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Hello Again

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I have to apologize for my absence.  A couple of things happened since the end of Sink or Swim.  More or less, my life fell apart.  Not in a major, hitting rock bottom sort of way, but in a Get Off Of Social Media All Together sort of way.  I had planned on a new story, starting January 2014, had an outline and everything. But I was never happy with it.  Meanwhile, my personal life collapsed, and while I repaired myself, I took a new job that essentially killed my free time.

That being said, I’m still active on Tumblr, and you can find me at bigdamnproject.tumblr.com, where I regularly post pictures of our heroes from Sink or Swim, Boat Story, 7 Days, and concepts for stories I’m working on.  I stuck around Tumblr when I abandoned everything else because I found that Tumblr pushed me creatively in ways no other social media site did.  And while I was something of an emotional wreck last year, I had a great year creatively, at least in terms of drawing.

So I’m slowly coming back out of my shell.  I’m revising Boat Story so I can get it to a publishable place.  I’m working on the next story after Sink or Swim, tentatively titled “Master of Games,” I’m working on a comic for the Short Run Comix Expo, and I’m starting a podcast.  I don’t know if I’ll have much to post here for a while, but I’ll be active on tumblr.  Come find me and say hi!


New reader? Start here!


Back to Part 74

Frankie stepped into Xiphos’s office.  “You called?”

Xiphos stuck her head out from her quarters.  “Oh hey.  Just in time.”  She motioned Frankie in, and Frankie sat on her bed.  Xiphos had just stepped out of the shower, and was finishing dressing.  She brushed out her long headfur, and then turned to Frankie.

“How’s your boy?”

Frankie beamed.  “Everything is just… nice.”


“Couldn’t be happier.”

“See?  I knew it.  You two are perfect for each other.”

Frankie nodded, smiling, drifting away in an idle daydream.

“So,” Xiphos said.  She stepped into her office and returned with a clipboard. “The Future.”  She handed Frankie the clipboard.  “Sign this please.”

Frankie eyed the clipboard.  “That wasn’t much of a conversation.”  She took the clipboard and read it over.  And then she looked up at Xiphos.  “What is this?”

“We’re going to be sailing more.  You guys went through a lot to get our ship back, so we’re sailing, because it’d be a waste if we didn’t.  And because it’s all I really know how to do, and…  And if we’re sailing more… well, I want you to be my First.”

“Your first mate?”  Frankie asked.  “But-“

“You’re the smartest person on this ship,” Xiphos said.  “You handle people better than anyone I know.  And your negotiating… I need you, Frankie.  I need you because I’d be lost without you.  We all would be.”

Frankie looked down at the clipboard.  Her ears dropped.

Xiphos held her breath.  She looked ill.

Frankie looked up at Xiphos, and hugged her.  “Of course I will.”

Xiphos laughed and hugged her.  She touched her head to Frankie’s, and then kissed her on the cheek.  Frankie blushed, and signed the paper.

“Now,” Xiphos said, taking the clipboard back.  “When we get back to Adleshore we need to get you a coat.  You have to have a Civilian Navy coat.  It’s important.”

“I get a first mate patch, right?”

“Of course,” Xiphos said.

“Then I get to put your captain patch back on, too.”

Xiphos’s smile faded.  “Yeah…”

“Don’t I need to take an exam?”  Frankie asked.

“Nah,” Xiphos said.  “I can sign off for you, and I’ll teach you what you don’t already know.

Frankie nodded.  “So, Enia…”

“Yeah,” Xiphos said, her ears dropping.  “It’ll be nice to… it’ll be nice.”

Frankie stood and stretched.  “How much time do we have?  I need to shower still.”

“You have an hour,” Xiphos said, looking at her watch.

Frankie turned to leave.

“Hey, Princess,” Xiphos said after her.

Frankie turned back, her ears alert, hands behind her back.  “Yes, Captain?”

Xiphos flinched.  Then she said, “I- I love you.”

“Oh,” Frankie said.  “I know.”  She smiled and left Xiphos’s quarters.

“Hey!  You jerk!  I take it back.”  She could hear Frankie giggle from the bridge.

The Nina pulled into the port city of Talanga in Enia just after noon.  The sun shone bright in the sky, and Xiphos opened up the vents as soon as the surfaced.  She breathed deep and piloted the Nina into a dock.

Billy waited for them, and threw his arms around Xiphos as soon as she set foot on the dock.  “Hello, Kitten,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.  “I’m so glad you found us.”

“It wasn’t so hard,” Xiphos said, cracking a smile.  “I looked at the Carrier Address on the Relaygram.”

“Clever,” Billy said.  “But you’re here to visit!  That’s wonderful.”

Xiphos looked back at The Nina, just in time to see Toby and Frankie step out, followed shortly by Martin.  “We needed a break.”

Billy looked up at the crew of The Nina.  “Well, we’re glad to have you.  Come on, my van is this way.”

Billy took them to a little village on the outskirts of Talanga.  It nestled up to a quiet cove, and Xiphos caught a glimpse of The Rose at a small but serviceable pier.  It was like seeing a royal standard flying over a palace; Cait was here.  Xiphos’s ears dropped, her tail twitched behind her.  She struggled to not wring her hands in her lap.

Martin stayed glued to the window as they passed through the village.  Xiphos looked over his shoulder.  The roads were narrow, and Billy slowed his van so he didn’t hit the pedestrians that wandered in and out of the streets.  There was a market, and a temple, though Xiphos didn’t for which god, a school and townhouses.  Billy pointed out his practice, a three-story townhouse with a clinic on the bottom.  He smiled when he did, and Xiphos did too.

Billy pulled off onto a small dirt road and when Xiphos saw the cottage she knew right away.  It was small, just a few rooms, but neat and angular and… perfect in that Molyneux way.  Xiphos sat up, leaned forward, held her breath.  Toby sat up next to her.  He didn’t say anything.  He knew she was looking for Cait, just like he was.

Billy pulled up in front of the cottage, and Toby and Frankie leapt out of the van.  Tre peeked his head out of the door to the cottage.  He ran out to greet his former crew mates, scooping both of them up into his arms.  Martin followed, hands in his pockets, and waited patiently to shake Tre’s hand.

Xiphos held back, watching the reunion, holding herself.  Billy stood next to her.  He put his hand on her back.

“Everything okay, Kitten?”

“Yeah,” Xiphos said softly.  “I’m fine.  Everything’s fine.”

Billy pushed her forward gently.  “Come on, let’s go see Cait.  She’s waiting for you.”

Xiphos’s ears dropped.

“Oh pssht,” Billy said.  “None of that now.”

It was a simple cottage, but somehow it was beautiful and sophisticated and refined.  Cait had made it all of those things from its simple elements, not changing the house itself, just showing it what it could be.

Cait held court in her kitchen.  She had a wood-fired stove, on which she kept an intricate cast iron teapot.  She poured tea into simple white handleless teacups, and handed them out to her new audience.

“And of course Mr. Escalera.”  She gave a cup to Martin.

“Try it,” Frankie said.  “It’s Molyneux Tea.  You’ll never forget it.”

She watched eagerly as Martin took a tentative sip.  His eyes widened, and Frankie grinned.

Dios mio,” Martin said softly.  “Wow.”


Cait turned her attention to Toby.  “Toby, dear, I was hoping to have all of you over for dinner, but I’m afraid my skills are-“

“I’ll do it,” Toby said, his tail wagging behind him. “What did you have in mind?”

Cait looked up in time to catch Xiphos walk in.  “I’m sure you can figure something out from what is in the fridge.”  She stepped out from her audience.  She pulled Xiphos into a long hug.  “Hello, dear.”

Xiphos closed her eyes and sighed, leaning into the hug, hugging Cait close.  Everyone else suddenly found other things to be interested in.  Cait held her out at arms length and looked her over.

“We heard about The Nina.  We were so worried.”

“It wasn’t my finest moment,” Xiphos mumbled, looking away.

“Sadly, it wasn’t Nara’s either,” Cait said.  She smiled down at Xiphos.  “But you’re okay.”

“Yeah,” Xiphos said.  “We’re all okay.”

