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 2007 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|The Crucible of Clouds||Part XIX
Up close, the Sudree Ahns was an imposing jumble of massive containers magnetically locked to a central scaffold. Like ants picking clean a carcass, one-man cargo haulers were methodically detaching the containers one-by-one and moving them into the asteroid. Lirelle approached from the other side, easing their appropriated raider into a sheltered gap. Behind her, Dreamer opened the hatch and pulled himself outside, the motion causing the small craft to rotate and scrape the adjacent metal.
Lirelle was not nearly as graceful as she floated after him. Clambering out of the hatch, she saw that Dreamer had already fired a tether into the freighter's center. "M'lady," Dreamer grinned and gallantly offered his hand. Once clear of the raider, Dreamer set the tether to retract, dragging them briskly along.
"Did you set the receiver?" Dreamer asked as they made their way along the freighter's spine.
"Of course. Check it if you wish."
"Nah, I trust ya. Here we are," Dreamer stopped at an unremarkable container. The two of them slipped in and settled themselves amongst the neatly stacked and packaged contents. The darkness was total, save for the circle from the spotlights on Lirelle's EV suit. She swung her head around until the circle came to rest on a bold arrow and accompanying word 'up' on the wall.
"Well, if this fails at least we'll be seated the right way up." Dreamer snickered in reply.
The minutes crept by until a shaking roused the occupants of the container: they were being moved. Soon, discomfort appeared in Lirelle's gut and slowly seeped into the rest of her body. "Feel that gravity," Dreamer noted unnecessarily, "We're inside."
The container came to a rest, which was shortly followed by a hiss as the interior was pressurized. With Dreamer's all-clear, Lirelle tore off her helmet and took a deep, rejuvenating breath. No matter how efficient the scrubbers in her suit were supposed to be, the air still began to taste stale after a certain number of hours. Anonymous noises came from the outside.
"Get ready," Dreamer ducked out of sight of the large loading hatch. Lirelle quickly copied his actions, accepting a stunner from him. Light flooded into the space and the noises became faint voices. Lirelle forced herself to look into the brightness, so that her eyes would adjust. Dreamer poked her and held up three fingers...two...one...
The android sent a signal to the waiting raider, initiating reactor overload. The small vessel promptly exploded, briefly lighting up the cargo bay. Debris from a dozen gutted containers spilled soundlessly into the void; several pirate vessels scrambled instinctively in an attempt to save the valuables before they were lost to the gloom. The faint voices became shouts, and rapid steps. No one noticed two figures slipping out of the just-landed container and into a maintenance corridor.
Lirelle found a grimy utility shaft in which to stash her EV suit. The placement and timing of the raider's destruction would be suspicious, but much less so than if it had been discovered abandoned with a hole in the cockpit. Wordlessly, Dreamer handed her a scanner and they headed into the shadows.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Tallas crushed Sabrin against the wall and his tongue frantically sought entry into the other man's mouth. The first thrill of contact was pure fire and he nearly lost control, right then and there. With every close call, his need for Sabrin's touch had grown until it had become agonizing.
His uniform jacket was unceremoniously stripped away and tossed aside, followed by his undershirt, and then Sabrin was pushing him back towards the narrow bed. The back of his knees hit the edge and he fell, Sabrin's frenzied fingers working at his fly. Tallas lifted his hips and let himself be laid completely bare, moaning plaintively as the cool air tortured his sweat-sheened skin. Opening his eyes, he saw Sabrin kneeled reverently over him, his body like marble in the dim light.
Tallas shivered. "Fuck now, sweet talk later," he growled, hauling Sabrin forward to straddle his chest. They were on burrowed time -- their duties could call for them at any second.
Afterwards, as the last trembles subsided from his boneless body, Tallas felt the gentle strokes of a washcloth and wondered where Sabrin got the energy to move. After Sabrin finished, Tallas immediately wrapped his arms back around him and pulled him on top, savoring the reassuring weight. He smiled when Sabrin nuzzled weakly at his neck; a prominent mark would be there, along with various others. For the moment, they pretended that the pirates and the Mems were far away.
"Sabe, Tal, put some clothes on!" In typically dramatic fashion, Dreamer's intrusion was followed by a jolt of the ship.
"Shit," Sabrin rubbed his eyes.
"Mmrgh," Tallas supposed he should be grateful that the universe gave them as much time as it did, but as it turned out he wasn't a particularly gracious person. Sabrin had already crawled off him and pulled on his underwear and pants; naturally his clothes were in a pile by the bed while Tallas' were strewn everywhere. "What's happening?"
"We found the Trefentig -- it's under attack."
"How many ships?" Sabrin asked as he gathered the remainder of Tallas' uniform for him.
"Eight left; we destroyed one when we arrived. The Mems softened 'em up some before we got here."
Another hit and shield-flare flashed across the window like lightning, as effective as any stim shot. Tallas drew some comfort from the fact that Dreamer didn't look too concerned yet. "Are we inside the pirates' perimeter?"
Ky was manning the helm when the Orions finally staggered onto the bridge, the corridors offering precious few handholds for the weapons fire rocking the deck beneath them. As they arrived, the Dream had unleashed its forward cannons upon one of the pirate vessels, producing a spectacle of flame and molten slag. Fennic sat by an aft console, watching the action with concerned eyes.
The Dream shrugged off another salvo of plasma bolts. Tallas assumed the starboard station and sent a quartet of slashing beams in reply, sending two raiders limping away.
"Little fuckers're like mosquitoes."
"They don't seem to care much about casualties," Sabrin remarked.
Dreamer scoffed, "Fewer of 'em just means a bigger cut each." Most of the raiders had by now reoriented themselves towards the new threat, spreading out to attack from multiple angles as Dream swung around to lead them away from the Trefentig. The Alyan scoutship was adrift, scorch marks and burning gashes marring its gracile form. The aft section was little more than a charred hulk and the elliptical shield generator ring was twisted unnaturally.
"Shields're doin' okay for now but I'm pickin' up somethin' much bigger headin' towards us. We should wrap this up." Under Dreamer's direction, Ky flipped the ship nose-to-tail and accelerated back towards the Trefentig, rushing headlong towards their surprised pursuers. As the intervening distance closed, Tallas easily acquired solid target locks on the lead raiders. Not particularly maneuverable to begin with, one ship and then another failed to avoid a lethal barrage. "The rest are moving away," he reported.
"Joinin' up with their buddies -- we've bought ourselves around four minutes. I'm hailin' the Mems."
"Wait Dreamer--" Sabrin cursed; he was the only one on the bridge standing and Matare's red glare focused in on him like a sniper's sight. Around the other man, frantic voices billowed with the smoke about a blackened deck. Sabrin heard Dreamer speak: "Captain Matare, prepare your crew for immediate evacuation."
"Payne, you son of a bitch! What fucked-up game is this?"
Sabrin gulped, "Captain, there's a much larger pirate force approaching. We have to--"
"I'll destroy this vessel before I hand it over to you."
Given that here was an officer losing his ship, Sabrin tried to sympathize. "We have no intention of taking--"
"In case you weren't payin' attention, we just saved your sorry ass and we're about to do it again, so howabout some fuckin' gratitude."
"Dreamer..." Sabrin clenched his jaw; while Dreamer was busy cutting him out of the conversation, Matare looked more and more ready to leap through the viewscreen and strangle him with his bare hands. The A.I. could have at least considered the possibility that Matare might respond to a more reasoned approach. "Captain, we only want to help."
Matare was apparently past listening, "You won't get away with this."
"Your ship's gone Matare," Dreamer continued brutally, "You've got no engines, no weapons, no shields -- the Trefentig's a dead target. So howabout showin' a bit of fuckin' common sense and gettin' your crew together at the port airlock?"
"Go to hell--"
"Captain Matare," Sabrin ground out, "please, we are sorry about your ship but we only have a few minutes to save the lives of your crew." His reply was a snarl and a closed channel; Sabrin noticed they were still headed for the Trefentig. He gave Dreamer a hard stare, "Well, that could've gone more diplomatically."
"Diplomacy takes time."
"Is it such a good idea to dock?" Ky asked.
"Matare knows we're right; if he cares about his crew he'll be there. Fennic, I need you stay up here with Ky." The boy looked about to protest, but nodded in the end. Dreamer then turned to the Orions and said, matter-of-factly, "You two better head down to the airlock to welcome our new houseguests. And arm yourselves...they ain't gonna be happy to see ya."
"Yeah, I got that part. How many are we expecting?"
"I'm reading eight lifesigns." We're outnumbered two-to-one. "Oh, one more thing guys, and this's important," Sabrin was brought up short by Dreamer's grave expression, "If things get outta hand and we have to adjust the life-support systems -- hike up the gravity, reverse the scrubbers, vent a room, that sort of thing -- you have to order me to do it. Do you understand? It has to be a direct order."
So an A.I. can't act alone to harm his crew. Ice gripped Sabrin's spine, "It won't come to that."
Being confident in their concealment, the pirates had never bothered to proof their base of operations against internal sabotage. Reaching a data processing junction unnoticed was almost ludicrously easy -- hacking into the system and planting her virus doubly so. At the risk of being completely paranoid, Lirelle didn't like missions that went too well.
"Dreamer, I'm almost finished." Lirelle glanced at the android sitting stone-still near an intersection in the access shaft, eyes unfocused. His senses were of course alert, but she wondered how much of his mind was partitioned elsewhere.
Perfect lips curved into a faint smirk, "Already? We'll have to kill a lot more time than I thought." The plan was to wait to activate the virus when the proximity alarm was tripped by the Alyan fleet, giving the pirates as little time as possible to track down the source. From their progress so far, Lirelle doubted staying hidden for a couple hours would be a problem. "Know any good games?"
"Nothing that wouldn't place me at a severe disadvantage against an android."
