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 2011 Devon Keene: email@example.com
the Enigma of Flatness
|The Tyrant's Sight||Part XXIII
Get to the shuttle. He had to get to the shuttle. Don't get distracted thinking about Lirelle, she could take care of herself, much better than he could. Get to the shuttle and she would be waiting.
We are all his eyes.
Tallas stopped a few dozen meters short of his destination, or rather he tried to and his exhausted body pitched into a wall on an already-sore shoulder. The Guild boss, Stavar, might know all about the ship they came in on if he'd been watching all along, through the eyes of who-the-fuck-knew how many people on Gnosis Station. The corridors here were deserted at least, cleared by the firefight that Lirelle had begun in the market. Tallas couldn't hear it now, if it still continued.
He crept silently the rest of the way, gun in hand. He heard noises up ahead and his heart lept into his throat. Peering around a corner, he confirmed the presence of three Guild enforcers -- too many to shoot them all in the first round -- in the process of forcing open the shuttle airlock.
Don't panic. He remembered Sabrin telling him that, cradling his face with steady hands as they crouched in the woods outside the Academy campus on Astral-Ishasa. Tallas backed away and hurried down another corridor. He needed to get out of sight.
People tended to overestimate how big a hole needed to be to fit a person through, even a full-grown man. Tallas quickly found a loose bulkhead that, with some levering, let him into a dark tunnel. From their previous scans, he knew that decades of haphazard construction and reconstruction had left numerous odd spaces within the station that were all but blocked off from the utilized areas. He had to hope that he didn't end up boxing himself in or running into some crazed vagabond with the same idea.
After interminable minutes he came to a relatively larger space and collapsed on his back, panting. He finally tore off the rag covering his face and shut off his flashlight to stare into featureless black. Don't panic.
Stavar had their shuttle, and possibly Lirelle as well. Tallas decided to risk the comn. "Lirelle? Lirelle, come in."
No reply, assuming that his signal penetrated the layers of various materials in which he'd ensconced himself. He knew that he should move, in case the Guild had triangulated his signal and were on their way, but once stopped his limbs didn't want to start again.
Stavar wanted Dreamer and the two of them were his means to that end. However, even if he sent a message to the Dream immediately, their ship wouldn't arrive for probably a week. Tallas doubted he or Lirelle could hold out that long separated, and he wasn't sure if he wanted the Dream to come at all if it would be into a trap.
Except, if the Dream didn't come then it would be up to him to find Lirelle, recover the shuttle, and get the hell off Gnosis. Holing up as he'd done was only a stop-gap; these interstitial spaces didn't connect with each other and the Guild goons would still be able to scan for him to some degree.
Tallas hauled up to a sitting position, turned the flashlight back on, and donned Lirelle's headset. It took a few minutes to get used to the display, which was projected directly onto his retina and appeared as a floating screen that tracked his eye movements. After, he studied the data Lirelle had obtained on their possible Orion agent Farishi; what he looked like, where and when he worked.
Once he'd finished, Tallas wiped off his face with the discarded rag and stripped down to his tank undershirt. Taking his outer shirt, he ripped the cheap material into strips that he wound around his left hand and arm like bandages. The coat he turned inside-out and wrapped around Lirelle's metal case. He tucked the cuffs of his jeans into his boots, like Sabrin tended to do, and ruffled his hair. Finally, he cleaned his fingers the best he could and removed his blue contact lenses, slipping them into his pockets. A different man than the one Stavar had seen -- hopefully different enough -- would be emerging from the recesses of Gnosis Station.
Lirelle woke up with the deafening blasts of the market still in her ears. She had pointed her pistol skyward at first to simulate suppression fire, to buy them more time. After the bystanders had dispersed, she'd taken one of them down before the darkness. Her extremities tingled now, the aftereffect of stunner energy.
There was a bright light stinging her eyes from above, and cold, unyielding metal beneath her body. Lirelle felt around and found that her original clothes were gone, replaced by a one-piece jumpsuit. That meant they also had her weapon, scanner, and comn.
That was pseudonym she'd entered when docking the shuttle. Lirelle swung around to sit at the edge of the metal slab, squinting at her surroundings. She was in a small cell, the only one in the room; there was a single exit hatch and the controls for it were on the outside. Hopefully, Tallas had managed to escape and been smart enough to leave her behind to fetch help, albeit in a non-jump-capable vessel.
"But that's not your name. You're Lirelle."
Lirelle eyed the man standing on the other side of the bars. He was tall and solid, with craggy features and short-cropped, mostly gray hair. "Guthatrie Stavar?" she asked, trying to mentally age the image of the Guild boss from Dreamer's notes.
The man shook his head, at the same time that the voice replied "Yeah". Lirelle realized that it came from a comn pinned to her jailer's breast pocket, which would account for its tinny quality. "Where's Dreamer?"
"Don't fuck with me!" On cue the man aimed his sidearm at her chest. Lirelle gave it an unimpressed look; Guilds exercised little finesse with their threats, not like the Onyx Hand. "I can see and hear everything that happens on this station. I know that you and your partner are with him. Where is Dreamer?!"
"He's not here." Lirelle combed through the time they'd spent on Gnosis. She was fairly sure that they hadn't been followed. Had one of Stavar's minions happened to overhear them and report their words? She hadn't anticipated that the Guild would have remained so sensitive to mentions of Dreamer, ten years past his last visit. Lirelle stood up, deliberately ignoring the gun to scan the room for audio-visual pick-ups. There were none that she could detect. "Where's my partner?"
