A NEW BEGINNING
There was a knock at the door. Snapping out of his reverie, he turned his chair away from the large window and back to his desk. Papers were piled up on either side of him, leaving a small cleared area where his current project lay. He made a disgusted face at it and pushed it to one side. In spite of the odds, he had made it. He was where he had always wanted to be.
But he was not happy.
The person on the other side of the door knocked again, more urgently. When no reply was forthcoming, the door cracked open a bit and an alien head poked its way through.
"Admiral?" the young Mercurian asked hesitantly.
The Admiral of the UPP waved the young intern inside. Cautiously, the Mercurian saluted, his gray Starcademy uniform in pristine condition.
"It's late," the Admiral said. "What are you doing here?"
"Sir, I work at the dispatch unit on the second floor," the student said. "It's my turn to work the night shift."
The Admiral smiled. "Of course. What can I do for you?"
The Mercurian placed a paper on top of the growing pile on the admiral's desk.
"A dispatch for you, sir," he said with another salute. "It's marked urgent."
The Admiral took the paper and nodded thoughtfully. The Mercurian stood silently, biting his lip uncertainly.
"Dismissed," the Admiral told him, "and thank you."
The Mercurian smiled, finally relaxed after finishing his duty. He saluted a final time before leaving, quietly closing the door behind him.
The Admiral of the UPP turned the paper over, revealing the message written on it. He hoped it wasn't another requisition. In the wake of the month-old Kaesar war, requisitions for nearly everything in the galaxy had come pouring into his office. With a weary sigh, he scanned the message.
"Well, I'll be," he said to himself, a smile growing on his face.
He put the paper back down on his desk and picked up the small framed picture he kept beside his computer. It was a group shot of himself and his closest friend on a foreign ship in an unnamed galaxy.
"If only you were here to see this, Commander," he told the smiling man in the picture. "You too, Ms. D."
Gently placing the photo on the desk, Admiral Harlan Band took a last lingering look out his window at the night sky before leaving his office for the comfort of his bed.
A few weeks ago, her Kaesar friend Spek had disappeared from Starcademy leaving behind a short note saying he wanted to rejoin his people. Suni still did not understand his reasoning, but wished him luck all the same.
As the doors to the sphere slid open, she saw her two closest friends sitting under the large tree in the center of the park-like habitat. As Suni ran to meet them, she remembered her mother telling her how she and her friends had always talked under the tree, and a pang of homesickness swept through her. The only child of Rosie Ianni and Bova stopped in front of her friends and greeted them with a smile.
"Ready to eat?" she asked.
Atreus laughed. "I see your Uranusian heritage is shining through again."
Suni made a face. Atreus was part of the growing number of Andromedan students at Starcademy. He was the son of Arista, the Governor of New Andromeda and was the first egg to be fully raised by both his natural parents. He was only eleven years old, but looked and acted like an eighteen year old with his long black hair and bright, intelligent blue eyes.
"Watch it, or I'll zap you one!" Suni warned, her fingers sparking electricity.
Tethys' gentle laughter joined that of Atreus. Tethys was the Crown Princess of Neptune as the only child of Queen Clito and King Bran. A few years before her birth, the rival kingdoms of Neptune had joined, ending centuries of civil war. She was seventeen years old and every bit the princess. Her delicate green skin and long, silky green hair seemed oddly out of place beneath her gray Starcademy uniform, yet she wore it with pride.
"Come on," Tethys said. "We wouldn't want Suni to waste away, now would we?"
Suni stuck out her tongue at Tethys and the princess gasped.
"That was terribly rude and very unladylike," Tethys protested.
"Suni ain't no lady," Atreus called over his shoulder. "Come on, I'm starting to get hungry now too."
"And you don't want to get in the way of a hungry Andromedan," Suni joked.
Atreus nodded. "That's right."
Laughing, the trio left the biosphere and headed towards the cafeteria.
Tethys was already there when Suni opened the door. The elegant Neptunian was stretched out on her bed reading a textbook. She glanced up as Suni entered and gestured to Suni's desk.
"We got mail," she said. "It's for both of us, but I thought I'd wait until you showed up to open it."
Suni picked up the envelope and tore it open. Tethys sat up in anticipation as Suni's eyes widened and a smile crossed her face.
"Well?" Tethys asked.
Instead of answering, Suni handed the message over to her friend. Tethys smiled eagerly and clapped her hands together excitedly.
"This is great!" she said. Suddenly, a frown passed over her face. "What will I wear?"
Chief Medical Officer Rosie Ianni's face appeared on the viewscreen. Suni smiled in spite of herself. Age had given Rosie a warm, motherly look and her face was wrinkled with laughter and smile lines. Suni always found comfort in her mother's face, as if it were somehow the solution to every problem.
"Hello, dear," Rosie said. "I assume you heard the news?"
Suni nodded. "I got the message today. I'm so excited!"
"Calm down," Rosie told her. "It's still a few weeks away."
"But they've been waiting over twenty years," Suni exclaimed. "How can I help but be excited for them?"
Rosie smiled. "You have no idea, child."
Suni sobered up. She thought she saw a hint of sadness in her mother's eyes, an emotion she had never thought her mother had.
"Are you okay, Mom?" Suni asked suddenly.
"I'm fine," Rosie replied. "You don't know Radu like I do, that's all."
Suni decided not to pursue the matter. She and her mother talked about trivial things for a few more minutes before saying goodbye. Suni then called Yensid to discuss plans with her Aunt Catalina and was upset to discover that her Aunt Suzee had vanished several weeks ago without word.
"Don't worry about it," Catalina told her. "Suzee is always disappearing with that silly portal device of hers. She'll be back in time."
"I hope so," Suni said. "Uncle Radu and Aunt Elmira would be upset if she wasn't there." She paused. "Can I call her that yet?"
Catalina laughed. "I would wait until after the wedding, dear."
Suni smiled. "Okay. Good night, Aunt Catalina."
"Good night, Suni. I'll see you in a week or so."
Suni hung up the phone and tiptoed back into her room. Tethys had gone to sleep already and Suni lay in her bed trying to do the same. She found that sleep would not come that easily. All she could think about was Radu and Elmira.
After twenty long years of waiting, they were finally getting married.
Radu smiled fondly at his bride-to-be, sleeping quietly beside him. Preparations for their wedding, he had found out, had been going on secretly since Elmira had first realized he had returned. Radu's smile faded as he absently traced the scar that ran from his chin to his right cheek. He had been gone for so long, had done so many things, how had Elmira found it in her heart to forgive him?