"Hey, I'd let ya win some," Dreamer bore his most guileless look, "Bet you were killer at word games."
"If you're referring to my competence in cryptography, the association, while obvious, isn't necessarily valid," Lirelle said archly, adding, "At the Academy, I was undefeated at four-string logiomesics."
"Turing pro huh? How much action did that get ya?"
The deep, shuddering groan rising from the depths of the asteroid wiped the smiles from their faces. Within moments, a subtle but steady vibration had worked through the metal beneath their feet, up into Lirelle's body to her bones. Slowly, she met Dreamer's dire gaze.
"Oh shit, tell me that's not what I think it is..." the android murmured and put out a hand to brace himself. Lirelle wished she had copied him when a sudden, rough jolt sent her tumbling. Pain shot through her shoulder and she noticed her hacking console falling to the deck; fortunately the transoptic connectors between it and the data conduits weren't yanked out, or their presence might have been exposed. The clatter of the console on the deck plate sounded cacophonous and Lirelle quickly grabbed it.
"Yeah, the engine; whatever that pirate cutter was after must've caused too much of a ruckus," Dreamer ducked out into the intersection for a better read on their surroundings. "Can we disable it?"
"It's too soon; they will isolate the error and correct it before the Alyans arrive. In any case it's too late." As quickly as it began, the shaking stopped, cloaking the air in stillness. Pushing herself upright, Lirelle checked the connection and made sure her system access was secure, "Our heading's deviated by 56.1 degrees."
"Fuck, if the Mems get here and we're not where we're s'posed to be there'll be hell to pay." There was also the matter of how they would escape without Alyan intervention, though neither of them gave that thought much priority.
"There must be a way to signal the others about our course change."
Dreamer shook his head, "Any signal that strong from in here'd be detected instantly by the ships outside and jammed. Not to mention that they'll triangulate the source in seconds and come kill us." The android shuffled around to look over Lirelle's shoulder, "Did you finish planting the virus?"
"Yes, but it won't do much good now. It's only capable of paralyzing the system."
"Well, guess we need to come up with somethin' different," Dreamer tapped his lip with his forefinger, "Let's see, the problem is that we've been moved out of position sooo...the solution would be us movin' it back." He gazed expectantly at Lirelle, who raised her eyebrows. "How much control have you got from that interface?"
"Not nearly enough." That was the most immediate of several potential problems clamoring for attention in Lirelle's mind. Pulling up a new screen, she began working on a blind in the base's crude internal surveillance network.
The airlock was quite possibly Sabrin's least preferred place to be when the Dream came alongside the smaller Trefentig. With Matare's less than amiable expression freshly imprinted on his mind, Sabrin was arguing with himself whether to have his stunner leveled or not when their guests arrived. "Not" was leading by a slim margin, mostly because Tallas didn't have his out either.
"Docking bridge contact," Dreamer announced, "seal secure, pressurization in progress."
Muffled sounds came from the mechanisms behind the heavy airlock hatch. Sabrin saw a controlled shudder work through Tallas's shoulders, as though to shed his built-up anxiety. "Ready?" the blond asked softly.
"Not even a little," Sabrin wiped his palms on his pants.
The first thing through the opened airlock was smoke; only thin wisps but enough to sting Sabrin's eyes. He couldn't see very far into the dark interior of the Trefentig so he edged forward, calling out Matare's name. Sabrin released his breath when shadows appeared, resolving into soot-covered human figures. They staggered forward in ones and twos, a few supported by comrades' shoulders and others nursing injuries. None had drawn their weapons; as they passed Sabrin perceived a mixture of suspicion and gratitude. The last one out was Matare. "Captain, is your entire crew aboard?"
Matare favored Sabrin with a steel stare, then drove into him. Sabrin barely had time to react as the other man's forearm pushed painfully into his throat. The wall struck his back and he choked, lifting his chin in a futile attempt to relieve the pressure. He struck out, but the angle was off and Matare easily shrugged off the blow. Sabrin stilled as the unmistakable sensation of a gun muzzle dug into his abdomen.
"You son of a bitch," Matare hissed, his words hot on Sabrin's face.
"Get away from him!" Tallas had his stunner almost touching Matare's temple -- at that range brain damage was inevitable, and death quite probable. Sabrin struggled to bring Tallas into his field of view, and what he saw shook him far more than Matare's attack: Tallas was prepared to pull the trigger, was seconds away from doing it, and didn't care that he would die right after.
All the Trefentig crew members with sidearms now had them drawn and aimed. "Sir?" A fair-haired officer with an nasty gash on his cheek approached Matare, looking distinctly unhappy at how the situation had suddenly deteriorated.
"Tal, put the gun down," Sabrin rasped.
"Guys? This really isn't the time," Dreamer said carefully, "In a few minutes this little stand-off ain't gonna matter 'cause we'll all be dead. Tal, buddy, you gotta go first. Lower your weapon so everyone else can."
"Not till he does," Tallas spat.
"Ledsk," Matare addressed the officer near him, "Secure the rest of the ship." The younger man hesitated, his gaze switching between his superior and the man holding a gun to his head.
"Commander Ledsk, carry out my order!"
"No..." Sabrin's vision wavered; in his mind he was screaming, crying for Tallas to listen to Dreamer and not throw his life away. Rationally the best he could do was nothing; not to incite Matare nor the chain of events that would follow. Inaction, however, was not acceptable when Tallas was about to slip from his life. So Sabrin's muscles coiled, readied themselves for something. He knew Matare felt it too, for everything slowed...
"Stop it!" The voice came from down the corridor, where a slim youth stood unarmed, his face utterly open. Ky was behind him, a picture of distress at his inability to hold the boy back without risking physical contact.
"Fennic, get back to the bridge! Now!" Dreamer barked.
Flashing Dreamer a tremulous smile, Fennic slowly made his way through the unsure guns. Several Mems faltered and relaxed their aim as he nudged politely past them. Arriving beside Tallas, he reached out and placed a visibly shaking hand gently on Tallas' wrist. "Tal, please. I know you love him but you can't help him this way."
With a barely perceptible, halting intake of air, Tallas allowed Fennic to lower his weapon. Keeping his hands firmly on Tallas' gun arm, Fennic turned entreating green eyes to Matare.
"Sir, we have more pressing concerns..." Ledsk holstered his pistol and moved beside the boy.
A muscle twitched in Matare's face, but the crushing force on Sabrin's neck lessened. Sabrin mustered his willpower and managed to suppress most of the undignified gasps that threatened to issue from his mouth. As soon as Matare stepped back Tallas rushed forward, discarding his stunner as he raised his hands to inspect the bruises forming around Sabrin's throat.
"Well Matare, in the time you wasted with that little stunt the pirates've gotten into weapons range," Dreamer said darkly. "Ky, back to the helm. Rest of you, the group quarters're down the hall towards the bow, on your left. Sickbay's one deck up for those who need it." The ship shook; the connecting bridge whined as the shock transmitted through to the Trefentig. Another salvo caused the lights to flicker. "We're not gonna last long with our shields around another ship."
"Cut it loose and take us the hell away from here." Unaccountably angry, Sabrin pushed past Tallas and headed for the bridge, ignoring the Mems and the sound of the airlock closing.
Shields strained to buckling, the Dream uncoupled from the wreck of the scoutship and sent out a flurry of cannon fire to drive back the nearest few raiders. As a parting gesture, the retreating vessel used its tractor beam to thrust the abandoned Trefentig between itself and the attacking cutter. It took merely moments for the large pirate vessel to tear the small vessel apart, but as the last embers of plasma died out, the Dream was too far away to be caught.
It was dark -- so dark that she and Dreamer seemed like the only two beings in existence. All Lirelle could see was Dreamer a short distance ahead, ghostly within the halo cast by his light-sticks. Pointing her flashlight forward revealed nothing but black, likewise behind. The only sounds were their footfalls and her exhalations.
Immersed in such a sensory void, Lirelle clung to the tiny readout on her scanner indicating they were almost through the cramped rocky shaft. Several such kilometer-long tunnels carried utility lines parallel to the main passageways, between the cargo area and the massive fusion reactor that powered the engine. Soon they should be emerging near the water storage tanks, which by Lirelle's reckoning were the least-visited sections of the base.
The tunnel curved then came to an end, at another pitch-black space thick with the hum of machinery. Lirelle straightened her spine with a pop. "Circulation pumps," Dreamer noted, "I don't hear anybody nearby."
Lirelle pulled a water bottle from Dreamer's pack. She took her time drinking, stretching as she did, knowing that the android would insist they keep moving as soon as she finished.
Dreamer removed the grille from an air duct. "Ladies first."
By the time they got into position, Lirelle's elbows and knees were wailing nonstop and half her joints had locked into place. She answered Dreamer's smirk with a black look as she squirmed around to lie down, the relief in her body worth the year or so's bounty of dust. Coughing, she held the scanner to her face, "There are five people inside the engine room, and four armed guards outside." Apparently the mysterious explosion of the raider had raised security concerns.
"Piece of cake. Does the actual layout match the schematics?" Lirelle answered affirmative. "Alright, I'm givin' ya fifteen minutes," Dreamer passed his pack to Lirelle and brought out his stunner.
The engine room was appropriately dominated by a towering fusion reactor, fused in the middle to an equally massive ion engine assembly that disappeared at an angle into the ceiling. Several banks of consoles, looking diminutive in comparison, were gathered around the base of the reactor. The outgoing air duct ran all the way around the room; after checking her watch, Lirelle emerged from a vent on the opposite side of the sole entryway.
Using the reactor housing to hide, Lirelle slunk up behind one of the unarmed technicians and greeted him with a stunner blast, catching the body as it fell. She and Dreamer carried stunners not out of mercy, but because unlike plasma weapons they were silent. Lirelle was able to neutralize one more tech when a commotion came from the door. Dreamer, right on schedule.
