My body knew that it was without a doubt asleep. The problem was that my mind wasnít so sure about that. I watched my dreams like a spectator. They were full of blood. I watched a hairline fracture run up a pane of glass and cleave a reflection of a bright star. The crack split into many cracks and fanned out across the glass. The star was so fragmented that I thought I was seeing a meteor shower. The Shaman star was broken.
A warm breeze blew by me. I was alone. I was lost. I had nothing to navigate with. The stars had all turned out their lights. Put your lights on, I told them, but they ignored me. There was only empty blackness above me and miles and miles of unbroken land before me. This is hell, I thought.
And you wouldnít be wrong, a voice said. Inside me or outside me, it was impossible to tell the difference.
I heard the wind chimes and the gong. I followed the sounds, but I could never find the source. Yuusei made those sounds.
I told myself I needed to learn more about the three stars. I would need to go back to Saint Dominic and talk to the owl man in the forest. He knew something. I would need to find books, talk to other psychics, and search the shelves of forgotten libraries. Already dust tickled my nose. Find the fire, a voice said. Rune holds a key.
In the last part of the dream, I saw myself running through a desert. I knew there were monsters in the desert. I wanted to get out of it. The sand was deep. I had been running for so long. My legs throbbed. My ankles kept folding in on themselves until finally something in one of them popped, and I couldnít run any more. I dragged myself along. It was cold. I looked up at the sky. Shaman stared back at me, unwavering as always, but mocking me. Then the monster blocked my view of the sky, and I screamed.
I kept my eyes open until dawn.
Later that morning, we were taken down the hall to a private dining room. We were un-handcuffed so we could eat, and we did so in silence.
"What have they done with Dylan?" Cherry asked when we were done.
"He got away," I said.
"Heís coming back for us, isnít he?"
Cherry chewed on a fork and said nothing.
"What are we going to do?" Danel asked.
"I donít know. I donít have a plan. Thereís nothing I can do. Weíre all going to be executed. Thatís the end of it."
"We can pray," Anala said. "Or we could beg for our lives."
"Iím sorry. I never meant for it to come to this."
"We can all be held accountable for our actions, Talon. We all knew what was going on. We knew you were a criminal, yet we helped you anyway."
"That doesnít mean you need to die."
We were silent. I kept wondering when the guards would take us back to our rooms. Then I realized that it was part of Blackstoneís game. She wanted me to feel as guilty as possible before I was led out to watch my friends die.
"You spoke to her yesterday," Cherry said.
I said nothing.
"You fucking bastard."
So much for not letting them know.
Tears rolled down Cherryís cheeks. "How could you do that to us? How could you betray us like that?" She was too hurt to be angry, but there would be time for anger later. I considered telling her it wasnít what she thought it was, but then I would have to come up with something she would believe. I didnít want to lie.
"Talon, what did you do?" Danel asked.
"Blackstone made me a deal," I said. "I accepted it."
"A deal? What kind of deal?"
"I keep my mouth shut about her secrets and me and Regan walk. Itís that simple."
"What about the rest of us?" Anala asked.
"Executed, just like she planned."
"Thatís how you repay kindness?"
"I still owe you doors for your church."
"It wonít do any good if Iím dead, will it?"
"There is one thing that can keep us all alive."
"And what would that be?" Cherry asked.
"Real good timing." I didnít want to tell them about Daigoro. If the guards overheard it, he would have no chance.
They still werenít too happy about what I had done, but they knew I wasnít too pleased with myself either. They werenít ready to forgive me just yet. It was better to let me wallow in my guilt a while longer. I hoped Daigoro knew when to strike.
Regan had arranged pieces of fruit and other breakfast scraps into a smiley face on her plate. "Cherry wonít die," she said. "Sheís gonna have my baby brother."
"Regan, donít play with your food," I said. But then I noticed I had done the same thing she had done.
Cherry tried not to smile. She put her hand over her mouth and looked away.
