The next day, Dennethom began making the necessary plans to leave Skora. He made his excuses to Nyal, claiming that they had joined the Boentu monk order to get away from warrior life, and they needed to earn forgiveness for killing the crew of the raider ships.
When Dennethom returned from his meeting with Nyal, he found Arjuna holding Nerita in her arms. As she saw her brother approach, she handed her daughter to Yasana and requested they go out and talk privately. Dennethom noticed the grave expression on his sister’s face but said nothing until they were outside in the brisk evening air. He waited for her to speak which she did after taking several deep breaths.
“I don’t know where we plan to go next, but I need to make a stop, first.”
Dennethom tilted his head in curiosity. “Where?”
“The Gaian System.”
“You want to go to Delphin Prime?” he asked.
“Yes,” she confirmed.
“Of course,” he replied. “I don’t blame you for wanting to introduce Nerita to her father.”
Arjuna rubbed at her eye furiously and snarled in frustration. “I don’t just want to introduce them.”
“I want him to raise Nerita,” she replied. Realising that what she had said was still confusing to Dennethom, she elaborated. “I want Nerita to live on Delphin Prime with her father.”
Dennethom was unsure how to respond. “Why?”
“Because this is no life for a child.”
“Because of the raiders?” he asked, incredulously. “We fought off the attack from the raiders.”
Arjuna threw up her hands in frustration and started to walk away but Dennethom stopped her.
“Explain it to me, Arjuna.”
“I want to send her away because of all of it. The raiders, Lossepharr, the living on-board ships for moons-”
“It won’t be moons. We’ll find another small outpost like this!” Dennethom interrupted.
“The running and hiding!”
Dennethom didn’t know what to say. “Arjuna, what about Arkaya? Arkaya’s going through the same things as Nerita. I would never put him in danger. And Arro’s about to have a child, too. We all understand your frustration.”
Arjuna shook her brother away. “Yes. But you don’t have a choice. I do. Nerita could be safe. Nobody knows about Markenn. Nobody’s looking for him. He could protect Nerita. I would know she was safe with him. I….” her voice faltered and for a moment Dennethom thought his sister would break down in tears. “I wouldn’t have that knowledge if she stayed with us.”
Dennethom encircled his sister in his arms, a gesture that was most unusual for him. He was always used to Arjuna being the tough one. He held her for several minutes before saying, “I’ll tell Jora to plot a course for Delphin Prime,” he promised.
The remaining six raider crafts gave chase. Doggedly they pursued the giant, not quite as manoeuvrable Aluen, forgetting all about the five escort ships. This gave Arronanto the opportunity he needed. He and his escort ships swarmed the nearest raider craft, quickly knocking out shields. Arronanto managed to hit the raider craft’s tail before having to swoop away as the raiders began baring down on the annoying gnats that were the escort ships.
Arjuna tried to get a hit on the damaged raider craft to finish it off but the craft just barely got away before she was forced to turn her attention back to the other five raiders. Luckily, Dennethom, who had been watching the battle intently from the control room was able to use the grid to swiftly destroy the burning ship hurtling towards the ground.
It seemed dishonourable not taking them as prisoners, but the raiders worried him. They were not warriors. They didn’t have a code. And they wouldn’t give up without a fight. Drawing the combat to the ground would be a very bad idea. As he watched the defence grid take out a second raider in a giant fireball, he knew this was the right thing to do.
Up in the air, Arronanto whooped as his escort ships took out two more raiders. The Aluen had destroyed a second raider ship that refused to quit. Arjuna fired off more volt cannons which quickly knocked out the last raider’s shields. The ship had nowhere else to go. The rest of its group had already been destroyed. Arjuna tapped her comms. “Attention raider craft. There’s no one left to help you. Surrender immediately, land your craft and we will let you live.”
The raider craft responded by firing another volley that did little against the Aluen’s impressive shields.
Dennethom could almost feel his sister’s hesitation. There was no honour in executing the conquered. But raiders didn’t have honour. They wouldn’t surrender easily. “Do it,” he whispered into Arjuna’s headset aboard the Aluen. Arjuna agreed.
With a press of a button the raider ship exploded in a giant smoke plume that for a few seconds made it impossible for Arjuna to see anything. Finally, as the smoke subsided and the wreckage fell to the ground, thankfully, well away from the township, she gave the order to Jora to land the Aluen.
“Power up the engines, Jora. We have contact,” Arjuna said as she sat down in the co-pilot seat.
She could suddenly feel a flood of adrenaline run through her, and something different, something feral, a need to protect her child from the evil ravaging raiders that would scorch this planet if they got the chance.
