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Seeing Ghosts

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By unspoken agreement they met on the flag bridge just prior to transit.

Raymond Prescott looked at his vilkshatha brother and smiled. Zhaarnak'telmasa's slit-pupilled eyes flickered across KONS Eemaaka's bridge crew - busily pretending they were not watching the two fleet commanders they had the honor of transporting - and returned the tooth-hidden smile. Then, in unison, they turned toward the plot, where the icon representing Eemaaka was just about to merge with the icon representing the warp point leading from the Sak system to Alowan.

When they'd agreed to accept Fang Koraaza's invitation and make the journey to Third Fleet, they'd known which route they must take there, and what history they would be revisiting. They'd each looked at the other, their respective species' version of a wry smile on their faces, and then, Raymond Prescott had nodded and Zhaarnak'telmasa had flicked his ears in agreement, and they'd returned their conversation to more practical matters.

"Take us in," the captain - a tawny-furred Orion female - ordered, and moments later, the warp point flashed.

Prescott took a moment to shake off the momentary disorientation and nausea effected by the distortions in space-time that made transport across light-years possible, opened his mouth - and shut it again. Beside him, Zhaarnak gave a brief low-pitched growl - the equivalent of a human snort. He'd had the same impulse, but for once, neither Prescott nor Zhaarnak was in command, and their presence on the flag bridge was merely a courtesy. The systems they were transiting between were thoroughly secured, and there was nothing either of them needed to do. There was nothing to do, in fact; Eemaaka's crew didn't need interference from two old fleet commanders who'd spent so long at the direct front lines of the war, or preparing for those same front lines, that they found the enforced inactivity of space travel difficult to adjust to.

The captain rose from her chair and turned toward her two guests. "Welcome to Alowan," she said quietly. "Welcome back."

Prescott remembered the last time he'd been traveling with this particular destination. It had been seven years since he, with far too few ships, had come to Zhaarnak's aid defending this very system. He'd pushed his ships' drives to their limits and beyond in a desperate race, and had arrived barely in time. Prescott looked at the plot again, which was now centered on a different star. Alowan's layout was thoroughly familiar to him. There were the Pairsag Twins, densely populated Orion colony worlds, and the system's other, lifeless planets. There were the warp points - the one from Sak, which they'd just passed, and the one to Telmasa. He could still feel the distances in his bones.

He smiled to himself a little, remembering. So much had changed since then. Their desperate stand at Alowan and the push into Telmasa had nearly ended in disaster, but despite their losses they had held. With their very fingernails and claws, but they'd held. And their victory at Telmasa had won both of them the Ithyrra'doi'khanhaku, had won Zhaarnak his own clan title. And most importantly, at the end of it all, Zhaarnak had asked Prescott to swear vilkshatha with him, the Orion oath that made two warriors members of each other's family.


Prescott's smile died, and he felt something inside him grow hard and frozen.

He could not entirely disguise his reaction. Zhaarnak's eyes were sharp, but he said nothing, merely covered for him and made their excuses to the captain. But on their way out, an ear twisted toward Prescott, questioning. Prescott shook his head just a little, and Zhaarnak let himself be deflected.

"Is the zeget not to your liking?" Prescott asked in the Tongue of Tongues. He'd long lost any trace of stiltedness in his grammar, though his accent would never entirely vanish - a Human's vocal apparatus simply could not produce some of the language's higher notes. Indeed, most Humans could not pronounce the tongue of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee at all - it took a rare combination of perfect pitch and a gift for mimicry few Humans possessed.

Zhaarnak scowled at his brother, and swallowed another bite. It was not that he didn't like zeget meat, nor even that Prescott didn't. (Though of course Prescott's portion had been cooked, in deference to the human's stomach and teeth, so it could hardly be called the same thing.) But the gesture was just a little too blatant for him just now. It was, after all, a warrior's dish, and not at all an everyday meal. The cook had clearly saved it for the occasion of their return to Alowan, never mind that they were merely passing through, at maximum speed from one warp point to the next.

