Icy winds seep in around the edges of my cell’s one window. I rise from the wooden bench with a hiss of pain and limp over to the barred opening. The bleak white sky casts no shadow on the walls or ground outside. Every line of the New Jordan spaceport is so clear my eyes feel lacerated by the sharp angles. If I had not already had an aching head, the harsh light would have done the job. I’ve never been able to walk outside on Terados without thick, tinted lenses. During summer the sun’s reflection off the rocky white terrain is apt to fry your eyeballs, and the brief winters bring snow blindness. And those are the only two seasons.
Why the hell did we want this godforsaken planet anyway?
Friends and acquaintances have asked me this question hundreds of times. While the official platitude – it’s convenient as a port-of-call between New Earth and the Helios Union’s business hub on Phedras – might satisfy politicians’ wives, those civilians with any tenacity would suspect it was not the whole truth. And the sharper ones would know only something rare and precious would motivate Union leaders to pour money and manpower into this pitiless hunk of rock.
My damaged legs shake, threaten to give out, but I cling to the ridged sill and try to see more of the port. Across from my window and to the left stands a long, low storage building constructed of the white stone everything else is made from. Beyond the storage building runs a razor wire fence and fifty yards beyond that lies the airfield and boarding pads. My lips part in surprise when I catch sight of a line of Draykell hobbling towards a shuttle emblazoned with the Helios Union’s logo: a double helix surrounding a vertical line of circles. A gauntlet of armed Crim soldiers stands on either side of the Draykell parade. I strain to see if I recognize any of the prisoners, but can only discern the generic shapes of their gangling bodies.
In general, the Draykell look like a combination of bird and lizard, with a tiny bit of human anatomy thrown into the mix: long legs, much like those of an ostrich I saw once in a digipic, three-toed, clawed feet. A flexible tail extends out from their hips. Their torsos, from navel to neck, resemble a human’s. The females have small, almost childlike breasts while the males’ chests are smooth. Twin ridges of muscle run up their backs on either side of their spines. Muscular arms extend to their knees and end in four-fingered hands. One of the fingers acts as a clawed opposable thumb. Glittering scales tile their long necks. A Draykell head resembles a horse’s with a long face and sculpted cheeks. Thick lashes encircle their wide, forward setting eyes. Their noses are a smooth convex arc proceeding directly from their foreheads and ending above a thin-lipped mouth. Draykells only grow hair during the winter. It forms a thick, white carpet all over their bodies and insulates them from the subzero temperatures to which Terados succumbs each year. Beneath the hair, their skin is an iridescent grey and has the extraordinary ability to change pigment depending on the Draykells’ physical surroundings. Terados does not have a vast array of life forms, nothing to the ecosystems once found on Old Earth, but its predators are like nothing we humans have ever encountered: intelligent, voracious, and adaptable. The Draykell are the perfect foil for these killing machines with their arsenal of defense mechanisms and their own high intelligence. Still, many of them die, ground between the teeth of monsters.
The last of the prisoners boards the shuttle, followed by their red-armored escort.
Unable to stand any longer, I collapse onto the bench, panting. Sweat breaks out on my naked skin. When a stray draft hits the moisture, I break out in cold rash. I close my eyes and shiver. A thousand ways to die on this shithole planet, with freezing being the kindest. I’ve heard freezing to death is warm and peaceful as the world drifts away. I long for that death, for a slow slide into unconsciousness. But that’s not how this will end for me.
I touch my broken face with experimental fingers: shattered nose, lower lip torn in half, one eye swollen shut, dried blood trailing from one ear. My fingers travel over my scalp where crusted patches indicate the enthusiasm of the technician who sheared my hair before the implant scan. A few broken ribs squeeze against my lungs. Huge, black bruises cover my legs from hip to heel. The Crims don’t take half measures when it comes to interrogation. Or maybe I got special treatment. They stopped short of killing me, though. They won’t let me die. Not yet. When the Crims strip-searched me and found the identification tag in the lining of my pants they had no choice but to inform my father of my presence. They wouldn’t kill me until he commanded it. At least, not intentionally. But the Crimson Army is no stranger to overzealous measures.
