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
Author's Note: Hi all, here's the new chapter. I'm going away for a few weeks, so if you sent me an e-mail and don't get a response right away, I'll get to it when I get back.
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|The Mind's Dagger||Part XIV
At the same time as his conversation with Fennic, Dreamer's physical self watched over the young dark-haired man reclined prone against the wall. The agent's hands were bound behind his back with a length of cord the android had found lying on the floor. The three of them were at the heart of a claustrophobic maze of decaying girders and derelict machinery, like the bowels of some long-deceased metallic beast. "Alright Lirelle, spill. What exactly's an 'extractor'?" he asked impatiently.
"I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that the Onyx Hand's been attempting to create telepaths for decades," Lirelle began.
"They and I'll bet a hundred others," Dreamer murmured. He gestured towards their unconscious captive, "Don't tell me the Kinjori've succeeded? He's a synthetic telepath?"
"Depends on how you define the word," Lirelle said disdainfully. "If you asked me I would say that their humanity is debatable. Extractors' minds connect when they touch; it's cold and caustic, like a howling wind inside your brain--" Lirelle recomposed herself, clearing her throat. "Somehow the Onyx Hand developed a way to change non-telepathic humans to allow them to force into another person's mind when they make physical contact. You can imagine how this would be useful."
Dreamer's dark eyebrows arched as a long, impressed whistle escaped his lips; it was a long-established fact that any naturally telepathic individual has no possibility of accessing another person's mind without their permission, no matter how strong they were. The ramifications of someone who could bypass that restriction were daunting...the accurate and complete removal of information from an uncooperative subject was but the most mundane of possibilities.
"How the fuck did they manage that?"
"No idea," Lirelle shook her head, "The Onyx Hand likes its secrets."
"Good thing then that they sent an extractor you'd recognize..." Dreamer remarked, his tone indicating his skepticism over that particular convenience. The black-haired woman remained silent, though he couldn't tell whether it was from lack of knowledge or unwillingness to volunteer information. Returning his eyes to the Kinjori agent, he briefly wondered how something as insidious as Lirelle described could be contained in such an attractive shell. "Question is, what to do with him? I'm guessin' his showing up's got somethin' to do with you, given your past connection."
Lirelle folded her arms across her chest, "Our options are either to release him or not."
"They've already tracked us this far," Dreamer said, "We need to find out his part in this." Crouching down in front of their prisoner, Dreamer pulled the tranq clip from the side of his neck. Within moments the man's head began to stir weakly, faintly moaning as his system readjusted itself to consciousness.
"Hey, you awake?" Dreamer lightly slapped the young man's smooth cheek with the back of his hand. Slowly Ilvarra's eyelids lifted, the gray orbs focusing first on Dreamer, and then the woman standing behind him. "Y'know guy, you really fucked up our itinerary," Dreamer said matter-of-factly, cocking his head to one side. "You can make things easier on yourself by cooperatin'."
"Y-you're an android," Ilvarra croaked.
"It's the eyes isn't it?" Dreamer said with little humor. "Now, why don't you be a good boy and fill us in on the what an agent of the Onyx Hand's doing tailin' a pair of civilians?"
Experimentally testing his bonds, the young man gulped nervously as he turned his wide-eyed gaze to Lirelle. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Lirelle, I was sent here to offer you a deal from the Directorate."
"What kind of deal?" Lirelle prompted suspiciously.
"It's about your recent mission to Vesuvius," Ilvarra drew back a bit when Lirelle's countenance perceptibly darkened, "They want me to find out what you know about it. And in exchange, they'll give you amnesty. They'll clear your crimin--" he winced at his choice of words, "your record, and they'll even repatriate you back into the Hegemony if that's what you want."
"Really," Lirelle sneered. "I don't have the resonator data they seek."
"They...didn't tell me anything about that," Ilvarra stammered.
"I suppose they expect this transaction to be performed via memory extraction," it was more a statement than a question. Lirelle closed her eyes and thought back to their first and only encounter... The tiny barren room with the single scuff mark on the right wall. The two bare-frame chairs and their skeletal shadows. The unblinking red eye of the tripod-mounted recording device in the corner. And the barely post-adolescent adjutant who entered with his superior, looking out of place in the severe black uniform of the Onyx Hand, his gray eyes almost innocent. It was one of many experiences she'd long endeavored to discard.
"It's why they sent me," Ilvarra's tone was low, "Since we linked once before I guess they thought you'd know me enough to agree."
"All they want is the information," the young man's expression beseeched understanding, though whether for Lirelle's acceptance or for his own well-being Dreamer wasn't certain. "There's no reason for them to keep chasing you once they have it," he persisted, "I swear that I won't do anything inside your mind except scan for those memories."
"Why should we believe you?" Dreamer gauged it time to interject, "The Onyx Hand doesn't rank high on my list of trustworthies."
