Chapter 1: Regrouping
Many lightyears away from the events near the Szaracan Cluster, Captain Vardok typed the last few sentences of the acceptance form with a feeling of grim relief. It was no small task to get a new ship's medic assigned to the Courier Elite. His ship and its sister ships in their small and very exclusive fleet were at the beck and call of the Empire's very highest officials, usually on the very most secret and important of missions. This meant that each and every crewman had to be highly trained, top of their class, exquisitely skilled, and above all, discreet. A single word spoken in the wrong place could get that careless speaker killed, and the rest of the ship's personnel interrogated mercilessly. Captaining such a ship was a great honor and a mighty responsibility, but it was also a vast pain in the ass at times; as master of the ship, he was the one required to request candidates for a vacant post and interview them when they showed up. Despite the cloak of secrecy, word did tend to get around if it was sufficiently grisly; the terrible fate of one of his medics certainly had, and while no penalty had come to the ship because of it, it was still making things difficult. Many people might be proud to serve on a ship that had carried the Emperor. Not so many wished to serve where his witch had killed someone so thoroughly, and might come back to do it again. Vardok was going to miss Medic Kirze. He had chattered all the time, but he had been fearless and eager in his research, and having to send his remains home in a jar had not been a pleasant experience. It had taken weeks, but he'd finally found someone both competent and brave enough to replace him, and it was with a feeling of accomplishment that he hit the “send” button on his terminal.
A glance at his chronometer told him that he had missed dinner. Not that it mattered. The cooks in the Courier's dining hall knew of old that the Courier Elite rarely kept regular hours, and there was always something keeping warm in the ovens. He rubbed at his neck, an unconscious gesture he made whenever he was feeling stressed. It was a holdover from his first, disastrous encounter with the Osric's Quandary; on bad days, he could still feel the weight of the collar they'd put on him, although the bruises had faded off long since. His fate had changed forever on that day, and he still wasn't sure if he'd benefited by it. His family approved of his elevation to this prestigious and well-paid posting, but he was starting to have his doubts about the work itself.
It wasn't having to ferry the Emperor and his witch around. That was only a small, occasional part of the job, and everybody knew how dangerous they were. It was having to host the rest of the high and mighty that was starting to make him nervous. Technically, he knew, he should be shuttling around information and packages that could not be entrusted to even the high-security bands or parcel services. Nice, quiet cargoes that didn't treat him as if he were furniture or stare at him as though they were curious to see what he looked like on the inside. No, his ship carried people for the most part, and very important people indeed. Governors, both planetary and regional. Some few of Lotor's half-brothers. The Matriarchs of various influential Lineages. The heads of certain vital industries. Scientists involved in top-secret research. One or two high-ranking Ghamparva. Sometimes Pendrash would show up with a few of his fellow Generals and order Vardok to take them out to some empty, remote little spot—scenic trips, in the parlance of the Couriers—so that they could discuss vital matters in absolute privacy.
Matters so private, he thought as he made his way toward the Courier's dining hall, that even the ship's Captain is forbidden to know of them.
Oh, recordings of everything that happened on the ship were kept, of course. It was just that Vardok wasn't allowed to see them; Pendrash usually sent someone by to collect them for study every so often. Ordinarily, that didn't upset him—having to sit around reviewing hours of nothing much happening had not been his favorite duty before he had lost his previous two ships, and affairs of state were best left to those authorized to handle them, but he was starting to get hints that something was wrong. Just a word or two overheard from his VIP passengers here and there, or the simple fact that some of those passengers were on his ship at all hinted at an uncertain future. Something was up in those turbulent circles that did the actual day-to-day running of the Empire, something that the Emperor himself might not care to notice for the time being, but might resent when it all came to a head.
His heart lifted when he saw a familiar face among the other late-night diners in the hall—Kerraz was sitting alone at the table in the back, working his way through a bowl of stew with a single-minded diligence that suggested that he'd had a difficult day as well. Seeing as how the cook made a very creditable bowl of ghrembak stew, Vardok got one for himself and slid into a chair across from his former crewman.
Kerraz nodded politely to him and murmured an equally polite greeting, outwardly calm, but there were signs of strain around the younger man's eyes that told Vardok that Kerraz had had to deal with difficult and distasteful events recently. “How fares the General?” Vardok asked delicately, spooning up a mouthful of savory stew.
“The same,” Kerraz replied quietly. “Could be better, could be worse. Things are holding stable, for the moment. No guarantees for the future.”
So, there was trouble looming on the horizon. “I've gotten the same feeling from my passengers of late.”
Kerraz lifted an eyebrow at him. “Rumors?”
Vardok shrugged. “I don't run a pleasure yacht. It's all business, and none of my business at that. They're not happy, though. For example, I took a pair of eminent personages... hmmm... a Matriarch and a Ghamparva commander on a scenic trip recently. Neither of them were happy coming or going, but they were unhappy about the same matter. Everything's been very... tense... since that trip out to Teravan.”
Kerraz humphed. “The General has been busy as well, but if you'll let me collect your ship's log, I'll bring it to his attention. The events that happened at Teravan have stirred up a number of things that need adressing, and the log might bring a few of them into better clarity.”
