"Well, now that we’ve destroyed the evil undersea monster and freed the population of the planet that was held in thrall by it, what do you want to do?"
"Burn all of my clothing. I still smell like seafood. And if you make even one passing reference about the smell of parts of my anatomy in relation to that, I will have Azaka and Kamidake hold you in a forcefield from now until the day you die."
"The thought never crossed my mind, Princess."
"But since you frequently speak without thinking, it could still pass from your lips."
"No, Ryo-Ohki. I don’t feel like eating any fried ‘Dweller of the Deep’. Thank you anyway."
A soft sigh of relief echoed throughout the ship. It had been easy for Ryo-Ohki to see which direction the conversation was taking, and she didn’t like it one bit. By distracting Aeka, she had diverted the potential argument, as well as taking care of the subsequent damage that would have resulted to her interior. Even keeping themselves in check, Ryouko and Aeka’s fights were still as discomforting as a bad case of carrot-induced heartburn.
Lacking any desire for another sparring match, Ryouko let the subject drop as well. After being declared eternal heroes by the freed population, and having several statues dedicated to themselves erected, Aeka and Ryouko had headed out at once to locate another possible planet where Tenchi might be. Now that she had a chance to give her full attention to flying, Ryouko moved back to the ship’s controls and ordered Ryo-Ohki to drop out of hyperspace. Once the cabbit did so, Ryouko began scanning the system.
A series of images flashed across the screen almost faster than the eye could follow. "Odd. The system this waterworld is in is pretty far off the beaten path, but I’m detecting a large ship only two million kilometers away. It’s preparing to leave the system," Ryouko informed Aeka.
"They might be able to tell us if they’ve seen Mihoshi and Tenchi around here. Hail them." Aeka felt excitement begin to fill her. There was hope in the air; there could be no mistake about it. She could just feel that the ship would know something. It was like a premonition.
Ryouko lacked Aeka’s blind faith. "They’re getting ready to leave. I doubt if they’re going to stop."
"Just try it."
Shrugging, Ryouko sent a signal. After several moments, she said, "Nope. Nothing."
"Tell them that Aeka, royal princess of Jurai, is ordering them to stop. That will work."
Ryouko snorted in derision. "I’ve got news for you, your highness. Most people don’t really give a damn who’s running the Empire, let alone that some junior member of the royalty feels like trying to strut her stuff. I know I sure as heck wouldn’t stop."
"Just do it," Aeka huffed.
"All right." Ryouko sent the signal. Just as she was certain the ship was about to jump, it took its hyperspace drive off-line and turned towards Ryo-Ohki. "Well, I’ll be. It actually worked."
Aeka smirked in the way only those that had been treated as royalty all of their life could. "I told you so." The smirk stayed right where it was as the other ship approached.
The smirk irritated Ryouko enough that she considered making some cutting comment about Aeka’s figure, but with some effort, she restrained herself and said, "Strange, they’re not hailing us. And have you ever seen a ship design like that before? It looks like a large molehill. A really, really large molehill."
"No, I have not," Aeka said. "But there is no need to worry. They are undoubtedly drawing closer so that they may bask in my august personage."
The giant spaceship drew closer until it filled the main viewscreen. Over Ryo-Ohki’s loudspeaker, a gravelly voice said, "Repent your numerous sins and prepare for death, royal scum."
Aeka paled as Ryouko said, "Hey, they seem to know you pretty well. Are you sure you’ve never met them before?"
The Yagdagron dreadnought targeted all of its weapons on Ryo-Ohki and opened fire.
A Tenchi Muyo story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Tenchi Muyo!, its characters and settings, © Hitoshi Okuda, AIC / Pioneer LDC, and Viz Communications, Inc.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com
Four figures, moving silently as ghosts, cut a trail through the verdant forest. The largest figure was in the lead, periodically squatting down to examine something on the ground. After a few moments of close study, it would begin moving stealthily again while the others followed close behind. The process was repeated like that for several hours before the quartet at last stopped, spotting the body of a woman that lay sprawled out in the middle of a small clearing. Three of the figures began to make a circuit of the area while the fourth remained where it was, staring at the body. The fallen woman’s eyes stared glassily towards some point in the sky above, marking it as a corpse. As the remaining figure looked at the center of the clearing, it tried to make sense of something it felt in the air. It had just figured out what it was when the other three returned.
"The area’s secure." Malgaunt holstered his sidearm as he examined Stargrave closely. The man hadn’t moved since he’d spotted Ariana’s body.
The words seemed to return Stargrave to awareness as he moved forward and kneeled by Ariana’s side. He had seen people die before, and in more grotesque manners — he had been the one responsible for them, occasionally — but only one other death had moved him like this.
Ariana had served him faithfully, one of only a handful of people he fully trusted with his life. She had been with him since the early years, a constant companion through everything, no matter how dark the times became. She was one of the few people he had been looking forward to sharing his rewards with once they overthrew the Jurai; it would have amused him to give her the position in the court currently held by the Empress Misaki. There would have been a sort of irony in that, or so he had believed. He suspected she would have enjoyed it as well, especially since the role would have represented such a contrast from the station she had been born to and nearly had to live in for the rest of her life. Also, it would have amused him to see others treating a one-time pirate the same as they had a much-vaunted empress. Given the regard he had for the royal family, pirates were infinitely preferable. Now those dreams for faithful Ariana were all for nothing.
His thoughts turned to the woman herself. Stargrave had known Ariana was interested in him, but had never accepted her offers of the flesh. He had been satisfied the platonic nature of their relationship, and that sort of joining would have risked upsetting it forever, especially since he was almost certain he didn’t love her. Not that he had any time for love. Considering his own origins, there was little more repellent to him than using a woman as nothing more than a tool for sex. Among the criminal element, sexual activity was frequently a standard of measure, like the number of scars one had or the bounty on their heads. He had kept his own lack of romantic partners a secret, not that most people had not already assumed he had been sleeping with Ariana, given the close nature of their relationship. Now he was regretful that they had not lain with each other at least once; she had deserved to have what she wanted at least one time. But now it was too late. Neither of them would ever know the soft caress of affection from the other.
And now he was reduced to staring at her body. It had been easy to figure out what she had done and where she was going. The instant Stargrave awakened, and realized that it was Ariana who had failed to wake up the next person for their watch, her actions had become clear. The group had quickly gathered their few belongings and set out. Onita started following the sets of tracks through the woods, slower than Ariana had, but at a decent pace. That it had finally stopped raining shortly after they set out helped in the tracking. It had only taken them several hours before they discovered the scene before them now, although Stargrave had known she would be there before they actually came upon the area. It had to do with that familiar feeling that lingered in the air.
"Ah, Ariana. Why couldn’t you have waited for us?" Stargrave broke the silence as his fingers delicately traced the path of the wound that had nearly severed her in half. Yes, it was exactly the type of mark he had suspected it would be. That confirmed his suspicions as to what the odd sensation was that he had felt right before coming upon the scene. Now that he thought about it, he recalled that there had been a faint impression of the sensation at the pass in the mountains, but he had been so worked up at the time that he had failed to notice it. However, here the feeling called out like a supernova in deep space. And the unique characteristics of it could only come from one thing. Of that he was certain.
"Your death was not in vain, sweet lady. I now know for certain what the opposition is. And now that I’m prepared, they cannot stop me. You have my thanks. I shall miss you." The eulogy was short, which is how Ariana would have wanted it. She was essentially a simple person with simple desires. His fingers gently closed her eyelids. Without looking over his shoulder, he told the others, "I would like to be alone with her for a while."
"We’ll search the area for their trail," Malgaunt said, giving Stargrave the distance he wanted, though his excessively emotional attitude surprised Malgaunt. He hadn’t though the pirate cared that much for the woman. "Don’t take too long. If we hurry, we might catch up to them by today. They can’t have that much of a headstart on us."
"Of course," Stargrave said without a hint of emotion as he continued to remain sitting where he was, thinking about the past. He too was surprised at the sadness and anger that he felt. It was not the overwhelming rage he held for the emperor, but it affected him all of the same. Of all the people he had lost over the years, mostly members of his organization since he did not really have many of what he considered friends, Ariana’s was affecting him the most by far. Again he had to ask himself why that was so.
There were no answers to his questions before his thoughts were interrupted by Malgaunt’s cry of rage. Stargrave shot to his feet and headed in the direction of the noise, although he suspected what the cry of such anguish was for. As Sa’bre came upon the scene, he saw that his guess had been correct.
Malgaunt was looking over every inch of the empty polynison container, shouting out, "This just isn’t possible!"
"It is," Stargrave informed him in a calm voice. As much as he liked Malgaunt, it was nice to have one up on him for a change. Even Stargrave acknowledged the marshal was annoyingly pompous when he thought he knew more than someone else did, which could be a good portion of the time, depending on the situation.
"How?!" Malgaunt shouted, his self-control completely gone. "Do you know how difficult it is to artificially duplicate the energy signature necessary to open that thing up?"
"It wasn’t artificial," Stargrave informed him, keeping the calm, collected tone to his voice. It was amazing how Ariana’s death was influencing him. He found that even his obsession with the Shihana had been blunted, for there was no anger at the flower not being there. He had felt angrier upon seeing her body.
