I was dead. Or dying. Maybe dreaming that I was dead. I was unaware of any physical sensation at all. It was dark. I could hear unsteady breathing through an open mouth, and it sounded full of blood. Time seemed to be passing.
Eventually, I heard more sounds. A low rhythmic thrumming punctuated by sharp, tinny blasts. A faint panicked whirring. Airy screams. They moved closer. I heard a million tiny silver bells, all out of tune, tinkle. They were falling. God, what a long way down.
Something hot wrapped around my wrist and pulled. It slid around my waist, and I folded, sandwiching the heat between my chest and my thighs.
I felt running. Then it stopped. I felt movement around me and heard the familiar hum and roar of spacecraft engines. I opened my eyes. There were three men on the ship. The pilot was tall and thick and only just fit in the seat, but he handled it well. It was his ship. But I didn't recognize him.
The second was a blur of red, orange and yellow with bright white at his center. He manned the small ship's more than adequate armament with a certain zeal that would have been disturbing if I didn't know him so well.
The third sat close to me, holding me in place as the ship burst through the atmosphere. His face looked almost familiar. I should have known him, but his name escaped me. Thick ropes of blood dribbled from his nose.
"You're bleeding," I said.
He looked at me and smiled, and then I slipped into a big empty space where all I could hear was the sound of unsteady breathing through an open mouth that sounded full of blood.
The cold didn't feel real, but then neither did my body. I couldn't tell if anything was real. Time had passed. A lot of it. I'd been outside of it. I didn't know where I was or where I had been. For a while, I wasn't sure who I was. Then I remembered my name, but that didn't offer me much comfort.
I felt a hand on the back of my head and ice cubes floating around me. I heard heavy boots approach, and I recognized the sound. I knew those feet. I knew the wave of heat that rippled towards me. But I had no name for it.
"Is he getting any better?" a man's voice asked. I knew that voice, too. It went with the heat.
"Slowly," a woman said. Her voice was closer to me, and I knew her, too. I could picture her face and her hands, but her name wasn't there.
I should have been afraid. I knew something was wrong. They could have been trying to hurt me, but something was telling me they were my friends.
"We need to leave," the fire said.
"He's not well enough," the healer said.
"If we stay here, we'll all be dead. I'm not losing anyone else." The fire's voice was unsteady. I wondered who he'd lost. It must have been someone he cared about. Then I realized that I had probably lost them, too. My skin crawled with slow, cold spiders.
"Rune ... "
"They know where we are."
"He needs one more day."
"We don't have one more day."
"How much time do we have?"
"At most, six hours. I'll see if I can come up with something."
The fire's boots turned and walked away. I heard papers rustle and the faint blips of coded communication. I heard the healer think, "He's going to burn himself out."
The cold spiders spread out over me and clamped down. I heard screams and saw explosions. I saw faces I should have known. I saw them die. I couldn't tell what was happening. The visions passed, and I was left with one thought. Where are my children?
I opened my eyes and reached for the woman beside me. She gasped. I grabbed her hand. I tried to see her face, but all I saw was the dark suggestion of her form beneath a thick red haze. A white glow flickered around her. I had seen the haze before. I had been recovering from a gunshot wound. I had dreamed of an ice bath and their conversation almost word for word. I had opened my eyes on red and then nothing.
I panicked. I didn't want to be in the ice. I didn't want to see red. I tried to get up. I felt myself shouting. Her hands couldn't hold me. I felt the fire slip one arm around my chest. I struggled, but he was too strong. He put his hand on the back of my head. I felt his fingers lengthen. His fingertips got sharp and popped the skin under my hair. "Still," he whispered. And I couldn't move. "You're okay now, Talon. You're safe. I won't let them hurt you."
"Where are my children?" I asked.
"They're safe. Everyone's safe."
"Except us. You said they're coming. We have to run."
"Not right now. Just relax. You're still sick."
