Disclaimer: This story contains violence, implied sexual activities, and bad language. People whose sensibilities are offended by such are invited to leave. All characters and situations within this story are fictional, and any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2011 Devon Keene: email@example.com
the Enigma of Flatness
|False North||Part XXIV
Fennic woke up with the chorus of frogs ringing in his ears. The dreams didn't happen every night, but there had been enough of them after his "mistake" -- as he'd taken to calling that whole night in his head -- to make the connection. Quickly, he reached for the pad on his nightstand and scrawled down as much as he could remember. Jumbled snippets of life on another world, maybe several worlds...he hadn't had much luck piecing any of it together.
What does a frog look like? He contemplated it while rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
He had yet to tell any of the others about the dreams. Whether they were his lost memories or not, they had been bought with Ky's suffering and the betrayal of Lirelle's friendship. And Dreamer's. After the dust settled, he had shook and stammered through his contrition and the others had bent over backwards to be understanding, which only made him feel worse. Even now, the guilt that filled Ky's eyes whenever they crossed paths kept the shame fresh.
For an instant when they connected, Fennic had felt what extraction was like for Ky every time, the way it left him less than what he was. Pretty words weren't enough to wipe that away, and he didn't know what would. He'd thought more than once about throwing away the dream notes, but then it truly would've all been a waste.
Either that or he was still more selfish than he'd like to admit.
Fennic washed and dressed, then walked to the mess hall. As he entered he saw Sabrin, who gave him a brief, blank glance over his cereal. Fennic pasted on a smile and bade him good morning, not expecting or receiving much of a response.
Sabrin left before Fennic was halfway through his toast and eggs. Fennic had wanted to wrap an arm around those tense shoulders, work to assuage a heartache other than his own, but he'd noticed that Sabrin didn't particularly like being touched by anyone other than Tallas. No, the only thing that'd help him would be Lirelle's shuttle back on board. Fennic wouldn't mind having that either; he missed Lirelle's warm calm and Tallas' easy cheer, and the seemingly effortless way they lent comfort and strength to others.
Finishing his breakfast alone, he headed up and found Sabrin and Ky both on the bridge, at the helm and the port station. Fennic slid behind the starboard console and brought up his training exercises; their temporary short-handness had highlighted the need for him to learn at least the basics of the Dream's controls.
Hours passed without a half-dozen words between them, when Dreamer arrived with his usual carefree cheer, genuine or not.
"Hey guys. Doin' great bud." Fennic felt Dreamer's smile, but not the congratulatory clap on his shoulder that would have once accompanied it. Seeing Dreamer's face, there was only fleetingly the rush of heat, the stab in his chest...he supposed that counted as improvement.
"I've received a recall order from Alyan Command," Dreamer announced to the bridge, "We're to head back to Edoch right now."
"Is something wrong?" Sabrin asked, "What about the convoy?"
"They didn't give details. They just want us there, ASAP. Another ship'll be here for the convoy in under an hour."
Sabrin stared unreadably at Dreamer for long moments, before turning back to input the new course. Dreamer gave Fennic another smile before leaving, but for once that didn't ease the knot of worry in his gut.
Edoch Port had a visitor, sixteen hundred meters long and covered with weapons. Sabrin regarded the unmoving giant apprehensively as they approached the station; the paint scheme on the ship's hull was similar to that of the Dream. "Dreamer, is that...?"
"Polarian battleship," Dreamer confirmed. He had an odd expression on his face, not quite excited or grim. "It's the Fearless Invention."
"Friend of yours?"
"Once upon a time," Dreamer said. "Incomin' message. Edoch Port's expectin' us, dock seven."
Four Polarians were indeed waiting for them outside the airlock. Front and center was a tall, whipcord-thin black woman wearing the insignia of a high-ranking officer. She was flanked by two crewmen, one carrying a rifle and the other a large metal case, and finally to her far right was a blond man whose eyes marked him as the ship's avatar. Sabrin's stomach roiled as he stepped foward, nodding when the woman asked, "Sabrin Payne?"
"Commander Tsurri Chensor, XO of the Fearless Invention. We have orders to retrieve the Dream of Dawn." She held out a reader displaying paragraphs of text.
"Excuse me?" Sabrin barely kept his words level as the world tilted sideways.
Chensor's eyes softened, though the steel remained in her voice. "We've been in contact with the Alyans, and we realize that you must've come onto the Dream under unusual circumstances. Your custodianship of him up to now is appreciated, but the fact is that he's a ship of the Polarian Alliance Navy. He belongs with us."
"You're a bit mistaken there, Commander," Dreamer spoke up, moving to Sabrin's side. Two versus four, that was slightly better odds. "I'm resigned. Retired."
