Sands

Rendezvous 30-05

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“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 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.

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Rendezvous 30-03

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“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.

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Rendezvous 30-02

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“So you really didn’t know she existed until New York?” Sands asked a short while later, as she and I sat on the other side of the bridge. The brunette girl was looking past me, over to where her mother was quietly talking to Tabbris. “That must’ve been pretty… surprising.”

I coughed. “You can say that again. But I wouldn’t have gotten away from Charmiene’s trap without her help. I’d be Radueriel’s prisoner as he took me apart. And you guys would all either be dead, or Seosten slaves. Tabbris… she saved all of us from some pretty bad shit.”

Sands coughed. “Technically, you wouldn’t even have gotten that far without her. If she wasn’t possessing you, there wouldn’t have been anything to stop the Seosten from possessing you back when you were first made Avalon’s roommate. Or earlier. You probably would’ve been Charmiene’s puppet from pretty much the beginning, so she could try to kill Avalon that way.”

I grimaced at that reminder, shuddering a little before nodding. “Right, thanks. Like I said, Tabbris has been helping a lot. Probably more than we’ll ever actually be able to quantify. I…” Glancing toward Sands then, I continued, “From what I’ve been able to get out of Tabbris, Sariel was planning on restoring my mother’s memories back before she was taken back during that whole thing that split up Vanessa’s family and left Tristan banished to the Meregan world. When she found out that Mom disappeared, she knew the Seosten would be after me. So I guess she sent your mom to bring Tabbris to me pretty much right before the… the boat thing happened.”

Sands was quiet for a second, watching her mother and Tabbris with an indecisive look. Then she gave a little nod, sounding thoughtful. “Wow. Our family, your family, and Vanessa’s family are pretty connected, aren’t they? I mean, I’m still not sure exactly why Sariel knows Mom–”

“She was supposed to possess her as a child,” I announced quietly. “They wanted Sariel to infiltrate Gaia’s inner circle by installing her as a child so she could go through Crossroads training. But your mom, she um, she sort of stumbled across some bad guys when they killed someone. Bystander bad guys, I mean. They tried to kill her to shut her up, so Sariel had to show herself. She dealt with them, but Larissa got hurt pretty bad. That’s when Haiden, Vanessa and Tristan’s dad, showed up. Sariel convinced him that she wanted to save your mom, so they took her to the hospital. Then they sorta… bonded and ran away from the whole war.”

Listening to all that, Sands bit her lip hard, her brow knitting into a thoughtful frown. “So the only reason Mom wasn’t a Seosten slave that whole time is because Sariel changed her mind and switched sides. And the only reason you’re not a slave is because she had Mom bring that Tabbris girl to you. It sounds like… “ She swallowed. “It sounds like Scout and me wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Sariel. It sounds like… a lot of things would be worse if it wasn’t for her.”

“It would be.” The confirmation came from Larissa herself, as she and Tabbris moved over to where we were. The woman took a moment to embrace Sands tightly once more, closing her eyes briefly as if to focus entirely on the sensation of actually touching her daughter after all the time that they had been apart. She kept hold of her while nodding. “Pretty much everything would be worse if it wasn’t for Sariel. That’s part of why I’ve been trying to help Haiden find her. Though that might be easier now that he can actually remember her, and both of his children.”

She explained what had happened then, that Vanessa had actually managed to get through to her father by projecting herself into his mind in order to pass the message of where to find us.

“Wait, wait,” I interrupted as a thought popped in my head. “She knew exactly where we were going to be? Like, on this ship? And exactly when? How is that possible? We didn’t even know.”

“Uncle Apollo!” Tabbris chirped. She had been clinging to Larissa’s side until they got close enough to us, at which point she slipped over to stand behind me while the woman had been hugging her daughter. “He, um, he sent the message through Vanessa so they could get here.”

“Uncle Apollo,” Sands echoed flatly, eyes widening as she clutched her mom’s arm. “Does that-”

“Yeah.” I nodded. “That makes Sariel Artemis. I know, I had pretty much the same reaction. Apollo’s the one who had that code, the one that you used to send Radueriel away. He told Sariel about it, and she told Tabbris, just in case we ever got into a situation… uh, like that.”

“That was her?” Sands whistled at that. “Wow, that woman really planned ahead, didn’t she?”

“They both did,” I confirmed. “I guess it ran in the… pseudo-family. But speaking of planning ahead, if Apollo showed up to help Vanessa learn how to project herself and just happened to know exactly where we were going to be, does that mean he’s actually… I mean, he was supposed to be the god of prophecy. Is he… does he have some kind of precognitive ability?”

“Or access to someone else who is,” Larissa pointed out mildly. “But we don’t know. Sariel talked a little bit about him, but all I really know is that he was her partner for a long time. They’re not actually related, but they might as well have been. She… she felt really bad that she turned him down when he asked her to leave the Seosten. It was one of her biggest regrets.”

“So he’s been a rogue Seosten for a long time, and now he popped up out of nowhere to help us?” I gave a low whistle, shaking my head. “He’s got pretty good timing, I’ll give him that much.”

Larissa gave me a tight smile at that. “He did a lot more than just give us the timing and location. Apollo provided the spells that let us transport past the Seosten blockade and take this ship out of their range. There’s no way that we could possibly have gotten to you in time without them.”

“Well,” I announced, “sounds like I owe Sariel and Apollo a lot. I’m not sure how fast the Seosten would’ve come after me without Tabbris around, but–”

“You were fourteen,” the girl herself put in.

Blinking at the girl (it was still kind of strange to see her standing in front of me rather than as a silent voice in my head), I asked, “Err, what?”

“You were fourteen,” she repeated then. “When the first Seosten came to try and possess you, I mean.”

Okay, that derailed my thoughts a fair bit. I stared at her, mouth working. “I–they were–huh?”

The girl cringed a little, looking horribly guilty as she stammered, “I m-mean, um. I’m… I think they were trying to find out if you knew anything about why your mother disappeared. It was a woman. Not Charmiene. She came while you were sleeping and tried to possess you. When it didn’t work, she kept checking for spells around the room and stuff. I could hear her talking to someone about how your mom must’ve found a way to protect you, and that she had no idea why you weren’t with her in that case.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I… did… did they try again?”

Tabbris nodded. “A few times. They tried to use some spying spells and stuff like that, but I got rid of them. I… I’m sorry, I had to use your body to do it sometimes, I’m really, really–”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” I reached out, taking the girl’s arm to pull her into a hug. “You saved me, partner. Why the hell would I be mad about that?”

Tabbris started to stammer something to that, but Larissa held up a hand. “The others are on their way ba-”

In mid-sentence, the hatch slid open and Roxa stepped inside. “She’s right,” the blonde girl confirmed. “They’re coming back. The way they’re moving, I’d say you’ve got thirty seconds.”

“Right.” Nodding, I turned to hold a hand out to Tabbris, who had moved to get another brief embrace from Larissa. “Hop back in, partner.” I was stressing that word a lot, because I wanted the girl to understand how I saw her, and that I wasn’t just saying it. “Sands may be pretty great about this, but I’m pretty sure we should still keep you secret from the others.”

She did so, catching my hand before disappearing from sight. I felt the by-then familiar sensation of the Seosten girl possessing me and settling back into place. A sensation that, honestly, I was pretty sure Tabbris was purposefully making me feel as a physical indication of her presence. Either way, I was far more comfortable with her there. I may had only been consciously aware of Tabbris for a pretty short time, but being without her still felt wrong. As much as she had worked hard to keep her thoughts and feelings from influencing me too much, the fact was that we had been together for years, and her being gone made me feel incomplete. Hell, by that point, I was already accustomed to having silent conversations with her about everything we were seeing. The past two weeks had been made infinitely easier with her.

Sands was watching me closely. “You… you okay?” she asked, clearly feeling uncomfortable.

I smiled at the other girl, trying to be reassuring. “It’s still me, Sands. It’s just me, like I said before. Tabbris is here, but she’s not actually controlling me or anything. She just… helps, a lot.”

She nodded at that, just as the hatch opened once more, letting Gordon and Isaac step in. The two of them glanced around briefly, the former quietly asking, “Is everything okay up here?”

“Okay?” Sands echoed, grabbing her mother’s arm tightly before holding onto it. “My mom’s here, dude! How could things get any better? I mean, besides if we actually had a way to get back to Earth, or knew how everyone back there was doing, or weren’t being chased by an entire universe-spanning evil empire that wanted to dissect us or turn us into their personal meat puppets. Or–yeah, okay, I guess there are ways it could be a lot better. But this is pretty good!”

“Where’s Jazz?” I asked, blinking at the boys as I realized that she wasn’t coming in after them.

Isaac shrugged, nodding over his shoulder absently. “Still down with the killjoys in the hold.”

Gordon shook his head at his teammate before correcting, “She’ll be here soon, with Jokai. They’re getting everyone settled in down there. We found a room full of blankets and tarps, so they’re setting up some kind of camp.” Pausing, he added, “It’s what they’re accustomed to. And since Jazz can see through walls, she’s helping them look for anything else useful for that. Karees is there to translate.”

I wanted to ask the boy about where he’d gotten the incredibly strong cold immunity or whatever it was that had let him simply tank that ice orb back on the planet. But somehow, now didn’t seem like the right time for it. Instead, I just nodded. “I guess they might as well get comfortable. I mean, what exactly are we gonna do once we actually get to Professor Katarin and Mr. Moon?”

“Get you all home,” Larissa replied flatly. “Your orb wasn’t broken, so it should be possible to reprogram it to send you back. Trust me, Haiden and I have done a lot of research on them over the years. I’m pretty sure we know those things as well as the people who made them.”

“You know we don’t actually have those now, right?” Isaac cut in. “I mean sure, we had them before. But they disappeared as soon as we got sent to this complete ass-end of the universe.”

Larissa nodded. “Yes, Isaac. They would have been left back on Earth. And if I know Gaia at all, she has them. We just need to wait for Vanessa to contact Haiden again, and pass instructions back through her about how to reprogram the orbs to summon all of you guys back to Earth.”

“Wait, no.” Sands turned, her eyes widening at that. “Us? What about you? You’re coming back with us. Mom, you have to come back with us. You have to come back with me, and see Scout. I mean, I know Dad is a–I know what Dad did before, but you… you can’t just stay out here!”

“Oh, baby.” Larissa reached out, pulling her daughter up against her in a tight embrace. I could see tears in her eyes. “I’d never… I…” She breathed out, hugging Sands even closer. “I can’t abandon Haiden, or Sariel. I’d be a slave if it wasn’t for her. Sarah would be dead if it wasn’t for her. She saved Sarah from the Fomorian. She saved me from the Fomorian and from being a Seosten puppet. I can’t just walk away from her now. I can’t just abandon her, or her husband. Haiden’s still looking for her. Whatever’s going on with Sariel, wherever she is… I think it’s bad.”

Mama… I heard Tabbris whisper in my head. She sounded sadder than I had ever heard her. No wonder the two of us were so in sync. We both desperately wanted to save our mothers from completely impossible situations, while they were being held prisoner by sadistic monsters.

Don’t worry, I assured the girl. Like I said, we’ll help your mom. You and me, partners.

