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|
|The Hourglass Refrain||Part XVIII
After twelve nerve-wracking minutes spent dodging an enemy vessel at point-blank range, Sabrin twistedly thought he maybe deserved something upon jumping back to Dvesh. Unfortunately for his adrenaline-soaked nerves, after his senses cleared he found exactly nothing: no freighter, no pirate vessel, and no clues as to what might have transpired.
"Where the fuck are they?" Dreamer's personally affronted curse eloquently summed up their thoughts.
"Are you sure they couldn't have jumped out?" Tallas double-checked the sensor readings, as though a six-million-ton freighter could possibly escape detection even in the gaseous soup outside.
"Not under their own power," Lirelle said wearily, "which, as Ilvarra stated, does not rule out the possibility." Everyone on the bridge knew that if the Sudree Ahns had somehow left the system, then it was lost and their prospects along with it.
"Right, well," Sabrin performed a quick calculation. "The farthest that freighter could've gone in eighteen minutes is 80 million kilometers."
Dreamer snorted, "That's only, what, two trillion trillion cubic kilometers of space, gettin' bigger all the time? There's no way we can search that fast enough in this mess."
"Ion trail?" Sabrin suggested.
"Not a chance. Not when ten ships just passed through here." Dreamer said, "Lirelle, what about all this fuckin' dust? We might be able to find their deflector wake."
"The matter in this region of the disk isn't dense enough. Good god, compensating for fluid dispersion alone..." Lirelle cast him a suffering glance even as she brought up the relevant scans of the ambient space and began correlating particle trajectories. In any case, Dreamer already knew how impossible her task was.
"What'll they do with the ship now that they have it?" Tallas asked.
"Take it to lawless territory: whole or in pieces, with the cargo or separately," Dreamer rattled off like he was reading from a report, "If they can, they'll do it immediately. If not, they'll stash the ship somewhere till the heat dies down."
"And the crew?"
"Box anyone they can sell if they're into that sort of business. Otherwise..." Dreamer's face permitted no ambiguity. The Sudree Ahns had a complement of 22; a half-hour ago they were only as real to Tallas as the convoy manifest that he barely glanced at before their departure. Strange, how much more substantial they were now, in absentia.
Sabrin stared at the ominous wall of gray surrounding them, their hidden depths expressing inscrutable vastness in a way that mere vacuum never could. The disk contained the mass of a solar system: millions, billions of coalescing nuclei foreshadowing planets and moons -- amongst that the Sudree Ahns was a grain of sand in a desert. Sabrin's hands itched as the Dream swung back around the jump potential. "Whatever we're gonna do, we'd better do it. Matare'll be on us any second."
"Allow me to note that sensor analysis isn't one of my chosen specialities," Lirelle muttered. She clenched her eyes shut and gave her head a single violent shake, then touched her fingertips to her temple. Behind her, Ky dropped his eyes and silently retreated.
"You really think Matare'll follow us here alone?" Tallas asked, "He isn't nearly as armed as we are."
"Won't matter to him. He'll consider it his duty."
"Fuck. Please, please tell me that's not what we just did," Dreamer lamented.
"Alright, I think I've extrapolated six disturbance trajectories that might possibly represent trails away from here," Lirelle summoned a second viewscreen window, sounding like she was besmirching her professional integrity by even presenting these "findings". "At our level of resolution we can't do any better."
"Fine," Dreamer said, "Pick one and let's go."
Sabrin supposed the A.I. meant him, since no one else was volunteering. He studied the six paths, trying and failing to discern some hidden element that would point him in the right direction. Meanwhile, his limbs wrung themselves dry with the knowledge that every passing second closed the distance between them and Matare. There were three other jump potentials in the system; he supposed there was a chance the pirates were headed for one of them. "Setting a course."
Very few people are able to sleep through an interstellar jump. Fennic was definitely not one of them, which was why, ensconced in his sheets, he waited for it to be over before fitfully closing his eyes. His efforts proved to be in vain when shortly after the ship rocked from an attack, followed by another stomach-inverting ride back into the dust cloud.
He was halfway in his pants when Dreamer's image appeared. He flushed despite himself, though Dreamer was all business as he primly explained the situation and instructed him to stay put. Fennic didn't object, aware that he would only encumber the others on the bridge. Nevertheless, being confronted by that fact hurt, especially from Dreamer.
It was impossible to go back to bed under the circumstances. Fennic pulled out his pad, but more often than not he found himself staring blankly through the words and diagrams. He approached the door half a dozen times, sometimes telling himself it was just for water or food from the mass hall. Every time he stopped himself from pressing the 'open' button, because it felt like an implication that he didn't trust the others to do their best. Likewise he couldn't summon Dreamer for an update, lest it distract him from more important duties. In the end he was always back on the mattress with the shorthand exercises.
He played that game for an excruciating hour, maybe two, then without warning the room was plunged into total darkness.
Dread crept into Fennic's body as he strained and realized he couldn't hear the Dream's constant background rumble.
"Dreamer? Dreamer what's going on?!" Cold sweat beaded on his skin when no one answered. "Hello?!"
Tossing the pad away, Fennic tumbled off the bed and groped for the door. After an eternity of blind shuffling and a nasty entanglement with his chair he finally contacted its smooth surface, only to find the control pad inert and useless. The darkness closed in, suffocating him. "Dreamer?!" he yelled, pounding on the door, "Anybody?!"
His breaths were coming in shorter and shorter. Not knowing what else to do, Fennic began trying to pry the door open with his bare fingers, his body's stress response overriding the painful jolts that resulted.
