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Chapter 12: The Machinations of Fate

 

Lotor leaned on the balcony rail and smiled in satisfaction as the Kevrachi-Class ship on the repair bay floor below hummed and came back to life before him. Small though they were when compared to even a light cruiser, they packed the punch of a destroyer and were far faster and more agile. As he watched, one of the purloined technicians stuck his head out of the hatch and shouted at a trainee to run checks on the thrusters.

“Has there been any trouble?” he asked Tilwass, who'd been keeping an eye on the ten Nelargo ship techs for him.

“Not as far as any of us has seen, sir,” Tilwass said with a shrug. “They were a little miffed about your having Hokora shift their allegiance to you instead of Lady Inzera, but they sort of shrugged and carried on anyhow. You assigning the smartest of our techs to them as trainees helped.”

“Hmmm,” Lotor mused, casting a sidelong look at Tilwass. “And Sergeant Hokora?”

“Grumpy, sir. She likes those guys, and now she really doesn't like Ghurap'Han's Matriarch.” Tilwass gave him a thin smile. “She's got Views about hexes, and Views about how you treat good men, and if we ever run into Lady Inzera again, Hokora's going to punch her in the face.”

Lotor snorted a laugh. “I'd pay to see that, actually. Hokora is twice that old woman's mass, but Inzera's vicious. I take it that Hokora's been looking after them?”

Tilwass sighed. “Yup. Not sure how it works, but when you fiddle with someone's implanted hex, you get a good look at the one carrying it—from the inside out, I mean. Hokora liked what she saw, and I think she may be getting interested in one of them.”

Lotor rolled his eyes. “So long as she doesn't steal him before he's taught our techs how to repair and maintain those ships, I don't care.”

Tilwass waved a dismissive hand. “It won't happen. They're good men, sir. The techs like them, and so do the rest of the crew. They do their work and don't cause trouble, and Hokora respects that.”

Lotor humphed faintly. “Good enough. Has anything of note happened since that last transmission?”

Tilwass waggled a hand sourly; that brief sighting of the Castle and the Chimera near Arcobi had proven fruitless. “Yessir, but I'm not sure that we should check it out. The Emperor just ordered the destruction of a fair bit of the Selphuro Sector.”

Lotor looked at him sharply. “What happened?”

“Nobody's too sure. One moment he was listening to some General or other delivering a report, and the next, he was decreeing the destruction of the Beronites. Just like that. No reason, except that there's an uprising going on over there. Like that's news! There are uprisings everywhere right now.”

“But it may well draw Voltron out of hiding for us,” Lotor said thoughtfully, “and so many warships in one place might attract the Night Terror as well.”

Tilwass shifted uneasily. “Maybe, sir, she's been expanding her range. Patrols have been catching glimpses of her all over the Empire. Just glimpses, no fighting, and it's making them nervous. Voltron's not really our problem, sir, your Dad said as much. Maybe we should concentrate on one monster at a time?”

Lotor gave him a look of contempt. “No. I have a score of my own to settle with the Paladins, and I will take any opportunity to defeat them that comes my way. They will not be able to resist an attempt to stop the destructor fleet, and that fleet will not object to our aid. If the Terror surfaces, then all to the better; she will be vastly outnumbered in such a battle.”

“That's never stopped her before, sir,” Tilwass said uneasily. “Sir, I'm not sure she's alone.”

Lotor's head snapped around to face him fully. “What?”

“It's the reports of sightings, sir,” Tilwass explained. “I've checked the transmission dates, and some of them have come in seconds apart and whole Galaxies distant at the same time. Unless she's got a drive upgrade that can get her places before she ever left, there's more than one Warleader still out there. From the look of things, there may be a lot more.”

“Are any of those sightings confirmed?” Lotor demanded.

Tilwass shivered. “Maybe a quarter of them, sir, but there are a lot of them.”

Lotor slashed a hand through the air in a negative gesture that made Tilwass flinch. “Then I will not waste time on them. The Hoshinthra Warleaders have never made a habit of subtlety; even before their worlds were crushed, if they saw an Empire ship, they attacked. They did not bother with sneaking about, and the behavior of the one survivor of my Father's judgment has held true, even with the cloaking device that she acquired from the Ghost Fleet. Have any of our techs figured out how such a thing might work, by the way?”

“Not ours,” Tilwass admitted. “I asked one of the Nelargo guys and he thought about it for a while, scribbled a bunch of weird figures on a noteboard, and said that it was possible. They haven't had any time to get any further than that.”

Lotor scowled at the ship below. “Perhaps we should make time. Tell the pilots to take us to the Selphuro Sector. I want to be there to see what comes of my Father's decree. I very much doubt that it will go unchallenged.”

“Yessir,” Tilwass said, and headed for the bridge.

 

Keith drew in a deep breath and let it out, his exhalation steaming on the air. They'd had to make some concessions for this practice session because Lance had wanted a nap and Hunk was experimenting in the kitchen. Since it was Allura's turn to pilot the ship and Shiro wasn't any good at this sort of thing, Keith and Pidge had decided to use a simpler method to deal with the waste heat from Keith's efforts. The end result was that he was currently floating on his back in the upside-down pool, watching the hex-laden gladiator drone stalking around on the floor far below. It was working fairly well, actually, and he got to look at Pidge in a bathing suit while he did it, which in his secret heart of hearts was a major bonus. He just wished that eating while swimming wasn't such a bad idea.

