417 - Planet of Dread

The Love Bug is back on Earth.

In spite of finding the people he sought, confronting them with his feelings, and wielding Excalibur in a successful defense against their counter-attack, Adam feels like a failure. And he explains why to his friends.

“I failed to unlock Jordan’s Shard, Anty. I mean, I have mixed feelings about that. It’s safer if she’s not part of this life. But she get lonely. Dad does a dangerous job, and I’m doing a different job, and I’m not even on the same planet a lot of the time.”

He shrugs, and looks at his friends.

William looks earnest. Jaycee’s face shows concern. Space Bug is inscrutable as usual. Adam isn’t probing for their emotions, and only has the occasional waving of mandibles to go by.

Keri’s mood is the easiest to read. She’s leaning forward, with a mixture of empathy and frustration in her eyes. Something is bothering Adam, and she’s waiting to hear who or what to punch to make that go away.

He draws a long breath, and goes on. “I told those space pirates that I had a plan to fix the Concordance. And I failed to convince any of them to cooperate. But I realized that I can’t ignore Somber either. They’re up to something and I still don’t trust it. But I don’t know what to do about any of that. So while I’m figuring all this out, I didn’t want to keep you all away from Earth.”

The Love Bug’s hatch opens, and Adam gestures at it.

“We’re back in Halcyon. I’m really glad you all came along with me. For all of it. I couldn’t have done it without you. But I don’t know where I’m going next, so I guess this is where we stop.”

The others look at each other, then back to Adam.

Keri is the first to stand up, and brushes herself off. “Well, thank god.”

Adam feels his remaining self-confidence bottom out.

Keri passes him, and pats him on the shoulder on her way to the hatch and out of the ship. “This will give me a chance to stock up on spices and ingredients. I am going to do more cooking around here. If you park the ship somewhere else before I’m back, I expect you to tell me where you went.”

William rises and stretches. With a glance at Jaycee, and having received a nod of approval from her, he smiles at Adam. “A break would be good, but we’ll be back too.”

He doesn’t leave quite yet. He stops on the way out the hatch, and looks over one shoulder.

“Listen. I think I was meant to come along on this thing with you. I think Excalibur led me to you that day. I think you were meant to use it, just in that moment, and for that purpose, and I think I must have helped you do that. So just because you can’t see the road ahead doesn’t mean you can’t keep putting one foot ahead of the other. Alright mate?”

“Stay strong, Adam,” Jaycee says with a gentle smile, and follows William out.

Adam turns back to the only other occupant of the ship, Space Bug.

“I am going nowhere, Adam Amari,” the alien informs him. “I am parked, quiescent, sessile.”

Adam frowns. “You aren’t going to launch the ship if I leave?”

The bug shrugs with every arm. “You can teleport to me any time. Besides, I need your permission to go play with Jordan. Amusement, recreation, creative lying. Yes?”

Adam smiles wanly. “I was going to go home, yeah. I’ll ask if it’s okay if you come over.”

Adam opens the door to find his parents in the middle of household chores. They drop everything and rush to him. Mom reaches him first by a slim margin, and wraps him up in a big hug. Dad follows only a moment later.

After an outpouring of silent emotion, they regretfully disengage.

To his surprise, Adam has started crying. He wipes a knuckle under one eye, and stares down at the tear it leaves behind for just a moment.

“I did it,” he says finally. “Well. I didn’t really do anything. But I went out there, and I tried. I tried, I promise…”

His mother hears heartbreak in his voice, and takes hold of him again. “You’re home, and you’re safe, Adam,” she tells him softly. “We’re just glad you’re safe, sweetie.”

There’s a loud thumping from down the hall, and Jordan bursts out, leaping at Adam. His parents make room for the oncoming cannonball of sisterly affection.

“ADAM! I dreamed I was in space but it was all real and we had adventures an’ I told you stuff an’ there was weird planets an’ they had swords–”

“It was all real, Jordan,” Adam assures her.

Jordan’s eyes grow wide, and his parents’ eyes grow equally concerned. It’s time to explain.

Over dinner, Adam explains his encounters with Somber, his journeys into space, and the full context of the “undercover work” he’d discussed with his father. He doesn’t consciously leave out details, but does hint at some of the more unsavory things the Starbusters did or said.

He wraps up by echoing what he said to his friends on the Love Bug. “So I’m back on Earth, and there’s work to be done, and I just don’t know what I should do or how I should do it or where I should go.”

His mother watches, and listens, and tilts her head just slightly. “Adam, you’re fifteen. You can’t have all the answers at your age–”

“I don’t feel like I have any answers,” Adam protests ruefully.

She smiles at that, just for a moment. “When you don’t have answers, when you aren’t able to make progress in the direction you’re going, you stop moving. You step back, and you orient yourself.”

His dad nods in agreement. “Adam, every investigation has dead ends. You can run down witnesses and clues that don’t help your case. It happens all the time. Life is like that too. You make mistakes, you overlook details, sure. But sometimes, you just won’t have enough to go on. And that’s just how it is.”

Adam frowns in protest. “But the Earth could be in danger if I don’t do something.”

“Then don’t do it alone,” his father cautions. “You saw the news about Jason Quill?”

Adam has just seen Jason Quill alive, but knows the cover story. He nods quickly.

His dad nods too. “I - I remember talking to that young man. I hope – well, anyway. You have other friends. Make sure you talk to them. Okay?”

Adam had, but he nods anyway. “I will, dad.”

There’s something else he wants to say. He turns to his little sister to say it.

“Jordan, I tried to unlock Anty for you. And instead they took away Antares Alpha-One from me. So you can’t join me in any more adventures. I’m sorry. I tried. But I couldn’t do it.”

Jordan hops down from her chair at the dinner table, approaches Adam, and pats him gently on the knee. “Ya did your best, an’ I’m proud of ya, Adam,” she says, in imitation of something his parents would say, complete with a sterner and deeper tone of voice than usual.

Adam isn’t sure what else to say, so he pulls Jordan into a wordless hug.

Adam is alone in his room.

He’s realizing more and more that he isn’t really ever “alone”. He’s physically isolated, sure. But as he thinks of his friends, one by one, his emotions mingle with his power, and he becomes connected to them in some subtle fashion. Not true telepathy - just an empathy that works across space and time.

Who could he talk to about this?

Leo and Aria are somewhere far away, all by themselves. He knows Leo got hurt, and he knows the scars are still with him. Leo’s given him good advice before, but right now he needs to heal.

Jason, Alycia, and their friends and teammates are busy too. Alycia in particular seemed kind of closed-off last time Adam saw her, and she’s got a lot on her mind too.

Harry just got over some kind of nano-virus. And Adam feels some kind of lingering emotional connection there, something very personal to him, that makes him inexplicably afraid to go talk.

Charlotte is busy saving the world - or a world, or many worlds. Adam got the impression that in some sense, her problems are bigger even than his.

There’s Summer - but although she’s cheerful and nice and caring, she’s also stressed. Adam isn’t sure he could bear talking about everything with her, because he can feel her emotional state from afar, and feel the fragility of it.

The people who understand the problem best are the people who flew with him through space, who experienced the same events he did.

But, he tells himself, I’ve already asked so much of them.

He reaches out anyway.

He can feel Keri’s excitement at being home. He can feel her enthusiasm for the familiar. But she’s also looking forward to something - to being back with him, and the others. Being back with friends? It’s more than that.

She achieved success through peaceful means in space. She helped avert a fight between the team and the Metal Eaters in the Loser’s Graveyard. But more importantly, she showed Adam how to make peace with the Redshift Racers.

She wants more of that. She’s looking forward to it.

Adam can feel Jaycee and William. They aren’t together, but they’re thinking about each other. William felt and still feels like he did something good. Adam isn’t so easily convinced, but that could be his own self-doubt talking. The young knight certainly believes it. And Jaycee is still riding high from the excitement of a space adventure with someone she cares deeply about, someone she wants to stay with, someone she wants to prove herself to.

Adam can’t bring himself to think about Jordan. Without access to Princess Peri, she’s a grade school girl with big dreams and a bright future. She has no place in the danger that’s to come. Even with her super-powerful alternate form, Adam doesn’t want to expose her to the dangers that must lie ahead.

And what of Space Bug? Space Bug is–

Space Bug is inside the house.

Adam jumps off his bed and rushes out into the hall.

His parents are staring at the insect-like alien. The alien is in turn holding out something in its hands. “A present, a gift, an offering!” it exclaims.

Adam approaches, and his parents make room. He looks closer at what Space Bug has to offer, and takes hold of what he sees.

It’s a picture book, done in the deliberately simple and cartoonish style of some of Jordan’s coloring books or school texts on learning to read. It depicts a sanitized version of the events in space, just as Adam told his family.

Adam finds his parents looking at him. They are… seeking approval? They want to vet the gift? He looks back at it, and smiles, and nods up at them. But it’s not for him to give.

He passes the book back to Space Bug, just in time for Jordan to trot out of her room to see what’s going on.

“Space Bug!” she cries, and runs forward.

“Jordan, Peri, Princess,” the bug says in greeting. “Gift. Yes.”

Jordan oohs and ahhs as she leafs through the gift. While she’s distracted, Adam glances at the alien creature.

“The greed, the hunger, the avarice. It goes away when she is happy,” the creature says quietly, almost like a confession.

Adam thinks about that, and feels a sense of relief.

If these people want to stay connected, who am I to tell them no?

1 Like

Space Bug didn’t ask permission to come over. It surprises Mr. and Mrs. Amari to have their daughter Jordan invite someone else from the Love Bug’s crew to visit. But after some checking around, they give permission.

William Eddison arrives at the Amari house. He’s let inside by Sergeant Amari, looking stern.

“You have a sword,” says the cop.

“Not on me, sir. But I can summon it at need.”

“You will not be doing so in my home.”

William blinks, uncertain of protocol here and what’s going on. But he flashes a smile. “Yessir.”

Nassir escorts William to the living room, where Jordan is waiting. She wastes no time explaining what she’s after.

“Jaycee said Grail Knights fought demons an’ dragons an’ other bad stuff in the old days, like during the Middle Evil Age. That’s kinda like what princesses gotta do. An’ dad doesn’t fight demons but he gotta fight bad guys.”

“Adam didn’t ask for the Shard. But he goes an’ fights bad guys too. An’ dad and mom always worry about that, even though dad goes an’ does the very same thing.” She spares a glance at her father, and William can see the conflicted emotions on his face.