Suddenly the door opened and he stumbled out into the corridor, whirling around and nearly tripping over his feet. The emergency lights near the deck framed the corridor in two ghostly blue lines, not nearly enough to see by. Disoriented, Fennic flailed his arms out and struck something solid, that grabbed him and pulled him against something warm. He thrashed momentarily until he recognized Dreamer's soothing drawl in his ear.
"Fennic, Fennic, it's okay. We're fine."
The boy buried his face into the fabric over Dreamer's shoulder. Strong arms wrapped around him, shielding him from the shadows. A calming hand stroked through his hair and down the back of his neck. As soon as his heart dropped from his throat, all his panicked thoughts rushed out, "W-What's happening? Why're the lights off?"
"It's okay...calm down bud, nothing's wrong, okay? Take deep breaths...everything's fine," Fennic obeyed and eventually his blood stopped pounding in his ears. As expected, Dreamer perceived his improved condition and loosened his embrace. "Okay now?" Fennic nodded. "Alright, here's the situation: we're being scanned by an Alyan ship, so we've powered down everything to keep 'em from findin' us. I'm sorry we didn't have time to warn you."
"Tha-that's okay," Fennic stammered. He kept his face pressed against Dreamer, sliding his palms up the other man's broad back. Dreamer smelled pleasantly clean with a trace of something inorganic, not really like a person but not aggressively artificial either. Fennic realized he was veering down a dangerous course, but for whatever reason Dreamer wasn't resisting and he was too weak to stop himself. "Can they find us?"
"I doubt it. We're at the very limit of their sensor range and there're a lot of interference."
The lights came back on, imprinting spots into Fennic's vision. "See? Nothin' to worry about," Dreamer flashed a reserved smile, likely in consideration of their physical proximity. Fennic gulped and awkwardly eased away, fingers throbbing from his battle with the door. "For future reference," Dreamer watched him pull back without moving, "there's an emergency kit under your bed with magnetic grips, so you can pull the doors open if the power goes out. Just hold the pad against the door and flip the switch."
"Um, thanks Dreamer."
Regret appeared in Dreamer's eyes and then Fennic was retreating post-haste back to his quarters, mumbling inanities until the door slid shut between them. Safely alone, he shut his eyes and leaned his forehead against the cool surface.
Immediately his mind started contemplating alternates to that exchange: rosy scenarios where he wasn't an abject coward who couldn't do even a single thing to advance himself -- Dreamer deserved better than someone like that. This isn't the time, Fennic berated himself, glancing at the gray outside the window. He doubted any of the others were wasting time with selfish introspection.
Despite their close call, Sabrin's mind began to wander in the period of quiescence that followed. The bridge was vacant, Dreamer having finally managed to reason, barter, and cajol Lirelle off to catch up on her missed rest. The android himself had yet to reappear, and as for his partner...
"Hey I'm back. Miss me?"
"You wish." Sabrin's noticed Tallas' sandy hair was damp; though he was disappointed to have missed it, his tongue darted across his lips in appreciation. "You took a shower?"
"A quick one; I was feeling scummy," Tallas held out something foil-wrapped to his face, "Here."
"I'm not hungry," Sabrin protested futilely.
"Don't care," Tallas replied cheerfully, from practice. Sabrin's appetite tended to disappear whenever he was working, though he didn't think it as much of a failing as Tallas did.
Sabrin grimaced when he recognized Tallas' offering as a plain nutrient bar. The love of his life wouldn't stop at stuffing him with just one either. "Ugh, I hate those things."
"Tough shit, you're eating it," Tallas poked him with the bar until Sabrin took it. Smirking, the blond settled himself on the raised dais between the helm console and the forward windows and tore into his own. His dark eyes twinkled as he made an exaggerated show of chewing and very deliberately made small pleasure noises that shot straight to Sabrin's groin. Sabrin shook his head and took a measured bite -- it was just as disgusting as he remembered; worse, because it was wet. Water should be packaged separately.
Tallas tucked in one leg to his chest and rested an arm and cheek on his knee. They ate quietly; Tallas finished both of his bars before Sabrin was through one, and simply sat watching him. Once in a while he would shift, rubbing his face along his forearm like an overgrown cat. "Have I told you how hot you look sitting in that chair?"
Sabrin cleared his throat, "Not...recently."
"Well you do," Tallas' smile widened, "You're in that uniform and you get all focused and professional, it's like you belong there."
Sabrin laughed slightly as warmth gathered beneath his collar. "How come you never told me about this little fetish of yours?"
"Leave it to you to turn a compliment into something perverted," Tallas' grin was teasing. However, Sabrin was concerned by the brittle undercurrent of tension permeating his casual demeanor. He choked down the last piece of the bar and crumpled the wrapper, frowning as Tallas handed him another one without missing a beat. All the while umber eyes regarded him, questing for answers Sabrin wasn't sure he possessed.
"How long are we planning to keep at this?"
"I don't know," Sabrin answered honestly.
"I looked over some of the figures Dreamer pulled together before this job. In the last two years, eight merchant ships have disappeared in this system. You know how many have been recovered?"
"I can guess."
"Those were attacks on isolated ships," Dreamer interrupted from an aft console monitor, "It was hours, days before anybody started lookin' for 'em. I wouldn't jump the gun and declare the Sudree a lost cause just yet."
"That's not what I said Dreamer and you know it," Tallas said, agitation now evident in his voice. Not without guilt, Sabrin kept his attention directed forward as his best friend hopped off the dais to debate from a closer vantage. No matter what was said, they would be staying in Dvesh for the time being. Sabrin could only pray that, somehow, the Sudree would appear before an irreconcilable divide.
"They're still scanning," Tallas whispered. His face reflected blue and yellow from the only active display on the darkened bridge, the dilute light turning the planes of his face into stark crags. The whispering was not a factor in their stealth, but it made him feel more secure. He ached to fire just one thruster to ease them away from the searching Alyan warship. However, their only hope was to be passed over as an inert body, which meant a uniform trajectory.
