"What's our current status?" Jensen barked, bracing himself against the side of his captain's chair as the ship lurched with another hit.
"Everything's holding, sir," said First Officer Lindberg. "Only minor damage from the current attack."
Lindberg tapped briefly on the tablet in front of him. He winced, then straightened and said, "Sixteen active and engaged with targets."
Jensen struggled to keep his face blank as he looked at the wide viewscreen that dominated the bridge. The cameras mounted on the nose of the Ariana gave a wider, more complete perspective than an actual window would, but it still made him feel like he was watching a delayed broadcast rather than live action. And to know that four of their fighters had already gone down—another four after yesterday's battle—was almost too much to bear.
When Jensen was sure his voice would be level, he replied, "Let's make sure we're giving them cover."
"Aye, sir." Lindberg made a quick call to the weapons bay before returning to his screen.
"Sir, we're getting an incoming message," said Communications Officer Day. "It's coded for your eyes only."
"Better damn well be Ferris explaining that reinforcements are on the way," Jensen muttered as he got to his feet. A small detonation made him sway on his feet, but he kept his footing. "Here." He bent over the console, letting the biokey scan his retina even as Day put a headset into his hands. "TRANSMITTING" flashed across the screen, with a loading bar rapidly moving underneath the words.
Jensen put on the headset just as shocked gasps echoed across the bridge. His head shot up in time to see a bright flash coming from the right side of the viewscreen. It was too big to be fighters colliding unless they were right outside the ship, and then they would have felt the shockwave already. But coming from that direction, something that big had to be—
"Macchu," Day breathed out, fingers frozen on her keyboard.
Jensen opened his mouth to deny it, to reassure his crew that the largest space station orbiting their home planet hadn't just gone up in flames before their horrified eyes. But Lindberg called out, "Brace!", and Jensen barely had time to crouch on the floor and grab onto one leg of the console.
The shock wave rattled past, no harder than a direct hit from one of the rebel fighters, but stunning nonetheless. It had barely passed when the transmission download completed, and Commander Ferris's voice was suddenly filling Jensen's ears. He sat back on his heels, gripping the console leg in case of a second wave, and listened.
"Lieutenant General Ackles, I have some unfortunate news to pass on," the woman who commanded the Space Forces said briskly. "There have been severe casualties on Akkad. I regret to inform you that General Richings has been killed in action."
Jensen's eyes briefly closed. Richings had been his first commanding officer out of the academy, the spacer who'd taught him almost everything he knew about how to captain a ship. He'd just sent Jensen a comm the other day, something about grabbing a beer together once the current rebel offensive was driven back.
Ferris was still speaking. "Given the severe injuries that Lieutenant General Williams suffered in the attack on Xia, he won't be able to take over as my second in command at this time. You're the next ranking officer, General Ackles. When the current battle is finished, I'll need you to dock at Macchu Station so we can discuss your new command. And your promotion. I'm temporarily stationed there to check on our troops as we transfer some in from planetside. In the meantime, best of luck to you and your crew."
The transmission ended, and Jensen was left staring out the viewscreen as bits of debris flew past. The ship was being buffeted with small pieces of what had been Macchu Station—the place from which Commander Ferris had just issued her final message.
There was a thump against the side of the Ariana. Jensen absently grabbed at the console to steady himself. Lindberg was calling out to him, something about the fighters returning to the ship, but Jensen could barely hear him over the rushing in his ears. Ferris had made him second-in-command a fraction of a second before she and the rest of Macchu were vaporized. Jensen's mentor was gone, and he didn't know how far down the chain of command of elected officials they were by now. Probably Secretary of the Outer Asteroids or something.
And if there had been a troop exchange going on…Jensen closed his eyes and did some quick calculations. When he was done, his gut sank even lower.
Rising to his feet, Jensen put a hand on Officer Day's shoulder. "Get me the capital," he said quietly. "Secure link, to my quarters."
"Sir, there's no one in Caral," she replied, brow furrowed.
"I know that," he barked. "There's still a capital, though."
"Yes, sir," she replied in a subdued voice. The click of her fingers on the keys was the only sound as the crew continued to watch the images on the giant screen before them, the fighters dodging pieces of rock and metal (and flesh and bone) as they made their way back to the ship. Jensen was able to avoid all of their eyes as he crossed the bridge and keyed open the door to his quarters.
It shouldn't have come to this, he thought as he sat down and plugged the headset he was still carrying into his private comm console. Five years ago, this would have been thought impossible. Hell, even a year ago, no one would have believed the rebels could reach Xia, or worse yet, Macchu. And yet both had suffered unbelievable losses in just this past month. Not to mention Caral, which Jensen still had a hard time thinking about.
His gaze strayed, as it often did, to the calendar on the wall, a hard copy that wouldn't go down if the ship's computers were damaged. Ninety days—that was all they had until the sunspot cycle ramped up. They'd been counting on Macchu's shields to protect them and what was left of their fighters from the waves of deadly solar flares. Now, with the station destroyed and only half of one planet under their control, they had less than three months until they'd have no cover at all.
"I don't have a choice, do I?" he muttered to himself.
As Jensen listened to the clicks and beeps of the connection being established, he tried to formulate a reasonable argument for what he was about to propose. He didn't have to seek permission—they'd been under martial law for over a year, so whoever commanded the military commanded the system. Which meant that a thirty-year-old from a vanished city was now in charge, the fate of two planets suddenly on his shoulders.
It was unthinkable, what Jensen was about to propose. But if it would keep what was left of his people alive, no matter how much they would hate him for it, he was willing to do it.
"Kumasi Central Command."
Jensen took a deep breath and started to talk.
"Torpedo Bay Four, arm!"
Jared nodded at his crewmate Abel as the staticky voice reverberated through the small room, and together they lifted the heavy weapon into place. It was as long and solid as an old-time Earth submarine torpedo would have been, but the guidance system was about a thousand times more sophisticated. Not to mention the explosives, designed to work not underwater but in the vacuum of space.
The torpedo would still have the same effect, though: blasting the enemy out of existence.
Jared closed the latch and clicked on the radio. "Torpedo Bay Four armed, sir."
"We launch in ten," came the reply.
Abel scrambled through the hatch of the bay, Jared nearly bending double to follow. They closed the heavy door behind them and once again radioed from the comm near the door. "All secure."
A few seconds later, a red light started blinking on the comm unit. Jared braced against the side wall, Abel on the opposite side. The thump from the other side of the door was followed by a loud bang and then a whoosh.
"Give 'em hell!" Abel shouted after the disappearing torpedo. He held up his hand, and Jared gave him a high five.
The red light had gone solid again, and Jared spun the wheel to open the hatch. It was kind of ironic, relying so heavily on technology reminiscent of Old Earth when that was the political system that they were fighting so strongly against. But it wasn't like they had access to military hardware of their own; that all belonged to that same corrupt system. Rehabilitating old freighters and fighters was the only way they could stay in the skies and the orbits as they fought for their freedom.
"Still think you're nuts for working down here," Abel said as he cranked the handle to bring the launch tube back into place. "You could be commanding this ship if you wanted to."
Jared scoffed. "I've never commanded anything." Not for lack of trying, he added in his head.
"That's not my point, man." Abel gave him a sideways glance. "It's a dirty, dangerous post. Your mom must not like it that you're down here."
"No more than yours does, I'm sure," Jared returned. He pushed his sweaty hair back from his face. "It wouldn't be fair if I got special privileges because of who my mother is."
"Still. You'd think the President wouldn't want her son as close to a potentially misfiring torpedo as this." He rapped on the outer hull with one fist. "Not to mention that those 'Kad fighters outside have to see this end of the ship as their number one target right now."
Jared shrugged. "She wouldn't want me farther up in the ranks than I should be, either. It would undermine everything we've been fighting for all these years."
"And you're okay with that?"
"Yeah, sure." Jared started to say more, but the comm box squawked again. There was more noise in the background than before, but he could still make out the words. "Stand down, Torpedo Bay Four."
"Aw, man." Abel patted the torpedo in the rack that was next in line. "I was hoping to send some more 'Kads into the black."
"Maybe we already did enough," Jared replied.
"Report to the mess hall," came the next command. "ASAP."
"Yes, sir," they both replied, and in the next minute, they were ducking out of the hatch and into the narrow corridor. Jared had to bend low to keep from snagging his head on the low-hanging wires in the hallway. They'd had to jerry-rig so much on this old ship to make it fly again, but he loved it. It spoke of the grit that every person on this ship had, the determination to keep fighting and never give in.
They joined up with a couple of other weapons officers on the way, and then a handful of people emerging from the bunkrooms, still yawning. How they'd been able to sleep through the battle around them, Jared had no idea. Whatever this was about, it was important enough for the Captain to rouse the whole ship.
By the time they got to the mess hall, there was barely room to stand. People kept crowding in behind them, pushing closer and closer until Jared could hardly breathe. There were a hundred and sixty-eight people on board, and it seemed like at least a hundred and sixty of them were trying to fit into a room meant to hold half that many. Finally, there were shouts at the doorway to stop, and the press of people eased.
"What's going on?" Abel called from Jared's side.
"Cap'n will be here in a minute," First Officer Cassidy shouted over the low din of voices.
It was more like five minutes, but eventually, on the far side of the room from where Jared was squished against the wall, there was a ripple in the crowd. Captain Morgan was pushing his way through and then climbing up on a table in the very middle of the room. He raised his hands, and the room fell silent.
"I just received a transmission from headquarters." The corners of the captain's mouth were trembling, and even from halfway across the room, Jared could see how his eyes were gleaming. "The Akkadians have…" He paused and shook his head, briefly pressing his lips together. In a softer voice, he went on, "They've issued their surrender."
There was dead silence for about two seconds.
Then a hundred and sixty people burst into whoops and cheers and exclamations and started to jump up and down or hug whomever they were standing next to.
Jared sagged back against the wall, unable to believe what he'd heard. Four years of fighting—his entire life since college—and he had never imagined this could actually happen. That they could drive the Akkadians off their planet, sure; that had been done two years ago, impossible as it had seemed when they first began. But they'd kept going, first wanting to ensure their orbit was theirs as well, and as they kept being successful, wondering if maybe it wouldn't be better if the whole system was theirs. There were only the two habitable planets, anyway; wouldn't it be best to ensure they were under the control of one ruler?
Jared's mother, elected leader in the illegal plebiscite held so many years ago that started it all, had been inclined to stay with just their planet. She'd lost her husband and oldest son, after all, and who knew what might happen if they pressed on? But she'd held a vote, as she'd pledged to do on all important decisions, and the people had decided.
And now, they'd won.
Jared knew he should be cheering and dancing with the rest of the crew, but he couldn't help thinking about his brother, lost in an accident trying to make a ship just like this one spaceworthy. And then his father, killed in combat over their home planet only a year into the war. How proud they would be to see this day, how happy to know that Jared and his mother and sister had made it through.
Halfway across the room, Morgan was slowly turning around on top of the table where he was standing, taking in the celebration. As he met Jared's gaze, he gave him a small, sad smile, as if he knew what Jared was thinking.
A moment later, the captain loudly clapped his hands overhead, and the room settled down. "This is a day worthy of celebration," he said, and the cheering started up again. He raised his hands, and everyone fell quiet once more. "There will be another day where we honor those who paid the ultimate price to get us here. We have all lost friends and family in this struggle. Some of those losses have been very deep." He was looking at Jared as he said the words, and Jared straightened, lifting his chin. Morgan gave him a sharp nod and went on, "We will honor our dead. We will mourn our losses. But we know what they were fighting for. This day. This very day, where we stand as free people of the system, who will determine our own destinies from this time forward!" He paused for a few scattered claps and then went on, voice getting louder, "You have fought for this day, bled for this day, suffered terrible losses for this day. You deserve it. Today, you're released from duty, and by God, we will celebrate!"
The cheer was loud enough that it echoed off the walls of the mess hall. Jared wondered if it could be heard outside of the ship. He let out his own whoop, earning a small smile from Morgan.
The captain was right. There would be a time and place for processing everything that had happened to get them to this place, not to mention what would be necessary to go forward. Right now, all they needed to know was that they were free.
And they had about four years' worth of letting loose to do, right here on the ship. Jared let out another whoop and dove in.
The sky was grey and drizzling, the temperature cold enough that Jensen was glad for his formal uniform. He tried not to think about the fact that this was likely the last time he would ever wear it. Presumably the rebels would institute their own black uniforms instead of Jensen's crisp blue and white. He'd always figured they wore all black because they didn't have the resources to actually come up with uniforms, but the fitted jackets and trousers they were all wearing at least seemed to match.
Too bad they were so determined to conduct their affairs of state outside.
The brim of Jensen's cover was just short enough that when rain collected on it and ran off, it hit the tip of his nose on the way down. At least it was keeping the mist off his face. The last thing he needed right now was for anyone to think he had tears on his cheeks. He hadn't been to Maurya since college, but even then, he had always been nearer to the equator, where the sun shone more regularly. Here, given the thick moss hanging from the trees on the grounds around them, this weak attempt at rain was probably pretty common. He understood that they wanted to make a point with this ceremony, that they wouldn't use the Akkadian government buildings to establish their rule. But damn it, at least they could have put up a canopy. They'd had three weeks to prepare for this day, after all.
Standing at attention, Jensen watched his counterpart out of the corner of his eye. President Laura Padalecki, as she'd been styling herself ever since the illegal election and the more-than-illegal rebellion, was clearly not a soldier. She was standing straight in front of the flimsy wooden podium, to be sure, but without the military bearing that came from years of training. She'd been leading her people long enough, Jensen thought; surely she'd learned how to appear in command by now. But she was talking casually to the young man beside her, pointing at the vidcams set up around the edge of the open space they were all standing in at the foot of the steps of the Planetary Parliament building.
The man was much taller than her, taller even than Jensen, and the point of his nose and chestnut color of his hair echoed the President's features. His face was all too familiar, and even though Jensen had tried to prepare himself, it was still a jolt to see Jared Padalecki here. He took in the plain black clothing Jared was wearing and remembered that he hadn't risen very far in their ranks. As far as Jensen was concerned, if you came from a family name of importance and you weren't well-known yourself, you had screwed up somehow. Despite what had gone on between him and Jared, though, he'd never thought of the kid as incapable. He wondered what had happened along the way.
"All right?" one of the vidcam operators called out, and Ms. Padalecki gave him a thumbs up. Jensen barely caught himself from rolling his eyes. How had these people managed enough discipline to overcome Akkad?
When he looked back, Jared was staring at him. Jensen barely favored him with a glance before looking away. Let the kid stare. He was soon enough going to find out that fancy words and proclamations of freedom were a whole lot easier than actually governing.
"Countdown in five, four, three…" the vidcam operator trailed off and finished with two upraised fingers and then one.
President Padalecki drew herself up, expression warming as she addressed the millions of people watching from afar. "Ladies and gentlemen," she said, spreading her hands wide. "People of Corona and of Akkad. I am pleased to speak with you today from your new capital city, Nebula."
Jensen's mouth tightened. Bad enough they'd won, now they were going to go and rename everything, too? He'd known they had their own set of names for places, claiming the Old Earth names were from a dusty, dangerous past that had no place in a modern society, and that names based on the present and future were more evocative. Not that the names they chose were remotely original, and anyway, they lacked the stories and legacies of places like Xia and Macchu and Kumasi.
Padalecki was going on, "I will be speaking to you later, at greater length, about what we hope our future will hold." She smiled warmly. "Our first priority will be to ensure that all who still need medical aid receive it, followed by housing and food. Our second priority will be to ensure that everyone has sufficient shelter from the upcoming sunstorm. Everyone, on both planets. We have had a long, difficult few years, and we only seek to establish a peaceful authority. Our new nation is founded on the ideals of freedom and democracy, not revenge or payback. We are all one people as far as our new government is concerned."
Jensen stood silently, gritting his teeth. When she looked over at him, her smile remained on her face, but he could see it drop from her eyes. With one hand, she motioned for him to come closer.
Shoulders back, head high, Jensen came forward to the podium. His gaze flickered to the podium's surface, where an electronic tablet sat, drizzle slowly collecting on its surface. When he looked back at Padalecki, she was giving him a tight smile. "Commander," she said.
He nodded stiffly. They hadn't rehearsed this, but he'd received a sheet of instructions, and it didn't really matter much what he said, anyway. "Ma'am," he replied. The microphone in the podium would pick up his words, but he raised his voice anyway. Concentrating on projecting his voice would keep him from fumbling any of the words. "I am General Jensen Ackles, Commander in Chief of the Akkadian Army and Space Forces. I am here to formally surrender to the Mauryans our military and governmental authority of the system."
She gave him a respectful nod, and he returned it. No way was he saluting, but at least he could be polite about this. "Thank you, Commander," she said. Tapping the tablet on the podium so that it flickered to life, she continued, "Here is the formal agreement which we have worked out over these past three weeks between the Coronans and the Akkadians."
They had already done the official signing earlier that morning, on paper copies with actual ink, so this was purely for show. Nevertheless, Jensen ignored her correction of his name for her people as he leaned over the podium, scrolling down the screen as if he was actually checking over the document. He could only imagine how many people were watching this broadcast back home.
He would be damned if he let any of them think that he wasn't doing a thorough job of signing away their planet.
He didn't want to take too long with a pure formality, either, and so after a moment more, he straightened up and nodded. "As we agreed," he said shortly.
"Good." Padalecki scrolled down to the bottom before picking up the tablet and holding it out to him.
Jensen held out his thumb to the surface of the small screen. For a moment, nothing happened; he could feel moisture from the drizzle on the screen, and he was about to wipe it clean with his sleeve when the screen flickered and accepted his thumbprint signature. Padalecki turned the tablet around and planted her thumb on the top, and then she extended her hand. "Thank you, Commander."
There were so many things Jensen could have said, but none of them would have been appropriate for either the audience here or those watching back home on Akkad, and so he only gave a short nod and shook her hand.
Then he stepped back, out of range of the vidcams, and watched as she made a short speech about working together as one people, that it would be a long road, but they were all strong and smart, blah blah blah blah blah.
Jensen remained ramrod straight throughout the speech, thinking of the last time he'd been at a ceremony this formal. His father had been the one at the podium—not this podium, but in the real capital, back home. It had been after the Mauryan rebels had declared their break for independence, when Jensen's father had taken charge and declared that while grievances were one thing, threatening to take up arms was quite another. As the rightfully elected President, he was willing to meet with any representatives who wished to discuss the matter, but should shots be fired, the perpetrators would be dealt with swiftly.
The first attack had come days later, a small force taking a provincial capital on the other side of the planet from where they now stood. This woman would have given the order, Jensen realized, watching Padalecki go on about the protection and concern she was offering to everyone.
She would have also given the order, much later and many thousands of miles across space, to bomb the capital city with the most powerful weapon ever used in the system, while Jensen's father was no doubt working late in his office as his mother and sister slept down the hall.
Jensen was suddenly glad for the rain and the cold; otherwise, the fierce heat of his anger might have been too difficult to keep off of his face.
Suddenly, people were applauding all around him. Jensen stiffly moved his hands together in case the camera was on him. A moment later, when Padalecki let out a big sigh and rested her hands on the podium, he knew the cameras were off. He was about to turn on his heel and make his way back to his shuttle to get the hell off this planet when Padalecki spoke. "Commander?"
His gaze flickered to hers. "Ma'am?"
Her curly brown hair was flattening with the rain, and the makeup she'd been wearing couldn't quite hide the circles beneath her eyes. But the gaze she fixed him with was calm and level and every bit Presidential, much as Jensen wanted to deny it. "I would like to ask you to join us for dinner this evening." She nodded her head sideways, where Jared stood tall and quiet in the background.
Jensen blinked. "Ma'am, I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. I’m not much in the mood for celebrating."
The corners of her mouth turned down. "Of course not. That's not what I meant. But there are some matters I would like to discuss with you. Your shuttle crew will be taken care of, don't worry."
Jensen hesitated. The last thing he wanted to do right now was spend any more time in the company of these traitors. They were probably looking forward to the opportunity to laugh at him, the thirty-year-old who'd just had to sign over the entire solar system into their hands.
He noticed that Jared was watching him again, almost like he was waiting for Jensen to do the wrong thing. And so he made up his mind and said, "Thank you for the offer. I'd be happy to accept."
At least he could get a sense of how clueless they were before going back home. Whoever was left there would be happy for the intel, Jensen was sure.
Jared was not exactly looking forward to dinner that night. He thought he'd been prepared to see Jensen again in person, but the first time he laid eyes on him, he'd nearly swallowed his tongue. He had remembered just exactly how good-looking Jensen was, but to see him in uniform took it up to another level entirely. Sure, it would be awkward to talk to each other under the circumstances, but they were grown-ups. They could handle it.
Then Jensen had looked at him, cold and dismissive, and Jared realized this wasn't the same man he had known in college. Everything that had happened to him in the meantime—to both of them—meant things were irrevocably different. This wasn't Jensen, it was Commander Ackles.
At least for a little while longer.
Jared didn't know what his mother wanted to talk to Jensen about; probably more details of whatever was going to happen next. Try as he might, Jared hadn't managed to get himself invited to any of the higher-level discussions on that topic. His mother maintained that, especially now since she was President of the entire system, she couldn't show favoritism to her children. He was only a mid-rank spaceman, not even an officer, and he didn't have any reason to be part of her formal discussions.
Much as Jared appreciated her devotion to the ideals that had gotten them this far, it was more than a little frustrating to be treated like a child.
Still, at least she'd included him in dinner. It was in one of the fanciest rooms in the Planetary Parliament, a formal function room with heavy velvet drapes and gleaming golden trim around the walls. It was the kind of place that reeked of the former regime, all wealth and privilege, and Jared was surprised his mother wanted anything to do with the place.
Jensen seemed surprised as well, if the small lift of his eyebrow was any indication. He arrived shortly after Jared, a frown on his face and his formal uniform still neatly pressed despite having worn it all day. He eyed Jared dismissively before looking around the room in more detail, from the dusty fireplace along one wall to the dining table with three high-backed chairs in the center of the room.
Jared cleared his throat. "Commander?"
Jensen turned, that same eyebrow raised.
Jared came forward and stuck out his hand, willing his voice to stay steady. "Jared Padalecki. It's good to see you again, sir."
Jensen didn't move. "On what ship did you serve, Spaceman?"
Jared blinked. "The, uh. The Quasar."
Jensen's full lips tightened into a thin line. "You were involved in Caral?"
It took a moment to understand what he meant, but then Jared vigorously shook his head. "No, sir. I wasn't on board until after that happened." He hesitated a moment and then added, "I'm sorry about your family."
Jensen's expression barely changed, but his eyes went from wary to hard in an instant. He took a few breaths, nostrils briefly flaring, while Jared half wondered if he was about to be punched. But a moment later, Jensen let out a short breath and said in a low voice, "My condolences to you as well."
Jared grimaced, wondering if Jensen had been anywhere near the fighters that had taken out the engine of his father's transport ship, sending it off course from its re-entry pattern and into a fiery ball in the atmosphere. But all he said was, "Thank you."
Jensen gave him a sharp nod and turned away.
Before Jared could try and restart the conversation, the door opened and his mother walked it. She had changed from the "uniform" she'd worn during the ceremony into a long-sleeved black dress that nearly swept the ground. It was formal enough to match the room, and Jared suddenly felt out of place in his black cargo pants and field jacket.
"Commander Ackles," Laura Padalecki said, sweeping forward. "Thank you for joining us."
Jensen nodded in reply.
"I see you've met my son?" she asked.
"We've met before," he replied shortly.
"That's right," she replied, looking back and forth between him and Jared. "You went to college here, didn't you?"
"In Nalanda, yes," Jensen said, while Jared held his breath.
"Excellent." Laura motioned towards the table. "Please, let's be seated."
They waited for her to take her seat at the head of the table before taking a chair opposite each other. Jared wondered briefly if he'd be able to sneak glances at Jensen without him noticing. After a moment, he realized it wouldn't be a problem—Ackles' gaze was fixed somewhere over Jared's left shoulder, managing to ignore the both of them at the same time.
As the first course was served, a cold soup of some local green that Jared didn't like much even when it was heated, he noticed that Jensen's nose was wrinkling as he tasted the soup. But his expression smoothed out after a moment, and he spooned up the rest of the bowl as though he found it delicious, without saying a word.
It wasn't until the second course was being placed in front of them, a salad of small lettuce leaves and even smaller sprinklings of nuts and cheese, that Laura finally spoke. "Commander, thank you again for joining us."
He smoothed out his napkin across his lap before replying to his plate, "It was a very convincing invitation."
"Yes, well." She took a sip of her wine. "I understand that this is an awkward situation for all of us. I don't mean to make it more difficult, but I do have something else to ask of you."
If Jared hadn't been watching Jensen so closely, he wouldn't have seen the way his grip tightened on his fork. "I thought everything had been worked out in the final document," Jensen said.
"This doesn't need a formal agreement," she replied. "All I ask is that you stay in your position, under my command, for a little while longer."
Ackles turned to look at her so quickly that Jared almost missed the flash of anger in his eyes. "I’m needed back at home," he said. "As soon as possible. There's a lot of rebuilding to do."
Jared had always been impressed with the note of command his mother could put into her voice without changing her placid expression. She did that now, saying, "You're needed where your President says you're needed."
"You—" Jensen cut himself off almost instantly, after that one word in an upraised voice. A muscle ticked in his jaw, and just as when Jared had brought up his family, it took a moment for him to respond. Finally, he asked, voice low, "So that's an order?"
