The entrance to the bridge of the Argoni literally burst open, shards of the steel door exploding inwards and decapitating the two guards instantly. As the door was breached, a loud, wailing siren began to sound, echoing through the Imperial ship. The soldiers who ran to the bridge from the deck saw an unbelievable sight: Kabi, his left hand outstretched towards the hole blasted in the steel door, and a glittering crystal sword in his right hand.
The soldiers stood, facing the door, their mouths open in astonishment, until the Admiral broke their trances.
“Fire, fools!” he growled.
As a man, the soldiers drew their weapons, energy bolts flying from every blaster, converging into one huge ball of exploding fire.
“Fire! Fire!” repeated the Admiral, raising his voice above the hissing of the bolts.
After three salvoes, the men paused, as they had been trained to do, to allow the smoke to clear and to give them a better sighting of the enemy. And once more, they were left open-mouthed. Kabi still stood in the doorway, his posture relaxed, his sword arm poised for battle. The bolts had had no effect whatsoever.
Two men took the initiative—brave men, men who saw the opportunity to please their Admiral, to achieve the promotions that both so desperately wanted, and they drew their own swords, edging closer to the man in the doorway. The Admiral laughed his high-pitched, girlish laugh, gleeful at what he knew was about to happen.
For a moment, Kabi allowed himself to leave the place of deep focus in his mind, the place where the power resided, and rely instead on his physical skills. Swinging the great crystal sword with ease, he gracefully parried and took on both soldiers at the same time. With dancelike movements, he goaded them into their mistakes, and within seconds, both lay dead. He stepped back, allowing his weight to descend onto his heels for an instant of rest.
“It appears that you have not lost your skills,” the Admiral said, his voice admiring.
As he spoke, there was a resounding clang of metal on metal as the remaining soldiers on the bridge unsheathed their swords in one movement. The Admiral laughed but held up a hand to stop them. He had no desire to watch such a mismatched fight again.
“Step aside, fools,” the Admiral drawled. “You're no match for him. Do none of you know who this man is?”
Kabi caught Lucia's eye, giving her an almost invisible wink and seeing her smile in return. Smart girl. She was staying well back from the action. Then he concentrated again, seeking out that place of mental focus, knowing that he was going to need the power soon.
“None of you recognise him?” the Admiral said in disgust. “In that case, gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you Archangel Scorpio.”
“Now, there's a name I haven't heard for a long time,” Kabi said, casually swinging the crystal sword around and burying its point in the deck so that he could lean on its hilt. “And how would it be, dear Admiral, that you know this name?” He rested on his sword, patiently awaiting an answer, his body relaxed, his mind scrabbling to focus on the power.
“I know many things,” the Admiral said airily. “I also happen to know that you are the only Archangel left.”
Hmmm, thought Kabi. So, the Admiral didn't know quite as much as he thought. Interesting. He watched impassively as the stout man turned and reached up to the weapon rack on the wall behind him, selecting a trident before turning back.
“And I've been looking for you for a long time. Fifteen years, give or take.” The Admiral grinned, a smile full of frozen promise, and weighed the trident in his hand. “And finally it is time to regain my honour.”
Slowly, Kabi raised his sword. The Admiral's grin got only larger as he hefted his trident, striking the butt of it on the ground. As he did so, the three prongs ignited in deep blue fire. Kabi shook his head slightly, and the Admiral laughed.
Despite his containment, Maicee was actually very impressed with the medical bay on the Freedom. There was everything a doctor or a surgeon could possibly need, including a small, sterile operating theatre. Not bad for a pirate ship, he thought. He looked at the young woman on the bed. Not that he'd be needing an operating theatre.
“She's fine,” he told Falorni, completing his examination of Lean, the ship's engineer. “A few lacerations, a couple of bruises, nothing that a hot shower won't cure. No lasting damage that I can see.”
Lean's eyelids began to flicker, and Falorni used the cool cloth that she'd been wiping the engineer's limbs down with to soothe her forehead. Lean groaned.