Like a tiny lighthouse warning them of danger, Tallas' display oscillated in brightness with the pulses emanating from the unseen other ship. This was the third time since the search began that they had strayed into the sensor range of the Alyans; at 22 minutes and counting, it was by far their longest encounter. All in all, the Alyans were apparently doing a much better job of tracking them than they were doing tracking the freighter, Tallas thought bitterly.
"Power spectrum's biasing towards the upper band."
"Our power emissions're still well within background limits. Relax."
"How far to the nearest jump potential?" Lirelle was evidently of less faith than Dreamer. The Kinjori had done her best and managed to stay away five hours, which wasn't enough to wipe away the bags beneath her eyes.
"Not far." Sabrin couldn't give a more accurate reply without a console. Dreamer could but chose to stay silent.
"The pulse is weakening," Tallas sighed audibly, "They're moving away."
"That was close."
"Too close," Lirelle said as Dreamer restored power. The Kinjori immediately retrieved a graph showing overlaid sets of data, "The signature of that scan was slightly different. That indicates there are at least three Alyan vessels now in-system."
"Your point?" Dreamer's voice was deathly calm.
"I think it's obvious by now that this isn't the right track," Lirelle stated firmly, "It was noble to try and save the freighter, but we should leave this system before the Alyans blockade the potentials, if they haven't already."
"Dreamer, we did the best we could..." Tallas swiveled the pilot's seat around.
"So what? You're just gonna abandon that freighter out there?!" Dreamer glared at both of them.
"You said yourself the crew was probably already dead."
"I agree Dreamer," Sabrin recalled his earlier inaction; apparently they had ran out of time. "It's too risky to stay here."
"Tal, set a course for the next closest deflector trail," Dreamer ordered icily. "I'm gonna go check the shield generator."
"Wait--" The rest of Sabrin's words dissolved in his mouth as Dreamer brushed past him. With a parting glance at Tallas' worried face, he took off after the android, having to sprint a little just to keep up. Dreamer grabbed a toolkit and disappeared into an access junction on deck four. Sabrin hesitated at the doorway, watching him open a panel and jab a spanner into the tangled machinery.
"Dreamer?" Sabrin was pointedly ignored as he approached. The Orion rallied his courage, reminding himself that this was all their lives. "Dreamer, we need to consider our other options."
"Didn' think you were the type to give up and turn tail."
Sabrin refused to be provoked. "We've been lookin' for ten hours and more Alyan ships are probably on the way," he persisted, "If we don't take our chance and escape now, we might be stuck in this disk for a long time."
"Escape, right. Then we make for the frontier? Rustle up some more excitement? Hell, maybe we should get into this pirating business ourselves. They seem pretty on the ball," Dreamer punctuated those mocking words with a violent twist of the spanner.
"Dreamer--" Sabrin grated, some of his pent-up frustration showing, "Even if that freighter's out there, the chances of us--"
"I know what the chances are. I'm a fuckin' computer," Dreamer snapped. The tool in his hand clattered to the deck, the noise sharp in the small space. Sabrin gulped but forced himself to hold Dreamer's eyes. He released his breath when Dreamer suddenly appeared to regain his senses, all traces of confrontation fading away. The android dropped into a crouch, balancing on the balls of his feet as he picked the spanner back up and examined it abstractly. "Sorry Sabe; you're right."
It wasn't a victory Sabrin could accept. He mirrored the other man's stance and stilled Dreamer's hand with his own. "Dreamer, what's really going on?"
Dreamer put his other hand atop Sabrin's and squeezed gratefully before settling himself against the wall. "If we're banned from Alya, the entire Near-Solar Community'll be closed to us too," he said softly.
"According to Rester, that symbol on his chest's from Vega," Tallas had told him. Sabrin lifted his eyebrows, "You have connections there?"
"Yeah you could say that," Dreamer's lips curled into a ghost of a smile as he tapped the left side of his collar. Sabrin was confused momentarily until he realized he was to copy the action. He found his comlink pin and pulled it off, eyeing the nine-rayed star design. "Polarian Navy," Dreamer supplied, "circa ninety years ago. Almost an antique -- well, the casing anyway."
Sabrin gaped at the avatar; anyone purporting to be even the least bit educated knew about Polaris: home to the instigators of the Schism, flashpoint for the greatest catastrophe in the span of human history. "I, uh--" Sabrin was having trouble working his mouth, "Is that why you wanted to come to Mnemosyne?" Polaris was also but a single jump from Alya.
"The Mems're close allies with the Polarians," Dreamer said, "Unofficially of course, with them bein' neutral an' all."
"I...think I understand," Sabrin shuffled around so they were sitting side-by-side. It never occurred to him before that Dreamer would have roots like the rest of them. The Dream of Dawn had been to so many places, encountered so many people and done so many things, that Sabrin had envied his seemingly destined life as a sojourner amongst the stars. A foolishly romantic dream, and unfair -- he realized -- denying Dreamer the same connections that bound every human being.
"Y'know, when I left the NSC I was pretty damned sure I wasn't comin' back, an' I was okay with that," Dreamer closed his eyes, "But after things happened the way they did, I thought...maybe there's a chance..."
"I'll tell the others we're stayin' a little while longer--"
"No," Dreamer levered himself to his feet and extended a hand. Sabrin caught it and let himself be effortlessly pulled up. "No, you're right, we should cut our losses while we still can."
"We can afford to search a couple more hours," Sabrin said, stepping backwards to the doorway. Dreamer wouldn't hesitate if their positions were reversed, as he has proven time and again. He deserved his chance, with the added bonus of a just cause. "I mean we've already gone this far, so we gotta go the rest of the way." Sabrin snickered at Dreamer's addled expression, so unfamiliar on the android's face.