"I'm asking the questions here. When's Dreamer coming?"
"He isn't coming."
"BULLSHIT! You're here, he's here, Dreamer's on his way. Son of a bitch is trying to finish what he started."
Lirelle hadn't expected the vehemence in Stavar's voice, the foaming-at-the-mouth certainty that only came with obsession, and that changed the risk calculus a bit. What had really happened on Gnosis ten years ago? I had some business there, so I sent my avatar and a long-time buddy of mine, Caleb. We were just about done when the Guildies had the bright idea to nab him for ransom. I busted him out and made sure that Stavar knew not to try that shit again.
"What do you want with him?" Lirelle asked.
"I'll destroy him."
"What? He's trying to kill me, take everything that's mine."
"No," Lirelle said with as much conviction as she could muster, hoping there was something in the room that would pick it up. "Dreamer has no intention of ever coming here or acting against you. Release us and I promise we'll never return. But, if you don't, then whatever happens after you'll have brought it upon yourself."
"Oh yeah, I know all about the hard-on Dreamer has for his lackeys," Stavar sneered, "Actually I'm counting on it. That's lucky for you, 'cause I won't be killing you just yet. But if you want to live longer than that, you might want to think about a better attitude."
"Stavar, what about my partner? What happened to him?" Lirelle demanded, and received no reply. At an unheard command, the guard holstered his weapon and went to a chair at the corner opposite the door.
Lirelle sat as well, contemplating her options. She suspected Stavar planned to use her life as leverage over Dreamer, which she would never allow but at least gave her some time to work with. If Stavar was unstable, that made the situation much more dangerous, but possibly also left weaknesses in his organization that could be exploited.
"It appears my stay here will be rather more extended than I had hoped," Lirelle sighed sadly, addressing the guard. "In the interim we may become...unwillingly well-acquainted. Might I ask your name? You already know mine," She reached out with her mind and brushed the edges of his consciousness. A light touch would be critical; she wouldn't be getting a second chance if he became aware of what she was doing. Lirelle glimpsed fear, thick and cloying, which was strange. She ever so gently sent ripples of calm towards him, and slouched to show relaxation. Telepathic influence worked better when paired with some other sensory cue.
Uncertainty crept into the man's gaze. Eventually, he replied gruffly, "Kuin."
Lirelle nodded slowly. "Have you lived on Gnosis long? This is my first visit...I'm from Kinjor."
Another pause. "I been here a good stretch."
"I see..." Lirelle kept up the molasses pace of their exchange, all the while glimpsing Kuin's mind, smoothing down the most obvious sharp edges like a breeze over a desert. "Were you raised in space?"
"Shut up!" Stavar snapped through the comn. Kuin flinched, before his face settled back into stone.
Lirelle scrutinized her jailer more closely. That had been no startled flinch; it had been underlined by real, physical pain. Something odd was definitely at play.
The market had already mostly returned to its state before the firefight. Tallas drew much more attention now than he did before -- assessing, hungry, contemptuous. He forced himself not to react, keeping his expression cold, his gaze hard. Let them think he was a mercenary or somebody's boytoy or both, as long as they didn't think they'd ever seen him before.
Tallas walked until he was satisfied he'd put enough distance between himself and where the search parties were likely concentrated, then found another hiding place in which to rest and properly take stock of the situation. Which was bad, in a word. The bulk of their supplies were aboard the shuttle; he had not much money and only the single gun. If Lirelle was still out there he had no way of finding her without using the comn again, which was too dangerous for the time being.
His comn chirped, making him jump. He clicked the channel open, careful not to acknowledge back. There was nothing for a few seconds, and then a male voice came through. Tallas sagged as the last glimmer of hope that Lirelle had eluded capture was shredded.
"Dreamer's partner, I know you can hear me."
Clenching his teeth, Tallas held the small device up to his ear in case there was something helpful in the background.
"I already have the girl. She hasn't been untouched, for now. It's pointless to keep hiding, I own this station and every body on it."
Like Zu Aleph. Tallas shuddered at the memory.
"But I'll make you a deal. All I want is Dreamer. Help me dispose of him and I'll let both of you go after it's done. You have one hour. After that my guys'll shoot to kill. Be seeing you."
Tallas would eat his boots if Stavar had any intention of letting either of them off Gnosis alive. Of course, that still left him with the question of what to do next.
There was no one he could turn to; from what Zu said she was far from the only one with an implant. Tallas parsed their encounter: the implant in her skull must transmit some version of what she saw and heard, and probably also relayed Stavar's orders and caused pain to coerce her into complying. But did that mean Stavar was aware of everything that happened on Gnosis at all times? Over two thousand people lived permanently on the station, and even if only a third were implanted the manpower it would take to watch that data would be staggering. A computer could do it, but the cybernetic suppression field precluded that kind of higher-level processing.
Yet, Tallas recalled Zu's intense stare during her dance, on the day he'd arrived on Gnosis. Less than a half-hour after he'd first uttered Dreamer's name in the market, and she knew of him. If that was Stavar that was...unbelievable, scary efficiency.
Tallas buried his face in his hands. It was too much; he was alone and Stavar held all the cards. The Dream would come; Stavar would be waiting but they'd still stand a better chance of rescuing Lirelle than he did, right then.
The Dream would come and Sabrin would come with it, and maybe not even say "I told you so" because he was awesome like that.
Tallas pulled his hands away, eyeing the same ugly, filthy walls and inhaling the same disgusting, stale air. Right.