With the element of surprise, Dreamer had downed two guards immediately with the stunner in his left hand and the plasma gun in his right, before retreating to cover. With all attention now focused on the firefight, Lirelle easily approached the remaining pirates from behind and stunned each of them in quick succession. "It's done Dreamer."
"Nice job," the android emerged from behind the smoldering bulkhead and regarded the body with the charred crater in his chest. "Sorry pal, luck of the draw." He unceremoniously began dragging the rest outside as Lirelle set up her equipment.
"I have access," Lirelle said, "Inputting our new trajectory."
Leaving the subdued persons in a pile, Dreamer set the ponderous doors to close with a clang. He then pried open the motor mechanism and ripped out the control fibers. "It's not gonna take 'em eight hours to cut through that door."
"I am aware of that. Powering up the engine." The same vibration as before appeared, escalating in intensity.
Dreamer peered at the generator above them, "Well, if they don't know we're here yet they will now. Let's open this baby up!"
"Hold onto something." At Lirelle's command, a metallic circular depression on the surface of the asteroid erupted in blinding light. Oblivious to the confused buzzing of its attendant ships, the great rock swung in a sedate arc back towards the course it earlier abandoned.
Sabrin sat alone in the mess hall staring into a glass of juice, wishing it was something stronger. His throat throbbed and the temptation to wash his hands of the Mems was overwhelming. Every time his mind drifted back to Tallas almost dying by the airlock, a new upwelling of rage gripped his body and wrested the breath from his lungs. An ironic affliction, given prior circumstances.
"Sabe!" the Orion groaned at Dreamer's belligerent voice. Rubbing his temple, he glared blearily at Dreamer's larger-than-life image on the sickbay monitor. "What the fuck?! Get your ass down to deck three and talk Matare into helpin' us with the pirate base! Why d'ya think we rescued 'em in the first place?!"
"Common decency?" Sabrin's tone dripped sarcasm.
Dreamer literally growled; his flawless face conveyed terminal exasperation and more than a hint of ire. Good, Sabrin thought, why should I be the only one? "Just get down there and talk to him."
"You talk to him," Sabrin said petulantly.
"He won't listen to me," Dreamer enunciated as though to a mental deficient, "For some reason he's gotten it into his thick head that you are in charge of this ship, and the only one he can deal with on equal terms. So pretend he's right and go!"
"Fine!" Sabrin snarled, "God, why're you all up in my ass anyway? I thought you'd rather be in Fennic's."
"Fuck off." The monitor turned dark.
Sabrin sighed and finished off his excruciatingly non-alcoholic beverage. That had been a low blow, something he could add to the ball gnawing away at his insides. He didn't know how Tallas had managed to herd the Mems into their assigned places after what happened -- not that he left him much choice after storming away. Approaching the deceptively plain door to the group quarters, Sabrin schooled his features into neutrality and rang the chime.
"Yes?" The voice belonged to Matare's second-in-command, Commander...Ledsk?
Sabrin stood back when the door opened, in case Matare was lurking in wait for him on the other side. Instead, Matare was only lying on one of the bunks, resolutely paying no heed to Sabrin's entrance. For his part, Ledsk stood and acknowledged him with a polite, if uncertain smile, "Captain Payne." Sabrin closed his eyes; he was tired of hearing that too. In the past few days it had been hurled at him so many times that it might as well been an epithet.
"Captain Matare, there's something very urgent we need to discuss."
The Alyan officer didn't stir, "I'm not interested in your lies."
Having anticipated that response, Sabrin pressed on, "We've learned that the Sudree Ahns was taken by pirates to an asteroid base in this system. We know where it is, but it's guarded by three patrol cutters and dozens of raiders. That's why you have to contact your fleet and tell them to send reinforcements."
"Is that all?"
"It's the truth," Sabrin's fingers tightened on the pad detailing his words, "Two of our people're over there right now sabotaging that base so that you guys can come and mop up. If you take down that base, you won't just be saving the Sudree but you'll also seriously damage the pirate operations in this region."
"How did you obtain this information?"
"We captured one of their raiders and accessed its computer," Sabrin repeated their agreed-upon half-truth. As detrimental as a lie was for their case, they could not risk exposing Ky as a recipient of some of the Onyx Hand's most sophisticated advances. As far as they knew, no one outside Kinjori space was even aware that extractors existed.
Matare grunted dismissively, "You have this raider now?"
"Not exactly...our people used it to infiltrate the base."
"Of course they did," Matare's eyes flickered over Sabrin for an moment, no more than to show contempt. "I'll admit you've been very creative, but you won't learn our secured protocols from me."
"That's insane!" Sabrin snapped, "If I wanted intel from you I'd--" Damn it, Ky's name had been on the tip of his tongue. "Why the hell would we possibly go to this much trouble for a few stupid comn protocols?"
"I'm curious about that myself."
Over and over the same fuckin' loop, Sabrin ground his teeth, These aren't the only Alyans who can help us. "I'm wasting my time," he turned crisply and walked out. Unexpectedly, Ledsk ducked out after him, with a furtive glance at the doors closing on Matare's ugly expression, "Wait."
"What?!" Sabrin tempered his knee-jerk harshness, remembering Ledsk's role in defusing the earlier crisis, "Sorry. What is it?"
"Look, I wanted to apologize for this...I can't imagine that this ordeal's been easy for any of you either," Ledsk said earnestly. He had made an effort to clean himself up, though soot still clung to his hair and uniform. The bandage on his cheek made him look much younger. "You must understand...Captain Matare has commanded the Trefentig for over eight years, and he...holds a certain set of convictions. He was opposed to incorporating mercenary vessels into our fleet operations."
Great, now they were mercenaries. The label rankled to someone once in training to be a military officer. "Yeah well, believe me I didn't pick this job either."
"Regardless," Ledsk affixed him with a solemn stare, "Are you telling the truth? About the freighter and the asteroid base?"
"Of course we are," Sabrin spat, "Why would we have saved you if we were working with the pirates? We would've had every reason to let you get blown to bits. And why would we tell you to signal your fleet and lead them right to us?"
"You have a point," Ledsk nodded and, to Sabrin's puzzlement, curled his chapped lips into a rueful smile. "Matare's concerned that you'll provide us with a non-functional transceiver; that after you've seen our high-level comn protocols your...the pirates' contacts within our space may use the ping sequences to tap into our secured network."
"Tell him that's a fuckin' moronic plan," Sabrin said, "Besides, from the looks of it the pirates don't need any more help."
"No, I guess not."
Sabrin supposed it was his turn in their stilted, awkward conversation to ask the question, lay all their cards on the table. "So, there must've been a reason you followed me out here. Do you believe us? About the freighter and the asteroid base?"
Ledsk focused on the wall. "I will examine the evidence," he finally said, "That's all I can promise."
"Matare can't be the only one who can contact your fleet," Sabrin speculated deliberately as he handed over the report, "His executive officer must also have the capacity."
That provoked a sharp look from Ledsk, "That's insubordination," he hissed.
"Yeah, to do the right thing," Sabrin met his eyes evenly.
"There're lines I won't cross captain. I've already agreed to hear you out."
"You listen to me Ledsk," Sabrin stepped right into the taller man's personal space, "I don't care what you tell Matare to get that fleet here, I don't care if it's his codes or yours. If I have to pin every single one of you to the deck with the gravity like bugs and threaten you to your higher-ups to get that fleet here I will. Because my friends will not have gone over to that fuckin' rock for nothing. You got that?!"
Ledsk backed away, glaring at him. "I'll talk to Matare," he said before returning to his quarters. Once alone, Sabrin sagged and leaned his forehead against the blessedly cool wall.
Smearing dust-mingled sweat across her brow, Lirelle concentrated on the proliferating red sigils above her console and stamped down her stomach's complaints about the continuous rattling. The ion engine was designed for quick thrusts to modify their trajectory, not for uninterrupted use, and as the coolant systems were strained beyond their limits the room was turning into an oven.
"What's our status?" Dreamer had his ear pressed to the door. Nearby the metal glowed in a molten arc; sparks issued from where the pirates were cutting through from the other side.
"The command center's almost established an override. Shall I let them?"
"We're just about there right? Unfreeze the air valves and let's get outta here."
With a final rumble, the engine sputtered out. The various consoles returned to life as their owners regained control over the system. As they did, Dreamer moved systematically around the room and sent a plasma blast into each one, before peppering the walls with fire in a haphazard pattern. Meanwhile, Lirelle pried up an access plate and severed the direct data conduits leading to the engine with her combat knife. Finally, Dreamer raised his arm and blew out a regulatory element on the engine itself, almost three stories above. He surveyed the smoke-filled chamber, "Okay, this'll keep for a while."
"You enjoyed that far too much," Lirelle said jokingly as she joined Dreamer at the duct, not particularly eager to re-experience the dingy, claustrophobic space.
"You're just jealous you didn't get a plasma gun."
They were banking on gullibility -- that the pirates will believe that they had stopped the attempted hijacking of their base themselves and that, in a fit of frustration, the would-be hijackers had destroyed the room. What they needed now was to keep the pirates too occupied to think much about why the asteroid had coincidentally resumed its previous course.
The Dream plied through the lanes of dust, on alert for any sign of another Alyan ship. Ky was playing a game: with his hand above the helm console, he slowly relaxed the muscles holding up his arm. The strange, insubstantial push of the tactile response fields answered. Ky experimented, edging as close as he could to the force needed to register as a command without going over.
There had been far too many people crammed into that short stretch of corridor, their minds embattled, defenses low. Ky's body had seized instinctively at the prospect of shielding against that many, even as Fennic calmly interrupted the showdown. He didn't need Dreamer's blistering look to know he had failed in his responsibility.
His hand gave, shifting some of the holograms. Kinjori virtual interfaces were much less fun, because they omitted the force feedback system. The game was working as far as diversions went; it was like the ship itself was responding to his touch, which Ky supposed was true in a sense.