How had he found it in his heart to forgive her? a part of him asked. It was her, after all, who had married another and not told him. It was her who had refueled his fire of hatred toward the Spung. It was her who had lured him back to her planet with whispered words of promise, of destiny.
She stirred, opening her blue eyes and yawning lazily. She smiled at him and he smiled back, relishing the perfection of the moment.
"Good morning," he whispered.
"Good morning," she said, lifting her head to kiss him.
"What's on the agenda today?" he asked as she rose out of bed and slipped into her robe.
"A meeting with the lesser lords to announce our marriage," she said with a smile. "You will become the first non-Spung Warlord."
"The first Andromedan non-Spung Warlord," he corrected. "Not that we need a Warlord anymore."
Elmira selected a gown from her enormous wardrobe and began to dress. Radu sat on the bed and watched her.
"If all goes well with the lesser lords," Elmira continued, "I'll announce the marriage to the people this afternoon and in two weeks, we'll be husband and wife."
Radu smiled. "Husband and wife," he repeated. "Did the invitations get sent out already?"
Elmira nodded as she sat down to brush her hair. Radu stood and began to dress himself.
"The whole gang should be here next week," she said. "I took the liberty of inviting them early so we can have some quiet time before the festivities."
Radu smiled. "Good thinking."
He leaned forward and kissed her cheek and she smiled at him. Placing her golden diadem on her forehead, she stood and modeled herself to Radu.
"How do I look?" she asked girlishly.
"Like an Empress," he replied. "How about me?"
He was wearing an olive green uniform with a black shirt underneath. His long blond hair was tied away from his face and neatly brushed.
"Like a Warlord," she answered. "Come on, let's go greet the masses."
Every morning, Elmira and Radu would enter the throne room together. Elmira sat on her throne with Radu on a smaller chair beside her, indicating his submissive rank. Elmira would go over any daily dispatches that were present, hear from the elder council, and conduct business as usual. Afterwards, the lesser lords would conduct a private council with her alone to address the most serious problems of the day. It was very strict and formal, but Elmira insisted that some Spung traditions be maintained and Radu agreed. That morning, however, the daily dispatches were cut short as the lesser lords quickly herded their Empress into the private council room to discuss the upcoming betrothal announcement.
War a memory, peace at last. Spung triumph is forgetting the past
Elmira had laughed at his concern, simply telling him not to worry. She had believed the prophecy to mean by forgetting the old ways of slavery, the Spung would oversee Radu's race and regard him as an equal. Radu had been forced to admit that the prophecy could be read as such, but also knew that the oracle's interpretation was not necessarily correct.
To pass the time, Radu decided to make a phone call. His fingers dialed the number almost unconsciously and he waited as the phone rang. A familiar face appeared on the video screen.
"Starbase 7, Commander Bova here," Bova said.
"Hi, Bova," Radu said cheerfully. "How's life on the other side of the galaxy?"
"Hey, Radu!" Bova exclaimed, smiling brightly. "How's royalty treating you?"
Radu smiled back, admiring again the work Rosie had done on her previously pessimistic husband. The Uranusian had nearly shed all his gloomy tendencies and had become almost as upbeat as his wife.
"Pretty good so far," Radu said. "I take it you got the invitation?"
"Of course," Bova replied. "Rosie and Suni are so excited, I can barely talk to them. They're counting down the days until the transport leaves."
"It has been a while since you and Rosie left the station," Radu reminded him.
"We left a month or so ago," Bova objected.
"To fight a war," Radu laughed. "That hardly counts as a vacation."
Bova shrugged. "Either way, we left here, didn't we?"
Radu smiled and shook his head. "You should really treat your wife better. Wine and dine her. You know she likes that."
"Of course I know," Bova said. "I thought that was what the wedding was for."
Radu laughed again. He and his old friend chatted amicably for about an hour, both of them momentarily forgetting the duties they were supposed to be attending to. It was a welcome break for both and it was with great regret when they finally hung up.
Radu moved to his desk by the large window and picked up some dispatches. He had meant to read them over while Elmira was in her meeting, but he had felt the urge to talk with a familiar face. Now that his conversation was over, he returned to his work with a sigh.
Suddenly, the window creaked open and a large, heavy metal object sailed through it. As Radu watched the object fly in, unseen hands quietly closed the window once more. The object landed in the center of the room with a thud and Radu leapt to his feet. He stared at it in wonder for a moment until his sensitive hearing picked up a faint hissing sound.
It was the unmistakable sound of escaping gas.
Radu quickly covered his mouth, heading for the door. Turning the knob, he found them locked tightly. Coughing against the growing yellow mist, Radu gently bumped the door, assuming his superior strength would knock it down. It didn't budge. Radu struck the door harder, fear rising within him as the gas continued to invade his lungs. He couldn't help but breath it in and as a result, felt dizzy and disoriented. He finally resorted to something he had not done in a long time.
He used his full strength against the wooden door.
It splintered and Radu pushed the pieces aside, gulping in the cool, clean air of the hallway. He noticed that two large statues had been propped up against the door and the wall, forming a sideways T-shape in the hallway. Still coughing, Radu left the hall to find out who was responsible for his attempted murder.
"Follow me," Suni said brightly to her friends.
"Where are you going?" Tethys asked, opening up a parasol to shade herself from the sun. Atreus looked at his friend in disbelief as she gingerly stepped into the spaceport.
"I lived here for several months, remember?" Suni called back. "I know this place like the back of my hand."
"I remember you saying that before when we went camping in the Black Forest of Uranus," Atreus said. "Something about your Uranusian heritage giving you a sense of direction."
"Ugh," Tethys agreed. "I picked brambles out of my hair for days after that mess."
Suni sighed. "Give me a break, guys. That was years ago. Besides, we have to hurry. Uncle Harlan said the message from Elmira was urgent."
Admiral Band had received a message from Elmira the previous day. It was vague, saying only that he had to come to the Homeworld as quickly as possible because something terrible had happened. Harlan Band had been far too busy wrapping up his paperwork so he could make it to the wedding to go himself, so he had sent Suni and her friends to see what all the commotion was about.
As Suni stepped out of the spaceport and into the busy street, half a dozen Imperial guards pushed their way through the crowd, a hover chariot between them. They stopped in front of Suni and the leader bowed.
