Disclaimer: This story contains elements that 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 2010 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
the Enigma of Flatness
|The Broken Bridge||Part XXII
Somehow, improbable as it was, life on the Dream of Dawn over the past couple weeks had settled into a strange sort of routine. Despite their new terms of employment with the Alyans, so far they have continued to be assigned escort duty. The missions have been proceeding smoothly, with the incidence of piracy in the region remaining depressed from their action at Dvesh.
The Dream was orbiting the Procyonese colony world of Kogaba-Lang, on day one of the standard two-day break between assignments. Tallas lounged at the starboard console, reading a mystery novel, while Ky manned the helm. That was becoming an all too familiar nightly sight -- sure, the man didn't need to sleep, but Tallas figured that if it were him, he'd still have gone crazy sitting there for twelve hours a day. He'd asked once about it, and received only a quiet "I don't mind" in reply. That was becoming familiar too; Ky wasn't all that talkative to begin with, and since Selene's visit he'd turned almost mute.
Some kind of major blow-up had gone down between the others on the day that he and Sabrin spent on Mnemosyne. While he gathered that apologies had been made, even now a conversation here or there would turn tense or awkward, and then end. He wanted to help, but no one was talking and Sabrin was predictably useless, being content to stay out of it.
Tallas smiled at the heavy hand on his shoulder. "Hey. See? You survived."
"The drinks were good." Sabrin had been roped into dinner with the skippers of the freighters they had just escorted, some sort of captains-only event commemorating another job well done. It was exactly the kind of aimless self-congratulation that Sabrin would've faked a highly contagious necrotizing infection to get out of, except that there was apparently never a bad time for networking, as Dreamer had put it.
"And the company?"
Tallas raised an eyebrow and craned his neck back, noticing the slight flush on Sabrin's cheeks and the sloppily undone collar. So a bit tipsy, then; he was completely fine with that.
"How's the book?"
Tallas marked his place and set the reader down; he suspected he wouldn't be getting any more reading done that night. "Not that good. I'm only halfway through and I figured out who did it three chapters ago."
"If you figured that out why're you still reading it?"
"I wanna see if I'm right."
"Then just skip to the end," Sabrin said like that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do to a book. Tallas made sure that his answering look properly conveyed how stupid he thought that was, which got him an -- honestly adorable -- pout. He would've pointed it out just to hear Sabrin deny it, if Dreamer's image had not appeared on a nearby monitor.
"Sabe, you're back, good. Listen up guys, we're having a meeting tomorrow morning. Conference room, oh-nine-hundred."
"Conference room?" Tallas asked. "What for?" Dreamer had simply been briefing them on their new assignments at their convenience, wherever on the ship that happened to be.
"It's a surprise."
"I don't like surprises," Sabrin said.
"Just come." Dreamer rolled his eyes and vanished.
Tallas shrugged at Sabrin, and allowed himself to be pulled from his seat. He bade good night to Ky, who he didn't think Sabrin had noticed until then. Ky gave them a parting wave without turning around.
Bright and early, breakfast barely settled for those who bothered with that meal of the day, the entire complement of the Dream took places around the big conference room table. Dreamer stood at the front with what Sabrin would've called an eager glint in his eyes. He decided he'd be the one to ask. "Well, we're all here. What's with the mystery?"
"Makes things more exciting. Lirelle? It's your show," Dreamer yielded the room to her with a flourish.
Lirelle plugged a dataslip into the table, bringing up a holographic display of layers upon layers of glowing blue computer code. "You all may be aware that I've been working sporadically on the Orion disc for some time. Unsuccessfully, until a few days ago. I've--"
"You decrypted it?!" Sabrin all but demanded. He hadn't set eyes on the disc since the day they found the Dream and fled, and he couldn't say that he'd missed it.
"What?" Fennic glanced between them in confusion.
"The datadisc that Sabe and Tal found on Astral-Ishasa. What the Orions're after 'em for," Dreamer supplied.
"Decrypting the disc completely, without the key, is in all likelihood impossible, at least given the resources available to us," Lirelle addressed Sabrin, "However, I have devised a way to randomly retrieve small blocks of data. Dreamer and I have set up an automated process; about fifteen percent of the disc content has been recovered so far, and I anticipate being able to reconstruct ninety-nine percent of it within thirty days."