Larissa continued. “She never told me the whole story about her situation, about where or how she was imprisoned. But from what we’ve found out, from what we know, it’s…” She swallowed hard. “I love you, baby. My Sandy-witch. But they need me too. I can’t walk away from that. But I promise, that doesn’t…”  She cringed visibly then. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to–”

“Mom.” Sands lifted her chin, her voice hoarse from all the emotions she was clearly feeling. “I know. I’m not… I’m not gonna accuse you of abandoning us or anything. I’m not about to… to scream and throw a fit. You’re right. Sariel’s done a lot for you. And… and for Scout…. Sarah. She’s done a lot for everyone, and now she’s in trouble. She’s in really deep trouble and she can’t help herself. So,” she gave a shrug. “Let’s help her. Let’s go get her back. Together.”

Larissa’s mouth opened, but it was Isaac who spoke up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What’re you trying to sign us up for now, exactly? Cuz I think we are about done with our quota of impossible heroics. Have you seen all those now-former slaves in our cargo hold? Big damn heroes time is over. We are clocked out and it’s time for us to get the hell out of this place.”

“Then you can go!” Sands snapped sharply at the boy, her glare making me glad that the girl didn’t actually have laser eyes or anything. “No one said they couldn’t send you back when the time comes. You don’t want to be a part of this, then don’t be a part of it. But shut up about it.”

“Sandy.” Larissa’s voice was gentle as she took her daughter’s hand. “The boy’s right, this shouldn’t be your problem. You already have a lot to deal with, and you’re students. You’re–”

“We’re not just going to walk away,” I put in. “Sands is right, we owe Sariel too much for that. Maybe we won’t be much help compared to you guys, but we can still help, even if it’s just a bit.”

Gordon, who had been quiet through the entire exchange to that point, finally spoke. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to make sure that there is a way back, and then go from that point.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed, giving her mother a look, “and also make sure that you have a way back too. Gaia reverse engineered the Meregan portal thing just by waving her hand before. Even if these are different, she’s gotta have a way to use the banish-whosits to pull you back with us.”

Larissa gave her daughter a little smile, reaching out to stroke her hair. “You have grown up so much,” she murmured. “I…” Her eyes blinked rapidly before the woman shook her head. “I’m sorry I missed so much. I just–” Choking a little, she looked away, pulling Sands close to her. “Yes, we’ll talk about it when the time comes, and decide exactly what to do then. You’re not little children anymore, so I won’t treat you like it. But you are my child. I love you, Sandoval.”

“Mommy.” Sands’ voice was a choked whisper, and she grabbed onto her mother again, losing herself in another hug. I had a feeling that was going to happen a lot. And I couldn’t really blame her at all. Hell, if it was my mother, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t let go for days, if not months.

Kissing the top of her daughter’s head reverently, Larissa paused like that for a few seconds before a slight frown knit her brow. Opening her eyes then, she carefully asked, “What did you mean when you said that you know what your dad did before? What exactly do you know?” As she spoke, the woman glanced briefly in my direction, her expression unreadable.

“Uh.” Coughing, I gestured. “Maybe we should go meet up with Jazz and Jokai, huh? This is kind of a private conversation, and we might be able to help down there. The sooner we get everything sorted out, the sooner we can get this show on the road and get out of here.”

Roxa quickly agreed, and we walked out with Isaac and Gordon so that Sands could talk privately with her mother about that situation. I was sure that Larissa would want to talk to me about it too (and meet with Tabbris again). But for the moment, it was best to leave them alone.

“So what’s in these side rooms?” I asked as the four of us walked back down the corridor, glancing at the hatches lining either side. “Did you have a chance to look yet?”

“Mostly crew quarters, the kitchen, some kind of exercise room, that kind of thing,” Gordon explained. “There aren’t enough beds for all of those guys, and apparently if they don’t all get a bed, none of them are willing to take one. When we left, they were trying to convince the elderly to take the beds, but it wasn’t going very well.”

Sighing, I opened my mouth to say something about that. Before I could, however, a voice caught my attention. We came around the corner to find Jazz, Jokai, and Karees. The three of them were sorting through a couple metal crates that they seemed to have pulled out of a nearby room.

“A bird can fly,” Jazz spoke slowly, enunciating carefully.

At first, I thought she was giving some kind of code that I wasn’t familiar with. But then Karees carefully spoke a few words in Latin, which Tabbris translated as meaning the exact same thing. Subsequently, Jazz repeated those words, getting the pronunciation just slightly wrong before Karees corrected her. She said it right the second time, looking toward Jokai as she said the words in Latin, then English, then Latin again.

Jokai, for his part, said it in Latin, then very slowly enunciated, “A… bard… cane… fly.”

Jazz giggled, nodding. “Close, uh, what was… paene? Close. Paene. Bird. Brrrduh. Bird. Can. Caaahhhnuh. Can.”

Jokai was slowly nodding. “A… brrrrduh… canuh… fly. A bird… can… fly.” He put his hands side by side in the shape of wings, flapping his fingers demonstratively.

“You know,” Isaac spoke up then, interrupting them. “You could just learn Latin from a book.”

Jazz gave a guilty start, stepping away from Jokai and Karees before coughing. “I–what’s going on?”

“It’s okay,” I insisted, giving Isaac a dirty look for a moment. “We were just giving Sands and her mom some space and figured we’d see if you needed any more help.”

“Oh, um.” Jazz gestured over her shoulder. “They’re about to send some people up to take the cots and stuff down for the elderly or sick to use. We managed to convince them to do that much, but they still refuse to use the rooms themselves. They just want to stay together in the cargo hold.”

Roxa nodded beside me. “It’s gonna take them a while to stop thinking like slaves.”

Nearby, Isaac grinned at Jazz. “Hey, I bet you and Gordon here can really sympathize with this whole ‘free the slaves’ movement, huh?”

The other girl and Gordon exchanged looks before Jazz replied in a flat, purposefully obtuse voice, “Well, sure, being on a team with you is pretty hard sometimes, but we soldier on.”

Before Isaac could say anything else, I quickly changed the subject. “If we’re ever gonna get to that rendezvous, we should probably let Jokai get the ship going.” I silently asked Tabbris to translate what I’d just said for the chameleon-man himself.

He agreed, and I started walking back to the bridge with him while the others helped get the bedding and other supplies taken down to the cargo hold. We talked a little bit on the way there, mostly about his friends from this ship who had been murdered by the Seosten who blamed them for his own orders. After a bit of back-and-forth, I realized that the piece of shit in question had actually been the Seosten who was killed by Sands back when she saved me from his ambush.

Good. I was glad that we could be certain that he was dead. And from his reaction when I told him, Jokai was pretty happy about it as well.

So happy, in fact, that as we stepped onto the bridge to find Sands and her mother there, he immediately moved to tearfully thank her. A thoroughly embarrassed Sands (once his words were translated) just mumbled about how she had just been trying to help me. Jokai kept insisting that he wanted to do something in return for her, and Sands finally asked him to show her what he did to fly the ship.

Once I had translated that with a little help from Tabbris, Jokai gave an immediate agreement before quickly ushering her over to the main controls so he could get started.

Isaac spoke up then, his eyes on Larissa. “Hey, what’s stopping any of those Seosten creeps from just teleporting onto this ship the same way you did?”

“First,” the woman replied, “I knew exactly where the ship was at the time, precise coordinates. And second, most ships are warded against people teleporting directly onto it. This one’s not because, well, it’s just a mining ship. But the one that Haiden and I… liberated, for example. We put so many wards on that thing that even we can’t get on it with the shields up. We’ll just have to teach you guys how to ward this ship the same way, to be safe.”

“Speaking of spells,” I put in then, “Since our Alter friends down in the cargo bay are all together, and we have a couple days, we can teach them the anti-possession spell. I–” Realizing something, I spun to look at Larissa. “Err, do you use that spell, the one that Gabriel Prosser taught us that drives out a Seosten if they’re possessing the person it’s used on?”

The woman’s response was a little smile. “Well, not exactly. You see, during our last… encounter with the Fomorian back on Earth, Sariel managed to do something that makes me look and feel like I’m possessed, even though I’m not.”

She went on to explain about what she and Haiden had apparently taken to calling the ‘dibs spell’, which essentially did exactly what she had just said, made her register as being possessed whenever anyone tried to possess her. Even better, between the two of them they had managed to find a way to duplicate that effect onto first Haiden, then Professor Katarin. The initial effect was still centered between Larissa and Sariel, but Haiden and Katarin copied the effect to render themselves immune to being possessed as well.

When she finished, I had to stare at her along with everyone else, all of us shocked. “Um. Does that mean…”

“We’ll teach it to you, and to the others,” she confirmed. “Better to have redundancies and teach everyone as many different ‘screw the Seosten’ spells as we can.”

Well, that was going to be… super-fucking useful. Nodding rapidly and eagerly to that, I spoke up. “Good, great. Awesome. Sounds like something to get extra credit on.”

Larissa started to move with her daughter then, only to pause and look back at me. “Felicity,” she started carefully, “I do have one question. These people keep going on about how you can do what the Seosten do to them, how you can possess the Seosten and control them. How is that possible? Even the younger Seosten have a pretty good defense against that. You would’ve had to absorb the powers of… of dozens of them to even have a shot at it.”

“Dozens,” I replied hesitantly, giving the woman an awkward shrug. “Or maybe just one really, really, really old one?” When she continued to stare at me, I coughed. “Yeah…

“Maybe I should start from the beginning.”

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Rendezvous 30-01

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Transporting an entire massive ship to some completely different part of the galaxy was an unbelievably impressive feat, for sure. There was no doubt about that. But honestly, I was pretty sure that in that particular moment, Larissa Mason would have teleported an entire continent out of her way without blinking if it had been standing between her and her daughter.

Staring at the woman now, I could see Sands and Scout in her. She wasn’t very tall, or imposing. She was quietly pretty, the same way they were. Not a bombshell, but more… classically attractive. Her eyes were green, with little flecks of brown in them that matched her hair. She wore what looked like dark gray cargo pants full of pockets, and a brown leather jacket of some kind.

“Sandoval,” she breathed out, more emotion filling that single word than I could have put in an entire book. Her eyes widened, and then she abruptly flung herself that way. Sands had time to make a choked noise before her mother hauled her up, and the two were embracing tightly.

“Mom, Mommy, Mom,” Sands was openly sobbing as she clung to her mother. Her words were pretty much babbling. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t–I didn’t go. I didn’t go with you, I’m sorry. I should’ve gone, I should’ve gone with you, I could’ve been, I’m sorry, Mommy, it was dumb and I was trying to sleep but I wanted to go, I’m sorry, I wanted to see the whales, Mommy. Please, please.” At that point, the girl simply dissolved into completely incoherent stammering that itself faded quickly as she just held tight to her mom, burying her face into the woman’s shoulder.

“Oh, baby. My baby. Sandoval. It’s okay.” Holding her little girl close, Larissa kissed the top of her head and rocked her a little. “I’m here, my girl. My little Sandy. I’m here, I’m right here. I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you. I’m here, my sweet little girl.” She kissed her daughter’s head again, nuzzling her tenderly. Both were crying.  

Maybe it should have surprised or confused me, at least a little bit, that the woman knew exactly which one of her twin daughters she was holding so quickly even after being separated from them for about seven years. But somehow… it didn’t. She was their mother. She just knew.