A creak of hinges brings my head up. Without thinking, I put one arm across my bare breasts and the other flattens over my crotch. The ridiculousness of the gesture dawns on me and I relax both my arms onto my lap. A guard peers at me through the observation slot in the top half of the door. His red faceplate obscures his features, but I feel the weight of baleful eyes. “Time for your blue bath,” he sings and turns to nod at someone down the hall. Recessed spigots in the walls and ceiling hiss a moment before they begin to spray the room with cutting jets of blue powder. I cover my face and cough as I’m enclosed in the noxious cloud. I slide along the bench, positioning my body between two of the spigots to avoid the bruising force of the spray, but the powder still burns as it wafts over me. The sensation of it settling into my various open wounds resembles that of a lit match against my skin. Several minutes later, they shut off the spigots, though blue dust still chokes the room. I hear the whir of hydraulic fans sucking the excess powder from the room. Soon all that remains is a thin layer coating my skin. Pain tremors grip my body, make my teeth chatter.
The electronic locks on the door buzz and the guard steps in followed by two of his fellows. They are all dressed in full armor. The red plate glows in the overhead lights. “There, now you’re sweet and clean,” one of them says as the other two grab my arms. They kick my feet apart, almost causing me to fall, and spread like a lobster. The guard not restraining me runs practiced eyes over my body, looking for the telltale discoloration in the powder indicating a sub-cutaneous weapon. Then, he lays his hands on me. Checks behind my ears and in its whorls, in my armpits, bellybutton, the valley of each finger and toe. I have to stick my tongue between my teeth to keep from gritting them; splay my fingers to prevent them curling into fists, as he runs his gauntleted fingers under the rim of breasts, into the cleft of my buttocks, and even into my labia. Not yet, T.J., I chant silently. Notyetnotyetnotyetnotyetnotyet.
He steps back and nods to his companions, who then release me. I hang in the air like a deflated balloon until one of them nudges back onto the bench. “Go get a suit,” the examiner orders. One of the guards steps from the cell, closing it with a clang. I can feel the eyes of the other two Crims boring into me from behind their faceplates. Again that ridiculous urge to cover up comes over me. I fight it, not wanting to appear weaker than I already do. “You’re scheduled for tomorrow morning.”
I look up at the guard who examined me. “And my father?”
“We’ve contacted General Tykus, but don’t get your hopes up. He’s in orbit, on parade with the Prime Minister, and not likely to abandon his duties to visit a traitor.”
“You never know,” I say, shrugging. The motion makes me wince as it pulls up my broken ribs farther than they want to go.
The return of the third guard saves me from hearing a nasty reply. He has a bundle of grey fabric tucked under one arm. He tosses it into my lap.
“Get dressed. Get your beauty sleep. You want to look your best for tomorrow.” He waggles his steel-clad fingers at me in a mocking wave as the three of them leave. After they’ve gone, I shake out the bundle. It’s a skin-tight prison suit. Shock buttons run along the seams. Each time a suit is given to a prisoner, the shock buttons are programmed with the allowable coordinates that prisoner is permitted to traverse. Should said prisoner wander outside those coordinates, the buttons are tripped and begin to deliver paralyzing electrical pulses. If no one deactivates the buttons in time, the shocks can be fatal. The fabric of the suit is designed to resist tearing. I stick my feet through the neck and inch the suit over my blackened legs and then up my body. The contortions needed to get my arms into the sleeves leave me panting and grunting in pain. But I feel warmer once I’m encased in the dark grey fabric.
Moments tick by. Eventually, eyelids drooping, I ease my torso against the wall. I don’t sleep, though I am exhausted. Instead, I think of my father, of the last time I saw him.
We were having dinner in his apartment in the spaceport headquarters. The quiet slide of our flatware was the only sound in the sparsely furnished room. My father’s suit of red armor stood in one corner on a rack, polished and shining, like new blood. I set my fork and knife down on the glass tabletop and swallowed the bite of food in my mouth. “Father, I have something to tell you.”
He too put down his implements. He wiped his mouth, and took a sip of wine. His silver eyes fixed on me, waiting.
“I’ve decided to resign my commission. I intend to surrender my armor tomorrow morning.”
“I see,” he said, leaning back in his chair. He folded his massive hands across his flat belly. “Any particular reason, Thayet?”
