The peaceful silence on the ship when they were all expecting an explosion was broken only by the sounds of Alfred rejoicing.
"Hell yeah! I just disabled a mother fucking bomb! Tony, tell me who's the man!" Alfred crowed.
"You are a man," Tony replied factually.
"Not a man—the man! Up top, little alien dude!" Alfred said, holding his hand up towards Kiku and waiting for a high-five. Kiku stared at his hand blankly. With a smile, Alfred patted Kiku's shoulder instead. "Don't worry, buddy. We'll work on that."
Alfred's moment of celebration was short lived. His elation at surviving the bomb disappeared as he realized his situation. Needless to say, it was pretty horrific.
"Visit computer for updates requested," Kiku said, breaking into Alfred's rioting thoughts.
"Oh, uh, yeah...sure thing—over here," Alfred said, guiding Kiku to a nearby terminal. Kiku pulled a small piece of technology from behind his pointed ear and set it down near the computer's screen. Kiku hesitated at the controls, and seemed unsure of how to proceed.
"You just...like this," Alfred said. He'd never been very good at explaining technology. It made sense to him, and he could fix just about anything in a pinch, but he left the explanations up to the tech manuals that he never downloaded. "Tony, can you scan his translator and yours and try to update them?" Alfred asked. Tony wordlessly joined Kiku at the terminal and grabbed the translator with his robotic arm. Kiku's big, dark eyes showed concern when Tony put the translator in his "mouth" port, but a few minutes later he returned it to the desk and connected himself into the ship's more powerful computers.
"Update in process. 12 percent," Tony informed. Alfred smiled and nodded in what he hoped was a reassuring manner at Kiku. His smiling still seemed to unnerve the alien, but Alfred wasn't too good at filtering his facial expressions—not like Kiku did, anyway.
"When you can understand English better, remind me to teach you how to play poker. You'd clean up, dude!" Alfred joked. Absorbed in Tony's work, Kiku largely ignored him.
The silence returned to the ship and Alfred realized the unpleasant task ahead of him. He could have booted up a cleaning droid to handle it, but that seemed disrespectful somehow.
"Tony, help Kiku settle in on the ship. I'm going to...take care of my crew," Alfred said, quite serious and sad now. Kiku did look at him then, and even if he didn't understand Alfred's words, he sensed the pained emotion in the young Commander's voice. Kiku gave him a long look and then bowed his head.
Alfred surveyed the land outside the ship and decided the ground was suitable for digging graves. That was work he could entrust to the cleaning droids, though it was certainly not what they were programmed to do. It took a bit of tweaking, but soon the two droids were preparing the eight grave sites.
Alfred was young, yes, but he was battle hardened. He'd lost men before, both in training and on missions. It had been devastating at first, but he'd matured as a soldier and learned that it was the ugly side of warfare, and there was nothing that could be done about it. Any man or woman that died in the line of duty died honorably, and Alfred had learned the only way to cope with death on the battlefield was to find a way to make the death mean something.
Alfred still didn't completely understand everything that had happened. He hoped Kiku would be able to explain it better on flight off Nihon, when his translator was updated. For the moment, all Commander Jones knew was that he'd lost good men and women that day, and he could not let their deaths be in vain. Whatever or whoever these Enders were, Alfred vowed then and there to put a stop to them and their influence over humans.
It raised so many questions, though. Just how deep did this go? Was it only the military that was indoctrinated? What did indoctrination even entail? Why had his own failed, and how did Kiku connect to what was happening?
Commander Jones sighed as he carried the last body, one of the engineers, off ship to the waiting graves. He didn't have the answers yet, but he would find them, no matter what.
Alfred used the extra bedding on the ship to wrap each crew member. He thoughtfully removed their dog tags, in the hopes that when everything was said and done, he could return the tags to their family members. Lastly, he found some spare metal in the cargo bay and carefully recorded the names of the crew and the motto of the United Army.
When that bit of work was done, he worked with the droids to bury each body and place the grave marker. He assumed Kiku had settled into the ship and that Tony was answering the alien's questions, whatever they may have been, while Alfred completed his grim task. As the droids helped him to cover the final body with the soil of Nihon, Kiku and Tony joined him outside in respectful silence.