"Bullshit!" The other avatar barked, startling not only Sabrin but apparently also the other Polarians. "We can't resign!"
"Hey Fearless, lookin' good," Dreamer flashed his lopsided smile. "Color me flattered that HQ would send a big boy like you just for little ol' me."
Chensor shot her avatar a quelling look, before turning back to Sabrin. "I'm sorry, captain, but the Dream will be coming with us. We'll give you two hours to vacate the ship."
Sabrin barely heard her over the blood thundering in his hears. You can't take Dreamer, I can't let you. His muscles vibrated, chomped for a fight his mind already knew would be futile. His fingers twitched at his thigh for a weapon that wasn't there. Through the haze he managed to ask, "Why are you taking him?"
"Because he's one of us," Chensor answered, and she believed it.
"What if I don't agree?" There was no mistaking the razor's edge in Dreamer's breezy words.
Chensor sucked in a breath, seeming more saddened and disappointed than anything else. "We have authorization to use force," she said after a few seconds. Closing her eyes, she added, "This should not come to that."
Dreamer gazed pointedly at the metal case, then at the other avatar, drawling, "You'd let 'em put a slave node on me, Fearless?"
Sabrin waited for Fearless to flesh out that thought, except it seemed like somewhere in the android's burning glare that already happened since he felt Dreamer shift and put a hand on his arm. "Sabe, it's okay. I'll go with 'em."
"No, Dreamer, you can't--"
Dreamer turned to intercept Fennic's frantic rush, interposing his body between the boy and the Polarians. "It's okay, bud, really. I'll be alright," he murmured. "Two hours," Dreamer told Chensor over his shoulder.
"Thank you for your cooperation," Chensor's relief was evident as she tipped her head to Sabrin. He snatched the reader she still proffered, and didn't acknowledge the gesture. "Captain, we'll leave you to it."
As soon as the Polarians were out of earshot, Sabrin let loose. "What the fuck Dreamer?! We can't just turn you over to them!"
"Don't exactly have a surplus of options 'ere, Sabe." Dreamer marched towards the cargo bay, calculating the portion of its contents that his crew would find most useful, and the fraction of it that could be stowed on their antigrav pallets. "I'll handle the supplies in the bay, you guys need to be packing. I've contacted the station to get you temporary quarters."
"Hold it. What's this really about?"
Dreamer activated a wall screen to pick up the conversation, while his avatar continued to the bay. "I'd guess it's in there," he indicated the forgotten reader clutched in Sabrin's hand, "A bunch of officers have challenged the legality of the order that let me resign, and now that I'm back they've been busy setting' up the hearing."
"The fuck does that mean?" Sabrin thumped the wall beside the screen, looking unhappily at the android's retreating back. Ky delicately took the reader from him and began scanning the text with a frown. "What's gonna happen to you?"
"It means they're taking me to Hephaestus. And if that order gets overturned, then I go back to bein' a PAN ship."
"Do you want to rejoin them?" Ky asked quietly.
"Hell no." Dreamer was warmed that Selene -- and Fearless, despite what he felt now -- still saw him as Fleet, but honestly that hadn't been true for a long time and would never be again. It'd been hard back then, coming to terms with that, but not nearly the hardest personal realignment he'd ever had to make. He grinned, "I've gotten used to you guys."
"It can't just be that," Sabrin said.
Dreamer raised his eyebrow. "That ain't enough?"
"To send a battleship? And what was the deal with that avatar? He looked like he wanted to throttle you."
"He's hurt. And pissed off." Dreamer sighed, recalling the flurry of comn bursts Fearless had fired at him. Fearless had been a friend, albeit not close enough for Dreamer to have told him about his plans to leave. But worse than that... "He ain't the only Polarian AI who is. Sounds like 'cause I left, the Polarians started doubtin' the loyalty of all their AIs. Ships like Fearless have been servin' twenty-plus years and all of a sudden HQ started actin' like any of 'em could turn into the next Pinnacle."
Four centuries ago the heavy cruiser Pinnacle had went insane, snuffing out his crew, an outpost, and half a colony before being brought down. Dreamer, Selene, Fearless, and practically every other ship's AI were excluded from their own propulsion and life support controls because of him. They all knew and cursed his name.
"Fearless told you that?"
<THEY CALLED YOU THE SECOND PINNACLE / THERE WERE LISTS OF WHICH OF US WOULD GO NEXT> Given that the "they" were two-bit sensationalist media, Dreamer had brushed it off. Still, a little of their poison had stuck to all those in the Fleet, and now to him in spite of himself. It made him want to punch something.
