Ariock studied the holographic spheres.  A world of doom, a world of ice and bugs, a world of vicious megafauna, a world of slow suffocation, and a world of unpredictable bioengineered monstrosities.  Which planet did he want to consign the rest of his life to?

Vy tapped her chin in thought.  “The supernova planet?  Um, I guess that one sounded okay.”  She gave Ariock a searching look.  “Is that the best choice?”

Everyone watched Ariock with respectful intensity.  Weptolyso, Kessa, Cherise, the ummins, even Thomas… everyone.  They apparently expected him to make this decision alone.  

As if his judgment was flawless.  Had they forgotten his mistakes already?  His mother wouldn’t have forgotten.

“This decision will lay the foundation for the rest of our lives,” Ariock said.  “All of us.”  He included Thomas, hoping for some expert-level advice.  “We should all have a voice.”

No one spoke.  

The threat to Earth must be weighing on their minds, or maybe they still had lingering fears of being captured by Torth.  Ariock understood that.  He had to keep reminding himself that the battles were over.

“Which planet do you recommend, Thomas?” he asked.

“I couldn’t care less.”  Thomas sprawled in his hoverchair, looking bored.  

“Really?” Vy said.  “It’s your future, too.” 

“I might care if I had a future.”  Thomas spoke without emotion.  “But I don’t.  Just make a decision already.”

Ariock had glimpsed the inside of the NAI-12 case when Vy had administered a dose to Thomas.  Most of the vials were empty.  Their super-genius friend was going to die young unless they could get more of his unique medicine. 

The medicine only existed in one place:  Boston.  On Earth.  It was a prototype, not even in production yet. 

Thomas’s fatal genetics were just one more gross injustice, piled upon a heap of them.  

“Keep in mind that these planets are wildernesses, without spaceports,” Thomas said.  “That means we won’t be able to launch this ship.  Once we land, we won’t be able to leave unless Ariock uses his powers to get us off the planet.” 

That figured.

“Does the tropical planet have plants we could eat?” Ariock asked.  “And fish that we can catch with nets?”

“Yup,” Thomas said.

It sounded like a world where Ariock could avoid using his powers.  He imagined himself sun-tanning on an alien beach and—dare he hope?—kissing Vy under a blue sky. 

“Maybe that one sounds all right,” he said, tentative.

“Is that your final decision?”  Thomas turned towards the piloting console. 

“Wait.  Hold on.”  Vy settled next to Ariock, so close that he felt her body heat.  “Do you really want to live on the suffocation planet?” she asked in a low voice. 

Ariock leaned back against the curved wall.  “I don’t want to use my powers,” he admitted.  “Not if there’s any way to avoid it.”

If Vy was disgusted by what must seem like weakness or cowardice to her, she didn’t show it.  “You had a lot thrown at you,” she said.  “I don’t think you should beat yourself up about it.”

Ariock met her blue gaze.  She had such kind eyes.

He tried to explain what sort of monster he was.  “When I lost control, I lost my human perspective.  I wasn’t Ariock Dovanack anymore.  I don’t think I was even human.”  He didn’t want to see her dismay, so he looked away.  “I can’t keep taking risks like that.” 

Instead of flinching away, Vy gently touched his arm.  “You protected us.” 


Ariock tried, again, to make her understand.  “Do you know what it feels like, when I use my powers?”

She listened, as if expecting a recipe instead of a nightmarish description. 

“People are tiny little sparks to me,” Ariock said.  “Everyone is an ember, easy to snuff out.  And I can’t tell the difference between an ummin, a human, or a Torth.  You all feel exactly the same.”

“You kept us safe,” Vy said stubbornly.  “You killed the Torth and protected us.” 

“Sort of,” Ariock admitted.  “But it was pure luck.  Some vestigial part of me remembered that I was supposed to protect the life sparks behind me, and kill the ones in front.”

That shameful admission should drive away anyone with common sense.  At least the ummins were sensible enough to avoid him.  

“You’re a good person, Ariock,” Vy said. 

“I can’t believe you’re not afraid of me,” Ariock said.   

“I saw what happened,” Vy said.  “You didn’t kill your mother.  She crawled out of safety and into a chaotic war zone.” 

As if that was an acceptable excuse.  Ariock held back his retort. 

“We can drive ourselves crazy with guilt.”  Vy looked away.  “I think we all have something we’re ashamed of.  When I was a slave.…”  

She trailed off, apparently in shame.  Ariock glanced at her, curious despite himself.

“There were times when I considered leaving your mother behind, to survive on her own,” Vy admitted.  “I desperately wanted to move faster so I could survive.  I know it was terrible to think that way.  I was just so exhausted and afraid all the time.” 

