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Brain Damage

Rune slept for another eighteen hours. With all my memories back, I didn't worry about him as much as I might have. Anala did enough worrying for all of us. Tristan, Barrett and Jake filled me in on how things had been going since I'd been gone, and I didn't like the things I was hearing. I wanted to see my family, but no one knew where they were except Rune. As soon as they had gotten me out of the lab, Daigoro and another mercenary named Kore Chase had gone to Teatree, where Cherry, Regan and Holden had been hiding out at the Falkenberg estate. From there, they'd gone to a secret location and were waiting to hear from Rune. I didn't like that I had no way to get in touch with them and didn't have even a vague idea of where they might be, but it was safe. The less people who knew, the less chance they'd be found by the wrong people.

I kept myself from thinking too much about the war by watching Jake and Tristan play pool. Neither of them were very good. Most of their shots bounced off the rails several times before stopping nowhere near a pocket. Tristan had a talent for sinking the cue ball, but Jake could never take advantage of the mistake. Jake ended up winning most of the games, but only because Tristan was more interested in taunting Jake than trying to beat him. Jake's ears twitched when he got mad or frustrated, and Tristan found that incredibly cute.

I watched Jake trying to line up a shot and found myself thinking about Duncan. The cold spiders spilled down my spine. I saw a dark room and two figures in the far corner, holding each other tightly. A light came on at the far end of the hall. The two figures were Duncan and Leysa. Both of them looked as if they had been beaten and tortured. There were fresh gashes on Duncan's arms and back. Heavy footsteps approached the holding cell. I recognized the footsteps. Duncan turned his head towards the door. When the door opened, he looked relieved, but that passed. He realized all too quickly that they weren't being rescued. "Traitor!" Duncan screamed. He pushed himself to his feet and rushed at their visitor. I saw Rune's face for just a second, and then the vision was gone. A hollow wind rushed around my head and a faint voice said, "Don't believe what you see."

I wasn't sure which part I wasn't supposed to believe. Another vision popped into my head, one I had had years ago. In that one, Rune had betrayed me. I didn't think I would have two visions in which he turned on me if it wasn't going to happen. It was easier to believe that Duncan and Leysa weren't really alive. I didn't see any way they could have survived the crash, and if they somehow did, it didn't make sense that Kaylan would keep them alive and torture them for eight years. That had happened too early in the war for them to have any information that would have been useful to the Imperial forces.

I couldn't tell if what I had seen was something that was going to happen or had already happened. And that bothered me.

Jake and Tristan had forgotten their game for the moment and were looking at me as I came out of the vision and rubbed my eyes.

"Everything kosher?" Tristan asked.

"I don't know," I said.

Jake took a deep breath. I watched a wave of black shift through his translucent face.

"My visions aren't always right," I said.

Jake looked down at the pool table. "We've had nothing to hope for in a long time," he said.

"I don't want to hope for this and then be wrong."

"They could have survived."

"But why torture them for eight years?"

"Why not?"

"Jake, it just doesn't make sense. None of what I saw makes sense."

"I want him back."

"I know."

"Even if it is just to lay him to rest."

"The war won't last much longer now. Then we can lay them all to rest, and you can go if you want. There won't be anything keeping you here."

"Yes, there will be."

I saw a rush of heat from Tristan, and Jake walked out. Tristan took a step after him.

"Stop right there," I said.

He stopped and sighed.

"Let him go."

"Damn it, I always fall for the wrong ones. If it's not someone who wouldn't be interested in me, it's the angsty dead Kihaku."

I had to bite my tongue not to laugh at that.

After Rune woke up and ate almost half of what we had left, we met in a medium sized room full of maps and blueprints. Jake had been spying on the Empire before he had made his way back to the underground hideout on Azimov and had learned a few things that made our situation just a little more difficult. The Imperial forces were being fortified in every location by hordes of demons. Up until then, the demons had only appeared in small numbers and at very specific places, mostly where they thought they could get to me or my family. It seemed like every demon in hell had come out to fight. But for the time being, they were only assembling. They had no information on our whereabouts.

