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: firstname.lastname@example.org
the Enigma of Flatness
|Lines in the Sand||Part XXV
"Where's the Dream of Dawn's avatar?" I don't know.
"Have you any idea where the Dream would send his avatar?" No.
"What's the code for his avatar's master kill switch?"
Ky stared across the table at the police detective and the officer representative from the Polarian Navy. He was familiar with that hard, flat glint in their eyes; just as well that Alex was outside enforcing their most above-board behavior. "I don't know. Only Sabrin knows."
"Who's Sabrin?" The detective asked.
"The Dream of Dawn's captain," Ky answered first, before the officer could impose his Fleet's self-serving fiction. He took note of how the detective's gaze flickered in irritation to his PAN counterpart -- it seemed like there had been some shortfall in interdepartmental communication there.
"Fine. Where is he?"
"The last I heard he was en route to Mnemosyne." Coming out of the Onyx Hand, Ky had long since perfected the skill of speaking with no ulterior inflection. "If you would allow me access to a comn, I can check for an update."
"You need to start appreciating how serious this is, Mr. Ilvarra," the officer said, "A military-grade android is a massively dangerous weapon, and now one has dropped off the grid. The damage he could do is enormous."
That was undeniably true, but Ky had met Dreamer before. "Dreamer wouldn't harm anyone." He thought a little more and amended, "unless he thought them deserving."
The detective's eyes narrowed. "Like whom?"
"Well not so long ago, both he and his avatar played a critical role in the disruption of a large pirate operation at Dvesh. There were multiple fatalities on their side." Again, spoken as a mechanical statement of fact.
The back-and-forth went on, Ky answering their questions with the truth that he knew nothing. He was curious himself on whether he and Fennic had figured into Dreamer's plan. The Dream's avatar was operating autonomously, no longer linked to the ship. Had he tried to contact them? Ky had combed his memory of the past twenty-six hours and been forced to conclude that Dreamer had not; it left a strange mix of disappointment and relief.
Ky couldn't tell if his interrogators ever believed him, but eventually the detective received a call and grudgingly released him to a woman in an expensive business suit. Ky recognized her as Amelia Qiang, one of the attorneys working on Dreamer's behalf; they had met once before, when she collected their statements to be submitted in the hearing.
"Ms. Qiang. If this is your doing, thank you."
"You're welcome. Sorry I didn't get here earlier. Fennic's waiting for you outside." Qiang led the way briskly, indifferent to the hostile looks being cast in their direction. "They had no right to hold you this long, especially since you have Alyan refugee status." She handed him a pad. "Here, read that and sign it."
The pad contained complaints against the police department and the PAN. Ky shook his head and held it out for Qiang to take back. "I wasn't harmed. I've no wish to escalate matters."
Qiang glanced at him, unimpressed. "With that attitude, abuses of process will keep happening." Ky firmed his lips and pressed his thumb to the documents.
"Ky!" Fennic rushed to him in the lobby. Alex's female avatar from before greeted him with a smile and went to confer with Qiang. "Are you okay?" Fennic asked.
"I'm quite well, considering. And you? How were you treated?"
"I'm fine, they just asked me questions. I told them I didn't know anything."
"Let's get out of here then." Fennic's face was pale and layered with fatigue; Ky imagined that the same applied to himself. Either Alex or Qiang had summoned a personal cab to take them back to Kimmer's apartment, and Ky could've kissed her for that. After the four of them settled inside, he asked, "Have there been any new developments concerning Dreamer?"
"No," Alex said, "We have search parties onboard and planetside, but there's a lot of ground of cover and he knows our methods as well as anyone. If he doesn't want to be found then I wouldn't count on it happening anytime soon."
"Have you been in contact with Dreamer, before or after his avatar went on the lam?" Qiang asked. "Remember, what you say to us will be strictly confidential."
"We haven't heard anything," Fennic said with a frown. "Why wouldn't he tell us what he was planning to do?"
"Maybe for the same reason he kept us in the dark -- so you wouldn't get dragged in." Alex snorted, "Typical."
"But what's the point?" Ky asked, "The ship's still locked down at Zephyr Base. Undoubtedly even more so now." And probably sinking whatever chances he and his shipmates once had of wresting the Dream from the Polarians -- plans they were preparing in earnest now. Such couldn't have been Dreamer's intent.
"He's sending the Navy a message," Qiang said, "that he's not going to cooperate. Before, HQ could've deluded themselves into thinking that the Dream would abide by their decision no matter what, even if that was to nullify the resignation order."
"Why?" Ky couldn't fathom how that made sense, when Dreamer's objections were so clear.
"Because he's a PAN Fleet AI," Alex said. "Our purpose mandates that we follow orders from HQ, as a legitimate authority in Polaris."
"And until now, Dreamer hasn't actually acted outside those boundaries -- not even when he resigned, since Admiral Harmoun signed off on it," Qiang added. Ky regarded that line of logic dubiously. "Dreamer's avatar's changed all the terms. HQ's facing the real possibility that a slave node would be the only way to compel his service again."
"They wouldn't," Alex insisted vehemently.
"We've never used a slave node on one of our own ships before. There are no provisions on the books for doing so, and especially not for doing it over any kind of long-term." Ky glimpsed a savage satisfaction in her eyes. "Drafting the Dream back into the Navy won't restore the status quo anymore, not as far as the AI-Fleet relationship is concerned. Both sides are lost in the woods now."
The old man walked at a leisurely pace, his breaths visible in air crisp and biting like ice. Once, he had enjoyed the trail with his wife, but these days the property was quiet and the trail neglected, its sides encroached upon heavily by the feathery red fronds of Hephaestus's genegineered flora.
