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Metal Heart

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The outpost’s security chief had told him often that he was too clever for his own good. He’d always laughed it off; Riven was usually saying it in frustration anyway, after they’d gotten away with something or he’d found out they’d been sneaking out to poke at the primitive locals by catching them bringing the skiff back into the hangar.

He’d never thought of it as a thing that applied to his nominal job, the anchor that’d been tied to his family’s ankles since before the locals had figured out how to build cities. That wasn’t something where he’d really been trying to outsmart anyone, except maybe Zarkon’s ridiculous obsessions.

Nothing they had in the outpost had much range; he’d already hooked what he could build with their resources up to a skiff and checked every single place in that system and a couple nearby ones that might be likely.

Every single uninhabited predominantly water and ice object large enough to hide a Lion was empty.

If he could prove that his system worked, and then get a better array to project it, going off the data he already had, he could prove the Lion was nowhere in that area, and maybe the Emperor would finally give up on the wild goose chase that’d had the outpost exiled past Imperial borders for the entire history of the Empire.

The requests for that were handled by the outpost’s administrator. He didn’t need to talk to Central Command himself.

In spite of the possibility that it would solve their entire situation, Tav still somehow found himself hoping Central Command would ignore it, as Central Command tended to do for centuries at a time. It wasn’t that any of them liked being the laughing stocks of the Empire, but anyone Central Command was likely to send would be guaranteed to be terrifying and essentially a hostile audience.

When the response was that someone was being sent, he adjusted it to “Anybody but Sendak”; Sendak had already been out to the outpost recently, was always a terror, and had been testy enough about ‘wasting his time’ after he’d taken seriously someone’s comment about ‘have you tried the planetoids on the edge of the system’.

Then the battlecruiser came into orbit over the tiny moon, and the ‘request granted’ transmission was allowance for him and two others to assist. That was when Tav concluded that he hoped there wasn’t actually any kind of real higher power orchestrating the universe, because if there was one, they were an unconscionable asshole.

Sendak met them at the hangar. Tav wished he could’ve drug Riven or one of the senior technicians or anybody to stand behind, but no, he was the one that’d come up with the idea, so he was the one being given responsibility.

‘Which means I’m the one who gets Sendak’s temper if anything goes wrong’, he’d complained before they got to the cruiser, and neither of the others could come up with anything comforting to that.

And he was getting questioned by Sendak as soon as they’d been acknowledged in the hangar. “How much do you need to confirm that it works?”

“Uh.” He pulled out the main device, hooking it to his own personal computer on his wrist; considering what he’d heard of one of Sendak’s assignments lately, even its sensors should be enough. “Well, if the Red Lion’s been on this battlecruiser for an extended length of time, then even my personal device should have enough oomph behind it to pick up on the indirect effects on the battlecruiser’s power system.”

It was half nervous rambling, and after it was out of his mouth, he regretted it - it was one of the rules of technical work even when dealing with people more forgiving than Sendak that you quoted worse than your actual expectations, so that you didn’t get accused of making excuses if something went wrong and you needed more than you’d planned for initially to get it working.

And Sendak was watching with skeptical interest.

He brought up the program, and started the scan, thinking as hard as he could at the device to please work as if it’d actually impact the results any.

The readout lit up all over, and he let out a breath in relief, turning the screen to Sendak. “There, see? Changes in the energy signature of the battlecruiser’s power system. Of course it’ll light up the entire body of whatever the lion is on, since it’s diffuse absorption into the local quintessence structures, but it can tell us whether or not there is a lion on any given planet or moon.”

Sendak nodded, and he dismissed the screen. “I was able to already check both the moon we’re stationed on and every other large enough structure within every system in skiff range that was sympathetic in composition and a likely hiding place, with no signs of the Blue Lion, so we can finally conclusively say that it isn’t on either of the moons we’ve been looking at or any of the outer system planetoids here. This entire region of space was probably a decoy after all.”

Two water and ice moons, a large list of lesser moons and planetoids that were entirely ice, no lion.

“How much range would your device have if it were run through the battlecruiser’s arrays?”

His mind went blank for a moment, and he actually brought up to check his notes; he probably could’ve done it in his head if he weren’t on the spot with Sendak’s complete attention, so it was a small blessing that he’d actually calculated it out before he’d reported it. “Within almost any given solar system.”

“Then your first order is to make sure your system is functioning with this ship’s sensor array. Come to the bridge when it’s complete.” Sendak looked up to one of the drones nearby. “Take them to engineering.”

The lead engineer was curt, busy with their own work, and still less threatening than Sendak. The battlecruiser was also huge, and the three of them ended up needing to split up to calibrate things in different parts of the ship, a process that took a few hours.