"If that's how you wish to see it," she replied.
Jensen looked down at his plate, setting his fork on top of the half-eaten greens. He didn't say anything as a member of the staff came in to take away his plate and replace it with another one containing grilled fish in a creamy sauce.
Jared's mouth was watering as the same food was set in front of him. He hadn't eaten this well in—as long as he could remember. He was a third of the way through his fish before he realized Jensen hadn't even picked up his new fork.
Laura cleared her throat. "Is the fish not to your liking, Commander?"
"It seems my appetite has suddenly declined," he replied.
"That's a shame," she said. "It's been a long time since we've had such good food. Isn't that right, Jared?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied quickly.
"You are aware," Ackles said abruptly, "that I have been Commander of our forces for about a day longer than you have been President of this system? If you think there's any intelligence I'm going to be able to provide you—"
"It's not a question of intelligence," she replied calmly, taking another sip of wine. "We're no longer on opposite sides, Commander. I'm merely seeking information about our people."
Jensen's mouth tightened. "Thank you for dinner, ma'am, but I'd like to go back to my shuttle now."
"I believe the storm outside has intensified since this afternoon," she replied. "It won't be possible for a shuttle to take off tonight."
The back of Jared's neck started to prickle. It hadn't been raining any harder when he came to dinner than earlier in the day.
Jensen apparently knew that as well, for he flung his napkin onto the table and started, "I don't know what you think you're doing here, Padalecki, but—"
"That's President Padalecki," she cut him off. "Your commanding officer. Unless you've resigned your post without telling me, which I would find truly unfortunate. I'm sure your father would be disappointed in your lack of willingness to cooperate."
Jared jumped when Ackles slammed his hand onto the table. "You don't get to talk about him," he growled. "Unless you want to discuss the questionable spaceworthiness of your son's ship."
At that, Laura put down her fork and met Jensen's gaze. Jared could see her left eyelid twitch the way it did when she was angry. "It's been a long day, Commander," she finally said. "We could all use some rest. Tomorrow, we'll talk about this more."
He held her gaze for a moment longer, eyes blazing and hand still flattened against the table. Then he snapped, "Fine." He made as if to rise to his feet, then glanced at Laura and stayed in place. At least he could maintain the bare minimum of protocol, Jared thought. "I'll be off to my shuttle then."
"It would be best if you stayed here," she replied. "Your crew has been given rooms in our general quarters."
Jensen' nostrils flared again. "If you'll give me directions, I'll gladly join them."
"It's on the far side of the city," she said. "It would be easier if you stayed close by." She turned towards Jared. "Jared, I'd like you to find a place for the Commander to stay."
He could feel Ackles' glare on him from across the table. "Um, okay. I, uh, I have an extra room in my bed."
It wasn't until he saw his mother's raised eyebrows and the thundercloud on Jensen's face that Jared realized what he had just said, and his cheeks instantly flamed. "I have an extra bed in my room," he corrected himself. "I'm sorry. I—it's been a long day."
"You have no idea," Ackles muttered under his breath.
Jared gave him a quick, embarrassed smile. "We should probably go, then," he stammered before he could say anything else he would regret later.
Jensen followed Jared's stupidly broad shoulders down the hall. He'd visited this building once with his father; he had probably been ten or twelve, excited to see their other planet and what it was like. His father had answered every one of his questions, even when Jensen had innocently asked if he would be the ruler there someday.
His father had laughed and said, "We'll have to see, Jensen. Maybe when you grow up, the people will elect you to take my place."
Jensen remembered his childish confusion; his father was the ruler of the system, as his father had been before him. Sure, there had been some other people in between, just like there would be after Jensen's father, but then it would be Jensen's turn someday, right?
That was before he knew about the resentment that so many people in the system had towards the Ackles family, calling them as good as a monarchy for all that they were elected one after the other. And now, here in the new seat of power, it appeared the Padaleckis were the same way, mother grooming her son for the future by putting him in charge of Jensen.
Poor kid wasn't going to know what hit him once Jensen was through with him.
Jared looked over his shoulder as they made their way down the hall, then slowed his pace for Jensen to catch up with him and his ridiculously long legs. Jensen had just caught up with him when he made a sharp left down an intersecting hallway. Muttering under his breath, Jensen turned on his heel and followed.
"Sorry," Jared said over his shoulder. "I'm still trying to find my way around this place."
"I don't think it's that big," Jensen replied. He was meanly pleased to see a twitch of annoyance on Padalecki's face.
"Just not what I'm used to," Jared muttered. A moment later, he gestured to their right and said, "Up here."
They climbed a flight of stairs, plain wooden boards without the thick blue carpeting that had been in the hallway. There was nothing on the walls, just more of the same dark wood. At the top, the hallway to the left was blocked by yellow construction tape, and so Jared turned right. Jensen followed on his heels, this corridor too narrow to walk side by side.
They passed at least five doorways before stopping in front of one that looked like all the rest. "Here," Jared said, bending over so the biokey mounted next to the door could scan his retina. "Sorry, it's kind of a mess."
As Jared went inside, Jensen remained in the doorway, arms folded across his chest. The room wasn't much bigger than Jensen's quarters on the Ariana, with one bed along each side and a desk at the foot. Past the empty desk and bed, there was a door to a bathroom. It looked like a university dorm room, and Jensen was suddenly uncomfortable, thinking about the last time he'd been in a dorm room with this very same person.
"It's not much," Padalecki said, shrugging off his jacket and dropping it over the back of a desk chair, leaving him in a form-fitting black t-shirt with more impressive arms than Jensen remembered. "I'm sure we can find another room for you tomorrow."
"Why would I need it?" Jensen asked.
Jared blinked. "Um. Well, you're welcome to stay in here, I suppose, but I thought you would prefer your own space."
Jensen arched an eyebrow. "How long do you think I'm staying here?"
Jensen grunted. "I suppose it's not surprising. Mom probably wouldn't tell a mere spaceman how long she was planning on keeping her hostage."
Confusion flickered across Jared's face for an instant, followed by anger and then more befuddlement. "What are you talking about?" he demanded, hands on his hips.
Jensen rolled his eyes. "Look, it's obvious that you're not trusted enough to be part of the ruling enclave, since you never rose above a basic rank. Spaceman Padalecki. For as long as you were in the war, you should have been captaining your own ship, given whose son you are."
Jared's brow furrowed. "Oh, I get it," he said slowly. "You think I should have been given a command based on who my dad was, same as you. Whether I'd earned it or not."
Jensen gave him the kind of glare that could melt titanium. "I damn well earned my command," he snapped. "And it's not surprising you never did, if this is how you talk back to superior officers."
"Sorry, we've been a little too busy fighting for our lives these past few years to worry about military protocol," Jared retorted. "But now that we're free, I'll be sure to address you properly. Oh, wait." He snapped his fingers, mock innocence written all over his face. "You're not the commander of anything anymore, are you?"
"I knew this was exactly how you'd all act." Jensen pointed at him. "Like children who won a playground game, gloating and sneering and completely unaware of anything that it's going to take to run this system. We'll be lucky if any of us survive the sunstorm if you're in charge."
"Good thing we have you to tell us what to do then," Padalecki replied, folding his arms over his chest. "Since we're such incompetents who somehow managed to defeat an entire space force."
"Yeah, well, you're in charge of everything now. Good luck with that."
"What do you think you're here for?" Jared shot back.
"I'm not telling you a damn thing," Jensen retorted. "No matter what you do to me."
Jared's huge forehead creased. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You were there! Your mother's not going to let me leave. Keeping me separate from my crew means one of us is being held hostage for the other's good behavior. Maybe both."
"That's crazy. No one's holding anyone hostage."
"Oh? So if I decided right now to walk out of here, to go find my crew and my shuttle and take off in this 'storm', you'd let me?"
Jared's gaze shifted sideways. "That's probably not a good idea. Not after what Mom—what our President said."
"Yeah, right." Jensen shook his head. "Nice try. You're gonna want to work on that persuasiveness if you're going to have a position in in her new cabinet."
"I'm not going to be in any cabinet," Jared replied with a frown. "That's nepotism."
Jensen snorted. "How do you think government works?"
"That's how your government worked." Jared pointed a finger at him. "Or didn't work, should I say. That's why we overthrew it. Because you claimed it was a democracy, but it was the same people over and over making the decisions for the rest of us, never letting us have a voice. You have no idea what life was like here."
"So you killed instead." Jensen drew himself up straight and tall, looking Jared right in the eye. "You sabotaged and slaughtered and murdered millions of people so you could fucking be in charge. And here are you are, already doing the same things you accused me of. Keeping it in the family, making people do what you say, not letting us get a word in. Great job of changing the world order, Padalecki."
He got a sharp glare in response. "Don't exaggerate. Yeah, it was bad, but it wasn't millions of people."
"The hell it wasn't." Jensen shook his head. "You don't even know how many people you killed, and now you're going to try and rule the rest?"
"I didn't kill anybody."
"You were on the Quasar. Battle cruiser, launched plenty of missiles that took our fighters out of the stars. Not to mention Caral." Jensen glared harder and went on, "And if you can't take responsibility for what your people did in the name of your precious freedom, you don't deserve it."
Jared held up a placating hand, which only made Jensen madder. "Look, we're still tallying up the losses. There'll be a ceremony in a few weeks to honor—"
"One million, nine hundred and twenty two thousand, six hundred and eighty-two."
Padalecki blinked. "What?"
"That's the tally as of last week," Jensen replied in a level tone even as he put his hands on his hips. "The numbers of your people, since your mother is so happy to lay claim to them now, who are dead because of your rebellion." He paused to take in the shock on Jared's face before going on, "I hope it's worth it."
Jared was slowly shaking his head. "No. It's not—that's way too high."
"There were nearly a million people in Caral when your bombs fell. Only a few thousand in Xia, but they weren't about to abandon it. Not to mention all the skirmishes on this planet, plus being cut off from medical supply ships at a couple of key moments. You wouldn't think in this day and age you could lose so many people to simple infections, would you? Oh, and there was a transfer of troops going on at Macchu when you blew it to hell. Kind of a two for one deal." Jensen drew a breath and lowered his voice. "I didn't surrender because your cause was more righteous or because I couldn't handle being in command. I surrendered because we were running out of people to fight with."
"I don't believe you." The kid had his chin raised, stubbornness in his eyes, and Jensen wanted nothing more right then than to pound the living daylights out of him, parentage and personal history be damned.
But then he saw it again in his mind's eye, the bright flash as Macchu Station was vaporized, and their fight along with it, and suddenly he was exhausted. "Doesn't matter what the fuck you believe," Jensen replied, letting his arms fall to his sides. "It's over, right? You got what you wanted."
"Not…" Jared looked stricken. More quietly, he said, "That's never what we wanted."
"Well, it's what you've got." Jensen stared at him for a moment longer before finally coming into the room and shutting the door behind him. "I’m going to bed."
The room was dead silent as Jensen stripped off his uniform jacket, neatly folding it on the desk. When he followed with his shirt and pants, there was a strangled noise behind him, and then Padalecki brushed past him and into the bathroom.
Jensen climbed into bed, turning towards the wall. He really was exhausted, drained from keeping up appearances all day long and then this sudden punch-to-the-gut conversation at the end. And now here, as far into enemy territory as he'd ever been, he had to choose between keeping up his guard and getting the rest he'd need for whatever the morning was going to bring.
It wasn't more than about five minutes before his body made the choice for him, and he was out like a light.
When Jared came out of the bathroom, Jensen had already rolled over and was still. Jared silently got into bed and sat up against the headboard for a long time, even after turning out the light. Given the anger the man had just unleashed at him, Jared wasn't sure if he could trust him not to murder him in his sleep. The least his mom could have done after ordering him to take care of Ackles was to send a guard along with them.
Eventually, though, Jared's eyes grew heavy, and he slouched down onto the bed. Whatever else Jensen might be, he wasn't dumb, and he had to know that harming the President's son wouldn't get him anything but a jail cell. Jared finally closed his eyes to let the exhaustion from the day overtake him.
Except he couldn't fall asleep. He kept hearing Jensen's accusation in his head along with the incredibly precise number of his dead. Jared's mother had estimated around a third of a million casualties on the Akkadian side, appalling enough, but far short of what Jensen had said. How could her numbers be so off?
Jared turned it over and over in his head until it was clear he wasn't going to be able to get any sleep. He reached over to the desk for his tablet, using it to log into the central database. There were casualty figures for Caral and Xia—a few thousand in each—along with an estimate for Macchu Station. He searched for information about infection, like Jensen had said, but there weren’t any numbers matching his estimates. Maybe he'd been exaggerating?
Medical records didn't turn up much either, except a couple of places where the official tally had missed a few hundred people. Jared stared at the screen with a frown. Jensen had sounded so sure, and Jared knew he wasn't the kind of guy who would make up something like that. Maybe he was misinformed?
Then something Jensen had said struck him, and he started tapping away at the tablet. When the revolution started, the Mauryans, as they'd still called themselves, had had to manage without the net for a while, resorting to messages carried by hand until they could come up with a secure firewall. Little by little, they'd established their own communications network, shut off from the main net and protected by full-time cyberwarriors. The system had withstood more than a few attacks from Akkad, and Jared had been watching over the shoulders of some of those cyberwarriors when they blocked those attacks. They'd launched a few of their own, penetrating the Akkadian defenses and managing to bring down a ship or two in the process. During some downtime, Jared had pressured one of the cyberwarriors to teach him a few tricks, though this was the first chance he'd had to put them to use.
He was betting that in the rush of the final battle and the terms of the surrender, no one had yet gotten to work on taking apart the Akkadian net and integrating it back with theirs. A few tricks later, and Jared smiled to himself. He was right. With no one to counter his cyber-explorations, he was into the net, and not long after, diving into the same central database that his cyberwarriors would have killed to get their hands on. His smile deepened as he thought of telling them what he'd done. Sure, there were gaps in the database, missing connections that were probably from a server being destroyed or wired connections being lost, but there was still a lot of good stuff here.
A few minutes later, Jared wasn't smiling anymore. Jensen had been right.
The database showed a steady decline in troop numbers ever since the defeat of the Akkadians at Xia. Leaves for injury and illness grew ever shorter, and Jared doubted it was because people were recovering more quickly. He scrolled through screen after screen of reports, torn between pride at what his own people had been able to accomplish and regret at what they'd had to do.
His confusion grew when he found a report on Caral. The capital of the planet and the entire system, it had had a million inhabitants when the war started. By the time it was destroyed by the targeted electromagnetic pulses, there had been three-quarters of a million on site, as Ackles had said.
They had all still been on site.
Jared shook his head and scrolled through the document. "What about the warnings the TEMP was coming?" he muttered. "Why didn't they leave?"
The last few updates to the database didn't answer his questions, but they did tell the conclusion of the story. Jared knew now that Commander Ferris had been on Macchu Station when they'd attacked, although at the time he'd only thought of it as a lucky break. What he hadn't known was what Jensen had said and the numbers on the screen confirmed for him. There had been a large transfer of troops going on, replacements for the fighters defending themselves against the Coronans, along with support staff and medical crew and civilian assistants. A large transfer.
Jared had thought the destruction of Macchu Station killed a few thousand people. It was more like a hundred thousand. Not to mention the fucking seven hundred thousand who'd been obliterated in Caral.
He sat back, hand over his mouth. How had he not known this? How had any of them not known this?
Had any of them known this?
He recalled something else Jensen had said, and he went diving into medical records. There was more detail than their own database had, a lot more deaths due to infection and basic injuries than Jared would have expected. He didn't see a final tally anywhere, but he wouldn’t be surprised if Jensen was right after all.
The question was, what could Jared do about it?
It was three in the morning by the time he finally put down the tablet. Jensen hadn't moved the entire time, his breathing soft and steady across the room. Jared was positive he wasn't going to be able to sleep, not with his brain spinning like it was.
But before he knew it, it was morning and the shower was running.
Jensen had to wear the same uniform as yesterday, not pressed as neatly as he would have liked it. He'd made his shower colder than normal because his usual morning cup of coffee hadn't been available, and he had to be alert. If last night's dinner was any indication, the people on this planet didn't know how to make a decent cup, anyway.
Then there was Jared, slouching along in front of him down the same long hallway, trying to look like he wasn't as ridiculously tall as he was. He'd been quiet all morning, sounding almost apologetic when he explained that they'd need to go back to the formal dining room for breakfast. He hadn’t said what his mother wanted with Jensen, and Jensen didn't ask.
Better to occupy himself with the petty annoyances of a morning starting off on the wrong foot than start to worry about how long he might be here and what he might be asked to do.
President Padalecki was already waiting when they entered, sipping coffee at the head of the table and eating a bowl of what looked more like twigs and berries than what Jensen was accustomed to. "Commander," she said with a nod as they entered. "Jared. How did you sleep?"
"Fine," Jensen replied shortly.
"It was fine," Jared echoed. "Would we…um. It might be better for the Commander to have his own room, if he's going to be here for a while."
"That won't be necessary," Laura replied. She gestured at the chairs on either side of the long table. "Have a seat. We'll discuss it over breakfast."
Jensen sat, staying ramrod straight. Jared slid into his chair across the table and immediately reached for a roll from the basket in front of him. He looked up at Jensen and flushed. "Bread?" he asked, proffering the basket.
Jensen took a small piece of beige-colored bread. "Thank you."
"There's jam and butter and everything," Jared said, waving a hand at the table. He glanced quickly at his mother. "Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"Not at all." She pushed her bowl away and dabbed a cloth napkin over her lips. "Commander, I wish to apologize for what you might have misunderstood about our meeting last night. I have no intention of keeping you here against your will, and I hope you did not see it as such."
He inclined his head towards her. "As you said, you are my Commander in Chief now. It was my mistake to suggest that you could be holding one of your own officers hostage."
"Very well." She nodded. "Then if we might move to the business at hand. To be blunt, I need your assistance, Commander."
"I thought we just established that as my superior officer, you don't need to ask."
Laura's mouth briefly tightened, and across the table, Jared made a faint strangled sound. Aloud, she said, "Regardless, there is an urgent matter at hand: the oncoming sunstorm. I'm sure I don’t have to tell you the threat it poses." When Jensen gave a tight shake of his head, she went on, "The problem is that during the battle for the former capital, not only were many lives tragically lost, but information was lost as well."
Before Jensen could object to her delicate phrasing of the murder of thousands upon thousands of people, Jared cleared his throat. "Do you know how many?" he asked his mother.
Laura frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
"How many lives," Jared said. "Because there seems to be a bit of a discrepancy."
Jensen frowned at him. Was the guy going to make fun of him now?
"I'm not sure I follow," Laura replied. "Nor am I sure what this has to do with my question to the Commander."
Jared hesitated. "It seems to me," he said with a quick sideways glance at Jensen, "that if we want to help everyone on both planets make it through the sunstorm, we have to establish a basic level of trust."
Jensen's hackles started to go up, and only his strictly-ingrained sense of protocol kept him from blurting out something about how establishing trust certainly didn't involve holding someone hostage, even if it was cloaked in military protocol.
"That's what I'm trying to do here, Jared," Laura replied in a tight tone.
"It's just that—there seems to be a discrepancy," Jared said again. "Between our numbers and theirs. According to the Akkadian databases, there were well over a million casualties in all. Three quarters of a million in Caral alone."
"How would you know what our databases say?" Jensen snapped.
"Um. I took a look at them. Last night."
The President gave a sigh, but Jensen was already speaking. "What do you mean, you took a look? Those are highly secured files. No one can access them from off-planet, not without…" He cut himself off as understanding dawned, lodging in his gut like a stone.
"They were really good," Jared assured him. "Your cyberwarriors. We were never able to get in for more than a few seconds. But they're not there anymore, and so..." He shrugged and turned to his mother. "The point is, our estimates have been off. Commander Ackles can tell you the exact number, but there nearly two million casualties on their side."
Laura frowned. "That can't be."
"Well, it is," Jensen snapped. He waved a hand in Jared's direction. "If even a spaceman can figure it out, you should be able to, too."
"Commander," the President said with a note of disapproval in her voice.
He dipped his head to the side. "My apologies."
"Accepted," she replied lightly, a curl of scorn in her voice as if she knew he wasn't entirely sincere. "And I will review the figures before the official day of mourning next week to confirm their accuracy."
He gave a short nod in response, gaze flickering briefly to Jared's. When Jared gave him a small, tentative smile, he quickly looked away. He didn't know what kind of game the kid was playing, pretending to be on Jensen's side like that, but Jensen wasn't going to trust him for an instant.
"Now then." Laura folded her hands in front of her on the table. "The point remains. Although…" She looked at Jared. "Perhaps you can answer my question."
Jared blinked at her. "What?"
"In two and a half months, the surface will be uninhabitable for two weeks, as will any unshielded craft in space. We have sufficient shelters here on Corona for our population and our communications equipment, but on Akkad, we simply don't know the situation."
"We can take care of ourselves," Jensen replied tightly. "Thank you for your concern."
"One of my duties as President is to ensure the health and safety of all of my people," she replied smoothly. "That includes protecting them from the sunstorm."
"We have shelters of our own," he replied. "More than enough, given the number of people left to inhabit them." From the corner of his eye, he saw Jared wince, and he mentally gave himself a point.
"The problem is," Laura continued, "I don't know where these shelters are. I believe they were used for military purposes during the war, as temporary armories or storage facilities. And so for that reason, their locations were closely hidden. It's likely that they're already sheltering electronic equipment, which will save us a great deal of time when it comes to preparing for the storm. It's been a hundred years since the last sunstorm, long enough that no one alive remembers sheltering from it. So all we have to go on is recorded information, and of course, a lot of the necessary computer systems aren't functioning at the moment. I don't know where that information is, and I need to know."
"I…could look in the database," Jared said slowly, gaze flickering back and forth between Jensen and his mother.
Jensen impatiently waved a hand at him. "The locations aren't there. Not all of them, anyway. They were in paper files, locked up tight. It's the only way to keep highly classified information truly secure."
"Unless you know the locations of these shelters already," the President mused. "Commander."
"There wasn't exactly time to raise my classification level after you bombed the hell out of Macchu Station," Jensen retorted. "And the locations were highly classified." He paused and reluctantly added, "Since they were sometimes used to protect sensitive equipment."
"But you would know where to look to find those files," she said. "Assuming they've survived."
"Why do you need them?" Jensen replied. "Why can't we just take care of ourselves?"
"I'll be honest with you," she replied, meeting his gaze directly. "Because I don't know if all of those shelters will be exclusively used for sheltering."
Jensen scoffed. "You think we're going to raise a counter-rebellion? Is that why you're keeping me here?"
"I think there are people who are not happy with the outcome of our struggle," she replied calmly. "I think there are some who would not have made the same choice you did." Jensen looked down at the table, and she went on, "You shouldn't regret that choice, Commander. Given the circumstances, it was the right thing to do."
"You want to be able to flush out any hint of a resistance," he said, still looking at the table. Of course she would think he'd done the right thing. She'd won, after all. "And you want me to help you do it."
"I want to ensure that everyone is protected," she replied. "Commander, there have been enough lives lost. Many more than enough, if what my son just told me is true. I don't want there to be any more."
"I agree," Jensen replied, looking up. "I'll be happy to leave this afternoon with my crew. We'll get you all the information you need on how our people are doing and where the shelters are."
The President gave him a pained smile. "I realize that I'm being indelicate here, Commander. But to be perfectly frank, I don't trust you to share that information with me."
He raised his eyebrows. "You think there's not only a counter-rebellion, but that I'm going home to head it up?"
"I think you don't trust me," she replied. "I wouldn't in your position, after all. I wouldn't share the kind of information that might be useful someday, just in case." She leaned over the table. "But I need that information. And if what you say is true about it not being in the database, there's no other way to get it than in person."
"And yet you won't let me get it," he replied.
"Not alone," she said. Casting a brief glance at her son, she added, "I'm going to send Jared with you."
"What?" Jared burst out. He vaguely noticed that Jensen made the same exclamation at the same time, but he was mostly focused on the insane thing his mother had just said.
"Along with a few officers I trust, of course," Laura went on. "For your protection as well as his. I imagine that you might encounter a few people who are unhappy with the way things have turned out."
"Thanks for your concern," Jensen retorted. "My shuttle crew and I can handle ourselves."
"I'm sure you can," she replied. "But that crew was formed for ceremonial purposes. Now that the terms of surrender have been officially agreed upon, there's no need for your crew to be the ones to escort you to Akkad. We're all one people now, Commander. Your crew will be given the choice to stay in the armed forces or to return home, just like their fellow spacemen have been making all over the system."
Jensen sat back in his chair, hard. "And am I to be given that choice as well?"
Jared recognized the pained grimace that flashed across his mother's face. He'd seen her make a lot of tough decisions over the last few years, and she felt every one. "After this mission," she said. "You'll be free to do as you want."
"Why me?" Jensen asked abruptly. He swept a hand out to the side. "There are thousands of people already on Akkad who could get you the information you want. You already have personnel down there mopping up. Why not ask someone you can trust to do this?"
"Because of who you are," Laura replied. "On the one hand, you're better connected than the average Akkadian, thanks to your family name and your background. It's more likely that you'll be able to get this information than any of my personnel, or perhaps even any of yours."
Jared half expected Jensen to make a snarky comment about how now she was perfectly willing to take advantage of who his family was, but to Jared's surprise, all he said was, "And on the other hand?"
She let out a short sigh. "You had a very hard choice to make, Commander. And you did what was best for your people, to save as many lives as you could. It's that that makes me believe you will do whatever's necessary to find where the shelters are and to get people to them."
