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 2006 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|Dealing in Impossibilities||Part XVII
Sprawled across the pilot's seat, arms limp over his stomach, and one booted foot propped up on the helm console intruding into the holographic controls, Tallas was not someone who spared effort in being bored. If his eyes were open, he would have seen the viewscreen showing the same diffuse gray as three hours ago, when their convoy jumped into the system. They were only a single jump from their destination, but the fact that it needed to be made at the opposing side of the Dvesh protoplanetary disk meant that this last leg took up more than half of their total travel time.
Distantly he heard Sabrin's voice rise above the familiar hum of the ship, and from the exasperation it must be Captain Matare again. The commander of the Alyan scoutship Trefentig was their evaluator for this first, provisional escort run, and most insistent that they not forget either of those qualifiers. The civilian part of the convoy wasn't much better, treating them with remote disdain dosed with suspicion. Dreamer assured them that this cold reception was more due to the insular nature of the freight crews and their Orion and Kinjori national origins than any personal insult, which failed to make any of them feel better.
Letting his mind drift, Tallas readjusted his slouch again to keep his muscles from locking up. At least the seat was comfortable; he certainly wouldn't abide that as the cause for soreness in that area. He was only there to keep Sabrin company anyways, since Alyan regulations only mandated that one qualified pilot be on the bridge at all times -- Tallas wondered what euphemisms Dreamer had used on the Mem brass to get either of them listed as "qualified".
Like most daydreams, Tallas hadn't realized how far gone he was until he was jerked out of it by the hand on his shoulder. He would also have jerked out of the chair, were it not for the straps now biting into his shoulders. Wincing, he dropped back into the chair and scowled upwards at Sabrin's smiling face. Despite the warmth spreading through his body, he managed a reasonably belligerent "What?!"
Sabrin merely chuckled; both his hands were on Tallas' shoulders now and slipping beneath the straps, soothing the last twinges of pain.
"Hey yourself. You look happy," Tallas eyed his boyfriend suspiciously while rotating his shoulders into the other man's touch. "Weren't you just on with Matare?"
"Yeah I was. He finds our post-jump sensor summaries critically deficient in certain details." Sabrin slid down over the back of the pilot's chair until his nose was grazing Tallas' blonde tufts, and his hands were dangerously close to other areas.
"There's no detail 'cause there's nothing out there. Hope you told him to fuck off--" Tallas groaned when Sabrin found a nipple beneath his uniform.
"You should be more alert," Sabrin chided playfully next to his ear. "This disk's a perfect place for an ambush."
"I-- Am alert enough," Tallas gasped, his back arching, "You told me yourself: there's nothing close to our course that can possibly hide a raider craft." He quickly caught Sabrin's other hand before it started something they couldn't finish until they came off their -- admittedly informal -- duty shifts. "Tease," he accused.
Sabrin laughed and pulled away, walking around to his front. "You're just irresistable, that's all." Tallas snorted in response, though his eyes softened. Leaning against the console, Sabrin took Tallas' foot and shifted it off to restore the helm interface. "You shouldn't do that."
Tallas rolled his eyes, "Dreamer hasn't complained."
"He's busy with Ilvarra in sickbay."
"Lot to do I guess; the guy's been out of it for almost a whole week." The former Kinjori agent regained consciousness shortly after they left the Alya System, too weak to move or speak. Dreamer began a regular correspondence with Dr. Silvestra back at Windfall, which was both expensive and time-consuming as their communiques needed to be routed through the dedicated intergalactic transceivers at Regulus, with a 23-minute delay each way. "What d'you make of him?"
Sabrin shrugged, an uneasy expression coming over his face. "Lirelle doesn't like him."
"Well yeah, but that's complicated." When Dreamer vanished to tend to Ilvarra, Lirelle did too -- from refitting her shuttle to calibrating the jump vane, as long as she was well away from sickbay. Ilvarra's mind even offended her telepathy enough for her to have slept in the cargo bay the last two nights. Still, Tallas recognized that her aversion to Ilvarra was the reason why the rest of them were also reticent to meet the man. "She does think he's really given up the Onyx Hand."
"She would've shot him already if she didn't believe it," Sabrin said, "Coma or not." He walked back to his console, a thoughtful knuckle to his lips. "You don't think the Onyx Hand left some kind of programming in him, make him like a sleeper agent or something?"
"Wouldn't Lirelle've picked that up when they linked minds?"
"Who knows; you gotta admit she was kinda vague about the whole extractor-forced-telepathy thing," Sabrin said, "Would she have seen it if even Ilvarra himself didn't know?"
"I can assure you both that Ky Ilvarra is not a sleeper agent," Dreamer's image interjected from a nearby monitor, startling them both.
"Dreamer! Long time no see," Tallas grinned; apparently he missed the A.I.'s easy drawl more than he realized.