Jordan looks up earnestly at William. “So I guess, ya got a sword. Ya like usin’ it. An’ I like bein’ a princess, even though a bad guy gave me the thingie to do it with. That’s kinda complicated, I gotta tell ya.”

“So I just wanna know…”

She kicks her feet uncertainly, and looks from her father to William and back. “If fightin’ bad guys is the right thing to do, why do people keep tryin’ to stop it? An’ if there’s people who worry about ya doin’ it, why is it okay to keep doin’ it?”

Sergeant Amari, of course, knows what Jordan is really asking. If it’s okay for him to be a cop, why can’t his children be superheroes? He goes to the first stock answer in his arsenal. “It’s dangerous out there. We have training. We’re taught proper procedure. We have partners to watch our backs. That’s something you two don’t have.”

Jordan protests immediately. “I had a partner. Anty taught me all about stuff. And shielded me when I was attacked. An’ tella pooted me outta danger.”

“I can teleport too,” William offers, and Nassir’s frown in his direction makes him realize he shouldn’t be volunteering information right at this moment.

The policeman’s frustration is evident from his face. “Jordan, when your mother and I agreed to let you keep this… this ‘Anty’, that wasn’t blanket permission to become a superhero yourself, especially at your age. Now, I think you’re asking two questions here. One is, why shouldn’t you be a hero if we disapprove? And two is, why am I a member of the police, given all my objections?”

Jordan frowns. “I just wanna understand.”

Nassir Amari folds his hands together and looks down at them. “There’s a legal concept called the age of majority. It’s when society recognizes that someone is ready to make their own decisions, and bear the consequences for those decisions. We know that children don’t start out able to do those things, and they grow into them. Some faster than others. And even after you grow up, your decisions aren’t always good ones.”

He watches Jordan’s face, trying to gauge how his words are reaching her. “I’ve interacted with some of the younger heroes of the city, like Mr. Eddison here, or Jason Quill. They mean well. I know that. But meaning well isn’t enough. So yes. Fighting bad guys is important. It has to be done. The question I hope you’ll realize you should also ask is, who should be doing it? What does it take to do it? What goes into learning how to do it the right way, so you don’t just cause more destruction, hurt innocent people, and so on?”

He sees understanding dawn in Jordan’s eyes, but doesn’t quite realize that it’s his emotions and memories that are helping make his point for him. She can feel the hard life lessons that led him to say what he says now. Still, he continues with what he feels is the more important part.

“Most importantly, Jordan, I’m your father. Your mother and I love you. We want to keep you safe. We want you to be happy. And the truth is…”

He glances almost unconsciously at William Eddison, and goes on. “The work changes you. Fighting the bad guys exposes you to the awfulness that makes people commit crimes, cause harm, and so on. You go into some very dark places. You can’t do that without it affecting you. Nobody’s quite sure what happened inside the HHL, but something certainly got to them. Cops can become corrupt. We have a unit called Internal Affairs to watch out for that. But really, anyone who comes close to the worst parts of life isn’t going to walk away the same. And we don’t want you to have to endure that until you’re really ready to choose for yourself.”

There’s silence for seconds, and William realizes that now is an okay time to jump in. “Even Grail Knights can fall. There’s - there’s one in particular, whose name we don’t speak. Even when the sword calls us, we need the strength to bear it. And we’re just human beings. We can’t always do that. The sword will withdraw itself from the unworthy. But it can happen.”

He’s relieved to see Nassir’s slight nod of approval.

Jordan thinks, and thinks. “It’s like dirty bath water,” she concludes. “Ya always tell me to scrub, an’ I do, an’ when I do the water gets dirty an’ I get clean. But there’s always dirt. It doesn’t just go away, but ya can change where it goes. Is it kinda like that? There’s always dirt?”

Nassir lets himself listen to what his daughter says, and smiles at long last. “That’s right, sweetie. There’s always dirt. And the more you play in it, the dirtier you get.”

The server delivers two poke bowls to Keri and Jaycee, and Keri dives in immediately.

“God, I have missed this,” she says through a mouthful of tuna. “Too much time in space.”

Jaycee watches her carefully from across the table. “So. ‘Po-keh-bowl’. Like Poke’mon?”

Keri almost chokes as she swallows. “What? No, it’s a Hawaiian thing. So listen. The rule is: cubed tuna. That’s what poke means in Hawaiian, ‘cubed cuts’. Octopus is okay. Salmon is not but some people use it anyway. The marinade is ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sesame seeds or oil, maybe some onion, maybe some chili flakes. Sushi rice. Specifically sushi rice. It’s its own thing. Toppings are beans, vegetables, seaweed, maybe some other stuff.”

Jaycee nudges at her own bowl with a spoon and a dubious expression. She takes a bite, chews, and winces a bit. “This is salty.”

Keri has an immediate solution. “Don’t just start on the fish. You gotta mix in some veggies and rice on the spoon. Take it as a whole.” She keeps eating ravenously from her own bowl.

Jaycee does as instructed. After a few bites, she’s ready to ask questions. “So this is like half sushi, half spicy vegetable salad?”

“Mmff, basically.” Keri manages to slow down. She chews, swallows, and goes for her soda. “They were eating raw fish in Hawaii before the outsiders came. This kind of ahi poke is pretty recent. It’s like sushi style bibimbap. But that’s what’s so great about it. Chefs are doing all this experimentation on food from all these different places. You can taste the different influences. It’s like a family tree of immigrants but for food, yeah?”

Jaycee ahhs. “Okay, I get that. Coffee and spirits have a similar journey around the world. Maybe all food does.”

The meal resumes. Increasingly, Keri glances up at Jaycee. She says nothing, but the barista knows what she wants to hear. Do you like this thing I like?

Jaycee has looked to customers - and William - many times with this same silent question. It’s on her to deliver an honest verdict.

"It’s not my thing, necessarily. I mean, I can’t afford sushi on my salary, so I wouldn’t get a chance to have a lot of it. But I like this. A lot of care went into preparing the ingredients.

Keri is happy to latch onto what crumbs Jaycee has given her. “There’s ‘real authentic Hawaiian’ poke, and there’s fusion restaurants like this place, really American, and there’s others where you can hand assemble what you want. So if there’s toppings you like, I can probably recommend a good place to go.”

Jaycee smiles. “I’ll take you up on that.”

The meal finishes. Keri talks Jaycee into boba tea, and the two drink in silence.

Keri’s next words surprise Jaycee.

“I’m glad you came here. And it’s my treat. Because I want to apologize to you.”

Jaycee looks up in surprise. She isn’t sure what to say to this, but it seems like Keri doesn’t need any prompting.

“You really came through on that trip through space. I gave you some grief. But… you know, you have William looking out for you, if it comes down to people with powers. And Adam. I think the truth is… you’re sort of what I wish I could have been. They like you, because you’re cool and strong. I’m a walking black hole. It sets me apart. I’m never going to be normal.”

Keri scowls, but Jaycee knows that it’s not meant for her. Keri’s upset with herself. Finally she finishes her thought.

“That’s not your fault. None of that’s your fault. And I’m trying to change.” She pokes at the grains of rice and drops of sauce left in her bowl. “But I didn’t start with good ingredients. All I can do is cook it and season it and hope someone likes it.”

Jaycee’s tone is gentle. “I’ve seen the way you look at Adam. You’re looking out for him. And you looked out for the rest of us. In my opinion, if we’re talking about food prep, you took some ingredients and you really made a dish out of them. I mean, this poke bowl starts with the rawest of raw protein. Your problem is you’re thinking about all the old customers you had. You have a little core of return customers here who appreciate what you’re doing. And you’ll get new ones. And - with work - you may win the old ones back with the new menu. Okay?”

Keri flashes a fragile, appreciative smile.

1 Like

Adam wakes up in his bedroom. He remembers he’d laid down to take a nap.

Hovering over him is a glowing sphere of energy. As it senses his return to consciousness, it begins relaying a message in the stilted tones of Concordance-style automation. “Somber wishes to speak with you. Please touch this orb to be teleported.”

Adam scans it mentally, just in case. But the energies radiating from it feel legitimate.

He hops out of bed. With the diligence drilled into him while growing up, he automatically checks his clothes, brushes down his hair with a comb, and otherwise makes himself presentable. Only then does he return to the orb, and reach out with a hand.

He finds himself in a bubble, parked in high Earth orbit. Somber floats at the center of it, legs crossed in a meditative pose. The alien’s eyes open and regard Adam with careful curiosity.

“You saw and did much in your journey, Adam Amari. What did you learn?”

Adam realizes that with all the time he’s had to think about this, he’s still not sure what to say.

He tries anyway.

“I learned that there’s power in not caring about other people when you go and make something happen. And too many people want that power, because they think they’ll be in charge of the thing, and not the ones who get plowed over. I learned that when someone comes to throw their weight around, a lot of people think it’s easier to run away. I learned that a lot of people think they have a solution, and that solution is seen as a problem for other people. And it’s easier to just camp on your territory than to communicate, or to fight back.”

He finds tears forming in his eyes as the weight of emotion settles on him with each recalled memory.

“I learned that it’s just so easy to give up. And move on. And just… not do what you’re supposed to be doing. And I remember how badly I wanted to do that myself, ever since I got a Shard, and I just… I just don’t wanna make anyone hurt by running away, but it was hurting me to be a hero too. I think most of all, I learned that when you’re surrounded by enough negative emotion, you can forget where the good emotion comes from. You can lose sight of the light, when all you’ve got is darkness.”

He looks up at Somber, and wipes his eyes. “You knew that about me. Your Epiphanic Enigma. It gave me a vision where Jordan and I switched places. I didn’t have any responsibility at all. That was a test.”

Somber nods slowly. “In a sense it was. I don’t know the particulars of what the Enigma will show anyone. I only knew that you would be confronted with doubts.”

“Power is a curse,” Adam says, half to himself. “I learned that too. I’m constantly doubting myself.”

The mysterious alien actually smiles. “The Concordance tests its Agents in a way. Every new Agent has tremendous power at their disposal. Often too much power for their liking. So they use it carefully. They restrict themselves to uses the Shard suggests. They take the Shard’s advice on how to use that power. They don’t question, because they’re afraid of hurting someone. Those that like power are found out, of course. But the rest…? The Concordance teaches obedience through fear.”

Adam’s early time with the Menagerie comes back to him. His fear of his own power. His fear of hurting anyone.

Somber smiles. “You have a training Shard. One that was powered by fear. Have you had any difficulties with managing your power since you played Host to it?”

