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: email@example.com
|the Enigma of Flatness|
Dark red liquid flowed in a gentle current from a flask of smoked glass, cunningly wrought to resemble a long-necked bird. Sabrin noticed how the beverage -- that bore some arcane multi-syllabic name he'd already forgotten -- seemed to cling to itself rather than the flute, reminding him uncomfortably of blood. The thought that it might be poisoned floated through his mind, which he quickly dismissed as foolish paranoia. After all, he posed much less of a threat than Dreamer, who still hadn't said a thing since they entered the room. The android leaned against the mantle of a fireplace with a faux holographic blaze. His arms were crossed and his expression was one of mild amusement, spliced with enough of an edge to infuse some tension into their host's hand as he poured the wine.
The silence was stifling; the soundproof barrier between the noisy club and the private lounge in the back was flawless. Sabrin himself took the proffered seat on a couch in what he presumed was Sid's office. The room projected a sense of minimalist luxury, owing to the sleek, modern furniture and scattered objects d'art. Sabrin lifted the glass flute to lips and noticed a spicy aroma teasing his nostrils; the taste was milder than he expected, tinged with what he thought bright green might taste like. The notion pulled at a corner of his lips, since Tallas was the one who introduced him to describing tastes as colors. Sid mentioned that the bottle was over a hundred years old -- apparently he was doing his best to be accomodating. Sabrin was grateful for the drink giving him something to occupy his attention in the stilted atmosphere. Hell, the android's impassive stare was even making him nervous.
"So," their host took up station behind his desk, "What can I do for you gentlemen?"
This attempt to start a conversation was unmet; Sabrin threw a brief questioning glance to Dreamer, who remained stoic. "Our current visa'll expire in two weeks," Sabrin stated, "We need the protection of Mnemosyne for a longer term than that."
"What you want...is difficult," Sid vacillated, "I'm afraid the Mems are a bit uptight about immigration these days."
"Does that mean you can't help us?" Sabrin frowned.
"No, no that's not what I'm saying," Sid eyed Dreamer's form, "I'm just saying it might take some time...could I ask why you need this?"
"It's not somethin' you should be worried about," Dreamer interjected with a casual smile, uncrossing his arms and pushing away from the wall. "I'm really glad that you haven't lost your touch for gettin' things done, Sid; I would've been annoyed if I came all the way here for nothin'. But, before we hash out the details it'd be cool if you turned off the listening device? I'd like this to be a private conversation."
"I don't do that anymore Dreamer."
Sabrin jumped as a burst of plasma flew over his head and gouged out a charred crater in the wall behind Sid's desk, just left of where Sid's head had been before he prudently ducked. Moments later, two hostile-looking guards charged into the room with their handarms leveled at their employer's two guests. Wearily, Sid dismissed them with a wave of his hand and stumbled back to his chair.
"That one wasn't supposed to produce an EM signature," their pale host cursed under his breath.
"And it didn't," Dreamer sprawled lazily onto the other side of the couch from Sabrin, who shot him an aggravated look. The experience was surreal to the Orion; he still in party clothes, Sid in a business suit, and Dreamer looking more at ease than anyone half-dressed should under such circumstances. "Oh, sorry 'bout that," the android gestured to the red splotch on the couch where a little of Sabrin's drink spilled, "Hope it doesn't stain."
"You are driving me to an early grave Dreamer," Sid muttered entirely without jest.
"Actually," Dreamer smiled in a way that sent fingers of ice down the other man's spine, "I think you're significantly overdue for it, thanks to my interference. So I would really appreciate it if you did this favor for me."
"Hi," Tallas yelled over the music in response to the dark-haired man who had greeted them. He was vaguely familiar, but in the chaotic lighting Tallas had trouble placing the cool features and impish eyes. "I'm sorry, do we know each other?"
"Not really; I didn't think you'd remember me," the man smiled, flashing an array of perfect teeth. "I'm Lieutenant Rester; I inspected your ship yesterday?"
"Oh that's right," Tallas shook his hand, now placing the face with the glimpse he had of the officer with Sabrin and Dreamer. He tensed slightly, though it didn't seem that the young man intended any trouble, dressed as he was in casual, albeit somewhat provocative, civilian garments. "What's this about lieutenant?"
"No worries, this isn't 'work-related'," Rester waved his hand disarmingly. "Our duty cycle's just ended. I recognized you two and thought I'd come over and say hello."
"In that case, nice to meet you," Tallas relaxed, "I'm Tallas, and he's Fennic."
"I'm Jonah," the three shook hands. "I saw your ship's avatar -- Dreamer right? -- on the dance floor earlier. Gotta say that you don't usually see an actual android going to one of these places. Most of the time when you see 'androids' here they're just posers."
Tallas smiled at the notion of somebody doing the reverse of Dreamer's "human disguise". "Dreamer's not that 'usual'," he remarked in all honesty.
"I guess not," Jonah agreed. "Is he a real VCG model?"
"A what?" Tallas asked puzzledly.
"VCG...Vega Cybernetics Group?" Jonah said as though it should be common knowledge, "That's what the little 'V' on his chest's supposed to stand for," Jonah explained. "They were the best around back in the day, but they went under in the Schism when Vega was besieged, so authentic ones are pretty rare."
"I'm not sure; I doubt he is," Tallas replied. This was new: a solid clue into Dreamer's mysterious past. He himself had paid no heed to the unobtrusive symbol beneath Dreamer's collarbone, assuming it was decorative; the Orion made an internal note to be more observant in the future. The Schism -- the catastrophic death throes of the united nation that governed humanity when it spread across the stars; that saw the focal points of human civilization shift away from its homeworld of Earth -- took place over a century ago. Dreamer's over a hundred years old? He couldn't be...could he? Tallas knew that Dreamer was much older than he was, but he expected by a few decades, not an order of magnitude.