Tav had Selkor and Levok on a comm headset when he brought the system up. Of course, the first thing it noticed was the battlecruiser itself, thanks to the Red Lion in the hold; the rest of the sensor system required a command override.

He set an exception flagging the Red Lion’s energetic affinities as already known and to ignore it. Technically he could’ve restricted it to the variation in background energy that would come from the elemental affinity of the Blue Lion, but that would mean Sendak’s technicians hounding him more for how to recalibrate it to find the others later.

Not that it wasn’t tempting to make their lives more difficult, but he liked his skin intact.

They met up before heading to the bridge; Tav could monitor the device and the rest of the system from where they were, and while it would’ve been easier to stay split up in case something went wrong and one of them had to run to tend to it, familiar faces close by were about the only comfort they had on a ship full of drones and armored soldiers.

There was an odd chill up his spine walking into the bridge, and something to the side of the room caught his eye -

It wasn’t one of the command staff; it was just floating off to the side of the platform Sendak was on, a ragged black cloak and robe with a five-eyed, pointed mask, long, thin, pale, clawed hands, and no other sign of what might be under the robe.

Druid.

There was a Druid on the Battlecruiser.

One of the things that’d always just been distant stories to everyone on the outpost, a source of jokes about critiquing the reality of bad horror movies, the inscrutable monsters that served in the heart of the Empire, the things that even the upper commanders treated with at least cautious awe if not fear.

Central Command was taking them seriously, for the first time in ten thousand years, and he wasn’t sure if it was worth being on the same ship with a Druid.

A Druid whose mask had turned slightly, the creature visually tracking him.

Sendak made a short, pointed rumble, and Selkor elbowed him in the back with a quiet hiss of “stop looking at it.

He tore his eyes off of it, forcing himself to look up at the commander. By all logic, facing Sendak should’ve seemed like a relief cast in perspective to the Druid not far away, but in reality, it was just one big rolling lump of knotted dread growing like some kind of twisted pearl.

He knew the Druid was still watching, too.

“Well? Is it ready?”

“Y-yes sir. It’s functioning, and I’ve added an exclusion for the Red Lion’s affinities.”

Sendak entered in the beginnings of overrides, bringing up part of the main scanner’s console, and motioned with his good hand for Tav to walk up.

Selkor and Levok stayed put; Tav didn’t look back, and honestly would’ve rather stayed back with them.

The cruiser had systems he’d only ever studied in textbooks, schematics, and tutorials; it was surreal seeing something of his making in among the interface’s list.

He brought it up, and Sendak gave the authorization command.

The cruiser’s computer brought up a model of the solar system that included every object with potentially enough size to fit one of the lions in it.

The scan ticked outward from their location in orbit around the fifth planet in the system. It spread slowly, blank on everything.

A few more ticks and he’d have proven that the old Blue Paladin had decoyed Zarkon off course, and that there was nothing in the system at all.

The system chimed, the third planet lighting up blue; the planet had a much larger quintessence signature, but was showing much larger levels of influence than the battlecruiser’s smaller system, the background wobble on its energy pervading through it, a slow diffusion that had to’ve been going on for ten thousand years. Tav stared at it, leaning forward on the console, muttering to himself in one of the local species’ languages.

The local species that happened to live on that third planet, who were just taking their first toddling steps out into space.

The species that lived on the third planet where the original Blue Paladin had died in what everyone had assumed was an attempt at leading Zarkon away from the lion that Zarkon had believed hadn’t gotten incredibly far. “God no, you flamboyant stupid bastard, did you seriously fake him out with something that completely fucking idiotic…”

And he’d been one of many on the outpost over its history to have made fun of Zarkon for his insistence that it had to be in that area of space, too. It was at least some small, cold comfort that Zarkon had assumed the lion would’ve been on one of the parts of the system more suited to its affinities, which was the reason their little outpost of exile was on a frozen moon made of ocean.

Until Tav got too clever for his own good.

“Can you narrow the location?”

He closed his eyes, trying to shove aside the panic; damnit, they liked that planet, they had communications to the rest of the Empire and more inhabited parts of the universe knocked out for long periods, watching the tiny little monkeys grow up had been an outpost pastime for all of their history.

Maybe if they could find the lion fast enough, Sendak wouldn’t destroy the planet.

“Not really - especially after ten thousand years of diffusion the influence is too uniform for there to even be signs of what general region it might’ve originated in. I think I can isolate a location other ways, but I would need to be within a pretty short range of it - the cruiser would need to be almost right over the location.”

Not good enough, Sendak circling the planet like that would draw attention and things would get ugly. “The old Blue Paladin might’ve left clues behind, though? We do know the area he was last in, we could start there and try to track, or see if there’s any variations that’re easier to tell from up close.”

He was focused enough on the simulation that he was barely paying attention to Sendak looming next to him; he didn’t see the Druid move until there was a thinner hand on his shoulder and a dark, cold shape leaning over, the mask a few inches from his face on one side.

