WAR GAMES

(to view this chapter with proper formatting, go to sat in the small cell on board the Kaesar mother ship, ignoring the two warriors who stood guard just outside the metal doors. She could hear them shuffling their feet and occasionally speaking, but that didn't matter to her. Her full attention was focused on Xen, who lay unconscious on the small bench in their cell. Suni looked carefully at his wound, her hand going reflexively to her own stomach, where she carried the scar from the bolt that had nearly killed her.

Xen was still breathing, his chest rising and falling as he gasped shallow gulps of air. He was also bleeding from the blaster bolt, the dark red blood betraying just how deep the injury was. Suni removed her Starcademy jacket and tore a strip from the bottom of her relatively clean t-shirt. She pressed it firmly on the wound, not liking one bit how ineffectively it stopped the blood.

Suni sighed and stood, staring helplessly at her dying friend. There was nothing more she could do for him until they escaped, and there was no chance for escape if she didn't bust out of this cell. She would have to leave him behind for now. She didn't want to cause more damage by moving him, and if she couldn't return for him he would probably be better off dead anyway. She knew in her heart that if she didn't come back, it would be because the Master had won.

"Xen," she whispered, leaning close to his ear. "I have to go. If you wake up and I'm not here, teleport away from this place. Go back to Vyrill and don't think about this dimension again."

Her friend made no movement, not a sound to indicate that he had heard. Suni hardened her heart, unwilling to cry anymore, and began to search the cell for an escape.

Atreus and Tethys floated among the wreckage of the escape pod, the Kaesar ship, and their own recently destroyed fighter. Atreus had quickly inspected the damage and shook his head when he saw it was beyond fixing. They had abandoned their ship and moved as quickly as they could away from it, Atreus pushing the fighter in the opposite direction. It spun slowly away until it struck an asteroid and exploded. Now, utterly alone, they huddled together with the body of Alyna and prayed someone would find them.

Tethys found her mind wandering to her childhood, especially the time she had first met Suni and Atreus. They were all very young, at a time before Tethys fully understood about other planets and people, and her mother had invited some old friends to celebrate the anniversary of her coronation. There was a huge banquet, and young Tethys was told to be on her best behaviour. She stood next to her mother, wearing her favourite red dress as the transport doors opened and several strange people came out.

Queen Clito embraced a pink woman and a tanned man with black hair and antennae. Behind them stood a pink girl about Tethys' age, holding a large bag and looking angry. Tethys drew herself up tall and stepped forward to greet the girl, remembering what her mother had said about best behaviour. She expected the girl to bow, like everyone did, but she just stood there and stared.

"I am Princess Tethys," Tethys said haughtily. "Welcome to Neptune."

The pink girl raised an eyebrow. "A princess? Really?"

The girl turned her back to Tethys and pulled on her mother's hand. Tethys fumed angrily at the outrage. The girl hadn't bowed or introduced herself or anything!

"Mom, you never said Clito was a queen!"

Tethys' eyes widened even more. How dare this girl address her mother by her first name? And how could she possibly not know the queen of Neptune? Tethys promised to herself to hate this pink girl.

With a little shove from her mother, the pink girl was once again in front of Tethys. "I'm Suni. Suni Ianni. That's my mom and my dad. They were friends with your mom a long time ago. Want to go play?"

"I do not play," Tethys said. "I have important things to do. I'm a princess."

"You already said that," Suni giggled. "Okay, Miss Princess, show me the important things you have to do. Maybe I can help."

Tethys was trying to figure out what to say to this strange pink person, when another transport opened up behind her and three tall people with long curly hair stepped out. Suni's eyes went past Tethys to the newcomers and her face lit up with happiness.

"Atreus!" Suni exclaimed, pushing her way past Tethys.

The little princess turned and saw Suni embrace the youngest of the new people, a boy with curly black hair and strange ears. Suni grabbed him by the hand and dragged him over to where Tethys stood.

"Atreus, this is Tethys," Suni introduced. She leaned closer to Atreus to whisper, "she's a real princess!"

"I heard you call her that," Atreus replied with a smile. "I'm Atreus, from New Andromeda."

Tethys stared at him in surprise. "How did you hear from all the way over there?"

He pulled at his ear. "I have great hearing, and I'm really strong, but Mom says I'm not allowed to show off and I have to wear these gloves so I don't crush things."

Queen Clito put her hand on Tethys' shoulder. "Why don't you show your new friends your rooms, sweetie? Your father and I have a lot to talk about with the adults."

"Rooms?" Suni squeaked. "More than one? Wow! Being a princess sound neat!"

Tethys had to smile. "Follow me! After we can go for a swim through the city!"

Both Atreus and Suni paled. "Swim?"

"Can't you swim?" Tethys asked, as if she were asking if they could walk.

The two kids shook their heads. Tethys laughed and took each of them by the hand, forgetting princess-protocol, being on her best behaviour, and her silent vow to hate Suni. She had never had friends who didn't try to impress her, or who didn't have some ulterior motive to get to know her. Until Suni had started talking to her like a person and not a princess, she hadn't realized how lonely she had been.

In the darkness of space, the teenaged Tethys sighed as she remembered that feeling of acceptance, not for what she was but who she was. She looked down at the cord that joined her to Atreus, so neither of them would be separated in space, and hoped that this would not be her last memory.

Suni crawled through the ventilation shaft, dragging herself forward with her arms as she lay nearly flat on the metal surface. The area was barely large enough for her to fit, and she was certain that the guards had heard her scrambling through the grate beneath the bench in her cell. She had left Xen sleeping, and she could only hope that the Master wouldn't kill him before she got back.

