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Chapter 11: That Way Lies Madness

 

Zarkon sat in his Imperial throne, trying to listen to the report that one of his Generals was giving him and not having much luck. There was nothing wrong with his eyes or his ears; it was his memory that was the problem. Not its absence—he'd known all of his life that men above a certain age might become forgetful, and indeed he'd welcomed that. He was far older than any of his people had ever been, and the sheer weight of memory could become backbreaking at times. Whole eras had slipped away from his conscious recollection if they had nothing of worth to remember them by, or if they were too painful to contemplate even centuries later. Or if they were simply too trivial to bother with, like the dour, middle-aged man trying to inform him of some problem or other that was happening in some odd corner of his Empire. Or perhaps it wasn't a middle-aged man giving the report. It might be a younger man, or an older man, or a woman of similarly varying ages; thousands of officers had delivered thousands such reports over thousands of years, and here and now, they were blending unsettlingly together right in front of him. Voices belonging to people long dead were echoing around the living man's, and he could almost hear Blaytz shouting at one or more of them to stop blathering and get to the point...

He caught his breath in a faint hiss and glanced to one side at the faint movement out of the corner of his eye. There was no one there, of course. Haggar was overseeing the last stages of construction on the new Robeast. He knew that. He knew that very well, but she was there beside him so many other times...

He had too many memories, and they were starting to clamor for attention at odd moments, waking and sleeping. Ever since that miserable wretch who had stolen his Lion had invaded his mind, his long-dormant past had bestirred itself. He had expected it to die down again, to slip back into quiescence like stirred-up sediment sifting back to its place on a riverbed, but it had not. If anything, it had gotten worse. Something about the man—something about the Lion... no. No. It was more than that. He shifted slightly upon his throne, and two thin, bright wires of pain twinged in his shoulder and thigh. They always did that when the voices of the dead or the shadow memories acted up. They had done something to him, the Champion and Alfor's daughter. They had done something that Haggar couldn't see. Zarkon considered having her look again, and then discarded the notion. He would deal with it himself. It did not do to reveal a weakness to anyone, not even one's closest companions. Perhaps another dose of Quintessence would do the trick.

That's not going to work, Zarkon, a voice heard by no one in ten thousand years scolded him. Sometimes strength isn't the answer. If you keep piling on more force, it's just going to break.

Trigel had never hesitated to speak her mind.

Great Zog, man, another voice out of the dim past said, haven't you ever learned to ask nicely? It's not hard. Come on, let's hear you say it. Repeat after me. “Please” , and “thank you” .

What had Gyrgan been talking about? Princes did not ask, they commanded, and those they commanded had better obey...

If only it were that simple, my friend, another once-familiar voice sighed sympathetically out of the dust of ages. We all entertain that little fantasy now and again, trust me. You'll only have one planet to run if your father ever gets around to confirming you as his Heir, but my own father dumped hundreds of them on me. The trouble with ruling a large interstellar kingdom is that all of their unsolvable problems are suddenly your unsolvable problems, only you have to solve them or the problems just get larger. I suppose that I could become a tyrant and rule with an iron fist—I would dearly love to have that Upsuskan Grand Prethet stripped naked and tied to a lamp-post outside of a sports bar, for example—but that just creates more problems. You should hear Melenor complain about the backlash whenever we do something precipitous.

Alfor. Zarkon ground his teeth, his temper rising. Alfor had always counseled patience. Always patience, understanding, compliance, and compromise, even when chopping the heads off of those sneering, arrogant politicians would have served the purpose ever so much better...

Zarkon, you can't have everything that you want, Blaytz had snapped at him once, after a particularly long and trying adventure. I know that they're a pain in the ass, but you can't just fire-polish the whole planet. They're needed, alive and whole, and we're some of the people who need them!

Blaytz was an idiot. A truly self-sufficient person did not need anyone, particularly when they would not learn and would not see sense, and the best service that such a damned stupid people could render unto their neighbors was to go and die in a fire. He had had his own way in the end, and so many obdurate peoples had come to an end at his will...

That really isn't a good idea, Zarkon, a woman whom he hadn't thought about since his homeworld had been lost told him sternly. I don't care what that Altean alchemist of yours says, it's forbidden, and by far greater authorities than you—or her, for that matter! Yes, it is possible to extend your life all but indefinitely that way, to say nothing of powering just about any mechanism, but it's extremely dangerous. There is a terrible price to pay for exploiting those forces. You must not steal! That way lies madness, and worse. Whole worlds could die, drained dry by her avarice! Send her away, Zarkon. She will bring you no joy. Power, yes, but no joy. I will not wed a man whose only ambition is power, and your world needs what our union will bring it.

How dared she? How dared she demand that Haggar be sent away? Zarkon's temper began to boil. Khiradi the proud, Khiradi the beautiful, Khiradi of Simadht, whose fingers wove potent magic through the strings of her vaiir-harp, music and magic of such beauty that even he had no choice but to stop and listen. Khiradi whose father had offered aid and alliance that his own grandsire had been desperately seeking, for Golraz was vulnerable to the Council's ambitions. Zarkon still felt scorn for his grandfather's cowardice. Had not Haggar shown him a better option? With the new power source she had harnessed both for personal and industrial use, they did not need to make alliances with those washed-out cave dwellers! What a gift Haggar had offered him, and he had foolishly turned it down!

He what? Haggar's voice came to him out of the past, as did the sharp flash of her amber eyes, the fury and frustration in them seeming to strike sparks from the scarlet markings on her pale cheekbones and her polished-steel hair. She had not yet donned the Galran colors that she would wear for ten millennia. How dare he? I am so close! Another phebe—a few quintents more, and I will unlock the doors to unlimited power! I could do it this very night, if I didn't bother with half of the containment measures that he insisted upon. I do not need them! Will he never admit that I might know more about this that he does?