"Ambassador Ianni," the guard said. "Please come with us to the palace."
Suni blushed slightly at being addressed by her former title. Before the Kaesar War, Suni had served in the Spung court as the UPP Ambassador, trying to earn herself a credit for her diplomacy course. The war, however, had interrupted her studies and had forced her to complete the credit in the dull setting of the Starcademy.
"What's with the escort?" Suni asked.
"Her Majesty insists," the guard replied.
Suni shrugged at her friends and the three of them climbed onto the hover chariot. Barking a quick command, the Spung guard lead the way down the streets. The Spung palace loomed overhead, a silent giant watching its city.
"Suni, Atreus," Radu said in greeting.
"Uncle," the two replied as one.
"Your Majesty," Tethys said with a flowing curtsey.
"Your Highness," Elmira replied with a polite nod of her head.
The formalities aside, Suni rushed forward and caught Elmira and Radu in a fierce hug. Radu smiled awkwardly and Elmira patted the girl on the back until she released them.
"I was so worried!" Suni exclaimed. "Uncle Harlan sent me the message and I thought the worst! What happened?"
"Someone isn't as happy about our marriage as we hoped," Radu said grimly. "They tried to kill me."
Suni and Tethys gasped, but Atreus' face hardened. Loyalty was an Andromedan's greatest strength, and Atreus found his strongest loyalty was to his family. An attack on his mother's brother was as good as attacking himself directly.
"Any idea who?" Suni asked.
Elmira shook her head. "I was hoping Harlan would come and maybe bring some of his secret service, but I was afraid he'd too busy."
Suni nodded. "But you have us!"
Tethys and Atreus enthusiastically nodded their agreement.
"We'll get to the bottom of this," Tethys promised, "before your wedding."
Elmira exchanged a look with Radu and sighed. "We welcome your help, but I'm not sure if you can do anything."
"We can certainly try," Suni said. "Now, where did the attack happen?"
"The poison is familiar," Tethys said. Her mother, Queen Clito, was a great botanist and her passion for plants had passed to her daughter. "A few more tests and I should be able to tell what plant it came from."
"The canister is pretty plain," Atreus reported. He had developed an interest in mechanics at Starcademy, especially dealing with shuttles. "Nothing on it to tell us where it came from."
"No one heard or saw anything," Suni added. The Mercurian/Uranusian loved tactics and diplomacy, but as her mother's daughter had also learned a bit about medicine. She was also a fierce fighter. "There were some tracks outside the window, but I could only follow them to the path before they disappeared. There was more than one set of prints, but that doesn't tell us whether or not there was more than one assassin."
The three sat in silence for a moment, frustrated at having no clues so early in the mystery.
"Wait a minute," Atreus said. "Didn't Uncle Radu say the window was opened, then closed?"
Suni and Tethys waited expectantly for their friend to continue. The Andromedan rolled his eyes and sighed.
"Finger prints!" Atreus exclaimed, waggling his own fingers in their faces to emphasize his point.
Suni snapped her fingers. "Of course! You're a genius, Atreus! I'll go check now before they're disturbed."
Without waiting for her friends to come, the pink girl scooted out of the room.
"Majesty," Lord Depik began, rising to his feet once the lords had settled. "The private conference is a matter of intimacy between the ruler and the lords. We object to having Lord Radu -" he said the name with distaste "- listening in on our discussions."
"My lord Depik," Elmira said coolly. "Radu is my betrothed and soon to be your Warlord. He should be aware of what is happening in our kingdom."
"But, Your Majesty," Lord Kiplar said as Depik sat, "until the wedding and the formal coronation, these matters should be private."
"Then," Radu said, speaking for the first time, "in confidence, I tell you this. There has been an attack on my life and possibly on Elmira's as well."
The lesser lords gasped, but Radu's finely tuned hearing could not tell whether or not the concern was genuine.
"Until the would-be assassins are caught," Radu continued, "I will be fulfilling my duty as Lord Protector to Empress Elmira."
"What is being done?" a third lord demanded.
"We are currently searching for the murderers," Elmira assured them. "The UPP has sent some people to assist us."
Behind her, she just barely heard Radu's sigh and she hid her smile behind her hand.
"This is absolutely ruining my hair," Tethys informed her friend.
From beneath Tethys, Atreus snorted in laughter. The three were piled on top of one another outside the window that lead to Radu and Elmira's second story bedroom. Suni had investigated the previous night but, finding the window too high, had returned empty handed. Now, as the sun crested the eastern horizon of the floating city, the three friends made a human ladder to reach the window sill.
"At least we know there was more than one," Atreus said from the bottom of the pile.
Tethys grunted in frustration from atop the Andromedan's shoulders. She tried to smooth some of her hair away from Suni's feet as the pink girl stood on her shoulders to reach the sill.
"Why are you on top, anyway?" Tethys objected.
"I'm smallest, I'm lightest," Suni called down, "and I'm the only one who knows how to gather fingerprints. Now stay still!"
Suni spread the thin, white powder over the window pane and was rewarded with three distinct prints. Carefully, she used a piece of tape to pick up the prints and nearly fell over as Tethys tried to rearrange her shirt.
"Watch it!" Suni snapped.
"Sorry," Tethys muttered. "Are you done yet?"
"Quit complaining," Atreus said. "I'm the one holding both of you."
"But you can pick up a star ship without breaking into a sweat," Tethys added. "Not an accurate comparison."
"I'm done," Suni announced. "Let me down."
Carefully and not too gracefully, the humanoid ladder separated into three people. Suni held the taped fingerprints and a small bag that held a single strand of hair.
"To the crime lab!" Suni exclaimed.
"The what?" Atreus asked.
Suni blushed. "Sorry. Uncle Harlan was showing me old Earth detective holofilms. Let's figure out who these finger prints belong to."
Suni led the way back into the palace. At the doorway, Atreus paused and glanced back the way they had come. His sensitive hearing had picked up something, but he was not sure what it was. He concentrated hard, but could not detect it again.
"Atreus?" Tethys called.
"Coming," the Andromedan called back.
With a shrug, he entered the palace. From the edge of the palace garden, a shadow detached itself from the wall and slunk back into the Spung city.
She wandered around for a little over an hour, cutting samples from various plants and simply enjoying the others. Elmira had collected specimens of numerous plants from all over the UPP for her garden and Tethys lingered near the Neptunian rosebush, savouring the well-known smell.