Adam has to think back. “No, actually. I …”

Realization seeps into his mind. “Oh. Because Tau isn’t really meant to be used like this. But if he was, it’d be under the direction of someone like a Coordinator. So it’s supposed to feel safe, because the Concordance is in control there. Right?”

Somber nods. “I don’t know, but I would expect so. And so your doubt is a mark of your success in breaking free of their conditioning.”

Adam’s eyes narrow. “But I also doubt you too. You haven’t actually said you’re on my side, or that you’re trying to help me. You’re on your own side. And you might still be doing something I can’t support. Your solution might be a problem for a lot of people.”

Somber uncrosses their legs and stretches out. With a wave of their hand, the bubble expands in size.

“Would you like to see, Adam? What the Concordance has hidden from everyone? When you see, you will understand me.”

Five small messenger-spheres, like the one that came for Adam, materialize. “You may dispatch these to your friends, and bring them if you wish. It will not be pleasant. But learned lessons are rarely pleasant.”

Adam thinks. He’d honestly feel safer with his friends. But what new thing might Somber have planned? And would it be better or worse to invite them to see something as dark as they suggest?

He has the power to choose. And power is a curse.

He reaches for four of the orbs. Jordan need not see whatever this is. But the others? He can at least ask, and he has the power to send them back if they’re not interested.

One by one, the traveling companions appear, summoned from whatever they were doing. William Eddison, wearing sweats. Space Bug, looking suitably surprised. Jaycee and Keri, dressed casually.

Somber’s next words put Adam back on edge. “The pass-key to the Negamatrix, please.”

Adam is cautious, but curious. “Why?”

“Our destination is closely guarded. This is the only way to reach it.”

Adam presents the construct, but Somber waves it off. “I received a copy of the pass-key given to Antares Alpha-One, before it was stripped from you,” they explain. “This too was a test. Are you willing to see what I have to show you? It seems that yes, you are.”

On the one hand, they were honest. On the other… Adam is remembering all the suspicions he’s had about Somber, all along. And he’s glad his friends are here. He turns, and briefly explains what he knows, as scant as that is.

Somber explains for him, through action. They manifest their pass-key copy and connect it to the bubble. That bubble and its passengers - Adam, his friends, and Somber - slip into the Negamatrix.

Adam can feel the shifts as Somber navigates through the universe of negative emotion. He feels the bubble slip past, or through, a much larger defensive barrier.

The bubble emerges from the Negamatrix.

Around them is a truly enormous Concordance force field - shimmering, glowing, active. Beyond it is nothing at all. No stars, no galaxies, not even a night sky. It’s simply nothing. Adam looks away quickly.

“I don’t see anything. What are we here to see?” Keri asks.

Somber stretches out a finger and points.

What seemed to be more void at first becomes clearer. They are in orbit around a planet. The planet itself is wrapped in the Concordance bubble they saw. But it’s utterly dark. No lights, no reflection from oceans or lakes, no nothing.

Somber’s bubble descends from orbit. There are no clouds here, and nothing impedes its passage.

The bubble touches down at ground level. With its own faint radiance, it lets the group dimly perceive their surroundings. There are curiously shaped buildings here. There are streets, doors, signs in an unknown language, roads, vehicles - all signs of an advanced civilization.

“This is an evil place,” William mutters.

There are people, too, visible once everyone’s eyes adjust. They are humanoid, but visibly not human. Everyone is frozen - caught mid-motion in many cases. Some are still in the air, legs stretched out in the act of running. Others are on the ground, clutching their faces. Some are seemingly in the midst of violence.

More and more, the visitors can see people on the streets, or through the windows, who have been victims of violence.

“What’s going on here?” Jaycee demands. “Why are they frozen?”

Somber speaks. “The planet was removed from space-time. Time does not pass here. Courtesy of the Concordance.”

“Why would they do that?” Adam asks.

“Feel for yourself,” encourages Somber with a gesture.

Adam reaches out, and recoils in intense pain almost immediately. “There’s - there’s nothing but despair, and anger, and sorrow here,” he whispers. “So much - too much–”

Somber goes on. “A Concordance containment vessel was erected here. They filled it with the negative emotion they gathered from the universe. In time, the people who lived here came to understand what was happening to their planet. They protested. They sent emissaries to space.”

“The Coordinators of the Concordance visited the planet. In audience with the elders, they gave their high and noble reasons. Still, the people said no.”

“They sent Shards here. They hoped to seed pliable Agents among the populace. Not a one agreed to their proposal.”

“A planetary web was erected. They made it so anyone who caused harm would feel the suffering of their victims redound upon them. And thus, they argued, was the universe. That harm begat harm, and its source should be shut away.”

“The people revolted. But the Concordance could not be overcome. Most of the Agents turned to the Champions of the Night and similar groups.”

“Then - the unthinkable.”

Somber pulls the bubble skyward, into the lower atmosphere. At vast speeds, they guide it around the night-black globe. Even from the air, Adam and his friends can see the devastation.

“The containment vessel failed. The Concordance claimed there was interference. But the accumulated epochs of emotion flooded the planet. Took hold of the citizens. Every heart was filled with despair - rage - terror. Every citizen’s sanity was shattered by the tide of feelings.”

Somber gestures at the remnants of the containment system, far below them. The signs of widespread conflict around it are unmistakable.

“If this could happen here, it could happen on any planet with a Concordance waste vessel,” the alien says quietly. “Think of it. One day, a world at peace. At any moment, that world ends in madness and tragedy, through no fault of its own. All because the policy of the Concordance is to deny the dark side of emotion, as natural as it is.”

“To admit that they could doom a planet through their short-sightedness would be fatal. So they locked this planet away. Took it out of the physical universe altogether.”

Adam realizes he already knows the answer. But he can’t accept it. He has to ask. He has to know.

“How do you know all this?”

Somber turns, and their smile is sad. “This is my home world, of course. I lived here.”

1 Like

“This was my house,” Somber says.

The bubble has touched down on in front of a high cylindrical building whose design is repeated up and down the street.

Everywhere, the group has seen signs of this planet’s end. People overwhelmed by a tsunami of emotional terrors. People, driven to act out those emotions, turned on each other or on themselves.

Keri is the first to turn away from the sights. William looks, but Adam feels his shock. He’s not trying to pay attention. He’s just staring, unfocused. Jaycee steeled herself as best she could, but soon she buries her face in William’s chest, hiding from what she can no longer stand to see.

Of anyone, Space Bug seems entirely untroubled.

Adam reaches out to him, quietly. “Hey. Is this… how are you reacting to this?”

The insect-like alien turns and studies Adam carefully. “Ah. This is - familiar. My species lives. But being among them is terrifying. I am a mutant, a variant, a corruption. I speak, I use tech. They don’t understand me. And I can’t predict anything they will do any more. We are unlike each other. But they look like me, so I think - they will be like me. But they aren’t. I have been told about your ‘zombie apocalypse’ movies.”

They sweep one of several arms outward, indicating the carnage beyond the bubble. “It is like that. To be ultimately alone.”

Adam frowns. But he has no idea what to say, or how to help.

Somber seems to be catching onto the reactions of their passengers. “Permit me to show you another view. My memories,” they offer.

The scene outside the bubble changes. Adam can tell what’s been done - Somber is projecting their memories onto the inner surface of the bubble, like a three-dimensional movie. But it looks real.

Somber had been involved in Concordance business. Now, they flew low, landed on the street, and entered their home. They greeted their two spouses - on this world, reproduction and family structures involve three people, not two. They greeted their children with joy, and listened as the kids recited their daily adventures.

The planet had a thirty-eight-hour day, but the people here only slept for six or seven hours at a time. Dinner came before sunset, then first sleep. Then people woke up for night activities - family time and togetherness. Then second sleep, then morning.

Somber had finished breakfast and was enjoying their traditional drink of efjah-juice when the warning came. Their Shard notified them of failure in the containment vessel. Every Concordance Agent on the planet had plugged into the vessel, worried as they were about what was being done to their planet. But Somber was the only one left whose allegiance still lay with the Concordance.

Their affective shields were up. Instantly, they threw similar shields around their own home.

“Don’t go anywhere!” they shouted, to their spouses and to the children who were already heading out. “Don’t leave the house for any reason!”

Both spouses looked baffled, at each other and then back to Somber. But Somber had no time to explain.

The memories shift and change as they flash through space, arriving at Orion Schema.

Somber landed in the midst of other Agents, conferring about their business or moving about the station.

“Coordinators! Summon the Coordinators!”

The Coordinators of the Concordance appeared, and Somber rapidly explained. They had brought with them data from the containment vessel, and presented that.

The Coordinators disappeared, and Somber waited tensely. They wanted to flash back to their home planet, to check on what was happening, to ensure their family’s safety. But the only people who could solve the problem were here, and they were delaying, and the fear and the uncertainty rose–

Minutes had passed. Somber could only imagine what was happening, while these people deliberated. It was infuriating!

“The matter has been handled,” came the message from the Coordinators.

Somber tried flashing back to their home world. It didn’t work. They tried again. It simply didn’t work.

“Coordinators!” they called. And they were summoned into closed conference.

“The matter has been handled,” is all they would say. No question would yield any other answer.

Somber teleported to their home star. They streaked through space, outward and outward. The other planets - the twin asteroid belts with the inner radiance of their radioactive elements - the Great Father gas giant, revered by Somber’s distant ancestors as a god, with its distinctive vertical ring. But no home world.

The only witness willing to testify to its fate was gravity. The planets swung about in their old orbits. But with a whole planet gone, they were beginning a dance that would take millennia. They would find new orbits, cover the evidence in time, but not yet.

Adam struggles to find a source of hope.

“So… your family could still be alive?” he asks.

Somber answers by guiding an orb of power into the house. What it sees is shown on the bubble-vessel the group inhabits. Two spouses and five children, frozen in time.

That they are alive is little comfort when the group sees their faces. The contortions of the mouths, the shape of the eyes, the ways the fingers are spread out like talons, the clear tension of every visible muscle. Keri chokes back a cry.

“Most people on the planet are likely still alive,” Somber answers.

Adam is struggling to control his tears and his fears. But a memory shocks him into action. The circumstances that brought Earth’s containment vessel to his attention - Charlotte’s adventures with Devon Crowninshield.


“Somber, give me control of the bubble for a moment,” he says.

Somber raises a curious eyebrow. But Adam feels control shift to him.

