*NOTE: If you have not read any previous stories of 'A Salvager's' Tale I recommend doing so before proceeding.*
Sitting in the captain's chair, staring out the helm viewing screen, Justin watched as the Royal Guard's ship, the Shining Blade, led the way back to the Latyran home world. As they travelled, as he considered what would happen to him when they arrived, a heavy doubt slipped into him. Roderic Courtan, the commander of the Royal guard had been overly ecstatic at seeing him that he appeared to shatter the stern expression on his face. The wrinkles and lack of laugh lines were evidence enough of that this was not a man who smiled often. The moment Roderic caught sight of him, that light of recognition flared to life and Justin saw that the old man was relieved. The scarred, grizzled face broke into a smile that seemed pained at the same time. Justin assumed this was only for the sheer fact that he had not smiled in years, perhaps even decades. After that brief, albeit poignant moment, his expression returned to one of sullen quietness and they continued with the business at hand. His mission was to return the prince to his family as soon as possible—at least that was what Justin told himself.
Human psychology was really no different from any other intelligent species; at least of those he had met thus far. Tearing eyes meant either someone was happy or sad, shouting meant anger or excitement, laughter often indicating happiness. Seeing a soldier, that reminded him of the Beefeaters that guarded Buckingham palace minus the silly hats, suddenly start crying, Justin understood that Kiran Kitra must have been close with Roderic in some regard. The other soldiers’ apparent disinterest in his return also gave more weight to this theory. For Kiran this would no doubt be a wonderful gift, knowing that there were people searching for him, praying for his safe return. For Justin it potentially meant death.
His eyes drifted from the screen to the blue floating digital ball that flitted about from side to side. Through its translucent nature, Justin saw the free floating imager that allowed the ball to even exist. With a careful, digitally enhanced eye, he could see the lines of code that continued to flow through the projection, reminding him of something out of the movies, one in particular where one could learn kung-fu with a press of a button. The coding was far different than that of Earth. It was more akin to Morse code than binary. He probably could have adjusted the imager's settings so that it looked more solid and didn't display so much internal code but in truth he enjoyed the aesthetic of it. And besides, Ally wasn't complaining.
"So, can we just go over this again?" Justin asked, climbing to his feet. They were only an hour away from Verus which also meant he was an hour from his identity being revealed.
"We have already discussed this matter four times." Ally said, the ball ceasing its movement.
"Forgive me for being anxious, but if I recall you said that I could, and most likely will, be put to death for impersonating a royal figure." Justin reminded.
"Be that as it may, I don't see how repeating this information will help the situation." Ally noted.
"Repetition helps with memorization."
"The information does not need to be memorized," Ally said, "You downloaded the data into your cortical mainframe, it is at your immediate disposal." As she said this, Justin touched the back of his head where the cortical node was placed. The forced data feed was always an unpleasant experience. Though useful and often beneficial, forcing that much information into his brain often left him with a headache. It was like being in a crowd of people all screaming and shouting at one time. There was just too much stimulation for his organic mind to handle.
"Humor me." Justin said flatly. The ball wavered a moment before drifting over to him in fashion he could only describe as "dragging one’s feet."
"Very well." She said, with a voice that told him she was doing this with complete, and obvious, reluctance.
"Alright, so the whole of the universe thinks I am Kiran Kitra, but when dealing with the less reputable sort, I am Dornin Koe. Correct?" Justin asked.
"Correct. The purpose of your Dornin Koe alias is merely a precaution in case a message goes out regarding you, either by allies or enemies, they would identify you as such. The name is meant for reference by name over coms. But if anyone were to run an identity analysis you would come up as Kiran Kitra." Ally explained.
"And you never considered that maybe someone might run an identity analysis on me and that would ping a hit for Kiran?"
Ally paused. In truth she had considered this and by her calculations the odds in her favor. Aside from the Alliance or the Federation, there was no need to do a background check on a salvager. They were contracted help that one took a risk hiring anyway. If they stole then it would make sense to pursue them but if they didn't then they could be thought of as trustworthy within a reasonable margin and no need to look any further. Her precautions had prevented any of the enemies Justin had made from discovering his Latyran identity. However it seemed that the Aynoran pirate, L'tra specifically, was able to look through the Dornin Koe veil to find Kiran.
"I may have considered it." Ally finally admitted, breaking the uneasy silence between them. Justin could have gotten angry, would have in fact but Ally's response seemed almost human. It was the intonation, the way she answered that was far removed from the cold and clinical tone from when they first met. In fact it sounded exactly the way he would have answered.
"Seriously?" Justin finally managed, "And?"
"I had created an identity for Dornin Koe so if anyone tried a facial recognition search that would match that identity. As long as they didn’t test your DNA, you would be only seen as Dornin Koe." She said.
"So how did…" Justin started but paused as he remembered back to the fight with the Aynoran fleet that led him to killing the bulk of the Pirate Captains. There had been a lot of bloodshed, including his. It wouldn’t have taken much searching to locate a sample. “They got my blood didn’t they?”