“Go right ahead,” Vardok said with outward calm, but inside he felt intense relief. He and Kerraz and Pendrash had agreed on “clarity” as a signal that meant that things would be explained to them shortly. Pendrash was embroiled in a number of very dangerous games right now, and caution was essential. “Will you need them immediately?”
“Finish your meal,” Kerraz replied, picking his teeth with a thumbnail. “I want seconds, anyway. It has been a long time since breakfast, and the stew is good tonight.”
“That it is,” Vardok said.
They ate in companionable silence, then made their way back to Vardok's ship. Even sitting docked with the maintenance drones poking at it, the Bevrok Hai was a lovely little thing. Much smaller than even a light cruiser but a very great deal faster, the only ships that could outrun or outmaneuver it were the Ghamparva's own, and Vardok was proud to be its captain. He welcomed Kerraz aboard and allowed the man to take copies of the ship's records, all legal, all aboveboard. As General Pendrash's personal aide, Kerraz had that privilege, and Vardok was required to respect that authority. As he watched, Kerraz tucked the precious data chips into an inside pocket and nodded in satisfaction.
“Very good, Captain,” Kerraz said for the benefit of Vardok's lieutenant, a humorless and opaque man that Vardok privately suspected of being a spy for someone or someones well above his pay grade. “That will be all. You may expect a reply within the week. Vrepet Sa.”
Vardok offered a small bow and salute, and returned the traditional phrase with commendable calm.
Four days later, the General himself arrived, along with a few hover-pallets of well-wrapped and unmarked items that Vardok knew better than to wonder about. These were stowed carefully in the cargo bay and the General took up residence in one of the passenger cabins, apparently to make sure that the cargo got to where it was going. The route he specified was one of the tricky ones, too, leading past one of those sections of anomalous space that had to be traversed with the hyperdrive shut down, lest bad things happen to the ship. Certain high officials used that cautious interlude for private meetings, Vardok knew, which was the true reason that the little research outpost at the other end of the trip had been built in the first place. This time it was his turn to enter the secure conference room with Kerraz and Pendrash, and it was with some satisfaction that he locked the door and ran the usual scan for surveillance devices. To his surprise, Pendrash pulled out his own scanner and set it to run, and was even more surprised when something went pop between his shoulderblades.
Pendrash smiled at his confusion as Kerraz removed something small and ruined from the back of his uniform. “Thought so,” the old soldier murmured. “I'm sorry, Vardok. I've been rooting spies out of the Courier Elite for the past three weeks. You are by no means alone.”
Vardok scratched reflexively at his back and grimaced in distaste. “My lieutenant?”
Pendrash nodded. “And one of the maintenance technicians. The tech isn't a problem, he was coerced into this and is now working for me. Your lieutenant is another matter entirely. Do not be surprised if you find yourself giving one of your men a promotion soon. Take a seat, Vardok. Kerraz tells me that you smell a storm coming.”
Vardok did as he was told, pulling a chair out and settling in. “Did the ship's recordings help?”
Pendrash thumped down into the chair opposite, and nodded heavily. He was looking weary as well, and there was more gray in his fur than there had been the last time they had met. “In some areas, considerably. Lotor's little visit to Nelargo Shipyard has gained him a pair of enemies that he will come to regret in the future, I feel, and he will not last long if he falls into either Ghamparva or Lady Ghurap'Han's hands. That is a comparatively minor matter in the greater scheme of things, although losing the Crown Prince at this time would cause a great deal of trouble.”
Vardok stared at him. “What has been going on?”
Kerraz spoke up at that point, filling him in on the details of the arguable theft of no less than thirty of the deadliest fighting craft in the Empire. “Lady Inzera was not pleased, nor was the Order's Commander,” he concluded. “Even our informant was bitter about it, particularly since the Matriarch tends to take out her temper on her subordinates.”
“When she can't sharpen her nails on the people who offend her, at least. Bloodthirsty woman,” Pendrash said grimly. “I suspect that something will have to be done about her eventually, her and a great many others. Twice, Vardok. Twice has the Emperor sustained serious injury at the hands of the Paladins, and the High Houses have taken note. Zarkon is not invulnerable in their eyes anymore.”
Vardok hissed. “Treason?”
“Not yet.” Pendrash glared pensively at the scarred surface of the table for a long moment. “No, not quite yet. They are still very wary. He still lives, and he is still powerful, and Haggar stands ready to destroy anyone who threatens either him or herself, and the Houses do not dare make any move just yet... but they know about the bone spear, and that a Paladin can use it.”
Vardok barked a curse and banged his fist on the table. “None of my men talked! We were under comm silence, sir, you were there and ordered it yourself.”
“I know,” Pendrash said sourly, “but some cousin or other of House Muldok'Kraz was vacationing there, and was able to record both battles. The little fool promptly sent the recording to his Matriarch, of course, who brokered it to every other High House in the Empire. Zarkon did battle with a pair of living legends, Vardok, and lost: once against Voltron itself, and once against the black Paladin. He lived, but only because I summoned the fleets. Who is to say he will not lose again, and that time permanently? The High Houses know this, along with a number of those less High, but wealthy and influential, and very ambitious.”