Rummaging through his coat, Tallas fished out the crumpled but functional reader that Lirelle had loaded with the updated station schematics. There were darkened areas -- secured sections that they hadn't been able to access. He overlaid the readings they had of the tangled mess that was the power grid, and traced the flow of energy in and out of those sections. Three spots shone brightly: one would be the power plant, one the cybernetic suppressor, and the third...
Tallas knit his brow and zoomed in. The spot was right next to the hull, unlike the others that were deep within the station; he flipped to the exterior view and noticed a small port. Not a shield generator, too small. Some kind of weapon or ECM device? Stavar had to have a plan, or two, for dealing with the Dream when it arrived. As it stood, the Dream was in a substantially superior tactical position to Gnosis, since its weapons outranged the suppressor by a wide margin.
By the time he went back into the open, Tallas had memorized the corridors and potential passages leading to that third spot. He gave himself seven days to figure out Stavar's trump card, if it existed, and neutralize it. His comn had been switched to silent; it was only sheer luck that it hadn't activated in a public place when Stavar called the first time.
He tensed when he saw Zu Aleph coming from the opposite direction, wrapped up in her brown robe. Breathe. Keep walking.
Zu's eyes slid over him and away. But before Tallas could relax, he felt her fingertips brushing over the back of his hand as she passed. She'd recognized him.
Days passed in her tiny cell; Lirelle counted them by the meals, a daily bowl of thin gruel that barely sufficed to blunt the bite of hunger and thirst. Though she could sense others beyond the door, only one guard watched her at a time: Kuin, then Nies-Madzh, and then a third man whose name she didn't bother to learn, as his time she had reserved for sleep so as to preserve her strength.
After Stavar's rebuke, Kuin was disinclined to say anything to her, and Nies-Madzh was no easier. Nevertheless, she kept talking in low tones, inconsequential tidbits about Kinjor, Ledon, Nimrud, Windfall...about her mother, her brother, her first pet, her first car, her first ship. In between the words she sang -- poorly -- half-remembered nursery tunes and obscene barracks chanteys and warbles off the radio.
Her jailers couldn't ignore her, not really, since they had nothing else to occupy their attention. Their minds couldn't help but process the information she handed them, pushing their perception of her unwillingly towards human being.
All the while, Lirelle insinuated her presence into their thoughts little by little. Neither of them were psychopaths, and so she was able to find the threads of sympathy, of doubt, and tug them upward, fortifying them with her own conviction. She did her best to temper their fear of Stavar -- there was so much of it -- and strengthen their resentment of his rule. She shoved her anxiety over Tallas and the Dream to the back of her mind and applied excruciatingly slow but relentless pressure, like water against a dam. It might only take a single crack.
Tallas owed one to Zu Aleph.
Hordes of Guild enforcers hadn't descended upon him after their encounter in the market. He had written it off as a product of his paranoia and moved forward on his "plan", except then out of the blue he'd seen her walking towards him again, this time in a corridor. Tallas barely had time to figure the odds and whether this could be a coincidence when she bumped into him. Zu shoved something into his hand and slipped past with an apology, never making eye contact.
Tallas kept his fingers curled and didn't look until he reached somewhere private. In his hand he found a roll of Vegan notes, in denominations of fifty, one hundred, and higher. He'd gone weak-kneed; by that point he hadn't eaten in two days, reserving what little cash he had for clean water to keep him going until the Dream came.
A wash, hot meal, and cheap-as-shit motel cot to crash on were exactly what he needed to think he had a shot in hell of achieving his objective. He'd torn his hands and knees bloody crawling through every passage in that part of the station, using an improvised crowbar to enlarge some of the holes. He plotted escape routes and hiding places, and timed himself going through them. He watched the Guild goons and their routines, figuring out when various corridors were clear and when not. He'd actually managed to find a way close to his target, when he hit a wall.
More precisely, it was a blast door, blocking the only way into the room containing whatever device that was eating so much power. Four guards were stationed in front of the door at all times, one of whom held the key to it on his belt.
Tallas clenched his jaw in frustration as he listened to four bored men with rifles meander in front of the door for the third morning in a row. He'd been wracking his brain trying to think of another way in, and he probably only had ten more minutes in that corridor before someone came along. This obviously wasn't working; maybe he could somehow get an EV suit and access the exterior port...
Someone new had arrived. Tallas heard the guards' boisterous greetings and chanced peering around the corner. His eyes widened at the sight of Zu in her revealing white outfit sans robe, laughing and flirting with the four men gathered around her.
How the fuck did she know...
Zu raised teasing fingers to the cheek of one of the guards, grazing down, and as she did the man fell with it, his eyes rolling back. His three companions had also crumpled to the deck, followed by Zu herself.
Gas, Tallas' mind frantically supplied as he held his breath and sprang forward. First he checked her pulse; knockout gas was tricky and if it was home-brewed it could easily turn out fatal. He sagged in relief when he found it. Go! Go! Go! He had only a few minutes before they were swarmed by Stavar's men. He yanked the key off the unconscious guard and stabbed it into the lock. The blast door unsealed with a ponderous clang and began lifting slowly. Tallas was under it and inside as soon as there was space.
Stavar had obtained and installed a capital ship torpedo launcher on Gnosis Station. And inside was a Kinjori lancer torpedo, a three-meter-long starship-killer that made the Dream's own torpedoes look like firecrackers, ready to fire -- and it was really not a good idea to keep the launcher mechanism on a hair trigger like that, for a protracted period of time.