She ploughed bravely forward, trying to ignore the fact that she was completely alone. No one was going to pop out of nowhere and save her this time. Tethys and Atreus were all safely on the Goddard with Uncle Harlan, Alyna was flying around the wreckage of the Starbase in search of survivors, and Xen…

The shy Vyrillian boy had been her Plan B, her way out, but everything had changed. The Master had made sure of that. Without her, he would die, they all would die, and the Master would do his best to destroy the UPP. She had to continue. She was their only hope.

She wished for Atreus' sense of direction as she made her way towards a narrow beam of light. Suni had no idea how long she had been crawling or where she would end up when she left the ventilation shaft. She could only hope that her luck would hold out and she would be undetected and near the Master. She thought of all the things she would say to him, the Kaesar who had taken advantage of her friendship and had murdered her family. She wanted to make him feel the same pain she did, the empty hollowness that was slowly consuming her. She wanted him to lose that smug, triumphant expression as his carefully laid plans crashed before his eyes. She wanted him to hurt.

Carefully, Suni listened at the grate for signs of movement, wishing not only for Atreus' sense of direction, but his hearing as well. She missed him when he wasn't with her, Tethys too. The three of them were like extensions of each other, able to function on their own but unbeatable when put together. Suni wanted them with her, but was glad they were safe in UPP space, far from the Kaesar. When she was certain the corridor was empty, Suni carefully eased open the grate and slithered outside, rising into a crouch and looking down the hall. Electricity sparked on her fingertips, ready to knock down anyone who tried to stop her, but the area was empty. Rising to her feet, Suni set off down the hall towards what she hoped was the command post.

When Atreus was one year old, his parents bundled him into a transport and brought him away from New Andromeda, to a spinning Starbase not too far from their planet. Atreus barely remembered the trip, sitting next to his mother and playing with her long hair. His own dark hair was shoulder length, and he resembled to all the other passengers like a five-year old child. His father tousled his hair and told him in a quiet voice that they were going to visit an old friend.

On the Starbase, Atreus found the entire place to be very loud. His parents had taught him how to filter out sounds, but he was not very good at it yet. He bit his lip as he tried to sort through the voices, his eyes tearing as he longed to go back home. His parents barely noticed as they hurried him into an apartment and closed him into a small room. Outside the door, he could hear his mother talking to another woman, he could hear the people in the market selling things, the loud clanking of the machinery, and the hum of the transports in the docking bay. He sat on the ground and cried.

"Hey," a voice said close to his ear. "What's wrong?"

Atreus opened his blue eyes and stared into a pink face. The girl looked about his age, her eyes full of concern and curiosity. Atreus shook his head and gulped for air.

"It's loud," he said. "I don't like it here. I wanna go home!"

The pink girl cocked her head to one side as she thought, then her expression suddenly brightened. She ran to the other side of the room on her small legs and pulled two pillows off her bed. Toddling back, she held them out to Atreus with a broad grin on her face. He took them from her, puzzled.

"For your ears, silly," she said, pointing to her own ears.

Atreus hesitantly clamped the pillows to the side of his head. Instantly, the noise was muffled. He grinned at the clever pink girl and sniffed, blinking the tears away. The girl ran off again, returning this time with a tissue and a large hat.

"Here," she said, ramming the hat on his head. "Now you can use your arms again."

The boy took the tissue and blew his nose, still regarding the pink girl in amazement. He had never seen anyone who was not like him or his parents. Why was this girl pink? Where was her hair? Why didn't she have the same ears as him?

"I'm Suni," the child said. "Wanna play with me?"

The boy nodded, careful not to knock off his hat. "I'm Atreus."

The girl grinned. "Want to see something neat?"

As Atreus stared, Suni held up one finger and screwed her face in concentration. A small spark erupted from her finger and she relaxed, smiling.

"Did you see that?" she asked. "Can you do anything? Mama says that everyone in the universe has a special talent. She can cook stuff without using the stove!"

Atreus thought about it. "I can't do anything special."

Suni's face fell. "Oh. Well, you can hear stuff, right? Before you said it was loud in here but it isn't loud in here so you must be able to hear real good, right?"

The Andromedan boy brightened. "Yeah. I guess I can hear good."

Suni nodded. "Okay, let's play now. Follow me!"

Atreus blinked his eyes open, looking around. He was floating in space, surrounded by debris. He couldn't hear anything except the sound of his breathing and heart. Glancing around, he saw Tethys floating not too far away, joined to him by a seeming thin cord. She was holding Alyna's hand and staring at the Guardian worriedly. Atreus used the cord to pull himself to them – or them to him.

"I can't tell if she's dead," Tethys said through the intercom system in their helmets.

"Don't talk, it uses oxygen," Atreus warned.

He could see Tethys rolling her eyes through the glass. "Does it matter? Ten minutes left and we're dead anyway. Why not make it eight minutes?"

"Someone might find us in those two extra minutes," Atreus replied.

The Neptunian said nothing, looking back to Alyna. The Guardian remained as she had been, eyes closed, floating on her back. Her cloak was torn and singed from the laser fire of the Kaesar ships. Atreus closed his eyes and sighed, wondering how they were going to escape from this predicament. It seemed hopeless, that they were going to die alone in space before anyone missed them.

Admiral Band winced as another explosion pushed the Goddard and another brave pilot lost their life. He closed his eyes for a moment to compose himself before turning back to the figure on the screen. An Earther, wearing an orange flight suit, was biting his lip nervously as the Admiral stared him down.

"One more time please, lieutenant," Harlan said.

"We've lost them, sir. They broke formation, going after a rogue Kaesar fighter, and vanished."

"And their tracking beacon?" the Admiral said with exaggerated patience.

"The radiation from the nearby planet is screwing around with our sensors, sir. We can't confirm anything in the asteroid field."

