Disclaimer: This story contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2005 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|Loose Ends||Part XIII
"Reporting as ordered sir."
"Agent," cloudy gray eyes scanned the small chamber with the merest practiced flicker, not expecting anything to be different and perceiving none. The lonely table stood in the center, bathed in diffuse light. A two-thirds-full glass of water rested on its glossy, exquisitely lacquered surface, to his knowledge never disturbed. On the far wall was the modest display screen, mounted accomodatingly above eye level. "I trust you have perused your mission briefing?"
"Yes sir," Does anyone ever answer in the negative?
"Excellent," he knew not to waver his gaze from the indistinct silhouette on the screeen. He knew precisely the identity of the speaker of course, but such were matters of protocol. "Are there any concerns you wish to address?"
He wondered if the surveillance sensors could detect him gulping. "Are...the terms sincere sir?"
"Certainly." He knew, from the sudden chill down his spine, of the smile at the other end.
"But if I may sir, perhaps an assignment of such delicacy may be better consigned to a more experienced agent?"
A pause, stretching to infinity. "You possess qualifications requisite to this mission, and your familiarity with the target favors your deployment above other available resources. Do you doubt your competence to successfully carry out the assignment?"
"No sir." In a clear voice now -- resignation has no place here...
"Very well." ...nor sighs of relief... "The appropriate arrangements have been made and your departure plans forwarded to your personal database. You will find the relevent documentation in your quarters. Unless there are any further considerations you wish to voice--" he recognized the expected answer and gave it non-verbally "--you are dismissed."
Dreamer sifted through the sensor feeds of his many maintenance drones scurrying about deck three and four, forming a coherent image of the three gaping wounds in his side. In his many years of life he'd had to deal with far worse, but still he regarded with irritation the injuries hampering his performance. He supposed it was probably the same with humans, except of course that they also had the added encumberance of pain.
Being human must really suck sometimes, Dreamer thought idly. He shifted his attention idly to the machine shops, where his NRMs were busy breaking down the debris cleared out from the damaged sections and reconstituting them into their substituent forms. From there, another part of his consciousness directed the various fabrication rigs in transforming that raw material into new hull plating, conduit insulation, and other replacement components. This was why Dreamer placed such high priority in restoring those facilities; they were what prevented damage of moderate severity, like hull breaches, from becoming crippling.
Satisfied, Dreamer glanced through his other sensors at the mess hall, where Lirelle and Fennic were attempting to make breakfast -- with less than spectacular success it seemed. Looking affectionately on the domestic scene with his invisible eyes, the A.I. decided his avatar could be spared for a visit.
"Hey, y'all," Dreamer greeted them cheerfully as he walked in.
"Good morning," Lirelle spared him a wayward smile from her efforts. "Hi," Fennic said shyly; Dreamer chuckled at the few splashes of flour adding character to his young face. The youth appeared even more diminutive and fragile dressed in a T-shirt and shorts burrowed from Tallas, since he was a few inches shorter than the two Orions and a head shorter than Dreamer himself.
"How'd ya sleep bud?" Dreamer playfully ruffled Fennic's silvery hair. He asked to express interest and concern rather than for the information -- the A.I. already knew that sleep came to the boy only in fitful gasps throughout the night. It ignited in him a deep-seated protective instinct...and a fiery anger towards those who would commit such acts against an innocent boy. The same emotions flared again when he noticed the adolescent cringe for a instant from his touch. Their destruction of Balarys' ship was a satisfying note, but he had half a mind to head back to Forseti and settle matters with Dr. Channing with a well-placed plasma burst. Dreamer wasn't so careless however, as to divulge any of that in his expression as he affectionately kneaded Fennic's gracile shoulder.
"Okay," Fennic mumbled in reply. His emerald eyes turned meekly to Dreamer's as he gave a tentative, vulnerable smile; the A.I. could see he was trying hard to let go of his social apprehension. That'll have to do for now, he thought. Drawing the slim youth closer, Dreamer planted a quick kiss on his forehead. "I'm happy to hear that."
Two spots of color adorned Fennic's ivory cheeks; he was unused to being the recipient of kind attention, particularly not from men as attractive as Dreamer obviously was. The presence of the tall, black-haired android and all his undeniable attributes never failed to induce an embarrassing fluster in the young man, and he would have been mortified if he knew that his reaction was plainly visible to Dreamer's physiometric sensors. Fortunately Dreamer elected to take pity on Fennic and ignore that data, instead merely flashing the boy his dashingly lopsided grin and turning his attention to the array of culinary utensils before them.
"What the hell are you guys doing?" Dreamer asked laughingly, leaning back against the kitchen island.
"Making pancakes," Lirelle answered.
"You be quiet," Lirelle warned him with a batter-dipped spoon. "I never claimed to be a great chef. Excuse me for attempting to broaden my horizons." In the age of mass-produced auto-preparing meals, it was no longer necessary for anyone to suffer the indignity of cooking, as long as taste wasn't that pivotal an issue. Beyond a few basic dishes, Lirelle certainly ascribed to that paradigm in her years of living alone. Not to mention that on Ledon she rarely even ate breakfast.
"Y'know we have frozen pancakes in the fridge," Dreamer continued his teasing.
"How are the repairs proceeding Dreamer?" Lirelle asked in an insubtle change of topic.
"Pretty good," Dreamer smirked to show his recognition of her effort. "There wasn't as much damage to the plasma conduits or the data transfer network as I first thought. The outer hull though won't be patched up for another seven or eight hours. Since I have to shut down the SI field for that I'd rather we jump to Serendipity now and find a nice spacedock. B'sides, those dying stars out there give me the creeps."
"I've no objections," Lirelle replied, "I'll assist you with the repairs once we arrive."