Cait nodded.  She looked around her kitchen.  “Tre, Billy, I trust you can keep our guests entertained.  I’d like to speak to the Captain.  Make sure Toby has what he needs for dinner.”

Billy nodded.  He turned to Frankie and Martin.  Tre swooped in and opened the fridge door for Toby, whose tail hadn’t stopped wagging.

Cait took the teapot with her.  “Come, dear, let me show you my garden.”  She took Xiphos outside and up a winding path to the top of a hill.  There she kept a metal table and two chairs, and a small collection of flowers.  The garden, Xiphos knew, was a pretense.  The hill looked out over the cove, over its impossibly blue waters, and of course, out over The Rose.

Cait pulled out a chair for Xiphos and then sat in her own.  She placed the teapot carefully in the center of the table.  She sipped her tea, looking at the ocean, content.

“You’ve been quiet, dear,” Cait said.

Xiphos pulled her jaw tight.  “I…”  She looked away from Cait.  “It’s stupid.”

“Hmm,” Cait said.  She sipped her tea.  “I refuse to believe that.”

Xiphos collected herself.  She closed her eyes, sighed, and said, “I’m a failure.”

“Nonsense,” Cait said simply.  “You’re doing much better than I was at twenty-two.”

“I lost my ship, and I could have gotten them killed, and I almost got Frankie killed, and…”

“And did you learn nothing?” Cait asked.  She took another thoughtful sip of her tea.

“Well, I mean, of course I did.  I’d never put them in that situation again.  Ever.”


Xiphos dropped her eyes.  “I don’t know?”

Cait shifted, turning to look better at Xiphos.  “They used considerable resources of their own to get The Nina back.”

Xiphos frowned.  “I was so mad at them when they showed me The Nina in dry dock, like just for a minute.  They paid for that.  All of it.  I never asked them to.”

“You didn’t need to,” Cait said.  “They’re your crew.  You fell, and when you came back to your senses, they were there to pick you up.”

“They’re still here,” Xiphos said softly.  “They kept telling me that, and I didn’t understand.”

Cait gave her a knowing smile.  “You’re not a failure, dear.  You’re much stronger than me when I was twenty-two.  I was an empty shell of a person.  I was alone and scared and I didn’t think I deserved anything.  I went out on my little boat, and if I had died I didn’t think anyone would have missed me.  From what Toby told me, you got back to port, and the next morning you were out working.  That’s bravery, dear, bravery I never had at your age.” Cait sipped her tea.  “I ran away.  You kept going.”

Xiphos stared down at her tea cup, her jaw trembling.  Cait leaned over and refilled her cup.

“So when are you leaving?”

“I figured we’d stay a few days and then we’ll head back and go back to work.”

“No,” Cait said, “when are you leaving?”

Xiphos looked up at her.  “You…”

“I know you have figured out by now that I did not write that Relaygram.”

Xiphos, her ears alert, looked back down at the cove.  “I was going to go soon, and depending on how things go, I’ll likely be back tonight.  But if I’m not…”

“I will not wait up,” Cait said.


Xiphos looked at the hand drawn map Cait had made.  She stood at the bus stop where she had been left, a few miles from Cait’s cottage, a bag slung over her shoulder.  She looked around, for an unmarked intersection, and spotted a small dirt path that led into thick woods.  Xiphos swallowed hard and started forward.

She came out into a clearing and instantly knew she was in the right place.  Back against the far side of the clearing was a cottage, much like Cait’s.  Smoke rose from its chimney.  Off to the side, laundry had been hung up on the line to dry, and in front was a garden.  Xiphos approached slowly, only stopping when she saw the tail bobbing up and down in the garden.  She shifted nervously, foot to foot, and then cleared her throat.

“Kendra Williams?”  She said.

The gardener stood.  She was tiger, tall and muscular.  Mud stained the knees of her simple pants and her tank top.  On her head she wore a bandana.  She wiped her hands off with a towel. “Yes?  How can I-?”  She stopped when she looked up at Xiphos, her eyes growing wide.  She gasped slightly.

For a moment, they stared at each other, both unsure of what to say.  Finally, Jace said, “You got my message.”

“I cried for days,” Xiphos said, her ears dropping into attack position.

“I’m sorry,” Jace said.  “It was necessary.  I was presumed dead.  A message from Cait to you, if intercepted, would create extra credibility.”

Xiphos stared.

“And,” Jace said, sliding her hands into her pockets, “I wanted you to know where I was…”

Xiphos breathed out through her nose.  She looked at the cottage.  “This is nice.”

“Yeah,” Jace said.  “I owe Cait for everything.  She managed to talk the Enian government into overlooking the unsavory parts of my past.  I’m registered as a Transitional Citizen, but I’m free.”

“You mean Kendra Williams is registered,” Xiphos said.

Jace nodded.  “Jace Norton-Li is dead.”

“And Burian Lake?”

Jace smiled.  “I had two volunteers.”

“Ah.  Did your dreads go with Jace?”

Jace laughed and ran her hand over her head.  “A fresh start felt nice.”  She started forward.  “Do you want a drink or-?”  She stopped when Xiphos took a step back.

“Look, just let me get through this, okay?  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since I got that message.”

Jace’s ears perked.  She started to speak, but thought the better of it.”

“That Relaygram fucked me up.  I thought I was done with you, but I cried hard when I got that message.  The whole,” she swallowed hard, “murder… thing still bothers me.  A lot, actually.  But I can accept that you were in a situation where it was required of you.”

“I have to live with it too,” Jace said.

Xiphos pulled her jaw shut.  “I’ve done a lot of soul searching.  And… and…”  She closed her hands into fists.  “And I want to try again.”

Jace’s tail stood out from her body.  “I would like that a lot.”  She edged forward cautiously until she stood in front of Xiphos.

“It might not be the same,” Xiphos said.

“No,” Jace said.  “Uhm… you should know, if we’re going to start fresh, that I took another lover while we were apart.”

“Roz?”  Xiphos asked, completely unfazed.

“Yeah.  How did you know?”

“I saw how she looked at you,” Xiphos said.  “I’m familiar with that look.”

Jace nodded.  “So we’re good?”

“No.  I mean, yeah.  I mean,” Xiphos looked around the clearing.  “I don’t know.  It’s really complicated.  But I can’t deny how I feel about you.  Also,” she punched Jace’s arm, “that’s for that fucking message.”

Jace rubbed her arm.  “I’m really sorry.”

Xiphos visibly relaxed.


“Yeah, actually.  That helped.”

Jace took Xiphos’s hand in hers.  She raised it to her lips and gently kissed it.  “I want to make it up to you.  Just tell me how.”

Xiphos nodded.  She leaned forward and Jace pulled her into her arms.  Xiphos sighed.

“Come back with me to Cait’s.  Toby’s cooking, and I’m sure he and Frankie will want to see you again.”

“That sounds good,” Jace said.  “I need to get cleaned up first.  And how about a drink?”

Xiphos looked up.  “That sounds okay.”

Jace smiled.  She took Xiphos hand and led her into her home.  Xiphos closed her eyes as they crossed the threshold, feeling the future rushing towards her, new and frightening and exciting and so promising.  She squeezed Jace’s hand.  She wouldn’t have to do it alone.


Back to Part Part 74

New Reader? Start here!


Back to Part 73 - Forward to Part 75

As soon as The Nina was taken out of dry dock, Xiphos was on board.  She had waited while the dock workers slowly pushed her back into the water, shifting nervously from foot to foot.  She nearly jumped inside, inspecting every tiny corner, every rivet, every inch.  When she started the engines, she listened closely, listened to the rhythm of the pulses, her hand on the control console.  For a moment, she sat in the center of the crew quarters on the floor, her ears alert, its vibrations coursing up her arm.

Xiphos lay back.  This was Nina.  She closed her eyes and breathed deep.

Xiphos took The Nina to her old dock and quickly called her crew.  And then she sailed on a quick trip around the island of Perough.  Halfway around, Martin joined her on the bridge.

Capitan,” Martin said, containing a smile.  “How does she sail?”

“Well,” Xiphos said.  “She’s sailing well.”  She turned and looked at Martin, sitting back in the helm’s chair.  “Was this your doing?”

Martin beamed.  “No, capitan.  It was Frankie’s idea.”