“My head ...”
Falorni steadied the girl, who was beginning to thrash around, unsure of what was going on. “Stay calm,” she said.
“Where am I? What happened?” Lean said, eyes opening.
She struggled and tried to sit up, but Falorni resisted her efforts. “It's okay. You're fine, Lean. It's me, Falorni.” She waited a moment until the girl understood who was speaking to her and calmed a little. “We found you unconscious in the engine room. Do you remember what happened?”
Lean groaned again. “No ... wait, yes ... I was working. Checking the engine stats. The next thing I knew, the engine exploded, just out of nowhere. I remember being thrown backwards, then black. Nothing else.”
Falorni nodded. “You were unconscious for a while, but you're going to be perfectly fine. Do you remember seeing anyone else around the engine room before the explosion?”
The young engineer shook her head. “No, no, I don't think so.”
Maicee saw a small flicker in the corner of her eye. Maybe, he thought, she remembers more than she’s saying. He was about to ask her, and to introduce himself, when the com system beeped.
“ABDS deactivated. Return to bridge,” Bettie's voice said.
Falorni pulled a blanket up over Lean. “You just stay here. I'll come check on you in a little while. Try and get a little sleep if you can.”
She stroked the girl's forehead one more time, then nodded at Maicee.
“Let's go,” she said.
The two left the medical bay and hurried back to the bridge. A few minutes later, when she was sure that all was clear and she wouldn't be noticed, Lean too got up. She clung onto the side of the bed as her head spun for a moment, then cleared. Then she left the medical bay.
Sword and trident clashed, spilling blue and gold sparks into the air. When it came to combat, both Kabi and the Admiral were well trained. Sweat beaded across their brows as each fought to gain the upper hand. The remaining soldiers of the Argoni lined the sides of the bridge, watching as their commander battled in a way they'd never encountered before. None made a move to step into the melee.
Circling defensively, both men breathed heavily. Kabi was thinking that it was about time to end all this. The combination of fighting physically whilst still mentally trying to hold on to the power was getting exhausting. The Admiral caught the glimpse of fatigue in the other man's eyes and laughed.
“It has been some time since I fought someone of your calibre,” he said, still circling, his eyes never leaving Kabi's. “This has been fun, my old foe. But the sands of time are rapidly running out. You must forgive me.” With this, he once more banged his trident on the deck, and the flames spouted higher and burned brighter.
“Agreed,” Kabi said calmly. “Let us end this here.”
Squinting in the bright light of the flames and bringing his left hand in front of him, he focussed a sharp burst of the power and fired three small crystal shards at the Admiral. Another peal of laughter as the Admiral stepped elegantly to one side, causing all three shards to fly over his shoulder and embed themselves into the wall of the bridge. He swung the trident to block Kabi's incoming attack and sighed theatrically.
“You underestimate me, Scorpio,” he said. “After all, I did singlehandedly kill Aquarius. Why should I not do the same to you?” He paused, moving his hand further up the rod of the trident. “Oh my, how could I forget? She was your sister, wasn't she? You do have my apologies, dear Scorpio.” He jabbed forward with the trident.
Kabi's eyes burned even brighter than the fires of the trident as he gritted his teeth. “Your blood will be mine,” he said, cursing.
“I think not. I think you'll be joining your sister in hell sooner than you might have planned,” riposted the Admiral.
The trident slashed forwards again, burning a deep hole in the deck, and Kabi only just managed to leap aside. The flames seared a sharp pain through his right shoulder. Lucia gasped when she saw blood run down his arm, staining the shining handle of his sword.
“You have no idea just how much I hate you,” said the Admiral, pulling his weapon back for another blow. “Or how powerful a motivator hatred can be. I will destroy you.”
Their weapons locked again, Kabi feeling the burning of his muscles as he forced his sword to push the trident down. “It seems that I have far more reason to kill you than you have to kill me,” he said equably, not letting his voice betray his emotions. “You killed my sister, after all.”