Zarkon's grandfather had demanded that the lab be shut down. That branch of aetheric science had always made him nervous, and he hadn't liked the way that plants had stopped growing on the facility's grounds. Even insects didn't go there anymore, but Zarkon hadn't cared. All that had mattered was what Haggar wanted, and what she could give him in return.

Then do it, he'd said, and he heard his own voice as it had sounded so very many years ago. Young. Had he ever truly been that young?

Do it, he'd said, and we'll prove your superiority to him once and for all. We will be the firstborn of a new and greater era.

She had done it. He remembered helping her make the final adjustments, and how her wonderful device's parts had come together, and how the rings of the resonator had glowed a clear, pure, pale purple. There had been a rising hum, and an exaltation of light; a white-gold glory that had filled him with an ecstasy that he had never known before, that had laid a seed of greatness within his heart. His first taste of true power, and by no means the last. To think that he had come so close to losing that, even as he had lost everything that mattered only a little time later--

Blackness. Blackness all around, and ships, and swarms of tiny flickering lights that were not stars.

By all the Gods... we couldn't stop them. By all the Gods... the planet's gone. They destroyed Golraz.

He barely heard Gyrgan sobbing over the high singing sound of his own shock and horror, and he stared with disbelieving eyes at the burning fragments of his homeworld, the molten core spilling out into the vacuum of space like the yolk of a broken egg.

No survivors. Alfor, they never had a chance. The Council's fleet gave no warning! Blaytz sounded near tears. Zarkon's eyes remained dry.

Zarkon, that's not the whole armada over there! Trigel shouted, her voice anguished, but clear. Most of them, but not all. It's missing a squadron or two of heavy destroyers. They're not among the wrecks. Where are they?

Where were they? They had not been among those who had attacked the planet.

The colony ships! Alfor cried. Who's escorting the colony ships?

Zarkon's hands clamped violently on the control beams, and he turned Voltron around to seek out those precious ships that were now all that was left of a once-great world. He heard the others shouting back and forth—Trigel shouting into her comms, trying to raise the refugee craft; Gyrgan and Blaytz urging Voltron to go faster; Alfor exhorting them all to greater efforts. Zarkon's heart hurt him as though a shard of cold void had knifed through it. Haggar was on one of those ships, the slow but dependable Ghram Parzurak. She hadn't been welcome aboard the Royal flagship along with his own family, the noble Houses, and the Simadhi princess, a slight that Zarkon had taken deep offense at. The Parzurak had no guns, being a rebuilt cruise liner, and it was in deadly danger.

They had been very nearly too late. The escort ships had vanished at the first sight of the Council's warcraft, leaving the unarmed colony ships to their doom. Only three ships had survived out of nearly twenty, and not the largest of them at that. The flagship was gone, along with all of his family and all hope for the future. Only the Ghram Parzurak, the Thrand Hachim, and the Kros Galeth had survived, and the Galeth had been badly damaged. His mind like glass, his heart like ice, Zarkon had allowed the others to use Voltron to get the people on those three failing ships safely down into the sands of the world that would soon be known as Golraz Beta. Mind like glass, heart like ice, he had made sure that Haggar was alive and well, which she had been. Mind like glass, heart like ice, he learned how few of his people were left.

And then someone had turned on a portable entertainment set to a public news channel, and he had heard the Council's First Speaker gloating over the cold-blooded murders of more than eight billion people. If his mind was glass, that glass was molten now. If his heart was ice, then it was now scalding steam. The others had turned to him, feeling his rage; the seed of greatness that his first taste of Quintessence had given him sprouted and produced a dark flower. He siezed upon them with that inner greatness, and took them back to the Lions. These he seized upon as well, and took them back, back, riding the wave of his black fury. The Council had forfeited its right to live. For their arrogance and brutality, the punishment would be swift. His comms had come alive with petty complaints from trivial authorities, demanding to know what he was doing, but he disdained to answer them. Never again would he take anyone's orders, nor bow to anyone else's will. The time for diplomacy was done, and he would now do things his way. The very first thing he would do was to go to Tethrix, the Council's private little paradise planet, and--

“Destroy them!” he snarled aloud. “All of them.”

“Y... your Majesty?”

Zarkon blinked. He was sitting in his throne, ten thousand years away from where his mind had been, and a middle-aged General was staring at him as if he'd grown a second head. What had the man been telling him about? Oh, right. The Beronites. Despite the efforts of the Imperial fleets in that region, those wretched little insects had refused to submit. “The Beronites, you idiot,” Zarkon growled, making the man cringe in terror. “Their intransigence annoys me. Destroy them. All of their worlds. All of their people. I will not tolerate defiance.”

“Y-yes, Majesty!”

“See to it,” Zarkon said ominously. He didn't feel well; his shoulder and thigh ached fiercely, and there was a sick emptiness in his heart and a burning sensation in the back of his skull that usually meant that he was due for a dose of Quintessence. “Leave, all of you. I tire of this trivial nonsense.”

He glowered in silence as the various Generals, aides, guards, and functionaries scuttled like insects for the doors, and then took his own leave, limping slightly on his sore leg.

 

A few minutes later, unseen by all, a single young man in a subaltern's uniform crept back into the empty room, shivering slightly at the aura of ancient rage that hung in the air like smoke, and made his way up the steps to examine the throne itself. He had made a habit of staying silent and keeping his eyes open, and he had seen the Emperor do a curious thing just before he'd spoken that abrupt order. Sure enough, his eyes hadn't lied to him. General Chavric had been reporting on trade statistics in the Guantu Sector, a subject that Zarkon, as far as he knew, had less than no interest in, and yet...