The gray-eyed man paused, his face scrunching in a scramble for something more than everything he's said to that point. "I give you my word, that we'll uphold our part of the bargain," he finally said. "I don't know what more I can say to convince you beyond that," he shook his head helplessly.
Dreamer didn't react, as the range of his experience was far too broad for him to place as much faith in a simple verbal pledge as he knew many humans did. On the other hand, Ilvarra's word appeared to mean more to Lirelle, as she abruptly said "Dreamer," and signaled for him to follow her leave. The two of them headed a couple meters down the narrow corridor, where they could converse discreetly but still keep a watchful eye on their captive.
"Tell me you're not seriously considerin' this?" the android asked in disbelief when he recognized Lirelle's expression.
"Isn't it my choice Dreamer?" Lirelle said ironically, idly examining a defunct circuit switch beside them. Alarm klaxons rang in Dreamer's mind to see the same look of resigned fatigue on her face that he encountered after Emder's murder. "I don't know anything about the resonators that'll help the Kinjori construct another one. And if I do what he asks, we could eliminate a major threat against the ship. You've already witnessed the proficiency of their tracking methods. This might be the only chance -- however slim -- we have to achieve a resolution with them."
"But let him into your mind? Look, I'll admit I've only known about these 'extractors' for the last hour or so but this sounds like a royally bad idea!" Dreamer hissed vehemently. "What's to keep him from fuckin' up your brain?"
"Acceptable risk?" Lirelle sighed and turned back to the agent. "He's right...I do know him. There is no reason for him to do what you're suggesting and I don't believe he will. Compared to the potential gains what do we have to lose?"
"You, for one thing!" Dreamer said forcefully, grabbing Lirelle's arm and holding her still. "This's ridiculous!"
"Are you saying that we should give up this opportunity to rid ourselves of the Onyx Hand once and for all, to protect information that we don't even have?" Lirelle snapped back, determination flaring in her features.
"No, I'm sayin' he's lyin' through his teeth."
"Well, I'll know if he is once we link minds," Lirelle shrugged loose of the android's hand and started back. "I'll be alright; take my word on it."
"Like how you're taking his?" Dreamer didn't fail to notice that Lirelle didn't deny his statement as he quickly reestablished his grip and pulled her back. He gave Ilvarra a furtive glance, remembering that he'd raised his voice. If the Kinjori operative overhead their conversation, he gave no indication of it. "What is it with you?" he hissed, "Do you get off playing the sacrificial lamb or somethin'?"
"Are you going to stop me?" Lirelle's own voice raised.
"At least think about it some more. Discuss it with the boys," Dreamer persisted.
"Do if you wish, but it won't change my decision," Lirelle glared defiantly into Dreamer's gold-ring eyes, "Every moment we continue to hold him here exposes the others to further risk, and I intend to proceed now. Are you going to stop me?"
Dreamer glared back for a few seconds more, exasperation gradually overtaking the angular features of his face. They both knew he wouldn't; neither of them was in command over the other, and as much as he loathed to admit it there was merit in Lirelle's argument. The android's hold slackened, accompanied by a heavy sigh -- or at least a simulation of one. Seeing his acquiescence, Lirelle's expression softened and she gave the black-haired man's bicep a reassuring squeeze. "Thanks. You'll monitor the procedure?"
"Like I'd leave you alone with 'im," Dreamer's consternation was evident.
Ilvarra raised his head at their approach; his expression was purposefully blanked. His eyebrows shot up in surprise when Dreamer yanked him to his feet and undid his restraining knots. His body tingled with relief when his normal bloodflow was restored; he gingerly rubbed the reddened skin on his wrists and waited. His heartbeat was rapid in his chest, as he was very cognizant of Dreamer's forbidding presence right behind him.
"I accept," Lirelle said.
"Uh, good..." the agent himself looked disbelieving of her response, "When would...?"
"Now. I want this over with," Lirelle brusquely raised her arm and presented her hand before Ilvarra's startled face. The young man swallowed and nodded, reaching out with his own hand. His hand hesitated short of contact however; he cast a nervous sidelong glance at the tall man beside them.
"Don't interfere Dreamer. This won't take long," Lirelle stated.
"Whatever." Dreamer snorted and settled himself against a metal column.
I'm gonna go blind, Tallas closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, after realizing that the text on the pad he held was running together. Half the technical language was incomprehensible anyway; the fact that Dreamer or someone else had incorporated quite a number of non-standard alterations into the standard specs didn't help any either. Oh well, it's not like I have to understand, just follow the instructions, Tallas thought, turning unenthusiastically to a tight access point situated about waist-level. Apparently the designers found space a premium on such a small ship and packed as much as they could into the available volume, the cost being convenience when it came to major repairs.
Yeah, I'd bet none of them ever had to do one of these jobs. Tallas thought ruefully as he awkwardly edged his head and right arm into the claustrophobic space and applied the spindle-shaped tool in his hand to a row of irregularly-shaped modules above him. "Sabe, I've disengaged the lateral couplings," he called out when the last one clicked.