Sabrin stared at the floating mass of symbols, trying and failing to see the thing responsible for upending their lives. "So what exactly are we looking at?"
"Decompiled programming code," Lirelle flipped the display to a new set of code, then another and another, "Whatever it is, it occupies almost the entire disc memory."
"Is there no way to tell what it does?" Tallas asked.
"Not from this. We'll attempt to recompile the program once we have the complete code, but there are no guarantees."
"So for now we still have to wait," Sabrin let out the breath he'd been holding. "Was there anything else on the disc?"
"As a matter of fact, that's why we called this meeting. This was recovered yesterday, just after oh-two-thirty," Lirelle switched the display to some kind of log, judging by what looked like dates and coordinates. "Jump logs, covering a timespan of five months starting from the twenty-second of four years ago. They came from a ship called the Osiphron, registry L-N-V-S 6-1-0-A. Is that known to you?"
Both Sabrin and Tallas shook their heads. "No, but LNVS means a long-range strike cruiser," Sabrin said.
"Like the four that showed up at Forseti," Tallas finished the thought, his troubled look mirroring Sabrin's. The Osiphron was not among those at Forseti, unless its name had been changed. They had thought it peculiar enough to find one group of Orion warships so far outside the Empire, but more worrisome was the notion that perhaps it wasn't peculiar at all.
"We had surmised as much. The Orions have apparently been far more active outside their borders than is generally believed. Here's the plot of this data," Lirelle changed the display to a jump route map with the ship's course. The line zig-zagged from star to star with no obvious pattern, but then angled back sharply into a series of jumps making a beeline for what Sabrin assumed was Orion space.
"Which system is that?" Tallas indicated the glowing dot at the vertex of the angle.
"Adhara," Dreamer answered, "It's nine jumps from here. At least a two-day trip."
Tallas blinked. "Jumping the gun much, Dreamer?"
"No time like the present, seize the day and all that." Dreamer looked at the map and a second line appeared marking the route they'd take, "Whatever the Orions were lookin' for, they found it at Adhara. We've gotta go."
"Assuming the ship wasn't simply recalled," Lirelle pointed out, earning her a huff that said she was being a killjoy.
"That Orion mission was four years ago. What do you expect to find there now?" Ky asked.
The hologram changed to a realspace map of the Adhara system: the massively brilliant primary star and its dim companion, six jump potentials, and a ninth, highlighted symbol. "Gnosis Station," Dreamer said, "Even if the Orions didn't stop there, they've got sensor buoys all over the system. At the very least we should find out who else was there with that ship."
"What about our job? The Alyans are giving us a new assignment tomorrow." Despite his words Tallas was warming to the idea; Sabrin saw it in his eyes, his posture, with a growing sense of dread coiling in his gut.
"Well, obviously I'm not thinking we all go. Lirelle's shuttle can take two plus supplies; they can hitch a jumpliner here to Resqandi, and piggyback on a trader the rest of the way."
"Hey, hold on," The others turned at Sabrin's raised voice. "Can we just fuckin' step back for a second, before anybody starts packing their bags? Why are we going at all?"
"To find out what the Orions're doin' out here," Dreamer said, his brow crinkling as though it should've been obvious.
"Why? What difference does it make? The Imperials want that disc back, but they haven't bothered chasing us since we left their space. Maybe they've given up on finding us or they don't care as long as we don't come back with their secret. Either way I'd rather not go poking around in a place we know they've been to before."
"What's the matter with you? I thought you'd be thrilled that we'd finally cracked this damned thing after all the grief it caused you two," Dreamer said, irked, "Seriously, even if you've decided that you don't care what's on the disc, you can't possibly think that the Orions've stopped lookin', just 'cause they haven't found us yet. In case you'd forgotten, it's not just the disc, they're after me, too."
Sabrin was chagrined that he had in fact forgotten. Still, he insisted, "All the more reason not to go looking for trouble."
Dreamer snorted. "I've been neck-deep in trouble all my life. You might want to stick your head in the sand, but I don't operate that way."
That got Sabrin's hackles up. "Well that's that then. I can't do anything about you going."
