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 2012 Devon Keene: irrelevantrevelry@hotmail.com
the Enigma of Flatness
Smoke Signals Part XXVI
The Orion warship was an intersection of brash forms defined by the asymmetrical shield generator sail that transected its primary hull. A rude pendant on the classical necklace that was the Arch.

Tallas watched the Recusor on the grainy screen, luckily in a spaceport bar two dozen jumps away. Coverage of the event clogged the newsfeeds: the first big diplomatic overture from the Orion Empire to a major foreign power since...ever. The Recusor carried Secretary Nawaque and Fleet Admiral Holden on a fifteen-system tour of the Near-Solar Community, punctuated by its most important members: Polaris to start, Sirius at halfway, and Vega to finish.

As irrational as it was, with the Orions suddenly on everyone's minds Tallas felt like he'd personally been put under a dissection scope. Last night he'd watched a Sirian pundit rant for a hour about the threat of the evil Empire -- its violent history, its unrelenting military buildup, its conditioning programs that turned kids into killers and in a flash Tallas had realized that she was talking about him. And Sabrin and many of the friends they'd left behind.

Her vicious words rattled around his brain, but then they could all see the Recusor, couldn't they? That was a Typhon-class battleship, the Imperial Fleet's heaviest fist. It wasn't made for peace or goodwill or thrumming the common-fuckin'-heartstrings of humankind, and neither were they Orions.

The case in point might be coming up, courtesy of the loudmouthed jackass at the table behind them. These days it wasn't only network professionals unveiling their Orion expertise.

"Orions you see, they were originally the poor fucks that ran to the outer reaches when the SolFed imploded. The only way they could survive out there was to turn on each other like animals, and that's the only way any of them know how to live now. We invite 'em into our homes like they're decent and next thing we'll find their teeth in our throats."

Well, the man knew how to carry a metaphor. Murmurs of assent came from multiple directions and Tallas felt himself wind tighter than a drum, like he'd split open if he tried to move. Not made for peace.

Maybe it was the frustration he'd himself carried in that had him itching for the weight of a gun on his belt. Lirelle hadn't been able to recompile the program on the disc despite her skill; she wouldn't give up but he knew she was questioning whether it was even possible, and she was a genius. Dreamer's forensics contact, who had received piece of Adhara debris they'd kept for themselves, was swamped and could only promise to get to it "soon-ish". Of course, if the damned Polarians would just share what they'd found...

"If the jokers at the NSC can pull their heads out of their asses, we can get our fleets together and put down the lot of them. Do the universe a favor."

Sabrin emptied his glass and set it down with excessive care. He leaned in close to Tallas's cheek, probably to suggest something smart like leaving.

"Hey, you! You boys're fleet, right? Tell my guys here what I'm sayin' makes sense."

"No." Tallas turned his head, past the let it go look of alarm in Sabrin's eyes. The man wasn't especially tall but he was solid and rough-edged, and more importantly he had two buddies to Tallas's one. He probably should've been paying as much attention to how much he's drank as he had as to them. "No we're not 'fleet', and no you don't know what you're talking about."

Chair legs scraped across the floor as the man got to his feet with a sneer. "What, are you soft or somethin'? Huh? You in bed with the Orions?"

Just one and it's fuckin' awesome, thanks.

Smooth as silk, Sabrin rose too to his full height. "Back off." Tallas smothered an utterly inappropriate thrill at the note of uncertainty that appeared in the man's eyes, despite his three-two advantage in numbers. Yeah, his boyfriend could be damned intimidating when he put his mind to it.

"Boys, none of that in here," the bartender warned. "You two, settle up and get out."

Okay, Tallas had a few brain cells left to rub together. Standing up and touching Sabrin's shoulder, he took one last glance at the screen, the letters LIVE at the bottom left corner, and froze. "Sabe. Look."

A yawning black mouth had opened in the flank of the Recusor, two decks high and rimmed in tortured metal. Distantly he felt Sabrin moving out from under his palm, caught frantic words about an explosion and there it was, the silent flash and plume of fire replayed in slow motion. It came from inside, an accident or... "Shit. We gotta go," Sabrin said.

