There wasn't much of the ship that Rylan didn't know.
The children were not supposed to leave the third level ever. That was where the nursery was for those being weaned, where the classroom was, and where the sleeping quarters were. There was also a room with computers and games, and that was where the children spent a good portion of their time. The Teachers felt that should be enough.
He had been leaving the third level and exploring for as long as he could remember. When he'd been smaller, he'd been caught often, punished, and returned, so he had learned to be more clever at it. The air shafts, far too narrow for an adult, suited his purpose just fine, and he reasoned that by the time he was too large to use them, he'd be old enough to go wherever he wanted anyway.
None of the other children ever went with him. He had tried to coax them in the beginning but they were afraid. The Teachers had instilled in them all the values and traditions and conditions of any proper Wronith child, and they followed them religiously.
But, Rylan told himself repeatedly, I'm not Wronith. I'm Setan.
Well, half-Setan, but that was the half he claimed. No one knew; the other children would have told the Teachers, and the Teachers would have demanded to know how he knew, and that would have been the end to his explorations.
He knew the truth because he knew about the women.
They were in separate cells; they were not allowed contact with each other or anyone other than the Seeders and the guards, but he had managed to wiggle into their cells by the air shafts from the time he was five years old. At first it had been curiosity that led him to seek them out, but that had changed quickly to a much more basic need.
One of the women had been his mother.
She had recognized him on sight, for his eyes and hers were a rare shade of emerald green. But even if no resemblance had existed, Rylan felt sure they still would have known each other.
And unlike his classmates, he had known what it was like to curl up in her arms, and listen to her sing to him, and tell him stories. Stories of her world; of big bodies of water, and sand, and fresh air. A world where men and women could walk free to enjoy such things. He could never stay with her long; only a few minutes here and there, but those times he treasured forever.
His Wronith name was Pronal. If they called it, he would answer to it, but it was a name he hated. Rylan was the name his mother had given him when he was born. He had been named after a brother she had loved, a brother who had died not long before her capture. The captive women had no rights at all to their young; not even the right to name them, but that hadn't stopped her.
"You have a sister." She told him. "They took her away and I don't know where. But she looks just like you. She was born a few years after you were. She stayed with me until she was a year old, just like you did, and then they took her away. Have you seen her?"
And he was forced to say no, that there were no little girls on the ship, and his mother lost some of her light. She had desperately wanted to see her other child one more time.
But he had known his second sister. She was small, and he didn't think she looked much like him at all, but he had loved her anyway. He snuck through the vents as often as he could to visit them, and just hold her for a while, marveling that he could have ever been that tiny himself.
Then, when his sister had been about a year old, his mother had vanished.
It wasn't just her; all of the women were gone. He was puzzled by that, wondering if they had been let loose back on the planet, and he was too afraid to ask anyone. He had instead used to the computer to try and find out. What he had learned had turned his heart to ice.
His mother had not been given her freedom. She had been murdered.
From that day on, although he said the Wronith oaths and learned the lessons, and obeyed his Teachers, Rylan had been filled with two all-consuming thoughts.
Revenge and escape.
The Wronith would pay for killing his mother. They would pay for taking his sisters away where he would never see them again. He didn't know how, but he would make them pay.
And one day, he would leave this ship.
There were new women now, but they were young. Most of them were only a few years older than he was. And they were scared. The Seeders had already gotten to them, but it was too soon to tell if they were going to have babies. He hoped they weren't, but he knew it was only a matter of time. And one day, they would die like the others had died.
Like his mother had died.
"Nerial." He whispered softly to himself. "Her name was Nerial." Sometimes he wrote it out, staring at the letters, before quickly destroying the paper lest a Teacher find it.
He was a handsome child, with thick brown hair and intelligent eyes. Small but not overly thin, for the children were fed well. He exercised with the others often, and there was a layer of muscle under his left-over baby fat.
He had been in his room when he heard the alarms go off. The other children had been in the play room, and he could hear the Teacher ordering them to stay still and follow him. He heard someone say his name, and then a Teacher call out for him.
A feeling of defiance surged into the child. He wouldn't! He wanted to know what was going on. Let them punish him all they wanted.
He pulled down the wall vent and scooted inside, tugging it back into place just as a Teacher looked around the doorway. "Where is that boy now?" He heard the man mutter.
He held his breath until the teacher had left, and then made his way down the shaft toward the Breeding area, as he knew it was called now. Breeding, like the women were animals or something. Like his mother hadn't been a real person. He felt tears sting his eyes and he blinked them down. There were times when the ache of missing her was almost too hard to bear.
He knew the tunnels and connectors well and it only took him a little while to reach the cells. Making sure that there were no guards around, he pushed open one vent and crawled out.
"Hi." He said quietly to a girl staring at the wall.
"Rylan." She moved quickly and hugged him. "You shouldn't be here. They'll hurt you if they find out."
"I'm fine. Are you okay?" He reached into his pocket and brought out a slightly dry piece of sweet cake. "I saved this for you."
The girl accepted the cake and ate it rapidly. The Breeders were feed a special diet, high in nutrition but tasting wretched. The smuggled food was ambrosia to her.
"What are all those alarms for?" She asked, drawing her knees up to her chest after finishing the treat.
"I don't know. I'm going to find out, but I wanted to make sure you were okay. You're my friend, Zea." He added shyly.
"You're mine too. You're the only one I've got right now." She was trying not to cry. "I miss my parents. I want to go home."
"You will." He patted her arm. "Don't worry. I'll think of something."