Alfred stood in silence, too, because he'd never really thought much about what came after death. He was young, and though he'd seen many deaths, and heard many services both religious and not, he felt like none of those words he'd heard before fit the loss of his crew of so many years.
All he could do was kneel at the grave marker and renew his promise.
"You won't have died in vain. I'll figure this out no matter what," Alfred thought solemnly. He wished his crew peace, and then he returned to the ship with just Kiku and Tony.
"I have instructed your droid to sever ties with your military and remove all tracking software. It is likely we overlooked some, and the ship will be relentlessly pursued. It would be best if we could secure a different ship, as soon as possible," Kiku said fluently. Alfred blinked in surprise.
"Err, I guess the update to your translator was successful. I'm Commander Jones. I serve in the human military, but I'm also a Vanguard for the galactic counsel...which basically means I'm the hero," Alfred said, trying not to smile this time.
"I apologize. I am unfamiliar with your species. I do not believe your species had made contact with other parts of the universe during my people's cycle, however I believe our species have much in common...unfortunately," Kiku said gravely, eying the bloodstains that the droids had begun to clean.
"Yeah, I've got a ton of questions for you, but I need to get cleaned up and we need to get off this planet. I don't understand why or how, but I get the feeling I'm a wanted man now, and that it's not safe to report in to my higher ups. Until I can get in touch with the Counsel, we should probably get a new ship and get off the grid," Alfred said.
"I do not know what changes have happened to the universe during my stasis period. I could suggest sanctuaries, but thousands of years have passed since I was last conscious," Kiku explained. Alfred whistled.
"That's a long time. When did you wake up?"
"By your method of telling time, roughly two years ago. I have been stranded on my home world since then."
"Yeah, this route isn't exactly popular. We're probably the first ship to come this way in a long time," Alfred said. He shook his head. "Man, that's some incredible odds that I even got your signal at all. You have Tony to thank for that one. My crew wanted to ignore it...for obvious reasons now, I guess," Alfred concluded. Kiku nodded, and gave Tony a quick little bow. It must have been how his people showed respect, as Alfred had seen him do it a few times now.
"Well, don't worry. Most military types wouldn't know how, but I can get us out of Counsel space pretty easy. I know where to go to sell a military ship, too. It's going to be dangerous, of course, but you seem like you can handle yourself pretty well," Alfred said.
"What about the wound in your side. The ship's doctor was among those you buried," Kiku replied.
"I bandaged it up already—just a flesh wound. It hurt pretty bad, but the painkillers kicked in fast," Alfred said. He turned to Tony. "Alright, buddy, I guess you just got promoted to my navigator. Set a course for Verge space, to planet Kresh.
"I will need to install updates to my software before I can navigate this vessel. Alert. Attempts to set a destination will be easily detected by military officials. Updates to my firewalls are also required to maintain stealth. (Select) Update now, cancel," Tony replied.
"Update now. Let me know when we're ready to launch," Alfred said. Then to Kiku he asked, "Did you find a good spot on the ship to settle down?"
"I find the starboard observation quarters to suit my needs. I will go there now to meditate on the events of the day. You may find me there when it is time to leave Nihon," Kiku said.
"Right, will do," Commander Jones said. Before they parted ways, he asked one quick question. "Hey, Kiku, you're not exactly easy to read and all, but you seem uncomfortable when I smile. Don't your people ever smile?" Alfred asked, head cocked to the side in curiosity. Kiku's eyebrows lifted as if he were surprised or maybe amused by the question.
"For most species, showing your teeth is a sign of aggression, is it not?"
Alfred puzzled over that, and then laughed. "Yeah, I guess it is. I don't mean it like that, though. Smiling is how humans show we're feeling happy or friendly, or its what we do when something is funny."
"Noted. My species expresses amusement or joy like this," Kiku said. At first, Alfred didn't notice it, but then he realized Kiku's pointed ears were moving. Alfred's face split into a huge grin, and the wiggling abruptly stopped. Sheepishly, Alfred hid his smile.
"Sorry, but that's pretty funny!"
"You do not need to hide your expression now that you have explained its meaning. I will get used to your quirks in time, as I hope you will adjust to mine," Kiku said in a monotone. Alfred wanted to ask about Kiku's strange way of speaking, too, but the day's activities had left him sweaty and his clothing soiled. Everything else could wait until after he'd showered and changed.