"Yeah," Dreamer answered. "It died down 'cause I wasn't actually there, but at the time there was a real ruckus. A lot of screamin' about 'puttin' more safeguards on the AIs', and another bunch talkin' about how 'AIs should have the right to resign, like any human being'."
"They should," Fennic said emphatically.
"Hardly matters anyway, none of 'em would ever want to," Dreamer dismissed the notion like the Polarian AIs had done, "We were created for what we're doing."
"Not you," Sabrin pointed out, and wasn't that both the problem and the solution in a nutshell.
"I'm special," Dreamer smirked; Fearless had used a different word that was probably as accurate, "I just have to make HQ see that. If they understand that none of their other AIs are like me, then there'll be no problem with letting the order stand."
"Oh, easy," Sabrin said skeptically, "And what if that doesn't work?"
"Then it gets ugly." Dreamer couldn't say how; there were no precedents. Would he still be protected by the Polarian laws regarding sapient AIs? Would he be treated as unfit, or hostile? "They might have to break out the slave node after all." And that would be the day he found a way to blow himself up, because no way in hell was he letting that happen to him again.
"I'd rather not wait for that." Sabrin carded restless fingers through his hair. "There's gotta be something we can do."
"Yeah, pack." Dreamer met each of their eyes in turn, speaking with more confidence than he felt. "You can't fight the Fearless, not here not now. I'll show you how to get in touch with Selene. After I'm gone, she'll do what she can, keep you in the loop." His sister had tried to warn him, even if she didn't know the details. Now she was the nucleus of his anger and guilt, at the thought of her allegiance being impugned because of him -- she hadn't mentioned any of that.
"I'll try to contact Sufh too. I have the feeling he knew something like this would happen." Sabrin's dark expression didn't abate. When none of his crew moved Dreamer told them to run along and switched off the screen. Goodbyes could wait for two hours.
The hand-off occurred without ceremony. Sabrin stood with crossed arms and scowled as the Polarian party boarded the Dream of Dawn, the airlock hissing shut behind them. The Fearless Invention traced a graceful arc that momentarily cast all of Edoch Port in shadow. Its four massive ion engines blazed, drowning out the stars, with the Dream's much smaller two merely candles alongside.
The Alyans assigned all three of them to a single cabin, not that any of them cared about their accomodations. Sabrin located the station's gym and pounded out his frustration, returning drained and sore to find Ky poring over Polarian legal minutiae and Fennic picking morosely at cold Cygnese take-out. "Hi, we saved you some."
"Thanks." Sabrin avoided Fennic's eyes as he pulled over a carton. He wasn't doing enough; he knew that.
They were unsurprisingly stonewalled by Sufh's office. Selene's message, at least, arrived late that evening. Her recorded visage remainly flawless beautiful, but stress shone through her voice and manner.
"Captain...Sabe, sorry about this, really. HQ's just fuckin' briefed me on what they were plannin' today. Looks like this time they're really wantin' to control the dataflow, after the mess that happened when Dreamer left before. I've been recalled to Hephaestus too, for the 'special hearing'. I'll be there in four days, so it'll be that long 'til the whole song and dance starts."
"Listen, this prolly doesn't help, but don't fret too much yet. There're sound reasons for lettin' Dreamer's resignation stand. And you won't be alone in this either. My brother ain't exactly popular at home right now but he's still got some friends. Actually, it might help if you guys came to Hephaestus too, not let HQ just blow off the fact that Dreamer has had a crew these last months, and a damned good one at that. If y'all decide to do that, tell me and I'll set you up with those friends I mentioned. It'll be okay."
"Well, how will we proceed?" Ky appeared ghostly in the light from his pad.
"I don't know," Sabrin rubbed his tired face, "I can't..." He was being torn in different directions. There was no way to send a message to Adhara and be assured of its delivery. "Tal and Lirelle, I...someone should be here to wait for them. Make sure they can get in touch with one of us as soon as they're back."
"Agreed. But as Selene said, we should keep ourselves involved with the Polarians. I can go ahead to Hephaestus and see what I can accomplish."
Sabrin exhaled, relieved to be on more solid ground. "Okay, if you're sure, we'll reply to Selene."
"Wait, Ky," Fennic said, "I think I want to go with you."
Sabrin saw no problem with that; they all wanted to help Dreamer and frankly, as things stood he wouldn't want to keep himself company over the upcoming days. Ky on the other hand looked dubious, almost nervous. "I don't know if that would be prudent."
"Aren't we just going to talk to the Polarians about Dreamer?" Fennic insisted, "I can tell them about how much he helped me when he didn't even know me."