"Did you shunt the ion flow to the backup relays?" Sabrin's voice arrived muffled.
"Right," Tallas kicked himself mentally for forgetting already. With some rearrangement of limbs he managed to awkwardly bring the pad to reading position and reviewed the instructions again before performing the task. "Done."
"Okay, I'm pulling out the coil assembly now."
Tallas exhaled in relief after he withdrew from the cramped space; he was not normally claustrophobic but everyone had limits. Nearby, Sabrin had guided a massive complex of machinery, dominated by six vertically mounted cylinders, on sliding tracks out from the wall. "This's no good," Sabrin murmured wearily as he scanned the cylinders, each almost as tall as himself. The fatigue on his tightly drawn face was accentuated by the cold blue glow from a series of short loops embedded on the side of each cylinder. "The coil's fractured; we're gonna have to replace it," he reported.
"Fuckin' Balarys," Dreamer cursed over the intercom. "A drone's on its way with a new one."
"Tal, could you help me with this?" Sabrin had retracted the casing at the the top and bottom of a particular cylinder, which Tallas presumed was the one to be replaced, exposing the actual connection mechanism between it and the frame. Some of the components looked vaguely familiar, and Tallas struggled to remember the rest of it as he took a position opposite Sabrin. "I'll unhook the EKD array while you disconnect the dispersion system," the blue-eyed man proposed, "Then we can take this thing out." Tallas nodded and reached for the base of the cylinder.
"Wait, don't--" Sabrin's warning came a second too late.
The next thing he knew, Tallas realized he was slumped against the wall with a throbbing ache in his shoulders and back telling him that he must have struck it with some force. He didn't actually remember touching the innocuous-looking component that had thrown him backwards with a shower of sparks, though he figured that must have been what happened. Something was wrong with his right arm: when he attempted to curl his fingers he received a harsh jolt of pain for his trouble.
"Tal! Tal you okay?!" Sabrin exclaimed as he rushed over, panic consuming his expression. Crouching down, his frantic hands hovered uncertainly around Tallas' body while he tried to assess the damage. Sabrin's relief was palpable when he realized Tallas' injury was not life-threatening. "Why didn't you purge the residual charge first?!" His voice was still a bit higher than normal.
"Why would I? You didn't tell me to!" Tallas snapped.
"I thought it'd be obvious," Sabrin replied, a helpless expression on his face.
"Why the hell would it be obvious?!" Tallas asked incredulously, directing a glare to his boyfriend that caused the other young man to flinch.
"Well the ionic dispersion system in these coils work on the same counter-current exchange principle as the dissipation relays in the deflector and you knew what to do with those earlier, so I thought...I don't know..." Sabrin's rambling faltered and he bit his lower lip in consternation, "Shit...does it hurt bad?"
"Yeah. A lot." Tallas softened his expression when he saw the worry and fear in Sabrin's face.
"Hang on," Sabrin ran for the end of the corridor and retrieved the medkit mounted on the wall beside the entryway. Tallas winced as Sabrin helped him sit more upright and raised his injured arm to begin treating the burns; thankfully Sabrin had dealt with that type of injury before from an Academy training mishap and knew the correct procedure from memory. Tallas was silent during his boyfriend's ministrations; he saw Sabrin's point about the system now that it had been said, but his chagrin over his reaction to the accident held him back from what he wanted to say.
"I'm sorry," Sabrin was the one to interrupt the awkward lull.
"No don't be sorry; I should've known better," Tallas lowered his eyes. "I mean...they taught us about ionic counter-exchanges in fuckin' first-semester spacecraft maintenance."
"You're exhausted, anybody could've made that mistake," Sabrin shook his head.
"Bullshit. But I really love ya for sayin' that," Tallas said gently, smiling the best he could. Sabrin flushed and almost lost track of what he was doing, until Tallas winced from another jolt of pain shooting up his arm.
"Sorry, you're distracting me," Sabrin said, a corner of his lip curling up.
"Now that one you should be sorry for," Tallas grinned.
"Just a little while longer babe." Sabrin injected the contents of a small blue ampule into Tallas' wrist. The blonde hissed as the cool, liquid sensation immediately began spreading through his injured flesh.
"Tell me we're almost done. We couldn't've taken that much damage at Vajrahm."
"Hey, I did get hit by two torpedoes," Dreamer interjected, this time accompanied by his image on the monitor by the door, "That's not somethin' ya just shrug off."
"We would've still been able to jump if we hadn't shut down the power grid," Sabrin commented, wrapping a bandage around Tallas' hand.
"Yeah yeah, hindsight, et cetera," Dreamer rolled his eyes. "Listen, I've got news. You guys might be off the hook tonight after all." Tallas' eyes widened as a sense of unease welled inside him.
In the first moments after the extractor grasped Lirelle's hand, nothing seemed to happen aside from their eyes shifting beneath closed lids as though dreaming. However, as silent minutes ticked by Dreamer could detect a veneer of sweat forming on their skin, and small muscle twitches betrayed both their efforts to maintain their still facade. Slowly but inexorably, Lirelle's face contorted into a grimace as though in pain, while the agent looked scarcely better. Still, not a sound was uttered between them.