"Too bad; I would've loved to have met one in person," Jonah said, "I know a few of the NSC ships that stop by here have VCG avatars, but they don't let us lowly in-system patrollers anywhere near them... Cybernetics is kind of a hobby of mine," he addended.
"That's cool. I'm not that good with the high-tech stuff," Tallas chuckled ruefully, recalling the incident with the damaged coil assembly while trying not to show the excitement brewing in his mind. When he had the chance he would investigate the possible link with VCG -- after being rebuffed at every turn, his curiosity concerning Dreamer's history had grown to a fevered pitch. Not that the frustrating A.I. ever discouraged him from his inquiries; in fact, half the time Tallas wondered if Dreamer was being opaque just for the hell of it.
"I'm sure you're being too harsh; you man the tactical station right?" Jonah asked.
"Right," Tallas confirmed his unofficial position on the Dream. He felt uneasy discussing ship matters with a relative stranger and decided to switch the topic. "So uh, you're in the Alya Navy? Do a lot of naval crew come here?"
"Hell yeah, probably half the people here are military," Jonah tipped his head towards the crowd. "Nowadays it's gettin' a bit too expensive for anybody below commander to have a place on Mnemosyne." -- like most natives of the system, he pronounced the name "Mem-seen" -- "So a lot of us have been moving to the colonies. It's alright except there's not much to do in these podunk places."
Tallas was unsure what the word "podunk" meant, but based on Jonah's tone he figured it paralleled how many Orions from the Imperial Core would describe his native Astral-Ishasa. "There's always getting drunk," he smirked from experience and raised his glass.
"True that," Jonah laughed and reciprocated the gesture, finishing it off with a respectable gulp of his glowing amber drink. The two of them engaged in some more inconsequential chatter, until Rester turned the conversation back to the Dream. "What brought you guys to Edoch? As far as tourists go they usually skip over this boring little moonhole."
"We have some business here," Tallas made sure to be vague.
"You don't say?"
Lirelle couldn't say that it was concern, or even curiosity, that motivated her as she stood in sickbay gazing down upon the unmoving body of Ky Ilvarra, once agent of the Onyx Hand before his unlikely turn of heart. She lowered her fingertips and teased the force-field around the bed, finding a strange amusement in the tiny ripples of light she created. Despite the semblance of being alone, Lirelle was well-aware that Dreamer was watching her every move around her former enemy. "You may rest easy, Dreamer, I have no homicidal intentions on this particular day," Lirelle spoke to the empty air.
"I wasn't thinking that," the A.I. displayed his image. "His vital signs are stable, though there's still no indication when he might wake up."
"I see. How goes the 'mission' on Edoch?" Lirelle smiled at the thought of what her four male crewmates might be up to. A proper Kinjori woman, of course, would never demean herself by attending one of those debaucherous dens. She touched the familial pendant around her neck; especially not one who bears the line. The irony left a bitter taste in her mouth. The provictus is just a stone now, her mind once told her not long after Vesuvius. Yet, she still wore it every day.
"Good so far. Sid'll play ball; he always has for whomever's charge." Dreamer noticed the downturn in Lirelle's mood, "Something the matter?"
"Nothing," Lirelle said reflexively, then addended, "Thinking."
"I should've guessed. About him?"
Lirelle met Dreamer's black-and-gold eyes, seeking the reassuring openness she knew would be there. "About irony." She found it unusual how much she trusted him, given the relatively short time that she had known Dreamer. The only other person she'd ever felt as comfortable confiding her inner thoughts to was Emder. Perhaps I do think too much. Lirelle held the small piece of jade away from her neck, such as that the polished green surface caught the light. "Do you know why do I keep wearing this Dreamer?" she asked half-rhetorically.
"That's the pendant your mother asked me to give to you..." Dreamer said puzzledly, not sure where Lirelle was headed. Since Vesuvius the raven-haired woman had never mentioned it, though the A.I. was aware the gem never left her neck.
"It's called a provictus. It symbolizes the bloodline for my extended family and marks me as the holder and guardian of that line. Our line's been passed on through the generations and is theoretically traceable to the first generation of colonists on Kinjor," Lirelle explained. "The genealogies might vary, but bloodlines were what Kinjori society was built on," Dreamer nodded. "My line's one of the oldest, or at least it's reputed to be. It's not supposed to in those modern times but amongst most Kinjori that fact would elevate me substantially."
"Kind of like an informal nobility?"
"Yes, that's a good way to put it. Consequently, it was additionally tragic when my mother disappeared and severed the line," the words were acerbic as Lirelle rubbed her fingers over the runes of the pendant, "When I obtained proof that my mother was in fact dead, not missing, I restored our family line. The provictus symbolizes that fact, and not even the Matriarch herself can deny that truth." Sorrow crept into her voice. "The trouble is, my 'line' consists of only me now. Emder...died helping me recover it, when I should have left it lost and broken."
A small, wistful smile played on Lirelle's lips, "And as a result, it is doubtful I will ever return to the Hegemony. Thus the line is meaningless. And yet," she returned her attention to Dreamer's image, "I still hold it. You see the irony?"
"It's not meaningless. The provictus symbolizes your family; that makes it important," Dreamer said after a short pause.