Harlan nodded slowly. He wondered how he was going to explain to the Governor of New Andromeda and the Queen of Neptune that their children were gone. First Suni and Xen, now Atreus and Tethys. The children of his friends were dropping like flies, and he was the cause. What was he thinking, letting cadets fly in battle, even accomplished cadets like Atreus and Tethys?

"Thank you, lieutenant," Admiral Band said, disconnecting the signal.

As the lieutenant's face disappeared, Harlan sat down heavily on his chair. He momentarily rested his forehead on his hand, trying to puzzle out exactly when everything had gone so wrong. Yensid was shut down with Catalina once more trapped in the strange dimension; the Neptunians were already angry at him for not sending their princess home, he could only imagine how much worse her death would make things; the Andromedans were so committed to peace that Arista could not get them to raise a finger; the Guardians were gone, except one who had disappeared with her friends; the Starbases were destroyed, along with thousands of lives. Harlan could not recall a time where he had felt more alone.

"Sir," one of his officers said. "Incoming communications."

"Show me," Harlan ordered, sitting up straight in his chair.

The view screen flashed to life, and a familiar face grinned down at Harlan. The Admiral smiled at the scarred face, one he had lost but who had been found. He almost laughed as the face began to speak.

"Admiral Band," Warlord Radu said, "the Spung have come with four killcruisers to offer you assistance."

"You have no idea how happy I am to see you," Harlan said honestly.

Radu nearly blushed. "I'll come over as soon as we're within range, and we can coordinated from the Goddard."

"Thanks. See you soon."

As the image of Radu disappeared, Harlan once again began to think how to break the news of his nephew's death to Radu. He sank down in his chair as the view screen once again displayed the battle, and hoped the tides would soon turn.

Tethys sighed, the sound echoing through the speakers in Atreus' helmet. She twisted around inside her suit as if trying to see space from every possible angle. Atreus watched, annoyed that she was spending so much energy and oxygen frivolously, but amused that in light of their deaths, she was bored. He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist. Less than four minutes to go.

"Hey, Tethys," he said, breaking the silence.

She stopped squirming and looked at him. He could see the perspiration already starting for form on his face, and he could feel his own sweat dripping down the back of his neck.

"I … uh …," Atreus began, awkward even now. "Before we … you know, I wanted to tell you how great a friend you've been."

Tethys smiled at him. "You've been a great friend, too. I'm sorry we ended up like this."

"It wasn't your fault," Atreus assured her.

Tethys lowered her eyes. "Do you think Suni is okay?"

"I'm sure she is," Atreus replied. Three minutes left. "She's probably back already with Xen, wondering where the hell we are."

"I always thought we'd grow old together," Tethys muttered. She laughed a little. "Or at least die together from one of Suni's crazy schemes."

Atreus smiled and swallowed the tears that were threatening to form. It was getting more and more difficult to breath, and his vision was starting to swim. For a moment, he thought he saw two Tethys' floating in space.

You still have the chance to grow old together, a voice spoke in their minds, or at least Suni will have another chance to kill you both.

Atreus blinked rapidly, aware that he was not seeing double, but that Alyna was floating just behind Tethys with a smile on her lips. Tethys turned in her suit and Atreus heard her gasp. The Guardian looked very tired as she grinned at them, and her right arm held her left as if it pained her.

"Alyna!" Atreus exclaimed.

"We thought you were dead!" Tethys added.

Save your oxygen, Alyna reminded them sternly. She took Tethys by the arm and guided her over to Atreus so they could clasp hands. We will speak later about why the two of you were floating alone in space.

She teleported away from the wreckage, back to the last know location of the UPP flagship. As they reappeared, Tethys saw Alyna close her eyes and grimace in pain before they made their final jump, and landed inside the Goddard's medlab. A startled lab technician dropped the tray of tools he had been carrying as the trio suddenly materialized before him, and Atreus and Tethys peeled off their helmets and gasped for air. Alyna sat on the floor, leaning against the wall with her tail stretched out before her. The technician stared in amazement until she fixed her golden eyes on him.

Alert a doctor, she said in his mind. These two require oxygen. Alert Admiral Band that we have returned.

The technician scooted off, without pausing to pick up the tray he had dropped. In seconds, the room was buzzing with activity as several nurses and doctors burst into the room.

"Alyna?" Tethys wheezed, looking over at her friend in concern as a nurse helped her sit up.

Alyna smiled slightly and closed her eyes, her tail twitching periodically. Tethys tried to move towards her, but fell forward into the arms of the nurse who fixed an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth. She inhaled deeply, her eyes dropping shut as several people crowded around Alyna, blocking her from view.

Suni leaned against the metallic wall, a blaster stolen from an arms locker held tightly in her hand. So far, she had been able to move unseen through the Kaesar mother ship, but she knew her luck wouldn't last forever. She needed to find her way to the Master fast, before the war went any further and more lives were needlessly lost. Taking a deep breath, she carefully moved down the hallway.

The sound of rapid footsteps caused her to scramble for a hiding spot and wish she had not lost the invisibility device Alyna had given Xen. She ducked into an empty room, pressed her back against the wall, and held her blaster ready as the footsteps drew closer.

"They're gone!" a Kaesar exclaimed in their strange, hissing language.

"What are you talking about?" another said grumpily.

"The cell is empty – they're gone!"

The second Kaesar swore loudly, although Suni didn't understand the exact word he spoke. She had grown up among enough different languages to know a curse word when she heard one.

"Better report it," the swearing guard said.

"Who? Me? Are you crazy?" the first guard replied. "The Master will skin me alive."

Suni heard the sound of a blaster charging up. It only lasted a second, but in that second, Suni was convinced she had been discovered. She swallowed her nervousness and closed her eyes, waiting.

