I tried to envision happy endings. They say that visualizing helps you realize your goals. You know, picture yourself successfully beating the shit out of all the bad guys and you will. It's bullshit. It doesn't work. All it does is waste your time and set you up for disappointment. I imagined walking into the Senate and all of us being cleared of any and all charges against us, no questions asked. Then me and my happy little crew spent the rest of our lives adventuring through the known universe and beyond.
Fucking pipe dreams. I knew better. When you have the ability to see the past and the future, all those daydreams mean nothing. In the end, I figured the best I could hope for was to just stay alive.
One of them would die. In my mind, I could still see the vision of the exploding ship, and I knew one of my crew was on that ship.
One of them would leave. Danel had no reason to stay. Neither did the rest of them really. But Danel was a noble.
One of them would grow up eventually.
I shouldn't have even been thinking of them as my crew. That only made it harder.
A few days after our hasty retreat from Teatree, Valeska radioed a brief message about the fallout. Irial had been officially disowned. He still held his Senate seat, but he was disgraced. Any power he once had was gone.
Angelique and Tirell got stern lectures for their parts in our escape. We were criminals after all, but Sharlyn stepped in, uncharacteristically making her voice heard. Criminal or not, Danel and I were part of the family, and family should always take care of family.
Irial's fall from family and political grace ensured that he would never become emperor. That was good. Life with Emperor Irial would have been tough. Under Blackstone, life would be merely uncomfortable at times.
Our story was spreading quickly. Every radio frequency was glutted with people spreading rumors. Eventually, I had to shut the radio off because I couldnít stand to listen to all that shit. Bits and pieces of the truth filtered in, but even then, it was in the wrong context and blown all out of proportion.
My favorite story was the one about the fire at Sunnydale Inn. It was said that a rodent of unusual size, having lost many friends and loved ones to the careless use of the pocket flamethrowers, took one of the pocket flamethrowers and torched the inn. For some reason, there was a group of bounty hunters staying at the inn. When the bounty hunters came out to investigate, the giant rat -- some said it was ten feet tall while others said it was only six -- attacked the bounty hunters, killing them all in fantastic fashion. None of the bounty hunters survived, yet no one else was attacked. The rodent was last seen headed south. No one went after it.
When I told Dylan about that story, he just laughed.
I had another dream. A man with long blood red hair was staring at me through a mirror. He was surrounded by flames. He wore a black leather duster and black leather pants and black leather boots. His shirt was black, but it wasn't leather. A black falcon perched on his left shoulder. On his left hip was a knife; on his right, a whip. He seemed unaffected by the flames. Something about his eyes bothered me, but I didn't have time to figure out what it was. "Stop staring at me!" he said, and he knocked the mirror off its stand. I couldn't see anything after that. But I knew Iíd meet him eventually. Maybe then I would have a chance to figure out what was wrong with his eyes.
Eventually, we got the word that the bounty on me had been dropped, at least the one put up by the Senate. The demon thing was a whole other matter. But the bounty on Shane was still in place. Fortunately, it was small enough that most bounty hunters didnít feel like dealing with me to get to Shane. I figured it was smooth sailing to Xebec. A little fast talking and naming dropping, and things would be back to normal. Happy visions, right? Visualization and actualization? More fucking pipe dreams.
There were roughly fifty Republic ships waiting for us when we got within spitting distance of Xebec. Of all the things I envisioned, good and bad, a blockade like that was not one of them. It was too late to turn on the cloaking device and back track. They had already seen us. They had been waiting for us. There was nowhere to run.
"Now what?" Dylan asked. He was calm. I think he was the only one of us who was. Either he trusted me to get us out of the situation or he had resigned himself to death or worse. If I had ever gotten a chance to ask him how he stayed so calm, Iím sure he would have given me that smile snarl of his and said nothing. Really all it was was peace. Nothing in the universe would ever cause him as much pain as he had already endured. He lived through that. The rest was a breeze.
