Written by: Amanda

“I don’t mean to sound pessimistic,” Fnippith said, peering up at both her captain and lieutenant, “but it does seem like giving up our weapons was a bad call.” The strands of hair peeking out from her hood and lightly tapping against the side of her face were both an annoyance and a reminder. Oaths. Honestly, when was she going to learn to stop making those? It wasn’t an election that kept her with the Cloak of Olaos; it was the two giants looming on either side of her as the Iron Spectre hissed when its airlocks disengaged. 

“We should have the locals loan us a ship,” Farrah muttered. “Get out of here.”

The doors fell open. Weaponless, they exited with the Aidlean crew at their backs.

Heldar lacked the open streets and bright banners of New Carthage. Cobblestone and stained glass livened the city she’d made her home, but this looked like someone colorblind had grabbed brown from the palette and painted the enchanting color everywhere. Mostly dirt. She hoped.

“Fleet Admiral, Captain.” A Qhurothi met them at a crooked gate. Winding paths led to a small cluster of buildings that leaned toward a point. His considerable height overshadowed the Otakkes darting around, shoving at boxes and casting furtive glances toward Janus. “The Board estimated your arrival hours from now, but we do have a room you are free to use. Forgive the mess. We’d intended to have everyone well out of your way, but…I suppose things happen. Schedules aren’t for everyone.”

Fnippith’s mouth twitched at the veiled aggression, before she looked back over her shoulder. The Otakke aboard the Iron Spectre had stayed behind. Where did she know him from? The set of his eyes and the distinct crooked nose, even the way his voice caught hard on certain vowels… It would come to her. She always remembered faces. And names. She just needed to stop thinking about him—usually much easier, but then again, most people didn’t normally go around whispering about planets being destroyed. Not exactly polite conversation.

“You, the small one.” The Qhurothi stepped in Fnippith’s path, while another Otakke’s gaze caught hers and then fell abruptly. “You stay here with him.” He gestured back carelessly to Farrah while a door slammed in their faces, sealing them into a violently multicolored room. Ah, the rest of the palette. They’d trapped it here. “The Aidleans will do their business alone.”

Fnippith traded a glance with Farrah. She could always count on him for this.

He swept forward, casting off the imaginary raincloud that had been haunting him all day. This was what made him interesting—well, in addition to the mines he created. “It’s a bit small but this space will do. Tell me, is it just you I’m entertaining for or is someone else coming in for the show?” 

The Qhurothi’s brow deepened with confusion, mouth hanging open. It shut primly a second later. “No show, Lieutenant Farrah. This isn’t that sort of planet.”

“Allergic to fun, aren’t they all.” He lapped the room, ignoring the Qhurothi keeping pace and trying to urge him to simply take a seat until the negotiations ended. “The stage here. Curtains, of course. Do you have something less drab than…this?” Disdain raised his eyebrow, and he plucked at the bright tapestry on the walls as if it wasn’t an echo of the clothing he normally wore when not in his combat suit. “No, of course not.”

After this, she should remember to get him a present. He’d been eyeing something at the bazaar—the new silks in from Huzhou?

Kelsef! The Otakke from the Iron Spectre. That was his name! Her triumph could only last till she remembered what Kelsef specialized in: the study of alchemical impurities…and their devastating consequences. 

The voices behind the door grew louder; a quick sweep of the room told Fnippith that just down the hallway there were windows mounted high up that probably looked into the room. The phrases she could catch came like a whisper from that direction.

With the Qhurothi’s back turned—his arms out as he tried to rein in the absolute spectacle Farrah was making of himself—Fnippith took a step back and launched herself up the hanging drapery. Worse than the Terran gravity, Heldar’s pull nearly shoved her back to the ground. Her fingers clawed into the fabric. 

The sound started the Qhurothi turning. Fnippith froze.

“I think you have the quality to star in my show,” Farrah asserted, sidestepping into the other’s path. “Really, you’re quite commanding with your presence. Not my assistant, of course, you’d steal focus.”

“I’m not an entertainer, Lieutenant.” The droll answer followed with the Qhurothi turning back to Farrah. Withering stare and all, at least he didn’t see Fnippith climbing her way up the drapes. 

And just one second for a quality check—a quick glance over her shoulder showed a perfect replica of herself still standing where she’d been. Wow, she almost impressed herself. The alchemical reaction necessary buzzed through her combat suit, no longer white-hot or painful these days, but annoying. The bismuth base left metal lingering on her tongue. Later, she was making Silvalinus buy her freshly made makroudhs for this. Any excuse to eat pastries. 