"That makes no fuckin' sense," Dreamer couldn't resist a smile himself.
"Human prerogative," Sabrin retorted on his way out.
Ironically, it was the pirates who eventually found them. Some hours later Lirelle noticed a mass shadow off the Dream's port quarter at the extreme range of their sensors. The object, though undetailed, was definitely matching their course, thus ruling out a natural source.
"Diagnostics're complete; it's not an artifact," Dreamer said.
"Resolution on the anomaly is extremely low; the energy signature is barely above background."
"They're runnin' in stealth mode -- or at least, tryin' to," Dreamer smirked.
"If that is indeed a ship," Lirelle's voice remained skeptical. The image on the viewscreen showed nothing more than one indistinct pale blob amidst many on a field of dark blue. "It's no larger than a fighter, which means it's unlikely to mount a jump vane. That suggests a larger parent vessel nearby."
"Wonderful," Sabrin contributed dryly from the helm. "Why's it following us?"
Dreamer's lips split into a wolfish grin, "We're gettin' close. We tripped some sort of perimeter an' they're shadowin' us to make sure we don't get any closer, or they'll signal their mothership to come get us."
"That's not good; why do you sound happy?" Sabrin complained. He saw the excitement on Dreamer's face and realized that the A.I. wouldn't be letting this opportunity go easily; with luck it wouldn't get them killed.
"Weren't ya payin' attention? We're actually close!" Dreamer virtually thrummed like a plucked guitar string. He suddenly snapped his fingers, "Alright, we're goin' after that ship."
"Why?" Tallas asked.
"Ain't it obvious? Their computer'll tell us where the Sudree is."
Lirelle took a patient breath and said in her most reasonable tone, "Dreamer, we can likely overpower them, but preserving their onboard computer in the process is a whole other matter. There's also the fact that they will signal for reinforcements if we try to attack."
Dreamer's enthusiasm was undeterred, "No prob; that just means we'll have to get the drop on them's all. How're you feelin' on the shuttle?"
"Are you joking? The retrofit isn't even half-finished--" Lirelle creased her brow. Dreamer knew full well that her shuttle was barely spaceworthy at the moment, so she assumed that he was asking for her participation in whatever madness he had planned. That she would participate was likely a foregone conclusion, but she felt obligated to lodge the token protest.
"Good enough, let's go. You too Sabe; Tal can handle the helm here."
"What're you gonna do with Lirelle's shuttle? It's unarmed," Sabrin struggled to process the new information.
"It's got the gauss gun..."
"No it doesn't," because it wasn't installed yet.
"It will; actually that's what I need you guys to do, so c'mon," Dreamer punctuated his words with several directional jabs of his chin.
"You're plannin' to hit them with a gauss gun?" Sabrin asked, incredulously because a gauss gun was next to useless against enemy spacecraft, akin to throwing rocks. The shuttle didn't have enough power for anything better, and especially not with improved engines and shields.
"Sure," Dreamer said as though his proposition wasn't ridiculous, "They're minimizing their energy signature, which means no shields, no active sensors, and minimal deflectors. It'll be simple ballistics. Look, I'll explain more but we have to get goin' now." He turned to leave, flapping an impatient hand at his crewmates when he noticed them not following, "Any minute now that raider might decide that we know nothin' and break off, and we'll lose our shot. So come on."
The three humans shrugged at each other and stood up; Sabrin made time for a quick kiss as Tallas passed. Elsewhere, an army of maintenance drones received new commands and sprang into action.
Almost a half-hour later, Sabrin was dirty and sweating sprawled beneath the shuttle, with Lirelle above him inside the aft compartment and the very heavy gun assembly between them. It would've been nice to have had Dreamer's help hauling it from the launch bay floor up into place, but the avatar disappeared into the lower decks after telling them the components he needed functional. At least the hardpoint was already installed and the technology itself was relatively simple.
Sabrin yelped as a two-meter-long gun barrel suddenly swung around, narrowly missing his head. "Hey, watch it!"
"Sorry, I triggered the auto-tracking," Lirelle's contrite voice came from above. Sabrin found it worrying that there was a large gap forward of the gun mount where the hull plating had not yet been filled in.
"It's okay," Sabrin sighed and went back to checking the coils. "This is insane."
"I'm well aware of that," Lirelle replied sardonically.
"How do we know the acceleration fields won't destabilize containment in the shell?" Sabrin finished checking the last coil. "Integrity is verified; if something goes wrong it won't be the equipment."
"Good. Dreamer assured me he can minimize the risk."
"Hey guys, are we set?" Dreamer appeared with a padded case.
Lirelle poked her head down from the access hatch, wiping her brow. "The gun itself is operational, but it'll take at least another forty minutes to route and calibrate the targeting systems."
"Skip it. I can target manually," Dreamer said in a strangely subdued voice.
Lirelle stared at him for a beat, then nodded without surprise. "I'll retrieve my suit."
Sabrin's apprehension spiked as he watched her head for the changing room. Packing up his tools, he hastened to follow Dreamer into the shuttle cockpit. "What's she doing?"
"Since I'll have to aim the gun manually, Lirelle's gonna fly the shuttle," Dreamer brought the vessel to life and ran preflight checks. He stilled when Sabrin's hand wrapped around his arm. The android turned to Sabrin's grim face, their eyes locking.
"Are you sure this will work?"
Dreamer didn't waver. "The raider's using our scanner beams to triangulate our position, just like what we were doin' to the Mems. That means they can't actually see what's goin' on here, so they won't pick out the shuttle till it's too late, and maybe not even then." He quirked one corner of his lip. "But nothing's certain Sabe; you know that."