He could feel all of his fur flattening and floundered and failed to stop a tiny metallic whine of fear; it was studying the readouts on his screen.

“The theory remains sound. There may be additional residue from the bond with the lion lingering.” It drifted back, lifting its hand and moving to a place a little behind him and off to the side.

Haxus spoke up from just the other side of Sendak. “Until we have more information, I would suggest small party scouting - the planet’s inhabitants may be primitive, but remaining quiet will draw less attention and potential interference.”

It would be the first, last, and only time Tav was actually thankful for Haxus’s presence.

Sendak nodded, then turned with a brief glance across Tav. “You, with me. We have a report to make.”

There was a jumble of things running through Tav’s head, all tangled up and snarled like a geothermal feather-worm until he wasn’t sure what was what; there was only one person Sendak answered to, and for all that it should have been a moment of triumph, Tav was having a hard time not just feeling panicky about it - old, old journal files that weren’t supposed to exist tangling with Imperial history and Sendak being a looming terror on Zarkon’s orders.

His friends hadn’t been included. The Druid wasn’t moving either as he followed Sendak out, a small mercy.

Sendak led to a small meeting room of some sort nearby; the door slid shut with the faint hiss-click of the lock engaging. Tav fought down the temptation to fidget - worry at the edge of his sleeve, fuss at clasps on his clothing, put a hand on the pendant under his shirt his ancestor’s journal was hidden in to feel around the edges of it, something for a distraction.

Sendak keyed in the call and then stood at attention, giving a neat salute that Tav fumbled to follow.

It never got any easier to stifle wondering what had happened between his ancestor’s journal files, photos, and videos, and the Emperor who was so very visible now, even out at their middle of nowhere outpost; he’d never actually been in any kind of live call with the Emperor before, only seen broadcasts and archives.

“Commander. I assume a report so soon means you have good news?”

“Yes, sire. The surveyor’s invention has been tested, proven, and we have a definitive answer on which planet hides the Blue Lion.” Sendak tapped something on the console to send files, and the system map was visible on the other end, a smaller model of it brought up by the terminal Zarkon was using.

Zarkon stared at it, eyes narrowing with a slow inhale of faint exasperated frustration. “‘Would I be so stupid’, indeed.”

Tav was torn between the warped comedy of Zarkon being confronted with proof that he’d spent ten thousand years being made a fool of by a dead man, and a vague sort of creeping uncomfortable near-nausea that something was wrong with the whole situation. Zarkon remembered things well enough to remember phrasing, what had been said in the last confrontation, and Tav had records hanging around his neck where they’d seemed inseparable.

Records that weren’t supposed to exist anymore, as near as he could tell.

Zarkon looked up from the readout, eyes settling on Tav, standing half behind Sendak. “And this is the surveyor?”

Sendak stepped sideways enough that Tav wasn’t hidden behind him anymore, and Tav froze. Zarkon motioned with a clawed hand for him to step forward.

He swallowed and took a step to be standing even with Sendak in front of the panel with the comm panel. Sendak stepped back slightly, leaving him out front and suddenly feeling much smaller.

“Well, young one? Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?”

“Ah, of course, your majesty,” his train of thought had imploded on itself and melted; he had to be speaking, but there wasn’t much coherent thought to it, and it was almost a rote habit tangent to add in human language, half under his breath, “he who stranded us out here after getting completely played and refusing to admit it and never sends supplies and materials for us to do our fucking jobs,”

And that was about where he inhaled and found some attempt to focus again, even if the inside of his head did still sound like machinery about to fall apart. “I am Tav, of Kelvet Outpost, current lead surveyor and local expert for our research on the lions of Voltron.”

Sendak had ignored the brief editorial commentary with silent exasperation; he couldn’t understand a word of it, and over the centuries it had been such a common habit for the Outpost residents to not even be worth pursuing most of the time as long as they were doing their jobs.

Zarkon, on the other hand, leaned the side of his face against one hand. “Care to repeat that first part?”

Tav blinked. Whatever he said to cover had to match the tone he’d used for the grumbling or it’d be obvious he was bullshitting, and he was suddenly regretting old habits and keenly aware that he may have just risked his life by running his mouth. “Uh, with all due respect, it’s a much more difficult job when the ships and equipment we have are sometimes ten thousand years old?”

Zarkon’s eyes narrowed faintly; Tav couldn’t tell what the reaction was, but there were tiny alarms going off on his head like there was something obvious he was missing.

“Funny, that’s not what I heard.”

Zarkon had understood him.

There was no way Zarkon had been exposed to - no, now that it was harder to avoid, there had been something in the old journals mentioning a side effect of the ties to the lions being an ability to disregard language barriers.