"Yeah I've got a lot on my mind. Sorry."
Tallas was reminded of a conversation that took place at Mirfax. He and Sabrin had doubts, that anything expressed by Dreamer in his various forms was not to manipulate them, considering it was all constructed by sophisticated programs anyway. "As if humans can't pretend and lie and fake," Dreamer had retorted with his characteristic smirk, "I'm just better at it."
Knowing what he does now, Tallas chose to believe his senses. He sounds tired.
"How's Ilvarra?" Sabrin asked.
"He can walk now; that's better than this mornin'. I'll be lettin' him out soon," Dreamer answered. "As I was sayin', he's not a sleeper. The Onyx Hand wouldn't let an extractor get captured, period. It'd be a huge security breach if they let anybody else get a good look at extractor physiology, maybe find a way to block their ability." Dreamer snorted ruefully, "Nah, their plans with him only went as far as that implant Rynn dug out of his neck. Lucky for him the Kinjori didn't get to activate it 'cause it would've fried his brain."
"Such charming people," Sabrin remarked humorlessly, "Guess we're even more popular now."
"Yeah," Dreamer said, "We're not a hundred percent sure that the Kinjori know he's here yet. Ky says that he probably crippled the other Kinjori agent at Adelaine, but since we didn't know where he left the body till after we were gone we can't confirm that. We've planted data on Adelaine suggesting that he headed for the frontier."
"Think that'll work?"
"No matter what their propaganda says, the Onyx Hand's not omnipresent and the universe's a big place." The A.I. presented a shrug, "I'd give it fifty-fifty."
"Ilvarra wouldn't happen to know what their next move's gonna be if they didn't buy it, would he?"
Dreamer shook his head, "Not his area. These top-secret organizations are all about the need-to-know."
"So he doesn't know how or when the next blow's comin' either," Sabrin scratched his eyebrow, "He'll fit right in."
"I'm glad you think so," Dreamer stated impassively. "Anyway, I've been keepin' an eye on your operations up here and it looks like you guys have things under control, so I'll leave you to it. I'll warn you before I release Ilvarra." His image disappeared, leaving a silence that lasted some seconds. For lack of anything more insightful to do, Tallas swiveled his chair back towards the front and brought up some navigational data.
Staggering along the wall under Dreamer's watchful eye, it was the second time in a long, frustrating day that Ky gathered hope of regaining his motor functions. The first time was when he stepped off the bed confident that everything worked as it should, only to find that confidence sadly unshared by the rest of his body. Only Dreamer's machine reflexes prevented his unpleasant meeting with the floor. He was too disturbed to even be embarrassed, terrified that his escapade with the assassin had scrambled his synapses permanently. Dr. Silvestra could only offer suppositions, considering the hitherto undocumented nature of his condition.
With relief Ky reached the cabinets on the far side and leaned against them to rest -- reminding his limbs to actually follow instructions when his brain wanted to take it for granted was absolutely exhausting. He jumped a little when Dreamer's congratulatory hand landed on his shoulder. Extractors don't have the luxury of allowing others to touch them casually, and Ky was ashamed of the slight tremor rising to meet that touch. He dismissed the bitter memories in a move so well-rehearsed it was practically subconscious.
"That was good. How do you feel?" Dreamer asked for the dozenth time.
"Better," Ky breathed, his voice more gravelly than usual. "The motions are easier each time." He experimentally shifted his weight around on his feet.
"Think you can handle any food? You've been awake for a while."
Ky's gut roiled, "Not yet...thank you." He wasn't sure what to make of the A.I., other than an instinctual anxiety towards the man who subdued him effortlessly and came within a hair's breadth of shooting him. They were both performing their duties then, of course, a solid comprehension that Ky could latch onto when the everything else in his life swirled in confusion. As Dreamer's gaze swept in his direction, Ky had the impression that they only focused on him as a formality. It was the same distant air that his former superiors at the Onyx Hand bore, as they had no intention of connecting with him on any level above that of a useful tool. He didn't mind though -- after all useful things were meant to be used, and hadn't he joined the Onyx Hand to be used...useful?
Or was it for spite? It hardly mattered now.
The complaints from Ky's weakened legs rose enough that he shuffled slowly back towards the bed, this time without his fingers grazing the wall. Dreamer hovered close but kept his hands off, a small act of consideration but one Ky appreciated. He groaned as he sat on the bed, sore but pleased -- until he remembered that, once he recovered, Dreamer's misguided obligation to care for him would end. Then there would be decisions he never planned for, since honestly he had not expected to survive past Windfall.
