Rafe looked up, slightly surprised at seeing his sister entering med-deck at a rushed pace. Again.
„Taking a break from negotiating?" he asked. „Comes sooner than I had anticipated. How did it go?"
"We're leaving. I'm prepping the Maru for take-off, see to it that Dylan is safe, please," his sister answered crisply.
Her brother threw her a curious look.
"She agreed to let us go? Just like that?"
"Not quite. She won't budge on her demands."
Something was amiss, Raphael Valentine could feel it in his bones. The way Beka avoided looking at him, busying herself with some more futile checks on Dylan's vitals, that were as unchanged as before: Something was amiss big time.
"But… if she refuses to give in, what are you gonna do? Go for a jump start?" he insisted.
"No," the blonde replied, her tone drying up even more, "that would be too risky for everyone, especially Dylan."
"However, if we go for some sneak-out routine and they find us out, things will not be any less dangerous, don't you agree?"
"I do, but… we'll have protection."
"Beka, look," Rafe started anew, his impatience beginning to show in the slight strain his voice was displaying, "I really would appreciate a couple of more details on why and how you're gonna once more risk all our lives for Dylan."
"Like I said," the Maru's captain retorted, finally looking at her brother, "we have protection."
"Like I said: care to elaborate?"
"Uxulta will be coming along with us," Beka finally offered.
"Because I say so!"
Beka Valentine finally left the monitoring devices alone, once more having approached Dylan's outstretched form, once more watching him with the same strange, forlorn intensity she always displayed around him. Judging from her posture, it seemed that the still figure in front of her was the only thing mattering in the whole universe. Even so, after a while she couldn't help noticing the deafening silence surrounding her. Unwillingly, she tore her eyes away from Dylan, searching for her brother.
He was staring at her, blankly, a void expression on his face. Her eyebrows rose, questioning. "What?"
The tall man shook his head like someone trying to rid himself of cobwebs, passing a hand tiredly over his face.
"I… I'm sorry. I must be even more exhausted than I thought. I'm… I'm obviously hallucinating. For a split second I thought I heard you tell me that we're abducting the Vedran empress…" he finally ventured.
Rebekkah Valentine shrugged her shoulders, in a half dismissing, half apologetic gesture. As silence grew once more between them, she could see incredulity spilling out of her brother's eyes, dispersing itself all over his features.
"We are abducting the Vedran empress? And that's supposed to protect us? Have you completely lost your mind?"
"Yes. Yes. And no. According to Dylan, Vedrans are a predominantly male population, with very few females that are therefore protected at all cost. They never sacrifice them, not even the ones of lesser standing. And Uxulta… Judging from our previous experiences with her, I think it's safe to assume that she is herself not too keen on sacrificing anyone from her own precious clan, let alone her even more precious person," Beka answered in a more forthcoming manner.
"If I recall some of your former stories correctly, according to Dylan the Vedrans were rather perfect, and the universe is populated mostly by nice people with rather good intentions. Beka, we've both known Dylan to be wrong before."
"I know, Rafe. I know. But I have no choice. She is adamantly insisting on getting mother and Dylan," the woman pleaded, "and that's no option. No option at all!"
"I don't know," Raphael Valentine angrily spat at her. "Think of something. We're in this mess because of you. Figure it out!"
"Oh really? You know what? We're in this mess because you led me into the trap Jonah and Paul had prepared for me… Had it not been for you, Dylan and I would right now be both onboard the Andromeda, going about our daily business, running the ship, or having dinner together and looking forward to a nice game of Go," Beka sharply responded to his accusation.
For a moment, brother and sister kept staring at each other, anger, resentment and fury written all over both of their faces. But then, Rafe dropped his gazed, pressing his lips together. He silently, almost imperceptibly nodded his head. And then he stepped closer, forcing his sister into a fierce embrace. At first, she resisted him, but then reluctantly relaxed in his arms, resting her forehead against his shoulder. As he tenderly pressed a hand against the back of her head, Rafe's eyes came to rest with sadness on Dylan's pale features, and he once more nodded to himself.
"Beka," he took her face into both of his hands, forcing her to look at him, "I need a couple of moments to myself. Can you stay with Dylan?" he asked, brushing away a loose strand of hair from her forehead.
She nodded affirmatively.
"Yes, of course. I could use a bit of time with…" She interrupted herself, then sighed. "I can use a couple of minutes on my own, as well. But don't be too long-"
"I won't, don't worry. I'll be right back."