"Hey Ky." Ky hastily pulled his hand back at Dreamer's greeting, but the A.I. showed no signs of annoyance or his earlier angry disappointment. "You still okay at the helm? I can ask somebody else to take over."
"No that's not necessary," Ky said, cautious about the reprieve, "I'd rather have something to do; it keeps my mind off things."
"Yeah I noticed." Ky felt blood rising beneath his collar.
"Dreamer!" The relieved exclamation came from the back of the bridge; Ky's insides twisted upon seeing Fennic rush to the monitor. There was a time when he would have been disturbed by what happened on Adelaide, when he suddenly gained a protective instinct over a hitherto stranger. However, he had taken in too many fragments of different minds to muster anything beyond resignation. It was easier to pretend, when he saw Fennic, that the emotions were his own.
"Hey bud, how's it goin'?" Dreamer acknowledged him distantly. Ky sighed to himself as Fennic cringed, aching for the troubles marring the youth's face. Across all lives people had a tendency to find and batter themselves against walls; Ky could only hope that Fennic stopped before he bloodied himself too badly.
"About what happened--"
"There's nothing to talk about. I told you to stay on the bridge, you didn't listen. Nothin' either of us can do about it now." From the lines on Dreamer's face, the edge in his voice was hurting both of them.
Stricken, Fennic withdrew to one of the chairs. More than anything Ky wanted to console him somehow, but even if his touch were normal he knew Lirelle would gut him like a fish if he laid so much as a finger on Fennic. "Dreamer," the Kinjori rubbed his right temple, "was there anything else you wanted me to know?"
"Right," Dreamer visibly gathered himself, "Sabe hasn't gotten very far with the Mems. I think we might need to try somethin' other than appealin' to Matare's sense of reason."
"I could--" Ky lifted his hand.
"Don't even think about it."
"It doesn't have to be a full mind-to-mind connection," Ky thought he sounded quite reasonable for the pain wracking his skull, begging what the hell he was doing advocating mind-to-anything in his present condition -- in fact, his mental integrity was such that he figured he was liable to inflict serious harm. "Merely establishing a potential link might be disturbing enough for them to believe us."
"Only if we tell 'em the truth about how we got that intel and the answer's still no."
"Dreamer, I appreciate your sentiments, but like it or not this is one of our options," Ky regarded the A.I. solemnly, "Honestly, that's why you contacted me, isnt' it? To discuss this possibility?"
"No, I just wanted to get your input. Do you have any ideas that don't involve exploiting yourself?"
"I'll have give it some thought."
"Sure," Dreamer ended the conversation.
Ky turned to Fennic, who had curled unmoving into himself, "Hey, uh...Fennic?" Desolate green eyes flickered in his direction; the wariness they contained twinged Ky's heart -- at least this time he wasn't the cause. "Don't tear yourself up too much over this. Dreamer's only acting like that 'cause you scared him pretty bad back there."
"Scared? Dreamer?" Fennic was obviously skeptical.
"It's true. Hell, you scared the crap out of me too," Ky smiled, "I had no idea that you were going to do anything like that."
"I didn't want them to start shooting," Fennic said glumly.
"Yes, I know. What you did took a lot of courage; Dreamer knows that too," Seeing the faint quiver in Fennic's slim shoulders, Ky found himself forced to trap his hands by interlocking his fingers. "Once he calms down things will be better."
Fennic didn't seem convinced. Still, a sweet smile appeared on his lips -- an expression of gratitude devoid of deception or hidden agenda, freely given in spite of the ill that Ky had allowed to take root within himself. In those precious moments Ky could even believe that it didn't matter what he had become. His chest constricted uncomfortably, a sensation he had given up hope of ever feeling again. Lirelle, I think I see why you're so fond of him.
Yet, the former agent couldn't shake the shadow on his mind, that he was stealing warmth from a stranger's home.
By the time the pirates broke into the engine room, its two previous occupants were on the other side of the asteroid. Numerous but poorly trained search parties had been dispatched throughout the base with lifesign detectors. Thus far, Dreamer and Lirelle were confounding their efforts by stealing through the many tunnels and crawlspaces with no predictable pattern, ambushing some search groups and hiding from others at random.
Lirelle was taking a short breather at another data processing junction, using the opportunity to eavesdrop on their pursuers. A small noise caused her to whirl around, only managing at the last second to identify Dreamer's blithe face and stay her trigger finger.
"For god's sake, I should make you wear a bell around your neck," Lirelle said with irritation.
"Kinky," Dreamer dropped into a crouch nearby, "I got three more on the level below us and stashed 'em in a bathroom. We've definitely got their attention -- they're bringin' out the big toys for us. Check this out," he unslung one of two stocky rifles from his shoulder and tossed it to Lirelle.
"Wide-pulse stun rifle, chained fast-recharge emitters," Lirelle examined the elegant weapon, "These criminals are certainly well-supplied."
"Yeah, they're sweepin' every compartment -- shoot first, sort 'em out later. Don't think they were expectin' an android though." Dreamer undulated his fingers; he could still detect a trace of residual charge, nothing to merit much concern. Lirelle, on the other hand -- the inner lining of her uniform was stun-resistant but some of the energy would penetrate. "What've you got?"
"The sensor blind's holding. However, they've locked down the barracks and most of the central commons save for a few peripheral access paths, and they're bringing in more personnel from the cutters."
"Damn, that cuts the size of our playground down by half and we still have to last a couple more hours."
"We can't stay here much longer, and with this many hunting parties out there it'll become more and more difficult to stay out of scanner range. They will know to concentrate their search on the shielded areas." Lirelle pointed to something on her base layout display. "I believe this is a repair bay, here. Considering our hosts' occupations, perhaps we'll be lucky and find a dampening field generator."
"Sure, it's worth a shot," Dreamer perused the schematic, peppered by dots tracking the communications traffic. A pointillist noose. "Who knows? Maybe it'll be gift-wrapped."
Given that there was no practical way to install a swimming pool on the Dream, running had become Tallas' preferred exercise activity. He liked the simple rhythm of it, the way he could sink his mind into the incremental effort of each step, the pleasant burn in his muscles reassuring him he was accomplishing something.
He had been numb when Sabrin brushed him by without so much as a backward glance, and when he guided the Mems to their intended destinations. Only afterwards, when the others had left him to his own thoughts, did he fold in on himself in a corridor, racked by uncontrollable tremors. All he could see was Sabrin trapped against the wall, and his own hand raising the weapon that would substitute another life for that of his best friend. There had been no choice.
"Hey." Tallas almost stumbled at Sabrin's voice. His hand whipped out and slowed the treadmill to a walking pace.
"Hey," Tallas replied dully. Chest heaving, Tallas shifted his weight onto his arms and hung his head between them, listening to Sabrin's nearing footsteps. As hard as the last uncertain hours had been, if the other man was still angry Tallas didn't want to see it.
"I tried talking to the Mems, but I don't know if they're gonna help us."
"I'm sure they'll come around." Tallas closed his eyes; Sabrin couldn't have used the comn if all he had to say was a situation update?
"Tal..." Gentle fingers draped over his wrist, Sabrin's skin cool and dry compared to his own. "Why did you do that?"
Tallas' head shot up as he snatched his hand free. His eyes, nearly black, bored into Sabrin's startled blues. "What do you mean, 'why did I do that'?!"
"You could've been killed. They would've shot you."
"Newsflash, Matare had a gun to your gut," Tallas exclaimed.
"He wasn't really gonna fire. He'd just lost his ship; he needed to blow off some steam," Sabrin argued, knowing it was a lie. He had stared right into Matare's hard eyes and there was no mistaking his deadly intent.
"Damn it Tal, Dreamer could've talked him down. Hell you could've waited five minutes and Fennic would've done it." Sabrin said, his words coming faster. Tallas spun with a disgusted sound and stepped off the treadmill, picking up his towel. Sabrin shadowed him, control leaving his voice. "You know what I was thinking back there? I was thinking that you were gonna get yourself killed and there was nothing I could do to stop you, and that you dying would be the last thing I ever saw!"
"And I wanted to make sure that you dying wasn't the last thing I ever saw!" Tallas abruptly spun around and shoved Sabrin back against a handrail. "You think I would've wanted to see that any more than you seein' me? They would've had to fuckin' rip me to shreds before I'd let that happen!"
"God I know!" Sabrin caught Tallas' face in a desperate caress, his breaths catching harshly, "I know you would! But Tal...I-I don't want you to--" his throat seized up on the last words.
"What? Take a gunshot for you?" Tallas' hands clamped around Sabrin's arms in an equally strong grip. Curious, how the most selfless acts can also be the most selfish. "You think you got a monopoly on doing stupid fuckin' things to protect the one you love? Well guess what? You can't stop me from tryin'. Just like I can't stop you."
Suddenly Sabrin's hands dropped from his face and were pulling him close. Sabrin buried his face in Tallas' neck, his lips to the strong pulse beneath. Heart pounding from exertion, skin flushed and slick with sweat...Tallas was unequivocally alive. Impossibly Tallas clung even closer, his hands rising to bury themselves in Sabrin's hair. "I don't want to fight Tal, but I don't know if I can accept what happened," Sabrin whispered roughly, "All I want is to keep you safe."
"I don't think anyone can guarantee that for either of us. So we'll both just have to deal with it," Tallas rested his forehead against Sabrin's, "because I'm not letting you go."
"Me neither," Sabrin brought their lips together, relying on soft warmth to drive back the nightmares, at least for the time being. Sabrin felt himself begining to respond as their contact turned more passionate, his hands moving to the small of Tallas' back as the sinuous body pressed full-length against him.
Tallas finally broke away, panting again. "I need a shower...care to join me?" he asked playfully, though Sabrin could still detect a trace of pain. He answered with his own haunted chuckle; they both needed this.