Suddenly, a familiar scent caught her attention. It was not the gentle fragrance of the flowers but the putrid stench of the poisonous gas that had lingered in the room after the attack. Cautiously, Tethys followed her nose. The plant she found was one she had seen before only in textbooks - the rare and deadly yilith plant. The nectar of the yilith was toxic and if it was collected and boiled into a gas, it would be highly poisonous. Tethys carefully snipped a blossom of the yellow plant and sealed it in a specimen bag before turning to leave the garden.
She was so excited to show Suni and Atreus her discovery that she didn't see the strong hands coming towards her. Without enough time to let out a scream, Tethys felt a moist cloth press against her nose and mouth. She inhaled involuntarily and passed out into a deep, dark sleep.
"The Spung factions have gone too far this time," Radu muttered. "They've petitioned and protested to have me thrown off the Homeworld, but now they're resorting to murder!"
"Peace, love," Elmira soothed. "How do you know it was the factions?"
"Who else?" Radu asked. He ran a tired hand across his face. "The polls said that nearly sixty percent of the Spung would accept me as Warlord, but for the other forty percent, I'm a threat. It only takes one bullet to make those few people happy."
Elmira smiled, thinking of the many times Radu had nearly been killed. It obviously did take more than one bullet, but she wasn't going to point that out now.
"I'll have to strike them first," Radu decided abruptly. "I'll take some soldier to their headquarters and get them before they get me."
"Radu," Elmira said firmly. "I can't allow that. My future husband will not being his reign by slaughtering his people without proof. I know that deep down you still hold a grudge against the Spung and I won't let you take out your hostilities on innocents."
Radu whirled to face her, stopping in mid pace. For a moment, Elmira feared that Radu was gone and his alter ego DogStar had come back. Radu glared at her for a split second before smiling.
"You're right, love, as usual," he said. "I can't get too paranoid about this. It's probably what they want."
"And Suni, Atreus, and Tethys are out searching for the murderers now," Elmira reminded him.
Radu nodded. "You're right again." He took a deep breath to calm his nerves. "I'm getting too old for this."
Elmira laughed, reached out, and caught his hand. She pulled him onto the bed and he came willingly, losing himself in his love and forgetting about his hate.
"What?" Atreus asked, coming closer.
Suni sat in front of a microscope in the lab. She had been going over the fingerprints for a few hours, looking everywhere for a match but had found nothing. Frustrated, she had switched her attention to the strand of hair.
Suni pushed her chair back and allowed her friend to look into the microscope. Atreus did, and unconsciously ran his fingers through his own long black hair. He looked up at his friend, his face echoing the feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach.
She shook her head. "No, not yours. Not Radu's either."
"But definitely Andromedan," Atreus confirmed.
"So an Andromedan was trying to kill Uncle Radu," Suni agreed, "but why and who?"
"And where's Tethys?" Atreus added, looking around the lab.
Suni gasped and leapt to her feet. Her eyes quickly scanned the room in case Atreus had missed her sitting somewhere. The princess was nowhere to be seen.
"She shouldn't have wandered off alone!" Suni cried. "The assassins are still out there!"
Abandoning their discovery, the two students raced from the lab in search of their friend.
Above her she could see several bright lights. She could also make out the top four corners of her prison. Turning her head, she followed the lines of the walls with her eyes and realized her cage was entirely transparent. Pushing herself into a sitting position, she looked around again and confirmed what she had thought before. Her cage was made of solid, transparent plastic and was completely escape proof for someone who could become liquid.
Tethys looked through the walls of her prison and realized she was in the cargo hold of a ship. It struck her with a heart wrenching certainty that she was no longer on the Spung Homeworld, but somewhere - anywhere - in space, far from her friends. She shook off the last lingering effects of the drug and rose to her feet.
Before her, a door slid open. The Neptunian princess guessed that the door led to the cockpit of the ship, but thought nothing more as a figure stepped into the cargo hold. The shadows of the room consumed the person, but Tethys knew from her brief glance that it was not a Spung.
"Hungry?" the figure asked.
Tethys's eyes widened in shock as the figure stepped into full view, holding a tray of food before him. It was an Andromedan! Her captor had long red hair that hung loose down his back and green eyes. He didn't appear to be very old, but then Andromedans never looked their age.
"You're not what we're after, if that's what you're worried about," the Andromedan continued conversationally, stepping closer to the box. "We're after something more important than a single Neptunian."
The Andromedan's tone struck a nerve within Tethys. "Do you have any idea who I am?" she demanded.
The Andromedan chuckled. "No, and frankly, it doesn't matter. Here, eat something."
Tethys turned her back to him. He sighed and shifted the tray to one hand, reaching down with the other. He picked up the corner of the heavy plastic box and slid the tray underneath. Tethys watched out of the corner of her eye.
"Don't get any ideas," the Andromedan warned. "Those lights up there can get hot enough to evaporate a liquefied Neptunian. It doesn't kill you, I've been told, but it would hurt. A lot."
Without another word, he turned and left the cargo hold. Tethys stared after him, glancing up at the lights. She had never been evaporated herself, but had heard horror stories from Neptunians who had. Suppressing a shudder, Tethys sat down in front of the tray and nibbled at the food.
"Nothing," he reported.
"Same here," Suni replied. "Vanished without a trace."
Atreus sighed and started walking down the path, Suni a step behind him. He had his hands clasped behind his back in thought, his eyes staring down at the path before him. Suddenly, he faltered a step and fell to one knee. Suni was next to him in an instant.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"I - I don't know," Atreus mumbled, one hand pressed against his head. "Suddenly, I felt very - weak."
Suni looked around for signs of an attack when her eyes came to rest on a yellow plant. It looked very beautiful in the afternoon sunlight, but there was something strange about it. Stepping closer, Suni smelled a familiar scent coming from the plant. On closer inspection, she saw that a blossom had been cut from it quite recently. Bending, she read the name.
"Yilith," Suni repeated out loud.
Behind her, Atreus moaned sickly. Suni took a few steps around the plant, inspecting it from all angles when she saw the blossom that had been cut resting by her feet in a plastic bag. The soft dirt path had been disturbed by several feet and Suni recognized the cutters as belonging to Tethys. Suni had given the cutters to her friend last year as a birthday present, and a green letter "T" was engraved into the handle. The pink girl scooped it up and followed the foot prints a few steps until she heard Atreus's sick call again.
