Suze had lived through some extraordinary experiences in his time, but to have two trainees come back from the dead on one day had to rank up there with the most bizarre. Finding Keziah had been unlikely enough to shock him profoundly, but seeing Kiv Mazekke standing defensively beside her hospital bed defied any sensible odds. To see his long-time friend Nevrian alongside him was just unfathomable. He wanted to pinch himself to check that he was awake, but couldn't forge the connection between his brain and his fingers. Every ounce of mental power he possessed was currently directed towards trying to work out how this situation had occurred.
The two men he was staring at didn't seem impressed with his question. Nevrian just turned his back and shrugged.
"I just happened to be in the neighbourhood…"
Suze was well acquainted with his friend's caustic wit, but was far from appreciative of it just now.
"Nev," he growled. "I'm warning you…"
"Oh you are, are you?" Nevrian said disinterestedly. Suze took a step further into the room, with the full intention of wrapping his hands around the man's throat.
"Who the hell are you?" This question came from Kiv, and stopped the Commander in his tracks.
"What do you mean, who am I?" he snarled. "Keep your mouth shut and I'll deal with you later, you little gobshite."
Suze was in good shape, and trained regularly in both armed and unarmed combat, but he was entirely unprepared for the ferocity with which Kiv came at him. The commander suddenly found himself slammed face first into the nearest wall, completely unable to move with his arm twisted up behind his back.
"I won't ask you again," Kiv snarled in his ear. "You act like I should know you, but unless you tell me right now who you are then there won't be time for us to get acquainted in any way…"
"You…fuck…" Suze was so incensed by his treatment that he could only string together expletives.
"Leave it, Kiv," Nevrian sighed eventually. "I know he's a prick, but he also happens to be commander of ATAV. Your old boss, in other words."
Kiv blinked, shrugged in acceptance, and released his victim. Suze immediately rounded on his ex-pupil, squaring up to him with intent.
"You're going to regret that until the end of your days…" he began, then broke off as Kiv merely turned away and resumed his vigil beside the bed. "Don't turn your back on me!"
"Why not?" Kiv asked innocently. "I might have known you before, but I can't think of a reason why I should bother with you now. You're not my boss any more." He suddenly had a thought and turned back around, a dark look on his face and an even blacker one in his eyes. "Are you responsible for the marks on her back?"
Suze gulped, suddenly nervous. It seemed that death had turned the once surly trainee into a man that few people would want to mess with. He tried to see him as the kid he had once trained, but failed as Kiv continued to stare at him. His palms started to sweat instead.
He had never been so relieved to hear a door open before in his entire life. A doctor entered, engrossed in his clipboard full of notes, not looking up until he had shut the door and approached the end of the bed. When he did, it was to meet with three of the most hostile glares he had ever encountered. He had dealt with difficult relatives before, but he had a feeling that these might take the top spot. He tried to work some saliva back into his mouth as he realised what he was about to tell them. They looked very much like the kind of people who would willingly shoot the messenger.
"What's the news, doctor?" one of them asked. As this one was the only one wearing a military uniform, the doctor warmed to him immediately.
"Not good, I'm afraid," came the nervous reply. "We have been giving her blood transfusions ever since she arrived, and managed to stop the internal bleeding, but there are worrying signs that she might have picked up an infection. She's far too weak to fight anything at the moment, so we just have to hope and pray that the infection either progresses slowly or is slight enough to be manageable."
"Hope and pray?" the youngest of the group echoed, looking far from impressed. "There must be something else you can do."
"You were the one who brought her in," the doctor realised. "You caused a security situation in my hospital, and now you're telling me…"
"Doctor," the third man interrupted in a soft voice. "We appreciate the lengths you've gone to to keep her alive, but can you tell us what to expect over the next few hours?"
"You can wait with her," the doctor sniffed, only slightly mollified. "We should know by the morning which way it will go." He glanced back down at his clipboard and frowned. "Exactly who are you, anyway? Who is responsible for Miss Vaia?"
"I am," chorused all three men simultaneously. There was an awkward pause.
"Okay…" the doctor said uncertainly.
"I'm her friend," the youngest of them said defiantly. "I'll be looking after her, making sure she can recover uninterrupted."