Turning away to give them a little bit of privacy, I tried not to think about my own mother. My mom. What was she doing right then? It had been months since I’d even been able to talk to her, and that had been through her monkey-figure. And before that, it had been… a sharp pang hit my stomach, and I gave a sharp shake of my head. Focus, Flick. Don’t be jealous. I was happy for Sands. Happier than I could possibly explain. Hell, she had spent most of the intervening years thinking that her mother was dead. To be reunited like this, it was… beautiful.

A voice said something beside me, and I looked over quickly to find Jokai there. Not that it was super-easy to see him, considering his skin kept taking on the coloration of his surroundings.

Biting my lip, I hesitated for a moment before asking inwardly, Hey, what did he say?

Oh, um. I could hear the emotion and longing in Tabbris’s voice. She missed her mother too. Hell, she had probably missed Larissa herself. H-he’s asking if he can go and tell the others that we’re safe for now, that we escaped. And that we should leave the mother and girl-child alone.

Smiling faintly, I gave him a little nod before holding up a hand for him to wait. Looking to the others, I announced, “We should probably check all those rooms we bypassed on the way up here. Unless…” Tabbris, translate for me, please? To Jokai, I asked, “Can you use anything up here to check how many living things are on the ship and see if we missed any guards?”

The response came quickly, and Tabbris translated. He says he already did that. It was um, it was one of the first things he did once we got up here, because he wanted to know if his people were about to be ambushed so he could warn them. He wanted to make sure they were okay. Oh, and he also turned off the ship’s security measures. The ones we didn’t destroy anyway.

From the look on the man’s face, he felt guilty about all that, like he was afraid that I would be angry with him for checking on his friends, or for turning off the security without being told to. As if it mattered what I felt. Shaking my head at that, I gave him a little smile that I hoped would manage to be reassuring. “Good,” I replied firmly. “Good job. See, that’s how we work together.” The words came from my brain in English, but by the time they reached my mouth, Tabbris translated them so that the chameleon-man could actually understand what I was saying.  

“Okay,” Isaac put in, arms folded over his chest as his three drones slowly revolved around him. “So for those of us who are out of the loop, that’s Sands’ and Scout’s formerly assumed dead mother, right? What the hell is she doing all the way out here, and… does that mean we have a way to get home now? Also, where the hell are we right now, and how far is it from those assholes? Oh, and while we’re at it, did she really just teleport an entire fucking spaceship and everything on it? Cuz I would really like to sign up for whatever god damn class teaches that.”

“It’s not a class, sorry.” The answer came from Larissa Mason herself, who stood there with her daughter’s back pulled tightly up against her front as she watched us. “Actually, it’s not something I could have done on my own. Not with the time frame that we were working with.”

Sands, clinging tightly to her mother’s arm, managed a confused, “But… but M-Mom, how are you here? How did you know to come, and how did you find us? What–what’s going on?”

“Oh, baby.” Brushing her free hand back through her girl’s hair, Larissa kissed her forehead. “It’s a long story. Let’s start getting everyone on the same page. I promise, I’ll explain everything.”

She looked to Jokai then, speaking briefly in Latin. Tabbris translated. “Sir, my name is Larissa Mason. I promise, I mean you no harm. This girl is my daughter, and these are her friends. I came to save them, but I am very glad to see that they have helped you and your people.”

After a brief hesitation, Jokai introduced himself, then repeated his request to go and talk to the other former prisoners to let them know what was going on. His voice was clearly nervous about talking to the adult Heretic, but he pressed on anyway, referring to her as Decanus Larissa.

Decanus, Tabbris whispered to me, it’s… it’s a rank in the Seosten military. A Decanus is the leader of a group of ten soldiers, a dec. They’re um, they’re basically like sergeants. I could still hear the longing in her voice. After so long away from her mother, seeing the woman who was supposed to have been pretty much another mother-figure to her before her disappearance had to be hitting Tabbris almost as hard as it was hitting Sands herself. It was obvious that she really, really wanted to reveal herself to the woman, really wanted to talk to her so very badly.

Don’t worry, Tabbris, I privately assured the girl. We’ll get a chance to talk to her. You’ll get to see her and let her know how you are, I promise. Let’s just find out what’s going on now, okay?

She hesitantly agreed, sounding embarrassed that I had picked up on just how badly she wanted to talk to the woman. By that point, Larissa had finished speaking with Jokai, telling him that his scans had been correct and that the ship seemed to be safe enough for him to go and talk to the other Alters. She told him to let them know that we would be in transit for a few days.

“A few days?” Isaac suddenly put in once Gordon, standing nearby, had translated the meaning. “Where are we going? Can’t you just… you know, poof us to wherever we need to be? Actually, we already teleported once. How come we’re not already where we need to be?”

Shooting the boy a look, I coughed before pointedly putting in, “I think what Isaac means to say is, we know that Professor Katarin got sent out here with you. Is he… is he close? Is he okay?”

The woman gave me a brief, searching look. Her expression changed for just a brief second as she met my gaze before getting herself under control. “Yes, Ulysses is alright. But he’s not here. We… “ She paused, considering her words. “When we got the message that you needed help, and where you were, there wasn’t time to get here normally, let alone with enough power to set off a spell that could transport an entire ship this size. That world that you were on has some powerful shields around it. It took pretty much all we had just to transport one person through with a strong enough mass transport spell to get this ship out of there. The others put everything they had into it. Even then, we couldn’t bring this ship all the way to where we are. We’ll have to go the rest of the way under the ship’s own power. Which, as I said, will take a few days.”

She gave a little smile then, clearly trying to reassure us as she hugged her daughter even tighter against herself. “Don’t worry. Like I said, Professor Katarin is fine. He exhausted himself with those spells, but he and the others should be recovered by the time we get back there.”

Right, so teleporting right past all the Seosten defenses and then transporting this entire giant ship somewhere else in the galaxy wasn’t something that Sands’ and Scout’s mother had done all by herself. It had taken a group effort from her, Professor Katarin, and Vanessa and Tristan’s father. And now we just had to be patient while the ship flew to meet the others. I could handle that, honestly. Aside from the sharp, painful reminder that Avalon and Shiori were still something like billions of lightyears away and that I was actually not any closer to having a way to get back to them, I really did need the downtime after what we had just gone through. Plus, it would give me a chance to talk to Larissa before things got crazy again. And I really needed to talk to her.

Jokai excused himself once more then, heading for the doorway with a brief promise that he would come right back and get the ship going as soon as he had a chance to talk to the others. Larissa assured him that we were far enough away from any Seosten ships that he could take his time, and that she would work on making sure the ship stayed undetected before we set off.

“I’ll, um,” Jazz started before hesitating. “I’ll go with him.” She gave Jokai a brief glance before straightening. “Not because I don’t trust him or anything,” the girl put in quickly. “Just because, you know, I can’t, um, do much up here anyway.” Looking self-conscious, her mouth opened and shut for another moment before she coughed and looked away, clearly uncomfortable.

“I’ll go with too,” Gordon put in. He nodded to his teammate, adding simply, “I can translate.”

Jokai babbled another long thank you, and the three of them started out. After a moment, Isaac shrugged and followed suit while muttering something about knowing how to read a room.

Which left Larissa, Sands, Roxa, and me. Sands was busy clinging to her mother, apparently trying to fit the million conversations that they had missed out on over the past seven years into a single five-minute time frame. I couldn’t blame her. If it had been my mother standing there in person after all this time, I probably would have been an even bigger wreck than Sands was. Hell, I would’ve been surprised if I managed to get coherent words out for the first couple hours.

Roxa stepped over close to me, dropping her voice to a whisper. “She was the one, wasn’t she?” the girl asked quietly, giving me a significant look while Gidget nosed up against my leg.

I nodded, reaching down to rub the cyberform cougar’s head absently. In turn, Gidget butted my hand before squinting at me pointedly. Realizing what she wanted, I quickly told Jaq and Gus to shift out of their weapon forms, before putting both of the mice on Gidget’s back. Before they could take off, however, I held up a hand. “Hey, don’t forget your brother, you guys. He gets to play too.” With that, I passed Herbie to them, letting the mice take the rock before they all went off to a corner of the bridge to do… whatever robot animals and pet rocks did in their downtime.  

“You are one really, really fucking weird girl,” Roxa pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

I shrugged, smiling despite myself. “I know, it’s goofy. But if we just forget how to be silly, if we’re all grr serious all the time, then… I mean, it kind of seems like what’s the point? I can be completely serious when I need to be. I’m not crazy or anything. I know what’s real and what’s not… usually. But in a situation like this, what does it hurt to goof around a little bit? It helps me remember that we’re different than they are. It helps me feel… well, sane. Maybe that’s dumb.”

“No.” Roxa shook her head. “No, I get it. You’re weird, but sometimes it’s good to be weird.”

Nodding, I glanced the other way before murmuring, “We should let Sands and her mom have some time alone. They deserve it.” God, did they ever deserve it. If I had my way, we would have walked off and left those two alone for a solid month before doing anything else, just so they could have the time they needed. Hell, while I was at it, I would’ve had Scout here too.

“Wait.” Larissa spoke up. She straightened, still holding onto her daughter tightly as she looked me up and down a little searchingly. “You’re… you’re Felicity, right? Felicity Chambers.”

“Wait, you know her, Mom?” Sands blurted before realizing. “Oh, from Professor Katarin.”

“And from something else,” her mother replied quietly. “Something that we need to talk about before this goes any further. Actually, there’s a lot that we need to talk about. But this is more important. I need to know if she…” She winced, looking to Roxa. “I’m sorry, this is going to sound unbelievably rude and wrong. But could you excuse us for just a few minutes, Miss…”

“Roxa,” the girl replied easily. “Roxa Pittman. And uh, it’s okay. I kind of know already. But I’ll step out in the corridor anyway, make sure nobody comes back in here while you’re… busy.”

“You know what–” Cutting herself off, Larissa glanced from the other girl to me and back again, her expression searching before her eyes widened with sudden realization. “Oh, my God. You really do know. And you–” She snapped her gaze back to me, taking a step closer. “You know, and you’re okay. She’s okay? She talked to you, and you’re… and you’re both alright?”

I nodded quickly at that. “I know about her. We’ve been talking for a couple weeks now. It’s kind of a long story, but yeah. She’s okay. She’s really… she’s really helped a lot. She’s amazing.”

“Um.” Sands was squinting back and forth at us, her expression completely (understandably) lost. “Could someone throw me a freaking bone here? What the hell are you guys talking about? Who’s amazing? What–how do you know Flick, Mom? How did you–what’s going on?”

Roxa gave me a nod before stepping outside to watch the corridor out there, while Larissa turned her daughter around to face her. “Okay, sweetie, we need to show you something very important. It’s probably going to make you… it’s probably going to scare you. But I promise, it’s alright, okay? Felicity–Flick is just fine. Everything is fine, alright? I promise, it’s okay.”

“But what’s okay?” Sands demanded, sounding just as confused. “I don’t understand.”

“Sands,” I spoke up then, meeting the girl’s gaze. “Your mom’s right. This is probably going to freak you out. But I swear, there’s nothing wrong. It’s me. It’s always been me, and it’ll still be me afterward, okay? Just hear us out, and… okay,” I shook my head. “Literally everything we’re saying right now is probably just making her feel even more freaked out. So let’s just show her.”

Carefully taking her daughter’s arm so that she wouldn’t do anything crazy, Larissa nodded to me. “Go ahead,” she announced, “it’s long past time that we all met face to face anyway.”

Sands opened her mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean. Meanwhile, I focused inwardly. It’s okay, Tabbris. You can come out now. You wanna see Larissa, right?

