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Brain Damage

As soon as we were within sight of Lore, a small fleet of well-armed Imperial fighters came out to welcome us. All the Imperial insignias had been scraped off and replaced by the acronym GLOBE.

"Identify yourselves!" a harsh voice shrieked from the lead ship. He sounded tense. They didn't get many visitors. I heard murmurs from the other pilots. They recognized Blue Ava's Angel.

I gave him our names and the names of the ships. There was silence.

"State your business," he said.

"Fuel and supplies," I said.

"Plot another course."

"Withershins and Maelstrom don't have fuel for another course. We won't take much of your time, and I'm willing to pay."

He laughed. "Plot another course."

"In gold."

That changed his tune. He switched to another frequency and made a call. A few minutes later, we were following the GLOBE ships to the surface.

When we got off our ships, we were patted down and disarmed. All three ships were searched. When they were finally satisfied that we weren't carrying Imperial spies or something equally detrimental to their cause, we were lead, at gunpoint, into a low brick building where men and women in dirty uniforms poured over worn out maps and tried to decode intercepted radio transmissions. Chills crept down my back as we passed one room where two occultists were trying to translate a demon message they'd recorded somewhere near Saint Dominic. I understood every word of the message. "The fire is now ours. The stars will soon fall." Our escort didn't like it too much when I went into the room, grabbed a grease pencil from one of the occultists and wrote it down for them.

"What does that mean?" the translator asked.

"What do you think it means?" I asked.

One of the escorts yanked me out of the room before the girl could ask me anything else, which was fine with me. I had no intention of explaining it. I knew what it meant.

We were shoved into a small, cold room full of harsh fluorescent lights. There was a long, narrow table with several chairs. Behind the head of the table was a poster with the GLOBE acronym on it. The letters were big and bold and separated by stars. Printed underneath that was the line "Guerrillas of Lore Organized to Battle the Empire." GLOBE. I didn't want to laugh at such a valiant effort to defend Lore, but I couldn't help it.

"Sit down and wait," the head escort said.

"Would it be too much to ask for something to eat?" I asked.

"Yes. Sit down."

"We haven't eaten in a few days. A hunk of bread and some water is all I'm asking. Do you want us to pass out before you can properly interrogate us?"

"I said sit down, Konstantine. It'll be up to the General if you get anything out of us, much less get off Lore alive."

Tristan stepped up to the guard's face. "You can't talk to him like that," he said. "Do you have any idea what he's done for this universe? If it weren't for him, we'd probably all be dead right now. So treat him with some respect."

The guard cocked his elbow to hit Tristan. Tristan was ready for a fight. His aura was a fierce red.

Barrett got between them, shoving Tristan back a few steps. The guard seemed to rethink his action and lowered his arm.

"This is what happens when we don't get fed," I said. "Your general could start looking mighty tasty."

"Fine," the guard said. "But you better sit down and fucking behave yourselves."

"We're the good guys, you fucking asshole!" Tristan shouted.

Barrett turned to face Tristan and gently shoved him into a chair. Tears glistened in Tristan's eyes. He'd seen what I had written down for the translators, and he knew exactly what it meant.

The guard turned on his heel and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.

"I have a feeling this isn't going to be easy," Anala said.

"I have a shitload of gold that says otherwise," I said.

"What if you can't buy them?"

"They need money just as much as we do."

"Talon's right," Barrett said. "Those guns are so old, I'd be surprised if they still work. All this equipment looks ancient. If they want to keep Lore out of Imperial hands, they need better weapons."

"And I know where they can get those weapons."

"Oh?"

"Let's just see how this goes first."

Apparently, word got back to the General that his guard had been rude to us about our request for food, and after only a few minutes of waiting, a man and a woman pushed in two carts of what looked to be the best food they had available. We were well fed, well watered and ready for naps by the time a shout of "Attention!" rang through the hall and quick, crisp steps headed our way.

The door popped open with armed guards on either side of a wiry man with salt and pepper hair and a big red nose. His eyes sparkled and his orange aura flickered. "Talon Konstantine! I haven't seen you since you were fourteen years old! Look at you!" I stood up and accepted his warm embrace. His guards looked confused. He waved them out. "General Etienne Mangum," he said, shaking hands with the others. "I worked with his mom way back when. You turned out just like her, too, you know. Fucking crazy. Goddamn, I'm glad to see you're okay. Have you seen your folks yet?"

