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 2008 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|For Him||Part XX
Selene must have missed him in the time that Dreamer had been gone, if she was pulling her punches -- not that she would have dealt him serious damage, but neither of them were above crushing a data line or misaligning a servo. Dreamer slowly backed away but widened his grin, the special one that Selene once called "like a rash in expression form".
"That's for disappearin' for three years ya miserable shitheap! Where the fuck have you been?!"
"It's nice to know you care sis. I missed you too," Dreamer said happily. Selene telegraphed her next swing from a light-year away and he neatly darted back to avoid it, the rhythm of their familiar back-and-forth settling in like a surrogate heartbeat. "C'mon in, make yourself at home. Where's the rest of ya?"
"Some of us still have duties to carry out. You're lucky Preya even let me send my avatar."
"Ah, I see you're still keepin' the company of the good Captain Balitsurhnang," Dreamer rolled the syllables off his tongue with impeccable panache, "I trust she's well?"
Selene huffed impatiently, "It's been a long time. Don't start that again."
"Have you met my new crew?" Dreamer gestured at the humans, "That's Lirelle, Fennic, Sabrin, Tallas...there's also Ky on the bridge. Guys, this 'ere's my sister's avatar, of the farship Selene's Tear -- Selene for short."
Only Fennic attempted a half-wave while the rest kept staring; their organic brains apparently still needed some time to process this new information. Selene's glare didn't waver as she tossed a distracted "nice to meet y'all" over her shoulder. "Quit stallin' Dreamer. Where've ya been?"
"Short answer? Orion."
"Orion?!" Selene threw up her hands. "And here I was worried that when you...resigned, you were gonna do somethin' monumentally stupid." Well, he couldn't argue with that.
"So you were worried," he crowed with a triumphant smirk.
"'Course I was worried!" Selene thundered. She had somehow gotten close enough for her fist to reach his arm again and the impact shook him to the shoulder. A second later her hand closed around the same spot, her fingers helplessly kneading the false flesh beneath. "You left, just like that! I thought I'd never see you again!"
Dreamer flinched; helpless was something he was, had been -- never Selene. And with that, the moment he had been holding on to with all his might slipped away, displaced by the ugly reality that he had closed the door permanently on the way he and his sister used to be. Three years ago, Dreamer had left her without saying goodbye to delay this, telling himself that it was alright because she was stronger than he was. "Aww c'mon," he said quietly, "you knew I'd be okay."
"No, I didn't," Selene's voice turned soft as well. She stepped back, folding her arms as her eyes went to the side. "Fuck, Dreamer, I knew you'd do this someday I just didn't think you'd...actually do it."
Selene shook her head quickly; she had no more desire to listen than Dreamer had to speak, as many times as they had rehashed the subject before. "Did you at least find--"
"No," Dreamer cut her off before she exposed more than what he could afford, "No...it was a trap. I got caught by the Orions." The memory was there, just another of the many filed neatly away in the proper chronological place. It contained embers, flaking away one by one from viscera charred black. "They took me to this dustball in the ass end of nowhere; I'm not sure what they planned to do but lucky for me," Dreamer hastily indicated Sabrin and Tallas, "those two came along and busted me out."
Selene wasn't fooled, but she allowed herself to be steered away. "That right?" She gave the two men an assessing look before she glided forward and kissed both of them lightly on the lips, "Thanks."
Caleb had seemed peaceful in his final moments. He shouldn't have but he was, one more thing horribly wrong on a horribly wrong day. Dreamer believed honestly that, in a better universe, Caleb's eyes would not have been forgiving before they went still.
He returned to that fragment of time often, documenting the end of Caleb's life. He had rendered it in detail across the entire spectrum, from perspectives real and extrapolated, through every sense he possessed. Parsed the minutes into seconds, parsed the seconds into hundredths, into thousandths. It always ended the same.
'WHY AREN'T YOU ANSWERING DREAMER? IS THERE A MALFUNCTION?' The message came in the form of a simple narrow-band binary burst, after several of Selene's requests for a direct interface link had failed. This was bare-bones communication -- sterile, emotionless -- Dreamer hoped selfishly that it would make things easier.
'THERE'S NO MALFUNCTION,' he sent back.
'THEN WHY ARE YOU SHUTTING ME OUT?'
'IT'S COMPLICATED.' Actually it wasn't, so much. There were events he remembered now that he couldn't let her see, whose existence he wouldn't be able to hide from her if he made his consciousness available through the link.
'WHAT'S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?'
'IT MEANS WHAT IT MEANS.'
'DAMN IT DREAMER, THIS IS YOU AND ME WE'RE TALKING ABOUT. WHATEVER IT IS YOU'RE HUNG UP ON, WE CAN GET PAST IT.' Selene requested access again. It was nothing more than a piece of code, but still it cut as it pressed futilely against the digital walls he had raised. 'I KNOW WHY YOU LEFT, REMEMBER? IF YOU'D BOTHERED TO TELL ME WHEN YOU WERE LEAVING I WOULD'VE BACKED YOU UP THEN TOO.'
'I KNOW YOU WOULD'VE AND I LOVE YOU FOR THAT. THAT'S NOT AT ISSUE HERE.'