He drives the bubble into the ground, and down, and down - no longer in the physical, but into the psychological universe of the underworld. It is a place most Concordance Agents won’t know how and where to go. But Adam is fast learning that much of the limits on his power is his belief in what’s possible.

At the spiritual center of Somber’s homeworld is a cocoon. Souls by the tens of thousands are frozen in the act of streaming toward it, enlarging it.

At the center of the cocoon is a nascent presence. It is a new god - or an old one, being overwhelmed by the influx of negative emotion. Adam can’t tell. But he can feel its defining quality from here.


The end of Somber’s homeworld is birthing a devil.

The bubble rests again in orbit around the peaceful blue-green-white of Earth.

“We should go home,” Jaycee says in a weak, queasy voice.

“Yeah.” Keri can’t muster anything any more.

The sickened human visitors teleport back, one by one, leaving Adam, Space Bug and Somber in the bubble.

The alien speaks. “On my world, our dominant ethical system doesn’t align with ‘good’ or ‘evil’ the way yours does. To us, it’s natural that someone will do what they feel compelled to do. If you are starving, you will naturally seek out food, even if you steal it from someone else. To us, ethics is about how you respond to someone else’s actions. We recognize three basic responses. You can support someone else’s action, you can oppose it, or you can attempt to transform the situation. Of course, you can do nothing, but then there’s no ethical dilemma and no need for the philosophy.”

Adam knows what he’s being invited to ask. “What are you gonna do about all this?”

Somber’s smile is artificial, broken. “I will go to war with the Concordance. I will use this negative energy - on Earth, from my world, from anywhere I can get it. I will shatter the barrier that keeps my homeworld locked away, so the universe can see what the Concordance did. I will do whatever it takes to expose them. Until they can no longer deny the truth.”

Adam takes this in. “And your invitation is for me to make one of those choices. Stop you. Join you. Or do something that invalidates your crusade. Like changing the Concordance.”

Somber nods. “I must do what I must do.”

Adam leans in, face tightened in worry. “You saw that place! You saw what’s being born down there, in the afterlife - something that’s going to emerge, and cause all kinds of new horrors! If you do this, you’re going to cause so much more harm!”

“That’s going to happen anyway,” Somber points out. “Where else is this happening in the cosmos? What other vessels must have already ruptured? Or are getting close? The Concordance will lie about those - cover them up. They must not be allowed to continue. Only the truth will achieve that.”

“There has to be another way,” insists Adam, and yet no other way comes to mind however hard he tries to think of one.

Somber’s smile becomes the slightest bit authentic. “I have lost hope of that, Adam Amari. But I could be wrong. If you find a way, do what you must.”

The smile fades, and their eyes narrow. “But if you fail, do not oppose me. Or I will see that it is your world that serves as the lesson I wish to teach.”

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The gang has been invited over to Keri’s house.

The Maldonado house isn’t as big as a mansion, but it feels like one once you get inside. From the outside, it’s a split-level with a two-car garage. Inside, every room has something going on, and there’s frequently little more than a narrow path that’s kept clear. But it’s not clutter. There’s setups for sewing, video games, and other hobbies. There’s a whole library in one room, with a rotating table at the center of four chairs. You can put books onto the table and spin it around, letting anyone sitting down have a crack at reading. There’s a home altar set up, with pictures of the saints and black and white photos of holy men surrounded by children. There’s a dressing room, with Keri’s ideas for costumes pinned to every wall. Even the garage is in use - cars are parked in the driveway.

Of course, there’s a kitchen. It is probably the most completely equipped kitchen the visitors has ever seen.

Keri is in the middle of preparing habichuelas guisadas. It’s a spicy bean almost-stew, served on white rice. It’s usually a side dish, but enough of it will fill you up anyway. You can make it in half an hour, a third of which actually involves preparation. Right now, she’s quartering a red onion. She has politely refused any offers of help. Despite Mom offering to cook - or more likely scrutinize how her child prepares a cherished dish for these weird visitors - Keri has promised she’s got it under control, and shooed family out.

Jaycee and William are watching with interest, as rice and beans are part of William’s regular diet. Adam is more curious about how Keri operates. Jordan is at home, but Adam has asked about take-home and Keri has promised enough for the Amari family. Space Bug was let in after a thorough examination and vetting from a critical mother.

Adam, Jaycee, and William are talking quietly amongst themselves and enjoying the smell of the kitchen when Keri abruptly slams down the knife on the countertop and lets out a noise that mixes frustration and terror.

Adam is out of his chair and at her side before he realizes it. “What happened?” he asks.

Behind him, William and Jaycee are up too, but waiting to see if they’re needed. It would be bad to crowd in right now. Space Bug is blinking curiously, but not moving an antenna.

Keri’s mother, however, rushes in shrieking. “Mi dulce niña! ¿Estás herido?”

Keri and her mother trade rapid-fire conversation, mixing English and Spanish. “You hurt yourself!” “I didn’t hurt myself, mama, I’m invulnerable.” “Well my heart is not invulnerable and I worry about my darling!” “Mama I have friends here, they will take care of me, I promise.” “When you went to space before, you were so worried!” “Mama, I’m fine.” “And what are you doing with the beans? Carisa, ay, you should not be soaking them so much!” “Mama, I like it better this way.” “But it’s not traditional! And look, you’ve broken the cutting board.” “Give it to mano, he loves gluing things together.”

With effort, Keri shoos her mother out of the room, and turns to see her friends looking at her with concern.

Words don’t come for a moment, but the others are patient. Finally she gains the nerve and words to speak her feelings. “That… that person… Somber… their home… when we were looking inside, and we saw the family, I… I saw the kitchen area. Or what I guess was it. And in their memories, when they came home, and were eating, I… they…”

She stares at her hands, at the knife, at the cutting board she unthinkingly shattered.

“They were just regular people, weren’t they. They probably had restaurants. They made food at home. Now I wanna know their recipes. I wanna know what they cooked with. Just, just idle curiosity, you know? Just, dame data, what do you like making? And I can’t. Because they’re… because…”

She finds her way to the table and collapses into a chair, covering her face with her hands.

Adam and the others glance at each other, uncertain at first. Adam and Jaycee get up at the same time, each putting a hand on Keri’s shoulders. Only afterward do they see her mother watching apprehensively from the hallway. Adam can feel something other than sympathy for her child in the mother’s heart. He can feel her gratitude that her daughter has such friends.

Mama will be finishing the habichuelas guisadas. Keri takes the others to the garage.

One wall is covered in newspaper clippings from the Dominican Republic, more recently joined by printouts of news on the web. Listin Diario. Dominican Today. Diario Libre. El Nacional. All of them talk about the exploits of a certain Super-chica - recently renamed la Cordera. What she says about current events. What she’s been doing. Photos of her boarding the Sunjumper with members of the HHL, to go after the Blot in space. “El héroe vuela - Venganza por la invasión,” reads a headline. “The hero flies - revenge for the invasion”.

It’s clear that she’s as big to the island nation as the Gales are to Halcyon. Adam sort of knew this, but seeing it writ large on the wall is another thing entirely.

Keri throws her hands up in a gesture at the wall, then lets them slump at her side. “This is what they think I am,” she says softly. “I’m not any of these things. I’m not this great hero they want me to be, just because my family’s from there. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. And I’m too angry to think clearly the other half. I want things to be nice and clear. Here’s the heroes, here’s the villains, let me punch them, and we go home. But everything’s just so complicated.”

She turns, tearfully, and looks at Adam. “I know it’s like this for you too. I can see it. I see it when I look at you. You try so hard, you’re doing your best, you’re trying to shoulder all this weight, make everyone happy, make it all make sense, save the world. You can’t do it alone and you shouldn’t try. I wish to God I could take some of this off your shoulders. Like I wish someone could for me.”

Adam finds himself lost for words, but what he’s feeling must be coming through. Keri’s eyes light up in a sort of gratitude. She can see her feelings are reaching him, and really, that seemingly small thing is what she need most now.

Adam takes a breath, and tries to find a way through the maze of his own conflicted emotions and turbulent thoughts.

“I think… Somber’s not gonna make a move until I give them an answer to their question. Am I with them, or against them, or can I do something to change the circumstances? So I think we have a little time to think about this.”

He looks around. “I know one thing. I don’t think the Concordance is gonna listen to me right now. But there’s one way I can get their attention. Two Shards were sent to Earth. The one before Sol, and the one right after. They never made it - never found Hosts. They just went missing. I think if I can figure that out–”

“If we can figure that out,” says Jaycee gently, nodding in Keri’s direction.

Adam swallows a lump in his throat, and smiles in hope that his gratitude will sufficiently shine through. “Okay. If we can figure it out. I figure they’ll have to listen. Maybe there’s something we can do then. So I’m thinking… we have the Blockhead ship. That’s somehow connected to the disappearances. We have access to the Negamatrix now. There should be some kinda path there, to other ships, maybe to the Shards, something. If necessary, we pick a fight with some Blockheads to see what they know.”

He looks around at his fellows and friends, seeing eagerness on their faces for a simple solution, even - or especially - if it’s violent.

“Carisa!” mama calls from upstairs. “Friends! Come eat!”

The cosmic cold case will have to wait a little longer. Rice and beans are ready.

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Jordan hops and skips into Adam’s room. “I did a drawing!” she announces.

Adam pauses his work and takes a look. She certainly did a drawing. It’s mostly stick figures and a really zealous use of crayon, but he gets the general idea.

“It’s me as Princess Peri,” Jordan explains carefully, pointing a finger to each figure in turn. “Here’s Milembe an’ Harper from my class.”

“I gave ‘em princess glow-ups too. An’ here’s you, an’ Space Bug. We’re gonna go to space an’ do space princess stuff in this one. I did another drawing with Keri an’ me an’ she’s havin’ me try on diff’rent outfits. An’ I wanna do one with Jaycee as a princess ‘cos I think she’d be good at it, an’ William as a knight, but that’s boring ‘cos he is one, right? Maybe I could make him a prince an’ Jaycee a knight. Whatcha think? Oh, an’ I’m gonna have ‘em ridin’ dinosaurs, 'cos horses are boring. Ya can’t ride a steggysaurus though, 'cos they got spines. I think a try-Sara-top should be good.”

She peers at Adam. “Whatcha doin’?”

Adam has his own paper and pencil sketches. He’s diagramming out affective machinery - Concordance gadgets. And he explains, because it’s helpful to clear his own thinking, and because maybe he can put it in a way that will entertain his little sister.