"Yeah, I think you will." She nodded. "You're a smart kid."
"I just wanna go with you." He whispered. "If you get to go home, take me."
"I promise." She held out her hand. "I won't leave this ship without you."
He shook it. "I won't leave without you either." He glanced at the tunnel. "I'm gonna go see what everyone's all excited about. I'll come back soon. Maybe bring more food if I can."
"Okay." She squeezed him tightly. "Be careful."
He nodded and she pushed the vent closed behind him.
She wanted to believe his promises, but what could one little boy possibly do? She had forced him to tell her the truth about why they had been taken. She knew what her life held for her if she couldn't get away. She would become a mother three times, and then she would die.
She had just turned fifteen. A week ago her life had stretched endlessly before her. There was so much to do, and see, and taste. She wanted all of it. She imaged herself dancing on the shore, under the stars, in the arms of a boy who looked more than a little like Jazz Maxwell.
She listened to the sounds around her, of the other four girls. One of them was sobbing, that was probably Kally. She never stopped crying. Someone was singing softly to herself. Vebian. The other two girls were silent. Maybe sleeping. Maybe dead. Wouldn't it be better that way, if they were? Better to die now, than later. Later, after they'd gotten what they wanted.
She brushed back her own tears. Like any girl she had had dreams about her "first time". About how beautiful it would be, and how gentle he would be.
Those dreams had been crushed under the heels of the Wronith Seeders. In the pain and clinical coldness of the Seeding rooms, looking up into scornful eyes that returned her pleading glances with pure contempt, Zea's childhood had come to an end. She could only hope, hope with all her heart and soul, that another childhood had not taken root.
She stared at the ventilation shaft Rylan used. Would her own son one day use it? Would Rylan tell him? Would he come to see her?
The alarms continued sporadically, and she settled back on a thin pallet. Waiting. Waiting for the Seeders. Waiting for Rylan. Waiting for anything.
The little Wronith/Setan boy had courage. He believed that they would leave one day. She only hoped she could match half of that faith.
With every moment, though, it was fading.
Rylan came to a stop above a ceiling grate, and stared down below, perplexed by what he saw.
Two people were in an empty room. They wore helmets, but he could tell one was a boy and one was a girl. The sound of the air compressor did not allow him to hear what they were saying, so he just watched them speaking. They seemed agitated about something.
The compressor shut off a second later.
"We can't just run around the ship forever." The girl was stating. "We need some kind of idea as to where they're keeping them." She tugged off her helmet, and the boy did the same.
"What about your Sashi memories? Can you find it that way?"
"No. Think about how many years ago that was, Jazz. This ship couldn't possibly have existed back then. "
"You're right." He looked around the room and sighed. "But we can't just stay here and wait for them to find us. Zea and the others can't be too far."
Zea? Why were these people looking for Zea?
"I just hope we're not too late." The girl was saying. "I hope they're still okay."
He watched the boy move to stand under the vent, and he held his breath.
He didn't know what gave him away, but with a lightning movement the boy called Jazz had grabbed the vent and given it a vicious tug. Rylan plummeted to the floor below, barely remembering to roll as he hit to break his fall.
Jazz grabbed the child and shook him. "Got you, you little Wronith scrumbag! Where are the girls?!"
"Jazz, stop it! He's just a little boy!" The girl grabbed his arm.
"He's Wronith." Jazz countered.
"I'm not!" Rylan tried not to wince at the pain in his arms where Jazz was holding him. "Let me go!"
Jazz released his grip but pulled out the neuralizer. "You're a little liar, too."
"I'm NOT Wronith!" Rylan retorted. "My mother was Setan!" He glared at the teenagers.
The girl walked over to him, and he held his ground. "My name is Linra. What's yours?"
"Rylan, we're not going to hurt you, but we're looking for some friends of ours. We need to find them. Do you know where they are?"
"Maybe." The boy said sullenly.
Jazz aimed the neuralizer.
"Stop that!" Linra commanded. "Rylan, what are you doing here?"
"I live here." The boy shrugged. "With the other kids. Our mothers were Setan. They're all gone now."
"The kids of the last harvest." Linra muttered.
"Why do you want to know where the girls are?" Rylan demanded.
"We want to take them home." Jazz said reluctantly, still not trusting the boy. "And we will. Your people are going to pay for this."
"They're NOT my people." Rylan insisted. "My mother was from Seta. I'm Setan. They killed my mother!" His was ashamed to find his voice cracking. "They're going to kill my friends too. They'll kill Zea."
"You know Zea?" Linra asked, excited.
"Yeah. She's nice. She said that if she escapes I can go too, and I won't have to live here any more."
Linra smiled. "Rylan, I promise that we won't leave without you. Can you take us to where the girls are being held?"
"Sure." He folded his arms. "You won't fit my way, but I'll show you another way."
"Lead on." Jazz lowered the neuralizer. "We'll be right behind."
"I don't think so." A voice behind him said coldly. "You aren't going anywhere!"
Jazz turned around slowly, his spirits sinking.
A thousand Wronith couldn't stand his way recusing Zea and the other girls.
Unfortunately, the two men standing behind him could.
Jazz met his father's furious gaze. He knew now; he understood. And he smiled.
"I'm glad you're here." The young man said softly to Heero and Duo. "We can use your help."
Time stopped. Father and son stared at each other for an eternity, across the boundaries of age, of habit, of ideals. And still between them was a chasm, short enough to leap if one only had the courage.
Duo took a breath, and jumped.
"What do you have in mind?" He asked Jazz.