"That is correct. When I was in the Aynoran ship mainframes I saw that they had located a sample of your blood and which led them to Kiran Kitra."
"When you created Dornin couldn’t you just put my DNA in there?" Justin asked curiously.
"Without breaking into the Federation and Alliance joint network there is no way to backdate information or insert that information to give Dornin Koe a complete identity. If they looked deep enough anyone would see the Dornin only existed for two years and this would then raise the question as to why there were two people from the same planet sharing DNA. That would be a statistical improbability."
"Oh that's just dandy." He said with a sigh. "So Kiran and I have the same DNA?"
"That is one of the reason's he was selected as your identity." Ally reminded.
"Which would explain why we look alike, the phenotypes probably expressed almost exactly the same because to the matching DNA. I would say it was awesome that I found my doppelganger if not for the very real fact that I most likely will be executed when we get back. Fun times."
Justin's attention returned to the ship that led him back to the Latyran home world. For a moment his life flashed back to his time on Earth. He saw his mother and father, his sister, his wife and the sonogram of his son. All of them were waiting for him to come home. They had no idea what happened to him, no knowing if he was alive or dead. They would never know the life he lived while flitting through the cosmos, fighting pirates and dictators, saving royalty and the homeless. The footprint he made in space, albeit small, was remarkable and they would never know. Justin had no idea what to expect during the coming days but was certain only trouble was on the horizon.
Reaching into his pocket, he removed the photo of his wife, belly starting to swell as their child grew. Absently he ran a finger down her face, imagining the softness of her skin as he touched it. Two years had passed since he last seen her, held her, kissed her. Now there was a chance, a firm chance that he may die lightyears away from his home. Closing his eyes, he simply thought back to the life before this as he waited for their arrival.
Justin stood in the loading bay, his suits and weapon stores locked away and the mechs hidden behind an opaque holo-imager that gave the illusion that they were nothing more than enormous shipping crates. From what he knew of Kiran, Justin was certain that the prince wouldn't be one to harvest and create weaponry, preferring irresponsible fun than preparing for combat.
The Latyran Skip was approaching quickly, Roderic onboard along with other members of the Royal Guard. They would be armed and prepared to strike if Justin tried anything aggressive. He could have tried to fight back, he had the tools and the means but declaring war on an entire empire would not have been a wise move. He may have weapons, but they had an entire army, not to mention any alliances they may have, as well as cooperation with the Alliance and Federation.
The Skip landed in the loading bay, Justin watching all of this with extreme interest. A brief alert flashed across his vision indicating his heart race had accelerated, 98 beats per minute. He took several deeps breath, thought of waterfalls, fields of flowers, even his family, but no matter what he did, he could not stay his heart. His future was tied to how the next few minutes played out. Despite this internal struggle, he maintained a cool demeanor, as result from much experience with less reputable individuals he had met along the way. Standing still, not permitting any nervous fidgeting and without a single drop of nervous sweat, he was prepared to take this challenge head one. He and Ally had come up with a fairly reasonable excuse for any missteps he may make, the neural nodes supporting this.
The door to the Skip slid open with a light hum and before it was even fully open a hulk of a man stepped out. Adorned in Latyran military dress, a long blue long coat and green slacks with heavy looking boots, the man approached. The well-worn, scarred features of Roderic Courtan were even more pronounced in person. A towering brute, his hair thin but curled, came almost toe to toe to Justin. It was as Roderic stood, staring down at him that Justin realized his left eye was clouded, a deep scar running down his face.
"Lord Kiran," Roderic said, his voice stem but the moment the name slipped past the scarred lips, a smile pulled across his face as if attached to wires. "Lord Kiran!" The soldier shouted, laughing. Roderic spread his arms wide and wrapped them around Justin tightly, momentarily cutting off his air supply. It was during this enormous bear hug that Justin realized that Roderic was wearing some sort of armor under his coat. Ally's passing comment regarding Justin's musculature suddenly held far more weight. Glancing at the other guards he saw that they were practically the same exact size and build. He would have been a hundred credits that they all were wearing body armor.
"Um... hi." Justin said in Latyran. Roderic stepped back, wiping his tear streaked face.
"My lord," Roderic said with a sniffle that was reminiscent of a child; rather of a father staring at his child, "Where have you been? What... what happened to you? My lord, your eyes..." Justin became quickly aware that his eyes were no doubt remarkably different that Kiran. The implants were grey, almost silver. From the image that Ally brought up during their research, Kiran had green eyes. This was one phenotypical difference from him. Apparently all Kitran males possessed green eyes. While they may have identical DNA, the expression of characteristics was slightly different, perhaps due to their environments.
"It's... complicated. You must forgive me for my vagueness." Justin said. Roderic simply nodded, not pressing the matter further.
"I understand," He said, "It is not my place to question, my lord. I am certain there is much to be discussed between you and your family. Now if you don't mind, I know they are looking forward to seeing you again. It has been far too long."
"You're not wrong ..." Justin noted and offered a light smile. Internally he was screaming, knowing that he was delving into territory he had no reason to be entering, but there was no choice. He couldn't run before and he can't run now.