"No need," Dreamer waved aside the suggestion. "I can always just draft Sabe or Tal. You should take it easy on that arm."
"The burn is almost healed; I'm not an invalid," Lirelle gave him an annoyed glance.
"Just humor me okay?" Dreamer rolled his eyes and pushed off from the counter. Lirelle's stubborn insistence on finding a use for herself would be almost admirable if it weren't so exasperating at times. Remembering past arguments, he figured the best tactic would be to divert her time to another task. "B'sides, once we get to spacedock I'd like ya to take Fennic stationside and have his implant removed. I don't like the idea of that poison capsule sittin' inside him."
"Very well," Lirelle's eyes softened. "Perhaps we should have the doctors perform a physical examination as well. They may be able to ascertain the nature of his surgical modifications."
"No! No more doctors!" Fennic's sharp voice turned their attentions. Dreamer didn't need sensors to read the expression of terror and apprehension on his face.
"Fennic, these aren't the same as the doctors that you escaped from on Kion'Seg. Their job is to help you," Lirelle said soothingly.
"I don't care, I'm never letting a doctor near me again!" Fennic exclaimed vehemently.
"Fennic, you're in danger as long as that implant's inside you," Dreamer said with quiet authority. "The guys you escaped from can use it to track you down and even kill you if they wanted to, and it's impractical for us to dampen its signal for the rest of your life." He walked slowly towards the ashen boy, careful not to incite the flight reflex he saw building. "It's a pretty simple procedure and Lirelle'll be with you the whole time you're there, but we need to have this done. I haven't lied to you since you got here Fennic. We won't let anyone hurt you again. Trust me."
"I do," Fennic was surprised at how easily he could say that when he gazed into Dreamer's eyes.
"Awesome. Then you'll go, right?" Fennic nodded, color rising in his face. "Cool," Dreamer beamed and gave his slender arm an affable squeeze. He turned to a smiling Lirelle, "By the way, I don't think it's supposed to smoke like that."
Lirelle's eyes widened as she realized she'd neglected the stove, and she turned quickly to rescue the imperiled pancake from the frying pan. Dreamer received his third warning look of the day from the black-haired woman as he snickered remorselessly, this time joined by Fennic's effervescent peal. I think that just made it worth whatever Lirelle'll do to get back at me.
Some time later, Sabrin and Tallas arrived at the mess hall to find breakfast served, if not an unqualified success. Dreamer regarded the cautious ingress of the two young men, trying but failing miserably to keep evidence of their recent activities from their faces. Hope they didn't think they could fool me with that performance, Dreamer thought amusedly. I have to play this out. He kept up an absolutely neutral mask as his black eyes tracked their reddened faces to their seats at the table, Tallas slightly less comfortably. Lirelle and Fennic picked up on his cue and remained complicitly silent, as puzzled as they were by what was going on.
"Sabe?" Finally after a minute Dreamer interrupted their discomfiture, his voice perfectly modulated as only a machine's could.
Sabrin felt his face suddenly shading with embarrassed guilt even though there was no real reason for it. God, how does he do that? He consciously reined in his reaction and replied, "What?"
"How'd it go last night?" Dreamer raised casualness to an art form.
"Why do you keep doing this Dreamer?" Sabrin snapped gruffly in exasperation. "You know damned well 'how it went' you deviant." Beside him Tallas painted on a look of innocence and averted his gaze. He knew exactly why; it was the same reason he was mostly spared -- Sabrin made it more fun for the A.I. by responding. Mostly... The blonde man blushed as he caught Dreamer's surreptitious glance out of the corner of his eye. Beside them, the topic of discussion dawned on Lirelle and a smile began tugging at her lips, blossoming to its full radiance when Tallas gave a slight confirming nod to her questioning gaze.
"'Deviant'?" Dreamer pretended hurt, "I was just inquiring as to whether you and Tallas reconciled."
"Yes, we did," Sabrin rolled his eyes and sighed in resignation of the conversation to come.
"Good," Dreamer finally grinned; the sight of the two young men, their love at last brought to fruition, filled him with joy. Here was consciousness' most wondrous creation; a beacon of warmth in a perilous universe that, for precious moments, made it all seem worthwhile. And the perfect fodder for some good-natured ribbing, Dreamer thought evilly. "How many times?" he asked with a smirk.
"None of your business!" Sabrin snapped and struck Dreamer on the arm.
"Um...are you saying you two are...?" Fennic asked uncertainly, not wanting to offend anyone in case he'd misinterpreted their innuendo. Anxiety weighed heavily on his mind, as he hadn't yet the opportunity to know the Dream's other two crew members and experience taught him to be wary of strangers. Fennic fought down the urge to apologize and withdraw, reminding himself that Sabrin and Tallas were Dreamer's friends and that they too had helped him escape from the lab.
"Together? As of yesterday," Tallas' hand sought out Sabrin's under the table as he said that; Sabrin's firm grip was like a jolt of electricity between them.
"So uh, you two like boys?" Fennic asked timidly, hoping he wasn't overstepping his bounds.
"Well I like one in particular," Sabrin answered in a friendly voice, sensing the boy's apprehension. Despite his initial misgivings, now that he was speaking to Fennic face to face he found there was a certain open, innocent quality about their stowaway that was quite endearing. He also felt sympathy for another human being exiled from his home, and subjected to appalling abuse atop it. Back at the ward, Sabrin knew orphans who had been hurt by their former guardians, and he shuddered to think of the boy in front of him being subjected to the same.
"Well, I'm glad that ya finally came to your senses," Dreamer's eyes flashed to accentuate his congratulations, "I was beginnin' to think I'd have to smack ya upside the head."
"Maybe you should've," Tallas noted mischievously, "Might've saved a lot of time."