Tallas's eyes darted over the tools scattered on a nearby work bench. Seizing what he needed, he vaulted onto the launcher frame and straddled the torpedo, praying that the warhead itself hadn't been left armed too. The forward access panel popped open and inside was mostly an unfamiliar jumble, but the important thing was that he recognized the bright red-and-yellow warning colors of the antimatter storage unit. That meant beneath should be the...Tallas decoupled the last of the fasteners and pulled out the roughly cylindrical part...primary injector assembly, without which the torpedo couldn't initiate a fusion reaction. The small antimatter trigger would still blow but the Dream's shields could handle that easily.
Tucking the injector under his arm, Tallas rushed to the door and Zu's limp body. He hadn't managed to lift up more than her arm when he heard footsteps nearing rapidly. God fuckin' damn it.
Sorry. Tallas let Zu slide back down to the deck. He drew his pistol and ran.
Two Guild enforcers Lirelle hadn't seen before brusquely entered her cell with their rifles leveled. "Get up!" Stavar's tinny voice demanded. She complied lazily with a raised brow.
The taller of the two men held up his left hand; in it was her comn unit.
"Call your partner."
The knowledge that Tallas was still alive and uncaptured was a jolt of electricity; Lirelle fought not to show it on her face. When she didn't make a move towards the comn, the shorter enforcer slammed the butt of his rifle into her gut.
Struggling to keep her gorge down, she flashed the man a contemptuous look and reached slowly for the comn. Clicking the channel open, she coughed and said, "Are you there? This is Lirelle, please respond." She was confident that Tallas was smarter than to answer. Sure enough, nothing came from the other end.
"Tell him to return my property."
Unsurprisingly, it seemed that Tallas hadn't simply been hiding, waiting for the rest of their crew's support. Lirelle couldn't decide whether that was brave or foolish. "Stavar wishes you to return what you took from him." Still no reply; she eyed her hostile audience. "You're wasting your time, Stavar. He will not cooperate as long as I'm your prisoner. Allow us to leave, and you shall have your property and our sworn word never to return."
"Maybe I should tell him you'll die if he doesn't give it back to me." One of the men produced a knife with a wickedly serrated blade. "Or maybe that you'll wish you were dead."
Lirelle took a deep breath and faced the threat, holding her hands to her sides so they wouldn't shake. She sensed that the men around her were still more afraid of Stavar than she was, even from their position of power, and drew strength from it. "I'd die before I betray Dreamer. So would he. If you harm either of us you'll have assured yourself his retribution. Please, there's still time to end this."
"SHUT UP! Why the fuck are you so loyal to him?!"
"Because he is a good and honorable--"
Stavar laughed, braying and rusty like machinery grinding together, "Are you fuckin' blind you stupid bitch? He wants what's MINE!"
"He doesn't--" Lirelle didn't have time to finish as her arms were wrenched behind her and cuffed. She was marched out of the room and through a series of corridors, past people who averted their gaze and pretended not to see them. She noted the escalating number of guards, until she was shoved into a large, dim chamber and onto her knees. Something about the place seemed wrong, though she couldn't put a name to it. Maybe it was the strange smell, like a hospital.
A giant holographic screen floated in the middle of the room, playing video without sound. The resolution was poor and the colors washed out. Judging by the time indices along the bottom, it was security camera footage -- of the chamber she currently occupied, Lirelle realized, except with furniture and all the lights on. Eight heavily armed guards were visible. The time was 21:13, and the lights in the corridor outside went down, prompting all of them to re-arrange themselves in a shallow arc across the doorway, rifles raised.
All aimed too high, not covering all the vectors, Lirelle thought to herself, which was when the room in the recording was plunged into darkness. The guards scrambled to turn on the lights on their rifles; they were on the ground, swept off their feet by a low-coming attacker. Lirelle counted only six rifle lights when the firing started, flashes lighting up the room for split-seconds. One rifle fell, then another; they needed to pull back, lay down covering fire and switch to NV scopes...
Four rifle lights were still moving, then three, two. After the last one fell to the deck, a different quality of light appeared in the black -- the spark from a charged plasma emitter, illuminating a smiling face. Dreamer. As far as Lirelle could tell, he hadn't actually fired the gun in his palm once, and eight guards were dead. The time was 21:16. Hell of a way to make a statement, Dreamer.
"You see?" Lirelle started at Stavar's voice. The video started over from the beginnning. "He wants what I have."
Stavar meant his Guild, Gnosis Station -- his little personal fiefdom on the fringes of civilization. The Stavar Guild had ruled Adhara for over seventy years. Guthatrie, only son and the latest of their line, likely spent his entire life here at the top, not completely uncontested but essentially untouchable. Lirelle watched Dreamer again swat down eight bodyguards like they were nothing.
"But I'll be ready this time."
Stavar was terrified of Dreamer, to the point that the specter of his return had overshadowed everything else in Stavar's existence. Lirelle couldn't reason with that. Fear choked the room -- perhaps once Stavar's personal suite or reception area -- so old and encompassing that she hadn't recognized it at first, oriented like a compass needle towards barely four minutes of footage.
"You see what he is? Help me put him down."
"I won't. Dreamer has no interest in your position or belongings. There he was only sending you a warning, for the sake of his friend who you had abducted," Lirelle said. She tried to see past the video to the far recesses of the room, difficult since the holographic screen was almost completely opaque. She managed to discern a substantial mass of intersecting shapes beyond. Most of it looked mechanical, but at the center was perhaps a seated humanoid figure dressed in blue. Stavar?
"ARE YOU FUCKIN' BLIND?!"