They had barely disentangled themselves when Dreamer interrupted. "Sabe, sorry but Commander Ledsk wants to talk to you," the A.I. said with geunuine regret.
"It's okay; I'll catch up with you later," Tallas smiled, stroking Sabrin's cheek.
Sabrin's gaze lingered on the door long past Tallas' passage. The thing that kept him from calling Tallas back -- it was also for Tallas' sake, his best friend and lover. Rubbing his sore eyes, Sabrin noticed that Dreamer's image had lingered, bearing a pensive expression. "Dreamer, I'm sorry about what I said before."
"Don't worry 'bout it; we're both assholes," Dreamer said quietly, "You gonna be okay?"
"I'd better be," Sabrin sank onto a bench, his palms covering his face. Something nudged his foot -- a maintenance drone, one of its tools raised up as though in concern. Despite himself, Sabrin had to snicker at the sheer incongruity of Dreamer's gesture, soon turning into full-blown guffaws. The A.I. joined him, their momentary mirth resonant in the room.
Dreamer's avatar edged close to a turn in the corridor, his back pressed to the wall. Bored voices drifted around the corner; Dreamer's artificial senses quickly catalogued their number and position. A smirk appeared on his face; the pirates didn't stand a chance as long as they still kept to groups of three and had orders to take them alive. Dreamer stepped into the open, aiming high to ensure that his stunner bursts reached bare skin.
"All clear." Lirelle came into view, blinking in the light. She grimaced at the rapidly reddening skin on the faces of the three limp bodies. "Better get a move on," Dreamer said as he glanced in both directions.
The repair bay was thankfully deserted; Dreamer stood watch while Lirelle scanned for what they needed. Machinery filled the space -- everything from coin-sized chips to multi-ton assemblies were piled about the long work benches and littered over the deck. The air was heavy with the flat scent of metal. The room triggered an acute sense of deja vu; the tech shop on Ledon where Lirelle spent five years of her life had been very much like this.
"Ya might wanna hurry," Dreamer detected approaching footsteps. There was a flurry of activity when their lifesign scans led them to their unconscious comrades. The trouble with leavin' 'em alive...
"Dreamer!" Lirelle's urgent whisper came from near the center of the bay.
"This it?" Dreamer eyed a cylindrical device.
"Dampening field generator, operational and partially charged," Lirelle's tone was ironic.
"Well, that's no good." The generator was a ship-mountable unit, almost two meters tall and likely massing over a ton, capable of concealing the cargo contents of an entire freighter.
"Hey, I'm picking up something in there. One lifesign."
Dreamer angled his head towards one of the doors. Swearing, he dragged Lirelle down out of sight. Lirelle couldn't hear them yet, but she put away her scanner and hoisted her weapon. "They've called for reinforcements." A set of doors slid open and closed, a small sound piercing the silence. Dreamer gestured succinctly to her: Three of them, fanning out. You watch left, I'll watch right. Lirelle felt as though something was wrapped around her, like she had to breathe harder and louder to take in the same amount of air.
The longer they stayed in one place, the greater the chance that they would be trapped. Dreamer caught Lirelle's eye, "Figure somethin' out." He stood up and opened fire; due to his limited line-of-sight, he was only able to hit one pirate before having to duck behind cover. With an aggravated growl, Lirelle scrambled to a relatively sheltered position and chimed in with her weapon, disrupting the remaining two pirates' attempt to establish a crossfire.
Another set of doors opened and then they were under siege from both sides. Lirelle's ears ached from the undisciplined orders the pirates were roaring to each other, as though authority depended on volume. The stunner rifles meanwhile were too damned quiet, throwing forth a storm of light accompanied by nothing but the tiny hisses of water droplets falling on a stove.
"I'm going to activate the dampening field," Lirelle trusted Dreamer to pick out her hushed speech through the pirates' din, "It will at least deceive their scanners while we retreat."
"Do it," Dreamer reached into his pack and tossed Lirelle her toolkit. The pirates had covered all four doors.
Crawling to the generator, Lirelle cursed as her slippery fingers fumbled at the tools. Behind her, Dreamer hefted a loose chunk of something and hurled it into a massive deuterium injector that one of their attackers was using as cover, tipping it over on top of him with a thunderous crash. A pulse of blue energy caught him in the shoulder and he flinched, just before several of his senses reported emptiness. "It's done," Lirelle shot him a look of concern.
"I'm fine," Dreamer jerked his chin towards a door, "That's our exit. Get ready to run."
The android picked up another object and heaved it to the far side of the room. At it struck, Dreamer darted out from between the benches. Lirelle gathered her feet beneath her, blood rushing in her ears as she heard bodies falling. "Now!"
Lirelle launched herself into the open, locking onto Dreamer's silhouette ahead of her. She couldn't tell if the stunner blasts flying around her were the pirates or Dreamer's suppression fire. The machine parts became vague shadows crowding her path, and she could almost taste the electricity in the air...
White-hot agony knifed into her arm, a single, pure note racing into her shoulder and neck. Lirelle stumbled, shocked to find her feet no longer beneath her body, and the deck pitching towards her face. The next thing she registered was a brutal, twisting force against the back of her neck, and then she was being wrenched through the doorway by her collar. Pain splashed across her front as she landed, sprawling, onto the hard deck beyond. The doors closed, muffling their pursuers.
After disabling the door mechanism, Dreamer eased Lirelle into a sitting position, examining her with quick, anxious motions. "Lirelle, what're you feelin'?"
"It's alright, I can still move," Lirelle gasped, pushing away his hands. Already the fingers on her right hand were numbing. "We can't stay here." Dreamer frowned, but bowed to the truth of that statement and helped her up. At any moment the pirates could deactivate the dampening field, and they had to be out of scanner range by then. They also had to assume that somebody on the base would put the witnessing of two individuals together with one lifesign, and deduce android. Judging that Lirelle wouldn't take well to being carried, Dreamer slipped her injured arm over his shoulder and they began hobbling away.
As before, Ledsk had chosen the corridor for their conversation. "Captain," he arched his eyebrow curiously, "Is this a bad time?"
"Of course not," Sabrin said huskily, conscious of his red eyes and smudged uniform and not particularly caring. "You better have called me down here to say you're ready to help us."
Ledsk bit his lip, but to his credit he kept his pale eyes fixed on Sabrin. "We've reviewed your data and found no major discrepancies in your account. However--" Ledsk shifted uneasily, "--we still have only your account of the situation. Our own observations of this system have never found any hint of what you've described. The lack of corroborating evidence is...troubling."
Fingers curling into fists, Sabrin forced himself to stay calm, "What about the cutter and raiders that attacked you? They match our description of the pirate forces."
"You could have also obtained that information if you were colluding with the pirates--" Sabrin made a noise of utter scorn in his throat and backed away, shaking his head as he tried to decide whether to laugh or scream. "You're asking for a significant commitment of our resources," Ledsk's voice strained with the helplessness of the messenger, "If you're wrong... I'm sorry."
The bastard has the nerve to sound genuine. Sabrin leaned against the wall, gazing at the light strips above. "You're on our ship Ledsk; breathin' our air, drinkin' our water," he said flatly, "One would think you'd at least have tried to be cooperative."
"Is that a threat?" Ledsk asked, but without hostility.
"The threat's not from us," Sabrin pushed off and adjusted his uniform. He had resisted the alternate plan outlined by Dreamer and Ky, allowed too much time to be squandered; that had been a mistake. "Go get your captain Ledsk, and meet me on the bridge."
"Why--" Ledsk was left surprised and puzzled in the hallway.
On the bridge, Sabrin eyed the now-familiar gray filling the viewscreen and thought that he was ready to see the stars again. He greeted Ledsk and Matare's arrival with a cool glance, allowing himself a smirk at Matare's evident irritation from having followed Sabrin's instructions. "Matare, I'd hoped that, despite who you are, we could've come to some sort of understanding. But it's obvious to me now that that's never going to happen."
Matare's only response was a suspicious glare. Sabrin continued, "So, I've decided that it's time for you and your crew to be on your way. Ky, come to a full stop please."
"What're you trying to pull this time?" Matare muttered.
"Dreamer, prepare to send out the following message. Omnidirectional signal, all frequencies, full power." Dreamer obeyed instantly, bringing up a second viewscreen window showing the relevant configurations. Once the A.I. signaled readiness, Sabrin began to speak, careful to pronounce every word clearly. "To all Alyan vessels in the Dvesh System, this is Captain Sabrin Payne of the Dream of Dawn, formerly escorting freight convoy A5L-440 bound for Saregatta."
"What do you think you're doing?" Ledsk asked in alarm.
"We have on board the crew of the scoutship Trefentig, which was recently destroyed by a pirate attack. They are all safe and in good health," Sabrin met Matare's narrowed eyes, "We also have vital intelligence regarding the fate of the freighter Sudree Ahns and of the pirate operations in this system."
"Stop--" Matare's attempted lunge was cut short by Sabrin's stunner, smoothly drawn and aimed. At the same time, Ky had stepped into his field of view, his weapon in hand as well. "You fool! Every ship in this system will know exactly where we are!" Matare hissed.
The corner of Sabrin's lip lifted, "We request an immediate rendezvous. Coordinates follow." He walked to the helm and issued the appropriate command. "Dreamer, please broadcast that on continuous repeat."
"What've you done?" Ledsk demanded.
"I wonder who'll get here first, your people or the pirates?" Sabrin asked conversationally. He stroked his fingers over the helm, evoking bright sigils, "I've just locked down the engines to make sure that they'll able to find us... What's the matter? If you really believed that we were working with the pirates to breach your security, then this would all be part of our plan and they won't send anybody. We're safe, as are you and any Alyan ship coming to retrieve you."
