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Desideratum

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Deep space was boring. The occasional blip sounded here and there – calls to drop supplies on border-moons, or the occasional summons for help in putting down a rebellion on an isolated renegade planet.

The signal emanating from the mid-sized blue planet was different. Tasera had never seen readings quite like it – similar to a regular Galran distress beacon, but on a slightly removed frequency, as if the signal was designed to be hidden from prying eyes. Truthfully, if they’d been stationed at any outpost in the sector other than System X-9-Y, he doubted the ship would have ever picked up the signal – it was only the remoteness of their location that allowed the communications officers to flip through other channels without direct orders from their superiors.

“Should we check it out, Captain?” Petty Officer Faskre asked nervously, her tail flicking idly from side to side, her ears flat against her head. It was her first mission in uncontrolled territory, Tasera recalled as he noticed her unease. It made sense. No one ever liked being stationed on the outskirts of the empire, but deployments to the edges of their control were generally boring and predictable. The occasional rebellions or attacks from rebel forces were easy enough to squash, and any inhabited planets were generally too primitive to initiate any sort of contact with the fleet.

To say that the distress beacon was unexpected was putting it mildly.

“Hail Commander Hazuur,” he said after a moment of quiet. As the senior officer in this sector, Hazuur should be notified of any anomalies, even if he left the final decision to Tasera.

Petty Officer Faskre nodded, her fingers flying rapidly over the screen in front of her. Tasera straightened his back and stood at attention as the bridge’s viewscreen flickered to life. He recognized the commander’s second-in-command on sight from the routine briefings they held once per movement.

“Captain Tasera,” the figure on the screen said, nodding a greeting. “The next briefing isn’t scheduled for another three quintants. Is something wrong?”

“That remains to be seen, Lieutenant Jaxim,” Tasera said, forcing himself to keep from fidgeting. “My ship intercepted a distress beacon from the third planet in System X-9-Y.”

Jaxim drew back slightly, their eyes narrowing. “That system isn’t home to any race advanced enough to create a proper distress signal. Did you pull the readings?” Before waiting for a reply, they turned to address one of the enlisted soldiers on the bridge. “Deliver a message to the commander telling him I request his presence on the bridge,” they ordered, then turned back to face the screen. “I assume you pulled the readings.”

“Of course,” Tasera replied, inclining his head. “My people will send them your way immediately,” he said, gesturing for Petty Officer Faskre to begin the transfer. “The signal is similar to one of ours, but it was on the wrong frequency and contained some unusual blips that obscured the message.”

Jaxim nodded. “File received,” they said, looking down to pull it up on their screen. Their eyes widened, and they took a step backwards, staring at the readings with shock. “This isn’t possible,” they whispered.

Tasera allowed himself to relax into parade rest. “What isn’t possible?” he asked, maintaining a neutral face even as the blood warmed in his veins in anticipation of a fight. The expression on Jaxim’s face hardly spoke of a happy surprise.

Jaxim swallowed hard. “They were eradicated thousands of years ago, if they even really existed! The only reason I even recognize this frequency is from some elective on the conflation of history and legend over the course of –”

“Lieutenant, what is it?” Tasera demanded.

Jaxim looked up, shock and fear blatantly displayed on their face. “This signal was sent by the Blade of Marmora,” they said, sounding stunned.

Tasera froze, staring at the screen. “You’re joking,” he said finally. “The Blade of Marmora is a myth, a fable told to children to ensure they know that comes of rebellion!” he said. Everyone knew that the Blade of Marmora was only a tale – a group of misguided traitors who attempted to overthrow Zarkon, only to be brutally and soundly crushed beneath the glory and might and truth of the Empire. It was a cheesy legend, nothing more than that.

“I wish I were joking,” Jaxim said tersely. “But many historians believed that the Blade did exist once –”

“Quacks, all of them –”

“Let me finish!” Jaxim snapped. Almost instantly, they winced. “Sorry, Captain,” they said.

Tasera raised an eyebrow. Lucky that Jaxim wasn’t one of his soldiers, or he’d have to give them punishment duty for disrespecting a superior officer. “At ease, Lieutenant,” he said dryly. “Go ahead. Finish.”

Jaxim nodded. “One of the primary pieces of evidence that the Blade of Marmora once existed are the scraps of leftover communications attributed to their organization, similar in form to intra‑Empire communications, but different enough to suggest a schism of sorts between the senders and the empire.”