Abandoning her pursuit, she returned to Atreus but paused to pick up the specimens Tethys had collected. She helped her friend to his feet and led him away from the yellow yilith plant. Strangely, the further Atreus was from it, the better he felt. As they walked, Suni filled him in on her discoveries.
"So," Atreus summarized, "whoever tried to kill Uncle Radu has Tethys, and neither of them will be safe until we find the assassins."
Suni nodded grimly. "But how do we do that?"
"I think I have an idea," Atreus replied.
Radu sat in the throne room alone, his mind still spinning from his recent argument with Atreus. He hadn't meant to yell at the boy, he had spoken rashly in his anger and fear, but it had been enough to make him storm out. Elmira and Suni were nowhere to be found, leaving Radu alone with his thoughts. He wasn't even sure how it had began.
Atreus had come into the throne room to report to Radu that his would-be killers were not Spung, but Andromedan. Radu had immediately dismissed the idea, despite Atreus's evidence. The boy had become enraged and had accused Radu of being too self absorbed to realized that not everyone approved of his marriage plans. That had been enough to push Radu off the deep end and now, he sat alone in the throne room while his only nephew wandered outside in a hostile world.
Atreus sat back and allowed himself a slight smile. He had been searching most of the night for these three men, although he had not been sure until he had found them in this inn. After his argument with his uncle, Atreus had stormed out of the palace, hoping that he was convincing enough for the rumors to spread. Suni had disagreed with his idea, but had promised to spread the word around the servants about the fight. It was the only way the rebellious Andromedan assassins would come to trust the nephew of their target. Atreus only hoped that Radu was not too hurt.
The barkeep came over to the table. Atreus glanced up at the Spung dressed in a ripped shirt and filthy white apron. The Spung didn't look too please to be serving an Andromedan either, but cleared his throat all the same.
"What'll it be?" he demanded. The note of malice in his voice was not lost on Atreus.
"Beer," Atreus replied in a gruff voice, his eyes returning to the three Andromedans.
"Money," the Spung said, thrusting out his three fingered hand for the coins.
Slowly, Atreus pulled out two coins and put them on the Spung barkeep's palm. One of the trio had noticed him and was watching over the heads of his companions. The Spung barkeep glanced at the coins and threw them back to the table in disgust.
"Real money!" he demanded.
Atreus rose to his feet. The other two Andromedans were watching him now. Good, Atreus thought. Time for the show to begin.
"I only carry pure money," Atreus said loudly. "Andromedan Gilvas, not your worthless Spung dollars."
The Spung barkeep swelled up with rage. He stepped back so Atreus could leave and pointed to the door. Atreus glared at him a moment longer, noticed that he had the full attention of the Andromedan trio, and headed for the door. As he passed the trio, a hand caught his arm.
"Peace brother," a voice whispered. "A word with you outside?"
Atreus nodded slightly and kept moving. He had his meeting with the rebels. Now all he had to do was make sure they were the right group.
"Forget about that," a voice from inside ordered. "I'm not that old yet."
The two cadets hesitated, suddenly unsure of their duty. They stepped back and saluted as a man stepped out of the ship wearing the gleaming white uniform of UPP Admiral. Behind him came two women with rainbow colour hair, a Mercurian, and a Uranusian.
"Welcome to the Spung Homeworld," Elmira said formally. "Be at peace while among us."
Radu bowed formally, and the Admiral returned the greeting. A split second later, the Admiral of the UPP had the Andromedan Warlord in a fierce hug.
"Radu," Harlan said. "It's been too long."
"I've missed you too, Harlan," Radu replied. "Life isn't nearly as dangerous when you're not around."
Harlan's eyes twinkled in amusement and he stepped aside to let the others greet their friend. Catalina and Suzee approached, one dressed in the orange uniform of a Yensidian Official underneath a UPP jacket while the other wore the blue uniform of a Guider. They hugged Radu warmly.
"Cat, Suzee," Radu said. "I'm so glad you could come."
"It took me until yesterday to find her," Catalina said, gesturing to Suzee with her thumb.
Suzee blushed slightly. "The portal device still isn't perfected. You can't expect the communications system to work flawlessly either."
Radu laughed and turned to see an aged Mercurian coming towards him. He barely had time to open his arms again as Rosie came flying into his embrace. Catalina and Suzee moved to chat with Elmira, and Bova stood behind his wife.
"Rosie," Radu whispered.
"Hello, Radu," Rosie said. "I'm still overwhelmed every time I see you."
Radu let his friend go. She was referring to the period of twenty years when he had vanished without a trace, consumed in his hatred of the Spung and especially of the lies Elmira had told him. He had abandoned all he had known until a few months ago when his friends had joined together to bring him home.
"Mother," Suni said formally.
Rosie embraced her daughter as Radu greeted Bova.
"Nice to see you," Bova said. "In person, I mean."
Radu laughed. "You too, Bova. Now go say hello to your daughter."
Rosie, Bova, and Suni formed a small group as they caught up on everything that had happened since Suni's last visit to Starbase 7. Radu went to join Elmira with his other friends.
"Where's Atreus and Tethys?" Catalina asked.
"Tethys was capture after the attempted murder," Elmira explained. "Radu and Atreus had a - disagreement a few days ago, and Atreus hasn't been seen since."
The group fell silent.
"I hope for both your sakes that you find them before Clito and Arista show up," Suzee said.
Harlan laughed and somehow, it make Radu feel better. His family was together again, not the family he had discovered on Andromeda, but the one he had made on that fateful trip so many years ago.
"Atreus," Amar said. "I'm going to trust your loyalty and bring you to our headquarters on the Second Orbiting Moon."
"Headquarters?" Atreus asked. "For what?"
"If the Master judges you worthy, he will tell you," Amar said. "Not many of us are privy to the entire plan. We know our roles and that is all. I think you may be too good a chance to pass up. We need someone familiar with the palace and that person is you."
Atreus nodded, wondering how much he would have to betray his uncle before this Master would trust him.
Amar slapped him on the shoulder amicably. "We leave in half an hour. Be ready."
"Follow me," Amar said, heaving himself out of his chair and exiting the shuttle.
Wordlessly, Atreus followed. He was careful to remember where they were headed. He knew he would need to find the shuttle bay again soon, once he had met this Master and found Tethys. He wondered how Suni was doing. The other guests should have arrived by now and Atreus hoped they didn't think less of him for doing this. He hoped Radu would understand once it was all over.