And yet he had gripped the arms of his throne so hard that he'd left easily discernible handprints in the tough metal, and had ordered the destruction of a large number of very profitable planets, moons, and space stations. Chavric had only barely mentioned the Beronite rebellion! Something had been going on inside the Imperial skull that didn't quite match up with everyone else's reality. His comm chirped, making him jump, and a voice asked, “Well?”

The young aide shuddered. “I was right, sir. He left prints. I can even see the claw marks. He wasn't paying any attention to Chavric at all. Something's not right.”

There was a sigh from the comm. “I was afraid of that. Get out of there before he comes back, Kerraz.”

Kerraz groaned, but headed for the doors in triple-time. “Pendrash... sir... what are we going to do? He's just ordered us to smash up something like fifty-three worlds, and the Beronites are going to fight us claw and grasper the whole way! We'll have to muster the whole Sector's compliment of the Military, and probably more, and that will leave even more territory vulnerable to attack. A lot of the High Houses have business interests in that Sector, too. The whole region will be fouled up for decades!”

I'm aware,” Pendrash replied, his tone grim. “There are ways of deflecting such things, Kerraz, and fortunately I may have one. What is the one thing that Zarkon desires above all else?”

“Voltron,” Kerraz breathed. “You can summon Voltron?”

It's possible. I cannot guarantee that the Paladins will show up, but it's the best chance that we have to head this off. Come to my office as fast as you can, Kerraz. I have a message for you to take to Vardok, and he is to relay it via Remote Station #724.”

Remote Station #724! Only the most top secret of top secret missives were sent through that thing! “On my way, sir,” he said, and broke into a run.

 

The Fleet Captains were arriving now, each after their own fashion. Some, like Captain Ketzewan, had dressed to the nines for the event, reasoning that it was only proper to dress one's best when visiting a royal palace. Others were confident enough of their own authority to know that the King wouldn't mind if they showed up in their regular clothes, so long as they were clean. Others simply couldn't afford anything better, and some simply didn't care. Either way, there were enough casually-dressed people hanging around to make Allura consider that her own team's usual attire might just be acceptable for presentation to the local rulers, although her early training still made her painfully self-conscious of the fact that she'd left all of her gowns aboard the Castle. And of the fact that she had an extra streak of pink on one cheek from her lollipop, but that, at least, was easily taken care of.

Zaianne, the dragons, and the mice had been a whole other story. Zaianne had ridden into the Palace grounds astride Tilla's shoulders, the mice riding on Soluk's back, and all of them had been covered with dirt and torn-up grass. None of them had been in the least bit sorry, and Tilla had refused to give up the ball that she'd stolen from the sports field. The servants in charge of keeping the floors clean had broken down in tears when they had seen that filthy little group, which had turned into cries of astonishment when Zaianne had muttered a short spell and snapped her fingers, and the dirt had slid off of them like water off of a duck. She had smiled at their wild-eyed expressions, straightened her tunic, and had strode off down the hall as proudly as any queen, the mice and dragons marching just as proudly behind her.

They still hadn't been able to persuade Tilla to let go of the ball.

“Don't worry about it, dear,” Lizenne said as they watched one of the pirate captains trying to take it from her and having no luck with that at all. “Fortunately for us, the Halidexans have never put all that much importance in fancy dress, and our hosts are far too sensible to judge people by what they're wearing.”

Allura blushed slightly, but managed a smile. “Sorry. Mother used to receive overdressed ambassadors all the time, and some of them took it to extremes. Has everyone arrived?”

“Not quite,” Lizenne said. “We're still missing Captain Tchak, who was last seen in a gaming arcade in Town. Ketzewan's already sent someone out to fetch him. We're also expecting the Governor, if only in a symbolic capacity.”

Allura recalled what their pilot had told them about the man. “Oh, dear. Do you think he will be able to control himself around us?”

“According to King Trosimon and Queen Abritta, he's a sensible fellow at heart and knows full well what will happen to him if he doesn't,” Lizenne said, frowning at the doors. “Governor Kherig Tranth'Zaio stands to gain a great deal if he merely sits quietly and lets things happen; since his stillness and silence also allows Halidex to continue unmolested and unnoticed by the Emperor, they have come to an agreement.”

Allura nodded. “We were told that much. Have you warned the others?”

“Modhri's making the rounds now, and Yantilee's already informed the Captains.” Lizenne smiled thinly. “Most of them find the notion of a Galra official who can't officiate amusing.”

Allura rolled her eyes. “So long as no one starts shooting... oh. Or bites someone's head off. Has anyone thought to give him one of Pidge's pins?”

Lizenne turned to look at the Night Terror's glittering representative, who was currently standing nose-to-nose with Soluk; they appeared to be sniffing each other over with wary interest. “I can only hope.”

 

“Sir, we shouldn't be doing this,” the aide protested as they made their way through the seemingly endless halls of the palace, although they both knew that his complaint was mostly for form's sake. “They're the enemies of the Empire!”

“Of the Emperor,” Governor Kherig corrected grimly. “It's becoming increasingly apparent that it's not quite the same thing anymore. You've seen the reports, same as I have, and have spoken to the same rescuees. Look at it this way, Phrane; we'll be the first to get a look at them from close up without actually being captured or killed.”

Phrane heaved a long-suffering sigh. “I know, sir. It's my training, is all, and my family are all royalists. It's hard, sir.”

“Mine are too, and yes. Be glad that we're being kept in the loop at all.” Kherig's ears twitched at the distant rumble of conversation audible from down the hall. It sounded cordial, at least, and there was laughter in it. Real laughter, and neither malicious nor grim. Something went gronk in there, too, which was a little unusual, but the Fleet crews were very diverse. “All we have to do is play nice, and then we can go back to the fort.”

