Her wrists bled from trying to rip through the lightline, each pull was like a cut made with jagged glass. Sid tried to count how many times she’d been bound and dragged against her will since she landed on the star. Too many. Someone slammed a knee into the back of her legs and she fell onto the cold, stone floor of the throne room. The Starblade that did it would heed her wrath first when she got free. But she wasn’t getting free, at least not in the near future. Sid couldn’t see a way out of the situation. With Ashlan and Tann bound and on their knees, and Dalrak not even in the room, there was not a grasp of hope left in her.
Slow, precise footsteps entered the room followed by the scraping drag of metal on stone; the queen. Sid could tell that self-assured walk without having to look up. It was the same footsteps that plagued her sleepless nights. She glanced up anyway, locking eyes with Leona, refusing to bow down.
“Why are we here?” She demanded. “Isn’t there a better use for your guards? You’ve sent a small army after me, terrorized innocent people, and for what? For one little part of a rebellion?”
The queen didn’t budge but the hint of a smile reached her eyes.
“Let them go! They have nothing to do with this!”
“Well, that’s not entirely true, now is it?”
She looked at Tann whose eyes begged for her to stay quiet. “Fine, then let Ashlan go at least. He’s a Starblade! The son of a general! He didn’t do anything wrong. He was just trying to help me. It’s my fault!”
“Hmm, at least we agree on something. Sid, was it?”
“It seems we find ourselves in quite the situation, Sid.” Leona walked to the throne. She didn’t sit, instead she let her weight rest lightly on the side, like an unwelcome guest that wasn’t planning on staying long. “You are right, of course. All of this is your fault. You and that filthy creature over there,” She pointed a red-lacquered finger at Tann, “but my dear Ashlan knew the consequences of his actions and chose to disobey me regardless. I wonder what his father would have said about that. Don’t you, Ash?”
“My father would have done what’s right!” Ashlan shouted.
A Starblade raised his blade and brought it down on Ashlan’s back, knocking him further to the floor. He raised his blade again but the queen waved him off before he could strike. The look of disappointment on his face made Sid’s stomach turn. She immediately recognized Connor, likely glad he was getting his revenge on Ashlan.
“That is quite true,” Leona continued, “your father did always do what he thought was right.”
“What?” Ashlan asked.
Sid lowered her eyes. Shut up! Don’t tell him about Colton. Not now. Not like this!
“It looks as though my dear departed general has been doing what he thought was right for years. And right under my nose. Needless to say, I’m highly disappointed,” she purred.
“What are you talking about? He was loyal to a fault! He was the best man you had on your guard!”
The queen tisked, her attention back on Sid. “I couldn’t agree more! He was so great he had kept something hidden from me without worrying about the consequences. Or should I say ‘someone’?”
“Leave him out of this!” Sid yelled. Her magic rose to the surface and started to break free but as soon as the electricity left her skin, it bounced off something, some invisible shield trapping it in place. She felt breathless and dizzy, like her blood was rushing into all the wrong body parts.
“Careful now, you don’t want to do that. That lightline will fry you to the bone if you try. I had it specifically tailored for just this occasion; when I realized what it was I was dealing with here.”
“What are you talking about? Sid, what is she talking about?” Ashlan cried. “Tann?” He begged the Domer tied next to him for answers but Tann only shook his head and averted his gaze.
“She didn’t tell you, did she?” Leona mused. “Why of course she didn’t! Why would you help her if you knew the truth!”
“No! Ash, don’t listen to her! She’s lying!”
“Am I? Am I lying, Sid?” Leona walked over to Ashlan and dragged a sharpened nail under his chin. “Such a pretty thing, isn’t he? I can see why you’d want him around.”
“Just stop. You have me! You wanted me and now you have me! Let them go!”
A howl left the queen’s blood-red lips and she moved so fast that the metal of her skirts almost left an indent in the floor. She was at Sid’s side, crouched in front of her. Not low enough to equal their height but enough that she was looking directly at her. Her eyes burning through Sid’s glare.
“I don’t have to do anything you ask,” she smiled. A vicious smile that made Sid’s hair stand on end. “Once I tell him who you are, he’ll be right where he belongs. At my side.”
“Tell me what? What is going on right now?”
“Silence!” Leona screamed and the room vibrated. “Don’t you want to know why your father died, Starblade? Why you’re an orphan at such a young age?”