"Shall we go then, sir?" Roderic asked, motioning towards the Skip. Justin simply nodded and followed Roderic towards the ship.
The Kitran Kingdom was a sight to behold, to say the very least. Much like the castles and structures from the middle ages on Earth these strongholds were massive. Unlike them however, these were not constructed of stone or wood, but instead of metal and glass. It was as if one took the materials for a skyscraper and formed them into castles and forts. All around the largest of the structure, the Royal Palace, were smaller buildings and thoroughfares where citizens of the Kitran Empire lived and worked. From his vantage point, he saw miniature people moving around, going in and out of buildings, children playing in a large parklike area filled with green and blue trees that swayed in a powerful wind. There was a surreal nature about seeing a castle in the middle of modem cityscape. Enormous walls split the kingdom into an outer and inner area with four large entry points. Justin stared out the Skip's window both in awe and terror as they drew closer to the castle.
"Whoa." Justin uttered, unsure if he had actually spoken or not.
"It truly is a glorious day." Roderic said; his voice low and possessed a gentle quality that Justin would have never expected. Roderic leaned in close, staring out the window and tapping the glass. "I remember taking you to that same park, in spite of your mother's objections. You're rebellious nature was apparent even as a child. You refused to play in the palace. You only wanted to see what the city, the world had to offer."
Justin said nothing, limiting himself to short sentences or single word responses. Having spent so much time around other races on other planets, he realized how people spoke was not too dissimilar to him. However sometimes a race’s manner of speech was slightly different, following stricter rules for timbre, tempo, pronunciation. Ally gave him a few pointers, but until he held an extended conversation or listened to others speak, it was best to keep it simple.
As Roderic looked to Justin, the disconnect between them was obvious. Justin knew he was hoping that they could share some memory from their past, perhaps some indication that Kiran too was happy to be home. Justin could only imagine what this rugged soldier was like, chasing a child through the park, playing, laughing, but there was no way he could fake it. Pretending to be someone you weren't around total strangers was simple but trying to con someone who had history with that person was impossible. This was not simply plucking names and places from some database to use for your cover. This was sharing personal, meaningful memories; ones that could not be replicated or faked. While he wouldn't admit it, he felt terrible taking advantage of Roderic and perhaps the entire Latyran Empire. He wasn't a con man or a psychopath. His role as Kiran, even Dornin Koe, was a necessity for survival. It was terrible but essential. Turning to Roderic, staring into his eyes, Justin simply sighed.
"Forgive me, Roderic," He said, "My memories are... scattered." As Justin spoke, he touched node on his forearm. The metal glinted as it caught a ray of sunlight. This grabbed Roderic's eye. For an instant Justin noted a flash of anger as his eyes narrowed to angry slits. It was only for a moment but the emotion was almost palpable.
"Please, my lord, tell me what had occurred while you were away." Roderic said. He spoke with surprising tenderness that continued to knock Justin off guard. The soldier, clearly well versed with the songs of battle, could still allow himself to open his heart and allow someone like Kiran Kitra to touch it. Perhaps there was a closer connection to Kiran and Roderic than merely protector and Lord.
"In truth I can't… cannot remember." Just said, catching himself from using contractions. Royalty, in various worlds, found the use barbaric or unrefined. It was a common tongue that spoke as such and if Justin were to play the role of prince he would have to be very careful. It would have been helpful if the language didn't have contractions but unfortunately Latyran did. He had the entire language downloaded into his memory but there was no way to remove any aspect of it that may give him away. He would have to be careful.
"When I held you I felt a structure at the base of your head. Is it like the one on your arm?" He asked. Justin nodded. He stopped touching the node, the goal met. Part of Ally and his plan was to bring everyone's attention to the nodes, indicating that something had happened to him that had affected Kiran's memory. The cortical node was a perfect excuse for his memory loss since it was installed directly into the Cerebellum and wires threading through to the cortex; not to mention the micro hard drive that was installed in there as well.
"Do not be angry." Justin said offering a placating smile, "It is difficult for you not to be, but this may be for the best." Roderic's mouth went slack at this.
"How can you say such things?" He asked, "Your life ..."
"Was one of pride and arrogance," Justin said using both research and an educated guess for this, "Perhaps not remembering all the details is a blessing?"
Roderic leaned back in his seat and allowed his eyes to drift back towards the window. The castle was drawing closer, no doubt they would arrive in a few minutes. Justin knew he was right. While he didn't know Kiran Kitra's memory, he knew of the lifestyle that he led. While the universe was expansive, full of various life forms, civilizations, cultures, and religions, there was one constant that even his home planet possessed: gossip entertainment. The galaxy's fascination with the Kitran Empire wasn't too dissimilar to the Royal family back on Earth. In fact almost all of the Royal lines throughout the cosmos were watched and documented for all planets to see. It didn't take long for Ally to pull up information about Kiran so that Justin could have some background of his identity. It turned out that Kiran was more Kardashian than Prince William. Partying, drugs, though cliché, were clear vices for him and no doubt why his family thought he disappeared in the first place. It was a perfect cover for his absence.