Phrane, who was a Kedrekan and rather taller than Kherig was, peered over his boss's shoulder as they rounded the last corner and groaned. “If we survive the meeting. Sir, they've brought the Hoshinthra.”

Kherig nodded glumly. “I know. Somebody broke into my office last night and left me a note, and these,” he said, pulling a pair of small objects out of a pocket and holding them up. They glinted greenly in the light of the sconces.

Phrane stared at them. “Those look like the Voltron insignia.”

“Yes, and apparently they magically protect you from the wrath of the Night Terror. Remind me to ask somebody how it works, will you?” Kherig handed his aide one of them and pinned his to his jacket so that it gleamed among his other badges of rank. “Just do it, man.”

“Sir...” Phrane said, holding the little pin as if it might bite. “Sir, I can't. I took an oath.”

“So did I, and look where it has gotten me.” Kherig's brow furrowed as he reviewed the odd turns that his career had taken. “It's your choice, Phrane. I'll be sad to lose you if you make the wrong one.”

Phrane's hand trembled, and he closed his fist over the tiny emblem. He did not pin it to his shirt, but neither did he drop it.

They stepped through the ballroom doors into a true rogue's gallery; just going by bounties and wanted posters alone, there were enough interstellar criminals assembled here to bankrupt several treasuries, Kherig noted, including... oh, ye Gods. All six Paladins. Several Blades of Marmora. The Rogue Witch and her man, the woman who had killed Commander Sendak, two enormous spiky reptiloids of the sort that had trashed a goodly portion of the Center, what appeared to be four mice, and even the rarely-seen but justifiably-feared mustachioed Altean. The littlest Paladin, who had once crippled most of the Center with the power of her mind alone, appeared to be arguing with a Hoshinthra. Arguing. There was no fear of that monster in her at all.

He paused in his approach, letting the pirates get a good look at him and Phrane; that was necessary, pirates being a high-strung lot. There was a stunning variety of them as well, and he could recognize most of them. Every single corsair of note was represented here tonight, including one that he'd spent several years trying to capture himself, before he'd been appointed Governor; Captain Tchak caught his eye, smiled wryly, and flipped him a mocking little salute.

One of the Paladins, the sort of middling-sized, dark-haired one with the high-collared jacket, said something brief and sharp to his companions. They looked up as one, and formed up together in a motion that had obviously become instinctive for them. They weren't alone; backing them up were the two Galra women and the one man, both reptiloids, all four mice, and the Altean male. All of them were staring at him and Phrane with the same wary expression that presaged either violence or tolerance. He and Phrane froze, hands in plain sight, but for Kherig, that was mere reflex.

He could not help but stare at them in something that he was not quite prepared to call awe. He realized that, mixed though they were, they were what his own great-grandmother had described as of the pack. All of them. Even the beasts both great and small. That simple, absolute unity that was so rare these days... and he could see the Lions through the Paladins. He could see Voltron in the way they stood, and in their eyes, and in the deep cohesion they shared. Legends, he thought, and felt a chill running up his spine. These were legends come to life, and there would be no separating them from the great battle machines that the Emperor coveted so. Only once before had he ever seen a group of people anything like these young warriors, and that had been many years ago, and in effigy. He wondered vaguely what they might see in him.

Also staring, but at Phrane only, was the Hoshinthra—if something without eyes could stare—and its fanged jaws parted in a horrible death's head grin...

The green Paladin reached up, grabbed the monster by the long nasal bone, and hauled its head down to her level. “No,” he heard her scold it. “No biting people's heads off at parties, it's rude and makes a big mess on the carpet. Put the pin on, you big dummy! Shussshorim's got no manners and no brakes!”

That last had been hissed at Phrane, who was staring at her in unabashed astonishment. No one had ever dared to do what she was doing now, and the Hoshinthra looked very confused, the great spreading antennae clamped flat back against its neck.

Phrane put the pin on, nearly dropping it in his haste to comply. A chuckle rippled through the watching crowd, and the tension eased. Kherig gave the Paladins a thin smile and a slight bow of respect. “Paladins,” he murmured politely. “While I cannot officially congratulate you upon your successes, I will offer my personal gratitude for keeping the damage to a minimum wherever possible. I hope that you will continue to do so, when and as you can.”

The tall one with the white forelock returned his smile, and the look of understanding in those iron-gray eyes surprised Kherig more than a little. “We'll try,” he said, and then glanced back over his shoulder. “Oops. Hold still and don't panic.”

Kherig would have asked why, but suddenly his view was full of a broad, scaly snout. He'd never seen the great reptiloid move, and a startled yelp from Phrane told him that the other one was checking him over as well. The enormous spiky beasts sniffed them over very carefully, sneezed in a delicate fashion that sounded absurd coming from such fearsome creatures, and then giggled exactly like very young girls. Hearing that, the Paladins relaxed, and grinned as one of the beasts dropped what looked to be a sports ball into Phrane's hands.

“That means that they like you,” the big, round-bellied Paladin said cheerfully, “and that means that you're cool, guys. Glad to have you with us. Um. Pidge, I think that you can let go of the doom moose now.”

The green Paladin still had a firm grip on the Hoshinthra's nose, and she shook it firmly from side to side. “Not until I'm sure that his mom will behave herself. And himself. You two are going to play nice, right?”

The Hoshinthra responded to this thinly veiled threat with an odd explosive noise that could could best be described as “Gnngthssss!”

“Good,” Pidge said, letting go of the dreadful skull, and then slapping the lethal jaws aside without even looking around when it tried to snap at her hair.

