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Starbursts and Shadows: the Obligatory Derelict Ship Episode

Our death had a name. Shikaku Hitokage. I didn't like that name. It sounded too much like everything he was. Shadowy and deadly, willing to kill anyone and anything that stood in his way. And he liked to play with his food. He hadn't come anywhere near us for a while, but I could feel him lurking. Rune's fire had hurt him worse than it had first appeared. He didn't want to confront us again until he was fully healed, and he didn't want us to forget he was there.

I couldn't come up with a plan. Nothing seemed to hurt Hitokage enough to kill him. That was probably why he'd been turned. Fire hurt him, but not enough. Lasers seemed to do little more than knock the wind out of him. The grenades Rune had used on him had done nothing. Then again, it was a safe bet that Rune hadn't gotten close enough to him to hurt him that way. An invisible, invulnerable swordsman with a tenacious will fighting for something he believed in with all his whatever he had that passed for a heart or a soul. We had no chance against that.

I tried to sleep. The floor was uncomfortable. The voices were too loud. They kept telling me to give Hitokage what he wanted. Was the life of one kid worth the loss of seven? No, not really. But who else was going to take care of the engines?

I found myself sitting at a child-sized table staring down at a plastic tea set. The little pink cups were full of blood that steamed pleasantly and smelled like mint. A rabbit was standing by a hole in a tree, tapping his foot and staring at his watch. An army of playing cards was marching past.

"My dream this time, kid," Rune's voice said.

I looked away from the marching cards. Rune was sitting across the table from me. Peter was perched on his left shoulder, and he held one of the little teacups in his right hand.

"You're dead. You can't dream," I said.

"'All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.' Or something." Peter squawked. "Right, that's it. I'll look it up later."

"Please tell me there's a point to this."

"Through the Looking Glass."

"You know, up to now, you've been very coherent. Not that you always made sense, but I never felt like you were that disconnected."

"It's the title of a book."

"What's it about?"

"Doesn't matter. The point, yes, there's a point. The point is you are not in the reality you think you're in."

"Certainly not at the moment, no."

"Play Hitokage's game."

"What?"

"Why did the engines stop? Duncan put a barrier up that should have protected them. Hitokage's got us trapped in some pocket of something other than where we really are. Play his game to the end."

"That means everyone dies."

"Except Duncan."

"And then what? He lets us out of the time warp and we're all alive again?"

"Hey, you got it!"

"You're not serious, are you?"

"Yes."

"And what about Duncan?"

"We cut our losses and move on. I hate saying that as much as you hate hearing it, but there's no other way out. Maybe we can find a way into Texas and fight Hitokage there. You wanna go back to Junket anyway."

"At some point."

"Look, just trust me on this one. I felt the membrane or whatever it is when I died."

"What if we broke it?"

"That could have any number of effects. You could get everyone alive and not have Hitokage on board any more, essentially getting him stuck out in space in his own magic bubble. You could destroy the whole universe. And everything in between."

"You make everything so fucking complicated."

Rune smiled and raised the teacup. "Cheers," he said. He emptied the cup and poured some more.

For some reason, I picked up the teacup in front of me and did the same.

As soon as the thick liquid began to ooze down my throat, I started to choke. The parading cards and Rune's weird little tea party swam into blackness. The hands on my throat squeezed tighter. I could feel my windpipe collapsing. I opened my eyes. Hitokage leered down at me. I had no guns to draw and fire into his belly.

I clawed at his face, but my fingers passed through a cold space. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my hands on him. His hands clamped down tighter. The cold spiders gushed over me.

The vision was brief. I saw Vinny's face, his cheeks laid open and bleeding sluggishly. His maniacal giggles overpowered the sharp cries of a baby. There was a stabbing pain in my lower abdomen that lessened for a second then thrust harder and deeper, and it kept up like that until I felt something in my neck snap. My left arm dropped. The sheets were still warm.

My fingers closed on something cold and round. I turned my head. Hitokage's thumbs pressed down harder. He was getting a little frustrated because I was still breathing. He would have to break his hold on the others in order to give killing me the full attention that act deserved. They were fighting him as hard as they could. The galley was full of Anala's static charge.

I slid my thumb over the smooth surface of Duncan's starburst. It had to have some kind of trigger. Then I felt a small grooved piece of plastic. With the little bit of strength I had left, I heaved my arm towards Hitokage's face and shoved the trigger forward. The flash was not quite what I expected.

For just one second, time froze. In the burst of white light, I saw Hitokage's face, but the colors were inverted. Where I had seen the black glassy features, I saw a soft, pale face surrounded by platinum blonde hair. His eyes were just like Duncan's, big and green, and at that moment were so full of surprise that they might have fallen right out of his head.