Malgaunt calmed down as he weighed Stargrave’s words. "You’re absolutely certain?"
"But he can’t possibly be here."
"I don’t think he is," Stargrave said. "I think it’s someone else. Someone like me, though don’t ask me how he, or she, possibly came to be here." Ideas were already forming in Stargrave’s mind as to how to possibly take advantage of the new situation. What he needed was more information.
Malgaunt’s mind raced as well. "Be that as it may, I have some ideas on how to resolve the Mihoshi situation. Obviously, we need to change tactics, and I think I’ve come up with just the solution." Malgaunt smiled to himself. The plan had come to him in the moment right before he had drifted off to sleep the night before. It really was quite brilliant in its simplicity. He was certain it would work, even taking into account all of the other plans that had failed him of late.
"We’re going to have to be careful," Stargrave warned. "That stasis field around the Shihana is far too easy to destroy. All it would take is one stray laser bolt and we’re history."
"Good point," Malgaunt agreed. "I assure you, my plan involves only the minimal amount of force for maximum effect. Two shots should be all we’ll need, even with this new knowledge you’ve uncovered. But first, I want to make sure there are only two of them and see if I can confirm the identity of the person traveling with Mihoshi. I don’t think it will matter, but I want every variable accounted for."
"One way or another, I think it’s going to end soon," Stargrave said.
"One way or another," Funuyaki finally broke her silence as she agreed with a smile.
"We have to hurry!" Tenchi insisted as he and Mihoshi pulled the anti-gravity sled. In the early hours of the morning they had set out as quickly as they could in order to try to outrun whoever else was pursuing them, and Tenchi was certain there were more. After Mihoshi had explained to him what the flower was (twice, for Tenchi had thought for certain that she was wrong about it being so devastating), he had become more determined than ever to see to it that the Shihana did not fall into the wrong hands. He could not fail. Entire races, possibly even Earth’s, were relying on him to protect them from the terrible genocidal power that the flower possessed.
And still their flight seemed to crawl along. Tenchi could feel their pursuers racing up behind them, closing the distance. It was like an itch at the back of his neck that he couldn’t scratch. Frustration tore at him as he urged the sled faster.
"Tenchi, you might want to slow down," Mihoshi warned.
Tenchi shook his head fiercely, as though that would somehow increase their speed. "We can’t. We can’t afford to even slow down. We have to keep going no matter what."
"But Tenchi, I think something’s wrong. There’s smoke pouring from the sled."
"What?!" Tenchi exclamation was followed by several sparks shooting up from the sled, which then fell to the ground like a rock. That was followed by an even larger shower of sparks that prevented Tenchi or Mihoshi from drawing too near the makeshift vehicle. Just as suddenly as it started, the flash of electricity stopped and all that was left was the lingering smell of ozone in the air.
After prying off a panel, which released an acrid cloud of black smoke right into her face, Mihoshi coughed and gave Tenchi a sad look. "Overload on the main circuitboard. It’s not going anywhere."
"We have to keep moving," Tenchi protested. He bent down and tried to drag the sled, but without the benefit of the anti-gravity field, it proved too much for him to move more than several inches.
Seeing Tenchi trying so hard, and running the risk of throwing out his back, Mihoshi reexamined the still smoldering heap of metal. "Well, I could try to fix it by rerouting some of the power cables." Her voice held no real hope. There was virtually no way a simple reroute would supply sufficient energy to power the sled, but she couldn’t just stand by while Tenchi risked hurting himself in his futile efforts.
Tenchi noticed the lack of confidence in her voice as well, but doing something was better than nothing. He agreed to stand by and help her in whatever manner he could. His eyes turned back in the direction they had just come from. There was a feeling deep inside that somehow, some way, things were going to come to a head shortly.
A continuous series of voices ran through Stargrave’s mind: Autolycus’s warnings. Ariana’s devotion. Fera’s fearless acceptance of any risks. Yoost’s various complaints. Pupei’s continuous frustration at his inability to control his anger. It was remarkable how easily he had taken his crew for granted so easily. While it was true that not everyone he knew was dead, not even everyone close to him, still it seemed too many familiar voices were now silenced and would never be heard from again. The whole situation felt almost exactly as Autolycus had said: it was all a waste.
That wasn’t true, of course. They were playing for the greatest stakes of all: Galactic Domination. The risks were great, regardless of how meticulously everything had been planned. Any part of the plan could have been doomed to failure, and the crew could have been captured or killed. They knew it, and they had still placed their lives in his hands. They had wanted the prize too, and it was still within his grasp. Wasted? Only if Stargrave failed would their lives have been wasted. Still, he found himself missing nearly all of them. All that remained was Malgaunt now, a friend and accomplice, but not a member of Stargrave’s crew. And still the end of the chase had yet to come. More death was sure to follow: it was just a question of who was next. After all, with the Shihana involved, it could be everyone instead of just anyone.
Still, there was a part of Stargrave’s mind that clung to hope. If the person that was traveling with Mihoshi was what Stargrave thought he was, perhaps a deal could be struck. It might be something of a longshot, but he found himself wanting to take the chance. It would be comforting to know he was not the only one of his kind in the universe. For all that his hate sustained him against the Jurai, and specifically the emperor, there were occasions where loneliness was a companion as well.
Thinking of loneliness triggered thoughts of Ariana once more. Even though he was over the worst of her loss, or so he kept telling himself, it still seemed to nag at the back of his mind. He found himself wanting to talk to Autolycus and have the gray mound of flesh spout off advice that Stargrave would either scoff at or consider. But he was gone too. Perhaps there were some losses that were irreplaceable after all.
However, it was too late to go back now, and no matter how much remorse he felt over his losses, revenge still strode along at his side. All he had to think of was the past, and the fires would be stoked once again. Tempered by loss, but still roaring all the same. The path of his desires might have been paved with regrets, but there was no path he could have taken that lacked regrets. Inevitabilities were something even Sa’bre Stargrave, for all of his power, could not avoid.
A figure burst out from the foliage in front of the trio, bringing them to an abrupt halt. Malgaunt and Funuyaki tensed for the briefest of moments before identifying the figure.
Onita began his report. "I’ve spotted them. They’re not more than a half-mile through the trees over there. They’re in a clearing. It looks like they were traveling with an anti-grav sled, and it’s broken down."
"Do they still have the Shihana?" Malgaunt asked.
"Yes, Sir. It’s out in the open and everything. Only the stasis field is still around it." Onita paused for a second, as though weighing whether or not he should say something. After a moment, he decided. "I have to admit, being next to something that nasty made me a little scared. I don’t mind dying, but not like that, you know what I mean? We’ve got to be careful."
"Oh, we will. We will." Malgaunt rested a hand on Onita’s shoulder. A comforting gesture, which worked as the tension flowed out of the large man.
Feeling his success, Malgaunt removed his arm from his subordinate and turned so that everyone could see him at once. He kept his voice low, so that it wouldn’t carry, yet modulated it so the others would hear the intensity of his every word. "Here is what we’ll do." He turned to Sa’bre. "This part of the plan calls for you to remain out of sight. It has to be only myself, Funuyaki, and Onita who go forward and into the clearing."
"I thought we’d try to outflank them and rush them all at once," Onita said.
Funuyaki remained silent. She thought she had figured out what Malgaunt’s plan was, but wanted to hear him say it first. She would look like a fool if she were wrong, despite knowing she was nothing of the sort. She began to mentally make her plans accordingly. One way or another, it was all coming to an end.
Malgaunt gave a broad smile. "Nonsense, my boy. We’re going to walk right up to First Class Detective Mihoshi and say hello. After all, she’s expecting to be rescued, and who better to be rescued by than her most trustworthy compatriots in the Galaxy Police? We wouldn’t want to disappoint her, now would we?"
Even Funuyaki was taken aback by the look of pure malice on Malgaunt’s face. It was the plan she had thought it would be, though. It appeared she thought more like the marshal than she would have cared to admit. With that plan laid out, now she was certain.
It was time for an ending.
It took the quartet nearly fifteen minutes to get into position. They had traveled as silently as they could in approaching Mihoshi, not wanting to alert her or her companion before they were ready to deal with them. Malgaunt went over the exact details of the plan one final time before they commenced with the operation. He spoke to Funuyaki primarily, since he was relying more on her, while allowing Onita to take a back-up position.
"We’ll emerge slowly from the trees, just to make sure they don’t get trigger happy and shoot us before identifying us. After we’re safely in the clearing, I’ll take charge and draw their attention while the two of you move into position. Onita, stand off to the side so you don’t look suspicious. Funuyaki, move close to the boy so that you can get off a quick shot. Make certain you are in-between him and the Shihana. I don’t want to take a chance of your shot going through him and hitting that field. Make certain you’re close enough to not miss. He’s incredibly dangerous and you need to take him out before he knows what’s going on. You may very well only get one shot, and if you fail, it might be the end for us all. The signal to open fire will be ‘Nice job, Officer’. Onita, you’re backup. If Funuyaki doesn’t drop him in the first shot, you finish him. And make certain you’re not in line with the Shihana either. Leave Mihoshi to me. I’ll maneuver her away from the plant and take care of her personally. With any luck, we’ll have the Shihana safely in our grasp within the next five minutes."