"I don't remember anything. I don't know who you are. I don't know what happened."
"I'm Rune. That's Anala. We'll fill you in on the rest later."
"You're made out of fire."
I felt a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I could move again so I pulled it tight. Rune put his arms around me and held me like I was his child. I knew I'd never seen him act this way and figured that whatever had happened to us must have been awful for him to change so much. But I still couldn't find all my memories of him or Anala. I closed my eyes to shut out the red and shivered against Rune's heat.
"Daddy?" The face I was looking at wasn't familiar to me at all. She was in her early twenties. She had wavy reddish brown hair and pretty blue grey eyes. She would have been beautiful, but her face was red and puffy from crying. Somewhere behind her, I sensed a young boy with red hair and lots of freckles.
I ought to have recognized them both. All I could do was stare and search for names. She called me Daddy. "Regan?" I asked.
"You're really there. They got you out. Are you okay?"
"I don't know. The fire said I was still sick. I don't remember anything."
"Anything at all? Do you remember me? Do you remember Holden?"
"You're my daughter."
"You don't really remember, do you?"
"I'm sorry. I'm trying. It's all there. I just can't get to it."
"What the fuck did they do to you?"
"I don't know."
"I miss you, Daddy."
"If I say I miss you too, you'll tell me I don't because I don't remember. But I do know I haven't been home in a long time, and I know there's no place I'd rather be."
"You'll remember. Firefly told me you would. Be careful."
"I will. I'm in good hands."
She smiled. "I know. Bye, Daddy."
Regan's face faded into blackness. I listened for something, but I never heard a thing so I don't know what I was listening for. The cold chills oozed over me again. I pulled the blankets tighter.
I saw a sword falling in a hail of smoky glass. I saw a ship explode. I saw a woman dressed in blue dying under someone's hands. I saw a kid with green eyes and pointy ears standing over what was left of his brother's armor. I felt guns in my hands. I saw a demon's face. I saw a blue skinned, purple-eyed woman leaning over me. She touched my lips and rippled away. I saw a path of shattered stars and the cold dark maw of something that was going to swallow me whole.
I woke up and felt heat next to me. I reached out and found Rune's hand.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"No," I said. "These visions … I don't understand any of this. What happened to me?"
"I'm still trying to figure that out."
"Am I supposed to have visions like that?"
"Oh. I think I'm seeing things that have happened already."
"That's good. That means you remember something."
"But it's all pretty bad."
"What are you seeing?"
"A sword falling. A ship exploding. A woman being choked to death. A kid with pointy ears. A demon. And something coming to get me."
"I don't think those are visions. I think they're memories."
"Did I kill that woman?"
"No. That's Regan's mother."
"Blue Ava. Petrine."
"Did I kill who killed her?"
"No, but you messed him up pretty bad."
"You gave me the guns. You made them for me."
"This sucks. Why can't I remember anything?"
"I don't know. I'm not sure what they did to you. Anala healed what she could, but … "
"Your brain already isn't normal. She wasn't sure she could fix what looked like damage without harming you in some other way."
"I have metal plates in my head."
"Not any more."
"They opened you up. They used a different material to close you back up."
"Did they put a tracking device in me?"
"They'll find us no matter where we go."
"I'll keep fighting them as long as I have to."
Rune was silent for a long time. He wanted to walk away and not tell me anything. I'd remember sooner or later. He didn't want to have to tell me and remind himself. "Duncan and Leysa. They … they flew the shuttle straight into the fleet that was attacking us. Took out half the fleet when it blew up. It was fully fueled and loaded with explosives we were taking to Lost Tree to help with the excavation. They gave us a chance to get away for a little while. After you were captured, Danel and Dylan and I tried to rescue you, but Kaylan knew we were coming. The whole fucking Imperial army was waiting for us. I almost didn't get out of that one. There've been hundreds of others. Every little army I managed to raise got wiped out, either by the Imperial forces or by demons. Now I've just got a few mercenaries and Daigoro. We finally found out where they had you about six months ago, and I took that long to plan the attack because I wasn't leaving there without you."