“Of course it was.  I should have known.”  Xiphos leaned to the side, propping her head up with her hand.  “Come sit with me.  I have questions for you.”

Martin sat down next to Xiphos.  “Yes, capitan?”

“Why do you have a giant empty house?”

Martin only laughed.  He turned away, looking out the front of The Nina.

“There are pieces to this puzzle I’ve been thinking about,” Xiphos continued.  “You’re good with Frankie, like instantly.  You treat her like a sister.  And you sew, which tells me you do this a lot.  Or did.”

Martin cast her a sidelong glance.  “You have thought about this much.”

“I realize I have not been as honest with you as I could have been, but I have come clean,” Xiphos said.  “It’d be nice to have everything on the table.”

Martin thought for a moment.  “My family and I, we had a fight.”

Xiphos’s eyes widened.  “Oh…”

“You see, capitan, I was not always a nice person.  When I was younger I joined a gang.  At first it was fun, but then it became serious.  And after I had been arrested, my family decided they did not want to speak to me anymore.  I damaged our family’s,” he thought for a brief moment, “reputation.  On Cern, reputation is everything.”

“So they sent you away,” Xiphos said softly.

“Yes, capitan,” Martin said.

“But the house?”

“After the Referendum, I learned that my family would move to Anchorhead.  They did not tell me.”

“Oh,” Xiphos said.  “Oh no.”

“But before they leave, I went to say goodbye.  I wanted to see my little sisters again one more time.  I helped raise them, capitan.  And when I spoke to my father, he gave me pity and left the house for me.  I told him I would keep it ready for their return.”

Xiphos started to speak.  She wanted to say that they weren’t coming back, but Martin already knew this.  He had given her their master suite.  “I’m so sorry.”

Martin nodded.  “It is what it is, capitan.”

Xiphos dropped her eyes away.  “I don’t know if it means anything, but you’re my crew, and I’m not leaving you.”

Martin reached over and patted Xiphos on the head.  “I know, capitan.”  He smiled.  “So where are we going first?”

Xiphos looked out the front of The Nina.  In the distance, Fort Jayneweigh slid into view, out from behind the island of Perough.  “You all have been working so hard.  We need a break.  So we head to Enia.”

“So close,” Martin said, though he was not disappointed.

“Yeah.  We have friends there.  It’ll be nice to see them again.”

Martin fell silent next to her, and she found no need to speak.  Together, they watched the ocean roll past them.




The Decline slipped into the Yonu Chain in the early morning.  They kept their profile low, blending in to the trade lanes between the islands until they found the right island.  Less than a day later The Decline left the chain.

Roz sat at the helm, staring blankly at the ocean.  Liam entered from the gallery and handed her a cup of coffee.  For a moment they sat together in silence.

“I know it’s hard, but this is what she wanted,” Liam said softly.

“It was a nice place to leave her,” Roz said.

“And what about our promise?”

Roz thought for a quiet moment.  She sipped the instant coffee, contemplated its cheapness, and said, “I think we can do it.”

“We’d be losing our identity,” Liam said.  Roz couldn’t tell which way he leaned on that statement.

“What identity?  Are we still Ochoa?”

“I am,” Liam said.

“Just us, then,” Roz said.  Her ears twitched.

“Still just us.”

“So what does it matter that we be Ochoa?  What will we be, the sad remains of a clan, the clan everyone takes pity on?  ‘There’s the last Ochoa, isn’t it sad, do you think they miss home? How hard it must be for them.’”

Liam said nothing, because he knew where all of this was coming from.


“Or,” Liam said.

“Or we could be Lake.  We could be Burian Lake.  We could keep the ghost alive, keep the memory sailing.”  Her eyes shone as she spoke.

“We could keep our promise to Jace.”

That part was important.  Roz and Liam shared the silence that statement brought them.  “She helped us when we needed it.”

“She made us her crew when she probably shouldn’t have.”

“She trusted us,” Roz said.

“And her parting wish was that we take over the mantle of one of the greatest pirates that ever lived.”

Roz turned to Liam.  “She asked us to do that.  She had faith that we could live up to that name.”

Liam smiled, suddenly finding himself lost in Roz’s enthusiasm.  “She did, didn’t she?”

Roz sat back, beaming, and said, “Then let’s go be Burian Lake.”

Liam looked out the front of The Decline.  To the east the sun rose, setting the sky ablaze.  After the fall of the Ochoa clan, after the betrayal of one of their own, after they lost their captain, the sunrise felt more like a new start than everything before.

“Yeah,” Liam said.  “Let’s go be Burian Lake.”


Back to Part 73 - Forward to Part 75

New reader? Start here!


Back to Part 72 - Forward to Part 74

For the next few days, Toby brought Xiphos her meals in her room.  No one blamed her, no one tried to ply her from her room.  Frankie checked in to make sure she was taking care of herself.  Toby eventually started staying with the meal he brought, sitting with her while she ate.  They rarely talked — Toby knew he wouldn’t get anywhere anyway.  So they sat together at the window, watching the waves roll on the ocean.

On the fourth morning, Toby took his breakfast with Xiphos.  They ate in silence, a coffee tray between them, staring out the window.  A gentle knock rapped on the door, and Frankie stuck her head in.  Toby looked over at Xiphos.  She dropped her eyes away, but she didn’t say no, which was as good a response as any.  He waved Frankie over.  She leaned in close and said, “We have a time.  This afternoon.”

Toby’s ears perked.  “Yeah?”

“I’m getting transportation ready, and then I’ll let you know.”

Toby nodded.  Frankie smiled, leaning down to touch her head to his, and kissed him gently on his forehead.  She left them alone.

Xiphos turned to Toby.  “You guys are so cute.”  Her voice was hoarse.

Toby blushed.  “Yeah.”

“How’s it been?”

“Nice,” Toby said softly.

“You guys doing it yet?”

Toby rolled his eyes.

Xiphos smiled weakly, but it was a smile all the same, and Toby couldn’t help but feel a small victory in it.

“Last night,” Toby started, “she fell asleep in my arms.”

Xiphos beamed.

“She trusts me.  Trusts me.  I just…” He held out his hands.  “It’s incredible.  It’s the best thing in the world.  And when she woke me up this morning she looked so… just content and comfortable.”

Xiphos smiled.  She reached over and took his hand in hers.  “I told you you guys would be happy together.”  Her smile slowly faded.  She looked away, but she still held his hand.

“I didn’t think when I walked away from her that…” she started.  “I thought I was done with her.”

“Jace?”  Toby asked.

Xiphos cast him a sidelong stare, and then said, “It wasn’t supposed to hurt.  Not like that.”

“You love her,” Toby said.

Xiphos breathed a long sigh out her nose.  She took her hand back and held it in her own, rubbing her fingers thoughtfully.  “I thought…  I don’t even know.  I thought if I would walk away and not break then I had done it.  That that was all I needed to do.  But she died and it hurt.  Gods, it hurts so much.  And I wonder if she felt that too.  If I had known that’d be the last thing I’d say to her…”  Her jaw started to tremble.

“You can’t dwell on it,” Toby said softly.

Xiphos wiped tears away from her muzzle.

“It’s what I deserve.”

There was another knock at the door.  Frankie padded back into the room, but hesitated when she saw Xiphos.  Toby stood and crossed over to Frankie.

“Things have gotten worse,” Frankie said softly.

“No,” Toby said.  “She’s talking, and that’s something.”

“Has she said anything about Jace?”

Toby shook his head.  He looked back over at Xiphos.  He was fairly confident she wasn’t listening in.

“Let me take over,” Frankie said.  “I’ll help her get ready to go.”

Toby nodded.  He collected the breakfast service and left Xiphos’s room.

Xiphos looked over at Frankie, her ears pinned to her head.  Frankie slipped into the bathroom and started the shower.  When she returned, she found Xiphos removing her coat.  She stood with her back to Frankie, and Frankie could see her scars.  She turned away, giving Xiphos her privacy.

“After your shower, come downstairs.  We have an appointment.”

Xiphos said nothing.  She turned and slipped into the bathroom.




Martin brought a car around the front of the house.  Frankie quickly ushered Xiphos into the back, and took her place up front next to Martin.  Toby slid into the back, and they started down the mountain.  Xiphos looked back at the house, and then turned back to Martin.