“Sir, if I may,” Petty Officer Faskre said cautiously. Bold, for an enlisted soldier to interrupt a conversation between two officers, but Tasera knew perfectly well that there were times when protocol was more of a hindrance than anyone else. He nodded for her to continue. “I believe I took a similar elective during training,” she said. “I’m not saying this signal necessarily originated from the Blade of Marmora, but there is strong evidence that they existed, and now that the Lieutenant has mentioned the possibility, it does match up with historical analysis of Blade of Marmora communications.”

Tasera cursed internally. “Let’s just… Let’s wait for the commander to arrive and give our orders. Don’t mention this… Blade of Marmora conspiracy theory unless he asks directly for your input, Lieutenant.” He didn’t bother addressing Petty Officer Faskre – few enlisted soldiers would have the gumption to address such a high-ranking officer without being addressed first, and the petty officer was not one of the few foolhardy ones who would take such a risk.

After several doboshes of awkward silence, the bridge doors on Commander Hazuur’s ship hissed open and the commander stalked towards the viewscreen, looking annoyed. Tasera snapped immediately to attention, crossing his right arm across his chest in salute. “Commander,” he said.

“Captain Tasera,” Commander Hazuur said curtly. “I trust this is important.”

Tasera swallowed hard and nodded. “Sir, my ship picked up a distress beacon from the third planet in this star system,” he said. “The signal resembles one of our own, but contains noticeable differences from a standard distress call and was sent out on a nonstandard frequency.”

Hazuur frowned, interest replacing annoyance. “Your system was determined to be devoid of advanced races, was it not?” he rumbled, peering over Jaxim’s shoulder to examine the signal readings. “Curious,” he said after a moment. “Lieutenant Jaxim, take a fighter and convene with Captain Tasera on his ship. The two of you will proceed to the planet to locate the source of the signal. Captain Tasera, use your judgement to deal with whatever you find at the source.”

“Understood,” Tasera said, inclining his head. Anticipation thrummed through him – clearly, the commander had found this situation to be worth his time, if he was willing to send his second along on the mission. “Vrepit sa.”

“Vrepit sa,” Hazuur and Jaxim said in tandem, saluting. Tasera nodded at Faskre, who tapped her screen to end the communication.

Tasera relaxed his stance and turned to Faskre. “Pull bio-readings from the third planet in the system,” he ordered.

Faskre nodded, her fingers already flying across her screen. “It’s a very biodiverse planet,” she said, pulling up a few charts of compiled data. Tasera grimaced – data collection and analysis was hardly his forte – he had enlisted soldiers to handle that sort of minutiae. Even condensed versions tended to give him a headache. “Only one of a vast collection of species is advanced enough to have any sort of space-faring technology, and it’s very underdeveloped – their tech isn’t strong enough to exit the solar system, even.”

Too primitive to have created the distress signal, as Tasera had thought. “What else?” he asked.

Faskre frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t have much else to say, sir,” she said. “It appears they have access to moderately advanced weaponry, enough to cause a problem to individuals on the ground, but certainly nothing that could challenge even our fighters, much less our battleships.” Her tail lashed with agitation. “Nothing else useful,” she said finally. “We can extrapolate from their weaponry that they may be mildly warlike and prone to internal conflict. From their distance from the civilized universe and lack of advanced systems, it’s unlikely that they have been contacted by other races.”

Tasera nodded. “So then who sent the signal?” he mused. “Don’t say the Blade of Marmora,” he added, holding up a hand as Faskre opened her mouth. Zarkon on the Throne, he wasn’t sure he had the patience for ramblings and conspiracy theories at the moment.

Rather than answer, Faskre turned back to her screen and pulled up the radar readings. “Lieutenant Jaxim is underway,” she said. “Estimated arrival in twelve vargas.”

Tasera sighed. “Very well,” he said, turning to his own screen to pull up internal communications. He tapped out a memo and sent it to Sergeant Major Sxai:

 

Squad VG-9 is to report to the war room in six vargas for briefing and mission planning.

Six vargas was enough time to get some sleep, or so he hoped. If there was a bright side to all of this, he thought wryly, the break from routine would help keep his soldiers on their toes.


A part of Tasera wondered what fantastical explanation the primitive inhabitants of the planet would come up with, to explain the twelve fighters that converged on the source of the distress signal. “Lieutenant Jaxim, status?” he asked.