On his small escort craft, Arronanto found himself having similar feelings as he lifted off. He thought of Drapaudi and his mother, sitting at home with his niece and nephew and his unborn child. No, he would make certain the raiders failed.
First contact with the raiders occurred 50 kilometres north of the township. Four escort ships greeted the raiders, their volt cannon ports open. Dennethom had wanted to save the escort ships as a second line of defence, however Arronanto suggested they wait to reveal the Aluen. Let the raiders think they were only dealing with a few colony ships and use up precious fuel and ammunition.
It was a game of tag and the raider ships were “it”. The escort ships took carefully aimed pot shots before darting away. The smaller crafts whizzed between the larger, though equally agile, raider ships. Arronanto had been a little worried about the piloting skills of the local escort pilots, but seeing them in action he knew he needn’t have worried.
“We’ve warmed them up. Now they’re all yours,” Arronanto said into his comms link.
With that he pulled away, and the other escort ships followed him. Silently, almost invisible, the Aluen appeared. With a powerful, thundering boom, the Boentu ship fired its heavy volt cannons at one of the raiders knocking out the ship’s shields in one blow.
The startled raider ships turned to swarm on the Aluen, but Arjuna wasn’t worried. The Aluen swooped up and out of reach of the raider crafts just as she fired a volt cluster, destroying an already damaged raider ship.
“One down,” she murmured and ordered Jora to pull back out of the fray.
So this is it,” Arronanto remarked. “Even as monks we can’t seem to escape doing battle.”
“Some of us will,” Dennethom said, looking pointedly at his sister.
Arjuna glared defiantly at her older brother, the hackles on the back of her neck starting to rise. “I’m going with you. You know I am.”
Dennethom snarled and stood up. Frustrated, he stalked around the room. “You have a daughter to think about Arjuna. You can’t just take off with us to go fight raiders. What will will become of Nerita if something happens to you?”
Arjuna snorted in disgust. “What about you? Both of you! Dennethom, you have a son” she said. “And you,” she added turning to Arronanto who was doing his best impression of a statue, “you have a child on the way. Why do you two get to go into battle but I don’t?”
Dennethom snarled again, impatiently. “It’s our job Arjuna. It is our job to protect this family.”
“And my job also, in case you forgot,” Arjuna responded quietly. The finality in her tone told Dennethom there was no use arguing with her.
“Fine,” Dennethom replied, taking a deep breath. “Then we need to prepare for battle.”
“So this is what we know,” Dennethom began, as he paced around the ward room of the Aluen. “Skora has some planetary defences already in place, but not much.”
“But there is a planetary defence grid, correct?” Arjuna interrupted.
Dennethom grimaced. The pair were still acting cool with each other, ever since Dennethom had tried to keep her from the fight.
“Yes there is. However, it’s never been used in combat. It’s designed to stop stray asteroids from hitting the planet.” Skora was located next to a large asteroid belt.
“Didn’t Sarno also have a defence grid?” Jora asked. He and Xien were also sitting in on the meeting.
“From what Nyal tells me, the colony was taken by surprise. They didn’t have time to activate the grid. Luckily, that won’t be the case with us. Unfortunately, the grid can’t protect the entire planet, which, depending on the strength of the raiders, still leaves us wide open for an attack.
“The last thing we want to do is let the raiders land.” Dennethom paused. “The mayor of Skora sent scouts to Sarno. Nyal showed me the pictures they sent back. These raiders are vicious. They’re not just trying to survive. They enjoy killing.”
“So we need to fight them from the air,” Xien surmised.
“Precisely. Unfortunately, most of the ships on Skora are cargo ships. There are a handful of escort ships used on the supply routes. These are the only ones with weapons. Which is why we’re here, on the Aluen.” Dennethom sighed. “This is the most advanced ship, probably in the outer rim. I don’t see that we have any choice but to reveal the Aluen.”
Arjuna and Arronanto nodded their head in quiet agreement but Jora felt forced to speak up. “Forgive me Tsalu Dennethom, but my priority is to keep you and your family safe. To that end, the best option would be to depart on the Aluen before the raiders arrive.”
“I understand what you’re saying Jora. But we cannot leave the colonists here to fend for themselves. It’s simply not the honourable thing to do.” Dennethom wasn’t disappointed in Jora. He knew Jora would never run away from a fight. It’s just he was sworn to protect the line of Boentu leaders at all costs.
Jora nodded his head. “We’ll make sure the Aluen is ready for combat.”
Puzzled Dennethom ushered Nyal inside. After their guest was seated and Arronanto had given Nyal some water, he began to explain himself.
“Please understand, I’m only here as a representative of the company. However, I spoke to the mayor and he agrees with my ideas.”