She hunched her shoulders in shame. 

“I understand.”  Ariock had no right to judge her innocent desperation.  He had murdered beasts with his bare hands.  “The desperate times are over.” 

“As long as you make a decision soon,” Thomas called from across the room.  

“If you want to avoid using your powers,” Vy said, turning to Ariock, “that’s all right.  I respect that.” 

He studied her in amazement.  It seemed a lot to ask, to accept him with such a major flaw.  

“We can defend ourselves using blaster gloves.”  Vy gestured towards the bin where they’d stored their high-tech weapons. 

Those gloves were too small for Ariock to use.  Maybe the refugees could use them for hunting, or for self-defense, but Ariock wasn’t going to stand around, helpless, while predators ate the refugees he was supposed to protect.

“Those gloves never run out of ammunition,” Vy said.  “They’re actually pretty cool.  They just need a few seconds to recharge between rounds, and then they’re good to go again.  So I’m okay with a planet that has predators.  What do you think?”

Everyone else looked ambivalent.  Ariock gave a tentative nod.

“Supernova planet?” Vy asked.

“Supernova,” Ariock agreed.

“Excellent.”  Thomas waved his fingers over the control panel, and the holographic planets vanished, replaced by a glowing cobweb with strands that blended into a fog.  “Its official name is Reject-81.  Plotting a course.”

Several ummins watched him work with fascination.

“Is that a map?”  Vy walked towards the cobweb holograph.

“It’s a representation of temporal streams,” Thomas said.  “This is how we leap ninety-five thousand light years.”  

He waved his fingers, and a green beacon flared inside the fog.  

One of the ummins was bold enough to ask a question.  Thomas made an offhand reply in the slave tongue.

“Are those tiny strands all temporal streams?” Vy asked.

“Yup,” Thomas said. 

“The whole universe is mapped like that?” she asked. 

“Only our galaxy,” Thomas said.  “The Torth Empire sent generation starships to other galaxies, but one by one, they devolved into anarchy and lost contact.  As far as the Torth know, they never got anywhere.  And the Majority eventually voted to stop sending exploration crews beyond our galaxy.” 

Ariock remembered Thomas saying that the Torth did not allow the development of faster-than-light communications technology.  The Torth Majority would never permit any individuals to gain enough power to escape or to compete with Torth power.

“What happened to the civilization that invented the temporal streams?” Kessa asked. 

Most of the technology used by the Torth Empire was hijacked or stolen.  According to Thomas, the Torth had even stolen their power to traverse the stars. 

“No one knows,” Thomas said.  “But there’s historical evidence that the Torth obliterated a few ultra-powerful high tech civilizations.  They didn’t enslave the ones that were truly threatening.  They got rid of them entirely.”  

Such a casual sentence for such huge catastrophes.  

“They obliterated entire civilizations?” Vy asked with quiet sorrow. 

Thomas nodded. 

Ariock wondered what would become of Earth while he was hiding on a reject planet.  Would humankind put up enough of a fight for the Torth to consider them truly threatening? 

How many weeks would the Torth need in order to conquer every remote outpost of humanity on Earth?  With their power to read minds, they might only need a few hours. 

“Where is Earth?”  Vy gazed at the glowing map.

Thomas moved his fingers above the panel, and the cobweb contracted.  More threads appeared at its edges, then more. 

“There,” Thomas said.  “I zoomed out.  Let me make it easier to see.”  

He fiddled with the controls—and the view outside their spaceship changed dramatically.  All of a sudden, instead of drifting through empty space, they soared through a dense, breathtaking, cottony cobweb of stars. 

“Oh my God.”  Vy stared up at the dome. 

“It’s a computer simulation,” Thomas told her dryly.  “The walls can display anything from the database of celestial star maps.  Here.”  He waved, and a fiery blue beacon glowed in the distance.  “That’s Earth.”

The last time Ariock had traveled in a spaceship, wrapped in chains, he hadn’t imagined the wonders of these navigational illusions.  Even though the view was just a harmless illusion, the change made him uneasy.  Thomas had an awful lot of control over their environment.  

It reminded Ariock that their streamship was actually a tiny habitat.  This room was no larger than his sky room back home.  It was an enclosure.  

Like a cave.  Or like a prison cell.  

The refugees gawked around with shock and awe.  To them, it was all magic.

Kessa’s large eyes reflected the dense starlight.  “Where is Umdalkdul?” 

Thomas did something to the controls.  “There.”  An orange light flared in the mass of stars.

“And where is our destination planet?” Vy asked.

Thomas made another light glow, far in the distance.  “If you’d like to see all the habitable worlds in this region,” he said, “here we go.”  