“Locked onto target,” Jaxim replied. “Signal appears to be emanating from, uh, some sort of organically-based structure,” they said, distaste clear in their voice. Tasera shuddered – building structures out of organic matter was just so inelegant, at best. This building would eventually rot. Disgusting.

“Squad VG-9, dock outside the structure and await my orders,” Tasera commanded, angling his ship downwards and beginning a graceful descent to the ground by the tiny building.

He waited until the full squad of ten and Jaxim had all exited their ships before fixing them with hard eyes. “We don’t know what we’re walking into here,” he said abruptly. “Could be nothing, or it could be a rebel trap. Have your blasters ready, but don’t shoot unless I give the order.”

There was a round of “Yes, sir!” from the enlisted men. Jaxim frowned, their hand on their own blaster, but said nothing.

Tasera nodded and jerked a thumb at the tiny building. “Squad leader, break down the door.”

The door shattered easily, bits of organic matter splintering inward. Something inside the structure let out a startled cry, which Tasera ignored, following his soldiers as they fanned into the building, their blasters all trained on the source of the noise.

Tasera nearly stopped in his tracks as his eyes registered the creature before him. This… This couldn’t be possible. There was absolutely no way for some half-blood galra kit to be standing before him on some primitive, backwater planet.

But here he was, meeting the kit’s unnerving eyes – white scleara and purple iris, not terribly uncommon amongst half-breeds. He was too short by far to be full-blood, and his tiny fangs also indicated his mixed blood. But the downy purple fur that covered his skin, the ears pressed flat against his white-haired head with alarm, and the claws extended in instinctual defense – that was enough to prove his ancestry. Somehow, one of their own must have ended up on this planet to produce a child with the locals – but how?

“Zarkon on the Throne,” Jaxim breathed, coming up behind Tasera and staring at the kit, their eyes wide.

Tasera took a deep, steadying breath. Of all the situations he had imagined, he hadn’t come anywhere near to expecting this one. He gestured for the others to lower their weapons and took a step forward, ignoring the instinct to drop to one knee and be on eye level with the kit. This situation was still an unknown, and it wouldn’t do to break protocol just because this kit reminded him of his own back home. “I am Captain Tasera of the Galra Empire,” he said formally, staring down at the kit, who met his eyes with only a hint of ill-concealed fear. “Was it you who sent the distress signal?”

The kit stared back at him for a moment, his eyes searching Tasera’s face. After a moment, he opened his mouth, saying something in an unfamiliar language. Tasera frowned – of course, the translators wouldn’t have the language of this planet. This whole situation would have been easier if the kit spoke the galran language, but it wasn’t unusual for half-bloods to speak only the language of their non-galra parent.

The kit held up one hand, the other reaching carefully into a pouch outside his clothing. Tasera tightened his grip on his blaster as the child pulled out a knife, but the kit merely extended it towards him, hilt first. He chattered something in that alien language, and Tasera frowned, taking the knife and examining it. Luxite – how did a half-blood kit come across a luxite blade? And that symbol… He felt he should know the meaning.

“What the – what is this?” Only training and determination kept Tasera from jumping as Jaxim came up behind him and snatched the blade from his hands, their eyes narrowed as they examined the symbol on the hilt. “Captain, with all due respect, you can say what you want about conspiracy theories, but this is the symbol that the Blade of Marmora used to identify each other!”

The kit straightened some at that. “Blade of Marmora,” he said, his accent thick and muddy. He nodded and folded his arms across his chest, staring at them.

Tasera’s head spun as he stared from the knife to the kit, then back to the knife. “Even if they are real, surely they wouldn’t recruit so young,” he said finally. “It’s not possible.”

“Or they’re desperate.” Jaxim hefted the blade and took a step towards the kit. “I say we kill the little operative now, before any of his friends come for him.”

Something about Jaxim’s tone and body language made the kit’s eyes grow wide. He scrambled backwards, shouting in his alien language, eyes darting between Jaxim and the others in the room. Jaxim snarled, and Tasera knew he had to take action. Before the kit’s back could hit the wall, Tasera stepped forward and lifted the boy by the scruff of the neck, hoping the kit would respond to being scruffed the way a full-blood child would.

To Tasera’s relief, the kit went limp in his hands, glaring at him with those odd purple eyes. Tasera turned and stared at Jaxim, allowing just a hint of fury to show on his face. “If the kit is linked to the Blade of Marmora –” and Zarkon on the Throne, wasn’t that one of the most ridiculous things he’d ever said “– then we will need to equip him with a translator and interrogate him.”