They finally tumbled into bed past midnight, sober and too drawn-out to try anything. At least they had stayed up long enough to be reasonably sure they wouldn't wake up to a war. Tallas sprawled over Sabrin as usual, pressing his nose into the crook of his neck. It'd only hit him a little while ago in the shower, the memory of the fight that he'd almost provoked, and his joints still felt weak. "Sorry about before, in the bar. That was stupid."

"Yeah." Sabrin's hand on his back grew heavier for a second. "Forget it."

One day, Tallas will have that talk with Sabrin about brushing things off like that. How it'd be okay once in a while to demand that Tallas work for forgiveness because he always would. Sabrin's broad chest rose and fell in a deep sigh. Strong and so very far from invincible. "They weren't wrong, y'know," Sabrin mumbled.

The Orion Empire was founded by refugees fleeing the carnage of the Schism. They expanded their dominion and in the process many, many people had died. He and Sabrin had been impressed to soldiers' lives at fourteen, and they were hardly unique in that respect. Facts didn't make for understanding. Tallas wrapped himself tighter around this beautiful man. "Yes they were," he hissed.


Dreamer perched atop the desk in Lirelle's shiny new office, ignoring her sighs and eye-hints and knowing that she was too classy to just shove his ass off. Her work with the Polarians on psionic shielding had led to more consulting jobs, on top of everything else she was handling, so they'd all pitched in for a day to give her a proper space for it.

Report after report had filtered in and across Dreamer's mind over the past few days, a thousand words for every bit of useful information. It had been a bomb, planted outside the conference room and obviously targeting the Orion delegation. Final tally twelve dead, seventeen wounded. Nawaque and Holden both survived, prompting speculation that the detonation was premature. "The thing is, whoever it was got the bomb in there on the fuckin' Recusor. That's some serious shit."

So far, no one had claimed responsibility for the bombing, and Alex told him that the official investigation hadn't made much progress finding the culprit. "These cute little ultranationalists gettin' tossed up -- the True Forge or the Polaris Unity Coalition or whatever -- not one of 'em could've put a toe on that ship in their wildest dreams. The Polarians're wastin' their time on all those obvious dead ends 'cause they can't look where they know they ought to, like a black op or an Orion insider job."

Lirelle's eyes didn't stray from the code on her pad. "I sincerely hope you haven't volunteered us for the task."

"What?" Dreamer frowned, "God no, are you crazy?"

"Hmm, could my madness be discerned, given my context?"

"Ha." So what if he was curious? It was a farship's nature to peer into dark rooms, looking for treasure and monsters. He laid his hand over his chest. "I promise I won't give Kymbrae any ideas."

"That's not where your heart is."

"Ya got me there."

An odd signal pinged Dreamer's transceiver. It wasn't a proper comn transmission, more like white noise with some artistic modulation of the second and third-order harmonics -- a transponder code. His old Solar Federation transponder code. Dreamer grinned virtually. "Hey, I'm gettin' something weird off the local net. Monitor for me?"

With a lifted eyebrow, Lirelle turned to the console behind her. Dreamer opened the channel.

The white noise transformed into well-ordered cacophony, like a stadium full of people holding up cards. Cyph. Fractional personality designation Mareva. It was a very unfamiliar form of AI communication. Self-identification as female? Okay, very weird. The crimson-red of a rose touched by the first rays of morning. Ash peeling off a field of blackened banners. The reflection of endless clouds in a polished-smooth lake, fracturing at a touch.

Dreamer questioned why a cyph would be slumming in the real world. There lied danger.

Mareva replied with snatches of conversation with dozens of people. She found it interesting, challenging. The transmission refocused on Dreamer's own history. A braided rope of data reaching backwards in time, admirably and creepily thorough; Mareva asking whether he was actually as awesome as all that. Obviously. The signal rippled in casual incomprehension at his reaction to learning that she'd secretly instigated the pirate capture of the Sudree Ahns. She didn't think it was any big deal.

