Chapter 27: Tainted
Aurora pushed away from the table and stood, pausing to survey the faces of the council before she began. “Members of the High Council, esteemed colleagues —” she smiled cruelly at Eustace “— although I use the term “esteemed” in its loosest context.”
It took a moment for said esteemed colleagues to process whether or not they’d been insulted.
“I want to pause for a minute, to take a closer look at the details of this mission. Let’s start by examining the pure numerical data. Anyone want to venture a guess as to the number of ships that will be involved in the first strike against Dictator Jimmy’s planet, as the figure currently stands?”
Goobot thought for a moment. “Somewhere between 15,000 and 16,000 I would presume. Maybe more. Why?”
“Just stay with me here. How many personnel would you expect to be involved in an attack of this magnitude, King Goobot?”
“Well, assuming each warship doesn’t exceed its maximum load, probably 2 million, give or take.”
“And Generals,” continued Aurora, “given your knowledge of war tactics and your previous experience, what would you estimate the casualty rate to be?”
One of the Generals, the one with a huge scar running from his collarbone to his hairline, reached for a notebook tucked inside his armor. “Well, judging from the data we collected during past encounters with the Dictator…casualty rate around 70 percent, I would expect.”
“Which equals…” she prompted.
“1.4 million dead in a single assault,” said Nav. “That’s astronomical, General.”
“And your point is?” asked Lady Jaya.
Nav met her eyes levelly. “I believe this young lady is righteously questioning your plan.”
Jaya’s icy stare bore into Aurora. “Is this true?”
April answered for her, and Jaya looked over in surprise.
“We are not saying that your plan is not a good one. As any Gorlock knows, death is a part of war. If we had no other choice, then I would willingly vote to sacrifice the million if, by the Dictator’s death, we could save the lives of countless others. But…what if nobody had to die?”
This last phrase captured the attention of the council.
“We are here today to propose a new plan. One with the potential to be equally effective, but one that has a casualty rate of zero if implemented correctly.”
Lady Jaya settled back in her chair. “I am listening, April.”
“Not to me. Aurora will be explaining the plan, since it was her idea.”
Jimmy shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the words her idea. Jaya stared Aurora down, and the younger woman returned the favor. The power struggle lasted several seconds, then Jaya relaxed and motioned for her to go ahead.
“As you all know, our current plan involves an overtly hostile attack and counts on superior numbers to bring us victory. Best case scenario: we win, with massive casualties. Worst case, he vaporizes us all before we even get close enough to attempt a strike. We’ll basically be providing his orbital security system with a bit of target practice. It’ll be a game of who gets blown up and who manages to sneak by long enough to cause some damage before they, too, get blown up.” She paused to let this sink in. “We’re playing this one too close to the rulebook. I know Gorlock tradition: two armies fight to the last man standing. But his entire fortress is designed to withstand the very type of large scale attack that we’re planning. We need to think differently…play on his weaknesses. He’s sadistic and arrogant, and he thinks that…”
Jaya waved an impatient hand. “I know you fancy yourself to be an expert on the Dictator,” she said scornfully, “but we are not here to listen to your psychological profile. If you have a plan, I want concrete details and a damn good reason why I should even consider changing our battle strategy this late in the game.”
Aurora struggled to keep her anger in check. “My plan…that is, our plan, is covert and under the radar - and if it works, it will achieve the council’s unifying goal of eliminating the danger the Dictator poses to the galaxy. What I need is a small, well-trained team that can take a few tiny ships and slip past his defenses. And, as some of the most dangerous criminals around today, you people are the most qualified for the job. I’ve come here today to ask for the council’s support to successfully complete this operation.”
“Which is…?” asked Lady Jaya impatiently.
“It’s pretty unorthodox, I’ll admit, but it all revolves around one simple fact. Many of you aren’t aware of this, but the Dictator’s behavior is caused by a biochemical agent known as Megalomanium. Before coming in contact with it ten years ago he was…an entirely different person.” Aurora pulled out the antidote from a strap under her wrist communicator. “One vial of this distilled antidote will be enough to put an end to all of this. It will, in effect, kill the Dictator without killing Neutron. Nobody has to die.”