“So are we just not going to talk about your house?”  She asked.

Martin let out a little laugh.  “It is not my house.”

“What?”  Xiphos said.  Frankie turned to look at Martin, but her expression had gone blank.

“Well, that’s not entirely true.  It belongs to my family.  They left it in my care.”

“You had a house and we stayed on the Nina?”  Xiphos asked, raising her voice.

“The Nina was home,” Martin said simply.

Xiphos opened her mouth to argue, but Martin cut her off.  “You can see from here,” he said.

Frankie turned back to the front of the car.  “Oh,” she said softly.

Toby leaned forward.  “They’re early.”

“What?”  Xiphos asked.

“No matter,” Martin said.  “You’ll see when it is time.”

Xiphos leaned forward to Frankie.  “What?  What is going on?”

Frankie turned to Xiphos, gave her an enigmatic smile, and returned to looking out the windshield.

Xiphos sat back and frowned, crossing her arms over her chest.  Toby patted her shoulder.

Martin pulled the car onto the docks and parked.  He led them into a mass of workers and cargo trucks, crews and passengers, all swarming around them.  Toby kept a hand on Xiphos’s shoulder, guiding her gently down the dock.  She kept her eyes down on the docks, her ears low on her head.

Martin ducked into a large building.  Inside, a dozen ships sat in dry dock.  Workers moved back and forth, rebuilding the ships, and the noise was overwhelming.  Xiphos held her hands over her ears, her eyes darting from ship to ship.  The fur on her neck stood on end.  Martin strode confidently and stopped in front of a dock.  He waited for Xiphos to catch up.  He turned and pointed.

A salvage ship had back into the dock.  A crave lifted its cargo and brought it slowly towards them.  Xiphos’s mouth dropped open.  Her knees grew weak, and she sank to the concrete dock, her eyes open wide, tears streaming down her cheeks.

The crane set down the broken but intact hull of The Nina.  Xiphos reached out and placed her hand on its hull and heaved heavy sobs.

A long moment later she calmed, and her eyes snapped to Martin, Frankie, and Toby.  She narrowed her eyes and pointed to the closest door.  Martin beamed and walked outside.

“WHAT THE HELL?”  Xiphos said, her hands shut into fists.

“Are you not pleased?”  Martin asked.

“HOW DO YOU JUST-?”  Xiphos pointed back at the dry docks.  “How,” she said, dropping her voice.  “Why?”

“We told you,” Frankie said.  “We’re still here.”

“You…” Xiphos said, her eyes drifting away from them.  “You were trying to telling me and…”

“You were too stubborn to listen?”  Frankie asked, smiling.

Xiphos pulled her jaw tight.  Then she relaxed, her entire body untensing.  “You got The Nina back.  Why?”

“We’re your crew,” Martin said.  “Sink or swim.”

“We’ll go together,” Toby said.

Xiphos turned back to The Nina.  “When will she be ready?”

“In about a month,” Frankie said.

Xiphos nodded.  “I know where we’ll take her first.”


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There were other rooms of the house, but Toby, Frankie, and Martin spent most of their time in the kitchen. They hadn’t said it, but it was the one room that felt the most like home. Any two of their bedrooms were bigger than all of the crew quarters of the Nina, and while the kitchen was its own great expanse, it felt the most enclosed. It was the only place in the house that felt right.

Toby pulled a tray out of the oven. Martin and Frankie, in mid-conversation, craned their necks to see what he had made. Small fist-sized buns cooled on the tray. Toby looked them over,  his eyes flicking over them with a mix of satisfaction and anticipation.

“Anyways,” Frankie continued, speaking in Ceban to Martin, “Toby’s on board. He’s put down his share.”

Martin frowned. “But what about his plans? He’s been so excited about this idea, I’d hate to take it from him.”

“It’s for Xiphos,” Frankie said simply. “I didn’t even finish my sentence before he agreed.”

Martin looked back over at Toby. “It seems like a waste.”

“He’ll be fine,” Frankie said. “At any rate, he has a fallback plan. And what about you? Have you found work?”

“Oh sure,” Martin said, waving this off with the back of his hand. “They can always use people at the docks. How about you?”

“Customs,” Frankie said. “Not sure what capacity yet, but they were excited to have me, so…” She shrugged.

“Government work,” Martin said, smiling. “Good for you.”

Toby set a plate of the fresh buns down on the table. “What are you guys talking about?”

Frankie put her finger to her lips. “You know what.”

“Oh,” Toby said. “Right. So can we make it work?”

“It’s just a question of finding someone who will do it for the money we have.”

“And who aren’t Molyneux,” Toby added.

Frankie frowned. “I had forgotten about that.”

“Forgotten about what?” Xiphos came into the kitchen, and for the briefest moment, Frankie was caught off guard.

“Just,” she started, but couldn’t think of an acceptable answer.

“Did you know Frankie will be working at customs?” Martin said.

Xiphos looked at frankie with her hands on her hips. “Oh yeah? Government work?”

“Is good, no?” Martin said.

Xiphos said, “Yeah. She’s good at that.” Before she could ask again, Toby handed her one of the buns.

“Here, try this.”

Xiphos took a bite. “Oh shit. That’s good. Barbecue pork?”

Toby nodded. “Billy showed them to me on the Prime Meridian. It’s a Beiland staple.”

“It’s really good,” Xiphos said again.

“So we just need to set a price,” Frankie said.

“Whaf, tof sell thum?” Xiphos asked, her mouth full.

Toby nodded, looking away. He blushed a little, his ears dropping.

Xiphos grinned and hit him on the shoulder. “Look at you!”

“With material costs averaging about one league fifty, I think he could sell for three and be comfortable,” Frankie continued.

“Yeah, dude,” Xiphos said, beaming. “I’d pay three leagues for this. Are you setting up a shop?”

“Just a stall,” Toby said quietly.

“We are looking today for a good place,” Martin said. Since the conversation had started he had eaten three, and eyed a fourth bun hungrily. He looked at his watch. “And we should leave soon to find a spot.”

Toby wiped his hands off on a towel. “Yeah, okay. Let me clean up.”

Within a moment, Frankie and Xiphos were alone. Xiphos finished her pork bun, and then fidgeted. Frankie quietly cleaned up.

“Uhm,” Xiphos said, not looking at Frankie. “Can we go for a walk?”

Frankie washed her hands at the sink, and replaced the towel she had been using. “Where would you like to go?”

“Actually,” Xiphos said, “I’d like to see what this place looks like on the outside during the day.”

“Sure. Lead the way.”

The house itself was large, covered in white stucco, and topped with a red tiled roof. The sun shone off the side of the house, and a gentle wind from the ocean played in Xiphos’s headfur. Frankie and Xiphos walked the perimeter of the house in relative silence. Every so often Xiphos shielded her eyes, looking up at the mansion before them.

“You look better,” Frankie said.

Xiphos shrugged.

Frankie said nothing.  It wasn’t a denial or a retreat, so she decided to work with what she could.

A path wound around the house, and in the back they found a disused swimming pool.  Water collected in the bottom, green and full of detritus.

“Oh,” Xiphos said softly.  “This would be nice to get going again.” She kicked a rock into the pool.  Hands on her hips, she surveyed the area, spotting a path that led from the pool to a racket ball court.  She couldn’t imagine ever using it.  When she turned back, Frankie was watching her, her hands behind her back.  Her expression had gone blank, and Xiphos frowned.  She knew what that meant.

“What?”  Xiphos asked.

“Just thinking,” Frankie said.

“You are not.  You’re… analyzing me.”

Frankie said nothing to this.  She approached Xiphos and took her arm.  “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”

“Not that much better,” Xiphos said.  And then she looked surprised, as if she had not expected to say so.  She looked away, tracing her eyes up the green-capped mountain the mansion sat on.  Again, Frankie seemed to revel in silence.  Before she could stop herself, Xiphos continued.  “I messed up everything.”

Frankie started forward, towards the ball courts.  “Losing the Nina wasn’t your fault.”

Xiphos pulled her jaw tight.  “I put all of you in danger.”

