412 - Pursuit Through the Pleiades

During those times when he’s dream-projected back home, Adam asks his father for more advice.

“How do I find out where the bad guys are?”

Nassir thinks about that. “The police would usually have records about that,” he says at last. “You’d consult the archives, talk to whoever keeps tabs on activity, that kinda thing.”

The look on his son’s face tells Nassir what he feared. “You want to know, but not go through official channels,” he concludes. “We’re going back to our earlier discussion about trusting the authority you report to.”

Adam nods his head.

Nassir thinks some more, then smiles. “You get a line on someone you know who the cops are interested in. Find out where they are. Find out who they mingle with. Go where they work.”

Jordan remembers some names from her time in space. Zaxelis. Kwa Benga. Om the Face Flenser.

Adam isn’t sure he wants to take his friends to meet anyone named “the Face Flenser”. He had to look up what that word meant, and he didn’t like what he read.

Zaxelis, on the other hand, is a name hard to miss. Since her escape from Orion Schema, she has dedicated herself to making a splash in the galaxy. Bounty hunters are interested in her location, and have been asking for details for the last year. By using the interstellar network terminal in the ship, Space Bug is able to put together a picture of her movements.

“When she is entangled, jailed, imprisoned, she is to be put to Concordance Tribunal,” the bug-like alien explains. “Now she defies the Concordance through sheer stubbornness, brazenness, audacity. It is heartwarming and exciting!”

“Where is she now?” Adam asks patiently.

“Ah.” The bug holds up two digits in a gesture inviting patience. “Bounty hunters chase her. They go to many dangerous sounding places. The bounty increases. Then she disappears into the Blue Haunts. The bounty hunters will not follow.”

“What is the Blue Haunts?” Adam asks.

Space Bug shows him on the map.

The location is a cluster of young blue stars, about 445 light years away from Earth. Adam knows it by its Earth name: the Pleiades Cluster.

The next problem presents itself. How does this group ingratiate itself into groups the Concordance calls enemy?

Adam had again put the question to his father.

“Undercover work requires a core of authenticity,” Nassir had said. “You can’t send a white boy from uptown into a downtown drug den. He’ll stand out like a sore thumb. He doesn’t talk like them. He wasn’t raised like them. He doesn’t get it.”

“Maybe I can fake it with my powers?” suggested Adam.

Nassir shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I do know that people can smell a lie from a mile away when it’s about who you are. The best undercover guys I know were one wrong choice away from working against the law.”

Now Adam puts that advice to use.

Space Bug is easy. The creature is already a criminal - a smuggler of artifacts, a thief, a shipjacker, probably more. They’ll blend in without any effort.

Armiger will probably be the hardest. If he doesn’t start talking about justice and Excalibur and stuff, maybe he can be a bodyguard? He and Jaycee - she has the swagger Adam thinks he’s looking for.

He doesn’t want to think about Keri, not at first. But the truth comes to him, and he talks to her about it in privacy.

“We’re going to where there’s a lot of bad guys,” he explains delicately. “And, well, I thought about it. Can the Lamb pretend to be a Lion for awhile? You know, bring out–”

Keri stops him by raising the palm of her hand, and glowers. But she relents after a moment. “You’re asking a lot.”

“I know,” Adam admits. “If you want to stay behind–”

That suggestion makes her wince, and Adam regrets it without quite knowing why. But she explains.

“I talk a big game. I haven’t been a very good hero, but I’ve tried to pretend like I was, and somehow I wound up fooling a lot of people. Even you.” She chokes out a brief, pained laugh.

She speaks more softly, and finally finds herself able to meet Adam eye to eye. “I’m gonna take care of you, Adam, and the others too. I think I can be a bad guy and still do that.”

Adam isn’t sure what to say. So he speaks, and lets the words come on their own.

“Good people get hurt too. I think if you were really a bad person, you’d be a lot less conflicting about feeling like one.”

He smiles, and pats her arm, and leaves before she starts crying.

It’s Peri that gives him the breakthrough he needs. But he hates the idea of using it.

What if… Peri was a Collective agent, but had her Shard shut off, and they were trying to fix it by finding other members of the Collective?

It has the advantage of being absolutely true in all particulars.

It has the disadvantage of endangering Adam’s beloved little sister.

He thinks about using himself instead. He could transfer Tau - he’s done it before - or try to mess with the Antares Alpha-One Shard Somber lent him - or–

There’s a lot of ors, and he’s not certain of any of them.

Ultimately, all he can hope is that Somber is as good as their word, and that Jordan will be safe on Earth. She’s only a projection here. All she has to do to run away is wake up.

Ultimately, he hates that he’s thinking like this at all, and he blames that on Somber too.

“Space Bug, set course for the Pleiades,” he orders.

The work begins to give the team a cover story, as space scum on the run from the law.

They’re literally flying in a stolen ship. It takes very little effort to add a few touches here and there to suggest a more violent past. Battle damage, some nanopainted graffiti on the hull, and a couple of spikes really add character.

Jaycee and William receive fabricated weapons and armor - William a wicked-looking sword with a gently curving blade, like a Japanese katana, Jaycee a pair of powerful blasters, and replica Rainbow Imperial body armor. Space Bug, already similarly equipped, evaluates the result and gives the pair the Space Bug Seal of Approval ™, for a very low price to be negotiated in the future.

Adam, Jordan, and Keri all have their respective powers. Adam’s experience with using negative emotions during their battle with the Blot makes him confident he could fool a casual examiner, but he prays he won’t need to.

Jordan pouts at being told she needs to change her princess look to something darker, but becomes much more enthusiastic after Keri volunteers to work with her. The two girls spend quite a bit of time at the effort, and Adam has to admit the results look convincing.

Finally, Space Bug announces the ship has reached the perimeter of this unknown but lawless space.

“We will be fired on unless we answer their questions,” they say cheerfully.

“What questions?”

Space Bug tunes in the communicator, along with translation into English, so the group can hear someone who’s already hailed them.

“Vessel ‘Love Bug’, what are you doing in this space?”

“Profit, yes,” Space Bug responds immediately, before Adam can say anything. “Plus we have enemies of the Concordance aboard. They seek help, aid, succor, yes.”

“What are you paying for safe passage?” the voice demands gruffly.

“Mercenary services, fighting talent, violence,” Space Bug announces proudly.

“You’ve got three days to find a patron,” the voice announces. “After that, your ship is ours.” With that, the call is cut short.

Space Bug gives four thumbs up to Adam.

Adam has to rely on Space Bug for the next part - find the team a port of call, somewhere to dock and start nosing around.

The bug starts checking the regional network. As they do, Adam wrestles with more doubt.

Space Bug is a criminal. The bug could easily turn the rest of the team over to the bad guys here, get paid handsomely for a Concordance agent and two Earth heroes, and disappear into the Pleiades.

Adam isn’t sure the distrust is coming from Somber’s influence. He’s pretty sure he’s feeling it.

He’s pretty sure he doesn’t like it.

Space Bug starts reporting back likely locations. “The Supernova of Sin! Every pleasure a material being could desire–”

Adam firmly declines this option.

“The Crimson Stain. Gladiatorial games, battles to the death, free cremation services–”

Adam declines this one as well.

“The Phantom Parsec. Home of the Starbusters. Accommodations and work for the savvy spacer,” Space Bug reads off.

“Let’s do that one,” agrees Adam quickly, before any more unsavory names come up.

The Phantom Parsec is a space station in orbit around the third moon of a gas giant. This planet in turn orbits one of the many stars in the cluster. It is a vertical spindle, with docking points stretching out in all directions like the arms of an octopus.

Numerous ships are docked here, and Adam and the others can see people coming and going from the center spindle via pressurized tubes.

Gun turrets poke out everywhere, presumably operated by whoever’s in charge of the Parsec. They swivel as the Love Bug approaches, but don’t fire. Space Bug receives and obeys docking instructions, and the ship plugs comfortably into an assigned berth.

Now is the time, Adam tells himself. He reminds himself of high school theater, and does his best to get into character.

The crew that pile out of the Love Bug look motley enough.

Two bodyguards, a man with a sword and a woman with blasters, are first and last out. Between them march a dark princess bearing a Continuum Sword, an intense young man wielding a similar weapon, a chittering alien smuggler with their own blasters, and an angry-looking girl in a black poncho, who looks ready to punch the first person who looks at her funny.

They enter the tube, and are transported automatically toward the spindle. The tube is semi-transparent. As a result, Adam and his friends get to see the spectacle of the moon below them, the gas giant beyond them, and the radiant blue star off in the distance. Though close to Earth as these things go, they are on a frontier, and Adam drinks in the wonder of it.

Don’t slip. You’ve got to be a hard, dangerous criminal, an inner voice tells him.

He sighs, and draws out his “game face” again.

The doors dissolve for them, and the six travelers enter the Phantom Parsec to meet its unknown masters, the Starbusters.

1 Like

Adam hasn’t really been to a bar. He’s way too young. But he’s seen Western movies and cop shows and stuff. He thinks he knows what to expect. This place doesn’t look too different.

This place isn’t arranged like bars on Earth, where people build in squares and rectangles. Everything here is a circle, from the serving area at the center, to the rings of tables around it. There’s even a second bar area and set of tables on the ceiling, facing downward. The artificial gravity has been inverted to allow more people to be crammed into the space, and there’s a lift system to allow people to move between the two gravitational regimes.

Adam and his friends fan out as they enter. They move between tables, torn between wanting to look at the numerous alien beings here and not wanting to make eye contact or otherwise antagonize anyone.

Jaycee spots a table big enough for everyone, and beckons the others over.

They find themselves seated between two groups of bar patrons. The first are a group of humanoid aliens with bird-like beaks, four wings, and four legs. Their eyes are orange and emit light, and they whisper to each other in squawks and chirps. The second are a a diverse group - no two individuals look to be from the same species. What they share are some kind of head-mounted display, and bursts of light from the devices suggest they’re linked up via some kind of digital telepathy.

It’s the waitress who looks the most familiar to Adam. She’s of the same species as Octava, the alien refugee who came to Earth fleeing the Blot. She wears the same blue bodysuit, lacks any kind of hair, and has similar humanoid-but-not-human features.

Her own translator syncs up with the ones worn by the team and managed by the Love Bug’s central computer, and she speaks in the rhyming scheme Octava used.

“Food or drink, what do you think?”

The humans look at each other. In an alien bar, nobody’s really sure what’s even safe to eat.

Space Bug speaks immediately. “Tofu salad. E-Salinoid-47, metabolic formulation ZQ981. Style it in this fashion.”

The bug extends a device, and the waitress scans it and smiles. “You know what you like, that much I can tell, so please wait a moment, and then you’ll eat well.”

“Wait–” Adam says, out of the blue, and the waitress pauses to look at him curiously.

He isn’t sure he should say anything. But he wants to. “Why do you speak in rhymes?”

The girl pauses, and looks around her nervously for just a moment. Adam can feel her fear, however much she tries to repress it. But her smile returns. “It is our way, both night and day.”

“I knew someone of your species,” Adam says quietly. “She came to my planet to escape the Blot.”

The waitress takes a step back, and Adam realizes he’s overstepped himself. He says no more, and the girl returns to her duties.

He feels a surge of emotion, and reaches for a mental resource he didn’t want to have to tap.

Tau, when a Shard speaks through people, they become more emotionless and stuff. Can you take charge of how I express my body language, and keep it neutral?

I comply, Adam Amari.

Freed of the need to control his emotions, Adam thinks back to his experiences with Octava.

She was one member of a group of alien refugees who had come to Earth. Jason somehow got wind of the performances she was putting on to raise awareness for her peoples’ cause. A Blot strike team had attacked one such performance, and Adam had been tracking their arrival from orbit and arrived in time to help repel them.

Since then, Adam had struck up a strange friendship with the girl. He wasn’t from space, but he was the closest thing she could find to someone who knew what she was talking about when she talked about it. Other planets, places she’d been, beings she met - Adam could at least relate.

More than that, he liked being around her. It was fun just to listen to her talk, in that constant rhyming. It was fun to listen to whatever she had to say, because it was her saying it. It felt wonderful to answer her questions about Earth. And it hurt when the agents of SPATHA - The Solar-Planetary Alien THreat Alliance - had come to take her and her people into protective custody.

Did he have a crush on her?

He’s not really sure what a crush is supposed to feel like. He’s felt weird emotions with no names ever since he came into possession of a Concordance Shard. It’s sometimes hard to separate those from regular human feelings, which are already messy and complicated.

English doesn’t really help to explain what he feels. “Like” and “love” are words that cover so much. He loves his parents and he loves his little sister, even in the moments when he doesn’t like them for whatever reason. He likes cheese and grapes and stuff on charcuterie boards. He loves reading certain books - although which books he loves has fluctuated as he’s grown up.

Maybe I should try to see Octava again, so I can figure it out.

He notices, too late, that Space Bug isn’t at the table.

The creature is actually at another table, across the bar. They’re gesturing frantically at the table where Adam and his friends are sitting. The aliens Space Bug is talking to get up, and begin walking with deliberation toward Adam’s group.

This isn’t good.

The biggest and burliest of the bar patrons looks down at Adam.

“This little bug here says you lot think you can take us in a fight.”

“Probably,” says William, before Adam can intervene.

“Says we’re gonna find out, because you’re gonna go steal our ship after you’re done drinking.”

“That’s right!” squeaks Space Bug from behind them.

“Guess we can’t let you finish drinking,” the burly brawler announces.

“This individual is too young to drink,” says Tau through Adam’s mouth, before Adam can regain control over his voice.

“Oh? A child is gonna beat me?!” the alien demands. Adam can tell this is the tipping point.

There are six aggressive aliens. The leader has purple skin, an extremely muscular build, four arms, and what look like antennae for ears. Adam dubs him Muscles.

The next are nearly-identical beings that look sort of like rainbow-colored praying mantises from Earth, only they’re as tall as Adam is at 15. These two are the Bug Brothers.

The fourth is a creature dressed almost entirely in black veils, and wearing a hat that Adam has to compare to a ten-gallon hat on Earth. They are lithe, seemingly built for speed rather than strength, and Adam thinks of them as Cowboy.

The fifth is a blob-like mass of protoplasm, held together by some kind of surface tension. It extends pseudopods from time to time, and its mass is pinkish. This is Jello.

The final alien looks more like an animal to Adam’s Earthly eyes. It has a vicious maw full of sharp teeth, and what Adam thinks must be clawed hands are just more mouths on the ends of flexible arms, also full of teeth. Adam thinks of it as Fang.

Muscles opens the fight by kicking the table from beneath, intending to send it painfully into Adam’s face. Tau reacts automatically, raising the briefest of barriers to render it motionless.

Everyone else moves, all at once.

William is out of his chair. He doesn’t draw his sword from its sheath. Instead, he leaves it in, wielding the sword plus sheath as a club. Cowboy darts in to strike at Jaycee, and William knocks their first arm out of the way, then the second, with lightning speed.

Jaycee, used to William’s fighting style as his trainer and sparring partner, levels a punch at Cowboy’s abdomen in the opening William left for her. The alien slides backward across the floor, but regains their poise almost immediately.

The Bug Brothers lunge with scythe-like forearms at Peri. Adam, mindful that she doesn’t have Anty’s protection right now, is ready with a barrier. Jordan eeps. Adam can see her fumbling to get hold of her Continuum Sword.

Fang makes the mistake of going after Keri. The hostile alien leaps at her, slavering mouths ready to eat her, but Keri just lets him bite down on her arm. The creature seems very surprised that it’s not able to bite down through her flesh. In the moment it takes Fang to process this new state of affairs, Keri has thrown it far enough up into the air that the other half of the bar’s gravity takes over - and Fang falls to the ground above her.