Pressing my fingertips into the glass, I tried to organize my thoughts. I had gone over this speech a hundred times during the preceding week, trying to make it sound compelling and level-headed enough for him to understand, for him to respect. “You know I went on a reconnaissance detail last week?”
“You know it did not go as planned.”
I took a deep breath, trying to shore up my courage. I exhaled and said, “That day, when we came across the Draykell commune and Captain Fraco ordered us to attack, I watched another soldier decapitate a screaming Draykell toddler.” I pause, swallowing down the bile. The chaos caused by my fellow soldiers, whipped into a crazed state by Fraco, had made the sight of a boy sitting in the dirt in front of his burning house – his mother dead beside him – wrench at my heart. I had begun to walk towards him, to offer protection or comfort – I can’t remember what my intentions had been – when Nico, one of my best friends from basic training, had swept between me and the child and brought his blade down to bite through the frail neck. For an instant, the child’s sobs had climbed in pitch and intensity and then they fell silent, lost in a burble of blood. Nico had looked at me, his faceplate raised to reveal his huge grin. “Hey, T.J., that’s thirty-two for me! Draper’s gonna be pissed I’m beating him.” He had run off into another fray, leaving me to stand and stare at the tiny headless body.
“The Council has admonished Fraco, Thayet.” My father’s voice is smooth and practised, like an oiled hinge. “He had no right to attack that settlement. None of the soldiers who participated are responsible for following Fraco’s commands.”
“But that’s the point, Father: we are responsible,” I argued. “We’re human beings, adults, who know right from wrong. Until that day I’d convinced myself I was right to join the Crims, that I belonged there. But it… it isn’t true.”
He bowed his head, face thoughtful and still. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone native, like your mother.”
I give him a sharp look. We don’t talk about my mother. Haven’t since her death of a fever she contracted while working in a Draykell clinic when I was nine. He imposed the moratorium. I grew up wanting to know about her but afraid to ask. Afraid to hurt him, or of being brushed away. I learned bits and pieces from friends of my parents and from old newscasts. “At least she died doing what she felt was right.”
He nodded. “She did. But just because she thought it was right didn’t make it true. And no one knows better than I what a good woman your mother was. But she had a weakness for misery and it led to her death. I don’t want the same thing to happen to you.”
I kept my eyes on my plate, trying to recapture the threads of conviction. Into the silence, my father sighed. “What would you have us do, Thayet? The Union and all its citizens were on the brink of decimation when we came to Terados. I watched children, babies, dying of the Grey Plague; stood witness to hundreds of mothers holding their dead sons and daughters as they wept and cursed our leaders for not saving them.” He leaned over the table, one arm shooting forward and back like a ball and cup game. “You mourn for one dead Draykell child while I mourn for the thousands who died without hope or help in the ships as we searched for a cure to the Plague. And then we found it, here. A chance to watch new children grow and live and heal the wounds we had suffered. Is that not worth a few lives? A few sullied consciences?”
“But we’ve no right to sacrifice Draykell lives for our salvation, Father. What about their mourning? Their wounds?”
He collapsed back into his chair and covered his eyes with his hand. His next words sounded as though he were pulling them from somewhere deep in his soul. “When we discovered the Draykell held the key to the Grey Plague vaccine, we asked for their help. They refused. Don’t let the death of one child, tragic as it may seem, destroy your belief in the Union, or romanticize your view of the Draykell. They were willing to let us rot to death on our ships, Thayet. We took what we had to, to survive.”
“And everything we’ve done since then? Are we still justified in taking what we want?”
He sighed again and I noticed how tired he looked. “I cannot deny we need reform. But policymakers are working to make sure what Fraco did does not happen again. Things are changing.”
I swallowed. “Not fast enough for that little boy, though.”
“Your leaving the Crims will not make the changes happen any more quickly.” His voice had sharpened. He had lost patience.
“Neither will my staying.”
“Thayet, don’t turn in your armor tomorrow.” He reached out and covered my hand with his. I was surprised by the gesture and almost flinched back. “Take more time to think. If you leave the Crims, I fear you will regret it more than you can imagine.”