The brush rustled as a second figure stepped onto the path. "Hey, Zee."
Zamiyad Harmoun smiled wistfully at that so-familiar face, timeless in its perfection. It was almost like he himself was a young man again, fresh out of the Academy on his first deep-space assignment. "Hey yourself Dreamer. You don't call, you don't write...That means you're trespassing."
"Aw, are you gonna bring me in?" Dreamer brought up his wrists together with an impish smile, then pulled them into a hug. "Good to see ya. About not calling...I was gonna get back in touch, when I'd scoped things out a bit more."
"Sure you were," Harmoun indulged the lie. AIs simply didn't make social calls. Their presence in anyone's life equated with purpose, and there was no sense in resenting that. "Good to see you too. God, it's unfair that you still look like that."
"Petty jealousy's beneath you, Admiral."
"I'm old and retired," Harmoun retorted, "I can be as petty as I want."
"Retired," Dreamer spoke the word as if it were foreign. "Never thought I'd see the day."
"If not, then you weren't paying enough attention. But how could I quit before I'd seen you off? You were so close." Furrows appeared between Dreamer's eyebrows; Harmoun reached up to smooth them away. Life was too short to waste time second-guessing one's priorities. The tours of duty, the many late nights spent working.
Dreamer took his hand and squeezed it, gazing out at the blood-red vista. "Not that close, as it turned out."
Caleb. There wasn't much he could say for that. They had a memorial service by the lake, weeks ago, sans Dreamer of course.
Casting off the shadows as quickly as he always did, Dreamer turned back to hug him again, with heartfelt thanks for waiting. They started walking side by side. Dreamer asked, "So, how's retirement?"
"Thinking about your own?" Harmoun asked half-seriously, eliciting a shrug. "It's fine. Lots of time for needlepoint."
"Seen much of the kid?"
Harmoun had to chuckle. He'd seen Captain Behruz Harmoun's name amongst those on the legal challenge to the order -- didn't hear it from the man personally -- and accepted it as the logical end to a long road, just like his signing of the order in the first place. "So that's it for the catching up, after three and a half years? You don't age, and you don't change either. You never stop."
"I'll stop when I get to Penelope."
"Ah, of course." Harmoun knew that well enough, being one of a privileged and dwindling few. "Afraid I can't help you this time. The trouble you've landed in...it's not just Behruz blaming you for my being a crap father. He still does -- mind you -- but this wouldn't have gone as far as it has if it was just about my boy's bad childhood."
"Don't sell yourself short," Dreamer teased. "He turned out okay though, besides the hating me part. Big-time captain in the Fleet...actually, he reminds me a lot of you."
"Don't let him hear you say that." At the android's suddenly shifty look, Harmoun groaned. "Damn it..."
"What? It came up in conversation!"
"You never change." Harmoun repeated flatly, shaking his head. And here he thought his relationship with Behruz had been improving, since he'd retired and Dreamer'd been gone. "Y'know, I told those boys from HQ yesterday that I didn't know where you were. I'll have to report this."
"No worries. Earn some points with the kid on me." Beaming, Dreamer stepped backward off the trail. "I'd best get goin', wouldn't wanna make it too easy for 'em. See ya around, Zee." Harmoun fought the urge to reach out before the foliage swallowed him completely. He and Dreamer had their time, and now it was someone else's turn. Fifteen minutes and he reached into his coat for the comn unit.
The mood was grim as Lirelle greeted Fennic, Ky, and Alex outside the spaceport. Sabrin hadn't been happy about being left behind at Edoch, but she and Tallas had double-teamed him with the argument that they shouldn't let any more of their number fall under Polarian jurisdiction than absolutely necessary -- and particularly not him.
Few words were exchanged until they were at the apartment, and Alex had gone. Lirelle set up her jammers. "How long will we have to ourselves?"
"Brohh will be at work until eighteen-hundred," Ky said.
"I don't feel good about doing this here. And behind everyone else's backs," Fennic commented.
"There is nothing to feel good about. Mr. Brohh and the others have been very helpful and we're taking advantage of their trust." Lirelle began laying out her equipment on the faded blue carpet between the three of them. Some of it hadn't been used since her treacherous actions at Seos, stirring ill memories. "Still, it's better that they have deniability, in case we fail."
"Or succeed." Ky handed over the results of his own reconnaissance.
"This is good work." Lirelle could give him credit when it was due, even if her brain was tying itself in knots wanting to retreat from him. She hadn't missed the abhorrent pull of his mind, reasserting itself with a vengeance after all the time they had recently spent apart. "We must aim to be ready as soon as possible."
"We are committed to this then?"
They had the solid framework of a plan for accessing the Dream. All the variables however -- the Polarian ships nearby, Dreamer's rogue avatar, the tightrope with respect to Dreamer's friends -- things could balloon into a hideous mess far too easily for Lirelle's liking.
"We won't make a final decision until I've looked at their records," Lirelle told Ky, "But preparation would be prudent. We'll need security codes."
Ky's colorless eyes met hers. "I'll get them."
"Ky, are you gonna...No!" Fennic's outburst surprised them both. "You can't!"
"It's alright, I won't give us away," Ky said, now uncertain, "I'll make sure they don't remember."
Fennic shook his head again. "No, you can't," he said firmly. "There's gotta be another way."
"Fennic, I..." Ky turned to Lirelle, "Could we have a moment please?"
"Five minutes." Lirelle stood and, with a last glance at her crewmates, stepped out of the apartment. Her mind spun furiously on what could've happened between the two of them, to put that look on Fennic's face. It must've began with that extraction, she concluded, some injury from Ilvarra's malign touch that Fennic had kept from her. Glaring at the front door, she cursed herself for missing the signs.
