Ilyana knew that he had seen. There was simply no time, and he had accepted her actions as the correct ones, but what to say?
James was belowdecks, tearing apart the infirmary for more supplies. Servos ground and popped in his arms, he was bleeding beneath the pressure pads, and his fingers were sparking. He knew these signs, but he pressed on anyway. He had felt the massive guns fire over and again, their target obviously the Sword above. A dark realization crossed him, and he sent Ssanyu as fast as she could move to Ilyana to make sure the satellite at reentry wouldn’t strike either the damaged ship or the men it was readying to deploy-there was simply too much material in the satellite for a single salvo to break up.
He continued to search the cabinets. Pockets were filling, his bag was overflowing. A second bag hung by the first, bandages poking out of the top. When he could carry no more, he returned to his task, while a familiar sound filtered down to him-a song of his own time, but his crew of men and women of this time knew it-with a few changes, to be sure, but that referenced something that never happened here, didn’t it? He filed it for later, and continued on. His wrists were going to give first, it seemed, but he didn’t alter a motion. Another crewmember tightened the rope holding his arms in place. He didn’t even see them do it, but he thanked them the best way he knew how-continuing his mission of mercy.
A memory assaulted him, come unbidden from the depths of his worst memories to taunt him. The Prince, Ilya and others he dimly remembered were gathered around a viewtable, discussing the import of what they were seeing.
“So you mean to tell me you designed this monstrosity?”
“Yes. What would you have me do, give them nuclear capability? At least this can be countered. Shall I hand them medium payload fission ordnance and say ‘careful, you’ll put your eye out?’”
“I thought you were trying to save lives, not take them! What the everloving hell were you thinking?”
“That if they didn’t nuke everything we saw, our people would at least be able to move in and help. I don’t see you taking any moves to cripple them.”
“I’m a doctor. A healer. I swear an oath not to take lives, remember?”
“I don’t have that handicap.”
“Brother, don’t be that way. James has a point. A real one. I thought you joined to derail their plans, not help them kill more. I don’t understand, either. How is this slowing them down?”
“Because their solution was to paint the area in low-yield nukes and install scrubbers on us.”
“And this is any better?”
“At least we have a better chance of surviving.”
“But this wasn’t about us, was it? I thought we were here to protect them, not us. We had our chance-we screwed it up, and haven’t we paid enough? We were supposed to prevent this from happening to our past, not keep trying to escape our fate.”
The Prince narrowed his eyes at James. His tone was enough to drop the temperature of the meeting a full twenty degrees. “I did this for a chance at survival. Some of us don’t see ourselves as the next great extinction event.” He turned to leave. “Your plan isn’t good enough. I decided on a better one.”
“And if you don’t abandon it, I can tell you one of my own. I’ll strike you down right here.”
“But you’re a doctor. You’re not supposed to take lives, remember? What would my sister think?”
Ilyana turned to her brother, and reached for him. “Brother, what were you thinking? This may not be their plan, but it isn’t ours either. We were supposed to protect lives, not invent new ways to take them. James wasn’t wrong. Instead of sabotaging transport mechanisms, you give the world one of the worst weapons it’s ever seen. You’re not helping, you’ve chosen a different way to destroy it. And that creature, the Basilisk-why? That creature must be in horrible torment, why would you do that to it? What have you become?”
“What is necessary. Survival of the fittest, and I plan to be the fittest.”
“Then I can’t stand by your side. You’ll do it without me.”
The Prince waved off her comment. “You’ll come to see it my way. At least we can start over when we go through. Imagine what wonders we could create!”
“Wonders like this artificial blood in our veins? The machines that keep us safe from the monsters we’ve made? The horror you helped create?”
“Horror nothing. We are the masters of creation-it’s high time we acted like it. Maybe we can get it right this time…” He stopped himself. He straightened his collar, gathered up his slates and turned to go. “It isn’t like there’s anything you can do to stop me.”
“I guess you’re right.” James stood, a resigned expression on his face. “We can’t change your mind, and with the brains of the group gone, we don’t stand much of a chance.”
“Precisely. Damocles is already completed and loaded. There was never anything you could do.” The Prince started for the door. When he reached it, a shower of sparks stopped him.
“I may not can stop Damocles, but I can stop you. And I will. I made a mistake involving you, and I’ll put it right. Your death will at least prevent you from making any more monstrosities.”
“I don’t think you can do it, James. Maybe with that pistol, with my back turned, but could you strike me down looking me in the eyes? I think you’re too weak, and I’m not going to give you the opportunity to shoot me in the back. You should have made your first shot count.”
James’ next shot never went off. The front half of his pistol fell to the floor, cut through with a blade hard as diamond and sharp to the molecule. His second pistol whipped free, its underside equipped with a blade the same as the one that just destroyed his sidearm. The Prince had the advantage of reach, his preferred weapon being a naginata, but James had the advantage of unfamiliar weaponry and superior speed.
