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Pandora

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"So, you went and got yourself mated, eh?" Mao asked, turning in his seat to look back at Byou with a smirk.

"Apparently," Byou said dryly, giving Kyo a significant look before raising his eyebrows at Mao. "What are you doing here, though? Last I heard you took a vacation to the Rim, but I didn't know you were, well..."

"This involved?" Mao asked, his expression rueful as he shrugged. "It started out as business stuff, but then I met Micchan a few years ago and through him I met others, and it sort of grew from there. When I got tipped off about a raid on my workplace, I booked a one-way trip out here." He paused and gave Aki a curious look. "You don't seem surprised."

"Byou told me about you and the situation," Aki said, shrugging casually. "I didn't expect to meet you this soon, but it's convenient."

"We were trying to figure out what was going on with the warrant for me, and I mentioned that I kinda figured you'd know about anti-beta groups, but I didn't expect you to be here with the Traditionalists," Byou explained. "We thought you might have had a warrant too."

"Yeah, I do, and they were raiding all the fetish clubs and all that before I left," Mao said with a shrug. "Seemed a good time to leave for good."

"I guess I timed my vacation well also," Byou murmured, glancing to Aki with a faint smile.

"As for why I'm with this gang, well..." Mao quirked a half smile and glanced at Kyo. "I met Kyo about a year ago now, and we've been together pretty much since then."

Byou smirked and eyed Mao's necklace, then studied Kyo curiously. The other omega had a very alpha-like presence and appearance, somewhat like Hazuki but more aggressive, and his hair was cropped short like Reo's. All in all, Byou felt slightly intimidated and he resolved to try his best to stay on Kyo's good side, as the other omega's upper arms were about as thick as his neck. As for Mao, he looked about the same other than bleaching his hair blonde, and Byou was fairly sure Mao had at least one new piercing.

"I met Aki in Pandora, and sometime after we were on the run from the betas we realized we were bonding," Byou said, then summarized the rest of the details of their adventure.

Kyo poked a few buttons and adjusted the instruments, then turned to glance back at Byou and Aki. "We'll probably arrive before the ship lands, and it'll take about an hour to get there."

"Do you think we'll be followed?" Byou asked.

"Not right away, no. That flash I dropped jammed their equipment, and hopefully others on the ground will take care of the rest," Kyo answered with a shrug. "Pandora doesn't have satellites they can use to track us, so they depend on shit that can be easily sabotaged with the right equipment."

Byou nodded blankly, as he didn't fully understand the technical aspect of how it all worked but it seemed to make sense.

"And for any ships patrolling the air, we're hidden now," Mao added, gesturing to the cloud cover they were flying in. "The clouds are a nice bonus."

"Camo tech?" asked Byou.

"Sort of, more like the flier itself is built for stealth and deflects radar signals. Visually, we can still be detected, but they'd have to know what to look for and where to look," Mao said.

"Micchan said you all were good at being sneaky," Byou murmured, impressed with the various ways of avoiding detection.

Mao smirked slightly and nodded. "Yeah, though the bombing's gonna complicate shit," he said, glancing at Kyo. "Especially if there's more from whoever did it."

"I told Miya my suspicions, up to him to listen," Kyo replied, shrugging as he checked the flier instruments.

Mao frowned for a few moments and then glanced back to Byou. "We think someone's turned traitor, since the bombing was well timed and the sabotage is similar to Sakito's methods. There are a few other things that point to someone who knows us well at the very least, but the amount of coincidences points to someone with a grudge."

"Any suspects?" Aki asked quietly, only vaguely surprised at the suspicions.

"There could be at least one of us here that we don't know about who's giving the Hub authorities information," Mao said with a shrug. "I doubt you need a list of anyone who'd have motivation to start shit."

"It's a fairly short list anyway," Aki said with a frown. "If it's one of our people, we'll know soon enough one way or another."

"The fact that we've been able to sneak around almost without trouble means it can't be someone with high clearance, and we haven't had any sabotage on our end, yet anyway, so whoever it is must be a minor agent without many connections," Mao said.