There wasn't much to say after that. I wasn't going to waste my breath trying to get them to forgive me for being more concerned about my daughter's welfare than about theirs. I'd already wasted enough trying to forgive myself. It was something that I would bear the burden of for the rest of my life. All anyone ever had to do was remind me of what I did, and the weight of it would crush me all over again. Fortunately, no one has ever been mad enough at me to do that.
We were taken back to our room, in handcuffs again. The door on my room had been fixed. I wanted to do something. I couldn't take any more sitting around and waiting. I was sick of being in handcuffs.
Regan crawled up onto the bed and started pulling various utensils from her pockets and the waistband of her pants. "Daddy, will these help?" she asked.
I looked over her stash. "You stole these," I said.
"No. I didn't steal them. I'm just borrowing them."
"Regan, stealing is wrong."
Her mouth pulled down into a frown and her chin puckered.
"But borrowing is perfectly acceptable."
She smiled. For a second, I worried that I was teaching her the wrong things. But she took the utensils herself. I didn't tell her to. And she did it to help me. That wasn't wrong. She was taking after me in ways I had hoped she wouldn't, but I was finding that I was glad for all those little things. If she'd been more like her mother, it would have been a little harder.
"You can use a fork to undo the thingies," Regan said. She picked up a fork and tried to bend the tines so that only one was straight up, but her hands weren't quite strong enough. I took the fork from her and bent the two outer tines down, leaving the middle one standing.
Regan giggled. "It looks like when you flip someone off," she said.
"It does, doesn't it? Let's hang on to this one. When we get out of here, you can show this to the whole empire and say, 'fork you.'"
That sent her into a fit of hysterical laughter that lasted about five minutes. "You're funny, Daddy," she said.
Regan took the fork back from me and stuck its tine in the keyhole of the handcuffs. She pushed the tip of her tongue through the thin gap between her top teeth and her bottom teeth. She moved the tine around, pressing it against the mechanism of the lock until it popped and my hands were free. She grinned. "Fork you, lock," she said, showing the tine to the handcuffs after I tossed them to the floor.
I gave her a big hug and a kiss. "Youíre the best, kiddo. Whereíd you learn to pick locks like that?"
"Rune taught me."
"Rune. Heís funny. I met him on Brandenburg. Heís made out of fire. He showed me. He cut his arm and there was fire instead of blood. He has a pet bird named Peter who talks to him, and his eyes are all black."
The dream I had had of the red-haired man watching me though a mirror flashed into my head. That was what was wrong with his eyes. They were all one color. All black. "Regan, what exactly is Rune?"
"I donít know. He thinks heís a spearmint or a alien or something. He was an orphan."
"Heís not a demon, is he?"
"No, heís good."
"How can you be sure?"
"Firefly said he was. I think heís an angel Firefly sent me. And Firefly said Shaman showed you Rune."
"Yeah, I saw him. I didnít know who he was."
Regan shrugged. "We wonít see him for a while. Heís gotta do some kind of test or something, and itís gonna hurt him. But heíll be okay."
I wasnít too concerned about that. If the guy was made out of fire, I was sure heíd be able to hold his own against whatever test he had to take. Unless of course, there was a lot of water involved.
The next step was to get out of that room. All of the doors were locked from the outside. And since Dylan had made his mad dash to freedom, there were more guards. In addition to the four posted in pairs at each end of the hall, there was a guard outside each room. Eight in all. I could beat those odds.
The rest of Reganís haul included three forks, two butter knives, a spoon, two steak knives and one of those cake-serving trowels. I picked up the spoon. "What are we gonna do with this?" I asked.
Regan took the spoon from me, licked her thumb and rubbed the inside of the spoon. "Armor for your nose," she said and placed the spoon on my nose. She giggled.
I liked that idea, as impractical as it was. The spoon slid off my nose. "All right, now. Letís get serious. We need to get that door unlocked."
Regan nodded. "You take the sharp ones, Daddy." She put the bent fork in her back pocket and picked up a butter knife and the cake trowel. "Okay, Iím ready."
"Thereís a guard standing right outside the door. We have to be very quiet. Can you be quiet?"