Jensen was quiet for a long moment. Jared wouldn't have thought someone could sit so still for so long. Not a muscle moved, only the rise and fall of his chest beneath his formal uniform.
Finally, Jensen cleared his throat. "If you're planning on sending a few officers, I don't need your son to come with me as well."
"He's clearly quite capable with computer systems," she said, shooting Jared a look that was half proud and half exasperated. "In case that skill should be necessary after all."
Jensen eyed him for a moment, and Jared looked back, trying to look confident. Jensen's expression didn't change, and after a moment, he looked away. "I suppose I should be flattered that you trust me enough to send him along."
"I'm sending a capable computer expert who has considerable experience with communications," she replied. "And who happens to be on hand, as it's important to get started right away."
Only the formality of the situation kept Jared from rolling his eyes. There was something his mother wasn't saying here, but there was no way she was saying it in front of Ackles. He'd have to corner her later.
Jensen sighed. "Then we should get started as soon as possible."
"Good." Laura's expression softened. "I know it's a lot to ask of you, Commander. But I also know that you know how important this is. The clock is ticking for all of us, but we can make sure every one of our people and all of our communications are under shelter when the storm begins in sixty-five days. That's this administration's top priority."
"Do we know for sure that's the deadline?" Jared asked.
She glanced quickly at Jensen. "That's what the Akkadian Observatory estimates."
Jensen looked away, lips pressed together like he was holding something in.
Jared only nodded at his mother. Their own observatory had been one of the early casualties of the war, bombed as a warning to stop rebelling. If the Mauryans couldn’t determine for themselves when the sunstorm was coming, they'd be less likely to fight the Akkadians, or so the strategy went. That early on, no one on Akkad would have thought the Mauryans had a chance in hell of winning control over their own planet, much less the whole system.
Neither had the Mauryans, for that matter.
Later, when Jensen was finishing a second cup of coffee and Laura had walked to the far side of the room to talk with an aide who had come in, Jared rose from his chair and went to look out the window at the lush greenery around the parliament building. He'd never been to Akkad, but from what he knew, it wasn't as green as this. And they hadn't had any time to rebuild. At least here on Maurya—no, he had to get used to calling it Corona now—the fighting had been off-planet for a couple of years as they pushed out into space and onto the larger planet. There had been some success at repairing buildings and streets. On Akkad, the former capital had been devastated, but as his mother had suggested, that was probably where this highly classified information had been stored.
Jared swallowed hard at the thought of going to Caral. The attack had happened long enough ago that the vestiges of the TEMP would have dissipated, so there wouldn't be any direct danger to them from being there. But he wondered what the former capital would look like. Would there be bodies everywhere? Rubble? Would they even be able to get to wherever these documents on the shelters would have been stored?
"I'm sorry I had to surprise you like that."
He gave a start at his mother's voice behind him. Turning, he gave her a weak smile. "It's okay, I know you're pretty busy these days."
"Yes, well. It already seems that I have hardly any time for my son, and now I'm sending you away. I'm sorry for that as well."
Jared cleared his throat. "I don't mean to question your judgment, but why me?"
She gave him a small smile. "I know you've been wanting a command of your own for a long time, Jared."
He frowned. "I thought it wasn't appropriate. That putting me in charge would be doing like what the…" He trailed off and lowered his voice, mindful of Ackles still sitting at the table. "Like the way things used to be done."
"There is some of that, yes," she said quietly. "But the truth is, my son: you're not a soldier. You're not a fighter." She put a hand on his arm and went on, "I don't mean to say that I'm not proud of you and everything you've done. I know you fought hard for us, but I don't think that's what you're most suited for."
Jared eyed her cautiously. "What do you mean?"
"You're not a soldier, Jared. You're a diplomat." Laura gave him a small, sad smile. "Maybe if things had gone differently, we would have been able to talk things out instead of going to war. But now that we're here at this place, I think this is where you can make a difference. " She leaned even closer and lowered her voice. "Go with the Commander. Even if some of his people are resentful of him, many of them still see him as their leader. You already know him. Get him to trust you. If you can do that, things will be much easier for both planets."
Shaking his head, Jared muttered, "He hates my guts now. He won't want me around for a minute longer than he has to."
"You're already listening to him," she said. "That trick with the casualty numbers."
"It's not a trick!" Jared stared at her. "It's a real problem. If we don't even know how many people we killed…" He trailed off and shook his head. "Then maybe we shouldn’t be in charge, either."
"That's nonsense," Laura replied. "I want you to show me those figures and how you got them, and we'll work this out. It's important to be accurate, but it's important not to exaggerate as well." She leaned closer. "And it's important to get the Commander to trust you. I'm finally giving you that mission you've been wanting, Jared. I know you'll make me proud."
There wasn't much Jared could say to that besides a grudging, "Yes, ma'am."
The next morning, Jensen thought for a moment that they were taking his shuttle after all. Only a close inspection as they drew near made him realize that it was a different vehicle. It was still one of his, though his mouth twisted in a grimace as he realized that it didn't matter. The consolidation of the armed forces was underway, as President Padalecki had said, which meant all of their equipment and supplies were now in the hands of the rebels they'd been fighting for so long.
It was going to take a long time for Jensen to get used to that.
He'd thought about it all day yesterday, after the President's strong urging that he work with her on this one mission. There was no doubt that it was important—the oncoming sunstorm had been in the back of his mind for several months, wondering if they would be able to ground all of their forces and shelter when the solar flares started to approach. And despite his retorts, he knew that there were still millions of people on Akkad who would need to take cover. Hell, he didn't even know if all of the scientists who would be able to calculate exactly when the storm was coming and how strong it would be were still alive. He made a note to himself to ask about that once they were on the ground.
He hadn't decided yet what the worst part was going to be: seeing the aftermath of the destruction of Caral, or knowing that the Padalecki kid was going to be there with him.
The brief bafflement on Jared's face had made it clear that he had no more idea than Jensen why he was being sent along. Maybe even less of an idea, since Jensen had a pretty deep suspicion. He hadn't been able to overhear the conversation between mother and son, but given how hard Jared had been trying to not look his way, it was pretty clear the conversation had been about him. Laura had probably been impressed with Jared's move, looking up the casualty figures—and Jensen was horrified at how easily Jared had managed to get through what had been some pretty secure firewalls—and then sticking up for Jensen. They'd probably been plotting about how to get Jensen to think Jared was on his side.
Fat chance of that.
Jensen headed for the captain's chair out of habit. He bumped into Jared right as he tried to sit down. "Excuse me," he said.
"Oh. Sorry." Jared's gaze darted away and then back. "It's just—I guess you know where we're going better than any of us do, but in order to get off-planet, I have to be…well." He gestured at Jensen, still in his formal uniform. "I don't know if the space traffic control tower will let us pass if you're the one issuing the commands. That's all."
"That's all?" He drew himself up taller, mentally cursing that it still left him a few inches short of Jared. "What happened to all of us being one people now?"
Jared grimaced. "It's gonna take some time."
Under his breath, Jensen muttered, "No shit." He sighed and said more loudly, "Fine. You're in command of this mission, then."
"Whoa." Jared held up his hands. From the corner of his eye, Jensen could see one of the guards who had come along watching their conversation with interest. "That's not what I meant. Mom—the President said you were the one who'd be in charge. I'm just along to help."
"That's what she said to me, too. But does that mean you'll do as I tell you?" Jensen asked. He raised his voice and looked around the small cockpit of the shuttle. "All of you?"
The guard who'd watching them—Jensen didn't think the term "officer" was quite right here—quickly looked away. He was shorter than Jensen, lines on his forehead and around his eyes indicating he was older as well, but the tight black t-shirt he wore suggested he was in better shape. "If that's what the President ordered," he muttered. His accent was of the northern continent of Maurya, one Jensen hadn't heard too often.
"You know it was, Mark." The woman who'd been stowing gear across the cockpit gave Jensen a sharp nod. "We've been given our orders, sir. You're the Commander here."
Mark looked briefly at Jared before shrugging one shoulder and sitting down in the nearest seat.
Jensen turned to Jared as well, raising an eyebrow.
"Oh, sorry." Jared cleared his throat. "Commander Ackles, this is Mark Sheppard and Lisa Berry. They'll be accompanying us to Akkad. Mark and Lisa, this is Commander Ackles."
"Sir," Lisa said with a respectful nod, while Mark simply raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment.
Jensen looked them both over, curious about the lack of titles, though not enough to ask, and turned back to Jared. "Why don't you get us off-planet, then?"
"Oh, um, right." Jared folded his long frame down into the captain's seat. "Strap in, everyone."
Jensen took the seat against the back wall, watching Jared run through the pre-flight checklist with Mark's assistance. He seemed like he knew what he was doing, which Jensen wouldn't automatically assume was the case for a spacer. Just because he'd flown on a battleship didn't mean he knew how to pilot even the smallest craft. But he was checking gauges and screens like it was a familiar habit, and Jensen relaxed the tiniest bit back into his seat.
They received their clearance and took off, shuddering up through the atmosphere. The only words spoken were those necessary for the flight, at least until they were in orbit. Then Jared looked over his shoulder at Jensen. "It's a four-day flight to Akkad given the current planetary positions. Where should we set our course?"
Jared's eyebrows shot up. "Not Caral?"
"There's no one left in Caral to ask," Jensen replied as calmly as he could, considering how tightly his jaw was clenched.
"But I thought—"
"We're going to Kumasi first," Jensen replied. "Maybe if you're lucky, you'll get to see Caral, too."
"That's not what I—" Jared broke off with a huff and turned around. "Set a course for Kumasi, Lisa."
"Commander?" she asked, looking over her shoulder at Jensen.
He nodded, trying not to feel smug that at least one person on board this ship was aware of who was really in charge.
"Setting a course," Lisa replied, fingers flying over the keyboard in front of her.
For a moment, it felt familiar, being back in command. Of course, he had to look past Jared's big head to see the viewscreen, which was the small screen of a shuttle and not the wide panorama that he was used to from the Ariana. But for a moment, he could pretend that things were back to normal and that he was just taking a shuttle home.
"I'll be in the back," Mark said, rising from his seat. He flicked a casual, two-fingered salute in Jensen's direction. "Commander."
There was enough insolence in his tone that Jensen was hard-pressed not to rise to his feet and order him to show some respect for his superior officer. But the casual clothing and the lack of rank they were using with each other suggested that respect was not high in their priorities. And so Jensen looked away dismissively as Mark ducked into the rear of the shuttle where the double bunks and the minuscule mess hall were located.
"Sorry," Jared said with an apologetic shrug. "He was highly recommended, but I forgot that the Sheppards were among the original fighters on our side."
"I don't need to know everyone's family history," Jensen cut him off. "I just need to know if I can count on the people who are supposedly under my command."
"I'll talk to him," Jared replied, unbuckling himself from the captain's chair and standing up as much as he could in the small space of the shuttle. "Um, do you want to…?" He gestured at the captain's chair.
"Thanks," Jensen said shortly. He waited until Padalecki was gone before maneuvering himself into the seat. He didn't bother buckling in; there wasn't any reason to expect bumps during this part of the journey, and he didn’t like being confined when he didn't have to be.
It only took about five minutes for him to realize that there wasn't much to do. A ship this tiny didn't require a lot of systems checking. Nor were they part of a much larger fleet that required constant communication. He didn't have a tablet or any sort of reading material, and it slowly started to sink in that four days could be a really long time.
Jensen sighed. Maybe he could catch up on some sleep. God knew he needed it.
He suppressed a sigh as he turned to Lisa. "Yes?"
"Mark's good at his job. He'll have our backs when he needs to."
"I'm used to the people in my command always having my back—and each other's—all of the time, not just on occasion," he replied.
"Right." She grimaced. "I know. It's just kind of strange." She gestured at him.
"Believe me, I know," he replied, raising an eyebrow.
"Of course. Sorry."
They fell silent again. Finally, Jensen sighed. "What's your story, Lisa?"
She frowned. "What do you mean?"
"There's a lot of people in your position who wouldn't even think about listening to a word I have to say, much less being willing to follow my command," he said. "I'm just trying to understand."
"Oh." Lisa looked over the navigational computer one more time before turning fully to face him. "I had family in Caral. A lot of people did, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," he replied roughly.
She briefly closed her eyes. "Of course you did. I’m sorry, I didn't—" She broke off and sighed. "I'm sorry for what we did there."
"You weren't the one who dropped the bombs, were you?" he retorted.
"No, of course not." Lisa's brow furrowed. "I don't even think we should have done it."
Jensen sighed. That was a conversation he would be happy to never have with any of the Mauryans. Coronans. Whatever. "I shouldn't have asked. Never mind."
Lisa was still frowning, but she fell silent.
It's going to be a long ride to Akkad, Jensen thought.
After two days of travel, Jared found himself wondering how they were going to get through this trip in one piece, much less while accomplishing their mission.
Oh, it wasn't like anything specifically had gone wrong. No punches thrown, no angry words exchanged. Barely even a raised voice, when it came down to it. But the awkward tension in any interaction with Commander Ackles had Jared's nerves on edge.
He seemed to get along with Lisa all right. Maybe Jared could just let her interact with him. The problem was, he knew that he himself was going to have to talk to Jensen—a lot—however difficult that was going to be. Jensen hadn't given any indication so far that he even remembered Jared from before, and while that stung, it was potentially one less level of awkward he was going to have to deal with.
It was also apparent that keeping Mark away from Jensen was important. While Jared was confident in everyone's ability to act like grownups, Mark clearly had a strong dislike for the Akkadians. Jared had tried to subtly warn him that they all had to work together here, but he wasn't sure it had taken. Maybe he'd have to be more firm about it.
For now, at least it was the three Coronans in the cockpit. The first time Mark had come back out from the bunk area, Jensen had risen from the captain's chair and proclaimed that he was catching some sleep and that Jared had the comm. They'd since established an unspoken agreement that if one of them was in the cockpit, the other wouldn't be.
The first time Jensen handed over control, Jared had resisted the urge to salute, instead asking Lisa about their course and confirming in the process that there was absolutely nothing for him to do. He hadn't realized how boring this part of the trip would be. Without access to a solid 'net connection, he couldn't do the kind of research he wanted to in Akkad's computer systems. And after what he'd already learned about the casualty figures, he wasn't sure how much he trusted their own. He was itching to get planetside and get his hands on a good connection. If Kumasi had been designed the new Akkadian capital, that probably meant it hadn't been damaged in the war, and Jared could get what he needed.
He would have asked Jensen, except that he probably would have gotten a lecture on not knowing the status of the planet his mother had conquered, and he wasn't really up for that.
Now, Mark was bringing out meals for the three of them, ration packets that tasted like they'd been prepared and packaged at the start of the war and had been sitting in the shuttle's mess ever since. They chewed and swallowed without talking, sharing faces of commiseration at what they were eating.
Finally, Lisa broke the silence. "This is still so strange, you know?" She tapped the console in front of her. "Using one of their ships like this."
"Our ship now," Mark replied with a wink.
"I suppose so." She frowned. "It's not that easy, though, is it? To just take everything over and make it ours."
"No, I don't suppose it is," Jared replied. He crumpled up the plastic tray and tossed it into the recycler. "It's something we're going to have to keep in mind on Akkad. There's going to be a lot of resentment towards us, even though we're there to help."
"D'you think it'll help that he's along or not?" Mark jerked a thumb towards the back of the shuttle.
"I honestly don't know," Jared replied. "But take it easy on him, all right? He's with us now, at least on this mission."
Mark shrugged and turned back towards his tablet.
"I mean it, Mark. We're on the same side here."
He didn't look up from the text he was scrolling through. "If I didn't think I could handle it, I wouldn't have accepted this assignment."
Jared was about to say something else when he heard movement behind him. He turned to see Jensen standing in the doorway, rubbing at one eye as if he'd just woken up. "Where are we?" he asked.
Jared checked the control panel in front of him. "Well over halfway," he replied. "Still on course to land on schedule."
"Can you be more precise?" Jensen asked.
"Come see for yourself," Jared replied, flinging himself up out of the captain's chair. He caught a slight smirk from Mark, and he grimaced as he realized that he'd just failed to follow his own advice.
Jensen leaned over the back of the chair and studied the display. "In about an hour, we'll want to strap in," he said. "Maybe take up manual piloting, depending on conditions."
Lisa cleared her throat. "There's nothing on the charts, sir. And the solar weather report is clear."
"There's nothing on the charts because what used to be there is gone," Jensen replied. "The debris field will have dispersed quite a bit by now, but in a craft this small, we don’t want to encounter any significant objects."
"The debris field?" Lisa asked.
Jensen's face had gone carefully blank, the way it did when he was holding back a lot of anger. So Jared held up a hand and said quietly, "Macchu Station, Lisa. We'll be passing close by to where it was lost."
Jensen snorted, but when Jared looked up, he glanced away.
Jared cleared his throat. "You should have the comm, Jensen," he said. "In case we need the manual piloting. You have the most experience."
His gaze briefly flickered to Jared's. "Fine," he said before strapping himself into the chair.
They rode in silence for a while. Jared glanced at the radar screen, waiting for it to start lighting up or flashing or something. There were a few signatures of other spacecraft in the far distance, other shuttles going between the two inhabited planets of the system. They couldn't be the only Coronans his mother was sending over to Akkad, after all; there was a lot of work to be done establishing the new regime and cleaning up from the war. He was surprised there weren't any larger ships visible, but then, there were already a fair number of Coronans on the planet, part of the final push that had won them the war.
He wondered if any of them had seen Caral, if he was going to get to see Caral.
"Switching to manual," Jensen said, breaking the silence.
Jared glanced at the radar screen. There wasn't anything visible, either there or on the small screen projecting their forward view. But he trusted that Jensen knew what he was doing, so he stayed silent.
Sure enough, about ten minutes later, pinpricks started to appear on the radar screen. Jensen maintained their course, but Jared could see his knuckles were white around the control yoke.
"Commander," Lisa said, but Jensen was already steering them to port, away from a twisted scrap of metal that looked like it was as long as their shuttle.
"Make sure you're strapped in," Jensen said as he looked back and forth between the radar and the viewscreen.
Jared double-checked his harness and looked over his shoulder to see Mark dropping down into a jump seat and strapping in. Lisa was already in her seat, concentrating on the screens almost as hard as Jensen was.
There was a light thump, and Jared gave a start. Jensen pitched them forward slightly, and now Jared could see more and more pieces of debris entering their viewing field.
They dodged lumps of scarred, scorched metal, occasionally hearing a scraping sound from the shuttle's exterior. There were a few more thumps, and then Jensen's expression turned grim. "Hang on."
The pieces of debris were larger now, fully the size of their shuttle, and Jensen slowed their speed to make it easier to maneuver. The shuttle shuddered as he was unable to avoid every clump, and Jared cast an eye over the control panel to make sure everything was still intact.
"Shit, we really blew this sucker to bits, didn't we?" Mark said from over Jared's shoulder.
Jared whipped around to glare at him. "This is a fucking graveyard we're flying through, Sheppard," he snapped. "Show some respect."
Sheppard had a half-smirk on his face, but as Jared watched, it slowly faded away. His dark eyes shifted in Jensen's direction, and then he sat back in his seat. "Sorry," he muttered.
Jared stared at him hard for another moment for good measure, only looking away when the shuttle took another hit. A red light started blinking on the control panel, and Lisa quietly cursed. "What is it?" Jared asked.
It was Jensen who replied in a level tone, "We've been lucky so far, but the rear thrusters just took a hit. Could make landing a bit tricky."
Jared cleared his throat. "Can we fix them? Once we're out of this?"
"Depends," Jensen replied, taking them into a short, twisting dive to avoid a large chunk of…something…looming large in the viewscreen. "Anyone here know anything about fixing spacecraft?"
"We wouldn't even have spacecraft if we didn't know how to patch up yours," Mark shot back.
"Fine," Jensen grunted. There was a loud bang from outside, and he barely glanced at the radar before taking them between two jagged clumps of metal. "We should be out of it soon."
Jared glanced at the radar and saw that the debris cloud was becoming thinner. "Lisa, once we're clear, should contact Nebula and have other craft avoid this area, at least until it settles down."
"This is settled down," Jensen retorted. "You attacked Macchu Station nearly a month ago. The debris is done dispersing, believe me. It's going to hang here like a new asteroid belt unless you people decide to deal with it. And the gravitational fields of the planets are what determines the course between them. You can't just 'go around,' not without expending a huge amount of energy."
"Then we'll advise people to be cautious," Jared replied. "Especially smaller ships like this one. They might not all have such a highly skilled pilot on board."
Jensen shot him a sideways glance, like he thought Jared might be making fun of him. Jared kept his expression sincere—Jensen really was doing a phenomenal job, minor damage to the thrusters not withstanding. When Jensen finally looked back to the viewscreen, his grip on the control yoke had loosened slightly.
Jared sat back in his seat. Maybe they could get through this trip after all.
As soon as they were clear of the debris field, Jensen handed control of the ship back to Lisa and retreated to the back room. Once the door was closed behind him, he leaned back against it, hand over his face. Tension was thrumming through his entire body, but there was no fight or flight to be had. Only this tiny shuttle and what it had just flown through: the remains of so many of his people and, in a sense, his entire world.
He'd been preparing himself for the likelihood that he'd be seeing Caral ever since President Padalecki had ordered him to make this trip. He hadn't even thought about flying through the remains of Macchu, of coming face to face with what had made him decide to surrender. Of Akkad's last stand.
His pulse had slowed, but his hands ached from how tightly they'd been clenched around the control yoke. His shoulders were rigid and sore, and even though he'd only gotten up a short while ago, the bunk next to him looked extremely inviting. Maybe he could sleep the rest of the way to Akkad.
There was a knock at the door behind him, and he startled. "What?" he barked.
Jared's voice came through the door. "Can I come in?"
Jensen sighed. Against his better judgment, he took a step away from the door. "Yeah, come in."
Jared slipped in and closed the door behind him. "You okay?" he asked quietly.
"Fine," Jensen said shortly, backing up so Padalecki wasn't in his face. He'd caught a whiff of a familiar scent that made him think of another time and place, something he was much better off not thinking about right now.
"We're about twelve hours out at this point, or at least we would be if the thrusters were in top shape." Jared said. "We've been in contact with the surface and gotten clearance to orbit for the repair walk."
Jensen scrubbed his hand over his face. "Just give me a few minutes and I can come back out and pilot."
"We can handle it, Jensen." Jared was leaning closer, forehead furrowed and blue-gray eyes studying Jensen closely. "You should get some rest."
Jensen scoffed. "Believe me, I've had tougher piloting jobs in the past. I don't need a nap."
"I'm sure you have." Jared hesitated and then went on, "You did a great job, though. That can't have been easy to do."
He was about to reply that it wasn't any harder than dodging enemy fire, but the look on Jared's face stopped him. It wasn't just the sudden recollection of what "enemy" fire meant here. It was the quiet admiration in Jared's eyes, the same that Jensen remembered from his last year in college, when Jared had been an eager freshman star-struck at meeting the President's son.
Jensen hadn't seen that look in a long time.
He abruptly turned away. "Thanks for your concern," he said. "I'm fine."
"Sure." Jared cleared his throat. "Sheppard's getting ready to do the repair walk. We won't know how long it's gong to take until he gets out there, but I can keep you updated."
"No, it's all right, I'll be out in a second," Jensen replied. He'd be damned if he was going to let anyone on this shuttle think that he needed a rest after a little bit of piloting.
"Ok," Jared replied. "If you're sure."
"Yes, I'm sure," he snapped.
"Fine," Jared said more tightly. "Sorry."
Jensen turned to see Jared's hand on the door, about to leave him alone, just as he'd asked. "I'm sorry," he said, letting go of a little of his pride. "I do appreciate your concern."
Jared gave him a small, tight smile. He suddenly looked much older, and Jensen realized with a start that eight years separated him from the starry-eyed freshman he'd been.
The one Jensen had trampled into the dirt.
Jensen sighed. "And I wanted to thank you," he said quietly. When Jared's brow furrowed, he went on, "For what you said to Sheppard. About showing respect. You're right, this is a graveyard, even if no one who was on Macchu will ever be laid to rest."
Jared looked back at him for a long moment. Finally he said, "My father was buried in the black. So yeah, I know what that means."
Jensen grimaced, annoyed with himself for forgetting that Padalecki's ship had been lost on re-entry, burning up before reaching the Mauyran skies. "Yeah. Sorry."
Jared gave a sharp nod. "I'll let you know when Sheppard's heading out."
He left then, and Jensen slumped against the door behind him, even more worn out than he had been.
He didn't rest, though. Even standing, when he closed his eyes, all he could see was the endless debris field spread out in front of their tiny shuttle. He could still feel the shuddering of the ship as pieces of Macchu Station struck it, and whether it was the shuttle or the Ariana he was thinking of, he couldn't say.
By the time Jared knocked on the door again, Jensen had calmed down. There was a knot in one shoulder, and his fingers were going to be stiff tomorrow. But if those were the only ill effects from what had been his toughest pilot job ever—regardless of what he'd told Jared—he'd take it.
The repairs went well, and Jensen stayed on the bridge once Sheppard had returned. "Good job," Jensen said. "The sensors indicate everything's back to normal with the thrusters, and we'll be able to land without any trouble."
Space suit still on, helmet tucked under his arm, Sheppard blinked at him. "Thank you," he said, looking mildly confused.
Jensen gave him a short nod and turned towards the control panel.