Jello starts to engulf her. Adam can tell Keri isn’t quite sure how to respond.

Around him, William is keeping busy dueling with Cowboy - dodging their attacks, striking back with his sheathed sword as a baton or club - but he doesn’t have capacity for much else.

Jordan has her glowing sword out, and the Bug Brothers seem to realize that things have escalated with her. They wave their sharp arm-scythes menacingly, but don’t make a move just yet.

Muscles takes the opportunity to throw punches in succession at Adam. He dodges, rolls and back-flips out of the way, not yet ready to manifest his own sword. Maybe he can tire the alien out?

Jaycee steps in to help Keri out. Thinking outside the box, she’s realized that if Jello can engulf an arm, it can absorb other things in turn. She’s grabbed hold of every glass, stein, and other drinking vessel within reach, each full of some kind of intoxicating or debilitating beverage, and is shoving them through the surface of Jello’s body as fast as she can. The combined effects of the drinks starts to take its toll, and the creature slides limply off Keri’s arm. The two girls share an appreciative smile.

Adam can sense his sister’s overwhelming confusion. She’s used to her ideas about fighting crime on Earth. But here?

“Peri, Bubble!” he instructs urgently. His sister, finally catching on, shields herself with a barrier. The Bug Brothers try their hands at it - literally - but after a few strikes bounce off, they realize this is not a target they can hurt. They turn their attention to Jaycee.

“Lamb - big guy!” Adam calls. Keri understands and leaps in front of Muscles, taking the pressure off Adam. The aliens’ powerful fists rebound off her invulnerable skin, and she flashes a shark-like grin in response.

Now free to concentrate, Adam throws up a barrier around Jaycee, just in time for the Bug Brothers’ strikes. Again the paired aliens find themselves thwarted by an impenetrable barrier.

Fang is making its way down the lift from the bar above. Jaycee grabs one of her blasters off her hip, aims, and fires at the lift mechanism. It sparks, and Fang finds itself stuck. It growls angrily, and starts manually trying to climb between the two gravity zones - but it’ll take time.

Cowboy has a speed advantage over William, even with his training. He’s being pushed back. Adam leaps across one of the intervening tables and unleashes a light blast of energy. The alien is able to dodge it.

Keri, meanwhile, punches Muscles square in the face, sending the alien sprawling over and through several other tables. He’s down, but he’s not out - instead, he starts rising to his feet, unsteadily grasping his jaw in one hand.

The Bug Brothers have realized who their most dangerous target is: Adam. But this time they don’t bother trying to pierce his barrier. As he’s aiming another blast at Cowboy, the twin insects come into his field of vision and begin waving their arms in a strange, even hypnotic pattern.

Adam can feel his concentration waning and his consciousness slipping. A mental attack!

“Tau, mind shield,” he instructs. Immediately, Tau engages a barrier of mental, rather than physical, force. But the distraction keeps him from helping William.

It may not matter. William has realized the thing that’s slowing him down: the sword. He tosses it away, and drops into a bare-knuckles boxing stance, feet constantly in motion, fists ready. Now, when Cowboy comes, he’s ready with lightning-fast blocks and feinting jabs.

Fang has managed to climb down the lift, and now leaps. Jaycee can see it coming. While the creature’s in the air, it takes three heavy mugs to the head, courtesy of the girl’s expert aim. It falls with a yelp among the far tables.

Muscles is back on his feet. Keri strides angrily towards him. Along the way, she grabs hold of the Bug Brothers, still busy trying to hypnotize Adam, and smashes them violently together. The aliens collapse.

Jello is not getting up. It seems content to bubble drunkenly on the floor of the bar.

Cowboy comes in for another fast attack, and William slips to one side. Two left jabs distract the nimble alien, and a powerful right hook connects with their head. They stagger back, and William presses his advantage.

Muscles, meanwhile, stomps toward Keri just as quickly and aggressively as she approaches him. Adam can feel all her hate and spite welling up, overwhelming her caution. But Muscles isn’t a particularly subtle attacker. He extends all four arms, trying to grab hold of her and crush her. Keri drives a series of body blows into him with both fists, then picks up the bulky being and pile-drivers him into the floor of the bar. The alien’s head pierces the floor, and he goes limply unconscious.

The whining buildup of an energy weapon leads to a loud discharge. All eyes in the bar turn to look at the source.

One of the bartenders has fired a shotgun-like weapon into one part of the wall. The wall is considerably blackened and pock-marked, indicating it’s been used plenty of times in the past for this same purpose.

“Those ain’t Concordance bubbles, are they?” the armed bartender asks quietly.

Adam, finally, flashes his Continuum Sword into existence, and prepares a shield.

But there’s someone else next to the bartender - someone with an air of authority. The owner?

“Look at the swords,” he advises the bartender. “The group that uses those - they’re okay here.”

The bartender squints, and lowers his weapon at last. “Guess so. My mistake, strangers.”

Space Bug finally approaches Adam, a big smile on its face. It rubs hits hands together in gleeful anticipation.

“You started a fight,” Adam tells them accusingly. “I thought you were going to sell us out.”

“Audition! Tryout! Examination!” the bug protests. “Now everyone knows we can fight! Watch - just wait–”

Sure enough, the bar’s owner approaches the toppled table. “You six. How are you going to pay for the damages you did to my bar?”

“Work! Mercenary! Violence!” Space Bug says immediately.

The owner doesn’t seem at all fazed by this.

Adam suddenly realizes the ritual at work here. Newcomers are tested - and become indebted to the owner. This is what they meant by a “patron” when the Love Bug entered the star cluster.

“Very well. You’ve got a berth for a week. Eat and drink - I’ll put it on your tab. Come to my office tomorrow and we’ll see if there’s any jobs you can do to square up.”

The owner takes his leave, and Adam nods reassuringly to his traveling companions. The owner recognized the Continuum Swords and their users. That means they’ve made some kind of progress toward their objective.

But what will it take to get any further?

1 Like

The owner of the Phantom Parsec is a man called Machen. He has a deeply green skin, like the leaf of a jungle plant on Earth, and a third eye in the middle of his forehead. He dresses in semi-transparent clothing, vaguely resembling a business suit the color of dried blood. Instead of a necktie, he has something that looks like twin neckties affixed to both shoulders. They sit both front and back, reminding Adam of miniature capes or very large tassels.

Jordan is awake for her day, so it’s Adam, Keri, Jaycee, William, and Space Bug. They’ve figured out how to order food that won’t kill or poison them in this alien space station, and have eaten and rested. Now they’re here to learn what their new patron wants in exchange for this hospitality.

“I want a ship,” the bar owner explains. “A very specific ship. Operated by a specific crew of individuals. You’ll get it for me.”

“Who are they?” Adam asks.

“You’re clearly new to this space,” Machen says calmly. “Background, then. Starbusting - starship racing - is a popular sport here. It’s also a front for recruitment by the galactic smuggling syndicates. Anyone who can obtain a ship, fly it through controlled space, and arrive before their rivals will make for a good smuggler. But it’s not enough to have nerve and talent. You need a fast ship.”

“The Starbusters are also a syndicate of sorts. Racing teams compete to rank up within the organization. They receive certain perks and pay premiums in response. But not everyone wants to do business with the syndicate. Some people think they can get into the smuggling game independently. One of the missions of the Starbusters is to prove such people wrong.”

“This group, the people who call themselves the Redshift Racers, acquired their ship the usual way - piracy. From what I hear, it was a complicated heist that put them deeply in debt. Now they’re repaying that debt by entering independent races. They win - of course, this ship being exceptionally fast - and they claim the loser’s ship. Then they sell it. Simple.”

Machen holds out a data-chip for inspection. It projects a holographic depiction of the ship and images of the Redshift Racers as individuals.

“I want you to challenge them to a race. Lose - you would anyway. When they come to collect your ship, kill them and take their ship. Bring it to me here.”

Adam can feel the man’s avarice. He won’t simply part with information about the Continuum Swords or the group that wields them, not to a group of strangers. He’d extract a cost - a higher one if he knew the group’s interest - and Adam doesn’t have any other way to pay for that knowledge than by exchanging favors.

“Is the Love Bug suitable for racing?” Jaycee asks.

Machen just chuckles, the way an adult would lightly laugh at a child’s pronouncements.

Space Bug speaks up. “Blockhead ship unsuitable, slow, inappropriate. Our challenge would be mocked, ridiculed, rejected. We must obtain an alternative!”

“In the usual way,” says Adam, glumly echoing Machen’s earlier words.

“You mean we steal one,” Keri says with a frown.

Machen smiles. “You have a week.” And with that, the interview is over.

Everyone has agreed not to talk about what Machen asked in front of Jordan. By extension, everyone has agreed that just hijacking and murdering someone for their starship is not going to happen. But if all Machen wants is a ship, and he doesn’t care how they get it, what’s the alternative?

“We win the race,” Adam says with a smile.

The next two days unfold at a ferocious pace for everyone.

William practices swordplay without the benefit of Excalibur. He acclimates himself to the idea of dodging attacks, not blocking them with his invulnerable sword. He practices more of his unarmed fighting styles, now that he knows there’s times where they may be necessary for more than physical fitness.

He also approaches Adam.

“Listen, mate…”

“I’m listening,” Adam says curiously.

William wrings his hands - uncharacteristically, Adam thinks. “Some of this stuff, I just won’t be able to participate in. I have a commitment to Excalibur. I can’t let the sword down through dishonorable action. So, please don’t think that I’m…”

He trails off, but Adam understands and smiles. “If you choose not to do something, you’ve told me why, and it makes sense. You and Jaycee have already been a big help and I can’t ask for anything more than you’re offering.”

He sees Wiliiam’s relief spread across his face immediately, and says goodbye when the swordfighter returns to his training.

Jaycee pivots from barista to backup bartender. She begins learning the ins and outs of the space-saloon business with Machen’s surprised blessing, taking tips from the beings already behind the bar. She learns that the dynamic here is similar to that on Earth. The waitresses appeal to the customers, while the bartenders keep them safe from pushy or unruly customers. Good enough - a room full of career criminals doesn’t feel that different from a room of ex-military cronies. She can do this.

Keri spends the time taking long flights in the star system. Adam doesn’t pry. He can feel that she’s struggling with some intense feelings, and that she wants to be alone right now. Or thinks she does.

When Jordan is around, Adam has her watch over Space Bug, who’s busy searching the local information networks for leads on racing. He knows one thing about Space Bug: while betraying the group at the bar would be very much in character, they’re well behaved around Jordan. Something about her makes them crave her approval and attention. And as long as Jordan is learning new and exciting things about the galaxy, she’ll stay laser-focused.

That leaves Adam free to build his machine.

He’s had a lot of time to think about his Concordance powers. And he’s had good teachers. Not teachers who were good, necessary. Just, y’know, effective ones.

He’s started to vaguely grasp the notion that how he’d been using these powers - as sword and shield, as blast and barrier - isn’t how they’re supposed to be used. Or maybe it’s just the most basic, early way? He’s not sure. But that’s how the Rainbow Warriors have operated, and they’re supposed to be trained, with functional Shards.

It’s led him to another suspicion. He’s wondered if one of the goals of the Concordance Shard isn’t to guide an Agent to understanding, but steer them into the approved ways to use power.

Fusions are a thing. And how could the Coordinators do stuff like the Trial By Empathy meter? How could Somber build that Epiphanic Enigma, and use a telepathy so powerful it put Adam in a virtual world? And he, Adam, was able to transfer a Shard from person to person.

Working with Tau, who doesn’t tell him what to do or what not to do, has let him explore this new possibility. He can do whatever he thinks he can do, if he figures out how. The only difference between a regular Agent and a Coordinator is that the Coordinators know this.

So he’s building a machine to test that theory. It’s not a physical machine. It’s built out of thought, and emotion. It has many moving parts, and one purpose.

At its heart is a thing like the Trial By Empathy widget. It accumulates emotions from far away and stores them up. Adam already knows that emotional connections don’t really have a range limit - he’s been able to use psychic links to traverse light years of distance. So he’s gradually widening the range as it fills up.

The next parts of the machine are overlapping barriers around that collector. These filter out different types of emotions and thoughts, by doing the same thing a mind shield does but with gaps in the coverage.

Adam is looking for interest in Starbusting. He’s got a bar full of people who think about that, all the time, and he’s able to use those psychic elements as a starting point to build his barriers. People proud of their racing? Nope. People angry at racers? Nope. People who were hurt by hijackers? Maybe - but there’s more filtering to do there.

As he builds and refines his barriers, his collection widget fills up less and less quickly. By the end of the first day, he’s got a pretty refined pool of emotions to wade through.

Adam falls asleep in his berth in the Love Bug, and wakes up in his room on Earth.

He finds his dad drinking coffee and relaxing in front of the television, watching 70’s cop shows.

“Hey Dad.”

“Hey Adam,” his father says with a smile. He sets the coffee mug down and pivots to interact with his son.

“I figured out some stuff about undercover work,” Adam begins. He wants to talk about this, because it’s bothering him, and it’s bothering his teammates, and he wants everything to go well.

“What’s that?” Nassir asks.

“Well…” Adam looks up, his eyes pinched with worry. “When you’re undercover as a criminal, you gotta do criminal stuff to blend in. And sometimes you can’t bring yourself to do that, right? Like there has to be a line you can’t cross, but your cover demands that you do it.”

Nassir sits up, as a realization strikes him. “Adam, you asked me questions about law enforcement before. I thought you were just trying to understand a situation that was going on. Are you - son, are you actually doing this yourself? Right now?”

“Yeah, dad.”

His father’s hands grip the arms of the chair, as though he wants to propel himself out of it. “Adam, you’re not prepared for this. Son, you should have told me what you were really planning–”

“I thought it was obvious,” Adam protests. He walks to the sofa next to his dad’s chair and plops down, folding his hands in his lap.

“But you’ve really done it. You’re in it now, aren’t you,” Nassir breathes.

“Yes sir.”

“And you don’t know who you can talk to, do you.”

“No sir.”

His father’s grip on the chair relaxes with effort. “Okay. Alright, Adam. My first instinct is to tell you to give up your plan. Pull back, cut ties, come home. I don’t think you’re going to do that, though, are you.”

“No sir.”

Nassir exhales, letting the pent-up air in his lungs escape his tension. “Okay. Start from the top. What’s the situation? What’s at stake? And what have you done so far?”

Adam tells him.

It’s the second day that’s the hard part.

Adam built his machine out of desperate need. Out of options for how to proceed, he gambled on an untested application of Concordance powers. So far, it’s worked.

Now that he’s done the work, he’s started to think about what might be possible, but he just doesn’t have the time to attempt any of it. So to follow up on his leads, he has to psychically reach out along the thread of emotion pooled up in the collection widget.

Simply put, that means experiencing the emotions in the widget himself, and seeing if they’re useful.

It’s complicated to feel what other people feel. It’s even more complicated to switch from one set of feelings to a very different set.

There’s another complication, one that makes Adam unplug from the collection widget by midmorning.

He keeps thinking about the waitress back at the Phantom Parsec. Sure, she’s not Octava, but the only way he can understand her is through what he knows about Octava. And that understanding comes with a whole load of its own emotional baggage, which until now had been gathering dust in his subconscious.

Thoughts keep intruding on him, thoughts he knows are just a scheme by his emotions to express themselves. “Maybe she’ll know someone who has a ship.” “Maybe she wants to get away from the bar, and you can make a deal to help.” “She’s scared and you can take her to Earth.”

He exchanged two sentences with her and already his brain has written a small library of fan fiction about her.