The man in military uniform snorted in harsh laughter. "You'll do no such thing. You're just a friend, but I have a legal responsibility for her while she is at the academy."
"You honestly think I'd leave her with a sadistic bastard like you…"
"You honestly think you have a choice? You're officially dead!"
"You'll be properly dead in a minute…"
"I think you'll find I'm the one responsible for her," the softly spoken man chipped in over the escalating situation. "I am her uncle, after all."
Suze and Kiv waited until the doctor had left the room before turning on Nevrian. The medic had seemed perfectly satisfied with his explanation, and had promised to keep Nevrian informed on Keziah's condition throughout the night. The man had even filled in his details on the next-of-kin form, signing his name with a flourish and patting the doctor gratefully on the arm as he left. The stunned silence continued until the latch on the door clicked shut, and was then promptly broken.
"Uncle?" both Kiv and Suze exclaimed incredulously. They looked at each other in part annoyance, part shared confusion, then turned back to look at Nevrian.
"You never asked," the third man shrugged.
"Which side?" Suze asked hoarsely.
"Her father was my brother."
Suze made a strange sound in his throat, a sort of strangled squeak that could in no way disguise his shock. Kiv desperately tried to assemble the puzzle in his mind, and realised he was missing a few pieces.
"You're my friend, Suze," Nevrian continued, "but I swear that I will hunt you to the ends of the earth if you tell anyone about this. I will kill you in the most horrible way I can devise, and then I will destroy your reputation along with you." His voice was so cold it raised goosebumps on the commander's skin. Suze looked at Nevrian for a long time, finally seemed to realise he was dead serious, and bowed his head in assent.
"She's Robban and Ayella's kid?" he asked finally, colour draining from his face until he looked twice his age.
"You told me they didn't have kids."
Suze sagged against the side of the bed, staring at his friend. "She's from…from Earth…"
Kiv realised that the other men's connection with Keziah must go back to the previous generation. Keziah's parents could easily be about their age. But that would mean…
"Keziah's parents were from here?" Kiv remembered the shock he'd felt when Keziah had told him where she was from, but it seemed that she had only narrated the tip of a particularly disturbing iceberg.
"They were government agents," Nevrian explained shortly. "They defected."
"Keziah told me they died," Kiv said. "That's why she came here, because they blamed it on her. She went to prison for it."
Nevrian closed his eyes. Suze looked like he was about to throw up.
"That's why you've been tracking her," Kiv said suddenly. "That's why you care so much about her."
"I only found out for certain after your trial," Nevrian whispered, "but I think I always knew in my heart that there was a connection. She looks so like her parents."
"Her real name is Evenya."
Nevrian screwed his face up as if he was in physical pain. "Our mother's name. She died when we were young."
"Why didn't you come forward and tell her, for fuck's sake?" Kiv sounded half livid, half despairing. "You blamed me for not being there for her, but where the hell were you?"
"I couldn't…" Nevrian's voice broke. Suze placed a rough hand on his friend's shoulder to steady him.
"You couldn't have known they would pin it on her," he said quietly. "There's no way you could have known."
"You knew her parents too?" Kiv asked the commander.
"We were in the same year at the academy, Robban and I. Nevrian was a year younger, the same age as Ayella. Your father…Kierad, he was in our year too. As a group we were fairly inseparable. Now Nev and I are the only ones left."
"You knew my father?" Kiv felt a jolt of pain as he hunted for memories that were long gone.
"Yeah. Kierad was the best of us. I'm glad he's not around to see the mess we've got ourselves into." Suze turned back to see if Nevrian had recovered yet. "Are you going to tell her?"
"For fuck's sake," Kiv butted in, disgusted. "You have the opportunity to make up for all the time you've lost, and you're not even going to tell her that you're her uncle?"
"She'll kill me for sure," Nevrian said hollowly. Suze just nodded.
"Kill you?" Kiv asked, aghast. "For telling her you're her family?"
"No." Nevrian bowed his head. "She'll kill me when I tell her that I killed her parents. I executed them when they defected. She was supposed to die along with them, but I knew that she'd survived. And I left her there alive, alone, to face the consequences."