"If we focus on who would want to implicate Sakito specifically, the list of suspects is even shorter," Aki mused, furrowing his brow. "I know Ruka wouldn't have spilled anything, but he was picked up much earlier. It doesn't quite add up."

"We don't have enough information at this point to figure out who it might be," Kyo said with a soft sigh. "We're taking as many precautions as we can under the circumstances."

"What if it's someone new?" Byou asked, glancing from Mao to Kyo.

"Like you?" Kyo raised his eyebrows and smirked briefly at Byou, then shook his head. "You've been with your mate from the start, which is why you've been kept in the loop along with Aki. If it's a newbie they'd have to be unmated and they wouldn't be told much of anything yet, and certainly not enough to know how to frame Sakito or tip the authorities off to Ruka."

"Still, there could be more than one, though the bombing and framing of Sakito is the only major thing that definitely points to a traitor," Mao said and shrugged. "Like I said, I think it's a minor agent with a personal grudge, even if the bombing has a wider effect on us all."

"Speculation is pointless," Kyo said shortly. "Until we have more info to go on, we're just talking in circles."

Mao smiled at Kyo for a moment and then shrugged a bit. "Okay, we'll drop it. Got anything else to chat about instead?"

Kyo gave Mao a look that went from mildly irritated to amused. "Why don't you fill them in on the news and gossip?"

Mao snorted softly. "That's what Micchan is for, not me."

Kyo just raised one eyebrow and smirked at Mao, and Mao made a face at him before glancing to Byou.

"So you've been involved with the Traditionalists for a while now?" Byou asked curiously.

Mao nodded. "Yeah, for a few years, but not directly until the past year or so," he said. "I just did some odd jobs and helped keep an eye on the Hub authorities and that sort of thing."

"And ran the gossip vine with Mizuki," Kyo added with a brief grin.

Mao rolled his eyes and huffed. "Fine, yeah, that too, though he was more in the loop than me."

"I'm sure he was," Byou said with a teasing grin, earning him a smirk from Kyo and a scowl from Mao.

"That's not fair, getting double teamed," Mao grumbled, crossing his arms.

Byou snorted at that but settled for a teasing look rather than a verbal response, as he wasn't about to push boundaries with Kyo right there. The conversation eased into small talk and inconsequentials after that as Byou and Mao updated each other on details of various things, and the rest of the hour passed quickly enough. Kyo began the descent slowly and circled around to make sure no Hub ships were in the area, then checked coordinates and headed for the landing site. They landed in a clearing of packed dirt a few minutes later, and Shinji waved from the treeline of a small forest as Kyo parked the flier off to the side of the clearing.

"Reo's flier should be here soon," Mao said as they approached Shinji after climbing out of the flier. "Who else is here?"

"A dozen others besides Hitsugi and Satoshi," Shinji said, gesturing behind him. "More will arrive soon, as we're clearing out everyone we can." He led them into the forest, following a narrow path.

"How many total?" asked Byou, curious.

"Of civilians, about two dozen including kids," Shinji replied. "Less than usual for a resort this size, but more of us would have been arriving here in a week."

"Any news?" Kyo asked.

"There were two other bombings in different areas of Pandora, and both injured several but no deaths as of yet," Shinji reported as they walked in a single file line down the forest path. "Miya and Kenzo are on their way, as it was too risky to remain there. The authorities are locking down the entire resort now and focusing their attention there for the most part, but our ship might be spotted coming in and we could have other problems as well."

Mao muttered a curse and shared a look with Kyo, their expressions mirroring their worry. "So someone really has it in for us, and they picked a great time to start shit," Mao muttered, rubbing his face.

"We've sent messages to the settlements and other resorts in case this becomes more widespread, but for now it seems contained to Pandora," Shinji said as they emerged from the trees and into another clearing beside a rock face. "Chances are good that we'll make it off-planet when the ship arrives, but it'll be difficult to retrieve anyone who's been arrested."

"By difficult you mean not gonna happen," Kyo said flatly.

Shinji hesitated and glanced back at Kyo before nodding slowly. "It's an eventuality, if we get a good opportunity, but it's unlikely given the high security. We have a better chance to spring Ruka, but it's still not a risk we can afford to take at this time."