"You did a damn good job. Thank you."
"You're welcome, but the war's not over."
"Can we win it?"
"We don't have a choice."
A machine started beeping. Rune got up and went towards the far wall. The smear of flame was almost bright enough to penetrate the red haze. I watched waves of heat shimmer around him. I couldn't see enough to tell what he was doing, but I could guess that one of his mercenaries was calling in.
"Goddamn it," he muttered.
"What is it?" I asked.
"They're trying to sneak in on us." He started turning things off and reaching for weapons. "Anala!" he shouted. "We got company!"
Anala came out of the kitchen. "I thought we had more time."
"They had an advance fleet cloaked. Tristan just picked them up, but they're right outside. Barrett's coming in behind them. They can pick off most of them and then outrun them. I'm gonna welcome them. Get him out of here. Wait for me at the temple. If I don't show up, call Barrett."
Anala paused. "You better show up," she said.
"Get out of here now."
"Talon, come on."
"Um, I have just a slight problem," I said. "I can't see."
Anala grabbed my hand and pulled me along behind her. We went down into a cellar. A lantern was sitting on top of a toolbox, like it was waiting for us. The light of it was strange, even through the red, but I couldn't put my finger on just what was strange about it. Anala grabbed the lantern, and we kept moving down. It got cold and smelled like dirt and rot. A falcon screeched behind us. We heard explosions. I wanted to go back and help Rune. Anala pulled me forward. We ran. The sounds got further and further away. I heard water dripping, our feet hitting the stones and Peter's wings flapping. A huge explosion rocked the walls of the tunnel, and I almost fell down. Anala yanked me up. "Come on," she said. She had changed too since I'd been gone. She was harder and braver. All her passion and purity were focused on just a few people rather than the whole universe. She'd do anything for us, but she'd still weep when we fell.
We headed up after what felt like several hours of running and came out in a large open area. Sand blasted my face. I felt weak and dizzy. I let go of Anala's hand and stumbled to my knees. She knelt beside me.
"I can't go any further," I said.
"We're almost there," she said.
I pushed myself up. We went at a slower pace, and a few minutes later, Anala opened a door. She guided me to a bed, and I lay on my back, trying to catch my breath. My heart was beating hard. I blinked, hoping the red would clear and hoping I could breathe normally again. Anala bolted the door, then she sat down beside me and put her hands on my chest. "Oh my God," she whispered. "Your lungs … " Her hand moved over my heart. "What did they do to you?"
I tried to answer her, but I couldn't. I wasn't sure what was wrong.
Her static prickled across my skin, and after a while, my lungs and my heart started to behave. The red drifted to black. I passed out.
A while later, I opened my eyes again. Things were still red. Anala was still sitting beside me, her head bent in prayer. I could see the glow of the lantern on a table to my right. Peter was perched at the foot of the bed, and his head was turned towards the door. I tried to sit up. I didn't feel too bad all things considered. Anala looked up.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Better," I said.
"I didn't know they'd cracked your chest open. I'm sorry. I figured they'd want to study the cybernetics."
"What are you talking about?"
"Your heart and lungs. You had … you don't remember, do you?"
"I remembered the plates in my head. Rune said they put something else there."
"Apparently they did the same to your heart and lungs. They still seem to be synthetic, but they're not cybernetics. They're actual organs."
"Why did I have cybernetics?"
"You crashed a ship when you were eighteen. You died, but whoever found you was able to save you."
"Why would I crash a ship? Did I do it on purpose?"
"There were demons on board. You did it to kill them."
"Am I a pilot or something?"
"Yes, and a damn good pilot, too."
"You didn't used to swear like that."
"I've spent too much time with Rune. And this war is wearing me out. I'm too busy fighting to save the people I love and for the memory of the ones I've lost to think about moral standards any more."