What should he do? Should he ignore it, and push it out of his mind, and keep going? Should he try talking to her, maybe get it out of his system?

I could teleport back to Earth, find Octava–

It’s hard to tell what’s rational thinking and what’s just more emotions monkeying with his brain.

Should he ask one of his teammates for advice?

Space Bug - absolutely not. Jordan - not a chance. Keri - maybe? But she’s kind of moody, so maybe it’s better to leave her be. William? He seems pretty focused on fighting. Jaycee? Maybe.

Adam makes his move when the blue-skinned waitress is off shift. Jaycee is tending bar.

“Hey, Jaycee? I got a question,” he says, hesitantly.

“What’s up?” The girl doesn’t look up from her work, but Adam can tell she’s listening attentively. She’s just also multitasking - cleaning drinking ware under some kind of sonic cleaner, stacking supplies, the works.

“What do you do when you got a crush on someone, and you gotta be around them, but you need to focus on your work?”

Jaycee looks like she was hit with a cattle prod. She snaps into a rigid, upright posture, and her head pivots immediately like a hunting bird’s.

“Why did you think I’d know anything about that?” she demands, staring at Adam.

There’s a wellspring of nervous emotion coming off of her. Adam isn’t sure what it means and is deliberately not diving into it, so as not to learn anything she doesn’t choose to share.

“Uhhhh, just kinda seemed like you’d know a lot of stuff about people?” he says with a weak smile.

The girl relaxes the slightest little bit. “Well. That’s fair. Alright.”

She composes herself, wipes her hands on her apron, and smiles away the cloud of feelings Adam was sensing. “I would say - just as a hypothetical - that you, hmmm, you find ways to interact with them that give you other kinds of positive feelings. You don’t uh, you don’t deny the crush exactly, you can’t get rid of the god damn thing no matter how hard you try, but you have other stuff that’ll sort of drown it out, you know like helping them do stuff that’s important to them, help them with their goals, do things they’ll appreciate, uhh, you know just generally make it so that feeling of attraction isn’t your biggest go-to when you think about them, make it so it’s kind of there but in a corner because there’s more important things you’ve decided to do, and so that way when it comes back you have all this other stuff in the way and you can rely on that to keep your head screwed on straight–”

She takes a breath, realizing she’s stopped talking to Adam and just started rambling, and looks down at him worriedly.

“Did that make sense?”

Adam smiles. “I think so. Thank you, Jaycee. That was a big help.”

Jaycee smiles back, then realizes something. “Uh. Do you have a crush on someone? Do you wanna talk about it?”

Adam winces internally. He smiles his best polite smile, and shakes his head. “No, it’s okay. I’m just sorting through feelings I got through the collection widget.”

It’s only sort of a lie. Right?

1 Like

The team’s ship, the Love Bug, has been marked within the Pleiades Cluster. It’s under Machen’s protection for four more days. But until then, they’re welcome to fly where they wish. And fly they must, because Adam’s emotional search, backed up by Space Bug’s research on the local computer network, has led them to a candidate suitable for their needs.

It takes precious time, but on the third day the team finds their target. He’s located in a “tin can” - a bare-bones space station, hovering at the edge of a huge and chaotic asteroid belt. Adam understands the situation to be somewhat akin to parking a van down by the river on Earth.

The regional data library identifies the asteroid belt as the “Loser’s Graveyard” - notable for hosting impromptu space races due to the complexity of navigating the asteroids, as well as the number of crashes and collisions that happen here. Strong magnetic fields permeate the region, making navigation difficult.

It’s slow going, but between Space Bug’s piloting and Adam’s emotional link to their quarry, they find it. Space Bug begins docking procedure. And the airlock opens.

The tin can is a very messy workspace, reminding Adam of Leo’s work in the Extension back in the day. There’s diagrams and task lists and schematics. There’s engine components and spare parts and fuel canisters. Every spare inch of wall is covered with something.

What there isn’t is an occupant.

After a moment, Adam can sense why. Their target is camouflaged, and hanging from handles in the ceiling. Jordan is back with the group, and Adam can tell she immediately made the same realization.

“Timeus? Timeus Elka-772?” Adam calls their quarry by the name found in the records online. “We’re not here to hurt you. We just want to talk about your work on engines.”

After a moment, their quarry materializes.

He looks like a lizard in a lab coat. His scales are varied and iridescent. He’s quadrupedal in arrangement, with thin and dexterous fingers for grasping and manipulating. His four deeply blue eyes are arranged two forward and two to each side, and he wears a complicated arrangement of lenses on them, like goggles or glasses.

He’s also holding a simple civilian-type blaster, heavily modified.

“I have a gun!” he wails plaintively.

Adam hears Jordan draw a deep breath, and glances over. She’s looking at Adam with big pleading eyes. The effect, while she’s glamoured up as a darker Princess Peri, is uncanny. “Is he a dinosaur?” she whispers to him.

Adam honestly isn’t sure about how to answer that. On Earth, people thought that dinosaurs were lizards at one point, but it turns out they’re the descendants of birds, but there’s definite lizard-like traits, sooo–

“I guess maybe?” he answers, uncertain of what motivated the question.

Jordan draws in a big breath. “I got this,” she whispers with incredible conviction.

“Hiii!” she calls. “You’re Tim, right?”

“Timeus!” the lizard corrects, before realizing he just confirmed the group’s suspicions. “No! I am not! I am an entirely different Elka!”

“Okay, Tim!” Jordan says cheerfully. She walks forward, casual as anything. Tim fires his blaster, but Jordan’s shields are up.

Adam realizes he was about to shield her himself. Thank god. She has grown up a little bit, hasn’t she, he realizes.

“You don’t wanna blast any of your important stuff,” Jordan says in a tone Adam knows she learned from mom.

“I-- I don’t…?” Tim realizes aloud, looking around.

“Nope! But we’re friends. So no shootin’. Okay?” Jordan is halfway to him already.

“What do you want with me?” Tim demands.

Jordan’s smile is infectious and incandescent. “We wanna be your friend! I always wanna be friends with a dinosaur!”

“I am not a-a-a ‘dinosaur’, or whatever that word is!” Tim protests. “I am a researcher into high-volatility quantum electrocatalysts-- uwaugh!”

Jordan has caught hold of him, pulled him off his perch on the ceiling, and is now giving him a hug.

“You’re gonna be my bestest friend!” she declares.

Tim looks at the rest of the team helplessly, blinking through his thick lenses in what might be a coded sign for help.

Jordan has propped her chin up on both hands, with her elbows on a workbench, and is watching Tim with a contented - and, Adam thinks briefly, a little unnerving - fascination. Meanwhile, Adam has taken over the explanations, and he and Tim are coming to an understanding.

“I can’t make the next breakthrough in my engine research without working vessels,” Tim explains. “So I came here. The Loser’s Graveyard is full of wrecked ships - perfect for my needs. But I can’t get to them, because of the Metal Eaters.”

Space Bug fills in. “Creatures that eat iron-nickel asteroids, yes! An internal biological fusion process. They will consume ship parts too. Very dangerous. Very delicious.”

Tim continues. “And I cannot leave, because the Starbusters will shoot me! So I am trapped here. My only chance is to build a ship fast enough to escape them. But nobody is faster than the Starbusters.”

Adam wants to believe him. He wants to think he lucked out. He wants this to be how things go smoothly for the team. But almost against his will, he’s internalized one of the lessons Somber seemed intent on teaching him.

When you have the tools to find out for sure, trust is an unnecessary gamble.

Mindful of his first forays into building machines and extending his powers, Adam tries a different gamble. If telepathy is possible with what he’s got, why not use it?

It’s Antares Alpha-One, the shard Somber gifted him, that seems to come through for him here. Unsurprising, perhaps, that the gift would be prepared for Adam to do what Somber wanted.

Without speaking, Adam asks Tim’s mind a question. “Are you as close as you say to this engine breakthrough?”

The projected thought is aimed at Tim’s subconscious, not his conscious mind. The engineer isn’t even aware that he’s been asked this. But the Truth of his emotional response radiates from him, and Antares Alpha-One collects it and renders it as a final answer. “I’ve tested my work to the theoretical limit, but my progress is genuine. I am ready to work on a real ship. I just need one.”

Thank God, Adam thinks to himself. He’s not sure what he would have done if Tim were lying.

“We need a fast ship,” he explains aloud. “If we could clear out the Metal Eaters for awhile, and get you some ships, can you build us something that can compete in a race within, say, three days?”

“In three days?” Tim gasps. “Without a team of laborers, it would take three weeks - or longer. Even with the six of you, I could not get it done in that amount of time. I would need many more people.”

“We don’t know much about about spaceship construction,” Adam admits. “Hmm. Maybe–”

“Leave this to me,” says Jaycee abruptly. “Space Bug, fly us back to the Phantom Parsec.”

Muscles and his gang of thugs are hanging out at their usual table when Jaycee steps up.

“I need you guys, and your cronies,” she announces abruptly. “Bring whoever you got. We’re gonna build a spaceship.”

Muscles looks up from his drink. “Why should we listen to you?” he growls.

Jaycee shrugs and gestures around her at the bar as a whole. “Because I’ve been working here for two days, and the people that work here have been here longer. What I’ve seen, and they’ve seen, is that you guys sit here, drinking all day, and not doing a whole lot of anything except talk.”

Muscles growls, but doesn’t reply.

Jaycee finishes her thought. “So here’s your chance to fly to a remote asteroid belt, build a ship in three days, do a big favor for the Starbusters, and maybe get your own ship’s engine souped up in the process.”

“Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re not bored out of your minds and wasting time in a space bar. Maybe you think the drinks here are really good. But I’ve sampled them and I gotta say, if that’s your reason, you have lousy taste.”

Muscles gets out of his chair and rises to his full height, then looks down at Jaycee. “And supposin’ me and the gang here decide we don’t like what you’re saying.”

He cracks all four sets of knuckles, two at a time.

Jaycee looks up, not flinching an inch. “Then that’d be too bad, because I can’t wait for you to get out of the hospital before asking again.”

William is the only person at the Loser’s Graveyard who can’t fly in space. He therefore elects to stay with Tim and help get the “tin can” prepared for the work ahead of them.

“Yo, why didn’t you get help from anyone else?” the swordfighter asks at length.

“Anyone else?” Tim asks curiously. “Do you mean the Starbusters who come here? The racers?”


The lizard sighs. “They think I am a-a-a ‘crackpot’. Or that I am useless. Or they know engines better than I, because I am not one of them. Not a racer. So they bully me. Hah. I will not ask them for anything.”

“I get where you’re coming from, mate,” William concedes. “But how about us? We’re not doing any of that.”

“That girl with you, she is strange,” Tim hisses, with a brief flick of a lizard’s tongue between his teeth, and William realizes he means Peri.

William laughs at that. “Well, yeah, she can be. But listen. Friends of mine didn’t understand her either, at first. Then we thought she was dangerous. Then - well, we learned more about her. She’s good people. One of the best.”

But this memory prompts William to think about another question. He’d told Adam that he was worried about doing dishonorable things. But what if he’d done something awful to Peri while wielding Excalibur? Or the Rainbow Warriors, who are basically okay people despite being raging assholes?

Excalibur won’t save me from doing the wrong thing, he realizes. I have to be the one who knows right from wrong.

He pats the engineer on what seems to be the shoulder. “Trust may not come easy, especially with what you’ve told me. It’s hard to know what is the right thing to do sometimes. But listen. Value the friends you make, no matter how weird they are. Okay?”

Tim blinks through his glasses. “I will try.”

Adam, Keri, and Peri are all in space, flying rapidly toward the Loser’s Graveyard and its collection of wrecked ships - and the Metal Eaters.

Hopefully they’ve left something to salvage, Adam thinks.

Something is still gnawing at the Lamb. He decides to ask.

“What’s on your mind, Keri?”

“It’s more violence,” she says. “We’re gonna go mess up some space worms, right? Are they even intelligent? If not, isn’t this just animal abuse?”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Adam says. “What do you have in mind?”

“Well, they’re Metal Eaters… right?” Keri thinks through her plan aloud. “So the only reason they’d be a danger to Tim is… he’s in a metal space station thingie? Or a spaceship. Right?”

“Probably?” Adam is guessing - he knows nothing about the Metal Eaters, but what she’s saying sounds plausible.

“Okay.” Keri punches an open palm with a fist. “Adam, I’ve seen how you work. You work with emotion, yeah? Animals would feel emotion, yeah?”


Keri keeps talking, slowly and fitfully, feeling out what’s possible. “So… you can create like, seeds of emotion somewhere? Like your bubbles or something? Only it’s… fear, or loathing, or whatever.” She looks hopefully at Adam. “Something they’d be afraid of. Something they’d avoid. We plant that wherever we find ships. While you two are doing that, I’ll start moving the wrecks back to Tim’s home.”

Adam brightens up. “I think I can do that.”

He looks to Jordan. “Do you know how to do what Keri is talking about?”

“I don’t,” the girl says with a frown. “Can ya teach me?”

“Sure can.”

Adam looks back to Keri and smiles. “Is this what ‘the Lamb’ is about? What you wanted to be?”

Keri’s smile - and her inner joy - is bright, and she wipes a stray tear out of one eye. “Yeah.”

Adam teaches Jordan the basics. It’s about conjuring an emotion, creating a shield infused with just that feeling, and then flipping it. Instead of exerting pressure inward, the bubble pushes the emotion outward. The closer you get to it, the stronger you feel it. Finally, you weave an extra bubble around that one, “polarizing” the fear field so it doesn’t affect your friends.

Adam realizes, as he explains the basics of it, how much of what the Concordance gave him is already some kind of emotional machinery. He’s been using this stuff all along, and he’s studied it to figure it out, but until very recently didn’t think about building his own machines.

They scour the asteroid belt. They find some wrecks on the surface of the larger asteroids, drawn there by gravity after a space crack-up. They find others smashed into the rocks, or halfway buried in them. Each of the wrecks gets a bubble.

Along the way, they see the truly titanic Metal Eaters for the first time. They aren’t worms at all. They’re more like extra long water snakes, slowly twisting and turning. They don’t seem to have any external source of propulsion. Is it some kind of psychokinesis? Or are they manipulating the local magnetic fields? Adam finds himself curious.

Keri was right to have us do this non-violently, he thinks. These creatures aren’t threatening us at all.

As they get deeper in, Adam cautions Jordan to hold off. He’s sensed something.

He flies closer to one of the wrecks, and opens his perceptions. In time, he recognizes what he’s feeling.

“The Metal Eaters planted eggs here,” he whispers to Jordan. “When they hatch, they’ll have a ready source of stuff to eat - the ship hulls.”

They call Keri. “If you pull some of these wrecks out, it’ll damage the eggs,” Adam advises. “I’ll mark the wrecks that are safe.”

Jordan wakes up and vanishes partway through the process, and Adam and Keri finish it.

One by one, they haul damaged or destroyed ships back to Tim’s tin can.

By the time they finish, Space Bug and Jaycee have returned in the Love Bug. They’ve brought three other ships with them.

Muscles grunts when he sees Adam and Keri enter.

“You lot can fight,” he says gruffly. “But none of ya seem like racers. Tryin’ to muscle your way into the rackets, huh?”

Adam thinks back to his conversation with his dad, about working undercover.

“Even when you think someone’s your friend,” Sergeant Amari had said, “Never break cover.”

“That’s right,” Adam smiles. “There’s people who did me dirty, and hurt my sister too. Now I’m on the trail of some folks who can help me.”

Something else his dad had said stuck with him. “Your cover has to be authentic.” And this was undeniably true.

Muscles grins, exposing nasty teeth. “Then you’ll need a good pilot.”