Zhaarnak tried to shake off his irritation. He had more important things to think about, such as whatever it was that had stopped his brother cold on the bridge, earlier today. But still ...

"The cook means to honor us," he said sourly, and pulled up his lip, just short of revealing a bit of tooth. "I acknowledge it. Yet there is little honor to be had against an enemy who possesses none."

Prescott gave a Human snort to that unoriginal observation. "'Honor comes to those who act with honor'," he quoted softly.

Zhaarnak suppressed a snarl. His brother had a talent for quoting just the right sentiment at the right moment, yet this time there was no comfort in the familiar truths. "'There is no honor in flight'," Zhaarnak quoted back, more sharply than he'd intended. And looked away. He hadn't meant to bring up Kliean. He hadn't meant even to think of it, of the billions of people he'd left behind to die.

Prescott's Human face showed his sympathy clearly enough, even without the benefit of ears, muzzle, or whiskers. "That's a trifle strong," he said after a moment. "How many times since then have we stood our ground, and more? Starting right here at Alowan."

Zhaarnak flicked an ear in unhappy agreement. We did. And if it undoes my shame in everyone's eyes but mine, are not mine the ones that matter? "I cannot disagree with you, brother. Yet neither can I feel it. I don't wish to grow accustomed to this duality, and yet I am. That, perhaps, I dislike the most."

Prescott shrugged, as if to say, What can you do? Yet his round-pupilled eyes seemed turned inward, and something seemed to haunt his mind.

Zhaarnak let his thoughts be drawn in by the puzzle. Whatever it was that was bothering his brother, he needed to find out. Guarding one's brother's back involved more than just battle, after all.

And, the stubborn self-honest voice at the back of his mind added, of course it was an excellent distraction from his own ghosts, waiting ahead of them in Kliean.

Raymond Prescott entered Eemaaka's viewing lounge quietly. He'd long bid good night to Zhaarnak, and no doubt his brother was fast asleep by now. It was late night in the ship's artificial diurnal cycle, and the lounge was empty. No one would disturb him here. He dimmed the lights and went to stand before the wide armorplast viewport.

The Sak warp point they'd crossed early in the day was close to its host sun, as such things went, but the star was invisible from this part of the battlecruiser that was transporting him and Zhaarnak half-way across the Khanate. There was nothing but black emptiness outside, sprinkled with distant stars, and after a moment Prescott closed his eyes.

He'd not expected this, had not been prepared.

It had been a long journey. Prescott and Zhaarnak could only afford to take the time because after the almost-disaster of Operation Ivan, most of Seventh Fleet would be tied up in repairs equally as long. KONS Eemaaka herself had been one of the very few vessels to escape that campaign undamaged.

Warp points might make irrelevant the unbridgeable distance between stars, but one had to get to them first, after all, and that meant day-long in-system journeys across light-hours of emptiness between them. And then there were the routes one had to take, from point to point to point: What was close or far depended not on the physical distance between systems, but on the little-understood layout of warp lines, whose bizarre ingeodesics might put systems that were next-door neighbors in astrographic terms anywhere between one warp transit away to the opposing end of a far-reaching warp chain.

Thus it was that journeys like this were the closest either Prescott or Zhaarnak had come to an actual break, almost since the war had started. The first days they had been occupied with paperwork, and then the usual discussions of what improvements they might like to attempt in the organization of Seventh Fleet's task groups, but soon those topics had run dry, and they had found themselves in the unaccustomed situation of having time to spare.

Prescott had thought he'd been doing well - they'd both been doing well, all things considered. He'd enjoyed the chance to spend time with Zhaarnak, unencroached-on by their duties.

And then they'd reached Alowan.

Had it really been seven years? Prescott wasn't quite certain whether "that long" or "that short" was the more apt description. He'd only known Zhaarnak for seven years, but found it impossible to imagine not knowing him now.