"Here's the thing, though," Sheppard said.
Keeping his expression blank, Jensen turned back around.
"I don't know how the hell you did that," Sheppard said. "I was looking at the radar screen, and we should have been hit about a dozen more times than we were. Reports we picked up on the radio said that the two ships ahead of us are going to have to go into orbit for a few days for repairs. That was one damn fine piece of flying, Ackles."
It was on the tip of his tongue to say that good flying hadn't been enough for anyone on Macchu. But as with Jared a moment ago, Jensen realized that there was a time for lashing out, and a time for being at least slightly conciliatory. So he gave Sheppard a quick nod and said, "Thanks."
When he turned back towards the console, he caught the pleased surprise on Jared's face and wondered if it was in response to Sheppard's words or his own.
The rest of the journey to Akkad went much more smoothly. Lisa monitored their flight until they were within range of the planet's space traffic control system, and then Jensen guided them into their trajectory for landing.
As they descended, the shuttle buffeted by re-entry, Jensen noticed that Jared's knuckles were white around the arms of his chair. The ride wasn't as rocky as it had been through the debris field, and Jensen was about to say something to that effect.
Then he caught how closely Jared was watching the control panel with their trajectory and speed, and he understood. Somewhere in this stage of re-entry, his father's ship had been shot down by an Akkadian fighter. He realized that he didn't even know where Jared had been at the time: stationed on his own ship? Waiting at home? Watching from below?
The bright flare outside the viewscreen faded away, and then they were over the main continent. Far below, the hills and valleys of home were spread out below, and Jensen was astonished to feel a lump in his throat. There were so many times over the past year that he'd been certain he would never see this view again…and there were so many people for whom that was true. The dark grey of the city spread out around the bay below them, forested hills surrounding it. Thin ribbons of roadway ran in all directions, but Jensen resolutely kept his eyes on their target. Caral was on the very edge of the horizon, but he wasn't ready to look in that direction.
The comm system crackled. "Shuttle A16-B, this is Kumasi Control."
Lisa spoke into her headset. "Kumasi Control, this is Shuttle A16-B. Requesting permission to land at Kumasi Field."
"Shuttle A16-B, state your business at Kumasi."
Jensen expected Jared to take over then, as he had upon launch. But Jared gestured to him, and Jensen tapped on the panel in his armrest. "Kumasi Control, this is Commander Jensen Ackles. Requesting permission to land."
There was a muffled exclamation, and then nothing. As Jensen was about to repeat his request, a different voice came on. "Commander?"
Jensen smiled. "Officer Day."
"Yes! Wow. It's good to hear your voice, Commander. We, um. Well." There was an indistinct murmur of conversation, and then she cleared her throat. "You have permission to land, runway nine-right."
"Understood, Officer Day." He nodded at Lisa, and she began to program the coordinates for the landing site.
"We didn't expect your arrival, but we can put something together this evening—"
"That won't be necessary." Jensen glanced at Jared. "I'd like to speak with you when we land, Officer Day. Only you."
"And I need to talk to Lieutenant General Williams as soon as possible. If he's receiving visitors."
Another inaudible conversation, and then Day said, "He's up and around, sir. But he—" She broke off and sighed. "I can send a message and ask if he'd be willing to meet with you."
Jensen pursed his lips. He'd been worried about Williams' reluctance to speak with him, and telling him who else Jensen had along probably wouldn't help his case. So all he said was, "I'd appreciate that," he said. "I'll see you soon."
Jensen turned his attention to the re-entry process, though Lisa appeared more than capable. They were below 10,000 feet when she looked over her shoulder at him. "The autopilot is set, but if you want the controls, Commander, they're yours."
He blinked at her. "Thank you," he finally said. "I think I will."
"Familiar route?" Jared asked.
Jensen shook his head, already reaching for the control yoke. "I've never landed at Kumasi before. When I was promoted from pilot to First Officer, this was still a minor provincial capital. There wouldn't have been much reason to be here."
"Looks like that's changed," Jared said quietly.
Now that they were closer, they could see clusters of white tents on the outskirts of the city. The city itself looked intact; Jensen couldn't recall any major bombing offenses here, and he sure wasn’t about to ask the people with him.
He "mm-hmm"ed in reply to Jared, concentrating now on piloting the shuttle. It wasn't very complicated—nothing at all like what he'd already been through to get here—but he didn't want anyone to interrupt him. This might well be the last time he piloted an Akkadian shuttle home, after all. He had no idea what was next for him once this mission of Padalecki's was through, but whatever it was, he doubted it would include anything like this.
Jensen guided them the rest of the way in, over the clear blue waters of the bay until they lightly touched down. He followed the control tower's directions to park on a far corner of the tarmac, away from both the main terminal and the military hangars.
Once they'd come to a stop, and Jensen had run through the post-flight checklist with Lisa, Jared asked, "How do you know this woman? Officer Day?"
"She was my communications officer on the Ariana," Jensen replied.
"Huh." Jared frowned. "No offense, but I wonder what she's doing on duty here."
Jensen bristled. "Weren't my people going to be allowed the choice of continuing in their jobs or not?"
"Yeah, but…I didn't think that had happened yet. I would have thought that Coronans would have been in command, especially here in what was your capital."
"It is the capital of the planet," Jensen retorted. "I expect it will continue to be. And it's not like you've been sending shiploads of soldiers here to take over, has it?"
"Of course." Jared looked pained. "It's just…I guess I'm surprised, that's all."
"I'm sure she's being properly supervised by one of your people, if that's what you're worried about."
"No, not at all." Jared sighed. "Look, it's just—do you trust her?"
"Of course," Jensen replied. "That's why I asked to meet with her."
"Right." Jared looked at Lisa and Mark before regarding Jensen again. "Still, I don't think we should tell anyone who I am."
Jensen raised an eyebrow. "I thought they were here for your protection," he said, gesturing at Lisa and Mark. "Don't you think they can handle it?"
"Of course we can," Mark cut it. "Doesn't mean it's not a good idea. If we're just three Coronans along for the ride, we'll be under less scrutiny."
"And the pressure will all be on me," Jensen retorted.
Jared didn't reply, but he did look guilty.
Jensen sighed. "Fine. I won't tell anyone who you are, including Officer Day. Happy?"
"It probably won't last, but I think it'll make things easier at the start," Jared replied.
"Easier for you," Jensen muttered under his breath.
There was no reply, and they were silent until there was a knock on the outer hull. Here we go, Jensen thought. Welcome home.
To Jared's relief, the young red-headed woman who met their shuttle didn't recognize him. She did flinch a bit when Jensen introduced the three Coronans with him, calling them only by their first names. Jared could see the doubt written on her face, but he could also see her trust in Jensen, and she didn't ask him any questions about what he was doing there.
She did pull Jensen aside once it had been determined that the four of them were going to stay on the shuttle for the night and ask in a low voice, "How are you doing, sir?"
Lisa and Mark were in the mess, and Jared turned his head away to give Jensen as much privacy as he could. From the corner of his eye, he saw Jensen put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm holding up," he said. "How about you?"
"The same." She drew in a deep breath and lowered her voice. "Is everything all right here? For real?"
"Everything's fine, Officer Day." Jensen squeezed her shoulder. "I appreciate the concern."
"Of course." Day stepped back and cleared her throat. "It was nice to meet you, Jared," she said more formally.
He turned around and gave her a smile. "You, too, ma'am. Jensen speaks highly of you."
"Oh!" She looked back and forth between them, brow furrowed. "Well, thank you. Good night."
The night passed peacefully, and Jared was surprised in the morning to hear they already had an audience with the man Jensen was seeking out. Jensen looked surprised to receive the transmission as well, but he recovered quickly.
They traveled in a small jeep away from the airfield, Mark driving and Lisa in the back beside Jared. Jensen gave directions into the center of town, down a long boulevard with tents and small encampments scattered in the median. The buildings in the city center were about six stories tall, with only a handful much higher than that.
They stopped in front of one of those, a hospital with people bustling in and out. Mark pulled up to the curb and stopped. "Don’t suppose I can just leave it here?"
"You can wait down the block," Jensen said, one hand already on the door handle. "Only Jared and I are going in."
"That's not how this works," Mark replied. "We're here to keep an eye on him."
"Trust me, Williams is not going to take kindly to me being there, much less Jared. Much less two more of you."
"It's all right," Jared said. "It's a hospital, Mark."
"Right, what could go wrong?" But he didn't press the matter, and they got out of the car and went inside.
Jensen had a room number, and he followed the signs on the wall to lead them there, keeping his head down the whole time. Jared watched everyone they passed, but no one seemed to take notice of them.
Finally, they stood in front of a door. Jensen rapped on it, and a voice from inside said, "Come in."
Jensen straightened his shoulders and opened the door.
Jared followed him in. It was a nice enough room, with a single bed and a chair by the window. A man was sitting in the chair with a tablet on his lap, frowning at something on the screen.
"Lieutenant General Williams." Jensen walked up to him and held out his hand. "It's good to see you, sir."
Williams looked up. He was older than Jared would have expected, more grey than black in his tightly curled hair, deep lines across his forehead. Jared wondered if he'd been in the military for a while, or if he'd been called back up to service when the ranks started to grow thin. "Ackles," he replied coolly, neither standing nor taking Jensen's hand.
Jared cleared his throat as the moment started to move into the realm of awkward. "It's Commander Ackles, actually."
Williams's eyebrows shot up. "Is it? I would have thought that he had to give up his rank like the rest of us."
For all that his tone was neutral, there was something biting behind his words that had Jared's hackles going up.
"The reintegration of the forces is still under discussion," Jensen replied. He dropped his hand back to his side. "It's good to see you up and around, sir."
"I suppose this might be a rare case of better never than late," Williams replied. "Considering what's happened in the interim."
Jensen grimaced. "It's been very difficult for us, yes."
Williams looked him over for a moment. Then he turned to Jared, regarding him with his dark eyes. Eventually, his mouth tightened. "You're the Padalecki boy," he said. "Well. I suppose it's an honor to have one of the foremost traitors of the system in my presence."
"Sir!" Jensen burst out.
Jared held up a hand. "It's all right," he said. "I understand that you're angry."
Williams snorted. "Angry. I suppose that's one word for it, yes. Surprised is another, perhaps. Unless you've come to tell me that it's my turn after all."
"Your turn for what?" Jared asked with a frown.
"It's a fundamental part of war, young man. The victor eliminates the vanquished, to keep them from rising again." He shrugged. "I admit, I'm surprised you allowed me the medical care I needed in the meantime, but everything has a season, I suppose."
"It's not like that, sir." Jensen stepped forward, apparently having seen how Jared was completely baffled at how to respond. "We're here because we need your help. I need your help."
Williams drew his head back. "There's nothing I can do for you," he said. "Besides, it seems that you're doing quite well for yourself under the occupation."
"The what?" Jared demanded, leaning forward.
When Jensen held up his hand, Jared subsided, suddenly aware of how keenly Williams was watching the exchange between them. "You must know," Jensen said, "that I was only the leader of our forces for a brief while. I had no communication with Commander Ferris between my designation as second-in-command and the destruction of Macchu Station. But before your injuries, you were her second-in-command."
"Before she decided I was too old to be able to make decisions," Williams replied.
There was a flash of familiar anger in Jensen's eyes. "As I understand it, you were in a coma for two weeks and unable to speak for two more."
Williams's mouth tightened, but he didn't say anything in response, and Jared mentally chalked up a point for Jensen.
"Regardless." Jensen gave Williams a tight, short smile. "There's information you would have had access to as second-in-command which I was never told. Information about the location of the shelters in preparation for the sunstorm. We know where some of them are, but in order to make sure everyone has shelter, we need the whole list. But I don't know where it is."
"So you think I'm going to tell the two of you any kind of classified information?" Williams scoffed. "Not a chance."
"Sir, if you just—"
"I worked with your father for years, Ackles. I was one of his advisors for a decade. I came out of retirement because he needed me to fight off the traitors who were trying to destroy our system." He gave Jared a withering glare and went on, "What would he say if he knew you had turned the system over to them? He'd be ashamed of you. He'd regret ever giving you the Ariana, since the first thing you did when you got a higher command was to surrender like a coward. And now here you are, asking me to go along with your treason." He gave a sharp shake of his head. "Not on your life. Or on mine, if it comes to that."
Jared could see Jensen's face becoming more and more drawn as Williams went on, could see him reacting almost as to a blow rather than to words. So he stepped forward and said, "Quite the drama queen, aren't you?"
The room went deadly silent. Then Williams slowly stood to face him, fury in every line of his face. "I beg your pardon?" he spat out.
"You've been wanting to make a speech like that for months, I bet," Jared said. "Probably had it all planned out in your head, what you would say to Commander Ackles if you ever got the chance. Without giving him time to explain or to even get a word in edgewise."
"Now, see here—"
"I understand that you're upset. I do. I can't imagine what it's been like to be on the sidelines and watch everything change so dramatically around you when you can't do a thing about it." Jared took another step, holding up his hands. "But now you can. Fifty-eight days from now, or maybe less, millions of people on this planet are going to need to know where to go. They're going to need food, water, and medical supplies. But most of all, they're going to need to know where to go once the solar flares start. Now, if your planet is anything like ours, you've got some pretty big shelters set up under the major cities, right? Public shelters that are regularly maintained and stocked, or at least would have been before the war?"
Williams looked back at him without responding.
"Right. Well, we don't know where they all are. We don't know what kind of condition they're in, if they're all accessible. But the starting point has got to be whatever kind of records exist. Commander Ackles doesn't know of an electronic version, only paper documents. We think that you might be able to help us on that."
There was silence for a moment. Then Williams said, "If there was such a list. And if I knew where it was. What would you do with it?"
"Make sure the shelters are accessible," Jared replied, spreading out his hands. "Make sure there's enough room for people to get to them, enough space for everyone."
"Or make sure they're closed off and guarded so we can't get in 'em," Williams replied, folding his arms over his chest. "Let the solar flares finish off what you started."
"That's—" Jared broke off and took a deep breath, forcing himself to remain calm. "That's not what we're after, sir. We don't want any more casualties."
"Got more than you bargained for, did you?"
Jared clenched his jaw. "Do you know where the list is?"
"That list is classified," Williams responded.
"And your Commander in Chief is asking for it," Jensen retorted.
"Oh, is that how it is?" Shaking his head, Williams replied, "I have no interest in giving that traitor anything she wants. We can take care of ourselves."
"We won't give her the list until after the sunstorms are over," Jared said.
Jensen looked at him. "We what?"
Jared held up a hand in his direction. "She wants the list for security reasons, right? But I get that your people don't want to share it for their own security." He turned to Williams. "You think that if we knew where all of your shelters were, we'd use that information against you somehow."
Williams regarded him for a moment. Finally, he said, "I suppose if you truly wanted to eliminate us, you wouldn't have bothered agreeing to a ceasefire."
"That's right," Jared said. "We don't want anything except to protect all of our people and their planets from the storms."
"For now," he replied. "And once she gets the list?"
"That's also for protection," Jared replied. "Ours as well as yours." He could see hesitation in the other man's eyes again, so he went on, "But we can wait until after the storms are over. That way, you'll know all of your people are safe."
"The ones who can get to shelters," Williams replied. "And the shelters that are usable."
"Do you know what condition the ones are in this city?" Jared asked.
Williams shrugged. "No idea."
"Would you be willing to be in charge of that?" Jared asked. "To find the existing shelters and confirm how many people they can handle?"
"Why would I want to do that?" Williams retorted.
Jared gave him a tight smile. "I'm sorry, I had assumed that you were still concerned with the welfare of your people."
"How dare you question that?" Williams snapped. "You, of all people, who killed more of us than you could possibly have hoped when you started out."
Gritting his teeth, Jared replied, "That was never our goal. We only—" He stopped, took a breath. "It doesn't matter. What matters now is that the sunstorm is coming, and we need someone the people will listen to. Will you be that person, Lieutenant General? Will you be in charge of making sure the people here in Kumasi have a safe place to go?"
He could feel Jensen's eyes on him, but he didn't look away from Williams. There was fire in the older man's eyes, to be sure, but he was looking at Jared shrewdly, like he knew full well what was going on. He glanced at Jensen and then back at Jared before asking, "And then what?"
"And then, if you'll let us know where we can find the information we need, we'll use it to make sure everyone else on Akkad has a safe place," Jared replied. "Once the storms have passed, we'll do as the President has requested and share that information with her."
"She probably wants that list as soon as possible, doesn't she?" Williams asked.
Jared lifted his chin. "She didn't specify a time frame."
There was a soft snort from Jensen's direction, but he didn't say a word.
"Fine," Williams finally said. "You can give me men and women to carry out this order?"
"We have two fine people with us that I'd be happy to leave under your command," Jared replied.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Jensen give a start, but he didn't look away. He was so close, he almost had this…
"It's in Caral," Williams said.
Jared let out the breath he'd been holding.
"Which you should have already known," Williams went on with a pointed look. "There were two copies of the list. One was on Macchu Station. The other was in the compound in Caral. I never saw the list myself, was just told where to find it if we needed it." He looked at Jensen. "You'd probably know better than anyone where to look."
The line of Jensen's throat moved as he swallowed. "I haven't been there since," he said in a low voice. "I don't know what condition it's in."
"No one's been there except the gravediggers," Williams replied. He glanced at Jared. "From what I hear, your weapon worked exactly as it was supposed to. Structures are still intact. Life, not so much."
"Then I suppose we can find it," Jensen said stiffly. "I have an idea of where to look."
"Then why'd you come here?" Williams asked.
"We thought you might be able to help," Jared said.
"Mm-hmm," Williams replied. "And you didn't want to see what you wrought upon Caral if you could avoid it, did you?"
"It wasn't supposed to happen the way it did," Jared replied. "We never intended—"
"Well, it's what happened," Williams cut in. "And now you have to deal with it."
There was silence for a moment. Then Jared straightened his shoulders. "Yes, we do. Sir."
"Mm-hmm." Williams looked at Jensen. "There's one large shelter I know of here in Kumasi. I'll ask around, see where the others might be. How long do you reckon we have?"
"The current estimate is fifty-eight days," Jensen replied.
"Based on what?" Williams asked.
"Our observatory," Jensen replied. "It was far enough outside Caral that it was unaffected by the TEMP."
"Well, that's something," Williams muttered. "The air-raid sirens are still functioning, far as I know. We can get the word out that they'll be used for the sunstorm."
"That's good," Jared said. "The biggest thing will be to keep people calm and supplied with enough food and water."
"One good thing about war," Williams replied. "People have experience at being prepared for just about anything."
Jared nodded and fell silent. There wasn't much he could say to that, and soon they took their farewells.
Once they were out in the hallway, Jensen whirled on Jared. "What you were thinking?" he demanded. "You can't just assign our personnel to someone else without asking me like that."
"I'm sorry, do I need to keep them around to defend myself from you?" When Jensen glared at him, Jared hurried on, "Look, it made sense. Lisa will be willing to work with him on this, I'm sure. And Mark…they can send him out to check the structural integrity of the shelters or something."
Jensen shook his head. "That's beside the point," he said in a low voice. "Your president put me in charge. That means I make the decisions. Including putting people into new positions."
"It worked, didn't it?" Jared threw back. "He told us what we wanted to know. He might not be our ally, but he has an important job to do here, and you can bet your ass he's going to give it his all. If I'd stopped to ask your permission in the middle of that, it wouldn't have gone anywhere, and you know it."
"You're pretty good at people, aren't you?" Jensen replied. "Manipulating them, I mean."
Jared took a small step forward, enough so that he was looming over Jensen. "You should know. Like stringing them along and then dumping them when you get bored?"
Jensen stood his ground. For a second, he thought this was it, they were going to have it out and get rid of whatever was left between them from eight years ago. But the middle of a busy hospital corridor really wasn't the place, and this certainly wasn't the time, so all Jensen said was, "We should get back to the ship so you can inform your crew of their new assignments."
Jared huffed out a breath. "Fine."
Surprisingly, once they were back on the shuttle at the airport, it was Lisa who was the most skeptical about changing their duties. "Shouldn't we run this by the President first? And stay with you until reinforcements can be found?"
"I'll be fine, Lisa," Jared said. "We'll be less conspicuous if it's just the two of us, anyway."
She eyed them dubiously. "We were asking around while you were in your meeting," she said, jerking a thumb back and forth between herself and Mark. "We found some Coronans on the street, part of the initial security detail while the transfer of power goes on. Things aren't good here. There's plenty of people who figure if they haven't personally surrendered, the war's not over for them."
"That's not going to be a problem where we're going," Jensen cut in.
"Where are you going where there aren't any—" Mark cut himself off. "Oh."
"Yeah," Jensen replied, feeling a bitter taste at the back of his throat. "What we're looking for is in Caral."
"Commander, are you sure?" Lisa asked. "There must have been survivors, or people who've returned since—since the attacks."
"Not from what our contact said," Jensen replied. "I'm guessing if there was anyone left who could get out, they did. Wouldn't you?"
"Is it safe to be there?" she asked.
Jensen sighed. "What do you know about the TEMP, anyway?"
Jared spoke up. "Targeted Electro-Magnetic Pulse. It's a variation on the kind of device that's been around for centuries. It can take out electronic communications, just like the solar flares will. But it's targeted at the neuro-electrical system of the human body. It was designed to be a deterrent, never tested as a weapon before the Quasar launched it."
"Before you launched it," Jensen retorted. "And no, it was never supposed to be used, not at that scale. It wasn't even supposed to be a weapon. Our scientists were trying to simulate the sunstorms so we could do something other than hide from them. The plants and animals in this system have somehow adapted to these massive bursts of radiation every century, so maybe we could, too. If we could mimic the effects of the solar flares without having to wait for them, we could try out some theories of defense."
"How, though?" Jared asked. "It's not like we could self-evolve into being resistant to radiation."
"Maybe smaller scale shields," Jensen replied. "Maybe something that would absorb the radiation and reuse it as energy, I don’t know. But there had to be a way to test any kind of block or deterrent that the scientists developed. And because the top priority was dealing with the wavelengths of radiation that would harm humans, they developed a device to emit only those wavelengths at approximately the same intensity as the sunstorm. Thus the TEMP."
"I heard that once the war started, though, that changed," Mark replied. "That your scientists started developing a smaller version of it. A micro-targeted weapon or something."
Jensen shook his head. "I don't know. I wasn't at a high enough rank when that went on to know about it. I don't know why it would have been, though. We wouldn't have used it."
"But it must have been going on," Jared pressed. "Because after we got forces here on the ground, it wasn't that long before we hit the capital. And we sure didn't have the resources to be weaponizing an EMP at that scale. We could barely keep our ships in orbit. It must have already been out there, and we got a hold of it."
"So it's our fault for building it rather than your fault for using it?" Jensen asked with an arch of one eyebrow.
"I didn't say that," Jared retorted. "You're the one who said it wasn't intended to be a weapon, when at some point, it clearly was. Don't tell me that TEMP wasn't meant to be used on us."
"I don't know anything about what it was intended for," Jensen shot back. "All I know is that it wiped out almost a million people without any warning."
Jared shook his head. "That's not right," he said. "I know that Mom struggled with the decision for a long time. But she was adamant that the TEMP was to be used more as a threat than a weapon. That's why she ordered that warnings be given, thirty-six and twelve hours in advance, to minimize casualties."
"What warning?" Jensen scoffed. "No one knew it was coming. No one got out."
Jared stared at him. "That's not possible."
Jensen's eyes narrowed. "How did you think the casualty figures got so high?"
"We didn't think they were so high, remember?" Jared said. "And what do you mean, there wasn't a warning?"
"I don't know how to say it any more plainly," Jensen replied. "From what the first response teams said, no one had made a move to evacuate. There was no indication that any of them knew it was coming."
Jared bit his lip. "That's not possible," he said more quietly. "I know we sent warnings. More than one."
"Well, you did a damn poor job of it," Jensen retorted. "Because no one got them." He turned to Lisa. "So even if there were survivors—which, given the lack of warning and the multiple bomb clusters, I don't know how there could have been—they probably did their damnedest to get away from the site. We're not in any danger from anyone who's left."
She put her hands on her hips. "How are you going to get there?"
Jensen shrugged one shoulder. "I'm sure the Coronan forces here have commandeered enough vehicles that we can borrow one."
Jared was making a strangled noise behind him, but Lisa plowed on. "And how far of a journey is it? Do you know what you're likely to encounter between here and there?"
"Better than any of you," Jensen retorted. "This is my home."
"The word on the street isn't just about Coronans, Commander," she replied. "Your people might not be any happier to see you than they are to see Jared here."
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
She exchanged a quick look with Mark. "There's been some encounters with armed pockets of resistance. People who don't believe it was really you that surrendered."
"Or that you didn't have the authority to surrender," Mark broke in. "That you took over when you didn't have the right to, and you weren't speaking for all Akkadians when you ceded authority over the planet."
"That's ridiculous," Jensen said. "And you heard all that from a ten-minute conversation?"
Another exchanged glance. "We have our sources," Lisa said.
"Look, guys, it doesn't matter." Jared spread his hands wide. "We already made the decision."
Ignoring him, Jared went on, "We needed Williams's help. Now he needs our help. One of the best things we can do to show that we're all on the same side when it comes to the sunstorm is to prepare for it together. The more assistance you guys can offer in that regard, the better. Jensen and I will be fine."
Lisa folded her arms across her chest. "Fine. But you'll be the one calling the President to tell her about this change of plans."
Jared glanced at Jensen, and Jensen held up his hands. "She means you."