The Skip landed on one of the Skip pads in the rear of the castle's courtyard near the Military barracks. There were four other Skips, two were being worked on while the others were prepped for launch at a moment's notice. While they landed, Justin saw a large group of people standing in the courtyard. Most were military, armed with rifles and small ion cannons, as well as those that he could only assume were butlers and maids. They wore similar uniforms as Roderic, save for the medals, and stood in rapt attention. The remaining people were those that were no doubt Kiran's family.
A young woman stood with her hands folded, a turquoise gown flowing in the breeze. The long golden locks were pulled back behind her ears, falling down her shoulders like cascading water, with a small tiara placed delicately on her head. Behind her was no doubt her mother. Adorned in a ruby colored gown, fingers laced loosely at her front, her stern expression was well set and emotionless. Like Roderic it was clear she did not smile much. Beside her was a man, no doubt the king. His long hair was pulled back and braided into an exquisite ponytail, a large crown resting atop his head. He was a handsome man, even at his age of ninety years. According to Ally they Latyran’s aged more slowly than Humans so physiologically he was closer to fifty by Earth standards. The military coat he wore was similar to Roderic's but instead of red it was a dark blue with a subtle gold trim.
The door to the Skip slid open and immediately Justin was met with the fragrant scent of flowers on the wind. He would have never been able to place a name with the scent but the smell was light and actually very pleasant. There was a slight chill in the air which made him glad he grabbed his jacket before leaving. It wasn't anything like the royal garbs that Kiran's family wore. Instead it was often referred to as a Rutter Coat. Colloquially, a rutter was one who slept in squalor or filth; the homeless. Justin preferred the coat because it kept him warm and frankly it was comfortable.
The several guards that sat with them, exited the Skip first lining up outside of the door. Before leaving, Roderic offered Justin one more smile, no doubt the last that he would ever see, before stepping out to join the others. Through the window he saw the young woman run toward him, ignoring all of the decorum that was often associated with Royalty on any planet.
"Is he in there?" The woman cried. Roderic simply raised a hand to stop her.
"My Queen Chiara, my King Tolomay, Lady Sunara, I present to you Kiran Kitra." Roderic gestured for Justin to exit as if this had been a rehearsed action. If not for the fact that he had seen this sort of thing a million times in movies, he would have been at a complete loss. Fortunately, improvisation was something he was well versed with, especially since he had been kicking around the cosmos for several years. With a deep breath, Justin stepped out of the Skip and met the gaze of Kiran's family. The woman, Sunara, immediately ran to him, closing the distance in seconds. Stopping mere inches from him, she grabbed his hands with hers. Bowing deeply, she brought them to her cheek where he felt the wetness of fallen tears.
"Key-na." She cried as her voice broke. Though subtle, her sobs did not go unnoticed. The light tremble of each one caused her body to rock slightly.
"Hello Sunara, it's good to see you again." Justin said with a tender smile. Internally he was filtering through her memory scanning for any definition for Key-na. The closest was that of an animal similar to a dog called a Tey-na.
Sunara straightened up and smiled at him but her gaze seemed to linger for a moment or two longer than he was comfortable with before letting go and stepping aside. Queen Chiara approached him, expression remaining stoic. She offered her hand, a large jeweled ring on her ring finger. Taking a cue from Sunara, Justin bowed taking it into his own and pressing it against his cheek.
"Mother." He said.
"Kiran," She said, her voice low but possessing much strength, "It has been far too long since you last graced us with your presence." Justin rose, releasing her hand.
"I beg your forgiveness, a great deal has occurred since my departure." He said. It wasn't until this moment he realized just how difficult it was to speak formally. Even when he was at work speaking with managers and colleagues there was a level of decorum but this sort of stringent primness was surprisingly taxing.
Stepping next to the queen, was the king, Tolomay. He held his held out his hand as well and again Justin bowed and took the king's hand but this exchange was short lived. The moment Justin pressed his cheek against his hand, he could feel the muscles tense and he released it. The king, expressionless looked down at Justin. He didn't realize until that moment just how tall the king was. Justin was just over six feet but Tolomay had to be pushing seven. His frame was slender, lacking the bulk of his armor wearing peers. Justin didn't understand just how muscular he become until he compared his stature with that of the Latyrans around him.
"Fa..." Justin started but Tolomay cut him off as if anticipating this.
"Kiran, you would do well to explain yourself." The king said, his green eyes never wavering. Unlike Roderic, Sunara, and even Chiara, there was a definite coldness in this man’s voice. It wasn’t indifference but instead spite, perhaps even hatred.
"Please, father." Sunara said, but a simple sideways glance stayed her tongue.
"Listen to your father, Kiran." Chiara told him. Justin swallowed hard, hearing only a clicking in his throat. Though remaining calm, his heart continued to race into triple digits as evidenced by the digital read out in his optical display.
"Forgive me, father, mother," He started calmly. He offered a bow, "But... my memory has been... affected by something that had occurred while I was away."