The trident dropped down, releasing itself from the sword, before jumping straight up again, an obvious feint and one that Kabi easily blocked.
“You don't remember, do you?” the Admiral said. His face was red, sweat streaming down his cheeks, stinging his eyes. “You don't remember at all.”
“Why would I remember one as insignificant as you?” Kabi asked quietly. If he played his cards right, he might get the Admiral to have a heart attack before he got stabbed with that damn trident.
“Fifteen years ago, I was tasked with killing you,” hissed the Admiral. “And you disappeared off the face of Archeonis. And because I could not fulfil my mission, the Supreme Emperor stripped me of my rightful title. That of Magi Lord. I have suffered fifteen years of shame and humiliation. But now, now I shall regain what was always mine. I shall redeem myself.”
Kabi shrugged as if this hardly mattered to him, though this new information made sense to him and went a long way to explaining how the Admiral knew who he was. He was rewarded with a blaze of uncontrolled anger in the eyes of the Admiral, who raised his trident and lunged. Kabi parried, but the flames of the trident burned a small dent into his crystal sword. Fine, he thought. Enough was enough. Extending his left hand, he focussed the power until a small, transparent ball appeared, growing larger and flatter until it formed an impenetrable shield.
The shield blocked the Admiral's attacks, the heat of the trident having no effect whatsoever on it. Kabi dropped his sword and allowed the shield to protect him as the Admiral's frustrations grew, his attacks became frenzied, his footwork shoddy. The battle is coming to an end, Kabi thought with satisfaction. He waited for a particularly strong trident thrust and then allowed the shield to fade for a split second before renewing his focus. The result of this was that the trident was now captured in the shield itself, the Admiral unable to pull it free. That sort of manipulation took intense focus, and Kabi was very pleased with himself. Not so pleased, however, that he forgot his aim.
Pulling a hand back, he pushed the power down his arm and into his fist, punching the full force of everything he had down into the Admiral's chest. The man's torso ruptured open, wide enough that Kabi could see his heart still desperately beating, pumping blood around a body that could no longer contain it. The Admiral's eyes widened, and he choked, trickles of blood coming from his mouth.
“No ...” he groaned. But seeming to realise what was happening, he raised his right hand, and his clouded eyes cleared for a moment. “You shall die with me!”
A fireball erupted from his hand, aimed directly at Kabi, but the Admiral didn't live to see the consequences of his actions. His eyes closed even as the fire ball left his palm. He died smiling, believing that he had taken his enemy to the grave with him.
The fireball was right on target. To give the Admiral his due, he was a good shot. Slowly, even lazily, Kabi opened his hand; and as the fireball grew closer, he allowed the power to extend out of him, wrapping the fire in a safe cocoon of transparent energy that suffocated the flames and then evaporated.
Aware that all was not going to plan, the soldiers of the Argoni had fled as they saw their captain sinking towards the deck. And when the fireball was gone, Kabi and Lucia were left alone. The man smiled at the young woman, who was still kneeling on the deck.
“You can come in now,” Kabi said over his shoulder. “I told you I'd keep him safe,” he told Lucia as Benho entered the bridge from where he'd been waiting behind the door.
The young doctor, slightly pale from the anxiety of what he'd just seen, bent to cut through Lucia's restraints. Lucia rubbed her wrists, then accepted Benho's help to rise to a standing position.
Regarding the body of the Admiral and unfazed by his open chest, Lucia shook her head. “Your skills continue to impress me, KabiOnn,” she said. “Killing a Magi Lord is quite something. Even an ex-Magi Lord.”
Kabi sighed before answering: “All Magi Lords are my kin. There is no pleasure in killing my own nephew.”
The small crew stood to attention as their captain entered the bridge. Even a pale Lean was on deck. Benho gallantly escorted Lucia to the captain's chair, where she sank heavily down and let the soft cushions of the seat embrace her. She was glad to be back on her own ship, but now she was here, she had to deal with a very pressing matter. No matter which way she looked at things, she could come up with no other solution than that someone on board had betrayed them.