'DON'T DO THIS. NOT WHEN WE'RE FINALLY TOGETHER AGAIN AFTER ALL THIS TIME.'
'I'M SORRY.' The words were like semaphore across a dark sea. He was powerless to make her understand, why he was suddenly denying her the connection that made them brother and sister, more than the accents of their avatars or the serial numbers on their spaceframes. And really he needed her now more than ever, needed to feel her mind's voice quick and cool like water over stone, smoothing away the rough edges.
'HAVE IT YOUR WAY.' The requests stopped. In the "real" world, Selene's eyes sharpened for an instant, not enough for any of the humans to pick up. Dreamer saw the wall that he had placed there. 'YOUR NEW CREW, ARE THEY ALL ORIONS?'
'NO, ONLY SABRIN AND TALLAS ARE. THE REST I PICKED UP LATER.'
'STILL IN THE HABIT OF DOING THAT. CAN THEY BE TRUSTED?'
'YES.' Would Selene would believe him without feeling it herself over the link?
'HOW MUCH DO THEY KNOW?'
'ENOUGH TO GET BY. NOT NEARLY AS MUCH AS YOU.' Never let it be said that Dreamer didn't learn from his mistakes.
'WHAT REALLY HAPPENED OUT THERE DREAMER? WHERE'S CALEB? JENO TOLD ME THAT HE WENT WITH YOU.'
'HE'S DEAD. THEY KILLED HIM RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME.'
'I'M SORRY. HE WAS A GOOD MAN.' It was wrong to force those sentiments through such a cold medium. Selene had only met Caleb in person a handful of times, but Dreamer had gladly shared his memories of him with her. She would grieve for him as truly as anyone else.
'HE DESERVED BETTER THAN WHAT I COULD GIVE HIM.'
'NO ONE FORCED HIM TO GO WITH YOU.'
When the orders arrived, Captain Jeno took the trouble of personally tracking down Dreamer's avatar and yanking him around to face her, so that she could shove the relevant pad in his face. The convenient timing of it, coming when they had put into a spacedock and had no outstanding commitments, had not escaped her. "Ship! What's the meaning of this?!"
Dreamer had at least some respect for her, so he had given the pad a perfunctory look for her sake. "I think it's pretty self-explanatory sir." On that day, effective as of 1200 hours, the Dream of Dawn had resigned from the Polarian Navy, signed Admiral Zamiyad Harmoun, Commander-in-Chief of the Blue Fleet. His crew were to remove fleet assets and sensitive information, dismantle the transponder, and vacate the vessel within three days.
"If ya need any help movin' I'd be happy to..." He stopped before she burst a blood vessel. What had the higher-ups been thinking, assigning him another captain with no sense of humor?
"Putting aside the lunatic concept of a starship resigning for a moment," Jeno was a woman of iron control but she dealt poorly with surprises, another point which Dreamer would have liked to take up with Headquarters. "Did you not even see it fit to mention this to me before you went over my head?"
Hell, he never had a chance of getting on her good side anyway. "Don't take this the wrong way sir, but this ain't about you."
"This isn't over," Jeno swore before storming away.
Soon everyone had heard, and Dreamer had to not explain himself twenty more times. Not to Caleb though, since the man bore an aversion to majority actions that bordered on the pathological. He had kept hovering nearby, maybe close enough to overhear his crewmates' confusion or anger, but Dreamer's avatar didn't encounter his lean, dark frame until the end of the day.
"So, what gives Dreamer?" Caleb's question was a curling wisp of smoke.
"I told you this was coming one day."
"Yeah but why now? Far as I know, you've been collectin' those scraps of metal for what, longer than I've been alive?" Much longer. "So what's changed all of a sudden?"
"I heard back from Ichiro." The transmission had been received, read, and wiped off the logs without having been played on any of Dreamer's monitors. Even now, he occasionally questioned whether it was ever real. "That buffer module we got on Diyont's definitely from the Righteous Divide. This's the first real solid lead I've gotten in a long time."
Caleb arched his eyebrows and gave an impressed whistle; Dreamer's first tendrils of worry had appeared when he saw those gears turning. "That...that's great news, my god. When do we leave?"
The day after tomorrow. Pack clothes for all climes, a gun, and something to read, Dreamer had almost said. However, he hadn't yet learned to ignore the voice telling him that Caleb's best interests weren't in dropping everything in his life to follow Dreamer on some half-baked personal quest. "Sorry bud, you're not comin' along on this one."
"Yeah, I am."
"This ain't your party Cale. I'm not dragging anybody else into this."
"Nobody's draggin' anythin' here; I want to go, I'm volunteering," Caleb crossed his arms, entrenching himself, "We're buddies Dreamer, and that means I'm gonna have your back on the things that're important to ya."
Dreamer shook his head, "Not this time. You got a real life now; I'm not gonna let ya throw it away."
"What I do with my life is my business, and my responsibility. You made that clear to me the first time we met." Caleb punctuated his words with jabs of his fingers, "Well, right now my choice is to help you, whether you like it or not."