His secret. The one he had lived with for fifteen years. The one that had driven him to the lowest point in his life and kept him there. The one that made him wish on a daily basis that it would all end. It felt strange to be speaking of it out loud to other people. His wife had been trying to get him to talk about it for years, trying to convince him that it would make him feel better. Well now he had…and it felt infinitely worse.
The first time he had come across Keziah at the Academy presentation it had knocked every ounce of air out of his lungs. He had barely escaped the situation with his dignity intact. Although the likeness had been immediately apparent to him, he had managed to convince himself that it was an impossibility. After all, how likely was it that a daughter of traitors, who he had left to a certain death at the hands of Earth's security forces, would have escaped and traveled halfway across the galaxy to Veta, ending up standing right in front of him in the one place she should never have set foot. The odds were astronomical.
So he'd dismissed it as a coincidence, and the next time they had met he managed to make the questions about her birthplace sound almost casual. Her answers had been distressingly vague. He would have much preferred her to tell him all about a loving and extensive family who lived just outside the capital on a farm where she spent her summer holidays. No such luck. She was as alone as he would have expected her to be.
He started making casual enquiries, but it was almost impossible to do so without raising suspicion even for a man with his network of contacts. He hadn't made any progress at all by the time Kiv's trial came up, but by that time Suze had informed him of the boy's connection with Kierad and given him another reason to attend. Seeing the child of his dead friend in such dire circumstances had been horrendous.
But not as horrible as what came next. Nevrian hadn't been able to go home for several days after the revelations he had had to share with Chief Warlen in order to break Kiv down. He had been too upset. His role in the boy's recruitment had sacrificed Kiv's freedom for Keziah's, and that had been before he'd even known for sure who she was. Now, looking down at the grey pallour of her skin as she lay silently on the hospital bed, he wondered if she was finally paying the price for his stupidity. His cowardice. He should have faced up to the truth instead of hiding behind denial until it was too late.
"You're not taking her." Kiv's voice broke through Nevrian's mental hell with enough force to show that he meant it. The older man looked up, immediately defensive and prepared to fight his corner.
"I'm the only family she's got," he retorted, edging subconsciously closer to the bed.
"And whose fault is that?" Kiv snarled, doing exactly the same on the other side of the room. "If you think that I'm going to let Keziah go home with the guy who killed her parents, you don't know me at all. I will kill you before I let that happen."
"You don't get it, do you?" Nevrian snapped. "That's precisely why I'm the one who should take care of her. I'll do anything for her, anything to keep her safe, even though I know it could never make up for what I did."
"And what about when she finds out?"
"I'll deal with that when it happens. I'm more fit to take care of her than you, anyway. You're going to be hunted to the ends of the earth when your employers find out you've deserted."
"I'll negotiate with them," Kiv shrugged. "They should be happy enough with my success on the mission to give me some leeway. They know I'm still loyal to them, so why would they want to harm me?"
Nevrian ignored the question in favour of a far more disturbing realisation. "How do they know you're still loyal?" he asked in hushed tones, colour draining from his face.
"I reported in," the young assassin said bluntly. "I told them the mission was a success."
Nevrian ducked his head back down, clenched his fists, screwed up his face, and tried with all his might to unhear those words. It didn't work.
"Are you out of your tiny mind?" he managed finally. "Seriously. Have you completely lost it?" The incredulity and desperation in his tone gave Suze a fractional warning of what was about to happen, and he managed to sidestep out of range of the knife that appeared in Nevrian's hand. The other hand retrieved a gun from the small of his back, and aimed it with practiced certainty at Kiv's heart. It was a sign of how physically drained Kiv still was that he could put up no meaningful defence.
"Get out," Nevrian rasped. "Get as far away from her as you can before I shoot you down where you stand."
"I don't understand," Kiv said, confused. "I just did what I thought was best."
"Best for whom?" Nevrian spat. "You've killed her, that's what you've done! They will be here in minutes if they aren't already! I have to get her out of here now, and there's no way she'll survive the journey!"