“What ideas?” Dennethom asked, puzzled.
“I saw you out in the market today,” he said, addressing Dennethom. “I was wondering if perhaps you heard the rumours about the raider attack.”
“On Sarno?” Dennethom asked. “Yes. I heard something like that. But what does this have to do with-”
“-it’s a lot worse than just raiders,” Nyal interrupted. “They took out the entire colony. The only reason we know anything about it is because of the supply run. Company regional headquarters was on Sarno. It’s gone, and all the people with it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Dennethom replied, trying not to sound callous.
“You don’t understand. Their next stop is Skora.”
Arronanto eyed his brother wearily. “Are you sure?” Dennethom asked.
Nyal nodded his head. “There’s no doubt about it. Skora’s the only other major planet out here. Our tracking system predicts they’ll be here within a day.”
Dennethom felt his heartbeat quicken. The raiders were coming here?
“What about local security forces?” Arronanto asked.
This far out into the outer rim of the Arcturus System, the nearest help was a local detachment of armed security.
“There’s not enough time. The raiders will already have swept through by the time they arrive.”
Dennethom’s eyes narrowed. “What do you need from me, Nyal?”
Nyal shrugged. “I understand you’re a monk and you’re committed to a life of peace. But what you did before, saving me, that took courage that only Boentu might have. That’s what we need right now, Boentu warriors. You monks are probably better trained in this type of situation than any of the colonists here.”
Arronanto watched Dennethom searching for a reaction. Nyal was right. Even Boentu monks are trained in combat. The room filled with silence as Dennethom frantically thought through his options. He didn’t want to commit to a conflict. But they had come to him for help. And no matter how important their cover was, they were warriors. They couldn’t stand back and allow the colonists to be slaughtered. If only the security forces could get here sooner. But he knew Nyal wouldn’t have come unless it was their only option. Besides, the raiders were a danger to his family. Really, there was no decision to make.
“I’ll do what I can to help.”
Nyal looked relieved.
“Just give us the coordinates for the raider ships so we can track them,” Arronanto advised. He too was relieved. He had been afraid his brother would want to turn and run.
“We’ll need accurate information about your own planetary defences so we can plan a counter-attack,” said Arjuna,entering from an adjacent room. Dennethom glared at his sister but she blithely ignored him. “We’ll also need to know everything we can about their attack on Sarno. It’ll give us an idea of how they like to operate,” she added.
Nyal’s head bobbed up and down on his shoulder, and he grinned nervously.
“The mayor will be grateful to learn of your assistance.”
He clasped hands with all three siblings, promising to return with all the information they requested.
The weeks passed once more. The tension between Arronanto and Dennethom had gone, though Dennethom continued to feel uncomfortable as his brother fussed over Drapaudi. It was probably a good thing Dennethom had set his jealousies aside as Arjuna’s scowl seemed to deepen as her pregnancy progressed. She was the opposite of the radiant mother Drapaudi had been. She wanted so desperately to be out hunting and laying traps. Even leaning over to clean her volt cannon had become a chore. Soon everyone was as ready as she for her to give birth.
When the pains first began, it took everyone by surprise. It was early morning and Arjuna writhed in bed. Yasana and Drapaudi got to work right away. Drapaudi sat with Arjuna while Yasana tried to feed her some broth.
“The broth will help,” Yasana coaxed. “It has spices to make the pains easier to bear.”
Arjuna gritted her teeth. “I am a Boentu warrior. I thrive on pain.”
Yasana smiled patiently. “You say that now, but trust me, there is no pain like that of giving birth.” She offered up another spoonful of the broth, and Arjuna, in a fit of rage, slapped the bowl out of her mother’s hand, sending it crashing to the floor, broth spilling everywhere.
Yasana gritted her teeth and called Arronanto in to help clean up the mess. Arronanto entered, carrying a bucket and water. He threw a weary glance at his sister.
“Why isn’t it out yet?”
“How quickly do you think babies arrive Arro? These things take time,” Yasana said with a frown. “You’ll see.”
Arjuna cried out, her body tense as pain exploded through her. In surprise, Arronanto sloshed water on the floor.
“Maybe we should get Arjuna to a doctor,” he said to Drapaudi, who sat quietly rubbing Arjuna shoulders and helping her to breathe through the pain.
“And say that a Boentu monk is with child?” Yasana snapped while she examined her daughter. “Remember, we’re trying to avoid attention.”
“I wish this child would hurry up and come out!” Arjuna screeched as paint took her once more.
“Soon, sister” Drapaudi said in a soothing voice.