He gestures, and the alien Adam thinks of as “Cowboy” steps forward.

“She’s got better reflexes than any of you, I reckon,” Muscles boasts. “And she’s experienced.”

“What price are you asking for?” Adam asks, anticipating what’s coming next.

Muscles grins. “We want a fast ship. Either we take the one you’re building, or you build another one, or you fix ours up. Your friend said we’re helping the Starbusters. We also want in on that.”

Adam thinks about that. Nothing they’re planning on doing will call for any kind of long-term relationship with the racing syndicate.

He smiles. “You got yourself a deal.”

Muscles roars his assent. “Alright. Then let’s get to work, ya mob!”

The friends Muscles brought along all call back - shouting, clicking, and making a dozen other alien noises of approval.

Day two of ship construction has begun. Tim has selected the most viable hull for a rebuild, and he’s directing his corps of laborers in stripping bits off other ships and bolting them onto this one.

Tim wants to call it “Experimental Propulsion Testbed 01”. Muscles suggests the “Speed-Eater”. Other suggestions come in, from the lewd and vulgar to the obscure and alien.

Adam, thinking about their situation, offers his own suggestion: “The Longshot”.

Nobody can quite coalesce around anything else, so the Longshot it is.

The first test flights are extremely promising. The Longshot almost shakes itself apart a few times, until Tim reformulates his engine mixture for the ship’s rapidly evolving total mass. But after that? Everyone from Tim to Cowboy to Adam can see that the thing is going to be a monster.

Tim, likewise, is being evaluated with new eyes by the aliens here. Adam can feel their attitudes about the nerdy lizard shifting, from disrespect to grudging cooperation on the first day to surprised and grudging respect on the second. Maybe there’s hope that he’ll escape his situation.

On day three, the Longshot is still metaphorically scrap metal and duct tape, but it holds up under stress tests.

The team records a video of the ship in flight, along with their challenge. They’ve proven they have the right to throw down the gauntlet.

They send it to the Redshift Racers, over the public network. Now they wait to see if it’s picked up.

On the end of day three, they receive a response.

“Challenge Accepted.”

1 Like

It’s the day of the race.

The alien Adam thought of as “Cowboy” turns out to be a woman named Mindful Mist. Under her veils, she has a lithe build, sparkling, multicolored eyes, faintly yellow-orange skin, tentacles rather than head hair.

She’s also the one to explain the rules to Adam. “A challenge race like this is a test of a crew’s overall abilities. It’s not just about having a fast ship - but you do need one.”

“First is the race from an agreed starting point to a warp gate. First through the gate jumps first. This is a straightforward speed test.”

“Second is the Pirate Zone. The worst of the worst live here. They are welcome in the Pleiades Cluster only in this place. Any ship they can board, they can take. No retribution from the syndicate. And so ships must come out of the warp dark - no engine, no electronics, nothing. They must calculate a course to the next warp gate that will avoid detection by the pirates.”

Mist smiles, exposing fangs as well as more human-like teeth. “Since nobody knows where the pirates will be except the pirates, and nobody wants to slow down, the usual tactic is to not do any of that, and just bribe the pirates. You can count on the Redshift Racers to have done so already. Some people have tried cloaking devices, raw speed, and so on, with mixed results. Some of the pirates are would-be racers too.”

Adam smiles. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of that part. Just chart a course right for the next gate.”

Mist looks surprised, but keeps going. “The third phase is anything goes. Ships can attack each other, lay traps beforehand, anything they can think of. A racing team who can win on speed won’t do this - or a team trying for their opponent’s ship in earnest. But if you just want to win, anything up to and including blowing up the other ship is acceptable.”

Adam blinks. “They sure do take this racing stuff seriously.”

Mist shrugs. “If you can’t handle this, you won’t make it in the big leagues.”

The Redshift Racers are led by a cocky alien named Quasar Chase. He is of the same species as Mist, and their interactions suggest they’ve encountered each other in the past - although Adam doesn’t get specifics. Aside from their physical resemblance, Chase wears what looks like a slick, fashionable racer’s outfit complete with the Redshift logo on it.

He’s on a holographic conference call between the Redshift Racers, Machen, and Adam’s team.

“Standard multi-phase race, per Starbuster guidelines,” Machen is saying. “You’re racing for ownership.”

“We got this, Machen,” Chase boasts. “Why do you keep sending these dwarf stars after us? Just admit you lost your ship and write it off, old man.”

“I can’t do that,” Machen says smoothly. “It’s bad business. But remember. We’re doing this by the rules.”

“By the rules,” scoffs Chase. “You could give them a handicap and we’d still leave them in our warp wake.”

“We’ll be monitoring,” Machen says, and the call terminates.

Both ships have arrived at a Starbusters space station. Several fast, well-armed patrol ships are here too. They aren’t cops - this is the syndicate’s enforcers, ready to make sure the rules of the race are observed during this segment.

“Why don’t they just take the Redshift Racers’ ship now?” Adam asks Mist, with a gesture at the viewscreen and the sentinel ships beyond.

“Face,” she replies. “The syndicate wants to do this the way the syndicate does this - by having the best racers.'”

Adam looks at his companions, remembering what Machen told them. Lose the race, kill the Redshift Racers.

They’re using us so they can get away with it, he realizes.

But Mist isn’t done speaking. “That’s the reason people like us come to the Cluster. The rest of the galaxy is just war, or conflict, or the people with the biggest guns running things.”

Adam frowns. “And what about the Universal Concordance?”

This just makes Mist laugh out loud. “Some of the biggest jerks with some of the biggest guns,” is her assessment.

“I see…”

Adam still isn’t sure he trusts Somber, but at least he’s realizing where they’re coming from. He just doesn’t like where they seem to be going.

The signal for engine warm-up comes in. “Three minutes to ignition,” Mist warns. “Strap in.”

The crew of the Longshot consists of Mist as pilot, Tim as engineer, and Adam and his friends. The ship’s structural integrity still isn’t solid, so Adam will be bubbling it to hold things together. William, as lord of this tiny domain, will be mindful of incoming threats to it thanks to his connection with Excalibur. Space Bug is on communications and tactical sensors, with Jaycee shadowing them to learn the trade.

Jordan isn’t asleep for the race, so Peri won’t be here. Adam is privately glad. He’d hate to explain to his dad how he dragged his little sister into an illegal race.

Everyone moves to their stations, and secures themselves in the acceleration chairs. Their various control panels and sensor displays slide over the chairs on multi-segmented arms and lock into place. The actual controls are mounted on the chairs themselves - simply reaching upward during bursts of high acceleration might be challenging.

Mist’s piloting suite locks around her limbs, giving her agile extremities fine control over the ship’s systems. Adam finds that there’s even accommodation for her hair tentacles, which she can manipulate to some extent.

With these controls, she and Tim begin bringing the ship’s systems up to readiness for the race. Tim’s new engine formulation begins trickling into the central core. Quasimatter production goes from 40% to 75% in the reactor. And the countdown ticks down at the center of everyone’s primary display.

3… 2… 1…

Starbusters race control gives the green light.

“Ignition,” Mist announces. “Full thrust.”

Both the Longshot and the Redshift Racers’ ship take off like the rockets they are.

The ship, like most racing ships, come with acceleration chairs. These are less like office chairs, and more like recliners - designed to dissipate the force of acceleration across as much of the body as possible. Now, the shock of the launch pushes everyone forcefully into them.

Adam concentrates on wrapping the Longshot in a bubble of inertial stability. Even so, the ship is bucking like a rodeo horse, and the chair is the only thing holding him in place to do that. If it should give way…

Keri is the one person who doesn’t need the chairs. Once she understands the forces at play, she unbuckles herself and stands up, using her powers to counteract the acceleration. A few times, joints and bolts snap off and fly through the cabin, only for her to catch them bare-handed before they hit something vital.

“Where do these go?” she asks Tim, holding them for inspection, and sometimes she’s able to remount them.

Three minutes into the burn, Adam can already see the Redshift ship pulling out ahead of them.

Despair begins to sink in. I thought maybe, with the right stroke of luck, the help of all these people, that we could…

He looks back at Tim, who’s furiously working on something on his station.

He looks at William and Jaycee and Space Bug, useless for the moment, letting the acceleration wash over them.

“Sorry! Sorry!” he hears Tim call, and thinks for a moment the lizard is apologizing. He wants to say - no, it’s okay, we tried - but then–

“My intermix adjustment was wrong! Injecting in 3… 2… 1…”

Even Keri has to stabilize herself as a fresh infusion of power sends the ship forward at unthinkable speeds.

Minutes felt like hours, during the ship’s constant acceleration. Now it’s time to shed all that speed, hopefully just in time to reach the warp gate. Unfortunately, that means more acceleration but in the other direction.

At the moment, the ship’s engines are off. Everyone appreciates the relief.

“Computing deceleration burn,” Mist announces. “Brace yourselves. 23.4 seconds…”

Attitude thrusters fire. The stars outside the viewports wobble and spin, like a time-lapse photo of a night sky.

“Does it get any easier after this?” Jaycee asks.

“Nah, this is the easy part,” Mist grins. She glances back at Adam. “How are you doing on that pirate strategy?”

Adam has had to divide his time between providing structural integrity to the ship, and thinking about that. But he smiles. “I think we’re okay. Let’s go through the gate at the best speed we can.”

“Nice knowin’ you, gang,” Mist shrugs. “I’ll just sign up the pirates when they come aboard.”

The Longshot approaches the warp gate, and the jump happens, before anyone but the computers can really tell.

Sure, Mist provided a countdown, and the stars are different outside, but to actually see the gate? Notice it as an object, study its outlines, watch it in operation? They’re going too fast for any of that.

To reassure himself of his plan, Adam thinks back to his conversation with Mist, before the race.

“Why don’t the pirates just camp out on the warp gate?” he’d asked.

“Basic fairness,” Mist had told him. “The Starbusters run a big sensor jamming web around the gate. Once you exit the area, you’re on your own. The question is how and when you exit.”

“And what keeps the pirates from just preying on each other?”

Mist had laughed at that. “Because we’re racers and they’re pirates. Fraternity, you know?”

Adam is taking a page from Jordan’s playbook here. Her shard came equipped with the ability to make illusions. He checked the inventory of his copy of Antares Alpha-One. It has no such tool. It must have been given to Jordan by that web-spinning witch. But that was fine. He knew it was possible. Therefore, he could build it.


The illusions are like more sophisticated versions of the fear bubbles he used in the asteroid. “Don’t come here” is a single specific emotional reaction. His need to be more sophisticated.

When Radiance makes a holographic illusion, she has to copy the thing’s appearance. Adam’s tools work on the mind and emotions but can still require attention to detail. What light is for Radiance’s holograms, psychic impressions are for Adam’s phantasms. “I am Princess Peri” is a complex message, requiring you to incorporate the idea of Peri herself.

Fortunately, “I am a racer” wasn’t too hard. Adam was able to sample the necessary psychic traces from Mist and the Muscles Gang, racers all. He took more from the people they brought along. Now, as it comes screaming into the Pirate Zone, a dozen or so bubbles of powerful psychic energy burst out of the Longshot.

The need for the impression to cross so much space demanded much energy - most of Adam’s current reserves. Hopefully the ship will hang together.

He saved one more bubble, one he crafted mostly from guesswork and his own impressions. This one isn’t going anywhere - it’s wrapping itself around the Longshot.

“I am a pirate,” it says.

The acceleration begins again. Everyone is pushed back into their chairs, but it’s smoother now thanks to prior experience and Mist’s countdown.

Space Bug’s role is now more relevant than ever. They have been schooling Jaycee in the basics of tactical sensor readings, and now she follows the bug’s actions closely.

“Passive readings only, yes,” Space Bug announces. “No contacts, traces, signals.”

“There’s a communication broadcast,” Jaycee reports. “The translator couldn’t do anything with it.”

Mist explains it. “The message itself is a code. The Redshift Racers came through already and told them the fresh meat - us - would be right behind them. That was the signal to wake up and get ready.”

“Deploy the wings,” Mist orders.

Tim operates controls on his station. The wings - baffles, meant to obscure the visibility of the ship by hiding the engine’s flare - now emerge from their nesting spots on the hull and close around the tail of the ship. The heat and radiation coming from the engines will eventually melt them, if the violent shaking of the ship’s acceleration doesn’t tear them off, but they don’t need to last.

A few tense minutes past.

“Sighting,” Space Bug announces tensely. “Flares of a ship decelerating.”

A holographic display at the center of the ship lights up with a red dot, indicating the hostile’s position in three-dimensional space.

Four minutes pass.

“The wings are at 38%,” Tim announces. “Oscillation is up 65%. We can get more speed if we eject them now.”

Mist does some quick calculations in her head. “Do it,” she orders, and the engineer complies. Outside the ship, the wings tumble off into space, and the arms that extended them retract back into the hull.

“Recomputing intermix,” says the lizard. “More acceleration is available on your command.”

The ship, now lightened, throws itself forward with renewed energy.

Adam feels himself being strained by the need to hold the Longshot together. He hates doing this, hates knowing that Jaycee will hate him for asking, but he needs his energy for the final stretch. “William - can you take over structural integrity?”

“Will do.” With an effort of will, the swordfighter opens the connection between king and land. He and the ship are bound by a bond, and he can share its pain. As the ship struggles, William takes the stress. As William tenses his muscles and composes his mind, the ship remains steadfast. But it will cost him.

“Three more contacts, yes,” Space Bug announces, and three more red dots light up the tank. “They fly away from us, but in different directions. They seek the decoys, Adam.”

Fifteen minutes pass.

“Deceleration burn in 29.4 seconds,” Mist announces calmly. Studying the position of the pirates in the tank, she spins the ship on an axis that won’t reveal its red-hot engine and infrared heat signature to them.

William is panting and grunting. He sounds like a boxer who’s been in the ring for seven rounds and is taking the hits, biding his time. But Adam can’t help but feel Jaycee’s mixture of deep concern for William, and angry glowering at him.

Tim is now more on top of things than during the first phase of the race. “Venting coolant. The ship’s mass has been reduced. Recomputing intermix. Mist, new figures are on your console.”

“Thanks,” the pilot calls back, dead calm.

The engine fires up again, and despite the acceleration chairs, Adam can feel physical pain.

Space Bug marks another red dot on the tactical tank. “Adam Amari, one signal closing with us. They are aiming active sensors our way. They may have us pegged, marked, indicated.”

“Yeah. They have our number,” reports Jaycee. “Communications are calling for reinforcements. Some kinda coordinates I don’t understand–”

“That is our position,” supplies Space Bug helpfully.

“–but yeah,” she finishes.

“Looks like I’m up,” Adam says.

“We’re up,” says Keri, correcting him.

Adam smiles. “Okay. Let’s head outside. You tank any projectiles you see, I’ll handle beams with bubbles.”

The two heroes exit through the airlock.

Sure enough, beams start coming in. Lasers travel at the speed of light. Even so, Adam can see the arc as they seemingly bend from the pirate’s position to theirs, exciting the gas density of the star cluster as they pass through the intervening space.

Adam is prepared. He can feel the killing intent from the pirate gunners the moment they engage their weapons, and times his barriers to match to conserve his own energy.

“Torpedo incoming,” Space Bug reports over their radios.

“I see it,” Keri reports. She flies away from the ship. There’s a tremendous explosion in space, and she returns, clothes lightly cooked but otherwise unharmed.

Even with their early victory, Adam can feel the strain of the deceleration out here. His natural inertia wants to rip him off the hull of the ship, throw him into space. He’s holding himself to the hull with his powers, but even this costs him.

Six minutes pass. More lasers, more torpedoes. Adam is feeling the strain of the telepathic trigger for his barriers, and falls back on a steadier, low-power bubble.

