They told Xlack departure would be first thing in the standardized morning and they had a place for him to sleep safely. Instead of taking the Mueta up on such a hospitable offer, he opted to spend the intervening ruahs aboard the Isike. That seemed safer.
Xlack returned to the O’ee base, gaining access with the emblem Revo had given him, and retrieved his Oha. Rell sulked in a pocket, miffed because Xlack wouldn’t let him have the datastick despite the beastling’s many attempts to abscond with it. The memory card now nested beneath the Ier in its sheath, protected from prying paws. Over the past few months, Xlack had lost several shiny objects, including one datapad, to Rell’s teething plunders. Personally, Xlack didn’t see how a clear plasamique and metal tongue depressor could be more appetizing than the juicy bone ruminating in another pocket.
The Isike should have had stores of real food anyway.
Tethered to a Knalcal military outpost, the enormous ship had the appearance of a spark—polished onyx, rhombus-shaped from side, front, or top with hooked points, like dorsal fins or claws. Eighty stories tall, twice that wide, length four times its berth, every edge curved and sharpened, a snowflake formed of sabers. It could accommodate over a hundred thousand occupants.
Oha parked in Docking Bay Two, Xlack navigated the Isike’s twisty halls with little difficulty. Pride radiating, Xlack’s father had once instructed he take a close, lingering look at the plans for this prototype craft—a Tsira project—chuckling only luck would see these ships standardized in the current Refraction Leaders’ lifetime. Perhaps after Xlack claimed the title his home would be aboard such a palatial vessel.
Stomach murmuring again, Xlack quickly located the ration stock, a room housing row upon row of pallets: stacks of small, powder-filled packets and sealed flutes. Perusing the selection, Xlack chose a pouch labeled mykuro bacon and a bottle touting high electrolyte gravy.
Back leaning against a pallet, Xlack ripped open the packet, and Rell emerged from his hermit’s nest, nose twitching, flat, pearlescent tongue darting out to test the air. Per packaging instructions, Xlack sprinkled the bran—which smelled more like sawdust than bacon—into the liquid gravy, resealed the lid, and shook it.
The resulting concoction resembled lumpy, wet sand and smelled like stagnant mud. Rell’s tiny tongue folded over his velvety nose and wet his whiskers, his entire body wiggling in anticipation, obsidian splotched, pewter scales winking with the movement.
“You want to try it first?” Xlack asked, dripping a few clumps of mislabeled swamp slush onto his palm. Pouncing on it, Rell gobbled the gunk with gusto, purring his approval.
Xlack was not reassured. Rell, who sometimes snatched prizes from the trash compactor, could hardly be termed a reliable food connoisseur.
Leery, Xlack raised the bottle and took a tentative sip. Smell and appearance had not lied; the sludge was gritty, slimy, and tasted exactly like rancid river mud—which Xlack had once eaten on a dare.
Crazy manufacturers think they can make fake food and label it whatever they want. This is a slight to bacon lovers everywhere.
All the packets and bottles likely tasted the same, but the last Xlack had eaten was just before he and Mystis had entered the Knalcal Embassy, and he wasn’t sure how much time had passed since then. He needed the sustenance, the energy, but memories of how the river mud had made his stomach roil bound him in hesitation.
“If you don’t like it, change it.” The words of a very clever friend.
“Change it how?” Xlack had asked.
The Fire Sereh had grinned. “Well, I find that if fire doesn’t improve your situation, it at least makes things more interesting.”
Xlack gripped the bottle, temperature rising. He didn’t often use this Talent; to give in to Fire was to let chaos reign.
Chemical commands flooded his blood, every cell wrapped in an infinitesimal barrier as catalysts seeped in and hastened its processes, guzzling energy. The protective barrier absorbed the resulting heat and carried it outward, transuding through his skin and forming a barely perceptible coating, which reeked like fetid, burnt sugar.