"No. Are they - "

"They're at Walden City with your wife and kids. It took me and your dad a long time to convince Alyssa not to get involved with the fighting. Your friend Rune was more than capable of taking care of all that. Where is he, by the way? Wasn't he the one who rescued you?"

"He he changed his mind."

Etienne sat down and ran his hand over his face. "That's too bad. I liked that boy."

"I think he might have been tortured."

"So these three are it?"

"No. We got one inside. And two more at Walden City with my family."

"Damn, that's bad odds, kid."

"I know."

"Got a plan?"

"No. I don't need one. We're not losing."

"God, just like your mom. She is so proud of you, you know."

"I didn't expect you to be heading up a resistance like this."

"Well, me and some of my buddies decided that Lore wasn't gonna fall like everything else did. We knew enough people in the right places to get the weapons we needed. It's worth squat with everything else being held by the Empire, but we do what we can."

"You're not the only ones. Junket seems to be holding out."

"Junket is a hellhole. No one wants it."

"That's why Vinny's got it."

"I don't have much to spare, but your ships are being fueled as we speak. I can stock you with supplies to get you to Teatree. I don't know what your situation with the Falkenbergs is right now, but the Empire's left the planet alone. Gervaso passed away a few years ago. The oldest girl's head of the house now. Tirell's been missing for quite some time. There've been rumors he's been on Saint Dominic doing something with a shape-shifting alien who lost his entire family, some ten or fifteen kids and his woman, when demons ripped up his forest. Angelique takes care of Sharlyn most of the time and just stays out of trouble. I know she likes you. She'd be willing to help if she could."

"What about Irial?"

"Irial? Who knows? Still there, I guess. Sulking. I don't know why you'd even want his help."

"It seems he's been making large deposits to my bank account on Junket for several years. And I'd be willing to bet he can get you better weapons or at the very least, tell you where to go and who to talk to. He hasn't been sitting there waiting. He's gotta have something going on."

"You think he'd be willing to share?"

"He has to. He's still making up for lost time."

"I'm not sure I'd trust Irial after what he put you through. Granted, I'm damn glad you weren't raised a Falkenberg, but he just didn't think very clearly."

"He forgot to consider a few things."

"Like that you'd grow up and have a mind of your own?"

"Among other things. But we can't be too picky right now."

"You know you're welcome to stay here as long as you need to."

"Thanks, but we need to hurry. They're tracking me with a psychic, and I haven't figured out how to block her out yet."

"All right, then. Let's talk money."

Etienne almost passed out when he saw how much gold I had and almost refused to take what I gave him. I would have given him more if I thought he'd take it. He gave us a copy of the code they used and a secure frequency to contact him on. I hoped I wouldn't have to use it, but I had a feeling I'd need the back up, especially if they were able to get better weapons.

"That was pretty convenient that you knew that guy," Barrett said after we took off. "You got any other tricks up your sleeve?"

"I didn't know it was him," I said. "But that was pretty convenient. As for other tricks, let's see what happens when we get to Teatree."

I had hoped to get to Teatree without incident, but I didn't expect that kind of luck. Things had been going a little too well since our mountain had been attacked. So when we were about halfway there, my head felt like it was being torn open from the inside. I felt Blue Ava's Angel veer off course. "They're right behind you," Seren said. "I'm sorry." Tears spilled down her cheeks.

"Talon, what's going on?" Anala asked.

The pain vanished, and I got back on course. "We're being followed," I said. "Tristan, what's on your sensors?"

"Nothing. Wait. Shit. Three fighters," he said. "They just turned off their cloaking devices and readied all their weapons."

"Son of a bitch," Barrett said.

"Break off course and take them out," I said.

"What about you?"

"Just go."

"We can't just leave you alone like that," Tristan said. "Blue Ava's Angel doesn't have enough weapons to hold the fighter off."

"Tristan, do you want to see Jake again?"

Tristan didn't answer. I could see him picturing Jake sweeping him into his arms and kissing him. I knew it wasn't going to happen. "This is all for nothing if you die," he said. "So don't fucking die."

The fighters were on my radar by then. "Get to Teatree," I said and cut off the radio. I watched them roll away, and two of the Imperial fighters followed. The third, the one that carried Seren, stayed with me.