"Yeah except, I can't go on this one...I was about to get to that part." Dreamer rubbed the back of his neck. "Gnosis Station is run by the Stavar Guild. The last time I was there, near ten years ago, I left kind of a...bad impression. I have it on good authority that nowadays they have a cyber-suppression field runnin' all the time around the whole place, so I won't be able to get close. We need Lirelle to get the info from their computers, and I was gonna ask you or Tal to back her up."
Sabrin clamped down on his knee-jerk response, which was count me out. He didn't disagree with Dreamer's reasoning; putting Lirelle and Ky together in a small space for days would've been excruciating for both, and sending Fennic was out of the question. And just because he didn't support the mission didn't mean he would've let Lirelle go without backup or let Tallas take the role by default. Sabrin wished he knew what Tallas was thinking; those dark eyes held concern as they flickered between him and Dreamer, but the man didn't seem prepared to interject.
Eventually it was Lirelle, ever diplomatic, who said, "Might I recommend that we adjurn for now? Any excursion to Adhara will be potentially dangerous, with a number of factors to consider. We should reflect and come to a decision later."
"Sabe, Sabe." Tallas almost had to jog to keep up as Sabrin strode out of the conference room. Reaching out, he spun the other man around at the bottom of the stairs on deck two. "C'mon, talk to me. What was that back there?"
"I'm not allowed to have an opinion now?" Sabrin snapped, then immediately looked contrite.
"I'm not accusing you," Tallas squeezed Sabrin's arm before stepping back, "I just don't...help me understand this." He was a bit sorry too, for not being as supportive as he could've been at the meeting after being caught off-guard. Even now he wasn't quite sure what he thought they should do. "Don't you want to know what the deal with that disc is?"
"It's not worth the risk," Sabrin said, "We have a good thing going on now, with the Alyans, and as far as we can tell the Imperials don't know where we are. If we show up at Adhara all that gets shot to hell."
Given the specter of discovery that already hung over all of them, Tallas didn't find the prospect of investigating Adhara that much more dangerous. It was certainly better than hunkering down and hoping for the best, and he was disturbed that Sabrin sounded like he was resigned to doing just that. "Whether we go or not, they're gonna keep hunting us."
"We don't know that, and what if they were? That doesn't mean we should make it easy for them."
"But isn't it better to do something than look over our shoulders for the rest of our lives?"
"Okay, we don't know if we'll find anything at Adhara, we don't know what kind of danger might be waiting for us there," Sabrin ticked off on his fingers, "and we don't know what we can do with the info even if we got it. This is not a good bet."
"Yeah I see your point, but..." Tallas set his mouth in a grim line. The odds were not in their favor, no, but that was hardly new. When the alternative was giving in to their powerlessness, he felt like he'd throw the die anyway. "Is this it then?"
"Tal, I know it's frustrating, and it sucks, but it's what we have to make the best of." Sabrin's hand rose to cup the side of his face, bringing them closer. "Remember that afternoon on Mnemosyne? I realized then that this can still be a good life for us. I...I'd hoped you saw it too. If you didn't I promise you will." Tallas closed his eyes and lost his thoughts in Sabrin's warm touch. Their days have been good. He just hated that he didn't know if that was enough.
New orders came that evening, placing the Dream with a quartet of outbound mining ships the next day. The Adhara question had been placed on hold, or so Tallas thought until, coming off his morning shift, he noticed Lirelle disappearing around a far corner. Following a hunch, he went to the launch bay and saw her checking over her shuttle's external sensors.
"Lirelle, going on a trip?"
Lirelle sighed and turned to face him. "Can I convince you not to inform Sabrin until I'm under way? I realize that would unfairly put you in a very difficult position, but I assure you that deceiving him isn't our intent."
"You just don't want him to force himself to go with you, and we both know he would if he knew," Tallas gave a rueful smile.
"Quite so," Lirelle inclined her head and returned his expression, "His objections are absolutely valid. Given that the Orions know what was on the disc, it is certainly possible that they have placed the system under surveillance. However, if I go alone the risk to the rest of you should be minimal, as there's no reason to believe the Orions are aware of any connection between I and either the disc or the Dream."
"That might be true, but it's still Guild territory."
"Your concern is appreciated, but I can handle myself. I've dealt with Guild members before." Lirelle returned to her work.