Stepping forward, Bettie reported on the condition of the ship and what had transpired during the captain's absence. Lucia nodded, understanding the seriousness of what had happened, but the weight of betrayal overrode the ship's engineering problems.
“Thank you,” she said curtly as Bettie finished.
The first officer stepped back, and Lucia let her eyes rove over her crew. “Our mission was a failure. We walked into a trap. We were ambushed. And that can mean only one thing. We were expected.” Eyes darting back and forth, carefully looking for a reaction, she said: “Someone amongst us is a traitor.”
There was a collective gasp of shock from all but one of the crew. Lucia allowed her eyes to settle on the woman who was staring at her with hatred. Slowly, the captain pulled her dagger from her belt and aimed its point at the woman's throat.
“Why did you betray us?” she asked softly.
Lean's eyes glittered, and Lucia saw no fear, just pure and unadulterated hate.
“To avenge my father,” the ship's engineer said, spitting out the words.
“Your father?” Lucia said, raising an eyebrow.
“Five years ago, you killed my father when you boarded this ship.” Lean's voice was as hard as steel, and Lucia heard truth in every word she spoke.
“And who exactly was your father?” Lucia asked, dagger still extended and ready to throw, her manner almost conversational.
Lean gritted her teeth, her jaw pushing out as she recounted her story, the words dripping with anger. “My father was Jason O'Conule, chief engineer of the battle cruiser Bravery. The Admiral informed me that you killed everyone on board when you took the ship. This ship.”
Lucia slumped back into her chair, letting her knife drop. “Because the Bravery went on to become the Freedom. This ship.” She nodded wearily.
The ship's engineer was surprised that her captain had not denied what she was being told. She'd expected more of a fight out of the woman. For a moment, her certainty wavered, but then she collected herself, reminding herself that this woman had killed her father.
The captain bit her lip and blinked twice before continuing. “I did not kill your father.”
Lean looked about to interrupt, and Lucia held up a hand.
“But he did die because of me,” she continued. “Your father was the one who gave me the Freedom. He was my agent on board. He provided me with information, and when the time came, he sabotaged the ship by disabling its engines. With his help we were able to easily take the vessel.”
Again she blinked, and the crew watched her. It was rare to see their captain exhibit much emotion. Lean too was still, patiently waiting for further explanation but knowing deep in her stomach that she'd made a terrible, terrible mistake.
“After we boarded the ship, I tried to take your father with us. He refused. He said that he could be more use to us if he remained a naval officer. He could continue to be my agent and continue to pass information along. Against my better judgement, and motivated, I'll admit, by greed, I allowed him to do as he wanted. I never heard from him again.”
Lean swallowed. “Is this the truth?” she asked quietly.
“Upon my name, I swear that this is the truth,” Lucia said, looking directly into the girl's eyes. She knew that she could not let treachery go unpunished. But she also knew she could not kill this girl. “I will let you live. For your father's sake. But you will leave. Now. I do not want to see you again.”
The engineer's breath was coming faster, her colour fading from an already pale cream to a delicate shade of ivory. She swayed unsteadily on her feet, the knowledge of what she had done burning inside her. And finally, she did the right thing. She opened her mouth and spoke.
“It's too late.” Each word was a battle, getting her mouth to form sounds almost impossible. “I'm dying.” Her breath was short pants. The words were swimming in her head so she had to concentrate to snatch each one individually from the air. “And. I. Take. The. Freedom. With. Me.”
Lean crumpled to the deck, and Benho rushed to her side. The doctor bent and found a weak, thready pulse. Roughly pulling down an eyelid, he looked at her pupils.
“She's taken a poison. I don't know which,” he said, looking up. “Falorni, go to medical and fetch me every anti-toxin that you have.”