Frankie let her eyes wander.  “You did what you thought was best.  We are your crew.  And you needed our help.”

“I could have gotten all of you killed.”

Frankie turned back to look at the mansion.  She turned Xiphos back with her.  There had to have been at least a dozen rooms, and Xiphos started filling in the larger windows from Relay programs: a library, a ballroom — there had to be a ballroom — one of those rooms with all the game heads on the all.  Xiphos frowned, furrowing her brow.  Frankie only said, “We’re still here.”

Xiphos sighed.

Frankie led Xiphos back to the house, steering her around the front to investigate further.  A large circular drive nestled up to the entryway.  From the drive they could see the ocean, and Xiphos took a deep breath.  Frankie smiled.

“What?”  Xiphos asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Cait does that, smells the ocean.  It’s like it reconnects her.”

Xiphos blushed.  She mumbled, but nothing Frankie could make out.

A motorcycle sped up the drive.  He pulled around the drive and stopped in front of Xiphos.  “COS Post” was painted on the side of the bike.

Capitan Xiphos Haari?” The biker asked.

Xiphos nodded.  The biker handed her a small envelop with the word “Relaygram” printed on the top.  The biker nodded back at Xiphos and peeled out of the drive.

Frankie tried to look over Xiphos’s shoulder.  “From Cait?”

“I dunno,” Xiphos said softly.  She slid her finger down the envelop, slicing it open.  She read the Relaygram.  Her eyes grew wide.  The Relaygram slipped from her finger.  She sank to her knees.

“Xiphos!”  Frankie dropped to her knees next to her.

“No no no no…” Xiphos whispered over and over, tears welling in her eyes.

“What?  What is it?”

Xiphos only stared out at the sea.

Frankie grabbed the Relaygram off the ground.



Jace is dead.



Xiphos hugged her knees, rocking back and forth, tears freely flowing.  Frankie hugged her close, and did her best to be the stronger of the two.


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It was well past midnight when Xiphos returned to the house on the hill. She slipped in a back door she had discovered that morning and skulked through what must have been at one time the servants work areas; a small room for boots, a laundry, and into the kitchen. She stopped at the edge, finding the kitchen well lit and, frustratingly, in use.

Toby, Frankie, and Martin all looked up at her from the butcher block table off in the corner.

“Hey,” Toby said, surprised. He started to stand, but froze when Xiphos looked away. “Where have you been?”  He made sure he sound curious, and only curious.  He thought he did a decent enough job, but Frankie and Martin shared a look and Toby sulked.

“Nowhere,” Xiphos said, almost to no one in particular.

Martin grabbed a plate off a counter behind them and held it out for Xiphos. “We shared dinner, but you were not here. Please.”

Xiphos frowned, her gaze fixed on the floor.  Her ears dropped low on her head.  “That’s okay,” she said softly.  Without looking at them she shuffled around the table and out the door.  Toby got up to follow her, but Martin caught him by the arm.

“I want to go see-” he started.

Martin shook his head.  “No no.  Let her have her time.”  He patted the table, and Toby sat back down.  He looked over at Frankie, as if for reenforcement, but Frankie only nodded.

“She’s hurt,” Martin said.  “Did you notice her shoulder?”

“If she’s hurt she needs our help,” Toby said, his voice starting to raise.

“No,” Frankie said softly.  “He means her COS captain’s patch.”

“She no longer has it,” Martin said.

“You think she threw it away?”  Toby asked.

“Maybe so,” Martin said.

Toby frowned.  That didn’t bode well at all.  He hadn’t noticed.  He hadn’t noticed because Xiphos hadn’t wanted him to.  He sat back in his chair and let out his breath slowly.  “Where do you think she’s been going?”

“My guess?”  Frankie said.  “I bet she’s looking for work.”

Martin nodded.

“You think so?”  Toby asked, looking back and forth at both of them.

“She smells like engine fuel and sea salt,” Martin said.  “She’s been down on the docks.  Probably she has found a job with the harbor.”

“She’s in survival mode right now,” Frankie said.  “This is what she knows how to do, and so she’s doing it.”

Toby sat for a moment.  “This is what she was doing before I left to go Traveling.  But we’re here.  We’re not leaving her.”

Martin took a piece of the roasted vegetables Toby had made for dinner off of Xiphos’s plate and chewed thoughtfully.  “Maybe she does not know this.”

“I think Billy might call this ‘being in shock’,” Frankie said.

Toby let his eyes fall to his hands.  “I don’t know what to do.”

Frankie sat forward and patted his arm.  “She would let us in if she wanted us in.”

“She has been through many things,” Martin said.  “She lost her boat and her girlfriend very close together.”

“I think one of those is worse than the other,” Toby said.

“They were both important for different reasons,” Frankie said.

“But she has us,” Toby said.

“She does,” Martin said.  “So that’s what we do.  We be here for when she is ready.”  He patted Toby on the shoulder.  “I am going to sleep.  You should do the same.”  He leaned over and kissed the top of Frankie’s head.  “Chica.”

“Night,” Frankie said.

Toby sighed and rubbed the bridge of his muzzle.  Frankie leaned over nuzzled his face.  She slowly reached down to his hand and laced her fingers between his.  Toby gave her a sidelong look, and Frankie smiled and kissed him on the cheek.

“I don’t know how to help her,” Toby said.  “I feel like a bad person.”

“I know how close you are,” Frankie said softly, “and how important to you are to each other.  But if she wanted your help she’d let you know some how.  Maybe not outwardly, but she’ll let you know.”

“I have to go try at least,” Toby said.  He stood, but Frankie held on to his hand.  She looked up at him, not judging, but the look on her face said she didn’t think it was a good idea.

“Please,” Toby said.

Frankie searched Toby’s eyes.  She wasn’t going to be able to stop him.  She stood, still holding on to his hand, and followed him out of the kitchen.  Toby didn’t say anything on the way up to the steps, and only looked back when Frankie let go of his hand at the top of the steps.  Toby’s ears perked.  Frankie nodded, her expression going blank.  Toby looked back at Xiphos’s door and started forward slowly.

Toby knocked gently on the door.  He heard a muffled “come in” on the other side.  He pushed open the door.  Xiphos stood at the large windows, looking out over Adleshore.  She kept the lights low.  Toby stepped in, closing the door behind him.

Xiphos flicked her eyes at him, but didn’t move her head, didn’t shift from her spot.  Toby approached until he was standing right next to her.  Xiphos didn’t move, but the fur on her neck bristled.  Toby pulled his jaw tight and hugged her.  Xiphos sighed, leaning into the hug.  They stood together, looking out over the city, letting the old house fill the silence between them.

Finally, Toby said, “You want to talk about it?”

Xiphos looked up at him.  “No,” she said, looking off into the room.  She hugged herself.

“You have to talk about it,” Toby said.

Xiphos turned away, slipping out of Toby’s arms.  She wandered to the bed and laid down in the center, staring at the wall.  Toby frowned.  He left the room.

Frankie waited where Toby had left her.  She hugged him.  “Give her time,” she said.  “In the meantime, we’ll figure something out.”  She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek.  “Good night.”

Frankie descended to her room, leaving Toby alone.


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Xiphos opened her eyes and instantly regretted it.  Pain flared in her head and across her body.  She squeezed her eyes shut and stumbled out of bed.  Why was it so bright?  She started to cross the floor to close the drapes over the window, but each step felt like it was only taking her further away.

What did Frankie do to her last night?  She couldn’t remember a thing.  Xiphos grimaced.  That little witch.

Xiphos managed to find the window, half blinded by what she hoped was the morning sun, and fumbled until she was sure the drapes were closed.  For a moment she just stood, the pain ever-present.  And then she opened her eyes.

Where the fuck was she?

The bed she had been sleeping in was huge, and she had only inhabited a small portion of it.  The room the bed sat in was easily larger than the entire crew quarters of the Nina, and taller as well.  The room was appointed with a wardrobe, what looked like a wooden writing desk and chair, with enough room left over for a set of table and chairs, and what looked like a tea service.  A quick inspection revealed a bathroom connected to the bedroom, well appointed with a large shower and separate tub.