"Now what?" Anala asked.

"Hang on," I said.

Anala gripped the arms of the seat and took a deep breath. "I had hoped you'd be a little less insane when you got older."

"I've got a reputation to uphold."

"That you do."

I slowed down until the fighter was right on our tail. I tried not to think of the possibility that I couldn't do what I was planning or that Blue Ava's Angel wouldn't hold up. I pointed her as straight down as I could and accelerated. The fighter lingered above me for a second then followed, firing laser cannons. I veered left and hit the brakes. The fighter zipped past me. I fired at it, clipping a wing. Seren's scream rang through my head. I turned right, accelerated and turned on the cloaking device. The fighter didn't follow. They couldn't risk losing Seren. If she died, they had no way of tracking me.

Once we'd gotten far enough away, I slowed down. My head was spinning. I could feel my connection to Blue Ava's Angel beginning to fade. The red haze crept into my sight. I tried to fight it off. I lost. Black washed over the red, and then it was cold and quiet.

I heard a noise. I couldn't tell what it was. I strained to hear more clearly. Voices. Tiny whispers from far away. I couldn't understand them. I opened my eyes. I could see them floating around me like scraps of smoke. I reached out to touch one. My fingers passed through it. "Don't believe what you see," it said.

"What do I see?" I asked it.

It was already gone. I reached out for another one.

"Betrayal," it said.

"What am I supposed to see?"

A third wisp curled around my wrist. "Undying love," it said.

I looked for that, but I didn't see it. I closed my eyes. Cold spiders swarmed my scalp. I watched a vicious looking woman jab cold syringes into Rune's arms and legs while something laughed at him. "You don't have to go looking for them," Rune said to someone a while later. "They'll come to you. I think it might be a better idea to flush out their spy right now." I heard that same laugh. I saw a stack of books. I heard a door slam open. I watched Rune ram a knife into Jake's chest, cracking the armor and sending his spirit back to whatever plane of existence it had been in before Rune had brought it back.

The voice wrapped around my wrist twisted itself through my fingers and slipped down my arm. "Undying love," it said again.

"That's not love," I said. "That's murder."

"Undying love."

I shook the damn thing off. "Undying love my ass."

Another voice drifted across my face. "You don't see all," it said.

But I'd seen enough. Rune had gone back to being the bloodthirsty killer he had been thousands of years ago, and he'd done it because he didn't like being cold.

Anala's static prickled across my skin. I opened my eyes. The red haze was a little thicker.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said. I didn't feel all right. I was tired. I had never been that tired. Using Shaman the way I had been was wearing me out. I wouldn't be able to do it for much longer.

"What happened?"

"It was just a vision."

"Don't lie to me, Talon. You've been unconscious for an hour. We have no power."

"An hour? Fuck. We need to get moving." I tried to get up.

"Talon "

"I'm okay, really."

"You are not."

I put my head in my hands.

"What is it?"

"I can't do it any more. I can't fly like that without killing myself. But I don't have a choice."

"Yes, you do."

"Maybe tomorrow I will, but how else are we gonna get to Teatree?"

"We can call Tristan and Barrett."

"I'm not abandoning my ship."

"They can pull us to Teatree."

"That's too slow and too dangerous."

"Don't put yourself through this."

"I have to."

"Talon, if we lose you, we lose everything."

"Maybe you shouldn't put so much hope in me. There are two other angels. And I'd be pretty pissed if you gave up."

"How could I go on if you weren't here?"

"How did you do it before? You didn't know I was alive."

"But I had hope that you were. If I watch you die, what hope is there?"

I looked at my hands. "These are not the hands that save the universe. The hands that will save the universe are stained with blood."

Anala put her hand in mine. "Is it our blood that stains those hands?"

"There are sacrifices."

"Jake."

"He isn't the only one."

"Come on. Get up. We probably don't have much air left."

"I can't."

"Yes, you can. Come on."

She put her other hand on my elbow and helped me to my feet. I felt the prickle of her static then a jolt that threw me forward a few steps. Anala's hands slipped away from me. I turned around just in time to keep her from hitting the floor.

"What the hell did you just do?" I asked.

"You feel better, don't you?"

