac before they let us take him. Especially if he actually has the info we need. They’ll take his head off the second it looks like we might get away with the little bastard. And if it’s just you, me, and maybe Dries? I… I don’t know if we could stop them in time. Getting Isaac and getting out of there with him alive is gonna require a little help.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “And besides, I can possess the fucking psychopath. Get me close enough to touch him, and I’ll let you know every single secret he’s got.”
“Unless he’s affected by the same spell that stopped you from getting the info out of Professor Katarin the same way,” Gordon pointed out simply.
I shrugged at that. “In that case, we’ll just have to drag him back here and have Dries use the same spell he was going to use before, only on Isaac. Either way, we’ll get what we need, whether he likes it or not.”
“And we want to help,” Jazz put in. She was looking to the two adults pleadingly. “Please. Please. We need to help. After… after what happened, we can’t just sit here. We can’t just sit on our thumbs. I promise, we’ll do what you say, we’ll follow orders. But don’t just make us sit out. Let us help.”
Haiden and Larissa exchanged a long look, and I was pretty sure they were communicating silently somehow. Finally, the woman slumped a little, heaving a sigh. “Okay,” she announced softly. “Okay, you can help. But we’re holding you to that. You do what you’re told. And we’re going to prepare emergency exit spells. The second we’ve got Isaac from wherever he is, you hit those spells and withdraw, got it? We get him, and get the hell out of there.”
They waited until we all audibly agreed, before Haiden nodded. “Okay then. First, we drop our friends off somewhere… as close to safe as we can manage. Then we go after that little psycho.”
Wherever you are, Isaac, I thought to myself, we’re going to find you. You aren’t getting away with it. You’re going to pay for everything you did, pay for everyone you killed. I swear to God.
You’ll fucking pay.