"Initial hostilities…none. They're surrendering without a fight, sir."
"That's great. Do a complete sweep of the ship and then report back."
"Will do. Out."
"Well, that's the easiest boarding action since…ever, I think," said Zean to Axe and Aaron. "The captain is a smart man."
"If the man is anything like his father," said Aaron, "then he is not, just stupid."
"You know his father?" asked Zean.
"Well, know and know," answered Aaron, "I've fought him more than a few times, if that's what you're wondering. He is quite incompetent."
"Tell that to his son's face, maybe we'll see some action," drawled Axe. "Joking aside, though," he said, "maybe we can persuade him to reveal some secrets?"
"Obviously," said Aaron. "Perhaps we can even 'liberate' that FTL-drive of his…it would be very useful."
"Unless that infiltrator ruined it," added Zean. "Won't do much good if it's a melted pile of metal."
"One thing at a time," said Axe, "we need to find the psychic."
"You're right," said Zean. He pressed a button on the command chair that linked him to the marines onboard the enemy ship. "Sergeant, any sight of the psychic?"
"Not yet, sir, we've encountered slight opposition on the hangar deck. They've killed some of us, but we gave 'em hell right back!"
"What about the command deck? Is it secure?"
"Affirmative, sir. They've sealed off the bridge, but we've got men working on the problem as we speak. It shouldn't be long before they're through."
"Good. Report as soon as you find the psychic, bridge out." He turned to Aaron and Axe. "I think it's time for a walk, what say you?"
"I say we go," said Aaron and took the lead.
"Why am I not surprised?" asked Zean when they approached the bandaged form of Olly, the suspiciously perky Dellie and a frighteningly smiling Lex at the embarkation deck. A bridge had been stretched between the rebel and Imperial cruisers, allowing a large number of troops to board the enemy ship. A silent, imposing-looking group of marines assigned as Zean, Axe and Aaron's bodyguards stood silent in a corner, observing their surroundings with experienced looks and mannerisms that had clearly become instinctual by now. Why they were so suspicious of the area around them at that moment was something none of them were interested in asking about.
"Believe it or not," said Olly, "but despite that the kid elbowed me in a certain valuable place, I still don't like someone being forced to go somewhere against their will." Olly made a gesture that, if proper ladies were present, would be considered quite obscene. Dellie and Lex being the way they were, they didn't count.
"The mentioned 'value' of that place being very discussable," said Dellie, giggling at Olly's red face.
"And you?" Zean asked Lex, who glared at him.
"I'm not allowed to come along just because you're a captain now? And here I thought I was special…"
"No, no, I didn't mean it like that," apologised Zean, "I was just…that is to say…well…" He grew more and more flustered, annoyed with himself for not being able to explain very well.
Lex kept listening to his bumbling, winking discreetly at Axe and Aaron, who both let out groans and looked away from the embarrassment that was an experienced captain trying to take on the force of nature that is unanimously agreed by men everywhere to be impossible to beat: Women. After a few seconds, her face softened and white teeth peeked out from behind the full lips in a dazzling smile.
"Relax, Zean, I'm just messing with you. Shall we?" She held out an arm, gesturing for him to take it.
Zean, a natural sceptic when it came to women, carefully took it in his own, looked helplessly at the other two commanders before the door opened. The bridge that connected the two ships shifted as the miniscule movements of both ships were magnified. Far at the other end, they could see two rebel marines standing guard outside the entrance to the Imperial ship. It was strange to walk through the bridge and know that the only thing keeping them away from the space outside was some glass and metal thinner than the hull of the rebel fighter ships.
The sight greeting them on the Imperial ship was, arguably, a pleasant one. Enemy soldiers and crewmembers stood lined up against the wall, although some were sitting down, the rebel guards only making sure they weren't doing anything threatening rather than forcing them up against them. Not a single bullet hole, blood splatter or spent shell casing. The Imperials had surrendered right away when the rebels entered their ship.
A corporal holding a bunch of rifles in his arms approached them, dropping the rifles in a large pile that lay close to the exit hatch. He then turned to the party. "Captain Ejil, Captain Rubilar, General Mar," he said and saluted, "if you'll come with me, please, we're just about to breach the doors to the bridge.
Following the corporal, Zean discreetly leaned over to Axe. "The bridge has doors?"
The hallways of this ship were about the cleanest and most orderly Zean had seen so far. Even Isaac's ship hadn't been this organised, but that also made the horrible, orange colour stand out far more than it did on the others. Compared to this, Isaac's ship's interior may as well have been jet black. On the way, they passed dozens of crewmembers, all of them very unhappy about being captured by the enemy, but it was always a relief to see that not a single shot had been fired. Zean had had enough death for a while, and the way this boarding action had gone was the best outcome he could have imagined.