"And myself?" Stargrave asked.
"Just stay out of sight. If Mihoshi identifies you, the whole plan will fall apart." A sympathetic expression crossed Malgaunt’s features. "Don’t worry. We’ll take care of everything."
"I’d like to circle around behind the group," Stargrave said. "Just in case something goes wrong, I can attack from the opposite direction. After all, with what we know of the boy, you might need it."
"You seem to know something about him," Funuyaki said, "Just how dangerous is he?"
"Dangerous enough that you had better not miss," Malgaunt said, emphasizing everything while explaining nothing.
"I’ll be sure to stay out of sight." Stargrave assured him.
"As long as we take him by surprise, there shouldn’t be any problem," Malgaunt pointed out, although there was little force in what almost sounded like a command.
"I think we’d both rest easier if I was close at hand. Still, I’ll give you my gun, just to ensure there are no accidental shootings." With that decided, Stargrave handed his remaining weapon to Malgaunt. He then gave a brief nod to Onita. For the last, he turned his attention to Funuyaki. "Best of luck to you."
Funuyaki stared at the man suspiciously. There was something in the way he said that that put her on edge. Still, it was too late to back out of the plan now. "My thanks," she said simply and waited to see what his response was.
It consisted of nothing more than a bow to all of them before moving quietly into the underbrush and out of sight. Malgaunt gave him a five-minute head start. As he rose to a standing position, he straightened out his outfit as best he could, considering the abuse it had taken in the last few days. That was the one hole he was aware of in his plan. If Mihoshi examined his and the others’ outfits closely, it would show that they had not just come down from a rescue ship as Malgaunt would explain. However, even if she was suspicious, he was her Marshal, and Mihoshi was an obedient officer. He was above reproach. She would obey him right up until the moment she died. Perhaps he would even issue that order right after he gave Funuyaki the signal to open fire.
Taking a deep breath, Malgaunt led the others towards the clearing. With a slow and careful step he moved down the trail, making enough noise so that Mihoshi and her companion would hear them approaching long before they made it into view. Malgaunt spoke to his two companions in a casual voice, hoping it would relax the prey. Within moments the trio emerged from the brush, about thirty feet away from the Mihoshi and Tenchi. Once again they laid eyes upon the object they had risked all for.
Malgaunt and the others stopped as they saw Mihoshi gasp in surprise at them. She was standing right next to the Shihana, just as he had feared. Making her leave the side of the plant was the first thing that had to be done. The marshal cleared his throat and straightened his back, taking the posture of a superior about to meet a subordinate for the first time. If Mihoshi’s training kicked in, she should salute him and do likewise. After she identified who he was and what rank he held, the rest would be simplicity itself.
"Greetings, First Class Detective Mihoshi. We’ve —" Malgaunt stopped abruptly as he stared at the sidearm now leveled at him. For one brief second he lost his composure. Then the moment passed and he attempted to regain control of the situation that he had somehow managed to lose without even realizing it. "See here, Detective. I know you’ve been missing for a while, but it hasn’t been long enough that you should be unable to recognize me."
Mihoshi kept her gun leveled at Malgaunt. "I do recognize you, Sir. I’m placing you under arrest for betraying the Galaxy Police, conspiracy to commit criminal acts, attempted murder, aiding and abetting known felons, and a whole bunch of other things when I find out what else you’ve done. Now put up your hands!"
Again, Malgaunt found himself completely at a loss. He had suffered from more surprises in the last five days than he had in the last five years. It defied possibility, yet not only had his perfect plan been ruined within the first few seconds he had executed it, but again he found himself confronted with a situation that he had completely failed to anticipate.
The look of total conviction in Mihoshi’s eyes was all that was needed to convince Malgaunt that she knew the truth and that no amount of fast-talking was going to get him out of the predicament. There was only one thing left he needed to ask. "How did you know?"
Mihoshi’s aim didn’t waver. "The Katasan that tried to shoot me confessed right before she died. She told me everything about how you and the others betrayed us. I can’t believe you’d work with criminals to try to get your hands on this." She tilted her head slightly towards the Shihana. "What you’ve done is unthinkable."
Racing at unbelievable speeds, Malgaunt’s mind evaluated the situation. There had to be some way out. He just needed to keep Mihoshi talking until he could figure out how. "I think you’re being a bit judgmental, my dear." He drew out the phrase slowly, trying buy as much time as he could.
Malgaunt’s eyes scanned over everything. He watched as Tenchi drew closer to Mihoshi, obviously intending to protect her from harm. That subtle action suddenly gave the marshal an idea on how to resolve the whole situation. He could not count on Stargrave being able to bail them out; there was too much of a chance of something going wrong and the Shihana being either destroyed or released. It was all going to come down to Funuyaki and her razor-sharp mind. If she was paying close attention, and anticipated what Malgaunt was going to do for her, there was still a chance to get out of their predicament.
"I assure you, it’s all a great misunderstanding. You see, I’m really on an undercover assignment to track the Shihana." The lie was weak, but it was the best he could come up with the pressure he was now under. As he continued weaving his poor fabrication, he moved with excruciating slowness to position his body so that he shielded Funuyaki’s right side from Mihoshi and her companion.
The side her laser pistol was on.
If Funuyaki picked up on the slow movement, she should be able to figure out what he was trying to do. The lieutenant was a crack shot. Once her sidearm was clear of its holster, it would take was less than half a second for her to bring her gun up over his shoulder and take Mihoshi down. The boy lacked any kind of a firearm, and though tensed, seemed to be satisfied with allowing Mihoshi to take command of the situation. Even if the boy was like Stargrave, it would presumably take him a couple of seconds to react to the first shot, and by that time both Malgaunt and Funuyaki would have taken him down. Just so long as they didn’t miss and strike the Shihana.
The soft sounds of a gun being drawn just caught the edge of Malgaunt’s hearing. He tensed and spoke louder to cover up the sound. It would take only a moment for Funuyaki to prepare herself to fire. He could sense the gun being raised behind him and mentally prepared to draw his own gun. In only another moment, he would hear the sounds of…
"It’s over, Malgaunt."
Malgaunt stiffened as every other thought was driven from his mind. Through gritted teeth, he growled, "Just what do you think you’re doing, Lieutenant?"
Funuyaki took a step back so she could bring her gun to bear on Onita, should he make any sudden movements. "What I should have done from the beginning. This farce is over. You’re going to jail forever, you bastard."
"Why, you," Onita started to growl until he found the barrel of the pistol swung in his direction for a moment before it was brought to bear on Malgaunt again. The message was clear to Onita: I’m fast enough to shoot you before you draw your gun, so don’t even think about it. The large man remained where he was, but remained tense and ready, continually looking for any possible openings he could exploit
The sudden turn of events confused Mihoshi for a moment; one of the criminals wasn’t acting like a criminal anymore. Training began to take over once again when conscious thought failed. "You put down your gun too, Lieutenant! No one is allowed to have any guns but me and Tenchi. And he doesn’t have one, so that means it’s just me." She would shoot Funuyaki if she made any sudden moves towards her or Tenchi, but some instinct in Mihoshi made her doubt that would happen. Still, it could be a trap too. Mihoshi remained uncertain of what to do.
"I can’t do that at the moment," Funuyaki said as she kept the pistol pointed at the back of Malgaunt’s head. All the man would need was a split second to draw his gun. She couldn’t take her eyes off him for more than the length of a breath. "Stargrave, come on out! I know you’re out there, and unarmed! Give up!"
"Sa’bre Stargrave’s here?" Mihoshi looked around slightly while keeping her gun trained on Funuyaki.
Malgaunt started to turn around only to be ordered by Funuyaki to keep his eyes forward. It was a wise precaution on her part. If he couldn’t see her, he couldn’t know what she was doing. Still, there was a factor that even Funuyaki had failed to take into account. "You still haven’t answered my question, Lieutenant."
Funuyaki was surprised to hear the tone of betrayal in Malgaunt’s voice. How little he truly knew of her. "I’m taking you in."
Malgaunt scoffed at that. "After all that you’ve done? Don’t be naive. It ill-suits you There’s no way they won’t execute you."
Funuyaki surprised herself by laughing, a deep, rich laugh. She wasn’t sure if it was at herself or Malgaunt. "Do you really think that makes a damn bit of difference to me anymore? You’re so ridiculously stupid. All caught up in your belief that you know how everything works and how everyone feels that you think you’re so fucking perfect that you can’t tell when things are really falling apart all around you."
As miserable as Malgaunt had felt when the Shihana had repeatedly escaped him, as despondent as he had felt when the Yagdagron dreadnought and the Rack N’Ruin had been destroyed and they had been stranded on the planet, as wretched as everything had gotten and as disconsolate as he felt when all of his plans had fallen apart, nothing made him feel more depressed than Funuyaki’s betrayal. The depths of it surprised him as much as Ariana’s loss had affected Stargrave.
Anger trickled into Malgaunt’s voice as he said, "Do you honestly believe I’d betray you? Is that what this is about? I meant what I said. I wanted you to be my protégé. My legacy. You could have ruled the Galaxy Police one day. The entire Galaxy Police. You would never have had to worry about money again. You’d have been wealthy beyond your wildest imaginations. You’d have wielded more power than you could ever have dreamed of in a hundred years of service to the Galaxy Police now. You idiot! You’re throwing it all away." His voice was almost pleading towards the end, as though he would accept her apology if she offered one.