The view became a violent mass of colors, blotting out everything else.  Ariock had to squint.  

“This is just a little sliver of the Torth Empire,” Thomas said, possibly responding to someone’s thoughts.  He worked the controls, and the view zoomed out, faster and faster.  The clusters of lights knitted so close together, they formed hard crystals.  

Everyone shielded their eyes, but the colors condensed even more, flattening into a disk.  Its edges ran into spiral trails.

“Here’s the Torth Empire,” Thomas said.  

The galaxy hung below them in stunning detail, a cottony formation of colored lights.  

“It is so much.”  Kessa gazed at the immense view.

“It’s beautiful.”  Vy looked troubled, and no wonder.  The Torth must own millions of planets.  No one could possibly challenge all of that.

“Can we see a close-up of the planet we’re aiming for?” Ariock asked.

“Unfortunately, no,”  Thomas said in his uncaring voice.  “Terrestrial maps have to be downloaded from an external source.  The Blue Rank who owned this streamship only stored local maps of Umdalkdul and its moons.”

He flicked his hand, and the stunning view washed away, replaced by the starry sky.  

But a violent-looking halo swallowed much of that sky.  Its center was utterly black, its iris a chaotic tangle.

“What is—?” Vy began.

“That’s the supernova we’re heading towards.”  Thomas poked icons on the control panel.  

Ariock resisted a temptation to expand his awareness, to reach out and feel the supernova.  It must be full of mysterious energies.  

No.  His Yeresunsa powers were dangerous.  He needed to stay small.  Or as small as he could be, anyway.  

“Well, that was easy.”  Thomas leaned back.  “We now have four days of boring slow travel ahead of us.  I suggest we ration the water and food.”  He floated away from the console and yawned ostentatiously.  “It’s been a really long day.  I’m going to sleep.” 

“Wait,” Vy said as he began to hover away.  “Are we on autopilot?”

“Of course,” Thomas said.  “Don’t mess with the settings.  Wake me up if you see flashing lights.” 

Ariock watched Thomas float to an alcove at the edge of the room.  There wasn’t much privacy.  

No one had washed the bloodstains off Thomas’s clothes or hair.  Was he going to sleep like that?  In his hoverchair?  Without a pillow or a blanket?

Maybe he was taking pains to not treat his companions like slaves.

“Good night,” Thomas said pointedly. 

Vy stood and walked towards him.  “Thomas, I think you need some care.”  She looked at his medicine case, nestled next to him.  “Aren’t you overdue for an injection?” 

“I’m making the medicine last.”  Thomas gave her a resentful look.  “I don’t need or want help.  Just go away.” 

Vy hesitated for a second. 

Then she grabbed a washcloth and a canteen.  

“Don’t waste water on me.”  Thomas sounded irritable.  “I’m the most expendable member of our crew.  Once we land?  You won’t need me.” 

Vy began to wash the bloodstains out of his hair.  “You’re not expendable.  You saved our lives.  As far as I’m concerned, you’re a hero.” 

That was truth. 

Ariock got to his feet.  He scooped up one of the threadbare blankets and a water gourd.  Both items were tiny in his hands.  The holograph felt like cool air as he passed through part of it, padding towards Thomas. 

“You don’t need to help me,” Thomas said, enduring the sponge bath.  “We’ll be safe in four days.  After that, you’ll have your own futures to worry about.”

Ariock did have concerns about surviving on a wilderness planet with bare minimum supplies.  But he was even more concerned about Thomas’s mindset.  Did he want to die?  Or was he just resigned to it? 

And his health.  Anyone could see how sick Thomas was.  His chest was concave, and his malformed limbs were withered from years of atrophy.  He might need hospitalization within weeks. 

“Maybe I’ll figure out better ways to use my healing power.”  Ariock gently tucked the blanket around the boy.  Healing was a lot nicer and safer than storm powers.  It was worth experimenting with.  

“You can’t save me,” Thomas said with acid in his tone.  “There’s nothing you can do.” 

Ariock folded the blanket so Thomas could rest on a makeshift pillow.  Ariock had failed to protect his mother—but that didn’t mean that he accepted failure in general.  

What were his promises worth, if he shrugged them off?  

He needed to be able to trust himself.  

He needed to keep Thomas alive, no matter what it took.  He refused to fail again. 

“Would you like to sleep on a sofa instead of your hoverchair?” Vy asked. 

Thomas groaned.  “I’m sick of overhearing everyone’s thoughts.  Just leave!” 

Vy gave Ariock a look, and he took her cue.  They both left, so Thomas could have whatever privacy and quiet time they could afford to give him.