First things first. He inhaled deeply and clamped down his composure, "Dreamer, please accept my sincerest gratitude for the hospitality you and your crew have extended. I hope you will also accept my apology for the...inconvenience I've caused." His rough voice was ill-designed for formality and it showed; unfortunately, the ruthless etiquette drilled into him by the Onyx Hand was the only way he was ever articulate under stress. "I promise my imposition won't last for much longer."
"If that's what you want. Is there somewhere specific you'd like us to drop you off at?" Dreamer said without missing a beat. If he was distracted before, there was no evidence of it now as the A.I. trained his entire attention upon Ky. The former agent squirmed slightly under the scrutiny.
"Like where?" Ky muttered, mostly to himself. He would "disappear" the instant he set foot on a planet where he had prior connections.
"At the moment we're headed for Saregatta. We'll be there in two days."
"Saregatta," Ky repeated the unfamiliar name under his breath. He pictured scraping out a life on a strange world...no citizenship, no contacts, nothing to fall back on. What could he do for a living? People recoiled from his touch so that ruled out the most obvious option. "Do they like Kinjori on Saregatta?"
"They're not fans," Dreamer replied honestly. When the Kinjori invaded the Altairan Commonwealth, a former constituent of the Near-Solar Community and one of the most powerful at the time of their secession, the remaining NSC worlds naturally grew nervous of Kinjori imperialism. Saregatta was no exception, despite being located a fair ways from the Kinjori border.
"Did you happen to bring any of my belongings with you?"
"We decided against it."
"Just as well, it was most likely bugged to hell anyway," Ky shrugged; it wasn't as though he considered anything he had these days his possession, though he could've used the cash. "Maybe you'd loan me transport fare?" Ky somehow managed to curl the corner of his lips.
"Sure," Dreamer crossed his arms, "But before you go on and throw yourself off this ship, you should consider stayin' instead."
The sheer absurdity of that notion caused Ky to chuckle, which emerged more like a despondent wheeze. "That's...that's good."
"It's not a joke. You an' the rest of us here...we're kinda in similar boats, y'know? We might be able to help each other."
Ky shook his head, "Can't."
"Why not?" Dreamer seemed unperturbed by his reaction, as though he had rehearsed it all in his head beforehand.
"Miss Wice...Lirelle--" neither sounded right for Ky to say "--might give you a few reasons."
"I've already talked to her 'bout it."
Ky's head snapped up at that, brow furrowed deeply. The sharp tang of Lirelle's hatred sprang forth in his mind, as clear as the first time he entered her mind five years ago and the second time a week ago on Adelaine. No, she couldn't have possibly changed her mind just because he saved her from a situation that he was responsible for in the first place. Clearly Dreamer had misinterpreted Lirelle's reaction; Ky dropped his head back on the pillow and spoke to that effect.
"I didn't say she liked it," Dreamer's hand was on Ky's shoulder again, compelling him to meet his eyes. "But she knows what'd prolly happen if we turned you out now and she doesn't want that on her conscience. I feel the same way."
The gears wrenching out of order in Ky's brain were almost audible. "I don't understand why." A sliver of Onyx Hand doctrine kicked in, demanding a pragmatic perspective. "You believe having an extractor at your disposal would be advantageous, is that it?"
"You can think that if it makes you feel better," Dreamer said placidly, his expression hinting insult at the implication but not denying it either. "Let me be clear Ky: nobody on this ship's gonna force you to do anything. If you really think you'd rather be off alone, out there--" he gestured broadly "--we won't stop you. In fact, I'll personally put you on a transport to wherever you wanna go when we get to Saregatta; within reason. The price is you thinking about our proposal."
Ky pressed into his orbit with the heel of his right palm. Part of him had already accepted that he wouldn't be leaving this ship called the Dream of Dawn -- truthfully, he was far from unhappy with that -- he just needed to convince the rest of him. Suddenly, he pushed himself back to sit on the edge of the bed. "I want to talk to Lirelle."
Dreamer blinked at his request. "Okay...when you're feeling stronger--"
"Now," Ky demanded, then tempered it with "...please, it's important. I'm up to it."
"Alright," Dreamer acquiesced after giving him a quick once-over. "She's in the launch bay workin' on her shuttle. Lean on me if you start feeling woozy."
The Kinjori Anyar-3100 shuttlecraft was hardly a marvel of engineering when it was first introduced four decades ago, and the passage of time since then only served to render it more obsolete. It was a testament to Lirelle's frame of mind at the time that she didn't swap it for any of the dozens of better alternatives when they were at the Seos graveyard. Now, she was finding that hammering the quaint vessel into something even remotely suitable for their perilous lifestyle was only marginally less difficult than building a completely new one from scratch.
A chime from her workpad announced that the latest diagnostic was complete: system components functioning within normal parameters.