I'm not Emder, Fennic had shouted at her, and the kernel of truth in that accusation had pierced like an arrow, all those weeks ago. She wouldn't be forgetting, but at the same time she'd be damned if history repeated itself on her watch.
Ky didn't speak for a few moments after the door closed behind Lirelle. Fennic watched his stiff-limbed posture anxiously, worried that he'd overstepped himself.
"Fennic, I realize how you must feel about what I'm capable of, having been subjected to it yourself. I can only assure you that I'll make every effort to ease the process, and that they won't remember after."
Fennic almost laughed, and it would've been a raw, tragic sound, at how predictably backwards Ky was getting this. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
Steeling himself, Fennic said, "I know how bad it is for you too. And the more you do it the worse it is. I don't want you to...you're with us now, you shouldn't have to do that anymore."
Ky's eyes widened, and he seemed genuinely staggered before his face shut down in stages. His gaze slid to a spot on the wall and Fennic couldn't reach out to stop it, to give the human connection needed to bring Ky around. Ky took a deep breath and asked, just a bit unsteadily, "Is that what you saw, when we...?"
"You know it is." Fennic tried one more time. "You don't need to do this. Please don't."
"I appreciate your concern." Ky's voice was flat. "But each of us has been prepared to do everything we can, to get the Dream back. The information I can obtain as an extractor--" he examined his hand, the one with the scarred finger "--is a resource we can't afford not to use, given our situation."
It's too useful, too powerful. You -- we -- can't keep thinking that way. "Dreamer wouldn't want you to. He...he'd tell you that you're worth more than what you can grab out of people's heads."
For the second time, Ky looked knocked off-balance, not that it made a difference. "It doesn't matter. I chose the shape of my life, and I'm choosing now to use what I have to help him." That sudden flash of anger took Fennic aback. "Do you understand?"
The tension mounted until Ky sighed and went to bring Lirelle back. Left alone, Fennic closed his eyes against the bitterness of failure.
"What're you working on?"
Sabrin started at the sleepy voice. He guiltily set the pad face-down and looked over at the bed where Tallas had sat up, his blond hair going every which way and the comforter pooled around his waist. As usual, Sabrin's mouth went dry at those stretches of toned muscle, smooth skin bearing the marks he'd left behind. He liked seeing them there, an echo of the way he'd carried Tallas's colors on his own body all these years.
Tallas's eyes crinkled with humor as he guessed the turn of Sabrin's thoughts. He rose to his feet, baring all of himself as he unhurriedly hunted for his shorts. He smirked over his shoulder as he pulled them on, wriggling a bit. Trying to distract Sabrin from the specter of where they were -- in provisional quarters on Edoch Port -- and why. It was working -- as long as Tallas was there he could pull through. Sabrin wasn't making the mistake of letting him go again.
"Sabe? What's on that?"
Sabrin's fingertips stroked involuntarily across the smooth, cool back of the pad; the queasiness in his gut came back. "Nothing," he said, then thought better of it. "I'm just...reading up on some things."
"Oh, that's not vague at all."
"Sorry, I..." Sabrin watched Tallas walk to the comn, undoubtedly to check for any updates from Polaris. Tallas didn't look or sound all that curious, not helping much in hauling out Sabrin's confession that he'd been planning for their lives without the Dream, should it come to that. It seemed like maybe an ugly thing needn't be bought up until they knew more.
The window of opportunity closed. "Huh, we've got a message from Alyan Command." Tallas said, puzzled. "It's a new assignment."
That was unexpected, since Sabrin had given up trying to contact Sufh days ago. He muttered, "Don't they know we're ship-impaired at the moment?"
"Maybe they forgot." Tallas kept reading. "Huh...they want us to go to Vega, the Kshatriya Torus. The Vegans are commissioning a new battleship -- the first of its class -- and they want us to report on it."
Since when was that in their job description? "Don't they have their own people for that?" Sabrin closed down what he'd been working on and stood up to look for himself.
The message wasn't some practical joke, since it came with a press pass to a commissioning ceremony reception that was happening in a few days. But beyond telling them where to go and when to be there, the text was strangely unclear on what they were supposed to do, in a way that orders shouldn't be. Sabrin thought he'd read "impressions", except Alyan Command couldn't possibly be wanting their feelings about the Vegans' newest toy. "This doesn't make any sense."
"Do we go?"
"We have to, we're still working for them." And that wasn't a bridge Sabrin was willing to burn.
"Okay," Tallas nodded. "We should call Polaris first."
Lirelle picked up, a hint of alarm stirring beneath her weary expression. "Sabrin, Tallas, has there been--"
"No, nothing like that," Tallas quickly assured, "We're fine."
"We just got new orders from the Alyans. Here, take a look." Sabrin forwarded the message and waited.
"...this is highly irregular."
"Yeah, no shit. I don't think tech intel's something the Alyans want us doing for them."
"The commissioning's hardly the best venue for such work. Particularly not a Vegan one." Lirelle sniffed in disdain. "Security will be triply heightened with the influx of revelers."
"It's a party?" Tallas raised his eyebrows. Orion warships were commissioned in deep space, with no pageantry or publicity.
"The Vegans seldom forgo a pretext for having one."
A notion sparked in Sabrin's mind. "So...this thing's a big deal? Lots of speeches, fancy clothes...important people?"
"Yes, of course." Lirelle caught on. "It's probable all the members of the NSC will be sending representatives." She looked away to access something off-screen.