From this vantage point, and with her alchemical double still on the ground for the Qhurothi to now corral back over with Farrah, there was plenty of time to hoist herself up to the window’s ledge and peer inside. Boxes stacked on shelves and tables. They framed the room and left the center empty for the Aidleans to awkwardly stand. More than usual, they hunched over with nowhere to sit, while arguing back and forth. Only Silvalinus stood quieter than the rest.

Below and to her left, five of the Aidlean crew exited. The door banged open, and shook the wall. Fnippith flattened herself as close as possible. Tactical advantage came from surprise, and she generally preferred not to be trapped up a wall. Easy target.

“The rest of our audience!” Farrah crowed from below. In a sudden flurry of confusion, the Aidleans found themselves rounded up by the Terran and pushed into chairs that he’d apparently also liberated from other rooms. She wasn’t exactly sure when he’d found the time, but once he had an idea in his head, he wasn’t easily dissuaded. The surly Qhurothi looked resigned to it by now.

Leaning in to shut out the burgeoning show, Fnippith focused on her captain. 

“As you requested,” Janus said, “even if traitors shouldn’t be making demands. I expected you to grovel, maybe beg for forgiveness. You threw so much away.”

“We’re here to talk about the treaty.”

“I came to see an old friend.” 

Silvalinus drew a rolled paper from the compartment of his ACS that he’d attached for simple storage. He offered it, though made no move to close the space between him and his old fleet admiral. Fnippith squinted. The treaty. “Sign it, Janus, with our terms. This is a good deal for your fleets and for New Carthage.”

“Your terms place all the danger on our shoulders and all the profit to New Carthage.” Janus pushed aside the paper. “I have alternate terms. For our continued protection of the space lane, New Carthage relinquishes the raw azothite fully to me.”

“The azothite remains the property of New Carthage. You will have borrowed use for one space lane’s creation and nothing more.”

Janus smiled, reminding Fnippith of every time Silvalinus refrained to prevent intimidation. Oh, he wanted to intimidate her captain? Well, she’d see about that. “Space lanes mean nothing to me.” A flash echoed over the room. Fnippith blinked. Janus and Silvalinus both remained standing, as if nothing had happened. Okay, after this mission…maybe a nap or five. “This isn’t a request anymore, Captain.”

“Easy! He doesn’t even know how to use it.”

The yell from below jerked Fnippith’s focus. Farrah stood opposite five towering Aidleans, Kelsef at his back. The Otakke bent low—almost hidden by Farrah save for the monstrous weapon that he staggered to keep upright. It took Fnippith a moment to register whose weapon it was: her captain’s. 

Hullbreaker’s laser focused. Built for range, Kelsef wouldn’t even need to aim. He could blow a side of the building clean off. 

Okay…now she was impressed. 

Farrah’s eyes went wide, showing white, and that always meant—

Bang. 

A mine detonated, followed by two more, this time securing to the bottom of the meeting door. With a great groan, it ripped from its hinges and slammed into the ground.

Farrah stood surrounded with her duplicate at his side.

Still hovering above them, Fnippith could only sigh. She really hoped they didn’t die today. 

___

Silvalinus didn’t have to look to know he would see the members of his team in the now open door; it was harder to decide which of them was responsible for tearing it down. For now, his head did little more than turn, while his hands went through the futile motion of reaching for weapons still aboard the Iron Spectre. 

The accompanying silence ended when Janus laughed. “Well, I suppose they can join in on the negotiations, since we were almost done.” He glanced to his crew, already in motion, and shook his head with a simple, “Wait. You’ve agreed to my terms, haven’t you, Silvalinus?”

His team’s appearance told him enough; Farrah’s eyes had a tendency to bug out when he had been given awful news. Fiddling with something in his hand, the Terran man looked dismayed but resolute, a stranger combination than the usual outright fear when he was forced into possible combat.

“Captain,” Janus said the word like an insult, “your team has already instigated a fight on a political mission. If the treaty doesn’t go through, word will get out that New Carthage threatens its potential allies. Is that the reputation you want for your city?”

Farrah shook his head, and Fnippith stayed suspiciously still. If Silvalinus had been one for taking bets, he would suspect the Otakke was not where she seemed. Well, they weren’t so out of luck after all.

“I should have guessed that you would have no loyalty to New Carthage.” Janus approached, his voice dropping into a raw scratch from deep in his chest. “You were ready to blow apart my ship on sight with that little laser of yours, even knowing that would mean no Aidlean fleet would come near the treaty your magistrate and the Board so desperately wants.”

“You broke the agreement of meeting on neutral ground and stole our weapons.” Ignoring the effort it took to move even a step on this dusty planet, Silvalinus closed the distance between him and his former fleet admiral. “I fight for New Carthage.”