Glaring at the stubborn power distribution system that continued to defy the diagnostics stating that it was working correctly, Lirelle considered that perhaps her plan to distract herself with the shuttle had backfired. She volunteered to take the overnight shift on the bridge when they set off, so that Sabrin and Tallas could keep the same waking hours. Lirelle didn't begrudge doing that small favor for the young lovers, but inverting her daily cycle took its toll.
Then there was Ilvarra, whose god-forsaken mind gnawed at hers whenever she got within range. On a ship the size of the Dream, that translated to her contemplating various violent fantasies at a higher than usual rate. It worsened now that he was awake; she discovered that, unlike with ordinary people, her telepathy could not only identify when the extractor was within range, but also his direction relative to her and the state of his mental discipline. For both their sakes, Ilvarra had better improve his skills on the latter front.
"Fennic, I'll be sending a test pulse through the third wave-transduction bed at quarter-capacity." Lirelle said into her comn, coupling a forked tool to an array of glowing blue chevrons. Though the boy understood little of what she was doing, Lirelle hoped to familiarize him with the technology by involving him in the process. So far, Fennic had proven himself an adept and eager student, despite his seeming lack of formal education. "When I do, tell me what the feedback ratio is."
"Um...where is it?" came the uncertain reply.
"Second display panel from the right, third bar gauge from--" Lirelle paused at the sound of the doors sliding open "--the top... One moment." Craning her head from where she laid on the antigrav pallet, she saw Dreamer's avatar and, unexpectedly, a sallow Ilvarra leaning against his shoulder. Apparently, the sensation she took for Ilvarra's flagging mental control was actually caused by his physical proximity.
"Lirelle," Ilvarra's chapped voice wafted towards her, so soft that for a moment she thought she imagined it.
"Lirelle?" Fennic also prompted, his voice wavering.
"Stay where you are Fennic, I won't be long." Slowly and deliberately, Lirelle clamped her hand onto the edge of the floating pallet and levered herself over it, swinging down to hang from that arm before dropping elegantly onto her feet amongst the parts strewn messily about the deck. "Ilvarra," she said coolly, "You're on your feet."
"I've been told that you're the one to thank for that," Ilvarra cleared his throat, "So, thank you. You didn't have to revive me...all things considered you had more cause not to."
Lirelle snorted, "I think we both know how well I do with rational decision-making."
"Still." The slightest of sighs escaped Ilvarra's lips. He curled his right hand over his left wrist, holding them loosely before him. An Onyx Hand rest posture, Lirelle recognized with a bit of irritation, whether performed subconscious or otherwise. She steeled herself against a shudder when Ilvarra shuffled his feet in an unsettlingly familiar way. The chasm that was his mind yawned hideously. "I wonder if we could talk? Alone?"
Glancing at Dreamer over Ilvarra's shoulder, Lirelle gave a curt nod. There was an awkward hush as the door opened and closed.
"Well?" Lirelle prompted archly.
Ilvarra's gaze contemplated the harsh lines of her shuttle. "I've been thinking about my options from here, and Dreamer told me you've consented to letting me stay aboard. I wanted to know if that was true."
"It is," Lirelle said. "Will you?"
Gray eyes snapped to her, taken aback by her bluntness. "I..."
"Because you shouldn't refuse on my account," Lirelle continued. She kept her expression carefully flat, knowing that the former agent would refuse for exactly that reason if she showed any indication that she wanted him to -- the trouble being that part of her did want him to.
"Why not? It's a...solid account." Ilvarra's voice was pained.
"No, it's not," Lirelle eyed Ilvarra's currently feeble form and tried to picture him on a purely human level, without her telepathy constantly reminding her otherwise and of the past. Would the weight of their mutual history be lessened, if she could see him as nothing more than a lone man, stranded far from home as she was with nothing but burnt bridges behind him? Lielle closed her eyes; perhaps it was beyond either of them to break free. "You were performing your duty and you were inexperienced."
"Yes," Not an excuse, only an acknowledgement. He rubbed at his neck.
"I can't forgive you," Lirelle stated clearly, opening her eyes. That was old information -- Ilvarra nodded resignedly. There was more pain and it gave Lirelle no pleasure to see it. "But that doesn't matter," she said forcefully, "not to the question of you staying aboard this ship anyway. The fact is that you stand a better chance of surviving with us than without. That applies to every one of us on this ship, so if you wish to cast your lot in with us then we'll receive you. And you do want to, don't you?" It was more a statement than a question.
Trembling slightly, Ilvarra responded in the affirmative. "What about you?" he gestured briefly to their respective skulls to clarify.
"I'll cope," Lirelle replied simply, turning back to the antigrav pallet. In her absence Dreamer had remotely guided it down to near ground level. "We are currently undermanned; as you have the requisite training I expect you to take one of the bridge shifts. I'm not suffering your continued presence for you not to make yourself useful." Her words were serious, but they contained no rancor. "Dreamer will brief you on the specifics."