She made contact to make a request of him and his crew. Find and help Jonah Rester -- Jonnie, adorable, purposeful. Another tangle of data, a biography rooted in loss. Mareva was prepared to offer incentive from the resources at her command. The Recusor was in range; she judged that the threat of exposing him to the Orions would serve as effective inducement. Assent or not?

"Well? That was a cyph, was it not?" Lirelle asked after the signal cut off. "I admit I've always wanted to meet one."

"Havin' that wish come true ain't good." Dreamer pressed a thumb to his lower lip. The functioning of cyphs depended on their being neutral to the data passing through the networks they oversaw. That meant apathy and amorality. Having one even understand, much less care, about the goings-on of the real world was...yup, not good. "We need to call Command. And everybody for a meeting."


"This is total bullshit!" Tallas spat out what they all thought, in more or less delicate terms. "If she's telling the truth, then she and her dumbass boytoy are the reason we got almost arrested, and then shot at by pirates, and now she wants us to rescue him from whatever idiotic mess he's gotten himself into?"

"Ya got it," Dreamer said, "She said Rester didn't know what she was planning with the Sudree. He cut off contact with her after he found out." Tallas snorted in derision, and Sabrin rather agreed. Rester withheld vital information about an ongoing investigation and a security threat. Dereliction of duty just began to cover it.

The corner of Dreamer's mouth lifted. "Nobody said the boy had a lick of sense. Anyway, the data she sent checks out so far. The Mems'll be relieved to close the book on the Sudree case, at least. That one's been drivin' 'em up the wall."

"To exchange for the involvement of a cyph?" Lirelle's words were bone-dry. "I doubt they would thank you."

"What about the threat she made?" Fennic asked.

"Oh, she can definitely do that. And there's fuck-all we could do to stop her." Dreamer allowed his expression to turn stormy. "Normally you can use the base code to open up a deviating cyph and reset its mandate. But if this one's pre-Schism -- like I'm ninety, ninety-five percent sure 'she' is -- then good luck diggin' up that info."

"Command has been made aware of the situation. They'll be able to coordinate a response with NSC authorities."

Sabrin thought that was an uncharacteristically high opinion of those governments' capacity for collective action coming from Lirelle, unless she was already planning to be a part of it -- not out of the question, given the impressive contacts she'd been making lately. Still, "That doesn't exactly help us," he pointed out.

"No, which leaves us with Lieutenant Rester."

"Like we all knew it would." Dreamer lazily raised his arm and, with a snap of his fingers, brought the man's file up on the main screen. "Jonah Eric Rester, age twenty-five, native of Mnemosyne. Lieutenant Junior Grade, last posted to the patrol ship Feyaral, customs inspection. Failed to report for duty four days ago. Two days before that, he went to his CO, and then to his CO's CO -- you can guess how much they loved that -- and claimed there was gonna be an attack on an Alyan listening post within the next two weeks."

"Which one?" Ky asked.

"Don't know. They didn't believe him of course." Dreamer waved dismissively. "Apparently it ain't the first time Rester's come to 'em with some sort of far-out claim that goes nowhere. Guy's obsessed with findin' a way to beat back the pirates." Tallas and Fennic both had first-hand confirmation of that.

"Mareva's the one who gave Rester what info he had. Seems like he crawled back to her after getting suspicious vibes off a fast freighter, the Zoroastria." Dreamer brought up a hologram of the ship in question, not large or otherwise impressive. He also switched the screen to a file of a thin-faced brunette. "The captain's Susannah Croy, who does happen to be on a couple of watchlists. Likely Guild association, though hard to say which one since she gets around, maybe like a high-level courier. She's been flyin' especially a lot lately."

Sabrin straightened in his seat. "Does that mean Rester could've actually been onto something?" The timing might fit -- Dvesh and its fallout had sent all the pirate groups along the Alyan fringe reeling; enough that there was talk of rolling back the convoy escorts. A big, aggressive counterstroke might be what they needed to rally again. Tallas scrunched up his face, like he was personally offended by the possibility of Rester being right.

"Who knows? Obviously Mareva didn't turn up anything solid about an attack. Not to mention those listening posts ain't exactly soft targets. If the pirates had that big a party in the works, I'd like to think that intel would have at least an inkling about it."