She nodded again. "Rune taught me how to sneak around, too."
I already didnít like this Rune guy. I should have been the one teaching my daughter how to pick locks and sneak around, not some freak who talked to his pet bird. Next thing you know, heíd be teaching her how to build bombs and blow shit up. Useful as that may be, I didnít think I needed a demolitions expert on my ship. But I could take that up with the freak later.
We crept over to the door. Regan studied the doorknob for a second. She put the cake trowel in the crack between the door and the doorjamb. Holding the butter knife in her teeth, she turned the doorknob carefully. It clicked. A second later, the guard opened the door. "What the hell do you think youíre doing?" he shouted.
Every single one of the guards was looking at us. I could have stabbed the one. And then what?
"Daddy wants to see Cherry," Regan blurted out, taking a few stumbling steps backwards into my legs. "They like each other. They want to Ö you know Ö kiss and stuff."
"Um, yeah," I said. "One last time before we die."
The guard shrugged and looked at the others. They shrugged. "Okay, why not? Might as well bust one last nut."
Okay, that was just entirely too easy. But I guess to be expected.
"And I wanna talk to Anala," Regan said. "She promised me more stories."
"Sure. That couldnít hurt anything either."
The guards were shrugging and shaking their heads. They didnít seem to notice that I was no longer handcuffed. But I wondered how we could get to Danel. Then I heard him pounding on the door. As I figured, he could hear everything that was going on. "Excuse me," he said. "If my brother gets one last lay, I think itís only fair that I get one, too. I am a noble, after all."
"Shut up!" the guard at his door shouted back at him.
"If I am denied a last request, my father will hear about it and life will be quite difficult for your new empress."
"All right, fine."
"I promise Iíll be very gentle with you."
The guard cringed, but he went in anyway. What choice did he have? It was all for the new empire and the new empress.
Regan was let into Analaís room, and I heard her say, "Tell me a story," as the door closed again.
The guard opened Cherryís door. "You wanna leave her handcuffed?" he asked.
Cherry was sitting on the bed scraping chipped polish off her toenails. She gave me an evil look.
"Yeah, sure," I said. I had already lifted his keys.
When he had shut the door, I sat down on the bed. Cherry glared at me like she wanted to scratch my eyes out. I held the keys up. Her eyes widened and she drew a breath to say something. I pressed my finger to her lips. "Shh. I have no idea what Iím doing, but I donít wanna tip them off too soon," I said.
She opened her mouth and ran her tongue over my finger. "You deserve a reward," she purred.
"I havenít saved the day yet."
She put her hands around mine. "Put that away. You donít need a key to get inside me."
"Thatís not really why Iím here. I want to get us out of here. Blackstone will be assassinated at her coronation tonight, but I donít know when exactly. Thereís a chance the assassin wonít get here before the executions. If weíre not there at all, then we donít have to worry about it."
"Is that why Dylan escaped?"
"No. This is Ö this is something else. Youíd think Iím crazy."
"I already think that."
"Itís too complicated to explain."
"Then just sum up."
"Three stars. Shaman, Firefly, Yuusei. Three psychics. Me, Regan and a man named Daigoro. I donít understand the connection. I donít understand the stars. But we can communicate with each other. Daigoro is going to kill Blackstone."
"I donít know." But I did know. The cold spiders told me so. That was one of Blackstoneís secrets. At the beginning of her military career, she had been the commander of an elite squad trained to forcefully remove unnatural phenomena from otherwise habitable areas. The little village Daigoro was born in had been experiencing some trouble in that vein. Ever since Daigoro was born, objects moved on their own. At first, it was only in that one particular hut. Vases fell over. Pots jumped off the stove. Wall decorations turned themselves upside down. His parents knew he was psychic. But the rest of the village didnít, and when things in the other huts began to move, people got scared. Blackstoneís unit was called in. It didnít take them long to find the source of the problem. When Daigoroís parents protested the squad taking their son, Blackstone had them shot and killed. When the rest of the village found out what had happened, they tried to take Daigoro back and kill the soldiers. Blackstone had the whole village slaughtered. She had the huts burned to the ground. She destroyed their food stores and poisoned their fields. All their animals were killed. The only thing left alive in that village when Blackstone and her troops pulled out was Daigoro. She left him sitting in the middle of the chaos and promised him that if he ever used his powers, sheíd come back for him. He was three years old.