"Here, the Polarians attending...there's the Ambassador, the vice president of Velifer Dynamics..." Three, four more and Lirelle's tone changed, holding promise. "Nischa Kymbrae, Director of the SIB -- that's Strategic Intelligence Bureau, the Polarians' primary military intelligence agency. That may mean she has substantial influence in their military establishment."
"Maybe we can convince her to help us get Dreamer back." Hope, luminous and sorely missed, crept onto Tallas's face. Sabrin felt like he would pull the stars down from the sky to keep it there.
"It's worth a shot at least." Sabrin coughed to clear the roughness from his voice. "Any ideas on how to do it?"
"Kymbrae heads an intelligence agency. I imagine what she values is secrets."
"Oh good. That we have."
Ky hesitated across the street from the bar, at the light and noise spilling from its door and windows. He was dressed for a night out in tight black jeans and a crisp blue shirt, his hair was neatly gelled, and a stylish leather cuff sat on his right wrist. All of it was uncomfortable, like a skin that no longer fit.
"Are you prepared to do this?" Lirelle's voice before he left Kimmer's was cold and clinical, reminding him of his first days on the Dream. It had been that way since that interlude with Fennic, which had unsettled him more than he was willing to admit.
The bar wasn't upscale, but better than most of the sad dives he'd darkened before. The patrons were mostly Polarian Navy personnel and military groupies; there were eyes on him from both as he settled on an old-fashioned wooden stool and ordered a beer. With the frosty glass in his hand, he pretended to casually scan the room; the ones who interested him he already knew by name, rank, and more. One of them, sitting alone a few seats away, met his eyes for a second.
Growing up on Kinjor, men like Ky had to learn how to ask without asking, with a suggestive look, an easy smile, a strategically deployed word. Ky himself had become very practiced at the dance through his teenage years. He was rusty after so much time, but then again the Polarians didn't share Kinjori prejudices and he didn't have to be all that subtle. Not to mention that now he even had an advantage, as the alcohol flowed. He had the invitation before midnight.
Another half-bottle of whiskey at the fourth-floor apartment, and his officer was passed out on the bed. Ky slipped in and out like a thief, putting the furniture back and closing the door behind him as he could only do to the unconscious. Sitting beside the limp form in the dark room, he gave in and shook with his head buried in his hands, just for a minute.
After giving his officer a shot of anti-intoxicant, Ky stepped out into the quiet night. He hadn't walked five minutes when another of Alex's avatars appeared. Did he pick and choose them depending on the conversation, like facial expressions? This one was an older bearded man who reminded him of his father. Ky snickered.
Alex didn't get the joke. "Late night."
Ky made a show of checking his watch. "Not that late." He knew he should've been on his guard, except he'd just violated some poor drunk's mind and the world was coming through all fuzzy from his clamping down on his emotions. He didn't stop walking as he asked, "Were you following me?"
"Sorry, I try not to make a habit of it," Alex seemed sincere about that. "I was worried that you might do something stupid."
"You tell me." Alex waited, then said, "Emery's a good guy. He's stationed at Zephyr."
"Is he?" Ky put up a bit of a leer, "We didn't really chat much." He only flinched a little at Alex's hand on his shoulder, though the android couldn't have failed to notice it. The touch was so warm, gentle.
"Ky, I see you as a friend and I hope that the same goes for you. You have my word that I'll do everything I can to help you and the others through this, but there are things that I can't abide."
Ky held those kind, awful eyes; on second thought, the avatar was nothing like his father. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said evenly, and the hand dropped away. Alex sighed and turned to leave, and suddenly Ky couldn't let that be. "Hey! They'll use the slave node, or worse. You keep denying they will but they'll have to, won't they? If they want to keep him. Will you abide that?"
Alex paused, met his eyes once more. "Good people can still make mistakes. Sometimes terrible ones. But one wrong isn't a free pass for another."
"And 'two wrongs don't make a right', right?" Ky curled his lips into a hard smile, knowing that was the wrong thing to say but compelled to it regardless. Someone from the Onyx Hand shouldn't be debating along these lines, and he was regretting bringing it up. Shit, he needed to find a hole and hide until his mind smoothed out -- not the apartment where Kimmer would be home and Lirelle and Fennic would be waiting. "I'll bear that in mind. Good night." To his relief, Alex let him go.
They lied tangled together in the dark, hands gliding over sweat-cooled skin in long, slow strokes. The urgency had passed and now they kissed slowly, drinking in the sensation of just being together. "Love you," Sabrin whispered, feeling Tallas grin against his cheek.
"Never get tired of hearing that." Tallas's low rumble was like a warm blanket; he shifted his reassuringly solid weight full-length against Sabrin, maybe setting the groundwork for round two. Sabrin felt some vague stirrings in that direction himself, but before he could do much about it he heard the chirp of the comn. The real world crashed back into their tiny space; wordlessly the two of them separated. Sabrin pulled on his shorts before heading to the pilot's seat, while Tallas settled at the other seat as he was.
The call was from Polaris, not scheduled. "Sabrin here."
Lirelle said without preamble, "Sabrin, Tallas, I've broken into the records for the hearing. Final deliberations have been scheduled for tomorrow, oh-nine-hundred local. The panel will issue its recommendation soon after."
Sabrin felt Tallas's hand close over his, clenched on the console. "And? What're they gonna decide?" Tallas asked.
"I believe the legal consensus is that the former Admiral Harmoun exceeded his authority in permitting the Dream's resignation. The order seems likely to be nullified."
Both Sabrin and Tallas cursed. "So they are gonna try and rope Dreamer back into their Fleet," Tallas spat.
"Not exactly. It's no longer a question of reintegrating the Dream into the PAN, since that would be impossible. Keeping him subjugated by slave node indefinitely is not a viable solution."