Captain Arthur watched as Matthew silently scrubbed at the stubborn grease and oil stains on his fair skin under the powerful blast of the galley sink.
"All that rot you were saying to Peter earlier...one might think you weren't loyal to the 2C cause," Arthur suggested in a deceptively mild tone. His dark green eyes glittered dangerously, though. It was just the two of them now, as the others had gone off to their respective parts of the ship to sleep in preparation for launch in a few hours time. Matthew's motions slowed for a moment and a small, troubled frown appeared on his face.
"I didn't mean to offend you or anyone else," he said quietly. Despite the mechanic's shy reply, Arthur's intensity didn't let up.
"I can't go into battle with a United Army ship not knowing where your loyalty lies," the Captain said darkly. Matthew's hands clenched on the sink for a moment, and then he dried them off with a nearby cloth. His expression was one of resigned sadness.
"I'm not a soldier, and I'm not a 2C rebel. I'm just a mechanic, Captain. I'm paid to keep your ship running, and that's what I'll do. It's no difference to me whether you're attacking a United Army ship or a mercenary vessel...but I am not prejudiced. I won't blindly hate all biotic humans just because you tell me I should. I can think for myself, Captain Kirkland...with all due respect," Matthew said softly.
The Captain scowled and slammed his fist down on the kitchen table. Matthew winced.
"That's bollocks! You're too soft. It'll get you killed one day. Tell a biotic you just want to be friends and I'll tell you what will happen—he'll blast you dead faster than you can say 2C!"
Matthew's eyes had been glued to the floor, but now he rather boldly raised them to meet the Captain's fiery gaze. When Matthew spoke, it was with quiet strength.
"My brother is a biotic. He'd never hurt anyone without good reason, and he's never hated me just because I'm a 2C," Matthew said. Arthur blinked in surprise and his mouth fell open a little.
"Your...brother?" Arthur said a bit dumbly. Matthew sighed.
"I suppose you were going to find out eventually...especially if we really are taking on a United Army ship. How about a cup of tea? It's a long story," Matthew said. Arthur's large eyebrows were furrowed in displeasure, but he nodded tightly. As Yao had mentioned earlier, a hundred years before, it had not been at all uncommon for families to be torn apart by the biotic-2C split, but now such a thing was unheard of entirely.
Matthew cleared his throat a bit nervously as he put the water on to boil and rummaged about for the tea leaves.
"When Alfred was born, he was...different. We're twins. Our mother was a slave to the owner of a junkyard. Alfred and I were born free, though. The owner—Axxil—offered to buy us both several times, but our mom always refused. It would have made her life much easier, but she never caved. She said Alfred was meant to be free—meant to do something great."
"Seems like she had a favorite," Arthur said rather insensitively. Matthew just gave a little shrug and stirred the tea in his cup.
"It wasn't favoritism...just honesty. I don't quite know how to describe Alfred. Most biotics don't show their powers until four or five, but Alfred was born a biotic. Mom said he glowed blue as a newborn. She didn't know what to make of it."
"I've never heard of such a thing," Arthur replied, accepting the mug of tea from Matthew. The mechanic sat down across from him and took a tentative sip of his hot drink.
"It's true. By the time we were toddlers, Alfred could move things with his biotics. He'd never been trained, but he could lift me off the ground. Of course, Alfred was a free spirit. It was just a game to him. We didn't know anything about the war, or what it meant. Our mom had a vague idea that biotics might come for Alfred some day, if they had some way of sensing him."
"It's rare, but occasionally biotic children are born in the Verge. The scouts come for them in the middle of the night. They rip them away from their families without explanation or warning," Arthur said darkly. Matthew nodded grimly.
"It was worse than that, when it eventually happened. Being so far out in the Verge, though, Alfred grew up like any other 2C. We were both good with mechanical odd jobs. We salvaged unwanted scrap from the junkyard and built robots and toys—even a functional racer pod. That was Alfred's dream. He even raced it without our mother knowing. He came in fourth place. Not bad for a seven year old."
"Not bad at all," Arthur agreed. "But they came eventually, didn't they?" Arthur asked. Matthew stared deeply into his tea cup.
"When they came to take him, Alfred fought them. He destroyed half the junkyard trying to resist. He was scared and he lost control of his biotics. That had been happening more and more often as we got older. His powers flared and he almost killed me. Our mother saved me. She jumped between me and the blast."