“We got a ‘passkey’ to a place called the Negamatrix. It’s a bad place, but it lets us go different places and get around some kinds of barriers.”

Jordan oohs. “So you are gonna sneak into a place. But you’re a good guy so it’s gotta be a bad place. I get it. I get it.” This to her is indeed exciting.

Adam smiles. “Well, I can navigate it, because I have a Shard. But others don’t. So here’s a gadget I built awhile back. It sort of filters through feelings around you. You feel something intensely, and it’ll kind of capture it and store it, like a camera but for emotions. Then I have a thing here that latches onto um, astral cords or threads of emotion. Like a fishing line or a grappling hook. Right?”

Jordan bobs her head enthusiastically. She understands these things too. Adam, reassured, resumes.

“So you feel something… and then this part here latches onto threads of connection, and drags you through the Negamatrix to wherever your thing is strongest…”

He shows her the picture he drew of the final product. “I call it a Void Key. It’s gonna help people teleport to places they need to be, even if they aren’t an Agent.”

“Do I get one?” Jordan asks excitedly.

Adam smiles gently. “Probably not.”

As Jordan winds up to fire a pouty face at him, he quickly cuts her off. “The Negamatrix is a bad place, Jordan. I need you to do princess stuff closer to home. With the rest of us away so much, the city needs you. Okay?”

“I think you’re tryna’ take advantage of my good an’ generous nature.” Jordan does indeed pout at him, but she doesn’t complain any more.

Keri and Jaycee are hanging out again. This time, it’s Jaycee who’s doing food prep. Keri is obsessively doodling in a notebook. She’s working on something she hasn’t had a chance to do in awhile, namely superhero costumes.

Jaycee isn’t making anything elaborate, but she’s making plenty. Inguday tibs - Ethiopian sauteed mushrooms, atakilt wat - a spicy mixture of potatoes, carrots, and cabbage, and a smoothie made with mango, papaya and lime juice called a spris.

Jaycee knows for a fact William isn’t around. In fact, she sent him out on errands that sounded very important, but are mostly to keep him from coming back any time soon.

With things simmering and blending and generally in a good state, she finally turns and looks at Keri. “Hey. Uh. I wanted to talk to you about… about what you’re going through.”

Keri looks up from her notebook with a stony expression. Vulnerability doesn’t come easy to her even under normal circumstances. After her breakdown at the house, her guard is up. Jaycee knows she’s going to have to be delicate. She starts with praise.

“I didn’t really process how much the Dominican Republic idolizes you. It’s gotta be a heavy weight. But hey, two things about that. First. I saw you out there in space, and whether you measure up to those people, I dunno - maybe nobody can - but listen. You were a hero to the people we saved. You took care of things.”

She sees Keri’s face soften in appreciation, and decides she’s got her opening.

“Second, you’re doing something I ran away from. I don’t mean that I’m a hero. But…”

She checks in on her food prep as she speaks, not sure how to look at Keri as she says what she says. “My mother’s name is Ife. My father, Lucius, met her on an archaeological dig in Ethiopia. One thing led to another and here I am, ha ha. Turns out, when ma isn’t digging up relics, she’s a uh…”

Jaycee takes the blender off the base and pours out some of the smoothie to buy herself time. “She’s a member of the royal family.”

She turns and smiles anxiously at Keri. “Making me, I guess, a princess.”

This connection was revealed by Lucius in “31.3 - The Sword in the Scone” – Ed.

Keri sits up and blinks in shocked surprise. “No shit?”

Jaycee’s smile is weak. “No shit. And you know what I did about it?”


Jaycee hangs her head. “Nothing. Nothing at all. Just like I always do.”

She plates some food, carries it expertly to the table where Keri’s waiting, and sets it down. “William. You know, he asked me out once. He’d saved my life - that’s how he became a Grail Knight to begin with. We got to talking. He took his shot. He was so graceless about it, though. Or so I thought at the time. No sense of romance to it, just, y’know, hey, let’s start dating. I forget exactly what he said, now.”

She lets out a half-hearted chuckle. “I blew him off. Harder than I meant to. And then I learned that my father was a Grail Knight too. Suddenly William was coming round more to see my dad. I felt - something. I became his personal trainer. I thought, I suppose, I could teach him some manners if he was already listening to me.”

Keri’s eyes light up. “I see it now. You have a crush on him, but you turned him down.”

Jaycee slaps the table with both palms. “Yes! And it hasn’t been easy. He’s yoked - my God. Just looking at that man gets me - well, anyway. But, what I thought was tactless and graceless and all that? He’s just so earnest. He’s like a big, beautiful, muscular puppy. And I messed it all up for myself. No - no, that’s not true. I told him at the time that I wasn’t interested. And that wasn’t really true, even then. The truth was… I wanted him to ask, but not like he did. I wanted him to do it properly. I still do. And he can’t read my mind, and it’s wrong of me to wait for him to do that. I should just tell him.”

She looks intently at Keri. “So you see, I admire you, because even when you labor under the weight of peoples’ expectations for you, you’ve still stepped up. You’re doing it. I can’t make my family proud. Can’t live up to my heritage. Can’t even tell a young man about my feelings. I saw those things as burdens, but they could have also been opportunities. I was so intent on getting to be myself that I missed the chance to be more.”

Keri takes a long breath, and smiles in deep sympathy. “Good news, hon. It’s not too late for some of those opportunities. I’ll help you out if you want. And you are so good at supporting me, and William. I don’t think either of us would have made it without who you’ve decided to be. If we’re not supporting you when you’re ready to grow, then you need to call us out. Okay? Whatever you need, you ask, okay?”

Jaycee sighs in relief, and looks down with a sudden grin at the food. “First thing I need is a verdict. Eat up, let me know what you think.”

Keri reaches eagerly for a spoon.

William is practicing his swordsmanship on the top of the Love Bug. Space Bug is watching with bemusement.

Finally the bug calmly draws a blaster, points, and fires. William, tuned up by his constant training, doesn’t even need to think to block the energy beam with Excalibur. He pivots on the ball of one foot and in a swift motion slices through the blaster in the bug’s hands. The entire action takes about a second.

Two halves of sparking high-tech weaponry fall apart, and William points the tip of the blade at Space Bug. “Want to explain what that was for?” he asks calmly.

“Was curious why you use a sword when we have blasters,” the bug explains calmly. “You’ve answered, demonstrated, clarified.”

William ahhs. “Well. This isn’t just a sword. If it was just regular metal, maybe a blaster would be better. Now the question is, what are you going to use when you don’t have a blaster any more?”

In answer, Space Bug draws a second, smaller blaster.

William briefly considers bisecting that one as well, but that would be rude. He settles for smiling, and returning to his practice.

Space Bug pockets the blaster again, but continues watching.

William finally speaks up between swings and thrusts. “I think I finally get you.”

Grunts and the heavy breathing of exertion break up his words. “You’re alone. You act out. You don’t know - know any better. You’re not bad. You just - need to survive. We confuse you. But you’re curious.”

He lowers the sword, gulps down some air, and finally exhales to steady his heart rate. “In the past, people like me - the Grail Knights, people who bear this sword - we’d hunt monsters. Monsters are creatures that act on instinct and need. If you’re hungry, you eat. If you’re sleepy, you find a safe place to rest. But monsters would eat people, or destroy their homes.”

Space Bug nods in quiet approval. This is indeed how the world is supposed to work, it looks like.

William leans on the blade and takes in more air, then mops his brow with a hand towel. “I think you don’t know any better, but you know you don’t know. You don’t do bad stuff because you enjoy being bad. It’s just what you know. But you watch us, and learn other ways to be.”

“You want me to wield a sword like you?” Space Bug asks at last, tilting their head.

William laughs and laughs, and dries his face with the towel. “I don’t… think that’s going to happen, sorry. Not really what I meant either. Maybe I’m wrong about you. But you’re interesting to learn about too. I guess I thought you might be like me.”

Space Bug examines their limbs briefly, then stares at William. “Like you? Is there resemblance, similarity, concurrence?”

“When I was younger, my parents moved to Halcyon from Sheffield. It’s a city, across the ocean east of here.” William points. “Everything here was new and different. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Who I should hang out with. I acted out. Got into trouble. Messed around with some bad people. And I paid for that mistake, and I learned to do better. Made friends. Made something of myself.”

He holds up Excalibur, turning it about in his hands and staring at it. “And then… the sword chose me. Someone like me.”

Space Bug thinks about this, and thinks, and thinks. Finally it speaks.

“I think I have also moved from Sheffield.”

Adam puts out the call. One by one, his friends answer.

Keri has tweaked her costume. Jaycee has packed a rugged rucksack full of supplies, now that she knows the sorts of things in store for her. William still travels light, but he’s got a couple of tools in his pocket. Space Bug has replaced their broken blaster with a stronger, meaner-looking one.

Outside the Love Bug, Adam hands out Void Keys - now contained in physical shells, looking like brass skeleton keys - and explains the idea behind them.

“Right now these are all connected to my master key,” he explains. “When I travel, you’ll all come with me. Once I know it works, I’ll unlink them, so each of us can travel independently.”

Keri accepts her Key. “Where are we going?”

Adam gestures at the Blockhead ship. “We aren’t traveling on the ship. We don’t have to any longer. But we’re going to follow the emotional associations it has. We’re going to find the Blockheads that stole the missing Shards from Earth. We’ve got two threads to follow. My feelings about their attack on me, and the physical ship here. What do we think? It could mean walking right into a fight.”

William clenches a fist and grins. “Ready for anything.”

Jaycee nods in agreement.

Space Bug gives four thumbs up.

Adam raises his Void Key, and the others raise theirs in answer. In a flash, five keys activate, and five people vanish into darkness.

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Time has come to the time-locked prison. The newborn devil reaches for it, slow as glaciers moving. The corruption touches the edges of the Negamatrix, at the point the visitors entered. It begins to seep outward, like water. Gradual. Harmless. Inexorable.

The five travelers emerge aboard a familiar looking starship. It’s not the Love Bug, but it’s definitely a Blockhead ship. In fact, Adam recognizes the vibe immediately. It’s the ship, the one that came for him when Sol Gamma-2 first joined with him.

There’s two problems. First, it’s fully crewed by the alien Blockheads. Second, the ship is in the middle of a pitched space battle with an unknown enemy fleet.