"How many Hub squads are here now?" asked Aki as they approached the rock face.

Two alphas emerged from a cave entrance that was almost invisible from their angle of approach. "Five at last count, one more arrived a couple hours ago," the shorter of the alphas said.

Byou took an involuntary step behind Aki as he blinked at the alphas, both of which radiated intimidating with their severe expressions and demeanor. It didn't help that the others came to attention at the sight of them, except for Kyo, and that both smelled unmated. The taller one had a very weathered face and his cold gaze sent shivers down Byou's spine, while the shorter had the bearing of confident authority with a dangerous edge.

"Byou, this is Kaoru and Asanao," Aki said, gesturing first to the shorter alpha and then the other.

Byou managed a silent nod and tried not to seem as freaked out as he felt at Asanao's creepy stare.

Kaoru nodded a greeting at Byou and then turned to Asanao. "Go meet Reo's flier," he ordered quietly, and then gestured for the others to follow him into the cave.

Byou edged to the other side of Aki as Asanao passed them, and Mao noticed and smirked at him.

"He's scary looking, but he's actually nice," Mao said quietly. "He's all quiet and broody, but give him a cute and furry animal and he's all smiles."

Byou blinked and snorted in disbelief as he glanced back to the path where Asanao had disappeared. They all filed into the cave tunnel and Byou stuck close to Mao and Aki as faint, unfamiliar scents reached him from the other occupants. As far as he could tell, most of the new scents belonged to unmated alphas and omegas. They soon emerged into a medium sized, well-lit cavern and Byou saw a handful of others he didn't know milling around.

"Kaoru's the scary one, and if he's here it means shit is serious," Mao added in a whisper, though Kaoru was several paces ahead and didn't seem to be paying attention to either of them. "He's a settlement leader."

"Why would he come here when everyone's trying to leave?" asked Byou, darting a glance to Kaoru who was speaking to one of the unfamiliar alphas in hushed tones.

"He arrived here shortly before the raid," Shinji said. "He's been coordinating things since from here, once it became clear that the Hub authorities were getting serious."

"Even settlement leaders need a vacation," Kyo quipped with a smirk in Kaoru's direction, making no effort to lower his voice as he crossed his arms. "Just his luck that the one time he stops working, shit happens. I'm sure he's thrilled."

Kaoru glanced toward Kyo and raised one eyebrow as he cracked a faint smile. "I was here on business, actually," he said, his smile growing a notch.

"Figures," Kyo muttered, rolling his eyes as he turned away and headed down a side passage to the right.

Byou blinked at the exchange and glanced to Aki, though from everyone's non-reaction he supposed it wasn't unusual.

Shinji pointed to a passage off to the left. "The cavern through there is for omegas and kids, and supplies and food are on the right. If you need some privacy, there's smaller caverns through the back passages."

"I'm gonna go find where Kyo wandered off to," Mao said, and with a wave to the others, he headed for the passage Kyo had disappeared into.

"Do you want to rest or get more food?" Aki asked, setting down their bags near a pile of others.

Byou fingered the patches on his arm and shrugged, then nodded. "Food sounds good," he said, following Aki down a different passage.

"It's probably gonna be just field rations, but it's better than nothing," Aki said, leading Byou to the supply pile.

They each took a nutri-bar and returned to the main cavern just in time to see Reo and the others arrive. Asanao wore a resigned expression as Mizuki flirted openly with him, undeterred by his disinterest and lack of response. Byou stopped short and stared, then started to laugh around a mouthful of nutri-bar as Asanao shot Reo an almost pleading look, and Reo merely smirked back. Hazuki and Yumehito, meanwhile, were quietly snickering as they headed for Byou and Aki.

"He's been doing that since we got out of the flier," Hazuki said with a wide grin. "Poor Asanao doesn't know what the fuck to do, it's hilarious. Asanao's too nice to tell him to fuck off, but I think he secretly likes it or he'd find some way of deterring Micchan."