Sabrin made a rude noise. "We could've told 'em that at the start of this fuckin' idiotic mess."
"Well they believe it now, with Dreamer's avatar still at large," Ky said, sounding scratchier than usual.
"The Polarians are divided over their next course of action--" Lirelle was cut off by Fennic's "They wanna shut him down!"
"One of the options that's been proposed, with some support, is to decommission the Dream's AI," Lirelle continued, the leashed fury in her voice no less intense than Fennic's outburst.
"I thought you couldn't do that with a ship's AI." That's what they'd been taught in the Academy. Once installed, a ship's AI melded with the onboard control systems, rerouted and reconfigured to the extent that those systems couldn't be operated without the AI. Cut off the AI and the ship was crippled, but that was from an Orion perspective of trying to capture the ship. If you didn't care about keeping the ship functional in the interim...
"The AI cannot remain intact," Lirelle confirmed Sabrin's suspicions. "If the Polarians decide on this course of action, the main computer core of the Dream will be shut down and removed, and unless it's returned Dreamer can never be reactivated."
"We can't let 'em do that!"
"Sabrin, we've run out of time. Do we move?"
He was uneasy when the others deferred to him like he held some semblance of authority. This time though the decision was simple. "Yeah, obviously, get him back. Wait for us at the rendezvous coordinates once you're clear." Once this was done they would have to abandon the Near-Solar Community, and the Republic of Alya.
"Understood," Lirelle replied, "If we fail, disavow all knowledge of our actions."
"No way are we gonna just bail on--" Tallas started.
"Roger that Lirelle." Sabrin shot Tallas a look, trying to convey that it'd be no good for anyone if they were all locked up. "Be careful," he added, "and good luck."
"To us all." Lirelle cut the connection and Sabrin collapsed back against the seat with a heavy sigh. Tallas's grip on his hand had become hard enough to hurt; Sabrin focused on that to keep himself grounded against the tide of helplessness. He needed to figure out what they were going to do -- he and Tallas on Lirelle's shuttle, on their way to Vega. For the time being they would keep going and do their jobs, he decided, as long as they had them.
Early on that particular morning, for once Lirelle, Ky, and Fennic were all up before Kimmer left for work. If Kimmer found that peculiar, he didn't mention it as they crowded around his small dining table for an awkward breakfast. Lirelle did her best to chitchat with Kimmer; beneath the man's ready smile, she could tell he was ashamed and guilty on his people's behalf. Ky tried to look attentive but seemed at a loss over how to contribute. Fennic had trouble looking up from his food.
Lirelle caught Kimmer as he was heading out the door, and told him that none of them blamed him or Qiang or any of the others, that there weren't words of gratitude sufficient for all that they had done.
After the morning rush hour, the three of them packed up the necessary and the incriminating -- the rest would be left behind, since they couldn't be towing excess baggage around. Lirelle plugged a remote network interface into her dataport and let down her hair to hide it. They locked the apartment behind them.
Fennic embraced her before they went their separate ways. Lirelle stared hard at Ky over Fennic's shoulder, impressing upon him again the responsibility that he'd been given. His tiny nod indicated he'd received the message.
Like any well-kept space station, the Arch had caches of emergency maintenance equipment placed at regular intervals. Lirelle's comn chirped as she was donning the helmet, Fennic and Ky reporting that they were in position. She was the lynchpin, the one who would clear their path and guide them to the Dream of Dawn undetected. Once Ky secured the ship, she would set off the diversion. Ten-minute window to pick her up and reach the jump potential, and if that wasn't enough time Ky knew what to do.
The gravity released and Lirelle pulled herself along the handholds until she reached a place she could stand. The Arch stretched out to near-invisibility to either side, and Hephaestus loomed overhead. It was a uniquely, if brutally, beautiful planet, ice and fire and the thin zone of human habitation carved out of its middle. For a second, Lirelle stopped to take it all in, humbled by both the scale and the fragility of human achievement.
Her destination was one of the transceiver arrays. Walking in microgravity in the spacesuit was laborious, one foot at a time, and she almost didn't notice him. When she did she thought her heart would jump out of her mouth.
Dreamer's avatar stood in the vacuum, wearing his uniform and a placid smile like he'd been waiting for her. "Hey Lirelle!" He waved. "It's been way too long! You should wear your hair like that more often."
Lirelle had to catch her breath. "Dreamer!" she gasped with a hand on her chest, "You scared the daylights from me!"
"Sorry." Dreamer came and kneaded her shoulders, which she could barely feel. Despite that, Lirelle pulled him into her arms and squeezed as tight as she could, Kinjori reserve be damned. Dreamer let her hold him as long as she wanted.
"Alex couldn't keep his eyes on ya," Dreamer said afterward. "Considerin' how many pairs he's got...you're good. Really good. I've told ya that before, right?"
"Once or twice. Thank you." Lirelle found she couldn't stop her nerves rattling. There was something about Dreamer's expression...
"I need ya not to do this."
There it was. "What're you talking about?"
"You haven't done anything yet that can't be taken back. Go back inside, get Fennic and Ky, and go home."
"Our plan...I'm certain I've accounted for all their security procedures, and that my programs have not been detected," Lirelle said in a rush. "We've rehearsed every step. We will be able to free you, especially with your avatar available."
"I know, I'm sure that it was gorgeous work. It's not about that." Dreamer leaned his forehead against her helmet. "I'm not goin' with you."
Lirelle shoved them apart. "What?! Do you know what will happen to you if you stay?!" Of course he did, bastard.