Zarkon had definitely understood him, and he stiffened with a tiny, metallic high-pitched noise; the dim look he got from Sendak didn’t even register.

It took a couple seconds for the rusty, faint, bemused chuckle from the other end of the call to register for what it was.

“I think I can overlook some minor insubordination in favor of answering mostly honestly, nevermind the results you’ve managed.”

It was going to take Tav a few hours to remember how to breathe properly. “Thank you for your indulgence, your majesty.”

“You have certainly proven your ability well past any objections over your youth. I am curious, however, what your research was based on.”

Of course the one person in the Empire with a very long and personal history with the lions would be curious as to how the middle-of-nowhere forgotten exiled outpost managed to figure out something like this. “Well, you see, part of it was just going over basic principles of energetic radiation and comparing that to everything else we’ve tried over the last ten thousand years.”

He was trying not to think about how much of his skin right now was riding on sounding like he knew what he was doing, particularly after the ‘minor insubordination’. The problem was, while that was true, it also probably wasn’t anything that hadn’t been tried in the rest of the Empire, and he really didn’t want to end up insulting Zarkon or any of his likely other efforts over the millennia more than he already had.

The pendant hidden under his shirt hung heavier than usual, something he didn’t want to talk about exactly but didn’t think he could avoid; Zarkon obviously was more than aware he hadn’t actually explained everything.

“And - one of my ancestors worked on the lions in your service originally, when they were built and afterwards. I found some fragments of notes in our old files, and used those to figure out what would be likely patterns for passive radiation related to their respective affinities, because - most of the clearer signatures would either be incredibly difficult to detect without being almost on top of them, or would be jammed and blocked right now, but after ten thousand years, there would’ve been enough passive radiation to leave some impact on whatever they were hidden on, even if it wouldn’t pinpoint an exact location.”

Just notes, really, only notes, no journal, no personal commentary, no attempts at making sense of another now-extinct species’ awareness and approach to technology or passed-down scraps of a time that’d been purged from the Empire’s histories and rewritten.

Zarkon nodded with interest, but he’d apparently succeeded at an earnest enough delivery and probably enough signs of sheer suppressed terror after his earlier slip to avoid sounding like he was hiding something.

It wasn’t like the parts of the journal he could access gave him any real explanation to what had happened or why, anyway, or like it would change anything about what the universe was now, either.

“We are fortunate that enough survived to be of use.”

This time Tav was paying enough attention to keep his first response from getting out - ‘didn’t even bother to think to copy archives and records when he destroyed the planet and now we’re expected to make it up from scratch’ and ‘would it have killed them to salvage the technical documentation first’ had been ten thousand year laments for the technicians and surveyors assigned to try to find the lion. “Yeah. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to narrow something down compared to previous efforts.”

“Once the lion is recovered, we will see to re-instating your ancestor’s position at central command; there will be definite use for skilled support crews and researchers.”

He needed a moment for that to sink in fully -

No more near-exile on a frozen moon. No more being the laughing-stock of the Empire. No more getting looked down on by anyone that came out to the half-stranded little outpost to check on them.

“Would I be allowed to bring anyone else from my crew here with me?” Not all of them had any skillsets in directly relevant fields, but he could probably make a case to get everyone he normally ran with moved to Central Command.

“The rest of the team that has been assisting in this search? …Of course.”

As terrifying as Zarkon and pretty much anybody associated with him was, even with the tiny dinging little alarm that it’d mean Druids no longer being distant rumors nobody had ever seen in person and the other dinging little senses that it wasn’t safe, they could finally have an actual place in the Empire.

“We won’t disappoint you.”

Zarkon gave an acknowledging nod. “You’re dismissed, Surveyor. Vrepit sa.”

He managed a slightly better salute than last time, the callback half not sounding like it came from him; Sendak motioned to the door, and he walked out, pausing as the door closed behind him to lean on the wall and remember how to breathe in a way that didn’t leave him light-headed.

*************************

An alien ship had come down in Montana.

They’d easily evaded almost everything official, only spotted by a few amateur telescopes. At least one of those amateur telescopes belonged to someone who haunted one of the more careful and thorough alien conspiracy boards, prompting a quick flurry of activity to organize an investigation, hopefully ahead of anyone else and quiet enough to avoid notice.

Two of the more active members for investigation had been in the area anyway, checking around an older site near the likeliest landing sites. It wasn’t hard to adjust plans, halting breaking down the base camp while the younger of the two turned around to head back.

Keith left the bike at the trailhead. He didn’t take the trail itself up the bluffs; it was too exposed and too visible, and he had zero faith in unknown aliens lurking in the system to not be hostile - in fact, he expected the opposite. He’d found another way up to the area of the few odd caves there, albeit one that involved going straight up through scraggly scrub growing in cracks.

