Chapter 63

Roads go ever, ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

- J.R.R. Tolkien

00000

"So you're saying when we go through the Niets' orbital checkpoint we're gonna light up their alarms like a Christmas tree? And if we break through the grid and run for it, those things will kill you?" groused Beka, pacing slightly

"Pretty much," replied Harper tiredly from where he sat propped up on the medical bench, Rommie standing guard. "If you'd let me up to –"

"NO!" four voices chorused quickly. Harper snapped his mouth shut with a frown, his blind eyes glaring in the direction of the group of people crammed into the medical room around him. He tried to cross his arms for good measure, but quickly remembered that was useless. His crushed hand was strapped tightly to his chest to keep it immobile until they got back to the Andromeda and Trance's medical care, and his better hand was rigged up to an IV. He sighed in frustration.

An impromptu meeting was in session, convening in the tiny medical room since so many of the group actually should have been confined there anyway. The topic was how to remove the slave tags, and the general mood was grumpy bordering on panic. The Miss Kitty was quickly approaching her turn through the orbital checkpoint, which was the problem. They were running out of time. To cut out of line and duck back to buy more would arouse suspicion they didn't need to deal with.

"How did you remove the tag the first time around?" Dylan asked.

"We didn't!" Harper and Beka answered together.

"I dragged him to Sinti and let them deal with it," Beka finished.

"Well, that's certainly not one of our options," Tyr growled helpfully. Harper could just imagine him standing there, holding up the wall and glaring.

Tuning his friends' voices out, Harper closed his useless eyes and retreated into his head, pondering the problem. If they wouldn't let him out of bed to find a solution, he'd have to use the only thing he had left – his brain. Carefully, and feeling woefully out of practice and…he had to face it – disabled – he dug back through his nightmares to that day on Felix's ship when the earring had been put on. It was hard; he'd been in so much agony he'd hardly paid attention to an event so small. Still, maybe he could remember something. Or, maybe he'd get lucky and it could just strike him like lighten –"

That was it!

"Electricity!" he suddenly blurted, butting into the conversation that had carried on around him and probably drawing more than a few odd looks, especially from Tyr.

"What?" questioned Dylan, sounding exhausted and worried he'd finally gone off his rocker.

"Electricity! We need to shock them off! They have to be running on some kind of hidden electrical current. If we hit them with a strong enough pulse, we'll disrupt it long enough someone with really fast reflexes could pull them off before they could recharge. And I just happen to know someone with super-fast reflexes," he finished, gesturing vaguely in Rommie's direction.

"No, no," Rommie was saying before he'd even finished speaking. "The voltage we'd have to use is way too high! It could kill you! Especially you and Twig!"

"And I'll take that chance!" Harper cried, losing patience. "Don't you get it? If we can't get them off, then when we hit that checkpoint they're gonna know we're here. If they don't just blast us out of the sky and have done with it, they'll board and send us right back! To starvation, and torture, and death! I don't wanna go back to that, ever! I'd rather die here if I had the choice!" He turned in the direction he knew Dylan was standing. "Dylan, help me out here!" he pleaded to his friend as his words dissolved into hacking coughs.

Beside him, he felt Twig's small hand slip into his good one. There was silence for a while, and then the captain spoke.

"He's right," he said quietly. "We're out of options and I agree. I'd rather die here than ever in a million years go back to where we were." His words were strangely vulnerable, and to Harper so intensely human. It gave Harper comfort, knowing he wasn't alone in how he felt.

The silence that followed was heavy and emotional. Finally, Beka sighed.

"Okay," she said with resignation. "Tell us what we need to do, Harper."

00000

She was just watering her plants for one last time before leaving when he appeared behind her.

"Going somewhere," he asked, sitting on her hammock and swinging his legs.

"Flux!" Trance cried in shock, glaring at him. "Have you been spying on me?" she demanded.

Flux shrugged. "I always keep an eye on my favorite sister," he said without guilt.

"Did they send you?" she asked angrily.

"If they were going to contact you it wouldn't be me they'd send."

Trance didn't answer.

"So, you're leaving, then?" Flux continued.

"Why stay? Nothing I did mattered. They still bent the universe the way they wanted, at the cost of everyone I cared about."

"That's why they want you back. You care too much about the little, unimportant things. You meddle. If you leave, you're doing exactly what they want."

"But they're not little and unimportant!" Trance burst out, anger flaring. "They're people! We play with them like toys, in the name of the 'greater good' and 'perfect possible future!' And I can't do it anymore because…because I care for them."

"Which is why you should stay."