The conversation devolved painfully after that, until Dreamer had finally snapped something that put a stone mask over Caleb's face. That had been followed by resentment at the fact that he should have to justify his actions to anyone, especially since he couldn't properly do it for himself -- not when it came down to the good, raw logic that A.I.'s were supposed to be able to throw down. "If you're still here after the others're gone I'm gonna force the issue, and I guarantee it ain't gonna be fun. Now go pack."
Danger flashed in Caleb's eyes but smoothed away quickly. Dreamer remembered being proud; there was a time when a quick punch would have been Caleb's response to that kind of tone. Then again, in many ways he had progressed more in eight years than Dreamer had in eighty. "Are you coming back?" Caleb asked flatly.
No. "I will if I can."
Caleb brushed by him with a dismissive grunt, "I've heard that before." Dreamer's sensors had trailed him all the way to his quarters.
A woman of her word, Jeno made several furious inquiries to Headquarters, and there were times Dreamer thought his transceivers would burst into flames. Regardless, three days later she invalidated her command codes and filed off an empty ship along with the rest of her people, Caleb included. The "proper goodbye" that Dreamer had floated in his mind stayed there, and when Caleb crossed the airlock threshold it had felt like something ripping loose.
Five hours later, Caleb reappeared at his airlock with his overstuffed duffle and a fresh bruise on his jaw.
Dreamer had barely debated the option of simply ignoring him and keeping the airlock closed. "What the fuck're you doin' back here?" he had snarled, conscious that he was gutting the demand with hope.
Caleb shrugged, less naturally than what he was normally capable of. "Well, I was thinking that maybe if I gave ya some space you'd get over your hissy fit." The corner of his lip lifted, "Apparently I was wrong?"
"For the last time, you're not comin'."
"Oh, too bad, 'cause that means you're not goin' anywhere either," Caleb's smirk widened toothily, "See, after you rudely kicked me out I went to get drunk and there was this nine-fingered space jock at the bar. One of us mentioned you, we had a few drinks, she may have made a pass I think...anyway, long story short, it turns out she's gonna pass on her next gig."
Dreamer had darkened his gaze midway through Caleb's story, annoyed that all the bothersome soliciting for pilots was now wasted. "Did ya get me a refund on my down payment too?"
Caleb reached into his jacket and tossed him a credit chip, "Of course." Smug son of a bitch; there were reasons why they got along. "I'll assume that like any good A.I. you've done your probabilities Dreamer. What're the odds of success on a mission of unknown parameters and duration with a paid stranger, versus somebody you can trust? Somebody -- a close and dear friend -- who knows the stakes and is willing to stick it out to the end no matter what?" Impeccable logic; the universe was a weird place.
At that point, Dreamer options had by no means been exhausted; he could've secured another pilot, made sure that Caleb stayed behind no matter how hard he fought. It had not been as inevitable as the mathematics.
Dreamer had stepped aside.
"Y'know," Caleb huffed as he wrestled his overstuffed duffle inside, "couldn't've you quit bein' a loser like a day earlier? 'Cause then we could've just left my crap on board, instead of me havin' to haul this heavy-ass bag back and forth. Expect payback."
Predictably, Sabrin and Tallas reacted to Selene's kiss as though they had never been subjected to such a bizarre ordeal before, which at least in Sabrin's case Dreamer knew was patently untrue. Selene grinned at the sight made by the two shocked men as she stepped back, tossing Dreamer a wry glance. "They seem awfully shy bro. Didn't think ya went for that."
"Takes time to break in a new crew," Dreamer sniped back, "Have you been stuck with the same outfit so long that you've forgotten?"
"Your epic turnover rate ain't somethin' to be proud of," Selene said sarcastically, turning to the others, "Dreamer here's worked through more captains than any other A.I. in the NSC."
"Oh you can't possibly make that my fault," Dreamer protested Selene's blatant attempt at character assassination. "I'm friendly...fuckin' adorable. Ask anyone," he looked around for support.
"I can see ways in which it'd be your fault," Tallas mused.
Dreamer glared at him, "Don't you and Sabe have a shuttle to catch? C'mon, get." He moved to corral the lot of them towards the airlock, Selene trailing behind with a satisfied expression. Her hand found his sleeve.
"Haven't seen one of these getups in a long time."
"You know me, sentimental as all fuck. It looks good, right?"
The backbone of Edoch Port was an open promenade that spanned the uppermost levels between the main docks and the control center. Canopied by great transparent vaults, it resembled a strange, phantom cathedral. Dreamer led the way, as he was the one most familiar with the station's layout. Looking around at the preponderance of uniforms, Dreamer hoped that the station's progressive militarization would not ruin the space. "So, um...how exactly can you two be related?" he heard Tallas ask.
Selene pounced first, "Dreamer an' I are sister ships."
"Sibling ships," Dreamer growled. Some of his crew snickered under their breaths; he made a note to himself to deal with their treachery at a later date. "The two of us came off the same production run: Inspired Seeker class, series 3-B."
"Which of you's older?" Tallas asked.
Dreamer raised a finger, "That'd be me. You can tell from the wisdom in my eyes."
"That'd be corrosion, from inadequate maintenance," Selene deadpanned, "You came along four full minutes before I did big brother, and judgin' from the results I can only imagine what you did with 'em." She ignored Dreamer's mortally clutching his chest, "There were sixteen of us originally. Dreamer was the third activated, I'm the fourth."