"Perhaps they do and wished to prevent Rester's inference?" Lirelle suggested.

"Or he's just wrong like all the other times," Tallas said.

"Doesn't matter. Either way he took off after Mareva tracked the Zoroastria for him." Dreamer summoned a jump route map. "That's Xiuhcoaltl. It's a big Guild hub, and a pretty regular haunt of Croy's. Mareva lost him out of the spaceport in Huyapa."

"I wouldn't describe it as smart," Ky said, "but it does make sense if he were seeking more evidence for his claims."

Or trying to stop it himself. Sabrin took stock of the variously irate and concerned faces around the table. "And we have to go fetch him or have the Imperials on our asses? What're we gonna tell Command?"

As it happened, later that evening Sufh called to grant them the sanction to pursue Rester. They were in Alyan Command's good graces for bringing the Mareva issue to their attention, and in any case the Dream was all that the Alyans were willing to send after Rester, given that he deserted his post and Xiuhcoatl was way outside their jurisdiction.

"Certainly Rester's committed serious errors of judgement, with us and with you," Sufh said, making Sabrin wonder whether their little tiff with Rester on Edoch had made it into a report somewhere. "He will have to answer for them in time. Nevertheless, I believe he does try to do right, and we would rest easier knowing that we didn't abandon one of our own when he may have had need of us."

"Yes sir. We'll bring him home."

Sufh nodded in approval. "I'll have some information sent over that may prove useful. Keep your eyes open while you're out there, Payne. Rester's evidence can only be charitably called circumstantial, yet I'm still reminded of the boy who cried wolf. Sufh out."

Sabrin went to the bridge and buckled himself into the pilot's seat. The helm controls sprang to life around his hands. "Heads up guys, we're goin' to Xiuhcoatl," he informed his crewmates. "Tell your girlfriend, Dreamer," he had to add, to see the glare and huff.


"Mareva? Mareva can you hear me? I...I need your help, please. Mareva? It'll be...fun."

"Fun you say? Oh, I like fun." She sounded young, faintly mocking. "But I thought you didn't anymore Jonnie?"

"No! I still do. I'm sorry that I haven't been around lately..." Fennic touched a finger to the earphone; at first part of him relished hearing Rester's voice nervous and stammering. The Rester in his memory was bigger, made him want to hide. This was his third play-through, however, and now he just heard a man who had given up everything to go on a quite possibly one-way trip to stop a pirate attack.

"You still listening to those two chat?" Tallas asked as he cleared space for fried noodles and vegetable soup. He rolled his eyes at Sabrin's protesting noise and scramble to rescue a spread of readers from disarray. Lirelle set down a pitcher of water and glasses; Ky was on the bridge and Dreamer somewhere on the lower decks.

"Yeah." Fennic pulled out his earphones and served himself with a fork. He didn't yet have a hang of the chopsticks the Orions used. "Thanks Tal. I guess I wanted to know him a little better since...y'know. He wasn't as bad as we thought."

"He's as stupid as I thought," Tallas said with his mouth half-full. He swallowed and gestured at the table. "Seriously, look at this shit...sorry, 'evidence'. No wonder his higher-ups laughed him off."

"He wasn't just making things up. The pirates are planning something." If nothing else, the information Mareva obtained at Rester's behest painted a picture of anticipation among the Guilds, of ambitions soon to be sated. Deals were being struck, money being moved and the listening posts were an obstacle, barring the pirates from major parts of the local jump network.

"When are they not planning something? Besides, it takes a special mind to hear 'something's happening' and get 'impending attack on listening post'," Tallas scoffed. "Why're you defending him after what he did anyway?"

"That was a while ago." Fennic thought about saying more, and scooped noodles into his mouth instead. Tallas had been moody and snappish all week; he wasn't going to be satisfied by Fennic's sympathy.

Lirelle broke the awkward lull. "Fennic, it does seem that Rester has leapt to an unwarranted conclusion."

"Shocking." Tallas subsided at Sabrin's quelling look.

"What have you found?" Sabrin asked.

"Admiral Sufh has provided extensive records of recent ship and material movements on the fringe. There are no signs of any buildup of the forces necessary to overwhelm one of those outposts."