Jaxim glowered. “It’s obvious that he’s linked to them,” they snapped. “That was the only thing out of his mouth that wasn’t complete gibberish!”

Tasera sighed. The kit twitched feebly in his hand, clearly trying to regain motion in his limbs. The boy was a fighter, that much was certain – but a trained operative? Somehow, Tasera didn’t think so.

“We will interrogate the child back at the ship,” he said, fixing Jaxim with a hard stare. “Return to the fighters at once. We will convene at the interrogation chambers in two vargas.” That should be enough time to take communications readings from the planet and integrate them with their translators, as well as to fit the kit with a translator of his own.

Several of the squad members exchanged looks before heading back to their fighters. Jaxim glared at Tasera for a long moment before turning on their heel and stalking back to their ship. Tasera sighed and debated letting the kit down so he could cuff him, but determined that releasing the child would have to wait until they were both sealed in his fighter. The last thing he needed was for the kit to manage an escape in the few ticks he would be unsecured.

Feeble protestations made it through slack lips as Tasera hauled the weakly-twitching kit from the building to his fighter. The child went rigid with alarm as the hatch opened and Tasera hefted him inside, his limbs spasming weakly as he fought against the almost-paralytic endorphin release from being scruffed. Tasera maneuvered the kit so he was out of the way of any of the controls and sealed the hatch before releasing his hold.

No sooner had the kit regained control of his limbs than he launched himself towards the sealed hatch, one foot coming down hard and digging into Tasera’s thigh as he made a desperate, if futile, bid for freedom. Tasera sighed and pulled free the cuffs he’d brought with him in case of hostiles at the site of the signal. He grabbed the kit by the shoulder and pulled him down, snapping the first cuff around one wrist, which it shrank to fit. The boy’s eyes went wide, and he thrashed, trying desperately to bite as Tasera twisted him to get both hands behind his back.

“Stop this,” Tasera ordered, knowing that the kit wouldn’t be able to understand but hoping that his tone might have some effect.

The kit stilled as the second cuff clicked around his wrist and shrank to an appropriate size, firmly holding his hands behind his back. Every line of his body was tense as though poised to run, but he seemed to finally recognize the futility of his struggles. Tasera nodded and turned to his controls, watching the kit out of the corner of his eye, just in case. He set the fighter to autopilot with a course for the main ship and settled back to keep an eye on his young prisoner.

The kit drew his knees up to his chest and slumped forward, fixing watery eyes on the floor. Tasera couldn’t help the stab of pity he felt, seeing the boy – who couldn’t be any older than Tasera’s own daughter – look so defeated.

He truly hoped that this was all some misunderstanding that the kit wasn’t affiliated with the Blade of Marmora. The implications that a rebel group would recruit children so young was disturbing – almost as disturbing as the sort of death that would meet a traitor to the Galra Empire, no matter how young.


Updating the ship’s translators with the kit’s language took longer than anticipated – it seemed that this planet was linguistically diverse as well as biologically diverse. All told, the kit spent seven vargas in the brig before the communications officers announced that their translators were updated and functioning with the kit’s language. In that time, Tasera filed his report with Commander Hazuur. To his surprise, the commander did not seem interested in interrogating the kit directly or taking custody of him, proclaiming instead that he trusted Tasera to complete the job himself.

It was with a great deal of reluctance that Tasera sent three members of squad VG-9 to install the kit with a translator and bring him to the interrogation room. As the ship’s CO, he knew he couldn’t lower himself to perform that sort of work, but the protective part of him itched to make sure that the boy arrived unharmed, a task with which he didn’t entirely trust his soldiers.

It couldn’t be helped. Tasera sat beside Jaxim at one end of a long table, equipped to be used to restrain prisoners in cases where torture became necessary. From the sour look on Jaxim’s face, they were disappointed that Tasera had declared torture a last resort course of action. Something about their attitude sat wrong with Tasera, their eagerness to torture a kit aside – Jaxim was acting as though this kit had personally wronged them. Tasera felt that he was missing something.

Cacophony filled the room as soon as the doors slid open. “Let go!” the kit shouted, thrashing furiously against the hold of the two soldiers holding his arms. He struggled as they forced him into the interrogation chair and strapped him down at the wrists and elbows. The kit growled, wrenching at the restraints, his white hair falling into his eyes and sticking to his skin as sweat trickled down his face. Tasera would bet all the GAC he had that the child had spent the past seven vargas either actively resisting or coming up with plans to resist.