"God, what'd I do to have you two inflicted on me?" Sabrin muttered jokingly. His stomach growled opportunely and he looked curiously at the pancake-filled plate and the pitcher of amber-colored liquid at the center of the table. "Are those for everyone?"
"Be my guest," Lirelle waved her hand welcomingly. The two Orions retrieved clean plates and utensils and began carving their way through the pile. Dreamer chuckled and shook his head at the ability of young men to put away food.
"How much longer till the ship's repaired?" Sabrin asked Dreamer in between bites.
"Couple hours," the android replied, "But we're jumpin' to Serendipity first."
"Why?" Tallas's voice was muffled by food, for which Sabrin shot him one of what would become many chastising glances. "Should we be jumping with all those hull breaches?"
"You'd be surprised by what I can and have jumped with," Dreamer asserted dryly. "We'll have shut down part of the structural integrity field for you to start replacing the damaged hull plating, and trust me we'd rather not do that in open space," Dreamer punctuated his response with a succinct jerk of the head towards the window. Tallas groaned plaintively as a slight wave of nausea accompanied the resurfacing of his last zero-gee memory.
"How's it fair that you insist on a side trip and we have to repair the damage?" Tallas mock-complained.
"How's it fair that I work while you lazy humans sleep?" Dreamer shot back, "Aside from rescuin' Fennic 'ere" -- the boy visibly shrank in his seat at the attention -- "we got paid too, remember? The credits transferred a little while ago."
"No fair, using a good deed against us," Tallas smiled at Fennic to show he was joking, having noticed the pensive look on the adolescent's face and made a mental note to be more careful in the future.
"Aww, it won't be so bad babe; I'll be right there with ya," Sabrin said, leaning over and kissing his new boyfriend softly on the lips.
"Ugh," Dreamer rolled his eyes and feigned an expression of disgust, to which Tallas retorted by sticking out his tongue. Dreamer put on an idealized semblance of aristocratic social indignation, which was so uncharacteristic for him that the table dissolved in laughter. Sure it was all in jest, but still Tallas felt his skin flush when Sabrin's lips made contact. For a moment their eyes had met and he knew from the brazen light in Sabrin's blues that the kiss was no joke.
"Wait, how can you still get paid after what happened?" Fennic asked confusedly after they settled down.
"Balarys signed off on our contract; if Channing'd tried to stop the payment there would've been an investigation," Dreamer said.
"And given the nature of his business, I doubt he wanted to attract any more attention to himself than necessary," Lirelle added. She noticed the distant look on Dreamer's avatar that signalled his receiving new information. "What is it Dreamer?" she inquired.
"See for yourself," the avatar answered after a moment, directing the four humans' attentions to the large monitor on the far side of the room. It flickered on to show a pre-recorded newsfeed from a Kion'Seg local channel, displaying a sharply dressed anchorwoman with neatly coiffed blonde hair. Above and to her right, the inset image showed a scene of devastation playing out in the planet's capital city. Beneath the planet's signature gray sky, vehicles flashing sirens hovered above a sea of red-suited emergency workers, milling about a blackened chasm rended violently from the earth. Portions of the city lights in the background were obscured by smoke, from sporadic fires stil burning in the distance.
"...the explosion was reported at 0522 hours local time in the south river industrial district. Preliminary reports indicate that six blocks occupied by warehouses were destroyed in the blast. A number of neighboring structures also suffered moderate to light damage. As of 0810 hours the situation was declared contained by local authorities. Emergency response units have recovered at least forty-nine bodies from the rubble, although an unknown number were likely vaporized in the initial blast. No survivors from the site itself have been located so far. Three nearby pedestrians were injured by the concussion and have been removed to Municipal Hospital 9. There is no word as of yet on their condition..."
"...the cause of the explosion is believed to have been a fatal overload in an unregistered subterranean power generator located beneath one of the warehouses. Investigators have found no evidence of foul play and are citing the disaster as an accident, caused by negligent maintenance or human error. Thus far police have denied comment on allegations that the affected subdistrict was under previous suspicion of ties to local Guild activity, despite testimony from emergency workers stating that an extensive underground complex had existed beneath the site prior to the explosion and were likely..."
"That's the lab you escaped from, isn't it Fennic?" Dreamer asked quietly.
The light-haired youth nodded woodenly, his stunned eyes glued to the monitor. Many times he'd dreamed of setting those hated machines to the flame, but the now the sight of soot-streaked aid workers moving plastic-wrapped bodies into waiting vehicles made his insides lurch. Sensing Fennic's unease, Lirelle rubbed a comforting hand up and down his arm.
"An 'accident', riiight..." Sabrin murmured skeptically.
"Prolly one of their rival Guilds got 'em," Dreamer smirked at the enactment of poetic justice. "In any case that's one problem solved."
"Yeah..." Tallas said uncomfortably, returning his eyes to the devastation playing out on the monitor.
The Dream of Dawn dove from a flash of light beneath the curved horizon of their destination planet. Wispy white clouds drifted in intricate patterns above a rich green tapestry, woven by the unbroken canopy of the trillions of trees that comprised a global rainforest. Two stars shined in the distance; one the planet's golden sun, the other its dim orange companion. Abruptly the small ship veered away from the surface and climbed in altitude, heading for one of the many shimmering space stations strung like pearls in orbit.
"Wew! That jump sure gets your heart pumpin' doesn' it?" Dreamer grinned wolfishly. Sabrin thought he preferred boring to a jump potential that had a good chance of dumping you on a collision course for a planet at a good fraction of the speed of light. There was no real danger to an aware pilot but still the planet did look alarmingly close.