"You should've seen the way Micchan practically tackled Asanao," Yumehito added with a chuckle as he glanced over his shoulder to see Mizuki once more hanging onto Asanao's arm. "I wouldn't have thought Micchan would go for the quiet and broody type, but I gotta admit they make a cute couple."

"Except for the fact Asanao has no idea what to do with an omega, let alone a suddenly toppy one," Hazuki quipped, shaking his head as he grinned.

"That's exactly why it's so cute!" Yumehito said with a mischievous smirk. "He's so out of his depth, and Micchan is being Micchan."

Byou smirked and finished off his nutri-bar. "Figures Micchan goes for the toppy omegas and the opposite in alphas," he said, glancing to Aki with a grin.

"He's never flirted with me, though," Aki said, making a face at Byou.

Hazuki glanced to Reo as his mate went to report to Kaoru and then turned back to the others. "We were tailed for a while on the way here, and Reo thinks the Hub authorities might come sniffing around."

"Shinji said Miya and Zo are on their way here," Aki said, glancing to Yumehito. "There were two more bombings, no fatalities yet but several injured."

Yumehito frowned and nodded slowly. "We heard the news on the comm, yeah. I don't like this at all, it feels as if the Hub is one step ahead of us and just waiting to spring a trap."

"Mao and Kyo think there's a traitor," Byou murmured.

Hazuki and Yumehito shared a look and both nodded. "At least one, yeah," Hazuki said with a frown. "And it definitely does feel like they're waiting for the right moment to strike, given how easy it's been so far, relatively. The question is whether they'll try to corner us before we leave, or after."

"But would the traitor know about this place?" Yumehito asked, tilting his head as he glanced around.

"All they'd need was a tracker on a single flier headed here," Reo said as he joined them. "As far as I know, this was simply a convenient location that Kaoru chose, perhaps because it's just a temporary shelter. Anyone with a detailed map of this planet would know it exists, but it's one of at least a dozen similar places on this continent."

"Haven't they had many opportunities to get us before now?" asked Byou, furrowing his brow.

"Yeah, it doesn't really make sense why they keep letting us slip away, unless they're planning something bigger," Hazuki said, shrugging as he pursed his lips.

"Like getting us all in one place to spring their trap, and only arresting us when we're alone or in pairs," Yumehito added, frowning deeply.

Reo nodded. "That's why Miya had us travel in a group. In any case, the last of us should be arriving soon, and then we'll see if the Hub makes a move. We are prepared to defend ourselves if they show up here before our ship does," he said, gesturing to unmarked supply crates near the food crates.

"The fact that we were followed only until we left Pandora's continent is telling," Hazuki murmured with a look to Reo.

"Yeah, it's looking likely that they'll make their move around when our ship arrives," Reo said with a frown. "We checked the fliers for trackers and neither of ours had any, nor did the others that were checked previously, at least that we could detect."

"I don't suppose we have radar here, do we?" Hazuki asked, nodding a greeting to Shinji as the alpha approached with a datapad in hand.

"Unfortunately, we have only rudimentary equipment here, so we won't get much warning if any at all, but we're in communication with our incoming ship and they're using theirs," Shinji said and shrugged. "It's not ideal, and the delay in transmission is an issue, but it's better than nothing." He poked at his datapad for a moment and then glanced up. "The Hub has three ships and five squads, and combined with Pandora security forces that puts their numbers at about a hundred with about six off-planet ships. Worst case scenario, and the most likely plan of theirs, they take four squads and their ships and wait until we're on ours to corner us before we can make the jump."

"As of the last report, eight of us have been arrested, and it's likely that any trackers will be on one of the fliers on their way," Reo said, nodding to Kaoru as the other alpha joined them. "Our off-planet ship doesn't have weapons as it's a passenger ship designed for speed. Given the bombings, it means they're more likely to engage in a fight than demand our surrender, regardless of whether we're armed."

"In other words, we're basically fucked unless we can make the jump as soon as we leave atmo and before they can fire on us," Hazuki said bluntly, though he glanced sidelong at Kaoru and straightened from his slouch.