On a true Fire Aylata, this flammable patina was always present, but in multi-Talented Menageries like Xlack, it formed on reflex or practiced demand, and to burn hot enough to manifest flames hurt. Mentors claimed exercising this Talent more would remedy that, but Xlack’s current goal did not need visible fire or the full-on inferno chaos wanted. He had to keep it in check, contained in his right hand, nowhere near the left where Rell’s tongue scoured off any remnants of his small sample.
The bottle dented under Xlack’s fingers, wisps of black smoke adding to the acrid stench. Inside, the slush boiled into a pale froth, grains softening into jelly. Loosening his grip on the container, Xlack sniffed at the wafting steam, intrigued by its syrupy scent.
They should add cooking it to the packet instructions, he thought, tipping some of the froth into his mouth. The taste of sugar-glazed bacon fertilized a smile despite the awkward jelly texture.
Rell scratched at Xlack’s wrist, a reminder of his presence and that he would like seconds. Obliging, Xlack shook another glob onto his palm. With a tiny roar, the beastling pounced again, inhaling the morsel, and then promptly spitting it out, dark, accusing eyes glaring at his master.
“I didn’t ruin it,” the Aylata defended.
With a huff, Rell did not agree, slender tail waving in annoyance, but his protest was short-lived.
A distraction pulled the beastling’s gaze to the closed door, floppy ears perked. There was nothing to see, but Xlack had also heard it, his Magnetic senses revealing exactly what lurked outside this store room.
Deeming it an excellent opportunity for Rell to practice some skills, Xlack ordered, “Rell, find the noisemaker.” The beastling galloped off on a much needed head start as Xlack chugged the rest of his bacon jelly.
Rell had almost reached the exit when Xlack caught up, the door sliding aside to admit access to the dim hallway. Despite the nose numbing odor of the air scrubbers, Xlack detected the grassy scents of countless Napix crewmen and above that, more recent and potent, the crisp, snow-like fragrance of a Knalcal.
With feline grace, Rell rushed around a corner, growl like the buzz of insect wings, stilling in an instinctual, intimidating stance.
Eyes faithful to the wall screen he tickled, a tope-skinned, silver birthmarked Knalcal stood several paces in front of the beastling, pale hair drawing a rigid line from his left ear to the base of his neck, touching the lapels of what Xlack had come to recognize as a Knalcal military uniform—wide pants and plain, high-colored shirt beneath an ankle-length, leathery jacket cinched with a narrow belt. The ornateness in the wrapping of this latter seemed to denote rank, and this officer’s simple sash let Xlack believe he wasn’t ranked very high. “How’d you get here, runt?”
“I’d rather hear what you’re up to,” Xlack demanded, arms crossed.
Now the Knalcal’s cobalt-speckled eyes abandoned the screen, zeroing in on the Aylata. “I assume you want your crew to be able to control the ship when they get here, so I am removing our lockout codes.” The words were woven from clean sincerity; that was exactly what he had been ordered and so what he did, but disapproval shaded him.
“You think this exchange is silly, that the Knalcals are giving up this prize too easily,” Xlack revealed, evoking shock, stark and cold. Meeting his gaze, Xlack tugged on those emotions, tangible weapons and bindings for a Mind Aylata.
The Knalcal retreated a pace, drawing a shooter from a holster on his thigh. “If you try to invade my mind again, I’ll kill you.”
“You don’t stand the slightest chance,” Xlack remarked, too easily holding the Knalcal still. “You fear and resent Mueta, but Aylata are their older, more powerful cousins. Drop your weapon.”
The shooter fell, silent on the padded floor. Terror as unrelenting as a glacier encased the Knalcal, leaving him just enough room for quick, shallow breaths.
Releasing him, Xlack grinned. “Go ahead and complete your task and make sure you do it well. If I find you’ve forgotten to disable something or added anything even remotely suspicious, I’ll come after you and…what is that smell? Rell?!”
A putrescent pile of soft brown slouched behind Xlack’s foot, its beastling artist nowhere to be seen.
Though he had been doing fairly well lately, Rell was not yet one hundred percent accident free. Xlack had held the squirming little runt over the waste vacuum enough times now that he should have gotten the point, but Rell was stubborn. Toilets were scary.
“Disgusting,” the Knalcal denounced, freckled eyes wide.