He’s had good success building psychic machines. Maybe he can build a better shield? But not now.

Space Bug reports. More pirates are on the way, but none can make it in time, and even their original pursuer isn’t as fast as the Longshot.

Well that’s something, Adam thinks wearily. He realizes he’s wearier than he thought when he notices Keri is carrying him to the airlock.

Inside, as he passes on the way to his own acceleration chair, he sees William’s nose is bleeding.

That’s not good.

“Warp gate in 19.1 seconds,” Mist reports. “The Redshift Racers are ahead of us - but by less than a minute. Be ready for anything on the other side.”

Adam doesn’t feel ready at all.

“We’ll make it,” he tells his team, and himself.

The Longshot emerges from the warp gate and into the third phase of the race.

The engines are at full blast. Adam has barriers out and around the ship at full strength, just in case. William, Jaycee, and Space Bug are alert for threats in their assorted ways. Tim is feverishly computing new formulae to feed into the engine. Keri has left the ship and is actually hanging out in space, on the nose of the ship, ready to plow through any obstacle. And Mist, at her piloting station, is hyper-focused.

“Coolant vent!” Mist shouts.

The Redshift Racers didn’t vent their ship’s coolant liquids during the second phase of the race. They saved it for now, as a trap - dropping a huge blobby ball of superheated liquid right out front of the gate, for the Longshot to smash into as it emerged.

Keri panics. She’s used to focusing force on a single area, or breaking through something solid. What do you do when a small lake has been shot at you?

Armiger, on the other hand, is ready. In the ship’s cabin, he claps his hands together forcefully and yells.

For a moment - just for a moment, but long enough - the ship itself becomes indistinguishable from Excalibur, and the sword cleaves through the coolant lake. It breaks the surface tension, splitting the blob into numerous smaller ones that fly in every direction. And the Longshot, once again a racing ship, shoots through and out.

“Heh. That means they’re worried,” gloats Mist.

“Will they have weapons?” Adam asks worriedly.

The pilot thinks, and concludes aloud. “Probably not. They’ll have more tricks like that. Something like–”

Ahead of them, the Redshift Racers’ ship deploys its own engine-baffling wings, then immediately detaches them into the path of the Longshot.

This is something Keri knows how to handle. She flies forth, and with four solid punches knocks each of the wings onto a trajectory well away from the Longshot.

“They’ll try to shed mass any way they can,” Mist says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they vent their cockpit oxygen and keep flying in spacesuits.”

“Shouldn’t we do that?” Adam asks.

Mist glances back at Tim, still working at his station. “Nah. I’m learning this guy’s tricks. For him to work his magic, we want the ship’s mass to remain constant. Ain’t that right?”

She yells the last bit back, and Tim realizes he’s being spoken to. “Er, yes! I have a new intermix ready! High signature bloom, but that won’t matter now.”

“Hit me,” Mist growls.

The engine takes in the new formulation, and the ship shudders with the sudden burst of acceleration.

The acceleration is getting more tolerable for everyone. Even so, nobody except Keri can move around the cabin without assistance from powers or partners. The chairs are growing painful to sit in, and everyone except Space Bug is sweating buckets.

“They’re still ahead of us,” Mist calls back at Tim. “What’s your next trick?”

“I-- I-- I think I have something,” Tim reports nervously. “But it has a chance of exploding. Mr. Adam, can you perform your structural integrity maintenance on the engine reaction? Is your control that fine?”

“We’ll find out,” Adam grunts. He glances back at William, still in his chair, looking beat up from his previous time holding the ship together.

William catches the look and gives a thumbs up against the intense forces exerted on him. “I’m good.”

Adam takes a breath, swallows his worries and doubts with an effort of will, and nods. “Do it.”

Tim punches in his formula, the chemicals and forces at play within the engine adjust themselves, and the ship picks up velocity.

Adam can feel the volatile forces at the core of the engine. If the ship was like a bucking bronco before, this is like a bound fire-demon, eager to escape its constraints and burn everything up.

All Adam has to do is keep it restrained. For minutes. Under the painful pressure of acceleration. Without being distracted by any of the other surprise attacks the Redshift Racers may launch.

Trust your friends, he tells himself. Trust yourself, like they trust you.

As stressful as it might be to have Jordan here right now, Adam admits to himself he could honestly use her help. He’ll have to be enough.

He closes his eyes. He focuses on the engine. He trusts, in spite of all his doubts.

The Redshift Racers did indeed vent oxygen and other things, but none of it posed a danger to the Longshot.

Now Mist is convinced it’s down to engine power. “Anything else they throw out would be part of the ship,” she explains. “Now it’s a dead heat.”

“Literal heat,” Tim volunteers. “We dumped a load of our coolant earlier. The other ship has just done so. They have more thermal capacity than we do. Our engine will burn hotter. They may win because we burn ourselves out first - or slow down so as not to do that.”

“Coolant’s just a liquid that circulates through the engine to absorb the heat, right?” This is Keri, radioing from outside.

“That’s correct.”

“I can absorb energy.”

Tim and Mist look back at Adam, but he’s wholly engrossed in stabilizing the engine. They look at Jaycee and Space Bug, who shrug. They look at William, who’s intently resisting the pain of keeping the rest of the ship together.

“Your choice,” William finally says, having realized the others are placing the decision on him.

They hear Keri’s voice, steely with determination. “Okay. I’m coming in. Tim, show me how to do this.”

Once inside, Tim directs Keri aft to the engines. He erects an emergency force field to keep the rest of the cabin from flash-frying. Once done, Keri opens the coolant access panel.

The heat is incredible. Even with her aura of power, it burns off the sleeves of her top before she can master it. Gritting her teeth, she thrusts her hands into the coolant stream and lets the heat surge into her superhuman body.

“God damn!” she shouts, and the others look back worriedly. But she laughs, a high and nervous laugh that wants to dismiss doubt. “I can do this you guys. No barbecued lamb for you tonight.”

The ships are neck and neck. Mist has programmed, checked, and double-checked the deceleration phase. Now the countdown begins.

“This is it,” she says between numbers. “No more engine tricks. No more attacks. Our endurance against theirs.”

The ship flips once again.

The engines resume their burn.

This is indeed the worst part of the trip. With nothing else to do but wait, most of the crew must simply endure, with just themselves and their doubts. It’s too exhausting to talk or even think. They can hear Keri scream as more and more heat surges into her. They can see Adam’s brow beading with perspiration. They can watch William suffer as he takes on the pain meant for the ship.

The Longshot reaches the warp gate, and is automatically drawn into the Starbusters dock, 16 seconds after the Redshift Racers completed the race.

Space Bug and Jaycee carry William out of the ship and onto the dock.

Keri is literally too hot to touch, or even get close to, but the dock comes with cargo hauling gravitics. Mist lugs her out and lets the heat slowly evaporate away from her.

Tim likewise picks up Adam and cradles him carefully. Together, they leave the ship.

The Redshift Racers are stumbling out of their own ship. By the look of it, they’ve been through the wringer too. But there’s still enough of their swagger to mark them as the winners.

Machen is at the dock to oversee the exchange. He has the courtesy to wait until everyone regains consciousness.

For Adam, the loss feels like a dream, or a trick. He had put such effort into this - invested such hope in this - and now…

Mist slowly fills out the transfer of ownership for the ship. As salvage, the rights were technically in Tim’s hands, but he’s given them to Mist by proxy. The particulars must be obeyed.

Keri is coming back to her senses, and she makes her way over to the group. She’s unsteady, but determination carries her through.

“Hey, you. Hey, fuckhead,” she calls, addressing Quasar Chase, the leader of the Redshift crew.

Adam has no idea how that translated, but it gets the alien’s attention.

“Yes? What do you want, little girl?”

Adam can feel Keri’s fury and sorrow, but he feels something else behind it all.

“You guys… you raced in this spectacularly fast ship, yeah…? And we… we put this thing together in like three days… out of scrap…”

“I can tell,” Chase smirks. “Don’t diminish yourself with excuses. There’s no need to be a sore loser.”

He and his crew begin to walk away.

Machen looks on, smugly satisfied. This is the time his orders will be carried out. Lose, then kill them.

Adam can see Space Bug’s hands inching toward their blasters. The little alien is just waiting for Adam to give the signal to fall on the racers.

Adam looks at William, exhausted beyond measure, and Jaycee, concerned and angry and despondent.

He looks at Keri, literally radiating white-hot anger.

Have they been beaten?

Does it really end like this?


Adam feels what Keri was grasping for. He feels that spark of hope that everyone here wants desperately to hold onto.


And he feels a way to make it happen.

“Hey!” he shouts. “Quasar Chase.”

The alien turns again, and sighs. “Yes, what is it, child?”

“She’s right, you know.”

There’s a glee that Adam feels rising in him, a joy he feels his soul riding on top of.

“The ship we built in three days was only 16 seconds behind your super hot-rod.”

He watches Chase’s face as the realization dawns on him. And he pushes forward.

“Your ship is wanted by the syndicate. You’ll always have people like us gunning for you.”

He points at Machen. “This guy won’t give up. But what does he want? That ship.”

Adam turns to the Phantom Parsec’s proprietor. “Isn’t that right? If you got the ship back, you’d let these guys go?”

Machen hides his surprise well, but Adam can feel it. “That’s correct,” he concedes.

Adam turns back to Chase. “You got our ship fair and square. The ship that almost - almost - beat you. What you don’t get is the brains that made it possible.” He points back to Tim, the lizard engineer.

“So I’m offering you a new deal. Give us the ship you took. You take our ship. And Tim here teaches you how his engine tech works.”

Adam looks back to Machen. “Tim teaches others, too. Because you give him patronage. You get the advantage of his engine tech in exchange. You get your super-ship back, but there’s only one of those. Tim’s intermix system gives anyone you choose an advantage.”

“This wasn’t our deal,” the Starbusters potentate says. Adam can feel his doubts. What does he need, to push him over the edge?

William stands up, wobbly at first. But when he speaks, his voice is clear. “Mr. Chase, you ought to know that Machen asked us to kill you here. That’s not a deal I’ll go through with.”

He turns to Machen. “Doing this fair and square, like my buddy says, is how everyone wins. Right now, you’re conflicted. Your pride’s been hurt. Now’s the time when you choose. Your pride, or your good name.”

Machen stares at the swordsman, and back at Chase and his gang.

Finally he adjusts the tassel-ties on his suit, and smiles. “The Longshot is the property of the Redshift Racers by agreement. But nothing stops them from trading their ship on any terms they like. This engineer has proven himself and his technology, and I would offer him patronage for the duration of his service to me, plus thirty days.”

He looks at the team. “Did I say to kill them? Perhaps that was an error in translation. Perhaps I simply invited you to race against Quasar Chase.”

He, and Adam and his team, now look at Chase.

The racer, and his crew, have been watching warily. Now he bares his own fangs in a wide grin. “Translation errors happen. We’ve had our fun with this ship. But it’s time to fly something fresh and new. What do you say, gang?”

A chorus of approval rises from behind him.

But Chase isn’t done. He smiles at Mist. “I need a pilot who’s experienced handling this new type of ship. How about it? Want to rejoin the crew?”

Mist shrugs winsomely. “Perhaps. If our relationship is to remain strictly professional–”

“–For now–” Chase smirks.

“–then I would consider it. And I have friends–”

“–who would find ready work at our docks,” Chase finishes.

Adam smiles. Whatever history exists between these two will sort itself out, he feels.

He turns to Machen. “There’s only one thing we need, and then we’ll be on our way.”

“I’ll escort you to my office,” Machen says.

Adam manifests his Continuum Sword.

“My sister and I only knew the one woman we both got these blades from, and we need to find more like her. My sister’s powers are malfunctioning. We need their help.”

These things are technically true. Adam’s sword came from the future, rather than being given. It’s still kind of a lie, but it’s a lie he has to tell to find the people he needs to find.

Machen pretends to study the blade. Adam knows that the man is evaluating how much trouble he’ll get into by sharing this bit of information.

“There’s a commune, or family, or something, of powerful people in the Cluster,” he says at last. “They wield weapons like this. Normally the Starbusters leave them alone and vice versa. I am not interested in getting into a fight with them.”

“Nor am I, sir,” Adam answers truthfully.

“Very well.”

Machen hands over a data chip. “The coordinates are here. Do not tell them where you got this information. My patronage extends to you for the next week, after which you should be out of the Cluster, or have found a new patron.”

“I understand. We’re taking off now.”

On the way out of the bar, Adam passes the blue-skinned waitress, who reminded him of Octava.

He wants to say something, say goodbye, ask her to come to Earth with the team, anything that would help dispel his feelings.

He looks at the data chip in his hand.

Earth might be safe. But that’s not where we’re going.

He closes his hand around the chip, squares his shoulders, and keeps walking toward the door to the space dock, and to their future.

1 Like

Adam is looking through the viewport of the Love Bug, and watching the stars pass.

The ship is moving thousands of times faster than the Longshot was when using its rockets, but it’s far more peaceful. He knows why. The race was to test sublight engines, for those critical moments when a smuggler has to get off a planet and into warp before the law can catch up.

Adam doesn’t feel at peace.

He thinks about the way he found Tim, the starship engineer. The emotional filters he ended up using were built around two things: confidence in success, given a chance to try, and desperation at feeling like that chance would never come.

That’s how Adam feels right now.

He wants to bring peace to a universe that doesn’t seem to want it.

The Blot are still at war. They conquer the weak, and leave the survivors scarred and scared. Like Platana and her tree people. Like that waitress at the Phantom Parsec.

Other space empires have invaded Earth in the past. They’re still out there, probably fighting each other or invading other unsuspecting planets. Not all of them will have superheroes the way Earth does.

In the badlands and gaps between these stellar societies, in places like the Pleiades, crime syndicates and smugglers and thugs rule however they wished. Although men like Machen enforced order, it was just a veneer over dirty business. If you crossed the powerful, they’d hire a group of thugs to come kill you and take your ship. The ship you’d stolen to begin with, of course.

He thinks about the excuse he gave Machen. I want to help my sister with her powers.

He remembers his conversation with his parents, about letting Jordan keep Anty around.

It would be better if she never got into this business, he thinks. I never wanted to. But she wants it because she looks up to me.

He has a sudden, powerful impulse to block Jordan-as-Peri from re-manifesting on the ship. Trap her on Earth, don’t let her astral projection come here, out into this lawless universe. It would make her very sad, but it would keep her safe.

He’s distracted by Space Bug, who has left the controls on automatic to come find him.

“Adam Amari, you are a coward,” the bug says. “I am taking over as Captain of this ship.”

The alien doesn’t have their weapons out, but their tone is curiously conversational.

“What makes you think I’m a coward?” he asks.

“You could have led us in destroying those Redshift Racers. We would then have the Longshot, yes. Machen would have his ship, good. One less team of smugglers, yes. We are leagues beyond them in ability, kilometers, light years. It would have been no contest.”

“It would have been wrong,” Adam says wearily.

Space Bug tilts their head and does their equivalent of blinking at Adam for a few seconds. “Explain wrong.”

“Wrong is…” Adam sits up and frowns. “You have to know right and wrong.”

Space Bug ticks off items on extended digits. “Right is: achieving financial stability. Obtaining shiny and valuable loot, treasure, windfall, plunder, swag. Outwitting superior opposition. Destroying inferior enemies. Wrong is: failing. Being captured. Looking foolish, awkward, incompetent. Yes. I know these things.”

Adam struggles. “What about… making people happy?”

Space Bug blinks again. “I happy. I have ship, you are not currently enemy, we are not being hunted. Well, my imminent captaincy makes us enemies, but you are a coward anyway so that will be fine.”