The kit wrenched feebly at his bonds again, directing a hate-filled stare at Tasera and Jaxim. “Let me go!” he screamed.

Jaxim opened their mouth to speak, but Tasera cut them off with a warning look. “Don’t forget who’s leading this interrogation, Lieutenant,” he said coldly.

Jaxim wrinkled their nose and nodded sullenly. “Yes, Captain,” they said, not bothering to hide the disdain from their voice.

Tasera nodded and turned his attention to the kit, who had gone quiet and was staring at them, open-mouthed. “I… can understand you?” he said, the revelation seemingly quelling some of his desire to fight and rage his way to freedom.

“You have been installed with a translator,” Tasera confirmed, nodding.

The kit’s eyes widened. “Installed?” he asked, his voice cracking. “What… Why would you… Why am I here?” he demanded finally.

Tasera schooled his features to remain impassive. “I am Captain Tasera of the Galra Empire,” he said, meeting the kit’s eyes. “My ship picked up a distress signal from a traitorous group of rebels, thought to be extinct for thousands of years. Imagine my surprise, to arrive at the source of the signal and find you, a half-blood kit.” The boy flinched, seemingly more surprised than anything. “You are here to answer my questions about the so-called Blade of Marmora.”

The kit took a deep breath. “I don’t know what that is,” he said, meeting Tasera’s eyes directly. His expression was strangely earnest. “Look, all I know is I’m not completely human, my mom was an alien, and she left that signaler with my dad for emergencies. Then dad didn’t come home at all this month, and I ran out of food, and I couldn’t exactly go ask a human for help, so I, I activated it! That’s all I know!”

Jaxim tensed beside Tasera, a low growl escaping their throat. The kit flinched, and Tasera shot the lieutenant a glare. He schooled his features again before turning back to the boy. “Human is the name of the race that makes up your other half? The dominant race on your planet?” he asked.

The kit nodded. “Yeah,” he said.

Good to know, in case they ever advanced far enough to become a problem. Tasera filed the tidbit of knowledge away for later. “And why could you not ask someone for help?” he asked.

The kit snorted. “Well, I don’t exactly look human,” he said dryly. “Who knows what they’d do when they saw me? My –” He broke off and stared down at the table. “My dad had some theories. They were – they were bad.”

Jaxim snorted, but Tasera chose to ignore them this time. “What’s your name, kit?” he asked.

The kit hesitated, drawing his shoulders in tightly and continuing to stare at the table.

“Captain,” Jaxim said, venom seeping into their voice, “it seems to me that the kit is unwilling to give up his identity. Which could very easily indicate that, oh, he’s an operative of the Blades and should have his secrets tortured out of him!”

The kit’s head snapped up and he jerked in his chair, eyes blown with sudden panic. “No!” he shouted. “No, please, my name’s Keith Kogane, I swear! I’m not, I’m not some sort of operative! I promise!”

Tasera snarled at Jaxim. “Advisement noted and denied, Lieutenant,” he snapped. “There’s no need for that yet.” He turned to face the trembling kit. “Keith Kogane, was it?”

“Y-yeah,” Keith Kogane said, shaking like a sentry that had touched an errant current. “I’m Keith, I’m twelve years old, I live in the desert with my dad – when he can get out there – and I, I, I swear, I don’t know anything about this, this Blade of Marmora you’re –” He cut off, sounding surprised. “That… That translated. When I said it… Those are the code words I was told…” He stared up at Tasera with wide eyes. “Please, I don’t know what it means, I promise!”

“He’s lying,” Jaxim grumbled.

“I’m not!” Keith shouted desperately.

“Liar!” Jaxim shouted, slamming their hands on the table and rising to their feet, towering above the quaking prisoner.

“Lieutenant!” Tasera roared, rising to his own feet. “Sit down and stop terrorizing the child, or I will have you ejected from this interrogation and sent back to your ship!”

Jaxim’s lips drew back to reveal their fangs. “You’re trusting this mongrel, in spite of all the evidence we have on our side!”

Tasera let his own lips draw back, the blood in his veins warming, the heat of anger seeping through him. “Our evidence is flimsy at best,” he snarled, “and you disgrace the Empire by unleashing your temper and ignoring a superior officer. Either sit down, or leave.”