"Okay, okay," the first guard said. "No need to point that thing at me. I'll go to the command post now."

The second guard grunted something and Suni heard footsteps walking away. She hesitated a little longer, and was rewarded with a long sigh.

"The Master will have my hide," the luckless guard was saying to himself.

As he walked down the hall, dragging his heels, Suni slipped out of her hiding spot and followed him. She couldn't help but grin to herself. She had a guide to take her all the way to the Master, and he didn't even know it.

Tethys woke, feeling very dehydrated. A Neptunian with low water levels would evaporate into nothingness, so Tethys sat up in alarm and glance around for the closest liquid. She blinked in surprised as she slowly realized where she was. She sat by herself on a soft bed in a small room. There were no windows, but several small machines were pumping moist air into the room, giving the room the feel of a jungle, although without the heat. A large jar of water sat next to her, and she placed her hand in the cool fluid before liquefying herself and completely submerging her form in the jar.

When she emerged, she felt much better. Rising from the bed, she slipped a housecoat over her white hospital gown and exited the room. The hall of the ship was strangely empty, which alarmed Tethys. She thought perhaps the ship was under direct attack by the Kaesar mother ship, or that they had retreated in defeat and all hands were to remain at their battle stations. Taking a few steps down the hall, she ducked into the room beside hers, hoping to find some answers.

The room was identical to the one she had just left, although without the comfortable humid atmosphere. Atreus was sitting in the bed, reading a compupad. He looked up as she entered, completely unsurprised by her visit, and smiled.

"Hi," he said.

Tethys walked further into the room and sat on the small chair next to him. "So, I take it we're alive?"

Atreus grinned. "Yeah, Alyna saved us. Uncle Harlan and Uncle Radu have already been down to see me. We're in serious trouble, just so you know."

"Uncle Radu?"

"He's here with part of the Spung fleet. Seems they're the only race allied to the UPP who came to help."

Tethys blinked. "Not even the Neptunians?"

"Uncle Harlan said the Neptunians demanded you be returned to them. Seems they're still a little uneasy after the almost-rebellion that Nylph started."

"And the Andromedans?"

Atreus shook his head. "Mom tried, but they're still uneasy around the Spung, and vice versa after what almost happened at Uncle Radu's wedding. Yensid is completely shut down, so no help there. We're on our own."

Tethys shook her head sadly. The Master had had his hands in all those situations. He had been trying to weaken the UPP before the Kaesar invasion, but they had stopped him at every turn. Still, the Master's plan had done its damage, and it seemed as if he had won that battle after all.

"United we stand, divided we fall," Tethys muttered softly.

"Exactly," Atreus replied. He sighed and leaned back in his pillows. "This war is over for us, too. We're lucky we're still cadets, or we would have been discharged from the UPP. The Admiral is shouldering the blame for having cadets in space."

Tethys felt awful. She hadn't realized the consequences of their actions, flying off after Alyna and the last escape pod from the Starbase. They should have stayed on the battle field, not gone off on a whim. Still, if they hadn't followed, Alyna would be dead. Tethys raised her head.

"Alyna? Where is she?" she asked.

Atreus' expression turned sorrowful as he pointed to the small window in his room, the one feature that marked it as different from the room Tethys had woken up in. The Neptunian hesitated a moment before rising to her feet and slowly walking to the window. Outside was the blackness of space, although the lights on the side of the Goddard illuminated part of it. There were a few people dressed in space suits outside, joined to the hull by a thick, strong cord as they floated in the nothingness. They all appeared to be heading to a common location, and Tethys allowed her gaze to wander in that direction. She gasped.

"Alyna!"

The Guardian lay in a force field bubble, unconscious. She looked as she had when they had found her, her tail hanging limply and her arms by her side. The different was that the space suit clad people were bustling around her, bandaging her wounds and trying to check her vital signs. For a creature who does not breath or have a pulse, this was quite difficult.

"Is she okay?" Tethys asked, turning back to Atreus.

The Andromedan shook his head. "She brought us here and collapsed. Fortunately, the medic in charge had enough sense to put her back in space. They wrapped a force field around her to keep her from drifting off or being struck by stray laser fire. I guess we won't know how she is until she wakes up."

Tethys sat back down at her friend's side. "I guess it's all up to Suni and Xen now."

Suni waited outside the doors leading to the command post, doing her best to remain unseen. She thought about what she was going to say when she was face to face with Spek again – no, she corrected herself, not Spek. The Master. He was no longer the Kaesar she had befriended long ago. She had one burning question that she needed to have answered before she killed him, and she decided to let him live long enough to answer it.

Taking a deep breath, Suni raised her blaster and prepared to fight her way across the command post, to the private office where she had been brought earlier. She remembered the room being full of Kaesar, so she steeled her nerves and readied her weapon as she burst through the doors.

The command post was empty. A large view screen displayed the continuing battle in space between the Kaesar and UPP fighters, but not a single Kaesar soldier was at their stations. Suni crept forward cautiously, keeping her guard up and she made he was through the room. Monitors flashed and beeped, and she heard the frantic reports from the fighters, although she could not decipher them through the static. Without opposition, Suni made it to the door and waited as it slid open.

"Come in, Suni," the voice of the Master hissed.

Suni stepped inside, the door sliding shut behind her. Seated on his throne at the far end of the room was the Master. There was no one else in the room except him, not even any guards. Suni leveled her blaster at him, her finger on the trigger.

"Is that any way for old friends to behave?" the Master asked.

The gun was suddenly pulled from her hand, clattering to the floor near the Master's feet. Suni gasped in surprise, suddenly remembering Spek's telekinetic abilities, and scolded herself for not recalling them sooner. The Master chuckled, and motioned for her to come closer. Suni did so, reluctantly.

