Duhrnan flashed back onto the hologram for a few seconds more. It was just enough time for him, grinning viciously, to bow farewell in the skyther style. And then he disappeared, and all that remained on the display was a ticking timer, set for 7 Earth days, counting down by the second.
Blood dripped through K’s fingers from my right hand onto the console. She let go, and exclaimed, “Shit!”
My eyes were locked to the timer. The numbers were a blocky, solid white.
06:23:59:53… 06:23:59:52… 06:23:59:51...
“Osax, god, I’m sorry!” K hesitantly held her hands toward me, but didn’t dare to touch me.
Joëlle held her breath and gazed at the timer, and my bleeding hand.
As if in perfect rhythm with the timer, pain gently pulsed up from my palm. I couldn’t take my eyes off the countdown.
K kept apologizing and asking me if I was okay. Joëlle turned to the doorway of the cockpit and said, “Where have you been?”
I heard Jonathan’s voice from behind me respond, “I- I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do, I tried to make some calls-” His voice caught in his throat. I’d never heard him sound so shaky.
My eyes fell to my right hand. It looked like a crimson mess, but the sight of it didn’t seem to affect me at all. I felt like I was vibrating at a somehow stable wavelength.
Jonathan’s footsteps came closer. “That looks bad,” he said. “It looks broken.”
K glanced toward him. “I’m sorry! I was trying to help!”
Joëlle looked at the sparking weapons console, and the chunk of it which lay lifeless on the floor of the cockpit. She said, “It doesn’t matter, it was an accident. Jonathan, get the medkit!”
I heard him shuffle to the back of the room and fumble with something. The quiet hum of the ship’s engine filled my senses in the space between each painful heartbeat. I looked out through the window at the black veil of space, dotted with stars, and squinted.
“Osax, are you okay?” asked K.
I felt Joëlle gently squeeze my left hand. “Osax?” she said, quietly.
Jonathan came over to me, stepping between K and I, and knelt down beside me with the medical kit in hand. He began tending to my hand, cleaning the blood from it, and prepping some medical gel. His organic eye was facing me and I gazed into it.
“Osax?” he asked hesitantly, pausing his work. K and Joëlle were silent. I noticed through the haze that his hands were shaking, and his eye was red, as though he had been crying, but I didn’t remember hearing him cry. After a moment of silence, he tightened his lip, and turned back to my hand, rubbing it with medical gel.
Seconds passed, and I knew exactly how many staring at Duhrnan’s timer, each second simultaneously too fast and too slow.
K bowed her head. “Osax… I’m so… sorry.”
Joëlle sighed. I blinked, gazing at the timer.
“I can’t believe this happened,” she continued. “Your planet… your home…”
Jonathan paused and looked up at me for a brief second, before returning to his work. I sat motionless.
Joëlle shuffled in her seat. “I wonder what’s happening back on Earth now. Everyone knows that the Shade Beam was created by the TAU now... I wonder how people are reacting. And with this timer… they’re probably terrified. Humanity has never faced something of this scale.”
K balled her fists. “He’s gonna pay. He’s gonna pay!”
Joëlle let go of my hand and leaned forward, gazing out into space. She grimaced. “This is perfect for the Brotherhood. Astraloth is out of the picture… faith in the TAU will be completely destabilized.”
“The Brotherhood?” asked K.
Jonathan spoke up quietly. “They’re a group of revolutionaries, mostly human, seeking to destroy the power-balance of the galaxy, in order to rebuild a more just civilization.” He gave K a sidelong glance. “I’m surprised you’ve never heard of them.”
“They’re terrorists,” said Joëlle.
K shook her head. “Well, who cares about the Brotherhood. Astraloth just got destroyed! What about Osax?”
Joëlle shifted around so she was leaning in front of me, looking into my eyes. I didn’t meet her gaze. “Osax, are you alright?” I was silent. “It’s okay if you aren’t…”
“No, it’s not okay,” said K. “He’s gotta be fine. He is fine.” She placed her hand on my shoulder. “You’re fine.”
Jonathan swiped her hand away with his arm. “Careful!” he commanded.
K recoiled. “I- I just want to make sure he’s okay!”
“He’s clearly not okay!” Jonathan spat, quivering. “But it’s okay,” he said, regaining his posture. “Everything happens for a reason.”
“Yeah?” said K. “And why did this have to happen, huh? Why did Astraloth have to be destroyed? Why did billions of people have to die?”
Jonathan’s eyes flickered as he worked on my hand. “Maybe… you just wouldn’t understand.” His voice was quiet and precise.
“Why wouldn’t I understand?!” K shouted.
Joëlle interjected. “I think he just means, maybe it’s not for us to understand. Maybe there is something good to come of this…”
I glanced down at my hand. Jonathan had cleaned up all of the blood. I tried to flex my fingers, but they barely moved, and searing pain shot up my arm.