"Not a bad thought." Sabrin didn't need to say that young, fresh-faced Fennic would yield more sympathy than Ky with his sandpapery voice and weary eyes, should it come to that. Such was simple human reality. Ky nodded in deference to his crewmates and went to access the comn system, his expression unchanged.
By the next morning, a second message from Selene was waiting for them. Sabrin had made a valiant effort to sleep through the churning of his mind, to little avail. As far as he could tell, Ky had stayed at the table with the reader all night.
Before he and Ky boarded the shuttle that would take them from Edoch Port, Fennic had given in to himself and hugged Sabrin. He'd felt the taller man stiffen beneath his worn-soft leather jacket, but then big hands came to his back and pressed, if only briefly.
It was a short jaunt to one of Mnemosyne's sprawling orbital spaceports. Now that he knew to look, Fennic noticed the tiny adjustments Ky made to avoid the thickest of the bustle, the excessive attention he paid to the ones he had to pass closely. Fairly or not, Ky's ability suffused every part of his being, and Fennic had no doubt that Ky would use it at Polaris if he ever thought it would help. He was equally sure that Ky wouldn't be, not as long as he was there to stop him. That was the least he could do.
Flights from Mnemosyne to Polaris departed every hour and a half, so they were soon called to board their flight. Ky's face was ashen by the time they had shuffled and jostled their way inside the starliner and stowed their bags. Fennic motioned for Ky to take the window seat; with the armrest down between them, he had to drape his right arm across his stomach to be able to shift his body at all.
"How're you feeling Ky?" Fennic asked.
"I'm fine," Ky said, leaning his head against the wall.
"Excuse me, does your friend get spacesick? I have some vertham in my purse."
"Oh, no thanks," Fennic turned to the older woman on his other side. "It's not that. He uh..."
"I don't like crowds," Ky said.
"Oh, I completely understand! I swear, they do studies to figure out just how many people they can cram into these things before it's a human rights violation."
Fennic chuckled with her. He learned that her name was Narija, and that she was visiting her second daughter at university. The distraction was welcome; he found her easy to listen to, and her perfume was like fruit ripening in summer. She also didn't seem to mind that he volunteered little information in turn.
The liner jumped; Fennic heard retching sounds and hastily reached for his tiny cup of water, to gulp down the convulsions in his own throat. His time aboard the Dream had only made interstellar jumps more familiar, not more pleasant. He smiled awkwardly at Narija, realizing that he'd missed the last thing she said.
Fennic startled a bit when Ky said his name.
"You might like to see this."
Mindful not to contact Ky's body, Fennic gripped the armrest and carefully leaned forward to peer out the window. Out of the blackness, the broad curve of Hephaestus, capital world of the Polarian Alliance, slowly swung into view. He discerned great, cracked sheets of bluish white and branching fingers of various grays; a broken, jagged ribbon the color of dried blood traced the planet's equator, along with a ruler-straight silvery thread.
Gradually, the closer stretch of the thread resolved into a space station that encircled the entire planet: the Arch, home to a billion people, the beating heart of Polarian civilization. Somewhere along that sixty thousand kilometer span was Dreamer; Fennic consciously snapped his mouth shut and settled back into his seat, as the liner maneuvered to dock.
Fennic helped Narija unload her bag from the overhead compartment and received a pat to his cheek for his trouble. They submitted to the slow slog of customs, finally emerging from the spaceport to find an android waiting for them.
He appeared as a man of approximately twenty-five, only with pale, lustrous gray skin and moderately darker hair. His eyes were silver rings on black rather than Dreamer's gold, and there was a symbol stamped under the left one, four square dots over a curved line. The same symbol prominently displayed on one of the nearby welcome banners hinted at his identity.
"Hi. Ky? Fennic? Selene told me to expect you," he grinned and reached out for handshakes, "I'm Alex, the AI of this station."
"All of it?" Fennic blurted out, at the same time that Ky murmured, "'Alex'?"
"Yessir," Alex motioned for them to follow him, "Are you two worn out from the trip? I hear even the short ones are tiring. C'mon, I'll show you to Kimmer's place." Kimmer Brohh had once served aboard the Dream of Dawn, and had offered to house them in his guest room for the duration of their stay.
"Where's the Dream being held?" Ky asked.
"Zephyr Naval Base, Section Ruby-Malachite-Four-One-Four. You won't be able to get there without authorization though."
"How's he doing?"
"Fearless said that he was cooperating. Beyond that I don't know. HQ has restricted access to his transceiver." Alex shook his head. "I can't believe he's finally back and I can't even talk to him."
"Sorry." Fennic said. "You're not mad about him leaving before, like Fearless was?"