Kherig glanced over at Phrane, who was looking badly rattled and was gazing in perplexity at the ball in his hands. A dholep ball, Kherig noted absently, generally used in field sports, and remarkably intact when one considered the huge fangs that those beasts had. Phrane looked up at the one that had gifted him the ball, which was sitting on its haunches and gazing expectantly at him. It grunted faintly, and Phrane tossed the ball very gently back. The beast caught it with ease, winked coquettishly at him with three of its six blue eyes, and ambled away.

“Not what you expected?” he asked his sweating aide.

“N... no, sir.” Phrane panted.

“Me niether.” Kherig scanned the crowd again, which had seemingly lost interest in them. He knew better than to believe that, of course. Unobservant pirates were usually dead pirates. “What an unusual group.”

Phrane swallowed hard. “Sir... did you see... I mean... I know you've seen the Stone of Heroes. Every cub has to study it in school. They were just like that!”

Kherig nodded. The Stone of Heroes was a very large and very ancient piece of statuary that had been carved into an outcropping of solid granite well before Zarkon had taken the Throne. No one knew these days who those ancient warriors had been, but the long-ago artist had portrayed them beautifully; every detail had been graven into the diamond-hard rock with consummate skill, each face distinct, every scar and tattoo, every bead on their khe'guon strings, all reproduced with lifelike accuracy. They had been posed as if coming out of the stone itself, stone eyes fixed on the horizon, stone faces smiling eagerly, stone hands gripping stone weapons as they went eternally to the hunt, all as one in their purpose. The great mystery of the Stone was not its origin, but a trick of the carving itself; no one could count the number of warriors and get the same total twice. If one stood back far enough away, one soon realized that the whole Stone itself, carvings and all, had the shape of a single giant warrior, staring watchfully into the distance as if waiting for a worthy opponent to reveal itself. All as one, and as one, greater than any single part; the very essence of the Pack.

“I'm aware, Phrane.” Kherig sighed and ran his fingertips over the little green chevron that he'd been so mysteriously gifted with. “I'm aware, and I am glad that I have chosen not to fight them. We'll observe them instead, and try to look harmless while we're at it.”

Phrane gave him a pained look, but had to admit that there was nothing else that they could do. He might have complained a little more just to show willing, but an odd movement caught their eye—Yantilee had looked down sharply, and then had bowed nearly to the floor for no apparent reason. When the huge Elikonian straightened back up, she had a small figure in her arms, one that Kherig and Phrane recognized as the King's youngest child, a daughter. The child was dressed in what was unmistakably a nightgown, with her hair a mess and missing one slipper, and a look of triumph on her face. From the look of it, she had probably been put to bed early, and had escaped. The little girl clambered up onto the big alien's upper shoulder and waved a small stuffed toy at the crowd.

Alla you people, look at me!” she shouted, and when she was sure that she had their full attention, she grinned broadly and declared, “Cap'ns Outrageous, welcome to my Palace! You're all gonna sit around the big table and talk like nice people and plan how you're gonna free all the planets and give the bad guys a smacking! Then you're gonna have a really good dinner 'cause Mister Ronok's helping in the kitchen, and he made all the cookies! He gave me some, and you're really gonna like them 'cause I sure did! Then you're gonna go out and smack bad guys 'cause you're all really good at it! Thank you!”

Phrane blinked as a ripple of laughter and even a few cheers ran through the crowd. “How old is she?”

“Six,” Kherig sighed, and then chuckled. “I see a great future for her in public speech.”

King Trosimon retrieved his unrepentant daughter from the pirate Admiral. “Gentlebeings, I was about to make a speech of welcome, but Trinnie here beat me to it, and her version is the soul and center of mine... and a good deal shorter and less boring. I see no reason to repeat what she has already made very clear, save for a single correction. It's 'captains courageous', dear, not 'outrageous'.”

“Depends on who you ask,” Yantilee said mildly. “Shall we go and sit around the big table and talk like nice people?”

The King gave Yantilee an appreciative smile and handed his giggling little girl off to a mortified nursemaid who had come puffing into the room. “You know, I think that we should.”

 

“And that'll be enough of that,” Yantilee said some hours later, squashing another dispute and causing one Captain to go green with disappointment while the other fluffed up his feathers in irritation. “It won't make any difference who goes first on that vector; your ships have equal capabilities and you both know it. Neither of them have the armor for it in the first place. Captain Drusthin, yours has a tougher skin and better shields. Think you can handle that bit?”

Captain Drusthin, a spotted, leathery Ginpharam who looked more than a little like a miniature whale shark, squinted nearsightedly at the hologram of the Rakshane Market Hub that hung over the table. “Might,” he thrummed thoughtfully, “and might not. Tough, yes; good guns, yes; quick and agile, no. If those two flank me as outriggers, it'll do. I'll back 'em through the heavy, they can take me through the quick. All's good?”

The two former disputants mulled that over and allowed as how it was possible. Yantilee nodded and moved on to the next topic.

Keith leaned back in his chair, listening intently as the big Elikonian ran the sims and steered the conference toward a workable battle plan with a word here, a suggestion there, and the occasional squelched ego. Keith had never been very good at this sort of thing himself, and was determined to learn. His mixed blood might give him courage, but it also made him reckless; if Shiro's absence had taught him anything, it was that he needed to learn how to plan, and how to manage people. The key, it seemed, was getting the fractious ones to do things by making it seem like their idea. Yantilee also listened to everyone; no suggestion was discarded until it had been given a good looking-at, and even if it wasn't immediately useful, it was kept in mind. Battlefields were very fluid situations, and every idea was potentially useable; even though Modhri had told them of the subtle machinations of Trenosh's grandfather, Yantilee had decreed that a secondary and even a tertiary plan would be a good thing to have if negotiations fell through, and most of the Captains understood battles better than business.