When the elevator doors opened, they saw that the marines were taking no chances when it came to taking the bridge. The heavy steel doors that had lowered from the ceilings were rigged with all manners of explosives, some of which Zean recognised and some of which he didn't. All he knew was that when they lit the fuse, the door would not even have time to say "bye-bye" before it would be vaporised.
The party was herded behind a temporary blast-shield that had been erected as far away from the bridge as possible. Zean suggested that they should take cover in one of the side rooms, but the marines would have none of it.
Are they trying to impress me? Or maybe Aaron or Axe…
"Prepare for breach!" shouted a marine holding what must have been the detonator. He positioned his fingers over several buttons after hurrying behind the blast-shield, telling everyone to hold their ears. He started counting down. "Ten, nine, eight, seven…"
Then something unexpected happened. The blast doors suddenly made a huge racket, sliding upwards and disappearing into the roof, taking the explosives with it. The marines took up positions along the walls in case the bridge crew and their captain wanted to take a last stand, but the only thing coming out of the brain of the ship were unarmed officers and engineers holding their arms in the air. The marines who were not busy securing the prisoners hurried inside, quickly scouring the bridge for any hidden threats. Zean and the rest followed.
An engineer with short, buzz-cut hair and glasses stood in the middle of the bridge, holding a gun to the head of a man dressed in the uniform of a captain of the Rydan Royal Navy. The captain looked exhausted. The engineer grinned at the newcomers.
"My, my, General, if I knew you were coming, I'd have put on something more appropriate."
Aaron smiled in return. "Ghost, I presume?" The engineer nodded. "I must commend you on your splendid performance and quick response. If you hadn't been able to sneak on board, we would have been in it to our knees."
"My pleasure, General. May I introduce Captain Xoin of the Rydan Roya—damn, Imperal Navy?" He let go of Xoin, who after brushing himself off, went forward and took Aaron's offered hand and shook it.
"The General, I presume?" he said.
"That is correct," confirmed Aaron, "and you are the son of Grodin Xoin. I must admit that you are a bit easier on the eyes than your father, and, judging by your performance during the battle some hours ago, far more skilled in the art of war."
Anger flashed in Xoin's eyes at the insult of his father, but pride could also be seen when Aaron commended his ability. "Thank you, sir, although you may not want to say that in front of him."
"Frankly, I hope I'll never have to see him again, young man, for he is twice as unpleasant to the mind as he is to the eyes. Now, to business. I believe you have something that belongs to us?"
Xoin sighed tiredly and nodded. "I do, and I was kind of hoping you would come here and take him away; he has caused nothing but headaches and annoyance. I'll take you to him since the doors need my voice to open."
As they walked, Aaron and Xoin exchanged pleasantries, though they could see clearly that Xoin's were purely for courtesy's sake rather than earnest, unlike Aaron's, who kept saying how he was impressed at the way Xoin had been able to keep so close to Freepoint 1 without being destroyed.
"I am impressed at your agent's abilities, though," said Xoin, nodding at Ghost, who had come along, presumably to keep an eye on his quarry. "I don't think anyone has been able to do so much damage by sabotage alone, especially without being detected. To be honest, I'm even more surprised he was able to sneak on board my ship to begin with. When did that happen?"
"Since you're now out prisoner and not likely to divulge secrets," said Aaron with a humorous tone in his voice, "I'll tell you. It's a favourite tactic of ours when it comes to planting agents, actually. We like to stage battles with your forces from time to time for this purpose. During these battles, an Infiltrator is hiding on each ship. When you board us and we subsequently beat you back, an Infiltrator steals the uniform of one of your marines and sneaks on board after making sure he won't be recognised or suspected. Then he infiltrates your main ship after the dropship has docked. Of course, it doesn't always work, but that's something we'll just have to deal with."
Xoin nodded, satisfied. "Clever, albeit very basic, don't you think?"
"Why fix something that works?" asked Aaron.
"True." Xoin looked around at the gathered rebels. "Who killed Autia?" he asked.
"Why do you think the person responsible for his death is present?"
Xoin shrugged. "Don't know, I just had a feeling. You're here, and I guess the person who killed Isaac would be celebrated as a war hero and would then come with you." Had the rebels been able to read minds, they would realise Xoin was playing along.
Zean came up next to them. "I killed Autia. I launched the nuclear missile which completely destroyed the ship." Standing next to Xoin, he saw that they couldn't be that far apart in the age department, although Zean towered over the Imperial.
Xoin looked up at him and scanned him over. "I'm not impressed. I thought Isaac Autia's killer would be a bit more…professional," he said and gestured to the loose ponytail Zean had pulled his hair back in so it wouldn't get in the way.
Zean felt his core temperature but kept himself calm. "An accurate observation, captain, but what I do with my hair is not of your concern, and I can assure that I am every bit as professional as you are."
"I do not think I caught your name…" said Xoin.
Not spotting Aaron's headshake, he introduced himself. "Zean Ejil." No hand was offered to him.