Cherry pressed her hand to my cheek. "Talon?"
I opened my eyes slowly, realizing suddenly that they were closed.
"What did you see?"
"I saw what she did to his parents and the whole village. That bitch deserves to die."
"Donít worry. She will."
I started to understand the three stars a little bit then. Shaman sees. Firefly hears. Yuusei moves. But it wasnít time to read all the books and loose my mind. I needed a plan.
First we had to eliminate the guards outside the doors. I could assume Danel had taken care of his guard and that Anala, with a little prodding from Regan, was doing something about hers. Which left me and Cherry with two. I pulled the cords off the drapes. Cherry took her clothes off and went over to the door. She knocked softly.
The guard opened the door. Both of them could see her. She ran her hands over her breasts. "You boys wanna join us?" she asked. They took the bait. Once they were naked, we tied them up face to face. Cherry stuffed the corners of pillowcases in their mouths. She put her clothes back on, and we took their guns and went out into the hallway.
The guard at Analaís door was lying on the floor twitching. Anala was standing in the doorway with Regan behind her. When the guard had touched the doorknob, Anala used it to conduct a little lightning to him. "God forgive me," she whispered.
Danel closed door behind him. He had a look on his face like heíd just tasted bad wine. But he had keys and a gun.
I had thought to avoid shooting anyone so the noise would raise an alarm, but we were on the seventh floor. No one else was anywhere nearby, and I didnít particularly like the idea of cutting a manís throat with a serrated steak knife. The thought of the knifeís edge catching tendons and ripping flesh as I drew it across a throat made me shudder. A nice sharp clean edge was better suited to that kind of thing. And of course, I was better with guns.
The stairwell was at Danelís end of the hall. Regan climbed up onto my back. Anala continued to stare at the man she had killed. Black bile trickled over the corner of his mouth.
"Anala, come on," I said.
"I just killed a man," she muttered.
"Damn it, come on. We donít have time for this."
"But, Talon, Iíve taken a life. Thatís wrong."
"Look, we can punish ourselves later. Theyíre going to take your life if you stay here worrying about it too much."
"I canít Ö "
"Anala, I need you to stay with us."
"But all life is precious, even that of our enemies."
I grabbed her wrist and pulled her along as we hurried down the stairs, hoping to escape before they even noticed we were gone.
It seemed too easy. Not a single guard from any floor seemed to notice us. In fact, there didnít seem to be any guards. They were all getting ready for the coronation. But when we hit the lobby, they were waiting for us. As always, there were more of them than there were of us. Danel saw them first before we came out the door, but I was up front and not even thinking weíd be stopped. I burst through the stairwell door just as Danel shouted, "No! Stop!"
But it was too late. The guards opened fire. I took a laser blast in the center of my chest. Regan screamed as I fell back into the stairwell. I felt her weight drop from my back, and she began to cry. Anala was beside me in an instant. I wasnít sure which hurt more; the blast or the healing.
"A very good idea, Konstantine," I heard Blackstone whispering in my ear some time later. My world was still shades of runny grey. "Try to help them escape so theyíll believe you were always going to be on their side. Thatís brilliant. Except for getting yourself almost killed. That would have ruined your hopes for your daughter. You have less than an hour."
Then she was gone.
Well, that didnít go quite as planned. But what did I expect? I only get one plan that works in a six month time period. Thatís all. Otherwise, Iíd be considered good at planning or just real lucky. I wasnít either. I promised myself I would improvise from then on. It seemed a safer option. At least maybe it would be a little less painful.