"She's not a target!" Kiv persisted. "If they're pissed off with anyone it's with me, and I'm sure I'll be able to explain that…"
"Explain?!" Suze had never seen his friend so angry. He didn't really know what the other two men were talking about, but it sounded serious enough that he started making a mental list of what an urgent hospital transfer would involve.
"Since when did anyone negotiate with the Facility?" Nevrian raged. "The whole time you were there were you ever given the luxury of explaining anything? You weren't even allowed to ask questions, let alone give opinions! The only advantage you possessed was that they didn't know where you were, and now you've thrown it all away."
Kiv paled significantly, but remained stubbornly resolute. "They might come for me," he argued, "but why would they be interested in her?"
"Because they used her to break you down when you first got there," Nevrian explained tiredly, the pistol still steady in his grip and never wavering from the target. "Because they know she's your biggest weakness. And when they see her here with you they'll know what you did to protect her. You're toxic to her…to all of us. You need to get out of here. Run and hide for as long as you can, that's my advice. They'll find you eventually, but you can try and enjoy yourself until that happens. And if you know what's good for you you'll force them to kill you quickly, else they'll make sure you live to regret it."
"You got out," Kiv whispered through a paper-dry mouth.
"I'm different. I volunteered." Kiv opened his mouth to ask how anyone would be so insane as to do something like that, but Nevrian stopped him with a shake of his head. "There's no time. We all need to leave before it's too late. I'll take care of Keziah, I promise you."
Kiv struggled with himself for a long moment, then relaxed in defeat. He nodded once, took one last long look at the girl on the bed, and picked up his jacket. He would have liked to say goodbye to her properly, but he was afraid of showing anything that might be interpreted as weakness. He headed for the door.
"I'll come back for her," he said, hesitating in the doorway. "I'll sort this out and then I'll come and find you. Will you tell her that?"
"Okay," Nevrian agreed after a lengthy pause. "I'll make sure she knows. Good luck."
He didn't watch Kiv stride away back down the corridor, but he felt the intense atmosphere fade perceptibly as he restored his weapons to their holsters. "Let's hope you're as good as they tell me you are," he muttered.
Suze looked at his friend, then came to a swift decision. "Use my transport," he ordered. "No one will blink an eye at a military carrier leaving the base at this hour, plus I have all the authorisation codes."
They wasted no time, although the journey from the ICU to the helipad seemed like the longest either of them had ever made. Only one member of hospital staff tried to object, and they were swiftly brushed aside with not one but two high-level government identification badges. By the time the doctor returned to room twelve to check the status of his most recent patient, the room was completely empty. Not a single piece of evidence remained to tell of what had happened in there. It took him several moments to gather up the courage to summon the guard commander back for a third time.
Several weeks later and many light-years away…
"I don't understand." The boy was barely capable of speech by now, let alone coherent thought. Not understanding was the least of his worries. He stared blankly at the men on the opposite side of the table, his mind drifting once again across the mystery of how he had got there. One minute he had been running for his life through a forest, and the next minute he had been picked up by some obliging tribesmen. They had been difficult to understand, speaking with strange accents and wearing even stranger clothes, but beggars can't be choosers. He had only realised something was wrong when the craft kept going up instead of down, and by that time it was far too late. Veta was light-years behind him, and hell wasn't far ahead.
"It's not difficult," the voice said, in a soft, lilting accent that could have been comforting had it not been so menacing. "We know all about you, Tam Buzzity. This is a lovely picture of you, in fact. Not a nice description of what you were wanted for, but a not a bad mugshot for a 'wanted' bulletin. We know your age, your nationality, your chosen career. It's pretty standard really, and not anything that we spent much time dwelling on." Tam's picture was cast aside dismissively in favour of another. "This one, however, does interest us a great deal. It's a good drawing, good enough to pique our curiosity anyway. It's been years since I last saw her personally, but I have an excellent imagination. So I'll ask you one more time, Tam, and do your best not to lie this time: where exactly is Evenya Kairos?"
Well that's it. The end. Hope you enjoyed it. Thank you all for reading, and if you've got any feedback I'd love to hear it. The next story will be the last in this series (probably!) and will hopefully answer all your unanswered questions! You might have to wait a few months for it to start, though - it took me long enough to finish this one and I don't want to leave such big time gaps between chapters next time.