Kaoru smiled thinly and nodded. "We're outnumbered at the moment, and our escape hangs on timing and speed, neither of which gives us good odds. However, I sent word to rally any of our other ships in the area shortly after the first bombing was reported, and I just heard back from the last of seven of our weapons-capable ships within range. They're headed our way now and they will engage the Hub ships upon arrival."

Hazuki widened his eyes and blinked slowly. "So we're really gonna fight," he murmured, glancing to Reo.

"We have little choice, and though we were forced into this position, we might as well take as much advantage of it as we can," Kaoru said with a casual shrug. "Our highest priority is still getting the civilians off-planet, and in order to do that safely we will have to take some risks."

"And best of all, they probably won't even know what hit them," Aki said, smiling slightly.

"I like the sound of this far better than being sitting ducks hanging on luck and chance," Yumehito said quietly, though he didn't look entirely pleased.

"Five of our ships will be heading for Pandora to keep them occupied, and two will cover our escape ship," Kaoru said, checking his comm and fiddling with it. "Miya and Kenzo will arrive in about fifteen minutes, along with three other fliers. Our escape ship had to refuel and do some repairs on the jump drive, which has delayed it somewhat, but it should arrive shortly after the others engage the Hub ships."

"Who counts as civilians?" Byou asked softly, unsure whether he should be speaking.

"Unmated omegas and children, for the most part," Kaoru replied, then glanced pointedly to Hazuki and Reo. "And mated pairs, with a few exceptions."

"So, with the reinforcements, will we attempt a rescue?" Shinji asked, handing his datapad to Kaoru when the other motioned for it.

"Yes, as there's few places secure enough for them to hold prisoners in Pandora, and they won't spare any ships to leave just yet, especially when they think they have an advantage over us," Kaoru said, checking a few things on the datapad. "I'll be assembling a team when everyone has arrived, and we'll work out a few plans. Feel free to spread the word," he said, nodding a dismissal before he turned and walked away.

Byou turned to Aki once Kaoru had gone. "So I guess the revolution is happening, eh?" he asked softly, biting his lip.

"Apparently," Aki murmured, his smile a touch strained.

"We're not exactly prepared for anything large-scale, but the bombings have forced us to act," Shinji said, and then glanced to Yumehito. "Would you like to go meet the incoming fliers?"

Yumehito brightened a bit and nodded. "I can take Asanao as an escort, to give him a break from Micchan," he said, glancing around to locate them, though he frowned when he didn't see either of them in the main cavern.

"I'll help you look for them, you might need backup to pry Micchan away," Hazuki said with a grin, and then followed Yumehito to one of the passages.

Reo smirked at the pair and shook his head. "I guess I'll go help Kaoru with the tactical plans," he said, turning and heading for where Kaoru had gone.

"And I'll stop neglecting my mate. It'll be another half hour or so before any of the ships will arrive, so you can do whatever you want until then," Shinji said, then headed for the side cavern where the omegas with children were.

"If other ships were in the area, why couldn't we have left on those?" asked Byou, furrowing his brow.

"Most of our ships with weapons can't do a planet-side landing, especially if we also need to make a quick getaway," Aki answered with a shrug. "I don't know the exact reasons as I'm not a pilot, but the ship that was called for us initially was the only one able to take all of us on board as well as make a landing outside a spaceport. I guess it was fairly far away when the call was sent or it would have arrived sooner, and with the Hub at the spaceport it was too risky to try to make it off in another ship by the time we got back to Pandora."

"What if the traitor is among the incoming arrivals?"

Aki pursed his lips and frowned. "We only suspect there's a traitor, but if there is one we'll find them soon one way or another," he said slowly, then shrugged. "Of our people here that I know of, none of them have a grudge against Sakito, let alone reason to put us all in jeopardy, but I'm not up to date on who else is here."

"I'm kind of still hungry," Byou murmured, and then glanced to where Shinji had gone. "And the social rules are still confusing with all these apparent exceptions," he added, giving Aki a slightly sour look.

"Like what?" Aki asked as they headed for the food crates.

"Like Kyo with Kaoru, and then just generally with omegas and alphas talking to each other," Byou said with a vague gesture.