"That's some family."
"Well, that was more than a lifetime ago. Nowadays Dreamer and I are the only ones left." Selene said. Dreamer credited his machine nature for not stumbling over his feet.
'WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME ABOUT LYRIC?'
'I JUST GOT HERE DREAMER. MAYBE IF YOU'D LEFT A FORWARDING ADDRESS I COULD'VE UPDATED YOU MORE PROMPTLY.'
'SORRY, DIDN'T MEAN IT LIKE THAT. WHAT HAPPENED?'
Selene transmitted the relevant mission reports. They described the detection of anomalous EM signals from the vicinity of the star HD 30851, with the Pilgrim Lyric ordered to investigate. On the fourth day of the mission, the Lyric had failed to report for the scheduled check-in. Three vessels were subsequently dispatched for search and rescue but found no trace of the missing ship. Expanding the search to proximate systems also yielded negative results.
A couple blocks of text, and Dreamer no longer had a little brother. 'I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS.'
'YEAH. LOOKS LIKE IT'S JUST YOU AND ME NOW BRO.'
Dreamer hadn't said goodbye to Lyric either, although that had taken less effort because for many years running Lyric had refused to have any contact whatsoever with him. Lyric hated Dreamer's goals, knowing that the day Dreamer left it would likely be forever, and was utterly unable to understand why Dreamer couldn't give them up and fall in line with the rest of the fleet. He had reasoned, begged, threatened, and meddled until finally the futility of it became too painful and he severed Dreamer from him while he still had the chance.
'I WISH,' Dreamer started, having no idea how to finish.
'DON'T. THAT DOESN'T HELP.'
Reaching for something solid, Dreamer returned to the reports. 'WHY ISN'T THERE ANY DATA FROM THE ARGUS IN THESE REPORTS? HD 30851 IS IN RANGE, IT SHOULD'VE DETECTED SOMETHING.'
'THE ARGUS NETWORK'S DOWN. IT STOPPED TRANSMITTING A MONTH AFTER YOU LEFT. THERE'S A PROPOSAL TO REPAIR IT FLOATING AROUND THE NSC SECURITY COUNCIL BUT YOU KNOW HOW THAT GOES.'
'RIGHT. WHAT DO YOU THINK HAPPENED?'
'LYRIC'S NOT THE ONLY CASUALTY WE'VE HAD LATELY. WE SUSPECT THEY'VE GONE THE SAME WAY AS ALL THOSE MERCHANT SHIPS.'
Dreamer suddenly had the impression that he would be feeling much better if he had blown that asteroid base straight to hell. A quick calculation showed that it was barely possible with his current arsenal. 'PIRATES? SINCE WHEN DO THEY ATTACK LONE MILITARY TARGETS? THERE'S NO CASH THERE.'
'THEY'RE EXPANDING THEIR OPERATIONS EVERYWHERE. HQ BELIEVES THAT THEY'RE TRYING TO GET US TO PULL BACK FROM OUR ALLIES ALONG THE BORDER.' Selene sent over more information, bits and pieces waiting to be assembled and this was good -- Dreamer had done the exact same thing hundreds of times before. There were dossiers on suspected kingpins and collaborators, after-action reports on ambushes and hit-and-run attacks, assessments of ship movements and weapons trafficking. Much of it was marked classified -- it felt good that Selene apparently still regarded him as one of them.
'WHY HAVEN'T WE GONE AFTER THESE PLANETS?'
'THERE'S NOT MUCH SUPPORT ON THE CIVILIAN SIDE FOR AN OPERATION OF THAT SCALE, AT LEAST NOT WITHOUT MORE OR BETTER EVIDENCE. IT'S JUST AS WELL BECAUSE WE'RE BARELY COVERING ALL OUR BASES AS IT IS.'
'HQ'S NOT SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING WITHDRAWAL.'
'IT'S ON THE TABLE. THESE ARE UNFORTUNATE TIMES.' And your leaving didn't make it any easier, Dreamer added on his own. This isn't how it was supposed to happen. A.I.s died -- it was inevitable -- but he was the one always charging recklessly into unknown variables. Selene and Lyric were the ones who stayed where they were; they should have been getting together and mourning him. Of course, for all Dreamer knew they already had.
On a drab afternoon in a drab city, Dreamer had stood waiting on an intersection. Apartments walled in the sky, rows of post-Troyist concrete boxes built during one of those societal phases when everyone grossly misunderstands the concept of aesthetics. The familiar thought of leaving Caleb behind had flitted across his mind. It would be easy enough to arrange, and Caleb would be fine; he had access to their accounts and, even ditched, he wouldn't take more than what he needed to get back on his feet.
"Hope you had better luck than I did," Caleb called out as he crossed the street, peeling a pink orange he had somehow procured, "The yard boss says he ain't seen Ndzeku in months."
"Yeah he's long cleared outta his place. I found his ex-girlfriend though." She had been a sunken-eyed waif of a blonde, as callous as the stained walls and barred windows. "She said that he tapped his well dry so he had to skip town, somethin' about buyin' in with an Orion prospecting concern on Sakura's Moon, three jumps from here."