"Why would the demons just now be coming out like that?" Anala asked.

"We're at the end of this shit now that we've got Talon back," Rune said. "They're beefing up for the last battle."

"Not just that," Jake said. "Emperor Kaylan is no longer Emperor Kaylan. We've known for a while that he's been taking advice from a very powerful demon. The demon doesn't like the way things have been going so it's decided that giving advice isn't good enough."

"You mean it's possessed Kaylan?" Tristan asked. His bright red aura began to shrink and dim.

"Yes."

"That's great," Barrett said. "How are we supposed to win now?"

"We can't win," Anala said. "We just have to pray we don't lose too badly."

"Bullshit," I said. "You didn't go through all that trouble to rescue me just so we could give up when we get a little bit of bad news. Demons aren't indestructible."

"I think it's time we stop fighting on the fringes," Rune said. "We need to go straight to the source. This is a good thing. Now that Kaylan and his demon are one, there won't be anyone left to give orders if we kill him."

"But we're talking about hundreds of thousands of soldiers, human and demon, waiting for the order to destroy. They won't just abandon that plan if we take out their leader," Jake said.

"The humans can be convinced to surrender," I said. "And I'm not worried about the demons."

"There aren't enough of us to fight that many demons."

"It only takes three."

"And the rest of us just sit back and watch you die?"

"If it comes to that. But if we do die, it won't be in a losing effort."

"You're fucking insane."

"I'm glad you noticed."

Jake shook his head, and everyone was silent.

"You know, I don't get the demon thing anyway," Tristan said. "Why does the demon want so badly to destroy the universe?"

"It's not the universe it's looking to destroy," Rune said. "It's certain powers in the universe. And it's revenge."

"Revenge?"

"I killed some demons a long time ago," I said. "This thing has been pissed off at me for years."

"So it's not really a war. It's a grudge match."

"I saved the universe once; I think I can do it again."

"We'll come up with a plan and get started as soon as we can," Rune said. "I think there are some other things that need to be taken care of first."

"Talon, what about your vision?" Jake asked.

"It's not important," I said.

"I disagree. Anything that might affect the plan needs to be out on the table."

I couldn't argue with that. "I have reason to believe that Duncan and Leysa are being held captive somewhere and that one of us will turn traitor."

Rune was the only one who had no reaction to what I said.

"Do you have any idea who it is?" Anala asked.

"Yes."

"What are we supposed to do about it?"

"Nothing. Let him suffer the consequences. One traitor isn't enough to keep us down." I looked at Rune. He met my eyes, but his expression didn't change.

Rune stood up, still looking me dead in the eyes. "I think we're done for now," he said. He walked out of the room, and I listened to his footsteps head towards the empty swimming pool then just stop.

"Please tell me it's not him," Anala said.

"I can't lie to you," I said.

"That doesn't make any fucking sense whatsoever," Barrett said. "He's been leading this war for eight years. He risked his life to get you out of there. Why the hell would he turn his back on us now?"

"Because he didn't live this long by being on the losing side, and we're a losing side."

"What does he get out of betraying us?" Tristan asked.

"A few thousand more years, maybe." But as soon as I said that, I didn't believe it. The one thing Rune wanted was to be able to die just like everyone else. Did he think the demon would kill him? Or that I would kill him? No, something wasn't right about that. I heard the voice again. "Don't believe what you see." But what was I supposed to not believe? "All right, listen. I think there's more to it than we know right now. I don't know that he's done anything yet. Maybe just knowing that we know will stop him. I don't want any of you to start questioning him just yet. If he is up to something, I don't think he's willing to let us die for it. So follow his orders. You know him well enough to know if things start to get weird. As soon as that happens, let me know."

"What can you do to stop him?" Jake asked.

"Nothing. But if he thinks he's gonna marry my daughter now, he's out of his mind."

I looked for Rune everywhere after that, but he was nowhere to be found. I searched for secret passages and hidden exits and found nothing. He must have had some other way to move around. I hated having to do anything behind his back, but I didn't have a choice.