"Understood," Ilvarra took that for the dismissal it was and exited laboriously.
"And have Dreamer show you where we hide the weapons." That was the closest thing to a statement of trust Lirelle could ever make. She resisted looking after his direction until the doors closed; her racing heart rang in her ears. Lirelle thought of the last five years, coming full circle. She thought of her brother and his smile.
"Fennic?" She wearily tapped her comlink active, "We were on the...wave-transduction bed?"
Fennic stared glumly at the muted exchange unfolding outside the cockpit. Tension radiated from both Kinjori and he knew he should support Lirelle, but selfishly his attention insisted he focus on the nonchalant figure back by the door. His eyes consumed the handsome features like they had countless times before, only marred now by his own stupidity. Subconsciously he licked his lips, the sense-memory of the kiss still keen upon them.
Anxious seconds passed as Fennic watched for those mesmerizing gold-ring eyes to flicker in his direction, not sure whether he wanted them to or not. Regardless, pain lanced through him when the man was suddenly gone and they hadn't. Self-disgust rose up, mingling sourly with the old, desperate need that despite everything Fennic was still unable to banish.
Dreamer was as good as his word on ignoring what happened; after Edoch Fennic could detect no change in the A.I.'s demeanor in their encounters, except what was put there by his own paranoid mind. And if it seemed like those encounters had become much scarcer since the start of their mission, it was only because his plan to avoid Dreamer was working. Dreamer had done so much for him already; this time, he won't expect Dreamer to approach him first and hand him the solutions -- he had the problem, not Dreamer, and he was responsible. Dreamer was fine, and once he dealt with it, he would be too.
Lirelle was still occupied, so Fennic harshly blinked away the moisture in his eyes and picked up his stylus for more arduous transcription practice. Apparently he had grossly overestimated his literacy in a high-technology culture, which used three different types of shorthand that everyone else learned in grade school but of which he had no experience.
The tedium sufficed as a distraction, until he realized that his weak mind had begun reciting the rules for single-point shorthand in Dreamer's characteristic drawl. The pad clattered across the forward console as Fennic slumped in the seat, pushing his thumb into his temple as sometimes Lirelle did when stressed.
"--we were on the...wave-transduction bed?"
Fennic had no idea; the fact of his uselessness could no longer be suppressed, so he apologetically begged off the remaining work and slunk back to his quarters. Though he braced for it, he didn't run into Dreamer en route.
Almost a day had passed when Fennic wandered alone to the mess hall, after Dreamer cost him another night's sleep. Tallas stood alone in the kitchen, solid and golden under the spotlights. The top half of his uniform was stripped down to the tank undershirt. Fennic swallowed tightly as a phantom image of Sabrin molded himself to Tallas' back, his hands running up passion-flushed skin and his tongue sampling a graceful stretch of neck. In his mind's eye the blond Orion tilted his head back, full lips parting to release the gentlest of moans, speaking of that stage of desire where the slightest touch brings ecstacy.
His first urge was sneak back out, but Tallas was already greeting him with an inviting smile. "Hey Fennic, what's up? I thought you were following Lirelle's schedule."
Fennic flushed guiltily from the vicarious thrill he just conjured. "I couldn't sleep," his voice cracked on the first syllable from disuse. He edged closer self-consciously, feeling like an intruder. Judging from the lines that appeared on Tallas' face, his appearance must have reflected his state of mind. "Where's Sabrin?" Fennic asked before the Orion could comment.
Dark eyes regarded him and for a brief, terrifying moment Fennic imagined them splaying open his entire pathetic self. He waited for a decisive blow, but Tallas only said, "He's on the bridge, finishing up a report for Matare."
"Why aren't you with him?"
"He sent me away. Said I was 'distracting' him," Tallas made air quotes, accompanied by an exaggerated roll of his eyes. "He started it," he added under his breath, succeeding in evoking a snicker from Fennic. Looking pleased, Tallas returned to his rather unaesthetic chopping. "So, I thought I'd play the good boyfriend and get dinner started. You're welcome to join us if you're hungry."
"Um, no thanks, I just wanted to get some water," Fennic shuffled around the center island to fetch a glass, tapping down the jolt of jealousy at the easy way Tallas said 'boyfriend'. "What're you making?"
"Vadic fritters. They've got potatoes, kress-loaf, and cheese--" Tallas gestured with his knife at each ingredient. Fennic came up beside him and peered at the differently colored blocks.
"These are potatoes?"
Tallas raised a sandy eyebrow towards the crispy yellow blocks, micro-cultured in a vat and sliced perfectly rectilinear for convenient stacking. "Yeah," he answered earnestly.