“Oh, Gods,” Vardok whispered, realizing that the end of the Empire might only start with Zarkon's death. “The Princes--”
“Are a liability as well as an asset. Lotor is Crown Prince only so long as he can fight off his ambitious half-brothers and avoid his father's disapproval.” Pendrash shook his head gravely. “Vardok, as promising as that boy is, he's already failed too often. One more major setback and Zarkon will either disown or destroy him. None of the other Princes are his equal in courage, drive, or intelligence. I had hopes for some of the more recent ones, but they have fallen to the usual plots and peculations, or in duels with each other. I had high hopes for Kelezar, but after he was found to be working with the Blade of Marmora... well.”
Vardok remembered that scandal, soon eclipsed by others. “Figureheads,” he said. “That's what the other Princes will be. Gamepieces whose only value is their legitimacy. And the Royal Lineages, they're going to want a piece of that action... Pendrash, this is a civil war waiting to happen! Several civil wars! The Empire could fall apart almost immediately! Even if the Throne does pass to Lotor, he may not live long enough to sit in it!”
Kerraz nodded. “Historical precedent. Several of the descendants of Modhri the Wise had difficulty cementing their right to rule.”
“Would that he were with us now,” Pendrash said darkly. “He was a mighty negotiator, and an expert diplomat, and brought our people through the aftermath of the Sisterhood War without getting us overrun by greedy aliens. We will need someone of equal or better skill to keep the Empire's subject races from taking advantage of a fragmenting system. The way things are going, they will probably have to get in line.”
Vardok shuddered, blinked, and then realized something that astonished him. “Voltron's only a small part of this, isn't it? It's impressive and can put up a good fight, but it's a figurehead, too.”
Pendrash chuckled. “Not quite. It is, yes, a small part of a much greater force that continues to coalesce unstoppably even as we speak, but it is a key part, and one prone to strange and erratic behavior. The Paladins can do the impossible, Vardok, and as regularly as a housewife does her laundry. If they do decide to focus on taking the fight directly to Zarkon and Haggar—indeed, they have done exactly that once already!—then there is nothing that we can do to stop them.”
“Then what can we do?” Vardok asked plaintively.
“Support the Emperor,” Kerraz supplied quietly. “Maintain him as best we can, and keep an eye on the Princes in the meantime.”
“And keep the High Families from... hmm... helping matters along,” Pendrash added. “I've been able to keep them focused on each other so far, seeing as only one ruler may sit upon that Throne. You have been of immeasurable help already, Vardok. Your ship is one of very good reputation, and is much-preferred by the most active plotters for their private conversations, so much so that keeping it clean of unwelcome eyes and ears has become a full-time job. Continue being competent and discreet, Vardok. It's all that we can do right now.”
Vardok humphed, rubbing at his neck again. “Will these plots be brought to the Emperor's attention?”
Pendrash sighed. “No. Not until there is real cause for alarm. Zarkon has been irritable lately, and if he decides to make an example of someone, or worse, purge the whole lot of them, that would only make things worse.”
“The Empire is too big to allow the major industries and local governments to fail,” Kerraz said. “Such a weakness would be irresistible, not just to Voltron's rebels, but to factions within the Empire itself. Whole regions could be lost within days. A cascade would be almost inevitable. It's a holding action that we're working on, yes, but Zarkon may still prevail. He's faced down and defeated all comers for ten thousand years. If he can't do it this time--”
“Then we must do what we can to hold the Empire together,” Pendrash finished. “If the worst happens, then the survival of our people and our civilization is our primary concern. Even if we have to negotiate with the Paladins themselves for the protection of our people from the vengeful multitudes. Zarkon has not treated the many peoples of the Empire kindly.”
“And the Paladins have. Including our kind.” Vardok reflected on his own experiences with that team of remarkable people. “Including myself and my men.”
He could remember very well the horrifying shock he had felt when Lotor's flagship had fired that last, hellish ion blast that had broken his own ship in half, and how a team of pirates that had included the red Paladin had come to rescue those whom the Prince had abandoned, and it had been that young man who had pulled Vardok out of the wreckage of the command deck with his own hands. He remembered sitting in one of the rescue craft, hands bound, gritting his teeth against the pain of his injuries, and watching the forward screens as the dreadful dark shape of the Night Terror had come to inspect the wrecks for anyone left behind. Fear. He remembered his own fear and the fear of his men, and the shamefully deep sense of gratitude he had felt when the Quandary's chief medic, a real Ophlica, had dealt with the gash in his thigh that might have cost him that leg. Even when they had questioned him—and questioned him they had, having separated out the officers for interrogation—he had not suffered at their hands. He had asked the old Simadhi cook who had brought them their meals: why? Why were we rescued? Why do you treat us so well? We are your enemies! The old man had merely smiled and replied, because we know better, an answer that Vardok had spent much time thinking on.