Y-yes. There was an intense, incredible longing in the Seosten girl’s response. I do. I-I…Trailing off, I felt her nervousness and longing build for the next few seconds until she finally went for it.

Sands was talking. “Would someone please just stop beating around the bush and tell me what–” She stopped in mid-sentence then, as the glowing figure stepped out of me. Her mouth fell open in total and complete shock while she watched the glowing shape resolve itself into the little blonde girl, who stood there nervously shifting from foot to foot.

“Wh-wha–what–” Stammering incoherently for a few seconds, Sands finally blurted, “Your inner child is fucking tangible?!” Her hands flailed briefly. “I mean–wait, no. You’re a… you’re a Seosten. But–but–”

“Sands,” I cut in. “It’s still me. I’m still me. See? All me. This… this is Tabbris.”

“But you–you were possessed?!” I was pretty sure there was almost nothing that could have shocked Sands more in that moment. Nothing, that was, except for when her mother took a knee and held her arms out.

“Come here, sweetie,” she called to Tabbris. “It’s okay.”

That was all it took. The little girl, who had been shifting nervously and cringing with every word that Sands spoke, quickly darted that way. She leapt the last few feet, throwing herself at Larissa, who caught the girl and brought her close into a hug that was almost as tight as the one that she had given her daughter.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” she whispered to the girl as Tabbris clung to her and whimpered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. You’re such a brave girl. Such a brilliant, brilliant brave girl.” To her actual daughter, she explained, “Sandy, this is Tabbris. She’s… Sariel’s daughter. I don’t know how much you–”

“Sariel’s daughter, like Vanessa? I–” Sands stopped. “Never mind. I am so beyond confused and lost right now, but I don’t care. You’re sure she’s okay?” She looked over to me.

I nodded. “She’s definitely okay. She protected us. She helped us. We’d be dead or enslaved if it wasn’t for her. She’s protected us a thousand times over.”

“Then you know what?” Shrugging pointedly, Sands announced, “For now, that’s good enough for me.”

And with that, she stepped over and embraced her mother and Tabbris, hugging onto them both.

There were still a lot of questions that we had to get through, a lot of problems to deal with. I had no doubt that all of this was going to get much worse. We were nowhere near getting home, still lost on the far side of the universe, surrounded by one of the most powerful evil empires that had ever existed. But for this one moment, as I watched Larissa’s reunion with both her daughter and Tabbris, all I could think was one thing.

Everything we have to do, everything we go through. All the pain, effort, and work. Everything, for moments like this.

It’s all worth it.

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Uprising 29-09

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A pair of strong hands caught both of my arms from either side as the portal winked out and the blast from my staff faded. Roxa was on one side, holding my right arm with both of hers, while Gordon had caught my left. A bit to the side, the Alter that I had pulled through with me went stumbling until Jazz caught him to stop the man from falling. It had been close, but we’d made it.

Made it, apparently, to an enormous room of some kind. As the others released me, I took a look around. The place was as long as three football fields set end to end, and equally wide. The floor was black grating, with some kind of red fluid running a foot or so below it, and there were tubes filled with a glowing orange fluid that served as a light source running along the floor about every ten feet. The walls were a dark red, almost black color, with more orange tube lights that ran along near the bottom and along the ceiling. Scattered here and there were huge metal crates about the size of shipping containers, with weird alien symbols all over them. One was open, revealing that it was about half full of glittering silver and blue minerals of some kind.

Right, minerals. Mining. We were on a mining ship. I remembered that. This room must have been some kind of cargo bay or something, where they held whatever they dug out.

“Pardons,” Karees spoke hesitantly, interrupting my examination of the enormous room. When my attention turned that way, I saw that all of the Alters that we’d just brought with us were staring at me. Just like they had been down on the planet below. “We are not out of the danger,” he intoned carefully, clearly trying to take the time to pick the right words. “There are the defenses and violent ones on this ship to protect it from what we are doing now. And the masters will come. It is not… intentions to be harmful rude bad, but if we are all to escape-”

I nodded quickly. “Right, um, where’s the–” Looking around, I spotted the doorway on the far side of the room. “There. Okay, Karees, keep your people here. We’ll deal with the defenses.”  

Jokai spoke up, raising his hand as he said something in Latin while looking earnestly to me.

He says he’s going with you, because he can fly the ship, Tabbris translated, sounding a little shaky herself from everything we had just witnessed back on the planet below. Because there won’t be time to come get him and get all the way to the bridge before the Seosten show up.

Biting my lip, I translated that for the others before nodding. “Okay, come on.” With a quick gesture, I pivoted to head for the doors. “Guys, we need to get to that bridge right now.”

We ran. Roxa, Gidget and I took the lead, with Jokai behind us. Sands and Isaac ran along either side of him, with Jazz and Gordon bringing up the rear. Whatever else happened, we had to keep Jokai safe. Because he was right, he was the only one who knew how to fly this thing.

“It’s a fucking escort mission,” Isaac muttered from behind me. “I hate fucking escort missions.”

I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response. Instead, I just kept going. The doorway from the big cargo bay led out into a corridor. Instead of the grated floor, this one was solid, a dark blue material that looked and felt almost like marble under our feet. The walls, meanwhile, were pure white, with blue trim about a third of the way up, and more of those pipes with glowing liquid for lights near the top. These were white rather than orange, leaving the corridor itself pretty bright.

It was a long corridor, that curved at the far end. All along the way, there were little hatches that led who knew where. But Jokai, who was the only one who actually knew where we were going, kept pointing forward. So we didn’t slow. There wasn’t time to check all the hatches. Not now.

“Flick, left!” Sands shouted. My eyes were already snapping that way, as my object sense registered something appearing there, just in time to see a small ball-like turret finish popping out of the ceiling. Its twin-laser cannons were just twisting around to face us as the other girl shot a ball of webbing at it that clogged the barrels. Before the thing could blast them free, I finished switching my staff into its bow form and drew back an energy arrow. It flew straight at the turret, blowing the thing off the ceiling with a screech of tearing metal.

A second turret had appeared along the right-hand side in that time. But that one was dealt with by Isaac’s trio of floating drones, which essentially ganged up on the thing to blow it away.

Finally, a third turret had popped out of the floor. This one was larger than the other two, more like something that would be manned by someone. Its twin cannons were as long as actual rifle barrels, and the thing was powering up to send a couple shots straight through us.

Or rather, it would have, if Gidget hadn’t thrown herself straight at the damn thing. She knocked it bodily off target, so that the twin laser blasts went up into the ceiling rather than hit any of us. With a snarl, the mechanical cougar bit down on the nearest barrel, snapping it off the turret after shaking her head back and forth like a dog worrying a bone. The barrel crumpled under her teeth before she tossed it aside. Then the second barrel was subsequently demolished under a couple hard slams from her front paws as she jumped up and down on it.

“Good girl!” Roxa called, taking a knee to give Gidget a tiny bit of the affection she deserved.

“Can you send those things ahead to scout?” I asked Isaac once the dust had settled and we were sure that none of us had been hit. “Make sure we’re not about to run into a better ambush.”

He made a face at the question. I got the impression that he didn’t like the idea of sending his weapon so far away from himself when he might need it. “Why can’t the big metal cat go?”

My mouth opened to snap at that, but I stopped myself. I understood his reluctance to send his weapon away, even if he wasn’t exactly that diplomatic about it. “Because your drones are faster, smaller targets, and they can fly,” I pointed out as patiently as possible. “And you can send two of them ahead to scout while keeping one back so it can communicate with them.”

For a moment, I thought that he was going to argue with that and waste even more time, as the boy stared at me long and hard. But in the end, his flat expression melted into a wide grin. “Great,” he abruptly replied as if there was nothing wrong, “just as long as there’s a reason.”

Two of the drones flew forward then, and we kept going. There were several more areas with turret defenses that popped out. But we were ready for them each time. As we continued through what turned out to be a literal maze of corridors, Jokai never hesitated. He seemed to know exactly where we were going, immediately pointing each time we came to an intersection.

Jazz spoke up after the fourth such area, grimacing as she gave a violent shake of her head. “You know, in the interest of avoiding certain cliches, I’m just gonna say that this has been the perfect amount of difficult. Yessiree Bob, all these random automated guns are exactly what I expected to find on this ship, and we are barely making it thr-oh son of a bitch.”

That last part came as a group of figures abruptly popped out of seemingly nowhere. They had clearly been invisible or something, because they were suddenly all around us. There were nine of them, six fairly humanoid in appearance and wearing a blue version of the black armor that we had seen previously, with white accents. The other three were larger and wore no armor, one of them looking like an oversized gorilla with massive arms and fists that were several times bigger than my head. Finally, the last two looked like crocodiles, except they had dozens of legs and a pair of long, scaled arms with nasty claws on the end of their hands. They were all pissed.

The nearest two guards snapped their guns up, even as I caught hold of Jokai’s arm and dove to the side. There was a squeal from the weapons, and a pair of orange energy blasts sailed through the air where we had just been. They collided with the wall, leaving a scorch mark.

In the background, I saw the trio of drones attacking one of the other guards, even as Sands webbed one of the gorilla-thing’s massive fists to the floor. Meanwhile, Gidget was leaping on a crocodile-monster, while Roxa lunged at the other one with a pants-wetting snarl.

Right, the others were doing their part. But I had to keep Jokai safe. And I knew how. Straightening up in front of the guards, I kept myself between them and the former prisoner. “Oh, no, lasers!” I blurted rather unconvincingly, holding my arms out to either side. “Please, whatever you do, don’t shoot me with your lase–”

They shot me with their lasers. Both of the guards that I was facing opened up, firing several more orange blasts directly into my chest and stomach. Blasts which did precisely diddly squat, thanks to Doxer’s power and the fact that I was ready for them. The energy absorption gift that I had inherited from that son of a bitch meant that the lasers barely tickled. I felt their power like a heat in the pit of my stomach, and a tingling in my arms that I needed to get rid of.

So I did. Throwing my hands out, I pictured the energy leaving me. The shots flew back the way they had come, sending the thoroughly surprised guards to the floor with a pair of screams. A second later, I felt the familiar wave of pleasure that made me gasp.

Unfortunately, it was a really bad time for something like that to happen. Another of the guards had come at me with some kind of black metal blade. He had clearly timed his attack for the moment when the Heretic killgasm should have left me unable to defend myself.  

Except, I wasn’t the only one piloting this particular body. While I was briefly distracted by the rush of pleasure, my hand jerked up to snap my staff into place to block the man’s descending sword smacking it aside. The guard seemed completely surprised by my quick reaction, stumbling a bit as he tried to recover. Too late, my staff spun around, and crashed into the side of the man’s head to send him crashing to the floor.

Recovered by that point, I blurted, Thanks, Tab! Then I brought my foot down on the guard’s back while spinning my staff up and around into position. With a grunt, I drove the bladed end down through his neck, turning his cry into a gurgle that was quickly cut off as yet another wave of pleasure filled me.  

That was three of the six humanoid guards down. And as I quickly looked up, my searching gaze found Jazz practically laying atop the body of another one, her sword driven through his head as her aura flared up around her and she panted from the effort. Meanwhile, Isaac and his drones had just dealt with the fifth guard, while Gordon was finishing off the sixth and final humanoid figure with his tommy gun.