"You still shouldn't be going solo," Tallas insisted.
"That's the best option, given the risks."
"Yeah, for us, not for you," Tallas kept shadowing Lirelle as she ducked under the shuttle nose and began scanning the other wing, "You really don't have to do this; Sabe and I are fine with leaving this thing alone." Not quite true, but Lirelle shouldn't endanger herself for the sake of his issues.
"Again, I can handle myself. It's important that we know what happened in Adhara," Lirelle replied blithely.
"Why? What would you get out of it? The disc doesn't have anything to do with you."
Lirelle paused to consider her words. "For too many years I wasted my training on the wrong priorities, and lost sight of the principles I'd once sworn to uphold. It cost me dearly, and all I can do now is try and be better. I highly doubt that the Orions have a peaceful purpose in sending warships so far from their space, in such secrecy. If I can uncover any information that can be of use to the people here in dealing with the situation, then my going would've been worthwhile."
"Oh, I didn't..." Tallas was taken aback; what did he hold with such conviction? Not his oath to the Imperial Guard, which he had well betrayed by deserting his post and had never given much thought to in any case, seeing as his decision to join up was barely a decision at all. In fact, if he'd sworn to anything it was to Sabrin, and the rest of their friends. "I'm coming with you."
Lirelle cocked an eyebrow, "That's not necessary, and if the Orions recognize you..."
"We'll be careful. The bottom line is it's not right for you to go by yourself, or with Sabe when I'm the one who needs to know too," Tallas admitted. He had been the one who found the datadisc on the street, picked it up and taken it home. He had uprooted his and Sabrin's lives and brought them here, for better or worse, and he needed to know the significance of that disc even it changed nothing.
Lirelle acknowledged his decision with a nod. "What of Sabrin?"
Tallas bit his lip; that was going to be awful, no matter what. "Hopefully he'll understand eventually, and forgive me." He glanced around, "What have you still left to do?"
The two of them worked through the afternoon, checking systems and equipment, and loading crates of supplies, weapons, and most of the freely convertible hard currency they had stashed on board. Dreamer's avatar pitched in at irregular intervals but mostly ran interference to keep the others from finding out. His guilt compounded as their planned departure time approached and he continued to avoid Sabrin.
He couldn't put it off forever though. After a somber dinner he pulled Sabrin into his quarters and kissed him, tracing the handsome lines of his face. "Sabe, I'm sorry," he said under their mingled breaths.
Sabrin tensed and stepped back, "What for?"
"Lirelle and I are heading for Adhara tonight. Very soon, actually."
"That's not funny." Sabrin stood stock-still with his hands at his sides. Tallas forced himself to meet those blue eyes, watch the hurt steadily filtering in around the edges. "When did you decide this?" Sabrin asked quietly.
No more hiding. "This afternoon. After I found Lirelle prepping her shuttle. We didn't tell you because we knew you'd feel obligated to go even though you think it's a bad idea."
Sabrin didn't deny it. He dropped his head and took a deep breath. "I guess you'd better get going then," he said as he walked stiffly towards his own quarters.
Tallas knew Sabrin well enough that he could pick out the injured strain beneath that cold tone, which was worse than a physical blow. He opened his mouth, but another "sorry" would only sound trite, and he could bring nothing more profound to mind before the door slid closed behind Sabrin's back. It seemed the only thing he could do was go to the shuttle.
The others had wished them luck and Lirelle had begun the pre-flight sequence, when Sabrin ran into the bay. Tallas scrambled out of his seat and met him at the ramp, to be pulled into a long, bruising kiss. "Be safe," Sabrin muttered before he left.
Sabrin sat outside the door to the launch bay, his elbows on his knees and his gaze between them. His breaths were long and measured as he imagined the shuttle dwindling, until the twin spots of its engines submerged into the sea of stars. He could still feel Tallas on his lips; that wasn't a goodbye, there on the ramp. It wasn't.
A pair of booted feet appeared at the periphery of his vision. His name came down in a deep, gentle voice.
"Go away Dreamer," he said calmly, "I don't want to see you right now."
"I'm sorry that this was how it went, that we kept you in the dark. Maybe that was selfish on our part. But I swear to you, we had nothin' to do with Tal going. That was his decision."