The android had almost reached the point of interrupting the link regardless of Lirelle's instructions, when the two Kinjori suddenly broke apart with a sharp gasp. Lirelle staggered back and braced herself against the bulkhead, taking in ragged breaths of air. Dreamer immediately rushed to her side but she waved off his attempt to steady her body, instead raising a defiant gaze towards the recovering agent opposite her. "It's done," she snarled, her voice surprisingly loud in the cramped space.
Startled, the young agent's eyes flickered upwards at her before he gave a succinct nod. "...thank you," he said awkwardly though hard breaths.
"Your gratitude is not sought," Lirelle replied, "Your business is finished."
"Go," Dreamer ordered authoritatively, his expression clearly brooking no argument.
Agent Ilvarra opened his mouth slightly, but then apparently thought better of whatever he planned to say and began to make his way somewhat unsteadily down the corridor. Dreamer monitored the agent's egress until he disappeared past a turn, before turning back to Lirelle. Though he would never admit it, Dreamer had been unsettled by what he just witnessed. In an instant when the agent's eyes swept past his, the android had spied something disturbingly familiar in that cloudy gray that wasn't there before...like something more of Lirelle than a few memories had passed through whatever connected them. That thought gnawed at the back of Dreamer's mind as he helped Lirelle sit back down; obviously the effort of showing strength towards the agent had taxed her.
"You okay?" Dreamer crouched down and checked Lirelle over.
"Nothing I can't shake off with a night's sleep," Lirelle replied, pushing some errant locks of hair behind her ears. "I only need a moment, then we may return to the ship."
"Take your time." Dreamer reached for the cord and absently threaded it through his hands. "So, are we dead?"
"No more so than at any other time," Lirelle leaned back and shut her eyes, "He wasn't lying; I would have known."
"Like you said," Dreamer acceded. There was no more conversation for a while, as the black-haired man rested back on his heels and waited.
Eventually, Lirelle met his gaze again. "Wondering if I'm still myself?"
"Maybe," Dreamer curled the corner of his lips, "The verdict's still out on that one."
"I can't say my mind is entirely at peace," Lirelle admitted, "But it's still intact."
"Time'll tell," Dreamer muttered half-seriously, "I think we'll be tryin' to process this little episode for a while yet." Rising to his full height, he directed a mock accusing stare to his crewmate, "Y'know, I don't think I've ever met a people as frustrating as you Kinjori. It's good you don't use A.I.s; they'd shut down from paradox in a week."
"But the tourists simply adore our idiosyncracies," Lirelle argued sardonically. It probably wasn't as funny as the laughter echoing off the walls implied; neither of them had realized how much they needed that release.
"So what now?" Dreamer said after they calmed down.
"The move is theirs," Lirelle said tiredly. "Ilvarra is leaving Adelaide tomorrow at 1220 hours; that was pre-arranged regardless of whether I accepted their offer. As far as he knows he arrived on this station alone and is leaving alone, but I expect there is at least one other agent in the system responsible for reporting our arrival in the first place. Has anyone been near the ship?"
"Not since we docked."
"I doubt the Kinjori will act Dreamer, if they haven't already," Lirelle said honestly as she reached out her arm for Dreamer to pull up. Smoothing out the wrinkles in her clothes, she started back towards the docking arc.
"That's what I thought too," Dreamer chuckled slightly and fell in step, "Guess I'm makin' the boys stay up for nothin'."
"You planned on completing all the scheduled repairs by tonight?" Lirelle's expression registered incredulity.
"Not exactly," Dreamer replied, "We were gonna skip the non-critical stuff and just power back up so we can jump the hell outta here."
"I don't believe it's necessary to subject yourself to that now," Lirelle commented, "Besides, I may be able to learn more about the Onyx Hand through Ilvarra's presence here."
"Maybe," Dreamer frowned at the prospect of Lirelle undertaking further risks with herself.
"How did Sabrin and Tallas respond to my actions?" Lirelle asked softly.
"Doesn' really matter, what's done's done right?" Dreamer replied casually, "No sense arguin' 'bout it anymore."
"So they didn't approve," Lirelle gathered; Dreamer only grunted in response.
Sabrin gazed doubtfully at the blue-green tendril skewered on the tip of his fork; maybe Windfall wing-squids were a staple protein source here but that didn't make the creatures any more appetizing. Quickly shoving the quivering morsel into his mouth, he remembered the argument last night between leaving as planned or waiting until morning. Dreamer eventually prevailed on him that none of them would be in any condition to pilot a jump by the time the ship was ready, and that since the Kinjori had what they came for, them taking a good night's sleep while the A.I. continued the repairs was preferable to ending up god-knows-where from a sloppy jump.