No apology came. Funuyaki’s eyes began to tear and her voice trembled as she spoke. "You bastard. You honestly think you know me? I may be a lot of things. I’m a thief. I’m a traitor. I’m a killer that’s gunned down innocent people. I’m worse than the scum I bring in because at least criminals can be honest about what sort of shit they are instead of hiding behind a badge like me. But even as rotten as I might be, I am not some kind of genocidal mass murderer. Do you honestly believe I could ever sleep again, knowing I’d helped bring about the deaths of billions upon billions of lives? Do you think money, or power, or glory could ever erase that from my mind? You think I want to be someone like you, who wouldn’t think twice about erasing a few races from the face of the galaxy? I’d sooner die then ever allow myself to become something like you."
The sound of clapping from directly behind Funuyaki almost made her turn away from Malgaunt. Instead, she only swiveled her head ever so slightly so that she could see who it was, though she knew there was only one person it could be. Sure enough, Sa’bre Stargrave slowly came into view, though it was from the direction in which she and the other officers had come.
"You were supposed to have circled around the other side," Funuyaki said, repositioning herself far enough away from Malgaunt so that she could shoot any of the three people before her.
Stargrave gave her a smile. "Believe it or not, I rather thought you’d try something like this. I was suspicious when you refused Autolycus’s offer to leave with him. Over the course of the last two days I became increasingly convinced you were up to something. Nice to see I was right."
"I recognize you," Mihoshi said from her position next to the Shihana. "You’re Sa’bre Stargrave, the fourth most wanted criminal in the galaxy. You’re under arrest too. Everyone is under arrest. Lieutenant, throw down your gun or I might be forced to do something not very nice to you."
"I can’t do that," Funuyaki insisted.
Stargrave gave a brief glance towards Mihoshi, then focused his attention upon Tenchi. Towards the younger boy, he gave a wider smile. Tenchi wasn’t sure what to make of the gesture, for as Stargrave smiled, he felt the oddest sensation pass over him, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Suddenly, Tenchi found his attention transfixed upon the man who vaguely reminded him of someone he knew. Someone familiar.
Stargrave returned his attention to Funuyaki and took a step towards her. She responded by leveling her gun at him while trying to keep an eye on both Malgaunt and Onita at the same time. Both of her former associates looked at her with increasing anger.
"Let me handle this," Stargrave said to Malgaunt’s back.
Malgaunt cast a glance over his shoulder. "Are you sure you want to?"
"You’ve had your shot. Now it’s my turn." He took another step towards Funuyaki.
There was something unspoken that had passed between Malgaunt and Stargrave. Funuyaki was put on edge even more than before and looked the pirate over closely a second time, risking letting her attention drift completely away from Malgaunt. She knew Stargrave wasn’t even armed, but despite that, Funuyaki’s danger senses were going off all at once and so hard that they were nearly causing her to panic. Tired of the situation and suppressing the urge to shoot all three of the men outright, she shouted. "Everyone raise their hands!"
"That’s my line," Mihoshi said, now keeping her gun mostly on Funuyaki. Since she was the only one with a weapon drawn, she was the most dangerous. Or at least that was the way it seemed. There was something about Stargrave that was disturbing her, and she had to fight back the urge to point her gun at him.
Stargrave did as he was told, holding his hands before him rather than above his head, allowing Funuyaki to see there was nothing in either of them. But the smile he gave her was that of someone who had his prey right where he wanted.
Funuyaki noticed the expression as well, and was contemplating what game Stargrave was playing as Onita began to slowly raise his hands at last. Just as his hands rose to right above his shoulder level, one of them darted behind the back of his collar and whipped out a slender dagger that he kept concealed in a neck sheath. Reflexively, she fired at Onita even as the blade left his hand. A laser bolt took him high in the forehead and went straight through, but the dagger had already been released. It flashed through the air end-over-end, and buried itself in Funuyaki’s left shoulder.
The sudden rush of pain was more than enough to throw off Funuyaki’s concentration as her gun ended up pointed at the ground. Her heart quickened as she knew that there would now be more than enough time for Malgaunt to shoot her in the head, chest, and little toe if he so desired. Still, she fought through the pain as quickly as she could and brought her gun to bear on Malgaunt once more. Much to her surprise, he had not moved in the least; his hands were even still in the air.
"That’s it! Throw down your weapon!" Mihoshi shouted as her finger tightened on the trigger and she aimed her pistol at Funuyaki’s chest. Even if the woman had been acting in self-defense, her holding a weapon had still helped contribute to the heightened tensions in the area. And if anyone even made one aggressive move towards Mihoshi, she was going to shoot.
No one did. The remaining trio of people openly paid little attention to Mihoshi, despite the fact she had a gun on all of them. Malgaunt’s only reactions were to give a casual glance towards Onita’s fallen form, then turn a cold gaze upon his former protégé. "I’d prefer you to take care of this."
Funuyaki knew that in spite of the fact Malgaunt was looking directly at her when he gave the command, it was not meant for her. She turned her attention instead to the true source the comment had been directed towards, and the one responsible for the increasingly large problems she had with her peace of mind: Sa’bre Stargrave. He took yet another step towards her, the smile never leaving his face.
"Back off or I’ll shoot," Funuyaki warned.
"Too late." Stargrave took another step forward.
Mihoshi sensed something was about to happen. She was about to shout out for both of them to stop, and was seriously contemplating shooting Funuyaki in the arm to relieve her of her weapon, when the matter was taken out of her hands as Funuyaki fired a shot at Stargrave.
At the same instant, Tenchi’s eyes widened as he felt a familiar surge of power come not from him, but from someone nearby.
Funuyaki’s aim was on target as the laser bolt lanced through the air and straight for Stargrave’s head. His brow furrowed in concentration for a moment, and then three rectangles of white light appeared in a circular pattern before him, almost like a propeller with three blades. One of the rectangles formed directly in front of the bolt heading towards Stargrave, deflecting it harmlessly away.
"The light hawk wings," Tenchi whispered under his breath as both he and Mihoshi stared at them in awe.
"Nice shot. It’s a pity things didn’t work out. In hindsight, I think we could have been friends. Goodbye now," Stargrave’s brow furrowed again and one of the rectangles shot forward.
Funuyaki continued firing at the rectangle, all the while knowing it would do no good. As when she had refused Autolycus’ offer, she felt relieved and surprisingly calm, her conscience at ease as for the first time in years she knew she was doing the right thing, even if was going to result in her death. She could not erase the mistakes of the past, but trying to prevent Malgaunt and Stargrave from succeeding in their plan of genocide would balance things out a little, at least to her. And even though she had failed to stop them and would fall now, she had helped balance the odds for Mihoshi and her friend by reducing the number of opponents from four to two. She hoped for Mihoshi’s sake it would be enough.
Even with certain death staring her in the face, and the sense of peace that permeated her being, Funuyaki refused to go down without a fight. She loosed three more blasts before the rectangle shot across her, covering her entire form. The awesome power of the light hawk wing instantly consumed her body as it touched it, not even leaving ashes behind. The rectangle of power disappeared no more than ten feet beyond where it had struck Lieutenant Funuyaki. An instant later, it reappeared at Stargrave’s side. After rejoining its twin companions, all three of the wings disappeared.
The sheer brutality of Funuyaki’s death snapped Mihoshi out of her reverie. "That’s enough!" She was uncertain what to make of the situation. She could have sworn they had all been bad guys, according to Fera they were, yet Funuyaki had not acted like one at all. She had been as bold and courageous as any Galaxy Police officer Mihoshi had served with, even in the face of death.
But now there was something else to consider. Stargrave could somehow wield the light hawk wings. Again, Mihoshi was uncertain of what to do next. There was nothing she could do to overpower them. And wasn’t Tenchi supposed to be the only one that could use them?
Funuyaki’s death served to snap Tenchi out of his own reverie as well. He felt power well up within him as he looked at Stargrave in shock. "How can you do that?"
Stargrave turned towards Tenchi. In theory, he should have at least tried to use the light hawk wings against the young boy right now. It was possible Tenchi would not have enough time to raise his own wings to block the blast, but Stargrave doubted that. He could feel barely-restrained power bubbling below the surface, waiting to lash out and strike him down.
There were other, more personal concerns as well. For the first time in years Stargrave found himself feeling completely alone. The last time such sorrow had consumed him had happened after the death of his mother. The sorrow had stayed with him for a number of years, until he had organized a crew that served to take her place in his mind, even if he hadn’t realized it at the time. Now with all of his crew gone, he was left alone again, save for the despised feeling of loneliness. Some part of him wanted the solitude to end immediately and come to an understanding with the boy. It was conceivable that Tenchi could fill the void within the pirate captain, and it could be possible they had more in common than just their powers. Instinctively, Stargrave doubted Tenchi would accept the proposal he had in mind, but he had to try.
There was a look of something similar to compassion now etched upon Stargrave’s features as he said, "Now you know the truth, boy."