"A pleasure," said Xoin. They came to a stop outside an unremarkable steel door looking exactly alike as every other door in that particular hallway. He stepped forward to the controls and pressed a button. He spoke loudly. "Captain Xoin, unlock!" Nothing happened. He tried again, and again. He finally resorted to a tried and tested strategy of his: he punched the panel. Something made a cracking sound, and Xoin yelped backwards, holding his fist in pain.
Zean took a look at the soldiers behind them. "Breach the damn door," he said. The marines moved right away and started mounting small explosives along the edges of the door. The explosives were placed so a large, circular hole would be blown through it since there were no hinges to blow it off of.
Ghost perked up suddenly and stopped the soldiers from blowing the door open. "Let me," he said and started looking closer at the panel. He hm-ed and hah-ed until he quickly pressed a series of buttons. The locks clicked away one by one.
"How…how did you do that?" asked Xoin.
"General override, of course," replied Ghost, flashing another of those oh-so-annoying grins.
Everyone, including the battle-hardened soldiers handpicked to be Aaron's bodyguards, gasped when they saw the interrogation room's insides. Blood covered the walls and floor, small pieces of flesh splattered some places. On the large table in the middle room lay the bloodied, naked form of Larki, gasping and crying. Over him stood a brown-haired teenager with a large, bloody knife in his hands, poised to strike Larki in the middle of the chest.
Xoin was the first to react. Reaching over to Aaron, he quickly unclipped his pistol from his holster, aimed it at Kai and fired one, two, three shots into his head, spraying the insides of Kai's head on the wall behind him.
That was what the others required to start moving. Ghost reacted quickest, running over to Xoin, grabbing the gun from his hands and throwing him to the floor. The rest, excluding the soldiers who helped Ghost with holding Xoin down, hurried into the room. Time slowed down as Zean and everyone else called for medics.
Within seconds, a medical team from Axe's ship showed up and went to work immediately with stabilising Larki, whose heart-rate was indicating he was about to go into cardiac arrest.
Ghost secured Xoin with a pair of electronic shackles. Xoin told Ghost to call for his medics as well, saying they were the best in the galaxy. Ghost did so. The two medical teams were frantically working to get Larki's broken body working again.
Inside Larki's mind, his thoughts were spinning, fighting with all his might against the anger that had overtaken him several times before; the same anger that had wanted him to kill Okin.
Kill them…kill them all!
No…I cannot…they have not done anything…
They nearly killed you, me…they must pay!
Not them…they are innocent…he is dead, the one who did this…
The bastard leader is here! Kill him! Use our power and destroy him!
Obey me, or I will kill you!
If you kill me, you will also kill yourself!
That does not matter! I can feel your anger…pulsing, growing…that pathetic little worm should not have shot your Guardian!
I will…not…let you…loose…
You are fading…when you die, I will be in control, and I shall unleash destruction upon the weak-minded fools! Just imagine what I can do with your body and all this power…
Not…if I…have some…something to…say…
Larki could feel his strength slipping away, and he knew he had only one chance at this. Ignoring the raging voice's screaming, he focused on his Guardian.
One of the medics from Xoin's crew cursed loudly in Rydan to one of Axe's, whose mouth tightened and hands redoubled their effort.
"What did he say?" Zean asked Axe.
Axe turned to Zean with a grim expression. "They're losing him."
Zean looked at the still form on the table.
Come on, kid, you don't want Ira to kill me, do you?
Finding Okin, Larki grabbed a hold of all of his remaining strength and hurled it across the vastness of space. Okin's life was hanging by a thread, and Larki had no idea if it would work or not, but it had to, it just had to! Darkness closed in around him, the raging voice gone and a weight lifted off his shoulders. He felt cold…
Floating silently in the void and waiting to disappear, memories flooded Larki's mind. The strange people who had placed him in the tunnels were the freshest along with Okin's body falling to the floor after being shot.
"It is hard to believe that after so many years, you are finally here," said one of them, the calm-voiced one.
"Yes," said the sadistic one, the man who had clubbed him over the head. "He doesn't look so different from the others, does he?"
"No," agreed the calm one. "Apart from the hair, he would pass for a nobody."
"Excuse me," had Larki said timidly, "but what are you talking about?"
"And he doesn't know, either," cooed the sadistic one, "how convenient."
"Then I suppose he deserves an explanation," said the calm one.
The calm man had the finally stepped into view from behind Larki. He was a corpulent man with a kind-looking face, and he seemed to smile all the time. "Please try to understand what I am about to tell you without asking any questions. We do not have much time, and it's important for you to know this. Do you understand?"
Curious and just a bit apprehensive, Larki had nodded.
"You are not like any of the other psychics produced by your government," he said, "but a very special specimen. For years, Rydan scientists have tried to develop psychics into living weapons instead of just living computers. Telekinesis, telepathy…these were the things they tried to give to hundreds of children who were 'procured' by government officials. They were hoping to produce the new ultimate weapon."