The medical officer nodded and fled from the bridge. Lean's hand raised and beckoned to her captain. Obediently, Lucia went to her side and leaned over, allowing the engineer to whisper into her ear. The woman's face froze as she heard the whispers, and she stood as Lean faded into unconsciousness.
“There are three time bombs in the engine room,” she announced to the crew. “Set to detonate in thirty minutes. Kabi?”
Kabi looked at the woman and nodded. “I shall do what I can,” he said.
“Bettie, take Kabi to the engine room immediately,” ordered Lucia. “If he can do nothing, we will be prepared to evacuate the ship on your order.”
The first officer nodded and escorted Kabi from the bridge.
“You two,” Lucia said to Maicee and Benho, “carry her to the medical bay. I don't want her here in the way.”
The two men picked up Lean's unconscious body easily and manoeuvred her off the deck.
Lucia sunk back into her chair, closing her eyes. Gods. How had it all come to this? Her crew betrayed, her faith placed in newcomers. Her ship in danger.
“We've found all three bombs,” said Bettie over the com. “One on each of the main engines, and one on the fuel conduit. One of them would be enough to cripple the ship. Should all three go off, we'll be vaporised.”
“Does Kabi think we should evacuate?” came back Lucia's voice, crackling over the line.
Bettie looked at Kabi, who shook his head.
“There's not enough time,” he offered by way of explanation.
“Then may the Gods be with you,” said Lucia, who had heard his response.
The com hissed and fell silent. Kabi moved to the first of the three bombs, gently removing the cover and examining the internal workings. Inside there was a chronos, and he saw blinking numbers counting down. After a few seconds he nodded, then moved on to examine the other two devices. After the third, he grunted with satisfaction.
“We can't move them,” he said, turning to Bettie. “They've got motion sensors that will detonate them if they're moved. But thankfully, all three devices are the same. Which makes my job a lot easier.” He paused for a moment, looking at the chronos on the nearest bomb. “Stand back for a moment. I need to try something.”
Saying a silent prayer, Bettie took two steps back and watched as Kabi lowered himself until he was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of one of the devices. He raised both hands, palms down, and let them hover over the box. Then he closed his eyes and was silent. After a few seconds, she noticed perspiration begin to trickle down his forehead but could see no other visible change. Heart leaping in her chest, she waited.
“One down, two to go,” said Kabi a few minutes later, standing up.
Stepping closer to the device he'd apparently disarmed, she noticed that the chronos was still running, counting down.
“That's just the timer,” Kabi told her. “Don't worry. It's harmless now.”
He staggered as he moved to the second device, seeming to grow older with each step he took. Whatever it was that he was doing, it seemed to be draining him somehow. Bettie kept a suspicious eye on the still-running timer of the first device, wondering if it truly was safe, seeing the minutes tick down. Approaching five minutes. Her pulse quickened. Then she jumped as a metallic clang echoed through the room.
“Did I frighten you?” Maicee asked, stepping through the metal door and seeing Bettie's shaking hands.
“No, no,” she said, lying through her teeth.
“Just in time,” Kabi said, looking up to see the boy. “I could use a little help here.”
He stood, shaking, and Maicee was astonished to see how old and tired he looked. Quickly he moved to take the older man's arm and supported him as he guided them both to the third device.
“The first two are taken care of,” Kabi said tiredly. “I need your help with the third.”
“I'm a surgeon, not an engineer,” said Maicee, doubtfully.
“It matters not your knowledge, but the power inside you,” said Kabi, sinking down in front of the device. “I will guide you. Come here and sit just so, like me.”
Maicee did as he was told and clearly saw that the chronos on the third device was reading less than four minutes. He gulped. He had no idea what to do. He could only trust in Kabi.
“Take a deep breath and close your eyes,” Kabi's voice said. “Stretch your hands out over the device but do not touch it. Now relax. Look for that place in your mind. The place that is focussed. The place that contains all the concentration that you have distilled down into one point. The place where the light comes from. And when you find it, jump into it with your mind.”