The double star that received the first humans to leave their home galaxy was aptly named Serendipity, as the humble crew of the farship Kehoe certainly never expected to make history when they set off from Regulus. A new era of exploration and discovery was suddenly ushered in by their errant jump, as for the first time scientists could look upon the Milky Way with an outsider's perspective. And what could be better to expound their triumph, than the further discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting the binary's alpha star? The intrepid explorers christened their new world Windfall; for not only was its atmosphere eminently hospitable, but its surface teemed with life beyond even the proverbial Paradise.
While lauding their fortune, the Kehoe crew should have realized there is some wisom in the old adage concerning things that looked too good to be true.
Within minutes of landing on the surface, it became rapidly apparent that Windfall's staggering biodiversity had fostered an equally staggering array of organisms that found paradise themselves inside the human body. Only by virtue of a single crew member did the ship lift off again; the chief engineer who was more interested in pouring through their recently acquired jump data than exploring a brave new world. The man who, when the time came, sealed the airlock amidst the screams of his compatriots and burned extragalactic tracks back the way he came.
Unfortunately, he discovered too late the handful of spores that had drifted through the open door during their short visit to Windfall -- as did half of the thirty-thousand-strong population of Regulus' Stremvoss Colony. The painful moral being that the universe is a dangerous place...no matter how pretty it may look.
On the other hand, the first nexus star pair of Serendipity and Regulus quickly became two of the most prosperous and important systems in settled space. Undaunted by the fate of the Kehoe, colonists flocked to Windfall armed with ambition and the latest technology. When that again failed, they constructed a flurry of orbital habitats and transplanted to them the more benign aspects of the Windfall forests, so that at least they would have the illusion of dominion over the living world beneath them. Eventually untamed Windfall would deign them homage, by yielding an array of biological products that ranged from the delightful and beautiful to the downright miraculous. Just as long as its resident humans always remembered their place.
It's so easy to forget that we're always close to danger, here in space, Sabrin thought as he set a course for Adelaine Habitat, which like its siblings was a delicate sphere of metal, earth, water, and air, partially enclosed by a utilitarian superstructure. The farship passed out of the thick ship traffic and closed one of the curved metallic arms on the titanic artifice. Sabrin edged the ship to their assigned berth with finesse and waited for the extensible clamps to make contact.
"You okay there bud?" Dreamer asked Fennic, who was looking somewhat green after his first jump.
The youth nodded weakly and force down the lump in his throat, wondering how anyone could stomach such an appalling mode of travel.
"Well then, let's get to it," Dreamer clapped him on the back. "Take your time an' have some fun while you're over there. The boys and I'll be workin' all day patchin' up the ship." Lirelle took that as her signal to lead her and Fennic off the bridge.
"All day Dreamer?" Tallas gave the A.I. his best pleading look.
"You can have a lunch break," Dreamer said cheerfully as he brought up a list and accompanying diagram on the master situation display. "Alright so, I figured that since we're here anyway we might's well shut down the main reactors and rehaul the power grid 'cause I'm way off the maintenance cycle for those systems and we can't keep puttin' it off--"
As Tallas balefully regarded Dreamer's turned back and the elaborate diagrams filling the screen, he heard Sabrin approach behind him. A warm hand softly slipped around his waist, sending a shiver through his body, as he felt the other man smile. "Missed ya too," Tallas whispered, leaning back against his love's solid chest.
Lirelle sat back in the waiting room of the hospital and closed her eyes in relief that she'd been able to prevent Fennic from having a full-blown panic attack. She knew that phobias were difficult to combat, her own of snakes being no exception, but that didn't change the fact that maneuvering a skittish adolescent into confronting his fears remained a highly draining exercise. Finally it was almost over, and she was looking forward to a relaxing afternoon.
The room was small, white, and sterile, as medical facilities tended to be. It was outside the office of Dr. Rynn Silvestra, a slender brown and gray-haired woman in her mid-sixties. A casual look would not suggest her one of the most capable and mercenary physicians in the system, but Lirelle's short conversation with her had revealed a mind of remarkable reach and subtlety. The good doctor had enigmatically hinted at knowing Dreamer in some past time, but frustratingly refused to divulge any further details. Whatever their connection was, it conferred them the assurance that she would ask no inconvenient questions.
"The operation was successful," Dr. Silvestra announced, entering the room in her surgical gown. She downloaded a copy of her test results into a pad and handed it to Lirelle.
"The implant was located next to the superior mesenteric vein and had a fairly typical two-part activation trigger; it was no trouble disabling and extracting it." the doctor said, leading Lirelle back into her office. Lirelle examined the tiny tracking device contained in the glass vial Dr. Silvestra handed her; it was hard to imagine that it had been lodged in Fennic's back not an hour earlier. "I have sealed the incision wound with microsutures and a dermal bandage; he'll be ready to leave in an hour or so. He can remove the bandage twelve hours from now but I would advise against strenuous movement for at least a week."
Lirelle nodded, dividing her attention between the doctor and the datapad. "What were the results of the physical?"
"I found no evidence of chronic physiological abnormalities or disorders." Dr. Silvestra led them to a large wall-mounted monitor, where she brought up a detailed and largely incomprehensible display. "His biometric data are all within standard limits for a male of his age -- he's eighteen, by the way, since I noticed you left that field blank on the entry form. However, I am concerned that his immune system is unusually under-developed. Has he received any of the standard vaccinations?"
"I'm afraid we don't have access to his early medical information," Lirelle admitted.
There was no sign of surprise in the doctor's voice. "I suspect he didn't, though I can't imagine the circumstances in which that would be the case. I can have them administered here for no charge--" Lirelle agreed, upon which Dr. Silvestra activated her comn unit and spoke some instructions. "The vaccines shouldn't cause any adverse effects beyond short-term fatigue or dizziness but I want you to inform me if worse symptoms manifest in the next few days."