Xiphos found her coat draped over a chair and pulled it on.  She opened the door and stumbled into a walkway that surrounded a large open atrium.  There were a few more doors like hers, but her eyes fell to the sprawling staircase that spilled down three stories to a tiled floor.

Frankie peeked out from an unseen room on the ground floor.  “Hey!”  She said.  “You’re awake.  Come down and get breakfast.”

“You-!”  Xiphos started, but Frankie had turned and left before she could say anymore.

Xiphos made her way down the steps, trying to remember which door Frankie had disappeared into.  The atrium began to reveal itself as a big central area of what looked like a house.  The front entrance waited at the bottom of the steps.  Off to one side was a library, and off to the other, the smell of breakfast demanded her attention.

Frankie occupied a tiny corner of the kitchen, at a stove next to a wooden table. She had set out two places at the table, and just as Xiphos arrived she set two coffee cups down.  Sun streamed in from the windows.  Xiphos squinted and hissed.

“What did-“ Xiphos started, but Frankie cut her off.

“I made coffee,” Frankie said.  She poured Xiphos a cup.  Xiphos looked down at the cup, then up at Frankie, who only smiled at her.  Xiphos felt herself lose control of the situation.  She sat down at the table at sipped the coffee.

“Did I sleep all day?” Xiphos asked.

“You needed it,” Frankie said.

“Ugh.  Why do I still feel like shit?  What witchcraft did you use this time?”

Frankie turned back to Xiphos and slid two pancakes on to her plate.  “I would assume it’s because you were very drunk when we got back.”

Xiphos narrowed her eyes.  That sounded right, but she didn’t like it all the same.  She thought of bits and pieces of that night.  “Hey, didn’t you have like a liter of wine?!”

“It wasn’t that much,” Frankie said simply.  “And you must consider, I’ve been drinking ceremonial wine since I first started walking.  I was barely buzzing.”

“Buzzed,” Xiphos said, putting her head down on the table.  “And we’re in a fight.”

“You wanted a companion last night,” Frankie said simply.  She turned something over in the pan on the stove, but Xiphos didn’t see what.  “You wanted someone to be with you, not to judge or guide or to bed protected by, just to be a companion.”  She turned and plated crispy bacon on to Xiphos’s plate.  “I was happy to be that person.”

Xiphos sulked.  She grabbed at the fork by the plate.  Slowly, she ripped off pieces of pancake and ate.  Frankie sipped her coffee and looked content to watch.

“Where are we?”  Xiphos finally asked.

“Oh,” Frankie said.  “Home.”

“The longer I’m awake the more I feel like I died and this is some sort of weird afterlife.”

Frankie smiled.  “It’s Martin’s.”

Xiphos sat up straight.  “WHAT?”

“Yep,” Frankie said.  “It’s the Escalera residence.  No one is home, though.  I’ve been looking around.”

Xiphos tried to speak, but couldn’t find the right words.  Finally, she said, “Where is he?”

“I don’t know.  He went off somewhere.  Probably went with Toby to the market.”

“Oh.”  Xiphos sat back in her chair.  “So is he, like, crazy rich?”

“I don’t know.  Doesn’t seem like it.”

Xiphos nodded.  She slowly picked through her dinner.  Frankie cleaned her plates away.  She turned back in time to see Xiphos slinking away.

“Hey,” Frankie said, calling after Xiphos.  She followed her back out into the entry way of the house.  “Where are you going?”

Xiphos started up the steps.  “I’m going to go take a shower, and then…”  Her eyes drifted around the expanse of the house.  “Which one of these is yours?”

Frankie pointed to a door on the second story, tucked away in a quiet corner.  “Do you want to see it?”

“Yes,” Xiphos said.

Frankie opened her door and stood proudly in the center of the room.  It was much smaller than Xiphos’s, containing a bed, and wardrobe, and a writing desk.  It looked like she had a connected bathroom as well.  Xiphos peeked in, noticing the door on the other side of the bathroom.

“It connects to Toby’s room,” Frankie said quietly.  “I think Martin thought it’d come in handy.”

“Yeah, but for who?”  Xiphos asked, smiling.

Frankie blushed and looked away, but Xiphos noted the sheepish, contained smile.

“It’s so weird not having you close by,” Xiphos said softly.

“But we’re still under the same roof.  That counts, right?”  Frankie smiled up at Xiphos.

Xiphos closed her eyes, her ears dropping on her head.  She reached out and tussled Frankie’s headfur, and then slowly turned and started out the room and back up the steps.  Frankie followed close behind.

“So what’s next?”  Frankie asked.

Xiphos didn’t look back.  She plodded to her room.

“What are we going to do about a boat?”  Frankie continued.  Xiphos opened the door to her room.  She stepped through the doorway and turned back to Frankie.  She looked deep into Frankie’s eyes, sorrowful and lonely, and closed the door, leaving Frankie on the other side.


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The Nina’s lifepod arrived in Adleshore just after dawn.  The harbormaster sent a pilot out to guide them in.  On the way, the harbormaster’s assistant interviewed Xiphos.

“What happened?”  He asked.

“We were attacked,” Xiphos said, staring absently out the bridge of the tugboat.

“By who?”

Xiphos pulled her mouth tight.  She weighed her options.  “It was a case of mistaken identity.”

“Yes, but by who?”  The assistant asked again.  He scribbled notes down on a pad of paper.

“A Patrolo agent thought we were harboring a pirate.”

“Were you?”

Xiphos gave him a sidelong stare.  “No.”

The assistant took more notes.  “And I suppose you made an attempt to correct the mistake.”


“Any documentation from the agent?”

Xiphos narrowed her eyes.  “She was too busy firing torpedoes at us to stop and fill out some paperwork.”

“Mm hm,” the assistant said.  He took down some more notes.

“Believe me or not,” Xiphos started, squeezing her hands shut, “but this line of question is starting to get condescending.  What is the point in all of this?”

“The harbormaster likes to assess the situation of every lifepod coming into the port.  Lost cargo, property damage, crew loss, you know, the normal stuff.”

“You have yet to ask me about my crew,” Xiphos said, turning away from the assistant.

“Yes, how are they?”  The assistant asked, betrayed by his annoyance.


Xiphos turned around.  Martin stood at the hatch to the bridge.  He ducked inside.  “Toby and Frankie are prepared to disembark.”

Xiphos looked Martin over.  She hadn’t asked him to join her.  But she saw the look on his face, and wondered how long he had been at the hatch.

“Yes, right,” Xiphos said.  “My crew is ready.  I should go attend to them.”

“But wait,” the assistant started.  “We’re not done here yet.”

Martin moved, ostensibly to take Xiphos by the shoulders, but put himself between the assistant and Xiphos.  He guided Xiphos out of the pilot house.

“Excuse me,” the assistant said, following them.  “We’re not-“

Martin let go of Xiphos.  He turned to the assistant and loomed over him.  “No,” Martin said calmly.  “We are done.”

The assistant nodded and backed away.  Martin turned and guided Xiphos out to the deck of the tug, his arm around her shoulders.  Xiphos stood at the railing, looking out at Adleshore.  Martin stood next to her.  Xiphos started to squirm, then turned to Martin.

“You didn’t need to do that,” she said, the fur on the back of neck standing on end.

Martin said simply, “My job is to protect you.  You needed to be protected.”

“I did not.”

“He was upsetting you,” Martin said, as if to correct himself.  “He didn’t need to do that.  He upset you.  And that upset me.”

Xiphos’s eyes darted away, then back at Martin.  She sighed out her nose and turned away again.  “Yeah, he did.”

Martin placed a hand on Xiphos’s shoulder.  Xiphos’s ear twitched.  She stared at Adleshore.

“How’s Toby and Frankie?”  Xiphos asked.

“They are just packing up,” Martin said.  “The lifepod needed to be cleaned.”

“Gods, we weren’t that bad, were we?”

“Just the trash,” Martin said.  “It was a six day trip back home.”

Xiphos nodded absently.  “When we get back on shore, I want you to sell the lifepod for whatever you can.  We’ll need the cash for rent and food while we figure things out.”

“Yes, capitan, but-“

“That’s all,” Xiphos said.  The dock pulled near.  Xiphos started towards the workers preparing the tug to dock.

Martin watched her go, his hands behind his back.  “I will find  a place to stay for us.”