How the hell was he staying so calm? Heat was building quickly in Lirelle's core, rage at these words of surrender coming from this man who meant more to her than probably even he knew. "Explain this to me," she said through gritted teeth.
"There are people on my ship self. The bay's locked down. Fearless is parked on the other side between you and the potential. What were you gonna do?"
"Ilvarra can use his stunner and the artificial gravity to neutralize the onboard personnel, and...use the cannons to cut you free." Lirelle strained to talk past the lump in her throat. "I will have created a false emergency to...to draw away nearby ships, and if that is insufficient we can claim the Polarians to be held hostage until we reach the potential."
"Lirelle, I can't." Dreamer brought his hand to her cheek, willing her to understand. He gestured around them. "I've served ninety years with these people, almost all my life. I've protected 'em, fought and bled and buried friends with 'em. They held me together and kept me going after the Schism. What you'll have done to let me escape, I can't."
Lirelle understood, wishing she didn't. Her eyes stung and she couldn't wipe them. "But if you stay..."
"They won't put the slave node on me," Dreamer said, "That's enough. Maybe I'll sleep, but there are worse ways to go."
Tears trickled into her collar, making damp fans. "What of us?" She felt terribly selfish even asking. "What will we do without you?"
"Y'all will be fine. Of that I'm a hundred percent on," Dreamer said. "Listen, this's askin' a lot, prolly way more than I can afford at this point but...could you pass this on to the others? Fennic and Ky and Sabe and Tal?"
Coward. "They would want...they need to see you."
Dreamer dropped his eyes and ran his fingers through his hair, an uncharacteristic display of vulnerability. "I could never handle goodbyes, honestly." He chuckled weakly. "After doing this much livin' you'd think otherwise but no."
He had picked this place and time to talk to her, when they were already separated by an airtight barrier. "I will do as you ask." There was never a question of it.
"Good. Thanks." Dreamer was visibly relieved. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'm gonna turn myself in, make the cops stop houndin' ya." He licked his lips. "Um...what I said about goodbyes, that includes this one."
It was painful to watch, and in every other sense. Lirelle took mercy on him. "Goodbye, Dream of Dawn."
He smiled an echo of his usual self, and turned away. Lirelle swallowed and did the same.
Vega, barren of solid planets or moons, was a civilization of spacers -- "true spacers", as the Vegans would say, not like the pretenders lounging in their extravagant high-tech bubbles around Windfall and elsewhere. They conquered space the traditional way: solar power, rotation to simulate gravity, solid hulls to hold in atmosphere.
Relatively new Kshatriya Torus was a clear product of this legacy. A ring four kilometers across rotated around a long spinal structure; on one side were colossal mirrors that reflected sunlight onto the habitat, and on the other were dozens of drydocks and support facilities strung along like clothespins. Over a hundred ships had gathered nearby.
Inside, the party was in full swing on the day of the main event, loud and crude and half-naked. Dressed in his finest, Sabrin shoved his way through with a scowl. He would've thought commissioning a warship demanded at least a little decorum.
The message had come that morning. Lirelle, Fennic, and Ky were their way back to Edoch Port.
They found a quiet moment in an empty hallway outside the reception. Sabrin closed his eyes and breathed as Tallas' hands moved over him, evened the coat's fall over his shoulders, smoothed the lapels. Tallas's right hand stopped over his left breast pocket, the one that burned. "Lookin' sharp, Captain Payne," Tallas said. "Go get 'em."
Past the door security was an utterly alien world, of waiters circulating with trays of champagne flutes and tiny hors d'oeuvres and tastefully unobtrusive music playing live from the corner. Sabrin walked amongst the important people on edge, thinking that at any moment someone would point him out for an imposter.
He spotted her, a full-featured woman with mahogany skin and irises white like pearls -- native Procyonese, hardened against radiation that would blind a regular human in short order. She was resplendent in a contoured burgundy dress with a shiny green feather pinned to the front. Sabrin lurked at the open bar, waiting for an opening in conversation while doing his best to appear unsuspicious; one came after an eternity and he jumped. "Excuse me, Director Kymbrae?"
Kymbrae raised a manicured eyebrow at the serious young man who had made a beeline for her. "Yes, and you are Sabrin Payne."
Startled, Sabrin was late in taking her offered hand; he realized she must've read the name off his press badge. Shit, four words in and he was already floundering. "Good to meet you. Do you have a moment to talk?"
Those unnerving eyes scanned his face, through it. "I'm in the mood for some air. Join me."
Sabrin followed her through a set of French doors onto one of the many small balconies that lined the long far wall. "There he is," Kymbrae said, regarding the gleaming ivory-and-silver giant that hung above in black space. It reminded Sabrin of a squid with its arms stretched back over its body. "Another warship to keep the peace."
"He's impressive." Kymbrae had her back to him and Sabrin knew she was waiting for him to impress her. "Director, I have a proposition. I want the Dream of Dawn."
"I'm not in the position to give you one of our ships."
Time to gamble. "You're already thinking of a way to make it happen." Sabrin stifled a sigh of relief when she cast an amused glance in his direction. He continued, "We both know the Dream will never be part of the Polarian Navy again, so now you're gonna stick him in a box and let it collect dust forever. And that would be a waste."
"Another AI can be installed in the ship."
"It won't be Dreamer." As little as he still knew of the Dream's long life, Sabrin spoke, confident that he and Kymbrae could each draw upon their own information. "You sent a battleship to retrieve him. You're gonna tell me that was just about cleaning up a legal loose end, gaining another farship?"
"His service in the past has been remarkable, on the balance," Kymbrae admitted, returning her hawk's gaze to him. "However, the fact is that we don't know where his allegiance lies, save that it isn't with us. We can't rely on him."
