If you haven’t read the first chapter, do so here.
Otherwise, this is still pretty funny and we all need some funny right now.
“Ben,” my father intoned, “fought bravely.”
I squeezed his hand and he smiled wanly. He was propped up on pillows, in the bed where he’d been for some twelve hours now. He seemed comfortable, at least; I could’ve mistaken his setup for one at some spa, save for the beeping of machines. My father was in the recovery area, in the sickbay, and had been since he’d come out of surgery.
I squeezed his hand again, still surprised this wasn’t a dream. I kept expecting the old, worn flesh to evaporate as the world—the real world—rushed back in. But this nightmare, somehow, wouldn’t end.
“Ben,” I began, “had to—”
“Ben,” Ben cut in, “is still here.”
My boss, who also should’ve been dead, glared at us from the next bed over.
A nurse appeared to change his bandages.
“Yes,” my father agreed, his tone mild. “I was merely remarking that you did well.”
I wanted to punch him. He’d almost gotten us killed and, worse, he’d almost gotten himself killed! Visions danced in my head of, after using him like a speedbag, knocking his cot over and stomping on whatever was left. There was stupid, and there was causing an intergalactic incident stupid.
“No one’s draped all over my bedside.”
I lost it. “Because you’re an idiot!”
“Rowan, darling, he—”
“Your brain is as limp as these pillows!”
“Stop defending me, John!”
I sat back, crossing my arms. My father, we knew now, was sick. Back home, he wouldn’t have survived. As it was, he’d need medication for the rest of his life. And we didn’t have access to this kind, either. In the confusion, I knew, Ben thought my father had been shot. Which was why, rather than try to help him like a normal person, he’d decided to kill Cassius Falco.
Luckily, he’d failed.
I didn’t want to end the worst experience of my life being shot from an airlock, along with the rest of the surviving delegation.
“You need defending.” My father smiled.
I was about to tell Ben that if I hadn’t set the bar low enough, I could probably find him a shovel when Dr. Suvok appeared. He was the ship’s chief medical officer, and he moved like some necromancer had made a terrible mistake. Pretending as though he hadn’t heard a thing, he nodded in greeting and then began examining my father. He’d done this every hour, on the hour, now, for hours.
Leaning over and somehow not snapping in half, he listened to my father’s heart.
I shivered and readjusted Ben’s blazer around my shoulders. I’d borrowed it for one reason and one reason only, and that was being cold. Ben certainly wouldn’t be needing it back any time soon; he’d be lucky to be out of here within a week. His chest was a mass of bandages from where he’d been shot and he couldn’t even shift position without grimacing in pain.
I caught a whiff of Ben’s cologne and looked up, meeting his gaze.
Dr. Suvok straightened. “Mr. Fortescue.”
My father gestured. “Join me, in this magnificent nest.”
Whatever they’d given him for pain was starting to kick in.
Dr. Suvok found another chair, instead. “Mr. Fortescue,” he began again, “we must—”
“Like an eagle’s.”
“Discuss your diet,” he finished lamely.
Dr. Suvok was from a planet where no one had sex for fun and everyone was a vegetarian. I wondered if he ever smiled, or if the Kir’shara were even capable of expressing happiness at all. Was fun something that existed, on a planet ruled by logic?
Ben, behind him, had gone back to glaring at his applesauce.
At least he’d slept.
“You appear to be eating nothing but….” Dr. Suvok checked his notes, then checked them again. His eyes widened. “What,” he asked, pronouncing each word carefully, “is a chili cheese dog?”
My father smiled at me. “You should marry Ben.”
“Ben, again, is still here.”
“He’s a wonderful man and, as you can see, quite durable.”
Dr. Suvok rested his clipboard on his knees and looked pained.
I tried to ignore the fact that my face was now on fire. Ben might be young for his position, but he was still too old for me—and by a decade! He was in his thirties! Sure, he was attractive, but so were a lot of people who weren’t my boss and besides he treated me like a sister. I wasn’t sure that, outside of work, he even remembered I existed.
I dared a glance at him, and he looked like he’d swallowed a fork.
My actual sister appeared, and shoved me aside. “Dad!”
“Rowan! I was just telling your sister that—”
“John,” Ben cut in, “is on some serious drugs.”
Ignoring both Ben and Dr. Suvok, Rowan began lecturing my—our—father on his health. She was pretty convincing, for a high school dropout. She sounded like a doctor, herself. She was also taller, thinner, and more beautiful than I could ever hope to be. Fortunately for her, she knew this.