Jaxim’s eyes widened, and they lowered their gaze. “Of course,” they said, dropping back into their seat. “My apologies, Captain.”

Tasera stared his fellow officer down for a long moment before slowly settling back into his seat. He straightened up and faced Keith, who did not seem reassured in the slightest by Tasera’s shutdown of Jaxim. Water streamed from his eyes – a distress sign in several known races across the universe. The boy flinched when Tasera leaned forward, shrinking back in his chair as best he could.

Tasera sighed. He hated to do this, but he couldn’t allow himself to appear soft in front of a prisoner. “So everything is clear,” he said, resting his arms on the table, “if your answers fail to convince me, torture is still an option. So far, I don’t entirely believe you are lying, but I don’t believe you are entirely truthful, either.” It was a lie – he had no doubt that the kit before him was too terrified to lie, even if he had secrets – but there was still a possibility that the boy was simply a highly-skilled actor. “I have more questions for you.”

A soft keening noise escaped the boy’s throat, even as he nodded in agreement.

Tasera settled back in his chair, ruthlessly tamping down on the instinct to comfort the child. He had to finish this interrogation – hopefully before Jaxim exploded in apoplectic rage. “So. You’re a half-human child, and you lived with your father.”

A tiny nod. “But your father is gone now?” Tasera asked. He waited until Keith nodded again before continuing. “And it’s not safe for you to go to another human for help and proper nurturing.”

An almost incredulous expression crossed Keith’s face, but he nodded again. Tasera sighed and resisted the urge to rub away the headache he could already feel forming. “Then I cannot allow you to return to your planet, no matter what answers you give me.”

Keith looked up at that, alarmed. “What?” he demanded. “No, no, I – I’d be fine on earth, really, I’d find a way to make it. You can let me go, I promise.”

Tasera shook his head. “Let me make this clear, kit. Under no circumstances will you return to your planet. Keep that in mind, when answering my questions – if you lie, we will have a lifetime to uncover your deceit, and I assume you’re intelligent enough to figure out the punishment for traitors who lie.”

Keith’s gaze darted to Jaxim, and his pale purple skin went nearly grey under his fur. “I understand,” he choked out.

Satisfied, if not a bit remorseful, Tasera crossed one leg over the other and leaned back, every bit the image of nonchalance. “Where did you get the blade you carried?” he asked.

Keith swallowed hard. “My mother left it for me, before leaving Earth,” he said quietly. “That was years ago.”

The boy’s mother was probably a member of the Blade of Marmora. Zarkon on the Throne, Tasera was never going to be able to wrap his head around the idea that the Blade of Marmora was real. “Your mother. What do you know of her?”

Keith frowned, his brow furrowing lightly. “Not much,” he said after a short pause. “She looked a bit like you guys. A lot taller than my dad. She didn’t know much about Earth, but since we stayed in the house, that was fine. Sometimes she’d talk into her communicator in that language you guys were – are – speaking, but the only thing she ever taught me to say was Blade of Marmora.”

Tasera nodded. Definitely a member, then. The whole thing was surreal. “Why did she teach you those words?”

Keith grimaced and shrunk in on himself. “I think,” he began, his voice small. “I think if something ever happened to Dad, they were supposed to come get me. They were supposed to bring me to her.”

Tasera’s eyes widened, and he activated his wrist comm. “Get me Lieutenant Chass,” he ordered.

The vaguely reptilian face of Tasera’s second filled the screen in less than a tick. “Sir?” Lieutenant Chass asked, frowning. “I was under the impression that you were in a classified interrogation?”

Tasera fought back a groan. Chass was a good second, but not always quick on the uptake. “Yes, and the interrogation is yielding information,” he said tightly. “I want two squads of sentries stationed out at the origin of the distress signal,” he ordered. “Program them to capture any…” he fought back a groan and closed his eyes. This was so ridiculous. “Program them to watch for and capture any members of the Blade of Marmora that visit the site, and alert the nearest ship in the case of a successful capture.”

Chass, to his credit, managed to keep his face perfectly neutral. “The Blade of Marmora, sir?” he asked, his voice perfectly bland.

“I am aware of how ridiculous I sound,” Tasera grumbled. “I will debrief you later. For now, those are your orders.”

“Of course,” Chass said, still perfectly neutral. He brought his arm to his chest in salute. “Vrepit sa.”

“Vrepit sa,” Tasera echoed, ending the communication.