Thus, it was just past 0500 and the five of them were sitting in the self-serve eatery just outside the docks, which was as far from the ship as most of them felt comfortable venturing despite Dreamer's assurances that the Kinjori wouldn't waste so much time if they had intended to do something. Logical enough an argument, but somehow not that comforting.
"Well?" Tallas was paying due attention to his culinary experiment.
"It's..." Sabrin failed to keep all traces of the grimace from showing, "The taste isn't so bad if you ignore the texture."
"Huh," Tallas speared a piece himself and popped it in his mouth. "Not bad," Sabrin watched his boyfriend's thoughtful mastication and swallowing with a note of admiration; Tallas definitely had the more adventurous palate between them. Across from them, Lirelle listened and picked absently at her plate, her unscrutable mask firmly set in place. Was it just his imagination, or was she looking pale this morning?
"You're doing it again," Tallas admonished him under his breath, a second piece of native invertebrate already being chewed. Doing what? "It's done and over with. Glowering won't change anything." I was glowering? "Here, try some of this."
"Ugh, fine," Sabrin rolled his eyes and allowed himself to be distracted. Honestly he didn't necessarily disagree with Lirelle's actions as they all seemed to think he did -- a part of him was even relieved that she spared him the dilemma of offering up her mind for their well-being -- but the Kinjori seemed different ever since and Sabrin simply couldn't convince himself that it was something good. Tallas tentatively concurred with his observations when he brought them up earlier, but suggested nothing more than psychological fatigue as the culprit. "Hmm, this is good," Sabrin remarked, "What is it?"
"Wing-squid. But fried, not broiled," Tallas giggled at Sabrin's contorted expression. Beside them, Fennic stifled a laugh before looking a bit guilty at overhearing their conversation, while Dreamer held no such reserve in his amused grin.
"So um, Dreamer?" Fennic ventured shyly as Sabrin forked another piece of fried squid, "Did you know Dr. Silvestra from somewhere?" The two Orions gave curious looks, not being aware of this previously.
"Yeah, I first met her when she was a field medic on a relief mission to Caere. Goddamn she was a pain in the ass," Dreamer grinned, "almost spaced her and made it look like an accident."
"You sure she was the problem?" Tallas asked innocently.
"Fuck you," Dreamer retorted, "Anyway, long story short the mission went south and I helped her get another job after she got kicked out of the Medical Corps. After that we helped each other out a couple times but you guys don't wanna hear about that." From the android's tone, Sabrin guessed it wasn't because the stories were boring. He was about to probe further when Lirelle suddenly rose to her feet.
"What is it?" Fennic asked.
"Nothing serious," Lirelle smiled, "I think the crowd is making me a little light-headed. A breath of fresh air and I'll be fine."
The three other humans shared concerned glances. "You sure?" Sabrin asked.
"If you boys'll excuse me," Lirelle tipped her head in acknowledgement and headed for the open patio. A cool breeze caressed her face as she joined the few other patrons in quiet contemplation, resting her elbows on the wrought-iron railing. Windfall loomed large in the sky, a brilliant green sphere laced with white and gold. Lirelle's heart was pounding in her chest; cold sweat beaded on her back and clung to the silky fabric of her blouse. She waited; Dreamer and his enhanced senses would have certainly detected her slightly impaired breathing.
"That was pretty abrupt."
"Hello Dreamer." The A.I.'s fluid drawl was unmistakable in any setting. Lirelle wasn't deceived by his overt nonchalance.
"What's goin' on?"
Lirelle answered his question with one of her own: "Have you heard from Ilvarra since we released him?"
"No..." Dreamer's concern escalated.
She nodded. "Did I make a mistake Dreamer? Was I a fool to believe his word?" she asked almost wistfully. Her words caught the android off-guard, as it was the first doubt he had heard from her since the previous night.
"Not necessarily," he phrased cautiously.
"I hope not." Lirelle turned back to the spectacle of Adelaine's parent planet. Its details shifted; she realized her vision was blurring. The slender woman pushed off the railing and rose to her full height, looking sublime in the morning rays. Her honey-hued skin glittered, as though sprinkled with diamonds. Suddenly her body swayed and, bearing an almost puzzled expression on her face, she collapsed to the floor.
Within moments they were surrounded by people, well-wishing humanitarians and curious spectators alike. Questions and comments were tossed at him from all sides but Dreamer ignored them all. Soon Sabrin, Tallas, and Fennic pushed their way through the throng and surrounded the pair. "What the fuck happened?!" Sabrin exclaimed.
"She collapsed," Dreamer replied grimly, checking Lirelle's vital signs. "She's burnin' up. I'm callin' the hospital." Picking up the body easily in his arms, he immediately registered how clammy her skin was, if only in an abstract sense by his tactile sensors. Sabrin and Tallas hurriedly began clearing a path through the onlookers as Dreamer made a beeline for the exit, Fennic numbly trailing behind. The timing's just too good, the A.I. swore mentally, The Kinjori'll pay for this.