Family, thought Prescott again. He'd half-wished for Andrew to be here, at the beginning. And then he'd found he was here with a brother, after all.

The last thing of all he might have expected to find in a place like this. He'd expected - they'd both expected - to find death; that they'd survived at all should have been miracle enough.

Andy's death had been a future undone, a taken-for-granted life that would not be lived.

Zhaarnak, in his turn, had been and was a future opening up. Despite the death and destruction that had surrounded them, that would surround them until the war could be brought to an end, Telmasa had been a gift. The thought was horrible, yet inevitable.

Brother. He spoke and thought that word every day, and yet somehow he had never quite connected the two. Andy and Zhaarnak. He'd been close to Andy, yet he was closer to Zhaarnak. He'd won a brother, and lost another. But he could not, could not let himself think of it as an exchange.

But the dreadful thought had come over him, entering Alowan, and having thought it once, he could not unthink it. He could not find the lever to wrench it from his mind.

A soft click-and-hiss sounded behind him as the lounge doors opened. Prescott didn't turn. The intruder didn't speak up, and by that as much as the familiar step of Orion-style open-toed sandals approaching him, he knew who had come. Not to mention that Eemaaka's crew know better than to disturb either of us, he thought wryly.

Zhaarnak came to stand beside him with the long-legged stride typical of his people. He didn't turn to look out of the empty viewport, but instead, seemed to be mustering Prescott with much-too-attentive eyes.

Prescott sighed and turned to face him. His brother's russet-furred face was pinched, and his ears stood at odd, unhappy angles.

"Raaaymmonnd," Zhaarnak said quietly, and for the first time in a long while Prescott became aware of the way Zhaarnak's Orion vocal apparatus mangled the pronunciation of his name.

Except that it didn't feel like mangling. It was his name, had become so, inevitably: not a wrongness but a rightness, a nickname bestowed upon him by his brother. No other Orion, after all, called him by his given name, and few enough Humans did, either. Prescott swallowed around a suddenly tight throat, and offered Zhaarnak a genuine, close-lipped Orion smile.

It was the first time in a while - in fact, the first time since their last long journey out to Alpha Centauri for a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff - that they'd spent any significant amount of time on the same vessel. Prescott took a deep breath of the Orion ship's recycled air, warmer and somewhat higher in humidity and pressure than Terran standard. Zhaarnak's slit-pupilled amber eyes were on him, almost a physical weight and a challenge, yet a comfort all the same.

And all the lever Prescott could need, to wrench even the darkest thoughts from his mind: his vilkshatha brother, as always, standing fast and guarding his back.

"I will not pry if you will not speak," Zhaarnak said. But will not pretend to be blind, his eyes insisted.

Prescott offered Zhaarnak a wry smile. He wouldn't have said it to anyone but Zhaarnak, but ... "It's a strange time to suddenly find myself unable to sleep," he admitted in the Tongue of Tongues, and suddenly realized he'd not spoken English in days. It was easier, not constantly switching between languages, though under normal circumstances - with Terrans and Orions around, neither of whom could pronounce the other's tongue - it was inevitable.

Zhaarnak let out a soft, purring Orion sigh. Then his ears and whiskers shifted into an almost mischievous look. "You must, though."

"Oh?" Prescott blinked, even while he realized he was being slow off the mark. His incomprehension had nothing to do with their species' different mentalities, and everything with his own distraction.

"Of course, brother." Zhaarnak's ears twisted into the Orion version of a crooked smile. "Sleep is a victory, after all."

Of course. Prescott offered a wry smile of his own, and expanded on the saying. "And sleep here of all places, doubly so. How churlish of me to turn from it."

Zhaarnak leaned forward. "Quite. We drove the Bahgs out of Alowan, out of Telmasa - we made this a safe place to sleep," he said, seriously enough. "For everyone on the Pairsag Twins, for everyone in Hairnow, and even for us." He looked away for a moment, then his eyes were on Prescott again, firm and steady.

