“I can’t believe it,” said Lhyn, aghast. “She didn’t even say good-bye.”
“She couldn’t,” Tal told her sadly. “She wanted to, but she couldn’t. It would have broken her control.” They watched as the shuttle door closed with a terrible finality.
“Damn you warriors and your control,” whispered Lhyn, failing to fight back her tears. She reached out for her friend’s hand, and what small comfort it gave. Together they watched the shuttle speed away towards the crashed ship.
A few ticks later, Lhyn dimly heard Tal answering her wristcom, and then Ekatya’s furious voice. With mounting horror, Lhyn realized that she wasn’t going to see reason. “For fuck’s sake, Ekatya!” she practically screamed, “Don’t do it!” There was no response. “Are you hearing me? There’s still time to do the right thing,” she insisted. “It’s not too late.” The only response was a beep as the connection was severed. She looked at Tal in despair. “She cut me off!”
“I can override it; just give me a few pipticks.” She punched a series of codes into the wristcom and, after a few moments, it burst back into life; they clearly heard Baldassar ordering the self-destruct, followed by the flat voice of the Caphenon.
“Code recognized and verified. The captain’s command code is still required.”
“Ekatya, please!” begged Lhyn.
“Caphenon, this is Captain Serrado. Verify and respond.”
“Captain Serrado, voiceprint recognized. Do you wish to confirm the self-destruct?”
“Yes. Commence countdown immediately.” She gave her command code. “Candini, get us up to the Gavinaught.”
Lhyn could see the same shock on Tal’s face that she was sure filled her own. “I’m sorry, Lancer Tal. This is all my fault. I’ve brought destruction to your world.”
“It’s not your fault,” said Tal, compassion in her voice, “and I have one last tile to play.” She entered a fresh code into her wristcom. “Commander Kameha, please give me some good news.”
In a daze, Lhyn heard the engineer confirm that the Caphenon was powering up normally, and Tal informing the captain that the Alseans were claiming the ship. The sound of Ekatya’s voice snapped her out of stupor. Without thinking what she was doing she grabbed the Lancer’s wrist. “I hope you’re happy.”
“You’ve saved your precious career. I guess that all you ever cared about,” she said bitterly.
“That’s Doctor Rivers to you.” Her voice was as cold as ice. “Not that we’re ever going to be speaking again, even if the Alseans do manage to fight off he Voloth. Goodbye, Captain Serrado. We’re through.” She turned away, gave a strangled gasp, and then collapsed.
Around her, the Guards staggered back, clutching at their heads. Micah was the first to recover. “Great shekking Mother, what was that?”
For a moment, there was no answer. Tal looked up from where she was cradling Lhyn, her face a mask of anguish. “That was a tyree bond breaking,” she said quietly. “Oh, merciful Fahla, what have I done?”
The next few hanticks were a blur. Tal went with Lhyn to the Healing Center. She dimly recalled giving the order for the teams to complete the takeover of the Caphenon, but nothing else seemed important. Healer Wellernal had assured her that Lhyn would recover with time, but that didn’t keep her from a bedside vigil. And, even after what she’d tried to do, Tal’s heart still went out to Ekatya, who must be going through the same thing but without anyone who might know what was going on or how to help.
The vidcom lit up. “Lancer Tal, we’ve restored contact with the Gaian ship. I have a message coming through for Doctor Rivers.”
“I’ll take it.”
A Gaian face appeared on the screen. “Lancer Tal! I was trying to reach Doctor Rivers.” He spoke flawless High Alsean, so Tal assumed he must be part of Lhyn’s anthropology team.
“Unfortunately she is… indisposed. Perhaps I can be of assistance?”
The man paused, clearly uncomfortable with her. “Captain Serrado collapsed on the flight up. None of our doctors understand what’s going on other than that it’s something neurological and they believe it may be something to do with the Alsean empathic abilities.”
“I’m afraid that I know exactly what it is. Are you familiar with the concept of a tyree bond?”
“Yes, I worked closely with Doctor Rivers.”
“She and the Captain were tyrees.”
“How is that even possible, they’re not… You said ‘were’?”
“Yes. After Captain Serrado gave the order to destroy the Caphenon, Lhyn… severed their bond. The shock of that is what caused them to collapse.”
“Shek. Will they be alright?”
“Physically, yes. The Healers assure me that they should wake up within a few hanticks, although they’ll likely be weakened for several days. Emotionally… they may never be alright again. I will personally see to it that Doctor Rivers gets the best help Alsea has to offer, but I’m afraid there’s little more I can do for the Captain.”
“Thankyou, and I understand.” Tal ended the call, and returned to her vigil. It was a couple of hanticks later that there was movement from the bed.
“Wha… what happened? Where am I?” Lhyn asked groggily.