"Dreamer will never come here if you release us," Lirelle insisted, kept insisting as Stavar's enforcers yanked her up and dragged her away. The video had started playing again.
They dumped her back in her cell and slammed the door shut behind them, ignoring her questions about what they'd planned now for Tallas. She haltingly pushed herself upright from the deck; admittedly that video of Dreamer had left her somewhat shaken. "We all seen the vid," Kuin muttered from his chair at the corner. "How's we s'posed to fight somethin' like that?"
"You won't have to," Lirelle said. She could tell that Kuin wanted to believe her, and sent out mental feelers to encourage it.
Tallas sat huddled behind a wall with the injector cradled against his chest, sweaty and feeling more than a little like throwing up. He was waiting for Stavar's ultimatum, which should be coming any minute now. It wouldn't be on his comn unit though, since he'd turned it off -- any way that he could delay Stavar from making his threats bought more precious time. He tried not to think about Zu, leaving her behind. That had been the right call, the only one given the circumstances; he'd been trained for this.
"You know who I'm talking to."
The injector almost popped out of Tallas' arms. He had no idea that the station's PA system was still functional.
"I've got your whore right here, and a gun pointed at her pretty head." There was a pained cry and Tallas closed his eyes, "Give me back what's mine in fifteen minutes, or she's a goner."
Okay, that went about as expected. Tallas sent another apology to Zu and opened his eyes. Letting her die for him was not acceptable, nor was giving up the injector and letting the Dream be destroyed. But maybe if he gave himself up, minus injector, Stavar would take it out on him instead of Zu and hopefully there would be enough of him left for Dreamer to put in a stasis pod. First things first: Tallas set down the injector and rose stiffly to his feet. The casing crunched beneath the heel of his boot and he did it a couple more times just to be sure.
Giving himself up would also be giving Stavar total control of the situation: no more unknown elements, no more resistance until his confrontation with the Dream. God, but that galled him more than anything. Tallas banged his right hand, holding the yet-to-be-fired plasma pistol, against his temple. Time's wasting, Tal.
Tallas checked his sidearm. The power cell, the sight and output settings, flicked off the safety. He picked up the wrecked injector and began making his way out of hiding. As soon as he was in the corridor he took off at a dead run, not caring who saw him. With luck, Stavar didn't know his face yet and wouldn't think to stop him until he reached his destination, which wasn't far.
The small room may have once been a monitoring post, but the console was gone and the wall-mounted screen sat dusty and inert. There was however still the massive metallic pipe, almost as tall as he was, that came out of one wall and into the other and filled the space with a mildly electric hum. Tallas activated his comn. "Hey Stavar, guess where I am."
"What the fuck are you doing?"
"Oh, you don't need to track this. You saw me, right?" Tallas tapped the column twice with the barrel of his pistol. "Hear that? That's the sound of my gun on your number one primary plasma conduit. It looks kinda old, doesn't it?"
The power grid of Gnosis Station was a mess. The primary plasma conduit had long since deteriorated beyond any reasonable minimum safety standard, and instead of being replaced, new primary conduits had simply been grafted onto the power plant to shunt away some of the load. This minimized the chances of spontaneous failure, but still left highly energized plasma running through a far-too-fragile structure. A rupture near the origin of the conduit would cause a catastrophic chain of stress failures that would ultimately feed back into the fusion reactor itself, which was no spring chicken either.
Tallas explained to Stavar his estimate that the first hundred-twenty meters of the conduit, before the first major manifold, counted as close enough to the origin. And the Guild hadn't made all of it inaccessible or guarded. He eyed the shadows moving outside the doors. "Call off your goons Stavar, or I'll blow all of us straight to hell."
Tallas fired at the conduit, staggering from the boom in the small space. A splash of sparks and flame, and there was a charred crater about five centimeters deep in the conduit wall, barely grazing the embedded circuitry layer. The wall was ten centimeters thick, so even as old as it was he'd figured it could handle a single shot. His voice jittered with adrenaline. "My gun's still pointed at that spot Stavar. Back off."
The shadows withdrew, probably not far. "What the fuck?! You'll kill yourself, your partner, your girl!"
Stavar sounded shaken. Good. Tallas quirked his lips, more baring his teeth than a smile. He thought this was a better idea than the one he had before? What the fuck indeed. "When the other option's leaving us to you? You've got my partner. Ask her if I would."
"Alright," Stavar said after a beat, "Listen, let's talk about a deal--"
"How about this?" Tallas cut him off, "We'll both sit tight, and wait for Dreamer. I'll be happy to see him kick your ass. And if I find out you've put even a finger on Lirelle OR Zu...I might not wait at all."
Second by agonizing second ticked by. Finally, Stavar begrudgingly agreed.
Tallas sagged against the conduit, dropping the comn and the injector noisily. His body left trails in the dust and sent motes into the air, floating through the shaft of light spilling from the open doorway. This position's too exposed. He walked over and wedged his back into the corner beside the door, putting him out of view for anyone outside and giving him a clear shot at the conduit. Absently, he pulled off the now-gray strips of cloth covering his left arm and hand, leaving it much cleaner than the right.
He used one of the strips to tie the pistol to his left hand, and propped it up on his knee pointed at the conduit. Well, that was everything he could do; the limit of his resources.
He should've planned better and brought food and water, or planted a cache here in advance just in case. Very sloppy, Anderholt. He relaxed every muscle he could afford, let the walls and floor hold his posture. He'd been good at this in the combat exercises, better than Sabrin and Jayan, way better than Mark. Put him up in a leafy tree from dawn 'til dusk and they never saw him before he saw them. He defined a set of cues for his eyes, his ears, his nose. If present, pull trigger. No hesitation.