Even so, the meeting was running long. Dinner had been served somewhere in the middle of it, and the discussion had continued unabated right over the food and drink. The little princess had been right about the cookies, though. Even interstellar warfare had wound up taking a backseat to the cookies for a little while there. Throughout the whole thing, the two Galra officials had been very quiet, observing without comment and occasionally taking notes. Keith had no doubt that Kolivan had those two under his eye, but he had to wonder exactly why they were being allowed to attend at all--

His thoughts stopped dead when he felt Shiro go rigid next to him. There was a fizzing in the back of his mind and a faint haziness at the corners of his eyes, and when he looked at his team leader, he saw that Shiro was firmly in the grip of his Lion-gifted talent. Shiro was staring wide-eyed at nothing that existed within the room, and from his expression, whatever it was, it wasn't good. Keith could feel the pressure building, and concentrated on the Lion-bond. The others were doing the same, holding Shiro steady until whatever was trying to come through achieved its purpose. The pupils of his iron-gray eyes had distended enormously, and were glittering with constellations that did not exist on this side of reality, and he was sweating with the effort of it. Slowly, Shiro rose out of his seat, leaning his hands on the table; moving with a terrible smooth precision that was more like a machine than a living man, he turned his otherworldly gaze upon the group of Beronite captains, who reeled back in shock.

Shiro's breath hissed through his teeth, and in a voice with a peculiar echo in it, he said: “She's burning.”

With those words, the spell broke with a nearly-audible crack, and Shiro collapsed heavily back into his chair. Keith heaped more cookies onto Shiro's plate while Hunk refilled his glass.

Lance winced and rubbed at his brow as Shiro gulped down half of his glass in one go. “Big one. Gonna tell the rest of us, Chief?”

“What was that?” one of the captains quavered nervously, and Keith noticed that the two Galra officials were staring at Shiro in open astonishment.

“That was a powerful Seer in action,” Lizenne said sharply. “A talent that I lack completely, thank whatever may be listening. Are you all right, Shiro?”

Shiro nodded, washing down a mouthful of cookie with a sip of water and giving the startled captains an apologetic look. “I'm fine. Zarkon's done something. There is... there are planets in danger. Many of them. I saw a world being destroyed. Don't know whose. A green world, mountains, huge forests. A... a temple, I think. Very large, lots of six-sided buildings, all made of some purplish-blue stone. It was beautiful, and then it was gone.”

One of the Beronites shrilled in horror and scrabbled a small hologram projector out of her pocket, activating it to show the table the Nemortine holy of holies. “This Temple?”

Shiro nodded. “That's the one. It took a direct hit.”

The Beronites shrieked in fury, and the captain banged her claws down on the table with more force than one would expect from the delicate-seeming insectoid. “He dares! When will this occur?”

Shiro frowned, his eyes looking inward. “I--”

There was suddenly shouting from the hallway, and the sound of running feet. A Galra soldier burst gasping into the room with a couple of palace guards close behind him, and he staggered to where the Governor sat, waving something small in one hand. “Sir!” he panted desperately, “Urgent message, from the private line. Code seven-twenty-four. I got it here as fast as I could.”

“Well done, man,” the Governor said, taking the message card from the soldier and excusing himself to go and read it in a corner.

The soldier sagged against the back of his empty chair in relief, and then seemed to notice the company he was in. Keith couldn't help but smile as the poor man stared in horror at the Ghost Fleet Captains, some of whom gave him little waves and gestures of greeting, then at Keith and the other Paladins, Lizenne and Modhri, and lastly at the Hoshinthra, who was starting to rise to its feet like a horror-movie monster. Pidge grabbed its nose again, and a sympathetic captain passed the soldier a little green pin.

When the Governor came back to the table, they saw that he had gone gray beneath his fur, and he moved as though he were in shock. Something about the look in his eyes stilled the buzz of quiet conversation, and when he broke that silence, pieces of it rattled to the floor.

“Your Majesty,” he said, nodding to their host, and then to the other people around the table. “Admiral, Captains, Paladins. I must inform you of something very important, and I ask for your silence in return. If word gets back to the Emperor that I have informed you of this, I will be lucky if he just has me killed. Your vision is accurate, Paladin--” he nodded at Shiro, “--less than half an hour ago, Zarkon ordered the destruction of all Beronite planets and the eradication of their race. The entire Sector's worth of military craft are being mustered as we speak to obey him, and I am told that at least one planet-buster is being readied for deployment. It is estimated that they should be ready to begin the extermination in approximately five days by the Galran standard. Possibly less.” Governor Kherig took a deep, steadying breath. “Such an undertaking will be an absolute disaster for everyone for Sectors around, the Empire included. Billions of lives, Galra as well as everyone else, will be lost. I am asked to contact the Fleet to pass this information to the Paladins; this was a decision made by the Emperor seemingly on impulse alone; he has begun to show signs of... instability... perhaps brought on by injuries sustained in his recent battles.”

Allura sat up sharply, eyes wide. “Is that possible, Lizenne?”

“It is,” Lizenne replied thoughtfully. “You caught him twice with a fully active bone spear, Allura, and it is very likely that it left a mark in the man that Haggar cannot heal. Shiro may have stirred things around in his mind as well; I cannot be certain without having the Emperor in for a good look, and that isn't going to happen. Even before his people suffered that genetic bottleneck ten thousand years ago, the Golrazi had a reputation for occasionally going mad as they aged; the Quintessence he takes to keep himself alive may have delayed that, but there are limits.”