Alex gave him a sidelong glance. "I am mad. But I can take being mad if it meant having him back."
"Why are you helping us then?"
Sadness tinged Alex's face. "I wish he wanted to come back." Fennic didn't know what he could've said to that other than maybe another "sorry", and he didn't want to condescend to this man and all the power he represented. Which wasn't to say that he didn't understand how Alex felt. He did, painfully well.
They rode one of the high-speed transit lines that ran the entire inner circumference of the Arch, and then a slower Section cab the rest of the way to Kimmer's apartment. Their host greeted them in an apron cheerily decorated with little yellow ducks, and proceeded to shove more food at them than Fennic thought could've come from the small kitchen, despite their protests that they weren't worth the trouble.
Tall and loose with perpetual dimples in his cheeks, Kimmer seemed confident that the higher-ups of the Polarian Navy would do the right thing and accede to Dreamer's wishes. He reminisced fondly about his time in the Fleet, punctuated by fast yet amazingly precise motions of his hands, and had an inexhaustible supply of questions for Dreamer's current crew. Fennic fielded them the best he could, given Ky's increasingly pinched expression, and hoped that it was they, not Kimmer, who didn't have enough information.
The time differences had Fennic on the guest room bed -- ridiculously luxurious compared to what he was used to -- in the dark long before sleep could've been a possibility, even without tomorrow's uncertainties swamping his mind. He stirred restlessly and gazed at the barely-there silhouette of Ky sitting at the desk, backlit by his pad on the dimmest legible screen setting. "Ky?"
"Am I disturbing you? I can go to the living room." Ky had a mat on the floor, since his being a sleepless ex-Onyx Hand extractor was not something to spread around.
"No, but...don't you still get tired?"
Ky shrugged. "I'll be fine."
That's not what I asked. Fennic propped himself up on his elbow. "Ky, you've been studying that for... There'll be enough time tomorrow. Could you please just...turn it off and lie down? Please? Just for tonight."
His heart sank when he thought Ky was going to ignore him, but then the tiny light went out.
"Look, I get that he's your brother but there's nothing we can do. The orders say that the Dream of Dawn's under comn blackout until further notice, no exceptions. Once you're on-base HQ might change their tune. Zephyr out."
"FUCK!" Selene slammed her palm into the corridor wall. Two nearby crewmen jumped and hurried along, unaware of the ship's conversation that had just led her avatar to -- by outside appearances -- lash out for no reason.
"Hey captain," Selene leaned on her outstretched arm, tipping her head forward and slightly sideways to catch Preya's disapproval. Selene lifted the corner of her mouth; whatever emotional reactions AIs had, nothing their avatars did was ever truly uncalculated. Easy as that was for people to forget, Captain Balitsurhnang never did. "Sorry 'bout actin' out. It's these raging teenage hormones, y'know?"
"There has to be more constructive ways for you to express your displeasure," Preya's round face was troubled and resigned, the same now as months ago when Selene told her that Dreamer had returned and requested leave for her avatar. "I'm none too happy either that this sorry affair is being unburied."
"But orders are orders, right?" Selene asked sardonically.
"That's right," Preya stepped closer, "So whatever the panel's ruling on the Dream, you and I will both abide by it..."
Selene narrowed her eyes, straightening to fully face her commanding officer of eight years. "You're gonna ask me that?"
Preya already had the answer she was looking for, and the lines on her face smoothed out. "No. No. I did not ask three years ago, did I?"
"No." Preya hadn't, when logically she would've been more justified in doubting her AI than virtually any other captain in the Fleet. In the dark days after Dreamer's departure, her implicit trust had been all the more significant. Selene thanked her again now with a genuine, if small, smile. "Alright, moment over. If I'm gonna be callin' on the higher-ups there're things that need scrubbin'."
The Selene's Tear barreled through space, radiation at its back and dust in its wake. She had wanted to at least have her brother close if she couldn't have him back, and perhaps that was what had led her to misread Headquarters -- thinking that they wouldn't have the political stomach to dredge up what the prodigal ship had left behind. Now it was too late to give a stronger warning.
Waiting was a deeply taught discipline at the Academy. You waited for orders, you waited for orders to be carried out, and good officers knew when to command and when to step back. Timing, judgment, and faith.
That discipline kept Sabrin to three meals and eight hours on his bed per day, as he waited. He listened with mute impotence to the updates from Polaris, to the grind of frustration that crept increasingly into his crewmates' voices. He wore out his body in the gym and his mind in planning; anything to keep himself from drowning in free time.
The last possible date that Tallas and Lirelle could've made their prearranged check-in came and went. Neither Ky nor Fennic tried to dissuade him from taking the first available flight out.
