Fractured Echos


“Tyr, Rev, Trance, I need you in Command--now!” A richly-attired blond man grinned down at the captain of the Andromeda Ascendant, his handsome features frozen in a smug and insincere expression of regret. “Andromeda!”
A beautiful, olive-skinned brunette appeared on an adjacent screen. “Captain?” Machine though she was, Andromeda was far from emotionless, and the tense lines on her pixilated face bespoke anger and concern.
It was a hard voice that answered, a veneer of controlled calm making a boiling torrent of bitter fury. As much as he would like to punch through a bulkhead or throw something, this was a moment for cool calculation. “I want you to search the area for any record of the Maru’s passage, Beka, or Harper. We’ll trace their route as far as we can by conventional means, and then…”
“And then what?”
Before he could respond, footsteps echoed through nearby corridors, and three figures converged in the Command. A violet girl with a prehensile tail was the first to speak. “Have you heard from them? Andromeda’s auto-chef is acting funny, and none of us know what to do. If Harper were here, I know he could fix it, and he was supposed to be back days ago.” Trance’s airy soprano rose, and worry began to show around her eyes.
A fearsome-looking monk gently rested a deadly claw on her velvet-clad shoulder. “You sounded urgent, Captain. I do not wish to unduly rush you, but the sooner you tell us of the trouble, the sooner we may begin seeking a solution.”
The third arrival said nothing for the moment, dark eyes noting the image on the view screen coldly. If any of the party seemed to lack emotion, it was the former mercenary. He merely hid his well. The slender man onscreen was no friend of the Andromeda, and in light of the extended absence of his crewmates, could signify no glad tidings. A powerful instinct told Tyr that a battle was fast approaching.
Instead of directly answering his crew’s concerns, the former High Guard officer ordered Andromeda to replay message she’d just received.
The blond man smiled warmly. “I can imagine your delight upon seeing me again, Captain, and I’m exceedingly sorry that I cannot greet you in person.”
A gravelly voice identified the self-assure speaker they watched. “Charlemagne Bolivar. It seems he was not satisfied with your refusal to allow him to ally with us.”
“But as you see, Captain, I have a pair of honored guests I must attend. Friends of yours, I believe. But enough of my personal affairs.” The smile vanished and was replaced by a thoughtful frown. “The most unfortunate rumor has reached me today. My aide-de-camp informs me that your First Officer and Chief--let’s be frank, your only--Engineer have disappeared on a routine supply mission. I send you this message to convey my heartfelt sympathy and hope that you will soon recover your crewmates.” That grin returned, betrayed by mocking blue eyes. “Best of luck, Captain Rhade.”
…This certainly wasn’t the Maru…

“Not my usual taste, you know, but I thought you deserved a special accommodations, as my special guest.”

Beka lay on a thin mattress, under a sheet and coverlet (both threadbare) pooled around her legs. A flat pillow still held a shallow imprint of her head. A slightly darker carpet covered the floor from wall to wall except for the space around a small shape in the room’s opposite corner. An old-fashioned toilet, Beka decided as she squinted. When she finished her inspection of her new residence, she grimaced at her… host. “At least it’s bigger than my cabin on the Maru. Looks pretty damn boring, though.”

Silk rustled quietly as Charlemagne shrugged his shoulders. “I’m afraid things will be rather dull for you for the next… while. Of course, if you should ever wish to speak with me about the Andromeda… or anything on your mind… I will be glad to break the monotony.”

At first, Beka was honestly confused about her present situation. Had she suffered an accident and been brought her after an emergency crash landing? That hardly seemed likely; Beka wasn’t known for crash landings or Nietzscheans for hospitality.

“You kidnapped me, didn’t you?” She sighed, more annoyed that irritated. She’d never been important enough for an abduction while running cargo on the Maru, but that was what happened when one flew around trying to restore civilization. “You’re mad because Gaheris didn’t let you into his Commonwealth.” She found it difficult not to roll her eyes.

“Quite right on both counts,” Charlemagne chuckled. “although I plan to remedy the latter soon.” He stood smoothly. “I apologize for not offering you finer quarters for your stay, but I’m sure you can understand that you’re a part of my scheme as much as your captain.”

Something that had bothered Beka since she awoke burst into her consciousness. “Harper!”

The Archduke turned to face her, eyebrows raised in surprise. “Ah, your crewmate. How very altruistic of you.” He shrugged. “He is here and breathing.” A slight frown crossed his still undeniably handsome face. “Verbose little fellow, isn’t he?” Beka’s eyes narrowed, but Charlemagne smiled brightly and left.

“I told you, Gaheris,” she muttered. “I told you, and Tyr told you. Charley’s not gonna let this go. And then he starts blackmailing potential members, but that doesn’t change your mind. Oh no, and now he’d kidnapped me and Harper.”

She smiled crookedly. “In some ways, Gaheris, I think you’re the most honorable guy among us. Well, ‘cept maybe Rev.” The smiled faded as her eyes returned to the present scene. Ugh.

Her head ached. She rubbed the back of her skull gingerly and winced. “Looks like Charley’s not above a good ol’ whack upside the head.” Her head dropped us as she thought of her scrawny crewmate. Even if Charlemagne didn’t order the kid tortured, Harper had an especially charming manner with Nietzscheans. She didn’t doubt that he could convince a guard or two to conveniently forget orders and let Harper suffer an accident.
In defense of Friedrich and Mijolin, Harper was in exceptional form when he awoke. Unlike his captain, he recognized the situation immediately--the beefy guards sitting a few feet from him and another at the door tipped him off. Ahh, memories.

He opened his mouth, but instead of a cutting witticism on Nietzschean culture or his guards’ mothers, a pained groan escaped his lips.

“Kludge’s awake,” the big one announced, never shifting his eyes from said kludge.

“Already?” The less visible guard, leaning against the doorway, looking out a tinted window, sounded surprised. “Tough little mud foot.”