Slowly, Sabrin pushed himself to standing. He looked at Dreamer, at his sincere, solemn expression, and punched him hard enough to drop him onto one knee. Sabrin regarded his hand absently; the knuckles were already starting to swell and redden, and the throbbing suggested that something might have cracked.
Dreamer stayed bowed down for the moment, obviously not because he was really damaged. "That was free shot Sabe, 'cause you're hurtin'. But what I said was true. Tal made up his own mind."
"I know that," Sabrin snapped, "You honestly think you can trick Tal into doing something he didn't really want to do?" It would've been easier if it had been a trick. As things stood he was just so desperately furious, at Tallas for leaving. And it appalled him to feel that way.
Dreamer straightened up, not a single mark on his perfect face. "No, I don't think that. Lemme take a look at that hand."
Sabrin let himself to be administered to. There was still time for the Dream to overtake the shuttle before it reached the jumpliner. He could go up to the bridge right now and he doubted Dreamer or any of the others would stop him. But what would doing that make him? Lirelle was very capable, and so was Tallas, for that matter. Sabrin repeated it to himself, as he held his appalling anger closer.
The jumpliner resembled a giant, tailless dragonfly hanging in space; it was less a ship than a platform with a jump vane, that parked at the potential and cycled through its linked star systems. Lirelle's shuttle joined the dozen-plus small ships docked at the scaffolding of its "wings". They were carried through three systems, then switched to a different liner that carried them through another four.
Every jump that took them further from Dream, the sick feeling in Tallas's gut receded a bit more. His hours were spent studying the copious background reports Dreamer had prepared, and taking basic lessons from Lirelle on potentially useful skills like flying the shuttle. Distance and keeping busy didn't equal coming to terms with his decision, though he was still glad to be able to focus on their task ahead.
Over the jade-green crescent of Resqandi, Lirelle negotiated their way into the cargo bay of a truly hideous salvage ship for the last leg of their journey. The bay was pitch-black and not even pressurized, which didn't exactly fill Tallas with confidence as he slid into the copilot's seat. "Can these guys be trusted?"
"Their onboard computer has an unsecured remote access point. If the need arises I can vent their atmosphere within two minutes," Lirelle said dryly.
A faintly amused glint might have crossed Lirelle's face as she turned to reach into the side compartment. "We shall reach Adhara before the end of the day," she handed Tallas a plasma pistol, "I assume you've been trained to use one of these?"
The dull gray weapon wasn't quite Imperial-issue, but close enough. Tallas took out and checked the power cell first, then flicked off the safety, checked the sight and output settings, and flicked the safety back on. "Yeah. Since I was fourteen."
"Ever used one to kill?"
Tallas shook his head and handed the gun back. He remembered the shooting range and the combat simulations; he remembered firing the Dream's weapons and holding the stunner to Matare's temple, ready to pull the trigger. A stunner wasn't a plasma weapon even if it could also kill, and pushing a button wasn't pulling a trigger even if both ended a life. Besides, the trigger was the easy part.
"It's impossible to truly prepare for it," Lirelle said, obviously recalling some memories of her own, "Still, it would behoove you to try."
His nerves were not benefitting from this conversation. "C'mon Lirelle, what do you think is gonna happen?"
"Hopefully nothing. But we always hope." Lirelle smiled.
Two more jumps and the shuttle slipped into the shadow of Gnosis Station, a nightmarish jumble of habitable modules and assorted technology grafted ad hoc onto a ruined skeletal core over a kilometer long. In its heyday, the station had been among several that served the legions of travelers taking the Coalsack Passage between the Sirian colonies and old Sol. Like many others, its fortunes soured during the Schism, when Gnosis saw its sister stations destroyed and itself heavily damaged. As a final insult, the Passage was cut when one of its jump potentials destabilized. Robbed of its strategic importance, Adhara sank into obscurity and became home to vagabonds and criminals.
They docked at one of the many scattered ports. Hot, unpleasantly stale air came through the airlock. Their less-than-sophisticated plan for avoiding attention was to don hooded overcoats, though to be fair they were hardly the only ones around with the idea. Tallas had also put in blue contact lenses and tied an off-white rag around the bottom half of his face, which felt ridiculous but would suffice to foil the basic identity-recognition capabilities of an automated spy-eye.
