Ari was waiting for me when I stepped out of the bathroom. “I see Stella wasn’t joking about assigning you as my babysitter,” I said without heat. I smiled and pulled her into a hug. “I’m just glad I’m here for you to babysit.”
She squeezed me tight. “Thanks for coming back for me. It was stupid and reckless, but I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. I let her go and stepped back to eye her leg. “How’s the calf?” I asked.
“It’s healed. Luckily, Asray has multiple med chambers. We made use of them, though you were the worst, by far.”
“I know you’ve been holding back on me. Catch me up while we walk,” I said. “I need to stretch my legs.”
We left medical and turned right towards the heart of the ship. In a few minutes, we’d pass the mess hall. I wasn’t sure about our supplies, but hopefully I could scrounge up something to eat.
“As you know, we got everyone out,” Ari said. “We had more than a dozen injured, but no casualties. You were the last person in medical.” She shook her head. “It could have been so much worse.”
I’d heard this before in her brief updates, but I still had trouble believing it. “How did we get everyone out? Kos didn’t pursue us from the secondary launch point?” I asked.
Five kilometers was enough to give us a few seconds of surprise but we still couldn’t have competed with several squadrons of Kos fighters. And to get everyone out, multiple ships would’ve had to drop people at a nearby settlement and then return for more passengers.
A strange look passed over her face. “By the time we made it to the ships, there wasn’t a single Kos fighter in the air. We thought it might be a trick because their battle fleet was still there. We launched a squadron of fighters as protection and a small ship of volunteers to be a decoy.”
“That was smart,” I said.
“I try,” she said with a fleeting smile. “Kos didn’t attack. They didn’t do anything. We launched more ships with the same result, until we finally launched Asray. Still nothing.”
“Did they ever break radio silence?”
“They did,” Ari said slowly.
Now we were finally getting somewhere. “And?” I asked impatiently. A potent mix of anger and betrayal made my voice sharper than I intended.
“I spoke to Valentin directly,” she said. “He apologized and said he didn’t order the attack.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “Please tell me you didn’t believe him.”
“He asked about you,” she continued. “He seemed genuinely furious when he found out you’d been shot, even though I didn’t tell him how bad it was. The battle fleet stayed for twenty-four hours then left. We’re still picking up flickers on our sensors—they seem to be quietly patrolling the area.”
“Or waiting for us to return so they can kill us in one shot,” I predicted darkly.
Ari pulled me to a stop. “We returned to Arx three days ago,” she said. “You were too unstable to move, so Stella and I stayed here with you. Asray is berthed in the emergency hangar.”
With that, the growing sense of wrongness I’d felt crystalized—the halls were empty and silent. On a city-ship, people were always underfoot, but Ari and I hadn’t met a single person.
“I went in with four platoons of combat veterans,” she said. “Like you, I expected a trap. We swept the entire compound with thermal imaging—every nook and cranny, every maintenance tunnel, everything. There were no traps. In fact, there was no indication the Kos soldiers had been there at all. They repaired the damage they caused.”
“They fixed the turrets? In a day?” I asked. Even with new turrets standing by and emergency work shifts, the job would take us at least a week.
“They repaired the inside damage,” she clarified, “but they did leave us replacement turrets. Upgrades, too. We’ve got crews working around the clock to get them up and running. We’ve also got crews combing through our security systems to make sure Kos didn’t leave us any surprises. So far, nothing.”
What game was Emperor Kos playing? I shook my head, unable to puzzle it out. My brain felt mired in mud.
“There’s more,” she said.
“Of course there is,” I muttered.
“We found two huge shipping containers of food when we returned, just sitting out in front of the main door, like they’d been there all along. Every day since then, new shipments of food and supplies show up. None of the ships’ captains know, or will say, who is sending them, but it has to be Valentin.”
It took every bit of my self-control not to immediately order it all sent back. Pride would not feed my people, and charity food—or worse, pity food—was still food.
“Did the Emperor say why his soldiers attacked?” I asked.
“No,” Ari said. “He wanted to talk to you, but we were trying to keep your condition under wraps, so we stonewalled him until he stopped asking,” Ari said.
Betrayal, fury, and disappointment roiled through my system. I needed to work off some energy before I made decisions I would regret. As much as I wanted to hunt Emperor Kos down, it would be incredibly stupid with him safe in his Empire. I started walking again. Ari kept pace beside me.
I turned left at the next hallway and headed for the ship’s forward port exit. I needed to see Arx for myself. “What’s the general sentiment?” I asked.
“The civilians think you’re a hero for getting us food,” she said. “The soldiers think you’re a hero for refusing to hide in safety when we were under attack. Spirits are generally very high.”
My people were safe. No one had died in the attack and they wouldn’t starve this month, maybe not this year if we were careful with rations. I had achieved what I set out to achieve, so why did it seem like a hollow victory?
Part 3 later this week.