Despite his growing ire--triggered by Nietzscheans and a small room--and that fluttering excitement that came with the adrenaline speeding through his veins, the Uber’s commendation hit him. Not the tone of amused admiration, as for a scrappy kid; even when whaling on him, the Ubers had to admit that he was a real piece of work. But how had the guy known that he’d grown up planetside? It wasn’t a random hijacking, then--this was a carefully planned and prepared kidnapping.

“What can I say, you breed ‘em on slave worlds.”

Leaning Uber chuckled, but Beefier glared. “Not tough enough, if they’re still slaves.”

Once Harper would’ve leapt at this, but he wisely restrained himself. Well, physically speaking. “A lot better to ruin our economy and environment, kill a fifth of us, and oh yeah, send in the Magog whenever the fleet gets tried of the screams from the ghettos. Real tough.”

Leaning spoke up. “Might be a tough ghetto kludge, but that won’t help you here. We’re not supposed to rough up the pretty one, but you’re no beauty queen. Your host wouldn’t mind if you fell down a flight or ten of stairs on account of your mouth.”

Beefier was somewhat less eloquent. He leaned forward, grabbed Harper’s collar, and growled. “Shut up, kludge.”

Ha. As if that had ever convinced Harper before. So Beka’s here, too. He could ponder that later. Right now, he had a couple of Ubers to piss off. “I see one of you went to the Dragan school of, uh, self-expression. Classes generally don’t go beyond the two-syllables, do they? They engineer the brawn or sometimes the brain, but never in the same package, huh?” He had met a few exceptions to the rule--served with two of them aboard the Andromeda, in fact--but that was hardly relevant here. Taunting Nietzscheans was like skydiving--you knew you might end up a smear on the concrete, but damn, it was a rush.

Beefier grabbed Harper’s shirt again and slammed him against the wall at the head of the mattress he lay on. “Think you’re so smart?” Bam! “Dumb kludge better shut up before you get messed up!” Bam!

“Hey, good one, it rhymed. I bet you’re hiding a sensitive poet behind that caveman image.”

The expected jolt came again but half-hearted. The guy was starting it through his thick Dragonian skull that pain wouldn’t quiet Harper.

He grinned. “You know, this is my favorite part. Your boss wants me alive… for a while, and until he figures out that my boss doesn’t deal with terrorists, you two gotta put up with me.” He stretched his legs and gently rested his head on twined fingers, swallowing a wince and smiling.

The seconds were crawling by for Beka, Harper was cheerfully needling a new pair of guards--only slightly less merrily taking a few blows--and Captain Rhade was imagining the worst. A week had passed since the Archduke’s first message, and the sole notice he’d paid them was a brief, unbearably smug vid of him apologizing for his failure to communicate yet with Gaheris, citing urgent business with his guests as his excuse. Rubbing salt into the wound.

Rhade sat across from his best friend, deceased but as adept at Go as ever. Come to think of it, he was better.

“Charlemagne’s proving more difficult that you had anticipated?”

The Nietzschean nodded tersely, then set a small black stone on the second board. He couldn’t cheat either, now that Dylan was a hologram. “Much. I never presumed him to lack his wits, but… this is ridiculous. We should have discovered something by now.”

Dylan nodded. “If this were any other abduction by any other Nietzschean, I would agree. Remember Gaheris, he’s been planning this since you rejected his request for Commonwealth membership. Probably before, as a contingency.”

Of course. He had told his crew the same, though it had hardly been necessary. In the days of the old Commonwealth, Rhade would’ve had an intergalactic database, informants, and special agents at his disposal.

The little voice that told him it still would be there if not for him had died almost immediately by now.

“But you know all this. You know how he thinks, and he thinks he knows how you think.” The hologram seemed to set down a white stone. In reality, a holographic chip transferred from his holographic palm to the Go board. “What does he know of you, Gaheris? On… what is he basing your profile?”

Rhade looked up, puzzled, from the tri-level game. “I don’t believe I follow you.”

Dylan chuckled a little. “I’m not surprised.”

His friend smiled. “But you do mean to enlighten me?” He set down another piece.

“Naturally. Charlemagne knows this: you killed your captain to bring down what you saw as an ineffective and decadent government, you’re currently attempting to form a new Systems Commonwealth, and you’re not letting him join the club. So what conclusion does he draw? You’re a man of principle, of honor, even.” He shrugged, a tiny grin dancing at the corners of his holographic lips. “Hey, Ijust call’em as he sees ‘em.”

Andromeda’s current captain nodded slowly. He needed someone else to reveal the first part--he certainly didn’t think of himself as a man of honor--but he could take it from here. His mood was doubly lifted by a glance at the board. One more black piece and… “Twelve moves until I win.”

Tyr shoved a couple of outfits in a small, ordinary duffel, though not before carefully folding them. That old Earth maxim… haste makes waste… rang true for a good mercenary. And Tyr had been much more than a good mercenary.

Captain Rhade had reached some sort of epiphany, and Tyr found himself perfectly in sync with his superior (by rank only, of course). Lately, this was becoming more and more rare.

Found out who saw them last. Charlemagne thinks I’m a man of principle, and I intend that he persist in that fiction as long as possible. You, on the other hand… if you should act against my orders and forcefully extract information about the position of Beka and Harper… You wouldn’t be under my protection for this mission, as you’re well aware.

I am. And might I say how glad I am that this revelation has dawned upon you. I do not relish the idea of an irate Charlemagne Bolivar, especially without a Chief Engineer and superior pilot.

Trance had provided him his first location, with no more reason than any of them but quite a bit more certainty. After witnessing the astonishing success of her “guesses” more than once, Tyr was inclined to follow her direction.

And truth be told, he was feeling impatient. Two weeks since his crewmates vanished, and every day lessened the odds that he would find them and find them well. Once again, Tyr Anasazi was responsible for rescuing these two humans, but they were essential elements of their skeleton crew. Take away Harper, and a single, well-aimed shot could disable their engines, slipstream drive, weapons, or sensors for an indeterminable length of time. Take away Beka, and the Andromeda lost the best pilot Tyr had ever met. She greatly lowered the chances that an enemy would be able to make that critical shot. Tyr was the only true soldier on the ship, aside from its captain, but he knew his weaknesses and the strengths of his crewmates.

