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Starbursts and Shadows: the Obligatory Derelict Ship Episode

Not long, I thought. Not long at all. Ten minutes, tops. Then it'll all be over.

My neck ached. My mind was swimming in visions. The past bled into the future bled into the present and bled. Nothing was where it should have been. No wonder the radio wouldn't come on. Radio waves needed time to move. They couldn't go where time was not moving. The voice I had heard had been Blackstone's, trapped in some weird, echoing space between space and time, issuing her order to blow the shuttle up. The engine wouldn't work because of Duncan's barrier. Something about it reacted to Hitokage's bubble. The only way Duncan could get the engine running again was to remove the barrier. By removing the barrier, he lost his hiding space. He was too upset about what Hitokage had done to be brave. If it had been any other random shadowy killer, Duncan would have removed the barrier and had the engine going even if it cost him his life. In some future that may or may not have been mine, I could see Duncan and Anala's daughter making that kind of sacrifice. But maybe that future was just a dream, like Rune said, within a dream.

I saw him coming. The sword was drawn, cocked back at his left shoulder. I had a better sense of his body. He wasn't floating any more. He was walking. He was slender but taller than Duncan, and he moved with trained precision and grace. He was still swathed in a black cloak, but it was torn and burnt, exposing obsidian armor. The hood had fallen back off his head. His face was ravaged. Beneath the black planes of his features, I saw streaks of red and white. The glassy black face was a mask, I realized, and the mask was broken.

It was going to happen fast. It was going to hurt a hell of a lot. I hugged my daughter tightly for the last time.

He came into the galley, and the first thing he did was throw me backwards into the bathroom. I hit the sink so hard the pipes burst. I heard a few ribs snap. Anala's static prickled the air. I pushed myself to my feet. My head was ringing. I wondered how many concussions I'd had from Hitokage knocking me around.

With a shriek that broke my heart, Regan rushed at Hitokage with Rune's knives raised above her head. She slammed into him. The blades sank deep, and Regan was silent. He shoved her aside and pulled the knives out. Anala was chanting, and her eyes were turning white. Awkwardly, Hitokage threw one of the knives at Anala and one at me. Anala's lightning flared. I smelled burning hair and flesh. Rune's knife bounced off me and splashed. Freezing water was gushing out of the broken pipes. I didn't even realize I'd raised my hands until I put them down.

Hitokage was steaming. Anala had hit him before the knife caught her in the throat but she'd done little damage. I picked up the knife at my feet and stumbled at him. Blades hurt him. Nothing else seemed to work. But if I could make him bleed, I had a chance. Except I didn't have that kind of skill. At that point, I didn't even have the will to fight. I'd done just about everything I could think to do. And they were all gone.

I felt the knife bite into something. I heard Hitokage grunt. I was too close for him to draw his sword. He slammed his knee into my ribs. It hurt too much to scream. "Why won't you just die?" he asked. He sounded frustrated. I could fuck with his head; a moral victory. I didn't feel like celebrating. His hands wrapped around my arms. "Why can't you just go like the rest of them? Don't you know you've lost?"

"Fuck you," I said.

He seemed mildly amused by my response and suppressed a grin. "Fine. Stay alive. I don't think you'll like being all alone."

"Duncan loves you, Jake."

"What? What did you call me?"

"Jake, your brother loves you."

The black mask crumbled as he set his jaw. God, he was hard to break. "Does he? Well, then let the little fool come give me a hug."

He flung me back into the bathroom. I left a dent in the wall and wondered how much the remodeling would cost me.

I was sitting in at least an inch of ice-cold water. The toilet and the sink looked like the strange twisted bronze shapes I'd seen in a museum when I was a kid. Destruction in stainless steel. I pressed myself into a corner and wished I could twist my heart and lungs into similar masterpieces. But they wouldn't quit. I couldn't make them quit. It was getting cold, and the air was hard to breathe. I didn't want to breathe. I wanted to just stop. Even if I could save myself, what did I have left? A ship that would be haunted by spirits I had failed to save.

I was numb except for my fingers. They were cold to the bone. The skin was split and bleeding slowly. My blood was cold. The only other thing I could feel was the empty, starless void outside the ship. If I didn't die, that void was all I would have.

I noticed her smell first. A clean, dry smell, like fresh white sheets with just a hint of some kind of flower and the light salt of her sweat. Then I felt her arm slide around my chest from behind. She kissed my shoulder and stroked the back of my neck. "Having a bad day?" she asked.

I wanted to touch her, but I wasn't sure she was really there. "Blue "

Her warm fingers caressed my jaw. I closed my eyes. "I miss you," she said.

"I miss you, too."

"It wasn't your fault."

"No. Everything was my fault. I should have taken you away from there the first time I saw you."

"Vinny would have come after me."

"But he would have had to go through me first, and he wouldn't have made it very far."

"But then we wouldn't be here now."

"I don't wanna be here now. They're all dead. You're dead. No one can get to me out here. I'm dead."

"Don't be silly. You're not dead."

"Yet."

"Talon, don't give up."

"But I fucked up."

"You can get out of this."

"And end up with what?"

"Your life."