"I always respected you, Suni," the Master said. "Because of that, I've allowed you to die by my hand. A great honour, to be killed by the Master of the universe."

Suni raised an eyebrow. "Master of the universe? I hardly think that the SOL system counts as the entire universe, and you haven't won yet."

"But I will," the Master hissed. "Once you are dead, all of those who stood against me will be gone. No more of your tricks to stop me."

"Everyone who stood against you?" Suni repeated dumbly. "I'm the last one?"

The Master made a hissing sound that could have been a laugh. "I shot your friend in front of your eyes. One of my fighters blew up the ship carrying the Andromedan and the Neptunian princess, and your Guardian fell prey to one of my bombs. You're all alone."

Suni felt tears stinging her eyes, but before she could allow them to fall, her heart hardened once more against what she had to do. She kept her mind clear, allowing her anger to flow through her as the Master chuckled on his throne. She would need the element of surprise if her plan was going to work.

"Even if I am alone," Suni told him, "the UPP won't fall because you killed one cadet, or even five cadets. If you kill me, your war won't be won."

The Master held out his hand facing Suni, fingers outstretched. He curled them into his palm as if he were gripping something tightly, and Suni was suddenly unable to breath. Her hand went instinctively to her throat, trying to knock aside the unseen hand that was strangling her.

"Let the war continue," the Master said calmly. "At least you'll be dead."

Suni began to see spots floating in front of her eyes as she struggled to breath. Her eyes moved wildly around the room, when she saw the blaster by the Master's feet rise into the air. She was certain he was controlling the weapon again, that he would shoot her as she gasped for air, but instead the blaster turned to the Master and fired.

The Master screamed in pain as the shot got him in the chest, and he rose to his feet in anger. Suni fell to the ground, the constriction around her throat gone, and inhaled the sweetest air she had ever breathed. Rising once more to her feet, she saw the Master was no longer concerned with her as he approached the floating blaster. He grabbed the gun and pulled, and Xen came flying out of a dimensional tear that closed right behind him. The Vyrillian was flung across the room, striking the far wall and falling to the ground. Suni ran to his side, noticing that the wound in his stomach was still bleeding.

"Xen!" she exclaimed.

"Look out!" he replied, pushing her roughly to one side.

The Master was firing the blaster, Xen sat up as best he could and raised his hands. Small portals materialized in front of each blaster bolt, sending them harmlessly into space. The Master howled in rage and lurched towards them, shooting wildly.

"Attention, attention," a Kaesar voice interrupted them suddenly. "The ship will self destruct in 60 seconds."

The Master stopped firing for a moment, looking confused. Xen turned to Suni and winked, holding a piece of circuitry in his hand. Even after failing basic shuttle repair, Suni recognized an emergency self-destruct panel when she saw one. She smiled at Xen and squeezed his hand, standing once more before the frustrated Master. He tossed his weapon aside, and stood grinning in front of the Starcademy cadet.

"Even if I die," he reminded her, "nothing you have lost will be returned."

"But I will avenge what you have taken from me! This is for my parents," Suni said, electrical sparks dancing on her finger tips.

She released a lightning storm of electrical energy at the Master, causing him to cry out in pain and fall to the ground. Suni walked over to him.

"This is for my friends," she continued, firing another blast at him. The Master writhed on the floor, saliva bubbling around the corners of his reptilian mouth and fresh blood pouring from the wound in his chest.

"And this," she said finally, "is for me."

She hesitated, and the Master stared up at her with hurt filled eyes. Sun bit her lip as she thought once more about taking a life, no matter how despicable the person was. She lowered her hands slightly.

"Tell me one thing," she said, the question burning in her mind. "Was it all a trick, from the very beginning? When I first met you on the Spung Homeworld all those years ago, were you ever truly my friend?"

The Master's eyes hardened and he began to laugh. "Stupid girl. Do you miss your poor friend Spek? When I first saw you, I used you to get to the Empress. Only later did I realize your true potential. Without you, Suni Ianni, none of this would have been possible."

Suni felt her heart turn to stone at those words. Had she not befriended Spek, had she just left him on the Spung Homeworld, had she not brought him to the palace…

"This is for me," she repeated.

The Master laughed as Suni killed him, the hissing sound merging with the crackle of the electricity that surrounded his body. Suni focused her energy more intensely than she ever had before, and only stopped when she saw smoke rising from the Master's still body.

"Attention, attention. The ship will self destruct in 10 seconds."

Suni turned around quickly. "Xen! We have to get out of here!"

She ran to where her friend lay slumped against the wall. His eyes were closed and the circuitry he had stolen lay against a limp hand. Suni crouched next to him, shaking his shoulder until he weakly opened his eyes.

"Suni, go," he whispered.

"Not without you," Suni replied, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Xen's lips curled into a smile, the effort causing him to close his eyes again. Suni could see fresh blood on the wall behind him, where his head had struck when the Master had thrown him. Suni shook her head, as if that action could stop the inevitable.

"No," she breathed. "No, no, no! Xen, no! You can't die!"

"Okay," Xen managed to say. "If you say so."

He raised his hand, sweat beading on his forehead, and flicked his wrist. A small portal materialized next to Suni, just large enough for her to crawl through. Suni stared at it, then back to her friend.

"I'm not leaving you," she said firmly.

"Go," Xen gave her a little shove. "Tell my mother I love her. And thank you for your friendship."

Suni backed up into the portal, her eyes locked on Xen's face. He kept his eyes on her as well, tears forming shallow rivers down his face. He lowered his hand and his eyes closed for the last time, his head falling to his chest. Suni screamed as the portal began to close and fire erupted in the exploding ship. As the last doorway to the Kaesar mother ship faded, Suni could see the body of her friend being licked by flames, and she cried out in rage.

