Field Marshal Helena Eridani usurped Tara's plans with annoying regularity. Sure, the plan had been to speak with her all along and there was no reasonable way her mom could have anticipated she'd call, yet it still rankled. Helena was accustomed to having her way and setting the agenda in almost every corner of the Universe. Everywhere but Hestia's Hearth.
It was nice to be purveyor over the only place where compliance wasn't a guarantee. Still, there was no point in putting it off. Like most people who didn't hear the word 'no' often enough, Helena was persistent, as Brenn had pointed out.
Okay. Deep breath. She was already prepared for this—ready to manage her mother's expectations and enforce her personal boundaries. She could do it. She could keep control of the conversation, even if her mother had called first. Maybe it was simply a social call.
If only her therapist could hear her now.
She gave her head scarf a pat and too a look around the cockpit one more time. The viewport showed an open, star-filled expanse of space surrounded by an ornate bronzed metal frame. Colorful bioluminescent flowers grew between the flourishes lending the room a gentle glow. The fixtures around her were the same bronze, the deck painted a deep aqua. Planters filled with oxygen rich greenery, dotted the coppery bulkheads. Warm, soft, and alive all the way down to the velvety fabric of the chairs and stools. She'd wanted her ship to be comfortable and beautiful, not just for her, but for those her crew offered safe harbor.
It helped in moments like these. It wasn't the first time she'd woken to a crewman or guest in distress, and likely wouldn't be the last. She took a deep breath of the light floral perfume that always hung in the air. Time to get on with it. With a thought, she ordered Hestia to decorate the cockpit with Helena's graceful visage.
The holographic platform in front of the viewport transformed into her mother's home office on the Aesir homeworld. Helena, tall and waspish, sat behind an ornate wooden desk. A wide picture window, framed in stained glass, stretched out behind her, featuring a dimming purple skyline and a snowcapped, dormant volcano. A perfect lenticular cloud hung smoke-like around the tip.
"Ostara, it's good to see you. I hope I didn't wake you." Despite the genuine warmth and affection in her mothers voice and the smile that softened the sharp angles of her face, an undercurrent of tension buzzed; some sort of stressor beneath the surface.
Lovely. So much for a social call.
"Hi, Mom." Tara attempted a smile and maybe made it there. "You didn't wake me. I was already up to call you."
Helena studied her as Tara studied Helena and after a beat they seemed to land on mutual concern together. She hadn't had a chance of hiding her troubles. 'Mom's bullshit sensor', her brother called it, and it was probably how their mother had managed to stay alive so long, despite playing the most dangerous game in the Universe.
Tara shifted on the balls of her feet and considered taking a seat. Anything large enough to cause this much concern in someone as powerful as Helena could cause ripples across the Known Galaxies—premium 'you might want to sit down for this' territory. The hairs on her arms rose to attention like tiny soldiers ready for battle—her own bullshit sensor. Must have been a genetic trait.
Guess she didn't have control over this conversation, either.
"What's going on?" At least she could cut through the smokescreens and get to the point so she could voice her concerns about the discipline of Aesir military cadets. One. Specifically.
Helena glanced down at her hands, pursed lips morphing into a frown. Her age showed today. The Aesir didn't grow old at the same speed as humans, or in the same way. There were usually fewer wrinkles on the forehead and around the eyes and their black hair, highlighted in many colors—her mother's the same blue as her mask—never grayed. Yet, Tara could see the passage of time in the fine lines around her mouth and the more she resembled Grandmother every year.
Grandmother was a fierce and handsome woman with perfect alabaster skin who, unfortunately, though as beautiful as a statue, was as cold as one too. She'd never understood Helena's love for her Human children. While part-human children were supposed to be revered in Aesir society for the valuable biodiversity they brought, they weren't politically viable outside of advantageous, arranged marriages with other mixed children. So, it was a mystery to Grandmother why Helena doted on Tara and Sol so much. Helena's Aesir children had all married properly and provided a total of twelve grandchildren between them. They were something to be proud of. Yet she spend more time with Tara and Sol, the latter a transgender man who couldn't produce children naturally, per the Aesir definition, and the former who eschewed the idea of marriage and children—and even most relationships—completely. They were politically useless and apparently unworthy of love.
Grandmother's collected the political power of their children and grandchildren like pretty stones from the beach. One would think she'd be satisfied enough with her daughter being one of the rarest and most valuable jewels in anyone's collection and allow for a few eccentricities. But alas, there was always something Helena could do better.
She didn't know half of it. Hopefully she never would.
Tara's heart stalled and then took off running. The cockpit turned into a dizzying mixture of colorful lights, amber glow, bronze, and green as her head attempted to float away.
This was the call. The one she and Sol had feared. Their intertwined lives were about to come crashing down so soon after losing Dad.