Pidge was starting to look as though she was wondering what he tasted like too, but she was reluctant to give up on their project. They'd been trying to turn her Spike of Hantis into a fire-arrow all morning, but without success. There was just some sort of disconnect there, something that was getting in the way of a proper combination of powers; they could do it, sort of, when they were in the Lions, but they both agreed that it wasn't a good idea to rely totally on the great fighting machines.

“One more time?” he asked, and she nodded.

In his mind's eye, a shining silver-green needle took shape, like an arrow without an arrowhead. He could feel the subtle disruptive power of it like a discordant note, like the famous monkeywrench on its way to a handy engine, like the steel bar about to slide through the spokes of a turning wheel. He tried to tie a ribbon of cleansing fire around it, but once again, he could not get it to bind. He'd tried everything, from dousing the Spike in flammable power to wrapping the aetheric equivalent of a gasoline-soaked rag around it, but it all slipped right off as if the Spike were frictionless. Something, somewhere, was holding back...

He hissed out his breath in a curse as the whole thing fell apart again, and the water around him was several degrees warmer.

“Crud,” Pidge groaned wearily. “I'm taking a break. Want to go see if there's anything in the fridge?”

Keith was no less disappointed, and no less hungry. “Sure. Damn. We shouldn't be having this much trouble. Maybe we should ask Mom about it, or Lizenne.”

Pidge shook her head and then hauled herself out of the water, sitting down on the edge of the pool, picking up the remote control and deactivating the gladiator as she did so. “Zaianne's chasing Shiro around the training deck right now, and Lizenne said earlier that she was working in the envirodeck today. Something about fertilizing some sort of plant or other, and that she shouldn't be disturbed 'cause it's one of the tricky ones. We're just going to have to figure this one out on our own.”

He sighed and paddled toward the pool ladder, pulling himself out of the water with an irritated heave and sitting down next to her. “It's just frustrating, is all. I can mesh with Lance without any trouble, and you work with Hunk like it's the easiest thing in the world. I've never really tried to lock in with Hunk, and you know how much trouble we're having. Shiro and Allura hook into the rest of us like it's the next best thing to breathing.”

She nodded and handed him a towel. “Yeah. I think it has something to do with opposites attracting or the way some Elements react neutrally to each other. We're sort of making it up as we go along, aren't we? It's not Altean alchemy or Galra magic, and if Humans ever had real magical talent, we've left it in our other genes. Hah. I used to avoid fantasy books, Keith. I liked science better. Science happens in the real world, and it gets results. And now we're out here, where magic is a science, with results, and I've got nothing to base it on!”

Keith rubbed his hair vigorously with the towel to get the water out of it and glared up at the motionless drone. “I don't understand it any more than you do. Probably a lot less. All I do know is where to point it, and that we all work best when we're all hooked up together. I just wish I knew what was blocking me. I mean, I know that there are a lot of plants that need fire to spread their seeds, and that machines need power, but I just can't get through.”

Pidge draped her towel over her shoulder and gave him a measuring look. “Maybe it has something to do with your being half-Galra.”

Keith scowled at her. None of them had made any issue of that for months, aside from asking him when he'd go purple and fuzzy. “What?”

Pidge rolled her eyes at his dangerous tone. “Instincts, Keith. You've got a whole second set that you don't know all that much about. Haven't you been watching your Mom? How she acts around Modhri, or Kolivan, or Vennex or Trenosh or any of the Blades, and how they act around her? Or how Lizenne and Modhri act around each other, for that matter.”

Keith blinked, surprised by this observation. “What do you mean?”

“Distance,” Pidge said firmly, waving a finger at him. “If Lizenne and Modhri were any closer, they'd have had three clutches of cubs already, or would have joined a circus freak show as a pair of Siamese twins. Ever notice how Lizenne stays between him and Zaianne when they're all together? He's hers. Even though they're technically sisters, your mom has to keep her distance from Modhri. It's instinctive. They don't even realize that they're doing it.”

Keith sorted through his memories, and had to concede that Pidge might be onto something. “All right. So?”

Pidge smirked at him. “When it's just her around the other guys, there's that distance again. She's not interested in them, and they know on an instinctive level that they'll get smacked if they push into her personal space, so they don't. It has to be that way, 'cause a girl can set them on fire if they annoy her. They learn that as cubs. That's a law of nature, Keith—the dumb ones die first. When we had Helenva around, how did you react to her?”

“I... I kept my distance!” Keith said, very surprised. “It just made sense. She was too busy chasing Lance around and pulling his ears... which Modhri said was a sort of courting behavior. She wasn't interested in me.”

Pidge giggled. “Plus, his ears are bigger than anyone other than Allura's or Coran's. Allura's a girl, and Coran is... well...”

“He's Coran,” Keith finished with a smile. “Ears are kind of significant to Galra, anyway. That's because... hey! Because that's how a woman tells her boyfriend that he's hers. Modhri told us about that, all the way back in the beginning. The instinctual triggers—there's that instinct thing again—are really powerful, and he... crud.”

He cannot help but love her, Modhri's voice stated solemnly in his mind, and when he looked at Pidge, he knew that those words were running through her head as well. Both of them blushed hard and looked away.