"She doesn't mind."
Anala didn't say anything. I wasn't sure what I meant anyway.
"How long do we wait for him?" I asked.
"Another hour. You get some rest now."
I tried to rest. It wasn't easy. I was worried about Rune, among other things. I didn't think he could have survived that explosion, but I still didn't remember everything about him. I thought about the ones who'd died. Duncan, Leysa, Danel and Dylan. Those names meant nothing to me. I couldn't find their faces in my mind. But I'd remember, and then I could grieve for them.
I was surprised to learn that I was a pilot. I couldn't remember being on a ship, much less piloting one. That career was over anyway. I couldn't see. I'd probably never be able to see again.
I didn't buy the whole psychic thing either. I didn't think I believed in psychic powers. If I was a pilot, what the hell did I need psychic powers for? It made sense that the visions I was having were pieces of memories. I couldn't think of any reason Rune would tell me I was psychic when I wasn't. But just as I didn't remember Rune and Anala, I didn't remember myself.
I concentrated on being psychic. I had no idea what I was doing. I felt something slipping by my hands and tried to grab it. Visions assaulted me. Voices crowded my head. I had found my memories, but I was too afraid to take them back. I let go.
Okay, so I was psychic. Or at least not normal. But a pilot?
I heard Anala speaking softly, and I opened my eyes. She was standing near the lantern with her hand up to her mouth. She was calling Rune's mercenary. Rune had failed to show up.
Anala tucked the radio into a pouch at her waist. She turned to me and wiped tears off her face. "Are you ready to go, Talon?" she asked.
"Can I ask a stupid question first?" I asked.
"I'm sure it's not stupid."
"Why is everyone calling me Talon?"
I could feel her confusion. I didn't need to see the blank look she was giving me.
"My name's Rowen. Rowen Falkenberg."
"Um, okay. But ... never mind. It's a little too much to get into right now. We need to go."
"Did I have a secret identity or something?"
"No. I'll explain it later. Let's go."
"So who's Talon?"
"You are. Now come on. We've got ten minutes."
It was my turn to be confused, and I gave up asking questions.
Anala grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the room. Peter followed reluctantly. In a few minutes, we reached an open plaza. We crouched against a wall and waited. In a few more minutes, a small ship set down in the center of the plaza and opened a hatch. We bolted for the ship. The hatch closed after us, and the ship lifted off. "Hang on!" the pilot shouted back to us. Anala shoved nylon cargo straps into my hands as we sat down. Peter hid under my left arm. The ship rumbled through the atmosphere. I didn't think we would make it, but soon we leveled off and slowed to a more reasonable speed. Anala led me up to the front of the ship.
The pilot was a big man named Barrett Graves. The ship was called Maelstrom. It was small, with little room for cargo or passengers. It had been designed for fighting and running away. It was the fastest class of ship in the universe at that time.
"What class of ship is it exactly?" I asked. I was starting to remember something, it seemed. Something about a ship. It wasn't clear. I thought if I heard more, something would click.
"It's a talon class ship," Barrett said. It sounded like he thought I should have known that.
"So the name everyone's been calling me is a class of ship?" I asked.
"Um ... Rune named it after you."
"But my name isn't ... never mind. I'll figure it out eventually. Wait a minute. You mean Rune designed this?"
"We helped a little, but yeah. There were only three built."
"Is there anything he doesn't do?"
"He's not much for singing."
I found a spot to sit in and mulled over what I had already learned. Everything should have made sense, but it didn't. All those bits of information and the scraps of memory had their places, but I couldn't make them fit. It was like trying to put together a broken puzzle.
"Have you heard from Tristan?" Anala asked.
"No," Barrett said. "We're on radio silence for the next four hours. I saw Withershins leaving. I'm sure he's okay."
"But you don't know if he picked up Rune on his way out."