"I donít know," I said. Faintly, I could feel the cold spiders and see the afterimage of the explosion. If anyone so much as twitched in the direction of the shuttle, I was going to have to act like a real captain and start giving orders.
"Surrender," Danel said.
"Itís the wisest choice. Do you think theyíll hesitate to shoot at us if we resist?"
"I donít care. Iím not surrendering."
"Your obstinacy will get us all killed!"
"We donít even know what they want," Anala said. "Maybe theyíre willing to negotiate. Turn on the radio."
I hadnít thought of that. That was one reason I wanted Anala to stay. She had a talent for pointing out the obvious, but it was always something that I overlooked because it was obvious. I turned on the radio. The first voice I heard was Senator Blackstoneís.
"I know youíre listening to me, Konstantine! I demand an answer now!" she shouted.
"See? Negotiations," Anala said.
"Sounds more like an ultimatum to me," Cherry said.
"Daddy, Iím scared," Regan said.
Shane was crouched between me and Dylan with his palms pressed over his mouth.
"Answer her, Talon," Danel said.
"Letís say I wasnít listening," I said to Blackstone. "Just hypothetically not listening. What do you want?"
"Ah, so you finally have something to say," she said.
"What do you want?"
"I want Shane Decker."
"Isnít he a little young for you?"
"If you turn him over to us now, I will let you and the rest of your crew go. All the charges against you will be dropped."
"If you donít, I will be forced to destroy you. Your ship will be shot down. All of you will die, including your daughter. Do you want that?"
"Why donít you come over here so we can talk about this face to face, huh? Or are you afraid of a little confrontation?"
"The offer is quite clear. Your freedom and your crewís freedom for Decker. Take it or leave it."
"Shane is part of my crew. I will not just hand him over."
"Why must you make things so difficult? If I did not respect your father as much as I do, I would not be making you this offer. Just take it. What do you care about Decker? He betrayed you."
"He made a mistake. So did I. Whatís a little backstabbing among friends? Oh wait. You wouldnít understand that. You donít have any friends."
"You little bastard!"
"My parents were married when I was born. I have proof. Five older siblings."
"That does it. Negotiations are over."
"I donít think so. Remember, I know things about you, too."
I could just picture her starting to turn red and stamping her feet.
I was preparing a laundry list of dirty secrets when Shane suddenly got up and headed off the bridge.
"Shane! Sit down!" I said.
"Fuck you," he said.
He waved his hand dismissively and kept walking.
I got up and went after him.
"Donít try to stop me, Talon," he said, half turning to face me as he headed towards the shuttle. "Iíve caused you enough trouble as it is. I canít sit there and listen to you make excuses for me like you really give a shit. Iím really, really, really sorry. Let me do something to make it up to you."
"Iím not letting you get in that shuttle."
"Iíll make sure it gets back to you."
"Shane, theyíre going to kill you."
"Damn it, Shane."
"What are you gonna do? Beat me up again?"
"I can Ö I Ö I order you to stop!"
"Iím fucking serious, Shane. This is my ship, and Iím ordering you to stop."
"Come visit me on Boil. Iíll get lonely, Iím sure."
We had reached the hatch to the shuttle.
"You arenít going to Boil. Youíre going to die. I had a vision. I saw it happen. As soon as they see you, theyíre going to open fire on you. That shuttle has no weapons. It has no shields. It has no extra armor or anything."
"Then Iíll go out with a bang, wonít I?"
"Youíre not going."
"Talon, stop trying to make me change my mind. Itís not going to work. I love you, okay. I want to do something to prove that to you. And I donít want Regan to get killed because of this, or even worse, have to live the rest of her life without you. I owe you everything. I never expected you to forgive me, and you did without really thinking about it. Okay, so you broke my nose, but I deserved that."
"If I have to break it again to keep you from getting on that shuttle, I will."
"Take care of Dylan for me. Heís going to need you more than ever when Iím gone."