“What if… what if someone was trying to make you unhappy?” Adam suggests. “What if they were trying to hurt you, and you couldn’t do anything about it? What if someone intervened - and protected you? Made sure you felt safe and comfortable, instead of hunted and unwanted? Wouldn’t that be good?”

Space Bug shakes their head rapidly. “Nobody do that for me, Adam Amari. Nobody.”

Adam sighs. He has no idea how to handle this, or how to explain morality or justice or anything when he’s struggling to believe in it himself.

With a brief gesture, he bubbles the blaster Space Bug brought along. “I’m sorry. I want to help you. I want to help everyone. But right now, I need to think about some things, okay? We’ll talk about who is captain later.”

With their weapon so casually put out of reach, Space Bug reconsiders their all-too-brief coup and returns to the cockpit, and Adam returns to his thoughts.

The Love Bug’s navigation systems report that the destination coordinates are approaching.

Everyone gets the alert. Everyone rouses from their lethargy.

With an hour to go, Peri materializes in the cockpit next to Adam.

“Good mornin!” she calls out happily.

The rest of the crew, still weary from the turmoil of the race, can’t and don’t match her energy, and she looks around nervously.

“Good… evenin’?”

Adam smiles and pats her gently on the shoulder. “We just finished a pretty tough space race. But we’re almost here.”

He looks out through the forward viewport, at the stellar scene through which the ship flies. Newly born stars - in stellar terms - are all around them.

He thinks also of his impulse earlier, to have Jordan stay home and safe. Even if she’s not physically at risk here - she is, basically, dreaming, and her mind is projected into a Shard-created construct - she’s at emotional and moral risk.

I’ll send her home if I think things get too much, he tells himself.

The Love Bug drops out of its space warp and homes in on the final coordinates.

Their destination is a thicket of asteroids. Adam is realizing these are a common feature of the Pleiades Cluster. Many planets haven’t finished forming yet, and their raw materials are these rocks floating everywhere in space. In time, gravity will pull it all together, and a new world will be the result. Give it even longer, and life might evolve.

We’re flying through the heart of a planet that could someday be born.

Somehow, the thought puts a smile on Adam’s face.

Their destination doesn’t look much bigger than Tim’s “tin can”. It’s just a string of small habitats sitting on top of - or embedded in - free-floating asteroids.

To Adam’s surprise, there’s a bubble of atmosphere encompassing a big chunk of space around this cluster of asteroids. The Love Bug decelerates to a mere 30 mph - indistinguishable from a full stop at stellar speeds - to slide into the bubble.

There’s not even a proper space dock here. There are ships, but they’re literally just floating in space alongside a series of connected metal plates, like a dock on Earth for sailboats.

Space Bug maneuvers the ship next to one of these docks. Adam is the first to cycle the airlock. The air is breathable, and the plates provide artificial gravity, allowing him to walk. He gestures to the others in invitation.

By now, people are starting to emerge from the nearer habitats. All of them are as alien as anything Adam has seen: some humanoids, some creatures with features reminiscent of Earthly animals, some with more exotic body plans or features. They span every color the human eye is capable of discerning, and Adam suspects there’s colors he can’t see that are still represented here.

Their apparent leader is humanoid. Whatever his normal skin color, it’s been replaced with an animated depiction of a starry night - as though the cosmos itself were reflected back from him. His glowing white eyes at least give Adam something to focus on. He dresses in what Adam feels is some combination of an Indian sherwani with an elaborate pirate’s hat.

He’s the leader because when he approaches, the others make room for him to pass. And when he arrives at the dock, he greets Adam with an acknowledging nod, as an equal.

“This is your ship?” he asks. Adam can feel the translation, mediated through a Concordance-type Shard rather than the standard AI-enabled translation tech in use elsewhere.

“Yes,” Adam says uncertainly.

The man claps his hands together. “Grand!” he exclaims. “Simply grand.”

Turning to his allies and companions, he shouts in what sounds like a joyful call. “All ye Dark Drifters! Swords, swords, one and all! Kill them!”

Adam has to think extraordinarily fast.

He’s here to be one of these people. It looks like he has to fight them - but he has to fight them their way. If they’re outlaws, he and his crew have to be outlaws too.

His Continuum Sword flashes into existence. “Swords out, guns out!” he shouts to his friends, and broadcasts his resolve to them as well. There can be no room for confusion here.

Space Bug, of course, is the first to respond. The bug has even obtained a backup blaster from somewhere. Adam realizes in the moment he forgot to unbubble the one from earlier. Oops.

Armiger is next, with Excalibur warping into his waiting hands. “Yeah!” he shouts.

Peri doesn’t really follow Adam’s thought, but she’s happy enough to have some proper princessing to do. Her own sword manifests. Even without Anty to guide her, Adam realizes that she’s actually gotten a bit good at fighting - and for the moment, he’s confident.

Jaycee pulls out her own blasters. Although not a trained fighter, she can shoot and people must respond to that. Good enough.

Keri is the only member of the party who doesn’t have a weapon, and doesn’t need one. She balls up her fists, drops into a crouched fighting stance, and flashes a feral grin.

There’s about two dozen of the Dark Drifters, including the Captain. All of them, every last one, manifests a Continuum Sword.

Adam suddenly feels doubt. But he’s committed.

The Drifters leap - and fly - and run - toward the party.

Armiger, seeing more enemies, simply manifests more swords. He starts throwing them up and about, giving himself more weapons to use as needed. Beside him, Jaycee opens fire with her twin blasters. More targets means better chances to hit, right?

Some of the Drifters opt to shield themselves with Concordance-type bubbles. Others teleport out of the way. A few manifest illusionary duplicates, like Adam has seen Peri do.

Unlike Jaycee, Space Bug actually is a crack shot with their blaster. The little bug seems to have an intuitive knack for spotting the illusions, and pops them with shot after shot.

The Lamb launches off the dock and into the air. The Drifters who did the same are suddenly on the defensive as she starts plowing through them like a living battering ram. They switch tactics, using teleportation to avoid her, and she begins moving faster and less predictably to compensate. The whole thing is like an aerial dogfight, but with bodies instead of planes.

Peri wastes no time in deploying her own illusions, and readying her sword to receive the attacks coming at her. They do come, in numbers, but they don’t count on Jordan’s formidable determination to be a fightin’ princess. She mastered her own tools long ago, and now illusions, barriers, and blasts weave together in a spectacular dance.

For his part, Adam tackles the Captain, plus a couple of lieutenants that have come to join him. Fortunately, he didn’t spend the whole flight here moping. He hoped this would go well, but his growing pessimism made him prepare for the case where it didn’t.

He’s built a couple new tools, and he uses the first of them now. It’s a simple enough machine, just a fusion of two standard Concordance tricks: the bubble and the teleport. He creates a bubble around himself, and spreads more around the area. When one bubble takes a hit and is about to fail, it teleports him to another one. It’s inspired by how he’s watched Armiger fight.

The Dark Drifters are pretty good at sword-work. Adam isn’t, but he has two Shards to help him with that. What he really has to focus on is their own tricks.

In the moments he’s able to watch his friends fight, he gets the impression that the Drifters are kind of like Peri. Someone gave them a Shard and maybe some basic training, and then pushed them out of the nest on the assumption they could fly. Each of them has the same basic toolkit - blasts, shields, flight and teleportation, that kind of thing - but each of them seems to have specialized in one or two tricks beyond that.

None of them, except the Captain and his two adjutants, seem to have gone beyond that. But all three of those people are now on Adam’s case. Their flashing swords push him back, and their blasts and feints and sudden tricks are distracting him.

His first bubble pops thanks to a sudden and well-timed triple blast, and he feels brief disorientation. He’s floating in space nearby. When the Captain recognizes what happened, he takes to the air in pursuit.

Adam glances around him.

William is a true beast of a swordsman. He swings Excalibur with skill and grace, parrying every incoming blade, turning away every thrust, and when he’s not on the defensive, he’s shearing through defensive bubbles like they’re tissue paper. Jaycee is learning to aim her blasters at the suddenly vulnerable Drifters, who must teleport out of the melee or be shot.

The Drifters fighting against Keri have teamed up to try and bubble her, and it’s not going well. They keep erecting new barriers, and she keeps tearing through them. She doesn’t seem like she’s throwing really hard punches. Adam can understand that - the lion of her nature and the Lamb she aspires to be are fighting as well, inside her soul.

Like William and Jaycee, Peri and Space Bug have also teamed up. Peri can’t pop bubbles the way Armiger’s holy sword can, but she’s an elusive sprite, giggling and disappearing and dodging. Adam is shocked to recognize after a moment that Jordan is doing something like he is doing - she’s teleporting between her illusionary duplicates, keeping her enemies off guard as to who is the real Peri. Meanwhile, Space Bug keeps plugging at the Drifters, who can’t let down their bubbles for a moment to unleash a blast.

Despite their success, Adam can feel their weariness - physical and emotional and moral - from the race. He can feel the energy and commitment of the Dark Drifters. His team has power and skill, but the Drifters have endurance. This fight is to decide which will prevail.

As he and the Captain lock swords again, Adam tries diplomacy. “Why are you attacking us?”

“Your ship!” the Captain announces, as though that explained it.

In a moment, the Captain and his twin adjutants fuse, forming a glowing figure that looks like a larger Captain with a fancier hat and four arms. Four Continuum Swords fill the fusion’s hands, and it presses the attack. Adam is forced back, making jump after jump of teleportation to gain distance and regain composure.

Why would they…? Right, space pirates.

“You can’t have our ship,” he responds. “But maybe we can make some other deal?”

“What an outlandish proposition!” the Captain-fusion booms.

Four Concordance-type constructs appear, shaped like giant hands. The Continuum Swords themselves are also now giant, and held in those hands. They all strike, attempting to impale Adam between them. Adam teleports to safety in the nick of time.

“Your ship marks you as the enemy!” the Captain shouts.

Does he know I’m a Concordance agent? Adam thinks.

“We’re not the enemy!” he protests aloud. “We just–”

The Captain-fusion splits, and does something Adam hasn’t seen before. The Captain and his two aides split again, into successively smaller Captains and aides. When there’s about three dozen of them, they teleport into a spherical formation around Adam, and they all unleash a blast of energy directed at him.

With their barriers up and blocking him, Adam can’t teleport away. All he can do is call on Tau and Antares Alpha-One, to create a counter-shield strong enough to resist it.

When the blinding energy of the blast fades, and with his shield in tatters, he finds his opponents have re-formed themselves and again are on the offensive. Their flashing swords are hypnotic, in a way - Adam can feel his own weariness inviting him to give in.

The ship - the ship - it’s a Blockhead ship - memories start to connect in his mind, as he struggles to resist and find a way out of this.

“We stole the ship from its owners! We’re not with the Blockheads!” he shouts.

This gives the Captain pause, but only a bit. “A likely story!” he retorts.

Adam is feverish with desperation. This fight must end amicably. “Antares Alpha-One, take over fighting,” he commands.


“Tau, we’re going for a dive.”

Adam marshals power, enough to break through the Captain’s defenses. He draws on still more, to make his plan work.

He drives a telepathic question into the alien’s subconscious mind, amplified by Tau’s natural affinity for the emotion of fear. “Why do you fear that ship?”

The answer is immediate. “They stole Drifter Shards from us. Those who would receive the power. Those who had it already.”

So the Blockheads - these strange aliens - could they be responsible for the Sol Gamma Shards’ disappearance?

“My people lost Shards too!” Adam shouts aloud. “We’re using this ship looking for answers.”

He drops his own shields, mindful that another attack could come at any moment, and broadcasts this Truth. He dare not reveal everything, and he feels awful for hiding something - and as before, he hates Somber for pushing him into this way of being.

But it works.

The Captain pauses, and calls for a pause from his people. “Drifters! Halt your attack! Parley!”

Adam lets out a long sigh of relief.

1 Like

It turns out that the Captain’s name is The Most Illustrious Supernova of the Universe, the Legendary Navigator of the Space-ways, the Right Honorable Quinnar Gentry. He’s willing to go by “Quinn” for short, for such an auspicious occasion.

The team are now piled into the most ostentatious of the habitats, Quinn’s apparent throne room-slash-command headquarters. They listen to Adam and Quinn trade information, all while surrounded by other members of the Dark Drifters.

Adam has related a highly edited version of the team’s story. And as he finishes, he realizes what it’s like to really deal with someone who has a functioning Shard.

“You’ve told me some lies and hidden some truths,” Quinn says firmly. “I’m inclined to have my people throw you in the brig for it. But the truths you told are compelling enough.”

He gestures with his starry sword in the direction of the Love Bug, parked outside. “The presence of that ship, for example. That’s useful to us. We want revenge on those aliens, the ones you call ‘Blockheads’. But this is important enough to take to the masters at the Temple.”

Adam smiles. This sounds promising.

Quinn goes on, thoughtfully. “Your other matter, this ‘broken Shard’, is also a matter for the Temple. None of us understand the mechanisms of the Shards very well. Oh, we’ve mastered a few tricks. Clearly you’ve done the same - I can see your proficiency. But to fix one that is broken? That is beyond us - and perhaps we’ll learn something if we accompany you to see it through, eh?”

Adam nods. This, while a bit concerning, seems fair.

“I don’t see any ships here,” he comments aloud. “But we can take you in the Love Bug. At least a few–”

Quinn laughs, and other drifters laugh with him. “Ship? No, it’s safer here. Just in case the Temple’s people feel like taking it for themselves. I’d rather have it to study. We’ll take the Negamatrix.”

“Oh, you do have a ship?” Adam asks. He doesn’t understand the term that was used, or the strange emotional impressions he gets hearing the term.

Quinn looks baffled. “Your recruiters… the people who endowed you with whatever shard you have… didn’t teach you about the Negamatrix?”

“They did not,” Adam says truthfully.

“Tell you what,” Quinn smiles. “We’ll bargain. We’ll share your ship - its our biggest lead on these Blockheads - and in return, we’ll take you to the Temple. We’ll even stand up for you, instead of letting you plead your own case. If I can hear your lies, the masters there certainly will. And along the way, I teach you how to enter the Negamatrix.”

Quinn, Princess Peri, and Adam float in space, away from the others.

“It’s like this. If you’ve teleported, you know how those emotional links work. But there’s a deeper layer. It’s woven out of negative emotions. Here, take this…”

Adam feels Quinn offering Jordan and himself some kind of psychic machine. It’s similar in concept to what Adam has been building on his journey, but far more complicated.

“Your pass-keys,” Quinn explains. “Now, when you’re about to teleport, instead of going forward, you go down.”

He demonstrates, and disappears entirely.

Adam looks at his sister. Although both of them are transformed to look like strong, powerful warriors, he sees her through the eyes of a protective older brother as a little girl, out here and confused and afraid.

He holds out a hand. “I’m with ya,” he says, smiling.

She takes his hand, and smiles brightly back.

Together, they leap into the nothingness of the emotional network of the universe, and direct themselves downward, to where they feel Quinn is waiting.

The dark universe of the Negamatrix is a flat plane. Around them, Adam can perceive connections leading everywhere, crisscrossing each other. He can feel the cold, clinical evil of the Blockheads’ ship. He can feel the uncaring chaos of the Dark Drifters’ habitat. And he feels threads of anger, despair, fear, and other things leading away from them.

Quinn is here, floating patiently. Adam can feel the wrongs this super-pirate of space has committed, and see the threads those acts have left behind that still tie him to his victims, his former superiors, his rivals.

This is not a healthy place to be. But it is a new discovery, and Adam has to grapple with it.