She nibbled on a thumbnail. “Well,” she said after a moment. “I've done it to you twice now, and you're not exactly fawning all over me. Maybe you're too Human for that sort of reaction. Or you're not old enough. How long does it take a Galra to get to adulthood, anyway?”

“I don't know,” Keith said, trying to stop blushing through sheer willpower.

“Or maybe it's the Lion-bond messing things up a little,” she continued, “or maybe... I don't know. You've never really gotten interested in me or in Allura. Maybe you don't swing that way? Zaianne says that a lot of Galra men prefer other men. It's a way of coping with that gender disparity they've got.”

“What?” Keith yelped, dropping his towel into the pool. “No! No, it's not like that!”

Pidge gave him a Look. He could feel both sets of instincts responding to it. Keith deflated and retrieved his towel, then wrung it out and draped it over the ladder rail. “Oh, all right. I'm not alone, though. I've seen how you've been looking at Shiro. And at Lance. The Lion-bond again, right? And Hunk will cuddle any of us.”

“It's part of his charm,” Pidge agreed, turning to dangle her feet in the water. “Well, we were warned. I think you're cute, too, if it helps. Got any confessions of unrequited love for me? Or for Allura, maybe?”

Keith snorted and fought down an urge to hide under his still-dripping towel. “I wouldn't know where to start. I never really got a chance to learn. Dad kept us pretty isolated, and Uncle Jake was always off in some other country. As for school, well... I was always the weird angry kid, and people kept their distance when they weren't trying to bully me. I didn't know why until Lizenne told me what Mom's knife really was. What I really was.”

Pidge skootched over until she was sitting right next to him, and wrapped a sympathetic arm around his shoulders. Heartened by that, he leaned into the embrace. Her body was very warm, he noticed, and she smelled nice, and the arm around his shoulders was as strong as it was delicate-seeming.

“It's not something I've ever really considered,” he mused, half to himself. “No one was really quite right, except for Shiro, and that's because he went the extra mile for me. Just like in the drama vids, you know? Older guy takes bad boy under his wing and believes in him no matter what. It was such a damned cliche that I couldn't believe that it was happening at first. And then he vanished, and then we all got hijacked, and now I'm living with the first two girls who've ever treated me like a person instead of a nuisance or a half-wild animal. And one guy who's a teddy bear in a Human suit, and Space Dad, and a goofy jerk that I'm starting to find weirdly attractive.”

Pidge snickered. “And the two girls are Mean Space Big Sister and Crazy Magic Nerd Sister, right?”

Keith shrugged. “Allura's a Princess. Princesses boss people around. At least she's good at it. You're a crazy magic nerd all right, and proud of it--”

“You betcha!”

“--and one that I'd really like to get to know a lot better.” Keith turned his head to meet her honey-amber eyes. “I just don't know where to start. Human society says that the ideal woman is supermodel-grade pretty, wildly sexy, and hopefully has a rich father. Mom says Galra men like their women fast, strong, and smart. Since you're all three of those, I think that I'll go with the Galra option.”

Pidge had gone very red again, but she poked him in the ribs with one finger. “What about Allura? She's fast, strong, smart, and beautiful. And had a rich father.”

Keith heaved a sigh. “One at a time, Pidge. One at a time, and you're right here, and Mom likes you, and you've already tickled my ears twice. I like sparring with you, I like being around you, and if you think it'll help loosen me up, go ahead and tickle my ears again. If I fall madly in love with you... what the hell. I'm halfway there already.”

If anything, she went even redder. “After we've eaten,” she told him, waving a finger under his nose. “I'm starving, and we both need a moment to cool down.”

He couldn't dispute it. Neither could his stomach, which growled loudly, making them both laugh. “Fine,” he said, heaving himself to his feet and grabbing his towel. “I think that Hunk made some tanrook buns earlier. There may be some left. Let's go and see.”

Pidge hopped up eagerly. “Good idea.”

 

Hunk barely noticed it when they came into the kitchen, being far too busy with his current cooking experiment. Pidge recognized it as one of the “volatile” recipes from Ronok's cookbook—delicious, nutritious, and exciting to make. Ganduphan pocket-bread, she thought, which was rich, buttery, and as airy as Earthly popovers, but the dough had to be beaten into submission twice before it could be safely baked. This looked like the second rising, and it was fighting Hunk for possession of the rolling pin. Both she and Keith knew better than to distract him at such a crucial moment, so they settled for rifling through the fridge. They were in luck; four tanrook buns were there for the grabbing, as well as a plate of lelosha wraps, half a loaf of baked grathi, and a tub of tapphao noodles with tali sauce.

“Leftovers,” Pidge sighed happily as they shoved this bounty into the kitchen's equivalent of a microwave. “I used to practically live on leftovers. Mom couldn't even complain about it, since it kept me off of junk food and greaseburgers.”

Keith snorted a brief laugh. “Lucky. Dad was an okay cook, but Uncle Jake wasn't, and I usually wound up eating at the base's canteen or getting bags of cheezy-poofs and pretzo-minis from the gas station down the road. Greaseburgers were the stuff of life, plus cheese fries. I didn't even know that vegetables weren't naturally limp and yellowish until Shiro proved it to me, and if Dad hadn't taught me the basics of hunting and gathering before he died, I probably would have gotten the base in trouble by dying of malnutrition. As you might remember, Galaxy Garrison's cafeteria wasn't all that much better. Mom thinks that's part of why I'm short for a Galra.”