Silence reigned as the two sides confronted each other. Sabrin felt the dampness gathering beneath his grip on his stunner and hoped his finger wouldn't slip. Finally, Ledsk swore and rushed forward, "Damn it -- give me comn access."
"Stay where you are commander," Matare thundered, raising his arm to bar Ledsk's path.
"Sir, with all due respect--"
The senior officer sighed deeply, shifting the tense lines along his frame. Sabrin was stunned to see something resembling respect appear on his face. "Your initiative has been noted commander," Matare told his subordinate, who looked equally taken aback, "but this is my responsibility."
"This looks like a good place," Dreamer sifted Lirelle's weight as he reached for the hatch of the cargo container. Hundreds like it were stacked high in rows around them, granting them at least the illusion of privacy.
"Where are we?" The words were barely a whisper.
"Storage area in the back of the cargo bay."
"Cargo bay--" Lirelle grimaced, her protest sending electricity chewing through her body. The entire right side of her body was lost to her, swamped in a sea of lazy, all-consuming fire. All her strength was being sapped simply waging the battle against unconsciousness. Remarkably, the pirates had towed the Sudree Ahns with them through both engine thrusts and were continuing to remove cargo, which at least would save them the trouble of finding it again after the mission. "Dreamer, it's crawling with people."
"Yeah, there're lifesigns everywhere. That'll make it harder for them to find you. Now easy..." Dreamer opened the hatch and they staggered in. Lirelle saw spots as the android eased her to sit, before closing the hatch. The light-stick stung her eyes but she fought the instinct to close them, lest she surrender her last vestiges of control. The sweat on her skin glittered like diamonds in the cold blue glow.
Dreamer was looking around at the tall, rectangular forms filling the container. "Shit."
"What is it?"
Dreamer raised the light-stick to a clear pane on the closest of the objects. Lirelle drew in a sharp breath through her teeth as she recognized faces -- men, women, and children -- serenely frozen as though on display. Dozens of people, individually preserved in stasis units, ready for new lives as slaves, toys, or spare parts. "My god..." she felt bile rising in her throat.
"I guess those lifesigns weren't just the pirates," Dreamer said grimly, setting down the light next to her along with their pack. "Go ahead and rest Lirelle. I'm gonna head out and keep 'em off your back."
Stay, Lirelle wanted to say, I don't want to be alone. She watched Dreamer inspect his rifle -- since coming to the asteroid they had avoided the topic of their biggest unknown: how the others on the Dream were faring on their half of the mission. They could ill-afford to allow such doubt to poison their resolve -- the same reason Lirelle couldn't ask Dreamer to stay now. "We can no longer assume their ignorance on your being an android."
"Yeah I know; no more shoot to stun. They might even set up a suppressor."
"Our original virus is still in their computer system. It could buy some more time." Lirelle frowned when Dreamer's expression shuttered, thinking that perhaps the Dream was in range, bearing bad news.
"I'm sorry Lirelle, for draggin' you into this," Dreamer said, his dark eyes intense and unguarded. "This mission hasn't exactly been pleasant for you."
At first, Lirelle could only gape at the unexpected words; part of her was almost incensed that Dreamer would think she'd fight for them against her will. However, as she reorganized her thoughts, Lirelle found herself smiling. "You didn't 'drag' me into anything. A long time ago, I was an officer of the Kinjori Armada, and I was proud of that, because -- as idealized as it turned out to be -- it meant that I was a protector, that I stood for honor, and justice, and all those other righteous causes." Her gaze swept over the stasis units, "Thank you, Dreamer, for bringing that back into my life."
Dreamer's grin dazzled as he lifted a rifle. He dipped down and kissed her hard on the cheek. "Keep a light on for me babe."
Sabrin laid still, gazing out at the clockwork complexity of an Alyan cruiser. The Mems built like the Orions: they traded armor for speed and made up the difference with powerful shields -- lethality cloaked in elegance. The pieces were in place on their side.
They had met in Tallas' bed, still unmade from before, shoving the sheets to the floor and knocking the flimsy frame against the wall. The first thrust hurt and Tallas almost bucked them to the deck. The blond bared his teeth, digging his fingers into Sabrin's hips and forcing him in harder, faster; heat and pleasure and pain melding until there was only being together. It's not fair, Sabrin had whispered into Tallas' neck, hugging so tight Tallas could barely breathe. They didn't talk about earlier.
Sabrin shifted the body in his arms, palms pressing into warm muscle. Sweat-damped hair tickled his chin. He knew that Tallas was still awake despite appearances; restive energy ran through him like current through a wire, the same as that burning beneath his own skin. They were long past Dreamer's original eight-hour estimate for reaching the base.
With a sigh, Sabrin rolled out of bed and went for a quick shower. Tallas uttered a soft protest when he was dislodged, stretching against the mattress. He was sitting up by the time Sabrin emerged in fresh clothes. "Where do you think you're going? Remember when we agreed it'd be better for you to let Dreamer handle things till we get to the base?"
"Yeah I remember. I'm just taking a walk."
"Hang on, I'll come with."
Contrary to what Tallas may have feared -- and they needed to have a word about that later -- Sabrin had no masochistic or obsessive-compulsive need to head back up to the bridge for another round with Matare. Instead he drifted down, poking through various seldom-used access shafts and passages towards the heart of the ship. At some point on deck five, he realized with a start that his partner was gone. Doubling back, he found Tallas before one of the machine shops, frowning slightly. "Tal? What is it?"
"Not sure," Tallas said. The reinforced door didn't move when he tapped the control pad; he pushed the button again to no avail. "Hey Dreamer, why's this door locked?"
"It's not." Dreamer said after a beat, and the doors opened to reveal a number of maintenance drones apparently stripping materials from spare sensor components. Nearby, a softball-sized object was being assembled by several robotic arms attached to an overhead rig. One of them paused to wave as they entered, to rather disquieting effect. The door sealed behind them as soon as they were through.
"What is that?"
The A.I. appeared on the far wall. "Oh, that's your basic muon-catalyzed plasma fusion device, modified with a kerabradon-doped energy conversion shell."
Sabrin froze. "A bomb?!"
"A flash bomb," Dreamer corrected, with emphasis. "This baby'll wash out the FTL sensors of every ship in a million kilometers or so for about seven minutes, if we're lucky." Sabrin could only think of one reason why they would want to do that, and it had nothing to do with the pirates and everything to do with how a small ship could elude weapons and tractor beam lock long enough to get out of range.
"When were you planning to tell us about this?" Tallas's question was tinged with anger.
"Worst case scenario, that's all," Dreamer said tightly. His eyes were old, and for maybe the first time in Sabrin's mind, the possibility of failure became real -- not only that they might lose the ones on the asteroid, or have lost them already, but that they might have to carry on without them the best they can...and being thrown in an Alyan prison was not it. Is this what responsibility comes down to? Sabrin's gaze moved inevitably to Tallas, full lips parted, eyes blazing. Knowing when to cut your losses?
"I'm glad you're here Dreamer, because I don't think I'd like doing what you do," Sabrin murmured, picking up a diagnostic scanner and approaching the incomplete bomb. "Seven minutes cuts it pretty close. Is there a way to maybe increase the yield?"
In a short time the cargo bay had turned into a warzone, the air tearing apart at the seams from the savage, truncated thunderclaps of plasma fire. Daunted by the prospect of facing an android, the pirates had taken to unleashing their weapons at the slightest movement. Dreamer would have been flattered by the attention, were they not impeding his way back to Lirelle. She had not answered her comn for some time.
A stinging haze of vapors from melted alloy provided Dreamer with a scant but much-needed advantage as he dashed from container to container. There was a flash, and a shower of sparks rained down on him from above. He didn't return fire, instead slipping through a gap to the next aisle. Stealth was now his best hope, as in the confusion his pursuers were firing as much at the sound of each other's weapons as anything he did.
On the other side of the bay, the pirates were setting up a cybernetic suppressor. The battle was over the moment they finished: every A.I. system in range of the suppression pulse would shut down automatically to protect itself, leaving Lirelle a sitting duck. Dreamer heard them working, a clock counting down -- his ship self had that long to arrive.
Finally, Dreamer caught sight of Lirelle's container. Two men were already there, one of them reading from a scanner. Bad move, both of ya facin' the same way.
Thankfully the container seemed intact when Dreamer checked it. He sifted his sensory pick-ups and discerned at least seven different groups combing through the surrounding area. Both exit paths from his position were blocked, not that he had any plans to leave. End of the line... Dreamer transmitted the activation code for Lirelle's virus. The malignant program spread like wildfire, stopping every operation in its tracks. Doors, lights, environmentals...all froze. The intercom chatter fell silent.
A rifle in each hand, Dreamer crouched down in front of the hatch and began his vigil.
"All ships, set Alert Condition Alpha."
"Multiple enemy signatures entering sensor range, directly ahead."
Black-gold eyes snapped open. Dreamer's awareness exploded outwards, past the cage of metal and rock, as a drop of water becomes an ocean. Smoke and gunfire dwindled against the joyous enormity of space.
"Advance group, ahead point-one-five. Signal the other units to proceed." The bridge of the Dream bustled with activity, almost like the golden old days of exploring the frontier. Sabrin sat at the helm, restless with both Matare and Ledsk watching over his shoulders. The viewscreen showed the captain of the lead cruiser, continuing to dryly dole out orders. "Dream of Dawn, remain within one hundred meters and stay clear of primary firing arcs."
"Acknowledged," Sabrin said, "We're receiving your navigational data."
"Dreamer, what's so funny?" Tallas asked, puzzled by the sudden manic grin on the A.I.'s face.
"Nothing," the A.I. shook his features back to seriousness, "Sabe, slight change of plans. Power up the engines and prepare to leave the cruiser's shield envelope. Tal, get ready to raise shields and charge weapons as soon as we're clear."