"That's what I tell myself most days, that by wearing the provictus I'm honoring Madia and Emder's memory, that I'm keeping our line alive for them," Lirelle chuckled mirthlessly. She dredged up another thought from the shadows of her mind, that haunted her on her more unsettled nights. "But what if I'm simply rationalizing? What if the true reason I keep the provictus is because it's what I wanted so badly for so long -- the status, the recognition -- that I feel like I deserved to get something in exchange for Emder's death?"
"Can the bullshit already," Dreamer said quietly but forcefully, "I'm not gonna try and tell you that you didn't make any mistakes, but I don't believe what you just said for a second. This's just your guilt talkin', and personally I think you let it do too much already."
"Probably," Lirelle agreed; if only it was as easy as recognizing a truth. "Thanks Dreamer, I hope you're right," she let the subject close, much to Dreamer's frustration. She went back to grazing the force-field surrounding Ky's body, regarding the memories that rose up in response to that visage. They were so alike in certain ways...
"Could you release the force-field for a moment Dreamer?" The A.I. regarded her suspiciously but did as she asked. The young man's face was serene in repose, more so than Lirelle had ever seen when he was awake. Careful not to touch his exposed skin, she folded back the sheet covering his body and revealed the fading bruises around his neck. Ky Ilvarra... She knew him, as he did her -- more than either of them had any right to. Beneath her hard eyes Lirelle would've been lying if she said she did not feel some sympathy for the former agent. Some things were unforgivable, however.
Lirelle wordlessly carried over one of the medical supply crates stacked against the wall and began rifling through the contents. "What're you doing?" Dreamer asked.
"I'm preparing a mixture of mild stimulants, neuropeptide precursors, and some other drugs," Lirelle pulled out a half-dozen small bottles and the appropriate equipment. "He will not regain consciousness on his own."
"How do you know all that?" Dreamer crinkled his brow.
"From when we linked minds; it was an irrelevant detail at the time," Lirelle stated. "This is a standard revival shot for extractors when they're overtaxed. Ilvarra's condition is rather extreme, but it may still be effective."
"And you're only bringin' this info up now, instead of when we were back at the hospital?!" Dreamer asked incredulously, "What if he went too far gone while you were waiting?"
"I wasn't ready to decide before," was Lirelle's reply. The screaming void of even Ilvarra's unconscious mind was affecting her to an unacceptable degree. After administering the drug, she decided to work on her shuttle upgrades and, incidentally, put him out of her telepathic range. There would be far too many opportunities later to acclimate herself to the extractor's presence.
"The neighborhood's changed since you've been gone Dreamer," Sid finished off his glass and wasted little time in refilling it. "The attacks on the shipping lanes's got everybody paranoid. And since the Mem convoys haven't been hit nearly as bad, some people are startin' to point fingers. The Mems've been stepping up security all over the place and forging paperwork here isn't as easy as it used to be."
"You haven't gotten rusty at makin' excuses Sid," Dreamer snorted disdainfully, "Since when is piracy a problem around here?"
"I'm telling the truth," Sid snapped defensively, then seemed to shrink from Dreamer's hard gaze. "You must've skimmed the newsfeeds when you came in; just last month a five-ship convoy out of Tau Ceti disappeared only two jumps from here." Dreamer had of course, but he was well-aware that the generally sensationalistic public news feeds hardly presented an accurate view of the big picture. "The Mems've started searching every civilian ship that passes through to make damned sure that they can't be accused of knowingly harboring raiders. Outside of professional and academic exchanges immigration's basically impossible right now," the man finished.
He definitely wants us to give up and leave, Sabrin thought, casting Dreamer a sidelong glance. Can't imagine why.
"But?" Dreamer prodded calmly.
Sid exhaled heavily and a third of the second glass disappeared. "There's one way I can think of. Between chasing pirates and enforcing the new regs the Alyan fleet's stretched pretty thin right now. They've been hiring independent ships as convoy escorts. They're very picky about who they'll take but with your level of armament and your...record, I'm pretty sure that they'd take you on."
"Okay," Dreamer nodded easily. "And I'm also sure you have a few 'friends' in the fleet that'll put in a good word for us?" he suggested innocently.
"I could make a few calls."
What was even the point of having me come? Sabrin wondered frustratedly. He wished fervently that he was out of that room and back on the Dream sharing a poorly prepared lunch with Tallas, instead of being on the verge of choking on the unsaid words mired in the air between Dreamer and Sid. It was obvious that the A.I. didn't need him to conduct the negotiation. Still, I am here, and damned if I'm gonna go through this aggravation for nothing. "Wait, if we did escort duty we'd still be out of this system." Sabrin objected.
"You'd be nominally charges of the Alya Navy," Sid now bore a distinct look of dismay at Sabrin's presence. "They're obligated to defend you against--" his anxious eyes returned to Dreamer, "--whatever it is. They'll also provide material support, health coverage..."
"What about these 'attacks' you mentioned?"
"They're goin' after unarmed civilian ships. I'm sure the Dream of Dawn won't have any trouble," Sid said. Sabrin regarded him skeptically, He'd probably be happy if we disappeared along with one of those convoys. "I swear, this's as close as I can get to what you're asking for," the man insisted.
"Hmm...it's better than nothin'," Dreamer commented.
Sabrin realized that Dreamer was deferring the final say to him; he noticed Sid regard him differently after the older man reached the same conclusion. "Uh--" he cleared his throat "--if that's the really the only way then we'll take it." Okay, not exactly inspiring.
"Thanks ol' buddy, I knew I could count on you," Dreamer said. "By the way, how much does this job pay?"