I ignored the tears that were coming to my eyes and took a swing at him. He caught my arm and hit me in the head with a wrench heíd had in his pocket. My head is hard, but that knocked me out. I woke up when I felt the shuttle detach from the bottom of the ship. I ran back to the bridge, screaming. Not like he could hear me. Not like he would have listened to me if he did hear me. I got there just in time to see the Republic ships fire at the shuttle. Dylan was half out of his seat. If he could have gone through the glass to save Shane, he would have. The shuttle exploded. Pieces of metal flew out of the fireballs at top speed and stopped in the weightless vacuum of space. The smoke plumed and collapsed back in on itself. It was like watching film of a blooming flower on a loop. The fire expanded and contracted and expanded and contracted until there was finally nothing but a thin layer of unidentifiable debris. I couldnít hear the painful roar that came from Dylan or the screams and shouts from everyone else. I couldnít even hear my daughter crying. But I felt it deep inside my chest, like the deep growl of earth when the plates grind against each other as they float past on seas of molten rock. I had never lost anything or anyone that way. I never knew what it meant to grieve so deeply as to find yourself hollow. It was a long way down.
I wanted to ready every weapon I had and rip through those fucking Republic ships like they were tissue paper. I wanted to avenge Shaneís death in some way, even if it meant I lost my own life in the process. But I was stunned and numb. I looked at Dylan. He was sitting back in the seat, staring out at the field of debris. His eyes shimmered with tears. Behind me, Anala wept. Cherry had buried her face against Danelís shoulder and was pounding her fists against his chest, trying to keep her tears from ever falling. While he held her, Danel raised his head to the ceiling and shut his eyes. Regan pushed through them and crawled into my lap where she proceeded to cry silently. She didnít really understand what had just happened, but she knew Shane wasnít coming back. I decided that the best vengeance was to let Shaneís sacrifice stand.
"All right, Blackstone," I said. "You win."
I could see her smug little grin even across all those miles. I kept my own smug little grin to myself. I knew it wasnít over yet.
We were ordered to follow the Republic ships back to the surface of Xebec. I killed the engines. I listened to the orders being screeched at us for a while. Then I killed the radio and held Regan a little tighter. Eventually, they attached towlines to us and hauled us to the surface. It looked like the entire Republic army was waiting for us when we landed. We were handcuffed, with our hands in front of us rather than behind us. We werenít exactly being arrested but neither were we receiving a heroís welcome. A female lieutenant came to take Regan away. Regan screamed and grabbed my leg. The lieutenant tired to cajole her. That didnít work. She tried to get me to tell Regan to come quietly. I said nothing. She tired to pull Regan away from me. Regan bit her. "You little bitch!" she yelled, raising her hand.
"You strike my daughter and you wonít live to see the next second go by," I said.
She stalked off to tell her superior officer about me and my daughterís attitude problems. Regan continued to cling to my leg and bared her teeth at anyone who tried to take her away from me. I was proud of her.
We were taken to the Senate building. Like the one I had run across in Pilon, it was an octagonal-shaped building of glass and stone. Unlike the one in Pilon, this one was seven stories high. Every senator had a plush office. Every lackey had a not so plush office. There were three large cafeterias. There was a lecture hall where school children went to hear all about what a day in the life of a senator was like. There were a few shops that sold various cheaply made souvenirs. There were empty offices to accommodate visiting alien dignitaries and ambassadors. Each senator had a suite of rooms so they never had to leave the building for anything. There were also guest quarters on the seventh floor. The center of the building, rather than being an open-air park like the smaller senate buildings, was covered with a dome of smoked glass. This was their meeting area. There were rows of tiered seats around the periphery, and in the center was a raised, circular pulpit that could further be elevated to the center of the whole structure. As far as I knew, there was nothing there that passed for a dungeon or prison or other uncomfortable places to store your undesirables.
A section of the guest floor was cordoned off for us and a watch was set at each end of the hall. They left us all handcuffed, except for Regan. They took my guns and any other weapons we were carrying. They had some trouble figuring out what to do with Dylanís claws. He hadnít said a word in hours and just stared over their heads as they talked about him like he wasnít there. They had almost decided to cut his claws when I told them he promised to be good. I hate to think what would have happened if they had actually attempted to de-claw him. We were locked in and told to wait.