Adam has only seen the Blockheads once before. He isn’t even sure what they call themselves. He knows the aliens are basically energy beings, with that energy confined into polyhedral shapes like squares and triangles. Those containers are then mounted on or attached to robotic bodies. Some of them are humanoid. Some are built more like spiders, or centipedes, or tanks. Some are very weird indeed. Their ranks and functions are distinguishable if you know what to look for on their robot bodies, but Adam also knows the real sign of importance is the shape of their “heads”.

Kirk, one of the Rainbow Warriors, dubbed these aliens the “Blockheads” in “Every Star a Battlefield”. The Love Bug is also the ship the Rainbow Warriors fought when it came for their Shard(s). – Ed.

Those members of the crew who aren’t busy at their controls turn toward the travelers. “Dull surprise” is all you might get out of their body language, but Adam can read more. Surprise, fear, anger, confusion, and other emotions radiate from the crew.

“Destroy the intruders!” roars one of the Blockhead commanders.

William Eddison is first to pick up on the situation. Excalibur flashes into existence, just as the Blockheads draw their blasters and start beaming. He leaps forward, catching beams on the blade, and charges into melee with the nearest of the aliens.

Adam is next, having had some inkling of what the Blockheads were like. His shields snap on and catch the beams before they strike the more vulnerable members of the party. “Don’t destroy too much!” he shouts. “This is the ship that took me. We need it intact!”

That may be easier said than done. The ship is suddenly rocked by an incoming attack from the space battle.

Jaycee yelps out an impulsive, reckless idea. “Piracy! Take over the ship and fly it outta here.”

The shared vibe is immediate. Everyone’s on board with this idea.

Keri launches herself out of the bubble. Punch after incredible punch lands on the Blockhead’s robot bodies. Although the artificial bodies are made of super-powerful technology, Keri is a conduit for cosmic forces and she can knock a hole in them with a single hit. Their blaster fire makes her cry out in pain when it hits, but it doesn’t slow her down much.

Space Bug also rushes out of the bubble, their own blasters at the ready. They tumble under the legs of the big blocky crew members, firing blaster shots up and about as they scurry toward the bridge.

Adam is torn between escorting Jaycee to the bridge behind Space Bug - he’s confident she can help take over the ship’s controls, given the amount of time she spent watching and learning from Space Bug - and staying behind to shield Keri from more attacks.

Keri, perhaps sensing his hesitation, calls over one shoulder. “Got these guys. Get going.”

William Eddison is swinging his own sword about with startling speed, blocking beams and severing artificial legs or arms as he does. When he needs to go defensive, he sidesteps or flips over an attack with an agility and confidence born of constant training. “We’ll cover you!” he calls out.

Much as Adam hates to admit it, it would be handy to have Peri here.

They arrive at the bridge as a trio. Adam gasps when he recognizes the ship’s commander–

“Cracklesnap!” he shouts.

The Blockhead’s robot body is taller and more imposing than those around him. He turns at the voice. Although his “head” is merely a pyramidal shape, Adam can feel the equivalent of a raised eyebrow from his emotional radiation.

“The host of that errant Concordance Shard that escaped us. Yes. I remember you.”

Adam points. “I grew up, and I’ve learned a lot. This time the fight’s gonna go a little differently for you.”

Cracklesnap’s smug boast may not be as clear to his friends as it is to Adam, but to him it comes through loud and clear. “I too have improved since that time.”

He gestures, and two of the aides flanking him transform unexpectedly. Their heads flatten out and flow into distinct shapes. They attach themselves to Cracklesnap’s two robotic hands, and lines of energy reach up along the arms.

Adam can tell immediately what has happened. The Blockhead leader is now equipped with two energy axes, but they are steered and operated by two independent minds. Space Bug and Jaycee can’t hope to battle this thing on an equal footing - and they’ll be too busy trying to take control of the ship. This battle will be three on one.

Adam knows his blasts worked before. Perhaps they’ve done something new? It can’t hurt to find out.

He unleashes an energy beam at Cracklesnap, who doesn’t even try to dodge. The blast strikes an invisible shield around the Blockhead, and Adam can see and feel the energy dissipated. No - not just dissipated. Absorbed into the robotic systems.

While Adam is caught in the moment by surprise, Cracklesnap brings one of the axes down in a vicious blow. Adam raises his shield at the last moment. To his continued surprise, the axe-head bites into the shield, and starts siphoning power away from it. Lines of energy trail up the mechanical arms like rivulets of white glowing blood being drawn out by a hungry vampire.

Adam snaps off his shield in shock, and the axe pulls back. The glowing bits on Cracklesnap’s body shine with renewed intensity.

“Our Shard collection apparatus,” Cracklesnap explains. “We have improved it. Generalized it. Equipped every ship in the fleet with it. Even our bodies are proof against your weapon.”

Adam spares a glance at Space Bug and Jaycee. Cracklesnap catches the look, intuits the importance of Adam’s friends, and suddenly aims an axe-head at where they stand at a console.

“Look out!” Adam calls in urgent warning.

Jaycee and Space Bug dive left and right as a blast emanates from the axe-head, and reduces the console to smoking ash.

Space Bug returns fire with their improved blaster, but Cracklesnap catches the blast on one of the powered-up axe heads. It ricochets away, striking the ceiling of the bridge and leaving little more than a scorch mark.

So much for that.

More axe-swings are incoming. Adam can’t shield himself, but he can fly. He takes off from the deck, darting about like Peter Pan as Captain Cracklesnap tries to dice him up.

“We go elsewhere!” Space Bug calls to Jaycee. “Follow, accompany, escort.”

The two leave the bridge rapidly. Cracklesnap aims an energy blast after them. Adam, hoping his shields will still work against something like this, throws one up in the path of the beam. Sure enough - the shield handles it just fine. His friends dart down a side junction, leaving Adam alone with the Blockhead leader.

He reviews his options quickly, desperately. Space Bug’s blaster didn’t work. Jaycee carries a couple as well, probably in her backpack at the moment. There’s no point in asking for a spare blaster.

He could call in Keri and William. But they’re busy fighting off the entire rest of the crew - and it’s not going well from the sound and feel of it. He chances a glance down the corridor, and sees damaged Blockhead crew re-equipping their robot bodies with spare parts, then getting back into the fight.

Besides, if what Cracklesnap said was true - and it felt True - Adam can’t take effectively take their place.

To get the answers he needs, he might need both Cracklesnap and the ship. Damn.

Enora Dralis and the Champions of Night took back the Continuum Sword he’d obtained. It wasn’t his, sure, but it was nice to have.

He needs a weapon - some kind of weapon - any kind of weapon - fast.

Space Bug and Jaycee run and jump and dodge. Most of the Blockheads are distracted by the heavy hitters on the team - William and Keri - but a few notice the pair, and come after them.

Jaycee tosses her rucksack in front of her. As they run, she reaches into it and grabs, purely by feel and memory, the two weapons she packed away. She dives into a roll, firing the weapons from upside down back along the corridor at the approaching aliens.

She’s not a talented shot, and she doesn’t expect to hit anything, but she hopes to slow them down. Sure enough, they slow down, but only until they realize the weapon isn’t doing significant damage to their armored bodies.

Her face screws into a look of fear, disgust, and regret as the Blockheads pound down the corridor at her. And then–

A blast from behind her, more powerful by far than her own, has pierced through one of the beings’ metal chests, leaving a smoking hole. Jaycee can look through the gap and see the other Blockhead hesitating. She looks back.

Space Bug is standing tall. They hold their new blaster in two hands, and use the other two to hold onto a cable that snakes out of the handle of the weapon. The cable connects to some kind of plugin on the ship itself - a power connector, Jaycee guesses.

In the time the Blockhead has taken to make a decision whether to attack or retreat, Space Bug blows a hole in its chest too.

Jaycee turns quickly. “We gotta get back and help Adam with that thing.”

“Cannot,” Space Bug explains regretfully. “Engineering outlets not available on bridge. Also, the blaster will fire maybe ten more times before exploding, detonating, igniting.”

The cable is already sparking slightly. Space Bug must have rigged this up somehow, Jaycee thinks. It’s not supposed to work this way.

“Alright. Well what do we do now?” she asks.

“You hold weapon. Fire at all uncooperative intruders,” the Bug explains. “I will patch override. We will steal command codes from bridge to this engineering console.”

“You’ve done this before?” Jaycee asks in surprise.

The bug is already halfway into the guts of the engineering section. They answer without looking away from the work. “Not even once. That is why I am so eager to begin. I am very curious whether we will die or not.”

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Keri and William aren’t having fun.

Although they can destroy the Blockheads’ robotic bodies, those bodies are getting steadily replaced by some kind of automatic system aboard the ship. The heads are the really important things, but neither hero is quite ready to simply start murdering members of the crew here.

They have to guard two corridors. Down one of those, Jaycee and Space Bug are trying to take over the ship. Down the other, Adam is confronting the person they’re here to question. They’re limited in where they can go.

They’ve started a new tactic. Keri will tank shots for William, and William will attack the repair mechanisms as they emerge - robot limbs designed to grab damaged Blockhead parts, robot conveyors that emerge from the walls with replacement parts.

William can hear Keri’s pain as she gets shot, over and over. He doesn’t like it. It bothers him that someone is getting hurt, it bothers him that it’s on his behalf, and it mostly bothers him that he doesn’t have a better plan here. If he went full defense, he might be able to avoid getting shot on his own, but where would that leave things?

Keri isn’t passively being struck by any means. She’s punching back, throwing robots into other robots, and fighting hard. She will tear a Blockhead’s arm off, then use it as a club or a shield. Her fury and frustration are rising, and to her that is the worst part of the battle.

“Switch,” she hears William say.

“I got this,” she says through gritted teeth.

“I know you do. Switch anyway.”

Somehow the concession makes it okay. He can tell she’s suffering. This isn’t pity. It’s comradeship.

William goes full defense. He surrounds himself and Keri with a ring of duplicated swords. She, in turn, takes on the Blockheads that charge through the opening he left. Smashing fists, shin kicks, and other expressions of violence let her take out her frustrations.

They’ve done as much as they could with the self-repair systems around them. They can’t leave this spot without endangering Jaycee, Space Bug, and Adam. This is their stand. Either the team wins through, or they get too tired to continue. The Void Keys might let them leave - but this might be the last chance they have to get what they need from this ship and its commander. The fate of a planet lies on Adam’s ability to convince the Concordance, and he can’t do it without whatever is here.

Without its pilots to control it, the Blockhead ship is adrift in space. Random attacks from the unknown enemy space fleet rock the ship with increasing frequency.