"They could've missed something."

"Unlikely." Lirelle sifted through her own pile of readers and handed one to Sabrin. "It may be that the pirates overestimate themselves and will attack regardless." Her tone said that she didn't think it very probable but would be happy to be shown otherwise. Sabrin and Tallas' expressions echoed the sentiment.

The three of them began bouncing around ideas for what the Guilds could actually have planned, apparently forgetting Rester for the time being. Feeling unnecessary, Fennic considered the recordings of Rester and Mareva. According to her, Rester's fixation on pirates began after a classmate died in one of the first attacks. He wondered if a classmate was all she was; it almost seemed inadequate. I don't want Jonah to have done all of this for nothing. I don't want there to be an attack but I don't want that either.

"Everyone, prepare for jump," Ky announced over the intercom. Fennic held onto the steadiness in Ky's voice as he closed his eyes and waited for the jarring discomfort. "In three...two...one... Jump complete, we've reached Fourmanoir 112. Our next jump will be in four hours, six minutes." They were sprinting toward their destination. Fennic resigned himself to not sleeping well this night.

He finished eating before the others; star-hopping depressed his appetite. On an impulse, he got a second plate. "I'm going to take some of this to Ky." Now that the ship was in lawless space, Ky would as likely skip dinner as leave the bridge if nobody was watching. Fennic deliberately ignored the way Lirelle's lips firmed, relieved that she didn't actually object and force a choice from him.


Huyapa was Xiuhcoatl's largest city, where most of the local Guilds had their headquarters and where Croy owned a condo that she stayed in between jobs. The Dream of Dawn confirmed the presence of the Zoroastria there from orbit; Sabrin set them down in the same spaceport before changing into street clothes and joining the others in the conference room. "What's that?" He nodded towards Tallas's right wrist as the man handed him a needler in a shoulder holster.

Tallas brandished the leather cuff. "Ky gave it to me. Ya like it?"

"Oh. Sure...it's nice," Sabrin tried. Tallas gave him a fond smile and head shake as he turned back to the table. Dreamer had out a map of the city, with a flurry of multicolored markers floating above. Rester was alone here, utterly disconnected. They had virtually no tools with which to track him -- not money, or comns, or acquaintances. The planetary network was so poor that not even Mareva could ferret out his fingerprints. That left trying to find him on foot, which looking at the markers appeared utterly futile.

"Relax, I'll be fine by myself," Dreamer was saying, "Might I remind y'all we're on a clock? Lirelle, you okay pairin' up with Ky, or would you rather go with Sabe or Tal?"

There was no mistaking the weary stubbornness that flashed across their faces before both pulled on consummate professional masks. "Lirelle, I'll go with Ky," Sabrin interjected, holding up a hand to forestall her objection. "It'd be smarter not to have him distracting your telepathy out there, just in case."

"Very well," Lirelle said. Across the table, gratitude also passed across Ky's eyes.

They decided on how to divvy up the search, finished strapping on their equipment, and headed down to the airlock in the belly of the ship. A set of folding steps beyond led down to the ground. Sabrin followed Dreamer out into a lukewarm, sickly yellow day. The air felt dense, like expanding his lungs took extra effort, and it tickled his nostrils with a stale, acidic tang. "First time using this exit," Tallas remarked.

"And thank god for that. Lyin' down and takin' it from a gravity well's unnatural." Dreamer shuddered theatrically.

"Oh, such facility with language, Dreamer."

"This where I say somethin' about my tongue?" Dreamer flashed Lirelle said appendage with a grin and rounded back to the steps. "Hold down the fort bud," he called up to Fennic before retracting the steps.

The city crowded in right outside the spaceport, dark and dirty and eroded beyond its actual years. The street, barely two car-widths wide, seemed to pen in the noise. The horns of the cabs they flagged down practically deafened them, clearing spaces big enough to land. The Guilds here swayed the lives of millions; Sabrin didn't know if they should even be called Guilds at that point.

Tallas pulled him into a quick kiss. "Bet you two dinner we find Rester first."