At the mention of their purpose on Edoch, Jonah's friendly voice gained an edge it lacked before; it was enough for Tallas to perceive it and raise his guard. "By 'business', do you mean with Sid, the guy who owns this place? I thought I saw your captain and avatar leave with him a minute ago," Jonah's hazel eyes flashed to the locked door leading to the back area of the club. "Business makes more sense," he nodded, as though reasoning it out, "I was thinking that they were a bit old and male for Sid's taste." However Jonah expected him to respond to his implication, the blond man decided not to give it.
"I noticed Sid looked surprised when he met them," Jonah continued, "Are you guys very well acquainted?"
Seeing the quirk in the Mnemosyne officer's brow, Tallas considered that his reply of "no" was maybe too abrupt. That was half-true at least; three-quarters if you counted all four of us. Fuck, from the way Dreamer described him I should've known his 'contact' would be involved in something less than legal. Tallas reasoned though that the Mnemosyne officials probably had nothing concrete yet, if there was anything to be had. Unfortunately, his experience had prepared him little for how to proceed. "From the sound of things you're probably more familiar with him than we are."
"Quite. Come here often enough and you hear things," Jonah smiled tightly. "Let me give you a friendly warning," he gave first Tallas, then Fennic sharp looks, causing the boy to flinch. "You should be careful associating with characters like Sid. Such activities don't reflect well."
"Thanks for your concern, but we can handle ourselves," Tallas answered brusquely.
"I'm glad to hear that. You don't want to draw too much suspicion."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Your ship's not exactly the average private yacht," Jonah said, easily retreving the details of the inspection report from his photographic memory. "Your cargo manifest was quite interesting; microfusion modules, isomatrix compositors, s-flux planes...? You don't just find those kinds of parts lying around these days."
Part of Tallas threatened to laugh out loud; "lying around" was exactly how they found most of those parts. Albeit not in the most accessible place. "As far as I know, lieutenant, none of that is illegal under Mnemosyne law."
"I didn't say they were," Jonah took a step forward and Tallas uneasily found his back closing on the wall. The other man's speech was still normal pitch, but it seemed like the rest of the ambient noise had dropped away. "Then there's the fact that your ship contains a fully integrated artificial intelligence, which is almost unheard of in a private ship, and its combined defense index is 16% higher than the current-standard military retrofit of that class."
"Our weapons are offline. We're not a threat."
"Not here, no." Jonah lowered his voice conspiratorially, "Look, if this was a couple years ago we wouldn't be having this conversation. But I'm afraid you haven't picked the best time to visit our fair republic. All the attacks have taken a toll."
Jonah ignored him, "The brass keep spreading us thinner, running us ragged trying to protect the trade lanes and catch the raiders at the same time." Tallas thought he detected a note of genuine stress beneath the officer's tone before the Mem reigned it in. "We're under a lot of pressure to come up with some...any kind of progress. And on top of that they cut our budget...it's getting harder and harder for an honest guy to make ends meet."
Tallas' patience was worn perilously thin, and he wished, none-too-kindly, that the good Lieutenant Rester would deign to share the assumptions he had obviously already made about the Dream. How the fuck am I s'posed to defend us when I don't even know what the hell we're supposed to have done?! Tallas glanced around at the colorful sea of anonymous faces, recognizing that he had no idea when help would be forthcoming. Then were was the too-familiar sinking impression that, no matter what he said, the situation would be getting worse. Shit, I'm not the person to be handling this crap.
"If you've got a point, make it," Tallas growled.
"Sure," all traces of levity were gone from Jonah's voice, "Your ship fit enough criteria to put up a flag in our records. That could easily lead into a full investigation, depending on my final report. We'd grounds to have your ship impounded, and its crew brought in for questioning."
"How can you do that! We haven't done anything wrong!" A few heads turned in their direction at Fennic's outburst. Tallas winced at the unwanted attention as he placed a firm hand on the youth's arm. Incredulity and outrage were laid bare on the Fennic's face, melding with apprehension as the lieutenant's neutral gaze swept over him with a single arched eyebrow. "I wasn't implying that you had."
"Sounds like everything's already figured out lieutenant; what're you waitin' for?" Tallas had no idea if the other man bought the confidence he injected into his challenge. He knew he needed to be in control of their end of the conversation, even if his brain was swarming with doubts and questions -- most of them about the unpleasant complications that would arise from any sort of investigation. Certainly they were innocent of whatever Rester had already tried and convicted them of, but Tallas was equally certain that, in the course of proving that fact, they would be asked uncomfortable questions. Damn it.
"I haven't submitted the report yet." Jonah shrugged, keeping his stare locked on the two of them.
The background of pounding music and moving lights were sparking a headache behind Tallas' eyeballs. "Why am I not surprised?"
"You're catchin' on."
"Cut the crap will ya?" Tallas hissed, "I'm not a fuckin' mind-reader. Just tell me what you're really after."
"I'll be blunt," Jonah said dryly, "You and your like have made my job far less satisfying than it should be, and I will be very pleased when I do submit my report. But--" his voice softened, "both of you are merely subordinates; your roles in this affair can be...open to interpretation."
Enough's enough, "Look Rester, you're wasting your time. Whatever you think we've done, you're mistaken. We've never even been to this system before."
"You're being short-sighted Tallas," annoyance crept into Jonah's features. "It's in your best interest to cooperate."
"This's ridiculous," the Orion bit back some of his less diplomatic remarks. "Cooperate with what?"