"Understood doctor, we plan to stay for at least two more days."
"I must also inform you that there are signs of previous injuries." Dr. Silvestra's expression turned serious as she highlighted several points on the display. "These bones were either broken or fractured within the last few months, and then knitted back together somewhat crudely with an osteo-regenerator. These muscles also show signs of being recently healed."
"My god..." Lirelle eyed the display with growing anger.
"Fortunately, he is still young and there is no permanent deformation," Dr. Silvestra changed the display with a flick of her hand. She regarded Lirelle with a critical eye, "Under ordinary circumstances I would be obligated to report this as he is still a minor under local law. However, based on the facts that have made available to me, I suspect that may exacerbate matters?"
"Thank you for your discretion doctor," Lirelle accepted the implication, "I regret any trouble we may have--" The doctor waved aside her apology and brought up a few more minor health concerns and recommendations.
"What about the...modification...on his temple?" Lirelle inquired when her curiosity reached fever pitch, "Have you learned anything?"
"Yes and no," Dr. Silvestra answered, having apparently been waiting for the question, "Frankly I haven't seen anything quite like it. As far as I can tell it's a cluster of neurons situated directly over the right temporal lobe, with extensive axional linkages linking it with the rest of the cerebrum. The cranial bone in that area definitely show signs of surgical modification to accomodate the additional mass, and you can see the extra blood vessels, but I haven't the faintest clue why anybody would go to that kind of trouble." Her voice contained a synthesis of consternation, at a puzzle she couldn't decipher, and admiration for the obvious technical expertise involved.
"Is it dangerous to him?"
"I don't believe so," Dr. Silvestra stroked her chin in contemplation, "It seems to function the same as if it were a normal part of his brain. He will have to be more careful since the bone in that area is thinner than normal." She turned her sharp blue eyes back on Lirelle. "You know, as much as I am loathed to admit any personal shortcoming, neurology isn't exactly one of my chosen fields of expertise. If you'd like, I could refer you to some of my colleagues here who are."
"I think it'd be best not to involve any more people in this," Lirelle refused politely.
"Knowing Dreamer, that's probably true," Dr. Silvestra chuckled.
Clad in an EV suit, Tallas gently maneuvered the piece of pristine alloy into its assigned space on the hull with the help of two hovering drones. After the perfectly shaped panel was settled into the gap like a puzzle piece, bright sparks issued from the two drones as they began sealing the seam from opposite ends. His task was as simple as it was dull and repetitive, as Dreamer's drones did most of the work while he supervised.
"I didn't sign on for this much manual labor," Tallas complained good-naturedly as he stretched his stiff back.
Sabrin snickered over the comn, the deep sound evoking a warm tingle over Tallas' skin. They were separated by less than two meters, since at the same time the other man was working as his counterpart on the inner hull. The entire section was evacuated of atmosphere to give them access to the damage. "Quit whining...at least nobody's trying to kill us."
"Not right now anyway," Tallas' comment came out more somber than he intended. There were times when his best friend's nonchalance under pressure was a source of strength, but other times it just made him feel inadequate. He closed his eyes and cleared the morose thoughts before Sabrin picked up on them. Absently he tried to reach an itch on his shoulder, grunting in annoyance when he ran into the sealed fabric of the suit.
"This EV suit's driving me crazy. Whatever they made the inside out of itches all over the place," Tallas finally dropped his arms and tried to focus back on the pad rather than the pinpricks now migrating all over his skin.
"But that is the new one, sort of," Sabrin replied unhelpfully; they salvaged the Tallas' suit from the cargo bay of an Altairan cruiser and so it was probably older than the one he wore. "Well, try not to think about it; you'll just make it worse."
"Damn it why'd you have to say that?" Tallas complained. He knew from the poorly disguised snickers coming over the comn that his sympathetic boyfriend had done it on purpose. "Asshole," he muttered jokingly.
"If I'm an asshole, why do you love me then?" Sabrin teased.
"Beats me," Tallas grinned as he imagined the other man's pout, "Must be your body." The blonde blushed a little when a rather inappropriate image floated into his mind and his body responded in kind.
"Well, I love everything about you," Sabrin breathed.
Tallas' expression froze as his breath caught in his throat; suddenly it seemed as though his heart didn't have enough space to beat inside the suit. "You're not playing fair," he protested weakly.
"Nope," Sabrin answered, flashing a wolfish grin.
"I love you too. All of you. More than I can say."
"I'm glad." Even though they couldn't see or touch each other, they each felt as though the other were right beside them. They smiled concurrently.
"Sure is pretty out here," Tallas remarked off-handedly as he waited for two more drones to approach with another hull plate, "Guess I've been too distracted late to notice before." Above them, the great pinwheel of the Milky Way Galaxy painted one side of the sky to the other, an explosion of light so vast and dazzling that it almost made him dizzy. I think I know why people worked so hard to live here, if they saw this every night. Definitely puts things in perspective.
"I know the feeling," Sabrin said, "the view's probably even better from the station."
"Let's head over for lunch. As long as we're docked I wanna try something not prepackaged," Tallas suggested. Two weeks of eating industrially mass-produced foodstuffs was becoming tiresome.
"No argument here. I don't think Dreamer'll mind as long as we come right back," Sabrin agreed.
"And pick someplace cheap," they laughed.
Suddenly, Tallas caught a glint above him and looked up to a stunning sight. A spacecraft like none he had ever seen had just passed through the jump potential, gliding tranquilly across the velvet black. Its form, spun from threads of silver and gossamer, was more complex than he could hope to describe. Six or seven slender wings, impossibly intricate and gracile, glittered hypnotically in the sunlight as they constantly changed shape and position as though the vessel itself were alive. A few dozen human ships of various sizes trailed behind it like pilotfish, while the passers-by seemed to take pause at its passage. "Omegod..." Tallas whispered under his breath.