Admiral Harlan Band watched in undisguised horror as the Kaesar mother ship exploded before his eyes. Next to him, Radu put his hand on his friend's shoulder and gripped it tightly. Tethys choked back a sob and buried her face in Atreus' shoulder, as the dark haired Andromedan let the tears fall down his face. The command post of the Goddard was silent. No one shouted to their victory, no one celebrated the end of the Kaesar war.

There was a sudden sound behind them, as if part of the explosion had made its way into the command post, but as quickly as it came, it was gone. Atreus and Tethys turned and were the first to spot the pink figure huddled on the ground behind the Admiral's chair. They hurried over to her, falling to their knees beside her, and taking her into their arms.

"Suni, you're okay," Atreus said gratefully.

Tethys said nothing, rocking the sobbing Suni back and forth. Harlan and Radu hurried over, Harlan shouting for a medical team to get to the command post right away. Suni kept herself curled tightly in the fetal position, clutching Tethys' clothing as if she would disappear.

"Where's Xen?" Atreus asked suddenly.

Suni paused to turn her eyes to her friend. Atreus was shocked at how sad they were, when they were normally so bright and cheerful. He wondered if they would ever be that way again, if Suni would ever be how she once was.

"He's dead," Suni whispered. "They're both dead. The Master killed Xen, and I – I – I"

She turned her head back into Tethys' shoulder. Harlan and Radu exchanged helpless glances as the medical team arrived and bundled the three cadets away. Alone once more on the bridge of his ship, Harlan gave the order for them to return home. The second Kaesar war was over.

Suni sat alone in a dark room, utterly unresponsive to anything around her. She ate only when someone fed her, drank when a glass was lifted to her lips, and slept when someone lay her down on her bed. She refused to speak, and wouldn't explain what had happened on the Kaesar mother ship to anyone. Atreus and Tethys took turns sitting with her, and sitting in the observation lounge watching Alyna floating lifelessly in space. No one spoke about Xen; the pain was still too fresh.

"Why did you leave the Kaesar, Spek?"

"Fighting bad. I like peace. Spung are nice, too. I spoke with some on the ship. Nice peoples. You are not Spung, what are you?"

"Mercurian," Suni replied, "and Uranusian. My name is Suni Ianni."

"Nice to meet, Ianni," Spek said. "You take me somewhere safe?"

"Not now," Suni said. "First, I have to rescue the Empress from the palace, then we'll head to the UPP flagship. I think they'd like to talk with you."

Spek clapped his hands excitedly. "Spek held stop fighting? Bring peace?"

Suni nodded. "But first, we have to get to the palace."

Suni squeezed her eyes shut, willing no more tears to fall. The Master was right. It had been all her fault. She had been completely fooled by Spek from the very beginning, his longest and best planned deception. She should have shot him when they had first met. If only she had left him there, Xen and her parents would still be alive…

She heard the door to her room slide open, but she continued to stare at her hands. A chair was pulled up next to her bed, and she knew one of her friends was coming to sit with her. She wished they wouldn't waste their time. She had brought war to the UPP and caused hundreds of thousands of people to die. She deserved to be imprisoned for life.

Without you, Suni, none of this would have been possible.

"Suni?" Tethys said. "We're almost back to Earth. Uncle Harlan is going to let you stay with him for the time being. I have to go back to Neptune, and Atreus is going home to New Andromeda."

Suni was glad they were leaving her. Her friends only ended up dying.

"We'll come back and say good bye when the ship is in orbit. We… we would like it if you would say good bye to us, too. We miss you, Suni."

Suni missed them too, but this was for the best. Her parents, Xen, all the inhabitants of all the Starbases, killed so the Master could find her. She was the target all along. She should have turned herself in a long time ago.

Tethys stood and put her hand on Suni's. Suni saw the green skin on top of her own pink flesh, and another tear slid down her face.

"It wasn't your fault," Tethys told her. "None of it was. I don't know what happened, but I'm sure Xen did not regret any decision he made, and neither should you."

Suni waited until Tethys was almost at the door before she raised her head. The Neptunian princess still had her hair short, although it had grown in the short period of time that had passed. Suni clutched the blankets in her hands, squeezing them tightly.

"Without me, none of this would have happened," Suni whispered.

Tethys turned and was at her side again in an instant. "You're right, Suni."

The Mercurian-Uranusian stared at her friend in shock. Tethys took her hands again.

"Without you, Uncle Radu would have died before his wedding. Without you, Suzee would have stayed lost in time. Alyna would never have learned to love us planet-dwellers, and Atreus and I would have been killed by Nylph. Without you, all of Starcademy would have been enslaved by the Kaesar, and the Master would have skill blown up the Starbases."

Tethys released her friend's hands and stood. "Think about all the good you've done, Suni, instead of focusing on the bad. And remember, you still have people who love you."

Suni stared dumbfounded as Tethys walked out of the room.

THREE MONTHS LATER…

"Hello?" Catalina called from the front entranceway of the house.

She closed the door behind her, dropping her bag next to the wooden staircase that led to the second floor. She took a few hesitant steps into the house, peering into a disorganized office, and meticulous sitting room as she passed their open doors.

"Harlan?" she called again. "Suni? Anyone home?"

There was a clatter from the kitchen, and Catalina relaxed, a smile spreading across her face. She walked the rest of the way down the hall and entered the brightly lit kitchen. Spacious windows along the back wall revealed a small garden of exotic plants that seemed to flourish in Earth's environment. The Saturnian turned and saw Harlan moving quickly around the kitchen, trying to contain several pots and pans as they boiled and sizzled. He was wearing a while apron and chefs hat, and Catalina put her hand to her mouth to stop a giggle from escaping.