"And you?" Jonah turned to Fennic, "Are you ready to take the fall for their decisions?" At his harsh tone, the boy instantly shrank away from him with eyes clenched shut.
"Leave him out of this!" Tallas ground out beneath a searing glare. Gauging that Fennic was probably experiencing some sort of instinctual reaction, Tallas swiftly placed himself in front of the Mnemosyne officer. His fists tightened involuntarily, strained from the anger suffusing his body and overriding his cautionary impulses. At this point he could care less about Rester carrying out his threats -- or being arrested or expelled for the unruly behavior he was a hair's breadth away from committing.
"He can speak for himself," Jonah tried to step around him, only to find his left arm caught in Tallas' rough grip.
In his lifetime Tallas had engaged in two real fistfights, separated by three years and the timeliness of Sabrin's intervention. In retrospect he hadn't been prepared for either one, even though unlike his current predicament he had foreseen both those altercations well in advance. And both times a solemn malaise claimed him for a week afterwards, for reasons other than an injured hand or that the best he ever managed was charitably judged a draw by his sympathetic friends. "I said, leave him out of this."
Once they agreed to Sid's proposal, it was a quick matter to pin down the details and be on their way to rejoin the others. Dreamer had secured an assurance from Sid that they would be contacted by the appropriate Alyan naval representative within three days, which likely meant less than two days given Sid's motivation to be rid of them as soon as possible. The A.I. noted, with a certain wistfulness, Sabrin's long exhalation of relief when he was permitted to leave the office, and recalled a time when his reaction would have been comparable after leaving similar company -- as it stood now, the act of applying pressure to convert a minorly loathsome creature such as "Sid" into a usable resource didn't even warrant the batting of his eye.
Before they took their leave, Dreamer pulled Sid back and asked discreetly, "One more thing Sid. Has Selene been 'round lately?"
"Not for a couple months," Sid's gaze flickered towards Sabrin's form ahead of them in the dim corridor, plainly ruminating on the fact that the pro tem commander of the Dream was being excluded from this inquiry.
"Let her know I'm 'ere." Sid nodded.
"Dreamer? Hey, you comin' or not?" Sabrin called impatiently from the door leading to the rest of the club.
"Later," Dreamer bothered to waved goodbye before catching up to Sabrin. A guard opened the door for them, and again there was the shocking transition from the oppressive quiet of the back area and the frenzied commotion of the main floor. Immediately he sensed something was wrong; a number of clubgoers were gathered nearby around some event of interest. Ordinarily Dreamer would have dismissed it as another over-amorous couple, but his hearing differentiated several side conversations that indicated otherwise. Sabrin was already pushing through them; Dreamer followed close behind and emerged in time to see Tallas shoving a dark-haired man of similar height away from him. The man he identified, to some surprise, as Lieutenant Rester, and a quick scan located Fennic pressed against the wall, arms wrapped around his slight frame.
Sabrin had already launched himself towards the fray with a murderous intent on his face. Dreamer was profusely grateful for his machine speed and reflexes as he managed to reach Rester first and intercept the Alyan officer's retaliating fist with a seamless motion. The last thing we need here is a brawl...as satisfying as that'd be. Startled hazel eyes met cold ones of black and gold; the fight seemed to drain from Jonah's body as he recognized Dreamer's avatar and the futility of struggling against an android. The crowd, robbed of their spectacle, began to disperse.
"You guys okay?" Dreamer asked in a low voice. He had Jonah's arm twisted, enough to preclude movement but not enough to cause pain. He hadn't yet decided if he would snap the limb if the answer was not one he liked.
"Yeah," Tallas replied wearily.
"Release me!" Jonah demanded angrily. Two bouncers had arrived on the scene; Dreamer sent Jonah towards one of them with a flick of the wrist. The bouncers were unnecessary; with a final dark look the flustered lieutenant turned sharply on his heels and stormed for the exit.
"Tal what happened? Who the fuck was that?" In his agitation, Sabrin had not recognized the retreating figure.
"Lieutenant Rester, from the inspection," Tallas said huskily through the heartbeat thundering in his ears. He found Sabrin right next to him, their flanks barely grazing, and leaned into the dark-haired man's warmth with gratitude. The adrenaline-fueled fever charging his blood was fading, though his voice still sounded strange to him as he relayed what had happened.
"Fuck. Just what we needed," Sabrin swore afterwards, "Can he actually make good on his threats?"
"Probably," Dreamer said -- his ship self was by this time perusing the relevant legal materials off the Alyan network -- "but he did he'd be takin' a risk too of us talkin' about what happened here."
"Damn right we would," Sabrin fumed, "We should call in on that bastard right now."
"Calm down Sabe, we don't need to go lookin' for trouble," Dreamer quickly quelled that notion. "Might I remind you that we're not exactly your regular ol' farship-next-door? Even if we are completely innocent." Sabrin grunted in reply. "Besides, what's done's done," the andoid smoothed his voice, "Let Rester do what he wants. He's strictly small-time -- we've handled much worse before."
"'Let him do what he wants.' That's a great plan," Sabrin remarked sarcastically. "You heard what Sid said about the attacks; they're looking for people to blame. We should get out before they have a chance to trap us."
"Hell no, not after all the shit we went through to get here," Dreamer said with finality, "I'm not gettin' kicked out by some little punk who thinks he can blackmail us with trumped-up charges." He turned to register a very deliberate bump from some slim too-young sprite with electric blue hair and matching nipple rings, sending him off with a droll, "Not interested," before continuing. "Rester's got nothin' and he knows it," the A.I.'s voice turned reasoning, "Look Sabe, you've got no reason to trust the Mems; I understand that -- but I've spent a lot of time here before and they're fair for the most part. I'm not worried."