His hand hesitated for a split second before touching the panel opening the hangar deck, where Doyle waited for him, arms crossed on her chest, her back towards the doors, not leaving Uxulta out of her sight for a single moment. He had informed her of his coming, counting himself lucky that she had not checked back with his sister. Apparently, the information that Beka wanted a bit of time alone with Dylan was believable enough at any given instant.
"Raphael," she greeted him with a slight nod.
"Hey, Doyle," he answered absent-mindedly, staring wide-eyed at the creature in front of him, about 10 meters away into the hall.
"So, have you managed to talk some sense into Beka?"
The question brought him out of his marveling reverie. "Ah, what?..." he replied, barely able to look away from Uxulta.
"Beka? Sense?" Doyle repeated impatiently.
"Oh… No…" Rafe admitted, his eyes once more fixed on the Vedran, who was by now approaching them. He softly cleared his throat, then continued: "That's hopeless when it comes to Dylan. But maybe I can talk some sense into her…"
By now Uxulta had closed the distance to the two of them. She mustered Raphael Valentine from head to toe.
"It's rude to stare," she finally addressed him.
"Ah… Eh, yes… Forgive me, you are my first blue Centaur…" He shook his head with a smile. "From where I come from, I am speaking to a myth."
"While I'd be speaking to…?"
"Oh, yes… Forgive me," he apologized anew. "I'm Raphael Valentine, Captain Valentine's brother," he introduced himself with a small nod.
The already small eyes in the blue face grew even smaller.
"I see," Uxulta said. "And… you're here just to satisfy your historical curiosity or do you intend to plead with me for your mother's life?"
"Why would I do that? Do you plan to kill her?"
"I plan to make her stand trial. Depending on how that goes, she may even face maximum punishment. Vedran law foresees capital punishment for high treason."
"I understand. How… very advanced of you."
"Ts… Don't be too judgmental, Mr. Valentine."
"Why not? Isn't that what you are?"
"Is this about Thalia van Oudekerk or Dylan Hunt?"
"I don't know. Both, I suppose…"
"Look, Mr. Valentine, as I already explained to your sister, your mother is a wanted criminal. And Dylan Hunt is…"
"I know," Rafe cut in on Uxulta, "Beka told me that you referred to him as an anachronism. But you see, whatever my mother did or didn't do: She chose to act the way she did. Dylan though… Dylan couldn't help it. He didn't choose to drop out of his life and time."
For a moment, Uxulta weighed the man in front of her, at least, it seemed like she was doing that. What exactly her face displayed, Rafe couldn't really tell. She sighed.
"Your sister misunderstood. He is not an anachronism because he dropped out of his time and woke up 303 years later. What I meant is that… the – how should I put it? The age of heroes, Mr. Valentine, is over. Heroes have always been a problem for all civilizations…"
"Unless they were an inspiration…"
"Whenever that happened, it turned out that they were inspirational for all the wrong reasons. Regardless, in this age and time they most definitely are nothing but a nuisance."
"Why?" Doyle suddenly cut in.
"Because they end competition."
"What, you mean like the Andromeda's crew did on Seefra? I hate to bring it to you, but the only competition they ended there was the entire system's race to the bottom," the avatar remarked, bitterness evident in her voice.
The Vedran just looked at her, refusing a reply. When nothing else came, Raphael Valentine cocked his head to a side, a knowing look slowly spreading on his features.
"Oh…" he nodded, his eyes weighing the four-legged female in front of him. "Oh, I see. So that was the plan, eh? You drop out of the race the rest of the Known Worlds is engaged in, bid your time, then come back when all is said and done. My mother obviously started early in double-crossing your schemes by introducing stolen Vedran technologies to the Three Galaxies caught up in full decline mode. And then, years, decades or maybe even centuries later along came Dylan, who for very different reasons double-crossed you, too. So now you want to neutralize further leaks from her and take him out for good. How am I doing so far?"
"Pretty good," Uxulta admitted.
With a glance to the side, Rafe threw Doyle one of the typically cocky, trade-mark Valentine grins, but then quickly focused his attention back on the Vedran.
"Yeah, I thought so. The Maru's arrival in your system must have looked like a gift from Heaven, literally."
"Indeed," she agreed with him.
"Well," Rafe shook his head lightly in mock regret, "when gifts from Heaven seem too good to be true, that's often because they are. You see, there is a catch here, Your Highness: In life, one can never have it all."
Uxulta's eyebrows went up.
"But one can have some…?" Her voice trailed off and lost itself in a question mark, uncharacteristically as Rafe presumed. He nodded:
"…Some goals achieved, even if not all of them," he confirmed.