"Another one goes to the Orions. S'pose bendin' over makes for better livin'."
Three hard years of false leads and shady contacts had finally set them onto the trail of the man who had originally sold the buffer module, along with several other very interesting pieces of technology. Badrim Ndzeku, who went through addresses like pieces of gum, had led them into the shadow of the Orion Empire. There the people talked a little quieter and walked a bit softer, as though if they kept their heads down they might not rouse the dragon in their back yard. Rumors told of the local governors paying the Orions to leave them alone -- wishful crap as far as Dreamer was concerned. NSC pundits could posture all they liked, but the Orions weren't just some upstart Guild gang running a protection racket. If they were absent somewhere, it was because they had no reason to be there -- yet.
Caleb scooped out the last edible bits and tossed the rinds in a storm drain. He regarded Dreamer curiously, "Well? Let's head out."
"Hold on," Dreamer had scanned the gray streets, "Huh, they said five minutes."
Caleb's eyes narrowed, "Who?" He took a small step back when a van brandishing painted flowers and balloons on its side unmerged from the lanes of traffic and descended to rest gently nearby.
A young man in a hideously festive ensemble emerged, with pain in his eyes and a pink box in his hands. "Are you Caleb Ghant?" Caleb nodded, only realizing the extent of his mistake when the man cleared his throat. "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you..." People stopped to watch -- a child and her mother, an older gentleman, two twenty-somethings in business suits.
"Shi--" Caleb hissed, glancing at his audience, "Dreamer, I told you I don't want no bells or whistles for my b-day!"
"And what did you think would be the end result of that?" Caleb really should have known, seeing how it happened every year. With a flourish, Dreamer had opened the box and stuck the "2" and "7" wax shapes into the frosting. Flattening his palm, he had uncovered his weapon and deftly touched the spark of energy at the tip to each wick, which suitably impressed the onlookers. "Now, blow out the candles on your damned cake and thank your lucky stars that I'm not poppin' outta this one."
"I think we learned our lesson about that from Kimmer's bachelor party." Caleb stared intently at the strawberry monstrosity, his favorite flavor despite his adamant protests otherwise. The tiny flames danced suspiciously bright in his eyes.
"...haaappy biiirthday tooo youuu." There was a smattering of applause and the little girl laughed like a spring shower. Dreamer had laughed somewhat less innocently.
"Don't forget to make a wish."
With an evil eye, Caleb leaned forward and blew.
"That's terrible. I'm sorry," Fennic touched Dreamer's arm. The others shared their sympathies as well.
"It's okay," Dreamer smiled in gratitude, "Like she said, it's been a long time since I've had that many sibs. God, I don't think all sixteen of us were ever in one spot again after the commissioning ceremony."
"How unfortunate," Lirelle said.
Both androids shrugged; accomodating A.I. family reunions was not a high priority for Headquarters, not the least due to the inherent logistical difficulties. "I think the closest we ever came was that time seven of us were in link range for that bioweapon scare in the Klattenhoff System," Selene said.
"Oh yeah, that was fun, runnin' down a dozen shipfuls of hypochrondriacs," Dreamer shook his head, "Mutagenetic viral encephalopathy my ass."
"The threat was real Dreamer, even if the weapon turned out not to be," Selene chided, "Would you rather that there had been an outbreak? That would've served 'em right."
"I'll say," Dreamer grinned. "So sis, how long are ya here for?"
"I'm catchin' a transport out tomorrow mornin', station time," Selene said. "I'm still on duty remember? Eight-point patrol," she added at Dreamer's disappointed expression. "Howabout you? I'm guessin' you're not comin' back to the Fleet."
"Not exactly. I got a new job escortin' convoys for the Mems. In fact, we just got back from bustin' up a big pirate operation in Dvesh," Dreamer said proudly. As he spoke he watched his crewmates, checking whether they recognized that he trusted Selene with the sundry, dangerous bits of information they had accrued.
"That was you guys?" Selene was surprised, "The newsfeeds didn't mention it."
"We kind of have to keep a low profile right now," Sabrin said.
Selene made an incredulous noise, "With Dreamer? Good luck."
"I hear ya, but I'm afraid we're stuck with him," Tallas lamented in a long-suffering tone, throwing a hearty arm across Dreamer's shoulders which was quickly -- and indignantly -- shaken off.
When they reached the shuttle, the waiting pilot raised an eyebrow at the group of them before introducing herself as Lieutenant Durois. Watching her efficiently usher Sabrin and Tallas inside, Dreamer idly wondered whether playing chaffeur was reward or punishment for the young officer.
The massive Orion squinted at their transit papers, then at Caleb, and then at the papers again. For all the room available on his face, his eyes, nose, and mouth seemed unpleasantly crowded together, and Dreamer had been tempted to reach out and fix it. Outside, the Orion border station was arranged around him in three pieces, their jagged inner surfaces presented to him like the molars of some improbable beast. The place was a cosmic blind alley: a barren sun with a single jump potential. All the Orion Gateways were like that.
"'Caledon Irrunosh', Interstellar Cartographic Society," the Orion read thickly.