"But it was not possible," said the sadistic man, his voice hinting at great sadness.
"No, it was not. The children…all of them younger than ten, were subjected to horrible experiments to unlock the hidden part of the mind that theoretically controls these things. None of the operations were successful, and few subjects lived past recovery, and those who did were far too mentally unstable to be of any use."
"They were too young," said the sadistic man, his voice cracking.
"It was discovered far too late by the scientist for them to research it properly, and they only had time to prepare one subject before they were shut down by the king for their repeated failures. That subject…is you, Larki. You possess gifts none of the other psychics have, and we will teach you how to use them if you promise to do something for us."
Overwhelmed by too much information, Larki stammered. "W-what?"
"Your instincts have already chosen the Sol visitor Ira Okin as your Guardian. He is to keep you safe, and in exchange, you will keep him safe. But we also need you to keep his friends safe as well. We have plans for them, and they will be absolutely instrumental if the oppressing Rydan government is to fall. Will you promise this, Larki, in exchange for learning how to control your gifts?"
Without thinking closely about the subject, and not asking what they meant by "plans", Larki had said yes.
Larki had failed, and it had plagued his mind ever since Okin had been shot, and now it was too late for anything, keeping the Sol visitors safe, learning how to control and use his supposed "gifts"…
Another set of memories took to his mind. They were the memories of his escape from Isaac Autia together with Okin and their near-execution by the old man. He realised he was thankful that Isaac had been tasked to guard him at the time. Larki didn't know why he had been placed on Isaac's ship, but he was certain that losing him had not made him popular with neither the king nor the council. Maybe that was why he had been chosen to take him back…
Grabbing hold of and clinging to the final memory that floated to his head – the language lessons he had received from Okin – he felt himself fading away into the darkness.
Somewhere far away, Ira Okin gasped and opened his eyes
The heart monitor that was connected to Larki went havoc for a few seconds before it uttered a long, continuous bleep. The medics bowed their heads in defeat, unplugging the various equipment and machines they had brought with them and carrying them out of the room, leaving representatives of both teams there.
The medic from Axe's ship looked down at Larki's body, sighed and then turned to the others. "I'm not sure what happened…the damage was bad, yes, but it was fixable…we should have been able to fix," He slammed his fist on the table. "He just…gave up. Stopped fighting…there was nothing we could do to fix that…I'm sorry, captain."
Zean waved him away. "You did the best you could," he said and laid his hand on the medic's shoulder. "It's not your fault, either. It's that…thing!" He pointed at the other psychic's body. "I want it burned," he said to the soldiers, who grabbed the body and carried it out. He then turned to Xoin. "If you hadn't taken that gun and killed him, he would surely have stabbed him to death. At least he had a chance, thanks to you. Too bad I have to throw you in the brig, isn't it?" He smiled sadly.
"It's only right, isn't it?" said Xoin good-naturedly. "I would've done the same anyway."
"Marines, take him away."
The marines waiting outside took both Xoin and the other medic, who took a last, sad look at Larki before shuffling out.
Zean looked at his former crew. Lex was silently crying, and Olly seemed to have trouble with keeping his breath from hiccupping. Axe was silent, looking at the blood stain on the wall where the psychic's brains had been splattered. Aaron was looking at the floor, suddenly finding the subtle, circular pattern very interesting.
"What do we do now?" asked Zean.
"We go home," said Axe.
Hours later, the Imperial fleet arrived in Rydan territory, slowing down just outside the sensors' ranges. The confusion was instantaneous as the commanders realised their leader's ship was gone. Frantic radio calls were made, but weren't answered. Some theorised that Xoin's ship's engine had overheated just like it had a week before and that wreckage parts were scattered along the way.
A captain taking the responsibility for the remainder of the travel told his radio operator to establish a connection with Home.
"I guess we can label this mission as a complete failure," he said. He was given the go-ahead signal from the radio operator and was just about to open the channel when two marines marched onto the bridge, both taking up positions on the left and right side of the large door. "What do you want?" he barked.
"Now, now, captain, why so angry? I thought you would be happy to know that I am still alive?" said Isaac Autia as he came through the door. "Especially since I hear Captain Xoin has vanished as well."
The captain snapped to attention and saluted, quickly followed by everyone else. "Sir! I thought you were dead."
"I'm not surprised, captain," said Isaac, gliding over to him with smooth steps. "I'm just glad I was able to hail the hangar crew who were kind enough to leave the doors open long enough for my bridge to land inside."
"Surely you remember that all Leviathan-class ships have detachable bridges? I didn't appreciate that the rest of the fleet tried to run away before I was able to dock with your ship. I assume Xoin gave the order?"
"Yes, sir." The captain hesitated. "Sir…why wasn't this reported to me by my crew?"
"Because I told them not to, of course," said Isaac. "I wanted to keep my survival secret until I was sure there weren't any traitors on this ship."