"Somewhere between the lines I sense a proposal coming my way, Mr. Valentine," the empress remarked dryly.
"You're right. To have your continuing existence confirmed first hand by dragging you to Commonwealth space… I suspect that this would represent one more major blow to your plans."
Rafe paused, looking at Uxulta expectantly.
"Is this a question?" the former admiral asked.
"More like a statement," the man admitted. "I could stop though, should the statement be wrong."
"Continue," the Vedran urged him on.
"Well," Rafe drawled, "I therefore suppose that you may be quite interested in not being dragged along…"
"Your sister may try, but I'll doubt she'll succeed."
"Between the two of us, so do I. Nevertheless, I've seen Beka pull off a great many things I doubted to be feasible at all, let alone by a Valentine. And yet pull them off she did. Still, I'd much prefer to see you safely back with your people – and since I furthermore suspect that it may prove difficult for you to go back to them empty-handed, I would rather have you take Thalia of Oudekerk with you."
"And Captain Hunt?"
"He stays with us." He scrutinized her face as she was weighing her options, but his unfamiliarity with Vedran physiognomy provided a good cover for her thoughts. "Well, what do you say?" he then demanded to know after a while. After all, he knew damn' well that he was expected back in med-lab and rapidly running out of time.
"You surprise me," Uxulta finally told him.
"I get that a lot."
"Why would you do that?
"Do Vedrans play games?" he answered Uxulta's question with a question of his own, a razor-thin smile on his lips.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean games, like in Than-Kengst and Than-Jarood, like they play boules on Sinti or Go and Poker on Terra."
"Yes," Uxulta confirmed, "we play them all. In fact, we play even a lot more."
"Do you know chess?"
"Of course," the Vedran acknowledged.
"Well, there you have your answer. A perfect compromise for both of us: your side gets to keep their queen and get the runner you've been after. My side keeps…"
"Your queen and your knight," Uxulta interrupted Rafe, finishing the sentence for him. "A gambit for each one, slightly costly for both sides."
"Precisely," he nodded.
"One more question, though," Uxulta insisted: "Is your sister aware of the bargain you're offering?"
"It's me you're talking to, right?" Rafe answered rather straightforwardly.
"I understand," the Vedran nodded. "And you are sure that you'll be able to pull all of this off behind Captain Valentine's back?"
A dry, short laugh from the side distracted Rafe's attention from his main interlocutor.
"A very good question, Rafe," Doyle confirmed, cocking her head to the side while throwing a rather chilling look at the tall guy standing next to her. He shrugged towards her, though, dismissively.
"We'll have this talk later, Doyle," he admonished her in a low voice, his eyes returning towards the Empress. "Well?" he inquired, rather impaciently.
"If you let me go with your mother, how do you know I'll keep my word and let you depart, along with Captain Hunt?"
"I don't. You're staying with us until we're just one jump short of Commonwealth space…"
"Ah… Then how do I know you'll keep your word? After all, you're proposing to give up your mother…"
"Your Highness, look, I'm risking my neck here for my sister and her golden boy."
"It was you who got things started, Rafe," Doyle threw in, sounding slightly reproachful.
"Yeah, yeah, I know, put the blame of Rafe, story of my life. Still, over the last period of time I've already sacrificed a lot on the altar of family loyalty…"
"…And since your resources in that department are not limitless, you've decided to trade in your mother?"
"Well, you see, Doyle, she is herself overdue with some sacrifices on the family altar. Like I said, let's postpone this conversation between the two of us. Now, Uxulta, what's it gonna be? Do we have a deal?"
"We do," the Vedran accepted.
Rafe sighed imperceptibly.
"Good, Doyle, I go back to med-deck. See to it that Her Highness gets settled comfortably for the time being."
"Settled comfortably where?" the blonde demanded to know.
"The brig," he sharply replied. "Well separated from Thalia."
He found Beka standing next to Dylan, her hand buried in his hair while her thumb was gently stroking his forehead, reluctantly tearing his eyes away from him to greet her brother. He smiled at her.
"Hey, Rocket! How are you?" She shrugged.
"I'm glad you're back, we need to get going." She mustered him pensively. "You're looking better. I supposed you've come to terms with the situation?"
"Yep, so I have," Rafe confirmed. He stepped closer to the bio-bed, randomly checking the monitors above it, only to then pull Beka into a rather abrupt hug.
"Go on. Prep for launch. I'll see to Dylan," he murmured into her hair.
"Thanks," she replied, disengaging herself from his arms after planting a big, almost childlike kiss on his cheek. Raphael had to smile at that, his hand rubbing the spot her lips hat touched.
