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Aiden’s eyes snapped open. He quickly tried to bring his mind around. He felt dizzy and nauseated, but otherwise unaffected by the blow. He raised his head, ignoring the extra wave of nausea the accompanied the movement.

“Report!” He snapped.

“Sir!,” A man nearby saluted.

Aiden turned his head to look at the man. It was the same Crimson officer who had accompanied him into Basalt. He tried to get reins on his situation quickly and efficiently. They appeared to be aboard the StarRite, which was the ship they had boarded Basalt in. If he had to guess, he would say they were in a makeshift infirmary. StarRite wasn’t large enough a ship to have a dedicated infirmary, merely a first aid cabinet.

“We managed to get you back to the ship after the explosion. You have injured your head and…” the crimson soldier began.

“Not that!” Aiden snapped, “I can clearly see that, what of the Lancers, the prisoners, and that ship, what was it called the Trident?”

The officer flushed with red, but Aiden could not tell if it was from anger or embarrassment.

“Escaped sir, in the commotion the Lancers revolted and managed to get aboard the Trident and leave the dock.”

“And the others?” Aiden asked darkly.

The officer swallowed, “Also escaped sir, on the escape pods when the gravity failed.”

Aiden closed his eyes for a moment, bile rising in his throat for a reason other than the blow to his head.

“What of the Butcher? Where is Deiron?”

“The Butcher of Braun is escaped, sir. Deiron, we have several confirmed reports that he was found dead. Some of the men present were found unconscious, they attest that the Butcher was rescued by…” the crimson officer’s voice stopped in the choke.

“By who?” Aiden already suspected an answer.

“By prisoner A79 sir,” the officer’s voice was strangled now.

“What are you doing about it?” Aiden’s voice asked cooly, in what he perceived as a dim imitation of his father’s grace.

It seemed to work, as the officer shrank back from the gaze quite satisfactorily. 

“The escape pods coordinates are all jammed, we cannot tell where on the planet they are landing, nor who was on which escape pod. We already have people working to calculate the coordinates of trajectory. We will track every escape pod and begin searches. Every major port on the planet can be shut down in the meantime.”

Aiden waited with his expression unchanging. When the officer realized Aiden wasn’t going to say anything, he swallowed and continued on.

“The Trident will, unfortunately, be lost. We cannot afford to shut down all travel in and out of the station. We have already sent a signal letting them know, but the Lancers have already shown themselves capable of evading capture. They will most like abandon the ship and take several other unidentified ships to escape, as they have done in the past. We lack the resources to check every ship top to bottom coming in and out.”

“Right now,” the officer continued, “We are working to recover anyone remaining aboard the Basalt station. We still have twenty-two guards and crimsons unaccounted for aboard the station and it even with our efforts it will hit the atmosphere in twenty minutes…”

“Stop helping,” Aiden commanded.

The officer blinked, “I’m sorry sir, if we cease to help, the station will hit the atmosphere within a couple of minutes, right now our men are all that’s keeping the station afloat.”

“Let the station crash,” Aiden glanced at the officer, silencing the objection forming on his lips, “Am I making myself clear?”

The officer hesitated again, then nodded, “Yes sir.”

Maybe this man wasn’t worth his time. The officer’s constant questioning of Aiden’s orders was starting to grate on him.

“As to the rest of it, I want the Paris jump gate sealed off.” Aiden continued to order.

The officer’s eyes jumped up at that, but he nodded without further comment.

“I will have them, no one will escape me. I don’t care what this costs the empire, they will be caught.” Aiden responded with fervor.

The officer nodded again before standing up and leaving to pass on Aiden’s orders. Aiden would have his revenge on the man. There was no going back now. He would have it.

The atmosphere aboard that particular escape pod was probably more deadly than anything Darian would experience outside of it. The escape pod had just ripped through the greater part of the planet’s atmosphere, burning at unimaginable temperatures as the gasses around the planet’s surface provided friction against the hull of the ship, shaking the pod relentlessly. He almost envied the pod, because it didn’t have to be in here with Marideen Cleefe.

The iciness in the air was basically palpable, and he fought the urge to take a deep breath to see if he could see the condensation come from his mouth. He had imagined many things about his reunion with Marideen Cleefe. He had always wondered what kind of person she would be. What would she do? What would she say? Yet somehow, in all of that imagination, he never thought she would be this difficult.