"Good to know," Sabrin closed his eyes, trying to shake the ill feeling in his gut and also block out the club's cacophony. No wonder so much crap goes on in clubs; you can't think properly in here.
"Enough, we can talk about this later," Tallas changed the subject before the two obstinate men could escalate, "How did you guys do on your end?"
"Pretty much as I expected," Dreamer replied, "We should be gettin' a call in the next few days about a job escorting Mnemosyne convoys. Seems kinda ironic now, doesn't it?" Sabrin smiled sourly, recognizing that they will not be leaving Alya behind anytime soon. Even if he thought it had a chance of being obeyed, "captain" or not he would never order Dreamer to do anything. Besides, Tallas agreed with the A.I. -- Sabrin could read it in the concerned quirk of a perfect blond eyebrow. A part of him felt irritated about that, and another part of him felt guilty for feeling irritated.
"So what now? We head back?" Tallas asked.
"Already? The night's still young," Dreamer grinned, his frivolous persona from earlier re-emerging and making it difficult to imagine the tall black-haired man any other way. "I'm gonna stay a bit longer."
"In that case, I'll have more alcohol," Sabrin's tone came out rougher than he intended as he headed for the bar, Tallas trailing close behind. He signaled the bartender and ordered a shot of something stronger, figuring Dreamer's imperative against judgment-impairing substances was lifted with his prior announcement.
Tallas settled next to his boyfriend and ordered water for himself. He waited for the other man to take the first sip before asking, "You okay?"
"Yeah I'm fine," Sabrin ran a hand over his face and smiled tiredly at his love, "I'm just a bit tired of this place."
"We can head back early. Dreamer'll take care of Fennic," Tallas suggested.
"No, I didn't mean the club." The drink was excellent; nice and cool with enough kick for interest. "This place; Edoch, Alya. I don't feel comfortable here."
"I'm sorry about letting the thing with Rester get out of control," Tallas sought out Sabrin's hand, resting on the counter. "Maybe if I'd kept a cooler head I could've convinced him--"
"No," Sabrin shook his head vigorously, "no. You definitely handled it better than I would've." He smiled, giving Tallas a warm look, "I probably would've threatened him. Or decked him," he downed the remainder of the shot glass, "Or both."
Tallas returned the gesture, showing his flawless teeth, "What do you think me shoving him was?"
"The way I heard it you were protectin' Fennic," Sabrin straightened his posture and slipped his arms loosely around Tallas' waist. "I figured that's what it was anyway. The only reason you ever fight is to protect someone else."
"You have a very flattering perspective Mr. Payne," Tallas drew close for a lingering kiss, minus the mental complications of their previous public liplock. He could only hope Sabrin shared those sentiments as he pulled away, mischievously savoring the traces of Sabrin's beverage gathered on his tongue and lips. "You still haven't told me why you don't like it here," he reminded the other man.
"I don't know why exactly," Sabrin admitted, "I just feel on edge...like I want to constantly look over my shoulder."
"And you didn't have this feeling last week or the week before?" amusement tinged Tallas' words.
"Not really, though I get your point," Sabrin sighed, "I don't know; maybe I'm picking up on the local anxiety over the attacks, or maybe it's the way Dreamer acted towards Sid...but this place gets on my nerves somehow."
"Maybe it's less Alya specifically and more the thought of stayin' put?" Tallas caressed the side of Sabrin's neck, imagining the lifegiving blood flowing under the delicate skin. The other man's head lolled beneath his gentle touch, trust implicit in beautiful azure eyes. "Y'know we've been on the move for a month now -- long enough to be used to it."
"Huh, maybe," Sabrin pondered the new possibility. "I guess on some level I still expect an Orion warship to pop out of the nearest potential."
"Think you're the only one?" Tallas fiddled introspectively with the golden comlink pin on Sabrin's collar. "You think you'd ever be okay settling down, even with that risk?"
"I don't know; I haven't really thought that far yet." Sabrin knew why -- doing so would be confronting the sobering possibility that resolving the matter of the datadisc, and with it their fugitive status, might very well be impossible. "There's...so much I don't know about...everything."
Tallas chuckled, "Bet that's driving ya crazy."
"Shut up," Sabrin gave in to impulse and slapped his boyfriend on the rear, causing the blond to jump into him. Narrowed chocolate eyes promised retribution as Tallas tried to withdraw to his previous distance, only to be stopped by a hand sneaking beneath his shirt. Hazarding the danger of leaving himself vulnerable, Sabrin held them close for a little while and simply enjoyed the scorching heat of Tallas' bare skin. "Thank god you're here," he murmured, "I couldn't deal with any of this if you weren't."
The other man beamed; public displays of affection was definitely not going to be a problem for them.
The living room of the small apartment remained dark as its sole tenant entered, defying the fact the lights were supposed to register his lifesign and switch on automatically. Jonah growled in annoyance as he crossed the threshold, throwing his keycard in the bowl by the door and his coat somewhere in the other direction. He growled again when the front door slid closed behind him, plunging the room into pitch dark. Groping blindly, he finally managed to find the manual lighting controls after a harrowing encounter with the duffel bag he'd carelessly plunked on the floor earlier in the evening. On a whim Jonah peeled off his sweaty shirt, balled it up, and threw it against a bare wall as hard as he could. It struck with an unsatisfyingly quiet noise, but the lieutenant didn't dare throw anything harder, lest he receive another visit from his unpleasant landlord.