That left the three non-humanoid guards. First, there were the two crocodiles, one of which was being torn apart by a vicious Gidget. The thing kept trying to bite her, but she barely seemed to notice, basically throwing herself into its mouth and taking it apart from the inside.

The other crocodile, meanwhile, wasn’t faring any better against Roxa. She had half-shifted into her wolf-form, fur covering over her skin while her face had bulged out. The body of the crocodile was torn open around the stomach, its internal… parts spilling out while Roxa herself kept ripping into it mercilessly.

Which left the gorilla. With a roar, the thing tore its oversized hands free of the webbing that had held it down. It beat its chest twice, then lunged for Sands.

The other girl… suddenly wasn’t there. Oh, she was there, but not in the spot where she had been standing. Sands was abruptly moving almost fast enough to be a blur. She twisted away from the outstretched gorilla hands, spinning to the side before slamming her mace into his face. She connected with enough force to snap the big furry monster’s head backward with a cry. Without pausing, she leapt up, smacking him again before dropping to run behind him. Her mace crashed into the back of the gorilla’s left leg, before she was suddenly around to his right.

Sands wasn’t quite a blur. I could follow every motion she made. But she was faster, much faster than she should have been. Which was especially devastating in these close quarters. And, unless I missed my guess, she was stronger than she should have been as well.

Oh! It’s the boost, Tabbris whispered. That um, that S-Seosten she killed, she got his boost power. She can make herself several times faster and stronger than she should have been, for a short time. She, uh, she probably doesn’t even know how she’s doing it.

Whether Sands knew how she was doing it or not, she was definitely using it. As the gorilla reeled backward and stumbled to one knee, she was back in front of it again. Her mace swept upward, conjuring a metal wall up to about chest-height (her chest, not the gorilla’s). Then she leapt up and over it, landing on the gorilla’s back. I just barely had time to see that there were spikes in the wall before Sands’ forceful collision with her opponent’s back drove it crashing down, literally impaling its neck on the spikes in the wall. Even that didn’t kill the thing, though it did slow it down an awful lot.

And Sands wasn’t done yet. Still crouching on the gorilla’s back, she made a sweeping motion with her mace that made the metal wall she had created extend itself up and around the monster, trapping it by the neck and one arm. It was like the thing was locked in some kind of medieval stocks. It heaved and growled, struggling to break its way free. But before the metal could do more than groan a little, Sands was moving. She launched herself up off the monster’s back, turned in mid-air, and came down with her mace outstretched. There was one last, almost pitiful howl from the thing before the blow landed. Then it was over. The force of the blow against the gorilla’s trapped head had… separated it.

Sands was on the floor, mace lying beside her as her aura flared up once again. She was gasping for pleasure. But there wasn’t time to wait. I grabbed the girl, pulling her to her feet while Roxa picked up the mace. Then we were running once more, with Jokai right behind us. The former slave was babbling something that Tabbris quietly translated as awe for what we had just done. I mostly tuned it out, focusing on where we were going. There would be time to deal with what we’d just done later. For the moment, every passing second was another second where Radueriel could show up. And as well as we were doing with the mooks, I had no doubt that we would be completely screwed if we had to fight him directly.

We hadn’t gone much further before reaching a pair of circular doors, which slid apart as we approached, granting entrance to a room that was immediately obvious as the bridge. Straight ahead was a floor to ceiling window or possibly just a viewing screen of some kind that showed the starfield beyond, with the planet taking up the bottom third. The room itself was shaped like a crescent, or a slightly widened letter C. The screen took up the open space between the two points of the C, while the doorway where we were standing was opposite it, right in the middle of the C’s curve.

In the middle of the room there were three rugged-looking seats, with control panels in front of them. Meanwhile, the walls of the bridge were lined with an assortment of computers and screens, with a several more chairs scattered here and there.

“Jokai, can you get us out of here?!” I blurted, looking to him quickly.

In response, the former slave spoke a single word that was clearly an agreement before darting straight for the middle seat. He practically dove into it, hitting a few buttons before he had even finishes straightening up. The ship came alive around us. I felt a slight vibration beneath our feet as the engines came online. Jokai himself was babbling something excitedly while gripping what looked like a steering yoke to turn it.

The ship didn’t exactly have a tight turning radius. It seemed to groan in protest while slowly coming around, leaving the sight of the planet to face open space.

Or… what should have been open space. Instead, we found ourselves facing another ship. A much, much larger and frankly terrifying ship. The thing was shaped kind of like a giant hammerhead shark, with a slight bulge just behind the ‘head’ where I thought the bridge was. Where the hammer part of the ‘hammerhead’ was, a dizzying array of guns were lined up. Its ‘mouth’ was permanently open, revealing a much, much larger cannon that looked like it could b low our entire ship apart all by itself. And along both fins were open areas where I could see smaller fighter-type craft arranged.

We were all still staring as the screen abruptly changed. Now, taking up half the view was a face. A familiar one.

“Well,” Radueriel announced from what looked like the bridge of his own ship, “I will give you this much… you came very, very close. But the games are over now. There are no more hidden codes to save you. I will give you to the count of, shall we say, four. If you do not surrender, I will cut my losses and remove that ship and everything on it from existence. One–”

“Flick!” Sands was looking to me. “What do we do?”

My head was shaking, even as the others called out similar questions. “I don’t–”

“Two–” Radueriel continued with exaggerated slowness. He was in no hurry to finish us off.  

My desperately searching eyes settled on one figure then: Jokai. He was still sitting in the pilot’s chair. Meeting my gaze, the normally petrified Alter simply met my gaze. He wasn’t shaking, wasn’t babbling. His fear was gone. Not because he wasn’t in danger, but because whatever happened next, would happen on his terms. He might die, but he would not die as a slave. He would die fighting.

“Three–” Radueriel’s voice droned.

“Do it,” I told Jokai, giving him a nod.

Whether he understood what the actual words, or just the intention, I didn’t know. Either way, his hand grabbed the controls, and he started to send the ship forward, toward the massive Seosten battleship (or whatever it was called) ahead of us.

“What the fuck?!” Isaac screamed. “What the hell are you doing?! We can’t fight that thing, just–” He stumbled along with the rest of us as the cannons on the other ship immediately opened up. We were pummeled mercilessly, and I was pretty sure that only the heavy shields and armor that they’d mentioned kept us alive through that first barrage.

It wouldn’t last. That big main cannon was already glowing. One shot and it would completely blow us apart. One shot and we would be dust.

“Four,” Radueriel finished. “As you wi–”

There was a brief flash of blue light, and a figure appeared in the middle of the bridge, right in front of the screen. I barely had time to notice the presence before they dropped to one knee, slamming both hands to the deck with something held tightly in each. A voice blurted a six syllable spell of some kind, and then the entire world went white.

It faded, and the view through the screen was different once more. Radueriel’s face had disappeared, as had the sight of his ship. Not because it was gone, but because we were. There was no planet around us, and the starfield was slightly changed. We had moved. The entire ship had moved.

The spell, the spell that the mysterious, suddenly arrived figure had cast. It had moved the entire ship somewhere completely different.

As I realized that, my eyes snapped toward the person who had just saved us. The figure had risen once more, pushing themselves up from the floor before turning to face us. “Is everyone okay?”

One word met the newcomer’s question, one single, quiet, trembling word that filled the otherwise silent bridge. 

“… M… mommy?” Sands whispered.

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Uprising 29-08

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Well, if all those Seosten slaves/prisoners that we had just liberated were nervous about their situation before, a massive werelion running right into the middle of their impromptu camp while a Heretic armed with a mace rode on her back probably wasn’t exactly helping matters any.

Sands and I had just run for the past twenty minutes to catch up with these guys. Not that it was hard to find them, I just let the other girl hold my little mouse buddy so he could direct her to where his brother was (She’d been smart enough to hand Jaq over to the others so that we could find them later). Then I just shifted into my lion form, let her climb on, and took off.

The place where Roxa, Isaac, Gordon, and Jazz had stopped with the rest of the slaves turned out to be a large clearing that was sort of half covered from the sky by a rocky outcropping. Most of the former slaves were catching their breath, some lying on the ground and gasping for air while others simply bent to grab their knees. They all looked ragged, worn, tired, and scared.

As we came into view, however, all of those exhausted former prisoners were suddenly back on their feet. They looked ready to scatter and flee into the woods until Roxa came running down from atop the rock, calling, “Wait, wait, it’s okay! They’re with us! Gordon, tell them!”

But before the boy could say anything, as he too came down from the rock outcropping, one of the prisoners spoke up. His words were hesitant and a little slow, but understandable English. “We… have understanding of your speaking. We have… very hard trying to learn what they are called ‘trade language’ for if we are ever to be away from the masters.”

Lifting my currently furry head while Sands clambered off me, I looked at the man who had spoken. It was a Relukun, like the one I had killed to get my wood-traveling power. This one looked twisted and ancient, like a gnarled old tree that was about to fall over. Nonetheless, he was standing on his own two feet, and there was a smile somewhere in the wrinkled, wooden countenance. “It was a lost hoping,” he murmured, “but we did not stop it. Or stop learning.”

I think I like him, Tabbris whispered. Can we say hi? Um. When we can talk again. Please?

Trust me, I think I like him too, I replied before turning toward Sands as the girl held my clothes up to me. Taking them in my mouth, I looked over at Roxa. She was already gesturing for me to follow her over to a spot where I could safely change. In the background as I trotted after the werewolf-Heretic, I heard Sands telling them what little she knew about what had happened.

As she led me out of the way, Roxa quietly explained, “They’ve been using some magic and powers that they have to hide where we are and erase our trail. It probably won’t stop the Seosten forever, but it’ll slow them down, hopefully long enough for us to get out of here. There’s a few of them making some kind of portal thing now that’s supposed to take us up to one of the ships. We could’ve gone further, but the further we ran down here, the longer it would’ve been before they could start making the portals. I figured this would be far enough.”

I gave the other girl a nod with the lion’s head. She had a point. This wasn’t as far away as most might’ve considered safe. But as big as this forest was, it would still take the Seosten some time to search enough of it. Especially if these guys were using magic to try and keep them away. I had no doubt that the wannabe angels would eventually break through that sort of thing. But in the short-term, maybe it would be enough. It was going to have to be enough.

Changing and dressing quickly (an act that was made infinitely faster and easier since I could just touch an article of clothing, focus on it, and have it appear on my body where I wanted it), I made my way back out to where everyone else was. Sands was there, holding my staff out for me to take. Gus had been reunited with his brother, and the two mice were perched in the middle of the staff. I let them climb up on my shoulders, giving them a little attention before finally looking around the clearing.

Wow. There were a lot of Alters here. More than I could easily count during a quick scan. They were of all shapes and sizes. The majority, of course, were vaguely humanoid. But there were also a few that definitely weren’t. I saw a couple that basically looked like slime-creatures with tentacles, one six-legged bear-man with long rabbit-like ears, and even a few much smaller figures that looked like squirrels mixed with lawn gnomes. Not to mention several centaurs and centaur-like beings that stood near the back of the area, nervously pawing at the ground.

So yeah, there were a lot of people. And all of them were staring at me. Not glancing, not looking back and forth between all of us. They were openly staring directly at me, while not making a sound. Some of them looked scared, but the majority simply looked somehow… awed.

Roxa moved next to me, quietly whispering, “A few of the ones that can fly stayed back long enough to see what happened. They… saw what you did, that you could possess the Seosten.”