The former Senate hall had been completely redone in less than a day. On one side, the seats had been torn out and replaced with an elaborate dais with intricate filigree designs in gold and silver spreading out like the wings of a swan from behind a massive throne of platinum and jade. There were smaller versions of the throne to the left and the right of the main one, for her sniveling bitches. In front of the main throne was a pedestal upon which rested a crown and a scepter, both made of platinum and jade. A long strip of green carpeting ran from the doorway we entered to the dais where it then spread to cover the whole floor.
On the floor of the hall, several rows of pews had been placed along either side of the green rug. These seats were full of nobles and former senators and alien ambassadors and dignitaries. The back and the sides of the domed room still had the stadium seating where the senators had once sat. They were filled with lesser dignitaries, disgraced or ignored nobles, the senatorsí former lackeys and the few common people who had paid enough to get in. There were thousands of people there. I felt like I had gone back in time to a darker age when one head ruled the hands of millions and only the very few had what they needed to survive much less the extra comforts we had come to take for granted. With the trumpet flourish that blasted as we were led towards the dais, I witnessed the birth of a new era and knew that I would have to work extra hard if I was to have any say in how it turned out. Because I knew that I could influence it somehow. But I had to get out of there alive first.
It was a very long walk up to the front row of pews. Our hands were cuffed behind our backs, and short chains held us together. Regan walked a little behind me, clutching at my fingers. She had again refused to let anyone take her from my side, and no one was really willing to risk getting bitten. There were six guards on either side of us, and I couldnít decide whether they were keeping us away from the people or the people away from us. When we reached the front of the room, we were shoved onto a little platform that had once been the pulpit from which the senators spoke. Then we were raised above the crowd so everyone could see. I noticed a big roll of plastic sheeting tucked into a corner. I assumed that would be spread beneath us to keep our blood off the white marble floor when they shot us in the backs of our heads.
"Thereís someone up there," Danel whispered. He was looking up at the smoked glass dome.
I looked up. I could just barely make out a slightly darker shape on the glass. Thatís a long way down, I thought.
The trumpets blasted again, and a hidden orchestra began to play a newly composed piece. A minute later, Blackstone entered the room with an entourage and several armed guards. She wore an elaborate robe covered in gold embroidery over an equally elaborate green gown. I really thought she looked much better in the black and scarlet robes of the Senate.
They marched up the center of the room slowly, bringing their feet together before putting the next one forwards, the way brides used to walk up the aisle. I was surprised to see Kaylan marching in right next to Blackstone. I never did get a chance to find out what he knew that gave him the ability to play both Blackstone and Irial the way he had. It didnít matter, really. Whatever he had, it worked. He was one sword stroke away from being emperor.
They all stared straight ahead, no smiles, not even smarmy smirks. It was all very dignified and boring as fuck. It took at least half an hour, but it felt like it took half a day. "Daddy, I have to pee," Regan whimpered at one point.
"So go," I said. "We wonít look."
"But I donít have anything to wipe with."
"I know, but I donít think theyíd hold things up for us to go to the bathroom right now."
"If you were a boy, you could pee on the guards down there," Cherry said.
That seemed to give Regan an idea. She squatted in the corner as close to the edge of the platform as she could comfortably get. It was just close enough that some of her urine dripped down onto the head of a guard who happened to be standing directly below that corner. She giggled. When the guard looked up, she showed him the fork with the bent tines. "Fork you, empire," she whispered.
We all laughed at that, but it was nervous laughter. The kind of laughter you hear from people who are about to die. But there was a way out, I reminded myself. I looked up at the dark shape on the dome. God, what a long way down.
Eventually, Blackstone and the entourage made it to the dais. She stood in front of the massive throne. Kaylan was on her right hand side. The rest of the entourage stood to her left.
The music stopped.
"Friends and citizens of this great universe, we welcome you to the coronation of the leader of the new Empire," Blackstone said.
Danel groaned. "Irial always complained about her speeches," he said. "Dry as mummified flesh and unnecessarily long."
"Great. Just what we need," I said. "Maybe something will happen to keep it short."
"Like the man on the roof?"
"Or a seven-foot-tall monster with sharp claws and a killer roar."