His hands were cold when Jonah covered his face with them, as if to will away the outside world as he collapsed heavily onto the threadbare couch. What the fuck was I thinking? I'm no good at this shit. And I'm not nearly drunk enough. Rolling his head to glare at the fridge, Jonah willed latent telekinetic powers to develop and bring him a beer...no such luck.
The evening had been a complete, unmitigated disaster. Not only had absolutely nothing been accomplished, but he had been embarrassed in front of an entire crowd, many of whom he knew from work, and forced to slink home alone scarcely an hour after he'd first arrived. And thanks to his eidetic memory, he could recall every face laughing at his expense in wondrous detail. Aw, screw it. The young man gave up on telekinesis and forced his weary body to retrieve the beverage he desired. Did you have fun playing undercover cop? His mind derided him as he downed the bitter brew.
It seemed a simple idea at the time. Track them down, make contact with them, pretend to offer them a deal, and gather some information he could use. They were pirates after all, and probably pretty minor ones at that; why would they turn down a chance to save their own asses?
Jonah sighed and went to fish the audio recording device out of his discarded shirt. Was this what tipped them off? But how did they detect it? Dreamer wasn't even there! He didn't bother listening to the tape before he wiped the memory; the thing was little more than a toy anyways. Now if he had support...Jonah shook the thought free from his mind -- why bring up more unpleasant memories? No, face facts Rester: there aren't any scapegoats with this one. The problem was that your lame-ass plan was too fuckin' obvious. You were never trained for this, and you underestimated them.
Anyone could see that the Dream of Dawn was hiding something big; every aspect of the damned ship screamed out-of-the-ordinary. Jonah clutched the beer bottle -- how could his captain be so myopic as to simply dismiss his suspicions? Wasn't he fed up with wasting their time on menial labor? Gods knew the rest of them were. The inspections were useless -- Jonah knew it, his crewmates knew it, and -- he thought -- his superiors knew it too. It was yet another empty gesture to placate the public, give them the illusion of increased security at the expense of diverting fleet resources from where they could actually make a difference. Jonah glumly swirled the remaining liquid in the bottle; his desperation at the club was real. They needed a breakthrough.
I can't let them slip away.
The beer was left unfinished as Jonah headed for the shower; at the moment what he needed was to wipe clean all traces of the disgraceful night. The warm spray, feeble compared to the one in his ship's quarters, was nevertheless divine to his muscles, which were wound tight as a drum. For a while he simply stood in front of the showerhead, letting his subconscious organize his thoughts to the cadence of the water. The direct approach had failed, and making himself apparent to the Dream's crew was a further setback. You probably should've started with something more discreet, his inner voice contributed unhelpfully.
The hazel-eyed man walked dripping back to the living room, an oversized towel draped over his shoulders. He pulled his personal viewer from the duffle and set it on the only table. "Computer, access my account and open a connection to the NSC secured datalinks," he ordered as he finished drying off. Wrapping the towel around his waist, he retrieved a snack and thought back to the club -- more specifically to seeing the android's upper body. Hmm...maybe the night wasn't a total waste after all. The floating holographic screen indicated connection success; he flicked a few keys and sent out an encrypted signal.
A few seconds later, a secondary window opened to display code static and a honeyed female voice came thorugh the speaker. "Hey Jonnie. I was thinking about you."
"Hi Mareva." "She" was a cyph: an autonomous sentient program. The most foreign of all the A.I.s created by humanity, indeterminate numbers of these formless entities maintained the architectural integrity of the vast interstellar networks by waging constant war against those who seek to disrupt it. Mareva's formidable consciousness, existing in a constant state of metamorphosis, permeated the virtual world as elusive as a shadow, and equally pervasive. Jonah had no idea how long she has existed, where she came from, or why she chose to contact him -- cyphs seldom interact with anyone, least of all to flirt. "How are things online?"
"Oh, depressingly ordinary. Not a worthy hack attempt in weeks," Mareva lamented piteously. "Want to know how many of your crewmates looked at porn in the last hour?"
"Not right now, thanks," Jonah learned very quickly after meeting Mareva that cyphs possessed no concept of privacy; he tried not to think about how much Mareva might know about him after their three years of speaking. "I was wondering if you could do something for me?"
"Anything for you handsome." The Mem also had no idea why the program teased him constantly. She couldn't perceive the results, unless she gleaned them from the inflection of his voice.
"I want to create a search query."
"Hardly a challenge," Mareva scoffed, "Why do you need me for that?"
"I don't want to attract attention." Most data of a sensitive nature contained embedded tracers, that relayed information on those who accessed (or attempted to access) the files back to the host. Jonah couldn't take the chance of giving himself away and Mareva was the one resource he probably held in advantage to his opponent. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if he was setting the wheel rolling towards an outcome he'll regret.
"Ooh...tantalizing; alright I'll bite." Mareva laughed seductively. "Give me the search parameters."
One of the few personal items in the room was a framed photo sitting on a short stack of shelves, of him and friends at graduation. In the background there was a lanky brunette who ended up serving on the first Mnemosyne warship to be lost to the pirate attacks. Jonah had not recognized her presence there until after her death. "A farship named the Dream of Dawn, cross-indexed with the Solar Federation."
I know they aren't what they claim to be. I must find the truth.
Dismissing his abandonment by the two Orions with a shrug, Dreamer turned to remaining member of their party, standing somewhat awkwardly beside him. Save for a few brief responses to direct questions, Fennic had been quiet since the altercation with Rester. His head was downcast, letting fine strands of white-blond hair obscure his emerald eyes. "Fennic?" Dreamer noted with displeasure that the youth was still trembling slightly. "Hey bud," he enfolded the boy in a hug, "don't worry, okay? We won't let Rester ruin things for us."