Pendrash nodded as if he could see Vardok's thoughts. “Future Historians may yet thank the Rogue Witch for helping them to see us as something other than monsters. If that is what it takes, Vardok, if the only thing that keeps the Empire from being torn apart and devoured is an agreement with the Paladins, then so be it. We will try to keep that from happening, but if it comes to a choice between the will of the Emperor or the salvation of our people, then the people come first. Empires may be rebuilt, given enough time.”
Vardok shuddered, barely able to conceive of a Throne that did not have Zarkon in it, or a universe without his Empire, and knew that most of the Galran race would feel the same. Disloyalty, they would say, and treason. Certainly sedition. On the other hand, Pendrash was right. Oh, by all the Gods, the General was right, and while his words were hard to hear, the truth in them was very plain. Vardok had not lived this long by denying harsh realities, and if his hand trembled when he lifted his fist to his breast in salute, he did not care.
“You speak truth, General. I am with you, and will serve however I can.”
Pendrash sat back with a sigh and returned his salute. “I accept your service with gratitude, Captain. For now, we must wait, and watch, and take care. I can certainly do something about that lieutenant of yours.”
“Please do,” Vardok replied sourly. “He's competent, but he makes the crew nervous. Who is he working for?”
Pendrash humphed. “At least three of the High Houses and possibly the Ghamparva as well. Mercenary fellow. I'll ask him about that later.”
Vardok rolled his eyes. “May you have the joy of him. I'll promote Pilot Hurok to that post—a good man, and a very quick thinker, and his family could use the pay raise. Can you recommend me a replacement pilot?”
Pendrash gave him a satisfied smile. “Good choice, and I can. I will set things in motion when our current errand is done.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Shiro winced at the prickle of baby fangs on his wrist and wondered if this was what raising a lion cub was like. The Galra cub was much the same size and had pretty much the same attitude, and was certainly as fluffy, if not more so. A moment later, Ranax let out a shrill squeak—Hunk had reached out and tweaked his furry bottom, and the tiny terror let go of Shiro's wrist to seek vengeance for that outrageous attack. Shiro cast a glance at Keith, who had made a beeline for the lounge when his mother had shooed them out of the bridge; apparently, Allura had jumped them into a very dangerous part of space quite by accident, and the wily Blade needed as few distractions as possible in order to get them out safely. Personally, Shiro hadn't seen anything to worry about up by that big blue star, but Zaianne wasn't convinced. As a result, most of them had followed after Keith out of curiosity. It was rare to see the taciturn young man being visibly eager about anything other than a good sparring match, and he and the others could admit that playing with the baby wasn't a bad way to spend an afternoon. Even if the baby had a full set of fangs and a burning desire to try them out on everything. Only Lance had declined to join in, trotting off in the direction of his sewing room.
“Aaaaiieeeep!” Ranax squealed in his infant ferocity, setting his fangs firmly into Allura's boot and growling like a very small nightmare, a sound that gained in volume when she tickled his back. “grrrgrrrrgrrrROWLF!”
They had laid down in a circle on a blanket on the lounge floor, forming a living playpen while others looked on in amusement; Ranax's father was present, of course, along with a fair selection of the other rescuees, many of whom had never seen a Galra baby before. There were titters and whistles of laughter when the cub whirled, looking for the culprit of that sneak attack, and charged back across the circle at Pidge, who was recording the whole thing on her handcomp. She managed to jerk it out of the way before he could break it, but not before he had gotten a grip on her sleeve, snarling squeakily and kicking at the loose fabric. She raised her arm, lifting Ranax right off of the ground, startling him into confused squeaks before he lost his grip and flomped back onto the blanket. Ranax glared around as if daring anybody to laugh, and then charged at Shiro again, seemingly reasoning that the biggest enemy was the best because there was more of it to bite. Shiro raised a hand instinctively, trying to keep those evil little teeth from becoming embedded in his nose, and caught them in his hand instead. Shiro had to catch himself before he said some things that were not suitable for children of any species—that little monster had drawn blood! Worse, he refused to let go, and now hung growling determinedly from his hand a good six inches off of the floor.
It was at this point that Lance entered the room, a broad smile upon his face and holding something behind his back. “Hey, guys, having fun with Jaws there?”
Shiro gave him a wry look, trying to find a way of getting Ranax's teeth out of his hand without hurting him. “You could say that. Where have you been?”
“Lining up a pinch-hitter,” Lance replied. “Behold!”
They all stared at the thing that Lance had whipped out of hiding. It was slightly smaller than the cub and had been sewn out of what looked to be industrial-grade canvas. Other than that, they weren't too sure. It appeared to have at least five limbs, no two of which were alike, three of what might have been big floppy ears, an arguable head with an allegedly bulbous nose, and a paddle-like, squashy tail somewhat like a beaver's. It was also an unfortunate mix of colors, some of which did not occur in nature.
Keith's eyebrows lifted in mild horror. “Lance, what is that?”
“A distraction,” Lance said, lowering it down to where Ranax could see it, and gave it a squeeze.
Honk, went the horrible stuffed toy.
Ranax, mesmerized by the bizarre object, dropped off of Shiro's wrist and sat there, amber eyes wide in astonishment. Lance set it down firmly in the center of the circle, causing it to bloop suspiciously. “Make room, guys, I'm gonna want in on this,” Lance said, and the others shuffled themselves to let him in.