“Careful not to move,” said Jonathan. “This kind of wound will take some time to heal, even with medical gel. You’ve got broken bones.”
I shut my eyes tightly, trying and failing to numb out the pain. It was growing stronger and more unbearable each second, and I found myself suddenly struggling to breathe slowly. With my eyes closed, images of my mother spilled into my mind. She felt so distant, but she felt alive. She couldn’t have been dead.
Tears started silently streaming down my face. The temple was gone. The bird on the balcony, the royal guards, the town, the mountains, the stranger at the beach: all gone.
“This means,” said Joëlle, hesitantly breaking the silence, “that Talcorosax is the King of Astraloth now.”
“How can he be the king of Astraloth?” demanded K. “Astraloth is gone!”
Joëlle sighed. “Well, he’s the official ruler of any skythers who respect the authority of Astraloth.”
K shook her head in disbelief, and looked at me. “Osax… you’re a king now.” I couldn’t bring myself to look her way, and she noticed. “Come on, why aren’t you looking at me? Why aren’t you talking?”
“Give it a rest, K, he’s not well!” Jonathan growled.
“Doesn’t mean he can’t talk, or give us a sign,” said K.
“We can’t make Osax do anything, K,” said Joëlle, brushing her purple dreads to the side and sighing. I looked down at nothing in particular on the console in front of me, and she continued. “We have to decide what we are going to do though.”
“What the hell are we gonna do?” asked K. “We can’t bring Astraloth back…”
Jonathan closed his eyes and froze for a brief moment.
Joëlle stood up from her chair, and turned away from the window, taking another huge sigh and raising her hands to her head. “We can contact the TAU fleets, see if they have any plans.”
“You think they’ll be able to come to a decision now? From what Admiral O’Kane told you, they were too worried about making the wrong move or revealing that they were responsible for the Shade Beam to actually give us a hand in hunting Duhrnan down before… why would they feel different now?”
“Astraloth is destroyed. I doubt even the TAU expected the Shade Beam to be functional so quickly, it’s probably got them scared. And Duhrnan’s threat, and the timer… they’re probably planning how to stop the Shade Beam right now!”
“They’re probably scared,” said K, “But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to fight. You know, it’s actually the fight, flight, or freeze response. There’s a two out of three chance that-”
“When did you get so interested in probability?” Joëlle snarked. “We should return to Olympus and meet with the Admirals in person. We’ll need a fleet to stop Duhrnan and the valicorr.”
Jonathan cut in. “You think that fighting Duhrnan in a head on war will work? Even a Titan-class cruiser was little more than light rain to the mothership. And you can bet the Shade Beam will be outfitted with whatever armour and shielding Duhrnan can equip it with.”
Joëlle put her hands on her hips. “Well then what do you suggest? Each second passed is a second wasted, and if there’s a way to stop Duhrnan, the fleets will figure it out.”
My eyes glanced to the scanner still tracking Duhrnan’s mothership. It was in a strange solar system.
I furrowed my brows. I recognized the solar system, but I wasn’t sure what its significance was.
Jonathan replied. “I’m not sure what to do, but I know the fleets will be crushed against the Shade Beam and the valicorr mothership. And that’s not even factoring in any other valicorr ships he might have under his command.”
“Wait,” said K, with a puzzled look on her face. “Why would he wait seven days to destroy Earth anyway? I mean sure it takes some time to travel between Earth and Astraloth, even with the fastest slipspace drive available, right? But way less than seven days.”
Joëlle shrugged. “He’s sadistic. He wants everyone to be afraid, and in pain. By drawing it out, he’s only increasing everyone’s suffering, and his enjoyment.” She shuddered.
K shook her head. “No, that doesn’t seem like enough. I mean I agree, he’s twisted beyond anything, but that can’t be the only reason.”
Jonathan let go of my hand. “That’s all I can do for now,” he said, but I didn’t look his way. He sighed. “Well,” he said, turning to K, “the Shade Beam is powered by a rare fuel source, diffusionite. It’s possible he needs to reload it.”
“And that takes seven days?” asked K, unimpressed.
Jonathan frowned. “No… though I hear the weapon has a long recharge period, perhaps days long. Maybe-”
“How do you know that?” asked Joëlle.
“I heard rumours while working on research at the base on Voren,” he replied.
“Why didn’t you mention this earlier? Maybe you know something-”
“I swear, I would have volunteered any rumours if I thought them believable or useful enough to mention.”
“Who shitting cares?” K exclaimed. “Look at us... Look at Osax. What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to go to the fleet.” said Joëlle.
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Jonathan.
“Then suggest something else!”
“We could… find the Shade Beam,” said Jonathan with little conviction.
“How?” said K.