I went to Jake's room, but he didn't answer when I knocked. I went to Tristan's room. I listened at the door for a second. They were very quiet, but I could hear them. I knocked. I heard frantic movement.

"I'm asleep!" Tristan shouted.

"I wouldn't be interrupting you if it wasn't important," I said. "I need to talk to Jake now."

"Five minutes?"

"Two and a half. I'm counting."

Two and a half minutes later, Jake opened the door. He closed it without looking back. "Two and a half minutes isn't long enough to give my lover a satisfying goodbye," he said.

"You'll have all the time in the world for a more than satisfying hello when this is over," I said.

The hall was dark, and I stumbled a little. Jake put his hand on my elbow. "Where are we going?" he asked.

"Up to the hangar."

He didn't ask why.

When we got up to the hangar, I found the controls and opened it. "I want you to go back to Xebec," I said. "Find out if Rune's been there recently and who he's talking to, if anyone. If he hasn't been there, keep an eye out for him. Get as much information on the demon as you can. What kind of powers does it have? What kind of henchmen does it have? Anything you can find out will be useful. See if you can find holding cells of any kind underground. Find out who they're holding. If you find Duncan and Leysa, don't do anything. Tell me first. I will get them out if they're there to get out, but I don't want you going in there alone and getting yourself killed again. I just want your eyes in there. Got it?"

"How do I let you know anything?"

"Use your mind."

"And if Rune attempts to contact me?"

"Avoid him."

"And if he rats me out?"

"Do what you have to do."

"This life I'm living isn't really mine. I'm willing to give it to you."

I put my hand on his chest. Something shivered up my arm. He grabbed my wrist to steady himself. I wasn't quite sure what I had done or how I had known to do it, but I could feel a stronger connection. Telepathy would be easier, and his life was literally mine. "Then I'm gonna want it back alive."

He nodded and put his mask on.

As soon as he was clear of the hangar, I closed it and went back down. I didn't like the fact that what I had just done meant that I no longer trusted Rune, but I slept easier knowing I had taken precautions. And I could always hope that I was wrong.

"Daddy?" Regan whispered.

"Hey, kiddo," I said. "Everything okay?"

"Not really. I'm worried about Rune. Firefly's trying to tell me something, but I don't think it's right."

"Something about him being a traitor?"

"Yeah, but then it tells me that not everything is as it seems."

"I've seen that, too."

"He wouldn't do that."

"I don't think so either, but I'm taking precautions anyway. One way or another, something's not right. Regan, I know you love him, but I can't let anything stand in the way of ending the war."

"Maybe I should talk to him."

"I don't want him to know or even suspect we might not trust him any more. That could make things worse. We'll talk more when I get there. Okay?"

"Okay. When will you get here?"

"I don't know. Soon."

"Okay. I love you, Daddy."

"I love you, too."

The contact faded, and I kept the line open, listening again. That time, I heard a whisper that led back to where she was. I couldn't follow it long enough to know exactly where she was, but I knew it was a space station.

When I let the contact drop, I felt a strange twist in the energy, like someone else was trying to look at my visions. It made my head throb. I saw a small teenage girl with bright pink hair and blue eyes. In the center of her forehead was a green diamond shaped mark. Her mouth was open as if she were screaming. She was bleeding, but I couldn't see where. "No," she said.

I saw a large syringe full of something very cold. I watched it stab deep into an arm. I heard a sound that wanted to be a scream but wasn't quite. The vision snapped away like a rubber band breaking.

I opened my eyes on darkness. The red haze was only a thin halo at the edges of my vision. I rubbed my eyes and stumbled towards the door. The hallway was lit again. I pulled the door shut behind me. I turned to go towards the galley and ran into Rune. I grabbed his right arm.

"What the hell are you doing?" he asked.

I didn't answer. I pushed the sleeve of his tee shirt up to his shoulder and looked and felt for wounds. Then I did the same to the left. Peter squawked at me, but there were no marks on his arms. Then I remembered that his arms were new.