Ranax never noticed. He was far too busy stalking this ominous apparition. Hissing, he bounced forward and swatted at it, then bounced right back when it queep ed at him with malicious intent. Lance took hold of the tail and inched it forward: urp-yawk-flabt-gwirk!
Ranax skittered back, and then fluffed up his ruff and bared all of his teeth, charging with a scream of wrath. What happened next sounded like: “AAAAIIEEEEEP-bworf-blap-phwonk-sweeeeex-twiddle-thwap-ting-fwip-quack-wopwopwopwopwopwop-eeek!” and looked like a whirling ball of old sailcloth and angry fur.
“Lance, that is the coolest toy in the history of ever,” Hunk said as the wrestling match caromed off of his knee with a strident aaaoooga! “Where did you find the noisemaker?”
“The auto-tailor makes them,” Lance replied over the noise. “It's in the kid's clothes file.”
Allura giggled. “It's a sort of child security system. Mothers would pin those to their little one's shirts, so that they would always know where they were. It's motion-activated, for the most part; I know that Mother used to come running whenever I'd found a way to silence mine. It usually meant that I was up to something.”
Pidge smirked. “Mom put bells on my shoelaces for the same reason. Matt made jokes about belling the brat until I filled his underwear drawer with cockleburrs. Oh, hi, Lizenne.”
There was a ripple of soft commentary around the room as the Galra witch came in, and Trenosh gulped and bowed in response to her polite nod in his direction. “I am sent to tell you that we'll be meeting up with the Fleet in the next few days or so. Zaianne had to test your improvements to the Castle's drive fairly hard, but we're in known space now.”
“That's good,” Keith said, “did the fixes hold up okay?”
“Very well indeed,” Lizenne replied, and looked down in surprise when something near her ankles made a noise like a turkey in a power dive; Ranax now had the toy's tail in his teeth and was dragging it mercilessly around in circles, venting muffled squeaks of excitement all the while. “Oh, my goodness. Lance, dear, I would have sold my elder cousins to the Samborvan Tinkers for a toy like that when I was small. What a lovely gift!”
Shiro raised his eyebrows in surprise even as Lance beamed with pride at this praise. “You didn't have something like this? Weren't you High Family?”
She rolled her eyes and vented a disgusted snort. “And my Matriarch never let me forget it. No, I was given strictly educational toys from very early on. Mother was determined to produce a prodigy of some sort, and as the girl-cub of the clutch, I wound up being saddled with those expectations. If I wanted a good wrestling match, I had to steal toys from my brothers, or escape out into the gardens to chase whatever small creatures that came to nibble on the plantings. I learned a very great many useful things that way. They just weren't the ones that my mother wanted me to learn. Hmm. Lance, have a look at Shiro's hand, if you would? Bite wounds, even small ones, need to be addressed quickly.”
Lance sat up in a hurry, frowning at the red marks on Shiro's hand. “Ooh, yeah. Gimme paw, Shiro. Wow, he nearly hit a vein! I thought that the boys were supposed to be a lot calmer than the girls.”
Lizenne chuckled, watching fondly as Ranax did his best to kick the stuffing out of his patchwork opponent. “Ranax here is a bit older than Sarell's children were. At this stage, boys can become quite aggressive, and it's a good sign of health and vigor.”
“And the girls?” Allura asked.
“Oh, they're even worse.” Lizenne gave her a wicked smile. “At this stage, the girls have learned to plan. They have to, in order to keep their brothers in line. Does Ranax have a sister, Trenosh?”
Trenosh gave her a slightly nervous, but nonetheless proud smile. “He does, and she is very clever. I fully expect that she'll spend some time reminding him of that. He's been much-indulged for the last few days or so, and it might have gone to his head.”
Awwwrrrkk, s aid the toy as Ranax squashed it firmly to the floor, then stood over the fallen foe in a pose of triumph, squeaking proudly. He yawned at that point, blinked sleepily, and then flopped down on top of it for a nap. Urk, it protested, but the cub was already asleep.
“I'm sure that she will set him to rights,” Lizenne said mildly, “although she might try to steal his wonderful toy. Lance, do you think you could make up a few more?”
Lance passed a hand over Shiro's injury, his brow furrowed in concentration; there was a puff of cold air and the bruising and punctures vanished. “Sure, they're easy. I could have Marco run up a whole crate of them in no time flat.”
“True riches,” Lizenne murmured, gazing fondly at the snoring cub. “We'll be picking up Nasty again once we've met up with the Quandary, by the way. I expect that he'll be a bit miffed at us for having adventures without him.”
“We don't try to have them, they happen to us!” Lance protested indignantly. “We can't go for five minutes sometimes without something trying to kill us.”
“Yeah,” Hunk grumped. “If outer space is supposed to be, like, a trillion lightyear's worth of boring, how come we aren't seeing any of it?”
Shiro smiled, rubbing at his remarkably undamaged hand. “Maybe we're looking in the wrong places. What are you up to today, Lizenne?”