Those last words of his ring in my ears. They twang across my eardrum and then resolve into the screech of the door as it opens again. My thoughts scatter and I open my eyes.
This time, the guard has his faceplate up, revealing a toothy sneer. “Brought you a friend.” He yanks on a dirty arm. The owner of the arm stumbles forward and lands on hands and knees in the middle of the room. Greasy hanks of hair fall over bony shoulders. The prison suit is not kind to the man’s potbelly or flabby chest.
“Play nice, little pigs,” the guard says. He bangs the door shut and then, before striding off, snorts at us through the small barred opening at the top.
My new cellmate sighs and pushes back to sit on his heels. “Takes one to know one, bastard,” he says over his shoulder. Not loud enough for the guard to hear, I notice. He turns back to me. “What the hell are you looking at?”
“Apparently a pig,” I reply with a shrug. I stifle a wince at the pain the gesture causes. Damn it, T.J., stop doing that!
“Like you’re any prize worth boasting about. I’ve seen road kill more appealing than you.”
Pretending indignation, I pat the back of my shaved head. “What, you don’t like the makeover I got, courtesy of the Crims?”
He laughs and joins me on the bench. He holds out a hand and I see the black nails and a thick web of white scar tissue on the palm. “Name’s Regus,” he says. “Regus Mayhew.”
I look at him with new interest as I take his hand and squeeze with what little strength I’ve got. I’ve heard the name somewhere. “Thayet. T.J.”
“Pleased.” Regus eyes me. “Never seen a woman worked over like you. Must have done something pretty bad to piss ‘em off this much.”
I wave a dismissive hand. “Oh, just utter betrayal.”
He grunts. “Betrayal’s a pretty broad concept to the Crims. Wait–” He leans back a little, runs his eyes over me again. “Thayet Jovana Tykus?”
Regus’ breath whistles through his teeth. “Now it makes sense. The ‘Whore of Terados’ in the flesh.”
My lips twist at the ugly epithet. The Union media pinned it on me after I appeared in a vidcast standing next to the rebel Draykell leader, Om’Fa. “Don’t ask for an autograph.”
He shakes his head and laughs.
Wanting to redirect the conversation, I ask, “What about you?”
“Smuggling. Got caught with a hundred crates of taaki liquor and two dozen Draykell refugees on the runway two minutes before we got clearance to take off.”
I cock a brow at him. “Refugees? You part of the resistance?” Was that why his name sounded familiar? The rebel leaders had kept me isolated since my own initiation into the confederacy of Draykell rabble-rousers and their human sympathizers. As the daughter of the Crimson Army’s Commander-in-Chief I had several strikes against me as an ally. They had seen my potential as a media draw, though. Thus the whole “Whore of Terados” thing. Still, I had enjoyed a few friendships since joining the resistance and had heard stories concerning some of the more famous troublemakers.
He shakes his head. “No, just paid me well to take them off world.”
I look away towards the wall across from us. I don’t want him to see my expression as I ask, “What happened to the refugees?”
“Shot on the spot. Every single one of ‘em.”
I close my eye against the brief spasm of pain in my chest. So many dead. What were two dozen more in the Draykells’ measured dance towards extinction?
“You all right?” Regus’ voice sounds soft and concerned.
I look at him. His face is drawn in tight, his eyes narrowed, as though someone’s pulled a drawstring attached to his skin. “Fine.”
“Yeah, well, what’s done is done,” he says. “’Spect they’ll shoot me too in the next day or two. Only reason they didn’t do it on the airstrip was they thought I could give ‘em a lead on the resistance. Joke’s on them, though.”
“At least you didn’t get the blue bath,” I say, glancing at his dirty, but still normal toned, skin. I sense him tense up and narrow my eyes. No blue bath, head not shaved. If they had thought he might have ties to the resistance, they would have given him a standard work over. Instead, he looks as though they stuffed him into a prison suit then threw him into the cell. I don’t even see any bruises or signs of struggle.
Regus. Regus Mayhew. The name tickles my memory. I blink my working eye several times, trying to clear my head enough to remember where I’ve heard that name. Then the image of a gleaming airship in flight, a sunset in the background, leaps to the front of my mind. Regus Mayhew is the hero in the Valiant Voyages, a collection of adventure tales about a noble smuggler, who masterminds crimes against the rich and wicked to aid the poor and oppressed. My mother used to read me Regus’ stories every night when I was a child. So this was an emissary from my father, or a spy. The use of my childhood heroes’ names, though, makes the spy scenario a little hard to believe. Some sort of test?