There was a moment of intense silence, then the entire council broke out into a tidal wave of protests, accusations, and obscene language.
“Calm down!” shouted Aurora over the uproar. “Just hear me out! Think about the lives that could be saved, the money that could be saved…”
Jaya leaned forward slowly, her words clipped and abrasive. “Do I understand, human, that you just wasted the council’s time with a harebrained scheme to let our greatest enemy GO FREE? After all he has done? Is this some kind of joke?”
Nav interjected. “I think we should listen to her, Grandma. As far as I’m concerned, a covert option is the way to go. Let’s think about it, shall we? 1.4 million dead versus zero dead…hmm…”
“I suppose the idea itself is sound...” considered Beautiful Gorgeous.
Murmurs wound their way around the room as the allies discussed Aurora’s plan.
“But we’ve already conscripted mercenaries and acquired the supplies…” came Goobot's voice.
Eustace fanned himself with a 100 dollar bill. “Still, it certainly would be easier to give him this antidote than to actually kill him.”
“We couldd alwayss killl himm laterr…” said Pinxit.
Lady Jaya slammed her fist down on the corner of the table, sending a web of cracks scurrying across the surface.
“SILENCE!! I do not want to hear ONE more word out of ANYONE until I make something very clear! Aurora, this plan of yours is dangerously close to treason. I am shocked that you would even for a second entertain the notion that the Dictator’s life should be spared. What is his life worth after all the billions he’s taken?! No, I will not rest until I personally see to it that every last drop of blood is emptied from his veins.” She turned to April. “April, I am extremely disappointed that you would support such utter and complete lunacy. I know that you think Aurora is your friend, but you owe it to your people to put our interests first. And Nav? Siding with Aurora on this one is taking things too far, even for you.”
“Lady Jaya, I…”
The Gorlock cut Aurora off. She crooked an accusing finger in the pilot's direction.
“If I were you, human, I would shut my mouth and sit quiet. If your sole aim here was to save lives, then your plan might seem admirable, if a bit foolish. But I wonder about you…weren’t you always the first to jump at the opportunity to take revenge on the Dictator? What is responsible for this sudden change in attitude, eh? Now listen, and listen clearly, because I am going to be perfectly honest with you. Frankly, you are lucky to still be on the council at all. I wanted you removed immediately after you “mysteriously” escaped from the Dictator’s custody, but April would not have it. I see now that I should have followed my instincts.”
Aurora dug her nails into the edges of the stone table.
“The whole situation is suspicious, as far as I’m concerned. Nobody has EVER gotten so close to the Dictator and lived to tell about it. Why should you be an exception? Obviously, he LET you escape. For all I know, you’re just another part of his plan, a walking bag of flesh and bones programmed to serve his needs. You are tainted, Aurora. So I suggest you shut that human mouth of yours before I do what I should have done three years ago, and throw you off the council.”
Aurora almost lost it. Her whole upper body burst into dazzling flame, and she hurled a bolt straight into the wall behind Lady Jaya’s left shoulder. Aurora gasped for breath as chunks of rubble fell from the steaming hole, and she snapped her arm in Jaya’s direction, murder burning in her eyes.
April immediately jumped up to restrain her friend, and Nav followed close behind. Aurora, however, managed to get herself under control before they could intervene, and she waved them both away. Aurora leaned over the table for a moment, steadying herself. Nav laid a supportive hand on her shoulder.
“That was a pretty personal dig, Grandma,” said Nav. “Harsh, even by my deviously criminal standards. To tell you the truth, I’m amazed by Aurora's self-restraint. I half expected her to take your head off just now.”
Without warning, Aurora whirled and punched Nav in the stomach, hard. He grunted and stumbled back a step, holding his abdomen in pain.
“What was that for?” he groaned.