“I was about to head back over to the Chimera,” she replied, flicking a hand at the big blue-green ship visible through the lounge's main window. “I want a look at that yulpadi, and there are a number of berry thickets that need picking before all the fruit goes bad. Would any of you like to come along?”
Hunk brightened up immediately. “Ooh, me! Me!” he said, scrambling to his feet. “Maybe you can show me what goes into that stew, okay? And I need to know if any of those berries go toxic when cooked, or frozen, or mixed with stuff, and vice versa!”
Shiro reflected that a little sunlight and fresh air would do him good. “Sounds like fun to me, too. Guys?”
“Just for a little while,” Allura said, the thought of a quick dip in the marsh hanging tantalizingly in her mind, “we shouldn't be away from the Castle for too long until we're among friends, but it sounds lovely.”
“I'm in,” Keith said.
“Me, too,” Lance added.
Pidge frowned, considering her own projects, but nodded. “If those little square blue berries are ready, so am I.”
“Let's go and find out,” Lizenne said, and led them out of the lounge.
The room was quiet for a moment, and then Trenosh let out a long sigh and went to retrieve his child. He knew that the toy had been accepted by the death-grip that Ranax had on it, and tried to ignore the subdued nix-rattle-tood-p'tang it made while he got the sleeping cub settled in his arms. His nearest neighbor, a lanky, pink-scaled, and six-armed Geranthan, flittered her white-and-golden ear-fans in a gesture of mild amusement.
“Not what you expected them to be, good sir?” she asked.
“No,” Trenosh murmured, holding his cub close. “No, they are not, and I am glad of it. I did not expect them to be so young, or so kind. I did not expect them at all.”
The Geranthan glinted her five faceted blue eyes at him. “Not all surprises are bad ones. I myself did not know, and now I am most gratefully informed. Will you inform your own kin thus?”
“How can I not?” Trenosh whispered, eyes distant, considering the near future and what to do with it. “I owe them that much, and I do not ignore my debts. Arcobi is not a rich world, and we have seen the Empire's indifference to its backwater colonies before. Attacks by Gantarash are not uncommon, and the fleets in charge of seeing to our safety are often reluctant to do their duty by us. There are those who will hear me, and approve of what I say.”
He wasn't alone, the others reassured him. The universe would be told.
“Herpaderp!” Nasty snapped, waving a pair of accusing fingers at them. “What have I told you about running off and having adventures without me? You lot need adult supervision, so you do, and I need a cut of whatever ancient treasures you might find lying around. Come on, you owe me! That trot through the Center was fun, but it didn't net me so much as a brass ring.”
Shiro didn't quite know what to make of this odd combination of responsibility and open greed, but the others were well used to it.
“It wasn't really all that ancient,” Keith retorted.
“It wasn't our idea,” Allura added.
“There wasn't much to see,” Hunk said.
“There wasn't any treasure,” Lance told him.
“Well, except for some of the plant samples that Lizenne picked up, and good luck getting them away from her,” Pidge shrugged, and then gave Nasty a wicked grin. “You don't have a real good record of managing that, anyway.”
Nasty steamed, but couldn't refute it, and sat down on his bag with a surly thump.
The Castle and the Chimera had caught up with the Osric's Quandary in an odd little solar system known locally as Grashnur's Cloud; the tiny sun was only one step up from being a brown dwarf and had never really gotten around to forming up some planets. Mostly, its orbits were taken up with one vast shroud of dust—a sort of miniature nebula, with a rock or two floating around in it to give it something like respectability. It might have failed to produce life of its own, but it wasn't unpopulated; the largest of its orbiting rocks was a popular dark port, and the dust clouds served as an admirable hiding place for ships of a surreptitious nature. Yantilee had answered their hail with a certain amount of relief, and had assured them that all was reasonably well. Bericonde was still free, as were the other liberated worlds, and there was talk of liberating another soon. Kolivan and his men were busy elsewhere at the moment, helping certain resistance groups with a bit of constructive sabotage, but would be back in a little time. In the meantime, Yantilee had told them, I've got a very noisy Unilu who has been threatening to sue you for breach of contract for the past week and is currently packing his bags as fast as he can. I think he missed you.
Missed them he might have, but he was doing his best not to show it, and was giving them all his very best narrow-eyed glare. “You still owe me an explanation,” he growled peevishly. “You were only supposed to have been gone for a day or two—visiting one of the biggest secrets in the universe, I might add—and then you come back late with a load of refugees from planets scattered all over the galaxy, and a few from beyond that! I know you guys, you can't just be late, it's always epically tardy or nothing. Spill! I want every detail, and right now!”
Lance and Pidge glanced at each other, grinned evilly, and asked in unison, “What's it worth to you?”
Nasty's smile was no less evil than their own. “Ahhh, now we're talking. I've got half a dead nokki beetle that might be worth the trouble of listening.”
Pidge sneered as only a Human could. “No bugs. Not even partial bugs. Your knife collection or nothing.”
Nasty wore his knives like supermodels wore their makeup. “Crazy talk! Those Mystics must have fried your brains. You get two-thirds of a stale cookie and some pocket lint.”