Sabrin stayed to watch their departure, from the other side of the force-field-sealed door since the bay itself was depressurized and the artificial gravity switched off. The dark, winged craft lifted off delicately, silhouetted against the gas and dust visible outside the opened bay doors. Its landing gear retracted as the ship moved backwards. "Good luck."
"Keep your eyes on us boys," Dreamer's cocky drawl came through on the intercom for all of them, "This'll be fuckin' cool."
The Dream of Dawn loomed large through the cockpit window, lit up like home against the swirling gray around them. Lirelle kept track of Sabrin's dwindling form as the farship receded slowly. "We're clear; I'm dialing down the inertial dampeners."
The ice-blue glow of the Dream's ion engines had just came into view when, in the blink of an eye, the entire vessel shot away and vanished into the distance. The opposite had in fact occurred: without an inertial field reducing their effective mass, conservation of momentum had immediately cut their forward velocity down to virtually nothing. An abrupt sense of loneliness gripped Lirelle and she turned her head. Dreamer, at home in the vacuum and standing despite the microgravity, caught her eye and flashed her a silent grin.
"We powered down?" Dreamer's voice sounded artificial emanating from the comn of the EV suit. Lirelle had always been irritated by the way the helmet amplified her breathing.
"We were never technically powered up." They were running on power cells in lieu of an operational fusion reactor. "Everything's normal, no problems so far." Unless not having an intact hull counts as a problem.
"Alright, I'm loading the shell. Hold us steady."
"We're in space; it's perfectly steady," Lirelle replied, earning a chuckle. She settled in her chair; they already knew the position of the other ship so it was only a matter of waiting. There was a certain anachronistic quality in using nothing but passive sensors, limited to gleaning information from the emanations of their target like their ancient forebearers.
"Here we go Dreamer: the raider's entering visual range," Lirelle's heart quickened with the thrill of the chase, "Looks like a modified Cruarges patroller. I'm registering their deflector field -- transmitting data now. They will overtake us in...fifteen seconds."
"Data received, makin' final adjustments now," In the aft compartment, Dreamer had anchored his legs and lowered himself upside down through the gap in front of the gun mount. Exposing a mess of controls at the gun's base, Dreamer adroitly set the projectile trajectory to compensate for the repulsive forces being generated by the pirate vessel's deflector. The last variable now in place, he gazed at the patch of drab sky he had targeted with an unkind glint.
"Firing," and the shell was away, rather than exploding in the barrel. Dreamer uncrossed his fingers.
Complacently matching the course of the Dream, the pilot of the raider had but a split-second to visually register the tiny object sailing towards him. The shell impacted the cockpit and shattered, scattering onto the material a minute but lethal quantity of antimatter that Dreamer had painstakingly extracted from a torpedo warhead. There was a flash of light, then the pressure of the atmosphere inside ruptured the compromised cockpit window outwards in a shower of sparkling fragments. The small ship began to pitch helplessly as air emptied violently through the breach.
"I can't quite believe it, but I'm detecting a neutrino surge," Lirelle reported with genuine astonishment.
"Am I awesome or what?" Dreamer contacted Tallas and instructed him to turn his ship self around. He would hold back his jubilation until the outcome of his gamble could be verified -- if the shell had impacted but not incapacitated the pilot, the Dream would be required to clean up.
Maneuvering the raider into the Dream from the outside proved trickier than expected, but at last it and the shuttle were safely landed side-by-side in the launch bay. Lirelle wasted little time taking over the raider's cockpit, cluttering the floor with tangled cables bridging the partially dismantled access panels with the workpad in her lap. They had scored a lucky break in that the vessel was not designed as a true fighter; the cockpit was sorely exposed at the front and clothed in windows, not armor. The jagged hole barely a meter from the pilot's seat underscored this vulnerability.
"Hey," Dreamer announced his entry with a tap on the metal. The android gracefully lifted himself through the small hatch behind the pilot's seat. "Damn, this thing's a closet," Dreamer complained as he ambled forward to look over Lirelle's shoulder, his tall frame hunched over in the cramped space.
"Apparently pirates don't place a high premium on comfort," Lirelle afforded herself a quick smile when she noticed Dreamer's self-satisfied once-over of the breach he created. "What's the condition of the pilot?"
"Vacuum exposure. He's technically still alive but I doubt he'll wake up again," Dreamer said dismissively. "You got anything yet?"
"The good news is that the onboard systems sustained minimal damage. The bad news is that there isn't much in the onboard systems," Lirelle retrieved a summary and held up the workpad to grant Dreamer a better view. "From what I can tell the data stores contain mostly system and diagnostic info, comn records, et cetera. There's only an hours' worth of sensor data in the buffer and the ship was already headed for us by then."
"Shit, is there anything we can use?"
Lirelle toyed fleetingly with the notion of leaving it there and putting an end to their mad venture right then and there. Still, one glance at Dreamer's deflated expression and she reprimmanded herself for considering it. "Using the propulsion logs, I was able to reconstruct the movements of this ship since its last launch. Its course terminates at a coordinates fourteen light-minutes from here."
"That's where the parent ship was," Dreamer leaned closer, the predatory gleam returning.
"That would be my conclusion as well," Lirelle said, "And if they have indeed established a sensor perimeter I doubt they will have moved far from that position."
"Waitin' it out. I think we should pay 'em a visit."
Lirelle shook her head, "We are ill-equipped to deal with..."
"No, I'm not talkin' a direct confrontation 'ere. I'm sayin' we should take this raider back," Dreamer thumped a support rib. "We can infiltrate their position and go from there."
"We must assume that they have security procedures in place."
"Have you found any evidence of that?"