Aki tilted his head and considered for a moment. "The rules are relaxed since we're not in a settlement, and in this situation especially, we're in close quarters with a mix of others. Besides, even the strictest alphas don't expect all omegas to be submissive and quiet in public," he said, handing Byou a meal package and taking another nutri-bar for himself. "As for Kyo and Kaoru, they've known each other for a long time, and apparently Kaoru doesn't mind Kyo's less than respectful commentary," he added with a slight smile and a shrug. "Kyo's that way with alphas in general, though."

Byou smirked slightly and then made a playful face. "I'm getting the impression that you've exaggerated things just a bit, with all these toppy omega types around, talking back to alphas without consequences," he said as he sat on an empty crate turned on its side, and then opened the meal package.

Aki chuckled and shrugged as he sat next to Byou. "Those of us who aren't quite conventional are more common outside the settlements, that's all."

Byou snorted softly and gave Aki a skeptical look as he ate. "So you say, but I suppose I can behave even if the others don't, at least for now."

"I'd appreciate that," Aki murmured, making a face. "While it's not that big of a deal here, it's best that you don't get into any bad habits."

Byou scrunched up his nose as he gave Aki a playful glare. "Do you know much about the whole bonding thing?"

"Just that a mutual bond forms over time, but your heat being cut short probably won't affect much," Aki said with a shrug, giving Byou a curious look. "Why?"

"Just wondering, not planning to back out or anything," Byou said with a thoughtful look. "I guess you never asked for details?"

"Not really, no," Aki murmured, his shrug a bit more awkward. "I mean, Yuusei and I were supposed to bond, but it never really happened, and I guess that was largely my fault."

"I don't suppose bonding has been studied much, has it?" Byou asked, tilting his head.

"Not that I know of. We're taught the basics when we come of age, but it's mostly just something you sense or not, and it's not really discussed all that much otherwise. Hitsugi might know more, if you'd like to ask him."

Byou shoved the last few bites of food into his mouth and then disposed of the container in a bin. "He's the only one here who's been mated for several years, right?"

"Yeah, though I've known him since before he bonded," Aki said, heading for the omega cavern a step behind Byou.

Entering the cavern ahead of Aki, Byou glanced around curiously and saw that it was two rooms divided by an arched doorway wide enough for three, and the first room was shaped like a long, lopsided oval with another passage at its narrower end. In the far room a few unfamiliar omegas sat in a circle in the center doing menial tasks while two babies crawled around in the middle, and he saw Satoshi and Shinji in the far left corner tending to their new baby. Upon stepping into the second room Byou spotted Hitsugi and he nodded a greeting and went over to sit beside the other omega, then glanced at Aki as his mate sat beside him.

"Now that things aren't chaotic, I suppose you have questions," Hitsugi said to Byou, smiling slightly.

Byou ducked his head and smiled a bit sheepishly. "Yeah, if that's okay," he said, and at Hitsugi's gesture to continue he tilted his head as he considered what to ask. "You and Ruka have been bonded for a while, right?"

"Yeah, about seven years now," Hitsugi said with a nod. "You're wondering about the bonding details?"

Byou nodded and glanced to Aki again. "I can feel a connection, kind of like an extra sense," he murmured, and Aki nodded in agreement.

"It's a gradual thing, I guess, but for example, I know that Ruka is fine if not in the best mood right now," Hitsugi said with a faint smile. "It helps with the worry to know the other is alive and well. At first it was just a sort of an awareness of Ruka, and that gradually deepened to sensing his mood and such. It's not more than sensing emotions and overall health though, even for our elders."

Byou nodded slowly and quirked a smile. "I suppose it's a good thing it doesn't give mates mind-reading abilities."

"That would be awkward, yeah." Hitsugi chuckled and nodded. "A full bond can take several heats to really settle in, but it's different for every pair. Some bond quickly, usually over the course of their first two or three heats, and others take longer, but the emotional and physical sense of your mate develops over time regardless."

"So at least six months or more," Byou mused, pursing his lips as he glanced to Aki.