Pidge adopted a superior expression and flicked a hand in an elegant gesture of dismissal that she had to have picked up from Zaianne. “Twenty percent from your last three heists and drilling rights on your belly-button.”
“Two wind-up toys and the right to keep your left ear!” Nasty shot back.
“Seven Norvoskone Gems of Heaven and a signed copy of Puessag Dom'Knockneese's Galactic Encyclopedia of Unusual Footwear!” Pidge retorted, nose-to-nose with him.
“A seasonal assortment of toenail clippings and the epithet of your choice!”
“A feather from each of the Seventeen Seraphs of Srannol and a fruit smoothie!”
“Last year's invitation to the Hapboygan National All-Comers Anthem-Belching Competition!”
“A preserved soap bubble from the Eternal Bath of Yupyip Gamma!”
“A hardcopy script of a political campaign speech and six and a half bags of Gantar crap!”
Pidge's mind up and went on strike at the mere suggestion of two such equally horrible things, and she glanced around in sudden panic. To her intense relief, Lance was holding up a hand with a vindictive smile on his face. Gratefully, she slapped her palm into his and let him take over, which he did with barely a pause in the flow.
“A fresh-baked, extra-cheese, deep-dish pizza from Earth and a pitcher of hard apple cider!” Lance declared, making everyone but Allura whimper in sudden longing.
Nasty had no idea what those were, and took care not to show it. “A bogus copy of Saint Yossi's Scroll of Perfect Truth and a swift kick up the pants!”
“Two weeks of dishwashing duty and a promise to stay out of the cookie jar!” Lance demanded.
Nasty wasn't about to put up with either suggestion. “The continued functionality of your sewing array!”
Lance glared daggers at him. “Both of your knees, still attached and intact.”
Shiro watched them going back and forth, blinked in confusion when Lance tagged Pidge back in again, and tapped Keith on the shoulder. “Do they do this often?”
Keith smirked. “Tag-team haggling. All part of Nasty's curriculum, and Lance and Pidge are pretty good at it. He says that real-world sessions are usually one-on-one, but they've got tournaments back home with teams of up to ten people.”
“No kidding?” Shiro asked.
Allura smiled. “Well, he is an Unilu, so we can't be entirely sure. He says that extra points are awarded if both teams can remember what the original goal of the session was in the first place.”
Shiro stared at the trio, who were shouting and gesticulating wildly now, and mused that global trade debates on that planet must be Olympic-grade snarkfests. Even with only three people, this one was pretty good. As he watched, Pidge stumbled, tagged Lance in with a smooth sweep of one arm, stood there thinking hard while he traded absurd offers and thinly-veiled death threats with the four-armed pirate, and joined right back in when his hand slapped into hers. The wrangle might have continued for the rest of the afternoon, except that something behind him went “Aaaaiieeeep!”, and a furry purple blur zipped past at knee height. Nasty's counter-offer ended in a surprised yelp as a set of tiny fangs latched onto his left leg and held on tight, growling ferociously.
Lance laughed. “My final offer, Nasty—babysitting duty.”
“Babysitting?” Nasty sputtered, staring down in horror and confusion at the angry ball of purple fur that was trying to savage him. “What the clorch is that? A baby Gantar?”
Ranax let go of his leg and gave him an offended look.
“Are you kidding? That's a baby Galra, and he's a lucky little monster, too.” Lance reached down and lifted Ranax into his arms. “If we'd gotten there ten seconds later, he would have been a snack.”
Nasty stared at Ranax as Lance buried his face in the baby's belly fur and blew through his lips with a frabbbt noise that made Ranax burst into loud squeals of mirth and grab at Lance's hair. “You know, I've never actually seen one of those. You mean that they don't pop out from under damp rocks, fully-grown, armed, and armored?”
Hunk snickered. “I thought that was you guys. Nope, they've got a cute and fuzzy stage. I keep trying to picture Sendak when he was a baby, and failing. Now, that guy was a perfect candidate for your damp-rock theory. Hey, Vennex! Lose something?”
Vennex had come trotting in, a notescreen in one hand and the toy in the other, and his worried expression lightened when he saw Ranax cuddled up in Lance's arms. “Sorry, we heard yelling, and he was off like a shot. I'm going to have to attach a tracking device to that little brat somehow. Or this thing. You forgot this, Ranax.”
He waggled the toy, which squawked like a startled duck. Ranax squawked in an uncanny echo and kicked off of Lance's chest, tackling the toy with such force that he nearly knocked Vennex over. The noteboard went flying and was fielded expertly by Allura, who frowned curiously at the rows of characters. “What's this?”
“Zaianne asked me to get names and addresses from the people you rescued,” Vennex said a little breathlessly over the honks and yodels of Ranax's toy. “To help get them home, kind of thing. Modhri told me to take the list to you when I'd gotten everybody, so you could pass it on to the Ghost Fleet... um. Did I miss one? I don't remember an Unilu.”
“He's supposed to be here,” Keith said calmly. “Nasty's our Villainy teacher, but he decided to take a break for a few days because visiting the Hoshinthra wasn't in his contract.”