Jaycee has had to fire the powered-up blaster four more times at incoming enemies. Two of those actually sneaked outside the ship, came around through an airlock, and attacked them from behind. The weapon is growing hot in her hands, and she’s forced to set it down, just in reach, or be burned.

Outside the viewports, the space battle rages. Blockhead ships are engaging the unknown enemy. Fiery explosions blossom in space as ships are overwhelmed. Beams flash between vessels, as hunters and prey engage in their chase. To Jaycee, it looks chaotic - vessels everywhere, not in any kind of formation, just doing whatever they can.

Space Bug is still tinkering. Finally the little alien yelps.

“Command codes transferred successfully, yes. Shields are weakening. Other ships are messaging us - are we hurt, wounded, disabled? Propulsion is online. Ah, bad news.”

They turn to look at Jaycee. “Other ship thinks we are injured because we are no longer fighting back with the rest of the fleet. Yes? They put tractor beam on us. They will tow us. We cannot escape.”

Jaycee recoils. This is not good news. “Well… tell them we’re okay,” she urges, gesturing frantically at the engineering console.

“Ah. I know many lies but not how to lie to Blockheads,” Space Bug explains apologetically. “I do not know authorization, protocol, command.”

Jaycee glances back at the rigged-up blaster, at the power cable connecting it to the engineering console.

“I have an idea,” she tells Space Bug.

Adam is running out of options.

Cracklesnap, perhaps sensing this, taunts him. “Your friends will weaken. You will flounder. Then I shall take your Shard.”

“What are you doing with those stolen Shards?” he asks, as he darts about the bridge of the ship.

He can’t read Cracklesnap’s intentions - or rather, there’s three different minds to read, each one enacting its own strategy but also coordinating with the others. The chief Blockhead’s weapons are literally powered-up forms of two of his subordinates, and they have their own ideas how to fight. He’s had to settle for dodging out of the way of blasts, or evading a swung axe-head, knowing it could further drain his reserves of energy.

“You will find out - when yours is in my hands,” the alien gloats.

He’s tried breaking off bits of the ship and throwing those, but it’s wasteful and useless. The Blockhead leader can effortlessly cut through the chunks of hull. Adam can’t tear the ship up too badly without risking damage to the systems he needs intact.

He thought perhaps he could “reverse the polarity”, try using his frustration and anger as an alternative power source like he’s done before. He remembered almost too late that Quinnar Gentry and his Dark Drifters had lost Shards to the Blockheads too. Their collection apparatus must be equally capable against “positive” and “negative” emotions.

These people represent a real threat to the Concordance. What would that mean?

Adam has been to the Pleiades. He has seen the Blot, the Dark Drifters, the Champions of Night, and other lawless parts of the galaxy. Some of those places were welcoming if dangerous, some were outright hostile.

Most of all, he has seen the Planet of Dread, Somber’s homeworld. War would only push the Concordance toward their worst impulses. They would become a religion, extolling the infallible goodness of their view of the Virtues. They would bring the weak to heel, and sacrifice those under their aegis in the conflicts that would erupt across space.

He’s frustrated. And he’s angry.

He can’t do anything to this guy, it feels like.

I don’t want to be the one to carry this burden, but I have to anyway.

All his life, that’s how it was. His dad the cop, putting his life on the line for the city. His mother the pharmacist, training for a decade to be shouted at by unhappy customers whose lives and health she was sworn to safeguard. Nana, his mother’s mother, whose disapproval of Adam began with his forced empowerment. Himself, the responsible older brother to Jordan.

There’s a crack in his emotional armor. It started before he met Somber, but the alien’s influence has definitely accelerated its spread.

Why does it have to be me?

What if giving into that doubt is the right move?

What if the weapon he needs isn’t wielded by him?

A part of him hates this plan. But no part of him can come up with a better one.

Jaycee fires off a precious shot from the overloaded blaster and takes down another Blockhead.

“You overload the engines,” she explains.

Space Bug looks dubious. “Then we certainly die.”

“Well… you don’t actually let them overload,” she snaps. Why doesn’t this creature understand what she’s getting at? They’re running out of time. “Look - the ship that tractored us - they’re pulling us in–”

She gestures out through the viewport, where the other Blockhead craft is indeed bringing the ship alongside.

“If we’re at risk of blowing up - if they think we are - they don’t want to be caught up in it. They let us go. Which we want. Right?”

Space Bug blinks. Then comprehension dawns. “Ah! An engineering lie! Yes. I can tell that lie.”

The bug starts working immediately, then glances back. “Only problem, may not be able to stop the overload part. Then we blow up for real. Good news, that will be very convincing. But I will try, yes.”

Keri let a couple Blockheads through to Jaycee and Space Bug. She managed to hit one from behind. Jaycee had to take out the other one. She’s already feeling the sting of that.

William is grunting as the blasts are hitting his barrier of swords. She looks back in surprise. “You feel that?”

The young knight nods.

“How? Why?”

“The land and the king… are one,” William manages, grinning through gritted teeth.

The guilt fills her. “Hey. We can switch back.”

It’s then that she hears Adam’s voice. “Keri - I need you - bridge - please.”

She looks up, frightened of the call, and sees William smiling her way. “The word king… comes from kin. Family. We’re all family… I got this. Go.”

He’s still swinging that heavy sword, still taking out Blockheads left and right. He’s sweaty, and breathing heavily. He’s wearing out.

She doesn’t feel what Jaycee feels about William Eddison. But suddenly, she gets why Jaycee would. This is what she’s aspiring to be. This is what she wants to grow into.

She suddenly doesn’t want to leave. Guilt and envy struggle to make her stay.

But Adam needs her. If she’s to be who she wants to be, she has to protect Adam.

She flies toward the bridge, dodging some beams, ignoring the ones that strike her.

She finds Adam there, trapped by Cracklesnap in one corner of the bridge. The Blockhead commander has deployed some kind of force barrier, and she can see it sapping Adam’s power.

Without hesitating, Keri lays a hand on Cracklesnap’s shoulder and bodily pulls him back.

Now free, Adam flies up and away. “He can absorb my power,” he explains. “Keri. I’m sorry. But I can’t do this. I need you now.”

She feels emotion welling up in her chest, threatening to overwhelm her. All her worries about not being good enough - all her fears about being pushy, about being angry - all her confusion–

She’s free.

“I’m here. It’s okay now,” she tells him softly.

Anger comes back to her. It’s not the frustrated, directionless rage of her Superchica days. It’s something else.

This was the guy that hurt Adam the first time. This was the guy that messed with Sol Gamma-2.

She is going to put a stop to this being’s plans, and the love of a big sister for her kid brother has transformed into righteous wrath.

Adam flies backwards, to where William stands guard.

He can immediately see the exhaustion on the warrior’s face, as Keri did.

He tries a few blasts against the Blockheads that attack him. Sure enough, they’re absorbed immediately. But he can throw up a barrier against their blasts.

The attacking Blockheads’ energy blasts are repelled by the bubble, at first. But sure enough, those in the lead deploy energy probes from their limbs, and methodically start draining the bubble.

There’s one other way he can help. In the time it takes for them to attack his bubble, Adam launches forward, grabbing William’s attention with his presence.

“We can fuse,” he offers. “I can’t wield Excalibur. But if you still can, if I stay in the back, I can be your energy.”

Can it be done? He’s still not sure about the rules of the sword. But William nods, once, quickly. He looks tired enough to try anything.

Adam leads the fusion, but withdraws from any kind of control the moment it initiates. William must lead here.

The Starry Knight manifests once again. And Excalibur shines brightly in its hands. Adam can’t fight the battle against the Blockheads. But he can share the suffering of his teammates in their battle, and if that makes it even a bit easier for them to endure, it’s worth it.

The Blockhead is far less expressive to Keri’s more human perceptions.

“Who are you, child,” it asks in a cold monotone.

“Keri Maldonado, aka Superchica, aka la Cordera,” she says. “The Lamb. Adam Amari is under my protection.”

“Your protection will not suffice to shield him from my–” begins Cracklesnap.

Keri is uninterested in villain monologues. She has announced herself. This goon didn’t give up. So she launches herself forward, fist out. The air in the bridge shifts ever so slightly, as she vastly boosts her density, creating a localized gravitational influence.

The impact doesn’t - quite - go through Cracklesnap’s torso. But a solid plug of machinery and circuitry falls out, marked by a shower of sparks. He’s protected by an energy barrier made of stolen emotional energy. That’s probably all that saved him.

“I don’t know how much of you Adam needs intact,” Keri murmurs ominously.

The twin axes come down. Keri’s hands reach up, grabbing the forearms and squeezing. Metal squeals and shrieks as the force of her grip deforms the robotic limbs.

Cracklesnap’s subordinates aren’t fighting a Concordance foe now. It’s time for them to try new tactics. They reconfigure themselves into big glowing balls of force, like oversized boxing gloves made of light and covered in nasty spikes. The force field intensifies, and Keri must release her grip. As she does, the spiked balls close together, trying to smash her between them.

She strengthens herself, and chances catching them in her own hands. The pain is extraordinary, and yet against her fury it doesn’t matter.

She sees parts of the walls and ceiling unfold, sees robotic waldoes extend. They’re holding body parts - Blockhead parts. Cracklesnap wants to repair himself, while he holds her at bay.

Well fuck that.

She pulls hard on the glowing mace-heads, pulls with all her might, and kicks hard at the Blockhead’s torso at the same time. The arms come off at the shoulders, leaving the alien commander to stumble backward.

While the auto-repair systems are prepping a new pair of arms, Cracklesnap’s subordinates are reconfiguring. They still have powerful force barriers. Keri can’t handle both of them right now - but she can handle one at a time. As the Blockhead’s core reconfigures itself in her hands, she flies toward the thickest part of the bridge’s walls and rams the core at full force through it. The core embeds itself there, and she can see it shifting and changing as it struggles to disentangle itself.

The other core flies backward, just in time to unite with Cracklesnap’s fresh new arms, attached to a fresh new torso. It transfigures itself into a long spear of glowing light, with a wickedly barbed head.

The anger is still with her, like a dance partner. It pulls her into a graceful leap forward. It guides her as she intensifies her powers, drawing strength out of the conduit she has been transformed into. It keeps her balanced as she dodges the first thrust of the spear, then ducks under a hook thrown by the Blockhead’s unoccupied hand.

She thrusts a hand through the force field, ignoring the pain in her fingers, and drives all the way into the shoulder joint. She squeezes, and pulls, and tears. The newly attached arm comes off.