The escape pod had already deployed a parachute, having moved through the more volatile parts of the atmosphere. It now gently floated down towards the surface of the planet towards to coordinates Darian had programmed into it. He didn’t know where these coordinate were. Like everything else he had done today, it was one part planning, one part intuition, and a heavy heaping of luck an prayer.

It was perfectly fine to Darian that Marideen did not want to speak with him, he had his own ghosts to deal with. He continued to contemplate the loss of his friend. There were days were Devin had been the only person he ever knew or remembered. Even though Darian had known his friend had asked him to do it, even though he had seen it coming, knew when he started planning his escape that Devin would die, and could see what Devin had to die; it still tore at him relentlessly. He had hoped that he was wrong. He had hoped that things wouldn’t fall out that way. However he looked at it though, he had killed his closest friend, a man who might as well have been a father to him.

He imagined that Marideen must be going through similar feelings right now. She had killed her own father as well. Had she gone there to purposefully kill him? Darian had the sense that it was a crime of passion, and was not premeditated. Why would she risk so many resources to just kill the man? Wasn’t her father the head of the Lancers before her? Why was he the warden of a Taerran prison? That would have to suggest that she had been correct; Deiron had somehow betrayed the Lancers.

Perhaps he had been too hard on Marideen initially. He let the rumors about her run wild in his mind. She wasn’t particularly different from himself. He glanced up at her, and she peered darkly back. He grimaced. Perhaps that didn’t matter. She still hated him. He had seen the hate in her eyes. She had actually hit him after all. She must have remembered. However, if she had remembered, then why hadn’t she said something? Maybe she was waiting for the right time to strike.

“Where we will be landing?” Marideen asked cooly.

Darian jerked. It had been the first words Marideen had said to him since she starting berating him for upsetting her plans as if she was the only one allowed to have plans. Like he even had been aware of her plans and should have adjusted his own accordingly. He responded with a shrug. He didn’t really know where the coordinates he had entered would lead. The just felt right. They felt like if he had entered them then he would end up escaping. Any other number and the feeling of inevitable escape lessened. That was how most of this felt for him, it was just a feeling.

This was apparently not the right answer for Marideen Cleefe, whose face became even darker, which Darian had previously not thought possible. She turned away from him again. Was the air conditioning set too high in this escape pod? He shivered despite himself.

The sudden thud as the escape pod hit ground saved Darian from having to come up with something else to say. He silently breathed a sigh of relief as he removed the harness that held him in place, moving towards the door latch to open it. The hatch opened with some difficulty. He had to heave his weight against it three times before it creaked open. He stepped out a tripped over the door, landing down on his knees in front of the pod.

The gravity here was different than had been on the station. He might have not realized it himself if it hadn’t been such a sudden shift between the two. He felt heavier, and it was an unsettling feeling. He struggled up to his feet, quickly glancing around to get a bearing on his surroundings. The escape pod had landed in a sparsely grassed field. It was very hot out, and for someone who had lived in a climate-controlled environment for as long as he could remember, the radiant heat was something both exciting and scary to feel.

What really got Darian’s attention though was the sky. It was so vast. In either direction a grey overcast stretched as far as Darian could see, meeting the ground far off in the horizon. Darian had the vaguest memories of life outside. He knew about the sky, knew the theories behind it, knew he had probably seen the sky himself on countless occasions. Still, it was like a half-remembered dream compared to the real thing. It was like seeing something he had only read about in books. They simply didn’t do the reality any justice.

He began to laugh. Then he began to run. He didn’t really have anywhere to run to, but he just had the urge to run. With the sun beating down on him and the ground and sky stretching on forever, he finally felt liberated. He knew that this had ultimately been his goal from the beginning. He was trying to escape, this last year had been all part of his escape plan. For the first time, however, he now truly felt what it was like to be free. The weight and feeling of that finally pressed down on him, and he understood.

The slight differences in gravity quickly made short work of his running and he eventually just settled for walking. He realized he had made two complete circuits around the escape pods. He suddenly realized a second one had landed nearby his own and he found himself moving towards it. He already knew who was on the second escape pod. Beiromon and his two companions were already standing near the entrance to the hatch. Darian ran up to his friend.