Besides all that, Tyr might actually have a chance to enjoy himself on this mission. Space battle was necessary and delivered its own sort of satisfaction, but the sight of enemy ships exploding into golden sparkles just couldn’t equal the sight of bright eyes dulling, a living body falling limp, vital blood spilling from mortal wound he had inflicted. He smiled feral grin and briefly flexed his bone blades.

Several hours later, he had arrived at a large drift which catered to larger ships and fleets, as well as generals with delusions of large ships. A merchant informed Tyr that his crewmate had already asked about the two kludges and been told the same thing that he was now telling Tyr; he saw hundreds of people every week and could neither confirm nor deny their presence.

Disappointing to some, perhaps, but Tyr casually reached out and held the merchant’s wrist in a crushing grip, bringing the unfortunate to his knees. Not blood and death but still pleasant. The Nietzschean repeated the names and descriptions in question, with much more promising results. They had passed through here but didn’t purchase anything. The man remembered dismissing them as cheap cargo runners with big dreams. If they didn’t buy from him, they might have checked out a woman named Aliyz Fumatonya. Tyr left without another word, barely concealing a contented grin.
“Captain, I have a message here from Charlemagne Bolivar.”

Gaheris awoke with a start, irrationally annoyed with his ship’s AI for a moment. He sat up and ordered Andromeda to play it. The face that he had come to despise over the past weeks beamed benevolently down at him.

“Captain! I’m so glad we’re finally able to converse! I cannot begin to explain how occupied I’ve found myself lately, and I’m sure matters have been the same for you.”

He rubbed his head sleepily. Logically, Gaheris Rhade knew that he could manage adequately without sleep for nearly two weeks. But these past two weeks had laid as much stress on him as he’d ever known.

“I hear that you’ve persuaded yet another world to sign you charter. Let me offer you my sincerest congratulations. You know, I just had the most fantastic idea. There’s a lovely place a Beacon Burning Bright, and I do hope you’ll permit me to treat you to a sort of… no hard feelings dinner. Of course, you shall bring your coterie and I mine. Yes, I am convinced; we shall pass a wonderful evening.

“A pity your best pilot is out of commission at present; Beacon is rather out of the way. However, I have complete confidence that you will find your way. Tomorrow night, eight o’clock local time.”

Gaheris sighed. Charming man. The fall of his people since the Fall of the Commonwealth never ceased to amaze him. And what could he do in the face of an onslaught of these inferior specimens?

“Andromeda,” he asked, brow beetled in thought, “what is this Beacon Burning Bright?”

A flickering hologram materialized at his bedside. “Scanning database… a Than drift, greatly reputed in the higher social circles.” The image frowned. “I’m afraid I am unable to pinpoint a location. It is a members-only establishment, I believe.”

Captain Rhade swore, startling his ship’s AI. “I didn’t expect this to be easy, Andromeda, but I was certain tha we would defeat him in this! He is a prime example of the problem with civilization today and especially with Nietzscheans. Charlemagne proves me people’s inferiority time and again, so why can’t we beat him?!”

The hologram was silent a moment. “Sir… we will beat him.” The grim optimism of a warship. “He can throw these wrenches in our path, but we will always clear it again. We have, and we will. And then we’ll make him pay.” She looked excited to see that day.
Tyr exercised methodically, striving for his physical best but lost in thought. Charlemagne’s quickly buried surprise at their arrival at Beacon Burning Bright had pleased him. This was a tiny thing, arriving at a restaurant the Archduke had not expected them to find… but it was an encouraging sign. The first, he admitted, since this business began over three weeks ago. A month would soon approach since that innocuous supply run, and Tyr had rarely felt as incompetent as he had lately. That he’d happened to know Beacon’s address was little more than luck, a gift from his myriad past. /Not luck. Knowledge hard-earned and hard kept/. That knowledge and experience should help him now--earning a reputation as one of the deadliest mercenaries in the Known Worlds had nearly killed him at times. He had stolen Drago’s remains from the Drago-Kazov homeworld!

He knew only now that he had underestimated Charlemagne, dangerously so, dismissed him as a decadent fop.

“I will not make that mistake again,” he muttered. He heard footsteps echo through the corridor, then into the gym.

“Constant self-improvement. I admire that about you, Tyr.” The captain. He and Tyr would eventually come to a head, and only one would leave that confrontation… but for now, that wrath simmered quietly beneath the surface. For now, they had a more important goal.

He ignored the compliment. Tyr hated acknowledging how similar he and Gaheris truly were. Two men who met on the wrong side of time, if he were to wax melodramatic about it. “Have you unearthed any new information on Beka and Harper?”

“Rev’s Wayist brothers may have a lead for us, but that’s not why I came here.” He hesitated. Tyr lifted his weights patiently, waiting for him to continue. “You have considerably more experience with both cases such as these and the people involved. I want your opinion on our progress and the likely state of our crewmates.”

Tyr had dwelled on this himself, and he didn’t like what experience told him. “In my experience, the most progress is made immediately after the abduction. We have found the opposite, and what little progress we’ve made has been steady. I am fairly confident that we will discover the whereabouts of Beka and Harper on our own.” He grunted softly as he lifted. “I am much less satisfied with what I believe of their condition. This depends much on Charlemagne, and we know him to be quite… changeful. I am especially concerned for Mr. Harper.”

“He does possess that certain /je ne sais quoi/,” Rhade said dryly. “But Charlemagne hasn’t made any ransom demands. Do you believe he means to prolong this ordeal?”