"While you were away?" Tolomay barked, "You stole four million credits from our kingdom, hijacked an interstellar cruiser and disappeared for over 10 years! How can you say that you were just away?" His voice was raised, loud, but never shouting. He was furious, his face flush but he never shouted.
Listening to this, Justin realized he underestimated Kiran's behavior. It was one thing to squander your wealth it was another to steal it entirely, not to mention theft of property. An interstellar cruiser was not cheap, even by royalty standards. It was easily a million credits for a standard model. While it would be simple guesswork, it would be safe to assume the one he stole had to be at least ten million—and that was lowballing.
"Forgive me father," Justin said, offering deference, "I do not remember my transgressions against you, mother, or Sunara." He met their eyes as he spoke but paused when coming to Sunara. While she did not seem offended or angry, he noted that again she seemed to stare at him as one would a familiar face but unsure of one's name.
"Perhaps, my king, this should be best discussed in private." Chiara noted. Tolomay looked at her and nodded. With a wave of his hand the soldiers, maids and butlers departed to continue their respective duties. Justin glanced back at Roderic who said nothing as they briefly stared at one another. In truth he wished Kiran was there with them. Roderic must have been close to him at one point and there was no pleasure in tricking him like that, but Justin had little choice.
"Follow." Tolomay said sharply before turning. Chiara moved with her husband leaving Sunara and Justin alone. Sunara moved next to him, taking his arm.
"Come along, Key-na." She said with a smile.
Pulling him she led him through the massive courtyard. As they walked Justin took in his surroundings. The courtyard was lined with massive walls that rose at least forty feet high, taller than even his largest Mech. The far end of the yard, where Roderic and the other guards were approaching led to a large building where two more guards were at attention. For a brief instant he was curious as to how so many guards could cram into one building but quickly realized there must be a structure below it, a bunker.
Sunara guided Justin into the castle and he was stunned by what he saw. The high walls and ceiling gave it a cavernous feeling but all of the paintings and sculptures that filled the walls, helped close the area in. Light emitters were spaced every dozen feet or so filling the hallway with a brilliant light. The history of the Kitran Empire was evident all around him. There was a statue carved from some orange stone of Roloth Kirta, the fourth king of the Empire who appeared strong and able, save for the missing arm. Hanging on a wall was a portrait of Lady Mara Kitra, the eighth queen whose beauty only rivaled the dawning sun. He saw more than one sword mounted with plaques indicating their previous owners as well as maces, guns and even something that looked like a fork.
Justin was led into an enormous library, or at least that was what he thought it was. Rather than books, the shelves were filled with digital tablets. There had to be well over one hundred thousand in just the space that he could see. A large fireplace was at the back of the room, an elaborate chandelier floating overhead. Near the fireplace were two soft looking sofas, the upholstery a velvety red. Chiara took a seat on one, posture straight and proper. Next to her stood Tolomay with his arms at his side but that same hateful expression on his face. Sunara guided Justin to the sofa opposite them. Tolomay glanced back at the doors where there were two butlers standing. Justin watched as they stepped out the room and closed the doors with a light slam.
He had only been looking away for a moment before there was a sudden force causing his head to snap to the side. A sharp pain cut through his face that was followed by a quick and lingering burn. Justin screamed from both shock and pain. His hand shot up to his cheek, feeling a light bump where one shouldn’t have been but once more he was struck, this time on the other side of his head. The pain was worse, this time the pain more focused as if instead of being slapped on the cheek he was punched in the mouth.
Justin rolled to the floor away from the sofa, before finding his feet. This was entirely reflexive, his instinct to put distance between him and his attacker. Jumping he saw Tolomay's balled fist, a large ring standing out upon that small hand. Licking his lips, he detected a light taste of copper on his tongue. Tolomay had struck him not once but twice, punching him the second time. A brief flash of information came up in his optic sensor indicating an injury. Most of the messages often went ignored but by default they were triggered in unfamiliar environments for fear of foreign microbes that perhaps even his nano-machines couldn't combat.
"What..." Justin started but Tolomay came at him again. With a broad sweep of his arm, he caught Justin in the face with the back of his hand. He was ready this time, his head not snapping as hard as before and it took every ounce of control he had not to fight back. The ring met his flesh and once more there was a message indicating an open wound on his face.
"Stay your tongue, couja!" Tolomay screamed. "You have single handled dishonored our entire family, our entire empire!"
"Father, please," Sunara cried but Chiara was on her feet in a breath.
"Mind your father, Suri." She said. She didn't speak with such fury as her husband but Justin could sense her own anger. Sunara immediately fell silent, her eyes cast downwards towards the floor.
"Father, please forgive..." Justin started, but Tolomay cut his words short as he wrapped his slender arms around his neck. At the same time a warning flashed up on the ocular HUD indicating a decrease in Oxygen concentration in his blood.
It was at this point Justin had two options. The first was either let this man choke his son until either he died or passed out, or fight back. While he knew this would be foolish given the precarious state he had found himself in, it was too dangerous to let this man potentially kill him. He would have to think quickly about what to do next but for now, there was little choice.