It was true it was about time for Arjuna to push. The baby was coming. Yasana and Drapaudi stood with Arjuna urging her to push, while Arronanto and Dennethom nervously waited outside. Arjuna hated that Arronanto had been in there at all. She had expressly forbidden her brothers from being near her when she gave birth. She didn’t want them to see her like that, as just another Boentu female.
At each painful push, Arjuna snarled, her claws extending and then retracting as the pain subsided. Eventually, the labour was over.
“She’s ready for you to come in now,” Yasana said to her sons, as she wiped her hands on a cloth.
They pushed the door open to find their sister, still sweaty and exhausted, clutching a tiny baby. They started to turn away but she beckoned them inside.
“Her name is Nerita,” she whispered, staring as though in shock, at the tiny bundle.
“Her?” Dennethom replied uncertain.
“She’s a female,” Arjuna confirmed with a smile.
“Can I hold her?” Arronanto asked, his voice unsteady, and Arjuna already knew what he was thinking. In a few more moons he would be holding his own child, and they would grow up together, Arkaya, Nerita and whoever his child would be. They would grow up, just as the three of them had done.
Two days after the sandstorm, Dennethom returned to his family. He didn’t like to break his contract, and Nyal was sad to seem him go, but Dennethom knew he needed to stop being the fool, and be there for his kin.
He didn’t tell anyone that he was coming home. He decided to surprise them. He arrived to find Arkaya playing outside, supervised by a very pregnant Arjuna. She smiled when she saw her brother, offering him a quick salute, while Arkaya ran to greet his father.
Dennethom trembled as he held his son. He had been so foolish. Thinking that running away from his problems would be the answer.
Checking to find out what the excitement was about, Drapaudi stepped outside. She looked stunned to discover her husband standing there, but it was nothing to how Dennethom felt. His stomach jolted when he noticed the gentle bump of her belly. She carried Arronanto’s child.
He sensed Arjuna watching him carefully. He knew that pregnant or no, Arjuna would tackle him if he reacted the way he had before. But he wouldn’t. Not this time. With Arkaya clutching his hand, he walked across the yard to Drapaudi and hugged her.
“I’ve missed you all so much,” he whispered in her ear.
“And I’ve missed you my Love,” Drapaudi replied. “You came home early. I’m so glad. We feared you would want to stay longer.”
Dennethom shook his head. “I was a fool,” he said, and gently placed a hand on his wife’s stomach. “Forgive me.”
“Of course,” she replied, kissing him fervently.
Yasana and Xien stepped outside also, realising the commotion. Yasana grabbed her son and held him tight, crying. It was all Dennethom could do to extricate himself from his mother. He felt awful for what he had put them through.
“Where’s Arro,” he asked, turning to Arjuna.
“Out hunting,” Arjuna said, and then added with a smile. “Which means you probably shouldn’t expect a celebratory dinner.”
Dennethom arched an eyebrow. “You let him go hunting by himself?”
Arjuna grimaced. “Had to,” she replied, and gestured at her belly. “This one wouldn’t let me sleep much last night.”
Dennethom sat down next to his sister, lifting Arkaya onto his knee. His son was already walking!
“You’re so big now.”
Arjuna nodded. “I can’t believe I’m only going to get bigger.”
Dennethom gave his sister’s hand a squeeze. “I’ve missed you sister.”
“And I’ve missed you. Now don’t ever leave us again.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
The day after Dennethom left was a strange one. Arjuna was only just beginning to feel as though they had a routine and now their routine was changing. They would have to hunt without Dennethom. That wouldn’t be too difficult. They didn’t need all three of them to hunt. However, soon Arjuna would be too big, and then Arronanto would have to do all the hunting by himself.
Arronanto wasn’t much of a hunter. He tended to be louder, scaring away animals. He didn’t care to pay attention to the tiny signs showing an animal had passed by recently. Arjuna tried to make him see the paths of the vermin and the recent droppings. But after a few days she gave up and decided to concentrate on showing him how to make simple traps.
But it wasn’t just the hunting either. They also had to go to the market and get to know the people in the township. Some would ask where Dennethom was these days. They often wore knowing looks when Arjuna explained he was off helping to set up a township in Skora’s southern hemisphere. She supposed they thought the monks were trying to build a place of worship there. Arjuna didn’t bother to correct them.
It was Arronanto’s job to help Jora on the Aluen. Most of the chores were routine stuff Jora could do by himself, but Arronanto missed the spaceship. Plus he needed to keep monitoring the comms and news channels. It was dull work. There was never anything new. Katha still hadn’t stepped down. And nobody seemed to suspect at all that the children of Chran still lived.