“Isike, clean that up,” Xlack called.
Disbelief hoisted the Knalcal’s eyebrows. “It does that?”
“Yes.” Xlack had never known a ship of decent size not to have the ability to absorb and dispose of much larger messes.
“A pity the computer is currently locked, then.” Slight anticipatory amusement. If this Knalcal thought he would get to see an Aylata scrub crud off the floor, he would be forever disappointed.
“I thought we already covered your need to respect Aylata,” Xlack sighed, meeting the officer’s gaze again. “You really don’t want to see me pick that up.”
The brown matter rose like evaporating mist, condensing into a compact, hovering sphere. Confusion and revulsion drew harsh lines across the Knalcal’s countenance, surprise adding its mark as the sphere shot toward him.
The Knalcal’s flat palm batted it down, but the pellet did not fall. Gagging on disgust and bewilderment, the Knalcal turned his hand over to discover a growing fragrant stain coated his fingers, palm, and wrist. All attempts to fling or wipe it off failed.
“Stop it!” he screamed, entire arm encased, stain creeping up his neck.
“I recommend you fix the computer quickly,” Xlack advised.
“How will that stop it!?”
With a glance at the unaltered mess on the floor, Xlack explained, “As soon as you know you have completed your tasks aboard this ship, that stain will vanish as if it were never there.”
As Xlack passed him, the Knalcal stepped closer to the wall, maintaining a wide margin of personal space.
“I can also promise that should you even think you’ve sabotaged this vessel, the stain will return, and nothing will wash it off.” Xlack strode down the hall, not looking back.
“How does that work?” the Knalcal called after him.
Xlack shrugged. “Aylata can do anything.” Because anything can be real in your mind. “You only captured this ship because there wasn’t an Aylata onboard.”
Though Xlack didn’t know why, nor did he know exactly how this Tsira project had ended up in Alliance Space. Legions always had at least one Defender with them. Why had this crew been sent without one?
Before this mission the last Xlack had heard of the Isike, the ship had neared completion, and the Ravida had borrowed it. The Isike had vanished, dataseas pulsing with rumors for almost a month before people forgot and moved on. Though Xlack asked, his father revealed nothing of the fate of the Isike, and Xlack, too, had dropped the subject.
Rell bounded after his master, mewing mournfully. His tummy hurt and he didn’t want to walk. Silent, Xlack scooped up the beastling, and Rell cuddled into the crook of his elbow, immediately asleep, shiny scales twinkling with his peaceful breaths.
Undeterred by the halls’ wending ways, Xlack strolled along several decks, appreciating the ship’s detailed luxury: large spaces, spongy carpet cancelling the sound of his footsteps. Intricate, gilded carvings covered the walls, depicting various landscapes. The air had the tangy, processed aroma he acquainted with ships and stations, not quite managing to erase the Napix bitter-starch or the Knalcal scorched-ice scents.
In the center of a giant snowflake frieze, Xlack found the door he wanted: the entrance to the Isike’s grandest suite, the one intended for a Refraction Leader. This was where he planned to pass the night.
Taking a deep breath, Xlack picked his Aylata emblem—chrome Tsira insignia, an abstract lamp shape—off his collar and waved it in front of the pass reader. The door slid out of his way with the softest and most authoritative hiss he had ever heard. Complete awe waited to ambush him, but such was shoved aside by a foreign puzzle piece.
“Why and how do you always show up out of nowhere?” Xlack queried, caution flanking him as he entered the dark room. Two plump chairs faced each other, centered in the space, while two more resembled sentries on either side of a bedroom door to the right. A desk beset with control panels lined the left wall, and a column of empty shelves lined up opposite him.
Sitting atop this latter, Twi responded, “I excel at being unnoticeable. So either you can see in the dark, or you’re extremely sensitive to life-signatures.”
“Or you’re not as unnoticeable as you think you are.”
“I know you have ‘netic Talents. When I threw a forcefield, you countered it with another,” she asserted.
“I asked how you got in here.”
Rell looked up, sleepy eyes glossed in perplexity, and he yawned.