"Yes, traitors. You see, captain, we've all been victims of a clever ruse laid out by our dear Admiral Hyat."
Outraged mumbling rose in volume among the crew before the confused captain held up a hand to quiet them. "What do you mean, ruse?" he asked.
"I thought it to be obvious," said Isaac. "I was put in charge of this mission to bring back the captured psychic, and possibly kill as many rebels as I could in the meantime. What wasn't in the mission description was that I would be facing insurmountable resistance in the form of that damn space station and its accompanying escort fleet. In fact, I believe we faced the entirety of the rebel fleet today."
He let the murmuring go on for a few seconds, letting the information sink in. "How was I, with only a small number of ships, supposed to be able to locate, recapture and brink back that psychic in the middle of that tempest? Hyat and the other admirals knew that the rebels would bring him back to their base, and yet they sent me after him. And you," he added. "It's a well known fact that the higher brass has no love lost for me, and I don't blame them, but yet…they tried to indirectly have me killed, and I won't stand for it. And I should mention that they thought you all expendable, worthless and for them to use as cannon fodder!"
"But…we were able to hold our own for quite some time, sir, and if it hadn't been for that nuclear missile—"the captain was interrupted.
"Actually, that nuclear missile didn't even penetrate the shields of the Gaia, captain. No, the nuclear explosion that destroyed my ship came from the inside, originating in the engine bay and spreading to the munitions depot and then to the hangar, effectively shearing the ship in half. I was lucky the saboteurs had forgotten to plant explosives on the bridge, or else I wouldn't be standing here, informing you all of the treason that has taken place today."
The unfortunate captain noticed that his crew were nodding to what Isaac was saying, murmuring agreements. One of them even started clapping, and others joined in. To his horror, he realised that mutiny was taking place on his ship. He decided to take action. "No, Captain Autia, what you're doing right now is treason. You're inventing lies about assassination attempts to cover your own incompetence. The nuclear missile did penetrate your shield and blew up the ship, but your pride is—"
The smack made everyone jerk. Isaac's palm stung, and the captain was holding a hand to his cheek.
"That is quite enough, captain," said Isaac slowly. "I will not have that kind of talk in my fleet. The admirals have betrayed us all, and we're going to do something about it." He took a step forward, giving the captain a welcoming gesture. "Come, join me and we shall have our revenge."
The captain saw that his crew was also making the same gesture. "This is madness! Listen to me!" he yelled to his men, frustrated at their gullibility. "All he tells you are lies! How can you believe this madman?" He drew his pistol and pointed it at Isaac. "Stand down, Autia, or I will put a hole in your head!"
"Actually, captain, I cannot allow you to do that," said the voice of one of the other captains. Isaac had discreetly opened a com channel to the speaker systems of every ship in the small fleet. "He has provided valid arguments, while you have not. I'm afraid I must ask you to stand down."
"Valid arguments? What arguments? His words? That's—"
"That is enough, captain," said Isaac. "Last chance, join me and we will show Hyat what it means to betray his own men, or die as a traitorous dog."
The captain made a split-second decision and raised his wavering gun up again, intending to finish the traitor right then and there – had it not been for the multitude of bullets slamming into him. The soldiers lowered their smoking rifles.
Isaac poked the body with the toe of his boot. "Tsk, such a waste. Dispose of the body," he told the soldiers. He picked up a handheld microphone to the com system, thinking it made him look more dramatic. "This is Capt—Admiral Isaac Autia. I have retaken control of the fleet."
The crew on the bridge cheered loudly, as did the other crews on the other ship. Isaac then ordered the purge of any traitors in the fleet, quickly rounding up and executing the men and women who were still loyal to Hyat.
"Sir," asked a nervous looking woman, "does this mean we're rebels now?"
Isaac laughed. "Nonsense, my dear. Are we going to fight against the emperor and Rydan? No, we're merely fighting a splinter faction of rebels that has somehow wiggled its way inside our system. We're cleaning it out, so to speak."
"Then why aren't we notifying the proper authorities? They would surely—"
"Who would they believe?" he interrupted. "The most hated man in the galaxy, or the military cabinet consisting of men who have all sworn oaths to always act in the best interests of the kingdo—empire?" The woman didn't have an answer, and Isaac wasn't expecting one. "Now then," he said loudly to the bridge crew. "I believe a change of location is in order. Navigator, pilots, take us to the Veranus colony."
There were a few protests from the navigator, mostly concerning safety, but Isaac silenced him with a glare. "Veranus is the least guarded and secure colony in our space, and also home to a refinery that will be quite useful in the coming time. Now do it."
He was sweating, a reaction he only had whenever he was really nervous and scared, something that happened quite often lately. Zean approached the hospital wing of Freepoint 1, rubbing his sweat-slick hands together and on his uniform, trying to wipe it off. If Okin was dead too…
A reaction that caught him completely off-guard was the mix of happiness, fear and sorrow that hit him like a hover train when he saw that Okin's bed was empty. They had never moved him from the operating room, and the bed that had been placed in there was completely neat and made. He heard voices upstairs and ran them up three steps at a time.