Time lurched on. Screaming, Hitokage let go of my throat. The rush of air left me dizzy, and blood welled up at the back of my tongue. I turned over on my stomach and coughed.

I smelled ozone and heard the crackle of Anala's lightning. Regan screamed. Hitokage was hissing and cursing, trying to clear his eyes long enough to hurt someone.

"You want me, come and get me, you fucking bastard!" Duncan shouted.

I lifted my head and rubbed the blood off my mouth.

Duncan darted for the door.

"Duncan!" Danel shouted, starting after him as Hitokage made a grab for Duncan.

I saw the flash of a blade in Hitokage's hand. I pushed myself to my feet with every intention of putting myself between Danel and Hitokage's knife. I stumbled and fell to my knees again. The knife went into Danel's forehead. Duncan made it out the door, and Hitokage was struck by lightning.

I tried to tell them to get in the bathroom before the son of bitch got up again, but it hurt to even think about talking. I got up and pulled them into the bathroom with me. I slammed the door shut and locked it. Regan jumped into my arms and cried as hard as she could. I wanted to comfort her in some way, but I had no soothing words. All I could do was cry with her.

"Is it dead?" Anala asked. She had healed most of the damage Hitokage had done to my throat, but I still had thick black bruises and only half my voice.

"I doubt it," I said. Regan sobbed against my chest.

"So we're trapped in the bathroom."

"For now. He'll come for us sooner or later."

"What does it take to kill that thing?"

"Whatever it is, we don't have it."

"So what do we do?"

"I don't know. I don't want to think about it right now."

"Well I do. I'm going out there."

"No. As soon he gets his hands on Duncan, he'll go away."

"I don't want him to go away. I want him dead."

"Duncan doesn't."

"You're not acting like yourself, Talon. What's wrong with you?"

"I know how this ends."

"Then let's change it."

"We can't. We shouldn't. I think I think Rune was right. We need to play his game. Let everyone die and see what happens."

Anala's eyes filled with tears. "Rune's dead."

"It was just a dream, but what he told me made sense. He said something about a magic bubble or some kind of magic membrane around the ship. When Hitokage catches Duncan, he'll release it. It's probably how he'll get back to Texas. Rune seemed to think that we'd all be alive again. I think he's right."

"Even so, we shouldn't give up. And why wouldn't Duncan want the thing dead?"

"He's Duncan's brother."

"That doesn't change the fact that he's killed four people and a falcon."

"No, I guess not."

"Danel needs his funeral rites."

I pressed my ear to the door. I could hear Blue Ava's Angel crying and the faint ping of Duncan banging on something in an attempt to get the engines going again. I didn't think Hitokage would attack us while we moved Danel's body and held our inadequate funeral. He hadn't before, and I had a feeling that he had a profound respect for rituals and traditions. If he had simply wanted to kill us all, we wouldn't have lasted as long as we had. He was playing a game.

I pulled the bathroom door open, still holding Regan in my arms. She'd stopped crying, but she wouldn't let go of me or pick her head up off my shoulder. The galley was empty except for Danel's body. The knife had been removed from his forehead, and blood had dribbled down his nose and across his cheek. His eyes were wide open. Chills erupted on my skin. I saw the last thing Danel saw. A flash of silver leaping from jet black, skeletal fingers. I clutched Regan tighter as Anala pushed Danel's eyelids down.

"It's okay, Daddy," Regan mumbled. "Firefly says it's okay. We can die like you did and come back. I'm not scared any more. I might see Mommy and Shane for a little while."

"It's only okay if you bring back ice cream," I said.

"Chocolate or vanilla?"

"Both."

"You got it, Daddy."

When I put Regan down to carry Danel back to the room with the others, a glint of metal in the corner near where Rune had lain caught her eye. Carefully, she picked up both of Rune's knives and studied the blades. They sparked and flashed. They seemed to have some kind of moving pattern embedded in them, and they weren't made out of steel. Regan carried the knives with the blades pointed downward. I wanted to take them away from her. A seven-year-old had no business carrying weapons. Nor should any child ever see what she'd seen in the last few days or have that hard look in her eyes, a look that told me she was ready to kill and ready to die. I let her keep the knives.

I paused in the doorway as we left. I turned around to see if maybe it wasn't real. Danel was sitting up. "Make it stop," he said.

I fell backwards out of the room and slammed the door shut.

We didn't barricade the galley doors when we went back. Hitokage would get in no matter what. But I figured it would be a while before he came for us again. I could see a trail of shimmering red-black blood dripping down the corridor away from the galley. He might kill us all. He might even blow up Blue Ava's Angel and leave us no chance of coming back to life when the magic was removed. But he sure as hell wasn't going to have any fun doing it.