“You’re in the Healing Center. You collapsed after…”
She bolted upright “The Caphenon. is it…?”
“Thank Fahla,” Lhyn said, relaxing somewhat. “How did you manage that?”
Tal lowered her head, “I empathically compelled Commander Kameha to put a failsafe in the Caphenon’s self-destruct. Once the command codes were verified, instead of destroying the ship it turned control over to us.”
Lhyn winced. “I’m sorry you had to do that.”
“As am I. Having a warrant didn’t make it feel the slightest bit less wrong. I’m merely grateful that he required very little persuasion.”
“No, I don’t suppose he would have.” She paused for a moment. “What happened to me? Why did I collapse?” The Lancer’s face filled with pain, and she couldn’t seem to bring herself to meet Lhyn’s eyes. “Tal?”
“After what she did, you…” she forced herself to look Lhyn in the eyes. “You broke your tyree bond with Captain Serrado.”
Those eyes widened in shock and denial. “No! That can’t be true. It’s not possible. We aren’t even empaths…”
“I’m sorry. I don’t claim to understand it, but I felt your bond; no high empath who saw the two of you together could have missed it.”
“But Ekatya… even after what she did… I can never forgive her, but I still loved her. And now…” her eyes began to fill with panic. “Nothing. I feel nothing! It’s like there’s this empty void in my heart where she used to be. How do I fix that?”
“You can’t.” She blinked back tears, “I’m sorry, this is all my fault. I was so sure that Captain Serrado couldn’t abandon her tyree. I was wrong, and now you’re paying the price for my mistake.”
“Did you… did you compel me, too?” Lhyn asked furiously.
“No!” Tal said vehemently, then hung her head; she saw no point in hiding the truth any longer. “But only because Lanaril defied me when she saw that you would do what I wanted of your own free will.”
The silence that followed was oppressive. Eventually, Lhyn spoke, in a small, dull voice. “I think I’d like to be alone now.”
Tal rose. “Of course. I… if there’s anything…” She shook her head. “You know how to reach me.” She left the room, her shoulders set in defeat.
The vidcom chimed. Lhyn stared at it, wondering who might be calling. Tal? Ekatya? She really didn’t want to talk to either of them right then. Not wanting to act like a petulant child, she reluctantly hit the button to activate the screen. Lhyn gave a silent sigh of relief when it showed the face of Kazeem, her deputy on the research team.
“Lhyn! I’m glad you’re awake. How are you feeling?”
“Could you ask me an easier one? I’m not sure I have an answer to that right now.”
He simply nodded. “I have… news. About those five planets the Voloth were offering.” She simply stared at him. “They’re all dead worlds. A few ruined cities, but whatever civilizations did exist on them are long gone.”
Lhyn closed her eyes, “Oh, shekking mother.” She wasn’t sure who she was more furious with: the Voloth, the Protectorate, or Ekatya. The woman she’d loved had destroyed their relationship over nothing. “Could you please let Captain Serrado know? She’ll need to contact the admiral; maybe it’s not too late to reverse the Assembly decision and have some help sent for the Alseans.”
“Don’t you want to tell her…” He trailed off on seeing Lhyn’s expression. “I’m sorry. I talked to Lancer Tal while you were unconscious. She… she told me what happened. I’m so sorry, Lhyn.” She simply nodded mutely, fighting back tears. “I’ll let you know what happens.”
“Thank-you,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper, then cut the connection.
It was late afternoon when there was a knock on her door. After a moment, Lhyn called for whoever it was to come in. A moment later Lanaril entered the room. “How are you feeling?” she asked, cautiously.
Lhyn considered that for a moment. “I’m not sure how I feel about you right now.”
“I can understand that,” she replied, but made no attempt at excuses or explanations; simply waiting for Lhyn to speak.
“Why would you agree to do that?” she asked at last.
“I volunteered. Andira came to me not as a Lancer, but as an Alsean seeking spiritual guidance. She was worried that empathically forcing you was going to cost her any chance of Returning. I wasn’t sure I’d really convinced her otherwise, so I offered to do it, if only to take that one burden off her shoulders.”
That statement quenched the last of Lhyn’s anger. “I thought she was heartless, but actually she had a crisis of faith over empathically forcing one alien when her whole world was at stake.” She winced. “I think I owe her an apology.”
Lanaril smiled. “I very much doubt she will see it that way, but I do think that she would benefit from feeling your forgiveness.”
“Of course, anything I can do to help. I’m not sure how easily I can get an audience with the Lancer right now, though; I imagine she’s rather busy at the moment.”
“Leave that to me. Being Lead Templar does tend to open doors.” She made a call, and healer Wellernal came to check on Lhyn. He soon cleared her to leave and, after a quick shower and change of clothes she followed Lanaril down to a transport she’d commandeered for the brief trip to the State House. On entering, they were soon met by Lead Guard Gehrain, who led them up to the Lancer’s private quarters.