His body went through desperate, aching hunger and out the other side. The thirst stayed with him and he wished it wouldn't.
Every now and then Stavar tested him, and he'd bang on the wall to make the shadows retreat. You're sure taking your time, Sabe. Still mad?
The air felt congealed; his limbs were so slow, it was like his brain was losing touch with them. His eyelids grew heavier; he would catch himself having closed them without realizing it, and jerked them open expecting to see the enemy. He found a nasty, half-clotted cut on his left wrist and dug in, the sharp stabbing pain and slippery hot blood like stims. Eventually that stopped working too. The conduit hummed, singing him to sleep for its own self-preservation.
He had no way to count the hours. In the end, had he bought them...forty-eight hours? Fifty-six? He hoped it wasn't less than forty-eight because that would just be embarrassing, in staying-awake terms. When the Dream came Sabrin would make fun of him.
When the enforcers came and forced her into cuffs once more, Lirelle knew she was out of time. Ten days since they came to Adhara, and either Tallas had succumbed or the Dream had at last arrived. As they hustled her out of her cell, she briefly locked her gaze to Kuin's. Please.
She was taken to the chamber where Stavar had shown her the video. The first thing Lirelle spotted was the allurois, Zu Aleph, bound and on her knees, one of the enforcers holding her by the hair. Her clothes were torn and a bruise marred her cheek, but her gaze remained defiant. Lirelle wondered what she'd done to be brought there.
Then Lirelle saw Stavar and couldn't stifle a gasp.
It was impossible to believe that a thinking mind still resided within that husk. Guthatrie Stavar, who was forty-seven according to the notes, lied in his chair like a gnarled branch dressed in a royal blue tunic and pants. His papery skin had shrunk back into his bones and stretched tight over every frail tendon and wasted muscle. Liquid-filled tubes ran into both wrists, just part of an extensive system undoubtedly meant to keep him alive, along with the three nurses. Stavar's bulging, rheumy eyes were half-lidded and unseeing.
And from the back of Stavar's skull, a mass of intertwined cables erupted and rose up and back into a cluster of machines that included the cybernetic suppressor, as if all that technology had germinated from the whithered human seed. Lirelle returned her horrified attention to Stavar's cadaverous face. The man must have allowed his physical body to atrophy for years, transforming himself into this.
"Finally, I want you to see this," Stavar's voice was coldly triumphant. Synthesized, that was why he only spoke through the comn.
A pair of enforcers dragged in Tallas and dropped him unceremoniously at the center of the room. With a low groan, he pushed himself onto his elbows and knees. His entire body was shivering and drenched in sweat; Lirelle realized furiously that they'd given him a stim shot to jolt his sleep-deprived brain into awareness. No telling how close that brought him to a heart attack.
An enforcer hauled Tallas up and struck him down, and again and again. The sickening sound of flesh pounding flesh rang through the room. Another kicked him in the ribs, flipping him onto his back with an weak, agonized cry.
"Stavar! Stop this!" Lirelle surged forward only to be held by her bound arms. Zu had her eyes shut, her face turned as far away as she could.
"Tell me what Dreamer's got planned. Help me destroy him."
When Lirelle hesitated the enforcer pulled Tallas up once more and drove into his gut, twice, then backhanded his face, sending him crashing to the deck again on his side. The Guild thug's knuckles glistened, smeared with fresh blood. Tallas had curled into himself, panting harshly.
"DAMN IT STAVAR!" Lirelle thrashed uselessly in her captor's grip. Her hair was wrenched back, the pain taking her breath for a second. A small object had been pressed into her hand: a key. Kuin.
She surveyed the enforcers and guards arrayed around the room and recalled where Kuin kept his secondary pistol. She would only be getting one shot, and she wouldn't be freeing Tallas or Zu. But Stavar's obsession was not shared by his underlings; of that she was sure.
Tallas had managed to crane his neck so he could see Stavar out of one chocolate-dark eye, the other being all but swollen shut. "That's all you ever fuckin' talk about," he continued in a hoarse, slurred whisper scratched out of his throat, "But you're never gonna get him. Y'know why?" His lips impossibly curled into a smile, showing teeth stained red. An enforcer advanced on him.
"...'cause he's dead."
The enforcer faltered, as Stavar said, "You're lying."
"It's true," Tallas said, louder, "The Orions caught and destroyed Dreamer months ago, for violatin' their space. I'm an Orion, I saw it happen." -- "Liar!" -- "Dreamer was destroyed by the Orions. He's dead. I saw him die."
Dreamer was dead. Lirelle's heart clenched in her chest; the Dream surrounded by Orion ships, fire pouring through the black, consuming... Her vision blurred from tears.
No, false, wrong. The Dream hadn't been destroyed. Yet she felt, deep in her soul, that what Tallas said was true. Struggling to reconcile herself, her eyes flickered to Zu; the allurois was staring directly at Stavar, her mouth set in a fierce, grim line. They produce pheromones that alter brain chemistry, make you feel things that aren't real.
"Dreamer's dead. I saw him die." The enforcer tried and couldn't shut Tallas up, no matter the hits he landed.
"LIAR!" Stavar's scream was swallowed by a terrible screeching whine that blasted out of every comn in the room. Every person other than Lirelle and Tallas doubled over, clutching their heads. Stavar's fossilized lips moved apart and shrunken lungs convulsed for the first time in years, an ancient wheezing sound.