"What do you mean?" Tenchi gasped out. A part of him was in awe of the man who could wield the light hawk wings as well, for deep within Tenchi there was a stirring. It was a feeling of reunion, as though something that had been missing was now made complete. It had something, no, everything to do with the power that continuously (as well as unconsciously) poured through his veins, his very cells, though he could not say exactly why that was. It was more of an instinct than anything else, but it was there. Nearly palpable enough to grasp, but too ethereal to ever be touched.
The same mix of emotions served to affect Stargrave as well. It made him all the more certain the two were brothers, most likely of flesh and at the very least of spirit. And never should brothers fight one another.
But then, neither should fathers and sons. That fact would certainly never stop Sa’bre Stargrave from doing what he knew he had to do.
It took Stargrave a moment to bring his emotions under control. At last he answered Tenchi. "I thought it would be obvious. Since it’s quite clear you’re not Yosho, and you’re certainly not Azusa," he spat the name out contemptuously, "you must be a royal bastard, like myself."
"Bastard?" Tenchi asked, wondering why the man before him would think something as odd as that.
Stargrave looked at Tenchi in surprise. "You don’t know your own family history? Don’t you know who your father was? Hasn’t the power of the light hawk wings cried out to you the obvious, that you are of the direct bloodline of the Emperor himself?"
"Of course I know that," Tenchi said.
Stargrave became anxious. "Then you understand what you are. And since you’re like me, and have the same dark cloud of death hanging over you should the truth become known, you should join me. Join me and we will conquer those thrice-damned Juraians and rule the remains of their empire together, as is our bloodright." Stargrave held out his hand and waited for Tenchi to accept.
"What are you talking about?!" Tenchi didn’t like what the man seemed to be implying, but what he liked even less was that a part of him felt some sort of kinship with Sa’bre, and did want to accept the hand of the man that had just killed the woman. It was the power. It was affecting him somehow.
Stargrave saw the repulsion on Tenchi’s face and withdrew his hand. "Allow me to explain to you who I am. What I am. Why I’m doing this. Why I have to do this. Perhaps then you’ll understand why you have to accept my proposal.
"My name is Sa’bre Star…" he stopped abruptly, shook his head, and gave a half-hearted smile. "It has been so long since I’ve used my real name I almost forgot what it was. My name is Sa’bre Masamoto. Son of Allegra Masamoto and Azusa the First, Emperor of Jurai."
"You’re lying," Tenchi said. Shortly after first meeting his great-grandfather, Yosho had informed Tenchi of his own family history. There were no Allegras or Sa’bres in it, only the members Tenchi had already met. There was only one possibility left, and surely the Emperor would never have betrayed his great-grandmother or Misaki like that. It had to be a lie.
Sa’bre gave a chuckle. "You’d be amazed at how many people come up to me and say I have a strong resemblance to the Emperor, and they don’t even have the faintest idea of exactly why that is."
Tenchi looked deep into his eyes and at once understood. They were his great-grandfather’s eyes looking at him.
His grandfather’s eyes.
All of them the same.
Sensing Tenchi now understood and accepted the truth, Sa’bre continued. "Only two people, a being named Autolycus and Marshal Malgaunt here, know the truth of my ancestry. And now you’ll know the truth, too. I’m willing to tell you this as a show of trust, and perhaps you’ll see why we should join together. We have so much more to lose if we should find ourselves working at cross-purposes. In all of the universe, we’re unique. It would be a shame if there would be only one of us left after today. So listen well, and understand.
"Some thirty-five years ago, my mother was employed as a bathing attendant at the Imperial Palace on Jurai. She was young and very beautiful. It was small surprise that one day she caught the eye of the Emperor himself. He seduced her and made love to her in the very chamber in which she worked."
"He wouldn’t do that!" Tenchi protested.
Sa’bre gave a laugh bereft of anything other than bitterness. "Believe me, boy, Azusa’s appetite for women is every bit voracious as the rumors say. Even two wives are not enough to satiate him. My mother was aware of close to a half-dozen other women he had slept with before and after his escapade with her, although she said he always made certain his wives were off-planet. He was very discreet about the affairs, lest he incur the wrath of the Inspector General of Information and the Commander of the Royal Bodyguard. Tradition might say he can have however many women he wants, but his wives have evidently seen to it he answers to a higher power as well. There are some lines even an Emperor won’t cross, I suppose. A pity there are others he will.
"Of course, as a precaution against the Emperor fathering any bastards, every woman he sleeps with is required to undergo testing to ensure she isn’t pregnant. If she is, they, how shall I delicately put this, get rid of it?"
"No," Tenchi gasped.
Malgaunt gave a snort at that. "Of course they do. Do you think that after Theon Longshanks and his Blackstarr Rebellion came within a hairsbreadth of overthrowing his father, Gemma the Second’s reign, or when Tetsuo the Bastard killed both Mikage the First and the crown prince, the Jurai would take any chances after that? No. They might be incredibly stupid about some things, but even the royal family has learned its lesson well. They keep their actions quiet, of course. It wouldn’t do to hold that sort of thing up for public scrutiny. Any messes the Emperor leaves behind are quietly taken care of by his lackeys. If any woman tries to run and actually manages to have their child, their offspring are still dealt with. ‘The Empire’s reach spans one side of the galaxy to the other,’ as the saying goes."
"Except for me," Sa’bre clarified. "Afterwards, my mother was supposed to go in for the standard test, but somehow she was overlooked. Most likely it was because there was a change in the head of the Royal Physicians and there was some clerical error. It was fortunate, for after a couple of months, my mother discovered she was pregnant, and there was only one man the father could possibly be. Rather than allow me to be killed, which would have allowed her to lead a normal life, she immediately left her employ and moved off planet, getting as far away from the Empire as she could. She changed her name and managed to forge a false background. She settled on a desolate rock located near the outer rim called Karastaed. Population: two thousand people without hope. The whole planet was nothing but concentrated squalor. The majority of people that were there were descendants of a failed attempted to terraform the planet. It wasn’t even part of the Empire because no one wanted the useless thing with its useless people. It was as far out of the way as one could get, which was what my mother was looking for.
"We lived in abject poverty our entire lives. Mother felt we had to, lest someone discover that she carried a royal bastard and had me killed. It was a realistic possibility. The Juraian Security Directorate is as horribly efficient as they’re rumored to be, you know. So she kept as low a profile as she could while living in constant fear of being discovered. But never once was she sorry she had me, and she made certain I knew that and told me everything about my history. I might not have owned more than one pair of shoes with the soles nearly eaten away at any time, but I did have an abundance of love from her. I was happy. I think it is the richest of ironies that the son of the richest and most powerful man in the galaxy was living on one of the poorest planets in existence. But my heritage meant nothing to me because the empire was nothing more than a series of tales I heard others talk about. Karastaed was my reality and all I had known my entire life. It’s hard to miss something you’ve never had before.
"The sad thing is, I probably could have lived my entire life like that, content with my mother and her love, but as with all good things it came to an end far too soon. I had just turned nineteen when she became seriously ill. It was a common disease, one that was easily cured on any planet actually within the Empire, but because we lived so far from the other systems there wasn’t any cure available on the entire planet. By the time some of the medicine reached us, it was over. She died in agony and surrounded by poverty, and all because she had been afraid of what the Emperor might do to me. And the worst part of it was that even in her final hours, she never blamed him. She had always been grateful to him for blessing her with me and always spoke of Azusa in near reverent tones.
"I never forgave him for that.
"My mother might have been blinded by him, but I was not. He was a man like any other, perhaps more powerful than others, but he lived and would die like every other man. He had no right to force her into hiding so that she could die destitute and in pain. He had no right to kill me just because he couldn’t keep his pants on. I vowed to make him pay for what he had done, he and his mighty ‘empire’. All of them would pay.
"Since all that had happened to me and my mother was due to the fear he had that I might overthrow his empire, I decided not to make his efforts wasted. I would somehow, and in some way, break it and make it my own. I didn’t actually care what shape it was in, I’d rule over a mountain of bones if I had to, but I would do it. It would all be mine, and all for no other reason than to make Azusa suffer, to destroy that which he had sought so hard to keep. To right the wrongs he did to me and mine, he would pay with everything.
"A group of pirates arrived at Karastaed to hide out. I persuaded them to allow me to join them. That was when I changed my name from Masamoto to Stargrave. It fit in with my new occupation far better than my old, and there was no way anyone would attach me or my mother to it. Within a year’s time I was running the lot of stupid dogs. Eventually, we joined another, larger outfit with more resources than ours. I was running that band in another two years. I continued growing in both power and resources, always going out of my way to cause the Jurai as much pain and suffering as I could. In the beginning it never amounted to much, but I continued doing it as long and as hard as I could; it was my personal demon that never rested, always urging me on to larger and greater things. As time passed, and I gained more resources, I actually managed to be counted as an annoyance to them, and they made me the fourth most wanted man in the galaxy. But still I wanted to hurt them more. I became impatient. I wanted to break them, and I wanted to do it soon.
"It was during the last three years or so that my Royal Juraian powers finally came to the fore. It took me a while, and a bit of Autolycus’s help, but I managed to control and harness the power of the light hawk wings. However, despite their vast power, I hid them. Alone, I could conceivably shatter a fleet, but that was not enough; I wanted to conquer an empire. Besides, I had no idea what measures the Emperor had in countering the effects of the wings. I might not be able to use them upon the royal family at all, for all I knew. Or one of the space trees, perhaps Tsunami itself, might be able to prevent me from using them. And employing them would put so rich a death mark on my head that my own crew might have tried to collect upon it. So I hid my powers as best as I could and continued biding my time until I had the allies I needed to help me in my goals.