Lirelle led the way through the claustrophobic warren of the station interior. Everywhere, cables and pipes snaked through exposed girders and down dark holes. The gravity plating seemed like it had been slapped down in whichever direction was most convenient, leading to odd turns and incongruently placed doors. Hushed figures milled in and out of piss-yellow pools of light; few spared them even half a glance, yet Tallas could feel eyes on the back of his neck. He admonished himself to get a grip.
The ambient noise picked up as they entered a great open hall supported by a series of vaulted metal ribs, part of Gnosis's original structure. Along both walls, partitions improvised from grates and sheet metal had been erected to create spaces for a sprawling market selling, apparently, everything.
"Wonder what 'business' Dreamer would have in a place like this," Tallas murmured as he eyed racks of counterfeit clothes and accessories, before he saw the owner's hollow-eyed stare and quickly moved on. Dreamer had been to Gnosis more than once, if the amount and type of specific details in his notes were any indication. In the next stall, a woman in tattered leathers examined -- or perhaps caressed would be a better description -- what appeared to be a damaged second-generation Kinjori combat drone.
"I couldn't say, though certainly he's had his share of extralegal pursuits."
"Wonder what he did the last time to get banned for life."
"Violence and mayhem I presume, or perhaps a dalliance with the Guild boss's daughter." Lirelle maintained her sedate pace, scanning her surroundings with faux disinterest. They needed to find an unobserved spot along one of the main transoptic trunk lines.
Ahead, a mess of people had gathered for some sort of performance. Lirelle motioned to bypass it, but Tallas's curiosity won out and he pushed into the crowd. Nearing the circular dais at the center, his breath caught at the sight.
A trio of stunningly beautiful bodies, one male and two female, writhed to an imaginary melody. Flawless skin like burnished gold flowed over exquisitely toned and proportioned muscle, all of it on display save for tiny strips of fabric over their groins. As Tallas watched, transfixed, one of the women abruptly locked her gaze squarely onto him. Her eyes were as fire opals, gleaming with shards of orange and green. However, for all their loveliness there was a something cold, almost inhuman in the way she stared, as though she was trying to imprint his image indelibly onto her mind. His heart was pounding in his chest, faster and faster.
"Erotogens. Or 'allurois', if you prefer the market term," Lirelle's dry voice snapped Tallas out of the spell. Her hand was on his arm, guiding him away. "Genegineered sexual escorts. You should keep your distance; they produce pheromones that alter brain chemistry, make you feel things that aren't real."
Tallas shook his head to clear it. He now noticed that many in the crowd were tapping pads in their hands, and realized that they were bidding. The beauty he'd just witnessed turned ugly in his memory. The whole place was off; it made his skin crawl.
By the late afternoon they had a short list of promising spots. That night Tallas spent extra time in the tiny washroom at the back of the shuttle, using the wholly inadequate portable decon unit to blast off the station's residue. Afterward he collapsed face-down on his hard-as-rock cot; his eyes were raw, his feet were sore, and his back was tied up in knots from hours' worth of nerves. "Y'know, after sixty hours cooped up in this crate I can't believe I'm this glad to be back here."
"Guild territory tends to have that effect." Lirelle was in the cockpit still working, updating their schematics of the station and making him feel generally inadequate.
"Hey, how do you know so much about this stuff? Was from living on Ledon? If you don't mind me asking," Tallas hoped he wasn't being indelicate, knowing that the Ledon years were painful for her.
"It's alright," Lirelle said. "Indeed there was a Guild presence on Ledon when I first arrived, albeit neither as powerful nor pervasive as it is here. I was required to deal with them in order to investigate Vesuvius without interference."
"What'd you do?"
"I fooled them into commissioning the murder of an Onyx Hand operative. The retribution was swift."
"Damn. What did that guy...Nenzeth say to that?"
"I'm not certain if he ever knew of my involvement. Although based on our communiques after the purge, I would say that he suspected and was...impressed," Lirelle's voice curled with disgust at that last word. "The entire affair is not one I remember fondly."
"But they were Guild. You did that place a favor."