Lirelle shrugged off her cuffs and grabbed Kuin's gun out of his holster. The first flurry of shots severed the mess of cables linking Stavar to his machines, and apparently then to the rest of his Guild. Had Tallas known that? The last shot put Guthatrie Stavar out of his misery. Lirelle didn't spare the smoking corpse a second thought as she rushed to Tallas' side, frantically calling his name.
"Did we win?" Tallas asked in a small voice. He passed out before she could answer.
Lirelle gazed at Tallas' unconscious, bandaged form from her bedside chair. Thankfully the worst of the damage had been mended and the nutrient IV would help restore what his body had spent, though he would still need a better medical facility as soon as possible.
They had commandeered a luxurious suite, recently abandoned. There were plenty available; all of Stavar's lieutenants had gone, his paranoia having made the station as unbearable of a cage to them as everyone else. Kuin was gone as well, and in fact it seemed every resident of Gnosis with the means to leave had done so. Stavar's personal physician would have been one of them, had Lirelle not literally collared the weaselly little man and convinced him to delay his departure until Tallas had been seen to.
Satisfied that Tallas was recovering smoothly, Lirelle retrieved her headset and accessed the Gnosis sensor data that they -- Tallas -- had shed so much blood to obtain. The logs stretched back decades, and had recorded the arrival of three Orion ships four years ago: two strike cruisers and a third belonging to a larger class unfamiliar to her.
All the entries after were blank. Were Lirelle to guess, the Orions had destroyed the sensor network and no one on Gnosis had bothered to turn off the recording program. Lirelle pulled off the headset with a dejected sigh. Originally they had also planned to interview the station residents about the Orion ships, but now that wasn't possible either.
Lirelle rose at the soft knock on the door, opening it to find Zu on the other side with a tray. "I have brought you, food," she dipped her head once, in her strange, deliberate way, "Apologies that we could not obtain better."
"Nonsense, this is great, thank you. Please, join me," Lirelle accepted the tray with a smile and led the way to the dining room. Lirelle was ashamed of the opinion she'd originally had of the allurois, once it had transpired how Zu had helped them -- was still helping them. Zu had prevailed upon the few ex-Guild members left to recover their belongings and resupply them for their trip back.
"How fares he?" Zu asked softly, slanting a concerned look at the bedroom.
"Quite well, considering. He should wake very soon." Lirelle poured them each a glass of water, and sat at the circular table opposite Zu. Not unexpectedly, the food was all pulled from vat mass-cultures, but proved well-prepared and filling. "Yourself?"
"I am free," Zu said simply, with a smile. She touched the back of her head -- installing that was a couple skill levels above Stavar's pet doctor, and so was removing it. Even now, Lirelle had trouble accepting the sheer abhorrent scope of what Stavar had built, the extent to which his malignant fear had penetrated his domain. She had at least thoroughly scrambled the frequencies and codes across all the implants and destroyed the control equipment, making absolutely sure that no one could ever use Stavar's system again.
They both dug healthily into the food, Zu at a pace that made Lirelle curious about her metabolism. After a couple minutes, Lirelle asked, "Zu, did you really meet Dreamer when he last came here?"
"I did not," Zu admitted, "The boss had yet to buy me. There was an allurois who, helped Dreamer rescue his man. She left with them." Her face turned contemplative, "I wish it had been I who, met him. Sometimes he doesn't, seem real this Dreamer, to see the record of what he had done for, the man who loved him. So terrible and, so wonderful."
Lirelle thought about the recording, slotted it among her other memories of the AI. "Yes, he is that."
"The boss failed to understand. I was inspired. And when, I saw that you and, he were from Dreamer I had hope."
The low moan sent both of them to the bedroom. "Tallas?" Lirelle used the handheld scanner while Zu gently took one of his hands. Tallas's eyes fluttered open slightly and regarded the two of them before closing, like it took too much effort. "How do you feel?"
"Beat up," came the weak raspy reply. "Zu?"
"Yes, Tallas Anderholt."
"Just Tal's fine..." Tallas licked his lips, "Can't thank enough...everything."
"It is I who am, grateful Tal." Zu raised the cup of water by the bed to him.
Tallas mouthed the straw gratefully. "So Stavar's..."
"Deceased," Lirelle took great satisfaction in saying so, "and his Guild dismantled. You made that possible, you and Zu. Both of you should be proud." Zu accepted the accolades with a graceful dip of her head.
"Don't...even know what...fuck happened."
"You told Stavar Dreamer was dead, information that he couldn't process. Zu influenced him into believing it, which caused a momentary cascade failure in the implant command processes. That interruption gave me the opportunity to seize Kuin's weapon." Lirelle had determined that chain of events after the fact, but still had questions. She smoothed back Tallas's perennially messy hair, now basically brown with grime. "Tallas, how did you know to do that?"
"What?" Tallas looked confused, as did Zu.
"Stavar feared Dreamer's return above all else," Lirelle explained, "hence the implants. For the better part of ten years all that data poured into his brain, focused solely on Dreamer. No one could handle that. His mind became warped, and by the end was more AI than human. And preparing for that final confrontation with Dreamer became his purpose, for existence. When confronted by the loss of that purpose, he reacted like an AI and crashed, essentially. Were you aware of that?"
"No, I...I just had a...feeling."
Lirelle's eyebrows climbed high. "A 'feeling'?"
"His weakness...to say that Dreamer died," Tallas said, "Weird...I get these...gut feelings sometimes about what to do but...don't know why." By the end of that sentence his words were coming slower, less clear. Zu gave him more water.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't be taxing you now," Lirelle stood up, "You need to rest."