"Not so far, but that's hardly conclusive." Lirelle was in fact quite certain, based on what she had learned of the system framework, that she would not discover any data relating to security in this particular craft. There were data blocks remaining that had not been explored, however.
"Could you keep lookin'? We might still get more outta this computer."
Lirelle sighed, "Dreamer, I know this is important to you--"
"It's fine," Dreamer cut her off, "I know, all right? I'm not gonna commit us to a suicide mission, so don't think that." Dreamer raked his fingers through his short-cropped hair, in that instant of time as human as any flesh-and-blood being Lirelle had ever seen. "Just, humor me and look a little while longer, okay?"
"Very well." Dreamer offered a tight-lipped smile from the hatch; Lirelle watched his departure with a heavy heart. The facts of the situation did not favor them; they never have and they never would, unless the game changed.
Ky stood uncomfortably in a corridor with the person he was avoiding as an act of kindness, trying to decide whether to be comforted or unnerved that Lirelle oriented to him as inerrantly as a compass. "Lirelle, I...didn't expect to see you."
"Ilvarra," Lirelle didn't look any happier to be in his company, if her meticulously neutral countenance was any indication.
"Any progress on that raider?"
"Less than I had hoped. We have retrieved a set of relevant coordinates and are planning to investigate."
"I...see. Um, if you require assistance...?" The former agent squirmed under Lirelle's knowing scrutiny. He was preparing to make an excuse and retreat when finally she scowled and thrust a bottle of amber liquid at him. "Here."
Ky blinked twice -- slowly -- and haltingly took the bottle, making sure that his fingers were well clear of Lirelle's. The bottle was unadorned glass with a square-cornered body tapering to a narrow neck, bearing a peeling label on one side. The name was not one he recognized but it has been long since he cared about such things. "That was gifted to me as part of a business transaction," Lirelle's mask remained firmly in place when Ky returned his eyes to her; they both knew she was not doing him a favor. Nevertheless, Ky said a weak, "thanks".
Lirelle nodded, turned on her heels and strode away. Ky sank inwards after her, engulfed by the thrumming of the ship.
Fortunately sickbay was deserted, aside from the comatose pilot of the raider. Ky briefly scanned both doors to make sure he was alone, then switched off the force-field around the prone man's bed. Point of no return. He wondered how long it would take for Dreamer to demand an explanation.
Do not hesitate, the Onyx Hand reminded him, To hesitate is to erode your advantage. Ky clenched his eyes shut and grabbed the unconscious man's wrist. As he feared it was too soon; the bridge felt like a rusty saw grinding through his brain. Trembling in pain, a long, ragged sigh-sob escaped his body that didn't even sound human.
The images appeared: jumbled colors and sounds changing outside time.
..."please don't go Rioza. We don't need this!" She was so beautiful, even with her body leached thin sustaining the new life in her belly. For once the ugly screech of the city was muted, drowned out by the downpour outside...
..."oh, so you wanna stay in this fuckin' shack forever, huh?!" He knew he sounded angry and he wanted to apologize, take her in his arms and kiss away her fear, but he needed to make her understand. "This's where you wanna raise our kid?! I can do this; you'll see. Remember the Pearsons in their new place with the car and everything? That could be us, baby. All I gotta do is get in on one big score and we're set for life. I'll be gone...a month, two tops, I swear." He took her disbelieving face in his hands, her blue eyes were like jewels. "I'm so sorry baby, I swear to god I don't want to leave you like this but I gotta take the offer while it's still good"...
The weak thread of the other man's consciousness cried out, alone and confused, searching for a guide out of the darkness. Ky brushed aside the sense-memory of acidic droplets stinging his hands. Not me.
..."you're not gonna come back. If you go with them you're not gonna come back." He kept stuffing the duffle. She'll get over it; she's always been the stronger one and now she'll have three meals a day and a real doctor. "I'm asking you one last time, please, we'll find another way." The Guild takes care of its own; that'd be enough...
Ky was remotely aware of Dreamer's livid avatar charging into the room, yelling his name. Dreamer's hands reached for him but stopped short of touching him. Ky whispered a mental thanks; he wasn't sure what would happen if they were separated mid-extraction either and he didn't want to find out. Dreamer hovered around him, his teeth gritted out of anger or concern. A spot of warmth bloomed in Ky's chest; he tried to smile.
There was no serious resistance as Ky found what they needed and took it. The resident mind howled in despair and clawed at him uselessly as he withdrew. The path between them collapsed into white noise and then Ky was sagging backwards.
Dreamer's right arm clamped around Ky's chest, arresting his fall, while his left gently pried Ky's clutching fingers from around the man's wrist -- they left red marks that would soon turn into bruises. Ky couldn't seem to stop gasping; between the fits of coughing the fresh air wasn't coming in fast enough to expel the imagined malignancy from his body. The inside of his skull was on fire.
Dreamer was cursing along the lines of "what the fuck were you thinking?" over and over as he dragged Ky to an adjacent bed. A new spate of coughing struck the former agent when his back pressed onto the thinly padded surface. He tried to curl up on his side, but Dreamer forced him to lie flat as his muscles unclenched. The hand on his chest moved in soothing circles while the other one held down his arm above the elbow. Finally, the spasms subsided and his breathing slowed to something approaching normal. Ky sensed Dreamer's accusatory stare and lolled his head away, gazing upwards at a point far away.
"So," Dreamer asked crisply, "Ya wanna tell me what that was all about?"
"H-he had information we needed." God, he desperately wanted to sleep for a hundred years or so. A wave of nausea swept through him and he let out a strangled groan. Dreamer's hand lifted away and he mourned the loss of its warmth.
"So you decided to take matters into your own hands, that it?"
"Time's not on our side," -- "It never is," Dreamer shot back -- "I did what was necessary."