"Mom, what is it?" Tara asked again and tried to keep her voice level. Her mom finally looked up from her hands wearing the same frown she'd worn when she'd had to cancel a planned visit or return to the Capitol early because her position demanded it. Tara's logical brain sprung into action and fired towing cables at the runaway starship of a thought process. Though it strained and tried to continue on, she managed to get it in check. Her heart rate slowed and her breath came easier.
If the worst had happened, Mom wouldn't be calling from her office and she wouldn't have opened the conversation with a smile.
"I find myself in the difficult position of having to break a promise I made to you and Sol."
It must have taken a lot for her to say even that. Promises were more valuable than currency, she'd told them as children.
The little starship revved its engines and gave it another go, this time on different fuel. Tara's stomach twisted. Only one promise came to mind and God, she needed to take a seat. The pilot's chair in the center of the cockpit braced her and hugged her body like armor.
"Okay." Curse the crack in her voice.
"There's someone I need you to rescue, and I hope it's not already too late."
Unbidden, memories of the last rescue, the one that elicited the promise, rose to the surface and threatened to overwhelm. Aesir drones had surrounded the ship, peppering the hull with sticky bombs. Brenn had called up to the cockpit, voice cool, only a note of hysteria. A fuel tank had sprung a leak and was pumping hydrogen in the air. She had to fix it. She needed to find a respirator first and before she could finish the sentence, the bombs on the outside exploded in a chain. The ship rocked. A moment later, an explosion from the inside jolted everything to the side and the power cycled, leaving them in the dark for a breath or two. One call to the engine room. Two. Brenn didn't answer.
It was Doctor Youssef, go find Brenn. It was Please, please, be safe. It was, Sol, get us out of here—don't they know there'll be hell to pay for attacking an Org vessel?
Breathe, Ostara. Stop and breathe.
They'd made it out. After the explosion had crippled them, an Aesir ship had conveniently showed up to call off the drones. They'd apologized for not recognizing the Hestia as an Org vessel and let her limp out of their space, Brenn barely holding onto her life. It'd been a terrifying two days after as they'd waited for Brenn to rejoin the Universe she'd finally relearned how to laugh, dance, make music, and make friends in.
Being in the Resistance and fighting a shadow war against the Aesir Empire was a dangerous life, one they'd all chosen. There was knowing that, and then there was knowing that.
Helena had almost lost two children in the same instant, and there was nothing she could have done to intervene without risking herself. So, she'd promised to find others for those missions. With her dear friend's lungs busy knitting new, healthy tissue in the hospital room behind them, Tara had taken the promise.
"I'm sorry," Helena said, bringing Tara back.
Tara frowned. What had her expression given away?
"I can't." Tara's frown deepened. There was a life at stake, and her mother clearly thought it was worth protecting, but they weren't in any condition to help.
"I understand with your anxieties and after what happened last time, you might be afraid."
Afraid? If only it were just fear—her constant companion. Fear was a mountain she knew how to climb. A monster she could vanquish with a sword. A shadow beast she could shine a light on until it disintegrated. She'd been battling fear her entire life, that was anxiety.
This was far more than fear.
"I have no crew, Mom. It's just Brenn and me since Sol and Dr. Youssef left. Thanks to an Academy asshole by the name of Alexander Cornelius, she's recovering from a concussion right now." Anger quivered at the edge of her voice.
Helena's jaw set in the 'heads are going to roll' way—the I am the queen of the Universe and no one interrupts my plans kind of way.
"Recovering from what?"
She hadn't misheard. She never misheard.
"On Prospero Hab, Alexander Cornelius," best to get that name in there one more time, "insulted Brenn and touched her in an overly intimate fashion. When Brenn pushed him away, he decided she made a better cannonball than a person. Her brain didn't agree."
Helena closed her eyes and pinched the skin above them with her thumb and middle finger before stretching it out again and then moved to the skin below. Behind her, the sky began its quick sunset, becoming a canvas of fiery reds, oranges, and pinks.
"Is Brennan going to be alright?"
"If she can manage a good night's rest, the doctor says she'll be mostly back to herself, and she should be 100% in a couple of weeks. That's physical, though. Emotionally? I don't know." She didn't have to elaborate. It was Helena who'd sent Tara to fetch Brenn from under the noses of the Aesir on Earth who wanted to publicly execute her. The baggage was implicit.
As if on cue, the first pull of bow on strings sounded from the galley; a deep and sonorous note that shifted up and then down again before settling out. A moment later, a sharper and higher note cut in. Helena opened her eyes again and folded her hands on the table, but she glanced over Tara's shoulder as if she could see past to where Brenn sat in the galley tuning Rora's violin.
"I don't want to ask this of you, Ostara." Her eyes finally made contact again. "I tried to rescue this woman using the local Resistance who'd sent her there in the first place, but instead the cowards hired smugglers to do the job and they botched it. You're the only one close enough to reach her who I trust implicitly as things have gotten far more complicated."
"What makes this rescue different?" This was more than their run-of-the-mill human with astounding potential who needed a one way ticket out of Aesir space. Not just another Resistance leader, sympathizer, or whistleblower with their head on the chopping block. No, this was more.