“Your friends without Shards can stay here,” Quinn offers. “I’ll bring a few of my folk and we’ll head to the temple.”

Adam thinks about asking William to come along. But there’s every good reason for him to stay. If the masters of the Temple are anything like Concordance Coordinators, they’ll recognize Excalibur’s true nature immediately. And it would be good for both him and Keri to look after Jaycee, Space Bug, and the ship.

“Let me tell my friends, and then we’ll be ready,” he says.

Travel through the Negamatrix is much like the teleportation Adam is familiar with. But he’s learning to think of that process in an entirely new way.

Here, the emotional links aren’t ephemeral bridges of emotion, but more like roots of primal psychic energy that nourish - or strangle - nearby life. Here, hate and fear build and fester, the exact way they do in the mundane world.

Is the world bad because of this place, Adam wonders, or is this place so bad because of how it is in the world?

He asks Quinn, as they travel from node to node.

“Why is the universe at war, anyway? Why is everything so bad everywhere?”

Quinn laughs. “Your recruiters really didn’t teach you anything, did they.”

“No, they didn’t.” Adam frowns, thinking back to his interactions with the Concordance, and how getting them to share wisdom or acknowledge inconvenient facts is like pulling teeth.

The Dark Drifters’ captain is all too happy to answer in their place. “Well. Space is big, yeah?”


“And it’s easy to get on a spaceship. Or take a teleporter. Or whatever. Right?”


Quinn smirks. “So when you don’t like how things are going, and you aren’t strong enough to change it, what do you do? You just leave.”

The simplicity of this answer feels weird to Adam. But Quinn is still talking.

“When the strong and the weak come into conflict, it’s the weak that usually loses. But what does losing mean, eh? There’s capitulation - you give up, join the victor’s cause, and so on. There’s destruction. But if you’re losing, the safest move is to go elsewhere. Regroup, find allies, whatever is your excuse of the moment. But you run. And if there’s people where you run to, maybe you push them out, because you’re stronger.”

“Meanwhile, if anyone weaker than you gets pushed out of where you are, you can just keep on making things more and more how you like them. And your tastes get more and more specialized, because you’re used to getting your way, so you become more self-indulgent. Pretty soon you’re pushing away old allies - or making them conform - over little differences. So you’ve got these pockets of society where things are just sharpening themselves into ever finer points, where the strongest people dictate more and more narrow ways of living. Because everyone who doesn’t like it can just leave.”

Adam struggles to process this. “But don’t people… have a responsibility to stand up to the tyrants and stuff?”

Quinn laughs again. “Responsibility? From where?”

Adam has to think about that. “You know. Religion, or freedom, or ideals, or whatever. Isn’t there stuff to believe in where you come from?”

The Dark Drifter shakes his head. “The people I heard teaching those things left too, when it was their time. Or they’d squabble with each other and split into their own factions. The only time you have to take a stand is when you’re backed into a corner. And it’s my job as leader of the Drifters to make sure we never get trapped like that.”

The trio emerge among standing stones, half-fallen, half-crumbled, on a barren and desolate world. A dim red sun can be seen through a hazy atmosphere, and constant lightning discharges provide most of the illumination.

The site looks to Adam like a ritual spot of some kind, but he has no idea who might have built it, or what it’s for. The emotions of the place bleed together into a melange, but don’t speak any truth to him.

“The temple isn’t far,” Quinn explains. “We’ll take the godstones the rest of the way. Just step onto one, then look down and pick the one to step onto next. If you get dizzy, just step back.”

The first ‘godstone’ is near the ritual site. It’s simply a stone disc, embedded firmly in the dessicated soil of this world, and it has curious spirals and characters on it. Nevertheless, Adam can feel an overwhelming power inside of it, kept in check by some kind of special psychic machinery. It is perhaps the oldest thing he has ever experienced.

“What are these?” Adam whispers.

“There’s rumors,” Quinn says with a smile. “The first source of the Shards. A mechanism for apotheosis. Nobody’s sure. They’re not meant for transportation - we just use 'em for that.”

And so saying, he steps onto one. For just a moment, Adam gets the impression that Quinn has grown, big enough to blot out the sky. But then he’s gone.

A quick check of the emotional linkages tells Adam the Dark Drifter is now far, far away. A teleporter?

Adam smiles reassuringly at his sister, who is frowning in restrained fear. “I’ll go first,” he says. “It’s gonna be okay.”

“Okay, Adam,” she says.

He steps onto the disc.

The planet recedes beneath him immediately. Not recedes - shrinks. He is the one growing, at incredible speed. As he grows, he becomes intangible, translucent, even invisible, as the fabric of his being is spread across a much larger zone of space.

He sees other godstones, on other planets, in other solar systems. He is growing - still growing. Soon he’ll light years across.

He feels the one where Quinn is waiting. He moves a foot at speeds many times of light. His big toe, now big enough to engulf stars, touches the destination godstone. And Adam steps out, normal sized. to find himself on a jungle planet.

For a moment, the universe was his. If he’d let the journey continue just a few seconds longer, he could have held the galaxy in his hand.

He feels a sudden dizziness, and falls to his knees.

Quinn is there, leaning over him, a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Hey now. It’s always like that the first time.”

He’s still recovering a minute later, when he sees Jordan stumble out of the transition, and fall flat on her face.

Adam picks himself up and stumbles over to Jordan. She’s laying in the dust, crying. But as he surveys her emotions, he can feel why. She isn’t hurt or terrified. She’s still fearful. But mostly, she’s simply overwhelmed.

He pulls her into a careful hug and soothingly pats her head. “It’s okay. You made it through. You did good.”

Quinn watches, and Adam can feel the mixture of emotions from the man. There’s derision, for showing such obvious emotional weakness. There’s envy, that Adam guesses might be from the times he received similar comfort. But mostly there’s regret, for not offering it more, for not getting it more.

The jungle world has a godstone that leads to a lava world. The last transition lands the trio inside an alcove, adjacent to stone that must have been carved in antiquity.

There are beings here. They wear body-covering garments, each unique because each body is unique. Some of them seem like centaurs, or scorpions, or snakes. Others seem entirely unlike anything Adam has seen.

One of the robed beings spots the newcomers in their alcove, and approaches. “Your name and business,” it hisses, and like Quinn, Adam can hear and understand because it possesses a Shard.

“The Most Illustrious Supernova of the Universe, the Legendary Navigator of the Space-ways, the Right Honorable Quinnar Gentry,” Quinn announces proudly.

“I’m sure,” says the robed acolyte in a bored tone.

“We seek a recruiter,” Quinn explains.

This is better received. “Enora Dralis is here,” the acolyte says after a moment’s thought. “Come. Wait. You will be attended to.”

The trio are escorted to a room, carved out of the rock like so much else here. The furnishings are likewise shaped out of rock, and padded with some kind of gel that’s contained in flexible plastic-like bags. It’s like sitting on a waterbed, Adam thinks.

A robed snake-like woman, her eyes blindfolded and hands bound in what look like high-tech handcuffs, slithers in.

“I am Enora Dralis. Quinnar Gentry, I remember you. Your sword is serving you well?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Quinn effuses. “We’ve put the power to rewarding uses.”

“Excellent. And your guests?”

Adam looks to Quinn, curious how the Dark Drifter intends to fulfill his end of the bargain.

“A pair from another part of the universe. They came to us. You remember we said that there were aliens hunting us? And that some of those meant to receive the power never got it? The same thing happened to them. And one of them has a Shard which isn’t responding. I promised I’d try and help them.”

Enora Dralis hisses in thought. Adam watches her tongue flicker in and out of her mouth at high speed, snake-like.

“You’ve brought a Concordance Agent here, Quinnar Gentry,” she says, in the most relaxed and conversational tone that Adam can imagine.

“He- he’s what?” Quinn exclaims, and spins.

Before the captain can draw his sword, Adam throws out his hands. Not to shield himself - “Wait,” he exclaims.

Enora Dralis tilts her head curiously. Quinn pauses, looking angry and confused.

Adam glances back at his sister, the would-be princess who trusts him to do the right thing. He thinks about Somber, who isn’t on anyone’s side but their own, yet claims to be a Concordance Agent “sometimes”. He thinks about William Eddison, who wields a super-sword that put the Coordinators to shame despite not knowing anything about the organization.

He opens himself up to full broadcast, letting Quinn and this recruiter receive honestly and completely what he wants to say.

“The Truth is, I’m not here for the Concordance. They’ve done some bad things. I’m here for myself, and my sister. I’m not here to start a fight or steal your secrets or anything. I fought one of your agents on Earth, but to be fair she attacked us first.”

He looks again at Quinn, and thinks about what he’d said about how easy it is to run away, and how easily war breaks out because of that. And, unbidden, he thinks about a time he rewrote his family to have a little peace, and how that went.

He looks back at Enora Dralis.

“I’m here to understand. And I’m here to help the people I care about. I’m here because running away from my responsibilities always hurts people in the long run. I don’t want people hurt. So I’m doing something about it. So please, just please, help me make things a little better.”

1 Like

“Keep on singing, little boy
And raise your arms in the big black sky
Raise your arms the highest you can
So the whole universe will glow”

Adam Amari is on trial.

They had stripped him of Antares Alpha-One. “This is a stolen Shard,” they said. “We are reclaiming it.”

But before they had gone through with it, Peri had asked for a moment with him. Because she was, in every respect, recruited by one of their own Agents, they gave her that much.

“Ya gotta understand Princesses an’ Queens,” Jordan had told him. “This is really important.”

Adam didn’t understand, and his sister could tell.

“Whenever there’s a princess anna queen,” she’d said, “the princess is always good an’ the queen is always evil.”

She ticked off examples on fingers. “Ya got Snow White anna Wicked Queen. Ya got Sailor Moon an’ Queen Galaxia. Ya got the My Little Ponies an’ their princesses an’ the changeling queen. Ya got that Scottish bear movie where Merida an’ her mom don’t get along.”

Sensing Adam’s comprehension, she moved onward. “So clearly it’s a rule of princessin’. BUT! The princess is gonna become a queen, right? 'Cause queens are princesses who grew up. Don’t become a queen. Ya gotta become an older princess instead. Even if ya gotta change the rules to do it.”

She’d stared at him intently. “The dinosaurs may-a’ died out, but they live on in our heart.”

Then the Collective took Antares Alpha-One from him, severing his connection to Peri, and Jordan Amari woke up on Earth, an infinity of light years away.

The chamber is inconceivably old. Adam can see what science class at school calls “geological layers” in the stone walls, and he can see the marks where the room was reshaped and resculpted from time to time. “Geological time” means millions of years, usually. Adam realizes that this room was once open to the sky, and it has literally been transformed into an interior room by time.

It’s round, with a dais at the center for someone to stand - a speaker, or a prisoner.

Today, Adam occupies that august central position. He stands alone, in front of a court made up of his supposed enemies, and an audience full of their supporters and adherents.

A sourceless voice announces the case to everyone in attendance.

“Adam Amari, you stand accused of defeating Ambra Nerach, one of our agents, on the planet Earth in the Milky Way galaxy. You infiltrated our most sacred temple. Despite your denial, you have worked in service of the Universal Concordance in the past. What say you?”

Adam thinks about this. “I got a lot to say, actually. Is that okay?”

“Speak,” the voice replies.

He collects his thoughts.

“That Ambra Nerach, we knew her as Sablestar. She attacked us. She was looking for a thing called a Keynome. A kind of anchor of reality. We fought her off, and she kept coming back. I went to a dark future and found an older version of her. I took her sword away. Here.”

He manifests the Continuum Sword he took, and it is bubbled away from him.

“It will be examined for the Truth of your claims and other matters. But as you have said yourself, you were not properly given it. These swords are sacred to us. Continue.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know.”

Adam thinks more, and continues speaking when he’s ready.

“Ambra Nerach. Miss Nerach? Uh, anyway. She said the Concordance were like neglectful parents. I’m kinda inclined to agree with her. You know how parents - well maybe you don’t, you’re aliens to me, the way I am to you - but on my planet, sometimes parents don’t have time or energy to do the right thing. They just tell their children to behave, and they’ll punish them if they don’t.”

He gestures at Quinn, who he’s spotted sitting in the audience. “The leader of the Dark Drifters told me the universe is such a mess ‘cause people find it easy to leave in places they’re not wanted. An’ a friend of mine asked me why the Concordance doesn’t help people in trouble outside their turf.”

He remembers something his father told him, about undercover work. He remembers some of the history he researched, trying to understand the problem in front of him now.

“My dad is in law enforcement. I asked him about how to do undercover work. What I did to get here, by pretending to be one of the Void’s agents already. He said, from the perspective of the street gangs, the cops are just another gang. Bigger, badder, and better paid is how he put it. But they still work like a gang. They’re just supposed to enforce the law, instead of their own wishes. But too often, someone will cross the line.”

“So you guys don’t like the Concordance. Well, I don’t really like the Concordance. But they’re supposed to be doing the right thing. They talk a big game, if you’ll pardon an Earth term.”

“I had a broken Shard. Sol Gamma-Two. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. And some of their Agents were pretty mean to me. But they let me do a lot of stuff, even stuff they really didn’t want me doing.”

Another memory mixes with his current situation, and makes him laugh out loud, just for a second. “You know, they even put me on trial too, once.”

He grows more serious, and permits himself a moment of pride. Princesses and queens…

“I think I know why. I think I made them look good. I did the stuff they were supposed to do, so they got to point at me and say, see, our system works. Even when it doesn’t. And maybe they hope that someday, I’d become like them. But I’m not going to do that.”

“Instead, I came here, to find you guys. And ask you this question. If you think the Concordance is so bad, are you really doing better than they are? You don’t like them and you don’t like me because I worked for them, I get that, but have you really figured things out? Or are you both just gangs to each other, that have different philosophies? Is your way to live really better, or only better for people just like you?”

He can feel the aggression in the room growing. Most of these people - the adherents of the “negative” emotions - want to rush him, take him down, erase him.

He’s attacking their way of living. He knows that. But he’s also challenging them to be better than their enemies, rather than just think they are.

That challenge puts a responsibility on them that they didn’t ask for.

He knows, more than he wants to accept, how that feels.

The sourceless voice replies to his challenge. “You wished to know what we’re like. You’re going to learn.”

“Adam Amari, you will be subjected to a Trial by Conviction.”

“What’s that?” he asks.

“You will be placed on the surface of this planet. The light of the twelve suns will reduce you to cinders in an instant unless you maintain a barrier. During that time, our law neither binds nor protects you. You may do what you wish, as can anyone else who ventures to the surface. Be ready to defend yourself.”

Adam isn’t sure about this. “What does that accomplish?” he asks finally.

“It’s simple. Nobody knows what they’ll really endure to see their wish through - not even the person themselves. Stand defiant against the cosmos until the trial ends. Surrender to us. Or fail and die.”

“And if I endure all of that?”

“You go free. And we will have seen who you are.”

Adam blinks. “Well. Okay, I guess we’re doing that.”

With shields up, Adam finds himself teleported to the surface.

What they said was true enough. He’s assaulted almost immediately by a ferocious heat and a powerful light. He tunes his shield to block these out as well, yet finds himself already out of breath and sweating from even that briefest of exposure.

The surface of this world is a desert to end all deserts. Nothing lives here - nothing could live here. Any rock that was once here has been baked by the heat, then cracked by geological processes, then turned into a fine dust by time. There’s no atmosphere here. It’s like pictures of the Moon he saw - and then the real Moon, when he visited - except where that was all darkness and stars, this is like High Noon in a Western film, all sunlight.

Others are starting to warp in as well, all around him. They come in twos and threes, but it’s clear there’s a concerted effort here. What he said didn’t go over well with a lot of the audience in court, and now they’re gonna express their displeasure.