Wary eyes trained on Tasera’s face as he turned to face Keith again. “So. In distress, you were supposed to contact the Blade of Marmora,” Tasera said without preamble.

“I… I guess,” Keith whispered. “Please… please, I didn’t know…”

Tasera held up one hand, and the boy’s mouth snapped shut with an audible click. “You were supposed to contact the Blade of Marmora,” he repeated. “You say you didn’t know anything about them – I can believe that, since you’re just a kit,” he said. “Which brings us to the question of the information your father can provide. I’m sure your mother would have confided in her… partner… at some point.”

Keith shook his head. “Nothing, he didn’t know anything,” he said quietly. “He only knew what I know. He and my mom didn’t talk about that sort of thing, I think. He always said she wouldn’t tell him why she left, so that means he doesn’t know anything, right?” Desperation tinged the boy’s words. No doubt he expected that Tasera would send someone after his father – which, admittedly, wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility.

Actually, it was a good idea – and maybe taking that sort of action would cool Jaxim’s ire. “When we are finished here, you will be taken to medical to have your DNA recorded and the non-galra genes analyzed,” he said calmly. “We will use those genes to track down your father for interrogation. The more you tell us, the less your father will suffer.”

A loud, pained cry erupted from the kit, and more water streamed down his face. “Please, no,” he sobbed, shaking his head. “He’s probably dead already anyways, but even if – please, please leave him alone!”

“Why would you think he’s dead?” Tasera asked, once again ruthlessly shoving aside the desire to soothe the boy.

Keith nearly convulsed in his bonds as he sobbed, his words coming out messy and almost too garbled for the translator to interpret. “H-he always, always came home, e-every, every weekend and w‑when he didn’t have, have to work, and this time it was a month and I, I haven’t eaten in th‑three days and he never would have left me that long, he wouldn’t!” the boy wailed.

Some of the words didn’t translate properly, but Tasera got the gist. Keith’s father had disappeared without a trace, leaving his son to starve. He swallowed back revulsion at the thought. He hoped that the man was dead. If he wasn’t – abandoning his own kit to starve? Tasera would have him tortured to death even after all necessary information had been procured.

Tasera glanced over at Jaxim, and was surprised to see that the hatred had completely vanished from the other officer’s face, replaced with quiet reflection. “Lieutenant?” he asked quietly, his voice nearly drowned out by the kit’s miserable sobbing.

“His responses do seem unscripted,” Jaxim admitted, refusing to meet Tasera’s eyes. They sighed. “It’s a pity. Things would be easier had he been a traitor.”

Tasera scowled. “The brutal evisceration of a child is easy?” he asked sharply.

Jaxim shrugged. “Compared to life as a half-breed? Certainly,” they said. “He’ll barely live better than a slave, assuming we have somewhere to place him other than the arena.”

Tasera stared at Jaxim, his blood burning with the thought. Jaxim was right – as a half-breed with no family to care for him, the kit wouldn’t have much of a chance to make anything of himself in life. Unless…

There was one option. It was harsh, maybe even cruel – the ultimate disgrace for a full-blood galra. But for a half-blood, maybe it could be a chance at a decent life.

“I’m surprised that you care,” Tasera said, even as Keith’s sobs began to peter out and he slumped forward, sagging in his bonds. “You did call him a mongrel and accuse him of being a traitor.”

Jaxim shrugged. “He is a mongrel,” they said easily. “And at the time, all evidence suggested that he was a traitor. I’ve known a mongrel or two in my time – what’s it to you?” There was an edge to their voice that dared Tasera to laugh at the revelation, to submit a report that Jaxim had admitted to associating with individuals with impure blood.

Tasera didn’t find it funny. “There is one sub-branch of the military that accepts half-breeds,” he said quietly, choosing to ignore the potentially career-threatening information that Jaxim had given him. “I understand why you wouldn’t think of it,” he added as Jaxim sat up, regarding him sharply. “To you and I, it would be the ultimate disgrace, a brand on our reputations to last a lifetime.”

Jaxim’s eyes widened. “You mean to send him to train under Prince Lotor,” they accused, disbelief etched across their every feature.

Tasera nodded, acutely aware that their prisoner had cried himself out and was now slumped in his bonds across from them, apparently barely cognizant of their conversation. “To be assigned under Prince Lotor is a disgrace for a full-blooded galra,” he admitted, “but as you pointed out, he is a mongrel. The regular military won’t accept him, nor will most civilian jobs. Between the mines, the arena, and service under our exiled Prince, what do you think is the best option?”