He even had climbing gear this time, mostly thanks to Joe shoving it at him after the older man had found out he’d free-climbed it before. They only knew each other by aliases and a shared paranoia agreement to not pry into each other's lives or reasons for being involved, but after a few years of occasionally conspiring and documenting various sites spread across the west, they’d gotten to a sort of comfortable working relationship.

And Joe had never asked why “Akira” suddenly had no solid scheduled obligations or a near obsessive renewed interest in some of the older sites after the Kerberos mission disappeared.

The area where he topped out was clear; he took a moment in the relative cover of thick brush to stow the climbing gear and check his earpiece and the small camera mounted almost on his shoulder.

“All good?”, he whispered.

“All good” came back in confirmation.

He kept low and to cover, staying as silent as he could; they were searching on a hunch that the same odd tomb they’d been studying would also be of interest to the aliens. It meant that if they were wrong the entire stealth routine would be wasted effort, but after years of video from trips with nothing confirmable newer than neolithic cave paintings, Keith would call “nothing there, perfectly safe” bad luck and a failure.

Movement and an occasional faint electronic hum got his hopes up and got him flattening lower in the gap between jagged, thick scrub and part of the bluffs. There were definitely figures around the cave entrance, ones that looked too tall and large to be human even while he was still too far back to distinguish more than dark blurs through the leaves and branches.

He got as close as he dared, with only maybe a half foot of vegetation between him and the clearing around the cave entrance, close enough that he - and the camera - could get a good look.

There were at least three around the area. Two seemed to be posted watching the direction of the plateau, carrying something recognizeable as rifle-like weapons; they were either wearing seamless mechanically augmented armor or were machines, and the way the joints moved as they shifted weight made him lean toward the latter.

The one leaning in the entrance was broader, around nine or ten feet tall, in purple armor with red and gold markings. He? didn’t have a helmet, although there were mechanical pieces and a prosthetic eye on one side; the big alien had broad, pointed ears, fine violet fur marred by scars, and a near featureless gold good eye. One arm had a large clawed forearm that looked completely mechanical, attached at the elbow only by a tether of arcing pale purple light.

The alien didn’t seem to have seen him even though it was facing roughly his direction, good eye half-lidded; a yawn showed a mouthful of sharp teeth.

They looked like they came prepared for a fight, and he was quietly praying for a range of things like poor color vision and no augments on the prosthetic for infrared or anything else that would make his thin cover a joke; there were maybe five feet between them, and he didn’t like his odds of dodging if the alien lunged for him.

There was only a quiet intake of breath over his earpiece as the alien shifted; Joe could see what he was seeing, and had made the same guess he had that the alien probably had damn good hearing.

The one by the door looked up and inside at footsteps. A second one, thinner, less scarred, and in lighter armor stopped in the cave entrance, clawed arms folded; the larger one had raised a hand as they approached.

Keith couldn’t understand a word of the exchange that happened. The one he’d been watching had a few gestures with the prosthetic while speaking, a few too many teeth visible for his comfort. The thinner one made a faint noise, then said something motioning back to indicate the cave; there was a pause, then they continued, and the posture and tone looked much like a military report.

The larger one gave something he guessed was a salute. The thinner one returned it and turned to walk back into the cave.

Things were relatively quiet again, although his skin crawled and he couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. The lack of visible pupils didn’t help; he honestly couldn’t tell where the big alien was looking. He stayed as still as he could, holding his breath.

There was some kind of odd sound in the cave, like a vacuum-tube having a critical failure without the sound of glass breaking.

He wasn’t sure if the expression that crossed the alien’s face was a smile or baring teeth, but he wanted to bet on the latter, and they distinctly looked straight at him a second before something cold touched the back of his neck. There was a burst from it that threw him out of the brush and to the ground with a shriek of static from the earpiece; he might have screamed, but wasn’t sure, and it took a few seconds for his vision to clear with a hazy, pained ponder of if that was what getting tazered was like. He scrabbled to sit up, the larger alien’s armored boots passing across his line of sight, and tried to stand, wheeling around to face whatever had hit him.

The thing was thin, with covered arms coming out of some kind of hooded robe and five-eyed mask; its features were completely obscured, but the thin clawed limbs looked unnatural, jointed and proportioned wrong. It flowed out of the brush more like semi-solid black smoke than a living thing, the edges of the robe shifting as if they were extensions of it rather than a garment. Something black arced around its hand like inverted lightning, and he almost forgot about the other alien until the metal claws of the prosthetic were against his back, stopping him from backing away from whatever had ambushed him. The two mechanical sentries had barely reacted; out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the other alien watching from the cave.

He briefly considered going for the knife at his belt, but he wasn’t even sure he could get it clear of its sheath if he did.