“We can’t.” said Joëlle. “It could already be anywhere by now… we have no idea how fast it is or where it’s headed.”
“What about the mothership? We can attack him there!” said K.
“Same problem as the fleet,” said Jonathan. “We simply cannot expect to win in a fight against him.”
“Then you’re just suggesting we just give up?!” shouted Joëlle.
“No…” said Jonathan hesitantly.
Joëlle took a step toward him. “Then what do we do? Unless you’re about to reveal some mystical technique of yours for tracking the Shade Beam, this far from Astraloth and without any clear sense of its energy signatures, then I suggest you give us an alternative.”
“Yeah,” said K. “If you’re so sure that this all happened for a reason, then tell us why. Tell us what we’re going to do about it.”
I stood up from my chair.
My heart was beating calmly, and my eyes trained the floor, but I could see the three of them staring at me, in silence. I looked up at my faint reflection in the window, and something glimmered in my eye. My ears were held still and I stood up straight enough, with my head angled down just a little.
“Osax…” said K.
I inhaled. “Duhrnan wants the fleet to unite against him. That’s why he gave a time and a place for his next appearance: Earth, in seven days.”
They remained silent.
“Which means to go to the fleet would be a waste of time,” I continued. I lifted my right arm to my chest, and rubbed my wrist with my left hand. “Astraloth is gone…” I said, gazing at my hand. I looked up at the stars. “We aren’t.”
I could feel a glow of energy inside me coming into focus. I could feel it building in the room between us.
“He was sending that message from his mothership, far away from Astraloth, and to his knowledge, completely hidden. He must expect the TAU and skyther colonies to send ships to Astraloth, looking to confront the Shade Beam.” I took a deep breath. “Meanwhile, he’s hiding away on his mothership.”
“What do you mean?” asked Joëlle.
I stepped away from them back toward my chair, and continued. “He’s scared. That’s what I mean; he’s scared. Somehow, despite all the grandeur, he knows he has a weakness, and he’s betting that no one will figure it out. He’s distracting everyone with the Shade Beam and assuming that no one will be able find him out there on the mothership.”
Jonathan slowly chimed in. “I don’t understand.”
“He thinks no one can track him. He never knew that we got so close to him in the nebula.”
Jonathan persisted. “But even so, why would he hide? The mothership is, for all intents and purposes, invulnerable.”
Fire was kindling inside me. I whipped out my left hand to the glass of root beer I’d left on the counter, and snatched it up, whirling to face Jonathan and the others as my ears lifted and my eyes narrowed in a confident smile. “Exactly. He would only hide if he had a reason to. A weakness.”
Joëlle’s eyes glimmered, and Jonathan looked at me with hesitant appreciation. K’s mouth was open, slowly morphing into a smile.
“He’s confident in every way, except about this one weakness!” I said, gesturing to the scanner. “He’s-”
“And what is that weakness?” interjected Jonathan.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know what the weakness is, but we may be the only ones who can find out.”
“How do we do that?” asked Joëlle.
I narrowed my eyes, and took a long drink of fizzy root beer. “We follow him. We find the mothership, we find out what he’s doing on Malum, and we find out how we can use that knowledge to stop him for good.”
“Malum?” asked K.
“That system he’s in,” I said, pointing to the scanner, “the only notable planet there is Malum. And he’s a Loro. And remember the picture I salvaged from the loro computer on Voren?”
“It was taken on Malum!” said K, grinning. Joëlle and Jonathan glanced between each other.
“Precisely,” I said. “He must have a reason to be there… and it must have to do with the loro.”
There was a moment of silence. Joëlle glanced at the timer. “Well,” she said, reaching for the controls of the ship, “we have six days, twenty-three hours, and fifty minutes, give or take. Let’s stop wasting time.”
The stars peeled back around the Firebrand as once more we kicked off into slipspace.
Jonathan stood up, moving past me to head to the kitchen with a sigh. “You know, this is a huge gamble.”
“You’re a scientist,” I said. “Sometimes, you just have to test your hypothesis.”
He smirked at me, and his gaze pierced mine for a second. His long coat trailed behind him as he exited.
I took a deep breath, drink in hand, and looked out the window. K stood up, smiling. Her eyes darted down to my bandaged, broken hand, and her smile disappeared. Tears started forming in her eyes and she brushed them aside before they could.
“Osax… you know I’m so sorry. I- I was only trying to comfort you…”
I felt strangely balanced. An incredible weight lay in my heart and I knew everything had changed in the galaxy, but something had also changed in me, and in that moment I felt an equally powerful force raising me up to meet the collapse of things. I knelt down and opened my arms for a hug, and K hesitantly opened her arms, and wrapped them around me as gently as she could.
With my face next to hers, I closed my eyes, and whispered to her. “Never apologize.”