"But you - "

"I'm fine. Don't worry about me. Get us out of here."

Her head collapsed on my shoulder.

"Fuck."

I put Anala in the navigator's chair. She groaned. A flashing light on the control panel told me we had less than an hour of oxygen left. I sat down and stared out at the red washed blackness in front of me. I put my hands on the control panel. Wake up and get moving, I thought. Everything came on. The engines hummed. I set the course for Teatree and pushed it as fast as I could. Even at that speed, it wasn't going to be fast enough for my liking.

In two days, we were in orbit around Teatree, and I drifted for a while, waiting to hear from Barrett and Tristan. They showed up the next day. They had taken the long way around, swinging past Gehgal after they had destroyed the Imperial fighters. They had looked for us but didn't find us. Tristan had received a message from Lore containing a coded transmission from Xebec to the fighter that had gotten away. When the last fighter reported that it had lost us, someone radioed back that they could catch up with us at Walden City. The stop on Teatree was going to have to be as fast as possible. But nothing had ever worked out as planned for me, even as far back as when the Empire first started. At least after all that time, I was old enough to know better and wise enough to take precautions. I had Tristan send a message to Kore that they might be attacked so that she and Daigoro could be ready to get my family out of there at a moment's notice.

I sent a message to the Falkenberg estate and waited. I didn't know if they'd let us land or not. An hour later, a servant radioed. "Greetings, Blue Ava's Angel. You and your wingmen are clear to land at the southern dock. Mr. Afinogenov will be waiting for you."

I almost asked who Afinogenov was, but then I vaguely remembered Valeska getting married to a man named Andre Afinogenov. The Afinogenovs were a lesser noble family but far older than the Falkenbergs. I wondered how he had managed to stay married to Valeska for that long without wanting to kill her.

When we landed, the servants swarmed us as soon as we stepped off our ships, bowing to us like we were all nobles. They went to work refueling our ships and asked us if there were any supplies we needed.

"Yeah," Barrett said. "Big fucking guns."

The girl holding the clipboard blinked. Then she smiled. "I'll see what we can do," she said.

"I was joking, but hey."

The girl winked at him.

"I think she likes you," Tristan said.

"I could use a little of that, too."

Andre Afinogenov was a tall man with blonde hair and dark blue eyes. He exuded quiet strength, even as he just stood there waiting for us. He had an orange aura that had lines of silver running through it. I wasn't sure what that meant, but it made me feel more at ease. When he shook my hand, the cold spiders crawled down my back. The face I saw was similar to Andre's, but it wasn't him. It was much younger, but at the same time, much older. The man I saw was holding a gun on someone. At least I thought it was a gun. It didn't look like anything I had ever seen before, not even in that museum Mom and Dad used to take me to all the time. It was too old. But then I realized that the man I was seeing was another Shaman. I could see a white aura around him with swirls of bright blue that grew brighter as his aura whirled around him like a cyclone. The man on the wrong end of the gun was terrified.

Andre was smiling when I opened my eyes. "You must be seeing my ancestor," he said. "A very powerful psychic, and quite an interesting man. I only wish that his early journals hadn't been lost."

"He's kinda scary, too," I said.

"Yes, I suppose so. Back then, there were few people who even knew about powers like that, and there were none like him. Magic was one thing, but he was quite another."

"He was a Shaman."

"Was he? Now, that's interesting. My family is truly blessed, then, to have one in the past and one in the present."

"You have one to come, too."

I watched the faces of Andre's children flit though his mind as he wondered which one it was. But there were only four children, and I didn't see the one I knew it would be.

"Please, come inside," Andre said.

We followed Andre inside, and as soon as we stepped into the hallway, I heard Valeska's shrill voice. She was standing in the hallway, bent down and knocking on a hollow part of the wall.

"Is something the matter, dear?" Andre asked.

Valeska straightened. She looked pale. "I've been sick all morning, and your daughter crawled into the tunnels again and refuses to come out for her piano lesson," she said. "She wants to learn how to fence like her brothers." She looked over Andre's shoulder at me. "I hope you're not staying too long. The last time you were here was an absolute disaster."

"Don't make me go to any more balls, and I won't make any more disasters," I said.

"Have you saved the universe yet?"

"I'm working on it."