Vennex gave him a perplexed look, juggling the active baby. “Villainy? You're all heroes.”
“That's right!” Nasty declared in an acid tone that made Pidge giggle. “And take it from me, pal, heroes are dumb. They've got this chronic case of honor and justice that gets them into all sorts of stupid, life-threatening situations, their own crippling honesty makes them take the words of others at face value—can you believe that they actually expect an enemy to stick to a deal half the time? They don't even ask to be paid for their work! It's disgraceful! And—get this, if you can do it without bursting into tears of despair—they'll even risk their own lives for the sake of others, even if it means certain doom! That big guy standing there looking noble, he's been dead once already if you can believe it, and what do the others do? They go ahead and pick the pockets of Death Herself to bring him back! Literally and figuratively, and they treat it like it was no big deal! All of these crazy people can do things that make theoretical physicists stagger off to get very drunk, and do they demand recognition? Do they at least hang around for the applause? They don't! They come right back to this antique pile of tin-plated metaphysics, eat a huge dinner, and fall asleep! I'm doing my best to corrupt them a little, but it's an uphill battle all the way, let me tell you. Varda here's the fastest learner. I can almost get her to taunt a captured enemy, and she's pretty good at dirty tricks. The rest of them can just about cheat at cards, but only if you play for cookies. Hopeless.”
Vennex cast a sidelong look at Shiro. “From the Ghost Fleet, right? I think that I've seen him on a wanted poster. He burned some really rude insults into the outer hull of a heavy cruiser, and the captain wants his head on a spike.”
Shiro snorted a laugh. “It's a long story.”
“That's me!” Nasty said proudly. “How much were they offering as a reward?”
Vennex frowned thoughtfully, juggling Ranax in his arms. “Um... seven hundred thousand gac, dead or alive. Preferably alive. I heard that Captain Corash had... um... plans, and wants to do the execution himself.”
Nasty's sly face split into an appreciative grin. “Classic. I'm going to have so much fun disappointing him. Maybe I'll send him a little surprise in the mail one day, just to keep him focused. Maybe one of those little explosives, Varda?”
“Glitter bomb,” Pidge said firmly. “Hot pink and orange. It can take months to get rid of it all, and he'll be twinkly the whole time.”
Nasty cackled. “I like the way you think, girl. So who's this guy, and where did you dig him up? You aren't collecting uncles again, are you?”
“More of a cousin, actually,” Allura replied, scrolling through the list of names. “Vennex here is one of Modhri's adopted nephews. We got him from Shussshorim.”
Nasty's eyes nearly bugged out of their sockets. “What? You got a Galra away from the Night Terror? Nobody gets a Galra away from the Night Terror! How in the name of the Ghluphrix of Narilum-Pashvi did you get a Galra away from that crazy lady?”
“The Mystics told her to hand him over,” Hunk said casually, “her guys were a little upset about missing dinner, but it was kind of important. We picked up the others from the Gantarash--”
“What?” Nasty squawked, rather like Ranax's toy. “I was just kidding about Gantarash crap!”
“I'm not. We had to wade through a lot of it, and the Gantars that made it. Anyway, that was after Coran summoned Doodlebug the big red space monster--”
“Well, yeah, we were being attacked by Lotor, and he had a bunch of Ghamparva fighters--”
“About thirty of them. Those are tough ships. And that was after we got stuck in a space anomaly full of other space anomalies--”
“Hunk...” Nasty moaned.
“There were some pretty weird things in there, but the magic black hole was really bad--”
“Lizenne says that if we'd hit that, we might have never existed. Hey, if ordinary black holes come out the other side as white holes, then would a magic black hole do the same? That'd be awesome, like a huge, huge source of pure aetheric energy, and it would probably have some seriously weird effects on anything around it. Oooh! Hey, maybe that's how things like Weblums and Balmeras and Doodlebug got started! You'd need some pretty heavy-duty aetheric conditions to generate life-forms that don't need planets, or are planets, or eat planets, or--”
“All right, all right, all right!” Nasty howled, waving his hands in the air. “I'll babysit the kid, already, but I've just gotta know.”
Pidge tweaked his ear. “So you can sell the story to the tabloids?”
He smacked her hand lightly away and gave her an offended look. “Of course. Pirate, right? I'm supposed to be unprincipled, and the Galra don't take the gossip rags seriously. It's a great way to get the word out and make a few gac on the side.”
“Freedom fighter, Nasty,” Keith said. “You're one of the good guys now.”
“Bah! Define 'good',” Nasty scoffed haughtily, and picked up his bag. “I'm still an Unilu, and we have standards. Let me get this stuff put away, and then I want every detail. And maybe a game of cards. Is Tilla around? Playing with her has ruined me, you know. Playing at Dix-Par against only normal cardsharps is too easy now.”
Shiro laughed. “And you're complaining about that?”
Nasty sniffed. “I like a challenge, and I haven't been getting any back on the Quandary. I'm also really craving Hunk's cookies, damn it. See you in the lounge in ten.”
Shiro smiled. “We'll bring the dragon.”
“And the cookies?”
Lance rolled his eyes. “Tilla's got all the cookies.”