"I don't want it any more. I just want to stop. I don't want to fight. I don't want to run. I thought it was bad enough when Shane died. This is unbearable. I let my daughter our daughter die. For no reason. I don't deserve to live any more."

"Please don't say that. I need you to go on. You're stronger than this."

"If I die, I can be wherever you and the rest of them are."

"We don't want you here. Besides, Portia and I would fight over you."

I almost smiled at the image of Petrine and Cherry going at it in a big pool full of mud or whipped cream; two gorgeous red heads with great bodies in skimpy swimsuits, the mothers of my children, the only two women I would ever give myself to mind, body and soul. But both of them were dead. Even if they did mud wrestle over me, I was alive and wouldn't be there to see it. I tried to turn my head to look at her, but she put her hand gently on my cheek. "No," she said.

"I want to see you."

"Please don't."

"It was your eyes. The way you looked at me. I need to see that again."

"You think Vinny didn't know what it was?"

I knew what I would see if I turned around. My stomach twisted. But I turned my head and looked at her anyway. Her eyes were gone, ripped out of their sockets so violently that the bones were splintered and chewed. Blood and gore were dried in the empty holes and on her cheeks. I put my hands on her face, ran my thumbs over her quivering lips. "I love you," I said and kissed her.

For a minute, she forgot about her ravaged face. She pushed me away but didn't let go of me. "He did this first," she said. "Regan heard me screaming. And she was screaming too. It's so awful. To hear your baby screaming and not be able to go to her. I screamed for you. I didn't know where you were. I knew he was going to kill me. But I didn't think he'd God, I was so scared. He ripped my eyes out and raped me and let me bleed to death. And you were so far away."

"He'll pay for this."

"You had a chance to do it before."

"I had Regan with me. It would have been stupid. Now I'm alone again."

"But you have to be alive if you're going back there."

"Just long enough to kill Vinny."

"Talon, please don't die. I want you to live. You can get out of this. That was what I always liked most about you. You were lazy, but I knew you could be tenacious if you had to be. That's what I need from you now. Don't give up."

I couldn't tell her that it was impossible. I couldn't tell her that I had nothing left. So I said nothing at all.

She grabbed my shirt in her fists, and her face twisted in pain and fear. "Make it stop," she whispered.

And then she was gone.

I closed my eyes. Something Rune had said to me at the fair came to mind. Something about not interfering with the ways of other races even if those ways seem appalling. Not being an Akurei, what right did I have to tell them that roasted Duncan wasn't good for them? But the kid fell into my lap. He didn't want to be dinner. I had argued that point with Rune; he was wrong. In this case, he was very wrong. In this case, I was wrong, too. The price had gotten too high. I had one option.

I crawled out of the bathroom, taking Rune's knife with me. The galley was a mess. There was blood everywhere. Regan's body was curled up against one wall. I couldn't make myself go to her. The breakdown was rumbling just beneath the surface, like water about to boil. If I looked at her lifeless little face and reminded myself that it was my fault she'd died, the breakdown would spill over. Hitokage wouldn't have to kill me. He could leave me on my derelict ship with my dead crew, and I would eventually die of madness.

I dragged myself over to Anala and gently pulled the knife from her throat. "Sorry," I said. "I might need this." The wound gurgled in response. I heard her voice trying to come out, trying to tell me one last time to make it stop. I put my hand over her mouth. "Don't say it. I'm working on it."

I tried to pray for Anala and Regan, but I'd never been much for the rituals and ceremonies. Belief was one thing; faith quite another. For me, neither had much to do with saying a few scripted words to empty air. There was no comfort in rote prayer. I thought about the bald green woman with the eggplant eyes. I knew she was taking care of the ones I loved. I could almost see her smiling down on them as they sat in a warm grassy field. That was faith, and there was comfort in that. Still, getting to my feet was hard.

I listened for the pings and clangs of Duncan's work. There was only silence. He must have realized what the problem was. He might have even taken that box out of his backpack and sat contemplating removing the barrier. He wouldn't do it. He didn't even know if anyone was still alive. For all he knew, he was the only one left.

I reached the bridge, not quite realizing I'd gone that way. There was a small shuttle in front of me. I felt like I should have recognized it. It was painted black with sections of white under the nose and wings. It was called Orca.

I kicked the radio as hard as I could. It hissed and popped.

"Talon, answer me goddamn it!" my mom's voice screeched.

"Mom?" I asked.

"Talon, pick up the fucking radio! What the fuck is going on?"

I laughed. So that was why I talked the way I did. I got it from her.

"Talon!"

I picked up. "Mom," I said. I could think of no more to say.

"Oh god. Talon, are you okay? What's going on?"

"I'm no, I'm sorta hurt. Everyone's dead."

"What?"

"Don't board yet. He'll kill you, too."

"Talon "

"I can get rid of him. What are you doing out here anyway?"

"Your friend Daigoro found me. He said you were in trouble. What do you mean everyone's dead? Is Regan oh no " I could hear her put her hand over her mouth and grimace as tears bubbled up in her eyes.

"I think I can get them back. I have to ditch my engineer."

"What have you gotten yourself into, Talon?"