Call it instinct.
"I received a credible tip your Uncle Sig has been conducting illegal experiments at his research facility on Saskaris. My informant was low on details. They sent someone in almost two years ago, but lost contact and assumed her dead until recently." Helena paused and looked down at her hands. She seemed to be searching for the words to say something unpleasant. From the galley, Brenn worked through the scales, slowly reaching higher and higher. "All he could tell me is Sig has been hiring Cousins and Human-Cousin mixed individuals to work either in his household or research facility. All of them have been women, and all of them taken from Aesir controlled territories."
Hire. Right. Like they'd had much of a choice when Sig's people came up to them and said they were now working for Sig.
"It was about time for me to inspect military assets on Saskaris, so instead of sending out a team, I decided to pay my dear brother a visit and remind him I'm always here, and always watching.
"When I arrived, a woman matching the description my contact gave me met me in the foyer and told me she'd be serving me during my stay. She was heavily pregnant." Behind her the sky had deepened to a deep blue violet with a burst of pink towards the horizon. "Your uncle waxed poetic about the rarity of her beauty and how he'd rescued her and her future child from a life of poverty, alone in the human slums."
"And you knew better." An uneasy slithering began in Tara's belly. The violin stopped. The silence stretched for a breath or two before the first few notes of a mournful ballad drifted in.
"Indeed. He kept a close eye on me and my people, but I managed to learn—something I wish I hadn't." Helena paused and took a deep breath. "My brother has set up a breeding facility and has been attempting to create the first mixed Aesir and Cousin child. He has seven women from different Cousin species and six more who are half Human."
"That's—" Illegal? That didn't even cover it. The peace treaties made a special point to forbid a few old-time Aesir practices: no breeding facilities to impregnate Human women with Aesir children against their wills; no research into or actively working to modify the Aesir genome by artificial means save for very specific reasons; and no experimentation or research into augmenting Aesir DNA with Cousin DNA—including trying to solve the infertility issues between the Aesir and so far, all, Cousin species.
"The woman was pregnant." Tara's words came out in a breath.
"His only success in two years. She's half Human and half a Cousin species I wasn't able to determine. There's been no modification to the DNA of the fetus save to correct a genetic defect the mother suffers from. She has carried three other pregnancies beyond the first trimester, but this is the first that's survived to viability." Helena sighed. "It's his DNA she's been impregnated with, of course."
Proof of concept. A trophy child to call his own. A burst of cold began in her core and radiated out from there until it reached the ends of her fingers and traveled up her spine, making her scalp tingle. She closed her hands into fists and focused on the bite of her nails into her palms. The music stopped for good this time and the absence of it felt heavy—almost oppressive.
"I think I'm going to be sick." The starship in her brain took this new fuel and revved up again, this time breaking free from her logical brain and shooting off into the stars with their infinity of terrible possibilities.
Cousins could be telepathic, or strong enough to survive on a heavy gravity world. Some could see far further than Humans, or deeper into the light spectrum. One Cousin species couldn't see at all the way humans did, but could hear well enough to draw an image of their surroundings. Adding these things to the Aesir genome could give them even more advantages. Those things interested Uncle Sig like so many others who imagined what the Aesir could do were their hands not bound, but it wasn't what he spent hours droning on and on about at parties while young nieces were forced to stand in pretty dresses and uncomfortable shoes nearby.
"Do you think he's trying to make Aesir look Human?" The Creators' greatest failure was that their creations didn't blend in. The Aesir's inability to infiltrate Human governments made a takeover of brute force necessary and it had almost ended the Aesir as a species in the early days. It still held them back.
Helena inclined her head. "It's always been his obsession."
"This could mean intergalactic war. An end to a hundred years of peace."
On went the starship, ever deeper.
Her steadfastness crumbled. If not them, then who? Sig couldn't have this baby, and the rest of the Universe couldn't find out about it, either.
After a long stretch of silence she shook her head and sighed.
"Mom, how am I supposed to get into Uncle Sig's highly guarded facility unrecognized and escape with a well guarded and very pregnant woman with only my injured Engineer to help?"
"I'm not asking you to. There's a few more things you should know and a reason why, beyond my promise, I didn't come to you first. It gets worse."
Didn't it always?
- United States
- Owlish Intergalactic
23 years ago an awkward 13-year-old with thick frames perched on her nose sat down at her brand new Tandy computer and wrote her first fanfiction; a Paris/Torres ship fic for Star Trek: Voyager. It was gloriously terrible and the start of an amazing journey.
Today I still tell human stories set against the backdrop of space--love, hurt, comfort, and all of the wonderful messiness between. The ways we stick together, and the things that tear us apart. How the stars, in their infinite vastness, give us the freedom to be who we are. And I tell some of the stories we don't see enough of, the stories where characters like me-a disabled, gay, mother over the age of thirty-get to be the heroes.