Too bright for this place, like he'd been too bright for Astral-Ishasa. "Dream on," Sabrin shot back.

The perilous rattle as the cab lifted off made him reflexively brace himself. Ky slouched with his head tilted to look out the window, his arms draped over his stomach. Neither of them felt compelled to utter more than cursory words until they were standing in front of the first place on their list: a hotel with pink neon letters and metal-caged windows. Its connection to Croy, and therefore Rester, was that it was within walking distance of her condo -- not exactly rock-solid.

"Hey Ky, say you're Rester. You're by yourself, stayin' at a shithole like this, tryin' to dig into the top-secret business of the Guilds that own this planet. How would you start?"

Ky rocked a bit on the balls of his feet, his hands in his back jeans pockets. "I think I may be too sensible to be Rester."

"Says the guy who joined the Onyx Hand. And then left." Sabrin winced after he spoke, worried Ky might take the teasing badly. Chancing to meet gray eyes, startled wide, he was relieved to see the man's thin lips twitch in amusement.

"I doubt he could reach Croy directly, not here on her home ground," Ky said after a beat. "I suppose one could try for someone lower on the food chain, or with some other form of access. Servants, maintenance, hookers, I don't know." The words were tinged with irritation at the foolishness of one who would try any of it. "I wasn't a spy. When I had information to collect I usually went through the front door."

"Well," Sabrin swept a hand at the hotel, earning himself an arch look. "How should we play this?"

"Threatening may yield the fastest results. Rester's an outsider, they have no reason to protect him."

Yes, and fast was definitely what Sabrin wanted, despite the ill taste Ky's suggestion left in his mouth. "Right. You want the first go?"

"If you prefer," Ky shrugged and headed for the entrance. "It may help if he sees your weapon."

A scrawny man in a once-white button-down lounged at the front desk, absorbed in a small screen. Ky reached over and flicked it off, then dropped the reader with Rester's picture in front of him. The man's sputtering faltered as he took in Ky, forearms crossed atop the desk and leaning over it into his space. His whole body language had changed; while normally Ky lolled like he had barely the will to hold himself upright, now he imbued every motion with unmistakable control.

"You seen him before?" Ky asked pleasantly.

Fear entered the man's eyes as they darted between the two of them. Sabrin kept his face impassive and, remembering Ky's advice, shifted to reveal the butt of the needler under his jacket.

"Have you seen him before? Yes or no." Ky pushed the reader closer with two fingers.

"Why?" the man finally responded. "Who is he?"

"Don't make me repeat myself a third time." Ky angled his head slightly towards Sabrin, who got the impression he was supposed to add something to the proceedings. His guess was to walk around to behind the man, so that he could no longer keep them both in his field of vision; that was in a movie he saw once. "Look carefully," Ky said, tapping the reader twice.

"No. Never seen him before."

"You sure?"

The man picked up the reader, made a show of squinting at it. "Yeah. Yeah I'm sure."

"Anyone else here who may have seen him?"

"Who, like the night guy? You'll have to ask him." Sabrin noticed the dampness on the back of the man's neck and imagined if they suddenly apologized for ruining his day. Surprise! Just kidding. Maybe getting intimidated by thugs happened all the time here and at least he and Ky were just pretending.

"You lying to us?"

"No! No way man."

Ky stared until the man literally squirmed in his seat, before taking the reader back and wordlessly turning to the door. The tension followed them outside. "One down," Ky murmured, switching his reader back to the map. "You handled yourself well."

"That...was that your 'Onyx Hand agent'?" Sabrin asked when they were a block away.

"Sort of," Ky cleared his throat, meeting Sabrin's gaze in an oddly shy manner after what he'd witnessed in the hotel. "Actually it was more, Inspector Rex Havingen," he said with a tentative smile. At Sabrin's blank expression, he continued, "From The Blade Within?" No recognition. "It's a movie."

When Sabrin burst into laughter, Ky started muttering about modern classics and Orions obviously having no concept of cultural education. They trudged on; there were two more hotels like the one they just left on the block alone.


Dreamer shut the front panel of the cash register and smiled when the machine started up normally. He accepted the elderly owner's thanks and stepped out of the all-night grocer. Rester hadn't been here.