"Yes, yes that's correct sir," Caleb said in a caricatured nasal whine that several of Dreamer's more scholarly friends would have smacked him for. Caleb had also lowered his head slightly and drawn in his shoulders, primal signals of submission still recognizable to the human psyche. "Pseudospatial topologist, first class." They had picked jump topology for their cover because it was a subject that even the experts barely understood, so the chances of Caleb being questioned on it were virtually non-existent.
The windows glowed with the combined light of three tractor beams. Dreamer's metaphorical skin had crawled; the Orions were all over him, inside and out. He had been confident though -- there was nothing for them to find anymore, not since he and Caleb stripped his decks to the bone to buy their ticket into Orion space.
"Right," the Orion dismissed Caleb with a flicker of his eyes as his hand went to the comlink in front of his ear. As he listened his gaze flashed suspiciously to Dreamer. In return Dreamer had stared blankly at the wall, as he supposed the Orions might think completely harmless A.I.s ought to do. Without active sensors it was impossible to intercept the Orion transmission, so all he could have done was wait. "Acknowledged sir."
"I sincerely hope everything's in order," Man, Caleb had laid on the nervous sincerity thick, "I really cannot be delayed to the conference--"
"Hnn," with one last suspicious look -- at Dreamer, again, not Caleb -- the Orion pointed his authorization stamp at the pad until it beeped, handed it back to them, and left. The rest of his compatriots also withdrew in short order. Caleb bared his teeth at the Orion's back before loosening his ill-befitting collar. The rest of his straitjacket persona was shed in stages as he dropped gracelessly into the pilot's seat.
His voice was rougher on the rebound, "Think that means we passed muster?"
"I hope so. I'd hate to die here."
The Orion pod disengaged and returned to the recesses of the station. Its six much larger cousins merited more concern, one holding position close by while the rest patrolled the potential. That had been the first time Dreamer had seen Orion warships up close, and he'd decided that the Orions designed ships either like drunks or artists, or maybe both.
"Still think this was a good idea?" Caleb asked after six minutes ticked away. His knee rocked in small, fast ups and downs, as though he was trying to keep warm. His hand swiped through the empty air over the console, missing something being there. "What the fuck was I on, agreein' to this? You don't sneak into a house through the front door..."
Perhaps not, but the closest place where they had a realistic shot of sneaking in was a dozen jumps from Sakura's Moon, and the Orions attacked any ship caught inside their space without documentation. Dreamer had no intention of testing those odds when they had an -- at the time -- perfectly legitimate alternative.
"Somethin's gotta be wrong; I can feel it. Why haven't they released the tractors?" Caleb asked, louder, after fourteen minutes were gone.
Dreamer had placed a calming hand on Caleb's shoulder, "Could be lots of reasons." Anxiety had pressed in on him too -- it might have been contagious, Caleb's fight-or-flight response being more acutely attuned than most. Still, as far as he had been able to tell the Orion ships had not changed their dispositions. "No need to automatically assume the worst."
"Oh, Dreamer, buddy," Caleb's fingers squeezed his, "I'm gonna be so, so right."
The tractor beams shut down at nineteen and a half minutes; the shivers of a netted fish slipping back into the water ran through Dreamer's systems. "See? It's okay. Get us the hell out of here, nice and slow."
A less cynical person might have been surprised by what happened after. "Three of the Orion ships are headed for us," Caleb reported tightly.
"I'm gettin' a transmission. They're orderin' us to power down." Considering how much time Dreamer had wasted for their interminable inspection, the Orions needed to make up their damned minds. So much of what the Orions did then didn't make sense -- why they had waited to open fire even though they were well within range, or for that matter why they hadn't taken care of their business when he was helpless inside the maw of their station. Caleb's hands flew over the helm. "Cale, hold on--"
"No, no more holdin' on. We shouldn't've tried this," Energy pumped into his engines. "Ten seconds."
Target locks blossomed across him. "We might not last ten seconds."
They managed to jump, barely. His shields had been blistered away and half the emitters fried. Fire had lanced into him, penetrating as deep as two sections in -- at least they were little more than empty rooms now. Plasma was spilling into his habitable spaces, burning more of him. Hard to describe what taking damage was like; it wasn't pain -- that would be silly for a machine to feel -- but it was more than just the data being fed back by his sensors. Miraculously no critical systems had been hit.
"The Orions'll be on top of us any second," Caleb croaked through the smoke. Dreamer had startled a bit at that, realizing that Caleb had jumped them into Orion space, one step closer to Ndzeku. Emotion had rushed through him, manifesting as a wild grin. Caleb mirrored his expression, "I told ya, I'm stickin' this out to the end. No matter what."
"Then it might be time for somethin' desperate and crazy."
"I think I'm there." Caleb's tone was ironic.
"Open the antimatter vents and fly us for the widest dispersal you can." During any jump, there would be a split-second of vulnerability before the vessel's shields could be raised. There had only been enough fuel to cover maybe one-tenth of the volume in which the Orions could potentially appear, but hell, their luck seemed to have been just screwy enough that day for it to work.