Jaxim sighed. “I suppose you’re right,” they admitted. “Working for the exiled brat is better than being driven to an early grave.”

“Then it’s settled.” Tasera turned back to Keith, who raised his water-stained face dully in response. “We have determined that you have been truthful, and have no pertinent information on the Blade of Marmora,” he decreed. The kit’s eyes were tinged red, he noticed with some worry. He’d never seen that happen before, not on a being with white sclera. He’d have to ensure that medical took note of it. “You will be assigned to the junior pre-boot-camp at the edges of the empire. From there, you will be trained to be a proper soldier, a conqueror of worlds, and a true member of the Galra Empire, serving under Prince Lotor.”

Keith let out a broken little huff, his eyes dropping down, gazing at his bound arms. “I don’t guess I get a say in all this?” he asked, his voice still somewhat choked.

Tasera shook his head and rose, gesturing for Jaxim to join him. “You don’t,” he said, “so I’d suggest you make the best of it.”

Keith slumped in his bonds. Tasera bit back a sigh and circled around the table to stand beside the boy. “If you cooperate, I won’t restrain you,” he said, releasing the first of the four cuffs.

Keith nodded. “Sure,” he said, sounding distant. “Got it. It’s not like I have anywhere to go, right?”

He was correct about that. Tasera released the other three cuffs and helped the boy to his feet. “I’ll have some of my men take you to medical and processing,” he said, straightening his shoulders and staring down at the kit. “Don’t make trouble for them.”

Keith stiffened, but he nodded anyways. “Okay,” he said, his voice small.

A few doboshes later, the doors slid open to reveal another three members of squad VG-9. Keith swallowed hard but allowed them to flank him, not bothering to cast a glance back. The doors sealed behind him, and Tasera finally allowed himself to relax, slumping against the table and covering his mouth with one hand to keep from crying out.

“You were right not to torture him.” Tasera jumped at Jaxim’s words in his ear, and turned to face the Lieutenant. “He’ll be all right, Captain,” Jaxim added, hanging back just out of range, their ears flicking warily as if anticipating conflict.

Tasera sighed, his shoulders sagging. He let his neutral expression drop, finally allowed his ears to fold against his head. “Will he?” he asked, staring blankly at the sealed door. He’d never see the kit again, he knew – the boy would be processed and sent to junior pre-boot camp at the Empire’s outskirts on the other side of the universe, where Prince Lotor operated.

“He will be,” Jaxim said firmly. They hesitated for a moment. “As I said, I’ve known a few mongrels,” they reminded him warily. “Lotor’s army has a good number of them. They’ll help him make it through.”

Tired, Tasera still managed a chuckle. “Honestly, I’m just surprised that you, of all people, know any half-breeds well enough to keep in contact,” he said, offering a tired smile.

Jaxim didn’t return his laugh. “You say this because I am conventional and follow the law in both letter and spirit,” they said, matter-of-fact. “This is true. But my – I have a family member who was more… free-spirited. My niece and nephews are mongrels.” They eyed Tasera warily. “Do understand, they are officially disowned, of course, along with my family member.”

Tasera raised his hands. “Your secret is safe with me,” he promised. “But if your disowned family ever has word of Keith in his training, keep me informed, won’t you?”

Jaxim inclined their head. “Of course, sir,” they said. “Now, unless you have further need for me, I must rejoin the commander aboard his ship.”

Tasera nodded and reached out to clasp Jaxim by the shoulder. “Of course,” he said, offering perhaps the first genuine smile he’d allowed himself in several vargas. “I will see you at the next debriefing in… is it two quintants, or one, now?” he asked.

Jaxim groaned, but smiled as they drew back. “Vrepit sa,” they said, clasping their fist to their chest in salute.

“Vrepit sa.”

Tasera waited until the notice that Jaxim had left the ship came through, then made his way to his personal quarters. Once there, he pulled up his communications program at his personal terminal. “Contact my family,” he ordered, activating the device.

After only a few ticks, the faces of his wife and daughter filled the screen, safe at home with the familiar background of the officer family-quarters around them. Tasera relaxed, smiling. “Thrassa,” he said, his smile widening. “Vrei. It’s so good to see you too.”

His quarters filled with his daughter’s comforting chatter and his wife’s soothing presence, Tasera could almost forget about the plight of Keith Kogane.

 

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