Throwing his arms up, in between the gap of Tolomay’s arms, he threw them outward with as much force as he could muster. Tolomay was slender and his grip was easily broken. Within that same moment Justin brought his arms back in and threw them forward connecting with Tolomay's chest. Air rushed into his lungs as he took a deep breath. Tolomay fell to the floor with a heavy thud.
"What... what ... was... that?" Justin asked coughing after each word. He stared at Tolomay who shot daggers at him from his place on the floor. Chiara and Sunara watched this tableau in stunned silence.
"How dare you, you insolent couja." Tolomay growled as he climbed to his feet. "How dare you even lay a finger on me? I am your king, you are to obey me!"
"And you're also a father." Justin shouted, "A father is supposed to care for his child, not lord over him like some tyrant."
"Kiran..." Chiara started but this time it was he who silenced her.
"No," He said perhaps more sharply than he intended. She had not tried to harm him but certainly she did nothing to stop it either. "This is not how a family is supposed to behave. You don't try to kill each other."
"I will do as I wish." Tolomay said, taking a fist full of Justin's shirt. "You are merely a convenience, child. The crown must be passed down to another male of the Kiran name but that does not mean it has to pass down to you. Do not think that you are irreplaceable because you are. We can usher another son and perhaps that one will be far more congenial. Take heed in that."
He threw Justin back, releasing him. He stumbled back slightly but easily caught himself. Tolomay's glare burned with such hatred that he couldn't help but wonder where all of this antagonism came from. There was something that was under all of this, something that spurred a worry within him that took root in his heart. For now he had to play his part and wait for his chance to escape. Tolomay didn't have him arrested or executed so he could take a small bit of comfort in that.
"Chiara, come. We leave this ... touga to lick his wounds." Tolomay said. This time it was an order. He didn't wait for a response, instead choosing to storm out of the room. With her husband out of sight, Chiara simply stared at Justin for a moment. In that brief instant, he saw a profound sadness in her eyes. The faint evidence of welling tears and lips turned slightly downward was enough proof that while Tolomay was furious, she was merely sad. Chiara offered a slight, mournful, bow before following after her husband.
Justin watched her leave and immediately thought of his own mother and the day he left for college. While he saw both pride and happiness in her eyes, there was an undercurrent of sadness. Her baby was all grown up, starting to take life into his own hands. That was what he had seen. Kiran was not the child that she once knew, instead he was gone. It was as the doors closed behind her, that Justin felt yet another punch and once more his head snapped to the side.
"Owe!" He shouted. He staggered slightly, moving backwards to make space between him and his attacker.
"Who are you?" The voice cried. He looked up to see Sunara staring at him. Fists clenched, jaw set, Sunara appeared at moment more fighter than princess.
"What?" Justin asked. "What are you talking about Sura?"
"Shi-yo." She shouted. "Kiran calls me Shi-yo." Once more he sifted through his memory and the closest translation to that word was Chi-yo which meant cat. As the pieces of this word puzzle fell into place Justin understood something that only Kiran and Sunara knew.
"Nicknames." Justin sighed, "You have nicknames for each other. Well… tits."
"Exactly," Sunara hissed, "Now I ask you again, who are you and what did you do to my brother?" She raised her fists, taking a solid fighting stance. It seemed that there was far more to this girl than he thought. The Latyran martial arts specialized in quick fast blows. Latyrans weren't as strong as many but they were fast and could move at astounding speed.
"Alright before you start beating me up, can you please let me explain?" Justin asked. Sunara said nothing but she also didn't attack him which he took as permission to speak. "Okay I'm not Kiran Kitra and before you get all punchy I don't know where he is, honest. My name is Justin Kennedy and I'm from a planet very far from here ... or close ... it's kind of complicated."
"You had best uncomplicated the matter then." Sunara ordered.
"Okay, long story short, I am from a planet in an area you call the Outlands. I was abducted, experimented on and then left for dead after the crew of the ship all died from an unforeseen outbreak they picked up from my home and I've been trying to figure out how to get back ever since." Justin explained as quickly but as clearly as possible.
"If that were true, why do you resemble my brother?" Sunara asked.
"Because our DNA is identical, a statistical improbability, at least on my planet, and so since your environment is similar to my own we developed essentially identical, minus the thirty pounds of muscle mass and that my original eyes were brown and not green."
"You're original eyes?" She asked. Her posture slacked slightly, as if she were become more comfortable with him being with her even though he wasn't who she thought he was.
"These are optical implants created by some Diosian researchers." Justin said.
"Diosian Researchers? From Corsa in the Ferrus system?"
"Sounds about right."
"They are not permitted to venture into the Outlands let alone abduct an uncultured."
"I'm going to go ahead and ignore that last part and agree with you." Justin muttered flatly. "Anyway, I needed an identity that didn’t raise too many suspicions and so Ally located one for Kiran Kitra."