We got about ten minutes of Blackstoneís speech, then someone in the back screamed. Blackstone stammered but kept going. Then more screams. The guards ran towards the back of the room. Blackstone stopped in the middle of a word and watched. I only got a brief glimpse of Dylan as he swatted guards around like they were rag dolls. Most of the audience on the floor was staring in horror or else scrambling to find another way out.
Then the glass shattered. Daigoro came plummeting down towards Blackstone in a hail of brown-grey glass. He held a sword in both hands raised back over his head. I didnít know how he was controlling his fall, but he was. Blackstone just stared up at him with her mouth open. I wanted to turn away, but I couldnít. His sword went cleanly through her. His feet touched the ground, and he pulled the sword out at her midsection. He flicked his hand towards the lackeys to her left. Shards of the glass that were still falling changed direction and caught each one of them in the throat. "A falling star," Blackstone said. And then she split in half in a fine mist of blood.
Guards were running up to the dais as they realized what had happened. Daigoro turned to face them. I noticed that his nose was bleeding. The guards fired at him. He leaped into the air, somersaulting over the laser blasts. He landed in their midst and swung the sword around, decapitating three of the closest ones. He raised his hand and the rest of them were shoved backwards as if by a strong wave. He turned back towards the dais and used it as a launch pad to propel himself back out the way he came.
Dylan was gone, his part over with. There were too many guards for him to try to get to us.
A shocked silence fell over the crowd. Some were weeping. Some were still trying to get out. Kaylan stepped up to the pedestal. He looked around uncertainly. Several people had turned their attention to him. He placed the crown on his head and raised the scepter. "I declare myself Emperor Kaylan the First!" he shouted.
At first, there was only polite applause, as if the audience had just witnessed a play gone horribly wrong. Then more people realized what had happened. Within a minute or so, the applause was deafening. Kaylan waved the scepter for silence. Immediately, the sound stopped. He grinned, like a kid with a new toy. He looked up at us. "My first act as emperor of the known universe is to declare that these prisoners are not guilty of the crimes of which they are accused," he said. There was a smattering of applause.
The platform was lowered, and we were unchained.
Slowly, everyone began to move towards the cafeterias that had been converted into ballrooms with long rows of food-covered tables.
Kaylan came over to us. "I donít quite know what to say," he said. "This worked out far better than I had hoped. Who was that man?"
"His name is Daigoro," I said.
"Oh. Oh, hell. Iím glad it was him."
"You know what she did to him?"
"I was there. I was on board their transport, in training for something or other. I think I was the only one who wanted to stop her."
"Iím sure you are all very tired and hungry. Iíll have a guard escort you to the fifth floor suites. Theyíre all empty. Take whichever rooms you want. Iíll have a meal brought up to you. In the morning, Iíll given you an official exoneration, and youíll be free to go."
Anala didnít eat with us. When we were done, I took her a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine. She was curled up on the big bed, crying.
"Oh, go away," she said when she saw me. "I donít need you to give me some twisted logic on how I can make what I did right."
"You need to eat something," I said.
"Talon, please donít."
"How did you feel when you killed him?"
"Horrible! Iím a healer. I give life. I donít take it. And I donít condone the taking of it. Murder is a terrible sin. Disgracing God by taking the life of one of his own is the worst thing I could have ever done."
"I think she could forgive you."
"God is female. Iíve seen her."
"How much wine have you had?"
"Iím just saying that as long as you donít start enjoying killing people, you can be forgiven. Youíre a good person. You took care of my daughter when I couldnít."
"But I almost lost her."
"But you didnít."
"How did you end up the way you are?"
"It wasnít genetics."
Anala smiled. "I canít go back to the church. I donít think Iíll ever find it again."
"You donít need to. Youíre part of my crew."
As I turned to go, Anala said, "Talon, I want to see her."
I sat down on the bed in front of her and closed my eyes. I felt Analaís static charge prickle across my skin. I leaned towards her until our foreheads were touching. "Let me heal your wounds," I said.