Trance blinked. That was not the response she'd expected. "Who's side are you on?" she finally asked, echoing their last conversation.

"Who says I'm on a side? Frankly, I'm bored. With you here, rebelling, I always have entertainment."

Trance turned away, angered by his honesty. "So, you're just like them."

"So are you," he replied quickly. "You bend the universe to your will, just like they do. Your, shall we say 'cosmic view-point,' is just a little different is all."

Trance hated his words, because they were true. She felt it every day. The true nature of her being – cold, uncaring, creator of mischief because it was fun – warring with the soul she'd tried to find. "Well, my perfect possible future lost, so it doesn't matter."

"Did it?" Flux asked, standing up and facing her. "Your little human is still alive. That wasn't part of the master plan as I remember it. He was disposable."

Trance's temper flared at the ugly word. "He's changed forever now! There was no need for him to go through all that!"

"Change. Progress. Life. That's what the universe does. You know that. You let some things grow and you prune others. At least he's alive. You did that. Changed the plan that much. And how do you know that these changes might not be for the good?"

"You really think I should stay?" Trance asked, hesitating.

"Stay, leave, take a trip to the beach… Do whatever you want. But, I'm going to have to find new entertainment if you do leave, and that's so tedious."

Trance laughed, rolling her eyes at Flux.

"Trance," he said, suddenly serious. "I've always admired you. I think, better than all our brothers and sisters, you understand our place. We are the keepers of the universe, the bringers of light and life, builders and destroyers. And yet, as a whole, we are cold and uncaring. You alone remember that when you give light you should also give warmth. Stay here, with your favorite toys, and bend the universe to your future. I'm rather convinced it's still the perfect one. Don't change too much, little sis. Growing up's not all it's cracked up to be."

Gently, he patted her on the head, as if she were a small child, and then in a glimmer of light, he was gone, leaving Trance stunned.

"Trance?" Andromeda' voice suddenly broke in over the Maru's comm. system.

"Yes?" Trance answered out of reflex, her mind still reeling.

"I've just received word from Beka. The Miss Kitty has left Rellum's orbit. They will be at the rendezvous point in a little under two hours."

Mind now made up, Trance shoved her suitcase into a corner. "I'm on my way," she said firmly, finally knowing where she belonged, something she'd really known all along.

00000

Dylan wouldn't have noticed him if he hadn't heard him, a tiny hiccupping sound coming from the level of his knees as he walked through the galley of Patch's ship. Ignoring exhausted muscles, he crouched down and looked under the table.

"Twig?" he cried, finding himself face to face with the child who was hiding under the cupboards. The boy had his knees pulled up tightly to his chest and was rocking, sobbing so hard he couldn't catch his breath and made barely any noise. "What's the matter, buddy?" Dylan asked in alarm, sitting on the deck beside him. Twig immediately melted into him, burying his face in the captain's shirt.

Unsure what to do, Dylan wrapped an arm around the boy and let him cry, hoping he'd calm down enough for words.

Twig should have been in the medical room with Harper! He couldn't have been recovered from the shock yet. The removal of the slave tags had been dangerous and painful, but a success, thanks to Rommie's quick reflexes. An added bonus had been Harper's collar popping open the moment his earring deactivated. Even half unconscious from the shock he'd just been given, Harper had managed a sigh of enormous relief as Rommie pried it off and added it to the pile of chains waiting to be spaced in the airlock.

"Twig, what are you doing here?" Dylan tried again.

"Needed the latrine," Twig choked out between sobs. "Robot lady said I could… Couldn't find it! Lost! I…I…wanna go back!"

And suddenly, Dylan felt awful. Poor little, lost Twig! In the stress and worry of the flight from the planet, then the joyful reunions, then the terror and near-death experience of removing the slave tags, no one had spared even one thought for how it was affecting this little boy. He really was just a tiny, little twig who'd been swept up in a great ocean of events far beyond his understanding! He hadn't asked for any of this, but he'd followed them and done what they told him for weeks without complaint, trusting them completely while they changed his whole world! He'd sat there and listened to them argue about how to get the slave tags off, how it might kill them all. Then, without anyone asking him how he felt about it, he'd faced the great possibility of death and sure reality of intense pain as they were removed. It was all finally too much, however. He'd reached his breaking point. Fear and panic overwhelmed him and like any frightened child, he desperately wanted the comfort and familiarity of home, even if that home was one of the pits of Hell. After all, he was only a kid!