"I've heard it's also not necessarily permanent or exclusive, but I don't know of anyone with more than one mate or who bonded twice," Hitsugi said slowly, and then grimaced. "That is to say, if our mates die we don't usually bond again, but it's possible in theory."

Byou nodded as he absorbed the information. "That makes sense. Do you know if two omegas or two alphas can bond?"

Hitsugi blinked and furrowed his brow. "Considering it's about compatibility more than having children, I don't see why not," he said with a shrug. "Kyo and Mao are certainly an exclusive pair and have been for a while now, but it's not something one really asks about. They've begun to share a scent though, now that I think about it."

"The Hub doesn't tell us anything about this stuff," Byou murmured, making a face as he shook his head. "We barely get more than the basics of how our bodies work. I knew of some alphas and omegas who settled down together, but I don't know if they bonded."

"And with them controlling the birth rate, the only alphas and omegas born in the Hub are from beta pairs," Aki said, glancing to Byou for confirmation.

"Yeah, my parents are betas, and only one kid in my school has an omega parent, but she was a beta," Byou said with a frown. "You said others from the Hub weren't sterilized either, right?"

"I know of two others," Aki said, then looked at Hitsugi.

"The other Mao, and Manabu," Hitsugi said with a nod. "I know of a handful of other omegas who weren't, and there are probably records somewhere. Ruka wasn't either, but he moved to the Rim before he was old enough for the procedure, and Yume too, probably."

"I remember going to a hospital a few months before I had my first heat, but I don't remember anything beyond a routine examination," Byou murmured, furrowing his brow. "They gave me suppressants and sent me home, and I thought it was done so it didn't occur to me to ask or anything."

Hitsugi shared a look with Aki and then frowned. "I wonder if it would be worth looking into, if just to see how many there are, and whether it's an accidental oversight," he said, looking thoughtful. "Seems a bit too coincidental, considering their real reason for the sterilizing."

"But don't they sterilize betas too?" Byou asked, and then blinked wide eyes as Hitsugi slowly shook his head.

"No, they may say they do, but most betas are merely given temporary contraceptives," Hitsugi said, his expression serious. "The word for it is eugenics, to put it bluntly."

Byou paled and swallowed hard as he looked at Aki. "You really were serious, weren't you?"

Aki nodded and made a vague gesture. "If you only look at parts of the whole picture, all the restrictions and laws seem at least somewhat reasonable with the excuses they give, but added up it's not harmless at all. It's why we began migrating to the Rim as soon as we could, and then quietly settled here and kept our population growing."

"And that's why you have ID chips but aren't on Hub records, right?" Byou asked, widening his eyes as things clicked into place.

"Basically, yes," Aki said with a nod. "We keep our own census of our numbers and don't share it with the Hub, because if they knew how many of us there were, they'd act."

"As it is, they might mobilize against us due to the bombings," Hitsugi murmured with a grimace.

"Oh, speaking of that, Kaoru said he rallied other ships in the area," Aki said, and then paused for a moment as he fixed Hitsugi with a serious look. "He heard back from seven and they will engage the Hub ships upon arrival."

Hitsugi blinked a few times and pressed his lips into a thin line before he nodded slowly. "That's not entirely unexpected, but the timing is terrible. I assume he must have also sent word out in general to mobilize and prepare, but I don't know if we'll be ready, even given how long it'll take the Hub to get a sizable force out to the Rim."

"Probably," Aki agreed and sighed softly. "Whoever is behind the bombings probably intended to force us to act, though I still think they're more on the Hub's side than ours."

"You mean it's probably not the work of some knot-headed radical alpha?" Hitsugi asked mildly, a slight smile on his face. "Yeah, if the intention was just to start secession earlier, it doesn't make sense to do it this way. Only a few colonies are united at this point, though this could be the impetus for more to join our collective."

"I sure hope so, or we're gonna be fucked," Aki muttered, rubbing his eyes.

"At least I know we'll attempt a rescue with the odds more in our favor," Hitsugi said, forcing a tight smile.

Aki nodded but before he could speak Hazuki came in and motioned them to come quickly. "It's started," Hazuki said, his expression somewhat between serious and anticipatory.