"Talon, is something wrong?"

I shook my head. "No. Not at all."

"Right."

"Just a vision."

"About me shooting up?"

"Not quite um shooting up?"

"You don't look so good."

"I'm okay. Are you?"

He said nothing.

"Rune?"

"Honestly, no."

"What's the matter?"

"Jake's gone."

"He probably went looking for Duncan. You know how he is."

"Duncan's been dead for eight years. Jake believes that. He didn't agree to stay and let me bind him just because of Duncan. I don't think he'd go running off like that because of a vision that may or may not be accurate."

"Do you think he's a traitor?"

"No. But I think you put him up to it in order to find the traitor."

"That's not true. I put him up to it in hopes of keeping that part of my vision from being true."

Rune put his hands on my shoulders. "Listen to me, Talon. I will never betray you. Never. No matter how things look. No matter what I might say or do. I will not turn my back on you."

"I've seen it twice. It makes too much sense."

He took my right hand and pressed it to his chest over where his heart would be. I sensed a tight ball of flame that throbbed and pushed the fire through the rest of his body. "Look inside," he said.

Cold chills washed over me. I closed my eyes. I saw myself looking through a book that had sketches of Regan, Daigoro and me and the names of each of our stars under the drawings. I turned a page. I saw a sketch of a man walking away. There was a cigarette in his right hand and a falcon on his left shoulder. Underneath the sketch was the phrase "The flame will extinguish itself for its angels." Under my hand, the heart of fire flared bright white. I pulled my hand away. I didn't want to see any more.

"You see?" Rune asked. "I won't betray you. I can't."

"What does it mean?"

"What does what mean?"

"That line. 'The flame will extinguish itself for its angels.'"

"You know exactly what it means."

"I'm not an angel. I'm a psychic."

"Why did you name the ship Blue Ava's Angel? Did you think a ship was going to save her from Vinny? No. You were Blue Ava's angel."

"It's just a name."

"Why did you die? Why did you take that kind of responsibility on yourself? You could've bailed."

"Why should I get to be an angel? What about Anala? She's all pure and good and all that. Why me?"

"Why you? You killed yourself to save the universe from a demon scourge. Why not you?"

"Because whatever else I am, I'm human."

"I will not betray you."

I was even more convinced that something just wasn't right. I knew he was up to something, and he knew I was on to him. I wondered what he was going to do. I wondered what I was going to do.

Everything seemed normal when I got to the galley except Tristan's aura. It had turned a murky shade of blue. I knew it wouldn't stay that way, though. Something would happen to make him bright again.

"Do we have a plan yet?" Barrett asked.

"I have a few ideas," Rune said. "Jake went to get more information. We'll wait and see what he comes up with."

Tristan glared at Rune, and I heard him think, "Fucking liar."

"How much longer are we going to wait?" Anala asked. Her aura bristled. I wondered if I'd have to stop a mutiny.

"Not too much longer," I said.

"Every time you say that, we end up with a long delay."

"Okay, then I take it back. We'll have to wait forever."

"Smart ass."

"At least part of me knows something."

No one laughed at my lame attempt at humor. The silence that followed was uncomfortable.

Rune stood up. Everyone stared at him. "Why are you all acting so fucking weird?" No one answered. "Whatever. Talon, I'll call Kore to come and pick you up."

"No. Tristan's taking me," I said.

Rune didn't like that at all. His fire flickered and his edges turned dark orange. "Fine. Let me know when you're ready to go," he said. The smoldering fire left the galley.

Pain ripped up the back of my head. I saw the pink haired girl again. "Run," she said. "Hide. They're coming for you. I'm sorry." And then it was all gone.

"I think we're about to be attacked," I said.

Without waiting for orders or asking questions, Tristan and Anala went up to the hangar where they opened the missile silos and readied the two plasma cannons. I followed Barrett's dark bulk to the communications room. The radar showed three small blips closing in on us at high speed.