The first thing he saw was the sitting pair of Admiral and Marshall conversing with a figure standing in front of them with crutches. The second thing he noticed was that the figure wasn't wearing a shirt, a large bandage covering most of his upper body. The final thing he noticed was the rigidness and uptight manner of the very much alive…
"Ira!" he shouted and ran over, almost crashing into the injured man before managing to stop himself. "You're okay!"
Okin grunted and turned to him slowly because of balance issues. "Of course I'm alive. What did you expect? That I would just roll over and take it like a little bitch? I've got stuff to do before I die, and it's not going to happen until my business is done."
Zean smiled, and Okin returned it. "If you'd died, I don't know—"
"Okay, okay, spare me the emotional crap," said Okin. "I'm alive, you're alive, and it's goddamn dandy. And before you ask, yes, my healing is abnormally rapid. The doctors wouldn't let me leave the bed before I punched one in the stomach and broke another's nose."
"You…?" asked Zean.
"He was quite determined to get up," said Abel and stood up. "Well, captain, are you going to report? How did the mission go?"
Zean's smile melted off. "It…it was a failure. Ira, I…Larki, he's—"
"Gone, yes I know," said Okin. Zean blinked. "Yes, I've been aware of that for several hours now, ever since I woke up. It felt like…something disappeared inside of me the moment I opened my eyes, like it had just been torn away. I understood what it meant right away."
"I'm sorry," said Zean. "It's my fault; we didn't get there fast enough."
"It's not your fault. There was nothing you could do," said Okin. "I'm sure Larki was glad that you at least tried to save him. Did you…did you bring back his body?"
"Of course," said Zean. "Aaron promised to arrange a full military funeral, even though he wasn't part of the rebellion…yet." He saw that Okin didn't seem very sad, despite the way he had described his feeling when he woke up. "Why aren't you sad?" he asked.
"Because I'm using the sorrow for something more useful," he answered. "Hate. I'm taking my revenge on Rydan. I've already been sworn in by Abel and Aleisha."
"Which you will have to be too," said Aaron, coming up the stairs accompanied by Lex. They had proposed staying behind for a few minutes while Zean reported to them. "Okin, I'm glad to see you are feeling better." Okin nodded.
"That's true," said Abel. "You may have commanded a ship on two separate missions already, but you still don't hold an official rank."
"Raise your right hand," said Aleisha. Zean did so. "Now, repeat after me…"
Zean repeated what Aleisha said. "I, Zean Ejil, hereby pledge my allegiance and life to the rebel cause, to fight with all of my might until our goal, the complete and utter freedom and independence of the Rydan people, has been reached. I will lay my life on the line to keep the rebellion going, even if it requires my death. This I pledge."
Abel, Aleisha and Aaron all bowed to Zean, which he was told to bow back by Okin. Then they all shook his hand and gave him some sort of emblem to wear on the breast of his uniform. It was a large, silver star surrounded smaller stars of a bronze-like colour. He noticed Okin was holding his in his hand. Aaron and his two siblings also had these, though their stars were golden and the surrounding stars were silver.
"Welcome to the rebel cause, Captain Zean Ejil," said Aaron. "We know we won't regret it."
"Ms. Iridian!" shouted a voice from below, footsteps pounding on the stairs. Dyxan Solino panted as he rounded the last bend. He noticed the trio and quickly saluted. "Sirs, Ma'am!"
Lex was amazed that he had been able to shake of his drunkenness so quickly. Or, she thought, maybe he wasn't drunk to begin with and only pretending.
"What is it, Commander Solino?" asked Aleisha. She looked amused at the sweating pilot. "You just interrupted a swear-in."
"I apologize, Admiral, Marshal, General. I was informed that Ms. Iridian was here and it is imperative that I talk to her."
"Then talk to her, she's standing right next to you."
Dyxan looked to his side, and was startled to find Lex inches way. He recomposed himself and tried to look official. "Ms. Iridian, I did a more thorough check of your background profile after the party, and I must say that I was not amused when I saw that it was fake." His tone was serious.
"I'm sorry," said Lex, "but I just wanted to fly so badly, and Dellie—"
"That doesn't matter!" said Dyxan loudly. "It still doesn't change the fact you were not registered nor approved as a pilot, and flying into combat with us could've proved fatal to the outcome of the battle as a whole!" Lex looked down. "But I still want you in my squadron, though."
Two heads looked up sharply. "What?"
"Yeah, what?" asked Zean. "Lex, what's he talking about?"
"What I'm talking about? Captain, she was the one who brought down Autia's shield! She crashed a damn cruiser into his ship." Dyxan looked at Lex with what seemed to admiration. "Never have I seen such daring and skilled pilot, which is why I want her in my squadron, if you will allow it." He directed the question at Zean, who still hadn't been relieved of his command of Axe's ship.