Lift, hold, relax. Breathe. “I do. I think that he means for us to /discover/ his ransom demands as part of this little game of his. There are several stages along the way where we could falter--Beacon Burning Bright, for instance--and he expects that we will ultimately fail.”
“I see.”
Tyr looked up briefly. “You’re not too proud to ask advice from a man you dislike. I admire that. “
“Thank you for your counsel,” Rhade replied, somewhat stiffly. He opened his mouth, closed it, and left as silently as he’d come. A man of idle greetings and farewells, the captain was not.
Which worked out well, as Tyr wasn’t overly fond of them either. Lift, hold, relax. Breathe. He hadn’t voiced the full extent of his worry, probably because he didn’t want to hear it spoken aloud. Their two crewmates were very likely a unique brand of Jaguar-inflicted agonies this moment. He hated to imagine the little professor in the hands of Nietzschean interrogators, but the boy had lived under them for long enough to know what to expect. He smiled a little, musing that Harper had invited some of that pain. Take what you want and pay for it, another fitting Earth platitude advised.
As for Beka… at the thought of her under torture, Tyr wanted to steal a slipfighter to the Jaguar homeworld and beat the life out of Charlemagne. Even his beloved Big Freakin’ Guns wouldn’t be sufficient for the task. He would kill the man for every blow she’d taken. Tyr realized he was holding a breath and let it out.
More and more since the disappearance of the two humans, Tyr had been pondering his odd situation aboard the Andromeda. A spiritual Magog, a purple elf who apparently possessed some form of ESP, a High Guard relic--simultaneously a man who had committed murder for the Nietzschean tactical uprising and then killed ten thousand of them at the Battle of Witchhead--, a mudfoot with a genius for machines, and a female pilot with the coordination and confidence to make a Nietzschean weep. Odder still was the fact that he considered the two humans friends, though he saw them in very different lights.
A strange and fragmented Pride was better than none at all, and this little family had made an incredible stir around the Known Worlds. Rev and Trance were respectively an elder and a healer, Harper the headstrong younger brother, Rhade the Alpha and Tyr’s competition, and Beka the possible mate. In these practical terms, he had something of an interest in her, human though she was.
Tyr and Beka had always shared the camaraderie of two world-weary pirates amused by the children but couldn’t say when he had began to notice the arch little smiles that followed her quips, the slight sway in her walk, and her crystal blue eyes beyond indifferent observation. These definitely weren’t practical terms… and he knew that Rhade noticed them as well.
He also found that he missed her.
It showed just how far Beka’s situation had fallen that she was overjoyed when her captor came to chat. She had decided that she might as well do something productive during her excruciatingly dull stay and was practicing push-ups on the carpet. After nearly a month and a half, she could clap in between push-ups and even practice one-handed for a time.
The door swung open, and Beka fell over in her shock. She didn’t think it was time for her evening plate of food yet.
“What in the name of the Divine are you doing there?” a smooth voice inquired incredulously.
Beka stood hastily. “Um, trying to find a more comfortable position. That’s a bitch of a mattress you got there.”
“It’s too bad no one mentioned to me how amusing you are. I should have visited you more often, had I known.”
“Hey, do I get a shower today? I tend to lose track of the time when confined in small spaces.” Beka sat on the bed. She rolled her shoulders but refused to massage her arms in front of the Archduke.
Charlemagne’s lips quirked. “Why, I believe so. I’m in an unusually good mood today, so feel free to ask for anything you may desire.”
Beka laughed shortly. “Ha ha. You’re a pretty funny guy yourself, Charley. So why’re you practically turning cartwheels here in my humble abode anyway?” She tried to sound sarcastic, but she was ecstatic at the conversation. At any conversation. The men who served her food and led her to the occasional shower were of the strong, silent type.
The blond man sat at the edge of the bed. “I have some extra time of my hands, Rebecca, and I have been meaning to chat with you for a while now. By all means, let’s bond.” He grinned. “You see, your extremely clever crewmates have just come a step further in their investigation.”
“So you want to get caught?”
“Oh my, no,” Charlemagne laughed. “Oh no, I don’t plan on your captain succeeding in his investigation. How funny. I am pleasantly surprised that they have come this far, but I am hardly worried that they will burst in here any day now, demanding you and Harper. No no, I’m happy because this signifies a change in my current situation.”
Beka raised an eyebrow. “You were getting bored? Until you’re locked in a room smaller than Andromeda’s Command for a month, you don’t know what bored is,”
Her companion ignored her. “Less a change in my situation, come to think of it, as a change in yours and Harper’s.” He looked closely at her, and she was astonished to see that his apologetic smile looked completely genuine. “It’s nothing personal, Captain Valentine. If we had met under different circumstances, I’m sure we could’ve enjoyed each other’s company very much. You simply chose the wrong man for your captain.”
Beka was no pro at politcally-motivated kidnappings, but she thought she could see where this was going. Ready the hot pokers. “Well, do you think I could get a shower first?”
“I said you would, did I not? We may postpone this shift for a short time, while you and I catch up.” Beka shrugged nonchalantly. “Very well. I hope it would not exceed your... ethical limits to tell me what you imagine your crewmates aboard the Andromeda are doing this very moment.”
The blonde woman blinked. “Um, I guess not.” She thought back before her abduction. It was hard to believe that she had really lived on the famous Andromeda any more. She felt as if she’d always lived in this cell, always practiced what exercise she could between meals and sleep. “Let’s see... I bet Tyr’s lifting weights and reminiscing about some great merc job he pulled off.” I served him a tiramisu laced with strychnine. As I remember, he greatly enjoyed it for precisely... twelve seconds. Beka smiled to herself. “Rev is reading something from his fellow Wayists, meditating, or maybe working with Trance in med. If she’s not there, Trance is probably in hydroponics, watering or pruning her plants. She names them, you know.” Another little smile. She could still picture the purple girl humming and talking to her flowers. “And Gaheris... I don’t know. Playing Go or just being captain-y. Maybe he’s trying to get someone else on the Commonwealth bandwagon.” This time she tried very hard to conceal a grin.
Charlemagne laughed. “You wound me, Rebecca.” He placed a hand over his heart. “Actually, he has succeeded in persuading another world to join his new Commonwealth. I am truly happy for him, and I hope that he will soon see the advantages of approving Pride Jaguar’s application. I suppose I shouldn’t be telling you this, Captain Valentine; it’s quite the secret still. I am planning a marriage to the Sabran First Daughter, and unless she assassinates me on our wedding night, I will control the third largest fleet in the Known Worlds.”
“Congratulations on your approaching nuptials,” Beka said, confused at the Archduke’s confidence. What was she supposed to say? “I’ll be sure to tell Gaheris all about it.”
“You believe,” he inquired curiously, “that he will rescue you, despite the time that has already passed?”
Beka peered suspiciously at the Nietzschean. She couldn’t tell if he was mocking her or not. “Yes, I do. I mean, I bet you’ve been planning this since you heard that someone was trying to rebuild the Systems Commonwealth. So maybe it’ll take ‘em awhile, but they’ll be here.”
“I see.” Charlemagne nodded thoughtfully. “Ah, I believe the time has come.” As if on cue, a pair of guards opened the door and stood behind their leader. “Gentlemen, treat this lady to a shower before you relocate her. She’s been most helpful.” He smiled graciously and exited with a soft whoosh of silk.
“Wow, Mr. Generosity,” she muttered. “He gives me a shower before the torture. I think I’m getting the vapors.”