The one behind him - he wasn’t sure if they or the unnatural thing were the leader here - said something he couldn’t understand; the other in the cave had a dry, short response. The black lightning from the thing sparked out, tracing around him on the ground in a way that gave him no room to move; the larger alien stepped back as the circle completed around him.

He tried to jerk out of the way when the unnatural thing went for his throat, but only succeeded in barking his shoulder against the strange barrier, something that was simultaneously freezing cold and like brushing a live electrical fence. It caught him anyway, pulling him off the ground; the chill from its claws seemed to seep through to his bones from the contact, and no amount of the mid-day sun was cutting through it. The earpiece sputtered.

It tilted its head at him, loosening its grip; the cold didn’t exactly abate, but it stopped intensifying.

The voice from the thin, beaked mask was hollow, and seemed to get the attention of at least the one he could half-see. There was a short exchange between them, with it loosening its grip just enough that he could breathe. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what had their sudden interest.

Something in the cold shifted, making his head swim for a moment, and then it dropped him. He ended up in a heap with his hands on the ground, fighting to catch his breath and shake off the vertigo. The weird black was creeping around and over him, centering somewhere just under his collarbone with what felt like a frostburn.

“Well, little one. Did you find what you were looking for?”

It was the armored one behind him, and understanding what was being said felt like the least of his concerns right now.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” he snapped. His voice was raspy, still getting air through him after the thing’s attack.

“Well, at least the brat has some spirit to him. Maybe the Champion wasn’t a fluke after all.”

He shot the one in the cave a sidelong glare, rubbing his throat; he had a lifetime of learning how far he could swing a shovel when he was already in a hole without making it deeper, he could get away with that much. A second later what the alien had said sank in, and if he’d had any kind of decent weapon, he would have made a level attempt at murdering everything in the clearing.

The knife was not enough of a weapon to let the brief homicidal impulse get past conditioning to bite it back in contexts where he couldn’t accomplish anything by it, but his hand on the ground curled in, clawing the sand, and he snarled.

If they weren’t the ones who’d snatched the Kerberos expedition, they were at least connected.

The odd feeling of vertigo slipped through, and started to make some sort of sense, as if something else were sifting its fingers through him, another presence turning his thoughts over in its claws.

The thing said something that didn’t translate. Whatever it had said, the other two didn’t answer out loud. Then, the mask tilted to look back down at him. “You are not wholly of this world.”

He froze, unsure if it was that deep in his head or if it had been seeing something else examining him, and not sure he wanted to know the answer. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The black streaks curling around him prickled uncomfortably. “You cannot lie to me.”

In his head, and he wasn’t sure how to keep it out. “I don’t - really know anything about it. I only know I’m not all human.”

It made a thoughtful noise, unsurprised. “You have found your people. You are Galra.” It motioned at the other two present; he wasn’t sure what it counted as.

And he wasn’t sure he wanted to be related to the creatures that’d taken Shiro.

“If that’s true then why am I here? Why do I look this - human?” He shrank back and to the side; it wasn’t more than a couple inches away from the one behind him and the thing, and he didn’t think they would let him get much further than that.

“Something must have been done when you were born to suppress anything too noticeable.” The one in the cave shrugged. “I can’t recall anyone stationed in this sector going unaccounted for, but there is always the possibility of a lost civilian ship - or someone that was accounted for doing something stupid and undocumented.”

As languid as the delivery was, he didn’t trust it right now, even if he was trying not to gauge if they looked like something that might be a source for some of what hadn’t been covered for “passing for human”, the long history of medical and other oddness he’d always lived with. Something big and predatory would make sense…

Or it could be the thing in his head trying to influence him.

“You’ve been called. You came seeking dreams of fire.” Its voice was still unnatural.

He wasn’t sure how, but his skin crawled more at that than it already was with the thing’s power wrapped around him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

It prickled again.

“There is something very old that we came into your system searching for. We already have one of them. You may be compatible with it.” He twisted around to look up at the apparent leader, who had taken over speaking for the moment. “If you are, you would have a position of great power and esteem within the Empire - the right hand of the Emperor himself.” The alien commander had stepped closer again, still just outside the unnatural thing’s circle around him. “You could have almost anything you asked.”

Every alarm he had for a con was sounding; there was a trap, nobody that reflexively hostile just offered things without a price, and he had a feeling it was contingent on obedience to some authority he knew next to nothing about, and the little he knew he already didn’t like.

Although if he’d read between the lines right, it might also mean getting them to let Shiro go.

“One life would be a pittance of a reward. We would grant what you seek.”

He snapped his focus back to the thing, torn between weighing what it said and wanting to recoil away from it answering things he hadn’t said out loud. He doubted he’d have free reign, they didn’t seem like the sort of creatures to grant free reign, but… “So you do have Shiro.”