Pidge looked him up and down, noting that he'd grown another centimeter or two while she hadn't been looking. “You're starting to make up for it now.”

The microwave pinged, and he pulled out their lunch, nodding thoughtfully. “Yeah. Hunk's cooking is great, but that first batch of tanrook buns we got—remember that first time? We actually fought over the last one. That was the best food I'd ever had in my life up until then, and then Lizenne started teaching Hunk what she knew, and then she started feeding us things from the envirodeck. I've outgrown my clothes twice already, but Mom says that I'll probably always be a little undersized. It's okay, it just means that I can go where anyone bigger can't.”

Pidge handed him a fork. “Want to help me found a secret organization of small people? We could call it the Fellowship of the Short and use our pygmy powers to secretly rule the universe.”

Keith grinned at her, but shook his head. “Maybe after we've saved it from the big mean guys. It can be a hobby for when we aren't putting out fires.”

“Maybe,” she said agreeably, and carried her food out to the table.

Conversation was suspended for a time as they slaked their massive appetites, interrupted only once by a triumphant shout from the kitchen, and a series of loud thumping noises, like someone hitting a mattress very hard with a baseball bat. The slam of an oven door followed that, and Pidge, who had been listening with an experienced ear, murmured, “Good batch.”

Keith, his mouth full of cosmic pasta, merely grunted.

They finished their lunch with dispatch and put the dishes into the cleanser, waving to Hunk in passing; Hunk was busily flipping through his cookbook again, apparently on the hunt for the next worthy challenge, and he waved back but didn't pause in his search.

“Stress baking?” Keith asked as they headed back to the pool room.

“Possibly,” Pidge replied. “Ronok used to make pocket-bread when he was mad about something. It gave him something to hit that Doc wouldn't yell at him about later. I'm not going to complain. Pocket-bread's really good, and if it helps Hunk work out his jitters, then it's cool. We do have a big fight coming up soon, and if we weren't doing this, then I'd probably be in the lab, building a chicken house.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “You're going to build one anyway.”

“Yeah, but I don't see us winning a space battle in a Baba Yaga-mobile,” Pidge pointed out. “Making a proper fire-arrow will be more of a help. Will you want to get back into the pool?”

Keith stepped into the lift and pushed the button for the pool level with a frown. “Probably. I like my eyebrows where they are.”

Pidge felt that Keith had a very nice pair of eyebrows, thick and dark and elegant, and couldn't help but agree. They'd only just grown back in from the last time he'd accidentally scorched them off, too. “Can't argue with that. Want me to reactivate the drone?”

The lift surged, slowed, and the doors hissed open with the soft ding that seemed to be universal to that sort of device. “Not really,” Keith said, stepping out. “It won't be able to get at us, and it's the shields on it that are the problem, not the 'bot itself. I'm fine with letting it stand there.”

Which it did as they passed it on the way to the ladder, radiating invisible forces that strummed across their sixth senses like dry twigs over guitar strings. It didn't look or feel any less creepy from the ceiling. Keith slid back into the shallow end with a sigh, noting that the water was still just slightly warmer than it should be. He was going to oversleep tomorrow morning, he just knew it, and would wind up fighting a huge space battle in his pajamas.

His thoughts were interrupted when a damp towel suddenly flopped over his head. “What--?”

“Just remembering a different time I did this,” Pidge said, lowering herself into the water. “In case of infatuation, I thought... well... did you want a blindfold?”

Keith snorted and lifted a corner of the wet cloth, raising an eyebrow at her. “Kinky.”

“Keith,” she growled, blushing again.

He tossed the towel up onto the deck, where it landed with an unromantic splat. “Nah, I'm kidding. Just do it, and keep your mind on the project.”

Pidge glanced down at her hands. “Okay, here goes nothing. If it makes you feel any better about it, I feel really weird doing this.”

He did have nice ears, though, she thought to herself as she felt for the soft, raised areas behind them. His nerve-knots were smaller than the Ghamparva Captain's had been, but it seemed that they were no less sensitive. Keith's habitual scowl softened as she rubbed them gently, his eyes losing their focus and going dreamy. She'd never really been this close to his face while paying attention, and started noticing things that she'd missed entirely on those previous occasions. The faintly exotic cast of his features, for one—Galra tended to be more angular around the cheekbones and chin than most Humans were, and Keith's were starting to reflect that. The new growth of eyebrow fuzz looked more like fur than hair, and was purple-black instead of the deep black that some mongoloid ancestor had given him. His eyes, already large, dark, and striking, now had a thin ring of gold around the iris; entirely unhuman, but very, very right for Keith. And... oh, god, she had forgotten how soft his hair was, brushing over her hands. Well, Lizenne had said that he might start manifesting traits from his mother's side of the family...

That included the long limbs and powerful musculature in the torso, she was suddenly aware. Pidge yanked her emotions back under control with an effort, and visualized the Spike of Hantis. Keith's skin warmed perceptibly under her fingers as he responded, conjuring up a bright ribbon of purifying flame. It curled through their other sight like a ribbon-dancer's veils, but could not bind. The invisible barrier was still there, thinner, but still present. She could feel the edge of Keith's frustration, but Pidge was encouraged. The ear-rub was working, but not quite enough.