"I found those allies in a race that was wronged like myself, the Yagdagron. And then Malgaunt located me and informed me of the existence of the Shihana, and what we might do with it. With that weapon in our hands, we can destroy the empire in a week. All I truly want to do is break Azusa and take his empire from him. I care little for the actual trappings of power that go along with it, save that it’s something that he wants to keep very much. Still, I would be more than happy to share it with someone else. Someone with the same background as me. You’ve earned it.
"Don’t try to lie to me. You know what you are. You wield the light hawk wings, the same as me. The only acknowledged son of Azusa is Yosho, and he’s been missing for centuries after chasing the space pirate Ryouko. He must be long dead by now, for if he had survived, he would have returned to his seat of power at the Emperor’s side. It’s just as well. If he had survived, I would have had to kill him too for being given without a thought that which I could never have. Despite both of us being the same, both of us being our father’s sons, Yosho would have had everything while I would have only been granted death. I could never have tolerated his existence.
"But now I find myself not alone. Somehow, another bastard has survived the Emperor’s long reach. No longer are you alone either, for now we have each other. I mean what I say. Please, join me. All that you could possibly want will be yours. All you have to do is take my hand." Once again Sa’bre held his hand out towards Tenchi.
Tenchi took a step back and shook his head. "Even if everything you said was true, and if it is I’m not sure I can ever forgive my great-grandfather, I could never do what you’re proposing. Listen to yourself. Because you’re angry with your father, you’re going to kill a bunch of people that have nothing to do with this. All you’re doing is the same thing to others that was done to yourself. Can’t you see that?"
Sa’bre looked deeply into Tenchi’s eyes, then hope faded from his own. "It’s not the same thing. If you had traveled the same path I had, you’d understand. But I can see that you’re never going to believe that. I suppose that makes us enemies. How sad. It would have been nice to have a brother, or great-nephew if what you say is true, I suppose."
"So what do we do now?" Tenchi asked, knowing just like Sa’bre that words would be wasted. His great-uncle was like an open book to him. Perhaps they were very similar after all.
"I was going to arrest them," Mihoshi offered while still keeping her gun leveled at Malgaunt.
"We’ve gone far beyond that now," Sa’bre said.
"He’s right," Tenchi agreed. He knew what was coming. Just as Sa’bre could see it in his eyes, so could he look in and see Sa’bre’s soul. Two dreams had met and clashed. Only one could survive. The matter was going to be resolved here and now. Forever. A steely calm settled over him as he knew what was to come.
Sa’bre gave Tenchi another sad look. "Using our full power could conceivably tear this planet apart. That would mean the death of our friends as well as the Shihana for me. I don’t think either of us wants that."
"Agreed," Tenchi said.
"Can you perform matter transmutation with the wings?"
Sa’bre moved to the edge of the clearing, as far away from the Shihana as he could. "I propose a duel. We’ll focus the power of the wings through instruments of our design. That should be more than sufficient for one of us to kill the other without destroying everything in the area."
Memories flashed back to Tenchi’s duel with Kagato, save that this situation seemed almost… civil. As though there was anything civil concerning two people that were about to kill each other. "It will. Swords then?"
"Agreed," Sa’bre said. "What is your name, might I ask?"
"Tenchi," he answered.
"A strong name."
Oddly, in spite of the man Sa’bre was, Tenchi trusted him and knew there would be no betrayal. He moved to the edge of the clearing, standing just as far apart from Sa’bre as he had from Kagato. Once again, he found himself engaging in something he didn’t want to do, but as before, it was a necessary thing. There was no way to safely take out Sa’bre without killing him, and the Shihana could never be allowed to fall into his hands. It would mean the deaths of billions across the galaxy. Even though they had talked for less than five minutes, he knew Sa’bre well enough to understand the man would do exactly what he claimed. It was a choice, an ugly and repulsive one, but one Tenchi still had to make.
Malgaunt stood off to the side with his hands still raised, watching with fascination that he would have denied having. Mihoshi still had her gun leveled at him, but much of her attention was riveted to the duel about to take place. The marshal thought he could draw his sidearm and shoot her before she could fire back, but he did not do it. Under the circumstances, it would be a chancy maneuver, and if Tenchi could summon the light hawk wings, as Sa’bre had suggested, then nothing Malgaunt could do would be able to stop the boy. He didn’t know how fast Tenchi could summon them, but as prepared as he was for his fight with Sa’bre, Malgaunt doubted it would be slower than the time it took him to draw and shoot Mihoshi.
There were several other reasons as well. One was that he was under the distinct impression Sa’bre would not be happy if he interfered; it would offend the pirate’s vague sense of honor. Another was that Mihoshi’s continued existence meant the boy wouldn’t be able to employ his full powers for fear of killing her. If Sa’bre killed the boy, then it would be safe to shoot Mihoshi, but Malgaunt could not afford to do it a moment before. And if Sa’bre somehow lost to the whelp, then an alternate plan would have to be formed. But Sa’bre would win. Malgaunt could just feel it. Still, he began to plot, just in case.
Mihoshi was at a loss for what to do as well. She knew she should have kept her full attention on Malgaunt, but she was worried about Tenchi and allowed her concentration to drift towards him. It reminded her all too much of Tenchi’s battle with Kagato, and like then, Mihoshi was forced to sit on the sidelines and just watch. She wanted to help, but there was nothing she could do when dealing with someone of Sa’bre’s power. All that was left was to pray.
Sa’bre felt there was no need to waste any more time. He had a galaxy to conquer. He willed his pent-up power to surge from him, and again three wings of the light hawk appeared before of him. A resonance echoed within him as Tenchi also summoned three wings of the light hawk as well. It would be an even match.
As one, two of each of the duelist’s wings went into motion, flowing over each of the men that had created them. As they moved down each of their forms, the material of their outfits changed into nearly identical versions of Juraian Royal Battle Armor. The only real differences between the two were that Sa’bre’s uniform carried more black along the arms, legs, and chest, and that instead of the white puffballs that adorned Tenchi’s uniform, stylized gold snakes intertwining with one another had formed on Sa’bre’s. The number and location of the snakes did exactly correlate with the one’s on Tenchi’s outfit, making the decorations seem more alike than different.
The remaining single wing floated before each warrior. As one they reached out and grasped the brightly glowing objects, handling energy that could shatter continents as easily as a child held a toy. The energy glowed brighter for a moment, then the shafts of pure energy changed into the more solid forms of long swords, though the power within them was every bit the equal as the beams of energy they had been before; it was simply in a more focused form.
The synchronicity of each man vaguely disturbed the audience of Malgaunt and Mihoshi. As one, each man brought his sword before him, holding it in a vertical line directly down their center, and gave a deep bow in respect. They rose as one again, mirror images in motion if not in physical appearance.
The twin reflections finally moved apart when Tenchi’s opening move was to hold his sword straight in front of him while Sa’bre held his high and parallel with the ground. Each held their pose for a full thirty seconds, waiting for the other to attack. Sa’bre was the first to change tactics by rushing forward and bringing his sword down towards Tenchi’s head. Two hard strikes were parried. Sa’bre was a bit surprised by the ease Tenchi showed by easily deflecting the blows. The boy had a deceptive strength about him. Sa’bre parried one counterstrike aimed at his chest, then backed off.
With the opening moves finished, both opponents calmly assessed the other. Their speed appeared about equal. Sa’bre had a slight strength and reach advantage, but it was not by so much that he was willing to rely on either one. Also, Tenchi appeared lighter than him, and Sa’bre would have been the first to admit that although he kept himself in good shape, his endurance was not on the level of Ariana or any of the other muscle that made up his gang. That, combined with the fact that he had traveled on foot for the last several days, convinced him that if it came down to a test of endurance, Tenchi would probably win, though Sa’bre doubted if the fight would last that long.
How the focused power of the light hawk wings would react to another with that same power was a mystery to both men. Would all it take was a scratch, or would the blade have to impale the other person in order to have any effect? Sa’bre was not eager to experiment and find out which it was. Best to look for one opening and finish the fight with a single killing stroke. It would take time and skill, but patience often meant the difference between life and death in such duels.
Tenchi’s assessments and concerns were similar to Sa’bre’s. It was conceivable that a scratch could end it all, though Tenchi found himself doubting that. There was a feeling of power surrounding Sa’bre that was similar to Kagato’s. Nothing less than a mortal blow would finish this fight. That meant taking a chance on a light hit scoring if it meant the possibility of getting in a solid strike that would finish the fight altogether. If Tenchi was wrong, he might die, but he had to put his life on the line for the sake of the people Sa’bre would kill if the pirate were victorious.
This time Tenchi closed the distance between the two and lashed out, forcing Sa’bre to parry several attacks before Tenchi leaned too far forward on a lunge and found himself forced onto the defensive. After deflecting several blows, one nearly taking off his head, Tenchi regained his balance. Seeing this, Sa’bre backed off and the warriors examined one another once more.