"Good." She bent over again and knocked on the wall. "Noreen Elisabeth Falkenberg! Come out here right now!" She stood up straight and put her hand on her stomach.

A small voice said, "I wanna fence!"

"Andre, do something."

"You should lay down," he said.

Anala stepped forward and took Valeska's arm. Valeska didn't pull away, but the look on her face wasn't very nice. Anala smiled. "You should take care of yourself," she said. "Too much stress could harm the baby. I can give you something for the nausea and to help you relax."

"But Noreen " Valeska said.

"I'll get her out," I said.

"Thank you."

Getting Noreen to come out of the tunnel was harder than it needed to be. She didn't believe that I was her uncle because I didn't have the same last name that she did, and even when I told her the name I had been born with, she didn't believe me. I tried all the usual stuff about her parents being worried about her and all that, but she didn't listen. They knew where she was and that she was safe there, so they couldn't be but so worried. In the end, I resorted to bribes of ice cream. Valeska wasn't too happy about that, but she was glad I had gotten Noreen to come out of the tunnels.

We decided not to stay for dinner, since the ships were ready to go. I didn't want to waste any more time. I saw Angelique and Sharlyn briefly before we left. Sharlyn had been sick for a while, but she was never sick enough to die. It was hard for me to see her like that because I wasn't sure how I was supposed to react. She was my mother only in the sense that she had given birth to me. Beyond that, I had no real connection to her. Still, I hated to see her suffering like that. It made me even more anxious to get to Walden City.

Andre walked with us to the dock, and we were followed by Gavril and Pavel, Andre and Valeska's ten-year-old twins, who were playing tag.

"I'm surprised we haven't seen Irial yet," Andre said. "I'm sure he knew you were coming."

I shrugged. "He's probably afraid I'd beat him up," I said. "I'd like to. He's the one who started all this in the first place."

"Yes, but I don't think he ever envisioned it turning out this way. He might be a conniving little prick, but he's not evil."

Irial stepped away from a group of servants just as we walked up. "Is that anyway to talk about your family, Andre?" he asked.

"I was paying you a compliment, Irial," Andre said.

Irial narrowed his eyes. Andre didn't flinch. "I still can't understand why my parents allowed you to marry Valeska. You are beneath her."

"Mine has always been a noble family, even when we had no money. Actions are what make a noble. Not power and money. If anything, the addition of my name to yours raises your station almost to the level you think you're on."

Irial bared his teeth. Andre flashed him a charming smile, wished us luck and chased his sons back to the house. Irial turned his attention to me. "You and I never had a chance to talk after Kaylan became emperor. I was hoping we would have some time this evening."

"I'm in a hurry."

"You've been in a hurry since the day you were born."

"There's a resistance army on Lore that needs new weapons. Can you help them?"

"Yes, in fact, I just spoke with General Mangum. I'm on my way to Lore now."

"I'm supposed to say thanks for the gold, and I appreciate it, really. But I don't appreciate the fact that you still think you can buy me."

"What happens when you end this war, Rowen?"

"My name is Talon."

"You'll always be Rowen to me."

"You're the one who made me what I am, so call me by my right name. It's Talon."

"So what happens when the war is over?"

"I don't know yet. Anarchy might work for a while. I kinda like the chaos theory of government. Then there's the whole idea of entropy, too. Order from chaos and all that shit. So if I leave it alone, it'll fix itself. If it doesn't, fuck it. I've got what I want."

"That's ridiculous! Someone will have to be in charge."

"Yeah. I'm thinking Duncan might make a good ruler. He was a king or something where he comes from."

"The universe needs a Republic."

"That'll work. After all, I had an easier time fighting the Republic. Blackstone was right. I'm not enough to stand against an Empire."

"Why must you be so difficult?"

"Because I can be."

"You need someone who understands politics."

"You're acting like it's my responsibility to put someone in charge of the universe. It's not. If that were my role, I'd have crowned myself emperor. I'm just a guardian."

"That may be the case, but the universe will look to you for guidance. You can't turn your back on that. So it becomes your responsibility to place someone in charge."

"You haven't earned the chance to redeem yourself that way just yet."

"You are just like your mother." He didn't mean Alyssa.

I smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "We'll talk more when the war is over. And keep in mind that there's a chance we'll lose."

"Then I'm going to make sure that chance is as miniscule as possible."