"You're early," Harlan said accusingly. "Suni's not back yet, and dinner isn't ready."

"You look so… domesticated," Catalina told him.

Harlan made a face. "I don't know what Rosie and Bova were thinking, making me Suni's guardian."

"You were the logical choice. Close to Starcademy, stable job," Catalina replied, stealing a carrot from the countertop, "and you didn't have to accept."

Harlan shook his head. "I still can't believe they're gone."

"No trace of them was found?" Cat asked, lowering her pilfered carrot.

"It's been over three months," Harlan said. "If they were alive…"

"I'm home!" Suni called from the doorway. "Is Aunt Catalina here? Her stuff is in the hall."

Suni came into the kitchen, carrying an armful of flowers. She was dressed all in black, and she didn't smile when she came in. As Catalina greeted her and helped her with her load, she observed that Suni's eyes had lost some of their sparkle.

"The guest room is made up for you, Aunt Catalina," Suni said. "Are you staying long?"

"A few days," Catalina replied. "There are some people I want to visit after the memorial service."

Suni nodded. "Atreus and Tethys are in town too, staying at their planet's consulates. There wasn't enough room for us all here."

"Excuse me for only have one guest room," Harlan said. "For most people, that's enough."

Suni tried to smile, but it looked forced. She excused herself and left the kitchen. A moment later, footsteps were heard going to the second floor, and a door closed. Harlan sighed and took off his hat, tossing it onto the counter as he finished the meal.

"I'm hardly ever here," he said regretfully. "She needs someone to help her through this. Can't you…?"

Catalina shook her head. "Sending her to Yensid won't help. She'll be far from her friends, and it will just remind her of Xen. Besides, I've got a grieving mother on my hands. I can't handle both of them."

Harlan closed his eyes and sighed. "I know, but I'm not exactly a father."

"And you never will be, not to Suni. You can't replace Bova in her heart. All you can be is Uncle Harlan. I think that's enough for her."

Harlan nodded, tears brimming in his eyes. He rubbed them away angrily, blaming the onions he was frying, and shooed Catalina to the table so he could finish cooking. Catalina sat down, a bemused smile on her face as she watched her old friend, and her eyes wandered to the flowers Suni had bought. There was one bouquet, and a large floral wreath, each with a single card attached to them. One read 'Xen', and the other 'Mom and Dad'.

The sun was shining brightly and the sky free of clouds as Suni, Catalina, and Harlan made their way towards the memorial. The monument had been designed as a central pillar, representing the UPP, and several smaller pillars surrounding it, representing each of the Starbases that were destroyed by the Kaesar. Suni held a wreath of flowers tightly in her hands, and Catalina carried the bouquet Suni had purchased earlier. They walked silently, lost in their own thoughts and memories, to where a sizeable crowd had already gathered.

Although the time of the memorial had not been widely publicized, the location was known by everyone. The UPP had commissioned highly skilled artists from all over the SOL system to design the monument, adding elements from every race. The government of New Andromeda had sent volunteer workers to help erect the structure, and fine stonemasons from Pluto had painstakingly chiseled the known names of the victims into the respective pillars. Between the monuments were gardens designed by Neptunian botanists, and fountains created by famed Venusian artisans. The pathways were made of Mercurian rock, and imported trees from Uranus provided shade from the sun. Even the Spung had provided some of the building materials for the new monument.

As Harlan, Suni, and Catalina made it to the top of the hill, there were already over a hundred mourners gathered. The crowd parted as they approached, and moved silently to the front of the crows. Harlan made his way onto the temporary stage, and Suni joined Atreus and Tethys, putting her wreath by her feet and taking each of their hands into hers. Catalina followed Harlan, standing next to Radu, Elmira, Clito, and Suzee. The crowd grew silent as Harlan approached the podium to deliver his speech.

"Freedom never comes without a heavy price," the Admiral of the UPP began. "The recent Kaesar invasion extracted that price from us all, and we are gathered here today to remember those who gave their lives so we might remain free."

Suni squeezed Atreus' hand tighter. Atreus glanced over at his friend, sad that she refused to wear colour anymore, and that the smile that had resembled her mother's so much would not return. He looked over at Tethys, her shortened hair the only physical reminder of her many brushes with death, and the princess stared ahead, listening to the Admiral speak.

"The citizens of the Starbases, who died needlessly so the Kaesar could show off their power, will never be forgotten; nor will the brave crews of those 'bases who gave their lives to save others. Each of these pillars stands as a memorial to them, so their lives will not have been lost in vain."

The crowd applauded politely. A tear slid down Suni's cheek, but she made no motion to wipe it away. Tethys bowed her head respectfully as the Admiral waited for silence once more.

"We must also recognize those who volunteered to fly against the Kaesar, saving the lives of the colonies on the surrounding planets. Those pilots who defended our space, will live on in our hearts. Thank you all for coming, and please think on those who gave up everything so we would have to give up nothing."

As the group broke up to look at the memorials, Suni and her friends made their way to the stage where Harlan and the others were descending. Suni handed her wreath to Tethys and took the bouquet of flowers from Catalina, clutching them tightly to her chest. Her eyes were on Suzee, who stood apart from the others, her eyes puffy from crying. It was strange to see their strong aunt caught up in her emotions, and Suni reluctantly broke free of her friends to approach.

"Aunt Suzee?" Suni said.

The older woman turned, attempting to smile as she did so. Suni could see how strained it was. She held out the flowers as a peace offering, and Suzee took them.

"I'm sorry," Suni burst out. "I couldn't save him. I tried, I wasn't strong enough. He saved me, but he died, and I couldn't do anything. I'm so, so sorry."