“They tell me my dance comes up tomorrow morning,” I say, keeping my gaze trained on the door of the cell.
Regus bends one leg and rests his arm on the knee. “Isn’t your pop some sort of bigwig?”
Now I hear the studied nonchalance in his voice, the conscious effort to seem unrefined. “Yes, but he disowned me when I left the Crims.” A catch in my throat makes me cough wetly. I hunch over and cover my mouth with one hand as the coughing becomes more violent. When I start to calm down, my hand comes away wet and slick with mucus.
Regus stares at the mess, his lips moving as though in prayer. “’Utter betrayal,’ huh?”
I wipe my hand on the far edge of the bench. Dab at the sweat on my forehead with my arm. “Anything worth doing is worth doing all the way, right?”
“That’s what I’ve heard. Old man must have been off the shelf to disown you, though.”
I give him a weary look. “Wouldn’t you be ‘off the shelf’ too if your only child decided to fight against everything you believed in?”
“Maybe. Good thing I don’t have kids. You regret it?”
I expel an impatient breath. “Regrets are for losers.”
Regus pauses. I can almost see his mind trying to latch onto another subject. Something to draw me out. “Where’d they capture you?”
Interesting tack. “They didn’t. I walked into the spaceport security office yesterday morning.”
“You what?” It is part question, part disbelieving laugh.
“I gave myself up.”
An outright guffaw this time. “What the hell for? Not to be rude or nothing, but that seems like a pretty stupid move. I mean, you’re living free and clear with the resistance and you chuck it to come back here where they beat the shit outta you before putting a lightbit in your head. You have an attack of homesickness or what?”
I feel that urge again to grit my teeth. My tongue slides between them to prevent any damage. Here’s the test. Father wants to know why I came back, unarmed and alone. Say the right thing, T.J., and you’re guaranteed a meeting. I clear my throat and paste a rueful smile on my face. “I learned some hard lessons out there with the resistance. Nothing is black and white, no side is right – or wrong.” All true. I had learned that lesson and it had broken my heart.
“Om’Fa not the hero you thought he was?”
Tears try to squeeze from my swollen ducts. “Is anyone a hero when it comes down to it?”
“Always been this cynical?”
I snort. “Odd question coming from a roguish smuggler with a heart of gold, Regus Mayhew.” Pretend time’s over, Mr. Mayhew.
His face goes still, lips poised as if to speak. Before he gets a chance, our cell door opens again to reveal two Crims bickering through their helmets’ mouthpieces.
“It’s not my fault if the manifest got screwed up,” one guard gripes to another. Both Crims turn to look at us.
“Let’s go, Mayhew,” the second guard says, ignoring his companion. “You were supposed to go to Building A.”
Regus gives me a hard, searching look. “Good luck with your valiant voyage, T.J. I’m sure it’ll turn out all right.”
I give him a wan smile and watch him shuffle towards the exit. The guards jerk him from the cell and slam the door closed. I listen to their footsteps fade down the hall. “Go to him, Regus,” I whisper. “Make him see me.”
I spend the rest of the night in agony. Someone pushes a thin blanket through the opening in the cell door sometime after moonrise. I fold it into a pillow but it does nothing to help me breathe better or ease the terrible pains in the rest of my body. From outside I hear the snarl and screech of the beasts roaming the hills around the spaceport. Their presence comforts me, makes me think I am still out there with Om’Fa and his followers. A few hours before dawn I fall into an exhausted, though fitful, sleep.
The squeal of the door wakens me. My eye pops open and I watch the guard stride into the cell. “You know a little grease would fix those hinges right up.”
“Let’s go,” he says, ignoring my teasing.
I uncurl my screaming limbs, get to my feet, and shuffle forward. I pause outside the door to fight a wave of dizziness and nausea.
The guard pushes me. “Move!” I stumble on my fatigued legs and catch myself against the wall with the heel of my left palm. My fingers arch away to avoid contact with the white stone. The guard jerks me up and gives me a slap, a warning not to fall again. I limp before him, panting with pain.