"Tal? What's going on out there?" Sabrin's concerned voice came clearly through the comn, startling him.
"Sabe, you gotta see this," Tallas said, his eyes glued to the entrancing sight.
"What?" Sabrin shuffled to peer out of the unrepaired part of the hull breach, exclaiming when he caught what Tallas was referring to: "Holy shit! That's a Wayfarer starship!"
"Count yourselves lucky boys," Dreamer's voice interjected, "Y'know how many people've ever seen an alien ship in their lifetime?" Of the few non-human civilizations encountered by humanity, all of them were distressingly advanced and none of them even acknowledged the existence of humanity, much less opened communications. The closest any human could ever approach them was the odd vessel traversing a trans-galactic jump potential, usually attracting quite a crowd before disappearing again. "They almost only ever show up at nexus systems."
"How many have you seen?" Tallas asked the A.I. curiously.
"A few," Dreamer replied vaguely.
"At some point you've gotta let us in on these little mysteries of yours Dreamer," Tallas commented absently. Before his eyes the intricate wings of the alien ship changed again. A pair of them flashed as they caught the light, then a group of three, then another two.
"Nothin' to tell. When you've been a farship for a while, you see weird shit," Dreamer said. "B'sides, it's more fun to keep ya guys guessin'," he added.
Tallas mumbled something indistinct in response and continued watching the ship until it dwindled to a pinpoint in the distance. The memory of it lingered peculiarly in his consciousness -- he had a distinct feeling that they had witnessed something beyond normal human experience. "Alright, c'mon guys, I wanna get this section done before lunchtime," Dreamer prodded them back to work, "then you two can go sample local flavor." Tallas sighed and started the routine over with another piece of hull.
Keeping a hand on Fennic's arm in case he became dizzy, Lirelle guided the two of them out of the hospital onto the brightly lit concourse. Fennic shook his head a little to clear the last of the sedative's effects; with the specter of the doctor's visit behind him he actually felt refreshed, aside from an annoying lingering sensory echo in his vision and hearing. Adelaine's bizarre layout certainly didn't help matters; Fennic thought the architect responsible for the place was a bit overzealous in trying to alleviate claustrophobia and in turn produced something unnecessarily vertigo-inducing. The walkways bent noticeably to accomodate spherical curvature while the gravity remained the same, provoking strange contradictions between his senses. The buildings stuck out in odd directions and he could see too much of the starry sky in the wrong places.
"Remarkable, isn't it?" Lirelle remarked as Fennic ran his hand gingerly across a moss-covered wall. The vegetation was transplanted from Windfall, genetically engineered to enhance their already formidable oxygen-producing abilities. They were like a silken carpet beneath his fingers, each of their tiny leaves tickling his skin.
"This place's like nothing I've ever imagined," Fennic breathed in the mosses' clean scent.
"'There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosphy,'" Lirelle quoted. "It's a famous line from an ancient play," she explained when Fennic looked at her strangely, "the man who wrote it was talking about the fact that there are more strange and incredible things out there than it is within any one person's capacity to imagine."
"He's right," Fennic said. He gave Lirelle a questioning glance, "What's the play?"
"Hamlet by Shakespeare," Lirelle smiled, "I'll tell you more later if you're interested. Right now my sole interest is a warm meal."
"Yeah I'm hungry too." The two of them strolled along the aerial causeway, occasionally pointing out sights to each other. Eventually they decided to sample the native cuisine at a small bistro nestled at the base of a massive tree-covered scarp. Some of the trees bore curious seeds that chimed in the artificial breeze, providing a soothing ambiance to their meal as they chatted casually about various subjects. Lirelle discovered that Fennic harbored an insatiable curiosity towards virtually any subject, and happily indulged his questions to the best of her ability. The blonde youth apparently remembered nothing of his childhood education, if he even had one, and Lirelle was already forming ideas in her mind of rectifying that when they returned to the ship. On his part, Fennic thought it was probably one of the best days of his life.
Some hours after the last plate of aurac-verois and the last cup of Laiesde tea, Lirelle and Fennic were making their way back to the Dream. In addition to sight-seeing they had also done some shopping, since Lirelle thought Fennic might appreciate his own clothing; she would record the look of delighted surprise on the boy's face as the high point of the day. She had spoken with Dreamer, who informed her that major repairs were finished ahead of schedule and suggested they all touch base before the evening. Fennic noticed that his friend was growing more taciturn as the afternoon progressed, but assumed she was simply tired.
However, in fact Lirelle's mind had been diverted by a different matter. Though her conversation didn't abate, Lirelle's finely honed senses had just unfortunately confirmed her suspicions. She feigned the need to rest and watched Fennic run ahead to inspect a holo-sculpture.
"Lirelle to Dreamer," Lirelle activated her comlink under the pretense of adjusting her collar.
"Dreamer 'ere," the A.I. answered jovially.
"We're being followed," she said in a low voice, keeping an eye on her young charge several meters away.
"You sure?" Dreamer turned deathly serious.
"Positive," Lirelle inspected her senses for telltale signals. Right there...the man who just rounded that corner... "He's been watching us since at least lunch."
"I'm on my way," Dreamer said, "Does Fennic know?"
"No," Lirelle grinned at the amused expression on Fennic's face when he passed his hand through the hologram.
"I'll have the boys take him back to the ship; we need to figure out who he's followin'," Dreamer said. At that same time, his avatar was explaining the situation to Sabrin and Tallas as they rushed towards Lirelle's comn signal. "Keep your course. We'll be there shortly."