"Lex, can I speak with you for a second in private?" Zean asked, walking as far away from the group as he could. Lex joined him. "Did you really fly during the battle?" he asked gravely.
"I did," confirmed Lex.
"Why? You could've been killed," said Zean, his voice rising in volume. "It's dangerous, and—"
"Oh, shut up, Zean!" exclaimed Lex, making the others look at them. She waved them away. "I lied to you when I first signed on to your ship."
"That's right. I haven't always been a merchant, you know. I used to root out pirates in one of those militia armies that were so popular a decade ago. Remember those?"
Zean did. Pirates had been a big problem sometime back, and the navy, still recovering from the crushing blow they received from the Mars Uprising backlash, had struggled with keeping merchants and other ships safe in the travel lanes. Several civilian companies had taken it upon themselves to protect their business and had hired volunteers to form escort squadrons.
After these squadrons proved their worth in protecting transports, several of the companies were given permission to start "Pirate Hunts" in which large, private armies were raised by the companies and set out to eliminate the pirate threat once and for all. They were successful. After two years, not a single pirate attack was reported. The hunting permissions were revoked after the council discovered that some of the companies were torturing the pirates to find the locations of their bases, but not before a last, massive attack on the final pirate stronghold was launched. Not a single pirate survived. Zean had heard about it and had been disgusted.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.
"Because I knew you wouldn't hire an ex-pirate hunter," said Lex quietly. "No one would."
"I don't like people keeping secrets from me," he began.
"It's not like you haven't been keeping secrets either, hon," she parried.
Zean couldn't think of anything. He'd be a hypocrite if he did. "Touché."
"The stitches look fine, and the wound should heal nicely with no scarring. Just make sure you don't get shot again, you hear?" said Lyle. He had been reassigned to Freepoint 1 when it became apparent that a large number of the medical personnel had been killed by the invading marines.
"Thanks," said Olly, pulling on his shirt again. "Naturally, such a wound doesn't faze me the bit, but I guess I've gotta show I'm mortal to the rest of the people from time to time, eh?" He grinned at Lyle, who smiled and moved over to the next bed, where a man who had been hit in the knee was lying. "What do you say, Dellie, don't you think that…" He trailed off. Dellie was looking at a chart of the human body hanging on the wall, her face completely neutral. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she said hastily. "I'm just…thinking."
"About Hawk-Nose?" ventured Olly.
"Yeah," she answered. "I'm just wondering…he was such a sweet guy when all came down to it, sure, a bit negative and pessimistic, but that's just who he was. To think he hated it so much here…"
"It's never who you expect it to be, I guess," said Olly and stood up. He embraced her from behind. "You miss them, don't you?"
"I do," she answered, and Olly heard just a slight crack in her voice. "It just seems so suspicious that both Pyle and Nat would die so quickly and in succession and then find Hawk-Nose toting a gun at us."
"You're thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Yes. He must have been responsible."
"Nat always had a bit of a crush on the captain," she said and turned around, breaking away from Olly's arms. She then sat herself in a chair, assuming the position Olly had come to recognise as her thinking position. "I bet Hawk-Nose played on that crush to get her to agree to bust him out when he was thrown in the brig."
"And Pyle?" asked Olly, sitting down on the bed again.
"I don't know. We were all so busy that day, and Hawk-Nose could have gotten to the control of the crane."
"Right, so he killed them both. But why? What could he gain from killing them if he was leaving anyway? And how did he contact the Rydan fleet in the first place?"
"That's where my theory hits a snag," said Dellie. "He didn't have any kind of equipment capable of doing so, neither on his person nor in his quarters. He could have hid it somewhere on the ship, but soldiers were doing sweeps of the ship at that time, and believe me, those searches are thorough."
"Then whoever revealed our position is still running around," said Olly. "Unless he got killed during the battle or ran away with the enemy, of course."
"We should inform the captain of this," said Dellie.
"We should," agreed Olly.
Xoin sat on the small bench-like piece of metal jutting out of the wall that he supposed was what passed for a bed in the prison area of the massive space station the rebels had conjured out of nothingness. He was thinking. About everything and nothing. How the rebels had been able to sneak an operative on his ship, how that operative had been able to take him captive, how his aunt always made those creamy-like buns he liked so much. Why he hadn't thought of having his marines storm the prison area when they were on the station to free the numerous prisoners held there. He had a cell of his own as his status demanded, but he could the hundreds of other men inside the other cells talking to themselves. They had tried to coax him into talking with them, but he had ignored them. He had more important things to worry about, such as choosing his loyalties.