"Wait...wait," Tallas's hand flopped in her direction, "Did you get the data back?"
"Yes, I did," Lirelle assured him with the half-truth, "Rest now."
Zu attended Tallas until he fell into exhausted sleep, then returned to the dining room table and cold food. "What 'data' does he refer to?"
Lirelle accessed the relevant sensor log and passed her the headset; it made no sense not to trust her now. "We were searching for information about an incident that occurred here four years ago, involving three Orion warships."
"Tal is, an Orion," Zu blinked a bit comically at the display that would have appeared in mid-air, from her perspective. Lirelle confirmed with a nod. "And so is, Farishi."
"Quite possibly. He must not know we were here."
"I see... I remember this day," Zu said, unaware of the sudden furious pumping of Lirelle's heart, "Three ships came, more powerful than any we had ever seen. Everyone hid, here even the boss's men, while there was a great battle, out there."
Lirelle leaned forward intently. "Who were they fighting? Do you remember?"
"Another outsider ship painted blue and, gray. The scavengers collected fragments after," Zu pulled off the headset when she realized how important this was to her host. "Wait here I will show you." She was out the door in a series of elegant strides, leaving Lirelle speechless.
Zu returned with a twisted piece of metal. Lirelle took it reverently; it was once part of a starship's outer hull, charred and blistered by weapons fire. A metallurgical analysis could reveal who the ship belonged to, perhaps even where and when it was built. "Dreamer would've been humbled to know you," Lirelle breathed. Zu grinned beautifully.
The shuttle was fully stocked and a jump-capable ride had been arranged. As Lirelle went through a final systems check in the cockpit, Zu walked the length of the rear cabin laying her hand here and there, as though collecting a tactile memory of the interior. Watching her from his cot was Tallas, freshly washed and clothed at great effort. He'd insisted after Zu told him that she'd been able to locate him on the station so consistently because of smell, despite her assurance that she mostly meant her genetically enhanced olfactory sense.
"Are you certain you won't accept our offer of transport?" Lirelle asked, "We can take you to Vega. I'm informed that they welcome all manners of modified humans."
"Yes. One such as I, cannot travel with only you and he for so long. We allurois must have intimacy often or suffer and, you and he are too honored," Zu answered, looking puzzled at Tallas's frown, as though there was nothing wrong with being genetically altered to be addicted to sex. "In any case I now, have new intent."
"Yeah, about that, please don't. You really don't have to," Tallas said. Zu had decided to stay and attach herself to Farishi to ensure that he would never find out they were there, and what their mission had been.
"Farishi, has power. More than any other left in this place if your suspicions, of him are true." Zu sat on the cot and grasped his bandage-covered hand. "Do not trouble yourself with, my well-being. I will help you and, Farishi will help, me. He will not go unrewarded."
"Right," Tallas almost felt sorry for the bastard.
"Zu, you have the means to contact us. Should you ever require our assistance you need only ask."
"Yeah, if you ever need anything, just call, alright?"
"I am, already aware of this," Zu touched her fingertips to his cheek, and slowly connected their lips. She rose and did the same to Lirelle, before backing away and holding her fingers to her heart. "I am, Zu Aleph Rajella. I offer my true name in respect and friendship."
"Thank you...Rajella," Lirelle awkwardly mirrored Zu's gesture. Tallas belatedly followed suit.
The prospecting vessel disengaged its moorings, carrying the Kinjori shuttle with it. Brilliant Adhara and the jagged shadow of Gnosis over its face swung out of view. "The captain informs us that we'll be jumping in thirteen minutes. Are you comfortable?"
"Sure I guess," Tallas grumbled. His body still felt sapped and tenderized, especially his ribs, and something still hurt no matter how he positioned himself. "This bed sucks."
After a while doing whatever pilot things needed doing when another ship was flying for them, Lirelle came in the back and sat on the other cot. Tallas guiltily stopped scratching the nearly-healed wounds on his hands and dropped them to his sides. "Hey, so that 'trip to Adhara' idea kinda went to shit, huh? When we get back I'm gonna have to have a chat with Dreamer about understatement."
"But at least we got what we came for." That got him an "Indeed."
The one-word responses were starting to irritate him. Tallas turned his head to meet Lirelle's sober eyes; they'd survived Adhara and mission successful, damn it. He resented her mood. "You think that things'll get better now on Gnosis? Better than they got on Ledon?"
"I can't predict that. I can only say that the power vacuum will eventually be filled, as they always are. Tallas, I must ask--" Tallas braced himself, "--when you threatened to rupture the plasma conduit if Stavar harmed Zu or I, would you have followed through?"
The memory of the time he spent in that tiny room had taken on a surrealist quality, blank intervals piling up and melting together, just a few snatches of detail standing in sharp relief to the rest. The streak of light across the floor and the motes that danced in it. The pistol solid, warm, and sure in his left hand, right up 'til the end.
"Over twenty-six hundred people on that station. Would you have?"
"I don't know," Tallas said, averting his eyes to the ceiling because he didn't want to know if that made Lirelle look at him differently. "I don't...think so." He felt Lirelle squeezing his shoulder, and was left pondering whether he could've answered better.
Once back in the space of the Near-Solar Community and waiting for their jumpliner, Lirelle sent off one message for the Dream, a second for the Alya Navy, and a third for a contact in the merchant fleet. They hadn't worried overly when the Dream didn't show at Gnosis, given the distance it needed to cover. However, now enough days had passed that they were growing anxious, at the continued lack of sight or sign of their ship.