The channel terminated. "I'm good now Fennic," they resumed their walk.
The anxious minutes seemed to pass like hours, as Lirelle continued her normal facade while keeping an eye on their pursuer. Why is he following us himself instead of with a drone? Lirelle recognized some of the movements as standard covert surveillance tactics but somehow they lacked...polish, or finesse. He's not particularly skilled, or he's skilled at acting it. Anger built steadily in her mind as she mentally cursed the disturbance to their peace. Whoever they are, they will regret following us here.
The two of them passed through one of the junctions between the city and the docks, starkly transforming their surroundings into one of barren corridors and machines. The pedestrians thinned out so that echoes began accompanying their steps. Lirelle's jaw clenched silently; Where are you Dreamer? Something about the situation set the hairs on the back of her neck upright. Playing the part of prey was never her style; if she were alone she would've undoubtedly doubled back and set a trap for her pursuer already. Unfortunately, in this situation she couldn't risk Fennic's safety for her own satisfaction.
"Fennic! Lirelle!" Sabrin's voice was music to her ears. Now we'll play a different game.
"Hi!" Fennic greeted his crewmates. "I thought we were meeting back at the ship?"
"Well, we were in the neighborhood and we decided to walk ya back." Neither Sabrin nor Tallas showed any obvious signs of nervousness thanks to their training, though each could clearly register the other's anxiety. The four of them fell in step: Tallas and Fennic in front, Sabrin and Lirelle behind. "How did it go with the doctor?"
"I'm just glad it's over," Fennic shuddered at the memory, "I mean, I guess it wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be."
"Good to know. Hey, you'll never guess what we saw earlier," Tallas smiled, distinctly aware that they were now alone in this section of the station. The clatter of their shoes on the grated metal floor seemed to echo unnaturally against the long pipes that framed the dark industrial warren around them. His mind amplified every small sound and shadow captured by the periphery of his senses, providing fodder for his over-active imagination and keeping him acutely mindful of the stunner concealed beneath his jacket. At the moment he was forcing his mind to focus on their present situation and not on the greater implication, that if they could be tracked this far then there may be no place where they could not be found. No matter if the identity of their current shadow was Kinjori, Orion, or whatever, he and Sabrin may never find peace again and he despaired at the prospect.
While Tallas and Fennic continued their casual conversation about the morning's extra-terrestrial sighting, Lirelle looked to Sabrin and whispered, "Where's Dreamer?"
"Nearby," Sabrin replied under his breath, keeping his eyes straight ahead. "You have any idea who's following you?"
"We have gained more than one enemy," Lirelle's vague response reflected her state of mind on the question.
"Dreamer's ready to go if we need to."
"I don't know how long he's been trailing us. He may already be aware of the ship, in which case--" Lirelle's voice died in her throat as the group rounded a corner. Standing down the walkway was a young man in his mid-twenties, dressed in unremarkable civilian clothing. Tousled umber hair and placid gray eyes mollified a sharply-featured face, set in an expression that was more pensive than hostile. It was hardly the dangerous adversary Sabrin expected, which made him all the more startled when Lirelle immediately produced her fully-charged plasma pistol and pushed to the front of the group.
"I'm not armed," the man held his hands palm-out in placation.
Lirelle was having none of it. "Return to the ship!" she ordered in a firm voice, training her weapon squarely on the man five meters from them. Sabrin still bore a puzzled look on his face though both he and Tallas had also drawn their sidearms, but he obeyed and began cautiously herding the others further along. Slowly she stepped towards the threat and pivoted to intervene herself between the intruder and the rest of their group. Her mind worked ruthlessly to suppress the turmoil reviving within her at the sight of that too-familiar face -- the smoky gray gaze that was a memory seared into her mind's flesh. A stark chill insinuated deep into her core, from the gaping nothingness of thought where a human mind should've been. Her telepathy told her something similar in the company of Dreamer's avatar, but this wasn't simple emptiness -- it was a deliberate lack of being, like the howling void of a black hole.
"Don't let him touch you!" Lirelle called out to her crewmates, "He's an extractor!"
"A what?!" Sabrin tried but failed to find something aberrant in their seemingly unarmed nemesis.
"A Kinjori operative specialized for interrogation," Lirelle clarified, "Keep moving!" Not for an instant did her narrowed eyes waver from the man before her. "Adjutant Ilvarra, it's been a long time," the breezy silkiness of her voice left no question of her intent. The young man's eyes widened for an instant before the blank mask set back in place.
"I'm an agent now, actually," his voice was subdued; the Kinjori accent was discernible but there was a low, raspy quality to it, not at all like Lirelle's liquid timbre.
"Congratulations," Lirelle checked her hearing to confirm that the others were safely out of the danger zone. "You must be pleased; the Onyx Hand seldom squanders their extractors on such public duties."
The agent took a deep breath, "Miss Wice, I wasn't sent here to harm you or anyone else. Just to talk."
Lirelle didn't even know Dreamer could move that fast; it was obvious her accusations of him humoring her on their hand-to-hand combat exercises were true as the tall android seemingly emerged from nowhere and in a single, disturbingly elegant motion had one of the man's arms locked behind his back and the other trapped unrelentingly by the wrist. The entire action had happened so quickly that it took her mind a few seconds to catch up, and apparently Ilvarra as well, from the alarmed, confused expression on his face. "Alright then, let's talk," Dreamer drawled casually as he held the young Kinjori operative captive with no visible effort. "You can start with who the fuck you are and why you're here."
"W-where did you come from?" Ilvarra stuttered, wincing as Dreamer casually racheted his arm ever so slightly beyond its typical range.