“Sid,” he begged but she couldn’t talk. She couldn’t even look at him.
With slow, calculated steps, the queen walked back a few paces. She stopped just in front of the throne and motioned for someone beyond Sid’s vision. In seconds, Abbot emerged from the shadows of the room followed by two Magistras. One Sid had not seen before and Kelyn, taking small strides with a grin from ear to ear. The two girls looked pleased, like they were enjoying the show but something about the way Abbot moved made her wonder if he was uncomfortable with the situation — angered even. Despite the look on his face, the general walked over to the queen and bowed once before standing next to her.
“Give me your blade, general.”
“Pardon me, my queen?”
“Your blade, I want it. Now!”
The general lifted a pot-marked hand and brought out his blade. As soon as Leona had it, she was back at Sid’s side. She pointed the tip of the blade at the back of her neck and pushed the trigger button. Electricity stirred through the weapon, lighting up the tip and the queen pressed it into Sid’s neck, releasing the pent-up voltage.
“No!” Ashlan screamed. “You’ll kill her!”
“Hush, now Ash. You’ll ruin the show,” she said and squeezed.
The current surged from the blade into Sid’s body. Her muscles tensed and froze and her blood began to boil. She could feel sweat coating every part of her. Heart racing, she tried to move but her body refused to respond. Her head dropped and she could feel the magic in her awaken. It growled and screamed, aching to get out. She tried to hold on, tried to calm down. She thought about the days in the jungle with Dalrak and the tricks he had taught her to control her power. She tried to slow her breathing but her lungs were moving on their own. Fast breaths, in and out. This is what the Qualin must have felt when Tazmin sacrificed their small bodies to Kartega. She couldn’t hold on much longer. Sid cried out as the magic burst out of her. The lightline scorched against her wrists, burning through her flesh in response. She screamed. Loud enough to make the Starblades close to her jump back. Her body dropped with a thud; impotent.
The room fell silent. Ashlan stared at her, wide eyed and tear stained.
She was glowing.
“What is this?” He whispered. “What did you do to her?”
“Me? Oh, this is nothing I did,” Leona said triumphantly. “I merely meant to punish her the way we punish every other rebel that refuses to cooperate. That blow should have killed her. It should have short-circuited her chip,” she paused. “Unless, of course, she doesn’t have one.”
The queen bent over Sid’s limp body, grabbed hold of the loose, sweat-soaked hair and pulled.
Everyone in the room gasped. Everyone but Tann who was no longer looking down. His dark eyes were wild with a fury Sid recognized all too well. He was plotting. The fool. What in the muck does he think he’s going to do here?
“How?” Ashlan asked, “How is this possible?”
“I’m so glad you asked,” Leona said. “You see, it seems that when the inhabitants were chipped, we missed one. Oh, it happened on a few occasions, of course, but we got them all in the end. Except this one here. Her parents did a decent enough job of hiding her, from what I’m told, but in the end we would have found her just the same. That is, if your father hadn’t gotten involved.”
“My father? What did my father have to do with this?”
“Well, he’s the reason she got away! It’s all very heroic, you see. He found this little creature and helped her parents hide her away from me. In the one place he knew I’d never think to look.” She looked out of the large window at her side and pointed up. “I was so busy with keeping my precious Citizens safe that I never thought to look up. Clever little thing, your father was. He had this beast twirling around us in a ship all these years.
“He raised her, really. Protected her to the end. Died for her in that rebel attack.”
“How? That was an accident?”
“Ash, don’t be so daft! Do you really think it was an accident your father, the general, took such a simple job that day? Left his post here in the towers to chase down a few rebels? No! No, he went there to warn them,” she shot a disgusted look at Tann, “to warn his little group. It didn’t do him much good in the end. These creatures are built for hatred. They attacked my Starblades like the blind force they are. And do you think any of them cared that he died for their pathetic cause?”
“They didn’t kill the general!” Tann shouted. “They wouldn’t do that! She’s lying!”
Leona signaled and the Starblade nearest Tann rammed the tip of his blade into his back. Tann fell back to cradle the wound, eyes searching for Ashlan. Sid’s heart broke for him as he realized that there was nothing left of Ashlan in the throne room. Tears flooded her face. She couldn’t look at Ashlan, couldn’t see the grief that must have drenched his expression. Couldn’t face his loss. “I cared, Ash! I do care! I loved Colton! He was like a father to me!”