“I’ve heard that you discovered my ransom demands. Your Tyr Anasazi can be most persuasive. While I congratulate you once again on the continuing success of your investigation, I regret to inform you that you have been the means of this...” Charlemagne’s face flickered off, and a vid began to play. It was Beka, accompanied by three burly Nietzscheans. Crude electrodes clung to her skin like leeches, and every time one of them pressed a remote control, she screamed. Charlemagne’s voice carried over the pained cries. “I hope this inspires a change of heart, Captain. The closer you come, the more your crewmates are punished. I know it’s unfair, but I insist that someone suffer for my troubles. I’ll let this run a bit more, to help you clear your mind.”

Now Gaheris could see the tears coursing down Beka’s face. A female Nietzschean not a foot away from her screamed something not quite decipherable. The third leaned against a table, laughing at the goings-on around him. He turned and waved cheerily at the camera.

Suddenly, the vid clicked off. Rhade’s head jerked away. “Andromeda! Turn that back on!”

The ship’s avatar entered his quarters just then. “I won’t, Captain. There can be nothing productive about seeing Beka tortured. Charlemagne is trying to bait you, to draw you out before you’re ready. Don’t let him.”

Gaheris drew a deep breath. “All right, Rommie. You’re right.” He sat silently for a moment, and then an idea struck him. “Why did he send only a recording of Beka? I would imagine Harper to drive his captors to violence before her.” He sighed. “Not that I could rest easy while they... did that to him.”

Rommie nodded and sat on her captain’s bed. “I can’t say for sure. This business with Bolivar is confusing. I’ve dealt with kidnappings before, you understand--diplomatic incidents and so on, but I cannot fathom this man.” She paused. “There is one possible reason...” Rhade raised an eyebrow, wordlessly urging her to continue. “Of course, you must understand that I am not making a judgment or an opinion but merely relating to you what I believe may be his motivation.” She waited for the Captain to say something, and when he didn’t, she finished reluctantly. “He may be under the... probably completely erroneous... notion that you have... more than platonic feelings for her.”

“That I’m in love with her?!” Gaheris leapt to his feet.

Rommie held up her hands defensively. “That’s one theory, yes. It would explain why he exposed you to images of Beka suffering and not Harper. It’s just my personal guess.”

He sat down heavily. “I know, Rommie. I’m sorry I snapped at you. I already suspected this was happening to her--to both of them.” He chuckled bitterly. “He’s greatly mistaken if he imagines this will deter me from my efforts. Beka and Harper are both very strong people, and Charlemagne wishes too much to join the renewed Commonwealth to fatally injure them.” Gaheris smiled wanly. “I promise that I will not replay the message, but I would appreciate some time alone.”

“Yes, sir.” Rommie rose and left Rhade alone with his thoughts.

“Hey guys,” Harper called out to his questioners, “the betting window’s open. I’ll be taking your wagers on which member of the Andromeda’s crew will blast his way in here first and when. Anybody? Was that ‘Captain Rhade in a week’? I don’t know--I think Tyr would leap at a chance to break out the Big Freakin’ Guns. He’s probably checking ‘em right now.”

One of the men threw a baleful glance at the skinny human. “We’re eating here, kludge. Save it.”

Another growled and slammed his utensils on the rickety table. “I was done anyway. Charlemagne’s eating caviar and sipping brandy while we get...” he sighed disgustedly.

“Mystery meat? Ah, it’s better than fish eggs and bad grape juide anyway.” For his part, Harper had already consumed his allotted sustenance for the day. “It’s too bad Friedrich isn’t here. He makes better conversation than both of you Ubers combined.”

The second Nietzschean stomped over to where Harper sat cuffed to a metal chair. “You must have a deathwish, boy.” He slammed his fist across Harper’s temple.

Harper blinked several times, clearing his vision. Then he laughed. The older man... Ialous, maybe... got the worst end of that encounter. His knuckle had struck the hardest part of Harper’s skull around that region of his head, and the meat of his palm had only jolted the human slightly. “With nothing more threatening than a spoon and fork, the caveman must resort to his fists to strike the poor little kludge.” And fail miserably.

Ialous turned to his companion. “When do we get outta here? This kid is driving me crazy.”

From his corner, Harper interrupted that such was his job.

The door flew open, and both Nietzscheans snapped to attention. The sitting one jumped to his feet as if stabbed with a pin, and the other leapt across the room in a single bound. “Thanks, boss, this runt was running his mouth, and you know he...”

Harper twisted around and caught the rare sight of two Nietzscheans losing all blood in their faces, mouths and eyes forming wide O’s of shock. Unhappy shock, from the looks of things. He grinned. It really was too bad neither of the men had decided to take him up on the wager.
“You’re not really expecting me to answer any of these questions are you?” Beka asked, her words slurred by a swollen lip and sore jaw.

A cruelly amused laugh answered her. “No, we really don’t. The only point of the questions is for your refusal to give us an excuse.” A Nietzschean wound his fingers in her short, matted hair and jerked her head back. He examined her injured features with a grin. Beka closed her eyes and let her mouth hang open. A facade of defeat. She had waited for over a week for this moment. Beka Valentine might not have much experience with captors and political kidnappings, but she had seen more than her share of dramatic holovids on the subject. This was the ‘lure them into believing your spirit has been broken’ part. The ‘spring at them with teeth and nails’ part came very soon.