Without the Dream, the way from Alya to Adhara was slow. He was spending more -- excruciating -- time in spaceport terminals than in ships, drawing dirty looks from the travelers who were clean and rested and lived more ordinarily than he could comprehend. Mostly Sabrin kept his eyes closed and rehearsed the next step, when he reached the edge of Alyan space, when he reached Resqandi.
When he reached Gnosis Station and found out whether Tallas...
Sabrin's eyes flew open, stinging in the filtered light of an unfamiliar yellow sun. He swiped them before shifting out of his sprawl, groaning as his joints complained. He hated falling asleep in daytime; the dreams came in crisper and took longer to shake off.
His mouth felt disgusting. Sabrin stood up only to have his legs threaten to crumple. Recovering, he found a restroom and, after gargling and splashing cold water on his face, held up his hand under the harshly bright lights to see his fingertips trembling. Shit. Tallas must have scolded him dozens of times over the years for ignoring his hunger.
Some appalling food court fare at least left him feeling marginally more solid. After, Sabrin accessed the Dream of Dawn crew's shared mailbox and found a new message, text only. Lirelle Wice.
Friends, we have accomplished our mission and returned safely to NSC space.
Relief swept through him, bubbling up irresistably in his throat. He clapped his hand over his mouth and took a deep breath, as the broken-glass memory of Tallas's leaving also crowded in.
Unfortunately, we came into conflict with the Stavar Guild and Tallas was injured. I emphasize that his life is not in danger and that his recovery is proceeding smoothly. Nevertheless, I have decided to take him to Ghauma, the closest Alyan planet, so that he may receive additional care at the hospital on Halfmoon Port. Given that our report is overdue, it is concerning that we have yet to hear from you. Please advise us of your status.
Sabrin re-read the message several times, faltering at the word injured, before he thought to check the timestamp and realized Lirelle and Tallas would already have reached Halfmoon. He rushed to find a comn station.
The hospital reception system was helpful enough, and just like that he and Lirelle were face-to-face across eighty light-years.
"Sabrin!" Lirelle's eyes widened, and in an instant she appeared to shed ten kilos. "It's very good to see you." As she looked him over a tiny wrinkle appeared between her eyebrows, undoubtedly at the days' worth of travel smothered over him.
"Fuck, same here Lirelle. Where's Tal?"
"Resting. He has tertiary tissue regeneration scheduled later today."
Tertiary, that wasn't so bad. Sabrin recalled a zero-g training mishap in which he'd bruised most of his back; the machine had been like magic -- the tranq clip came on and off, and he was almost like new. "What happened?"
He listened to Lirelle recount the events at Gnosis in her typical understated manner, clenching his fists near the end but also proud that Tallas, even beaten down, had pinpointed the critical chink in Stavar's psyche. "I'm glad you ended that old bastard," he said. Lirelle, never so crass as to preen at the taking of a life, merely tipped her head to acknowledge the sentiment. "You have no idea who the Imperials could've been fighting?"
"None. The debris we recovered may yield some clues."
"Yeah, that might not be happening anytime soon."
"I had gathered something to that effect," Lirelle said, "However, I'd been heretofore unable to directly contact you, Fennic, or Ilvarra for clarification."
Sabrin figured that meant it was his turn to talk. After his words petered out, Lirelle remained thoughtfully silent for some moments. "Will you send me the documents the Polarians provided?"
"Sure, check the mailbox in a couple minutes... So, got any brilliant ideas that'll get our ship back?" He offered a tepid half-smile.
"This is outside my expertise. The Kinjori don't utilize sapient AIs."
"Right." Neither did the Orions. While his crewmates, and Selene's friends, were doing their best as the hearing got under way, Sabrin's thoughts had already ran to the security layout of Zephyr Base, the disposition of Polarian fleet assets around their jump potentials. And further contingency plans that he wouldn't be voicing now or ever, hopefully. "Okay, stay where you are. I'm not that far from Ghauma right now, and I'll be on the next flight over."
"Very well. Send me the details and I shall meet you at the docks."
"Cool. Hey, do me a favor? If you haven't already, could you wait a day and let me brief Tal on the Dreamer situation myself? I'd rather he didn't have this on his brain before the procedure, y'know?"
"As you wish. And Sabrin," Lirelle regarded him critically, "sleep when you have the opportunity."
"Yeah yeah. See ya soon." Maybe he could now, but he'd rather just be there.
The "park" was little more than a square of artificial grass and a couple benches located on the uppermost level of Halfmoon Port. Still, the overhead dome let the sun shine through and that was incomparably better than the shuttle or aseptic-smelling hospital room filled with people worse off than he was.