She increased the pressure of her fingers, and felt the barrier shiver beneath it even as his gold-ringed eyes glazed and his strong arms came around to hold her close against him. His features softened further, his eyes seeming to glow. Oh, god, he's so pretty, she thought, and, on impulse, leaned in to kiss that pretty mouth of his. It was soft, and sweet, and he responded to her kiss with a sudden instinctive intensity that made her mind dissolve into a cloud of happy glitter.

Keith detonated. That was the only word for it. The barrier came down with a crash and the ribbon of flame snapped tight around the Spike of Hantis, which took off like a rocket all by itself. Far below on the floor, something went boom, and the water around them was abruptly a good deal warmer. It took them both a moment to remember which way was up, but when they looked in that direction, the drone was lying in pieces in the center of a large round scorch mark on the floor. Suddenly tired and slightly peckish again, but—and this was the important part—not in possession of even a small headache, Pidge grinned. “Well, that worked.”

Keith vented a breathless laugh and nuzzled at her neck, which she found incredibly endearing. “If I were wearing socks, you would have knocked them off just now. Was that your first kiss?”

Pidge laid her head on his shoulder, noting that the fine, curling hairs along the nape of his neck were purple-black too. She could remember all of the school dances that she'd passed off with mild scorn, how she had preferred digging into textbooks rather than panting after the football jocks and pop singers as her peers had done, and wondered now if she'd been missing out on something. “Yup.”

“Mine, too,” Keith admitted. After a moment, he muttered, “Worth the wait. Think we can do that again?”

She giggled. “What, the kissing or the shield-cracking? We blew up the drone.”

“Both,” he said, giving her a squeeze. “We're gonna need the practice if we want to avoid blowing up someone's ship.”

Pidge giggled again. “Maybe later. We're both pooped out, and your mom is going to get suspicious if she has to hex too many of those. She's already starting to drop hints about wanting grandchildren, and if she finds out what we're doing right now...”

Keith muttered something that Pidge recognized as a slightly mispronounced Galra swearword. “Not quite ready for that yet,” he sighed, and rested his chin on the top of her head. “This is okay, though. For just a little longer.”

Pidge was in perfect agreement with that.

 

“No, Lance.”

“Aw, but Shiro...”

No, Lance,” Shiro said firmly. “I don't care if he has the articulation for it. I don't care if it will help with getting their attention. Giant battle robots do not twerk.”

“Look, I didn't have time to make him a pair of pants that would fit. We just don't have enough fabric to--”

No, Lance.”

Hunk chortled. “Go with the heroic posturing instead, pal. I figure that Voltron can flex like a pro, but Yellow's telling me that if there's so much as one little butt-waggle out of you, she's gonna go on strike.”

I can't take you people anywhere,” Allura put in from the Castle, making the others laugh.

Shiro grinned and settled himself a little deeper into the Lion's pilot seat. He'd won the toss for the battle by virtue of the fact that he'd actually gotten Zaianne to yield during the last training session, and Lizenne had checked him over and pronounced him to be healthy enough. The team was elated, and it was making a certain blue Paladin more than a little silly. He didn't mind. Word from Jasca had come through that the Imperial destructor fleet was on the move, complete with planet-buster. Ironically, that thing was what made their plan feasible in the first place. The monstrous destroyer could only move in relatively short hops before it needed refueling, and the fleet's progress was necessarily slow because of it. The Galra knew damned well that if they left the thing behind, it would be attacked immediately. Tough though it was, the great Tarzeroth-class ship was not invulnerable, and it had to have a large and watchful escort around it at all times.

Shiro patted the Lion's control beams, feeling Black's eagerness to face that challenge. Speaking of that... “Hey, Keith, Pidge? Did you two ever figure out how to combine your powers?”

Surprisingly, Pidge giggled, and Keith sounded just a little subdued when he answered, “Yeah, I think that we can bring the shields down from a distance now. We tried it out on three of the hex-'bots, and blew the shields off of two of those from halfway across the Castle.”

Something about his tone made Lance suspicious. “That's great, Keith, but just how did you two make the breakthrough?”

“Um...”

Pidge could hear Keith blushing. “Not important right now, Lance. Any updates from Jasca, Allura, and have you found that wormhole yet?”

Not yet,” Allura replied. “It really is well-hidden. Zaianne's scouting around for it now. Jasca says that the Empire fleet has stopped to refuel the planet-buster at the Oinipru Station in orbit around Phesphar. It'll be a little while before we make our move. If we time it right, we may be able to force them to bring it here in one long jump; this system's station won't be able to service it, which will essentially trap the thing here.”

“Yeah, but it'll still be able to fight,” Pidge said, remembering the battle that had crippled the Quandary. “Those big guns are a little sloppy where it comes to small targets, but they have a lot of range, and the blasts are so big that they're hard to dodge. Just one shot can turn a planet into Weblum kibble, guys. Keith and I will take it over as soon as we're in range.”

“Fine with me,” Hunk said, looking out over the dusty stretch of loose space junk that made up most of the Nanthral Dwarf Cluster. “Just how long is your range, anyway?”

Pidge frowned. “I'm not sure. We never got around to measuring it while I was on the Quandary. I'll know when we're close enough. Getting that close will be the hard part.”