“That’s a secret,” Twi claimed, sliding off her pedestal and alighting on her toes. Her sweet, edible-flower fragrance danced with the circulating air. “I came here to ask questions, not answer them.”
“Turnabout’s fair play,” Xlack scoffed, and Rell growled, climbing onto his master’s shoulder.
Twi raised an eyebrow, gliding around the Aylata. “Then you may have a turn later.” As she continued circling him, the metallic bandage on her otherwise bare shoulder caught the light from the corridor. Hiding the wound he had given her, it folded across her bicep, disappearing into her thin, black sleeve.
The slice on Xlack’s arm from Twi’s Aqkashi was all but gone now, a faint line on his skin concealed by repaired Tsoqisi.
Confusion tumbled through Twi, incredulity its watchful guardian, pinching her expression. “You expected to die from that tiny scratch?”
Tail twitching, Rell spun on Xlack’s shoulder, eyes fixed on her.
Xlack sighed, “I expected to be insane by now.”
“Then either your mind or your weapon is fundamentally different from ours.”
“The Ier’s victims don’t keep their wits about them for long,” Xlack explained, the weapon leaping into his hand and snapping open. Rell scrambled down Xlack’s back and hid under the diagonal hem of his jacket. Twi retreated, but she drew no weapons of her own.
Her eyes did not leave the Ier as she spoke. “You determined to finish me in front of that Mueta trap, but then you paused. What stopped you?”
“You know that answer; your buddy, Revo, showed up.”
She met his gaze, and he flinched. People rarely looked Mind Aylata in the eye on purpose, and unlike the vulnerable Knalcal, Twi’s gaze was steely and assured.
“You hesitated, and I think you would have stopped yourself had Revo not been there.”
Xlack looked away. “Well, Revo was there, and I’m not going to be drawn into a hypothetical argument.”
“You could kill me now.”
Did she have a death wish?
“I don’t need to now,” he argued, closing his Ier. He kept it in hand though, in case she really was crazy.
She tilted her head. “Your trust is loose then.”
Xlack didn’t know what she meant by that, but he doubted it was a compliment.
“I’m happy you’re alive,” he offered, “and okay.”
“You’re also happy you have your ship and people back,” she countered, falling into one of the center chairs. It engulfed her, spurring a wave of surprise, yet grace swathed her recovery. She sat on the chair’s back, her feet on one armrest, only a slight pause inserted in her presentation. “They’ll likely hail you as a hero. Is that what you seek, what you wanted in coming here?”
Her stare bored into him. Xlack crossed his arms.
“They always said I’d become a legend to stand alongside the heroes of the past.” They said that about every Menagerie, though, and history’s spotlight was very harsh on them, good points withered, faults and weaknesses on display.
“Is that what drives you then, what gives you the courage to stand here now?”
In a way. His deepest desire was to be the legend that didn’t fall, to gain history’s fond smile. But that wasn’t something to discuss with a stranger.
“If something’s happening, would you rather be involved or sitting around doing nothing?”
She grinned. “Like you said in the oha, you don’t like sitting around; it makes you feel useless. And yet, could you pause long enough to realize that maybe the Isike was captured for a reason?”
Xlack shrugged. “The Mueta wanted the attention of the Aylata.”
Frowning Twi asked, “And why would the Knalcals want the Isike captured?”
“They obviously don’t like trespassers.” Foot tapping, Xlack wished she would hurry up and get to the point.
“Why do you think they don’t like trespassers?”
Xlack sighed, “They likely view them as a threat.”
“There you go, a threat to their way of life. Napix way of life might be fine for a Napix, but you can’t impose that on others, especially ones who know what it’s like to make their own decisions.”
“Have you ever been to Napix?” he inquired, pacing.
“Then how do you know what the Napix way of life is?” His ashen bangs fell across his brows, and Xlack swept them aside in annoyance.
Twi looked at the floor. “I hacked into a Mueta database.”
Xlack allowed confusion to take over his expression. “Revo told me they were an organization of underground gangsters. Why would they have a database?”