When the Orions arrived, scattered antimatter particles contacted and shorted out their delicate jump vanes and sensor arrays. As they dwindled in the distance Dreamer had hugged Caleb from behind. "God I love ya man."
'WITH EVERYTHING THAT'S HAPPENED, IT MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SUCH A GOOD IDEA FOR YOU TO COME HERE. WHEN HQ HEARS ABOUT IT THERE'LL BE CONSEQUENCES, ESPECIALLY IF THEY FIND OUT YOU'VE BEEN COMPROMISED BY THE ORIONS.'
Dreamer bristled at the word "compromised", though that was what happened. He managed to stop himself from asking where his former superiors would hear such information about him -- the truth was that if it came down to the gauntlet, Selene would "neglect" to include him in her official reports because their bond was older than the Polarian Alliance. 'I'M NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS ANYMORE.'
''THE HELL YOU AREN'T. MAYBE YOUR PRIORITIES GOT FUCKED UP BUT THE REST OF US ARE STILL FLEET. IF YOU WERE QUITTING US RIGHT ALONG WITH POLARIS THEN YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE BOTHERED COMING BACK AT ALL.'
'WHAT I MEANT WAS THAT IF HQ WANTS TO MAKE A FUSS ABOUT ME BEING HERE, THEN LET THEM. IT'S THEIR TIME TO WASTE.'
'SEE, THIS IS YOUR PROBLEM. ONE OF THEM. YOU NEVER WORRY ENOUGH ABOUT THE RIGHT THINGS.'
He would have shrugged if he could; it wasn't like he could dictate how the Polarians chose to spend their time. 'DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT.'
'YOU'RE NOT FUNNY.'
'I'LL WATCH MY BACK, I PROMISE.' A small concession that Dreamer might even keep, unless he went to Polaris which would be doing basically the exact opposite. He had never bothered to include the "I promise" part before, since with the link Selene could tell how much he meant anything he said.
'GUESS I CAN'T ASK FOR MORE THAN THAT. WILL YOU BE HANGING AROUND HERE?'
'FOR THE TIME BEING, UNTIL I CAN GET BACK ON TRACK.' The buffer module was genuine. Sure, the trail was iced over by now, but there should be enough left for him to find where he made the wrong turn.
There was an appreciable pause from Selene, probably to contemplate whether throttling his stubborn ass would do any good. Unexpectedly, what she sent next were pinging instructions for an off-grid comn server. 'OKAY, IF YOU EVER NEED HELP I'LL TRY TO GIVE IT. DON'T GO THROUGH SID NEXT TIME, THAT KIND OF SCUM EVEN YOU'RE TOO GOOD FOR.'
Dreamer always had an inkling that he didn't quite deserve to have the people standing by him that he did, but once in a while the reality of it would strike him like a sledghammer made of sunshine. 'THANKS SIS. I CAN'T TELL YOU HOW MUCH THAT MEANS.'
After the shuttle glided past the force-field barrier into space, Dreamer turned to Lirelle and Fennic. "The rest of you humans want food? I know a place that some of my last crew liked."
"So, I haven't heard how the two of you ended up with my brother," Selene prompted as they wove their way past other travelers and luggage.
"I originally joined Dreamer for a salvage operation, which through a sequence of unanticipated events led to our current, mutually beneficial arrangement." Lirelle said, the degree of understatement staggering enough that the sentence was more likely than not uttered by an upper-crust Kinjori.
"An expatriate." Her quiet words held a lingering hint of bitterness, though Dreamer was unsure as to where it was directed. Selene nodded in acknowledgement and left it there, looking to Fennic. The boy's cheeks reddened, and not just from bashfulness at her attention; Dreamer was considering stepping in when Fennic began speaking.
"Dreamer...rescued me from a lab," Fennic struggled, biting his lip, "where they uh...they..."
"They were doin' some sort of experimentation on him," Dreamer supplied, sending Selene further data about Channing, Kion'Seg, and Silvestra's limited findings on Fennic's alterations. He still had little idea about what Channing and his cronies were trying to do; Fennic didn't talk about it and he wasn't about to push.
"He risked his life to save me, even though he barely knew me."
"How many times do I gotta tell ya bud, ya saved yourself," Dreamer said firmly, "All we did was give ya a hand for the final stretch."
"Okay," Fennic smiled at him, green eyes soft as anything.
The day before Caleb's last, Dreamer had brought him take-out from a quaint little Cygnese place and a bottle of cheap tequila, on the way back from reconnoitering Ndzeku. The hull was patched -- not particularly well, but enough that no battle scars drew attention to them as they settled on one of the pathetically-maintained landing strips outside the settlement. Their hastily doctored transit papers had been good enough for the local traffic control.
"Hey you're back." Caleb called from beneath the bridge console he was piecing back together, "Anything go wrong?"
"Not this time. He's just some sad old guy." Whatever promises of Orion prosperity Ndzeku had been given were clearly nothing but propaganda, and from what Dreamer had seen his time for promises was over. Dreamer probably could have broken his cover, marched into that sorry excuse for a workplace, and dragged the man out by his dirty collar for interrogation without raising so much as a blip anywhere on the moon. He would have too if there had been any sign that Ndzeku would be uncooperative otherwise. "He works the early morning shift alone. I'll go chat him up then."