"That's horrible, lad," Arthur said. He wanted to blame the death on the biotic bastards that came to take Alfred, but Matthew continued to speak before he could.
"Yes, it was, but it showed Alfred that he couldn't continue to live in the Verge with me, with the people he'd known all his life. He was a danger to us and to himself. They told him if he came along peaceably, that they wouldn't harm him. They'd train him to use his biotics."
"Lies, probably. They can't be trusted," Arthur snapped. Matthew gave another shrug.
"They did just as they said. Alfred was horrified by what he'd done. He left with them willingly. I didn't hear from him until nearly six years later...I stupidly didn't want to hear from him. I blamed him. I blamed all biotics."
"You were right to blame them," Arthur said consolingly. Matthew shook his head.
"No. I was foolish. It's easy to hate and blame, Captain. It's much harder to love and forgive. He's my brother. We shared everything. He looked out for me, and he tried to take care of our mother. Yes, he was powerful and different, but that isn't why he was special. Alfred was special because he was good, and kind, and brave."
"A part of you must still hate his biotic powers. He killed your mother," Arthur argued. Matthew sighed.
"It was an accident. If you knew Alfred, you'd know."
"What happened to him? How did you get in touch again?" Arthur asked.
"He joined the United Army and moved up pretty quickly through the ranks. When he had the clearance and the technology, he tracked me down. He was worried that I still blamed him. He'd been afraid to try and contact me all those years."
"Exactly how high up in the United Army is your brother?" Arthur asked, his eyes narrowing. Matthew sighed again, as if he knew Arthur would not like his next words.
"Well...he's...a Vanguard." Matthew didn't expect Arthur to laugh in his face, but that's exactly what the pirate Captain did.
"Good one, old chap. You really had me going there. I didn't think you had a sense of humor, Matthew," Arthur chuckled. Matthew tried not to be offended by the insult and took his tea cup to the sink, now that it was nearly empty.
"I'm not joking. Alfred is a Vanguard—Commander-in-Chief of the SS Hetalia, fastest and most powerful ship in the United Army fleet, and a special operative of the Council."
Arthur's thick eyebrows creased in disbelief and then in anger.
"But true. Every word of it. So...that's why I don't think all biotic humans are evil. I know they aren't, you see. Alfred is as good as they come. Better than most, even."
"This is quite a bit to take in, Matthew. You barely say a word about yourself or your past for a whole year and then...this," Arthur trailed off weakly.
"I understand if you want me to quit before you take on a big United Army vessel. Who knows? My brother could be called in as re-enforcement. I don't care about anyone else, but I wouldn't help you hurt my brother. Not for anything," Matthew said firmly.
"I've planned this attack for nearly three months, Matthew. I won't call it off. There's too much riding on it now," Arthur said. A long, silent moment stretched between them. "It appears we have a conflict of interest," Arthur concluded with a sigh.
Just as Arthur said this, the com device in Matthew's pocket beeped excitedly and Matthew fished it out hastily. He stared at the surface of the device in surprise for a few moments before he glanced nervously at Arthur.
"It's...my brother. He's calling. He's never called. I haven't heard his voice since..."
"Well, I suppose you should answer, lad," Arthur said helpfully. Matthew snapped out of his daze and held the com device up to his ear.
"Mattie? Is it really you, bro?" Alfred's voice crackled through the weak connection. Although he and Alfred had been e-mailing each other for nearly two months now, they had never called. Matthew was too shy and Alfred was too convinced Matthew didn't really want to be close again because of what he'd done as a child.
"Yes, it's me. Is everything okay? You haven't e-mailed in days..."
"Mattie, I'm in big trouble. I can't say much over this feed, but I'm calling you through Tony—remember him? It's old-fashioned to call, but it's safer. They won't suspect me to use such outdated technology."
"Alfred, what's wrong?" Matthew asked.
"I'll be at the place from the stories she used to tell us—where Luke won his first qualifying race."
"Alfred, what are you talking about?" Matthew demanded, his voice betraying his confusion. Alfred sighed.
"I know you have a life and a job and I'm asking you to leave all that for a brother you probably can't even remember all that well...but I'm in big trouble, Matt. You're my only hope. Remember the story and meet me there. I have to junk some hot metal, and fast. I've gotta go now. Please come if you can, and wait for me!"