Agent Ky Ilvarra gave one glance at the small glass of translucent green liquid before him and downed it in a single gulp, tracing the burning sensation as it travelled down his throat. Placing the glass back down on the weathered oak countertop, he pushed it slightly in the direction of the middle-aged bartender and signalled disterestedly for another.
Only a few patrons graced the unremarkable establishment, their subdued conversations barely impinging on the young man's hearing. More insistent were the voices emerging from his memory, disjointed but nevertheless clear and unceasing. Clearing his throat in annoyance, Ky reined in his disobediant mind and concentrated harder on not thinking. In the dim light the dark circles beneath his eyes were veiled; the week after a memory extraction was always the worst, when every moment fragments of another person's experience roiled beneath his own and he never felt far from losing it completely.
The bartender returned with another shot, which he downed as efficiently as its predecessor. "One more," the young man said quietly.
"Maybe you've had enough kid," the bartender eyed the lone man critically.
"Hardly," Ky did not spare him a look, though his voice sharpened ever so slightly. "These days you shouldn't be refusing business, now pour me another one."
The bartender snorted but retrieved the curve-necked bottle. "Never seen anybody handle senschil like that," he shook his head in disbelief, "'specially not a kid like you. You must've had some practice."
"Are you going to pour that?" Ky asked dryly.
"Man, what's your damage?" the bartender snapped irritatedly as he poured the glass half-full and handed it back over. The agent's concentration faltered at the unknowing question, right when his fingers inadvertently grazed those of the man opposite him.
Ky blinked at the sharp sound of the shot glass hitting the bar. The hand that had held it was still extended, its owner's eyes gaping in shock as his brain attempted in vain to process what it had just experienced. A second passed before the bartender recoiled, "What the fuck?!" Ky felt more eyes on him as the other patrons turned to seek the source of the exclamation.
"Keep the change," the gray-eyed man stood abruptly, plunking a few coins onto the thin pool of senschil spreading on the countertop. Hardly anyone used physical currency anymore, but at least it was simple and anonymous. Seconds later he was another nameless face in the pedestrian throng. Damn it.
The bizarre architecture of Adelaide passed obliviously around him as Ky walked with no clear destination. The passers-by who jostled into him should register at worst a chill, or a sense of deja vu, or someone walking over their grave -- as long as they didn't react as the bartender just had. He paused at a wishing fountain, he and his reflection silently regarding each other across the plane of rippled water. Can they see the difference? Only the clear trickle of water down the artificial rocks in the middle of the pool answered him. The agent shook his head and moved on, irritated that he could be so inane. He glanced at his watch and sighed; six more hours until the transport leaves for Kinjori space.
The commotion of an approaching siren prompted Ky to look over a nearby railing. An ambulance sped beneath the walkway and deeper into the station, trailed a short time later by a taxi. Tracing their passage, a strange fear enveloped the young Kinjori as he realized the vehicles came from the direction where the Dream of Dawn was docked.
Four pairs of disquieted eyes followed Dr. Silvestra's return to the waiting room. The serious lines adding years to her face left her impending news all too clear. "The situation isn't good. I believe she's been infected with a binary virus," she said.
"'Binary virus'?" Sabrin frowned.
"A synthetic bio-weapon that has two halves," Dr. Silvestra explained. "The parts by themselves are perfectly harmless, but when combined they become lethal. They're favored by certain breeds of assassins because either component can be carried, nearly undetectably, inside the human body without risk. In this case, the first component was specifically designed for Lirelle's genome, which is why no one else has been affected. She could've been infected with it weeks, months, or even years ago..." Years... Like when she was at that Onyx Hand sector post? Dreamer's mind pondered the possibility, Was her elimination written on the wall even then?
"...theoretically, all whoever carried the second half would've had to do is release it aboard this station, and immediately the pathogen would start leapfrogging from person to person till it reached her. However, seeing as how the virus can't survive long inside any host other than her, I'd guess the carrier probably infected himself or herself and then came in close proximity to Lirelle at some point in the last twenty-four hours." The plasma gun concealed inside Dreamer's right hand twitched; from the looks on Sabrin and Tallas' faces they'd arrived at the same conclusion. "The disease was already in its terminal stage when the symptoms appeared; at its current rate I estimate that she will suffer brain death within three hours." She sighed heavily, "I'm afraid that isn't nearly enough time for me to tailor an anti-virus. All I can do is to alleviate her symptoms. I'm sorry."
"Can't you put her into stasis?" Tallas proposed.
"The virus seems designed to preclude that exact option," Dr. Silvestra's expression turned baleful, "Whoever created it wanted the target dead."
"So wait, she's gonna die and that's it?" Fennic exclaimed incredulously, his voice cracking with shock and disbelief. "What if we tracked down that other Kinjori? He has to know something!"
"We have no idea where to start," Tallas said softly.
"He's probably long gone by now," Sabrin added.