The Governor swayed slightly, swallowed hard, and continued. “You may be right, my Lady. He has always been harsh and obsessive, particularly where it comes to the Lions, but his current behavior bodes ill for the Empire. My contact suggests that an appearance by Voltron where he can see it may well draw his attention away from the destruction of the Beronites, and further suggests that you reveal yourselves near Heranthi—Selphuro Sector, quadrant two, the fourth planet in the Opikipal Solar System. That is just on the edge of Beronite space and is a very rich and influential Galran colony world. Several of the High Houses have property and interests there, and they will raise a fuss at the Center if they feel that their possessions are in danger. If Zarkon focuses his wrath upon you...”

“Then he won't be interested in bashing up someone else's planets,” Lance said. “Gotcha. Unfortunately, that means that we've got everyone and their phoenix hound chasing us around, which might just be a tiny bit more than we can handle. We already know that Haggar's rebuilding her monster-maker lab, and if one of those joins the party, that's going to be bad. How do we know that this isn't some sort of trap, pal?”

The Governor winced at his tone and laid the message chip down on the table. “You do not. I have nothing to give you that can stand as proof.”

“You might,” Kolivan rumbled. “Who is your contact?”

Governor Kherig stood silently for a moment, struggling with his oaths and ideals before seeming to deflate. “General Pendrash. He puts the safety of the Empire above the word of the Emperor. I ask that you not speak of this to anyone either. I will give you a way to contact him if I must, but both he and I would far rather you didn't insist upon that.”

Kolivan gestured reassuringly. “No need. His office and ours has already had some small contact with each other, to our mutual satisfaction.”

The Governor shuddered in relief. “Thank you. What will you do now, people?”

Yantilee shrugged. “We can shelve the attack on Rakshane if we have to, and the Beronites have the right to call on us for help. Voltron isn't totally necessary for taking the trade hubs, not with the kind of advantages they've given us already, so they can do as they like. Your choice, Paladins.”

Keith turned to look at his team, and they all had the same worried look on their faces that he did. Hunk humphed and sat back, arms crossed over his chest. “You know, when I was a kid I used to get all mad at Mom and Dad, usually when they wanted me to do something that I really didn't want to do, and I used to think how great it would be when I was a grownup. I could make all my own decisions and live how I wanted, and nobody could boss me around or tell me to clean up my room. Well, you know what? Being an adult sucks. Can I go back to being a kid again?”

Shiro puffed a laugh. “Sorry, Hunk. I can only see time, not rewind it. The Governor is right, and I thank you for this information, Kherig. If something isn't done, the Beronite worlds will be under attack in three days. I think that we may be able to draw the Empire's forces away--”

“And you will have our aid in that!” the Beronite Captain chirred angrily. “For this outrage, the Empire will pay dearly!”

“No,” Shiro said flatly. “You and your people will be needed to protect your worlds, and if Zarkon sees you helping us, he'll have your people destroyed regardless of what we do. The Empire can still exert a massively overwhelming force; there are hundreds of thousands of warships, and only one Voltron. We won't be able to stop them all. As Kherig said, we may be able to draw them off if we...” he smirked. “What was that you suggested to Allura once, Lizenne? Just before you rescued Sam and Matt for us?”

Lizenne chuckled. “That Voltron might appear in an outer orbit, drop its pants and make a crude gesture, and then run away.” She smiled at the ripple of laughter that passed through the crowd. “An amusing idea, yes, and one that might have worked out a little better if I hadn't knifed that Druid. Lance, dear, do you think that you could sew up a pair of trousers that large?”

Lance rubbed at his chin and looked thoughtful, but Allura shook her head. “I doubt that large-scale tailoring will help. Proper positioning and timing will. Governor Kherig, how is an extermination generally carried out?”

All eyes turned to Kherig, and he dipped a small, respectful bow in her direction. “In most cases, a single planet is destroyed, usually because the people involved have only one, and perhaps a few thinly-settled colony worlds. In cases where the race in question has fully colonized three or more planets, the destruction fleets begin with the homeworld and work outward from there. The loss of the homeworld has been proven to maximize confusion and demoralization of the condemned race, making the project easier. The Beronites are unusual in that all of their ships are potential warships, and ones nearly as powerful as our own. Getting the planet-buster to their homeworld will not be a simple matter.”

“I'd heard that they were short-range craft,” Modhri said.

Kherig nodded. “Despite their firepower, their drives require frequent refueling, and moving a craft of that size is no small matter. That was one of the reasons why General Prorok was trying to get the Bagantush Destroyer built; it was to have had a far greater range than the Tarzeroth-class destroyers do. It will never be built now; I believe it was you, sir, who stole the plans, and Prorok met his end in Haggar's lab not long afterward.”

Modhri winced and rubbed at the scar across one bicep, where a new arm had been grafted on. “Poor fellow. I did not know the man, but there are few whom I would condemn to that fate.”

Kherig shuddered. “It was an unnecessary death. It was later found that he had been framed by an agent of the Blade of Marmora for the shutting down of the Center's force-shield during an attack by the Paladins. This allowed them to escape, and the Emperor was not pleased. Prorok was used in the creation of a Robeast, one that could absorb enormous quantities of matter and convert it to energy almost instantly, giving it a weapon far more powerful than conventional ion cannons.”

Keith banged a fist onto the table. “That was the one that almost had us! We didn't have enough experience with Voltron to take it down yet, and Ulaz sacrificed himself to destroy it for us. But Zarkon let Haggar use one of his own Generals?”

Kherig rubbed at his face wearily. “Yes. The Emperor will not keep those who disappoint him around. No matter how talented they might be, one mistake can mean their demise. Success can mean favor, fame, and fortune, but the risk is very high, and Zarkon's patience is limited. What have you done with the plans that you have stolen, Modhri?”