"Yeah, okay." Jared sighed. "I'll do that."
Somehow, Jensen had the feeling that the call to the President would be made right about the same time Jared informed her that he had the list of shelters. Much, much later.
They left the next morning, bright and early, in the same jeep that they'd driven around town in. Aircraft were in short supply—fuel even more so—and there was something to be said for driving a ground vehicle that wasn't going to kill you if the power suddenly died. Besides, it was only a three-day drive to Caral. Jensen had conferred with Officer Day about places to stay along the way where they could be assured of a warm welcome, whether because the Coronans were firmly in charge or because they wouldn't otherwise run into trouble. After talking with Day, Jensen's expression had darkened as he'd brusquely said that maybe Lisa knew what she was talking about, and Jared hadn't pressed for more.
Jensen took the wheel, driving them out of the central city and into a suburban landscape not so different from where Jared had grown up. The houses were small and square and reddish brick, each with a small patch of grass in front. In most cases, though, the front yards were crinkly and brown rather than the verdant green Jared knew from home. Well, this planet did have a generally drier climate, if he remembered his geography lessons. And the Akkadians probably had had more important things to do recently than watering their lawns.
They drove over a bridge that reached across a wide, shallow riverbed. There was barely a trickle of water running through it. Along the banks, as far as Jared could see in both directions, were more of the white tents they'd seen from the air and in the city parks and boulevards.
He cleared his throat. "Can I ask you something?"
Jensen held up a finger. "Hold on." He was accelerating as they came off the bridge, open road visible ahead.
While he waited for Jensen's reply, Jared realized there were only one or two other cars on the road, most of them jeeps like theirs but driven by people in Coronan black. He probably could have asked for more people to come with them, armed to the teeth in case they encountered any trouble; maybe even an aircraft to make the journey shorter. His mother probably would have preferred it if he had. But she had sent him there for diplomatic purposes—for the man beside him as much as anyone else—and Jared was certain he stood a better chance of gaining Jensen's trust if it was just the two of them.
As long as he didn't say the wrong thing and screw everything up, that was.
At any rate, it was clear that Jensen was no longer the same man he'd been in college. Jared knew he shouldn't be surprised: so much had happened since then, to both of them and to the world around them. Before boarding the shuttle on Corona, he'd briefly entertained the idea of trying to draw on their shared history—at least the parts that didn't make his cheeks flame with the memory—to get closer to Jensen. But he'd realized right away that wouldn't work. This was a stranger next to him, and Jared had to remember that.
Finally, they were out of the city, driving across a flat plain with the same reddish earth as the bricks on the houses. Jensen settled back in his seat, adjusting his sunglasses. "Shoot," he called over the rush of the wind around the open jeep.
Jared half-turned to face him. "Who are the people in the tents?"
"They're refugees," Jensen said in a tone that implied Jared was stupid.
Jared huffed. "Obviously. Just—where did they come from?"
"Some of them have been there since Xia," Jensen replied. "Others would have come from Caral, or at least its outskirts. Some probably figured the new capital was the safest place to be since it would be the most heavily defended."
"Are they going to go back?" Jared asked.
"I don't know," Jensen snapped. "Why don't we circle back around and you can ask them?"
"That's not—" Jared sighed. "Look, there's obviously a lot more people there than whatever the official population is. Lieutenant General Williams is going to have a harder time making sure there's enough shelter space for everyone if he doesn't know how many people there are."
"But that's his problem now, not yours. Right?" Jensen gave him a sideways glance.
"No! I mean—that's not why I did it." Jared stared at him. "Did you think that's why I did it?"
Jensen's hands briefly clenched around the wheel. "No, I didn't," he said. "You might not have thought it all through, but I don't think that was your motive."
"Thanks. I think."
They drove on in silence for a few minutes. Then Jared cleared his throat. "If they—are they getting enough food and water right now? The refugees?"
"You'd have to ask the current ruling government," Jensen replied flatly. "I'm not part of that."
Jared pressed his lips together and sat back in his seat. Somehow, he'd already said the wrong thing, and he wasn't sure how.
The terrain was becoming slightly more hilly, and Jared noticed they were gaining some elevation as well. Caral was on the other side of a mountain range, he remembered, which meant the driving was going to get more difficult as they went on. "Let me know when you want me to drive," he said.
"Sure," Jensen replied brusquely.
"How, uh, how good is the infrastructure up here?"
"How badly did you damage it, do you mean?"
Jared briefly pressed his lips together. "Right. That."
Jensen's voice took on the tone of someone giving a report. "The roadways are intact from here to Caral. Electricity and communications should be working up until ten miles out of the city, based on the estimated radius of the blast."
"Okay," Jared said. "Thanks. Are there—what's between here and there?"
"Not much," Jensen replied.
"Right." Jared paused as he thought of how to re-word his question. "Not much in the way of habitable land, given the mountains?"
Jensen shot him another look. "Yeah, that's right," he said, sounding slightly more conciliatory. "Kumasi's always been kind of out of the way, even though it's not that far from Caral. Which is why it became the capital; less ground fighting on this side of the planet."
"That makes sense," Jared said.
"Officer Day told me about the conditions," Jensen said. "I was on the Ariana for about a year. I didn't know much about what was going on landside."
"Yeah, me neither," Jared replied. "I was on the Quasar for only a few months, but before that, I was on a rebuilding crew on Corona. We didn't hear much about the war, and once I was up in the black, it didn't matter much what was going on on the ground."
"My point is, Jared, I was only the Commander in Chief for a few minutes. I don't know the conditions down here any more than you do. Hell, it's probably easier for you to find out by making a few phone calls, at least if you know who to talk to."
There was silence for a moment except for the thrum of the wheels on the road and the wind rushing past them. Jared's hand was clenched into a fist as he literally bit his tongue to keep from saying something he'd regret.
It took a moment to formulate his thoughts, but when he did, he spoke loudly and clearly. "My rebuilding crew was working in Nalanda. The university was essentially destroyed, you know. So was most of the town. It was one of the last-ditch attempts to keep us in our place by attacking our best university, before we took over our own skies. You probably wouldn't know that, though, since you weren't paying attention to what went on planetside."
Jensen drew in a sharp breath but didn't speak. It wasn't until they had gone a few more miles that he finally said, "That was before I was on the Ariana. It was before I was in the Forces, even. So yeah, I knew about it." He cleared his throat. "I know it meant a lot to you. Your university."
"But not to you, apparently," Jared shot back.
"It's not like I was going to be welcome at any alumni events," Jensen said dryly.
Jared almost smiled at that. "Yeah, maybe not."
They fell silent again, but the air felt a little less thick between them. Jared thought maybe this was what he was going to have to do from now on: fight back when Jensen snapped at him, show him that he had some strength of his own. He had no idea if Jensen still thought of him as the same naïve freshman he'd been all those years ago, or if he, too, realized how much both of them had changed.
And that led Jared to another thought, and soon he was digging in his knapsack for his tablet. He pulled it out and was relieved to find that he could get a signal. "You said the communications infrastructure will still be intact?"
Jensen glanced at him. "There won't be complete coverage up in the mountains, but other than that, yeah."
The question was clear in Jensen's voice, but Jared didn't want to tell him what he was trying in case it didn't work out. "Just let me know when you want me to drive, yeah?"
Opening a secure connection, Jared got to work.
Jensen ended up driving all day. Every time he looked over at Jared, he was furiously typing or drawing on his tablet. Even when they stopped to stretch their legs, he barely put it down. Jensen thought once or twice about asking what he was doing, but decided not to. It wasn't really his business. He had one job to do—get the list of shelters and make sure as many people got in them as possible. Then he was done with all of this.
Even so, Jensen was nearly seeing double when he pulled off the highway. Officer Day had identified a couple of likely stopping places for them along the way, motels that were still open and that were identified as Coronan-friendly. Since the surrender, she'd explained, the new occupying forces were trying to get a sense of where they were and weren't welcome. "Well, maybe not welcome," she'd explained, "but at least not likely to be shot in their sleep."
"Right," Jensen had replied. "There much of that going on?"
"Not literally," she'd said. "But it's best to be cautious. And Captain—Commander, you should be careful, too." She'd lowered her voice. "Not everyone here knows you like I do. They don't—they don't know what it was like. Not everyone agrees with your decision. So—look, I know it's really awkward, but it might be best to stick to the places the Coronans go. At least for now."
It had stung to hear it, but it had backed up what Lisa and Mark had said. So Jensen pulled up in front of a small motel, individual units like log cabins set into the scrubby forest they had entered about an hour ago. It was strangely quiet after the rush of wind in his ears all day. Tomorrow they should roll up the sides of the jeep; it would be cooler once they started to gain elevation.
"Be right back," he said, reaching for the door.
"No, wait!" Jared had finally looked up from his tablet. "Let me."
Jensen cocked his head to the side. "Why?"
"Um." Jared stuffed his tablet back in his knapsack. "I have funds."
"Yeah, so do I," Jensen replied.
"Not like I do," Jared muttered.
Jensen sighed. "Fine," he said, gesturing towards the motel office.
Jared was back in a few minutes, two keys dangling from his long fingers. "We're next to each other," he said. "Four and five."
Jensen looked up the hill to the two small cabins farthest from the road. "Guess you had your pick," he said.
"I thought you might want your own space," Jared said, shrugging one shoulder. "Since you gotta be stuck with me all day."
A memory suddenly struck Jensen, of explaining to Jared that he was a private person and needed his time alone. Jared had laughed about it later when Jensen showed him that sometimes he was okay not being alone.
From the way Jared's gaze was cutting to the side, Jensen was pretty sure he was remembering the same thing. He reached out and snatched one of the keys from Jared's hand. "Awesome, thanks," he said, hitching his pack onto one shoulder. "See you in the morning."
He barely remembered to glance at the room number on the keycard folder before walking past the first couple of cabins. Once he was inside, he switched on the light and did a quick scan of the place. Log walls, big log headboard, forest green bedspread on a sagging bed, table that looked like a rough-hewn plank laid over two sawhorses, chair that looked like it would break if he sat down too heavily. Bathroom off to the side, slightly-mildewed curtain visible from here.
After the day of driving, it looked fantastic.
Jensen dropped his pack onto the foot of the bed and raised his arms in a long stretch. Rolling his head from side to side, he felt the long line of tension across his shoulders, tight as usual. He had the feeling that wasn't going away any time soon.
His wrist-pad beeped, and he looked down to see that the battery was nearly gone. Plugging it in took only a moment. He probably had messages waiting, but it was late enough that no one would expect a reply. Assuming Jared drove tomorrow, and assuming that communication lines were intact for a while yet, he could always catch up tomorrow.
Which left him nothing to do in the meantime.
It was quiet up here in the mountains, quieter than Jensen had experienced in a long while. On a ship, there was always the whoosh and clank of various mechanical systems, and that was when they weren't being fired upon. The rush of the wind around the jeep had been in his ears all day, and the stillness around the motel was almost deafening.
Jensen fidgeted with the plugged-in wrist-pad. It was so quiet.
Abruptly, he turned and went back out the door, checking to be sure the keycard was secured in his pocket. It wasn't just that it was quiet. It was that he hadn't been alone except to sleep in…he paused with his hand on the doorframe. "Since the Ariana," he said quietly. Since sitting in his quarters, making the fateful call that would doom his planet and its people.
Jensen shook his head. It was to save them, not doom them. But from what he'd heard, they didn't all agree with that.
He walked away from the cabin, feet quiet on the pine-needled ground. There was nowhere to go, but he couldn't be by himself in that room. Not until he was ready to roll into bed and fall asleep.
He glanced at Jared's cabin. A light was on, but he didn't see any movement. It wasn't like he was going to knock on Jared's door and ask for a chat. Things between them had eased into a relatively stable détente, which was probably all either of them could ask for. Jared seemed happy to forget they'd ever even met before, much less done…what they'd done together. Jensen supposed he was happy with that. It was why he'd made the decision he had, after all.
A car passed by on the highway, and Jensen followed the track of its lights until it went around a bend. They hadn't seen many vehicles that day that weren't military. Probably their own equipment now being commandeered by the Mauryans, Jensen thought. It was probably going to take them months to figure out where everything even was on this planet, much less what to do with it.
Light suddenly spilled out across the ground, and Jensen whirled to see Jared opening the door to his cabin. He was looking down at his tablet, and he stumbled over the two steps in front of the door. When he righted himself, he looked up and saw Jensen. "Oh. Hey. I was just coming to see you."
"Yeah." He waved the tablet around. "I finally got it."
"What I was working on all day." Jared gestured impatiently.
Reluctantly, Jensen came forward until he was standing in front of Jared in the light of the open door. "What is it?"
"I got your proof." Jared thrust his tablet at Jensen.
Jensen looked down at the screen. It looked like a communications report, sent three months ago from Maurya. "What is this?"
Jared tapped the screen. "It took some digging, but I extracted it from our communications files. Thank God the comm towers are still operating, because I got kicked out a couple of times and had to—well, anyway. It's a transcript of a transmission from Corona. There's a recording available as well, if you click through. We sent a warning to Caral. Just like I told you. The second one is on the next page."
Scanning over the transmission report, Jensen took in the message. It was like hearing a ghost speak, seeing these words that could have made so much of a difference, but were now lost to time. The details of the TEMP weren't given, just a warning that a major weapon would be launched on Caral within thirty-six hours and that the population was advised to evacuate. The second message said much the same thing, with the timeline down to twelve hours.
Jensen tried to picture his father receiving such a message. He might not have believed the Mauryans could have had access to anything so powerful, but he sure as hell would have acted on it anyway, just to be safe. And yet, from what he knew, there was no indication that a single person had tried to leave Caral.
He shrugged and handed the tablet back to Jared. "Like you said, something like this should be really hard to access. For all I know, you produced this document today. Or you had someone do a recording for you with the right date and time stamps."
"Do you really think I would do that?" Jared snapped.
Jensen sighed. "No, I don't. Even though I know this warning was never received, I don't believe you faked it."
"Well, that's something," Jared muttered.
"Why did you do this, Jared?" Jensen folded his arms over his chest. "What are you trying to prove?"
"If we can figure out what happened, why that warning didn't get through…" Jared shook his head. "I’m not saying it's going to make things right, about Caral. I don't know if anything can make things right. But this could help to get at the truth. And go a long way towards establishing some kind of trust."
"Which would make things a lot easier for you now that you're in charge, right?" Jensen retorted.
"Which is the only way we're going to get through the sunstorms." Jared glared at him. "We all need to work together, Akkadians and Coronans alike. And I get that you don't trust us right now. I totally get it. But if we can figure out how this one terrible thing happened, show that it wasn't what we intended, maybe people will be more willing to listen. To both of us."
"And if we find out that it didn't have to happen?" Jensen asked. "Or if we find out it was a mistake? Where does that fit into your plans for self-exoneration?"
"I don't know." Jared's shoulders sagged. "I don't. I just—I can't let this go, Jensen. Something really went wrong, and I need to know what. I think you do, too."
They were silent for a moment, only the wind rustling through the pine trees overhead. Finally, Jensen unfolded his arms. "Fine. But if you want proof, the kind that Akkadians are going to accept, it can't be something like this that you present to them. You have to let them find it out for themselves."
"How are we supposed to do that?" Jared asked, spreading his hands wide, the tablet nearly flying from his grip.
"How did you get that?" Jensen asked, pointing at the tablet.
"I knew where to look."
Jensen looked back at him without saying anything.
It took a moment, but Jared shook his head. "No. No way. We can't let the public have access to secure files."
Raising an eyebrow, Jensen still remained silent.
Jared rolled his eyes. "That's different. We're trying to save people's lives by making sure that information on shelters is made available. That's a lot different from letting hackers root around in our databases and do God knows what in the process."
"I thought you said our cyberwarriors were really good." Jensen folded his arms across his chest.
"They were," Jared replied warily.
"Then let one of them in. Supervised, but given free rein. If it didn't take you more than a few hours, it should take them less time than that. If they get near anything they shouldn't, you can shut them down."
"I suppose you have someone in mind?"
"I can think of a few people," Jensen said. "People I trust. People who will be trusted if they say that's for real." He pointed at the tablet. "You met Officer Day. She's one of the ones I'd suggest."
"I don't know." Jared shook his head. "I don't know if my—if the President will go for it."
"Oh, don't back out on this now." Jensen took a step closer, looking up into Jared's eyes. "As far as the people of this planet know, you killed almost a million people without any warning. Just like that." He snapped his fingers, and Jared flinched. "They think they're being ruled now by someone who murdered an entire city without hesitating. You're right, they're not going to trust a word your mother or anyone else in her regime has to say about the solar flares or anything else. Including us. No matter how much we insist we're here to help."
Jared was quiet, searching Jensen's eyes. Finally, he asked, "We would supervise whoever you chose?"
Jensen nodded. "Watch their screens, hell, look over their shoulders if you have to. If I can get some of the people I'm thinking of, I can assure you it won't be necessary."
Slowly, Jared nodded. "Yeah, all right. Let me contact my mom and see what she says."
"Okay," Jensen said quietly. "Good."
Jared gave another nod. Then he said, "You know this is only part of it, though. We have to figure out how the warnings didn't get through."
"One step at a time," Jensen replied.
When he went back to his cabin, he could feel the tiredness he'd been missing earlier. He washed up, turned out the light, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Jared figured it was his turn to drive the next day. But to his surprise, when he exited his cabin, Jensen was already sitting in the driver's seat of their jeep. Jared quickly dropped off his key at the main office and climbed in. "Shouldn't it be my turn?" he asked. "You drove all day yesterday."
"You can drive tomorrow," Jensen replied as he pulled out onto the road.
Jared was about to object when he remembered what tomorrow was going to bring. It was a three day drive to Caral, after all. He settled back into his seat and said, "Got it."
He poked around some more in the Coronan transmission files, trying to figure out how Caral had never received the fateful messages. There was no indication of failure at the sending end, but he supposed there might not be. "Hey, where would the communications center in Caral be?" he asked.
"Which one?" Jensen asked.
"The one we would have been sending our warning to."
"The military command center was in the same compound where we're going," Jensen replied.
Jared winced. "So I suppose there isn't much chance of reviewing a log of transmissions received?"
Jensen glanced at him. It was impossible to see his eyes behind his sunglasses, but given his tone of disdain, Jared could imagine the look he was getting. "No, I don't suppose there is."
"Damn." He did some more tracing and frowned. The messages had been sent through a few satellite links, but one of those had been based at Macchu station, and the other he recognized as having been blown up by Akkadian forces during the last battle he'd been in. "That's strange," he said aloud.
"What?" Jensen asked.
"Well, the only planetside link for the warnings was the command center in Caral. But if we were trying to warn the population to evacuate, wouldn't we have sent as broad a message as we could?"
Jensen was silent as he navigated around a tight turn. They were starting to climb up the mountains now, and Jared wondered how much longer he'd be able to pull in a signal. "The thing is," Jensen finally said, "if you were really sending a warning in the best interests of the population, you wouldn't want to make people panic. You'd alert the authorities and let them deal with the evacuation."
"You still sound skeptical," Jared replied.
"Have you heard back from the president yet?" Jensen asked.
Jared sighed. "Not yet, but I'm not sure what the time difference is right now."
"Hmmm," was Jensen's only reply.
Jared rolled his eyes. "At any rate, we should try and get in the command center. Even if the electronics were fried, we might able to restore something, or find printouts."
"And exactly what is it you're hoping to find?"
The jeep's engine was starting to strain as they went up a long incline. "I want to know what happened to the warnings," Jared replied. "I know they were sent, but I don't know what happened after that."
"Here's what I think," Jensen said. "I think you want to absolve yourself. You want to be able to say that you did all you could, that it wasn't your fault, that the Akkadians screwed up and brought it on themselves."
"That's not it," Jared shot back.
"Are you sure?"
Jared opened his mouth to deliver a retort, but a second, smaller voice inside of him was echoing Jensen's question. Are you sure?
They rode in silence for the rest of the morning. As they continued to climb, the trees growing shorter and sparser, Jared's signal started to drop in and out. Eventually, he was forced to put away his tablet and just look out the window, watching the scenery go by.
It really was beautiful. Corona had landscapes almost like this, but with moss on the trees and less of a reddish tinge to the soil. And then, the only time he'd traveled to the mountains had been the summer after his freshman year, when some friends were trying to get his mind off of the person sitting next to him. No wonder he didn't have fond memories of the mountains.
Since they were going more slowly on the steeper roads, the rush of the wind past their ears wasn't quite as loud. So when Jared's stomach gave an enormous growl, Jensen shot an amused look at him. "Still hungry all the time?" he asked.
"I'm used to it," Jared replied. "It's not like there've been many all-you-can-eat buffets open in the last few years."
Jensen's mouth tightened. "Right."
He pulled into the next overlook, the road they had come up curving below them down into the plains. In the far distance, Jared thought he could see the glint of Kumasi, but it might have been his imagination.
He climbed out and stretched his arms overhead, glad for the relief from the confines of the car. Jensen was rummaging in the back, and eventually he came out and handed Jared a ration packet. "There's more where that came from," he said. "Officer Day stocked us up for a couple of weeks."
"Thanks," Jared said, grabbing the packet and tearing into it. It wasn't tasty food, but it was nourishing enough.
They chewed in silence, looking out over the valley. "We'll probably hit Pine City tonight," Jensen finally said. "Despite the name, there's only a few hundred people in it. Officer Day said there'd be a couple of likely places to stay."
Jared chewed and swallowed. "What's her name?" he asked.
Jensen frowned. "Officer Day?"
"Yeah. Her first name."
"Why don't you call her that?"
Jensen shot him a sideways glance. "Because I'm still her commanding officer," he said slowly.
Shrugging, Jared said, "I don't know, it just seems weird to me. I mean, how long are you going to keep calling her 'Officer Day'?"
Jensen's shoulders had gone stiff. "As long as I’m allowed to keep my position, I suppose."
"Isn't that for as long as you want?" Jared asked.
"I don't know," Jensen replied. "It wasn't clear from my conversation with the President."
"I thought she said you would get to make your own decision on that," Jared frowned.
"C'mon, Jared." Jensen crumpled up his empty ration packet in one hand. "You really think she's going to let the commander of the former enemy forces do anything other than help implement her new regime? Help pacify the population? Even if people here would listen to me—and I doubt Lieutenant General Williams is the only one who wouldn't want to give me the time of day—it's not something I want to do."
"Whoa, 'pacify the population'?" Jared stared at him. "We're not going to subjugate Akkad or anything. After the sunstorms pass, we're still going to need to do a lot of rebuilding. Both here and on Corona. That's got to be the top priority. I would think you'd want to be part of that."
"Maybe on paper. But once you get down to the actual work of it…" Jensen shook his head. "I know you don't want to hear it, but I grew up around politics. I know how it works. I know how things come up and people get in the way of what you want to do, and you end up making compromises to get something done. And then people criticize you for not doing what you said you'd do, and then they fucking invade you, and then it starts all over again."
"Then don't you think you could put that knowledge to use?" Jared asked. "Be part of a…a governing coalition or something. Try to keep so many things from getting in the way."
"I'm too tired," Jensen said. He rubbed a hand over his face. "I'm gonna complete this mission and make sure everyone's got a place to go when the solar flares start. After that…I don’t know, but it's not going to be helping anyone from Corona take over my planet."
"So that's it?" Jared asked. "You're going to walk away?" He knew he shouldn’t say it, but he was irritated at how Jensen was talking about him and his people, and so he added, "Just like you always do?"
He held his breath as Jensen slowly turned to face him. He'd expected anger, but the murderous look on Jensen's face had him taking a step back. Too late, Jared realized that Jensen didn't understand what he was talking about, thought he was referring to the war and not something that had happened years ago.
Sure enough, Jensen was demanding, "What did you say?"
Jared had stepped into it, so he might as well face up to it. Standing up as straight as he could, he said, "When you're bored with someone. When you've gotten what you want from them. You don't do anything but walk away."
Twin crescents formed at the inner corners of Jensen's eyebrows as he frowned. "That's what you're talking about? You're still pissed about your freshman year?"
Jensen's tone made it clear how trivial he thought this was, but now that Jared had started, he couldn't stop. "You never said a thing, Jensen. You never called me back, you never…you were just gone. Laughing at me with your friends, I suppose, at the dorky freshman who had the big crush on the President's son. But you got what you wanted, huh? Got to cross another one off your list."
Jensen slowly shook his head. "What are you talking about?"
Jared could hear his nineteen-year-old self creeping into his voice, but he couldn't help it. "You slept with me, and then you dumped me. Got your score, and that was it, right?"
"If I remember correctly, you were the one who started it." Jensen crossed his arms over his chest. "Don't claim you didn't want it, because I know you did. You said so plenty of times."
"If you knew I wanted it, then why did you leave? Wasn't I good enough for you? Not someone that an Ackles should associate with?"
"No!" Jensen looked bewildered. "I didn't care about that. I mean, maybe I kind of had my nose in the air when I started college, but by senior year, I was over that. I didn't think I was better than you, Jared, not at all."
"Of course you did." Jared shrugged. "Why else would you have used me like that and then walked away?"
"Are you kidding me?" Jensen stared at him. "Is that what you've thought, all this time?"
"It's not like I've thought about you every day or something," Jared retorted.
"No?" Jensen raised an eyebrow. "So why are you thinking about it now?"
"Because we need to deal with this." Jared drew in a deep breath. "Or I need to. Whatever. We need to work together on this, Jensen. Not just the shelters, not just getting to Caral. You and me—I think we're the best hope this system has for finding a real peace. And if we can't get past something that happened in school eight years ago, we can't deal with the real problems before us."