"I can't believe this," Fennic mumbled defeatedly, silvery tears running down his pale cheeks. Sorrow and despair were breaking through his mental bulwark, as their utter helplessness in the face of this situation sank in. So preciously few days since he had finally reached somewhere warm and safe, and now a part of it was being callously ripped away. He felt Dreamer's arms encircle him, telling him it was alright to let go. A part of Fennic's pain pierced into Dreamer as the boy began sobbing quietly against the his solid chest; he knew this life was what Fennic had chosen, but couldn't help feeling responsible for exposing him to its harsh realities. The two Orions hung their heads and tightened their intertwined hands, not sure how to act to the loss of their once-betrayer turned comrade and friend.
After a few minutes, Dr. Silvestra respectfully approached Dreamer. "Lirelle wants to see you alone, before the others," she whispered in his ear.
The black-haired man nodded and gently shifted Fennic to a couch. "This will only take a minute," he assured them before turning to follow the doctor through the door. They arrived in a room with a single bed, flanked by medical equipment. There was a window but very little light permeated the cool, still air, casting a tranquility that seemed set in time. If only that were true, Dreamer thought as he approached the bed. The fragile creature before him, with tubes running to her nose and an IV in her wrist, was a far cry from the vital young woman who had once aimed a deactivated pistol at his face in the airlock. Dreamer ran the back of his hand delicately along her sweat-beaded cheek; at least the doctor was able to allay her fever. Dr. Silvestra patted his shoulder sympathetically and retreated to afford them some privacy.
Her amber orbs unveiled and focused on him. Dreamer gave them a good long look, crossing his arms. When he spoke his voice was accusatory, "You knew this would happen, didn't you!"
"I suspected the Kinjori would not allow me to go with the knowledge I possess, yes," Lirelle managed a smirk.
"Then why?!" Dreamer quietly shouted, his angry face pleading for some explanation.
"Once I'm gone, there will be...no more reason for the Kinjori to pursue you," Lirelle whispered laboriously, "Ilvarra will report to them that I...revealed to you nothing worth their attention. You...and the others...will be safe from them."
"I don't give a flyin' fuck about the Kinjori," Dreamer's voice wavered, "What's one more hostile empire to run from?"
"Thank you Dreamer...for everything," Lirelle smiled weakly.
"Damn you," Dreamer curled his hand around Lirelle's, "When I find Ilvarra, I'll--"
"He knows nothing..." Lirelle shook her head, "I...regret that I won't have my vengeance on Nenzeth but...it's a good death... One with meaning. I can--" she attempted a laugh which emerged more as a cough "--live with that." Dreamer chuckled morosely.
"Leave...the Kinjori alone Dreamer," her voice raised with the last of her strength, "Let it...end here."
"Your humor's gettin' as bad as mine," the avatar bent down and kissed her on the forehead.
"I know... Would you call the others?"
Pure, searing anger coursed through Ky's body as he stormed through the dim recesses of the abandoned cargo bays. What the hospital reception system told him had confirmed his earlier fears, and he understood the workings of the Onyx Hand too well not to know what must have transpired.
"Damn it, where are you?! I know you're here! You've been following me!"
His clenched fist lashed into a stack of empty barrels, sending them tumbling to the deck with a thunderous clatter. "Come out here!" Only an echo answered his yell, but he knew his instincts weren't deceiving him. Ky aimed a frustrated kick that sent another stack of crates crashing to the wall.
"Quiet down Ky," the young man whirled to the direction of the sonorous voice. "Make any more of a racket and you'll attract attention even here."
>From the shadows a slender female figure appeared, her movements liquid and graceful like that of a predatory cat. She was clad in a sleek garment that molded itself to her contours, seeming to ripple with the lean muscles beneath. Her collected blue gaze flashed with apparent amusement on a deceptively demure, unblemished face accentuated by flowing hair dyed indigo. However, it was the glimmer of silver in her right eye that caught Ky's attention. It wasn't a trick of light, but an ocular enhancement implant; one of many gifts the Onyx Hand bequeathed their assassins.
"You! You did this!" Ky snarled.
"Did what?" The woman replied coolly; at that moment Ky knew for certain.
"Fuckin'... They told me we'd let her go!" Ky paced agitatedly back and forth, raking his fingers roughly through his short hair. "Why!" he all but screamed at the calm assassin, "She cooperated with us! I told her she'd be free if she gave us what we wanted!"
"Yes, quite an eloquent performance for your first field assignment. You deserve accolades."
"Fuck you! And fuck the assignment!" Ky ground his teeth, struggling to rein in the emotions provoked by the betrayal. At that very moment his completed mission report was sitting in the pad on his hotel room desk; there would be no taking it back. I gave them my word! His eyes shot daggers at the trained killer. "Why?!" he demanded again.
"Why not?" The woman still hadn't moved from her spot. Her tranquility was beginning to grate on Ky's tattered nerves.
Ky's tirade ground to a halt; he eyed the assassin, reading the cold malice beneath the beautiful exterior. We're on the same side? The icy grip of nausea closed around his stomach; I was...am a part of this. I'm responsible. His respiration was heavy in the thick air. I don't know what she did to Lirelle but I can't just...let it happen. "This...your orders were already set, weren't they?"