Something about that statement said wrong to Fennic -- an odd moment of recognition flittering through his amnesic fugue that tweaked at him without telling him why. He was fairly sure it wasn't because he had ever seen a potato before.
"We learned how to make these in domestics class. It was my only assignment that was edible on the first try," Tallas chuckled.
"Was that on As..." Fennic couldn't quite remember the name of Tallas' homeworld, except that it was long.
"Astral-Ishasa? Yup. I couldn't tell ya how many bucketfuls of these things me and Sabe ate growing up," Tallas said wistfully, "They're the cheapest things you can get from the self-serve kiosk around the corner from our ward. Most of us just bought them 'cause of that, but Sabe actually likes them for real. I keep telling him he's got a stunted palate."
Fennic shifted to put the security of the table between them, before he physically touched the radiance from the other man's bare skin.
Undisturbed, Tallas rinsed off the knife and started on the cheese blocks. "Still, I guess I'm lucky he's that way," pearly teeth flashed, "God help me if he starts wantin' something more complicated than this."
"You love him a lot." The words were away before Fennic could reconsider. Hot blood rushed to his face as Tallas' knife paused.
"Of course." The chopping resumed, slower as the Orion shifted his priorities.
"And he...feels the same."
"I like to think so, yes." Tallas was definitely curious now, gentle humor giving way to something more serious.
"How did you know?" Fennic had no idea where this sudden boldness was coming from, only that it might never come again. His shirt pulled clammily at his skin as beads of condensation crawled from his cold glass down the back of his palm. He set it down before it slipped and wiped his hand on his shorts, very aware of Tallas' piercing gaze.
"What? That I loved him or he loved me?"
"Well, he told me, for one," Tallas smiled minutely and Fennic found himself responding. It reminded him of the way Dreamer could make himself utterly approachable, mask every sharp edge as though they never existed. "As for me, truth is it kinda snuck up on me. When you're with somebody all your life you don't really think so much about love in general, 'cause it's always there in your mind and you can't imagine feeling any different. So when me loving Sabrin somehow turned into me being in love with him I didn't recognize it at all. Just, at some point I started looking for his face in every crowd, and doing things because he liked them, and drifting off listening to him talk," Tallas' voice dropped in pitch, taking on the sweet cadence of treasured memories. "Wanting to wrap around him, to make him understand that he's already your entire world and you want the same from him."
"Then one day, you see or hear or do something and all the little pieces come together in your mind, and you slap a label on what you realize has really been with you for a long time already. When it happened for me I figured it must be love -- the romantic kind, with flowers and everything -- 'cause Sabe meant way too much to me for it to be anything less."
"Did you tell him, after you figured it out?" Fennic's hushed words were utterly insubstantial.
An old shadow drew over the young Orion. "No, I didn't; not for a long time. I couldn't."
Surprise flickered on Fennic's face. "But you've known each other for so long. You had to know that he felt the same."
"Doesn't exactly work like that," Tallas took a special interest in the misshapen cheese cubes beneath his fingers. "You doubt yourself, wondering if the 'signs' you're picking up are actually happening, or just your mind making it up 'cause you want it so badly. You obsess about that one 'what-if' that scares you the most, even if it's impossible -- what if he rejects you, what if he hates you, what if he never wants to see you again."
Fennic's eyes widened. He knew.
"You know what I'm talking about," The line was delivered casually, but there was no mistaking that as artifice. Fennic forced himself to stay still in the face of the panic surging through his veins. One glance at Tallas confirmed that his reaction all but verified the Orion's suspicions.
"I kissed him." With each passing moment he felt more out of control; he was flashing back to the noise and the lights.
"At the club. After you guys came back from the meeting. We were dancing an-and it just happened," Fennic babbled. "I-I kissed him, and then I took it back, and now everything's messed up."
"Wait, what do you mean you took it back--"
Fennic couldn't discuss it yet. "So did you ever tell Sabe?" he almost demanded, "Or was he the one who...?"
Tallas' mouth flapped soundlessly, his features pulling in different directions. "...no, I was the one who started things, eventually," he said cautiously, "It happened at a space station called Forseti, a little while before you came aboard."
"Sabe...couldn't deal with it at first. He needed time."
Okay, that was not what Fennic expected, but he knew how the story ended. "But he came around, right?" He heard the manic desperation in his voice and didn't care.
Tallas bit his lip. "Yes, he did, and I'm very grateful," he said quietly. Fennic frowned, not understanding the torment playing over the other man's features. It must have been unbearable, the period Tallas spent apart from his love. But what mattered was that they overcame the obstacles and got together in the end, right?
For the record, Sabrin was in a good mood when he handed the bridge off to Lirelle, even though Tallas ditched him earlier to deal with Matare alone. Well, technically he was the one who told Tallas to leave, but his boyfriend was crafty like that. His mood was the case because he knew that at the moment Tallas was preparing an apology that, while transparent, would be effective enough to spill over in the form of certain benefits to be rendered later in their quarters.