"They deserved justice, which is not what the Onyx Hand delivers. And Ledon remained as neglected and lawless as ever." Lirelle switched off the cockpit lights and joined Tallas in the back compartment. "My actions were rooted in spite. That poisoned the effort from the beginning." As she headed for the washroom, she briefly touched his shoulder. "Sleep, or tomorrow will seem even longer."
Sound as Lirelle's advice was, the next day Tallas was having a hard time believing time could pass any slower. They had split up and staked out the spots on their list, to find one that would remain undisturbed sufficiently long for Lirelle to work. That meant finding an inconspicuous vantage and watching, hour upon mind-numbing hour. At least the station's haphazard internal construction offered plenty of hiding places. Tallas had ducked behind some stacked crates and climbed up into the space between the "roof" of a machine shop and a series of large pipes. Highly uncomfortable, but deep in shadow and the noise from the shop disguised his movements.
Most of the morning was gone and no one had entered the side passage that led to the trunk line. Tallas yawned, making his jaw pop. Gnosis was less threatening from up high; when he was down there the paranoia got the better of him, and he'd found himself jerking towards figments at the corner of his vision, half-convinced that there would be an Imperial agent staring back.
It was about time for him to touch base with Lirelle; they carried comns but only for emergencies, as they were easily trackable. Coming down discreetly was rather harder than going up, especially since his entire body had all but locked up. Finally his boots touched the deck and, drawing down his hood and making sure his face was covered, he slipped back into the anonymous foot traffic.
Or maybe not so anonymous, as someone not borne of his overactive imagination was definitely following him. Electric adrenaline spiked but he forced himself not to speed up, instead casually turning down a secluded side corridor and then quickly another. He pressed against the wall and strained to listen past the corner; the wiser choice might have just been to flee, but he couldn't throw away the opportunity to put a face on their enemy. The pistol was heavy on his belt; the fingers of his right hand traced the grip.
His pursuer entered the first corridor. "Are you there visitor?" a female voice asked, "I intend you, no harm."
Tallas unholstered his sidearm and dared to take the barest peek. He couldn't see much for the brown robe she wore, though her hands were open and bare in front of her.
"I saw you, yesterday. And the woman." The cadence of her speech was peculiar, adding and subtracting pauses where most people would not have. "Do you know, Dreamer? I heard you and she speak of him. I know of him, also."
On alert, Tallas moved in front of her, pistol aimed. His eyes widened as the allurois who had stared at him yesterday pushed back her hood. This close, her beauty was even more striking. The front of her robe had fallen open to reveal a sheer white bikini top and wraparound skirt. A blatant display -- though conscious or subconscious he couldn't tell. She gestured to herself, delicate fingers hovering over her heart, "I am Zu. Aleph."
Tallas stopped himself from responding in kind. He couldn't give his real name, not here. He detected a whiff of something dark and rich, like roasted almonds, and realized he'd unthinkingly stepped closer to her. Pheromones. He recovered the distance between them and started breathing through his mouth, not that he had any idea if that would work.
"You know Dreamer yes?"
"I have no idea what you're talkin' about." When could she have overheard them? Tallas thought he or Lirelle would've noticed someone like her hanging around nearby.
"You know him, Dreamer the man who is also a machine. He was here, he and the other man who, loved him." Zu continued. The way she focused singularly on his face was a bit unnerving. "He came to me. And I, helped him."
"How?" More denial seemed pointless since she'd obviously already made up her mind about them.
"He needed information. I know, this place its people its desires. I could provide him."
Tallas slowly lowered his pistol; the corridor wasn't that secluded and he was lucky to have gone unnoticed this long. Dreamer hadn't mentioned having a contact on Gnosis, but on the other hand he hadn't been there for almost a decade and she seemed to be telling the truth. Whether or not she could be trusted though, as long as she was answering his questions and not vice-versa he might gain from the situation. "You know a lot about what goes on here huh?" Zu nodded once. "In that case, do you know of anybody else here who sounds like me? Has my accent, I mean?"
Zu thought for a moment. "There is, one at the docks he is called Farishi."
"What does he look like?"
"Slightly darker than you, very short black hair thin nose. Eyes, blue like yours." Tallas formed a mental image but had no success placing it within his recent memory. It was probably completely wrong. "You are with Dreamer then," Zu pressed.