Xiphos looked back over her shoulder.  “If you think you know a place, sure.”

Martin nodded.

The crew tied the tug to the dock.  A moment later, a crane hoisted the lifepod onto the dock.  It sat awkwardly, rolled to one side, its hatch in the air.  Martin descended the gangplank in time to see Toby slip out of the lifepod’s hatch, a good eight feet above the dock.  Frankie stuck her head out.  Toby held his arms out, but Frankie did exactly what Toby did, sliding out of the hatch, and dropping herself down onto the dock.  She looked up at Toby, smiled, and kissed him on the cheek.  Toby only blushed and looked away, but pulled her into a hug anyway.

Xiphos stood back, watching the dock workers, and her crew, and the activity around them all.  Except, Martin noticed, she wasn’t.  She stood, staring ahead, but she looked at nothing at all.

Martin turned back to Toby and Frankie.  They started towards him, their bags over their shoulders.  Martin smiled as they approached.

“We have made it back home,” he said to them.

“Yeah,” Toby said.  He looked around.  “Yeah, we did.”

Frankie said, “Where’d Xiphos go?”

Martin turned around.  Xiphos had disappeared, completely leaving the dock.

“Ah,” Frankie said.

“I have a hunch where she went,” Toby said.  “We can go-“

Martin shook his head.  “No no, first we should go find a place to sleep.  Come, I will take us home.”

“You know a place?”  Toby asked.

“I do.”

“Then take Toby there,” Frankie said.  “I’ll go find Xiphos.”

“But-“ Martin started.

Frankie said, “She won’t want to see her body guard, nor her conscious.  But she will want to see her sister.”

Martin and Toby both nodded.  Martin gave Frankie quick directions, up the mountain, past the play fields they had staked out together, to a house.  Frankie memorized the route, and set out into the city.

The Triangle pub seemed to not have closed at all that night, and indeed patrons staggered out as Frankie approached.  They paid her no mind as she passed them.  She easily slipped into the pub, and right to a booth against the far wall.

Xiphos sat alone, two bottles of beer on the table, one half full, and the other completely empty.  Frankie slid into the booth across from Xiphos.  The publican approached, and Frankie spoke quietly in Ceban.  A moment later the publican returned with a bottle of beer.

Xiphos, who until this moment had been making a point of ignoring Frankie, looked up.  Her ears twitched.  Frankie only sipped the beer.

“Isn’t that a little strong for you?”  Xiphos finally said, croaking out the words.

Frankie set the bottle down.  She reflected on the flavor for a moment, then picked up the bottle, her brow furrowed.

“You drink this?”  Frankie said.

“It is too strong for you,” Xiphos said.

“It’s disgusting,” Frankie said.

Frankie called the publican over again, and he took the beer away and replaced it with a bottle of wine and two glasses.  He bowed, apologizing, and backed away.  Frankie poured Xiphos a glass, then one for herself.

“Better,” Frankie said.  She pushed a glass to Xiphos.

“I shouldn’t be mixing my drinks…” Xiphos said.

Frankie shrugged, and took a drink.

“Wait, are you going to drink that by yourself?”

“I got it for us,” Frankie said.

Xiphos looked down at the cup, and then up at Frankie.  “Oh.  Well…”  She slowly took a sip.  She considered the wine a moment, and then said, “So what are you really doing here?”

“You need someone here,” Frankie said.  “So I am here.”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Xiphos said.  She sat back in the booth, crossing her arms and narrowing her eyes.

“I’m not here to babysit.”

“Then what?”

“You need someone,” Frankie said again.

“I don’t need you to tell me-“ Xiphos started, and then faltered.

Frankie merely waved this off.  Then she leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table.  “You should tell me things.”

Xiphos stared at Frankie a moment, and then very cautiously said, “Like what?”

“Like…” Frankie looked around the room, and then said, “Tell me about New Archer.”

“Like what?” Xiphos asked, letting out a little laugh.

“Anything!” Frankie said.  “It sounds exciting.”

Xiphos crossed her arms over her chest.  She thought a moment.  “So like, when I first got to New Archer…”


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Jace didn’t need anyone to tell here where Nara Molyneux had gone.  A long, scattered trail of injured and dead clan mates started at the beach and made a direct line right to the old fort.  They pointed Jace in the direction of the fort, and Jace warned them to stay away.  Nara was far more dangerous than they were clearly prepared for.

The full scale of the battle became clear when Jace reached the fort.  Pirate battle subs had formed a wall a mile out from the island, heavy black smoke hovering above them in great clouds, growing ever great with each cannon fire.  The Lat fleet keep its distance, carefully targeting the subs.  Small interceptor gunboats from both sides sped across the water, releasing torpedoes and engaging each other.  A ship on the Lat’s back line exploded, and a few clan mates watching from the beach cheered.  Jace thought to shout at them, but held her tongue; she’d give herself away.  She drew a gun and ducked into the fort.

Inside, the fort sat empty, stark and still.  Outside, Jace could hear the battle rage on, cannon fire muffled by the walls.  She swept the hall, searching carefully before she crept forward.  Each room she passed empty, suspiciously quiet.  Jace shook her head.  What had she expected, that Nara would be in the fort, darting from room to room, slaying everyone in her wake?  That seemed… inefficient.

That’s when she smelled it, acrid and sweet.  It was everywhere, on the floors, on the walls, and when Jace looked closer, dripping down the steps.

Oh.  That was the plan.

Jace took the steps three at a time.  She careened down the hall, sliding to a stop in front of Jinbao and Sally’s command room.  Nara stood in the middle, thoughtfully emptying the contents of a gasoline can on the floor.  She looked up at Jace.

“Ah,” Nara said.  She set the gasoline can down on the floor.  “I thought someone would fine me here-“

Jace raised her gun and fired at Nara.  Nara dove out of the way, tucking into a graceful roll.  Jace tracked her the entire way, firing off shot after shot, until her gun clicked.  She tossed it away.

Nara stood, dusted her clothes off, and looked up at Jace.  “Well.  That was all sound and fury and little else, wasn’t it?”

“I’ve got more,” Jace said.

“I’m quivering with anticipation,” Nara said.  Jace surged forward, throwing a punch at Nara’s face.  Nara dodged, turning and concealing a punch.  Jace blocked it, and threw a punch at Nara’s chest.  Nara grabbed Jace’s arm and pulled.  She landed a blow to Jace’s ribs.  Jace stumbled away, wincing in pain.  She turned, and squared off again, facing Nara.

“I’ve seen better,” Nara said.

“Do we have to say something every time we look at each other?”  Jace said.

“No,” Nara said.  “I could just kick you ass in silence, if you like.”  She stepped forward, testing Jace, throwing jab after jab.  Jace blocked them away.  Nara hesitated, and Jace took her opening, landing a blow to her chest.  Nara stumbled back, too far, Jace thought, and then sprung back again into a high kick.  Jace just barely got out of the way, Nara’s foot clipping her ear.  Jace put some room between them.

“Was this the plan all along?”  Jace asked.

“No,” Nara said simply.  “Killing Burian Lake was the plan.”

“And you failed,” Jace said.  She thought about tactics.  Nara had that kick, which was more range that Jace had, taller or not.  She’d have to have Nara come to her to do any major hitting.  Nara kept her distance.  She circled back to the gas can on the floor.

“A temporary setback,” Nara said.  “I do not fail.”

“It sure looks like you did,” Jace said.  “Lake is still out there, making you look like a fool.”

“So Lake isn’t dead,” Nara said, looking down at the gas can.  Jace inched forward.

“Maybe he is,” Jace said.  “But you’ll never know for sure.”

Nara bent down and picked up something beside the gas can.  Jace made her move, sprinting in, throwing a punch at Nara’s spine.  Nara spun into a kick, knocking Jace’s legs out from under her.  Jace rolled into a corner, pain shooting through her leg.

Nara tilted her head at Jace.  “I’m getting tired of this, pirate,” she said.  She opened her hand, showing the book of matches to Jace.  She tore a match from the book.  “No, I couldn’t have Lake.  But this seemed like a proper replacement.”  She struck the match, and held it up for Jace to see.  “Just think, burning out a nest of pirates.  That’s a nice victory.”  Nara turned to toss the match.