I could have made a scene. I could have hurled myself or pieces of furniture through the windows or at the walls, just for a little bit of attention. But I was tired. I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes. Regan snuggled against my right side, slipping under my bound arms.
"Daddy, where did Shane go?" she asked.
"He Ö uh Ö I donít know. Heís just Ö gone."
I hesitated to reply, but she didnít ask a question. "Yeah, heís dead."
"You used to be dead once, too, right?"
"Where did you go?"
"When I died?"
"I donít know. It was really dark. But I didnít die all the way. Sometimes, people can get hurt like I did and not die all the way. But Shane Ö "
"Shane blew up. So he canít come back ever."
"But heís somewhere nice, right? He doesnít hurt, right?"
"God, I hope so."
"Donít cry, Daddy." Reganís little hands rubbed tears off my cheeks.
"Get some rest, baby. I donít know how long weíll be here or when weíll get to sleep in a real bed again."
"Theyíre not gonna take me away from you, Daddy."
"No. No chance of that. Iíll kill Ďem all before I let them take you away." I kissed the top of her head. "Now get some sleep."
Regan was silent for about five minutes. Then she said, "Daddy, the man with the sword is here."
I didnít actually get any sleep. I was somewhere between sleeping and waking, in that uncomfortable grey area you end up in when you need sleep the most. I heard voices coming and going in the hall outside the door. The watches changed. Sets of polished patent leather boots marched by in step. On the back of my eyelids, I watched the shuttle bloom in flames and smoke. He didnít feel anything, I told myself. It was too fast. There was no time for pain. There was no time to fear the instant of life extinguished. There was no time, no fear. He made a choice, just like I did when I crashed that cargo ship to kill the demons. Damn all the consequences, right? Had to be done, right? Right? He didnít hesitate when I gave him a chance. He knocked me out so he could die. No time for fear, no time for pain. Right?
But I could see his mouth unhinged in a lung-shattering scream as the plasma beams sped towards him. I could hear that scream echo through the whole universe, leaving smaller and fainter ripples of terror as it spread. I felt the cold touch of the blue womanís fingers on my lips and watched her ripple away. No time, right? No. Fuck you, Shane.
I woke up to a muffled shriek and a wet crunch. Running footsteps receded. The door opened. Or rather the door was ripped off its hinges. Dylan propped it up against the doorframe.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I asked as I sat up. Regan slipped out from under my arm and rolled over. She mumbled something I couldn't understand. It sounded like balloon's for hire or rune is fire or something. I almost woke her up to ask her what she saw, but I was more concerned about Dylan.
"They're going to execute us," he said.
"Don't we get a trial or anything?"
"The Senate passed a resolution about an hour ago to replace the Republic with an empire. Humans have been pretty nice about colonizing other planets so far. But that's about to change. We've moved on from reconnaissance to conquest. The Senate declared Blackstone empress then dissolved itself to reorganize later. Blackstone's first act as empress was to bar Irial from all political activity for life. Her second was to say we're all traitors and to sentence us to death. I don't feel like sitting around waiting to die."
"How do you know all that?"
"My cell faces the meeting area. I heard everything."
"You're only going to make it worse if you try to run."
"I don't care."
"Dylan ... "
"I feel like someone cut my heart out and for some reason, I'm still alive. And I shouldn't be."
"He asked me to take care of you. If I let you try to get out of here, I won't be doing that."
"If I'm going to die, it's not going to be by whatever form of execution they decide on. I'd rather go down fighting."
"Dylan, we're not going die."
"I suppose you have some plan."
"I came to say goodbye."
"Don't say that. Just stay here, okay? Trust me, we're not going to die."
"You always manage to escape from certain death. You're the hero. I'm just here. I'm not sure I'm supposed to stay alive now. And you can't stop me, so don't try, and if you do pull something out of your ass and get out of this, don't tell me you told me so."