“Where,” I asked, “have you been?”
“Freshening up.” Leaning over, Rowan sniffed me. “Like you should’ve been.”
Dr. Suvok arched an eyebrow.
Yes, by keeping watch at my father’s bedside for the last twelve hours I’d freed up plenty of time for Rowan to beautify as much as she pleased. How wonderful! I’d have liked to smell of roses, too, instead of betadine and stale sweat. Ben, from his expression, looked like he agreed.
I was about to explain the concept of personal responsibility, and possibly lose my mind and start screaming uncontrollably while I threw things, when a footstep fell behind me.
Dr. Suvok stood. “Proconsul.”
Where Ben was warmth, and sunshine, Cassius Falco was night. Cool and secret, he moved with grace of a man used to holding a weapon. The temperature around us seemed to drop several degrees as he moved closer to my father—and Ben. Ben, who was here because of him.
I froze, breath caught in my throat.
He stopped. “Good morning.”
Rowan’s eyes widened.
My father, who was too tripped out to know who this was, smiled.
The proconsul’s arm was in a sling. At least Ben’s shot had landed. Unfortunately, though, his injury made our guest no less threatening. He’d donned a new uniform, one that hadn’t been shredded. He had a good tailor, which I hated that I’d noticed. Mostly, though, I couldn’t get over the fact that he was just standing here, perfectly calmly. This wasn’t some cocktail party!
I glared at him, willing him to get a clue.
He inclined his head. His manners, like everything else about him, were perfect. “Minister. I am pleased that we were able to prevent your death.”
He turned toward me. “Dr. Suvok is a subject of the empire.”
“Had you left him to the devices of what your people call physicians,” he snapped, “you’d be wrapping his shroud right now.” His eyes bored into mine. There was threat in his tone, but no emotion. My father’s death—and life—meant nothing to him and neither did mine.
I lowered my gaze, not wanting to make a bad situation worse.
My father, meanwhile, had found a button and was pressing it.
“Pleased, my ass.” Ben made a disgusted noise, and then winced. “You’re the reason his heart gave out in the first place! You tormented him until—”
My father held up a hand. “Let me fight my own battles.”
“You have a loyal son.” The proconsul’s tone was hard to read.
“Oh, he’s not my son.” My father turned to me. “Unfortunately.”
Cassius Falco looked back and forth between us, considering.
Why did everyone do that?
Apparently dismissing my father’s revelation, the proconsul refocused on Ben. “Your father,” he began, “was—and still is—unwell.”
Whatever relationships existed on Circassia, friendships didn’t seem to be among them; he’d slotted these two idiots into the only pigeonhole that fit. I had to admit, although I didn’t want to agree with this monster about anything, that they really did act like father and son. Ben had been a part of our lives, indeed, since his own father’s passing. I barely remembered that, though.
“I was attempting to help him.”
“By not abandoning him to let him fall flat on his face!”
In that moment, the proconsul was lucky that Ben was bedridden. “For a man who’s just denied an entire plant’s worth of people medical aid, you’re quite the humanitarian!”
“Boys.” Dr. Suvok was taking the button away. “Boys.”
“You should be thanking me,” Cassius Falco hissed, “for letting you live.”
“You mean, for missing?”
“I don’t miss.”
Ben made a rude gesture.
Everyone turned as Captain Arcand appeared.
He glared at each man in turn. “Might I remind you, proconsul, that at this moment you are aboard my ship where, just now, I’ve found you making a disturbance and in the sickbay of all places! And you!” He rounded on Ben. “The path from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia might be short, but it is still a path. You—I don’t even know where to begin!”
“Christian,” the proconsul began, “I—”
“Don’t you Christian me! This isn’t some reception in your father’s gardens! I’m speaking to you as a representative of your uncle’s government and as someone who should gods be damned know better!”
“I…regret letting this man upset me.”
“Because of you, and him, people are dead!”
Ben grew, somehow, even more pale. “How many?”
“One of my men, two of yours, and one from the Xenophon.” Captain Arcand spoke like he wanted to be punching something.
Behind him, my father closed his eyes.
The Xenophon was Cassius Falco’s ship and, like the Endeavor, a flagship in her fleet. Both boasted compliments of well over a thousand; on Phoria Q3, a single deck of either ship would be nearly a city. I felt torn between grief and terror that even worse was on the horizon.
What if the fighting just kept getting worse?
“Wait.” Rowan frowned. “Your uncle…is the emperor?”