Modhri steepled his fingers and gazed consideringly at Kherig over the peak of them. “As yet, nothing. I have already offered them to the High Nomora, who turned them down.” He smiled faintly at the sounds of shock and dismay around the table. “Apparently, the temptation to do something inappropriate with such a weapon was more than she felt her people could resist; a decision that I respect. I have considered offering those plans to the Olkari, who are a kindly people of great talent. Partnered with the proven skills of the Beronites... who knows? The whole ship need not be built. Portions of it, to be repurposed into smaller, more efficient ships, may be a more worthy line of research. Our own people have concentrated upon overwhelming force for far too long.”

“You may be right,” Kherig said grimly, and shook his head. “That is not important at this time. Admiral, can you bring up a sim of Beronite space?”

Yantilee reached out with one hand and tapped the holo-projector's controls, bringing up the shining, complex region immediately. “I've been thinking ahead,” Yantilee said with a flick of a finger toward the gleaming nebula. “They're half-free of Imperial control already, and bringing them in the rest of the way would give the Coalition a major boost. Here's Beros, smack in the middle, and they've already dealt with their Governor some time ago. This is the area that's clear of garrison ships, but the rest are still Empire territory. Does Zarkon like to watch when a world burns, and where would be best for Voltron to moon him? More to the point, what will it do when it's got his attention? That's going to be a big armada, Paladins.”

Pidge glared at the hologram. “I need more information. Does anyone know anybody in the area who can give me troop movements in real-time?”

Kolivan raised a hand. “Jasca can find that information. Also, weren't you able to gain control of a planet-buster once?”

Pidge made a face. “Yeah, but it nearly killed me. Actually... hey, Keith? We still need to work on shield-cracking together. Lizenne said something a while ago about you tying a spark of your purifaction-power to my Spike of Hantis, like a fire-arrow. Want to practice on the hex-drone when we're done here? If we can take that planet-buster, we can thin out the competition a little and probably make Zarkon too angry to think about anything else.”

Keith frowned, concentrating on his own odd talent. Fire, he thought, fiddling with his napkin as he did so. Fire didn't travel all that well from its source, not really. Without fuel, it couldn't exist. Maybe he could sort of... put a dab of power out there or something, like a bit of kindling or a drop of oil--

Someone yelped, and there was a sudden scent of burning. He looked down and saw that the fine embroidered cloth in his hands was clean; he'd burned off the food stains without harming the fabric. Keith smiled and took a deep drink of cold water from his glass. “Yeah, that might be a good idea. And if we take over a few flagships, too, that'll really have him steaming.”

“In the end, it doesn't matter where we stand to deliver our challenge,”Allura said. “Someone will contact the Center regardless. Kherig's suggestion of Heranthi remains valid, although a more central location might be better, to attract the attention of the whole force. I would prefer to stay well away from Beros, to reduce the risk to that world. Is there an area of empty space that might be better?”

To everyone's surprise, Kherig's aide raised a hand. “The Nanthral Dwarf Cluster,” he said, “near the southwestern edge of that big nebula. It's a small cluster of white dwarf stars where a nova cascade took place billions of years ago. No habitable planets, just a lot of dust, gas, and junk. My sister went prospecting for exotic minerals there once and found enough loose gethexite floating around to interest the asteroid miners. It's not a large operation, but their comms are good. If Voltron shows up over there, they'll start howling on all channels in hopes of getting a reward, and then they'll cut and run when the warships show up.”

Yantilee touched the controls again, focusing in on that empty little cluster, showing a sketchy little space station and the tiny moving dots of mining craft. One of the captains flapped his/her cilia to get their attention. “I know those miners,” he/she said triumphantly, “they have engaged my services before, to run black-market cargo for them. Mainly refined gethexite, but also small amounts of octhrine, toroid litninite, and metallic victrine. Very valuable. Also valuable is a small spacial anomaly near that star, there—not easily found, but very convenient. A natural, stable wormhole, leading directly into the inner orbits of the Queghomm System three quadrants away. Small ships go with ease. One or two large ships also pass easily. Whole fleets? No.”

“Nice,” Hunk said, eyes sparkling. “A stable wormhole? How rare is that? I'm liking that spot, guys. A nice clear field with a built-in escape route sounds good. Where's Queghomm, anyway?”

“Used to be in the backyard of the old Drinthic Consortium, back in the day,” Coran informed them with a nostalgic smile. “A bit of a tyranny, actually, overseen by the Biniriparka of Zorept. Horrible fellow, he was one of those iron-fist rulers that never bothered with the velvet gloves. Secret police everywhere, had to get official permits to so much as scratch your bottom, huge restrictions on everything from socks to star-travel. You never saw a populace so downtrodden, so Alfor and his team put a stop to him, and he was such a poor sport about it that Alfor let the people reward us according to local tradition. A bit gruesome in spots, that, but ironclad, and Alfor was never one to turn down the promise of a favor in the future. He had a special case made for the official documentation, too. Not sure who runs the region now.”

“The Drinths are still around, and are a major partner in a Collective of minor powers in that area,” Zaianne said. “The Othorim Collective capitulated to the Empire immediately upon their first arrival a few hundred years ago, and have been Zarkon's subjects ever since. Some few of the members chafe under his rule, but they're very quiet about it. If we don't hang about, they may not mention us if we have to use that wormhole. Lizenne, we may want to position the Chimera and the Castle near that point, to keep that escape route open in case we need it.”

“I will warn the miners,” the knowledgeable pirate captain said firmly. “It is only right. They are good business partners.”

Shiro smiled. “Sounds good. It's not every day that you can pick your own battlefield. Tell Jasca to keep us posted, Kolivan, and we'll show up right on time.”