He was gloating over her wounds as Beka counted down from three in her head. She couldn’t tense up until the very... last... And then she leapt at him.

“Aaah, bloody son a.... aah, damn, stupid kludge!” Apparently, no one curse was sufficient to describe his feelings.

As the man was hunched over, fists pressed against his streaming eyes, Beka was able to loom over him for the first time during their acquaintance. “You know, I know your friend there is going to rush me in less than a minute... and I’m going to make that minute last.” Fortunately for her, he wasn’t bent over so far that she wasn’t able to injure him in every Nietzschean’s favorite place. An expert in kneeing men in the crotch, Beka pulled off one of her best performances. He was yowling now.

“I might get knocked around tonight, but in the morning, I’ll be slightly less sore. You’ll still be sterile.” She probably hadn’t hit him that hard, but now he screamed, clutching himself. She stood up and spun, surprised that the other Nietzschean hadn’t sent her sprawling on her ass yet. In her excitement, she hadn’t heard the door creak open, and now she heard nothing besides a Nietzschean on the floor, wailing about about his wife and children. The second interrogator was frozen in place, staring at something she couldn’t see.

An amused voice, full of admiration this time, floated through the door. “It seems you hardly needed rescuing after all.”
Two shrieking whines filled the cell, and then the only sound was footsteps until Harper remembered to breathe. “That was some nice shootin’, partner,” he remarked in a slow drawl. Still twisted around in his chair, he couldn’t see the person he addressed for several more seconds. Then his face broke out into a huge, relieved smile. “Hey, boss, great to see ya! Trust the only guy who hates Nietzscheans more than me to come break me outta here.”

The captain wasn’t smiling when he shot the two other men, but now he returned Harper’s grin. “It’s good to see you, too. I think Andromeda’s been turning my shower down a degree every day that you’ve been gone. Said you were supposed to make some repair on her.” Few people outside the Andromeda saw this casual, easy side of Gaheris Rhade. He examined the cuffs that anchored Harper. “Lean forward as far as you can.”

Harper complied, straining his spine to threshold of discomfort. “Whaddya say were make like a tree and leaf? Like a banana and split? Like--”

“Shut up, Harper.” He tossed the younger man a gauss pistol and dashed out the door. Nietzscheans might be good shots, but Harper and Rhade were erratically moving targets, armed, and wearing High Guard ECM generators. Rhade had thoughtfully brought one along for his human crewmate, and the Nietzscheans would explain shame-facedly the next day that they had been sure that they had hit the kludge and the Commonwealth relic--but somehow the energy bolts went astray at the last nanosecond.

Those ECM generators--almost more than the forcelances--made escape a relatively simple matter, as long as no Nietzscheans managed to sneak up on them. None did. Harper hoped fervently that his captain knew where they were headed because the only times he had left his cell, he had been blindfolded. This whole place looked copy-and-pasted from a single hallway design. He thought he heard shots being exchanged several corridors away and wished Beka luck under his breath.
Two shrieking whines filled the cell, and then the only sound was footsteps until Beka remembered to breathe. “Yeah, well, I do a little, you do a little...” A smile spread across her face, almost lovely enough to make one forget the blood smeared across it. “I’m glad you came.”

Tyr chuckled softly. Bruised and beaten, Beka could still send a Nietzschean weeping to his knees.

“I mean, who would have believed me without a witness? Beka Valentine making a Nietzschean cry like a baby.” She laughed. “Now toss me a gun and let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

Tyr complied immediately, and the two sprinted out the door. First he went ahead, and Beka covered his back, then caught up with him and took the lead. They switched places every few hundred feet. “Our honored captain is whisking Harper away to safety aboard a slipfighter. We will not know if he succeeded until we return to the Andromeda. We arrived within a few minutes of each other but on opposite sides of the compound.”

Beka shot a guard peering around a corner. “They’ll be fine. Gaheris has all that black ops experience under his belt, and Harper really likes shooting Nietzscheans.” She hopped back from approaching weapons fire and winced.

Tyr noticed and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Are you injured?”

Despite the pain shooting up from her ankle and the impending danger, Beka laughed. “Do I look injured to you?” She could taste a metallic bitterness from her swollen lip. “But I can walk. You just say where.”

Tyr led them around the underground building without hesitation, although Beka suspected that they were running in circles. The walls looked alike wherever they ran. Finally, they rushed up several flights of stairs, shot several Nietzscheans, and dashed into a sunlit stretch of empty plains. Beka cried out and shaded her eyes, blinking and stumbling. “Hey, Tyr, some of us haven’t been outside in a month and a half.” She groaned. “Have I ever told you how much I hate planets?”

When she could look up again without squinting too much, Beka gasped. “The Maru!” She turned to face Tyr. “I officially withdraw everything I’ve ever said about you. Everything, you know, bad.” Her blue eyes danced merrily, and without warning, she launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and laughing. “Usually, my strong female instincts would forbid me from saying this, but you’re my hero.” She pulled back to face him. “At least for now.”

A small group of pursuers emerged into the sunlight and shouted. The escapees ran to the Maru, opened by Beka’s secret voice-activation code (for which she made Tyr close his ears and sing ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ at the top of his lungs), and the ship’s captain threw her into flight. Tyr fired as Beka lifted straight off the ground. Several slipfighters flew near the planet in pre-programmed paths, further confusing Charlemagne’s forces.
Harper and Beka were stuck in Med with Trance, who was secretly elated to have patients again. She loved her plants, but they were never much of a challenge. The girl might’ve worried about her friends, but she had seen immediately that their injuries wouldn’t kill them. At worst, the pair would have some battle scars to brag about later. She hovered lovingly, and if she had been anyone but Trance, she would have annoyed her patients endlessly.

“Hey Beka, you made it into the club!”

Beka turned onto her side and raised an eyebrow at Harper. “What are talking about? What club?”