"We'll be asking the questions Ilvarra," Lirelle said, recovering from her shock. She lowered her weapon but kept a comfortable distance; Dreamer might be immune to the influence of an extractor but she certainly wasn't. She surveyed their environment and realized that they were still in a public area; so far no one had happened upon their confrontation but there was no reason to tempt fate. "Dreamer, perhaps we should continue this somewhere more discreet."
"Agreed." Before the young Kinjori had a chance to question what that entailed, Dreamer efficiently rendered him unconscious by pressing a tranq clip to his neck, and hoisted the limp body over his shoulder. "A couple hundred meters in that direction is an access point to an old maintenance section that was sealed off after the habitat was completed. From what I've read hardly anybody goes down there."
"Did you scan him for hidden weaponry, transmitters, et cetera?"
"What d'you think I was doin' while you two were chattin' it up? He's clean as far as I can tell." Dreamer turned into a series of narrow maintenance passageways lined with miscellaneous machinery. "You two seem to know each other."
"Of course," Lirelle said quietly, "Nenzeth had him interrogate me and Emder after our capture."
"That guy was following us all afternoon?" Fennic asked as he was guided into the mess hall and maneuvered into a chair. Sabrin and Tallas placed themselves on either side of the visibly shaken adolescent, their own hearts only starting to calm now that they were within the familiar confines of the Dream. Dreamer's larger-than-life image on the anterior wall completed the circle.
"'fraid you might not've known what you signed up for bud," Dreamer remarked apologetically. "In our time we've pissed off more people than...maybe necessary."
"Like the Kinjori secret service, the Onyx Hand," Sabrin finished the statement. He glanced at Dreamer. "Do you know how many of them are here?"
"I haven't detected any Kinjori ships."
"Do they want revenge?" Tallas suggested.
"No," Dreamer shook his head, "if that's what they wanted they would've made their move by now, not exposed themselves in some amateurish stalking operation. I'd say they want something," he said definitively.
"I thought we blew up what they wanted," Sabrin grumbled.
"Yeah," Dreamer rolled his eyes. "I'll see if that Kinjori agent's a talker when he wakes up. Sorry guys, but it looks like we've got more work to do. The ship needs to be ready to jump ASAP."
"Right." Tallas rubbed his eyes tiredly and prepared for a long night.
"Fennic," the A.I.'s image turned to the boy, "I have no idea when we'll be done or when Lirelle an' I'll be back. You might want to just should just call it a day."
"Maybe I can help?" Fennic asked.
"Sorry bud, but this is technical work and now's not the time to start teaching ya," Dreamer said, "I appreciate you offerin' though."
"Okay," Fennic cast his eyes down, knowing Dreamer was right. "Will you tell me if something happens?"
"Of course," Dreamer flashed him a brief smile before turning to address Sabrin and Tallas, "Alright guys, first we need to recalibrate the SIF modulators. Deck 4, section 6." The three humans rose and left the mess hall.
Fennic bade the two Orions goodnight and split off for his quarters. Apart from a few display pads it was as barren as the first night he spent in it -- no personal effects or anything else to evidence a person's inhabitation. Blank slate, Fennic thought as he flopped onto the bed, Just like me. He could have found something to eat if his stomach weren't tied in knots. In less than a week his universe had changed, became something intimidatingly vast. His fingertips traced the cool metal wall; the starship who had rescued him from the brutality of the lab was now his bastion of security. Outside he would be a leaf tossed about in the wind -- free, but at the mercy of the elements. What's happening out there, right now? What's an "extractor" and why is everybody so worried about it?
"Hey Fennic," Dreamer's image interrupted his brooding, "There's somethin' I've been meanin' to bring up with you."
"What is it?" The A.I.'s strangely pensive expression had Fennic worried.
"I've told you before that there were people after us," Dreamer said seriously, "The truth is, the danger is not trivial. We're dealing with forces much bigger than we are, and there's a real chance that we might not survive." His black eyes faltered to the deck for a split-second, and when they returned they were haunted by regret. "No one's forcin' you to stick around for that Fennic. I don't ever want you to feel like you have to stay here with us out of some...sense of obligation. I can arrange for you to leave, start a new life somewhere safe. I definitely wouldn't blame you if you wanted out of all this."
A sinking feeling grew in the pit on Fennic's stomach; it felt as though the deck was falling away beneath him. Then Dreamer spoke the fateful words: "All you have to do is say the word bud, and I'll handle it."
Fennic was speechless; his thoughts raced as he pushed himself somewhat unsteadily up to sit cross-legged on the sheets. He had taken staying aboard the Dream as a given fact; the one certainty around which his life was now based. The last thing he expected was for Dreamer to give him this choice, to tear away that foundation, and he was reeling every which way because of it. Nonetheless, the proposal was made and Dreamer was waiting. Closing his eyes, Fennic dove deep inside himself and tried to find the answer to that most unfamiliar of questions... What do I want?
At last, Fennic looked back to Dreamer and said, "Thanks for the offer, but I don't want to leave."
"You're sure?" Dreamer asked quietly.
"Dreamer..." Fennic struggled for the right words, "When I was escaping I only planned as far as the garage; when I made it there there were three hovertrucks -- I picked one and ended up on this ship." He gave a small, wistful chuckle. "That was probably the luckiest thing that's ever happened to me. You guys protected me, cared for me, fought for me...nobody's ever done that for me before, at least not that I can remember. For the first time in my life I felt...alive, Dreamer, like it actually means something for me to wake up every day. And I don't want to let that feeling go. I know it's gonna be tough sometimes, and maybe eventually I'll change my mind, but for now, there's nowhere I'd rather be." He smiled, "So yeah, I'm sure."
The A.I. returned his smile, "Great. Thanks." Fennic didn't catch the tormented flicker of his expression just before the screen went dark.