All that planning dissolved the instant he saw Tallas' face. Fennic gave him precisely one alarmed glance before nearly knocking him down escaping the mess hall.
Any lingering doubt about the plan's demise was dispelled with Tallas' breathed, "Shit." A knife and half-diced cubes of food laid forgotten in front of him, along with a half-full glass. Anger was set in his jaw and hands, simmering beneath the surface like superheated water. Sabrin hated to see that; ire transformed his lover, unnaturally locking up what should stay fluid.
"I didn't think he'd gotten that far," Tallas muttered. Previously unfocused eyes darted furiously towards the inert monitor nearby. "Damn it, of all the times not to show up..."
"Tal, what's going on?" Sabrin asked more firmly.
"Fennic kissed Dreamer at the club."
"What do you mean, 'so'?" Tallas said irritatedly, "Obviously that didn't go down so well or Dreamer wouldn't be hiding in sickbay and Fennic wouldn't've just come in here looking like the living dead." The blond exhaled slowly, anger slipping away. "God, I thought he was still talking about his crush. I should've recognized something more was going on, kept my mouth shut."
"What exactly did you say?"
"I told him about what happened on Forseti."
Sabrin stiffened and dropped his eyes; the pain that he caused both of them was still a fresh wound. Tallas sensed his discomfort and reached for his cheek, reminding him of his forgiveness. Sabrin smiled gratefully and smoothed away the raw memory, "And...?"
"I think I gave him the idea that Dreamer might feel the same as him."
"He might," Sabrin offered haplessly, "Especially if we're going by analogies here..."
"Maybe," Tallas conceded.
"Tal, I'm not sure what goes on between Fennic and Dreamer is any of our business," Sabrin saw the signs of Tallas investing himself and tried to forestall it. "Sounds to me like you only told him the truth of what happened between us, nothing else. It's up to him to take what he wants from that."
"They're our friends. And I don't like playing with people's hopes," Tallas persisted.
"I know, but Fennic made his own choice in that club. He's eighteen; he's not a child."
"He's not an adult, not with two whole weeks of memories," Tallas shot back, "It's not a fair situation." Sabrin flinched a little, but it was better that Tallas focused on him -- then at least he had some control over the outcome.
"Dreamer knows that as well as you do," Sabrin eyed the dark monitors. "If he didn't want you leading Fennic on, then why didn't he say something? This's a public space; he had to have been listening."
"Fine." Tallas looked apprehensive as Sabrin sent soft words to the air above them: "Dreamer? You there?" Neither of them knew whether to expect the A.I., though not interjecting was a far cry from ignoring a direct inquiry.
The small monitor flared to life and greeted them blandly.
"Dreamer, about Fennic, if I'd known..." Tallas began.
"No reason why ya would've; forget about it," Dreamer interrupted flatly. "Listen Tal -- I'd like it if you went with Sabe on this one, okay?" There was no missing the ultimatum beneath the placid tone. Sabrin bristled slightly at his partner being the recipient, though he thought he understood the underpinnings of Dreamer's request. He saw Tallas acquiesce, and then they were alone again.
"You heard him. It's not your responsibility." Tallas bit back his response as he turned back to the food.
Under the glare of Saregatta's white sun, nine geometrically arranged points of light simultaneously appeared and faded. Tallas flexed his hands, eager to see the last four and half long days draw to a close.
Because a starship's exact position and course after a jump cannot be reliably predicted, a group of ships jumping together will usually link their drive systems, thereby avoiding being scattered at their destination. The task of calculating the parameters for the jump falls to the pilot of the ship with the least capable jump vane, which minimizes the probability of failure; the other pilots are only required to concur. Since the Dream was by a wide margin not the ship with the least capable vane in the convoy, the task of helming jumps was much easier than otherwise, to Tallas' appreciation. "Laying in a course for Saregatta."
"Wait, there's a problem."
Tallas twisted around to see Sabrin staring intensely at a number of floating displays, a frown steadily growing in alarm on his face. "We're missing a ship," he said with disbelief.
"What?" Tallas squirmed out of his straps and crossed to Sabrin's console.
"I'm reading only eight freighters," Sabrin reported, shaking his head, "There're supposed to be nine, right?" Tallas examined the display; eight symbols representing the freighters and a ninth different one for the Trefentig. Dread creeping into his veins, Sabrin flicked a key and brought up the names and registries of the eight freighters.
"What the fuck happened?!" Dreamer burst onto the bridge.
"We're not picking up the Sudree Ahns in sensor range," Sabrin said. Lirelle soon appeared, still in flimsy sleep clothes. "I've checked and double-checked the sensors. It's just not out there." Ky trailed in afterwards, taking up a discrete standing position near the master situation display. He looked relieved that no one was paying attention to him.