A melancholy affected Sa’bre slightly. In spite of the fact that Tenchi was what stood between him and the Shihana, which was nothing less than the key to absolute victory, he felt no anger towards the boy. It was such a contrast to the rage he had felt when he had first learned the plant had been taken from him. No later than yesterday, Sa’bre would have been pleased to slowly torture anyone who dared to stand between him and his goals. But now that there was a face to his enemy, and worse, Tenchi was family. Sa’bre felt a sense of loss more than anything else.
In the moment of calm before the duo closed again, Sa’bre considered that his newfound sorrow might have had to do with some deep-seated need to be accepted by a member of his family. In the past, he would have openly scoffed at such foolishness, but since Ariana’s death he found himself looking inward in disturbing ways. Self-examination of anything other than surface motivations was not something Sa’bre had often engaged in, he considered it nothing more than distracting psycho-babble, but now he began to wonder if perhaps he should have questioned himself more closely.
A fierce shake of the head cleared it of such superfluous thoughts. Now was not the time for recriminations. Twenty years of pent-up rage was on the verge of being satiated. All of his goals and dreams were focused on one objective: regaining the Shihana. There could be no questions now, no chance of failure allowed. He had to take back that which he wanted most in the universe. Doubts could be dealt with later; now was a time for action.
Sa’bre brought his sword up just in time to turn aside a particularly vicious thrust by Tenchi. Again he found that his grandnephew had overextended himself slightly, leaving an opening just large enough for him to exploit. Tenchi realized this as well, and hurled himself backward with all of his strength. It proved just enough as Sa’bre’s swing only nicked him in the forehead.
The cut was deep enough to draw blood, but rather than anything so mundane as red liquid, blue fire was what erupted from the cut. There was one small spurt that shot in the air, as though it had been forced under pressure, then it trailed off to nothing more than a soft trickle that slowly seeped from the wound to dissipate in the air.
Sa’bre was taken aback by the result. He had never realized before that with the power of the light hawk wings filling him, pure energy had replaced his blood, and perhaps other things a well. How deep did the changes go? On how deep a level did they occur? Were they no longer even human?
Sa’bre found he had no desire to find out, and proceeded to charge Tenchi, hoping to press the advantage. But his hesitation from the surprising result from his opponent’s wound cost him whatever edge he might have had. Tenchi dodged or parried every thrust Sa’bre used, and retaliated in kind by launching an aggressive attack of his own, though he failed to score with even the lightest of hits. By the end of the display, Sa’bre was left breathing heavily while Tenchi appeared a good bit less winded.
With a moment to think, Tenchi considered what had happened with the wound. He knew from the pain that had accompanied the cut that in spite of the apparent change to his internal structure — and most likely Sa’bre’s — that he would still die if he took a fatal blow. And that Sa’bre had managed to connect, even with only a light caress of the blade, meant the pirate could possibly win the duel. That was as unacceptable as if Kagato had won and taken the girls as his own. Tenchi found he now had yet another choice to make, and if he decided he could go through with it, everything would then fall to Mihoshi.
It was as Sa’bre tried catching his wind that he lamented not training with the blade more often with Ariana. She had been a master of it, and had improved his own skills five-fold. Now he had the sinking feeling that it was not going to be enough. There was something in Tenchi’s skills that convinced Sa’bre the boy had the edge. In order to win, he was going to have to do the unexpected. He was going to chance everything in an all-out assault, hoping it would either catch Tenchi off guard or just power past his defenses. It was a gamble, but the best chance Sa’bre felt he had left. All it took was a half step back to try to lull Tenchi into feeling that he was going to catch his breath, then Sa’bre lunged forward and attacked.
Sa’bre saw Tenchi’s eyes dart towards Mihoshi for a second. The older man caught a glimpse of Tenchi’s eyes, and thought he saw a look of sorrow within his grandnephew that was as deep and resounding as his own, a feat he would have thought inconceivable for any living being other than himself. Then Tenchi turned back to Sa’bre, a look in his eyes as determined as any the pirate had ever seen in his entire life, and lunged forward as well.
As Tenchi rushed forward, sword extended at its fullest, Sa’bre saw that the boy had made a terrible mistake and was leaving himself wide open. Not one to pass up the advantage, no matter how depressed he felt at having to kill perhaps the only family member whose existence he could have tolerated, Sa’bre brought his sword forward to impale Tenchi.
It was as his own blade was no more than a foot away from Tenchi that Sa’bre realized the depths of his mistake. In going for the opening on Tenchi, and the nature of the boy’s attack, Sa’bre was also leaving himself wide open from a strike from Tenchi. There was no doubt in the pirate’s mind that he would be able to run Tenchi through, but there was just as little doubt that he would be unable to avoid Tenchi’s own last, retaliatory blow. Sa’bre wouldn’t even be able to move enough to keep the thrust from being fatal.
No! Death was not an option! It was true that the Shihana would survive intact, and his opponent would be dead, but it meant nothing if Sa’bre was not there to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He didn’t just want his father dead; he wanted to be there to witness it all, to stand triumphant where Azusa had failed so miserably. Sa’bre wanted to see the look on Azusa’s face when he told him of his true origins, as he took the emperor’s wives and daughters from him and killed them as surely as his mother had been killed because of Azusa’s actions. Victory was not enough. Sa’bre needed to survive in order to savor the victory.
With a twist of his body, Sa’bre Masamoto turned his blade away from Tenchi and did everything he could to avoid the incoming sword stroke. It was not enough. He failed, and the sword entered his chest several inches below the left side of his ribcage. It was twisted upward and diagonally through him, coming out above his right shoulder and swinging free from his body.
A blast of blue flame shot outward from the gaping wound, washing over Tenchi, but not harming him in the slightest. Sa’bre staggered backward several paces, somehow remaining upright despite the sword strike going clean through his body. After the initial strike and an overwhelming surge of pain, there was nothing, save a feeling of peace that washed over the pirate captain. He could see that after the initial gout of energy that shot forth from his cut, there was only a small trickle of energy leaking from it now. He stared at the wound, just barely comprehending what it meant to him. He looked up to Tenchi in confusion, though his voice was strong.
"Why did you do that? You would have died too."
Tenchi’s felt no concern about Sa’bre’s continued existence. Just as in the case of Kagato, he knew it would not last long. "I was willing to sacrifice myself to make sure you never got your hands on that plant."
Sa’bre could feel something, or someone calling to him. It was directed not just to his life force, not just to the power within him, but to his entire being. It was summoning him somewhere else. Somewhere nice. All of his resentment and anger left him, though the faint echoes of the memories remained. Those feelings were irrelevant. It was not a feeling of absolution he had, he did not want or need such a thing, it was simply a release of all of his cares as the past ceased to matter to him, and for the first time in over two decades, the present was all that mattered now.
Sa’bre looked at Tenchi, and for one brief instant, understood exactly what his grandnephew was. A soft smile parted Sa’bre’s lips. "So you were willing to die for your cause. How noble. Maybe it’s better this way, and perhaps the emperor will yet be forced to pay for the wrongs he’s done."
As the last word left his lips, Sa’bre felt his corporeal form begin to finally dissolve. Everything that made up the unique creature that he had once been was being summoned elsewhere. As conscious thought began to cease to exist, he found himself hoping that he would get to see Ariana and his mother again.
And then that which had once been Sa’bre Masamoto, ceased to be.
As Sa’bre dissolved, almost exactly as Kagato had, Tenchi felt a sadness clutch his heart, something more profound then when he had ended any of the others’ lives. Sa’bre was the only one that could be responsible for his own actions, but the situation he had been forced into had been all his great-grandfather’s doing. Tenchi released his hold on the power that flowed though him, the energy once more went into hiding. His body returned to that of a normal flesh and blood creature and his sword disappeared as his clothing reverted to normal. He knew in his heart that in some way, his great-grandfather was going to answer for what he had done, assuming it wasn’t all a lie. From the look of complete conviction in Sa’bre’s eyes, Tenchi felt it was the truth. If so, that the older man could have done such unthinking, self-centered things, was unforgivable. And in going to such lengths to cover up the results of his actions wa…
A laser bolt ripped through Tenchi’s right hand. A split second later another went through the knee of his right leg, and then pain flooded out any other thoughts in his mind.
Marshal Alexi Malgaunt was a blur in motion. Sa’bre was dead. That meant it was all up to him to kill both Tenchi and Mihoshi and save the Shihana. Once he had seen Tenchi’s sword disappear, there was no more time for thought as he initiated the plan he had come up with. Twin shots to disable Tenchi, but not kill since the boy’s life might yet be needed. If what Sa’bre had told him about the power of the light hawk wings was true, then Tenchi could not wield them if he was in a great deal of pain. Malgaunt had to take out the most lethal threat first with the only opening he had been given. And it had worked. The boy was kneeling on the ground, gasping in silent pain and was no longer a threat. That left only one last messy detail to deal with.