"Something I shouldn't have, as always. Give me twenty minutes, then you can board. Either I'll be dead, too, or we'll all be okay."

Damn Daigoro. I should have known he'd do something. But going to my mom? A good choice, I guess. Despite the fact that we were no longer as close as we'd once been, no one understood me the way she did, even when she didn't understand my actions. Moms are like that.

I wiped tears off my face and went to get Duncan.

When I got to the engine, Duncan was sitting outside of the barrier. He pulled the magic off, twisted it into a thin cord and fed it into a compartment in his box. "I thought you were dead," he said. He didn't look at me.

"I should be," I said.

I let him finish what he was doing in silence.

He slid the compartment shut when all the magic was inside. He put the box in his backpack. "It should work now. There's no damage," he said.

"How long did it take you to figure out what was wrong?"

"About two seconds. But I was hoping I could get it running without taking down the barrier."

"You have nowhere to hide now."

"I don't care."

"I have to give you to him."

"No you don't. I'm going."

"It's not that I want you to die. I just you're what? What did you say?"

Duncan turned his head to look at me. His eyes were dry. "You've done too much for me, and I've cost you everything. I'm going."

"That doesn't bring them back."

"Trust me, it will."

"So Rune was right."

"If I don't go, I might lose the only chance I have to save him. I have to try, even if I die doing it. That's what I should have been doing all along. Trying to save him instead of running from him. You'll find another engineer."

Blue Ava's Angel made a sound so human that for a second, I wasn't sure she was made out of steel. Her wail echoed in the stillness. I wondered if Mom and Daigoro could hear it. Duncan put his hand on the bulkhead and whispered soothing words to her.

We crawled out to the cargo bay. Hitokage was waiting for him. The mask was no longer covering his face. His armor was split open. It wouldn't stand up to another fight of any kind. The temptation to find a soft spot and drive one of Rune's knives into him as far as I could was strong, but I couldn't do it. I didn't think he deserved the love Duncan had for him. He'd killed my crew. He'd killed my daughter. All the same, it wasn't my place to stop Duncan from doing what he thought was right.

"You've come to your senses finally," Hitokage said. A nasty grin spread across his lips.

"Bite me," Duncan said.

"Is that the best you can do?"

"Go fuck yourself."

Hitokage laughed. "That's a bit better."

"I want my crew back," I said.

"Do you? Well, now isn't that a selfish request? Don't you think they like it better where they are? It is peaceful there."

"It's not time for them to die. Bring them back."

"I never had any intention of leaving them dead."

"There were other ways to go about this."

"Would you have handed Duncan over to me if I'd just asked politely? I doubt it. He ran to you for protection. You've had visions of what's been done to him. I don't think you'd have willingly let him go back to that."

"It's what your kind does. It's not my business. I should have turned him away."

"That's not your nature."

"Is it yours?"

"If I'd been in your place, I would have fought for him just like you did. I understand the bond of family. What is a crew but another kind of family?"

"You don't know anything about family," Duncan said. "If you did, you wouldn't have changed. You would have kept fighting them. You wouldn't have let them do this to me!"

Hitokage said nothing. He looked at Duncan, and I could see in his eyes an explanation for his actions. In some way, everything he'd done was to protect Duncan. He didn't give his reasons. Duncan wouldn't see past what he felt was a betrayal.

"You're wasting time," I said. "Bring my crew back and get the fuck off my ship."

"It is done," Hitokage said. He folded his arms across his chest and continued to stare at Duncan.

"Are you leaving or not?"

I heard Peter screech.

"Okay, fine. Stare at each other for as long as you want. Just get off before I come back here and shove you off."

I ran for the galley.

Regan jumped into my arms as soon as she saw me. "I didn't bring back ice cream," she said.

"That's okay. We'll get some later," I said.

Rune came into the galley with Cherry in his arms. A sheet was wrapped around her legs, and there was fresh blood on the sheet.

"Here," Anala said.

Rune laid Cherry down next to Anala, and then he turned away. I didn't like the look on his face. With Peter perched on his left shoulder, he left the galley.

Cherry opened her eyes when I sat down next to her and took her hand. "There's so much blood," she said.

I couldn't tell her it was okay.

Dylan and Danel came in, both looking stunned but alive. Dylan's aura was no longer verging on black. It was a bright, calm blue. He still wasn't all there, but the peace he'd had before Shane died seemed to have returned to him.

After Anala had stopped Cherry's bleeding and given her something to help her sleep, she made sure the rest of us were okay, and then she went to check on Rune.

"What happened in the bathroom?" Dylan asked.

"You don't want to know," I said.

"Did you kill the thing?"

"No."

"But it is gone, isn't it?"

"It damn well better be."

"Where's Duncan?" Danel asked.

"He's gone, too."

I had almost forgotten that Mom and Daigoro were waiting to hear something from me. I went up to the bridge and picked up the radio. "Mom, are you still there?" I asked.

"Talon, what's going on? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine now. We're all okay. I just don't have an engineer any more."

"What the hell happened?"

"Long story. Follow us back to Junket, and I'll tell you all about it."

"Why do you want to go back to Junket?"

"Unfinished business."