And getting away,” Zaianne's voice cut in. “I've found the wormhole. Yantilee's gethexite smuggler is an expert pilot, team. Stand by for coordinates.”

The Paladins studied the image that Zaianne sent them, and Keith let out a long, admiring whistle. The wormhole itself looked like a ring of fire and was so close to one of the white dwarf stars that was hard to tell apart from the star's own prominences. Between the active surface and the gravitational forces, getting through that shimmering anomaly would require great care and precision. The Captain had been right, though; anyone trying to cram a fleet into it would lose most of his ships into the star.

Yes, we see it,” Coran said judiciously. “Nice little mousehole, isn't it? The only way that a fleet could get through that would be slowly, and one at a time. Too many all at once would collapse it, perhaps permanently, leaving anyone stuck inside completely lost, or even wiped from existence entirely!”

Shiro hissed. “We've already done that once, and I'd prefer not to do it again. Will it take the Castle, the Chimera, and Voltron in one go?”

Coran hummed thoughtfully. “Yes, I'd say that it should be able to bear that kind of traffic, especially if the Lions were to disengage before entering. Not many more than that, though, and nothing big.”

More to the point, can you close it behind us?” Zaianne asked. “I would prefer not to be followed.”

Madame!” Coran protested, sounding genuinely shocked. “Absolutely not! Well, yes, we could, but it isn't done to disrupt cosmic rarities like this! They're protected by law, as a matter of fact; Allura's great-great-great grandfather had a fondness for odd bits of anomalous space, and decreed them to be inviolable! It has been strictly illegal to so much as flick breadcrumbs into a singularity for over eight hundred decaphebes—prior to the last ten thousand, anyway—and nobody can tell me that it wasn't a good ruling. It certainly cut down on the number of interdimensional monsters coming by to complain about trespassing, I can tell you.”

Zaianne wasn't impressed. “And if collapsing the wormhole means the difference between life and death?”

Coran sniffed. “It didn't to the King, I can tell you that.”

He's dead. So is his law. You are here and now, and I am speaking of your own personal life or death,” Zaianne pointed out.

Coran made a sound of grudging concession. “Oh, all right, yes. But if his angry ghost comes back to scold you for the desecration of a natural wonder, don't come crying to me.”

They heard Zaianne humph haughtily, and were sure that she was about to tell him that she hadn't run crying to anyone since early childhood, but a new voice cut in before she could do so. “They're on the move again, people,” Jasca's slightly tinny voice cut in tensely, “and from the sound of Phesphar's local comm traffic, good riddance. That planet-buster is an unbelievable power-hog, and the commander of that armada sailed off without paying.”

Lizenne sighed. “And the native Thriani people will wind up footing the bill, as usual. Damn. They're already in decline, too. I'll have a word with the Olkari and the Beronites later. I've met a few Thrianis, and I don't want to lose them to someone else's greed.”

Noted and logged,” Jasca said helpfully, “and transmitted. Zarkon won't be able to exploit them for much longer, trust me on that! The destructor fleet's still on the same heading; they're taking the easy route and sticking close to that ugly behemoth of theirs. I'd say that they'll be within spitting distance of the Nanthral Cluster in about forty-five doboshes. It would have been less, but the planet-buster will have to make another pit stop at Clossine. I should let you listen to some of its escorting ships—they're being driven crazy by the slow progress.”

Shiro smiled. “Well, we could always liven things up for them a little. How far is Clossine from here? Are we within the planet-buster's range?”

Jasca chuckled. “I see what you're planning there. Yes, barely. If Voltron's willing to make gross faces at that little miner's rig of a station just as they're topping off at Clossine, I'll make sure that our foes get some really good visuals.”

That would be very kind of you, Jasca,” Allura replied. “Just say when.”

Will do.”

Shiro leaned his head back against his seat and pulled in a long, calming breath. It wouldn't be long now. Black rumbled soothingly in the back of his mind, lending him courage. Shiro smiled at this vote of confidence and relaxed, listening to his team chatter back and forth over their tactics. Even with Pidge's and Keith's aetheric breakthrough, it was going to be a stiff fight. Reflexively, he checked on the positions of their two support ships, both of which were parked at a safe distance from their escape route, and well-concealed in the white dwarf star's corona. The one problem with the Castle's Teludav system, he mused, was that it was slow, and it didn't like being crowded or getting shot at. Having an instantaneous, ready-made exit was a very good thing, in his opinion. He was wondering whether or not he should ask Hunk if he could streamline the Castle's drive a little when Jasca pinged them again.

Time, people. Go scare some miners.”

Shiro nodded and gripped the control beams. “Thanks, Jasca. Okay, team, let's get this party started.”

 

Several things happened in quick succession that in later years would be of great interest to historians, tacticians, military commanders, chaos theorists, and movie producers, all of whom would spend many hours discussing them; indeed, many had careers that were made or broken by their observations. Conspiracy theorists and theologians would spin wonderful stories and myths around a period of time that took less than thirty minutes to pass, and the Paladins themselves, along with their families and friends, would laugh at them all and write memoirs that many had trouble believing. It couldn't possibly have been so simple...

…But it was.