We leave the building housing my cell and the guard grabs my upper arm. He hauls me towards an empty field away from the buildings. “Where are we going?” I ask, panic welling in my throat.
“Shut up,” he commands, giving my arm a cruel squeeze. As we draw closer to the field, I see an armed soldier and a discipline officer standing off to one side. The gunman smirks when he catches sight of us. He taps the barrel of his gun against his head then points it at me. No, no, no! “I want to speak to General Tykus,” I demand, my voice climbing with desperation. I pull back against the guard’s hold, but am too weak to even slow him down.
“Your daddy wants us to kill you,” the gunman shouts with a laugh. “He’s ashamed to have a traitor for a daughter. Now turn and face your new daddy!” He puckers his lips in a mock kiss and grins at me.
I’ve failed. The realization blankets my mind with a kind of thick stupor. I can’t believe I’ve failed. I was sure he would come, especially after sending Regus. The guard halts me a few yards from the gunman, moves aside. Shock and physical agony make me want to hunch my shoulders, draw into myself. I resist the urge and stand up straight. Don’t let these fuckers see you scared, T.J. Don’t you dare!
The discipline officer holds a tablet and reads from it in a loud voice, “Thayet Jovana Tykus, formerly Private First Class, the Governor of New Jordan has found you guilty of the following treasonous crimes: fraternization with enemies of the Helios Union; conspiracy against the government; and murder of loyal Union soldiers. The sentence is death. Die for your crimes, traitor whore.” He nods to the gunman, who then raises his firearm and takes aim. I squeeze my eye shut.
My eye eases open to see the gunman and discipline officer standing at attention. Next to them, staring at me from beneath the brim of an officer’s cap stands Fitch Burko, a member of my father’s staff. “I am under orders to take this prisoner into my custody.”
The discipline officer’s lips tighten. “Governor Anglas already signed the execution order, sir.”
Burko turns on him. “Yes, and he will receive disciplinary action of his own for circumventing General Tykus’ directives regarding past military personnel. Unless you want to share in his punishment, I suggest you stand down.”
The discipline officer flushes a dark red and nods. “Very good, sir.”
The gunman and the officer salute and head back to their command building. The guard who escorted me out to the field remains, standing to my right, one gauntleted hand raised as though to reach for me. Burko strides towards us and jerks his head at the guard. “You’re dismissed as well, solider.”
“Sir…” the guard raises his faceplate. “Perhaps you need my help escorting the prisoner to her next destination.”
Burko continues to stare at me, smirking. “Looks like you and your men have already incapacitated her. I doubt she’s able to run or fight in her condition.”
The guard hesitates for a second, then mumbles an assent and salutes before leaving.
Alone, Burko and I glare at each other. I catch sight of the officer’s pin gleaming against his red jacket. Before I left the Crims, Fitch Burko was a private on my father’s personal staff. Looks like he’s been climbing the ranks. I nod at the pin. “Congratulations on your promotion, Fitch.”
His green eyes narrow. “Thank you. Just made lieutenant six months ago. And bravo to you on your… new lifestyle choices.”
“You make it sound licentious.”
He smirks again. “Well, you’re good at screwing people, T.J.”
It’s my turn to smirk. Burko and I had a brief but intense affair when he first joined my father’s staff. I broke it off when I came to the conclusion he was using me to get in good with my father. He had not taken it well. “Now I’m in your custody, what will you do with me?”
“The General has decided to give you a few minutes of his time. Come with me.”
We walk side by side towards the spaceport headquarters. He keeps the pace slow to accommodate my limping gait and tortured respiration. I cast a pointed look at a line of ground shuttles sitting outside headquarters. Burko catches my expression and raises an eyebrow. “People convicted of treason shouldn’t expect pampering, T.J.”
“My mistake, I thought the Union was still made up of human beings. Stupid of me.” I pause to catch my breath a little. “And don’t call me T.J.”
He doesn’t answer, but I see a hardening along his jaw. We continue into headquarters. At the security checkpoint he flashes his badge at the guard and submits to a retinal scan. I follow him down the stone hallways to a conference room. Padded chairs surround a long empty table. Burko goes to a wall-comm and presses a button. “Inform the General we’re in room 15.”