Then the line went dead, and Matthew's expression told Arthur all he needed to know.
"I guess you'll be leaving my ship, then?" Arthur asked. Matthew stood dumbly for a moment before his violet eyes met Arthur's questioning green ones.
"He needs me. I have to go."
It seemed simple enough between the two men that night, but the next morning, Matthew's decision to stay on the planet was met with staunch opposition.
"We can not fly without a mechanic. This ship is more rust than metal," Ivan said simply. Then, with a slightly creepy grin, he added, "Besides, quiet little mechanic make good pancakes. He stays. We help with brother."
"I do not like to say it...but I agree with Ivan. Matthew is the newest to our crew, but he's one of us. If his brother is in trouble, then Matthew will be in trouble. It is not right to desert him," Yao said. Arthur's feathers ruffled in annoyance that his crew thought they had any say in the matter that had already been decided.
"This is not a democracy! This is my ship, and my ship will be attacking a UA merchant ship in three cycles time. I've planned this heist for months. I'm not missing that ship to go frolicking off to rescue some criminal biotic!"
"I knew you lied about biotics! They aren't the bad guy—you are! Only a bad guy would leave Matthew on his own. That's not what family does!" Peter shouted, even going so far as to grab Matthew tightly by the hand. Matthew was touched. He'd never thought it possible, but somehow, he'd formed friendships with the oddly mismatched crew. Even Rafael, Arthur's second-in-command, was giving him a comforting, friendly look that said he would not let Arthur kick him off.
"Rubbish! You lot realize there won't be any pay in this job, right? The UA ship would make us richer than kings. You want to give that up...for what? A biotic you don't even know? Need I remind you what the biotics did to us?"
"He's not just any biotic," Matthew insisted quietly. Arthur nearly growled.
"This is madness!" he roared.
"Captain Kirkland...just give up already. We aren't letting go of Matthew. Let go of this idea of the UA supply ship. It is just not going to happen," Yao said in a tone of finality.
"Now see here! I am the Captain of this ship and—"
"Captain Kirkland is right. It means more than I can say that you all want to help me find my brother, but considering his status in the military, it can't possibly end well. He might very well have all of Counsel space on his tail. This is probably a suicide mission," Matthew said grimly. He gently untangled his hand from Peter's.
"Oh, is that why, then? Captain Kirkland is too afraid to help you?" Yao said mildly. Arthur rolled his eyes.
"I am not six, Yao. You won't manipulate me into—"
"I will not follow a pussy instead of a Captain. My guns are yours, Matthew. Besides, I go where my little Yao goes," Ivan added with a cheery smile. Arthur glared at him. Peter stuck his tongue out at Arthur and latched onto Matthew's hand once more. Stubbornly, Arthur crossed his arms over his chest.
"Fine. You'll go off without me...in what ship?" Arthur asked gloatingly. Matthew's eyes fell to the floor and Yao frowned.
"We'll just take this one. We're pirates, right? Who's in for stealing Captain Kirkland's ship?" Yao asked, ignoring Arthur's spluttering.
"Yay! I'm in!" Peter crowed in delight, jumping up and down at Matthew's side and waving his free hand in the air. Ivan nodded and continued to smile cheerily. Rafael grinned playfully at Arthur.
"Captain, I'm afraid if we don't rescue Matthew's brother, you'll have a mutiny on your hands." Despite the serious words, First Mate Silva was smiling roguishly.
"What do you say, Cap'n? Will you help Matthew's brother?" Peter demanded with impish glee. Angrily, Captain Arthur flung his hat at the cheeky brat.
"Bloody hell! Fine! Worthless scumbags, every last single one of you! We rescue the brother and then I'm kicking all of you out of my bloody ship! Men would kill to serve on a vessel like mine, and this is the attitude I get? I'll be in my quarters, thinking of all the money I'm losing on your sentimental shite! If anyone disturbs me, I'll put a hole through their eyes!"
Captain Kirkland then made quite the dramatic exit...ruined only by the fact that he felt compelled to return and pick his hat up off the floor where it had peacefully drifted.
A/N: I'm sorry I've been so quiet the past few months. My work is INSANE this year. I've just had no energy to write when I get home. Updates will be slower than migrating glaciers, but I won't abandon anything. Sorry in advance for all the waiting!