 

The first thing that happened was that old Dithrak Sork'Taln plodded back to his seat in the Nanthral Station's control tower with a fresh cup of hot miska. It was Third Shift and very late into it, when everyone of a nocturnal bent was up early to steal a march on the diurnal types, who were pulling long hours to get to all of the good ore before the nocturnes came out to play. Dithrak would have been tucked up asleep in his bunk by preference, but he'd drawn the short straw again. It wasn't that the late shift was boring, because it generally wasn't. Oh, no, boredom was a rare and precious commodity at any hour among this mixed gang of rough characters. Between the early risers and the creatures of the night, there was always someone about to make some idiot mistake. Always some emergency, always someone doping themselves stupid on the narcotic of choice, always some twit getting overeager in their search for that one rock that would make them rich. Not that any such rock had ever been turned up without being stolen from the guy who'd actually found it, and they were plenty rare to begin with. Dithrak himself had searched for that sovereign stone for sixty years before giving it up and opting for a more modest but much easier life as a station manager. Still... the dream had been nice, and he missed it now and again.

He glowered at the view on the tower's screens. Nothing but the same old scenery. Some of the miners had been chatting about a tidbit of news that Bons MikMak Phassi had scraped up from somewhere, that something really unusual was going to happen sometime soon. Dithrak was skeptical about that. Bons was a good miner, but he'd done a little too much gloshni in his tween years and believed just about any damned thing that his smuggler buddies told him, no matter how weird. On the other hand, Guik-Morx was a Cuebora, and they were all as sane and sober as saints, and she was taking him seriously for once. Dithrak didn't really know what to think, except that it was time to do the hourly scans. He thumped down into his chair, grunted habitually at the thin padding under his bony rump, and laid his hands on the controls.

“All right, you brick-chippers,” he growled into the comms, “heads up. Hazard scans commencing on my mark. Anyone ignoring me gets what they gets, and our insurance don't cover stupid.”

The usual buzz of acknowledgments and cheerful insults came back over the line as he calibrated his instruments. It was essential that the towermaster on duty ran hazard checks every hour, on the hour, for anything that might come whizzing in out of the night to put a hole in someone's rig. Oh, the mining craft all had hazard sensors as well, but not so long-range as the Station did, nor did they have someone on hand all the time with nothing better to do than keep an eye on them. Or were willing to waste time on maintaining their equipment, for that matter.

“Mark,” said Dithrak, and began the scans.

Anything?” one of the miners asked in a preoccupied tone, and Dithrak could hear the high hum of a cutting laser in the background.

“Nah,” he replied. “Sectors One through Seven are clear. Cloud of small stuff passing through Sector Eight through Twelve, upper east region, heading toward Third Sun. Sector Thirteen's got nothing but hydrogen and a little grit. That big lump of ice that Tlellan promised he'd haul over to the water-processing plant's still cluttering up Sector Fourteen. Gonna do something about that, Tlellan?”

Yeah, sorry, got a good chunk of gethexite here,” Tlellan replied. “I'll get to it in a bit.”

I'll get it,” one of the other miners said. “How about Sector Twenty?”

“Still full of high-velocity junk from when that patrol cruiser took a shortcut through the Pebble Belt,” Dithrax humphed sourly; he hated bad pilots. “Sectors Twenty-One through Thirty-Three are clear, though; same goes for Fifteen through Nineteen. Might be worth seeing what that fool might have knocked loose. Sector Thirty-Four... uh.”

Dithrax gaped in horrified amazement at what had just appeared in his screens, unable to speak or move. After a long pause, one of the miners asked, “Um, Dithrax? Anything out there?”

Dithrax swallowed hard. “Giant robot.”

What?!”

“Giant robot, coming in fast. That's Voltron. Kuphorosk's Blades, that's Voltron.”

The comm chatter erupted into shouts of surprise and panic that grew and swelled like an oncoming thunderstorm. Dithrax could only sit and stare at the approaching battle robot until a roar from one of his best miners jolted him out of his reverie. “Dithrax, sound the alarms and get the hell out of there! We've got a huge military fleet only half a quadrant away, and half the crew's shouting at them for help already. They'll be crowding in here any minute now, and how long do you expect us to last when they start shooting? Move, you old fool!”

Dithrax shuddered, triggered every disaster beacon the station had, and then took one more glance up at the screens. He almost froze up again, for it was right there, right outside the actual control room, staring directly at him with a blazing yellow eye that was larger than he was, set in a cold, hard face of the sort that he'd last seen on a man looking to do as much damage to everything around him as he could possibly manage. Dithrax let out a thin squeal of terror and ran for the shuttle bay as fast as he could go.

 

(“Booga-booga-booga!” Lance said, making the others laugh.

Lance, really,” Allura chided from the Castle.)

 

At that moment, in orbit around Clossine, Commander Arkkax glowered at the planet-buster and cursed the short-sighted fool who'd designed the things, and then cursed all of the other short-sighted fools who'd never bothered to upgrade them. He was used to getting where he needed to be in a matter of hours or minutes, not days, and the slow pace of their progress was maddening. He was very tempted to simply leave that wallowing, inefficient, ugly ship behind and forge on ahead, but his second-in-command had actually fought Beronites before this, and refused to let him. Stay with the thing, the older man had told him, tapping the electronic lens that had taken the place of his left eye. There is nothing delicate or fragile about a Beronite when it's got its blood up, and they'll soon be drinking yours if you underestimate them.