A crackle of static precedes another man’s voice answering, “Will do.”
Burko leans his back on the wall. He took off his cap when we entered the building. Now he runs a hand through his short, sandy hair.
I look at the chairs with longing. My legs ache and the walk across the spaceport has left me winded and lightheaded. But I’m afraid if I sit down, I won’t have the strength to stand again when my father appears. As a compromise, I brace my hands on the table and take a little weight off my legs and feet.
“He’s missed you, you know.”
My lid feels heavy as stone as I blink at him. “Are you his confidante now?”
“It’s pretty obvious to anyone who knew him before you left, T–Thayet.”
Outside the doors I hear people coming and going. Each approach makes my stomach constrict. It’s almost time. I close my eye and take deep, open-mouthed breaths. Remember the plan, T.J. Remember why you’re doing this. No weakness.
“Well, thanks for the pep talk, Fitch.”
Burko opens his mouth, brows lowering in a scowl when he’s stopped by the swish of the door opening. I straighten, leave wet handprints on the table’s polished surface.
General Horatio Tykus, my father, steps into the room. We stare at each other for several moments. I try to appear brave, unaffected by his appearance, but I cannot help lowering my head under the weight of his silvery gaze. “You’re dismissed, Lieutenant.”
“Yessir.” Burko leaves and I hear the chirrup of the door lock.
I peek at my father through my uninjured eye as he draws close. He’s bare headed and in uniform rather than armor. A full beard hides much of his face, but I can see new lines etched around his eyes. Did I cause those?
We stare at each other for several minutes before I open my cracked lips and say, “Thank you for Regus. He was a nice reminder of… happier times. Though I thought you would have come up with something a little more subtle.”
He smiles, his white teeth gleaming from the forest of his beard. “I wanted to check on you.”
“You’ve got eyes.”
He sobers at once. “Yes, I do.” He runs them up and down my body. The prison suit conceals most of my injuries, but I know he can determine their extent by the way I’m standing. “Damn you, Thayet,” he breathes. “Why did you come back here?”
I incline my head to look at him full in the face. I had expected anger, disgust, even a cold indifference, but all I see in his pale eyes is sadness.
“All this time I could imagine you alive and living in some run down hovel with a gaggle of babies at your feet. Could dismiss all those reports of your defection – lie to myself.” He sighs and I feel the resignation in it settle on my shoulders. “Now you force me to see you like this.” He waves a hand towards my battered body.
“It’s nice to know you’ve thought about me.” I offer him a quick smile, but he doesn’t seem amused.
“Tell me why you’re here?”
I’ve come to kill you. The confession wants to slip from my mouth but I harden my lips to keep it back. Instead I say, “I wanted to talk to you.”
Like a coward, I avoid his eyes and focus on the tiled floor beneath his red boots. “Coming home.”
His soft chuckle brings my gaze up to his, a mistake. My father has eyes like a basilisk: one look renders you incapable of doing anything but what he wishes. “You never could lie well, Thayet,” he murmurs. “Tell me the real reason you’re here. You must have known how your former comrades would receive you?”
“Does it matter? They’ve already sentenced me, by your wish too.”
“No,” he answers with unexpected fierceness. “That fool Anglas sent over the order without telling me. And I think the personnel here were a bit too eager to carry it out.” He takes a step or two towards me and palms the side of my face. His fingers smooth over the back of my neck in a caress. “Whatever you or the rebels think of me, I couldn’t kill my own child.”
His eyes bore into me and my breathing accelerates. He knows. I look into his face and can see he knows I’ve brought the rebellion home to him.
“I’ve missed you, Thayet. More than you’ll ever know.”
I haven’t anticipated tenderness. My throat feels swollen and tight, my eyes try once more to force out hot tears. I long to lean my weary head on his chest. As if sensing my urge, my father takes another step closer. He tightens his grip on the back of my neck while his other hand settles on my shoulder. The calluses on his hand abrade my skin. The clean, crisp scent of the soap he uses makes its way through my clogged sinuses. “You can tell me the truth, Thayet. Tell me why you’re here.”