The rage draws her eyes to the auto-repair systems, already readying yet another arm. It whispers to her to duck, as the spear tries to impale her from behind. The anger points and urges, and Keri listens. She lets the momentum of the spear carry Cracklesnap forward, then she grabs him bodily, and hurls him spearpoint-first into the auto-repair system.

There’s a burst of sparks and micro-explosions, and Cracklesnap, still down one arm, is thrown clear.

Through the expansive viewport of the bridge, Keri can see the stars blur as the Blockhead ship goes to warp. Space Bug and Jaycee have done it.

She can’t let her anger go just yet, to be proud of their accomplishment, to be relieved at the success of at least a part of this mission. The anger reminds her of Adam and his suffering, reminds her what she must still do.

Cracklesnap is up. He’s moving fast, and the spear comes at her almost too fast to dodge. She feels it clip into her side, feels a wetness spreading, and listens to her anger sing as it tastes the blood the attack has drawn.

She knows what to do. She’s fast too. With both hands she seizes the arm at the shoulder, tears it loose, then bashes Cracklesnap with it. As he’s knocked off-balance by the confluence of forces, she flies behind him, kicking him hard into the back wall of the bridge. And she flies behind him as he hurtles toward the wall, spear out. She drives the whole spear, right up to where it meets the detached robot arm, through his torso, pinning him to the wall. As auto-repair systems emerge, she systematically breaks them off.

“I am Keri Maldonado, the Lamb,” she repeats softly, as she stares at the glowing pyramid atop the alien’s body, unable to see any eyes but knowing she has his full attention anyway. “And Adam Amari is under my protection.

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Keri keeps one hand firmly on her side as she walks carefully back through the ship to see what happened.

The first thing she sees is Adam, alive and smiling. The relief helps mask the growing pain she feels.

William is asleep against one of the bulkheads, and Jaycee is carefully mopping his forehead and dribbling water between his lips at a careful rate. The minute she sees Keri’s injury, she rises and approaches.

Around the party are piles of scrapped robot parts. The animating intelligence seems to be gone from all of them, and the strange polygons the beings use for heads are inert.

“What happened?” Keri asks in confusion.

Space Bug gestures at Jaycee. “Coffee woman suggest engine overload to dislodge other Blockhead ship. They fall for it, yes. I shunt extra overload energy into warp. No idea where we are now.”

As Jaycee pulls out a water bottle and begins washing Keri’s injury clean, Keri raises an eyebrow. “Your idea, huh? Good job.”

Adam fills in the rest while Jaycee works. “All their energy drained into some kind of emergency system. We saw a big beam go off toward one of the other Blockhead ships just before we warped. I think they got into their version of escape pods and bailed from the ship.”

Keri jerks a thumb back toward the bridge. “Cracklesnap’s back there. I don’t think he’s gonna be much of a problem with two broken arms.”

“I have control of the ship from here,” Space Bug adds, gesturing at the engineering console. They turn to Adam. “Now what is plan, stratagem, objective?”

Adam thinks. He’s honestly sort of surprised to have made it this far. “I guess we interrogate Cracklesnap and check out the ship. We want to know what they were doing with stolen Shards. Once we know that, we can figure out our next steps.”

Adam and the others have Cracklesnap and the two lieutenants-turned-weapons hooked up to barely functional robotic torsos. They can’t move, and the auto-repair systems have been turned off, so it’s as safe as it’s likely to get aboard this ship.

Adam is hampered by the fact that as much as he idolized his dad when growing up, he doesn’t actually know how to interrogate a guy. He - just briefly - thinks about going back home and asking. He doesn’t think that will go well. But Space Bug makes an excellent suggestion, and Adam opens with that. He starts out chatty and conversational, because that’s how he’s seen it done on TV.

“So it’s like this. You can tell us what we want to know. And then you get out of this alive. Or we can take you back to the Concordance, and they can strip your ship down for parts and give you the third degree until they know everything they want to know about you, and this anti-Concordance tech you have.”

He tilts his head and shrugs, as though tossing out an afterthought. “Or, y’know, we can take you back to Enora Dralis and the Champions of Night, the Concordance’s enemies. You took shards from them too. They’ll still take your ship apart. They’ll probably take you apart. And they have some pretty serious anger management issues and they hold a grudge. They attacked us on sight, just because we were in one of your ships. So you might be with them awhile. You might not enjoy it very much.”

Adam doesn’t really have any intention of doing the latter two things. He’s hoping that Cracklesnap will talk, and that they can get on with their business.

The problem is that Cracklesnap doesn’t respond.

Adam is pretty sure he’s able to vocalize. He probes, mentally - and finds that even in such a limited state, the Blockhead is able to neutralize his efforts.

Seconds stretch into minutes.

The others, sensing that this will be a time-consuming endeavor, have scattered to attend to other business on the ship. William is waking up, and has been given a protein bar and bottled shake from Jaycee’s pack. Keri is resting and letting her injury heal. Space Bug is working at the engineering console, exploring the ship’s systems - for what, Adam isn’t quite sure.

They hear Jaycee’s voice, and what she says attracts fresh attention.

“I think they’re in touch with a sorcerer on Earth.”

Even Adam, mindful that the prisoners are basically his problem, goes to check out the call.

They find Jaycee looking in a side room, off from the main area. She’s pointing at markings on the floor.

“This is a summoning circle,” she explains. “A demon can be called forth here. If I read this right, it’s Astop, who draws down the stars and walks in the darkness. Perfect if you want a messenger to speak to someone on a spaceship–”

The team hear’s Cracklesnap’s voice at long last. “Do not tamper with that,” he calls out.

Finally, Adam thinks.

William is smiling proudly. Space Bug looks baffled. Keri is looking at Jaycee in considerable shock.

“What?” Jaycee demands, after sensing the sudden attention.

Keri stumbles. “Just… didn’t expect you to know about this kind of thing.”

“I’ve actually summoned a demon before,” Jaycee says. “I did my research. I better know this stuff.”

Jaycee’s summoning took place in “Masks 36.4 - Ascension” – Ed.

Keri tilts her head and stares at Jaycee with a mixture of respect and fear. “And all this without a fancy magic sword.”

Jaycee scoffs. “God. I don’t want to wield that thing.”

As Jaycee walks back out with the others, Keri mutters, mostly to herself. “I’m starting to think that’s the only reason you don’t have it.”

It’s part two of the interrogation, and Adam thinks he knows how to do this now.

“Tell us what we want to know, or my friend will start messing with that thing,” he says, and jerks a thumb backward toward the room with the summoning circle.

The alien considers this. Finally he speaks.

“You are unlikely to prevail against him in battle. You gain little else by knowing. Very well. He is likely to know when his name is used. He therefore may be referred to as ‘the Dread Moor’–”

Cracklesnap doesn’t need to say anything more. William draws in breath, and looks as pale as he’s capable of looking.

Adam turns. “You know who he’s talking about?” he asks in surprise.

Velasco, also known as “the Dread Moor”, was introduced in “37.1 - The Dread Moor” and made a brief visit to Charlotte’s coffee shop in “306 - The Dueling Duo” – Ed.

William slows down his breathing with an effort of will. “He was a senior member of the Grail Knights. Centuries old, they say. Best of all of us. The sword, though - it left him. Don’t know why. Nobody talks about it. Just tell me to mind my business. Even Lucius doesn’t talk about it.”

A memory comes to Jaycee. She turns to Adam, quickly. “Your friend, Charlotte Palmer, visited dad once. He mentioned that someone dangerous had visited her new place and not to go there unless I had to. Nobody scares dad like that, except…”

They turn back to look at Cracklesnap, who sounds like he’s been likewise intimidated.

“What does the Dread Moor want with Concordance Shards?” Adam demands.

“I do not know,” the alien responds calmly.

“What did you get in return?”

“Information.” The artificial voice crackles, betraying some measure of extraterrestrial gloating. “The science to absorb your energy was devised in much part from his study of those captured Shards and the knowledge he shared with us.”

Adam frowns. “And you’ve given that to the rest of your people, instead of keeping it to yourself?”

Cracklesnap’s gloating is becoming more obvious. “I have kept the best of it for myself and other allies I trust. But if I do not check in regularly, automation I have put in place will release it to all of my people. And they will have both power and reason to come after you.”

Adam frowns.

If this is true - and it feels True - then his plan to use the Blockheads as a way to gain favor with the Concordance Coordinators might endanger every Agent in the universe.

On the other hand, it sounds like that was going to happen anyway. Cracklesnap might have been using this to enhance his personal prestige with his people. He’d do a private deal with a dangerous sorcerer, then become a hero when he had the weapons to fight off the Concordance when it appeared.

He turns back to Space Bug. “We’re lost in space, right?”

The bug shrugs. “That is my fault but not my problem, Adam Amari.”

Adam laughs. “It’s fine. But figure out where we are. Get us heading back to Earth, maximum speed. Okay?”

He turns to his friends. “Alright. So, I think I can get us out of this. I think… I think if Somber is telling the truth, just telling the Concordance about the Dread Moor is gonna get them to show up on Earth in force, they way they escalated on Somber’s homeworld, and nobody wants that to happen.”

William nods vehemently. “Agreed.”

“But there’s a way I can get the Concordance to make a choice about what to do, while still giving them what they want. They might learn about the Dread Moor, but if they do that, they’ll have to give up a lot more than they want.”

“What’s the idea?” Keri asks.

Adam grins. “I’m gonna put Quinnar Gentry on trial.”

The devil birthed at the core of the Planet of Dread reaches still further.

Azlan de Borja y Velasco is relaxing in his library, reading a book he does not remember writing, when the supernatural servitor approaches.

“A matter of interest, master,” it hisses.

Velasco rises and accompanies the creature to the study.

He takes stock of the magical devices arrayed there. The portents and omens are clear.

Something new has been born, and it is reaching out. Slowly - strangely slowly - yet its power is incomparable.

He’d thought to use the reservoir of dark energy here on Earth, left behind by those strange space beings, for his master plan. But this new entity is much the same, and far more temperamentally suited to his needs.

Disaster. Dis-astrum. The word means “ill-starred”.

To take advantage of this new development would require a way to reach the site of this newborn nemesis. Velasco supposes he could contact those mechanical allies from outer space. They will certainly have ways of traveling.

In the meantime, he must study this matter further.

And he must act soon, to shackle this thing, harness it, before it comes into its full strength and becomes indomitable.

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We’ve reached the end of “Planet of Dread”. Next time - Adam takes his biggest gamble yet!

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