He had pointed out that this was going to be a space battle if there was to be a battle at all, and he had been told that it didn't make a damned bit of difference. Only prudence and a prophecy laid down by a major religious figure had kept the conquest of the Beronite end of the Selphuro Sector from becoming one of the bloodiest wars in Empire history. Yes, the Empire would have won in the end, but it would have been a lot nastier. Arkkax trusted the man, and therefore consoled himself with muttering curses under his breath every time they had to stop to refuel.

He had just finished comparing the planet-buster unfavorably to a small, marsh-dwelling animal native to Palabek that was notorious for its filthy habits and putrid body odor when one of his comm officers spoke up. “Sir! We've just received a distress call from the Nanthral Dwarf Cluster; there's a mining station there, and they're yelling for help.”

Arkkax grunted disdainfully. “And why are they calling us, rather than the nearest Garrison fleet?”

The officer brought up the image that had come along with the message. “Because of that, sir. Should we alert the Emperor?”

Arkkax hissed in shock at the sight of the very large and colorful robot. He had his orders already and intended to carry them out, but there were numerous Imperial Decrees that demanded that he drop everything and go after Voltron instead. He also knew how very dangerous it could be for a commander who did not know with absolute clarity the will of his sovereign. “We should. The Beronite worlds aren't going anywhere. Open a channel to the Center; the Emperor must know.”

 

Zarkon was glowering ominously at the petitioner standing before him, and the fool didn't even seem to be aware of how close he was to annihilation. A number of the High Houses had not liked the news that a very rich section of the Empire had been slated for demolition, a section that no few of them had been exploiting for their own gain, and had scrambled to put together an official complaint... and to assign an official complainer. This was one of the young scions of House Barchax'Sor, who had come armored in his own arrogance and self-righteousness to bleat in an annoyingly nasal voice about how the destruction of the Beronites would disrupt the Empire's economy for Sectors around, and how the effort was drawing the Empire's defenses away from its most vital territories, leaving them open to attack by impertinent extremist groups. Zarkon did not like having his decisions challenged even at the best of times. This was not the best of times, and would shortly become worse for this particular irritant.

His shoulder twinged at him again, and shadows flickered at the corners of his eyes. He'd had so many of this sort of audience play out before him over the years, so very many, and despite the dismal success rate, they still kept trying. They never learned!

Of course they don't, Gyrgan's voice rumbled sympathetically out of the past, and Zarkon's right hand felt the weight of a cup of horath that had been drained and discarded over ten millennia ago. There isn't anything that those arrogant klephas hate more than admitting that they might not be infallible, and they'll push it as hard as they can every time. Ever notice how courtiers and ministers like it best when a king can be easily persuaded? There's a lot of that sort of thing throughout history, where the noble Houses do their best to see to it that they get a king who'll agree with everything they say.

Zarkon glanced down at a cup of horath that was not there, and that just soured his temper further.

“--And in conclusion, your Majesty,” the High Houses' representative stated pompously, “your decision to disrupt large portions of Empire space for no better reason than to make an example is insupportable. The Matriarchs simply won't stand for it. It is not too late to call off the operation.”

There was a snort from his side. Haggar, at least, was here and now, solid and real, and if anything was even less likely to care what the Matriarchs thought. He knew, furthermore, that she was already in the planning stages for the next Robeast, and would need a suitable candidate to provide the motivating element. He drew in a breath to inform this little fool that he'd just earned himself that honor when a warning tone sounded nearby.

“What?” he growled.

“Top-Priority channel, your Majesty,” one of his aides replied promptly, “from Commander Arkkax.”

Zarkon's mood lifted slightly as a certain premonition bloomed in the back of his mind. “Put it through.”

A screen popped into existence before him, and Commander Arkkax's image immediately offered the proper bow and salute that a subordinate owed his Emperor—a courtesy that the representative of the High Houses had failed to give.

Emperor Zarkon,” Arkkax said without preamble, “Voltron has appeared in the Nanthral Dwarf Cluster and is menacing an Empire-owned mining operation. We are currently at Clossine, and are in a position, potentially, to capture it. Your orders, Majesty?”

“Do so,” Zarkon commanded, “divert the entire armada if you must to secure it. Capture the Paladins as well—I want them alive.”

It will be done, your Majesty,” Arkkax responded with commendable obedience. “Vrepet Sa.”

Vrepet Sa.” Zarkon sat back in his throne when the connection cut off, much pleased by this. “Haggar,” he said quietly, “is the Robeast ready for deployment?”

“It is, my Lord,” she said with an anticipatory smile. “All it requires is the motivating element.”

Zarkon made a satisfied sound in the back of his throat and eyed the petitioner thoughtfully. “I wonder... would a bit of blue-blooded spite do as well as a pirate's untrustworthiness?”

“Admirably, my Lord.”

Zarkon motioned with a hand, and the representative squealed in protest as a pair of Sentries laid hold of him. “Your Majesty, please, no! I have done nothing!”

Zarkon narrowed his eyes dangerously at the frightened man. “On the contrary. You have succeeded in annoying me, and your fate will be made very clear to your superiors. They hold their high status only because I permit it. My will and my authority are absolute, and my orders will not be disputed; all who would oppose me will be destroyed. I will thin the ranks of the High Houses as well, when and as I find it necessary. This would not be the first time that I have ordered such a thing, nor will it be the last. Ready the Robeast, Haggar. I will not lose Voltron this time.”