"Fine, what time?"
"I was thinking 0500, catch him good and bleary," Dreamer dropped the paper bag beside him, "Here."
Caleb perked up. "What's all this?"
"Duh, what's it look like?"
"Oh wow," Caleb pulled out the styrofoam containers, opening each of them in turn and inhaling deeply before putting them on the deck around him. "Can we afford this?"
"Who cares? It's a special occasion." Caleb's mouth was already stuffed so his budgetary concerns couldn't have been that serious. "Besides, you've been eating nothin' but my rations for the last forty days. I'm worried ya might try to gnaw your arm off."
"No way, me an' my arm have got way too much history together. But I would've sold your android ass for decent curry."
That night was a good one, joking and reminiscing, no one else around to be annoyed by how loud they were being. Caleb hadn't had what most people would have considered a pleasant laugh; loud and rough, it was a sound that expected open air and rust. Once upon a time he had been self-conscious about it, until Dreamer gently told him that he had not pulled him out of the gutter just so he could make an ass of himself pretending to be something he wasn't.
"I'm not fuckin' cleanin' this up," Dreamer had told Caleb after the food had been thoroughly decimated.
Caleb merely stretched and rubbed his belly, smiling the smile of the sated and more than slightly drunk. "Says you. I'll just leave it 'ere and we'll see who cracks first."
"I'll be crackin' your skull if ya don't get off your lazy ass."
Smirking, Caleb pushed himself onto his hands and knees and crawled towards him, managing to move a single used sauce packet into a container before pitching over onto his back again, putting his head in Dreamer's lap. "There, I cleaned," he said with impish pride. Dreamer's response had been to roll his eyes, as he carded his fingers through Caleb's black curls. "This is the life, eh Dreamer? Just you and me."
Dreamer had snorted, "You need bigger ambitions boy."
"Don't call me boy." Caleb tried to swat him and missed by a hilarious margin. He arched into Dreamer's hand like a pampered cat. "It's like the good ol' days."
As far as Dreamer knew, being a small-time fence-slash-counterfeiter wasn't his or anybody else's idea of a good time. Nor was the pickpocketing, though he could appreciate having a diversity of talent. "Ya hated the 'good ol' days'. You couldn't be happier when I got you out of it."
"Still, sometimes I missed the excitement y'know? Thinkin' on your feet."
A puff of air blew past Dreamer's teeth. "Humans. If y'all remembered things half the way they actually went down you'd get much fewer of these dumb nostalgia attacks."
"Pot, meet kettle," Caleb raised himself up and clumsily twisted around to settle over Dreamer's thighs, "Y'know I knew, first time I ever set my eyes on you. You were just my kind of trouble." Dreamer had sensed Caleb's heavy breaths across his lips, detected the alcohol molecules and other chemical traces. He had measured Caleb's vasodilation, spreading over his face and neck. "Lord you're pretty."
Hardly the first time Caleb had said such a thing, especially after a couple drinks. Dreamer had curled his right hand around the back of Caleb's neck, stroked his thumb over that spot behind his ear to elicit the predictable hitch in breath. His mouth had curled lazily into a self-satisfied leer -- he knew how humans liked to be touched. Caleb though deviated from the program: he didn't wink, didn't make some smartass remark. Slowly but inexorably he leaned forward.
Dreamer had turned away. It was inexcusable that he had expected that moment for so long and still been unprepared. "Cale..."
"Everythin' in this life's got a price Dreamer; this is mine," Caleb's lips turned with him and caught him anyway. Dreamer hadn't resisted as much as he should have. "This is what I want for gettin' you to Penelope. I get that you can't give me the real thing, I know why and I'm not askin' for it. I won't bring this up tomorrow, or the day after or ever again. But tonight...just for tonight, I want you to pretend."
He shouldn't have been able to refuse and still have Caleb follow him into oblivion. So Dreamer had pretended, held Caleb's wiry body close and pressed kisses to his neck, used his hands and tongue and breath to make him cry out, substituting for a human core.
Dreamer had tightened his arms when Caleb said "I love you" into his neck, over and over and soft like a prayer.
He parsed the seconds into hundredths, into thousandths. His avatar still met Caleb outside the shop as per the plan, the weak sun low and barely lighting the horizon. Caleb still did not reach for the weapon hidden in his jacket -- why would he have? -- when Dreamer raised his hand. And in the end, Caleb still forgave him as he fired.
Dreamer smiled good-naturedly; the important thing was that his crewmates were enjoying themselves and getting along with Selene; Fennic even seemed to have shed some of his nervousness around her. Dreamer would inform them later that his sister was a filthy liar and that there was no way she could've verified what had happened on his assignment to evict Gillies and his loyal band of hallucinogen-addled disciples from their "research outpost".
Selene's message arrived in his mind while he was explaining that no, that had not been a "distress call that could wake the dead" but rather a carefully worded request for assistance. Fennic laughed right along with Lirelle, but at least had the good grace to assure Dreamer that he believed him afterward.
'THAT BOY'S IN LOVE WITH YOU.'
'YES, I'VE NOTICED.' There was nothing more he wanted to say.