As Arronanto finished listening to yet another boring news broadcast, he found himself wishing for some excitement. He’d love to take the Aluen up for a little bit, though he knew his brother would have a fit if he ever found out. With a sigh, he wondered how Dennethom was doing.
The Arthemian bun had done a little to quell Drapaudi’s anger. She understood how upset Dennethom was that she was with Arronanto. For Arkaya’s sake she was ready to make peace.
Dinner that night began like usual. The morning’s fight was forgotten. Arronanto could never stay angry at his big brother. As Jora cleared out the dishes, Dennethom stood up. “I’d like to make an announcement.”
The family looked at him quizzically, but said nothing. “After my behaviour this morning, I’ve decided perhaps I need some space from the situation here.”
Arjuna sighed. She had been afraid of this.
“I have taken a position in a construction crew building a new township in the southern hemisphere.”
“For how long?” Arronanto asked, his voice tense.
“It’s a six moon contract.” He winced, knowing this would be the most upsetting part.
“That’s crazy. You’re needed here,” Arronanto replied.
Dennethom shrugged. “I must leave, Arro. Honestly, I don’t know how you handled me being with Drapaudi, but I’m not that strong.”
“But we need you,” said Arjuna. “You’re our leader.”
Dennethom shook his head. “I can’t be a good leader, I can’t make the decisions I need to make, while I’m distracted here.”
Drapaudi sighed. “I understand why you wish to leave. I do. But what about your son? What about Arkaya?”
Dennethom walked over to Arkaya and Drapaudi and hugged his son. “I don’t want to leave Arkaya. But you’re a good mother. You can take care of him. You’ll have Arro, and my mother, everybody here to help. For right now, I cannot be here. I don’t want to be the person who throws chairs across the room in a rage, right in front of my son. I need to heal myself.” He turned to his sister. “Arjuna, I promise it will only be six moons. No more. I will be here when the baby comes. And if there are any problems, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.”
Arjuna nodded her head. She felt her eyes welling up with tears and she turned to brush them away. Her big brother was leaving them.
In the days that followed, the structure actually did begin to look like home. When did that happen? Arjuna wondered to herself as she got up one morning. They had even developed a routine. Every day, they would go out and hunt the vermin put down by terraformers to clear up a noxious plant. They tasted surprisingly good. Later in the afternoon, Yasana and Xien, who had become quite handy in the kitchen, would prepare the meat. Jayta was better at eating than cooking, so he devoted himself to keeping the new housing structure operational.
Jayta visited the Aluen several times a moon to run maintenance checks. Arjuna suspected it helped remind Jayta of his calling as a pilot. Dennethom would accompany Jayta to the ship to check goings on in the Boentu System, at least, that’s what he told everyone. Arjuna believed he was simply trying to put as much distance between him and Arronanto and Drapaudi, who were now starting their cycle together. He found any excuse he could to leave the house, visiting the market any time they were short on supplies. It helped him get to know the neighbours. The other residents were obviously curious about the Boentu monks, but reserved, which was just fine for the siblings.
As Arjuna made her way into the housing structure’s dining room, she reflected on how at home she felt on Skora, wondering if her brothers felt the same way. As she stepped through the doorway she heard Dennethom’s voice. He sounded tense. Angry.
“I wish you wouldn’t keep treating him like a newborn cub, Drapaudi. How is he ever supposed to learn to be a warrior?”
“Arkaya has plenty of time to become a warrior,” Drapaudi replied, hugging her son to him.
Arjuna paused at the doorway, surveying the scene but saying nothing.
“This is so like you,” Dennethom ranted as he began pacing around the room. “You don’t know anything about our culture.”
“Come one, she’s trying,” Arronanto said, making the mistake of stepping in his brother’s way.
Suddenly, it was as though a beast had been unleashed. Dennethom’s eyes flashed angrily at his brother, as he picked up a chair and threw it across the room.
“We can’t afford to baby our children. We are the line of future leaders!”
Despite being pregnant and beginning to show, Arjuna shoved Dennethom out the door and followed him outside.
She watched as he stood breathing heavily. “You have to get a hold of yourself, Denne.”
“I cant’ help it,” Dennethom replied. “I just don’t like seeing her with him.”
Arjuna snarled in frustration. “This is what you both agreed to. How do you think it made Arro feel when you and Drapaudi were together?”
Dennethom bowed his head in shame. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.
“It’s not me you should be apologising to.”
Dennethom nodded in agreement. “I know. I need to go for a walk first to clear my head.”
Arjuna smiled and let him go. It was a chilly morning. He didn’t even have a jacket. But it was okay. Perhaps the cold air would do him some good, help freeze the jealous beast that seemed determined to take control of her brother.