"Come here, Twig," Dylan said gently, fighting to contain his own tears. He patted his lap, reveling in the freedom from his chains as the child climbed into it and he was able to finally wrap his arms around him tightly. Maybe eleven almost twelve was too old for such a thing, but not for a boy who had never, ever experienced being held. "It's okay to be scared, you know that right? All this crazy new stuff! But it's gonna be all right, Twig. I promise. I know you're scared and hurting and everything is strange and so new and frightening, but it will be okay. This is just the beginning. You've done so good! I'm so proud of you, and so is Harper! Just keep trusting us a little longer, all right?"

Gradually, Twig's sobs subsided. Still, Dylan held him, cradling the boy's head to his chest and murmuring soothing sounds as he rubbed his tiny, scarred back. Finally, Twig nodded, looking up at him with exhausted yet completely trusting eyes.

"You are so brave, Twig. Braver than most men I know," Dylan told him softly, deeply moved by the child's faith.

Twig didn't understand the comment, not really, but gave him a shaky smile anyway.

"Does your chest hurt?" Dylan asked, noticing the child pressing on it.

Twig nodded again.

"Come on then, let's get you back to the medical room. Harper will be missing you, and Rommie doesn't like it when her patients escape. You don't wanna see a grumpy warship," he added with a tiny wink. Twig's hesitant smile grew just a little.

In a former life, Dylan would have lifted the child into his arms and carried him back to the safety of the medical room, saving him the extra exertion. But, that was beyond this new version of Dylan Hunt. Instead, he helped his small friend to his feet and then together they walked hand in hand the short way back to the medical room.

00000

Beka stood in the doorway of the Miss Kitty's medical room for a long time, just staring. On one side of the chamber, Twig was out cold, exhausted after his emotional breakdown from earlier. Beka had to admit, seeing the way Harper and Dylan felt about the boy, he was kinda growing on her. She supposed she could get used to having the kid around.

On the other side of the small room lay Harper himself, not quite at death's door anymore, but still far from the young man she remembered. It broke her heart, seeing him like this, knowing what he'd suffered.

"You can come in, you know."

The whispered words surprised her and she jumped slightly.

"Hey, Harper," she whispered back, moving into the room and taking the seat next to his cot. "I didn't know you were awake."

"Can't sleep," he replied honestly. His words lacked any of the usual flippancy. Gently, she reached out and took his better hand in her own, squeezing very lightly.

"I brought you something," she said quietly. "Maybe it will help with that." She let go of his hand, and then took the ragged mess of a stuffed toy she'd been carrying and placed it beside him on the medical cot. Carefully, she guided his right hand to it.

It only took him a moment to realize what it was.

"Sylvester?" he breathed, sucking in a gulp of air.

"Yep. I've been keeping him safe for you," she answered, finding herself choked up. "Carrying him wherever I went, so I could give him back the moment we…we found you. I figured you'd need him." Her throat tightened up and she had to stop, moisture filling her eyes.

The engineer put an arm around the toy and pulled it close, curling around it.

And suddenly, he was crying. A year's worth of emotion leaking out in soft trickles of tears that quickly dissolved into great, frame-wracking sobs. Without hesitation, Beka climbed onto the medical cot beside him and pulled him into her arms, her own tears falling down and getting lost in his short-cropped hair.

"He took it all, Beka!" Harper cried between sobs, anguish he'd never voiced gushing out. "Everything! And…and I can't see! I just want the dark to go away! I just want…to see," he finished, his voice trailing off, lost in his tears.

"I know, kiddo, I know," Beka replied, heartbroken. Unable to do anything else, she simply held her adopted brother tightly while he clung to the childhood toy as if his life depended on it.

They stayed that way for what could have been hours; Beka rocking and offering what comfort she could while Harper cried his heart out, mourning everything his lost year had cost him. Finally, he quieted, emotionally and physically spent. But still she held him, never wanting to let go again.

That's how Rommie found them; Beka holding Harper as he clung to his ragged, stuffed toy, both their faces stained with tears and eyes red and puffy. In the corner, Twig still slept, oblivious to the rest of the room.

"The Andromeda has just come out of slipstream," the android said quietly, eyeing them both with a sad, knowing look. "We've come home."

END of PART FOUR

Author's Note: Wow, that part only took eight years to complete! If you've stuck with me this far, I commend you. And thank you, from the bottom of my heart!

Now, before you all start yelling at me, no this isn't the end of the story. There is one more section to go. And no, I don't intend to take a break either. I want to finish this story as much as you hopefully want to know the end. So, stay tuned for Part Five. There is still much healing and recovery for our heroes to go yet.