There wasn't lot I could do. There was no way I could stop him physically. There was nothing I could say. So I let him go. I didn't want to. In retrospect, it was the best thing I could have done for him. But most things are like that in retrospect. You get the benefit of knowing the outcome, and you can always find something good in decisions like that.
Dylan made quite a mess as he made his way out of the building. I listened to screams and gunfire and the sound of everything in his way being torn to pieces. I saw him make it outside, followed by a few soldiers. More of them were waiting for him. He was surrounded. I thought for sure he would either give up or get killed. He looked around, down the barrels of at least thirty guns. Then he did something Iíd never seen before and hope to never see again. He lifted his head towards the sky, took a deep breath and let out a roar that literally shattered the eardrums of anyone standing within ten feet of him. The soldiers bled all over their nice white uniforms. Blood poured from their eyes and noses and mouths. They dropped to their knees with their hands over their ears, but it was already too late. Those outside the range were no less affected. They bled less profusely and most were able to run before Dylan advanced on them. The windows vibrated. Under my feet, I could feel the floor shaking. The door, propped in the doorway at a precarious angle, fell over. The longer Dylan held the roar, the more people bled and the more the building headed towards collapse. A hairline crack ran up the window I was looking out of. I felt a tickle in my left ear. Dylan shut his mouth and ran. I rubbed my ear, not surprised to see a little bit of blood on my fingers.
I knew they would come and question me once they got a handle on the mess. They would think I had told Dylan to escape. It wouldnít occur to them that I was still there and everyone else was still there. They wouldnít see that it made no sense for me to tell Dylan to leave while the rest of us stayed. He could try to get to the ship, or any ship for that matter, but he wouldnít. He would find somewhere to hide. He would try to find some way to get us out before we were executed. But if the man with the sword was there, we had a chance to survive.
It took about an hour. Blackstone herself arrived with five guards. She stalked over the door, surprised to see that I was just sitting on the bed waiting.
"You astound me, Konstantine," she said.
"I do my best, Senator," I said.
"Well, Iím not."
I shook my head.
"Where did Riggs go?"
"Hopefully somewhere youíll never find him."
"Weíll find him. Why did he come to you before he left? You told him to escape, didnít you? What are you up to?"
"You mean to tell me youíre simply sitting here with no plans?"
"None whatsoever. What am I supposed to do? I run, you kill me. I stay, you kill me. All Iím really concerned about now is my daughter. What happens to her after Iíve been executed?"
"I ought to kill her right along with the rest of you."
"But you canít do that."
"No, of course not." She gave me a bloodless smile and glanced at Regan, who was still sleeping and had stuck her thumb in her mouth. "What a beautiful little girl. Itís a shame youíre her father."
"Insulting me isnít going to do you any good now. You won. You got everything you wanted. Irialís out of your hair. Shaneís dead. Youíre the empress of an empire that doesnít really even exist yet. Youíre about to kill the only other person who knows how you got where you are. What more could you want?"
"I donít trust you, Konstantine. Youíre up to something."
Blackstone turned around. I thought she was going to leave, but she waved the guards out and ordered them to prop the door back up in the doorway. I felt the cold spiders scurry across my shoulders. Regan turned over and mumbled, "Youíve got funny ears."
Blackstone pulled a chair away from the table in the corner and sat down across from me. I watched her eyes wander to the crack in the window. "That was quite an interesting display your friend put on," she said.
I didnít answer. I felt lightheaded. A vision was trying to come to my mind but didnít seem able, like getting a busy signal. I tried to keep myself focused on Blackstone. I knew what she was going to say. I knew how I wanted to answer.
"I didnít know there were any shavors left. Havenít they been extinct for at least a century?"
"He was a genetic experiment. So was Shane. They were twins."