Jace vaulted to her feet.  She threw a punch at Nara’s head, catching her off guard, and knocking her to the ground.  Jace watched the match fall, landing in a puddle.  Jace stamped her foot down before the match could light the gas.  She turned to Nara, and kicked her in the ribs, and then aimed for her head.  Nara recovered, grabbed Jace’s ankle, and twisted, sending Jace into a spin.  Jace hit the ground, face first into a puddle of gas.  She gasped for air.

“It’s impressive that you haven’t let your injury stop you,” Nara said, struggling to her feet.  “But I have.”  She put her foot down on Jace’s cast.  “You’ll burn with this island.”

Jace struggled against Nara’s foot.  When her berings came back, she flexed her hand.

“Don’t,” Nara said.  She pulled a gun from her waistband.  She pointed it at Jace.

Jace stared at the gun, thinking, considering her options.  She took a deep breath, still looking at the gun, letting her body go limp.  She knew that Nara felt that.   And then, in one quick movement, she grabbed the gun.  Nara fired, and Jace felt the bullet slam into her shoulder.

Nara stumbled back.  Jace writhed on the ground, the bullet cold in her body.  She had been shot before, but this was different.  This hurt so much more.  Her mind started reeling, her pulse pounded in her head.

And then she felt the world go hot around her, the stench of burning gasoline strong in the air.  Nara laughed.

“This was fun,” she said.  Jace could barely concentrate on what Nara said.  She focused on her breathing, because she worried if she didn’t she’d stop.

“And you were a better rival than I had expected.  But it’s over now.  And I considered letting you die here in the fire, but that’s no way to honor a foe.”

Jace was fading.  She could feel it.  And she was angry, so angry.  This wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

“So,” Nara continued, “it was an pleasure.”  She pulled a bullet into the chamber of her gun.  “And now we say goodbye.”

Another gunshot echoed in the room.  Jace couldn’t hold on any longer.  Everything went black.


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Jace awoke to the sound of her intercom beeping.  She fumbled for the controls.


“Captain.”  It was Liam.  “The fleet has been spotted just over the horizon.  We’ve been ordered to get into position.”

Jace sat up, her bed sheet slipping off her body.  She rubbed her eyes and looked over at Roz, still asleep at her side.  “Get us into position,” she said, softer.  “Order my unit to fan out, half a mile out and put a hundred feet between each boat.  Record anyone who questions your commands, I’ll deal with them myself.”

“Understood,” Liam said.

Jace stood.  She searched the floor for her clothes, discarded carelessly the night before.  Roz stirred, sitting up and blinking.

“Hey?”  She asked.

“It’s starting,” Jace said.  She tossed Roz her shirt.  “We need to get out there.”

“Oh,” Roz said.  She looked down at her shirt, and then realizing she was exposed, she clutched her shirt to her chest.  Jace laughed to herself.  She pulled on her pants, and looked up to find Roz watching her, her cheeks slowly going red.

“I’ve never pictured you as the modest type,” Jace said.

Roz dropped her gaze away.  She fumbled with her shirt, and then crawled to the edge of the bed to search for the rest of her clothes.

“The attack should be happening soon,” Jace said.  “Liam has the helm, so I want you watching the radar and sonar for anyone trying to sneak through.”

“Sir,” Roz said.  She pulled her jaw shut.  She dressed silently.  Jace caught her peeking at her a few time, darting her eye away when Jace noticed.  Finally dressed, she sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.

“Come on,” Jace said, reaching for the handle to door.  “We’ve got work to do.”

Roz didn’t move.  Jace turned around.  Roz stared down at the floor, her shoulders slumped.  Jace’s tail twitched back and forth.  She frowned.

“Did you find what you wanted?”  Jace asked, softer.

Roz looked up at her.  “I think so,” she said.


Roz’s ears dropped.  “I’m not ready to stop looking.”

Jace started to speak, but Roz cut her off.  “She didn’t deserve you.”

Jace sighed through her nose, avoiding Roz’s gaze.

“I mean that,” Roz said, getting up.  “You were a liability to her.  You’ll never be that to me.”

“I appreciate that,” Jace said.


“This… just isn’t a good time for this.”

Roz watched her carefully.  She put her hands on Jace’s hips.  “Then when this is over, we should try again.”

“Yeah,” Jace said.  “Maybe.”

“I’ll take it,” Roz said.  She leaned forward and kissed Jace’s muzzle.  “In the meantime, should you ever need it, my bed is always open to you.”

Jace, despite herself, smiled.  She started to speak, faltered, and looked away.  She opened the door to her quarters.  “Go get to work.”

Roz left, and for a moment, Jace hung back, looking over her quarters.  She turned and headed to the bridge.

Liam stood at the helm, moving the Decline into position.  Next to him, Roz looked over the radar and sonar.  Little blips followed them out to sea.

“I can’t believe you,” Liam said softly to Roz.

“Whatever,” Roz said.  “I would have regretted it forever if I hadn’t.”

“Yeah, I get that.  Was it worth it?”

“Absolutely.”  Roz smiled.

Jace entered the bridge with a pot of tea.  She poured each of them a cup.  Liam eyed the cup.

“It’s a good way to start a battle,” Jace said.

Liam took a sip.  His eyes widened.  “Oh wow.  What is this?”

“Molyneux Tea,” Jace said.  “I have a source.”

Liam took time to finish his cup before he said, “I think your source is among us.  There’s rumors going around.”

“She’ll be with Sally if she is,” Jace said.  “I hope she can help us.”

Liam and Roz mumbled their agreement.

“Command to Captains,” a call came in over the Relay.  “Prepare to defend.  Jan, send your interceptors in for a hit and run.”

“Copy that,” Jan replied.

Jace took the Relay mic.  “J Team, hold your line.  Be prepared to assist the other units.”

The captains under Jace Relayed their understanding.

“So we just wait?”  Roz asked softly.

“We defend our weakest side,” Jace said.

The Relay crackled.  “First interceptors away,” Jan said.  Jace held her breath.  Liam and Roz leaned over the Relay receiver.

“It’ll take time,” Jace said.  “They’re still a ways out.”

The Relay crackled again.  “Did you see that?”

“Marlin 4, what did you see?”  Jan asked.

“Something just passed us.”

“Back lines, be prepared for contact.”

“There’s another one.  It’s coming right-“  There was a burst of static, and then nothing.

“Marlin 4 is down,” another interceptor said.

“Evasive maneuvers!”  Jan said.

All at once, the interceptors began to speak.

“There’s got to be dozens of them.”

“They’re fast!  Fuck!”

“They’ve opened fire.”

“Marlin 7 is hit!”

“I’m moving to-“ Another burst of static.

“Back line acknowledge,” Jan said, the edge growing sharper in her voice.

“Back line holding.”  It was Kerrick.

“Be prepared for upwards of three dozen small, fast moving-“

Jan stopped.

“Shit,” Jace said.  She grabbed the Relay receiver.  “J Team, be prepared to move to defend.”

Nothing came back, just the hiss of static.  Jace strained to listen, catching a distant voice, the battle at full pitch, before it was swallowed by interference.

“We’re being jammed,” Jace said.  “Roz, get out the flasher and signal J Team to be prepared to move to defend.

“Sir,” Roz said.  She swung around and darted up to the hatch, carrying the flasher.

Jace leaned over the radar and sonar screen.  Like the Relay, it flickered uselessly.  Except, briefly, Jace could see the blips of the other ships in her Unit.  And slipping in deep, the tiniest hint of a ghost.  It darted past The Decline.

“Change of plans,” Jace shouted up to Roz.  Signal them to hold the line.  We have a breach.  I’m moving in.”

“Aye!”  Roz said.  She aimed the flasher at the other ships, quickly squeezing out code on the trigger.  Each ship flashed an acknowledgement back.

“Take us back in,” Jace said to Liam.  She grabbed the Relay mic.  “This is Jace.  I’m returning to the island to catch an intruder.  I repeat, the island has been compromised.  I’m moving to intercept.”

Jace stared out the front of The Decline.  Somewhere along the shore, Nara Molyneux had landed.  Jace prepared herself.  They’d be in this alone.


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