Whatever semblance of order existed before dissolved into chaos as several people began talking at once. Matare demanded an explanation, glowering as though he believed he could take control of this troublesome ship and crew by sheer will alone. Ignoring them, Dreamer's image moved to the helm, "Sabe! We don't have a lotta time here. Head for the asteroid now! Full speed!"
Gnashing his teeth, Sabrin jammed his hands into the controls and did as Dreamer asked. If he hadn't, he worried that his fist might have found its way into someone's face, or a display monitor -- whichever was yelling at him louder at the time. Dreamer had also closed the comn channel, cutting off the cruiser's furious inquiries.
"If somebody doesn't start making sense in the next five seconds--"
"I've regained contact with my avatar. We've immobilized the base but we're pinned down in the cargo bay. Lirelle's unconscious and the pirates're minutes away from activatin' a cybernetic suppressor."
"Okay then," Sabrin flexed his fingers.
"Incoming ships." Glowing symbols multiplied on Tallas' display.
"Don't let 'em slow us down."
Raiders streamed out of the gloom like a swarm of hornets. The Dream plunged straight through, illuminated by plasma battering its shields. The small attackers scrambled first to intercept, and then to dodge the incoming farship. The bridge lurched violently when a raider slammed into the forward shields, causing controls and displays to fluctuate dangerously. The raider fared much worse, bouncing away crippled and out of control.
The great mass of a pirate cutter lumbered towards the Dream, spilling fire into the space between them. With one last, furious thrust, the besieged farship banked and careened past the larger vessel, sailing clear amidst a flurry of parting shots.
Dreamer squeezed off another round of wild suppression fire. There was no way to determine which of the containers held live cargo, so he couldn't risk doing more damage to them by switching to his plasma gun. Command and control within the base had collapsed in the wake of the virus, which unfortunately meant there were still people shooting at them despite the coming Alyans. Dreamer's other hand was clamping the hatch shut, his fingertips deforming the metal and locked -- an extra obstacle just in case.
"We're coming up on the base," Sabrin said, feeling a tiny thrill as he put the asteroid on screen. He snuck a glimpse at Matare, pleased at the scowl on the man's face.
"There's the Sudree; I'm not detecting any other large ships nearby." Tallas found and locked onto the target Dreamer had specified. "Dreamer, are you sure about this?"
"I think the container'll hold."
"I hope you realize the potential for loss of life..." Ledsk said neutrally, eyeing the asteroid with crossed arms.
Everything from the base went blank. Next to the container, Dreamer's avatar slumped on its feet, no longer anything more than a machine in the shape of a man. "They've activated the suppressor," Dreamer said urgently, "We're running out of time."
As the Dream closed to optimal range for a precision shot, Tallas bit his lip and thrummed the weapons control. A series of beams lanced into the lip of the cargo bay, disabling the covering force-field. With every system on the base paralyzed, the doors could not be closed to stop the enormous volume of atmosphere inside from rushing into space. The resulting tempest caught everything not bolted down, sweeping it out into vacuum. Tallas swallowed as he picked out flailing human figures amongst the debris.
"I've located the signal from Lirelle's comn," Ky said, "Her container's leaking air."
Repressurizing the launch bay took an eternity, but at last Tallas rushed through the doors. The shipping container sat silently on the reflective deck, dented but intact. Tallas' eyes widened when he saw the inert humanoid figure attached to it by one hand. Unable to pry the inanimate fingers loose, Tallas awkwardly went through the manual reactivation sequence in that half-upright position. He startled back as the android suddenly jerked back to life.
Dreamer entered the dark container and crouched over the collapsed form. "She's alright," relief was evident in his voice. Tallas' eyes widened as he noticed the other faces inside. "Dreamer, are those..."
"Captured freighter crews," Dreamer confirmed, "The pirates have dozens, maybe hundreds of people in stasis like that. They'll need to be picked up from out there as soon as possible." He jerked his head towards the containers drifting beyond the launch bay entrance as he stood up, Lirelle in his arms. "C'mon."
Back out amongst the ocean of dust, the bulk of the pirate forces neared an Alyan cruiser, weapons ablaze. Without preamble, six deadly beams sprang forth from the Alyan warship and converged upon the aft section of the lead cutter with a splash of crumpled shields and superheated metal, methodically separating the entire engine assembly from the rest of the ship with less-than-surgical precision. As the two pieces drifted apart, wounds peppered by secondary explosions, the remaining pirates scattered.
"Well, this has been uh...interesting," Commander Ledsk said at the airlock. The rest of the Trefentig's crew was already gone, including Matare, who brushed past Sabrin without so much as a glance his way.
"That's true," Sabrin chuckled faintly. Ledsk had a genial, if odd expression on his face, as though he wasn't quite sure if it was appropriate to be happy about the recent series of events. Sabrin could certainly relate. "What's your next stop?"
"Sopedu; official inquiry."
"I'm sorry about the Trefentig. I truly wish things hadn't happened that way."
Ledsk shrugged wearily. "I believe, on the balance, that our gains outweighed our losses on this one. Hopefully Command will feel the same when they evaluate my actions," he winced, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Would Matare really--"
"Tough to say. As I mentioned before, Matare likes things done a certain way, and this entire mess...from start to finish it's as if it's been custom-designed to hit all his wrong buttons. And he really doesn't like you or this ship," Ledsk smiled to soften his words, "Fortunately, that's no longer your problem."
"Thanks. That makes me feel a lot better," Sabrin muttered.
"It should; each of us is burdened enough as it is." Ledsk beamed as he made his way to the docking bridge, "It's been a pleasure working with you captain. If I ever see you in a bar, I'll buy you a drink."
"I'll remember that. See you, commander."
"Connor," the officer amended. "Safe journey."
As soon as the airlock was sealed, Dreamer's smirking image appeared nearby, "He's so into you."
"Whatever," Sabrin rolled his eyes and headed to the bridge. Walking alone through the familiar corridor, he had an insane urge to skip a few steps. Ledsk -- Connor -- turned out to be alright, but otherwise having the Mems aboard had felt like hosting the world's longest, least fun house party against his will.
The asteroid still loomed large on the viewscreen, now somehow defeated, robbed of any intimidating presence. A cruiser hung nearby, one of three warships assigned to secure the base and sort through the wreckage. The remainder of the task force had spread out to hunt down the stragglers. Without jump drives, the raiders had little hope of escaping. Sabrin settled happily at the helm; their part in the operation was finished and he could procrastinate a bit longer on the monumental amount of paperwork waiting for him.
"The Maraew's waitin' to escort us back to Edoch."
"Yeah yeah," Sabrin plotted a course parallel to the Alyan destroyer, "It figures -- we find the freighter and expose the pirates, and they still assign us a chaperone as though we're gonna run off the second their backs are turned."
The next day, they were out of the clouds. Sabrin leaned back and watched the stars until the pinpoints of light washed together, a scintillant sheet cast across the infinite black.
"Hey," a warm hand settled on his shoulder, "Dinner."
"Okay," Sabrin took the hand and let Tallas help haul him out of the pilot's seat, relishing the strength beneath the other man's frame. His own legs were a bit rubbery, and somehow the act of standing up reminded him that he was ravenously hungry. Sabrin glanced back at the vacant helm, "Is nobody switching off with me?"
Dreamer huffed dismissively, "The Mems're kiddin' themselves if they think we're keepin' that up."
Upon entering the mess hall, they were swamped by the delicious aroma of cooking, making their mouths water. To Sabrin's surprise, Ky was in the kitchen adding finely diced vegetables to a steaming pot. Fennic sat on a counter nearby cradling a salad bowl, sneaking bites as he tossed the vegetables. He smiled brightly in greeting when he saw them.
"Ky! Hey, something smells great," Tallas pushed past Sabrin to examine the soup, "I didn't know you could cook."
"The Onyx Hand permits each agent exactly one hobby," Ky deadpanned. The Orions hesitated, not quite sure it was a joke until Ky quirked his lip. "It's only a casserole," Ky said, "I had a hard time thinking of something that you had all the ingredients for. It's as though you shopped off the picture on an insta-meal box."
"It's a time-proven system," Tallas mumbled around a leaf, having joined Fennic in plundering the salad, "But hey, if you've got a better way we'd be happy to hand over grocery duties to you."
"Thanks for doing all this Ky; you really didn't need to go to this much trouble." Sabrin watched the sure, confident movements of Ky's hands; they were harsh like his own, the bones obvious and a scar transecting the left forefinger. Lirelle had warned about the man's touch, kept her distance as though he were plagued. How much could she see that Sabrin couldn't? Rinsing off the cutting board, Ky seemed more at ease than Sabrin had ever seen, or thought possible.
"It's no trouble; I'm happy to do it," Ky said, "Eager, in fact, as I haven't had a non-prepackaged meal in recent memory."
"That I understand."
Sabrin was surprised again when Lirelle entered, freshly groomed and showing little evidence of her ordeal save for a minute sluggishness in her limbs. She was met by a chorus of greetings and concerned inquiries, which she fended off with smiling assurances of well-being. Ky tensed automatically when she approached him, eyeing her apprehensively. Lirelle regarded him calmly in return, eventually firming her lips and ever so slightly bowing her head towards him.
Letting his breath out, Sabrin shared a look with Tallas as they moved to usher Lirelle to a table. Judging from his dazed expression, Ky was more shocked than anyone.
"Have there been any further developments at the depot?" Lirelle asked, gratefully accepting Fennic's proffered glass of water.
"Don't ask me," Tallas turned towards the main monitor, "Hey Dreamer!"
"Ya rang?" Dreamer's larger-than-life image answered, "Well, this's cozy; it's like a Midwinter card."
"What sort of dysfunctional Midwinters have you been to?" Tallas shook his head, "You heard Lirelle. Any news?"