Prescott thought he knew what had gone unmentioned. Kliean, after all, was his brother's nightmare, and they were traveling towards it. But for now, those ghosts were still distant, and Alowan was here. He smiled.

"By all means, brother," Prescott said, "let us honor the fallen."

Zhaarnak went to sleep satisfied enough that he'd managed to draw his brother from his mood, yet still frustrated by his failure to understand. The one thing he was certain of was that Prescott's strange dark introspection had little to do with the war.

Even if he'd not been sure: the man who had survived Operation Pesthouse - who'd seen over two hundred thousand men and women die in its death trap - could hardly have felt so haunted by the dead of Alowan and Telmasa, who after all had been victorious even in death.

Zhaarnak woke up knowing, and felt the urge to mimic a Terran gesture he had seen his brother make: slapping a palm against his forehead.

His brother. Of course. Raymond Prescott was not a man given to strong displays of emotion; his understated expressions suited the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee well. But there was one thing that had affected him deeply, changed him in ways many of his own kind seemed to have difficulty understanding.

Zhaarnak had always understood. But it appeared he'd still missed something in the process.

"I keep forgetting," said Zhaarnak, later.

Prescott turned his head. They were lounging in his quarters, on the comfortable floor cushions of the cabin's standard Orion furnishing. "Forgetting?"

"That Human families are small, and your parents gave you only one sibling."

Prescott was silent for a long moment. Then, "How did you know?"

Zhaarnak shook his head in a very un-Orion manner, in addition to the exasperated angles of his ears, clearly unhappy to have to spell it out. "I've never seen you frozen like this, except after Aandrreeew." After Andrew's death.

Yes, perhaps that would better have remained unspoken. Prescott grimaced and looked away.

"I've been slow in realizing, I admit. I am sorry, Raaaymmonnd."

How like Zhaarnak. Prescott smiled thinly. "Think no more of it, brother. I did not expect it myself. It was not until we returned to Alowan that ..." He shrugged.

But much later, the sentence kept echoing in Prescott's mind: Human families are small. A smile stole itself onto his face. How large might his Orion family end up being?

They went to the flag bridge again, just prior to transit.

While they were walking through the bridge access tunnel, Zhaarnak spoke quietly. "You were the chegnatyu warrior straight out of myth, come to rescue my doomed command."

Prescott suppressed a smile. Orions were not much for speeches, and Zhaarnak less than most, yet some things, sometimes, must be spoken.

"You were more than a myth," Prescott returned, honesty for honesty. "For all my studies in your culture, I still didn't know family could be made like this."

It was fresh in Prescott's mind still, the strange realization that this Human-hating bigot of an Orion had somehow become indispensable to him. The realization that leaving Telmasa behind, and Zhaarnak with it, would mean losing something indescribable, something he had no words for.

And then Zhaarnak had offered him vilkshatha, and there had been a word for it after all.

Brother. Family.

That was the thought that carried him when the command came, and the warp point's distortions wrenched at his inner ear.

Prescott turned to smile at Zhaarnak, and found that Zhaarnak's eyes had strayed to the plot, which displayed the uninhabited Telmasa system now. And not just any part of it: the Kliean warp point in particular.

Of course. I didn't come here from Kliean, but you did. If Alowan and Telmasa were fresh in both their minds, Kliean must be even fresher in Zhaarnak's. Prescott knew the inevitable retreat from Kliean still weighed immeasurably on his vilkshatha brother's mind.

He smiled grimly to himself. What were brothers for? Zhaarnak must face the ghosts of Kliean, but he need not do it alone. Prescott flexed his hands, hanging loosely at his side. He might not have literal claws to guard his brother's back, but that was beside the point. He'd stand at Zhaarnak's back, as a brother should.