Oh. That explained why they were staring. Flushing self-consciously, I cleared my throat before raising my voice to speak up. “Uh, guys, we should really get out of here. The Seosten aren’t gonna give up. We stopped them from contacting Radueriel, but that won’t last forever. Before long, he’s gonna get the message about what happened, and when he does, we’re completely screwed if we’re still here. They’ll send the ships back here to scour the place top to bottom. They’ll probably burn the whole planet at this point to stop us from getting away.”

The elderly, gnarled Relukun who had spoken up before moved forward. He had Jokai with him, and was murmuring something to the chameleon-like being. After a moment, Jokai turned and started talking to the other Alters in Latin, while the old tree-man came to where we were.

“Our peoples,” he started, “they have started the spells which will take all to the starboats. But it will… take more minutes to finish such spells. They are doing the working as fast as they able.”

“They’re up on the overlook,” Gordon informed me, gesturing that way. “Apparently, the spell needs a clear look straight at the sky in order to work properly. I just asked them, and they said it’s going to take at least another twenty minutes to get it set up. If they don’t do it just right, the spell could just fling everyone into the middle of space instead of sending us onto the ships.”  

Isaac blanched noticeably at that little nugget. “Uh, yeah, tell ‘em to take their time and do it right, then. I withdraw any and all complaints I might have made about how long it was taking.”

Nodding slowly, I looked to the Relukun. “Do you think they–” Pausing, I frowned before hesitantly asking, “I’m sorry, could you tell us what we should call you, sir? I’m Flick.”

“Oh, right.” Roxa quickly lifted her hand to gesture that way. “Flick, this is Karees. He’s basically the leader of these guys, since he’s been here the longest. He spent eighty years here on the planet. Before that, he was in a few other slave camps. He’s the one who convinced them to listen to Jokai and the others when they were trying to convince them to leave the camp.”

Smiling a little at that, I nodded. “Thanks. And it’s really good to meet you, Karees. I’m glad you managed to convince the others to take a chance with us. And now I just hope you didn’t misplace that trust and we manage to get out of here without getting everyone captured again.”

The Relukun shook his head at that. “Whether one way or some other,” he announced solemnly, “we will no longer be Seosten prisoners. Our people here will be their slaves for no more again.”

Swallowing, I lifted my chin, deciding to focus on the part about getting everyone out  rather than the implication of what the former prisoners would do if it looked like they were about to be captured. “The ships that Jokai was talking about, it sounds like your people are using a spell to send us up to them? Won’t the other Seosten think of that and be up there waiting for us?”

Karees smiled at me. “We have thinking of that,” he answered easily. “Before leaving prison place, some of us did went to wipe away and break spell transports. They will have to be remaking them. It will take them as far time as it is taking us to be making them up again.”

“Right.” I nodded gratefully at that. “Good to know. So we might just beat them up there after a–wait, aren’t there guards on there already? And a crew? I mean, they’re mining ships, right?”

It took the tree-man a moment to process what I’d said before he answered. “They are being not used right now. There is guards and crew, but only very few, just enough to keep ship stable.”

“A skeleton crew then,” Isaac put in. “Possibly made out of actual skeletons, for all we know.”

Ignoring the boy, I murmured, “So we should be able to take one then. Will all your people fit on one of the ships? And can you guys fly the thing, because we haven’t covered that class yet.”

“Jokai,” Karees replied with a nod toward the younger man, who was apparently trying to comfort some of the more frightened people. None of them could really stop staring at us, but a few were doing so with looks that made it clear that they thought we might be just as bad as the people they had just escaped from. They were beaten down, oppressed, and rightfully suspicious of anyone who came claiming to offer some kind of help. Especially when that help came from people they only recognized as Heretics.  I just hoped we could change their minds.

“He and his… shackle-mates,” Karees continued, “were taught to work the ships under guard.”

“Shackle-mates,” Jazz echoed, having approached while we were talking. “Does that mean they were imprisoned in the same cell together or something? Or that they had work detail together?”

Karees nodded his ancient, gnarled head, looking a bit like a tree that was bowing against powerful wind. “It is both,” he replied. “Jokai and his shackle-mates were lived together, trained together, worked together.” His face twisted a bit as he finished quietly. “They were… friends.”

Catching his look, and the phrasing that he used, I hesitantly asked, “Were? You say that like…”

“Jokai’s shackle-mates were killed,” the Relukun confirmed. “During one training mission, when Jokai was taken for other things. The Seosten who trained them to handle ships insisted that they should mine area they should not. Ship was damaged very badly. Seosten blamed prisoners, and Jokai’s shackle-mates were executed.” His face twisted a little in grief once more before the old man quietly added, “That is why Jokai ran away, why he risked escaping. He chose to rather be dead than be slave anymore, and took one chance at escaping there.”

I cringed at that, but it was Jazz who spoke up. “You mean they killed his friends just because they did what the Seosten told them to and it went wrong? But that’s–that’s…” She worked her mouth, standing there staring at Karees for a moment while apparently unable to find words.

“It’s wrong,” I finished for her. “That’s why we have to get the rest of them out of here. Right?”

The other girl didn’t say anything at first. She just kept staring at Karees for a few seconds. Then her eyes moved to look at the other Alters. I watched as her gaze passed over them, almost as if she was seeing them, really seeing them, for the first time. Her eyes seemed to widen as she took in the sight in total silence before finally looking back to me. “Yeah,” she replied softly, voice cracking a little bit even on that single word. Then she dropped her gaze, staring at the ground.

I wasn’t going to push any further than that. I’d seen her reaction. That was enough. Instead, I looked over to the others. “So basically, we just have hope that we get up to those ships before our friends back there either get up there themselves, or manage to contact Radueriel.”

“How much damage did you do to their communications?” Gordon asked then. “The Alters who stayed behind to watch what happened, they were saying that you broke them pretty badly.”

I nodded at that. “Yeah, I shot them up pretty bad. Hopefully they won’t be able to patch them together too soon. Guess we should just be glad they don’t have anyone who can make the jump out to Radueriel’s station instantly. Or that they’re not–” As the next thought came to me, I frowned abruptly. “Wait, why exactly wouldn’t they just go to that building we came out of when we got here, the one with the portal directly onto the station, or any of the other portals?”

Karees answered. “When our peoples destroyed spells that would take Seosten masters to the starboats, they also did the same for spells that would take them to other places on world. They will be having to go on feet or with the volucercarrus. But either will not be immediate as spell.”   

“That’s what they call those hover-bike things,” Roxa put in before I could ask. “Volucercarrus.”

The Relukun nodded once more. “For quicker, some have taken to call them v-carrus at times.”

“V-carrus,” I echoed, sounding it out for myself. “Almost sounds like vicars.” Looking up at that, I smiled despite myself. “I think I like that one. Vicars. Easier to remember than volcanocarass.”

“Okay, one,” Sands put in. “Volcano-car-ass is not hard to remember. But volucercarrus is.”

“So vicar it is,” I replied with a thumbs up. “The vicars, how long will it take them to get there?”

Gordon was the one who answered. “It took us four days hiking. Figure something like five miles an hour, hiking twelve hours a day, that’s sixty miles. Four days would make it two hundred and forty. I was talking to some of the other prisoners, and it sounds like the v-carrus can do about three hundred miles an hour. But that’s over open ground, not through trees and hills. Even if they sent someone immediately, it’ll probably still take them most of an hour to get there.”

“They were focused on me first,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So the earliest they would’ve sent them was when I took off, which was about…” I looked at the watch on my wrist. “Forty minutes ago. You said it’ll take twenty minutes to finish the portal spells, and that’s about how soon any vicars they sent could make it to Radueriel.” Hissing a little, I shook my head. “It’s gonna be really close. Really, really close. We’ve gotta get up there, take over the ship, and book it.”

“Book it?” Karees was staring at me with obvious confusion. “You wish to record these events?”

Forcing myself not to giggle to avoid making the guy feel bad, I shook my head. “Sorry, I mean ‘go’, we need to go very quickly as soon as we get up on that ship, before Radueriel shows up.”

“Our people will ‘book it’ as soon as we can,” he announced in a deeply solemn voice before reaching out to touch my arm with his wooden hand. “We thank you, for everything you have been doing. Some of ours may not know if you are to be trusted. But we know what you have done, what you have risked to free us. That is not something that we will just lose our minds of.”

Swallowing a little, I met the man’s gaze as he squeezed my arm. “I promise,” I started while moving my other hand to rest on his arm, “we’re not done. We’re getting everyone out of here.”

True to his word, it wasn’t that much longer before the Alters up on the outcropping called down. From Tabbris’s translation, they were saying that the spells were ready, but that we had to hurry.

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” I muttered before realizing that none of the Alters down here were moving. Instead, they were all still staring at me. There were a few whispers going around, but for the most part, everyone seemed to be waiting to see what I was going to do.

Karees spoke up from behind me. “They have seen what you do. They have seen your power, seen you do what the Seosten do to the Seosten. They have seen you master the masters.”

“I’m not–” Stopping myself, I breathed out. “I just got lucky and managed to kill one of their really powerful people, that’s all. If Charmiene hadn’t left herself open like th–”

The whispering was louder now, and even Karees couldn’t stop himself from interrupting. “Pardons, Charmiene? What of the Nemesis?”

“Nemesis?” I echoed. “That’s what Radueriel called her. Wait, wasn’t that one of the–oh.”

The Relukun nodded. “Charmiene the Nemesis, you… you are saying that you… that she is… that… that you…” There was emotion in his voice, as he stared at me.

“I… my friends and me, we fought her,” I replied slowly. “One of my other teammates, he hit her hard, stunned her long enough for me to… to kill her.”

Karees slumped hard then. At first I thought that he was falling over, and quickly moved to catch him. But he straightened after that immediate slump. And when he stood that time, it was like a weight had been lifted from the man. “The Nemesis is dead,” he spoke in an awed, hushed voice that cracked. There were what looked like tears in his eyes. Then he raised his voice louder, calling, “The Nemesis is dead!”

Someone else further back repeated the shout. Then another, and more. Soon, they were all saying it, all repeating the same thing. The Nemesis was dead. The Nemesis was dead. They said it over and over. There were tears everywhere.

As I stared around in confusion, they came forward. Karees was first. He stepped over to me, his gnarled, wooden hands taking my shoulders before squeezing. I blinked up at his eyes, seeing the tears there as he announced. “My girl-child, my girl-child resisted. The Nemesis killed her, killed her man-mate, their boy-children and girl-child, my next-children. When my woman-mate cried and begged for her to spare our next-children, our child’s children, she was killed. The Nemesis killed my all. You–you have killed her. You are–”

By that point, he was too choked up to speak, his mouth simply opening and shutting repeatedly for a few more seconds before he released me. Which was when more of the Alters came forward. They were all talking, all trying to thank me. All talking about what Charmiene had taken from them, who she had killed. The old Seosten hadn’t personally hurt everyone there, but she had hurt enough of them. Dozens kept trying to get closer, kept trying to tell me how grateful they were either for themselves or for people that they knew.

“Guys, guys, wait, wait, we need to go,” I kept trying to insist. “Thank you, I–I can’t–I’m glad that–guys, really, we need to–”

“Seosten!” The shout came from atop the outcropping. As everyone jerked that way, we saw a figure leaning over the edge, pointing off into the distance. Every head snapped that way, and I heard the sound of the hoverbike/vicar engines.