Slowly and evenly, Tallas extended his right arm and brought it through a full range of motion, testing the wrist, the shoulder. He then repeated the action with his left arm. The Alyans did good work; the pain was gone, leaving only slight, deep-seated aches here and there to remind him where he'd been broken. Doctor's orders were to take it easy for a few days, but his newly mended body yearned to move, to sweat and exult in the sweet burn of relearning his limits.
He'd gone through an entire set of stretches and moved onto some light calisthenics when Lirelle came to fetch him, his watch having been deliberately left behind in the shuttle earlier. They walked to the docks in silence.
The starliner, rows of windows lighting up its sides, closed and dipped below the view from the concourse windows. Down one level and finally people were beginning to emerge, a trickle turning into a stream.
There Sabrin was, in the black leather jacket he'd worn out of Astral-Ishasa. Tallas hardly saw the battered thing anymore, since they'd started living on the Dream. Old, helpless want slammed into him, propelling him forward as smudged blue eyes locked on in return. Sabrin's giant, ugly-ass duffle hit the deck. "Tal."
Then they were in each other's arms; Tallas squeezed Sabrin like a vice and wished the other man would forget his hospital trip yesterday and give as good back. Sabrin had his face tucked in against Tallas's neck, whispers of breath warming his skin. Tallas pressed a line of soft kisses up to Sabrin's ear and felt him shudder gratifyingly. "Hey Sabe, missed ya too."
Sabrin shifted back a bit to bring their mouths together. He moved lightly, like he was reacquainting himself, and kept resisting Tallas's attempts to turn it heavier until the man growled in frustration. Sabrin smiled as Tallas stilled him with a hand clamped around the back of his skull, and only then did he gave in.
Both their faces were flushed when they separated. Sabrin turned his gaze to their surroundings and colored even more. "Hi Lirelle."
"Sabrin. I'm pleased to see you. Was your journey expedient?"
Sabrin huffed. "I've had better."
"Yeah," Tallas gave him a proper once-over, "Don't take this the wrong way man, but you kinda look like shit."
"Thanks, I uh...actually already knew that." Sabrin said ruefully. "Could we get outta here?"
"C'mon, the shuttle's this way." Tallas grabbed the duffle, easily batting away Sabrin's protesting hand. "You can lie down for a while, and after that...we can lie down some more." That earned him a groan and a shove, though he did notice the way Sabrin stuck close through the short walk.
Lirelle graciously declined to join them in the shuttle, stating that she had much reading to do and had discovered a more favorable spot for it than the cockpit. A strange moment passed between her and Sabrin as she said so, but it was gone in a blink. Sabrin tossed his jacket on the pilot's chair and landed on one of the cots with a solid thunk.
"Comfy?" Tallas teased. Sabrin's only reply was to stretch out full-length with a relieved sigh. Tallas sat beside him and nudged up his shirt to graze the strip of skin he had designs on later. "How've the others been doing?"
Sabrin froze before pushing upright, displacing Tallas to the other cot. "What's Lirelle told you?"
"Just that they had stuff to deal with in Polaris, so you came by yourself." Tallas's eyebrows drew together as he recognized the evasive tilt of Sabrin's head. "What is it?"
Sabrin met his eyes as he held some inner debate. "It's a lot worse than that. The Polarians are trying to take the Dream."
"...or actually, they've already taken him. Fennic and Ky are at Polaris trying to get him back."
Tallas stared. "Does Lirelle know?" he asked, reading the answer off Sabrin before the man could speak. "Fuck."
"I told her to wait. I didn't want you worrying about that in the hospital."
"I was just there for a tertiary." Tallas clamped down on the surge of unhelpful irritation and tempered his voice. "Haven't we talked about not keepin' things from each other 'cause we think it's for the best?"
"Yeah, haven't we?!" Sabrin snapped, and almost immediately his expression crumpled. He raised his hand to scrub at his face, shuttering his eyes. "Shit...sorry..."
"No...no that's fair." Tallas forced himself to breathe through the punched feeling in his chest. In the wake of Gnosis he'd had plenty of time to go over his actions, except he'd always imagined Sabrin yelling, not... "I'm the one who's sorry, I shouldn't've left you that way. Now that I've thought about it I think I was just tryin' to make it easier on myself."
"I've been trying to work it out," Sabrin said dully, "What exactly happened back there with the disc."
"There's a hell of a lot I wish I'd done differently, believe me. But I had to do it -- go to Adhara," Tallas clarified, fumbling his words. "The disc...I found it and that started everything. I had to know what it means."
"It doesn't mean anything, it was just a random, stupid accident. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time and happened to touch something we shouldn't have."