“You’re picking on the wrong details,” Twi argued, shaking her head. “If what I read was true, there is barely a sliver of freedom on your world.”
“Every Zalerit is a slave, and citizens have to ask permission to do anything, even to travel to visit a friend or relative.” She caught his arm as he paced by. “I don’t think even you are as free as you believe.”
“All Aylata are completely free,” he recited, pulling away from her. “It’d be treason to say otherwise.”
“Then you came up with this idea to come rescue the crew of the Isike, so far away, all by yourself?”
Xlack stopped. “No.” Even if he had, it was still a job for a Watcher, no matter how he excused it.
“Did they even expect you to succeed? Really, sending one man to rescue a crew of twenty thousand and six from a whole army in their home territory?”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
She shrugged, her gaze capturing his again, solemn seriousness loitering. “I don’t know, really. According to the database, the Mueta are paranoid someday their Aylata cousins will come and steal their land, their liberty, and perhaps even their lives. Can you honestly say your leader would never order such a thing?”
Emperor Kise—the citizens loved him, and he also had the Aylata’s approval. He always knew exactly what was right. But K’alaqk?
“No,” Xlack whispered.
“Then that’s why I tell you this. Maybe because you spared me, maybe you can see reason, and you can be its voice. Would you speak out? Would you stand up for what you believe in?”
“Of course, and the Aylata would stand with me.”
“I hope you speak truth, because if a Napix army arrives in Alliance Space, the Mueta will go crazy. The Knalcals will not tolerate their presence, and together with the Tala and Lettaplexians, they will wreak havoc. As strong as we may be, there’ll be too few O’ees to be able to do anything about it.”
“One person can always make a difference, Twi,” Xlack assured her, quoting the Tsira motto. His hair was in his eyes again, but he didn’t notice.
“Then be that one person and stop disaster before it starts,” she admonished, the door sliding aside as she approached.
Preventing a war—certainly a mandate gilded in heroism. But how did she expect him to accomplish that? Where would he begin? He knew next to nothing about these people.
As if eavesdropping on his doubt, she turned in the corridor. “It may not be easy.”
“Easy is rarely worth it,” Xlack spieled.
She gave him a coy grin as the door closed.
Xlack remained motionless, questions burrowing in his mind like sanda in the bedrock of the Lakiai River. He used to practice his Mind Talents by suggesting the jeweled crustaceans leave their safe havens, much to the delight of the tradesmen who caught and sold these savory delicacies. His friend, Ject Sirvette, had even called out hundreds at a time, but Xlack found such spectacles overwhelming—the carpet of black opal shells writhing up through the sand, the mass of tiny minds bombarding him with their singular focus, the wave of life-signatures, the cloying, salty smell.
Sometimes Xlack’s plethora of Talents gave him too many details.
With that thought, suspicion prickled Xlack’s skin. He had been so preoccupied gawking over the little details of the ship, he had almost overlooked Twi’s presence. What else had he missed?
With his Magnetic senses, he first searched the room, and then concentrated on feeling beyond its walls. Twi distracted him, waltzing down the hall at a brisk pace. Another life-signature caught his attention not too far away—Knalcal, the one with the poop nightmare.
On a hunch, Xlack looked for a very specific Napix signature, and unfortunately he found it, barely at the edge of his perceptions, where he couldn’t quite be sure.
“Isike!” he called, and this time the computer beeped in recognition. “Tell me how many sentient beings are aboard this ship besides myself and a Knalcal worker!”
“Two,” it replied.
One of those should be Twi, he thought.
“How many are Knalcal?”
The computer hesitated, looping. Yeah, he had noticed that, too. Twi’s signature wasn’t quite like the other Knalcals. She seemed somewhere between Knalcal and Tala.
Already out the door, he saved the computer: “Sorry, unfair question. The one you can identify, what race is he?”
“Napix,” the computer answered. That was enough conformation; there was another Napix onboard, and Xlack had only one guess as to whom he would find it to be.
“Turn off all the lights, Computer,” Xlack instructed. “I’m on my way to him.”
-continued in section 5 scene 4- Intruder-