"'Necessary'. You Kinjori sure love that concept," Dreamer said derisively, pacing by the foot of Ky's bed. "The last extraction you did sent you into a coma."
"Un-unusual circumstances. I wasn't prepared and she was trained to resist."
"The cost's too high," Dreamer was shaking his head.
"Let me be the judge of that!" Raising his voice caused a sharp pang at the base of his throat. Ky dropped his head back onto the bed, hiding his eyes with his arm. How and why had he become so defensive? He would have liked nothing better than to never invade another mind ever again, but it felt like Dreamer was taking a part of him away when he had lost too many parts already. Dreamer turned away, his body tense. When he turned back his voice was chillingly placid.
"And lemme make this perfectly clear, Ilvarra," Ky winced at the enunciation of his last name. "Next time you wanna crawl into another person's head, you come to me first, got it?"
"I don't think you'd ever give me permission," Ky said. Unless I've misjudged you.
"You might be surprised," Dreamer hissed darkly, resuming his pacing.
"Do you want to hear what I've learned?" Ky asked quietly. Dreamer's glare skewered him to the bed; Ky perversely wondered whether the avatar was preparing to punch some sense into him. After a beat, Dreamer visibly unflexed his hand and gave him a curt nod.
"Well guys, thanks to Ky we've now got a good idea of what we're dealin' with." The mood in the conference room was somber as Dreamer stood across from his assembled crewmates; the Kinjori extractor was conspicuously absent from the table. "Accordin' to him, there's a whole pirate depot out there, built into an asteroid -- the Sudree's parked right next door." Dreamer manifested Lirelle's reconstructed course map above the table, a glowing line pointing to an innocuous point in space.
"Some Guild's been runnin' operations outta this depot for years. The base doesn't have weapons, but right now there are three pirate cutters nearby. Each of 'em's carrying two squadrons of raiders like the one in our bay." The hologram changed to one of their prize, an inelegant craft comprised of a horizontal half-cylinder capped by bulky engines and mounting a cockpit in between. "Now these little ships are pretty weak, but we're talkin' around seventy of 'em."
Sabrin and Tallas exchanged wary glances. "Can the Alyan ships already in-system handle that?" Sabrin asked.
"Unlikely," Lirelle said, "the Alyans would not mobilize a cruiser for a simple search and recovery."
"There's more," Dreamer continued, "Apparently that depot's got one hell of an ion engine. Whenever somebody gets close to findin' 'em, they simply change their orbit. As we suspected before there's a perimeter of passive sensors around the base. That means they can get away long before whoever's after 'em can even catch a sight of that rock."
"So what're we gonna do?"
"We should contact the Alyans, tell them to send reinforcements," Tallas suggested.
"Unfortunately, the military branch of an interstellar government isn't gonna send a fleet just 'cause we asked 'em to," Dreamer dismissed the holograms and raised the overhead lights back up to normal, "What we need is to find one of those Alyan ships chasin' us and make our case personally."
Sabrin eyed him skeptically, "They'll shoot us on sight."
"Good thing the shields're restored then," Dreamer sniped.
"Okay, say we do convince them," Tallas said, "How long would it take for more ships to get here?"
"The Mems will probably send 'em from their fleet anchorage at Sopedu; that's...eight hours at best."
"It won't be enough to simply summon help," Lirelle added, "By the time they arrive the pirate depot must be immobilized, or they will detect the Alyan forces crossing their perimeter and escape. Therefore, Dreamer and I will take the raider to their base and disable their engine from the inside. Ilvarra was able to acquire the codes necessary to bypass their security checks."
"We're splitting up?" Sabrin asked, clearly not enamored of the idea.
"We don't have much choice if we wanna make this work," Dreamer replied, "There can only be one lifesign aboard the raider, and Lirelle's the one best qualified." Silence followed his words as the others grimly considered his proposal. Lirelle stared impassively at the wall, determined not to influence the others. The visibly stressed Fennic had curled his arms close around his midsection, but Dreamer could easily read in his guileless face that his support would fall where it always has -- it was a measure of loyalty that the A.I. was certain he didn't deserve. The decision came down to Sabrin and Tallas.
"Hey guys, nothing's locked in; we can back out right now," Dreamer said softly, leaving the table. "Think about it, but...don't take too long?" As well as anyone, he understood the Orions' reservations and in no way resented them for it. On the contrary, he admired them for their priorities -- that however didn't preclude his radiant smile when Sabrin found him later.
"There you are." Ky's gaze darted sideways and he acknowledged Dreamer's appearance with a nod of his chin. Were his condition better, he might have cared about another person witnessing his sad little ritual. The android stepped fully into the narrow space, gliding his fingertips along the window on one side. Beyond rested the complex mass of the jump vane, folded in repose. "Why doesn' anybody listen to me when I tell 'em to go to their quarters and rest?"
"It's peaceful down here," Ky commented, "Your jump systems are very impressive."
"Shucks, don't make me blush."
"Sorry about my uncouthness," the young man waved the bottle, "I didn't know where you kept your glasses."
"Mess hall, second cupboard from the right." Dreamer crouched down in front of where he was reclined, near a solitary portal through which a shaft of diffuse light shined.
"Thanks, I'll remember next time," Ky took a long swig, tipping his head back and exposing his pale throat.
"Y'know, just 'cause we can repair the damage from drinking binges nowadays doesn't mean it's a good idea."
"Kindly lay off please," the young man held up the bottle in the tenuous light like he was examining it, before setting it heavily back down beside him. "Shit doesn't work anyway," he directed a wan smile at the increasingly disquieted android and tapped his temple with his forefinger, "Brain's messed up."
"Alright," Dreamer reached out and removed the nearly empty container of spirits; Ky watched it leave without resistance.