Jensen regarded him for a long moment. Finally, he said, "You were nineteen."
Jared nodded impatiently.
Spreading his hands wide, Jensen said, "That's it. You were nineteen. It was your first year of college. I was twenty-three, about to graduate, go back home and start working my way up in the ranks of the government." He held up a finger. "Not that I'm saying I thought I was better than you. But I was older than you. Too much older. You needed to have fun, figure things out, be a college kid. I was already past that."
Jared shook his head. "You needed to let me decide that."
"Would you have? Honestly?" Jensen looked up at him from under his brows.
Jared felt that same damn swoop in his gut that he'd felt all through freshman year whenever Jensen had looked at him. Swallowing hard, he asked, "Are you saying you knew what was best for me?"
"I'm saying you had a crush," Jensen replied. "And you got to act on that crush. But there wasn't going to be anything more to it than that. And the quicker you realized that, the better."
Now Jared could feel the same bitter disappointment lodged in his throat that had sat there for two months while he waited for Jensen to call him back, even once. "So what did you get out of it?" Jared choked out. "A little worship for your heroic self? The satisfaction of popping someone's cherry with no strings attached?"
Confusion flashed across Jensen's face, and oh God , Jared had just outed himself as a virgin prior to his night with Jensen. "I liked you, Jared. I did. But I couldn't—there wasn't going to be anything long term. I was only there for a few more months before I was going home."
"So you decided that for me?"
Jensen lifted his chin. "Yeah, I guess I did."
Jared stared at him for a moment. It might not have been for the reason he'd expected, but it was the same outcome: Jensen deciding that nineteen-year-old Jared wasn't old enough to know what he really wanted. To hide the sinking disappointment he felt, he scoffed and said, "Besides, given who our families are, it's not like it would have worked out anyway."
If he hadn't been watching Jensen so closely, he would have missed the tiny flinch along with the brief flash of pain in his eyes. Jensen turned away and said, "Yeah, right."
Silence fell for a moment. Jensen's shoulders were hunched up. Knowing he wasn't likely to get a response, but feeling that he had to ask anyway, Jared said, "Do you really think that?"
Jensen sighed and leaned back against the side of the jeep. "You know why I went to college on Maurya, right?"
Jared shrugged one shoulder. "We figured it was because you were expected to be President some day, and this way you'd at least know something about what the other planet in the system was like."
"That's not—" Jensen shook his head. "Maybe. Kind of. I mean, regardless of whether I ever got elected, I was going to go into politics. I was going to learn about the system and how to help govern it, whether from the top or not."
"Kind of funny we ended up together then, isn't it?" Jared asked. "I mean, not together together, but you know."
"Yeah, it is." Jensen's second sigh was deeper, and he said more quietly, "I just—sometimes, I think…what if I hadn't walked away? What if I'd been better to you, given us a chance? Would it have brought our families closer together?"
The last words were almost too quiet for Jared to hear, but as their meaning sank in, he wanted to laugh. "Are you asking me if we'd actually dated, maybe there wouldn't have been a war?"
Jensen shrugged one shoulder. "I know it's stupid."
"Yeah, it is." When Jensen looked up sharply, Jared held up his hands. "I don't mean it like that. I mean, I don't know, maybe it would have made things worse. Romeo and Juliet, you know?"
"Didn't think the Mauryans liked drawing on the Terran classics," Jensen muttered.
"Whatever. The point is, that was the whole reason your dad sent you to school on Maurya, right? To try and build closer ties with our planet?"
"Bang-up job I did of that," Jensen muttered.
Jared stared at him as he finally understood what Jensen was trying to say. "You can't think any of it is your fault. That it was somehow up to you to keep the system together."
"Like you said. It's why he sent me there." Jensen gestured at him. "And I fucked the son of the future rebel leader and dumped him and pissed him off for years to come."
"That had nothing to do with anything." Jared frowned. "I mean, yeah, it sucked, but it's not like it was further motivation for the rebellion. I never even told my parents."
"I don't know," Jensen said. "I mean, I don't remember hearing anyone talking about it on campus. And it was only a few years later that everything just—" He flicked his fingers out as if mimicking an explosion. "I can't believe it all came on that fast."
"Dude, you were the President's son," Jared said. "It's not like people were going to talk about it when you were around. I mean, not that there was much to talk about at that point, but still."
"Yeah, but I—" Jensen stopped. He looked out over the valley again, shading his eyes against the sun.
Jared looked at his profile and wondered what he was thinking. They could probably talk from now until they were back in Kumasi and still not hash out all of the implications of what they'd just said to each other. But knowing Jensen—which he still did, a little, even after all this time—Jared was pretty sure that wouldn't happen.
Sure enough, a moment later, Jensen stood up straight. "We should probably get going," he said. "Want to make sure we get in early so we can get a good start tomorrow, get this over with."
"Of course." Jared watched him walk back around to the driver's side, realizing that even if they didn't talk, he still had a lot to think about.
Including Jensen's earlier question: did he just want to get his people off the hook for what they'd done to Caral?
They spent the night in another small motel, this time sharing a room because the place was nearly full. From the children running around the parking lot and the piles of baggage and possessions filling the cars in the lot and stacked in front of some of the units, Jensen had a feeling these weren't travelers but refugees. If he was his father, he would have asked where they'd come from, what they'd seen, why they were here instead of back at home.
Instead, he turned in early, scarfing down another ration meal and rolling into the bed farthest from the door before Jared had even finished eating. He didn't want any more conversations like they'd had this afternoon. He didn't need to hear about how things could have gone differently in college, or any time since then.
That included the stupid warnings that Jared was so hung up on. They hadn't gotten the message in Caral, that was clear. Wasn't that enough? Hadn't Jared gotten the exoneration he wanted? What else did he need to know?
Jensen punched the pillow in a useless attempt to make it more comfortable. He should be exhausted after two straight days of driving, but his mind wouldn't settle down. Deep down, he knew it was apprehension about tomorrow, about seeing what had become of his home. Williams had said that gravediggers had been busy, and Day had confirmed it. The main areas, at least, should be cleared of any remains.
It had only been a few days after the attack when Jensen had been informed that his parents and sister had been buried. He'd asked for future updates, but his own battles in space were starting to heat up, and then everything had gone to hell way too quickly. Since the surrender, he hadn't asked for details on Caral—hadn't wanted to know, to be honest. Even once he knew he was going to have to come here, he'd only done the bare minimum of research to get them there and back in one piece. Anything else, he could compartmentalize until he had the list and was back out of there. Jensen knew he wasn't ready to deal with the city yet, but he could do enough to get by.
What his conscious brain didn't want to deal with, though, his subconscious was apparently more than happy to process. Jensen's dreams were filled with scenes he hadn't thought of in years—meeting bright-eyed Jared in an art class; finding out that not only was he damn good-looking, but whip-smart; showing up at the same party and taking him home after one too many looks from those puppy dog eyes of his; spreading him out on his bed and finding out how those long, long legs felt wrapped around him.
Then the dreams shifted, going from heated to frightening. Light exploded all around them, and Jensen watched as Jared froze beneath him, eyes wide and mouth open in a silent scream. In his dream, Jensen watched as Jared's body shook with the force of an EMP washing over them before going suddenly, deadly still. His empty eyes looked up at Jensen, fear and accusation forever frozen in their depths.
Jensen jerked awake, heart racing. It was dark, the lights out, and he quickly looked to see Jared on the other bed. He watched closely until he could see the rise and fall of Jared's chest, and then he sank back down against the pillow, rubbing a hand over his face. He hadn't had a dream like that in a long time.
Unsurprisingly, he didn't sleep much the rest of the night. When they packed up in the morning, he tossed the keys to Jared and curled up in the passenger seat, hoping to doze as they drove. They'd crossed the pass yesterday, and even though the descent had a few curves to it, Jensen managed to sleep through much of it, the half-hearted sleep keeping him from going under too deeply.
He did hear Jared's gasp, though, after they rounded one curve. When the jeep slowed to a halt, Jensen opened his eyes. "What is it?" he mumbled. "Why'd we stop?"
Jared was quiet, and when Jensen looked up, he realized why.
They were parked at an overlook that was almost a mirror of the one they'd stopped at yesterday. Down in this valley, however, the view was not of endless plains, but in the middle distance, a city. It was a city that Jensen knew like the back of his hand, and yet he felt as though he'd never seen it before.
Caral looked completely intact, Jensen thought. From this distance, it looked like all of the buildings were standing. He rubbed his eyes, shaking off the last of his sleep. No, maybe not all of the buildings were standing. Also, there was a suspicious-looking ring around the outskirts. Squinting, he thought he saw a barrier across the road about ten miles out of the city center.
Jared said quietly, "From up here, you wouldn't know anything had happened."
"Unless you knew the place," Jensen muttered. He looked at his watch. "It's about an hour's drive from here. Communications won't be reliable for the last half of that. You want to check your messages, now would be a good time."
"I checked before we left this morning," Jared said. "That was only a couple of hours ago."
"And you won't get to check again until late tonight," Jensen said.
Jared frowned. "I thought you said communications wouldn't be reliable."
"Not until we get back out."
"You think it's going to be that quick?"
"I know where we're going and I know exactly where to look." Jensen gestured at the scene before them. "If everything's in as good of shape as it looks from here, it shouldn't take long. We'll be back at Pine City tonight."
"Wow. Okay. Um, I guess I didn't expect it would be that fast."
"What, you wanted to camp out in the ruins?" Jensen asked. "See what it was like to sleep in the President's house?"
"No! I just—I thought we were prepared for several days here."
"Well, that won't be necessary." Jensen sat up straighter and checked his seat belt. "C'mon, let's go."
They were silent as they made their way down the mountain. Jared's hands were tight on the wheel, and he took some of the curves a little fast, but Jensen didn't mind. The sooner they got to Caral, the sooner they could be on their way again.
As they cruised down the final incline and rounded a bend, the city once more rose up in front of them. It was close enough that they could see it was not quite as intact as it had appeared. Broken glass on some of the tallest buildings twinkled in the midday sunlight. On the northern side, there were dark marks across a cluster of buildings, indicating there had been a fire at some point. Jensen was surprised there wasn't more of that—the power surge of the TEMP must have sparked a few fires, and with no one around to fight them…
He shook his head and focused on the road in front of them. In the distance, probably about ten minutes' drive, he could see the same barrier he'd spotted from above. "What is that?" he asked.
"Checkpoint?" Jared replied. "It looked like a barbed wire fence from above, going all around the city. Didn't Felicia tell you about it?"
Jensen shook his head. "She said that as far as she knew, the Coronans hadn't gotten out here yet."
"Maybe that's not who they are," Jared replied. He glanced at Jensen. "Should we keep going?"
"We don't have another choice," Jensen replied.
As they drew closer, it became clear that it was, in fact, a checkpoint. Two black vehicles larger than their own were parked across the road, and a small shack stood beside the road. A makeshift fence of wire, wood, and rubble stretched in both directions away from the checkpoint. Jared slowed to a stop a few feet away.
They watched as a blonde woman in dark blue and white came out of the shack. Jensen was surprised to feel a lump in his throat at seeing the familiar uniform. Officer Day had been wearing their colors, but not their uniform, and Jensen couldn't believe he had missed it already.
He straightened up. "Drive forward."
Jared nudged the jeep forward until they were alongside the woman. Then he came to a stop and shifted into park. "Ma'am," he said.
"State your business in Caral," she ordered.
Jensen took off his sunglasses and eyed the strips on her sleeve. "That's classified, Captain."
"There's no such—" She broke off, eyes widening. "Commander!" Instantly, she snapped off a salute. "Sir! Captain Briana Buckmaster, at your service, sir."
Jensen responded with his own salute. "At ease, Captain." When she didn't move, he went on, "What's the situation here? How many of you are there?"
Captain Buckmaster glanced at Jared before looking back at Jensen. "There are twenty of us stationed here, sir. Well, maybe not stationed. We don't have direct orders to be here. Not since you—well, we had been assigned to Caral after—to deal with the aftermath. And then we stayed. No one has told us we should leave."
"Are there still—is there work you're still doing in the city?" Jensen asked.
She gave a slow sigh. "There is, sir. We—we are still discovering bodies and giving them proper burial. We put up the fence because there were looters, and we couldn't patrol the entire area. That seems to be enough. For the most part, people just stay away."
"Has anyone from Corona been here?" Jared asked.
She looked at him, eyes suddenly narrowing in recognition. "No, they haven't bothered," she said tartly.
"Well, we need to pass," Jared said, gesturing to the two vehicles blocking the road.
"You need to tell me why," she replied.
Jensen put a hand on his arm. "We can't tell you, Captain. But it has to do with the oncoming sunstorms. Do you and your people have a place to go?"
She nodded. "There's a shelter under Ackles Park that'll hold all of us. But they're still a few months away, right?"
"About fifty-two days, at this point," Jensen said.
Her eyes widened. "Oh boy. We should start stocking it with food. There's still canned goods in the stores, at least the ones the looters didn't get to."
"There must be more than the one shelter," Jared said. "I mean, it's a big city."
Captain Buckmaster pursed her lips. "I suppose there must be," she replied.
"We might need to direct people back this way in advance of the storms," Jared said. "We spoke with Lieutenant General Williams in Kumasi, and he agreed to take charge of the sheltering process there. Would you be willing to do it here?"
She furrowed her brow. "There's only the twenty of us. I think we can handle it."
"But there had to be survivors," Jared pressed. "Where did they go?"
Captain Buckmaster put her hands on her hips. "Away from here as fast as they could. They didn't know that you weren't going to strike again. And afterwards, when there was nothing but bodies in the streets and inside every house and building…" She trailed off and shook her head. "No one wanted to be here if they didn't have to. They still don't."
"Well, you don’t have to," Jared replied. "So thank you. You're doing important work here."
She frowned at him suspiciously. "Okay."
Jensen leaned forward. "Captain, we really do need to get inside."
"Right, of course. Hold on." She ducked back into the small shack. Jared could hear the crackle of static, and then she stepped out again. "Here." She handed Jared a radio handset. "Your phones won't work because the lines were all fried. We got an electrical line repaired from the north so we have a few radio towers back up and working. This will work onsite. You get into any trouble, you let us know."
"We'll be fine," Jensen said, taking the handset and looking it over. Older technology, but he was confident it would still work. "Thanks, Captain."
"Of course, sir." She saluted again. "Captain Rhodes will lead the way." She gestured to the woman with short, dark hair sitting up in the driver's seat of the vehicle blocking their path, yawning and holding another of the handsets.
"That's really not necessary," Jensen said.
"With all due respect, sir, we don't know everything that's in the city," she replied. "There might be looters or squatters hiding. We've run across feral dogs a few times. We can't patrol more than a third of the place. It's for your safety."
"Captain, we don't—" Jensen started.
"Thank you, Captain. We appreciate it." Jared put the jeep in gear and shot Jensen a quelling look. "We're headed for the center of town. The Presidential compound."
"Of course." She looked at Jensen. "Good luck, sir. It—it's good to see you."
"Thank you, Captain. And like Jared said, thank you for what you're doing here. All of you. I really appreciate it."
She gave a sharp nod and stepped back.
Jensen took a deep breath, watching as the vehicle in front of them pulled into a tight circle and straightened out, leaving the road clear. "Here we go."
Jared wasn't sure what to expect as they started down the main road into the city. He'd been surprised to hear Buckmaster say that there were no people here at all. Surely there were relatives of people who'd died, or residents from just outside the city limits who'd decided to stay? Sure, it would take a lot of effort to get the power back up again if the whole system had shorted out, but this was an awful lot to simply abandon.
Then he thought of what she'd said about the streets being full of bodies, and he thought about what it might take to clean up seven hundred thousand of them, and he very nearly had to pull the jeep over so he could throw up.
He carried on, though, following the military vehicle in front of them down a broad boulevard lined with overarching trees. It was probably beautiful when it was well-kept, but right now it was weedy and overgrown, some of the trees with yellowed or missing leaves. At home, there'd be enough rainfall to keep the trees going, but here, if the irrigation system failed, they'd be on their own.
He kept glancing at Jensen, but his stoic expression never changed. Even as they went deeper into the city, dodging fallen traffic lights, driving by buildings with dark streaks of past fires shooting up their sides, swerving to avoid vehicles that had come to a dead stop in the road, Jensen kept looking straight ahead. Once, they passed a grocery store with smashed windows and doors, and the smell of rotting food wafting out of it was enough to make Jared pinch his nose shut as he wondered how Buckmaster planned on getting at that canned food without passing out.
Jensen didn't budge.
As they reached the tallest buildings, Jensen finally spoke. "It'll be coming up soon. Turn when we get to the park."
They'd passed a number of open green spaces thus far, all with grass about knee-high. Apparently the grass didn't need watering like the trees. Jared was about to ask, "Which park?" when he saw Rhodes' vehicle in front of him turning right.
He followed it around the corner. A huge park spread out to their left, the size of several city blocks. It was in as bad of shape as the rest of the open spaces, and Jared saw a muscle shift in Jensen's jaw as he took it in.
On the far side of the park was a sand-colored wall, with a cluster of red-tiled buildings rising above from behind it. "That's it," Jensen said. "We should be able to drive right in."
There were gates set into the middle of the wall, and Rhodes had parked her vehicle in front of them. She looked up as Jared pulled up behind her. "Give me a hand?"
They pulled the gates open by hand, metal scraping over the asphalt drive. The electrical box to one side was scorched and burned, wires jabbing out into the air. When they were done, Rhodes dusted her hands together and gestured towards their jeep. "I'll stay here and make sure nothing gets in behind you."
"I appreciate that," Jared said. "I don't know for sure, but we shouldn't be long."
She glanced at the jeep, where Jensen still hadn't moved from the passenger seat. "He okay?"
Jared sighed. "Probably not."
"You watch out for him." Rhodes stepped forward and poked Jared in the chest. "We need him. I know you folks would probably be just as happy to be rid of him, but we need Commander Ackles here at home."
"He needs things, too," Jared replied. "Might not be the same things you want for him, but that's not what's most important. He is."
She narrowed her eyes. "How do you know him so well?"
"I knew him before." Before she could speak, Jared added, "I know that he wants to get what we came for and get out of here as fast as we can. So keep an eye out for us."
"Right." Rhodes stepped back. "Good luck, whatever it is."
He turned around to see Jensen finally getting out of the jeep. He came up to them, still looking at the structure in front of them. It was the Presidential Palace—Jared had seen a hundred pictures and vids of it, but he never imagined he'd get to be in front of it. Given the circumstances, he'd rather not be there at all.
Jared cleared his throat. "Where are we going, Jensen?"
Jensen raised a hand to point at the palace. "He would have kept it in his study. He had a safe there for the really important stuff. I'm not sure I know the—" He broke off and shook his head. "It's an electronic safe, so the combination hardly matters."
"Right. Um." Jared glanced at him. "You can tell me where it is, if you want. I can go get it."
"No, that's not—" Jensen sighed. "I need to do this. I wasn't here, and I…"
There was silence for a moment. Too much silence, given that they were in the middle of a city, and Jared shivered with a sudden breeze. "There's nothing you could have done if you were here then," he said. "But you're here now. And you can help a whole lot of your people by being here."
Jensen shook his head. "Whatever. Let's just get this over with."
He turned away and went towards the back of the building, and Jared followed.
The sandstone wall stretched for a long distance around the block, and Jared understood why Jensen kept calling it the compound. There were at least a dozen buildings enclosed within, from the palace beside them to a tall tower near the far wall. They were walking down a long colonnade of white columns next to a line of tall trees with only a few frond-like leaves on the top. The wind was rustling the leaves, the only sound except their footsteps on the stone floor.
They rounded the back of the building, and Jensen marched up a short flight of steps. At the top, a metal door stood wide open, and he paused with his hand on it, casting a glance back at Jared.
"Should we get Rhodes for backup?" Jared asked.
Jensen hesitated only briefly before shaking his head. "We'll be fine," he said. "I imagine they've been keeping a pretty close eye on this place."
"All right." Jared followed him up the stairs and inside.
They were in a back hallway, narrow and dark. Jensen held up his wrist-pad and gave it a shake. Enough light streamed out that they could see down the hallway. "Should've brought a flashlight," Jared said.
"There'll be light up ahead," Jensen said.
Jared didn't question him. Jensen's voice was steady, his movements strong, but it had to be really hard on him, being here like this. Jared tried to imagine going back to his childhood home knowing that his family and friends had all perished within, and he couldn't. It had been hard enough losing his father and brother in the war, but at least they'd been somewhat prepared, knowing there was a risk in them flying the way they did. Here, in the capital, the Ackles should have been secure.
Of course, that was why Laura Padalecki had chosen this target, Jared mused. To strike at the heart of the enemy, show them what Coronans were capable of. Except the strike had gone too far.
Next time Jared talked to his mother, he was going to insist that she come here. She needed to see it. She needed everyone on the planet to know she had seen it.
They came to a junction in the hallway, and Jensen turned left. There were open windows on the far side of the corridor, curtains pushed back to let in the sun. Jared didn't need the light of Jensen's watch-pad to follow him up a short flight of stairs, down another hallway, to the right twice more, and then up a longer flight. He was starting to understand the unimpressed look on Jensen's face in the Planetary Parliament on Corona. This place was huge.
"Almost there," Jensen said.
For the first time, Jared heard a wavering in his voice. He wasn't close enough to put a hand on Jensen' back or arm, but he had the feeling it would have been shrugged off anyway.
Upstairs, it was even brighter, skylights overhead streaming down on the dark red carpet. Their footfalls couldn't be heard as they rounded the corner and walked what felt like the entire length of the building.
Finally, Jensen stopped in front of a door. It was more ornate than the others in the hallway, and it hung slightly ajar. He put a hand on the door and paused.
Jared asked softly, "Do you want me to wait outside?"
"No, I can—" Jensen stopped. And then, his hand slightly shaking on the door, he said, "Yeah, that would be great."
"Of course." Jared leaned back against the opposite wall, folding his arms over his chest. "I'll be right here."
Jensen didn't look back, but pushed the door open just enough to slip inside. Then he closed it behind him with a soft click.
Jared stood and prepared to wait.
Ever since Lieutenant General Williams had finally told them what they wanted to know, Jensen had been dreading this moment. He had guessed this was where he'd be heading way back on Maurya, or Corona, when he'd been given this mission. But he'd hoped it wouldn't be true. He knew he'd have to come back here at some point, but when he was ready. Not now, when he was still wondering if he'd done the right thing. If his father would have thought he'd done the right thing.
Jensen had spent so much time in this office, first when it was his grandmother's, and then, right before he started college, his father's. There was a more formal office downstairs, of course, where Presidential meetings were held and the public saw him at work. Up here, the President still had work to do, but they could also be Grandma. Or Dad. Jensen had learned so much from them here, about being a good leader and a good family member and a good man.
Jensen abruptly wiped his eyes. There wasn't time for any of that right now. He had a task to complete, and it wasn't going to be over once he left this office.
There was a painting on the wall of the mountains behind the city. The sharp peaks were dusted with snow on the top, a sight Jensen remembered only once or twice from his childhood. He felt under the edge of the frame and found a small switch. When he pressed it, the painting swung away from the wall.
A safe was set into the wall, no larger than a standard sheet of paper. Jensen was glad to see that it was still closed. Given that the building had been open, it was hard to believe someone hadn't come through here looking for valuables. Twenty people couldn't patrol this whole city, and as much as he'd like to think that there weren't any Akkadians misguided enough to loot the palace, he couldn't imagine how difficult it must have been to be close to the city when it happened.
He tugged the safe door open, the electronic panel on the front silent and still. Inside, though, there was another door—with a manual combination lock set into the front.
"Way to go, Dad," Jensen muttered. He tugged at the knob, but the door didn't open.
He sighed and started dialing. Not his mother's birthday. Not his or his sister's. Not his father's, either, or his parents' anniversary. Not Republic Day. Nothing that easily came to mind, as a matter of fact. Not that his father would have been so obvious, anyway. He was more serious about security than that.
Jensen had one more idea before he asked Jared to find him some explosives or a crowbar. He carefully dialed the street address of the house he'd grown up in, before his father had moved the family to the Palace. He remembered his dad saying that for all he enjoyed and valued his chance to serve the country as its leader, being a father and a husband on a quiet side street in Caral had been the best time of his life.
With a gentle click, the safe swung open.
Inside was a long, flat document box with another lock on the side. "Oh, come on," Jensen muttered, but as he tugged on the tiny padlock, it fell open. Not questioning his luck, he laid the box down on the desk and opened the lid.
The box was so full that file folders came spilling out, and Jensen grabbed at them quickly to keep them from falling to the floor. He flipped through them one by one and set them on the desk. A lot of the materials inside were irrelevant now: codes for accessing secure communication links to Macchu Station, strategy charts and diagrams, even a couple of hand-drawn battle plans for defending Caral in case of ground attack.
Towards the bottom of the box, Jensen found what he was looking for: a folder with sheets of paper listing locations, sizes, access information, and whether they were being used as military sites for dozens of large-scale shelters all over Akkad. There were hundreds in Kumasi—in every major city, really—each able to hold from a thousand to two thousand people. Plus, there were nearly a thousand more scattered throughout more rural regions, smaller in size. Some of those would be inaccessible now, and it might be hard to persuade many people to seek shelter in Caral, but overall…
Jensen scanned the list and did some quick calculations. Then he snorted. Without Macchu and its heavy shielding, it would have been a very tight fit to get everyone inside. Ironically, with all of the losses they had suffered, it wouldn't be too hard. With six weeks to work, they might have to move some people around, but there was enough room. At least the largest shelters were already equipped with communications materials. Even the ones under Caral should still be intact.