Drawing and shooting Tenchi had taken only one point six seconds, which Malgaunt hoped would be quick enough to still catch Mihoshi off guard. The marshal turned to fire on her once he saw the second blast at Tenchi strike home, but the blonde’s own reflexes were quick enough for her to lunge to her right, the laser blast Malgaunt had aimed for her head only slicing off part of her long mane of hair. Even as she was dodging, she loosed a shot in Malgaunt’s direction. He was forced to tuck and roll to his right to avoid taking the laser bolt in the stomach. Mud clung to his uniform as he flowed effortlessly from the roll into a firing crouch and aimed at where Mihoshi should have been after completing her own sprawling groundward dive. As he brought the pistol to bear on the target, Malgaunt’s finger froze on the trigger.
Mihoshi had dived right behind the stasis field of the Shihana.
There was no way could he risk firing. Even if Mihoshi revealed herself and he got a clear shot at her, she could still reflexively pull the trigger on her own gun and hit the stasis field, which would be no different from putting his gun to his head and frying his brains. However, Malgaunt had come up with a contingency for that as well; it was the only reason Tenchi had been left alive, albeit in a helpless state.
Malgaunt ran as fast as he could, towards Tenchi, who, despite the pain he was in, refused to cry out; instead he kneeled on the ground and hissed in agony. A quick blow to the back of the head relieved Tenchi from his pain-induced state. As Malgaunt administered the blow, he made certain Tenchi was between him and the Shihana, even as the Shihana was between him and Mihoshi. Using the boy as cover, and roughly wrapping an arm around Tenchi’s throat, Malgaunt used all of his strength to lift the human shield into a standing position and placed his gun to Tenchi’s temple.
"Come out right now, Mihoshi, or I’ll blow the boy’s brains out." When they had first come upon the scene, Malgaunt had noted the manner in which they had stood together, and the way Mihoshi had looked at Tenchi. That had been all he needed to convince him the boy was important to her. He just hoped he hadn’t overestimated Tenchi’s value.
Instead of coming straight up from behind the Shihana, there was a pause. Malgaunt wondered if Mihoshi had even heard him when he caught the sound of an odd mechanical click come from somewhere behind the orb. Panic began to tear at the edges of Malgaunt’s composure. In another second, Mihoshi’s gun came upwards and into view, the barrel aimed directly at the stasis field of the Shihana. Mihoshi then came into sight as she rose upward, keeping the gun pointed right where it was.
That ended any thoughts of trying to risk a shot at Mihoshi. He could see the tension in her trigger finger. There was no way he could get a shot off without her firing into the stasis field. Likewise, there was no way she could risk a shot at Malgaunt without him shooting Tenchi. A classic Juraian Standoff.
"Let’s make a deal." Malgaunt spoke in smooth tones and tried using all of the charisma he could. He needed to get her to trust him, even if only a little bit. "I’ll let you and Tenchi go. You let me have the Shihana. Then we all get what we want."
"I’d never let you have this plant, no matter what."
Malgaunt had known the answer even before she gave it. Seeing the look of total conviction in her eyes was unnecessary, but he had needed to make the gesture. A pity she had to be here now. Once he took over the Galaxy Police, he would need people as devoted to their duty as she was. "I’ll kill the boy."
Mihoshi shook her head again. "Tenchi would never forgive me if I traded his life for someone else’s, especially the billions you’ll kill with this."
"And I can’t leave here without it," Malgaunt said smoothly. "It appears we have a problem. But I can offer an alternative."
Everything that Mihoshi had been trained for made her want to refuse to listen to him. Allowing him to have the Shihana was unacceptable at any level, but he’d kill Tenchi if the situation didn’t change. She couldn’t just let Tenchi die, not if there was some way out. He meant too much to her. "What is it?"
"You want Tenchi and the Shihana. I just want the Shihana. I think Sa’bre and Tenchi had the right idea. Let’s have a contest. A life and death one, since our lives are completely dependent upon the outcome of the contest. Winner take all."
"You mean another duel, don’t you?" The galaxy police officer within her cringed at the words. Bargaining left too much power in the hands of the criminal, but again she could not let Tenchi die.
"Yes," Malgaunt hissed. "Simple but effective. There will be a clear-cut winner and a clear-cut loser. Only one walks away with the prize. What do you say?"
"I can’t." Mihoshi could hear the longing in her own voice.
Malgaunt shifted his grip in Tenchi. He had to take a desperate chance; the boy was getting heavy and he could feel Mihoshi on the verge of accepting. She had to accept or it was all over. "Then the boy dies here and now and I’ll take my chances with just you." He moved his gun hand ever so slightly, hoping it appeared threatening.
"Wait!" Mihoshi cried out. "Deal. But you have to lower your gun first."
Malgaunt shook his head. "Walk out from behind the Shihana, and I’ll released my hold on the boy. Then we’ll put our guns away."
This time Mihoshi answered with only a nod of her head. Slowly she walked away from the stasis sphere and the plant inside, keeping her gun trained on it at all times. Once she was a good ten feet away from it, and in a direct line with Malgaunt, she told him to release Tenchi.
Malgaunt did so, letting the younger boy’s form crash limply into the ground. He walked several paces away from Tenchi, ensuring that even if the boy awakened, he wouldn’t try to throw Malgaunt off by grabbing his leg at an inopportune time and distracting him. "We holster our guns at the same time as well."
Slowly, they moved to do so, though through the entire process they remained tense, focusing their entire attention upon the other and waiting for some sign of betrayal. There was none as each of them placed their side arms back in the holsters on their belts.
Malgaunt took command of the situation. "I don’t think we really need to waste time with useless words. We both know what we want. Let’s keep it simple. We draw on the count of three."
Malgaunt couldn’t believe his luck. What a naive fool Mihoshi was. She must have been even more burned out than he had heard if she was stupid enough to go through with this duel. Whereas it was true he was more than quick enough to gun her down before she even had a chance to draw her weapon, and that a part of him wanted to prove his superiority by playing the duel fairly, there was no chance of that. There was too much at stake for him to risk everything for a momentary surge of ego. That had been Sa’bre’s mistake, the poor, sad, fool whom Malgaunt missed already. He should have killed Tenchi outright rather than trying to recruit him. Malgaunt made a note to have a memorial erected to the late pirate after the Yagdagron won. Right on the grounds of the royal palace. Sa’bre would have appreciated that.
As it stood now, Malgaunt was going to draw at the count of two. And then, after dispatching the helpless Tenchi, all he would have to do was wait for the rescue craft to come. Then complete victory would be his within a month. He could almost taste the power he would have in a few months.
Tenchi’s eyes opened. It took him a moment to wonder why his leg and hand hurt so much, then he noticed Mihoshi and Malgaunt standing apart from one another, their intentions clear from their postures. He managed to get out a low, "No," and tried to focus on the light hawk wings. Pain overrode everything else, and nothing would come.
"One." Malgaunt spoke clearly and crisply, never once showing any sign of the upcoming betrayal. Mihoshi’s look was intense, and Malgaunt had no doubt she was planning on drawing the moment the three left his mouth, but it was already too late. Death would come once he was finished saying…
Tenchi blinked in pain the moment the "T" had left Malgaunt’s lips. As his eyes were shut, he heard the sound of gun moving across leather and the whine of something being fired. In the span of time that it took for him to open his eyes back up, all that was left was the tableau before him.
Malgaunt fell to his knees, his chest going numb. His gaze at Mihoshi was one of disbelief. Of all the things that had happened to him on this journey, of all the surprises, even Funuyaki’s bitter betrayal, this was the one he had anticipated least. "You cheated before I did."
Mihoshi lowered her gun. "I had to. I have a responsibility as a Galaxy Police officer to keep the Shihana from falling into your hands. If that means lying in order to make sure you don’t get it, then so be it."
"It’s not fair," Malgaunt’s voice was weak as he lost all sensation in his body, his laser pistol falling out of his hand as he hit face first into the ground. It shouldn’t have been this way. He was a genius. He had a foolproof plan. He wasn’t supposed to lose. He was supposed to end up the winner, like he always did. No one was supposed to be able to stop him, least of all some burned out Detective First Class. He deserved a better fate than to be ruined and die at the hands of someone like that.
Malgaunt couldn’t stand it. It was all so unfair, and even worse, unnecessary. All of the pain, suffering, misery, and death could have been avoided, if only the fools had given him the promotion he had deserved.
The fifth breath he exhaled into the ground was the last.
Mihoshi lowered her own gun once she saw Malgaunt breathe his last. She had felt bad about cheating, but given a choice between keeping her word and risking him getting his hands on the Shihana, as well as keeping Tenchi alive… well, that was no choice at all.
Mihoshi knew she had almost no chance of beating him, even if he had not been going to cheat. She had remembered all of the stories told of the Marshal’s lightning-quick reflexes, and although her own were considered very fast by most… well, it was a good thing she had decided to draw the instant he started to say two instead of when he finished saying it. Otherwise he would have shot her well before she had a chance to shoot him, and then the galaxy would have been at his mercy. As it was, though…
She looked down at the small, nickel-sized, blackened hole in her uniform, located about an inch to the left of her sternum. That was the nice thing about lasers. They cauterized the wound they made, and there was only a minimal amount of bleeding, if any. That meant she wouldn’t have to worry about getting rid of the blood stains when she clea…
"NOOO!" Tenchi cried out as Mihoshi’s eyes closed and she fell limply to the ground.
To be continued.
Author's notes: I’m afraid I’m still studying the art of the cliffhanger. Hope you don’t mind.
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