"Wait here," Amar ordered.
Atreus nodded once and stood still as Amar disappeared behind a sliding steel door. As Atreus waited, he heard something drifting down the hallway. It was someone singing, and it took him only a second to identify the familiar voice. Tethys had often sang for them while they lounged around in the biosphere at the Starcademy, and Atreus recognized the song. He fought the urge to run down the hallway to find his friend as the doors before him slid open again and Amar stepped out.
"The Master will see you right away," Amar said. "Please go in."
Atreus didn't hesitate as he stepped through the door and heard them click closed behind him. He could still faintly hear Tethys's song and he held it to him like a comforting blanket. He hummed along with her, his tenor voice mixing with her high soprano melody. Feeling reassured by the music, Atreus continued deeper into the room.
The room in which he stood was dark, with only faint light coming from the back wall. It illuminated a figure seated on a raised chair. The figure was Andromedan, with long hair to the floor and the distinctive ears, but the poor lighting prevented Atreus from making out any other details.
"Atreus," he said. "You have proven yourself these past few days, but not enough to know the full extent of my plan."
The figure paused, as if expecting Atreus to speak. When the younger Andromedan remained silent, the figure continued.
"You will remain here for a while," he said. "Guard our hostage well. That will prove your loyalty to us over your uncle. Fail in your task and you will be put to death."
"Forgive me," Atreus said, speaking at last, "but what use is a hostage? It's Radu we want, right?"
"Poor fool," the figure said. "The hostage will not be wasted. Her death will serve as an example to the Spung that we Andromedans are strong once again. We will not be their slaves, like Radu is to the Empress. We will rule them as they once ruled us!"
Atreus bowed, his long hair hiding his face. Something was not right here. "I wish to stay and talk some more," he said, soft enough for only another Andromedan to hear.
"You may go now, Atreus," the Master said. "Go and guard our hostage well."
Atreus straightened, turned, and left the room. He found another Andromedan outside waiting to lead him to Tethys. At least he had found his friend.
She had no idea where she was being held. They had moved her from the ship by covering her cage with a black cloth so she had been unable to see anything. Two Andromedans had carried her to this room, uncovered her cage, and left her alone again. The room was void of any decoration and was almost like a opaque extension of her plastic cage, save the door. Tethys stared at the door, willing it to open, and nearly cried out loud when it did.
An Andromedan entered, but then Tethys hadn't expected anyone else. The bright lights over her cage prevented her from seeing the face of her new guard, but there was something about his stance that seemed very - familiar to her.
"Tethys?" the Andromedan whispered.
The Neptunian princess frowned. How had they figured out who she was? Her guard stepped closer to the cage, into the light, and Tethys gasped. The black haired, blue eyed Andromedan before her was Atreus!
"What are you doing here?" Tethys asked.
"Guarding you," Atreus replied.
Tethys blinked in surprise. She scanned her friend's face and saw the worry and tension in his eyes, as if he was being torn in two. She trusted him, even if he appeared to be on the wrong side, but was still confused.
"Don't try to escape," Atreus warned.
"Atreus," Tethys began.
He held up his hand to silence her, then pulled one of his ears. The princess nodded in understanding. Without saying another word, Atreus turned and left the room.
The door to her room slide open and Suni barely paused in her pacing to see who it was. Elmira stepped into the room and silently closed the door behind her. Her robes of office were missing and instead she wore a simply blue dress. The Spung empress came into the room and sat on the bed, arranging her tail around her feet so Suni wouldn't trip. The Empress wordlessly watched the girl pace.
"I don't know what to do!" Suni admitted suddenly, never breaking her stride.
"Atreus will pull through," Elmira assured her.
"But when?" Suni asked. "He's been gone forever without a word. Uncle Radu is furious, and when Arista arrives"
"Radu is more hurt than angry," Elmira said, lowering her eyes. "I desperately want to reassure him, but I dare not blow Atreus's cover."
Suni stopped walking and stared at the empress. Quickly, she sat next to Elmira and gave her a hug. Elmira returned the embrace as both women sought comfort.
"I'm sorry!" Suni apologized. "I've been so wrapped up in worry, I forgot how the whole thing must be treating you!"
Elmira smiled weakly and patted Suni on the back as they broke off their hug. "Tethys and Atreus will both be back for the wedding. I have faith in that."
Suni returned the smile. "I wish I had as much faith as you."
Their leader, the red haired Amar, stood at the front of the room waiting for the others assembled to come to order. The group was not large, about twenty or so disgruntled Andromedans. Some still bore the marks of their recent slavery. Atreus concealed his surprise behind an unreadable expression as he surveyed the group.
The crowd lapsed into silence. Atreus stood straighter, wondering why Amar was so pressed for time.
"We must complete our plans," Amar continued. "We strike in three days or else not at all."
The Andromedans grumbled at the thought of losing their chance. Atreus frowned. Why three days?
"I will lead our troops to the Homeworld and we will gain access to the palace disguised as diplomats from New Andromeda. Atreus will join me to vouch for us," Amar explained. "We'll arrive before the wedding and strike before the ceremony begins."
The wedding! Atreus nearly gasped aloud. Was it only three days away?
"How will we get close enough?" someone shouted. "The royal couple will be heavily guarded."
"Atreus knows the palace like no one else," Amar said, nodding in Atreus's direction. "He will lead us to Radu and get us in."
"All of us?" another asked incredulously.
"Not all," Amar amended. "Atreus will go alone, offer peace to his uncle for their fight. When Radu agrees, Atreus will kill him."
The people in the room burst into applause. Atreus forced a smile as he was patted on the back and commended for his bravery.
"What about the Neptunian?" the first speaker questioned.
"Leave her to me," Atreus said, speaking for the first time. "I'll dispose of her."
Amar nodded in agreement. "It will be as the Master promised us. The Spung Empire in chaos, their people treated as slaves. They will know the punishment they forced us to endure!"
Suddenly, a shrill scream sounded through the halls. It was short and full of pain before going deathly silent. Amar smiled and turned down the hall that lead to the prisoner's cage. He found Atreus just leaving the room, sweat pouring down his face.
Atreus motioned to the door with a jerk of his head. "I disposed of her. Turned up the lights real hot and evaporated her alive. You might want to steer clear of that room until it cools off."
"I thought evaporation only hurts them," Amar frowned.