I’ve waited for him to invite my confidence, to fill the void my mother’s death left in my life. I’ve hungered for his affection. But he made me wait too long. It won’t turn me aside now, not when conviction burns in my stomach like lava. I clench my jaw, cracking the fake molar on the right side of my mouth. The liquid contained in the minute vessel tastes bitter and faintly metallic – almost like blood. I swallow it. The virus I’ve released into my body sweeps through my cells with frightening speed. I break out in feverish sweat. Raising my face to my father, I say, “I’ve come to kill you.”
I flick the pad of my left middle finger with my thumb. A three-inch needle made of Draykell bone slides from the flesh of my finger and I stab it between my father’s ribs. He jerks away with a yell, grabbing his side.
The lock chirrups again and the door bursts open. Burko runs in with a lightbit pistol pointed at me. “On your knees!”
My father holds out a hand as if to stop his lieutenant, but he drops to his knees instead. Burko casts an agonized look towards his commander then fixes me with a hate-filled scowl. “What did you do?”
But I can no more answer him than my father could. The viruses running through our veins are different, but equally lethal. Mine is a virulent noncontagious form of flu intended to kill its host in less than a minute. It then dies for lack of live cells on which to feed. My father’s virus – the result of a chemical reaction between the Grey Plague and the diseased Draykell sweat I had carried in my hollowed out middle finger – was a new creation. One for which Om’Fa holds the cure.
“New… plague,” I gasp. Burko pales and backs out of the room, eyes darting from his general to me.
“Medic!” he screams before closing and locking the door.
I crawl to my father, heedless of my broken ribs grinding against the floor. Tears have succeeded in escaping my inflamed ducts and pour down my face. My father stares at me as his great body jerks and twitches, the disease eating him from the inside. His mouth works as if trying to speak. He stretches out his fingers and I put my hand in it. I bury my face against my arm. My body convulses as the Grey Plague rockets through it, shutting down my organs.
My father’s hand grips mine. “Jus like mother,” he gasps. “Thas m’girl.” I raise my head, bracing one cheek on his hip, and stare into his dimming eyes. “Tha… tha’s my… girl.” And then he’s gone.
Distantly, I hear the door hiss open and see blurry white shapes sweep around us. They resemble humans but their heads are too large and shaped like overturned flowerpots. I hear shouts as a dull roar.
All I see is my father’s face. All I hear is his voice. That’s my girl.
Floating sounds, like tinkling glass beads. I’m cold. There’s a great pressure on my chest and it makes it difficult to breathe. I try to open my lids, but they feel glued together. The tinkling begins to resolve and separate. I hear syllables, then words, then sentences.
… only one they could salvage. The others had either shot to hell or the disease did too much damage.
Should’ve let this one die too.
Well they need her, you know? She can get to those lizards.
Coming online, doctor. Neural functions beginning. Heart rate at 65 and holding steady.
Reflexes are responding normally.
Check vision function.
Something warm and wet drips onto my closed eyes. It’s wiped away. A flash of static. A green line runs across my field of vision. And then faces, half-concealed by surgical masks. A small bright light rushes towards me then away.
“Pupils functioning normally.” The surgical mask on one of the faces moves as the words are spoken.
A gloved finger swings before me. I follow it, intrigued. “Vision test successful.”
One of the faces moves closer. “Do you know who you are?”
I wait for one of the other masked faces to begin moving in answer, but all the faces look down… at me.
“Do you know who you are?”
Me. The face is asking me if I know who I am. I scan through synapses, searching for anything like an answer. A woman with short auburn hair and brown eyes. Eyes like my mother’s. “Woman.” My mouth feels stiff, my tongue dry.
“Yes, you are a woman,” a face agrees. “Do you know your name?”
Another synapse scan. Nothing. Then, a word: Tykus. “Tykus?”
The faces look at each other. Down at me again. A hand touches my temple. “That’s good. You’re going to be fine. We’re going to take care of you. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
My eyes travel down from the half-face to a picture screened onto a surgical gown: a double helix surrounding a vertical line of circles. I stare at the image and my brain catches fire. I’ve seen it someplace before. Someplace awful.
I raise my gaze to the face above me. The eyes no longer smile. They impale me with ice. Someplace awful.