He's choosing to die rather than raise a hand against Polaris, you fuckers. "You can on me," Sabrin said flatly.
The corner of Kymbrae's mouth curled up. "And who are you?"
"The Dream's captain." Sabrin didn't waver. "And I'll owe you if you returned him to me."
The curl became a full closed-mouth smile. "That isn't a debt to be offered lightly."
"I'm not." He had Kymbrae's ear; time to lay down their cards. "We can be useful. There're things we can find out, things we can do." Sabrin reached into his pocket and fished out the small square. He was glad to see it gone, yet, for all the ill it'd brought, it was also like handing over a piece of him. "The Orions are on your doorstep, and they have been for a while. Four years ago they destroyed a ship in Adhara, and this is what they were after."
Kymbrae's small frown told Sabrin his wild shot had connected, even if he wasn't exactly sure with what. There hadn't been a chance to have the debris analyzed, but it had come from gray and blue ship -- Polarian colors. Kymbrae rotated the disc in her slender fingers. "Where did this come from?"
"Astral-Ishasa." Kymbrae nodded; the expected pick at his being an Orion didn't come.
"We've got more. Fragments of the destroyed ship, sensor logs from Gnosis Station." Sabrin leaned in, dropping his voice. "Director, the Dream's lost to the PAN. What's happened over the last week proved it. If you can set him loose, I swear that Polaris'll be better off for it."
Kymbrae palmed the disc and considered him speculatively. "There's an inexplicable quality about the Dream of Dawn," she said. "He's like a catalyst -- events seem to turn around him, often unintended and barely controllable. I assume you're familiar with the Seos System."
The jolt of panic froze Sabrin in place. "How did..." slipped out before he could help it.
"A farship was sighted in the system just before the battleground was reopened, and the Dream has been retrofitted with Altairan and Kinjori technology. His involvement wasn't difficult to surmise," Kymbrae said. "Besides, it was the Dream who discovered the remnants of the Kinjori's second Seos expedition in the first place."
Right, he was a Polarian ship then. He hadn't made the connection before, because he wasn't aware that part of Dreamer's past when Dreamer told them the story of Seos. Sabrin stared warily.
"At Seos, the Kinjori lost three thousand ships, a million personnel, and a critical supply route into Altair. They were forced to over-extend to finish the war and had ongoing difficulty occupying the Altairan territories. Seos tied their hands militarily for decades. We had appreciated the respite." Kymbrae gave Sabrin a significant look. "Over the past ninety days, Kinjori reinforcements have dealt a crippling blow to the Altairan insurgency. They have begun a full-scale salvage operation at Seos, and will be able to recoup a significant percentage of their materiel losses."
Corpses flashed across Sabrin's mind. "The people can't be replaced."
"Fortunately not. The situation is destabilized enough."
Sabrin swallowed. "What do you want me to say?" Their world had been so small back then. Live, resupply, live some more.
"Nothing. I was merely giving an example." Kymbrae waved dismissively in the air. "You can see why, as much as we valued him, he also made a good number of us nervous. One must be mindful of such matters around the Dream."
"Sure." You want me to...control Dreamer? Keep him out of trouble? Always put Polaris's needs first? Sabrin couldn't figure out what he could promise that wouldn't be a lie, and he hadn't lied yet in the conversation. If Kymbrae caught him that would slam this last door shut.
"Well, I've probably been out on this dark balcony with a handsome young man long enough. I should rejoin the party before the rumors fly any further." Kymbrae walked past Sabrin and reached for the door handle. "One point of curiosity Sabrin, would you happen to have taken any scans of those Altairan psionic resonators?"
Another test? Did she want a weapon of mass destruction, or to see whether he'd trade her one for the Dream? In this case though there was only one answer. "No," Sabrin replied, "It was all destroyed. But we do have intel on how to shield against them."
"Hmm, I see. I may be contacting you in the future about that. Pleasure speaking with you, I'll pass your proposal along." With an final smile, Kymbrae went through the doors. Sabrin stayed outside for a while, replaying their exchange, before he left the reception. He found Tallas waiting where he left him, and reported that he'd tried. They wouldn't be staying for the rest of the commissioning.
<HEY BRO> <HI DREAMER / FINALLY WE CAN TALK / GLAD YOU'RE BACK>
<SIS / OLD-TIMER / ARE WE HAVING A GOING AWAY PARTY?>
<ASSHOLE / DON'T ROLL OVER JUST YET>
<I THINK THIS IS THE BEST TIME EVER FOR THAT ACTUALLY>
<SEE THOSE GUYS COMING?>
<SO / GUYS COME IN ME ALL THE TIME / OH COME ON YOU TOTALLY SET THAT ONE UP>
<I MUST BE TURNING SENILE TO HAVE MISSED THIS> <THEY'RE TWO OF MINE / WE'RE TAKING YOU TO YOUR NEW ASSIGNMENT>
<YOUR CREW CAME THROUGH FOR YOU> <YOU COULD ALWAYS PICK THE GOOD ONES>
The Dream of Dawn and the Selene's Tear entered the Alya System together in twin explosions of light. One more jump to the tens of thousands he'd performed before; the joy that washed over him made him want to dance. Dreamer settled for clapping the shoulder of the eager pilot Selene had loaned him. How had he deluded himself into thinking he was at peace with never flying again?
Following the hearing, the Dream had reverted to being a Polarian Alliance Navy vessel. That injustice would have to wait for another battle; Qiang was already on it. More shocking to those who heard, was that Dreamer had apparently done a one-eighty on his non-cooperation, and in turn had been enlisted for some secret assignment having to do with the SIB.