Beiromon remained considerably more refined with his newfound freedom he had established, but even he looked exited, at least, relative to how he usually looked. Max, he believed that was the man’s name, looked amused at watching Darian run around, which Darian now realized to his embarrassment, they had been witnessing for some time. The other man with one arm looked uneasy around Darian but otherwise made no comment. Maybe he remembered who Darian was? Darian certainly felt a familiarity with this man, but whenever he tried harder to remember it went up in a puff of smoke.

“You did it,” Beiromon stated with a sigh, “You said you would, and now here we are.”

Beiromon gave Darian a respectful bow, which caught Darian a little off guard. Darian still grinned at his friend, patting him on the shoulder.

“No, we did it,” Darian responded.

Beiromon gave him a bemused look, “I don’t remember doing anything much to contribute. I just got captured in the right place  and managed to get to an escape pod before the whole space station fell apart.”

“But you got captured so splendidly,” Darian commented.

Beiromon frowned, but Maximil burst into a deep genuine laugh, hitting Beiromon on the back as he did. Beiromon allowed himself a small conserved grin as Darian joined in with a laugh.

Marideen finally stepped from the escape pod. She had a look of concern on her face as she finally walked out into the open air. She seemed considerably less affected by the gravity than Darian had felt. He supposed that she had simply become used to these kinds of things. As she got closer he realized that she still had anger in her eyes. Darian should have realized a fresh breeze and a few minutes wouldn’t have been enough time to curve her temper.

She rapidly approached the group and was within seconds of saying something when a sudden bright light-filled everyone’s vision.  Darian instinctively looked up, observing as a large explosion of red and grey erupted overhead. A deep rumble followed moments behind but was muted and quiet relative to the size of the explosion.

“What was that?” Marideen asked with some heat in her voice.

“Basalt,” Beiromon responded after a second, looking up at the sky with everyone else, “It must have struck the atmosphere.”

Marideen looked over to Darian, a frown on her lips, “Are you responsible for this?”

Darian nodded, continuing to look up at the station as pieces of debris fell and broke over the atmosphere. He, of course, had known this would happen, although it had occurred sooner than he would have expected. It seemed to almost be a beacon to represent his freedom. It was an ending to the old, and a giant sign of his newfound liberation.

Darian looked back down and jumped. Marideen had closed the difference between them and was now staring at him darkly. She was not a particularly short woman, the top of her head coming up to his nose, and she used every ounce of that height to appear as if she was looking down at him.

“What about the people on that station?” she asked darkly, “I had thought you had messed with the gravity, but to send it careening into the atmosphere? There were people on that station, guards and prisoners alike.”

“They all made it off, it’s fine,” Darian reassured her.

It did not seem to help a single bit.

“How would you know that?” Marideen demanded, “You can’t know without a doubt that no one was hurt.”

“It may be hard to believe,” Beiromon interjected, “But he has the ability to-”

“Can you promise me,” Marideen interrupted, not glancing away from Darian,” without a shadow of a doubt, with one hundred percent certainty that your actions didn’t lead to the death of anyone?”

Darian stared back, just as darkly. For the first time since his reunion with her, he had become angry as well. Her comment came too close to his own fears and doubts. What if he had been wrong? What if what he had seen in his visions, had felt with his intuition, and was merely a hope. His visions were not a hundred percent. They did not always go how he thought they would go. Beiromon himself have proven they were not one hundred percent.

“Yes,” Darian lied, not wanting to show any more weakness, even to her.

“Liar,” she called, accurately as it were.

Anger flared in Darian as his mouth twisted, “And why would you care about a couple of strangers, Butcher.”

Marideen’s face went flat, her look becoming surprisingly emotionless.

“What?” She asked quietly.

“The way I see it,” Darian pressed, “Someone like you, the Butcher of Braun, has caused more murders and destruction than I could possibly ever do. You are twice the murderer I will ever be. You don’t care about anyone else but yourself.”

As if to prove Darian’s own inadequacies as a predictor of the future, he didn’t see the fist coming as it collided with his face. In a single hit he fell to the ground. Well, that was stupid of him. Hands grabbed his arms, and for a moment he thought that Marideen had descended upon him. He quickly realized it was Beiromon trying to help him back up.