“Go!” I blurted, turning to the others. “Get up there, go, get everyone to the spells. Now, go!”

There was a shout from the other side of the group, before Roxa raised her voice to yell for everyone to get up to the portals. Gidget, bouncing from foot to foot beside her, made a loud growling sound of agreement. Then the rush began. It was actually better than I expected. The former slaves didn’t trample each other, didn’t shove one another out of the way. But they were definitely in a hurry.

Making sure the rest of my group was with me, I watched the sky while trailing after the escaped prisoners. We made it up to the top of the outcropping and found four large portals sitting there. They were vaguely violet in color, and I could see some kind of room on the other side of them. Beside each of the portals were several Alters pointing their hands at it. From the strain on their faces, it was obvious that it was taxing to maintain them. Still, they were trying their best, keeping the portals active while their fellow escaped prisoners started streaming through.

“Go!” I blurted, giving Roxa a shove. “We don’t know what’s on the other side, if we send them through and they get wiped out by all the guards there, we won’t–”

I was interrupted by the sound of those engines growing deafening, and whipped around just as a dozen vicars come into view. Each was carrying two riders, and they did not look happy.

The shooting started almost immediately, as some kind of weird, high-velocity metal shot from from both the front of the vicars and from the weapons held by about half of the riders themselves. It wasn’t the same thing as bullets. It was more like a rail gun or something. Tiny bits of metal accelerated so much that they punched straight through anything they hit. The other half weren’t using guns. Instead, they sent things like fireballs, scalding water, and more. The air was filled with incoming death.

Roxa was running, for a few steps anyway before Gidget finished transforming into her hoverboard form to carry the girl up to the portals.

One of the Alters that was passing by me took one of those metal projectiles right in his arm, shearing the limb right off. But he never broke pace. The lure of freedom was too strong, and he kept right on running. As my head snapped that way, taking in the sight of his severed arm, Sands shouted my name from somewhere off in the mob of running figures.

Shots were coming everywhere. I saw Alters going down, bodies piling up even as the rest struggled to make it to the portals. Three shots took down one of the people who were holding the portals open, and the rest failed to maintain it. That portal flickered out of existence, leaving only three left.

Screaming, flying metal, fire, deafening engines, sobbing, smoke, all of it and more filled the air. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t do anything but stand there as chaos and destruction reigned. Roxa, who had been right beside me, had been carried off somehow by the mob. Wherever Sands was, I couldn’t see her. All around me, there was nothing but running figures, and the death that chased them from the sky. In just those few seconds, over a dozen of the prisoners that we had saved went down, falling to the ground, never to rise again. They were cut down literally inches from freedom. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could hear Tabbris crying.

Light suddenly filled the side of my vision, and I snapped my head that way in time to see a truly massive ball of ice coming straight for me. The freezing orb had to be at least five feet around. The ground beneath it as well as everything that got within a few feet of the thing ended up completely frozen. I saw a running figure pass too close to the frozen ball, only for half of their body to end up turning to ice. That only lasted for a moment before their frozen half shattered, like an icicle that had been dropped.  For a half-second, an instant, I was caught flat footed.

Abruptly, another figure shoved his way right into my path, knocking me to the ground. I looked up, and saw Gordon. The dark-skinned boy had pushed me down, and now stood over me. He was turning, dropping down into a kneeling position as he wrapped both arms around me. I found myself pulled up against the boy and held there just as the frozen orb collided squarely with him. Things got cold… really cold. But I didn’t freeze.

Then it was gone. Gordon was standing, pushing himself up with a slight grunt. As I stared up at the boy, he looked down at me, extending a hand. His voice was as calm as ever. “We need to go.”

I let him help me up, turning. Most of the Alters were through by then. The ones who were still alive, anyway. But there were also only two portals still active. And as I watched, another went down. One portal left. Beside it, Jazz and Sands were there, waving for us to hurry.

We ran. Gordon and I sprinted that way, even as more rail-shots from the flying bikes kept blowing apart the ground all around our feet. I felt the heat of the shots, as they kept getting closer. We weren’t going to make it.

Except fuck that. My arm snapped out to wrap around Gordon, even as I pointed my staff behind us and toward the ground. Triggering the charge that had built up, I sent us flying far ahead, leaving the shots behind just as they would have converged with where we had been.

The portal was there. We landed, and I saw Sands take a quick step forward. As the vicars that had been flying right on our heels came screaming closer, she held up both hands. A spray of sticky webbing shot from them, and I snapped my head back that way in time to see the drivers of each of the two hovercycles that had been closest take a glob to the face.

An instant later, the webbing burst into flames, and the drivers screamed while veering off. They crashed into one another, leaving a massive explosion there in midair. All four of them, drivers and passengers alike, were killed instantly.

Sands collapsed, a cry of pleasure escaping her as the pink aura flared up. Instead of waiting for her to recover, I grabbed the girl by the arm and yanked her up, giving her a shove toward Jazz. “Go!” I shouted. “Take her through!”

She did, taking Sands around the waist to pull her through the portal. As Gordon followed, it left me and the three Alters who were holding the portal open. One went through, dropping its size by about half. The remaining two struggled to keep it open. Looking to one another, some unspoken communication passed between them, and one hopped backward through the portal.

One left, and the portal was down to about the size of a normal doorway. Ahead of us, the remaining vicars were on their way, coming in for another strafing run. We only had a handful of seconds, if that much.

The last Alter looked to me, shouting something that I didn’t need Tabbris to translate as an order to go through and leave him.

“Yeah,” I replied flatly, “that’s not happening.”

Reaching out, I caught him by the arm, while holding my staff straight ahead in the direction of the incoming Seosten troops. “Get–” I started while triggering the boost. It sent me flying backward through the portal, yanking the last Alter with me. As he was torn off his feet, the portal itself started to wink out.

We passed through at the last instant, leaving the planet and Seosten troops behind with my last word.

“–fucked!”

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Uprising 29-07

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Please note that there was a mini-interlude focusing on Vanessa and Tristan (with a bit of a surprise at the end) posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

So, taking stock. I was in the middle of the Seosten slave camp. Something like a hundred troops were scouring the whole place looking for me, including flying overhead. The few Seosten themselves who were there would clearly stop at nothing to have me either killed or captured after I had shown that I could do to them what they did to everyone else. And I had no way of getting out of the camp without revealing myself to the dozens and dozens of beings that would dogpile me the instant I appeared, before I could actually do anything useful like escape.  

But on the bright side, at least I was pretty much acing that whole ‘distract all of the Seosten troops so they let the slaves escape instead of chasing them’ thing. With any luck at all, they would all be long gone by the time this situation resolved itself. I just had make sure that ‘resolving itself’ part didn’t end up involving me either dead or a Seosten slave. Somehow.

Some of the guards were walking around with strange-looking flashlight devices that gave off a pale red beam. They were shining them everywhere as they scoured the camp, and I could see more of the same crimson lights coming off the hoverbikes gliding slowly by overhead.

Any idea what those red light things are?  I asked my partner after watching them for a moment. Because I’m kind of getting the sneaky suspicion that they detect stealth powers somehow.

I–um, I’m not sure, the response came slowly. Mama didn’t mention them exactly. But she did talk about stuff that could make invisible things not invisible. Maybe that’s what they are?

Maybe, I agreed. Either way, they don’t seem to be affecting us right now. The lights already hit us a few times and none of them reacted or anything. So we’re safe as long as we don’t move.

The other girl’s response was a pointed, But they’ll call for Radueriel as soon as they fix that thing, and he’ll probably have a way to find you. Plus, you can’t just stay here forever, anyway.

You, I noticed. She kept saying ‘you’ instead of ‘we’ or ‘us’. Tabbris was still so accustomed to keeping herself out of the situation and being a completely unseen presence that she kept instinctively not counting herself in things like that. Which was… yeah, we were gonna have to talk about that. We were going to have to talk about a lot of things, whenever there was time.

You’re right, I replied, we can’t just stay here forever. But we’ll have to time and plan it right. We don’t get a do-over. Once we pop out of here, they’ll be right on us. We won’t even be able to hide in another bit of wood, because they’ll see it happen that time and we’ll be sitting ducks.  

Wait, the response came a second later, I think you can do something else besides sit here.

She told me what her idea was, and I felt myself smile a little bit (despite the fact that I didn’t really seem to have a physical body at that particular moment). Yeah, you know what? I’m pretty sure that the Seosten are gonna get really sick of me using their own tactics against them.

Good. The response from Tabbris was unusually firm, even a little vindictive. They deserve it.

Again, we were going to have to talk about a lot of things. But for the time being, I watched as the troops continued to search for us, waiting for the right moment. I needed one of them to come closer at a time that others weren’t actively looking in the same direction. Which was tricky, especially with the ones that were flying overhead. The timing for it had to be just right.  

So we waited, and waited. Nearby, there were several guards working on fixing the machine that I had shot up so that they could call for help. But from the sound of things, it was gonna take them awhile. Which the nearest Seosten wasn’t happy about. Even without Tabbris translating, I could tell from his tone that he was chewing them out pretty thoroughly. If I hadn’t known any better, I might have said that he actually sounded nervous. Funny how that worked.

Still, no one seemed to be in any hurry to come close enough to the fence post that we were occupying. This was taking entirely too long. Even if they couldn’t get the intergalactic telephone working again, I had no doubt that one of the Seosten would know a spell they could use. Once they got over the initial search and effort to fix the machine, they’d go for the magic solution. So for every minute that passed, we kept getting inexorably closer to Radueriel showing up.

Finally, however, we got a little bit of a break. Unfortunately, it was two guards that approached and stopped near the fence that I was occupying, rather than one. Still, I braced myself and watch both of them with bated breath, ready for the first possible opening.

There! The guard who was nearest to the fence was looking at the building where the communications equipment was being restored, while his partner had his head turned around the other way to stare up at one of the nearby guard towers. They were still right next to each other, but they weren’t actually looking at each other. And there were no hover bikes overhead. That was going to have to be good enough. In that moment, I really wished that I had Shiori’s power that told her when she was being observed. Actually, I just really wished that she was here. I missed her. I missed both of them, Shiori and Avalon.

No, had to focus. Without waiting another second, I started to extend myself out of the fence. As I emerged, I quickly grabbed the nearest guard by the wrist while using the possession power, and felt Tabbris helping at the same time.

I was in, seeing through the guards I even as his gaze finished snapping down to where my hand had been on his wrist. I felt him in the back of my mind, struggling against my control. But it was even less than the Seosten’s resistance, barely a spray of water from a hose against a brick wall.

Beside us, his companion was turning away from his study of the tower while asking something. Tabbris immediately translated in near-real-time.

“Did you see something?” the other guard asked. From his voice, he sounded a bit nervous. I wasn’t sure how much of that was fear of me, and how much was fear of what his masters would do if they didn’t find me. To be honest, it was probably weighted about ninety to ninety-five percent in the latter direction. I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t want to be in his position.

Trusting Tabbris to translate my words way she had before, I started to respond. I told the man that there was nothing there, and then asked him if he thought ‘they’ were really still in the camp.

In response, the other guard grunted something about how bad it would be for all of them if I had escaped. Lifting his red flashlight device, he gave it a slow pan around the area. Despite myself, I braced a little bit as it passed over me. But nothing happened. Which, I supposed made sense. As much as the Seosten depended on being able to possess their troops, I really doubted they would hand out a bunch of ways to identify them.