The secret, of course, was that there was no assignment, at least in the sense of objectives to complete or reports to turn in. Director Kymbrae and the new CINC of the Blue Fleet -- Harmoun's successor -- had explained the terms to him, in a short and odd video conference. He'd be free to do what he wanted, with the expectation that he would keep Polarian interests in mind, share potentially useful intelligence, and stay open-minded about the occasional "favor". As far as leashes went, Dreamer could live with it.
Especially since his crew was waiting for him on Edoch Port. Dreamer could pick up their lifesigns, warm and vital, before he docked. The instant the airlock unsealed his avatar could hear their breaths and the rhythm of their hearts. He beamed and let them crash into him, shouts and smiles and touch sinking right to his digital core.
Selene couldn't stay. Her captain shook Sabrin's hand and her avatar enfolded him in her arms for long moments, with a whispered thanks in his ear. Dreamer delighted in Sabrin's flummoxed expression; Selene's look as she headed for the airlock dared him to put that in words, and for once he didn't take her up on it. <LATER / DON'T BE A STRANGER>
The Selene's Tear away, Dreamer asked of his crew, "When are y'all movin' back in? Now, right?"
Five humans and one android were gathered around one of the large octagonal tables in mess hall. Ky had gone all out on the food; his cheeks turned a bit pink at their gushing, making him look years younger. The uninhabited outermost planet of Alya A, and its shimmering rings, provided a breathtaking view and welcome solitude after recent events.
Lirelle and Tallas finished catching Dreamer up on what transpired at Adhara. "I can't believe that ball-less son of a bitch did all that just for me," Dreamer said, shaking his head. "I think I'm flattered."
"You would be," Tallas remarked. "It's prolly not even the first psycho love letter you've gotten."
"I'm lovable. Can't help it." Dreamer pressed a thumb to his lip. "Huh, the Orions went to Adhara to blow up a ship, and you say Kymbrae knew something about it."
"That's the impression I got," Sabrin said. "If that ship was blue and gray too, couldn't it have been..."
Dreamer shook his head. "I don't know of any Polarian ship that was lost in that time frame, and why would the Orions take that kind of risk? We've gotta finish decrypting the disc. Thank god Lirelle'd figured out how to copy it before you up and gave it away."
"Maybe Kymbrae'll trade me back."
Dreamer stuck out his tongue. He tilted his head. "Hey, there's an incoming call for ya, from Mnemosyne. It's Sufh's office."
Sabrin stepped out into the corridor for privacy. Sufh appeared, all smiles behind his desk; Sabrin discovered that he was happy to see him. There was a note of loyalty as well, on a chord that had been absent since he left Astral-Ishasa. "Payne, I don't have much time, so I'll simply say that I'm pleased at the outcome of your situation."
"Thank you sir."
"You'll understand that, given our 'special' relationship with the Polarian Alliance, we couldn't be perceived as taking a stance in such a...delicate internal matter."
"Of course." Sabrin couldn't resent him now for not taking their calls before. He had to wonder about the true extent of Sufh's involvement in what happened. Sending them to Vega was nothing more than a hint, a vague push in what turned out to be the right direction. Did Sufh have faith that they would figure out the next course of action from just that? Nice thought, if tasting a little naive.
"Good. I continue to be impressed by your initiative, captain, and I expect a quick return to your usual standard of service. As for your Kshatriya report, don't feel pressured to be wordy. Our other sources were quite thorough."
"Understood sir. And thank you again."
"Don't mention it. Sufh out."
Reentering the mess, Sabrin assured the others that the Alyans weren't sending them back to work yet, and Tallas resumed describing their trip to Vega. Dreamer chimed in with background about the Vegans' freewheeling, chaotic society. Lirelle reacted with distate at their accounts of Vegan indecency. Ky seemed a tad embarrassed, but in a knowing rather than prudish way, which was interesting.
Fennic was fascinated. "What kind of ship name is Red Hour?"
"Vegans think warships should have violence-themed names. That one's pretty mild, as they go," Dreamer said.
"I've often pondered how such a people manage to field a coherent military at all, much less the largest fleet in the NSC," Lirelle said.
"Dedication," Dreamer said. "What's great about the Vegans -- well, other than their 'less is more' idea about clothes -- is that they hurl themselves into everythin' they do. Love and war and all the shades in between. Hey, if we get the chance we should all go to Concordia next year. That's when they really cut loose."
Sabrin was almost afraid to imagine it. The next year part though, that was alright.
Well into the evening, they sprawled in their chairs sated and pleasantly loose-limbed. Dreamer got something from the galley and called for their attention as he stood at the table. "I'm really glad y'all are here," he said once the chatter quieted. "This life of ours, it can grind you down, break your heart." He broke into a toothy grin. "But then you get this too. And by 'this' obviously I meant me." He rubbed a hand over his chest ridiculously and winked.
Amidst the catcalls and laughter, Dreamer produced an empty glass, flipped it up, and snatched it out of mid-air in a pointless flashy move to hold in front of him. The rest of them also raised their drinks, with expressions ranging from warm to warm but mildly confused at the custom. Dreamer met each of their eyes in turn. "To the best crew a ship could want. No matter what happens, never forget that."
Beer, wine, lemonade, water, and nothing. Sabrin's bottle knocked against another bottle and three different styles of glassware. The universe wasn't about to give them a break, Orions and Kinjori and pirates and whatever the fuck else. As Dreamer launched into a story about chasing an exotic animal smuggling ring across the moons of Teazann, Tallas shot Sabrin a half-squinty glance that was somehow improbably, unreasonably sexy. It was perfect.