"Not if you evaporate them before they turn into liquid," Atreus smiled. "It's hotter than Mercury in the summer in there."
Atreus reached for a flask he had attached to his belt and took a long drink. He offered the flask to Amar, who refused politely.
"Good work, Atreus," Amar said. "Now rest up. We leave for the Homeworld tomorrow."
Atreus frowned. "But I thought we had three days."
"We do, but I think it's best if we go early and settle in. Less conspicuous that way."
Atreus nodded and Amar slapped him on the shoulder and continued down the hall. Atreus listened to him whistle happily long after he disappeared from view.
The noise of the furnace was so loud, it made him grit his teeth in pain as he poured out the contents of his flask. The water inside it leaked out, then pulled itself together and rose off the ground into a humanoid shape. Finally, it solidified and Tethys crouched beside him.
"What now?" she asked, speaking normally in spite of the furnace.
Atreus had filled her in on Amar's plan before they had staged her death. The Andromedan tucked a piece of his long hair behind his ear.
"You'll have to stay in the flask for a while longer," Atreus said. "I'll hide you in the shuttle and when we land on the Homeworld tomorrow, you can sneak out and get back to the palace. Warn Suni and Elmira, but make sure Uncle Radu doesn't know."
Tethys made a face. "I hate that flask. You almost drank me before! What happens if someone finds the flask and takes a sip?"
Atreus smiled. "I'll put a poison label on it and tell people it's a backup plan in case the original plan doesn't work. In the worst case, you'll be thrown through a window."
The princess groomed her long hair as best she could with her fingers while Atreus talked. The Andromedan was impressed at how well Tethys had handled her captivity. He would never have guessed she would remain so calm.
"You'll at least let me out when we're back in your room so I can sleep, right?" Tethys asked. "That stupid bottle is so cramped!"
"Sorry," Atreus said. "The Andromedans will hear your heartbeat and wonder why I suddenly developed two hearts. It's too risky."
Tethys sighed. "Very well. Just make sure no one drinks me. Your mother drank my mother once and it nearly killed her!"
Atreus smiled. "I promise. Now get in the flask."
Tethys stuck out her tongue at Atreus and disappeared into a pool of water. She slithered into the open flask and Atreus put the lid firmly in place. Unbarring the door, he left the furnace room for the small bed he had been given. Tomorrow looked to be a busy day.
The night before the wedding, Radu found himself in an isolated part of the palace with Harlan and Bova while the women busied themselves with final decorations. The three men shared drinks and spoke about their youth, reminiscing about times long past.
"So, are you nervous?" Harlan asked.
"About what?" Radu replied.
Bova rolled his eyes. "Brain surgery. The wedding, dummy."
Radu blinked. "Should I be?"
"It's common on Earth for the groom to get wedding day jitters," Harlan explained. "Tonight marks the end of your bachelor days. No more leaving whenever you want, no more adventures in space."
"No more getting your own way," Bova added.
Radu shrugged. "I've been living with Elmira for over a month, since the end of the Kaesar war. I think I know what I'm in for."
"Until the babies start coming," Bova said. "Then you have to feed them at three in the morning, change diapers, burp them, buy them things."
"But you like doing that to Suni," Radu said. "I know how you spoil her."
Bova coloured slightly. "Still, being married is not all fun and games."
"I'm not worried at all," Radu said. "It's our destiny to be together. Elmira's being telling me that since the day I met her."
"Too bad you didn't remember that twenty years ago," Harlan laughed. "Could have saved us all some trouble."
Radu reddened at the mention of his previous life. He knew somewhere deep inside himself DogStar still lived, waiting to come out again. He shuddered and stared into his glass.
Bova said something to Harlan that Radu didn't quite hear. Next thing he knew, Harlan was apologizing for the comment.
"Don't worry about it," Radu muttered. "I just wish Atreus was here."
Harlan and Bova exchanged a look. Suni had told them about Atreus's plan and both had sworn not to tell Radu.
"I'm sure he's fine," Harlan said.
"He left over such a stupid disagreement," Radu continued, feeling the urge to talk. "I don't even remember what it was. He's the closest thing I have to a son right now. I want him here tomorrow."
As Harlan and Bova consoled their friend, Atreus was leading Amar and three other Andromedans into the guest wing of the Spung palace. None of them realized that Radu would get his wish.
The shaking persisted, harder that before. Suni reluctantly opened her eyes in fear that she would be rattled to pieces if she didn't comply. She blinked as the person above her came into focus.
"Tethys?" Suni whispered in disbelief.
"I have something important to tell you," Tethys said.
Suni sat up and rubbed her eyes. "You're not a dream, are you? If you are, then I'm not amused."
"I'm real," Tethys assured her. "Atreus rescued me and he's here in the palace with the assassins. He told me to find you and tell you what they're planning."
Now fully awake, Suni listened intently as Tethys outlined the Andromedan's plans.
Clito walked alone, except for her ever-present shadow of a bodyguard. The flowers were in bloom for the most part and the famed botanist looked at each plant with a critical eye. She made mental notes to speak with Elmira's groundskeeper before the ceremony.
Clito raised her eyes from a Saturnian blue turnip bush and saw Tethys standing in front of her. The Neptunian princess curtseyed formally to her queen as Clito rushed forward to embrace her.
"Tethys!" Clito cried, holding her daughter close. "I heard you were gone and expected the worst! How are you?"
"Fine, Mother," Tethys said honestly. "It was scary for a while, but they didn't hurt me."
"Suni assured me you were fine, but I worried anyway," Clito said with a smile, releasing Tethys and holding her at arms length.
"Atreus saved me," the princess continued. "I had to spend two days in a smelly flask, but his plan worked. I haven't even had time to wash my hair!"
"You'll have to get ready quickly," Clito told her. "The wedding is in a few hours."
Tethys shook her head sadly. "I can't go. If any of the Andromedans see me, they'll know something is up."
Queen Clito frowned, knowing how much her daughter had been looking forward to the wedding. She snapped her fingers as inspiration struck.
"I think I can get you in, but you may not like how," Clito told her.
"Good luck," Amar whispered, pressing a knife into Atreus's hand. "We'll deal with the Spung empress ourselves."
Atreus nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He hoped that Tethys had reached Suni and the others in time. Amar patted him on the back and entered the throne room.