He looked towards where Marideen was. Max and the other man where there. They kept their arms near her in case she had decided to jump at him, but she made no attempt to do so. Her restraint wasn’t what caused Darian to hold his breath though; it was the look on her face. She was crying, with fat teardrops gliding down her cheeks.

“I care,” she whispered, “I care more than you know.”

The second part sounded more like a plea than a statement. For the first time, Darian realized that he had finally met Marideen Cleefe. This was the woman whom he had met on the Vanderra station years ago. This was the woman whose eyes had haunted his dreams for the last three years. That other woman, the Butcher of Braun, was merely an imitation, a cover for the woman beneath. He made a sigh of relief, although he didn’t know from what.

Beiromon helped brush Darian off as he finally got to his feet, “Well that didn’t go as well as it could have.”

Darian had to agree. He had found himself completely in the dark during that conversation, responding through pure emotion rather than logical thought. He felt at his cheek, which throbbed. He would definitely have a shiner within a few hours. Maybe he should stick with logic for the foreseeable future.

“What do you think of her?” Darian asked, nodding at Marideen’s back as she began walking off with her two companions in some kind of conversation.

Beiromon’s eyebrow rose, “Does it matter; I think you both have some pretty strong opinions on each other already?”

“Opinions can change,” Darian responded.

Beiromon thought about it a second before nodding, “She’s changed from the young girl I once knew. She’s less trusting. Angrier. The years have not been kind to her. Then again, they haven’t been kind to either of us either.”

“Her friends?”

“Berret and Maximillion?” Beiromon nodded, “They haven’t changed much. Berret feels a little harder, losing a limb can’t be easy. Maximil is tough though. We are long-time friends, and I don’t think you can meet a tougher man.”

“What do they think about me?” Darian asked.

“Do you mean can you trust them?” Beiromon replied, “ I do. Maximillion seems to like you well enough, but he likes everyone until they give him a reason not to. Berret, I think Berret remembers you from before, and I don’t think he knows what to make of you. I have a feeling Marideen does not remember you.”

“I got that feeling too,” Darian confessed.

“Might I ask, Marideen’s father, what happened?” Beiromon looked intently.

“Deiron Cleefe turned out to be the warden,” Darian responded.

“What?” Beiromon’s eyes widened, his mouth going slack.

“Marideen killed him, said he was a traitor,” Darian finished.

“Lord and Lady Protect us,” Beiromon gave a sign that Darian could only assume was religious in nature.

“I’m sorry, I knew he was your friend too-” Darian began.

“He knew I was in that prison, he must have known,” Beiromon shook his head in disbelief,” I am sorry, that is a difficult pill to swallow.”

Darian nodded, turning away to give his friend some time.

“Darian,” Beiromon called and Darian turned back to him, “You and Marideen, you guys are a lot alike.”

“I’m getting that feeling as well, unfortunately,” Darian sighed.

“Why’s that unfortunate?” Beiromon raised an eyebrow

“Because sometimes I hate myself,” Darian replied.

Beiromon barked a strained laugh, “I think we all hate ourselves, sometimes.”

Darian nodded, looking up at the sky overhead. A few streaks of falling debris still burned across the sky as the remains of the station broke up in the atmosphere. Had he made the right decision? They all had made it out. Every prisoner, every unconscious guard, everyone had made it out, haven’t they?

“Hey,” Marideen’s voice shouted from some distance away, “We need to get going before patrols come. I know where we are now, we need to make a fair amount of distance before the night comes.”

Darian could tell that the cold, dispassionate mask Marideen Cleefe wore was now back up. Darian and Beiromon nodded to each other before turning to move towards the rest of the party. Darian had his freedom now, and he had no intention of losing it.

In the end, that freedom was all he had, the freedom and also Marideen Cleefe. Her sister had died to save his life, and now he had finally met up with Marideen herself. He finally decided what to do next. He would help Marideen Cleefe. Not the mask she wore, the Butcher of Braun, but the real Marideen Cleefe. He would serve her, even if it cost him his life. Maybe then, his debt would be repaid. It was all he had right now. It was enough.

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