"It's true; I'm sure your sensors can confirm my lucidity," Dreamer conceded that point. "I started noticing it after the third round of treatments," Ky explained dispassionately, "I don't know shit about what they screwed around with in here but one day alcohol just...didn't work anymore. I kept on taking shots, and next thing I know the damned bottle's empty. I went through a second one, just to make sure, and...nothing. Might's well been chugging water." His lips curled a little, as though to some inside joke.
Dreamer sighed in exasperation. "Look, I was gonna ask ya to take the helm for a while and give Sabe and Tal a break, but now I think maybe you need it more."
Ky's smile turned bitter, "Don't sleep."
That elicited a raised eyebrow from the android. "Excuse me?"
"Can't sleep, haven't been able to for years. It happened around the same time as the alcohol thing. Laid around on my bed for hours in the dark before I figured out it was permanent." Ky screwed his eyes shut and straightened his posture. "You wanted me to take the helm right? I can do that."
"Hold it," Dreamer stopped Ky with a hand on his arm, sensing a suppressed flinch from the other man. "If you can't sleep then what d'ya do when you're tired?"
"Close my eyes for a while, try not to think -- usually that works. I liked sleeping though." Ky said mournfully before shrugging, "Well, I liked getting drunk too. C'est la vie, right?" He coughed, "At least I can still toss the stuff down my throat; it's the principle, or...something." Ky wobbled as he pushed himself to his feet, taking in Dreamer's disapproving stare.
"Right. Is this gonna be a habit of yours?"
"No; I just need to settle my nerves sometimes," Ky was aware of the lack of conviction in his tone, which was affirmed by Dreamer's disbelieving grunt. "That's all this is, really." He could only speculate at the picture the A.I. was drawing from their disparate encounters, not that much of anything mattered to him at the moment save for another topic of conversation. Dreamer squinted at him but obliged, filing away the incident for later analysis.
"I hope so. Anyway, me an' Lirelle're headin' out," Dreamer said to the wall. "Hey, Ky...do not take this as approval in any way for what you did but...thank you."
"Don't mention it," Ky murmured, caught off-guard. His confusion aside, he figured there might be no better opportunity to inquire about a matter pressing on his mind. "Dreamer...as long as you're grateful, do you think you could do something for me?"
"Do you have a safe way to access the Kinjori network?"
"Sure, what d'ya need?" Dreamer replied without reservation.
"I'd like to see the official newsfeed for Oasha, on Kinjor." The name was unfamiliar after all the years it spent pushed into the unused recesses of his mind. In the Onyx Hand one neither volunteered nor solicited personal information away from the record -- especially not information from before joining the organization. Even such a minor disclosure as his hometown now left Ky feeling keenly exposed, along with an abiding sadness that he should react in this manner.
"No problem; I'll set it up once we're out of here."
Wedged into the claustrophobic space behind the pilot's seat of the raider, Dreamer severed the link with his ship self and allowed the shock to wash through him. The process was unpleasant, but he preferred to handle it all at once, rather than allowing the link to gradually peter out over distance.
The airless cockpit was dark and deathly still; while Lirelle operated the controls Dreamer systematically disassembled, checked, and reassembled each piece of equipment they brought with machine efficiency. "Hey Lirelle, you wouldn't happen to have had somethin' to do with Ky extractin' from that pirate?" the android asked nonchalantly.
Lirelle didn't respond; Dreamer wouldn't have asked unless he had already put the pieces together. "Our chances of success would've been negligible without his intervention," she said instead, "My compliments to him."
"You're not that person Lirelle," Dreamer's tone held no recrimination, only a statement of fact. "If that bastard Nenzeth couldn't make you into one Ky Ilvarra isn't going to either."
Lirelle tightened her fingers around the control stick. Fire coursed through her veins, old emotion that had been her ever-present companion for far too long. She wanted to hate Ilvarra, for not letting her forget -- both him and all others like him in the Onyx Hand who managed to stain everything they touch. They made it easy, and clean, because they made no secret of their inhumanity. However, the time when she could have indulged in that convenient solution was over.
The truth was that Ky was beside the point; then and now Lirelle understood in full detail what she had demanded of him, but she had proceeded nonetheless. And if she was being really honest, she believed she would make the same decision again. Lirelle would have much rather been furious than to admit her fear of where that revelation left her; all she could do was to cling onto Dreamer's confident words and the thread of hope they offered.
"We're approaching the coordinates. I'm detecting ships."
"Looks like our intel was right." A silhouette emerged from the dusk, its double-coned shape woefully familiar to both of them. Smaller shapes came into view as they closed, and in the distance a massive, irregular shadow. "Are they acceptin' our ID codes?"
"Apparently so," Lirelle scanned the area, "I've identified the three cutters, a number of raiders...and I've located the Sudree," Dreamer peered over her in interest. Pantomiming a holding pattern, Lirelle took them around the asteroid, where a spindly shape floated near the bright rectangle of an open cargo bay.
"Looks like they're offloading the cargo."
"There are only small work craft near the asteroid," Lirelle said, "I can't find a way to approach the base without drawing suspicion. I'm attempting to find a gap in their sensor coverage but...there are too many potential observers." They made several more fruitless circuits, the threat of discovery mounting.
"Howabout we leave the ship, head over ourselves? There's less chance of 'em pickin' up just the two of us--"
"Wait, look," Lirelle pointed to one of the pirate cutters that had turned around, engines blazing, and was presently heading away from the asteroid with an entourage of raiders. "Damn, they may be moving to engage a ship that has crossed the perimeter."
"I'm sure it's not me, the boys know not to get too close," Dreamer said, "In any case, there's nothin' we can do. C'mon, their leavin' opened up an approach vector for us."
With one last, grave glance, Lirelle sent them on a course for the lost freighter.