Maicee breathed slowly, opening his mind to what Kabi was saying. And he found that he understood completely. He knew this place. He'd been there before. It was the place he entered when he performed the perfect surgery. The place where everything was somehow more orderly, more controlled.
“Enter that place, Maicee. Let your senses stretch out inside it. Extend your senses; let the power run through you.”
“I ... I think I'm there,” Maicee whispered, his voice hesitant. “I feel something. Something like a pulse.”
Kabi smiled gently at the boy's face. It radiated the power, and he had known even before being told that Maicee had found the place.
“Very good,” he said quietly. “That's the energy of the bomb.” He moved closer to the boy, bending so he was speaking directly into his ear. “Now, listen. I will show you how to alter the energy.”
Maicee nodded in silence, trusting completely in Kabi now. He felt sweat trickle down his body, wetting his clothes, fabric sticking to his skin. Energy leaked from him, and he began to feel lightheaded. But as he followed Kabi's instructions, it was like time began to slow down and the impulses coming to his senses slowed too. Soon he felt like he was floating through a room filled with balls, each ball being an impulse. When he felt a ball that seemed bigger or stronger than the others, he directed himself towards it and then began to mould it by doing as Kabi told him to. And after a time, the powerful energy ball turned to water. Why water? He had no idea. It just seemed natural to him. The process went on and on, and time ceased to have any meaning to him.
Lucia bent over the traitor, keeping out of the way of Benho and Falorni. The female medic was working on the blood that Benho had given her, and finally she looked at him and nodded. Tearing his eyes away from the stat machines, Benho thanked her.
“So?” asked Lucia, aware that something had happened.
“She took some sort of hemolytic poison, which caused her red blood cells to break down. But we got there in time. We've neutralised the poison with the appropriate anti-toxin, given her a transfusion, and she'll live,” said the doctor.
“Good,” Lucia said. “I owe her father a lot.”
“How are things going in the engine room?” asked Benho.
Lucia shrugged. “I guess we're going to find out one way or another very soon.”
Then, suddenly, there were no high-energy balls left. Pushing the power through his senses one more time, Maicee searched but found nothing. And then everything faded to black.
As he fell unconscious to the floor, Bettie's eyes followed the countdown, the red numbers flashing and her hands sweating. Three. Two. One. Zero. A click. Then nothing. She looked up and saw Maicee lying on the floor, a decrepit-looking Kabi bending over him.
“It seems too early for her to use her powers,” the older man said wonderingly.
Bettie ignored his ramblings. “You've done it.”
Kabi looked up, remembering that she was there. “Yes,” he sighed. “We did it.”
“But how?” asked Bettie, curiously. “I saw both of you sit there, but neither of you even came close to touching any of the devices.”
Rubbing his lined face with a large hand, Kabi shrugged. “I simply transformed the explosive material inside the devices into sand. Maicee did things a little differently, but the result is the same.”
He laid a hand on the cold forehead of his young accomplice; there was still a little warmth there, but not much. Reaching down, he began feeling for a pulse.
“How is that even possible?” Bettie said sceptically. She moved to get closer to the two men, to see what was going on with Maicee.
“It's called molecular transformation,” said Kabi, still busying himself with Maicee's health. “Only a handful of people can do it. There are few alive nowadays who are capable of it, anyway.” He put Maicee's wrist down and frowned. “I can explain more later if you're interested. But in the meantime, I think that we should get the boy to the medical bay.”
“Yes, of course,” said Bettie, reaching for the com.
She decided to probe no further. She probably wouldn't have understood anyway, and how it was done seemed to be of little importance. What’s important, she thought, as she keyed in the number for the medical bay, is that whatever they did worked. The ship was saved. The crew was saved. Now all they had to do was figure out how to get the Freedom moving again. Falorni answered the com.
“Send someone down to help me carry Maicee up to medical bay,” Bettie ordered. “And tell the captain that her ship is safe.”