The last page in the folder was a schedule for checking on the shelters, making sure they were stocked with food and water. A series of checkmarks down the side indicated that they'd been reviewed regularly right up until the end. The last date checked off was a week before the TEMPs had exploded.
Jensen scrubbed a hand over his face, leaning both hands on the polished wooden desk. Even in the middle of the war, Dad had been preparing for the larger, future threat. It made him feel a little better about being here: despite everything else he'd done, at least he was carrying on this part of his father's work and protecting their people.
At least Dad would be proud of him for that.
As Jensen straightened up, his eye caught on a photo on the desk. It was of him, his sister, and his parents, taken on the day of his high school graduation. It was a terrible photo of him, mortarboard at a bizarre angle and grinning widely enough to catch flies. But his father had always refused to replace it within another, more photogenic image, no matter how much Jensen begged him.
He suddenly realized that he didn't know exactly where his family had been when the bombs went off. He wondered if his father had been here at his desk, looking at that photo when the TEMP tore through the city and the walls and his own body. If it had been the last thing he saw.
Jensen slammed down the lid of the document box. He'd take the whole thing along in case there was anything else that could be useful, but also so he didn't have to come back here. He wasn't ready to be here after all, wasn't sure if he'd ever be. Right now, the sooner he left this place, the better.
Tucking the box under his arm, he headed for the door.
Jared heard a series of noises from inside the office: a few slamming sounds, muttered cursing. Then it went quiet. He checked his wrist-pad. It was mid-afternoon, still plenty of time to make it back out of Caral before dark. They'd need to get far enough outside the city so they could transmit the documents, assuming Jensen found them. And if he didn't find them, they'd have to regroup and figure out what came next.
He gave a start when Jensen flung the door open. "Got it," Jensen said brusquely. "Let's go."
He started down the hallway at a brisk pace, and Jared stared after him. "Wait, what?" he asked as he jogged to catch up. "You got the list?"
"Right here," Jensen said, tapping the box under his arm as Jared came up behind him. "We're all set."
Jared grinned. "That's great!"
"Yeah, it's awesome." Jensen clattered down the stairs like he was trying to escape.
"No, but that's good, right? We got what we came for, we can get people into the shelters. This is good news."
Jensen didn't respond, only walking more quickly down the hallway.
"Jensen, come on." Jared reached out and grabbed his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Jensen came to a dead stop so quickly that Jared almost crashed into him. He swerved out of the way, elbow smacking into the wall. "Ow," Jared muttered, hand going to his elbow.
Jensen slowly turned to face him. His expression was calm, but Jared could see the anger sparking in his eyes. He looked at Jared for a long moment, chest rising and falling on a deep breath. Then he asked in a low voice, "Tell me: how was my father so awful?"
Jared stared at him. "What?"
"He was my father, Jared. He was a good man. He wasn't a perfect leader, but he didn't try to hurt people. He didn't treat them badly. He always tried to do what was best for them." Jensen's eyes were blazing, his free hand raised as he gesticulated. "So what was wrong with him?"
Jared slowly shook his head. "I'm not sure I get what you mean."
Jensen leaned closer, and Jared started calculating how fast he would have to reach out and grab him in order to stop a punch. "I'm the one who doesn't get it. I don't fucking understand it, Jared. How was he so terrible a leader that you had to fight and rebel and kill rather than do as he asked? What was so wrong about him?"
"It—it wasn't that." Jared held up his hands. "It wasn't him personally, it was the whole system. It was us not being represented in the Parliament here as fast as our population was growing, and being shot down every time we asked to fix it. It was knowing that the same family had been in power for decades and would probably be that way for decades more. So Corona would never have a fair say, we'd always be taxed and used and never get the chance to be in charge."
"He would have given you more representation if you'd asked," Jensen insisted. "He wasn't in it for the power, he didn’t want to rule. He wanted to serve the people. He spent his life doing it."
"Not all the people," Jared said softly. "Not us."
"That's bullshit," Jensen retorted. He tossed the document box onto the ground, the clang of it hitting the floor loud in the narrow hallway. "You're the smaller planet, you have fewer resources, you need us. You got your own say on your planet, we didn't tell you what to do!"
"You let us decide how to spend half as much money as we needed to get by," Jared retorted, hands on his hips. "You pretended you were always going to be the bigger planet, always better than us."
"That's not true," Jensen said. "We're not better than you. You came from here! We're the same people, for God's sake!"
"Then why we were treated differently?" Jared asked. "Why were outlying stations and even the damn asteroids given more resources than us? Why were we expected to produce more exports and taxes than we received in return? Why were we treated like a colony and not an equal part of the system?"
"That doesn't mean you had to kill us!" Jensen roared. He grabbed the front of Jared's shirt. "He cared about you, you know. He worried about how to treat everyone equally. It wasn't his fault that Parliament wouldn't do everything you asked." With the other hand, he pointed at the box. "He was checking on the shelters right till the end. Planning ahead, making sure people would be safe. Even you, did you know that? There's a list of shelters on Maurya, too. He kept it updated as best he could. Even after years of war, he was preparing for everyone. And you killed him for it."
"We didn't mean to," Jared replied. "You know that. We sent a warning—"
"Fuck your warning! Even if he'd gotten it, do you think he would have left? Do you think he would have abandoned this place? Any of my family? This is our home, Jared. We've been here for centuries, building and defending the entire solar system. That's all they were doing here. Why did you have to kill them?"
Jared got his hand up just in time to stop Jensen's fist. He ducked to the side anyway, and Jensen moved with him, swinging them both around so Jared was backed up against the opposite wall. Jensen was struggling in his grip, trying to get his fist out of Jared's hand, and Jared shifted to grab Jensen's wrist instead. "Is that why you bombed our Observatory?" Jared shot back. "So you could protect us from the sunstorms?"
"That was…a…military decision." Jensen grunted as he struggled to free himself. His other hand loosened on Jared's shirt only for his forearm to slam across Jared's collarbones, pinning him back to the wall.
Jared let go to grab Jensen's arm with both hands and keep it from getting any closer to his neck. "So that absolves you?" he retorted. "You can make military decisions that endanger people, and we can't? And we're supposed to be equal?"
"Fucking smart ass." Jensen grabbed a handful of Jared's hair. "You never could shut up, could you?"
And then, before Jared could come up with a response, Jensen was yanking his head down and smashing their lips together.
A tiny corner of Jared's brain started protesting, but the rest was caught up in a mixture of the adrenaline rush of the fight and the shock of pleasure. Jensen's mouth was as hot and full as he remembered, pulling and tugging and biting at Jared's lips, and Jared was damn well determined to give as good as he got. He licked his way into Jensen's mouth, sending him stumbling back a step, and then he let go of Jensen's forearm to grab his hips and push him the rest of the way back.
Jensen's back slammed against the wall, but he didn't let go of his grip on Jared's hair, tugging his head to the side to close his mouth around Jared's neck. Jared jerked at the feel of his teeth and tongue, hips bucking forward against Jensen's. He was getting hard faster than he ever had in his life, and it was sheer instinct to rub up against Jensen's thigh, right where he needed it.
Jensen groaned in his ear, and Jared yanked up his shirt to shove one hand down Jensen's pants, grabbing a handful of his ass. He gave a firm squeeze, and Jensen hooked one leg around his and ground up against him.
Jared ducked his head away and gripped Jensen's jaw, bringing their mouths together again. He'd never been this aggressive with Jensen before, but from the noises Jensen was making, there was no objection. In fact, Jensen's hands were fumbling at Jared's waist, even as his mouth worked against Jared's.
A moment later, Jared felt Jensen's hand closing around him, warm and calloused and oh God so good. His moan was swallowed by Jensen's mouth, and then Jensen gave him a long, slow stroke. Jared thrust against him harder, trying to get him to move more quickly.
He couldn't get his hand into the front of Jensen's pants, stretched across his groin with his leg around Jared's. Jared grabbed his knee instead, hitching it up to his own waist, and that freed up enough room that Jared could slip his hand inside and get a good, solid grip.
Jensen's own grip on Jared faltered, breath catching. Jared grinned meanly against his mouth and kissed even harder, hoping he was bruising Jensen's lips in the process. He was rocking back and forth in Jensen's hand, trying to do more in Jensen's pants than just hold him, but there wasn't much room. Jensen didn't seem to mind, breathing hot and heavy grunts into Jared's mouth, grabbing the back of his neck and holding him impossibly tight.
Maybe it was because it had been so long since it had been anyone else's hand, or maybe it was the tension of the last week, or hell, the last four years, but Jared soon felt his release rising up like the rush of a solar flare. Everything in his body tightened and then released as he shuddered in Jensen's hand, the world momentarily falling away.
He felt a second, fainter shock washing through him, and as he came back, he realized it was Jensen coming against him, thrusting into his hand and gasping as his fingers tightened in Jared's hair. Jared lowered his head to rest his forehead on Jensen's shoulder, a final tremor weakening his legs. He let go and rested both hands on Jensen's hips, whether to ground himself or Jensen, he wasn't sure.
Their panting breaths were loud in the corridor as they slowed down to normal. Jared had his eyes closed, breathing in the sweat and other odors from Jensen's body, wishing for a moment they could just stay here and not have to deal with what had just happened.
Sure enough, after another few breaths, Jensen was shoving him back. "I'm sorry," he said, wiping his hand on his shirt. "I shouldn't've done that."
"Jensen, no, it's okay, we were—"
"I don't want to hear it." Jensen's voice was clipped, and he wouldn't lift his gaze from the ground. A muscle in his jaw ticked as he bent to pick up the document box. "Let's just get out of here."
Jared watched him walk out the door before sagging back against the wall, suddenly more exhausted than he'd been in months. "What the fuck?" he said out loud.
Jensen heard Jared's exclamation as he slammed the door behind himself. Outside, the air was much cooler than in the stifling hallway, and he shivered at the sweat cooling on his skin. What the fuck indeed? he asked himself. That had been completely unexpected, and the anger still simmering in his veins was quickly bleeding away into something more like shame at having reached out for Jared like that. God, what Jared must think of him right now.
He gave an abrupt shake of his head. Not that it mattered. They had what they'd come for, and as soon as they got out of here and delivered their information, they'd be done. He'd be done. With Jared, with everything.
He heard the door open, and he turned around to see Jared coming out, still zipping up his pants. "For God's sake," Jensen muttered. Like it wasn't bad enough that Rhodes was going to smell them a mile away. He yanked his black shirt out of his pants and tugged it down as low as it could go, glad at least that he wasn't in uniform. That would have been a serious desecration.
"Are you okay?" Jared asked as he approached. The hollow of his throat was glistening with sweat, and there were red marks on the side of his neck that matched the shape of Jensen's teeth.
Jensen ignored the possessive thrill that shot through him and turned away. "I'm fine. Let's go."
"Um, wait a second."
He held up a hand. "We are not talking about it."
"No, I—okay, that's fine. But there's something else we talked about. Where would the command center have been?"
Jensen slowly turned around, staring at him blankly for a moment until he understood. "Two buildings over," he said.
"Can we stop there?" Jared asked. "I need to—I want to see if there's any record of the incoming transmission."
Jensen wanted to ask him if he'd figured out why he needed to know so badly, but he was suddenly exhausted and heartsick and too tired to fight anymore. So he nodded wearily and led the way.
He hadn't spent much time in this part of the compound, but he knew what all the buildings were. The command center was the tallest, a slender structure with a radio tower and satellite dishes on top. None of them were blinking, and the low hum he'd always felt around here was gone as well. The front door would be locked from the inside, he knew, barred to entry and only there for ceremonial purposes. Around the side was the real door, locked with a keypad and retinal scan that were both worthless. There was no knob on the door, but Jensen gave it a hard kick, and it fell inward with a crash.
"Good God," Jared muttered behind him.
Jensen ignored him and walked in.
It smelled musty in here, not like the palace. He was half afraid they'd find decaying bodies as they walked around, but the place seemed to be empty, from the front desk with its blank control panel to the central control room, lined with rows of empty screens. There was a faint burnt smell in the room, and from the light filtering through the small windows high up on the walls, they could see dark streaks marring some of the keypads at the terminals.
Jensen turned around and spread his arms wide. "What are you looking for?"
"This is where incoming transmissions would have been received?"
"Everything here is fried, Jared. Even if we knew which machine received the transmission, it's been wiped. Everything here is as dead as the people."
Jared flinched. "Your dad kept some information in paper form. What if they did here, too?"
"How long you want to spend looking for it? Because we gotta get out of here before dark." He hefted the box he was carrying. "And this has to get out to Williams."
"Yeah, I know. Just…let me look around. Half an hour."
Jensen could almost hear Williams' voice in his head. Letting the son of the traitor have complete access to central command? He had to be out of his goddamn mind.
On the other hand, it wasn't like it really mattered anymore.
"Fine," he said, dropping into the nearest chair and ostentatiously looking at his wrist-pad. "Half an hour."
Jared gave him a quick, weak smile. "Great. Thanks."
He watched as Jared poked around the various terminals in the room, opening drawers in the desks, rifling through the dusty papers on top. That took about seven minutes. Then Jared went through the door opposite where they'd entered. He returned a few seconds later with a sheepish expression, muttering, "Bathroom," before crossing the room and going out the way they'd come in.
Jensen closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair. Twenty minutes was long enough for a nap, and God knew he needed to turn off his brain for a bit. He'd learned really quickly after signing up that any time you could catch a few minutes of sleep was a good thing. And then, as time had gone on, he'd learned to sleep through just about anything. The dead silence of the empty control room meant he should be out within seconds.
Which meant he had been asleep for about fifteen minutes when he heard Jared shouting his name.
Snapping out of sleep, Jensen lunged out of his chair and for the door. He'd barely gotten to the doorway when Jared burst through. "I think I got it!" he beamed.
Jensen put a hand over his heart. "Shit," he muttered. "Thought someone attacked you."
"No, just…" Jared gave him a weak smile. "I found the room where they stored the paper logs they printed out."
Jensen frowned. "Paper logs?"
"Yeah, there's rows and rows of file cabinets. They date back to, well, to just after the start of the war." Jared paused. "I wonder if there's a connection to when the TEMP was being developed."
"More likely, it was in case not everything was shielded properly from the sunstorm," Jensen replied.
"Oh, right. Okay, so I looked through really quickly, but there's file after file of messages, sorted by incoming or outgoing. All off-planet. Some to Macchu Station, some to ships like yours, a few to Corona. Once I figured out the filing system, I went to the date and time we sent our warning." He held out a piece of paper. "There it is."
Jensen took the paper and looked it over. It logged an incoming message matching what Jared had previously shown him as outgoing from Corona: a twelve hour warning of impending disaster. "Where's the first one?" he asked.
"It's not there."
Jensen looked up from under his eyebrows. "It's not there?"
"I looked in the place it should have been. Normally, there's one message every few hours, sometimes more frequently than that. There's about a six hour gap, and we would have sent ours right in the middle."
"Maybe the system was down," Jensen said. "You might have scored a lucky hit on a satellite or something."
"But they still got the second one." Jared pointed at the paper. "Why didn't they act on it?"
Jensen scanned the paper again. Aloud, he read, "Comm Officer on duty: S. Amell."
"Did you know him?" Jared asked.
Jensen shook his head. "Doesn't sound familiar."
"You can search through the logs if you want," Jared said, jerking a thumb back over his shoulder. "Verify what I found."
Jensen looked at his wrist-pad. "We don't have time," he said. "We should be out of here before it's dark."
"Can we come back tomorrow?" Jared asked. "Once we send the list of the shelters to Williams, we're done. Or I can just come back."
"I should be with you," Jensen said. He ran a hand over his jaw. "I don't know what this means," he said, shaking the paper.
"I don't either," Jared replied. "But I think we both need to know what happened here."
He raised an eyebrow. "I thought this would be enough for you. Proof that you did your due diligence, that the blame for Caral should be laid at our feet."
"We're the ones who dropped the bombs," Jared said quietly. "That's where the blame will always lie."
Jensen regarded him for a moment. Finally, he slowly nodded. "We can come back tomorrow."
"Good." Jared gave him a quick smile. "Then, uh, we should probably go."
Back at the front gates, Rhodes was pulling out weeds from the plantings in the front of the compound. She almost looked embarrassed when they walked up, brushing her hands off and asking, "Are you guys done?"
"Did you know a Corporal Amell?" Jensen asked, hoping she wouldn't notice the red marks on Jared's neck, or the way he was walking more bow-legged than usual because of the stiffness of his pants. "He would have been stationed here before the blast."
She frowned. "I don't know about that. Stephen joined up with us when we started the cleanup. Didn't say where he'd come from, but it's not like we were asking each other's life stories."
"So he's here now?" Jared asked. "In your group?"
"Not anymore. He left just the other day, headed west. Said he had something to take care of." Rhodes shook her head. "He was kind of creeping me and Briana out, to be honest, but shell-shock, you know? Affects us all in different ways."
"Creeping you out how?" Jared asked.
"Just…talking about how none of what we were doing mattered, how he'd thought he could make a difference, but nothing would make up for what he'd done, and he had to go. I tried to talk to him, tell him that war is like that and you've got to push through to the other side. We've all done things we're not proud of. The hard part is living through it afterwards."
"Do you think he was going to…hurt himself?" Jared asked.
She sighed. "I worried about that a lot at first. Tried to talk him down, but after a while, I didn't get the sense that was the tree he'd gone up. He was worried about the solar flares, kept talking about them and asking if we'd get any kind of warning."
"That's what he said?" Jensen cut in. "A warning?"
"Yeah, I think so." Rhodes shrugged. "We had a vague idea of how much more time we had, and Briana was going to drive out to the observatory in a week or two to narrow that down. But he took off, let's see, three days ago."
"The observatory?" Jared asked.
"Yeah, the Planetary Observatory, where they're monitoring the solar flares," Jensen said. "It's far enough outside Caral that it wasn't affected by the TEMP."
"Where is it?"
"A couple of hours west, up the—" Jensen broke off. "That's where he went. You said he went west."
Rhodes nodded. "Maybe he wanted to confirm for himself that we were going to get enough warning for the sunstorms?"
"Maybe." Jensen exchanged a look with Jared. His gut was telling him that something was wrong here, but he didn't quite know what. The question at the top of his mind was how Amell had managed to survive the TEMP. Based on the log they'd found, Jensen had a really bad feeling that he knew the answer to that. But the only way to know was to ask the man himself.
"We'll come with you," Rhodes said. "Lemme get Briana on the way."
"She's in the wrong direction," Jared protested. "I don’t think we have time to waste."
Frowning, Rhodes said, "Well, why don't you go, and we'll catch up?"
"Is that okay?" Jared turned to Jensen. "I know it's the wrong way from Kumasi, and I know we have to get that list out. But this seems really important. I don't know why he would have gone to the observatory, but we have to find out what he knows about what happened."
"No, I know exactly what you mean," Jensen said. "Look, we can scan the list and send it to Williams as soon as we get outside the blast radius. That way, at least he has it and can get to work."
"All right, we'll do that," Jared replied. "Do we have enough fuel to get there?"
Jensen squinted at the gas gauge. "Yeah, we should. Captain Rhodes, do you have a fuel can you can bring just in case?"
"Never leave home without it," she said. "We'll see you there in a bit."
The drive away from Caral was much faster than the drive in. Jensen had the wheel, and he charged down the main street, dodging the occasional stopped vehicle and taking the jeep right over a few downed traffic poles. Jared hung on, feeling oddly better than Jensen seemed to share his sense of urgency.
He kept a careful eye on the odometer, and as soon as they were ten miles away from the center of the city, he pulled out his tablet. Scanning over the list from the lockbox took another minute, and by that time, he was able to pick up a faint signal. He typed in the number Williams had given them and fired off the message.
A couple of minutes later, he got back a terse message: "Received. S.W."
Jared tucked the tablet away again. "He's got the list."
"Good," Jensen said. They hadn't put down the top of the jeep after coming down from the mountains. It was getting warm out here in the sun, but at least it was easier to hold a conversation. "See if you can find a number for the observatory. I want to check in with them."
Jared fiddled with his wrist-pad until he pulled up the information. "Should I send it to you?"
Jensen shook his head. "Tell them who you are and ask if everything's okay."
The main number was an automated message board, and try as Jared might, he couldn't get his way through to a real person. "No luck," he said, ending the call. "Maybe there's another number to get directly through to the facility."
"Hold off on that," Jensen replied. "Use those computer skills of yours. Get into our systems and find out what was going on with that six-hour gap."
If he wasn’t so nervous about this whole situation, Jared might have laughed at hearing Commander Ackles telling him to hack into the Akkadian system. But something wasn't right here, and he wasn't laughing.
It took only a few minutes to find the back door he'd opened before, but nearly half an hour to get to the data he was looking for. By then, they were across the valley and starting to climb up the far side. When Jared craned his neck to look behind them, he saw a puff of dust that had to be Rhodes and Buckmaster. There hadn't been another soul on the road.
"Where is everyone?" he asked, turning back to his tablet. "You'd think there'd be some traffic with the observatory being so important."
"Not coming from Caral," Jensen replied. "There's an easier way up from the north. Probably won't see anybody this way."
"Okay, well—Yes, I found it!" Jared scrolled through a few pages of reports, taking in the combination of bureaucratic box-checking and brief explanations. "Um, okay. So it looks like there was an unexplained power surge that afternoon. Emergency power kicked in as it was supposed to, but they didn't notice until later that they weren't getting incoming transmissions from off-planet."
"So they never received the first one?" Jensen asked.
"No idea," Jared replied. "These logs about the system condition were uploaded to a backup somewhere offsite, but individual messages weren't."
"Harder to keep secure," Jensen muttered. "Okay, so now we know you sent the first warning. We didn't receive it because of the power surge."
"And as far as we knew, it was received," Jared quickly added.
"Of course. And the second message was received and filed away, without being acted upon."
"Who would do that?" Jared asked.
Jensen rubbed his hand over his jaw. "A spy? Maybe that's who this Amell was?"
"I…I don't think we had spies inside your central command, Jensen. Or anywhere, really."
He shrugged one shoulder. "As far as you know."
"Right." Jared went back to snooping, directing his attention towards personnel files. They were climbing more steadily now, and the connection kept dropping in and out. He was just about to get in when he lost the signal. "Ugh."
"What're you doing now?" Jensen asked.
"Trying to find out more about this Amell."
"Well, you might want to hold off on that," Jensen said. "We're almost there."
They rounded a curve, and then there was a sign indicating the Planetary Observatory was to their right. Jensen drove them up a steep, winding, paved road at the same breakneck pace he'd been taking the whole way. Jared tucked his tablet away and held on for the ride.
It wasn't much longer before they came up onto a small plateau, crowned with a telescope poking out of a building that shone silvery-bright against the dark trees around them. There was a veritable forest of antennas and satellite dishes surrounding the structure, and a handful of vehicles parked in front. Jensen pulled up next to them, and they hopped out, slamming the doors behind them.
There were also two men in Coronan black who came forward with phase guns in their hands as Jared and Jensen approached the door. "State your business," the shorter, dark-haired one said.
"I'm Commander Jensen Ackles," Jensen said. "This is Jared Padalecki. We're here on Akkad at the express order of President Padalecki."
The two men exchanged glances. "Why are you here at the observatory?"
"We're looking for someone who may have come up here recently," Jared said. "An Akkadian named Stephen Amell."
"There's no one up here but us and the scientists," the same man said.
"Are you sure?" Jared asked.
"Hey, Chau, what about the electrical repair guy?" the taller man asked.
"Oh, right," Chau replied. "Yeah, there's someone else here, but his name is Oliver Queen."
"You've had a problem with the power?" Jensen asked, even as the back of Jared's neck started to prickle.
"No, just some upgrades."
"Did you confirm that with your central command?" Jensen barked.
They looked at each other again. "Um, no."
"Great." Jensen put a hand to his temple. "Okay, we need you to tell us where he is."
Chau pointed across the parking lot. "Electrical station's back there. The scientists said it's been hard sometimes to keep the power consistent since Caral got hit. But we're all kind of depending on this place to keep running right now, you know?"
"Yeah, we sure know," Jared replied. "Hey, do me a favor? Tell everyone in the observatory to stay inside."
"And can we take one of those?" Jensen pointed at the phasers holstered at their sides.
They started across the parking lot. "Why electrical repair?" Jared asked. "Why does he need access to that?"
"What did Rhodes say that he said?" Jensen asked, checking over the phaser in his hand. "Nothing could make up for what he'd done?"
"You think he was a spy?" Jared frowned at him. "And what, he realized the consequences too late?"
Jensen shook his head. "If he was a spy, he wouldn't still be hanging out here. Caral was what turned the tide. He'd be getting a hero's welcome back on Maurya."
"I don't think we'd—" Jared cut himself off at the look Jensen was giving him. "Fine, but what's he doing up here?"
"I don't know." Jensen moved in front of him as they neared the door, hefting the phaser. "Stay behind me."
It was a small building, basically a single room about three stories tall. There was a tangle of electrical equipment stretching up to the ceiling, organized in three rows with short corridors in between. Jared had no idea what most of it did, but he did notice that the device in the middle of the room looked out of place.