He grinned. “The ‘I Suffered Nietzschean Torture and Lived to Tell About It’ Club. It’s pretty exclusive.”

Despite herself, Beka laughed. “Do we have a secret handshake?”

“Uh, we could make one up. I think I could swing us a pair of t-shirts.”

Trance smiled at their banter. They were still bandaged, but if they could joke about their capture, they were well on their way to recovery. This particular conflict had run some of the others ragged, but she had known throughout the ordeal that matters would end well. She was disappointed in Charlemagne Bolivar. He could’ve been such a useful ally. She also had a bad feeling about the woman he was supposed to marry. “She’d probably call me a purple monkey,” she murmured.

“What was that?” Beka was looking at her with a confused expression on her face.

“Nothing! I hope you guys are ready for another shot.”
Beka had laughed with Harper about their duration at the underground compound , but staring out at the starfield around her, she couldn’t find anything funny about it. She definitely hadn’t lived the charmed life, but that was the first time she’d been physically hurt so badly. So much hatred and anger focued upon her, and she didn’t know why. No, she knew why she had been abducted and thought she understood why Charlemagne had ordered her torture... but not why those Nietzscheans had loved hurting her. Harper liked saying that the universe hated them, and Beka had always agreed. But what she really believed in was the supreme indifference of the universe and of most people she met. She ignored them, and they ignored her. That suited her fine. This hatred, though... this fury at her from people she’d never injured in any fashion... no matter how she reminded herself that the universe was full of people angry and bitter through no fault of her own, that only someone utterly naive would be shocked by this behavior, she simply could not comprehend what she had borne.

Quiet footfalls landed behind her, and Beka jumped. She was horrified to discover that her eyes were swimming in tears. Blinking rapidly, she turned to face whoever had interrupted her reverie. “Gaheris?”

“I can understand if you desire privacy, and I know that you may find it... difficult to confide in me after what you have endured.” He looked older than Beka remembered. “I do not mean to hurt you anymore, Beka, but if you do want to talk...” His dark eyes rested softly on her.

She didn’t think that he could truly understand what she had been through, but part of her did want to talk. “I- I don’t blame you. I want you to know that right now. Charlemagne just proved everything you ever said about him, and I’m glad that you refused to let him into the Commonwealth.” A small cry escaped her. “I just wish he hadn’t chosen me to make his point.” Rhade came a half-step closer but dropped his hands after he began to reach for her, unsure how she would react to his touch. “It wasn’t the blows or the pain or the long stretch of monotony for over a month. Hell, at first I was just glad for a change of scenery.” She heaved a shuddering sob. “I just couldn’t understand why they hated me so much.”

She raised her watery azure eyes to his. “They... you weren’t always like this, were you? When the Systems Commonwealth was vibrant and strong, Nietzscheans weren’t... bullies and slavers and sadists, were they?” Her voice held a note of desperation.

This time, Rhade couldn’t stop himself from enfolding her in his arms. “Some of them were, yes. Some of us always will be, just as are some humans and Than. The greatest Nietzschean weaknesses have always been forgetting the ‘human’ in superhuman and accepting what they’ve learned, without question. We may rise and rebel against all we’ve ever known... but we find it infinitely more difficult to question our own insular society and the values we hear so often ascribed to us. In the old Commonwealth, we were forced to work with other species, to listen to other people. From what I’ve read and experienced of my people now, they’ve isolated themselves. They’ve forgotten Drago Museveni’s vision for the Nietzschean people--warrior poets, acting in enlightened self-interest. Now most of them are mediocre as true warriors--”

“And absolutely hopeless poets,” Beka finished. Rhade’s quiet voice was soothing, and she felt calmer already. Better.

He smiled down at her. “Indeed. If my people knew, they would accuse me of betraying them at Witchhead.” He shook his head slowly. “I didn’t betray them, Beka. They betrayed themselves. A Nietzschean empire could never survive, as long as each and every member viewed himself as the smartest and bravest and most capable--as perfect.”

They turned and gazed at the glittering stars, neither moving nor speaking.
Sometime over the next week or two, Tyr realized that he had lost any opportunity of a deeper relationship with Beka. He couldn’t have said how he knew, but whenever he looked at Rhade and Beka standing near each, conversing over the most commonplace matters, it hit him. They weren’t... together, not yet, but it was nothing more than a matter of time. The Captain had not feared to allow himself to love a human, averse to Nietzschean culture as it might be. Rhade had not, and Tyr had. He berated himself equally for his jealousy and his hesitation. One minute he would remind himself that he still planned to unite the Nietzschean prides... and the next recall that no Pride would take him in now, serving with humans and a Magog, proven genetically inferior by the annihilation of his Pride.

He could see her, bloody but standing triumphantly over her torturer and leaping into his arms, laughing exultantly. That had been his chance, that outpouring of joy and their solo flight back to the Andromeda. It was an opportunity that he had squandered, and it would never come again.

Regardless of what he might live through--might achieve or suffer--Tyr guessed that he would forever regret that. Perhaps he wouldn’t miss a romantic relationship with Captain Valentine, when everything was said and done, but that he never tried...

Part of him would always relive that moment, and only then would he do things differently.

The engineer rubbed his eyes and stared into the darkness surrounding him. Had he imagined Rommie calling his name? Well, he had imagined Rommie calling his name before but not quite like this.


She definitely was calling him, her voice no higher than an urgent whisper. “Yeah, Rommie?” He yawned. “What is it? Are you okay?”

Andromeda’s hologram shimmered into being beside Harper’s bed. “I’m sorry to wake you Harper-”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. It’s darkest midnight, and I got you in my bedroom.” Even half asleep, he waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Andromeda smiled at this. Harper did know how to make a girl--or warship--feel good. “I’m not sure what you could plan to do with a hologram,” she chuckled. “I’m fine... but Beka’s not. Ever since you two returned from Bolivar’s complex, she’s been waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats. Sometimes she talks or cries in her sleep. Since you’ve been... on Nietzscheans’ bad sides before, I thought that perhaps you could comfort her. I had hoped that her nightmares would lessen as the days passed, but they haven’t.”