Ashlan was quiet for a moment. Slowly, he got up and looked down at her. “But he wasn’t your father. He was mine. And he died for you. He died for you and you couldn’t even tell me the truth.”
“Ash! I’m sorry! I was going to! I was! But then the Al’iil got me and you came and I-”
“Stop. Just please stop,” he looked away. “I trusted you, Sid. I trusted all of you.”
“Please, Ash! Can’t you see what she’s doing? She’s trying to make you hate me! Please!”
The queen laughed again, walked over to Ashlan and unfurled the lightline from his wrists. “I don’t have to try. Seems to me, you’ve done the job quite well yourself.”
“You’re a monster!” Sid screamed.
She tried to get up but Abbot was at her side quickly. His boot raised and he let it slam into her back, knocking her back to the floor. Every bone in her body ached and she could taste the metallic flavor of blood on her lips. How did Leona find out about her? It couldn’t have been Abbot; he had no knowledge of any of this. How did she know so much? How did she know everything?
The queen turned back, “I’m sorry?”
“Who told you?”
“I would have found out sooner or later. Lucky for me, a few threats go a long way when it comes to dealing with vermin. All I had to do was push the right people and threaten the right rebels. Or should I say Freedom Runners.” She turned to Tann, “Is that what you call yourselves now? I can’t quite remember. I do believe that’s the term your father used when he told me everything.”
Tann’s face dropped. She didn’t need to look at him to know what he must be feeling. His father, his own father betrayed him. It wasn’t something she could imagine. The only two fathers she’d had died protecting her. How would it feel to have your own family turn against you?
“You’re lying,” was all he said. His gaze shifted from Ashlan to land on his father’s face. Pressing his side, he rearranged himself to crouch, his eyebrows raised in question.
“I’m sorry, son!” Edek exclaimed, “She threatened to kill you. I had to! Please understand that I had to!”
The queen gasped dramatically, “Oh, my! You two have so much to discuss it seems! Fear not, you’ll have plenty of time to ask him about it in the holes.”
“The holes?” Sid asked. “What’s that?”
“Oh, they’re these wonderful cages we have for the filthy beasts that try to ruin our way of life here!” Kelyn squealed before the queen hushed her.
Cages? Holes? Sid’s mind ran through the towers architecture to try and make sense of it. The empty floors in the Queen’s Tower that Ashlan told her about. They weren’t empty. They were prisons! All the talk of peace and living in unity and this entire time the queen had been imprisoning everyone who posed a threat to her own Citizens. Locking them up like animals to be held against their will. And from what she’d seen so far, likely tortured, or worse.
“Where’s Dalrak?” She asked.
“Who? Oh yes, that strapping Al’iil you brought with you. You know, if they weren’t such pointless creatures, I’d keep him as a personal pet.”
“He’s not pointless. And he’s not a pet.”
“You’re right,” Leona sighed. “Pets have a purpose and a master. Maybe when we’re all done with you, I can work on breaking him to my liking. I could use someone so…” she paused, “vigorous around.”
“You’re disgusting!” Sid spat on the floor next to the queen, missing her gold-polished heels by a centimeter.
Leona stepped over her spit, draped an arm over Ashlan’s shoulder and led him out of the room.
“What about her?” Sid heard him ask.
“Nothing for you to worry about. She is scheduled to be chipped in the morning in one of the domes. We’ll telescreen the entire proceeding, make sure these Freedom Runners understand their place once and for all.”
With that, the room fell into a hush. Sid let her head rest on the floor, her heart beat so slow she wasn’t sure she was even alive anymore. It was over. In the morning, she would be chipped and bound to the domes. That is, if Leona let her leave in the first place. For all she knew, she would spend the rest of her life in one of the holes with all those who fought back. She would never again feel the cool air on her skin. Never see her friends. Never get to sail her ship through the air or watch the glow of Kartega from the safety of infinite space.
She heard the echo of boots around her. Vaguely heard Tann yell her name. Heard the scuffle of defiance as he fought back before the Starblades dragged him away.
Sid stayed on the floor until she too was dragged out of the throne room.
Her thoughts locked on the loathing in Ashlan’s face when he found out the truth. So this is what it’s like to lose a friend.