“Sorry, I needed to punch something. I knew you wouldn’t mind.”
“Ugh…glad I could be…of service…”
Jaya’s sharp voice brought them back to the situation at hand. “Well, human, are you done? I’ll forgive you this once, as I understand that these kind of emotional episodes are a weakness of your species. Now, what do you say you hand over that little vial, and we will forget this whole thing ever happened?”
Aurora’s entire body quivered with suppressed rage, and the older woman’s lips twisted into an arrogant smile.
“Come now, Aurora,” she said with false sweetness. “This sort of childish behavior is unsuitable to a pilot of your caliber. Now, hand over the vial.”
“As you wish, highness.”
Aurora flicked the vial from her hand, and it spun across the table, coming to a rest in front of the High Council leader.
Jaya pocketed it. “There, was that so hard?”
Back in the rows of spectators, Lee and his charges watched the altercation in stunned silence.
Jimmy stared numbly. “I…I can’t believe that just happened.”
“I know, right?” said Sheen. “Aurora just got served! I’ve never seen anybody shut down like that!”
“Ugh, I can’t believe her!” said Cindy. “Is she just giving up? If I were her, I’d punch that green witch right in the face!”
“First of all,” clarified Jimmy, “you are her, and second of all, she’s not giving up. The council has no idea that we have two extra antidotes stored inside Goddard. Now that she’s handed over hers, they’ll have no reason to suspect her of any hidden agenda. Everything will go ahead as planned.” He steepled his fingers, peering out at her from over the ridge-line of his fingertips. “It’s the best strategy, given the circumstances. At this point, just be grateful that the entire plan didn’t tumble down around our ears.”
At the conference table, Aurora’s manner transformed. The grin she gave Lady Jaya was decisively predatory. “Of course, Lady Jaya. You’re right. Please, go on. I want to hear all the details of the attack so I can do everything in my power to keep the people I care about safe.”
“Still, Lady Jaya,” said Goobot, “perhaps there is some wisdom in her approach? Instead of giving him the antidote, we could…”
“ENOUGH! Not another word! I cannot believe you…all of you! Have you all lost your minds? The battle is going ahead as planned. End of discussion. Do I make myself clear? And do not get any more bright ideas, because I will personally shoot the next person who opens their mouth on this matter!” The finality of this proclamation hung heavy in the air, and the flustered Lady Jaya took her seat, face red with exertion. “Now let’s finish this accursed meeting!”
Twenty awkward minutes later, the council came to an end, and the assembly filtered out of the chamber one by one. Aurora brushed a sweat-drenched lock of hair from her forehead as she and April joined their guests just outside the room. Lee gazed down at the floor, unusually quiet as the group convened.
“Oh, this is Nav…” Aurora said absently.
The tall blonde man appeared behind her, waving like a gleeful toddler. He slipped his mechanical arm under April’s bottom, then lifted her into the air. He held her aloft in one cupped palm, and she patted his head.
“This show-off is my fiancé , Nav Aksha'at.”
“Lee told us,” said Future Libby.
“Oh?” April blinked. “He did…? But I hadn’t told anyone except Aurora and…whoa!”
Nav set April back down again, a little too quickly for her comfort, and then tugged on Aurora’s ponytail. “So, how’s my favorite smart-mouthed ace pilot doing these days?”
Aurora didn’t seem to notice his question. “Nav, April, these are…oh, I mean Nav, April already knows…Nav, these are our visitors, the…the uh…”
She snapped her fingers distractedly, trying to recall their false name. Jimmy supplied it for her.
“There we go. And uh, the taller one there is my human friend, Libby.”
“We’ve already met,” smiled Nav.
Nav uncurled his fingers and displayed a treasure trove of golden jewelry. Future Libby gasped as her hand strayed to the empty holes in her ears.
“How did you…?” Her cheeks lost their rosy glow, and her glance shot down to her left ring finger. She held out her hand pleadingly. “You can keep the rest, just please…give me back my ring?”