Alone, Atreus walked down the familiar hall to his uncle's bedroom, gripping the knife behind his back. He knew that Radu would be there, busily getting ready for his marriage. Uncle Harlan and Uncle Bova would probably be with him, and he wondered if they knew about the plan. He hoped they did, or else it would be difficult to complete his task.
A guard stood outside the door, a young Spung dressed in ceremonial armor holding an electric blaster. He looked at Atreus out of the corner of his eye as the young Andromedan knocked on the door and slid the knife into his boot. Harlan opened it.
"Atreus," he said, his eye widening in surprise.
"Hello, Uncle Harlan," Atreus mumbled, trying to sound repentant. "Is Uncle Radu in there?"
The Admiral opened the door a bit more and Atreus could see Bova seated on the bed and Radu standing in front of a mirror, looking at him. Radu was wearing a black uniform with a white shirt underneath and had a Neptunian red rose pinned to his jacket. Atreus noticed that Harlan and Bova were dressed similarly. Atreus came into the room fully and turned to his uncles.
"May I speak with Uncle Radu alone, please?" he asked.
Harlan and Bova looked to Radu, who nodded. Quietly, the other two men withdrew and closed the door firmly behind them. Radu kept staring at his nephew as if he would disappear.
"Uncle Radu," Atreus started, "we have a lot to talk about."
Radu nodded. "I know. I don't even remember what we fought about, but it's been eating me up inside. I never wanted to chase you away."
Guilt struck Atreus as hard as a punch to the stomach and he swallowed hard. He moved to take Bova's former position on the bed, drawing the knife out of his boot as he did. Radu's eyes widened, but he made no move to run. Atreus lay the knife on the nightstand next to the bed.
"You keep getting ready," Atreus told him. "I'll explain everything. Let me just start by saying, I'm sorry."
"You wanted to see the ceremony without being seen," Clito reminded her. "They'll never recognize you dressed as a page."
"As long as you don't send me on any errands," Tethys mumbled darkly. "This is so embarrassing!"
Suni appeared beside her friend and flicked the feather in her hat. "Nice touch," she commented.
Tethys scowled at her and Clito laughed. Suni was dressed in a similar purple gown to the one Tethys should have worn. They were both supposed to be part of the wedding party, but Arista had taken over Tethys's roll after her disappearance.
"I hate this," Tethys grumbled.
"You're the one who went walking in the garden all alone without telling anyone," Suni reminded her brightly. "This could have all been avoided."
Tethys stuck out her tongue at her friend. Clito frowned at her daughter and the princess lowered her eyes, looking ashamed. Suni laughed patted her friend reassuringly on the back before leaving to join the wedding party.
Tethys allowed her eyes to wander over the faces in the crowd until a pair of familiar green eyes struck her speechless. He was the Andromedan who had kidnapped her, and it looked like he wasn't alone. Glancing up at the ceiling, Tethys hoped that the makeshift trap she and Suni had devised last night would be enough to stop them. She patted her pocket reassuringly and took a deep breath as the music began.
"Murder!" Suni yelled, as if on cue. "Assassins in the palace!"
A wall of armored Spung guards surrounded Elmira and hurried her out of the throne room. The rest of the crowd began to disperse as well, leaving the confused Andromedans in the centre of things.
"Sorry, Atreus," Atreus heard someone whisper.
He looked just as puzzled as the rebels as the doors were sealed and a faint, yellow mist fell from the ceiling. Atreus looked over to the door in time to see Tethys dressed as a page tucking a control device into her pocket and slipping out the door in her liquid form.
"We've been discovered!" Amar coughed. "Retreat!"
The Andromedans dragged themselves weakly to the door and tried to use their strength to pound it open. To their surprise, they found themselves growing weaker by the moment. Atreus collapsed to his knees, coughing as the yellow mist got into his lungs.
"Yilith pollen," one of the assassins gasped.
That was the last thing Atreus remembered as he sunk into unconsciousness.
"Did not! I used exactly the right amount."
"They why is he still asleep?"
Atreus moaned as the voices he thought were in his head separated into distinct sounds. Everything was still dark and Atreus wondered if the yilith pollen had done something to his eyes. Belatedly, he realized they were still closed. With supreme effort, he cracked open his eyes to see Suni and Tethys arguing over him.
"The others woke up already," Suni said.
"Maybe Atreus inhaled too much," Tethys mused.
"We should have warned him," Suni said.
Another face popped into view, that of an older Mercurian woman. She smiled brightly at him.
"Girls," Rosie said. "He's awake."
Atreus struggled into a sitting position, still feeling weak. He was in Radu and Elmira's room, lying in their bed while his friends and relatives gathered around him. Radu sat next to him, one arm bandaged from where they had drawn blood to fool the rebels. Suni, Tethys, and Rosie stood around him, with his mother near the foot of the bed. Catalina and Suzee were by the door, Bova sat at the desk, Elmira was next to Radu, and Clito was by the window.
"That was a very foolish idea," Arista scolded Suni and Tethys. "Clever, but foolish. Neither of you knew how dangerous prolonged exposure to the yilith plant can be to Andromedans."
"He's fine," Suni said. "Nothing to worry about."
"Speaking of foolish," Radu spoke up, "the plan in general wasn't the smartest thing to do."
Atreus felt himself blush. "It was the only way to catch them red handed," he protested.
Radu smiled at him. "I know, but we could have figured something out together. You worried me sick!"
"What about the rebels?" Atreus asked.
"They're alive and in the dungeons," Elmira replied. "I never thought I'd have to send someone there during my reign."
"I'm bringing them back to New Andromeda for trial," Arista added. "I want to know more about this 'master' of theirs."
"He's not Andromedan," Atreus coughed and leaned back on his pillows. Rosie gave him a glass of water and he drank. "I met him. He's definitely not Andromedan."
"Interesting," Harlan said. "So who is he?"
Atreus shook his head. "He was in shadow the whole time. I can bring you to their moon base, but I doubt he'll still be there."
"I'll send some troops right away," Elmira said. "In the meantime, we have a wedding ceremony to finish."
The reception lasted well into the night. Everyone sang and danced, enjoying their time free of responsibilities. Elmira and Radu were the centre of attention, congratulated by everyone yet alone in each others eyes.
In the small hours of the morning, the newlyweds at last made it to bed. Radu easily carried Elmira over the threshold, Harlan having insisted he do it as an old Earth tradition. Finally alone, they savored the moment and thought happily to the rest of their lives together.