"The Mems have wrapped up the main phase of their operations. All the surviving pirate ships have been accounted for, 383 pirates have been arrested, and they're workin' on crackin' the depot database so they can track their contacts on the frontier. They've also freed over a hundred captives from the stasis pods. Some of those people've been missing for almost nine months."
"That's good to hear," Lirelle said.
"Yeah yeah, that's all well and fine, but this is better," Dreamer summoned a muted newsfeed, showing a pretty Mnemosyne anchor with a graphic of the Sudree Ahns behind her. As they watched, it switched to scenes of recovery operations in the protoplanetary disk.
"Dreamer, we can't be on the news!" Sabrin exclaimed.
The A.I. scoffed in a way that managed to also convey offense at Sabrin's impertinence. "Relax, I told the Mems to keep our names out of the media. Kinda wish I could've given 'em a better reason than 'we're shy', but their military was more than happy to take the credit." Dreamer froze the feed and began inching it forward in time "I think you can still see me though in some of this footage; help me look..."
"Okay, okay. Y'know, ya gotta get over this paranoia thing," Dreamer waved away the inset, "Seriously, I doubt we'll be able to hide forever, which is why we came to Mnemosyne in the first place, remember? And this scored us big points with the Mems."
"If you say so," Sabrin said. Tallas, preparing to kill, flashed through his mind...points.
"Excuse me Dreamer," Ky interjected, "Have you made any progress on my request?"
"Oh that...yeah, it's done. Ya want me to bring it now?"
"If you would, thank you." Dreamer vanished, and Ky ignored the curious glances sent his way as he checked the oven. "Food's ready," he announced mildly.
As it happened, Ky's skills were as good as appearances. At the first bite, Tallas' eyes fluttered closed and he issued a moan that had to be intentional, "God Ky, marry me."
"So much for true love," Sabrin grumbled, kicking him under the table. Ky coughed and ducked his head.
The food moved quickly, Lirelle's table manners impeccable next to the Orions wolfing down portions as fast as their bodies could allow. By the time Ky switched off the internal heating elements in the dishware, even Lirelle had given herself over to the unique afterglow that only came from satiation.
"Ky, that was great," Tallas said blissfully, pushing back his chair. Sabrin burped loudly in agreement.
"Where did you learn how to cook like that?" Fennic asked.
"On Kinjor," Ky pushed around the last bits of food on his plate, "I had a great deal of practice growing up. No one else in the family has any culinary aptitude."
"Family?" Sabrin's fork hovered halfway to his mouth.
"Yeah...there's my father, and my brother and sister. I'm the youngest."
"Wow," Tallas looked dumbstruck.
"It's nothing particularly impressive."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to pry," Sabrin said, set on alert by the shift in Ky's voice. As far as he and Tallas and most of those in their circle were concerned, life on Astral-Ishasa was a world without parents or siblings. Every now and then Mark would speak of his parents, nothing but scattered and vague remnants of a time long lost. What Sabrin remembered was feeling uncomfortable, as though suddenly their friend was no longer one of them but one of the others. "Me and Tal never knew if we had any relatives."
"That's unfortunate. Family's the most important thing." Ky's fork came down on the plate more forcefully than needed; he looked chagrined by the noise and set the utensil down.
"But you left them," Fennic knitted his brow.
Ky shrugged, "They were the reason I joined the Onyx Hand," he said as though that explained everything. Sabrin kept quiet and expressionless, not sure how to evaluate blackmail and murder as a career choice. Tallas was visibly perturbed, "Wait, your family wanted you to join the Onyx Hand?"
"Oh, god no, of course not," Ky said; beside them Lirelle's face had turned to stone, her knuckles white. "You see," Ky continued brusquely, "for a Kinjori military family like mine, there's no bigger 'fuck you' than joining the Onyx Hand." His words had acquired a malicious edge; Sabrin saw them spoken by a much younger, angrier man. "I even requested a long-term assignment, so they'd have absolutely no doubt that I was committed."
Fuck, Sabrin gasped softly when he grasped what Ky meant by "long-term assignment". He did it to himself...he let them... The ensuing hush was only broken by the mess hall doors. "Dreamer, you're just in time," Ky said with a false smile.
The android held out a pad, "Here, the Oasha Daily Report for the last month. Is this a bad time?"
"Let us see." The table held its collective breath as gray eyes moved back and forth. Suddenly Ky laughed, a cracked, brittle sound like shattering glass. "Oh god, this...my dad's gonna love this. It's the best thing I could've ever done for that old bastard." Tossing the pad onto the table, Ky stood and reached for the leftovers. "Well, if everyone's finished I'll put these away."
Once Ky headed for the refrigerator, Sabrin leaned forward in macabre fascination, just enough to make out the text. There was a known name near the middle: Ky Laurenti Ilvarra, age 25, Special Agent of the Onyx Hand, Makkhanur Division. On the 241st day of the standard year 2979, Agent Ilvarra gave his life in the line of duty...
In the vast pseudoreality that was the interstellar network, a formless intelligence perused the accounts of the Dvesh incident being traded through relay hubs in the Republic of Alya and beyond. Though the bits of data were meaningless to the cyph, one of its trillions of algorithms identified them as something to be assimilated into its vast floating memory. The algorithm in question had been crafted by a fractional personality, "Mareva", whose various eccentricities had led "her" to interact with one Jonah Rester, on Edoch.
Only Mareva would perceive the data as anything other than an abstraction, or bother to assemble the pieces into any coherent whole. This was only logical, since she had initiated the chain of events that had brought that information into existence. It was a beautiful symmetry of cause and effect.
Amusement trickled though her consciousness as she read the results of her manipulations. She had written the jump-abort program for that specific ship, and given it to the specific traitor at the specific time. Executing that function without contaminating it by traces of her involvement had been tricky, a worthy challenge. From that nucleus, each subsequent event had flowed seamlessly into the next, culminating in the desired resolution. Real life rarely functioned so well, and she was pleased.
She imagined Jonny would be similarly pleased, though regretfully the elegance of the process would likely pass him by. Humans tended to fixate disproportionately on the last component of a sequence.
When the Alya Naval Command forwarded the first letters, Dreamer had trod onto the bridge and read one aloud: an inventory clerk named Jatra Maossili was writing on behalf of herself and her twin sister, a freight handler, back after five months missing from Dvesh. Regardless of their absence from the media, word of mouth had spread quickly amongst the freight community.
Tallas made Dreamer stop after the second letter, before he could make good on Sabrin's sarcastic comment about doing voices. Despite the smile on his best friend's face, Tallas recognized the rigid set of his shoulders. Tallas wasn't blind to the danger of attention either, but during the lull between jumps, the letters still somehow found their way onto his console. He read the words of friends and lovers, parents and children, a warm sensation settling in his stomach.
The curved sliver of Edoch Port seemed friendlier the second time around, the great honeyed crescent of Thial hanging above. Tallas was counting the seconds to the engines winding down when Dreamer found them at the airlock. "Hi guys, couldn't wait to get off?" the android asked with a grin.
"No offense was intended," Lirelle said, nothing but smooth dignity, "We merely find ourselves wistful for a change of scenery."
"Hey, I'm secure enough in my greatness to admit that I'm a bit sparse in the human comforts department."
"We're receiving a transmission from Station Control," Ky said over the intercom. Since the news from Kinjor, he had become an almost permanent fixture on the bridge. "It says we've been scheduled for a meeting with an Admiral Sufh, on Mnemosyne. There is a shuttle waiting for us in the Lower Concourse, Slip 14-A."
"Sufh huh? He's the one who came up with the hiring independent convoy escorts idea; bet he'll be happy to see us." Dreamer clapped Tallas' arm, "How many are they askin' for?"
"You're it Sabe; starch your shirt and polish your boots." Tallas enjoyed a private smile at the unenthusiastic grumble that came through the speakers in reply. At last, the deck swayed as the Dream made contact with the docking arm. "Ky," Dreamer called, "last chance to come with us an' get some fresh air...sort of."
"That's alright. The offer's appreciated, but I think the less time I spend in public the better," Ky answered, his voice aggressively normal.
"C'mon man, you can't mope around up there forever."
"Dreamer, leave him be," Lirelle said wearily.
Something heavy pushed on Tallas' chest. He hated pain, the way it sowed helplessness, diminished what was left. He noticed Sabrin descending the ladder and anger sparked, that he should feel guilt about still having the most important thing in his life. The moment Sabrin's feet were solidly on the deck, Tallas spun him around and stole his breath in a long kiss. "Looking good, captain," he said across the Sabrin's lips, his tongue darting out to snatch a parting taste.
Color blossomed on the other man's cheeks and, unable to resist, Tallas proceeded to make a show of adjusting Sabrin's collar. "Quit it," Sabrin batted Tallas' hands away, scowling at the others' entertained looks, "What does Sufh want with us anyway? Haven't we given enough statements?"
"Beats me," Dreamer waved open the airlock, "We'll find out when we get down there."
"Just imagine Sabe, it's a near-Terran planet. No domes, and real weather and ecosystems and crap."
"Doesn't sound safe."
"Uh, y'know what guys?" Dreamer's attention abruptly shifted away, leaving them cold, "I actually think I'm gonna sit this one out. Sabe, you should take Tal instead, make a day of it. Mnemosyne's a gorgeous place; very romantic."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Tallas followed the android's line of sight to the far side of the airlock.
A blonde woman stood at the connecting tunnel, sharply dressed in a uniform vaguely similar to theirs. A series of even, unhesitating strides brought her across the bridge and just short of Dreamer. Her eyes, crisp rings of gold on black, widened as they took in the reality of the man before her. An expression of stunned disbelief came over her face, "It is you..."
With the same deliberation as in all of her actions thus far, the woman raised her arm and backhanded Dreamer across the face, the resounding crack making the others jump. Dreamer of course was unfazed and, as his crew watched in slack-jawed amazement, he turned back towards her wearing the brightest grin any of them had ever seen.