"Yikes," he playfully complained, "you and your wet kisses… It's an unfounded rumor that big brothers like that."
"Then maybe you shouldn't have suffered in silence for all those years," Beka teased. Turning away from him, she leaned over Dylan, her eyes softening even more while gazing into his pale face. Bowing her head until their foreheads touched, she gently placed a hand against one side of his face.
"You hang in there, tough guy, you hear me?" she whispered, her breath a soft quiver above his lips.
Her brother's hand came down on her shoulder, gently pulling her away. She let it happen, although her own hand was slow to leave Dylan's cheek.
"Take good care of him, will ya'?" she unnecessarily insisted one more time.
"I will," Rafe promised, letting go of her. She had reached the doors when he called her back.
She looked back at him and found him staring wide-eyed at her.
"You take good care of yourself!" he told her.
"Doyle, come in."
"How are you?"
"Fine," was the monosyllabic response.
"I trust she wasn't able to establish contact?"
"To her guys? No," was the somewhat enigmatic answer, but it was lost on Beka, who was still busy with last checks on the Maru.
"Great.," she offered absentmindedly. "Rafe's taking care of Dylan. The Vedran ships have fallen back a bit, they probably think the talks are going peachy for Uxulta."
"Probably," Doyle dryly confirmed.
"Anyway, I think I'll be able to break through their line fast enough and get us far enough to safely open a slipstream portal without endangering any of them. It may well be that the ones closest to us will follow us to slipstream, but… maybe we're lucky and lose them."
Unbeknownst to Beka, Doyle slightly rolled her eyes, Dylan's care to not endanger too many Nietzscheans on Myrmidon instantly coming back to her.
"So glad to hear that," was her only reply to Beka.
This time her captain didn't miss her tone.
"Happy to be of service," she answered with equal sarcasm. "Rafe?" she then continued, opening a new channel.
"You guys ready down there?"
"Good. Brace yourselves, people, it's gonna be quite the ride. Doyle, start the countdown."
Doyle looked up but briefly when the doors to the adjacent med-deck opened with a soft hiss, revealing a quite rushed Rafe.
"Okay," he started to talk as soon as he saw her, "you were right, the last ride brought us within just one more jump to Commonwealth space."
"Can you handle it on your own?"
The man's eyes closed to slits.
"Why?" he asked. "Do you think it's gonna take too long to get Beka up on her feet again?" He frowned when the Maru's avatar didn't answer him on the spot. "Doyle? What's wrong with Beka?" he inquired anew, sounding even more out of breath than before.
"She triggered flash-bots and in the end od-ed again during the last jump," she finally informed him, avoiding to look at him.
"Dammit," Rafe cursed under his breath, briefly closing his eyes in frustration. "How bad is she?"
"Bad," Doyle admitted, "although… I've seen her worse. Still, I'd rather keep her in coma while I'm washing the flash out of her system."
Rafe nodded slowly, his eyes finally coming to rest pensively on his sister's still form, laid out on the bio-bed between the two of them.
"What about Dylan?" The android's question shook him out of his reverie. The man sighed.
"He's… well, he too is a bit worse for wear."
"He can hardly afford that in his current state."
"I know, Doyle. Believe me, I know, but that's what happens…" His voice trailed off. It was no use finishing the sentence. They both knew that the past three jumps had been hellish. They had lost their Vedran escort already during the first one. By the second jump, Beka was already hanging in there by sheer stubbornness. She had collapsed as soon as she had managed to safely bring them out of the third one. At which point at least two of Dylan's wounds had restarted bleeding. Rafe Valentine had been busy since re-stabilizing the High Guard officer, which explained why he had only checked late on their current position and not at all on his sister.
He rubbed a tired hand across his face.
"Well, at least I can now send Uxulta and my mother on their way without having to start discussing things with Beka."
"You do realize, though," Doyle felt compelled to throw in, "that this is major insubordination."
"For you more than for me," Rafe replied with a grin. "How much trouble are you gonna get into for not stopping me?" he then wanted to know, becoming more serious.
"I'm the avatar of the Eureka Maru. This is a Commonwealth-, but not a High Guard-vessel, we're not on a High Guard mission, I'm Seefrane, we're not much used to rules and regulations and hierarchies and stuff…" She shrugged.
Rafe's smile reappeared, while he looked down on his sister.
"And Beka's still a pirate at heart…"
"Yes," Doyle agreed, "but pirates run their ships with a fist of iron."
"So you think that you will get into trouble with her…"
"You more than me," the android concluded.