"Ally?" She asked. The anger and fear that once laced her words had given way to curiosity. Justin reached into his pocket and removed a small disk the size of a quarter. With a flick of his thumb the disc flipped into the air but rather than fall back to the floor if floated and spun faster and faster as a light began to emanate from the disk. Within a few seconds a hologram of an orb appeared.
"Say hi Ally." Justin said.
"T'ch Kun alah." She said. Justin recognized it as an ancient Latyran greeting that loosely translated to: May the gods bless and shine upon you.
"You are an Artificial Intelligence." Sunara stated more as fact than question, "But they are outlawed by Alliance and Federation doctrine. My grandfather was a part of the council that banned them."
"Well if you haven't guessed, the Diosian Research Company doesn't really care much about laws. Hence the mods." Justin said with a wave of his hands.
Sunara's gaze shifted from him to Ally. He knew that she probably still didn't trust him. After all he looked exactly like her brother and was even impersonating him. She had no reason to believe him but given her posture, the questions she asked, there was a hint of trust within her. It was minimal but present.
"Let us assume that I believe you, why are you here?" Sunara asked, "We received word from Roderic that your identity had been pinged by the Alliance as they were attempting to evacuate a space station that was under pirate attack."
"Yeah, that was kinda my fault." Justin noted, almost sheepishly, "I might have crossed the Aynoran pirates by... well, killing most of them and so the surviving pirate king sort of vowed to murder me."
"You eliminated the pirate kings Cono, Tiore, Shilna, and Joda?" Sunara asked with obvious surprise.
"And L'tra, and yes ... with some help from a few friends of mine." Justin admitted. The battle could never had gone his way without the Shining Stars by his side. Though their army was small they were fierce, especially with the weapon upgrades that he could offer them. "They were tired of being attacked and decided to strike back. I just happened to help."
"The Alliance and the Federation had been broadcasting such praise to the Shining Stars but none of them have ever mentioned you. They simply mentioned a man by the name of Koe who played a small, yet integral part in the fight." Justin grimaced as he heard this. His part was anything but small. He was the one who took on all the kings at once as well as their army. The Shining Stars merely kept the others distracted. Despite this obvious omission from the official report he simply shrugged.
"Dornin Koe is an alias ... well, another alias anyway."
"So you are not simply just vagabond. You are a hero, a solider." Sunara said. Again Justin shrugged.
"I am what I need to be. And right now I'm just a guy who wants to go home to his wife and son."
"You have a child?"
"Yeah." He told her but as the memory returned, a pang of sadness struck him. Instantly every memory of his life back on Earth, the years he had spent with his wife, the anticipation of his child being flashed through his mind. He knew that his son was growing up without him. Missing his first footsteps, his first words, everything was slipping through his fingers as time continued to pass and he was no closer to getting home than he was two years ago. "I have a son whom I have never held. I was abducted before he was born and I have spent years trying to get back."
"You have my sympathy." She said with a slight bow. By the look in her eyes he could tell she knew she struck a nerve. It was unintentional as there was no way she could have known about his life before arriving Verus. A moment of silence fell over them but fortunately it passed quickly. At the same time however, a smile pulled across her face. It held both curiosity and mischief. Seeing this, Justin realized it was exactly like the one he often wore before coming across an abandoned hauler or obtaining a new star chart. It meant that there was a chance of finding something valuable, the hope of discovering something new, or discovering the way home. “However I believe that you and I may be able to help one another.”
“How so?” Justin asked, still staring at her. The telling smile, though familiar left him feeling uneasy as well. For a woman who just discovered that the man who had returned wasn’t the one she was expecting seemed far too happy.
“What if I could help you narrow down your search, if not help you find your home outright?” She said.
“I would say you’re blowing smoke up my ass.” He said. Her eyes narrowed slightly, as the colloquialism didn’t quite translate. “It’s… a saying back home.” He told her. She nodded slightly, but understood this phrase was far from proper. “Anyway, what are you talking about?”
“We possess a great deal of information about surrounding galaxies including nearby Outland zones,” She explained, “If you help me I can allow you access to that information. You may be able to find your home planet or in the very least eliminate places to help you focus your search elsewhere.”
“You would let me do that?” Justin asked. While there was a large cloud of doubt floating over him, the slight light of hope was breaking through, though only just. Of course there was more to this than he knew. The star charts of the Outlands were closely monitored by the Alliance and the Federation to ensure that no one interfered with developing planets, be it providing advanced tech or kidnapping them for one reason or another.
“Of course!” Sunara said enthusiastically.
“That information is closely guarded. How would you be able to get it?” Justin asked. Sunara postured slightly and this was enough proof to validate his very real fear that there was more to this than she initially let on.
“I do not have that sort of authorization.” She admitted, “But f… Roderic does.”
With this, ideas began to swirl throughout Justin’s mind. Roderic, the man who thought that he was Kiran, was the only one they knew that could give him access to zones that the government deemed off limits. There was no way that this information would be given to him just because the old solider was feeling magnanimous. Roderic, if he didn’t kill him outright, would certainly kick the shit out of him for lying and toying with the obvious feelings the man had for Kiran. As Justin considered this, there was something else that caught his attention. Sunara stumbled on Roderic’s name. If Kiran had been close to him, it was possible that she too had that same relationship and so there was no reason to stumble unless she was hiding something. However, rather than pull at the thread, he put a pin in it.