Adam realizes that he may have miscalculated.

How do Jason and Leo do this all the time? he asks himself in annoyance. It works for them.

So that was their plan. Just let him get wiped out, but “legally”.

They gave him an out, the surrender option, where he goes back inside and they get to laugh at him and keep doing what they do. And he probably gets killed there too.

It’s kinda scummy. But on the other hand, they aren’t doing what the Universal Concordance does, and pretending like they know how to run everything. This is just folks defending their turf with their rules. Like any other gang.

All of this thinking, and he still doesn’t have a plan. There’s a lot of powerful looking starry people, all around him, and they’re all warming up their various attacks.

I wish I could get through to them. I wish - I wish I knew what to say, what to do, to show them–

The blasts and beams open up in a concerted barrage.

Adam feels something nagging, like one of his palms is itching. And he feels a new sensation. It’s not a voice - not really - but it’s an invitation. He can kind of get the message even if he has to supply the words himself.

Your power is unequal to your need. You will not hold me for long. But for now, if you choose, you may see that honor is upheld.

Adam’s hand closes around the grip of Excalibur.

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The sword teaches Adam the meaning of honor in that moment.

He remembers the Emperor of Atlantis, describing the trap of Hobbes - mutual distrust, leading to mutual concealment.

His experience of the Negamatrix was a world where unexpressed emotions sprouted and festered. It was like kudzu, an endless growth that went nowhere and yet connected everything.

Honor is a world of rivers where those emotions flow from person to person. Those bad feelings don’t pile up - they are spoken, by people with the courage to admit themselves to others. They’re transformed, inverted, and redirected through personal integrity and social contract. They become life lessons or bonds or inspiring memories.

If you can’t trust someone to share their intentions - good or bad, it doesn’t matter - then you can’t trust their intentions. If you don’t know where someone stands, how can you respect their stances?

If emotion is the blood of the universe, Honor is its healthy circulation.

I don’t have to convince them to see things my way. I just have to show them who I am. That’s enough.

Adam raises the sword, and swings it in a wide arc.

The first wave of blasts are deflected by a power greater than all of them.

Memories of how William wields Excalibur come back to Adam in that instant.

William trains with Jaycee to become stronger. Not because the sword isn’t powerful, but because he wants the sword to be a partner, and he wants to be its equal as much as he can.

Adam feels his own glaring inadequacy here. He doesn’t even really know how to wield a sword properly.

When he fused with William and Jordan in Orion Schema, he could fall back on William’s sword-fighting skills.

But he can’t make a fusion now, because William isn’t here.

The divine voice of innocent ambition in his head asks a question for which he has no good answer. So what if he’s not here?

Another wave of energy attacks comes hurtling toward him. Adam blinks out of the way, preferring not to rely on Excalibur for everything.

It buys him a few more seconds to process the wave of feelings coming in.

It’s hard to accept that he might just, well, decide to fuse with William, light years away, and it could actually work. It’s like that joke about the English teacher, where the student says “can I go to the bathroom” and the teacher says “I don’t know, can you? Or did you want to say may I?”

It’s not a very funny joke.

He’s used to having family and friends around to sort of course correct him if he does the wrong thing. And it’s an easy cop-out to say “I don’t have the power”. But this whole trip has been eye-opening. He does have the power. He probably has even more than he thinks.

Can I fuse with William right now?

May I?

Is this what it feels like, Adam wonders, when his father the police sergeant has to decide whether to draw a gun and put his finger on the trigger?

This is that moment.

He forges a link, and makes the offer. Armiger, knight of the Grail Knights, I need your help.

The affirmative emotion comes immediately.

How did you even do that? William demands mentally, as the fusion stabilizes.

What, fuse with you, or wield Excalibur? Adam asks curiously.

Either. Both. Honestly, it’s like two miracles for the price of one.

Long story, Adam tells him. Just… can you handle the swordplay? There’s an awful lot of guys, but I have an idea.

Before the assembled acolytes of the Void, the young man with starry skin has transformed himself into the Starry Knight. Excalibur in hand, armored from head to toe, with a cape that billows behind it, the figure looks ready for battle.

The champions of fear and rage leap forward, Continuum Swords raised. Surely this figure can’t deal with all of them.

The Knight throws numerous copies of its sword into the air - a dozen - two dozen.

As the attackers converge, the Knight teleports effortlessly between copies. The attackers fly past a sword, only to have the Knight suddenly wielding it, swinging it at their openings. They turn to parry, but the Knight is gone again, to assault someone else.

“He fused!” calls one champion of the Void, discerning what just happened.

“With who?” someone else calls. “Ain’t nobody else out here but him and us.”

“Doesn’t matter!” replies the stalwart champion angrily. “Fuse up. Match him!”

What’s your idea? William asks. As entire pirate bands fuse in threes and fives, he’s got a moment’s reprieve to ask questions.

I remembered what you said, Adam replies, still furiously working on his own thing. About how fights begin with a question. What’s the other guy got? How’s it going to go?

Good, William grins mentally. Glad my advice wasn’t going to waste.

Adam continues his own preparations at breakneck pace. Well, I figured if they’re asking that question of us…

Where there was one, there are now many. The Starry Knight has cloned itself. Now there is one Knight and one Excalibur for every combatant on the field.

The battle descends into dozens of one-on-one-duels.

…We should lie, Adam finishes. These guys are powered by fear and anger and frustration and all those negative emotions, right? So the first part is, make them feel those things…

The trio of Kronal, Runus, and Shadra are facing a Starry Knight, armed with a sword of legend. They can feel the power pouring off of it.

They just… duplicated themselves! Kronal thinks in a panic.

Who is this guy? Runus demands. Where is he getting all this power?

It doesn’t matter! barks Shadra. She’s focusing on the Continuum Sword in her fusion’s hands, wielding it against the skills of one of Earth’s foremost swordfighters. There’s just one of him. And all of us. We’re gonna overpower him.

VT-25, UX-38, and TR-93 struggle. None of them are decent with the sword - they prefer flashy shows of pure energy to the intricacies of this ancient art. But the Continuum Sword is a potent power from another universe, and they’d be fools not to use it. Now, they find their usual tactics at a loss. Excalibur casually knocks aside their blasts and cuts through their shields like paper.

He is angering us, 25 intones.

He is infuriating us, 38 corrects.

The very thought of him is odious, 93 adds.

We should kill him, 25 declares.

We may not be able to, 38 states.

We should not have come up here, 93 sighs.

But it is too late for that, isn’t it, all three of them agree. Here we are.

How did you do that? William asks admiringly.

I used Peri’s illusion trick, and attached the bubbles to your sword clones, Adam explains.

He’s got an internal ouroboros, showing him the levels of emotion present on the battlefield.

His machine is assembled.

The energy from the Void’s warriors is high.

We’re almost ready.

The duplicated Knights wink out of existence.

The fusions on the battlefield once again have only a single target.

“His energy is way down!” announces the K-R-S fusion, taking readings.

25-38-93 concurs. “He wasted much power with his prank. Now is the time we avenge ourselves in earnest.”

The Void fusions circle the Starry Knight, swords at the ready.

Adam radiates readiness. When I give the signal, slice through their shields, aim for the core. I’ve got a lock-on gadget that will guide your sword.

Cool. What will that do? William asks.

So the second part of my idea is… They’re directing all those negative emotions at us, right? All that fear, hate, all of it?

Yeah? William agrees, but Adam can sense that he doesn’t fully grasp the implication.

Emotion is power. They’re offering us their power. So I’m gonna take it. NOW!

The Starry Knight leaps forward. Excalibur drives, point first, at the core of the fusion - a thing not in three-dimensional space, but beyond it. It crashes through the affected barriers standing in the way.

And with his target exposed, Adam throws his “harpoon”. It lands inside the tightly coupled Shards of the fusion.

All the feelings of the fusion before him - a quartet of space pirates of the Quasar Avengers Alliance, in this case - come pouring down the conduit connecting the harpoon to Adam’s collector. All their negative feelings about him funnel in, as power he can use against them.

You’re a fuckin’ vampire! William realizes with gleeful astonishment.

I’m accepting what they give me, Adam demurs. Okay. Keep doing that. We’ll harpoon as many as we can.

More attacks come in. This time, Adam can divert some of the newly acquired energy to shields. The fury of one fighting fusion becomes a defense against the attacks of their ally.

Yeah! William finally gets the tactic. You’ve turned their strength into a weakness.

Dislodge the intruding element! orders Terugar Chorn, chief of the first fusion to be harpooned.

We’re trying! his lieutenant, Shoragor Alta, protests. It’s drawing on our power and using some of that to anchor itself - like a barbed hook.

We could un-fuse, suggests Wartirk Mulian.

But pride prevails in Terugar Chorn’s heart, and his fusion-mates can sense it. No! He is nothing compared to us! We fight!

Adam knows he’s had good teachers. The people of the Menagerie - Leo and Jason, Charlotte and Harry, Alycia and Summer. His new friends, the people who came with him aboard the Love Bug. Even his enemies, like Ambra Nerach, the villain Sablestar.

It doesn’t matter if he wanted this originally or not. He chose to pursue it. And here he is now, fighting to show these people who he is, and who they can be.

The fusions are trying new tricks. They’re trying to break the harpoons’ connections. Some of them do un-fuse, and Adam just harpoons another fusion. Others try stuff he’s never seen before, like cycling their shields’ shape and composition. Sometimes it works, and Adam has to find a counter-trick. But there’s always enough guys to harpoon.

There’s always more guys, and it’s disheartening.

None of these guys are at Somber’s level, or that of a Coordinator of the Concordance. He’s grateful for that. He can feel William weakening, and he can feel his own energy draining. The collector he built is keeping the fusion’s outer defenses powered, but it can’t substitute for the heroes’ own fortitude. And neither of them want to drink from the well of negative emotion they’re collecting.

But the fusions are also tiring. Several of the unfused acolytes teleported back into the planet’s interior - surrendering their challenge against him. Others show clearly that they’re weakening. Their shields flutter or defocus, their blasts dim, and their sword-work falters.

We don’t have to beat them, Adam tells William reassuringly. We just have to outlast them.

Fine. I can do that.

Adam can feel his fusion partner’s weariness as clearly as his own. But mixed in with that are his other feelings. Loyalty to his friend. Pride in himself. A desire to show off to Jaycee how her endurance training paid off.

The Knight still flashes from sword to sword, forcing the other fusions to adapt. They’re wise to this trick now, unfortunately. When the Knight pops out on a sword’s location, the nearest fusions respond. They aren’t surprised - just kept on edge by the need to guess which sword the Knight will pick next.

For those moments when the Starry Knight is there, it’s Continuum Sword against Excalibur - a cosmic blade, forged by the dying embers of another universe, versus the manifestation of a universal principle of existence.

It’s a battle of technique, as the blades clash, or slide past each other, or the truths of momentum and angular velocity and other aspects of space and time assert themselves.

It’s a battle of endurance, as each combatant commits their remaining stores of energy - emotional power and simple willingness to engage in battle.

It’s a battle of wits, as the psychic engineers of the Void pit their own creations against Adam’s flowering inventiveness.

One by one, the alien fusions falter. A few unfuse of their own accord. Others simply run out of energy, letting despair and ennui overtake the fires of rage or the icy iron of pride.

One by one, they teleport back to the refuge of the temple.

And finally, the Knight teleports to a new sword, ready to engage. But there is nothing left.

Wait… was that all of them? Adam asks, struggling to focus.

Looks like it, agrees William. Holy…

It seems that Excalibur concurs. In a moment, the blade evaporates into nothingness, and Adam feels the fusion torn away from him.

He now stands alone on the surface of an alien world, with nothing but a fragile bubble between him and the heat of twelve suns.

Again, Adam stands before the tribunal, in that ancient chamber in the temple of the Void.

Again, he faces the assembled acolytes of darkness and their masters.

“You have passed the Trial of Conviction,” the sourceless voice says. “You are free to leave.”

“I’m not going to,” Adam says. “Not yet. I want you all to listen to something first.”

He draws a breath, and exhales. The age of the place fills his lungs.

“I learned about you guys, and you learned about me. Not the way I would have wanted to do it, but, you know, we got there.”

He stares at the throng of alien faces, and looks many of his former attackers in the eye.

“I don’t think you guys are gonna be my friends. But that’s okay. I think we understand each others’ feelings a little better, and I think that’s the important thing.”

“For example, all those feelings of hate and pride and stuff? You all came at me with stuff I turned into fuel, to keep myself running. If you hadn’t felt all that negative stuff about me, you would have won. But on the other hand, if you didn’t feel those things, you wouldn’t have attacked me either. So maybe think about that next time.”

“And what did you guys feel from me? Huh?”

He looks around, pushing for an answer through his defiance.

“Hope,” says one voice from the quiet throng.

Adam smiles. “Yeah. And I still feel it.”

He gestures at the throng with open arms. “This emotional energy - it comes from us. We make it. We can use it, sure, but it comes from us. We are engines of change. The universe is waiting for us to make it better. If the Concordance has laid claim to the positive emotions, it doesn’t mean those are off limits to you guys too. Just like I used your negative energy, you can draw on good feelings without having to work with the Concordance. Instead of running away from problems, you can stand up to the people causing them.”

“Distance - it’s an illusion. The real barriers between us are the ones we raise. Our feelings of mistrust. The times we’ve been hurt. All the strength of all your friends can be yours. It’s in your hearts, waiting for you to call on it. And those strong people, who wall off that connection so they can have things their way? They choose to be alone. That makes them vulnerable. Because none of us are alone unless we try to be. It may not be the person you want or expect, but there’s always someone reaching out for you. If you reach back, then neither of you is alone.”

“I don’t know where you’re all from. Maybe you ran away when someone else started pushing people around. I don’t know. But haven’t you ever wanted to go back there, and make things better?”

There is a stirring among the crowd.

Adam smiles. “But I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m just here to tell you that when you do it, it won’t just be you by yourself.”

He remembers what William has said about the worthiness of Excalibur’s wielders. To fight - to lead - to rule.

He draws another breath.

“I’m not gonna tell you to do something I won’t do either. I think I know how to fix the Concordance now. I’m gonna try to go make them go along with it. Maybe if they stop being such jerks, you guys can eventually get along with them too.”

“But before that, I gotta see someone who’s taught me a lot of stuff, and get to understand them better. And I have friends to go back to, and I gotta say hi to my little sister, who’s been a big help here.”

He looks up, at the masters of the temple, at people like Enora Dralis. “Most importantly, I’m gonna track down the guys who are stealing Shards. From the Concordance, and from you too. I think I can do it now. Or rather, I believe in myself and this power enough to do it.”

“We could not express our gratitude enough were you to succeed at this,” Enora Dralis replies, after a long and thoughtful moment.

Adam smiles. “Okay. Then I’ll see you guys later.”

He walks out of the chamber, through the halls of stone, and to the most ancient of rooms where the godstone rests.

Some of the temple denizens follow after him at a distance, out of curiosity, regret, or a dozen other motivations.

They watch as he steps onto the stone without hesitation, and ascends into the cosmos.

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The next part of the journey through space will be “Planet of Dread”. Until then, hopefully we had fun with this :slight_smile:

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What an exciting journey and a great ending.

Going to need to re-read this because it feels like it covered a lot of ground in this. Fast & the Furious homages, space pirates (both figurative and literal), names that would fit into an Exalted storyline, and a battle of wills on the surface of a burning planet.

Oh, what a promise to end on. I know Planet of Dread likely isn’t going to follow up on that immediately, it certainly is an intriguing plot point I’m looking to see how Adam handles that.

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