"That's impossible," Lirelle rubbed her eyes and sat down at her station, "They jumped with us."
"Doesn't look like they did," Tallas mumbled.
"I mean, you confirmed that their jump systems were correlated with the rest of the convoy, did you not?" Tallas nodded; the question was redundant -- every ship in the convoy would have confirmed the presence of every other before the jump proceeded.
Sabrin noticed an incoming transmission, "It's the Trefentig."
"Pull up the power utilization traces," Dreamer leaned over Lirelle's shoulder. A window opened showing ten jagged lines, one for each ship, with the Sudree Ahns highlighted. "See here," Dreamer indicated a sharp spike common to all of the lines. "Jump vane activation," Lirelle confirmed; she traced the irregularly ascending line with her finger, "primary charge, v-particle saturation, antimatter reaction," she listed the events as her finger passed them.
"Dream of Dawn, you are ordered to power down your weapons and engines pending investigation of this incident," the cold formality of Matare's ultimatum disguised poorly the underlying menace.
"Maybe we should cooperate?" Tallas regarded the image of the Mnemosyne scoutship on the viewscreen.
"No," Dreamer said distractedly.
"We're gonna find that ship, or we're gonna run. Either way our engines stay on," Sabrin said, rising from his chair. "It's always something," he hissed quietly as he took a place next to Dreamer.
"They definitely jumped, or at least tried to," Lirelle concluded.
"Could their calculations have been off?" Tallas asked.
"No; group jumps are all or nothing," Lirelle replied, "If their pilot screwed up none of us would've jumped." Her fingers flew over the console, drawing up additional data and performing analyses that quickly outpaced everyone present except Dreamer. "If they performed the jump with us, then they can only have emerged with us. There is no other option."
"Alright, assuming that's true, the fact that they're not here must mean that they didn't jump with us," Sabrin reasoned.
"Dream of Dawn, power down your weapons and engines."
"Raise shields," Dreamer ordered, his eyes never leaving the data. Tallas frowned, but reached for the starboard console.
"The scans we have of the Sudree leading up the jump is exactly within parameters," Lirelle said, "It'd be virtually impossible to fabricate these readings without actually completing the jump."
"So say they went through the motions, and there was a malfunction. Last-second abort."
Lirelle nodded, "it's possible, but an accident right at the instant of the jump would almost certainly destroy the ship."
"And there's no energy surge to support that..." Dreamer sighed and rubbed his eyes. The statistics he perused before their mission had shown a greater incidence of attacks on convoys accompanied by first-time escorts, strongly indicating that there were collaborators at some level of the system. That damned luck again.
"It was deliberate," Ky laid out the option they were all trying to disprove, "meant to fail."
"A fabrication like that would also be extremely difficult," Lirelle spared the extractor the briefest of glances, "but not outside the realm of possibility. The propulsion system protocols would have to be extensively rewritten."
"Stand down, Dream of Dawn. This is your final warning."
"Assumin' the Sudree never completed the jump, then it must still be on the other side of that potential," Dreamer said. "Fuck, now'd be the perfect time to hijack the ship."
"How long before the Sudree can leave Dvesh?"
"Their vane'll be drained the same as if they'd made an actual jump," Lirelle answered, "That gives us forty-two minutes."
"If the pirates don't have a ship capable of coupling to the Sudree and jumping both of them out," Ky noted. Another suggestion went unsaid: given the freighter's bulk, it would take a pirate vessel of significant size to accomplish such a feat.
"Try and stay positive," Dreamer commented distractedly.
"We need to get back there," Sabrin dropped himself into the pilot's seat. "How long till the jump vane recharges?"
"Sabe, take us away from optimum probability on that potential. Get us to where we can jump but they can't." Dreamer perceived the Trefentig charging weapons at their movement. "Oh, and uh...evasive maneuvers."
"Thanks a lot," Sabrin said sarcastically. The Alyan warship was so close that such measures were less than effective, as illustrated when the ship rocked from an aft shield impact.
"Return fire?" Tallas asked, acquiring a target lock on the pursuing vessel.
"No. We don't wanna make things worse."
"Us trying to jump out right now probably isn't making it better," Tallas mumbled.
"If you've got nothin' useful to say--" Dreamer snapped. Tallas raised his hands, stung by the rebuke.
Leaving Lirelle to continue the data analysis, the android headed off the bridge to prepare his ship self for the likely confrontation to come. Ky caught his arm as he passed, asking quietly, "Is this wise? You have no idea what you'll find on the other side of that jump. We may be massively outgunned."
"Considering you're talkin' about us? We'll definitely be massively outgunned," Dreamer responded archly, "Still, this is what we do."