Blackstone seemed taken aback. I watched her eyes as she put a few pieces together. I thought I almost saw a tear. She took a breath. "It seems a shame to ruin an entire family in less than twenty four hours. And I would hate to make enemies so quickly. If I am to rule properly, the people must be willing to be ruled. So after destroying the career of one Falkenberg, killing two more is not a wise move."
"My name is Konstantine, not Falkenberg."
"Of course. But itís now common knowledge youíre their youngest. After the annual ball, there was quite a bit of talk."
"Whatís your point? Or do you have one?"
"I know you love your daughter. My children are grown now, but I remember when they were small. I remember how protective I was of them. I would have done anything for them."
"Iím offering you a deal. You know my secrets, although how you found out, I donít know. I will give you your freedom in exchange for your silence. You and your daughter will never have to worry about anything. You have that ship Irial gave you. Go anywhere you want, do anything you want. All I require of you is silence."
"What about my crew?"
"Theyíll all be executed as planned at tomorrow eveningís coronation. My army will hunt Riggs down until they find him, and then heíll be executed as well."
"Iím supposed to just turn away and let you kill all the people I care about."
"You tried to protect Shane. It didnít work. You are not enough to stand up to an empire. Take the deal, Konstantine. Think of your child."
It seemed like a lopsided deal to me. I could give Regan the rest of her life with me for simply allowing the deaths of four people and allowing my conscious to carry the weight of that decision. She was five years old. I was all she had. It wasnít right to jeopardize her life for a good cause. Cherry, Anala and Danel would never know if I accepted Blackstoneís offer. They might think that I took off with Dylan. Dylan, on the other hand, was certain to find out. And then he would hunt me down. It would be like what Shane had done all over again, and Dylan was likely to be so fragile at that point that I would never be able to get him to understand. He wouldnít give me a chance to explain.
The chills were getting stronger. I shut my eyes. She thought I was just thinking it over. But the vision was coming through. Except it wasnít exactly a vision. It was telepathic contact. I saw the man with the sword. It was the same man Iíd seen outside of that weird little temple in the mountains. It was the same man who had elbowed my nose and called himself Daigoro. "Where is she?" he asked.
"Wait," I told him. "Thereís a coronation tomorrow night."
He didnít like my response, but he didnít argue. "Hmm. Perhaps thatís wisest."
Then he was gone.
"An answer, Konstantine?" Blackstone asked.
"I donít know."
"Itís an easy decision, really."
"I need time to think about it."
"You mean you need time to plan some way to twist my offer more to your advantage so that you can save your friends."
"Am I that transparent?"
"Do you love your daughter?"
"Thatís the only answer you need. I will remind you again that you are not enough to stand up to an empire."
"I was holding my own against the Republic."
"Thereís no one left to pull strings for you."
"All right. Iíll take it. But I donít want the others to know."
Blackstone smiled. "You arenít as foolish as I had thought. Iíll have you taken out with them for the execution. They will never know you betrayed them." She walked out, pleased with herself for finally getting me to see things her way.
I didnít really understand why she was so keen on using me as a pawn, but it did look as if my appearance at a family function had had a profound affect on Falkenbergs everywhere. And if that was what it took to keep Regan safe, then I was an idiot for not using it. Eventually, I would get over all the guilty feelings, just like Shane had. Even if Daigoro had an immaculate sense of timing and got to Blackstone before the executions started and we all managed to survive, I would feel like shit for the rest of my life for what I had agreed to. But they would understand. Maybe. I would do anything for Regan.
I was tired of being handcuffed and tired of waiting. I got up and started to pace. Regan was awake and sitting up. She watched me. I wanted to say something to her. I felt like I needed to explain something. But how could I explain it? She loved them all. Because of me, they were going to die. How could I tell a five-year-old that her life was more important to me than the entire universe? I would let all life cease to exist to keep her safe. She would resent me for the rest of her life. But she wouldnít have that life if I hadnít agreed. I couldnít explain what I did to myself. But it wasnít going to matter. They werenít going to die. No one was going to die. Except Blackstone. I had to keep saying that to myself over and over. There was a way out. If the guilt didnít eat me whole first.