Suzee took Suni into her arms and hugged her tightly. Suni clutched her aunt, apologizing over and over again until Suzee let her go and told her to stop.

"You have nothing to apologize for, Suni," Suzee told her gently. "Xen did was he wanted to do."

"But he was your son," Suni sobbed. "I took away your son."

"The Master took him, not you," Suzee replied, "and although he was my son, I was never much of a mother to him. I left him with his father's people and kept disappearing and reappearing in his life, never staying long. I don't think I ever had a decent conversation with him, other than when he asked to go to Yensid."

Suzee raised her eyes to meet Suni's. "He never fit in among his father's people, because of me. His mixed blood kept him apart, so he asked if he could leave. Catalina was against it – she never liked the… circumstances under which he was born – but I told him he could go. He wanted to see my world, thinking maybe he would fit in better with my people, I suppose. He spent his whole life alone, until he met you, Suni. Without you, he would be alive, but he would not be happy."

Suzee lay the flowers down at the base of the pillar, her hand touching the soft marble gently as tears continued to flow down her cheeks. She looked back at her niece. "Thank you for giving him a happy life, Suni."

As Suni left her grieving aunt to rejoin her friends, she noticed someone new had joined their group. Alyna stood tall and proud with Tethys and Atreus, her left arm still bandaged and scars showing through her blue fur. Her cape had been mended, but her golden eyes seemed tired still, as if they had seen too much.

"Alyna!" Suni exclaimed, embracing her friend.

Alyna winced at the affection. "Careful, please, Suni. I am not completely healed."

"Where have you been?" Suni asked. "I haven't heard from you since… for three months."

Alyna averted her eyes, and Suni got a sinking feeling in her stomach. She held Alyna by the hand, waiting.

"I was tracking down my race," Alyna said. "I tried to follow the Great Migration."

"Why?" Suni breathed.

"The UPP is safe," Alyna continued with some difficulty.

"She misses her people," Tethys said gently.

"But she has us!" Suni protested.

"We're all on different planets right now," Atreus added. "None of us know when we'll be in space next. Starcademy hasn't been reopened yet, and the Starbases might not ever be rebuilt now that the UPP know how vulnerable they are to attack."

Alyna lowered her head.

"But even if you find the other Guardians, you don't talk to each other," Suni said, knowing she was fighting a loosing battle. "Finding them won't make you less lonely."

"It is like you planet-dwellers, surrounded by your own kind to whom you never speak," Alyna said. "You are comforted in the fact that you are not alone."

The Guardian stepped forward and placed a silver transmitter in Suni's hand. "I will attempt to follow my people, but if I do not find them, I will return. Should the Starcademy reopen before I am out of communicator range, call me."

Suni turned over the silver device. "How long will this work?"

"Several years, I suspect. The SOL system is large, Suni Ianni, and I do not know where the Guardians have gone. It will take me a while to find traces of them."

Suni forced a smile. "You promise to come back when school starts?"

Alyna returned the grin and embraced her friend. "If I can, I will. I promise."

Suni left her friends and moved to join Harlan, Catalina, Suzee, Radu, and Elmira around one of the small pillars representing Starbase 7. They were speaking quietly to each other, but their conversation disappears as she approached, carrying her floral wreath. Gently, she lay the wreath at the base of the pillar, her eyes locked on the two carved names of her parents, which wavered behind the tears in her eyes. She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up at her uncle Harlan.

"Your grandparents on Mercury have said you can live with them until school starts," Harlan said gently. "Although I can't imagine a diplomatic office that wouldn't accept you, if you wanted to go there."

"You're welcome back to the Spung court as ambassador," Empress Elmira said, holding the leash of her small pet gurkle tightly.

"The Yensidian Traders are looking for someone to help them re-established trading routes to the SOL system," Catalina added.

"And you're always welcome to stay with me," Harlan finished in a voice that indicated he would enjoy having her stay.

Suni turned to look at her parents' best friends, the only family she had left. They all seemed so much older now, more fragile, than the had before. Suni squeezed the silver transmitter in her hand and looked up into the blue sky, knowing that beyond it lay the bright stars and planets of her friends.

"I want to find them," Suni whispered.

"Find who?" Radu asked.

"My parents. They're out there, somewhere. I can't believe they would die just like that. They must have escaped."

"Suni," Catalina said gently, stepping forward.

Suni backed away from her. "No! You may have given them up for dead, but my parents wouldn't just leave me like this. They're out there, I know they are! If they were dead, I would feel it, wouldn't I?"

Harlan sighed and nodded. "You're old enough to do what you think is right, Suni, but your parents died in the explosion that destroyed Starbase 7. But if you're serious about this, I'll lend you a ship. Just don't leave the SOL system and be back when Starcademy reopens."

Suni blinked in surprise. "You're lending me a ship?"

Harlan forced a smile. "I'm the Admiral. I can do what I want, right? Ask Alyna to go with you."

Suni's pleased expression faded. "She's going to search for the Guardians."

"Go together," Harlan repeated. "You look for your parents, and she can look for the Guardians. I'll sleep better at night knowing someone is out there with you. And send me updates on where you are every day."

"Yes, Uncle Harlan," Suni said, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him on the cheek.

As Suni ran off to talk to her friends, Catalina moved next to her friend. She took his hand and held it tightly.

"Good job, Uncle Harlan," she said.

Harlan sighed. "What would Rosie and Bova said if they knew I sent their daughter on a wild goose chase?"

Catalina stood on tiptoe and kissed Harlan on the cheek, like Suni had done. This time, however, Harlan blushed slightly.

"They would say," Catalina repeated, "Good job, Uncle Harlan."