They edged forward, looking around. There wasn't a sound except the hum of the equipment. As they got closer, Jared noticed the round coil of wire connected to a circuit board on one side and a car battery on the other side. There was a wire still sticking out, and a few feet away on the ground, a simple toggle switch.
Jared swallowed hard and said what they were both thinking. "It…it looks like an EMP."
Jensen swore under his breath. "What the fuck is he doing?"
"Don't move. Either one of you."
Slowly, Jared turned his head. Standing in the doorway was a man aiming an old-fashioned Terran gun at them.
There was silence for a moment. Jensen was frozen with his hand at his side. Jared barely breathed as he looked at the weapon pointed at them. He'd heard some Akkadians still carried them, even though their ammunition was limited compared to the electric charge of a modern phaser. Although after Caral, Jared supposed he could understand why they might seem attractive. That didn't change the fact that one of them was aimed at him and Jensen, wielded by someone who was more then likely a little unstable.
Moving slowly, Jared held up his hands. "Take it easy," he said, pitching his voice to be as calm as he could. "It's okay, Stephen."
"How did you find me? How do you know who I am?" He looked back and forth between them, and his eyes widened. "Shit. You're—oh God. Commander Ackles. You know."
"It's okay," Jared said. "We just want to talk to you."
"It's not okay." Amell shook his head wildly. "I killed them. All of them. They're all dead because of me." He turned towards Jensen, the gun swinging with him. "Don't you get that? I killed Caral. Your family. My family. Our whole country."
"You didn't kill them, Officer Amell," Jensen said. "They did. The people who dropped the bombs did."
Amell shook his head more furiously. "They weren't supposed to die. But they did because of me." He took a step towards Jensen. "I didn't mean to do it. I didn’t think it was real. It said it was the second message, but there was never a first one."
"The system was down," Jared said.
"I know that!" He aimed back at Jared. "I realized it later. There was—there was an hour left. I'd been thinking about it, trying to decide what to do. But there was no such thing as a TEMP. No one had built one. It had to have been a test message. That's what I told myself."
"We know, Stephen." Keeping his hands up, Jared took a step closer. "We know you would have made a different choice if you'd had all of the information. We know you did the best you could with—"
"Shut up." Amell leveled the gun at him. "You don't know anything."
"Then why don't you tell us?" Jensen spoke up. Jared would have glared at him for drawing attention to himself, except he was too busy staring at the barrel of the gun aimed between his eyes. "Tell us what really happened," Jensen went on. "How you survived."
"There's no point." Amell blinked furiously. "It's done. They're all dead, and you surrendered to them, and it's all over. The sunstorms are going to come, and that'll be the end. We can all rest."
"Nothing's going to end," Jensen said, inching forward as he spoke. "We know where the shelters are. We can get people to safety."
"No!" Amell swung back towards him. He was close enough now that the gun was only a couple of feet from Jensen's chest. Jared had seen enough Terran-style movies to know what would happen if Amell pulled the trigger now. He was going on, "It has to end. It has to be over. No one can know what I've done."
Jared stared. He couldn't mean what it sounded like he meant.
"Officer Amell, listen to me." Jensen had put a note of command into his voice. "You are going to put that gun down and come with us. You made a mistake, yes, but you don't have to make another one."
"A mistake?" Amell retorted. "Every night, I hear their screams, over and over in my head. There's nothing you could do to me that could be any worse than that."
"But you want to make it even worse?" Jared asked. Slowly, he pointed towards the device at his feet. "If you set off this EMP. If the Observatory's instruments are destroyed. We don't have the facilities on Corona to measure the sun's output with the precision we need to know when the sunstorms are starting. And we don't have food and water to shelter the whole population for more than a couple of weeks. You want everyone else's deaths on your head as well? Besides Caral?"
"Jared!" Jensen hissed.
"I want it all to be over," Amell replied. "Wiped out, wiped clean, nothing left of what I've done." He turned to Jared, gun still aimed at Jensen. "I can't—it has to end. All of it. That's the only way."
"Listen to me," Jared said, heart in his throat. If his mother had been remotely right, if he had an ounce of diplomatic ability in him, it had never mattered more. "That's not the only way. We can get help for you, you can—"
"Shut up!" Amell put one hand to his temple, the gun wavering slightly. "No, I can't. It's too late," he said. He put both hands back on the gun and gestured at Jensen. "Sit down," he said. "Back up, sit against the wall. Both of you. Hands on your head."
Jensen stood taller, and the strength in his voice was something Jared knew he would always remember. "No."
Amell stared at him. "The fuck do you mean, 'no'?"
"You're not going to kill us, Officer Amell," Jensen said with that same note of command. "You're still an officer of Akkad, still sworn to protect and defend your people. You're going to put down that gun and let us remove this device."
"I am, huh?" Amell shook his head. "You're wrong, Commander. You were wrong to surrender to them. You didn't defend your people, you sold them out. And I'll be damned if I surrender to you."
Jensen started, "Listen—"
Jared was only half listening, mostly focused on the minute detail of Amell's trigger finger. He was still aiming right at Jensen, and during his diatribe about surrendering, his earlier shakiness had gone. The line of his arms was rigid, and as Jensen started to speak again, Amell's finger started to move.
Jared didn't even have to think about it. "Get down!" he shouted as he dove forward, both hands reaching for Amell's wrists.
He crashed sideways into Amell, forcing the gun up towards the ceiling. The gunshot was nearly deafening in the room, or maybe it was because it was right in Jared's ear. He heard Jensen shout, but he couldn't risk looking in his direction because it would take the focus away from what had suddenly become a fight for his own life.
Jared might have had several inches on Amell, but the other man was fighting like he was possessed. They struggled back and forth, the gun firing into the walls and the equipment around them at least twice more. "Get out of here!" he yelled at Jensen.
Then Amell drove an elbow into Jared's ribs and wrested the gun from his grip. "I can't let you," he growled, and ducking under Jared's arm, he took aim at Jensen.
Jared didn't even think about it. He dove at Jensen, trying to shield as much of him as he could. He caught a glimpse of shock on Jensen's face, and then fear.
The flare of pain in his right thigh had Jared gasping, but it was the punch in his back that had him crying aloud. He faintly heard Jensen shout, and then the crash of the door being thrown back against the wall. Footsteps rushed into the room, followed by two sharp gunshots.
And then everything faded away.
The city of Axum was a small settlement, especially compared to Caral. Jensen had passed through once or twice on a school trip to the Observatory or going up to the mountains. It was nothing more than a dot on the map on the way to someplace else.
Right now, it was just about the most important place in the entire solar system. It was where the President's son was fighting for his life.
Jensen had never been very good at waiting. It had only gotten worse after receiving the news of Caral during the one time that week he had allowed himself a moment alone in his quarters. After that, he hadn't wanted to be alone without anything to do, some back corner of his mind always readying itself for horrible news to be delivered.
But now, all he could do was wait.
He'd told his story to the Coronans who'd flown in from Kumasi, led by a man named Collins. He'd listened intently to Jensen's story, asked him some questions that seemed offbeat but eventually connected to the matter at hand. Collins had told him that Amell had died before reaching the hospital at Axum, but that they were busy digging into his records to try and confirm their story.
"You should probably stay inside," Collins had said. "Your story rings with consistency, but there are some who find it an awfully strange coincidence that the President's son should be shot with an Akkadian present and two other Akkadians arriving in short order to dispatch the would-be assassin before the Coronan guards on site could respond."
Jensen had stared at him. "If I wanted to harm Jared, there's lots of easier ways I could have done it."
Collins had looked back just as intently. "I know. That's part of the consistency."
Jensen had taken his advice and stayed at the hospital, trying to avoid both the Akkadian doctors and nurses and the armed Coronan forces. And all the while, he waited for Jared to wake up.
The surgery had been successful in removing the two bullets—and one of Jared's kidneys. The doctors expected him to wake up within a day…and then within two days…and then within three. Six days after arriving at the observatory, Jared was still unconscious.
Jensen had talked to him off and on for much of that time, telling him what happened to Amell and the occasional updates Collins would give him on the investigation. "It's all over the news," he said. "How the warnings didn't get through, what really happened to Caral. Rhodes and Buckmaster worked with Collins to get it out, someone from each side explaining part of the story. Just like you'd want, Jared. Don't know how much of a difference it'll make, but at least people know the truth."
He sighed and straightened up in the hard-backed chair that was starting to feel comfortable after days of using it. "So c'mon and join us, all right? I think your people would feel a lot better if you were up and around. I know your mom sure would. She's been calling every day for updates, from what they tell me. Not like I want to talk to her—she'd kick my ass for letting you get hurt."
Jared didn't move.
"I just don't understand you, Jared. Why did you have to do that? Why did you jump in front of a fucking gun for me?" Jensen shook his head. "You've got so much ahead of you, man. You're gonna be a great leader. And not just because of who your family is. Because of who you are. Because you try hard and you really care and you want to do what's right." He fiddled with the sheet under Jared's long, still fingers. "I think you and my dad would've gotten along real well. I wish you would've gotten to meet."
Jensen paused and then shook his head. "But anyway. I should be in your place, you know that? I'm the older one, supposed to be making the decisions for you, right?" His dry chuckle sounded odd in the quiet room. "Which is another thing I did wrong. I guess I knew it then, 'cause I tried to tell myself that it was for your own good. That I was leaving soon, and I couldn't let things get complicated. But they already were, is the thing. I know we were just fooling around, but I liked you, Jared. I liked you a lot. And maybe I told myself I was being the more mature one, but really, I was walking away. Just like you accused me of doing. I never—I don't know that I even realized that until much later." His fingers shifted, running up and down the side of Jared's hand instead of the sheet. "Much later," he said more softly.
Silence fell except for the low beep of the machines clustered around Jared's bed. Jensen wet his lips. "I don't know why I’m saying these things when you can't hear me." Then he gave a wry smile. "Yeah, okay, it's pretty obvious, huh?"
Jared didn't reply.
"The thing is, Jared, I've lost everything. My home, my family, my country. And I can't—I can't lose you, too."
He bowed his head, hand resting on top of Jared's. There was nothing else he could say after that. If that didn't reach Jared, nothing he could say would.
From across the room, there was the sound of a throat clearing.
Jensen's head shot up. The door was cracked open, just wide enough for President Laura Padalecki to be half in the room.
He quickly rose to his feet, feeling his cheeks flame. "Ma'am! Ma'am…what are you doing here?"
"How is he doing?" she asked, slipping into the room. Behind her, Jensen saw a man and a woman dressed in black taking up positions on either side of the door as it closed.
"There's no change," he said. "Not from what the doctors would have told you. How—how did you get here so fast?"
"I came as soon as I heard," she said. She looked around the room and found a second chair up against the wall. Pulling it to Jared's bedside, she sat and gestured for Jensen to do the same. "He's my only child now, Commander."
"Of course, I just…" He let out a long sigh. "I'll leave you here with Jared."
"I'd like you to stay," she said. She looked around the room, and he could see her taking in the cot under the window with the rumpled sheets. "I'd like to talk to you about some things. While we wait for Jared."
"Of course." Jensen sat back down and prepared to be berated for letting Jared get shot.
Laura threaded her fingers through Jared's, leaning over and brushing the hair from his forehead with her other hand. "They said the one bullet went through his leg, but the other…traveled some distance."
"He was pushing me to the ground, so the second shot hit at more of an angle," Jensen said. Under his breath, he added, "Stupid idiot."
"They also said he should be awake by now." Her voice was level, but her fingers shook slightly as she stroked Jared's forehead.
"Yeah, I know," Jensen sighed. "I should've gotten him here sooner."
"From what the staff told me, you drove him here from the observatory as fast as anyone could have," Laura replied. "I'm grateful for that."
"He shouldn't've been shot at all." Jensen rubbed a hand over his jaw and was instantly reminded that he hadn't shaved in a few days. "I'm sorry for that."
Laura leaned back in her seat, not letting go of Jared's hand. "You knew each other more closely in college than you let on, didn't you?"
Jensen's cheeks were growing warm again. "I think Jared should be the one to tell you about that."
"Oh, goodness, I don't need details. I didn't know. I'm not so certain I would have sent him along with you if I had known."
"It was a long time ago," Jensen said. "We were both different people then."
"War changes you," she replied. "I knew that would be the case, but…even then, I had no idea." A grimace flitted across her face. "It turns out there's a great deal I didn't know, especially about the TEMP. We had one device, or one cluster of devices, and we gave it all the power we could. Far more than we needed to, as it turns out. And when I ordered that warnings be given to Caral, I had no idea they weren't being received."
"No one had any idea it was coming," Jensen replied. "Or at least, the one man who did didn't believe it."
She sighed heavily. "I understand that now. And it makes me wonder what other choices I made in the heat of battle that were wrong. Where else did I go farther than I should have?"
"War changes you," Jensen echoed.
Laura pursed her lips and went on, "We started this war because we wanted independence. Not because we wanted to punish you or your people. But that's what it became. We did better than we expected, and it was so easy to just keep going. Turn one victory into another, tell ourselves we were securing our future. Our children's future." She shook her head and looked at Jared's still features. "We should have stopped right then and there. Left you your planet and solidified our hold on ours."
Jensen cleared his throat. "I'm not sure we would have let that happen." When she looked up, he shrugged one shoulder. "My father was committed to maintaining the unity of the system. It might have taken time and regrouping, but he would have pushed back. Maybe with a TEMP of his own. It might have been a point of principle and of law that the system remain united, but it was also personal. He thought he was going to hand it down to me someday, after all."
"Then he would find this extremely ironic," Laura said. At Jensen's puzzled look, she went on, "I've been mulling it over during the journey here, and I think the two planets should be autonomous. I'll retain command until we hold elections, but Akkad should have the right to govern itself. It's what we fought for, after all. It would be a pity to lose sight of that after everything."
He stared at her, his heart pounding. "Are you serious?" Jensen asked. He swept his arm out, indicating the world outside this room. "You're just going to give this up?"
"There would be some kind of federation of the two planets," Laura added. "With representatives from each on equal footing, discussing items of mutual interest like defense from external threats, be they from the sun or from other systems. But not with one in charge over the other." She took a deep breath. "We should not have gone as far as we did. You said once that your people should have surrendered after Caral, and Macchu would still be around. Well, now that I know the truth of what happened, both Caral and Macchu should still be intact, along with the people who were lost there. This is all I can do to rectify that, and ensure it doesn't happen again."
Jensen looked at her, stunned. "I never—this is unprecedented."
"There will be a lot of details to work out, of course, regarding access to resources. Much of that will have to wait until after the sunstorms. I imagine you'll want all of your military equipment back, but I also imagine your rebuilding would be easier with our help."
"If people are open to that," he said slowly. "You've heard through Jared how difficult that can be."
"And yet you persevered," she replied. "I heard this morning when I landed that Lieutenant General Williams has located all of the shelters in Kumasi and has been preparing them. He sent the full list to me, and we're working to open and stock the remaining shelters across the planet.
Jensen lifted an eyebrow. "He gave you the list?"
"Apparently you were quite persuasive," she replied dryly.
Shaking his head, Jensen said, "That was all Jared."
"Not all him, I would imagine. Which is why I would ask one more thing of you." When he raised his eyebrows in query, she went on, "I would like you to be the interim Commander until a government is restored on Akkad."
Jensen sat back in the chair, feeling an uncomfortable warmth prickling across his shoulders. "Absolutely not."
"Commander, you already have the respect of your people, or at least most of them. Williams came around, and the rest of them will as well."
It took a moment for Jensen to realize why his first response to her offer had been rage. It took a moment more to moderate his voice enough to reply. "Excuse my language, but you fucking went to war because you didn't want my family to be in power anymore," he nearly growled. "Now you want to undo all of that?"
"It's only an interim position," Laura replied. "We can set a time limit on it. You can specify that you won't run for office when the opportunity arises, if that's what you want."
"No," he said again. "No. I appreciate the offer, ma'am, but I don't want it. Ask Williams. It'll give him something to do before he goes back into retirement. And he advised my father, so he'll be able to help with re-establishing the government." He shook his head. "I'm grateful that you're considering this federation, ma'am. More grateful than I can say. And I'm honored that you would consider me for this position. But I've had enough. I'm done."
"What will you do?" she asked.
He looked away. "I don't know. Haven't really thought that far ahead."
Startled, he turned to the bed. Jared's eyelids were fluttering open, his gaze fuzzy but focused on Jensen. "Wrong…then," he said. His fingers flexed in his mother's, and she gripped them more tightly. "Wrong now."
"Jared," Jensen breathed out. "You—" He started to reach out, wanting to touch him, but suddenly, painfully aware of who else was in the room. "Let me get the doctor. They're going to want to check on you."
He stood up before Jared could say anything else, all too aware of how much he was contradicting his earlier words as he slipped out of the room.
All he kept hearing in his head was Jared's plea, even as he walked away.
Jared paused on the landing, gripping the railing with one hand and his cane with the other. His mother had told him he should take the elevator, but as much as he trusted Kim Rhodes' ability to get the electricity fired up again, he trusted the stairs more. Besides, he'd been sitting all day, and his leg could use a little stretching.
He eyed the one remaining flight of stairs. He hated being so tired and out of breath after a few stairs, but he supposed he was lucky he was walking around at all. Dr. Smith had explained in careful detail how one of Amell's bullets had plowed through a number of different organs before coming to a stop in his chest. She'd informed him that he was expected to make a full recovery, but that he would need a lot of rest.
Jared was fully prepared to do just that until his mother told him what she was planning. Then he knew he had to be part of it. He'd argued with her for days. Dr. Smith had been reluctant, especially given what the conditions were likely to be, but Jensen had assured her he'd keep a close eye on Jared.
Laura hadn't even blinked at that, and it made Jared wonder what they'd talked about before he'd woken up all the way. He remembered some of the words he'd heard over his head, but not much.
Gritting his teeth, Jared steadily made his way up the final flight. He pushed open the door into the hotel hallway, glad that his room was only one door down from the stairs. Jensen's was the next one down, but it would be better to go through the connecting door, anyway.
Once inside his room, Jared paused to catch his breath. He shucked off his jacket, gulped down some water, and checked his reflection in the mirror. Then he shook his head at himself. Jensen hadn't made any indication over the past three weeks that their emotional fumbling in the back hallway of the Presidential Palace had meant a damn thing to him. He'd taken good care of Jared when he wasn't busy with his own part in the negotiations, but there was no reason to think there was going to be anything more between them than that.
Jared hadn't expected that coming to that conclusion would hurt so much.
At least he had Jensen here with him now, and probably until after the sunstorms. That was better than nothing. So he knocked on the connecting door.
"It's open," came the muffled reply.
Jared opened the door and went inside the mirror of his own room. It was much neater, of course, with the clothing put away in the closet and not draped over the furniture. The water was running in the bathroom, and so Jared stepped around the bed and out onto the balcony to wait.
A handful of people were moving through the streets below, most with their heads down and quiet. It had been Briana's suggestion to hold the talks in Caral, and Jared thought it was a good idea, even if it must have been strange for people to enter the dead city. She'd led a crew that cleaned the streets of obstructions and did one final sweep of buildings and subsequent burials, while Rhodes had taken charge of getting the power back on to at least one large hotel and a few auxiliary buildings. Many of the delegates had looked shocked at the dilapidated appearance of the city, especially those from Corona, but Jared thought it served as a not-so-subtle reminder of why they were all there.
Negotiating the terms of a new federation, with each planet responsible for its own affairs, was as exhilarating as Jared had thought it would be. He was still thrilled that he'd been given the opportunity to be one of the lead diplomats for Corona. His mother had been reluctant, given how it would look to have her son in such a prominent role. But Jensen had insisted, backed up by Steven Williams, and that had been that.
He heard Jensen come up behind him, and then he was beside him, still in the uniform he'd worn all day. "How're you doing?" Jared asked quietly.
"All right," Jensen said. "Busy day today."
"Understatement," Jared snorted. "When Mom laid out all of the different sets of issues we're going to need to touch on, and then told us we only have three weeks before travel to Corona needs to stop and we all need to take shelter, I thought half the delegates were going to walk out."
"It's just the framework of an agreement," Jensen said. "We don't need to work out all of the details right now."
"Do you think we can do it?" Jared asked.
"I know you think we can," Jensen replied, lightly bumping their shoulders together.
Jared looked down, feeling a flush on his cheeks. To distract himself, he asked, "Do you think this will be the capital again?"
Jensen sighed. "I don't know. I'm glad it's not one of the things we have to settle in the next three weeks. Part of me thinks it would be disrespectful to continue living here like nothing ever happened. It would be like replacing the people who were lost, forgetting they were ever here."
"I guess I can see that," Jared said. "But could it also be honoring them in a way. By continuing to live here, you show that life goes on."
Jensen glanced at him briefly. "Maybe."
Jared leaned his elbows on the railing, cane dangling from one hand. "It's a beautiful city," Jared said.
"It sure was," Jensen replied. He turned around, leaning his back on the railing and facing the hotel room. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine." At Jensen's quick look, he said, "Okay, maybe I'm using the railing to hold myself up a little bit, but other than that, I'm fine."
"For God's sake, Jared." Instantly, Jensen was pulling Jared's arm over his shoulder, holding him up. "Let's get you inside."
"I've been inside all day," Jared protested.
"And you were shot three weeks ago," Jensen muttered. "C'mon."
Reluctantly, Jared let himself be pulled inside. He was surprised when Jensen led him right to the bed. "Wait, this is your room."
"Duh." A moment later, Jensen was lowering him down to sit on the edge of the bed, then giving him a gentle push back. "You've been up all day, you need to rest."
"I've been sitting on my ass all day," Jared protested. But when Jensen pushed harder, he let himself fall back against the pillows, swinging his legs up to rest on the bed. He laid there for a moment, looking up at Jensen.
Maybe it was the inspirational speeches they'd heard that morning about working towards a new, shared future. Maybe Jared was tired of pretending that nothing had happened between them, that nothing could happen between them. Or maybe it was the contemplative way Jensen was regarding him, with an expression softer than Jared had seen in…well, in as long as he could remember.
Whatever the reason, it only took a little bit of courage for Jared to reach out an arm towards Jensen. "There's plenty of room," he said, his heart suddenly pounding.
Jensen hesitated. "If you want to rest, I could go to your room," he said.
"No, wait," Jared said, rising up onto one elbow and reaching out to snag Jensen's sleeve before he could move any farther away. "I've been trying to tell you something for weeks, but you keep hiding from me."
"I'm not hiding," Jensen insisted. "I've been busy."
Jared gave him a determined look. "I heard you, you know. In the hospital."
Jensen's expression didn't change, but the tips of his ears went red. "What?"
"I mean, I don't know if I heard everything you said. I was asleep a lot, you know?" He tried a smile, but Jensen's face remained impassive. Taking a deep breath, Jared went on, "I know a lot has changed. Since we first knew each other, since we met again. And I understand if you don’t want anything to do with me just like you don't want anything to do with being in charge. Maybe I should just go home when this is all done and the sunstorms are over. But I don't know, I—I feel like I should stay here. And part of it is that I feel like I should stay with you."
There was silence for a moment. Then, slowly, Jensen sat down on the bed. "This isn't about…what we decided not to talk about, is it?"
"No, it's not." Jared sank back against the pillows. "Like I said, I heard you say that you—you didn't want to lose me, and I've been thinking about a lot." He swallowed hard. "And if I didn't really hear it, or you didn't mean it like that, we can decide not to talk about this anymore, either. I mean, you were upset because I was hurt, and I—"
"Shhh." Jensen laid a finger over Jared's lips, and Jared instantly went still. "I didn't think you'd hear me," Jensen said quietly. The corner of his mouth quirked. "Or I probably would have chosen my words more carefully."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Jared asked against Jensen's finger.
Jensen removed his hand and rolled over until he was lying down beside Jared, their heads on the same pillow. "I've been thinking a lot, too," he said in a low voice. "About what comes next. For me, for all of us. For you."
"This isn't you making decisions for me again, is it?" Jared asked sternly.
Jensen shrugged one shoulder. "You caught me."
"Jensen. You can't—"
"No, I know that." Jensen gave a sheepish smile. "I realized that a week or so ago. Right when I figured out I was kinda looking forward to the sunstorms because it might just be me and you again. That was an interesting thing to learn about myself," he added with raised eyebrows. "Because as hard as it was, coming here to Caral, I don’t know if I could have done it without you. And with everything still in front of us…" He trailed off, looking into Jared's eyes as if asking him to hear what he was saying without having to say it.
Jared took a deep breath and reached out to brush his fingers against Jensen's cheek. "Yeah, I know. I can't lose you, either."
It took a moment, but Jensen leaned closer, slowly enough that Jared could hear the rasp of his hair moving against the pillow. Jared shifted forward until they were close enough that he was going cross-eyed, and then he closed his eyes anyway, because Jensen was kissing him.
It certainly wasn't the first time he'd kissed Jensen, but it still felt new. It was still a little rough, a little raw, but the urgency behind it wasn't anger or despair like in the palace. And it wasn't the eager, experimenting kiss of two young men getting to know each other for the first time, either. It was need. It was trust. It was the fear that Jared had heard in Jensen's voice speaking over his hospital bed, and maybe it was a little of his own fear that Jensen was going to reject him after all.
But Jensen kept kissing him, not pushing to go any farther, just affirming his yes to the question Jared hadn't even asked. And when they broke apart and Jensen tugged Jared's head down to lay on his chest, Jared went willingly. He'd just rest for a moment, close his eyes and listen to Jensen's heartbeat and take a short break before they figured out what was next.
They had an entire world to restore, after all.