Janus smiled. It took over his face and pushed up at all four of his eyes. “Good. All we need is you to look the other way when the raw azothite goes missing. Blame a failure in transfer. I can destroy a drop ship, if that sells the story better.” Unsurprising and lacking in all imagination, the way he’d always been. Silvalinus met the smile with one of his own until Janus continued. “You’ve looked the other way before, Silvalinus. You remember the group of Qhurothi.”

The meeting room, no better than a storage closet really, fractured into the image of the black ship—faster than any he had ever seen. His almost home once, until the Blue Delta Walkers had come calling for a favor. It wasn’t betrayal. It was a choice…meant to save lives. 

Janus’s obsession with unusual alchemy had brought the entire fleet down on a small planet. Promises of riches had paled next to frightened faces, and all the Blue Delta Walkers had asked was to give them an opening. Look away and let them slip past. The civilians, that was who they had promised to come and save.

His head spun with the memory, a throbbing reminder of the constriction of empty space as he fell from the open hangar. No longer welcome on the Iron Spectre. But it wasn’t the fleet admiral hanging to the ship’s edge that seared his mind with an unshakable memory. Beside him, the lights were not stars. 

The dying flame of Aidlean funeral pods soon left him alone in the dark.

“I’ll make you an admiral again.” Janus’s voice ripped Silvalinus from the horror of gaping mouths and lifeless eyes. “The fleets won’t spit out your name.” He clapped a hand around the shoulder of Silvalinus’s combat suit, like comrades returned to the same side of a war. “Once the treaty is ratified, New Carthage will honor any terms you’ve agreed to, just to avoid a scandal. You have nothing to lose here, friend, and New Carthage will gain.”

An accomplished liar, Silvalinus knew, but still…the thought of no more weight bearing down on every limb, no mores stares from the people who pretended acceptance—or the magistrate derisively commenting on “his people.” Were these his people, then? The Aidlean fleets with their code of honor that bound them to none but their own?

Admiral Silvalinus.

Janus stared back, unwavering. 

“What will you do with the azothite?” 

The admiral released him, reached for his own arm and held it. A strange light traveled like a shockwave over the metal of his suit. The gesture so odd, Silvalinus could only follow it with his gaze, uncomprehending. “Is that a yes, Silvalinus?”

He left for a reason, not just cast from the ship but for a choice. Why couldn’t he remember that choice now? After years of wearily watching New Carthage’s celebrations, grabs for money under the guise of peace—Farrah reached for peaceful resolution to conflict, and the magistrate rejected his research at every turn in favor of weapons development…

“Tell me, Janus,” Silvalinus murmured. “The azothite…and then we can come to terms.”

The whir of machinery built slowly, then reached a crescendo with a crash and a thud. A cry followed, and Silvalinus jerked back to see the Aidlean crew with weapons drawn. Farrah scrambled for a small object thrown onto the ground–nothing more than a coin. Behind him staggered a different Otakke, one Silvalinus didn’t recognize. He did, however, recognize his own weapon, as it nearly dropped to the ground. One of the Iron Spectre’s crew lunged for it. Another hauled Fnippith to her feet. He couldn’t bet on it being a double though, not even now.

If he agreed, Farrah and Fnippith would die. They’d heard the deal Janus had wanted to keep only to his ears.

Silvalinus’s mind cleared instantly. Still an old fool, and Janus had known it.

“The azothite is my concern.” A crew member at his side, handing off his own weapon, Janus raised it in a straight line toward Silvalinus. “Now sign the treaty, and stay aboard the Iron Spectre. We welcome you home, Admiral.” Burning lines of azothite ignited in rapidly spreading patterns across Janus’s combat suit. Silvalinus braced himself for impact, until the pattern spiraled out onto Janus’s face, like a virus that crept down his arms and polluted every clean space. His eyes burned blue. “Sign it, Silvalinus!”

Alarm stiffened the captain. 

From the end of a gun’s strike to her temple, Fnippith fell to the ground. It brought Silvalinus back to himself, his focus on a quick scan of the room. Nothing had changed—no exits save the one where his team lay with the Aidleans towering above them. 

In seconds, Janus’s body began to crack and split. A flash circled the room, and two of him snapped back into one. His haggard breath grew louder. In one hand, his knuckles paled with a death grip over a small box. In another, he held a longsword, lit with the strange alchemical reaction. It became two, and with the supernatural speed shared only by his ship, Janus advanced forward. One of him. Three. He shot back to himself, becoming whole while his voice cracked with raw power: “Do not make this a fight you cannot win.”

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