Uh huh, Tabbris agreed. Mama said that the Seosten have been unified and working together for so long that most of them can’t even conceive of the idea that they might actually have to defend against their own abilities. She hesitated a bit then, before adding, That’s what the regular Seosten think anyway. Mama said that she thought that the ones who did show any kind of, you know, resistance to the way things were got taken away somewhere so they wouldn’t ‘infect’ anyone else.

There was a lot that I wanted to say to that, but we had to focus. So I looked down at the flashlight thing in my hands and access the guards memories briefly to see how to activate it. Turning it on, I swept the beam around before pausing as it hit a corner of the nearest tower down near the base. “Hey,” I spoke while nudging the guard next to me. Again, my partner translated my voice. “Did you see that?”

The man’s head snapped that way, and he stared intently for a moment before shaking his head. His hand was already reaching for something on his belt as he replied, “Better call it in anyway.”

Quickly, I made my host shake his head while hissing, “Are you crazy?” When he stopped to look at me, I continued. “What if there’s nothing there? Do you want to be the one who calls them over with the mood they’re in? You think they’ll just laugh it off if they think we distracted them for nothing?” With that, I started to walk that way, gesturing with the pistol that the man had been carrying in his other hand. “Come on, watch my back. We’ll check it out, then call it in.”

Walking that way, I led the other guard over to the tower. No one was paying attention to us, since they were all so intently focused on searching for… well, me. The tension in the air was obvious, and I was pretty sure that it wasn’t because these guys were afraid of what I might do.

Leading my guy over to the base of the tower, I stepped under it and into the shadows. There was a bush there, and I took a knee while making a big show of peering under the bush. The whole time, the other guard kept asking increasingly nervous questions about whether anything was there. He also mentioned more than once how close we were to the edge of the camp.

“Wait,” I muttered, then leaned in to pantomime grabbing something. Keeping my hand closed into a fist, I turned while staying on one knee to hold the hand up toward the other guy. “Think they dropped this?” Then I opened the guy’s hand only a little bit, deliberately keeping a couple fingers in the way so that he couldn’t see that my hand was actually empty.

With an annoyed grunt, the other guard reached out to push my fingers away, telling me to let him see. As my host’s open and empty palm was revealed, I made him smile (though it was hidden behind the mask). “Oops. Guess it escaped.” Then I abruptly grabbed his wrist while telling Tabbris, Now!

Two things happened simultaneously then. First, the Seosten girl knocked out our current host after wiping out his memory of the past few minutes. At the same time, I shot upward out of the body, my actual hand replacing his on the other guard’s wrist. Then I was inside of him, looking down at the first body as it fell collapsed right back into the bush that I had positioned him near. Since he was already kneeling, it barely made a sound.

And just like that, I was in one guard’s body while the other had been knocked out and hidden away. Sure, it wouldn’t be long before the body was found (I had the sneaky suspicion that this whole thing had started because someone had found the last body I left in some bushes). But it didn’t need to. The cat was out of the bag now. We just had to get out of here. And honestly, them finding an unconscious body with no idea how it got there might work in my favor.

Right, under the tower so I was hidden from its sight, and no one was looking directly at me. Time to just slip away into the forest and disappear. Unfortunately, turning to step that way, I heard a steady humming. At first, I thought it was just a bit of ringing in my ears. But Tabbris quickly told me to stop.

I think it’s a forcefield, she whispered. They probably put it up to make sure you couldn’t get out.

Slowly, I turned back to look at the camp. Raising my gaze up a bit, I replied, Those hoverbikes are going in and out of it. So the field must not extend all the way up. Maybe I could drop this guy and staff-boost myself over it.

But we don’t know exactly how high it is, the other girl pointed out. And all those guys will be right on you the second you do that. Those um, those hoverbikes’ll run you down really quick.

She had a point. I might be able to boost myself over the forcefield, but even if I did, we’d have a dozen different hoverbikes right on our tails within a couple of seconds. It just wasn’t feasible.

Instead, I kept looking around the camp. Everything still looked the same. There were guards searching everywhere, hoverbikes overhead, Seosten barking orders as they strode back and forth, some technicians trying to fix the communications computers…

I’ve got another plan, I announced with a slow smile. But it might be a little crazy.

A little? Tabbris’s voice came back. I can, um, you know…  read your mind, remember? It’s not a little crazy, it’s a lot crazy. Like, um, the Mount Vesuvius of crazy.

Hey, I replied, remember when we did that report on that in eighth grade and made that working replica with all the little Roman houses? Dad stayed up all night with us like three days in a row to get it done in time.

There was a brief hesitation, and I felt the Seosten girl’s conflicting emotions at my words. Your… your dad really wanted you to do well on that project. He loves you a lot.

He loves his family, Tabbris, I reminded her. And as soon as he knows you exist, you’ll be his family too. You already are. You’re my sister. So you’re family. Got it? We’re in this together.

Again, I felt a rush of tumultuous emotions from the girl before she answered with a soft, Got it. So, um… If she had been physically present, I was pretty sure she would’ve been crying right then. Or at least sniffling. Time for the Vesuvius idea?

Time for the Vesuvius idea, I confirmed. Without wasting another second, I made our current host start walking back the way that we had come before.

We reached the middle of the camp, where two of the Seosten were standing. One was the guy from earlier, the one Tabbris had tricked into not checking out the tower when we had been sneaking our way in. To put it mildly, he seemed to be in a bad mood. Not that his companion was any happier. They were both shouting orders, demands that I be found or the entire camp would pay for it. As the single guard that we were possessing approached, both of their attention turned to us, and one of them asked if we’d found anything.

Wow, I started, you were right, they are not good at defending against their own tactics, are they?

Nuh uh, came the answer. Like Mama said, most of them can’t even consider the idea that they might have someone use their own powers against them.

Well, they were going to learn the error of that kind of assumption pretty damn quick, if I had anything to say about it. With that in mind, I made our host start nodding to the men as they blurted their demands. Raising the hand with the red flashlight, I used it to point back the other way. For just a second, the two Seosten glanced that way, instinctively looking the way I was pointing.

And then I used the guard’s gun to shoot the nearest one five times right in the middle of his chest. It turned out that this thing was a laser gun, firing out tiny orange balls of light that tore into and through him before he even knew anything was wrong.

He fell, collapsing to the ground with a look of shock. At the same time, a rush of pleasure flooded into me and I saw my aura flare up around our host. It wasn’t anything like when I had killed Charmiene. But still, I only kept moving because I had been bracing myself for it. Even then, I still staggered a bit.

His partner, the Seosten we’d seen earlier, was already snatching some kind of weapon from his belt. But it was too late. Tabbris sent us out of our current host, and I threw myself that way while he was still trying to get the thing up.

My staff was in one hand, but I didn’t swing it. Instead, after hitting the button to make it start charging up, I actually released the staff while throwing myself bodily into the Seosten.

Again, just like before, it worked. I was possessing him. This guy was even stronger than the last one. I felt his rage, even heard him making threats. Given enough time and focus, he might’ve been able to wrest control away from me for short bursts. But we weren’t going to give him that kind of time. Nor would we let the other remaining Seosten (whose locations I could sense through that connection they had) get to us.

Instead, I made his hand snap out to catch my abandoned staff before it could finish falling. Then I looked around quickly.

Yeah, we had an audience. Shooting the first Seosten had attracted everyone’s attention. There were more guns pointed at me than I could count. Yet they didn’t fire. They didn’t dare fire. Their entire society was built around constantly serving the Seosten. Entire generations stretching back as far as they could remember had been serving the Seosten. The very thought of actually shooting one of them was probably close to impossible for them to even consider, after how much had been put into making them practically worship their masters.

So they hesitated, and I took advantage of that. Using the man’s fingers, I hit the button on my staff. The charge that had been building up released itself in a burst that sent us flying straight up, right at the nearest hoverbike. Its rider, who had been aiming down at me, was already jerking back. But it was too late. Just as we collided with him, Tabbris activated not my possession, but the Seosten’s.

And then we were there on the bike, possessing the man who had been riding it. Or to be more specific, Tabbris was possessing me, I was possessing the Seosten, and the Seosten was possessing the rider. How many more levels of this could we find a way to add?

Maybe I’d find out someday. For the moment, I simply let Tabbris take over, because she was better and faster at the next part. She instantly scanned the memory of our most recent host (the biggest pig in the Jekern pile, so to speak), checking for the controls. Then she grabbed the hoverbike’s handlebars, hit something with the man’s foot, and we were suddenly gone. The bike took off so fast it made those Formula One racecars look like they were standing still. She punched the gas (or whatever this thing used), and the bike shot straight out into the forest, engines screaming.

The other hoverbikes would be right on our tail. But we had the advantage, since we’d caught them by surprise. And since we were on the same kind of vehicle instead of on foot, they didn’t have that advantage. For the moment, we were out of sight.

In my head, the Seosten we were possessing growled a deep, You will burn for this. You cannot comprehend the force that will be brought down on you. We are the Seosten. Our rule is unchallenged and our vengeance unimaginable.

Yeah? I replied simply, Well as a great smuggler once said, I can imagine quite a lot. And for the record, things are changing. You might wanna buckle up. As Tabbris moved the man’s hand to snap something off the controls, I added, No, seriously, buckle up.

And with that, I threw myself backwards out of both the driver of the hoverbike and the Seosten himself. The speed that we were going at when I jumped off would’ve made me pretty much splatter into a fine paste, but I had timed it so that my body went straight for the nearest tree. A second later, I merged with it, even as the sound of the hoverbike disappeared off in the distance. Barely a handful of seconds later, a dozen more bikes went tearing off after it, having no idea that they were passing us by.

That thing you broke, I asked once the crowd of pursuers was gone, you sure it’ll stop him from turning that thing around any time soon?

Uh huh! Tabbris chirped. D-definitely! I promise, I made sure. And um, it’s bit. The last part came very quietly, like she was embarrassed to say anything.

Bit? I echoed, confused.

Han Solo, she quickly put in. He said he could imagine quite a bit, not quite a lot. I’m sorry, I just–it was… umm, I… really like Han Solo. He’s… he’s my favorite.

Aww, I replied, Now I know what movies were gonna watch with Dad as soon as we get back.

The bikes were gone by that point, so it was time to leave. Sending myself to the bottom of the tree that I had thrown us into, I stepped out of it while announcing out loud, “And I think I’ll call that whole possessing someone who possesses someone else the Choo Maneuver.”

“Good name.” The words came from my left, and I jerked that way to find a figure standing there. One of the remaining Seosten. He was too far back for me to grab, and from the expression on his face as he held his gun leveled straight in my direction, I was pretty sure that if I moved, he’d just shoot me and be done with it.

It took me a second to recognize that he had spoken in English, without Tabbris’s translation. And he’d understood my words. His smile was thin. “You have given us quite the scare. I would kill you now, but the rest must see you die. They must see it for themselves and know that your threat is ended as soon as it began. You are–”

And then his head basically exploded. It burst like a melon, as a familiar spiked metal ball appeared where it had been. A second later, an equally familiar pink aura flared up, and I heard a loud gasp of pleasure.

“Really?” Sands demanded once she had recovered. “You thought I’d just abandon you on your say-so? Do you have any idea what Avalon would do to me if I did that? Sorry, Chambers, but she’s scarier than you are.

“Now let’s get the fuck out of here.”

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