As they approached the door, Lhyn made a deliberate effort to push down her nerves and summon up forgiveness. She also allowed her other positive motions towards the Lancer show through: respect, admiration, and no small amount of affection. The slightest slip in Tal’s expression when she opened the door let her know that the message had been received.
“I was just about to have evenmeal. Please join me; I could use the company, and with you two I may even be able to relax a little.” She gestured for them to enter, and then over to a dining table where loaves of bread and platters of cold meats and cheeses awaited. “I’m afraid I don’t have anything terribly fancy to offer you.”
“It’s fine, Andira,” said Lanaril as they sat down. “We’re here for the company, not the cuisine.” She helped herself to some of the food.
“I wanted to apologize,” began Lhyn, “I misjudged you. You were just trying to save your world, and you were willing to sacrifice your honor, your very soul to do that. I forgive you for what you were planning to do to me; how could I not?”
As always with Lhyn, Tal could feel the almost childlike honesty of her emotions confirming and strengthening her words. Almost involuntarily, she smiled. “You have nothing to apologize for, but thank-you anyway. Part of me wishes that you’d safely left on that shuttle rather than being trapped on Alsea, but the rest of me is very glad that you’re still here.”
That gave Lhyn pause for thought. “Now that they know about those five planets, I’m surprised that… that the captain and some of the others haven’t come back to help…” she trailed off on seeing Tal’s expression.
“They can’t. I’m sorry, I assumed someone would have told you. The shuttle’s hullskin completely disintegrated on the way up; they barely made it to the Gavinaught in one piece. There’s no way for any of them to come back down.”
“Well, I suppose I should be grateful that at least I won’t have to face Ekatya, but I’m guessing you could really have used their help manning the Caphenon when the Voloth come back. Do you have any good news?”
“The Protectorate have decided to send us some help.”
“Oh, thank Fahla. Then it’s going to be okay?”
“Only if they get here first, and the Voloth have a head start.” Lhyn shivered at the thought of not one, but hundreds of ground pounders rampaging across the planet. The Alseans wouldn’t stand a chance. “I don’t suppose you have any bright ideas? You were instrumental in defeating that first ground pounder.”
“I’m a scholar, not a warrior. I simply spotted one small detail, I wasn’t the one who saw how it could be exploited.”
“Then use that incredible brain of yours. Make note of any more small details, and bring them to me; perhaps my warrior side will see a way to use them.” Tal got up, retrieved a bottle and some glasses, and set them on the table.
“Not for me, thank-you,” said Lanaril, breaking her silence at last. “I need to get back to the temple. I shall ask Fahla to speed the Protectorate fleet, and to send you inspiration.” She touched palms with Tal. “If ever there was a Lancer who could get us through this, it’s you.” A few moments later, she was gone.
As the door closed, Tal’s mask slipped, just a little. “What about you?” she asked Lhyn.
“Oh, I think I need that drink almost as badly as you do.”
“Good,” she said as she poured, “I hate drinking alone.”
Half a dozen shots later, Lhyn decided that she really should leave – if only in the hope that it might persuade Tal to go to bed; surely she must need all the sleep she could get. Her mask had slipped further with each drink; Lhyn might not been empath, but she could read the now ill-concealed stress, worry and fatigue on the Lancer’s face.
“I really need to get to bed,” she said as she got up, “and so should you.”
Tal stood as well. “Are you giving the Lancer an order?” she asked with an amused expression.
“Of course not, merely… a suggestion. I can fetch Colonel Micah if you would like to carry on drinking.”
Tal’s shoulders slumped. “You don’t play fair.”
“And you really look like you could use a hug.”
Lhyn blinked for a moment, then realized she’d used the Gaian word. It took a moment for her alcohol-muddled brain to retrieve the Alsean equivalent. “A warmron.” Without hesitation, she stepped forward and wrapped Tal in her arms, her head easily fitting under Lhyn’s chin. For a few pipticks, the Lancer was shocked, standing stiff as a post. Then, she allowed herself to relax, pressing into the taller woman’s body, arms finding their way around her back.
Eventually, reluctantly, they separated. “I haven’t done that in a very long time,” said Tal.
Belatedly remembering cultural differences, Lhyn flushed. “I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be,” Tal cut her off. “You were right; I needed that. I wonder if perhaps that’s something we were wrong to give up.”
“Perhaps, but either way we both need some sleep.”
“Yes, Lancer Rivers,” said Tal, giving her a two-fisted salute. Lhyn laughed as she led her to the door.
“Goodnight, Lancer Tal.”
“Goodnight. I’ll see you tomorrow.”