Fennic drew in a sharp breath as he unexpectedly found himself in contact with the taller man's sculpted chest. The shivering stopped, only to be replaced by a strained stillness as the mortified adolescent tried to avoid any friction against Dreamer's achingly warm skin that would elicit a reciprocal response from his body. The boy glanced up at those mesmerizing gold-ringed eyes, radiating concern, and felt his spirits plummet further at the undeserved attention. Mustering what willpower he had left, he pulled away from Dreamer's embrace. "Fennic? What's wrong?" the avatar tried again.
"I'm sorry for making you guys take me along," Fennic mumbled, "It was a bad idea."
"Why?" Dreamer frowned. "You didn't do anything."
"Exactly," self-loathing was evident in Fennic's words, "I thought I could handle this but...when Rester started to threaten us, I just...froze, completely. I couldn't even help when Tallas was defending me." He clenched his eyes shut in an effort to resist the gathering tears, not wanting to appear even more pathetic than he already felt. "All I did was get in the way. I'm sorry I let you guys down."
"Hey c'mon bud, don't be so hard on yourself," Dreamer affectionately cupped the back of Fennic's neck with one hand, his thumb massaging the sensitive spot behind the ear. "With everythin' you've been through, I'm impressed as hell by how far you've come already," Fennic's withdrawn posture didn't change. "You're so much stronger than you think you are Fennic. Most people, if they were in the situation you were on Kion'Seg, would've just shut down -- pulled into themselves and given up. I've seen it lots of times. But you didn't, and more than that you escaped. That's fuckin' amazing." Dreamer carefully cleared away the boy's tears with feather-light brushes. "So don't worry about proving anything to us. You're doing just fine. D'you understand?"
Fennic sniffled and finally raised his head, nodding slightly. He was graced by Dreamer's truest smile, a far cry from the cocky smirk he usually offered to the public -- the one that shone with the soft, ethereal luminance of the man's namesake. Subconsciously the boy leaned into Dreamer's strong hand, that had turned to caress his cheek.
"Good," Dreamer squeezed Fennic's shoulder. A new song was transitioning in; the vivacity of the crowd rose palpably. "Say, wanna dance?" Dreamer grinned.
Blood immediately rushed to Fennic's face. "I...uh..." His first instinct was to refuse, despite his earlier, envious watch over the parade of pretty bodies taking their place besides the handsome man -- he also experienced a small note of satisfaction every time one was casually discarded for the next. Finding the youth's sputtering response cute beyond words, Dreamer went further by formally extending his hand in an exaggerated imitation of gentility. Blushing even harder, Fennic relented and placed his smaller hand in Dreamer's, allowing himself to be pulled onto the dance floor. "I...don't know how to dance," he admitted.
"You don't really need to for this kind of scene," Dreamer led Fennic in a series of tentative movements. "Just relax and follow the rhythm."
Nervously biting his lip, Fennic awkwardly attempted to imitate Dreamer's graceful motions, spying several people were openly staring at them. Of course they're watching Dreamer, he thought miserably, probably wondering what he's doing with me. His insecurity, however, was soon pushed to the background by the sheer sensory bombardment of the music, lights, and people, melding into an almost giddy sensation throughout his body. One song turned into another and Dreamer stayed near him, all hard planes and curves, occasionally saying encouragements into his ear. For the first time, Fennic felt he had permission to behold that beauty to his heart's content. As his eyes devoured every aspect of the other man he was drawn closer, until in an act of inexplicable boldness his hands traveled to Dreamer's sleek back, running up to the shoulder blades. At first Dreamer was surprised, before he obligingly pressed a palm to the ridge of the boy's hip and continued guiding them.
In his dazed state, Fennic had no idea how long they had been dancing when his muscles began to register the first twinges of fatigue. His mind protested, wanting to stay close to the man he idolized. Sensing that his partner was tiring, Dreamer began to slow them down. In the next lull between songs he paused to catch Fennic's eyes, posing the question of taking a break to the boy.
Breathing heavily, Fennic's body hummed from the accumulated energy. He focused on Dreamer's parted, inviting lips, not hearing the words. His cloudy mind argued that he might never have another chance...
The reality of their meeting lips suddenly struck Fennic with the force of an arctic gale. In growing horror, he realized that he had actually acted on his recurring fantasy. He jumped back, taking in the wide-eyed shock on Dreamer's face. A strange, conflicted sequence of emotions played out over the avatar's fine features. "Fennic, I--"
"Sorry!" Dreamer blinked at the boy's abrupt exclamation.
No no no no...why did I do that? Fennic's still-sluggish mind backpedaled frantically, seeking an escape. "I didn't mean to do that," he said weakly; by then Dreamer had maneuvered them out of the crowd. "It was just the heat of the moment, you know?" The frantic youth hoped beyond hope that Dreamer will buy the excuse, "We were close together and the music and...I really didn't mean to do that. I'm sorry...." Fennic's insides knotted painfully at the nightmare of Dreamer rejecting him, putting him off the ship...
Dreamer's face bore a thoughtful expression. "It's okay bud. No big deal," he said carefully, offering a gentle smile.
"Thanks..." Fennic hastily wiped his eyes, the wretched feeling in his gut not abating. He quickly agreed to Dreamer's suggestion of finding the others and moved to follow the taller man in the direction of the bar, making sure to keep his distance.