“Nowhere near this sector. But you would be more than valuable enough for that to be easily within Lord Zarkon’s generosity.” Its voice had faded to almost metal-sliding-across-metal, as if it were not built to speak for long periods.

“Akira, I don’t know what —— told you, but I don’t li——is.” Joe’s voice over the earpiece crackled and broke apart, as if it were routed through an empty tunnel somewhere along the way.

He didn’t like it either, although he didn’t dare answer. Even if he asked what he would be expected to give up, what they’d want him to do, he doubted he’d get an honest answer; it was a trap, bait, and his entire value was whatever the strange dreams and odd energy he’d chased might mean.

But he doubted they’d let him walk away alive if he refused, and if whatever they wanted him to activate for them was that powerful and wouldn’t work without him, then maybe he could play along long enough to get Shiro and then figure something out from there once he knew more. “Alright. I’ll go with you. But I want answers on the way.”

There was a muted “fuck” on the earpiece and then the beep of the other end disconnecting. The circle around him abated, most of the black lightning receding into the creature; it rested a hand on his shoulder, over the camera, and there was a last prickling rattle that he was pretty sure the camera didn’t survive.

He got to his feet, wobbly; the vertigo was at a low roar, but still there.

“Is the survey complete?” The one behind him actually sounded respectfully cautious of the unnatural thing; Keith didn’t blame him.

“Yes.” Its mask inclined towards him again. “The trails from the tomb are ruined by age, and the surveyor’s instruments find nothing either. This one knows far more than we could gain from this place, including the location of the other lion.”

“Well, at least all that digging wasn’t a total loss,” the one in the cave said. Keith leaned a little to see around him; sure enough, there was a hole carved into the wall partway back, that would go straight through the rock in the direction of the tomb proper.

There wasn’t much at this site, beyond cave paintings and an old grave; he only knew it was connected to the other caves further south by similarities in some of the paintings.

“Then we will return to the ship to give our new recruit proper answers, and inform Lord Zarkon of our progress.” The strange prosthetic settled on his shoulder, steadying him, but it also felt like there was an implied message about trying to bolt. The thing vanished, as if a black hole closed in on it and winked out of existence in front of him.

The leader was hovering close to him; he nodded to the other one, who returned it and headed back into the hole they’d cut into the rock.

He’d had to rappel down through part of the waterfall on the other side of the rock to get into the tomb proper on a gamble, and barely got the battered machine that he’d rebuilt into his bike out via the same old opening. Joe was the only other person who knew they’d found the actual tomb and not just the odd paintings and carvings depicting whatever people had lived here ten thousand years ago interacting with some kind of sharklike figure. There’d been enough to pick out attempts at drawing ships, but the way the legend had mostly died out and the way it’d been drawn as less of some kind of idea of the divine had been what tipped them off that it might be an actual record of alien contact. No dramatic enlightenment, no gods making the land livable, just one strange and not human person who’d been depicted arriving wounded, spending time with the humans, then dying fighting some unknown enemy that used the local people as bait. They’d never mentioned it to anyone, a quiet agreement that neither of them trusted anyone else who might come, official or not, to respect the dead and leave the actual burial proper alone.

He could almost see some of the paintings from here; the last couple of the sequence in that hallway were destroyed by the hole they’d carved, but he could still see the painting of the blue figure, run through by a much taller one he’d just slashed across one violet eye, faded color on the face, and dark reddish armor.

It was a conscious effort to not look between the painting and the figure next to him; the one in the painting didn’t quite look the same, less ears and what looked like scales, but some of the others depicted in the larger battle further in the tunnel were less distinct on that, and the armor was definitely a crude depiction of something similar. He’d long wondered if the civilizations involved were even still around recognizably ten thousand years later and which ones were likely to still be past Earth, a flimsy possible clue to his own heritage.

It was definitely looking like the “Sky Warrior” hadn’t been an isolated loss in whatever conflict had been going on.

He didn’t think he’d get a good answer if he did ask.

The other one came out a minute later, followed by another of them - thicker furred than the commander, and not wearing armor, carrying a couple cases. That one blanched a little on seeing Keith, taking a step back and looking between the other two, then ducked their head, ears lowered and angled back, following the apparent second in command quietly.

The commander turned to leave, claws tapping Keith’s shoulder to signal him to move. He kept Keith close the entire hike down the hillside off a lesser-used trail; the second in command walked behind him, with the one not in armor trailing behind. They went off the trail once they were off the bluff, heading into a narrow ravine where there was a smooth, dark ship that he could pretty easily see as similar to the one in one of the now-destroyed paintings that the unknown assailants had left in.

He got names and ranks on the trip back, the apparent civilian staying quiet and away from him in the ship, looking away. There wasn’t really any chance to ask questions about them, as he was getting a brief instruction on protocol; they seemed pleased when he responded shortly into it with pulling up to something close to attention and a military “Understood, sir.”