Not "we" Sabe, you. Tallas didn't mind Sabrin not understanding; he didn't himself at times, why he couldn't let the disc go. "Maybe. I'm still sorry though," he added, to make sure.
"I heard you. It's okay."
Taking in Sabrin's exhausted slump, Tallas crossed the gap between them and pressed him back down flat with a firm hand on his chest. "Alright Sabe, I remember promising you some lying down."
"But...hold on, I've got more to tell you on the Dreamer situation."
"I'll get it from Lirelle. I'm sure she's already more informed about it than you are."
Sabrin rapped Tallas's wrist with his knuckles, and then wrapped his warm fingers around it. "What I remember is you promisin' to take advantage of me when I wake up." Laughing, Tallas bent down to give him a preview.
Lirelle was none too difficult to find, seated on a park bench with a pad. She looked up as he approached. "Sabrin resting?"
"Yup." Tallas stayed on his feet with his hands in his back pockets, idly scanning a few elementary-age kids kicking a ball around, a mother with a stroller reading. "So, I'm guessin' that you've spent every waking moment since yesterday going over the Dreamer situation?" Lirelle replied in the affirmative. "Be honest. What're our chances?"
Lirelle firmed her lips, perhaps contemplating a longer-winded answer. "Low."
Ky found Fennic sitting alone on a walkway in the lowest level of the Arch, his forearms crossed atop his bent knees. His hair all but glowed, like the vast icy face of Hephaestus they could see rotating far below on both sides. Fennic looked up as he walked over; Ky stopped with a good meter or so between them. "Hi."
"Hi." Fennic's smile was strained. "Sorry for walking out like that."
"It's quite alright." Nothing had came out of their most recent appeal anyway. Apart from Tallas and Lirelle's safe return, they haven't had much good news as of late. Dreamer's hearing was a fortress of closed sessions and gag orders; Selene had arrived at the Arch and immediately vanished within, out of their contact. Dreamer's Polarian allies had their own channels to ply, and he and Fennic were left in the cold pounding uselessly on the walls.
Dismissive, annoyed, apologetic -- whatever the manner of delivery the message from the Polarian Navy stayed the same. We cannot discuss the hearing with outside parties. You have no standing to demand access. And the rub of it was that they were right as far as the law was concerned -- the Dream of Dawn was a commissioned PAN vessel and none of its current crew had the backing of any authority that would let them legitimately claim otherwise. "I was on the verge of following you," Ky said.
"I doubt it," Fennic replied in a self-depracating tone. "They didn't agree to let us talk to the panel did they?"
"No. It wasn't your fault."
"Thanks." A little light returned to Fennic's face. "Not just for that. I'm glad you're here Ky."
"I..." Ky blinked, finding it hard to keep eye contact. It made no sense that, after their minds had touched, he understood the boy even less than he did before. Fennic had seen, felt how Ky ruined Lirelle's brother, her only family. Since coming to the Arch, Ky couldn't fathom half of what Fennic had done and said to him. "There's nowhere else I could be."
"Same here." Fennic released a shaky sigh, bending to hide his face in the circle of his arms. Ky felt harsh pressure on his chest at the sight, but uncertainly kept his distance. "We have to be better though...we're letting him down."
"We've done as much as is possible." Kimmer had floated the additional option of them going to the press, which was a non-starter. They were each hobbled by their own secrets; that rooted the five of them to the Dream in the first place. "It may be time to report that we need to entertain more extreme options."
Unexpectedly, Fennic's expression darkened. He opened his mouth but was interrupted by a third voice calling their names. It came from a middle-aged, severe-featured woman with gray skin and hair, fast approaching. She bore a familiar symbol over her left cheekbone, below a black-and-silver eye.
"You're..." Fennic scrambled to his feet, surprised.
"Alex," the android confirmed.
"You have more than one avatar?"
"I have over five thousand avatars." Alex didn't give them a chance to process that statement, as he -- she -- continued gravely, "I'm here because very shortly the police will be too."
Ky sucked in a sharp breath, his body suddenly taut like a drawn bowstring. Beside him, Fennic looked sick.
"Both of you need to trust what I'm saying right now." Alex met Ky's glare with unflinching earnestness. "Go with them and answer their questions honestly, and then they'll set you loose. I guarantee you."
Having sat extensively on both sides of the kind of power the police held, Ky would just as soon have put Fennic and himself on the next outbound ship. Of course, at the moment they didn't have that option or really any others, nice as it was for Alex to come and lend her support. After a reassuring glance at Fennic, Ky said, "We won't resist. What's this about?"
"Dreamer's avatar's gone."