“Alright, so let’s say that Roderic is able to get this info, what do you want in exchange?” Justin asked. Once more that smile returned, solidifying his concern.
“You will help me find Kiran, or at the very least discover what happened to him.” She said. Hearing this, never before did Justin feel more distant from home than ever. Earth was immediately a pipe dream, an idea born from a fevered haze.
“You can’t be serious?” Justin asked. He didn’t intend to sound so incredulous but her request seemed impossible. Sunara said nothing as she continued to stare at him. “I don’t mean to sound callous but Kiran disappeared over 10 years ago. That trail is ice cold.”
“As I said,” Sunara said folding her hands together, “If you help me I will provide you the charts you seek. If you are unwilling to assist, I will not share my discovery of your identity with my father or mother, but I cannot assist you in your departure from my kingdom.”
Justin sighed, rubbing face. He knew she was right and that leaving would be impossible without revealing that he wasn’t Kiran. Tolomay, as furious as he was, would not allow him to leave without good reason, if at all. It seemed Tolomay had his reason for wanting Kiran home. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have sent Roderic to fetch him. Clearly his desire for Kiran was not one out of love. He couldn’t risk sending for a suit because that too would reveal his secret. And while Sunara may not know her father’s intentions for Kiran, it was clear that she was the only one who could, and would help. It would just involve spending the rest of his life search for someone who could be floating in the void of space or sucked into a black hole.
“Well, shit.” Justin spat in English. The crude outburst did not faze Sunara, as she didn’t understand the term. Careful to speak in Latyran once more, he continued, “Okay, your highness, you have a deal. If you help me I will help you.” With that Sunara’s smile widened and for a moment he thought she was about to hug him. Instead though she simply bowed, wide and long.
“Thank you.” She said, righting herself, “Now…” Her words were cut short as a voice called from the doorway of the library. Justin and Sunara turned to see four guards approaching them. They were armed with Pulse rifles, carrying them as if there was possibility of battle.
“Lady Sunara, Lord Kiran, you attendance is requested in the throne room.” A soldier said.
“By whose request?” Sunara asked.
“By King Tolomay.” The soldier added. “The Arbiter has arrived.”
It was with this word, Justin realized that something was happening within that palace. While he didn’t know all of the rules or the decorum, gleaming only bits and pieces but he knew things were getting serious if for no other reason than by the expression on Sunara’s face. The once beaming and joyous smile had been wiped away by fear. She brought her hand to her mouth as tears began to brim within her eyes. As a silence fell over the room, Ally transmitted a message directly into Jacob’s cochlear implant. The digital representation continued to float, remain silent but speaking with him in private. She knew he could not respond but she needed to address any questions that he may have.
“Sir, there is something you needed to know,” Ally said, “Unlike the term Arbiter in your language which refers to a mediator, the Latyran translation means tormentor. The Arbiter is only called in when there has been a grave injustice has been committed. Often the accused, whether evidence is introduce to the contrary, is found guilty and put to death… after a time.”
As Ally spoke, Justin found that his throat had run dry. Once more an alert appeared on his ocular HUD indicating an increased heartbeat. The cool, collected exterior he had worn since his arrival was cracking and for the first time he was finally showing real fear as his body began to tremble. What Ally didn’t know was that he already knew about the Arbiter, hearing about this man through several of his contacts in both the Alliance and the black market. The stories he heard were more than enough to keep him at a distance. If the Arbiter was in one quadrant, he went the other. The last thing he ever wanted was to cross this him.
“I order you to explain why the Arbiter has arrived.” Sunara ordered, snapping Justin from his daze. The guard appeared uncomfortable as if his uniform had grown too tight. Justin noticed a worried gaze shift from one guard to the other but only the one guard spoke.
“The Arbiter has arrived for Kiran Kitra.” The guard said, “It is by order of King Tolomay, by Royal Decree, that we are to place Kiran Kitra of the Kitran Empire under arrest for the attack of Shia’ara Lodan of the Rohan Kingdom.”
“Wait what?” Justin shouted.
“You cannot do this! My brother is innocent!” Sunara shouted, but the guard said nothing as the four soldiers brought their rifles up, aiming them at Justin. Taken by both surprise and fear, Justin said nothing. He simply raised his hands into the air.
Justin Kennedy had been through much during his time in space. Since he awoke from Cryostatis, through the fights and wars he had been a part of, in spite of the enemies he has made, he never felt afraid. Perhaps it was due to his implants and weapons at his disposal or maybe it was just his humanity and need to survive that kept him moving. Whatever the case, he handled himself very well, remaining calm in the worst of case. But for the first time in years he felt truly afraid. For the first time he believed that there was no going home. He was going to die not by the cold darkness of space or by the hand of a pirate or mercenary. Justin Kennedy was going to be killed by a man that brought fear to even the Aynoran pirates. He was going to be killed by the Arbiter.