"Yes," the assassin deigned him that shred of information.
Ky nodded absently; they had never intended to let Lirelle go -- he understood that now. His thoughts churned; he was no match for the professional killer with him but there was a slim chance... His muscles tensed in preparation; he couldn't wait and risk his brain talking himself out of it.
In a flash, Ky's hand darted out and clamped onto the woman's wrist. At once he saw the bridge opening in his mind and dove forward, the element of surprise availing him for but an instant as disciplined mental defenses, dark and massive, closed around him like a suffocating wall of iron. The killer's other hand flew up and wrapped around his throat, the crushing pressure snapping off the air to his lungs. Raw, primordial panic surged upwards from his chest, sending convulsions across his screaming muscles. This was a mental excursion orders of magnitude above anything he'd ever attempted, against a honed and fighting mind no less. He knew that in the lapse of a few seconds, the assassin's hand would twist and snap his neck.
Agony sliced through Ky's brain and spots danced over his vision; his extremities numbed as the lack of air brought him to the brink of blacking out. Desperately he marshalled all his mental strength and smashed through the assassin's defenses, a white-hot spear of absolute fury and willpower. He felt as though his own mind were being torn apart; the tempests of their opposing minds colliding in tortured chaos. Blindly Ky burned through the the killer's mind guided only by his frantic instincts, crippling the signals being issued by her brain to end his life. The killer's eyes bulged under the assault, her mouth gaped like a fish out of water in her waning resolve. Her grip on his neck paused, and began to slack. His shaking hand managing to hold on, Ky wrung the last of his energy from his pain-wracked body and pressed on, sifting through the assassin's opened memories.
Images flooded his consciousness: shadowing him to the station...a brilliant double sunset, a thousand hues of red and gold washing over them as a quiet summer breeze caressed their face...
...covertly infecting him with the second half of the virus...alarm klaxons wailing thunderously in their ears, their heart pounding as they threaded through the jagged shadows; only a training simulation...
...observing him make contact with Lirelle... Ky clenched his jaw and pushed further.
...a girl with lilac hair; a beautiful girl of fourteen, her silken gown flowing with colors humans were never intended to see; she never saw their approach...
...the formula for the anti-virus, in the contingency orders.
Ky nearly cried with relief when he finally pulled back into his own self. His legs could no longer hold him; the assassin's stubborn hand at last slipped from his bruised throat as he fell, gasping and coughing, onto his hands and knees. The young former agent had just enough time to empty his stomach before collapsing next to the woman's crumpled body.
"Guess it won't be long now," Tallas murmured unnecessarily; minutes before Lirelle had slipped into final unconsciousness. The inadequate words had been said, the solemn farewells made. There didn't seem to be anything more to do.
"Doctor, there is a man here asking for someone named 'Dreamer'," the automated reception system interrupted.
"Thank you, please direct him to the waiting room," Dr. Silvestra answered, eyeing the tall android. Giving them a confused look, Dreamer turned and headed back out. Rage engulfed him when he saw a disheveled Agent Ilvarra standing on the crisp green carpet, his back hunched and his hands thrust in his pockets. Upon the android's arrival the young man whirled around to face him, his deplorable condition such a stark contrast to his previous visage that Dreamer was surprised even through his fury. The Kinjori's skin was ashen, almost necrotic, and his eyes were frighteningly bloodshot. There were stains on his clothes and the distinctly acrid stench of vomit wafted about him. It was obvious something traumatic had occurred.
That fact though didn't affect Dreamer's right arm, which in an instant raised and had its lethal component charged and targeted; it took all his machine restraint not to fire. The young man didn't even flinch at the deadly spark of light perched on the center of the android's palm.
"Dreamer," Ky's frayed whisper was barely audible.
"Tell me why I shouldn't kill you, right here and now," Dreamer said through gritted teeth.
"I have the anti-virus," Ky strained to say; every word grated on his throat like sandpaper. "I p-pulled it out of the mind of the assassin."
"Why should I believe you?" the android snapped.
Ky closed his eyes for a second as a tremor shook his frame. His body felt leaden, sapped of all strength, and it took everything he had to remain standing. "I d-didn't know t-they'd use me t-to carry the virus. P-please, I just w-want to make things right."
Dreamer looked over the haggard wraith of a man standing before him, noticing the ugly marks on his throat speaking of some recent struggle. Pain and remorse were laid bare on his desperate face, and the first rays of sympathy began shining through. Was this another deception? If it was, what could the Kinjori hope to gain by going to all this trouble? Or maybe the agent was actually telling the truth, that he turned on the Onyx Hand and risked his life to right a wrong? It doesn't matter, Dreamer concluded, What would we have to lose?
"Okay," Dreamer dropped his gun-wielding arm and indicated for Ky to follow with a jerk of the head, "C'mon."