The scene inside his own interrogation room had shocked him to the core and then enraged him. Xoin had never been one for torture, although he sometimes authorised it if it was absolutely imperative that he got the prisoner to talk, but never like that. Not with a knife, and definitely not enough to kill the prisoners. The very worst Xoin had done to someone in that regard was to keep a constant electric current of a low voltage pass through the prisoner until he gave up and talked, and even that was bad enough to make him feel sick afterwards. If the government authorised that kind of torture and interrogation methods, then they were no better than the rebels with their quick in-and-out strikes where they aimed to kill rather than capture.
The door to his cell opened, and he looked up. A familiar person stood in the door. "I hope your stay so far hasn't been uncomfortable, captain."
"Not too bad," said Xoin and stood up. "It's a bit hard to sleep with the constant muttering and shouting from the other men."
"You can press this button to make the cell sound-proof," said the man and showed him a hidden panel where a single red button was hidden. "We get a lot of complains about it, and we try to make our captives feel as comfortable as we can."
"Before you kill them, you mean?" asked Xoin.
The man looked horrified. "Kill them? Are you insane? We don't kill prisoners."
"Then where are they? The others, I mean. You've taken quite a lot of our men captive, although I can estimate only about a hundred, a hundred and fifty in this cell block, and most of them are my own. Where are the others?"
"We put them to work," said the man.
"Everywhere. On our ships, under strong guard, of course, our refineries and factories and other places."
"What about the ones who can't work, the old and sickly?"
"They are held on a colony of ours, the location of which I shall keep secret for now."
"Huh," said Xoin, his opinion of the rebels completely changed during that short conversation. He had always been told that the rebels were barbarians who wanted nothing more than killing every single person from Rydan or its colonies, and only that. When he surrendered to the rebels, he expected each and every member of his crew to be executed, presumably after the rebels got what they wanted from them, but he had been very surprised when they had only been led to the rebels' cafeteria and kept there until they reached the space station. Suddenly, Isaac's treatment of their rebel prisoners was even more beastly and diabolic than it had been previously. Xoin had thought they were only giving the rebels a taste of their own medicine, but now…
"Well, there are some unruly, uncontrollable prisoners that repeatedly cause trouble that we don't really have a choice about what to do with, but they are few and far between. That's what you do too, isn't it? That's what I've seen, at least."
"Yes, of course," said Xoin. He looked at the man closely. He didn't have glasses. "You're the one who captured me, aren't you?"
Ghost smiled. "Yeah, that was me. I hope you don't have any hard feelings, this is war, after all, and I only those I had to."
"No, of course not. All's fair in love and war, isn't it?"
"Well, some things shouldn't be," said Ghost. "Mind if I join you?" he asked, gesturing to the bench. Xoin nodded and sat down again, leaving enough room for Ghost to sit down. Ghost nodded gratefully and held out a hand. "Name's Ghost."
Xoin shook it. "Xoin."
"You've a last name, or…?"
"I do have a first name, though I won't tell it to you."
"Fair enough. I did hold a gun to your head, after all."
They sat in silence, listening to the ambient drone of the station itself and the faint conversations between the prisoners.
"They don't sound too unhappy," observed Ghost.
Xoin listened closer. Indeed, the captives didn't seem to be too discontented at being the rebels' prisoners, though some were having apprehensive thoughts, especially regarding executions and public displays of debauchery. Ghost chuckled at the last one.
"The only debauchery going on here is between crewmembers in their quarters, I can assure you."
Xoin's face went red; he had been lost in a fantasy that had come completely unwillingly to his mind. "Oh, no, I wasn't thinking—"
"Sure you weren't," said Ghost and flashed him a knowing smile. "But enough about that, I have something to discuss with you."
"And that is?"
"You heard me very well, and I'm serious."
"You're going to offer me a job so soon after capturing me, the enemy? What if I were to alert the kingdo—damn, empire?"
"No risk of that, have no fear about that. You will be under close surveillance if you choose to accept it. Know that you will be actively working against the empire, though."
"What kind of job is it, exactly?" Xoin was extremely suspicious now, wondering what this infiltrator was suggesting.
"Intelligence officer," said Ghost. "Or, more like an informer really, but that term sounds so negative."
"So I'll be supplying intelligence?"
"Yes. As a captain of the Rydan Imperial Navy, you have been informed of secrets and other things that regular crewmembers have not, and you can provide valuable insight to defence plans, both theirs and ours. So, are you interested?"
Here it was; the big decision. Xoin really didn't know what to do. He couldn't just turn his back to his home and nation, but he also couldn't turn his back to the way they were treating prisoners and its own men.
"I don't know, I need some time to think," he said.
Ghost nodded and stood. "I understand completely. It's a life-changing decision, and not one to take lightly, and to be honest, if you had said yes without taking some time, I wouldn't believe you. It was nice to meet you under less hostile circumstances, and I hope we can work together in the future. Good day to you, Xoin."
When Ghost had left, Xoin lay down on the bench.
"Me…join the rebellion?"
That's it, the final chapter of Kane's Field. There will be one more entry, which shall be a epilogue. Expect it soon. Very soon…