“James, I never knew you had it in you! This is splendid, let’s settle all our disagreements this way! It’s so much more… final.”
His naginata danced in and out of view, as he warded the area he stood. James readied a charge, whirled, and fired from the pistol he bore. His feint worked, tearing a track across the Prince’s shoulder and neck. Water-clear blood flew, turning bright azure as it fell. It struck in an arc as the Prince closed anyway.
“Still better than you. If you expect to stop me, stop holding back.”
“I’m not holding back. A doctor can’t fix that wound. Give it a good look, since you flood your system with painkillers. You’ve got that damage forever. These bullets were made for this purpose-killing us.”
His words were true. Across the track of the bullet, blue aether crystals were forming, tearing into the flesh, puckering and ballooning. Even the blood on the floor was crystallizing. There was no way to treat the wound unless he could stop the process, and he’d have to figure it out first-meaning he was going to have to get away to find an antidote. Or whatever this was going to take to stop. He recognized that this was a real problem, and that he had miscalculated. But he was going to make sure that he paid for this.
“This is quite a toy you’ve come up with. I wonder how long it took you? It looks quite complex. I could do so much with this!”
“Yes, you can. You can die.” His pistol went off again, tearing a hole through the top of the Prince’s knee. “Can’t replace this with a machine. You need to be able to work with the nerves-and this will kill them as surely as burning them would. Have fun figuring it out. Assuming I don’t decide to stop crippling and kill you.”
His next shot would have been a kill, had the Prince not been so quick to plot the trajectory and preemptively dodge. Not far enough though, as the bullet tore through the muscle of his cheek, ripping a track along the skull to tear out through his scalp. Aether was already solidifying in the wound, his flattened left eye pushed from the ruin of its socket by the jagged crystals. They grew through the skin of his face, distorting his face into a ruined mess. The loss of his eye was too much, and his curiosity was replaced by fury.
“I hope your accounts are paid up, because whatever god you serve is going to see you very, very soon. Momentarily, in fact.”
“Do so, then. You’re already branded a traitor, kill me and let that chemical turn you into a pillar of rock salt.”
“I have other plans. Unfortunately, they mean I need you. But I need some way of keeping you in line.” He lunged for Ilyana. “Dear sister, I’m sure you will tell him that he needs to cooperate. Don’t you have something to tell him? Something important?” He braided his fingers into her hair. “Would you like to see what happens to her with this wondrous toy you’ve created? Or how about your child? But I see she hadn’t told you yet! I did this for that child, you fool-to buy you a world where that child can grow up free. Don’t you see this is our future? We have no chance here, we have to take somewhere new-why not our own past, changing the way it all goes? We could make a new golden age, where man’s limitless power saves him instead of condemns him. Why don’t you want that?” He was shaking Ilyana’s head so hard her hair was tearing up from her scalp, and a thin line of blood trickled down from her forehead. James lunged for her, his weapon temporarily forgotten. The Prince’s naginata sliced through both his arms at the elbow. James hit his knees. Two thrusts of the blade took them off further, to the shoulder, the heat of the blade searing the flesh shut as the blade passed.
“Physician, heal thyself.” The Prince’s laughter echoed through the room. He was still swinging Ilyana wildly, her attempts to escape futile against his enhanced grip. The blood flowed freely from her scalp. “So will you talk? What is this you’ve put in me? Or do they have to share it first?”
“Lot’s wife, don’t you know. Think, you’re so smart. I told you what you need to know. Let her go.”
“And what destroys the nerves?”
“I synthesized clove oil. Simple, effective, and all but forgotten. A healer’s hands know just as well how to kill, as you can feel. Well, until the oil is all used up. That’ll stop soon. The other process will only accelerate. If you want to survive this, you need to let her go and go find something to stop it. Besides, what can I do further to you?”
“True enough. Salts, then. A solution of seed crystals and clove oil? Ingenious. I didn’t know you had it in you. It’s too bad it took this to bring it out.”
“Oh, but it didn’t. These are loaded in racks, going through right now. Ready to deal with your friends. Against the more modified, it should be almost instantly lethal. You already have enough problems. She would have minor scarring. The child would be unharmed. I plan.”
The Prince pushed his sister toward James. “I told you, I did this for you. Too bad you weren’t worthy.” His foot snaked out, tripping her. He took a lurching step forward. “There’s no room for another coward like the two of you.” Ilyana knew what he was thinking. She mouthed a silent plea. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had spoken. His foot came up. He looked at her for the last time he would in life.
“Those who can do what is necessary must do it for those who cannot.”
His foot slammed into her solar plexus, her clenched muscles offering no real resistance to the force of his fury. It fell again and again, finally stopping when she lay in a widening pool of blood, barely conscious.
He tapped a window on one of his slates. “There’s been an accident. Send a few teams. Laboratory level, correct. I’ll be in my quarters, I want a team there as well. Full hazard gear. If you skimp, every man you send will die. I’ve found something extremely interesting.”