Harper jumped out of bed, pulling on a tee shirt. “Aw man, I had no idea Beka was doing so bad. I shoulda guessed something was wrong--I’ve had ‘em off and on for years.”

“There’s no way you could have known Harper; she forbid me from saying anything the first time I asked her if she was all right. I wouldn’t have said anything, but I think her dreams have become progressively worse.”

Harper was fully dressed by the time Rommie finished. “If her door’s locked, will you get it for me?”

The hologram nodded. “Of course. And thank you, Harper.”

Harper paused. “She got my off Earth, Rommie. It’s the least I can do.”

Andromeda smiled briefly, then disappeared. Harper raced through Andromeda’s corridors until he came upon Beka’s quarters. When he tried them, the door was indeed locked, but it slid open after only a few seconds.

The light from the hall filtered into the dark bedroom, faintly illuminating the figure sitting on the bed. Harper let the door close behind him and padded over to sit next to Beka.

“Harper, what are you doing here?”

The young man could hear his captain trying to control her voice as she spoke. “Rommie told me you were having some rancid nightmares. I thought maybe, you know, we could talk about things... or whatever you want.”

Beka sniffed and ran a hand through her matted hair. “Thanks Harper, but you really don’t have to do this. I’ve just been suffering from a little insomnia recently, that’s all.”

Tentatively, the engineer put an arm around Beka. “Listen, Beka, you know how usually when stuff like this happens, you can say ‘you don’t understand’? Well, this time I do understand. You know, I’ve been through all this Uber torture stuff all my life. I have a nightmare about it at least once a month. It used to be everyday, until I escaped from the place on some bucket of bolts that landed from the sky.”

Beka half-heartedly elbowed Harper in the ribs. “Hey now, watch it, kid.” She sniffled again. “I don’t know how you did it, Harper, for all those years. I barely made it a week. I don’t know if the feeling of... utter hatred focused on me or my weakness is worse. I can’t stop thinking about either of them. I know that if they had kept that up for one more week... one more day... I would’ve told them everything about the Andromeda, turned her inside-out for them.”

Harper was usually the one Beka comforted, and it felt a little strange to reverse those roles. Still, he was glad he could do something for her when she had done so much for him. She probably didn’t even remember anymore the nights she had foregone sleep entirely just to stay up with him. “That’s the way it always goes. You always think ‘tomorrow. I’ll give in tomorrow’. But people like you and me, Beka, tomorrow never comes. We keep ‘em hanging for just a little longer. And even though they hate you--and hell if I know why some of them do--they start to respect you, you know?”

Beka gave a short laugh. “Great.” She sighed. “It’s not the pain. I mean, that was no walk in the proverbial park, but that’s not what I dream about most of the time. Usually I’m just... waiting. I know that they’re about to return and that this time, they’re going to break me. I’m strapped down there, and my eyes are fixed on the door while I’m imagining everything they’re going to do to me. I hear footsteps outside the door sometimes, and...”

“And then the knob turns, the door swings open, and you wake up, huh?”

This time, Beka smiled genuinely. “I guess you do understand. That helps, knowing that someone else went through all this. You do know that this means you’re now officially on call at all hours of the night?”

“What else am I gonna do? Sleep?” Harper hugged Beka, then stood up as she re-arranged herself and lay down. “Are you gonna be okay?”

“I think so, at least for tonight. Thanks again, Harper. I thought I was going crazy. Oh, and thank Rommie for her interference for me, will ya?” Beka pulled her sheets up to her chin and closed her eyes.

“Will do. ‘Night, boss.”

“Well, fancy meeting you here.” During the last couple of weeks, it had become something of a tradition for Gaheris and Beka to wander over to hydroponics in the evening and talk, or look over Trance’s plants, or just stare out the expansive window.

Tonight, Gaheris had a very specific reason in mind for going to hydroponics, but he didn’t know if he could bring himself to speak it aloud. He feared Beka’s indignant and angry reaction, and more than that, he just didn’t know what to say.

As Tyr had noted earlier, Captain Rhade was not one for idle chitchat. He had struggled internally during his walk to hydroponics, but as soon as he entered and saw Beka leaning against the window, head resting on her hand, he decided.

He joined her at the window. “Beka, I understand that you may never fully recover from this emotionally, and perhaps this is inappropriate... perhaps I am inconsiderate in saying this...”

Beka looked up at him, eyes wide. She had been doing some thinking of her own and had come to a horrifying conclusion. Now, she could only think that her captain had come to the same opinion. And after she had been so sure that he felt something for her. “I know. I can’t stop dwelling on it. I can’t fault you for... for blaming me.” Her voice quavered. “I blame myself, too.”

Rhade inhaled sharply. “You think Charlemagne’s treachery is your fault? He planned this for months, Beka. He...” Gaheris stopped himself. He wasn’t here to berate Beka. “No, that’s not what I wish to tell you.” He let out the breath he’d been holding. “I knew it before your capture, but I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’. It was true with Dylan and the Commonwealth, and it was true with you. I always valued you, Beka, and enjoyed your company.” He reached out and held her face in his hands, caressing her with his thumbs. “But until you were taken away, I didn’t realize that... that I love you and that I want to share with you everything that I am and hope that you can do the same.” He dropped his hands suddenly. “I will not hold a grudge, Beka, if you decide that you cannot be in this kind of relationship... with me.”

Wonder lit up her face. Wonder and elation. “Gaheris, I never knew...” She gave a shaky laugh. “You know, I really have never been one for hoisting guilt complexes on myself.” Stepping closer, she held his hands in hers. “During the past several days, I’ve wondered if, maybe, there could be something between us, but I just thought it was wishful thinking on my part.”

An unbelieving smile spread across Rhade’s face. Was she saying...?

“If you think you can somehow endure the stigma of a human girlfriend--” Now she was teasing him, just a little. “I think it might be nice to see what’ll happen.” She pulled his hands up and lay them on her waist. Then she let go his hands and rested hers between his neck and shoulders. She was smiling a little as he tilted his face down to meet hers and she kissed Gaheris Rhade for the first time.

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