Nav’s brows knit together, and he hastily returned the stolen items. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” he apologized. “I wasn’t planning on keeping them, honest.”
She slid the ring back onto her finger and re-fastened her earrings before attempting a forgiving smile. “It's OK, I just had a bit of freakout out there for a second.”
“So...” he began, “what's so important about that little circlet of gold? Is it a wedding band? Engagement?”
She twisted the ring on her finger, admiring the ribbons of light that slid across the surface. “No, betrothal, actually.”
“Ah. And who’s the lucky guy?”
“Well, he doesn’t actually know. You see, I haven’t seen him in ten years. Matter o’ fact, I don’t even know if he’s alive anymore.”
Nav's stunned expression gave way to laughter, and he clapped a friendly hand around her shoulder before jerking a thumb in Aurora’s direction. “Ha ha! I like this chick, Aurora! She's almost as nuts as you are.”
Sheen’s voice shot up from below. “Oh, and what are we, chopped jalapeños?”
“Whoa, hello! It talks!” He bent down to Sheen’s level and extended his hand for a shake. “Put 'er there, little man. Nice to meet you…uh…what did you call yourselves again? Alternatelings? Apologies for not recognizing your species, but I don’t believe I've ever stolen anything from your kind before. That's usually how I keep track of things.” He scanned their faces in amusement, then suddenly did a double-take when he got to Cindy. “Whoa! This one’s got your eyes, Aurora. You been off hybridizing with aliens again?”
When Aurora made no reply, he looked up. “Aurora, you OK? Normally a remark like that would have incited a laugh, or at least earned me an annoyed punch in the arm. What’s wrong?”
Aurora gripped her own arm tightly, her gaze darting around the hallway. “I’m sorry…I…we…have a lot to talk…um? April, why don’t you take Nav and our guests back to the encampment. I’m uh…going to the lake for a little while. I’ll meet up with you later. I…I…need to think about…some things.”
She turned and walked away, tripping over her own feet a little, like one lost in a dream.
Nav watched her go. “OK, that was weird. I haven’t seen her that bad since…well, you know.”
“A lot more happened in that council chamber than you realize,” said April. “Because of Jaya’s decision, Aurora now has a great challenge ahead of her. Come on, Nav. Let’s get out of earshot of this place. I have some important things to tell you.”
Lee melted into the shadows as the group prepared to leave. He observed them in silence, loneliness manifest in his expression. April scanned the room from side to side, looking for him.
“Lee? Where did you go?”
He perked up at the sound and stepped into her line of vision.
“Lee? Oh! There you are. I have just had an idea. I would like you to help us with something... but be warned, you may face dire consequences if our plan goes awry. It is up to you. I will not put you into harm’s way unless you agree to this. Would you be willing to help us?”
“If you need me,” he answered, with feeling. “I will be there.”
“Good. We will get going then. It will be dark soon.”
April led the group down the misty corridor and out of the capitol building. They stood at the very summit of the hill, gazing down at the endless miles of rolling jungle. The air was sweltering, heavy with impending rain. Towering cloud-columns marched across the sky in a stately procession, creeping closer to Nuku with each passing moment.
Nav looked up. “Hoo-rah, more rain. Just what we needed. All right, April, let’s get the critters down to the encampment before we all end up drenched.”
The assemblage struck out across the plain, monitoring the thickening cloud cover as they went. The red lake came into view, and Future Libby peered out across the swampy inlet, searching. The nearer they drew to camp, the more Future Libby hung back, until she at last spotted what she was looking for. There on the shore, silhouetted against the crimson waves of the lake, stood a figure clad in blue and silver.
“Guys, if it’s OK, I’m gonna catch up with you later.” The others glanced back at her questioningly, and she quickly waved away their concern. “Don’t worry. I’ll meet you back at camp, I promise. Just keep going without me!”
She turned and scrambled off at a near run, attention fixed on the woman far away on the shore.
are you doin’ there all by yourself, Aurora?” she thought.
-> Chapter 28