"How the fuck did they find us?" Barrett asked. "No one knows about this place."

"They're using a psychic to track me," I said.

"Can't you block that?"

"In theory, but it's a little too late now."

"Damn, they're loaded for bear. We need to get out of here. Where's Rune?"

"He can take care of himself. Let's go."

We made it half way down the hall before the first hit. Everything shook. The lights flickered. Rocks and dirt came loose from the mountain the compound had been built into. I listened to our missiles launch and miss. The plasma cannons fired. We kept going when things stopped vibrating.

We were almost to the elevator when we were hit again. The compound began to split open. The lights went out. A back up generator came on. A third hit killed that. Dirt and rocks pelted my head. I couldn't tell where Barrett was. I heard him call my name, and spotted a flare of yellow in the corner in front of an open doorway. I started to go after him. A hard hand gripped my arm like a vise and pulled me away from the door. I turned around as a fourth missile slammed into the mountain and I heard sheet metal ripping.

Rune shoved something into my arms and turned me back in the direction of the doorway.

"What the hell - "

"Just go," he said. I didn't like his tone of voice. I knew he was leaving us.

"What is this?"

"Things you might need."

He pushed me forward, and I felt him vanish. I stumbled towards the door and Barrett.

We raced up the stairs. I held onto whatever Rune had given me as tight as I could, but I almost dropped it several times anyway. It was heavy, and something inside clicked against something else. When we reached the hangar, Anala and Tristan had already given up trying to fight off the Imperial ships. They were too well armed for the weapons we had on the ground, and we couldn't stay there any longer.

I thought I would be more reluctant to try to fly Blue Ava's Angel under those circumstances, but I sure as hell wasn't going to leave her there.

Maelstrom and Withershins took off and managed to take out one of the Imperial ships and severely damage another. The third ship turned tail and bolted. Tristan pursued it long enough to detect an extra passenger on the ship, but he lost sight of it before his sensors could give him any more details than that. Barrett shot down the damaged ship and went to scout for their back up, if they had any.

I had to remind myself that I really did know what I was doing when I sat down and looked at the controls through the red haze. Anala sat down beside me. "Do you need me to do anything?" she asked.

"Praying couldn't hurt," I said.

The hangar was starting to collapse as the lower levels caved in. I got the engines going. The sound was comforting, but I still couldn't see clearly. I could end up flying us into a sun and never know the difference. I was starting to get frustrated.

I heard a gong and wind chimes. My sinuses began to buzz. Good timing, I thought. I concentrated on the controls. It was just like with the radar. I could see into the machine. When I looked up, there was no red haze to obscure my path. After that, it was easy. I didn't even have to touch the controls. I thought, cloaking device, and it came on. I thought, weapons, and I could aim and fire all of them. I thought, this is fucking cool, and Blue Ava's Angel laughed at me. It sounded like stars twinkling.

I turned the cloaking device off so that Barrett and Tristan could see me when I pulled out of the hangar. Radio, I thought, and it popped on with a warm crackle. Tristan had already seen me.

"Talon, is that really you?" he asked.

"Yeah, it's me."

"How the hell are you doing that?"

"Look, ma, no hands!"

There was a short silence while he figured out what I meant. "Holy shit! That's fucking amazing!"

"No, what's amazing is that she runs this well after six years of sitting."

"We kept her ready for you."

Barrett returned from scouting. "We're clear for now. Valewind is close. We can hide there."

"Lead the way," I told him. "Tristan, take up the rear. Watch for that last ship. See if it makes a sweep anywhere near the compound. You guys have cloaking devices, right?"

"Of course we do," Tristan said. "We didn't live this long without being able to hide." I could sense his aura flickering towards red again.

"Good. Then let's hide and take it easy. I'm not sure how long I can keep this up."

As we took off into space, the mountain collapsed in a huge dust cloud, burying the hidden base and everything inside it. Anala covered her face and fought off her tears. In the darkness of the dust, I saw a bright smear of flame and couldn't make up my mind if I was glad he got out or not.