"What're you after?"
"I wish, to see him once more."
Tallas couldn't decipher the sentiment behind those words; he hadn't been able to pin down her emotions since she started talking. He also realized with slight panic that he'd stopped breathing through his mouth and started again. "He's not coming,"
"He must," Zu's expression wavered, almost like she was in pain. "You, and she are here he, must be coming soon."
"He's not," Tallas repeated, louder. Pressure built at his temples, behind his false-blue eyes. He needed to remove himself from this conversation. "Thanks for your help." He rushed past her, towards Lirelle. Zu didn't follow, and he could breathe easier after a few minutes.
Lirelle, thank god, was waiting for him at the agreed-upon place. She reported similar success with her observations, but her face turned stony and calculating as he described his encounter with Zu. "We should access the computer immediately," she said after he'd finished. The original plan was to collect the data the following day, at the same time as when they'd done their surveillance.
Tallas headed for Lirelle's spot first while she went to fetch her tools from the shuttle. The trunk line access point was located on the back wall of a long-forgotten storage space, carpeted in dust with the only footprints being theirs. The sole, narrow entryway was not visible from the market, thanks to a massive bank of atmospheric processors. Easily defensible but not easily escapable; Tallas heaved a relieved sigh when Lirelle appeared, metal case in hand.
The only substantial illumination in the room came from the penlight on Lirelle's headset. With the swiftness of practice, she pried away a wall panel to expose a bundle of cables and set up her console, running in basic mode. One wire went to her dataport, and two to needle-like probes that she wielded on the cables like surgical instruments.
Lirelle had assured him that the cybernetic suppressor actually precluded the functioning of all advanced computer processors, and as such the station's present systems were so primitive she could've hacked them in her sleep. The waiting was still interminable, and click of Lirelle closing her case was music to Tallas's ears. "Did you get it?" he whispered.
"Yes, as well as what I could find on Antoin Farishi."
"Awesome. Was he sent by the Imperials?" Tallas asked as he checked that the coast was clear. He hoped that the answer was yes, because if one thing that Zu had said was genuine then maybe the rest...
"It is possible. The time frame matches."
They weren't even out of the market when Lirelle spotted them. Guild enforcers, four men and women wearing mismatched body armor and severe expressions, closing fast. Shouts went up and suddenly Tallas was running in the direction of the shuttle. Hands tore at his coat as he weaved and shoved. Lirelle's case was pushed into his hands; before he could ask why he saw her whirling around, lifting her arm. Thunder crashed, blending with the yells and he kept running, his vision narrowing to the dark mouth of the corridor ahead.
Someone tackled him down and pain shot through his hip and shoulder. Tallas might have been shit at hand-to-hand, but he could squirm around and send his elbow into the face of whoever it was. A muffled cry and he was scrambling back up. Stunner-blue flashed and a body -- not Lirelle -- dropped to his right. They want us alive, came the fleeting thought.
Tallas sagged against a wall, hugging the metal case to his heaving chest. "Lirelle," he croaked. She didn't appear, and he couldn't say when they had gotten separated. His legs burned but he couldn't stop, not yet. The shuttle, that's where she had to be, but he needed more air. He was about to rip off the rag covering his face when he heard her.
"Please forgive me."
Tallas fumbled for his pistol, still in its holster. Flipped the safety off. "Was it you?!" He raised the gun with shaking hands.
"The boss wants Dreamer," Zu said softly, opal eyes downcast, "You know him. You and she."
"Did you tell 'em how to find us?!" Tallas advanced, the barrel of his gun forcing her back a few steps.
"No. But he did find you catch you through me, and the rest in this place."
"The fuck are you talkin' about?!"
"We are all his eyes. His ears. His hands." Zu turned around and parted her long, tawny hair. "He has made us so." Tallas stared in bafflement and then he saw it: a tiny silvery button, the tip of something implanted into the back of her skull. Revulsion washed over him.
"They come he has already seen, through me. You need to run, now ally of Dreamer," Zu urged in a strained voice, her back bowing with pain. Tallas stood frozen by the grotesque revelation unfolding before him. That implant must be some kind of transmitter, one of how many? All his eyes. Zu's body spasmed and she screamed, clutching the back of her head. "RUN!"