He was being taken to their ship, to be taken in person to their Emperor. He wanted to believe that “You will be dealing with the ruler of the known universe” was an exaggeration, but a ten thousand year old regime was still nothing to take lightly.

He never got a good look at any kind of external porthole or window to see outside until after the small ship had landed and he’d been ushered out into a large hangar on some kind of much larger vessel; there was some kind of field keeping the atmosphere contained and pressurized, so that the end of the hangar seemed to look out on open space. There wasn’t much view of any starfield - the red spot of Jupiter loomed across what was visible from the opening, massive and roiling. They had to be a decent distance to keep a stable orbit, but the planet was still huge below, the red spot alone massive.

They’d made a trip that took Earth ships months in a matter of minutes, and he was staring at another planet he’d almost given up on ever seeing in person.

It was hard to enjoy it with the growing unease about what he’d just been leveraged into; all it really did was make him feel incredibly small and helpless in the face of a storm that could’ve swallowed Earth many times over, on a ship made by people who’d been going between star systems while humans were still making sense of agriculture and hadn’t figured out written language.

There was something pulling at him still; the same kind of feeling he’d gotten that had led him to the canyon caves that had to be what they were looking for, but as close as it’d felt when he was standing in the canyon, and much more urgent.

It had to be whatever they’d wanted him for; he’d get to it when he had a chance with less of them watching.

The hangar was large and long, with small, angular ships lined up in rows all along the walls. Most of the traffic came from more of the mechanical drones, but he could spot armored soldiers here and there directing and overseeing. Sendak had stepped away from hovering over him, but Haxus was still close by, watching him; the other one - the one they’d mentioned as a “surveyor” - was off to the side, clustered with two other Galra who weren’t in armor, talking quietly; one of them was another thicker-furred one, while the third one had scales.

He was a little curious, but he also didn’t think it’d be a good idea to wander away from Haxus just yet the way they were hovering, and the three non-military didn’t seem like they’d appreciate him drawing the officer’s attention to them more.

It wasn’t long before Sendak returned, watching out the hangar expectantly; another of the pods came in, a little different shaped, with some of the exterior mismatched, faded, and dented. It landed nearby, the hatch opening.

The Galra who stepped out might’ve been a little taller than Sendak; his armor was battered and looked like parts of it had been hastily altered to account for prosthetic limbs that he was pretty sure included part of one leg, the lower half of an arm, and other signs of reconstruction and supports. It all seemed a little patchwork, and definitely wasn’t nearly as sleek as Sendak’s, with no sign of the odd energy parts, either. Pitted scars covered ragged, heavy scales, and he kept a slow, deliberate stalk off the shuttle, stopping a few yards away from it with his arms folded, waiting.

The three civilians all perked up watching as soon as he walked out, but were staying where they were, glancing toward Sendak nervously now and then.

Sendak gave the other Galra a brief look of irritation with a short lip curl and a rumble, then walked over to meet him, not making any motion for Keith to follow; Haxus hung back by him, within earshot but not leaving him unattended.

“Commander Sendak.” The newcomer gave a rough salute.

“Security Chief Riven.” Sendak returned it. “We have narrowed down the location of the Blue Lion and located something of personal interest to Emperor Zarkon. I am going to leave a small complement of soldiers and a ship; you are to take them and your survey team to the location to find its exact hiding place and secure the area. As soon as we’ve made our delivery, we will return to retrieve it.” Sendak paused. “Once it’s secured, you might finally be able to rejoin the Empire proper.”

Somehow it felt like a barb; Riven was hard to read expressions on, and wasn’t showing much reaction at first. “It will be an honor I will be overjoyed to receive.” His delivery was flatter than crossing Kansas.

“I wouldn’t think a decorated veteran would be so attached to this frozen pit.” Sendak gestured at something off outside the ship, and Keith realized why there’d been “unspecified failures” for all attempts at probes under the ice on Europa.

“I am retired. I have earned my peace and quiet. I look forward to returning to it once the Emperor has his toy in hand.”

Sendak gave a snort. “I am sure with your record keeping a perimeter clear of curious primitives will be trivial enough.”

“Trivial. Yes.” Riven had gone flat delivery again for that. “I know enough of the little creatures after living here to know how they work, Commander; they won’t get to your prize.” He raised a hand and motioned to follow him, not bothering to look sideways; the three surveyors hurried to the ship behind him.

“I will hold you to that. Dismissed.”

Riven gave another tired salute and turned before Sendak had entirely finished returning it, stalking back to the ship with the same kind of measured, looming leisure.

The shuttle took off soon after. Sendak stared after it, then turned to bark orders at a few of the other soldiers nearby, to prepare a landing craft and collect the survey team, then motioned to Keith to follow; Haxus fell into step behind him as they left.