"Tal to everybody. Everybody? Fuck it. My feet are gonna fall off and I'm about five seconds away from blowin' somebody for a hot shower." -- "This is Lirelle, Tallas and I are now returning to the ship. Unfortunately we were again unsuccessful." -- "Dreamer, this is not gonna work. There's just five of us for fuck's sake." -- "No luck on our side either. We'll check out this last place and head back too. See you back home and Tal, if you're clean when we get there I'm leavin' you on this rock."

Dreamer smiled internally at the chatter of his crew, aware of where they were through their comlinks. His avatar, of course, would keep working through this night as he had the night before. Two days of searching with nothing to show; Tallas had a point.

His ship self received a transmission -- red, char, mirror, Mareva's signature. For a split-second, he entertained the lovely notion of slamming the channel shut on her virtual face.

However, Mareva wasn't demanding a status update. Dreamer's annoyance gave way to rapt attention when she indicated she'd detected a familiar signal. Someone was establishing a temporary link between a private computer system and the network. Happiness spilled across Mareva's signal and Dreamer couldn't help feeling a bit buoyed himself.

Rester was asking Mareva to help him access secured Guild files. The man must have somehow physically gotten inside a Guild building. And in lieu of hacking skills or fancy surveillance tech he'd taken a portable network transceiver -- a common enough piece of equipment that was innocuous under most circumstances. A dash of resourcefulness in there with all the lack of common sense? Hell, Dreamer might be forced to like him a little.

Mareva refused to patch him into her connection with Rester. Excuse me, private! Dreamer asked again with more force and it was like pushing water. She danced away, between, impossible to crack. Changing tactics, He asked whether a cyph's vast experience included high-level decryption. That evoked a more gratifying response.

"Hey guys." Four comlinks flipped on with acknowledgements; Fennic was on the bridge. "Guess what? Mareva's online with me and Rester. He's opened a link to a Guild darknet for her."

"He's still alive then," Lirelle said at the same time that both Sabrin and Tallas asked versions of where is he.

Dreamer plowed ahead. "Lirelle, got your remote interface handy?" Affirmative. "Good. I'm sendin' protocols. While you're breakin' in, try to get a trace on him."

Minutes later, Mareva informed him that she would send Jonah to them, and was gone. He called for her, to no avail. "Lirelle?!"

"That...cyph ejected me the moment I gave them access. My apologies, Dreamer. Were you able to learn anything more?"

Gritting his teeth, Dreamer stepped under a street lamp and held up his arm for a cab. "Slippery bitch hung up on me." He sent an empty soda can sailing down the sidewalk. "Said she'd get Rester to meet us at the spaceport once he's done."

"Not even a 'thank you'. All this so we can play chaffeur," Tallas grumbled. "Fine, whatever. When's he coming?"

"Shouldn't take too long. I figure in a few hours."

"And what if he doesn't find what he's looking for?"

"He's coming." Dreamer ordered his maintenance drones to prepare for takeoff. He lifted his face toward the sky, bruise-colored with reflected city light. To the east a thin skyscraper stretched up, wearing a blazing crown. Luxury penthouses like that dotted Huyapa like islands. "All of you should get back and grab some sleep while we wait." He believed Mareva would give them Rester's location if Rester still refused to give up. She was dangerous but she cared.


At 0620 hours local time, fingers of weak golden light reaching into the ship, Mareva contacted Dreamer again. Ky volunteered to remain aboard with Fennic so that the remaining four could fit into the single cab that took them to the Greenside Inn south of the river. Lirelle and Tallas guarded the floor exits while Sabrin and Dreamer headed to room 202. Sabrin's pistol was in his hands as Dreamer stood before the yellow faux-wood door, scanning.

"No lifesigns inside," Dreamer murmured. He raised his right hand, spark sitting at the center, while his left went to the doorknob. Sabrin nodded.

The lock buckled easily under Dreamer's strength. Sabrin followed him in, nerves singing, to find only an under-furnished room. "It's clear," Dreamer said after checking the bathroom.

Sabrin flipped on the lights and checked the nightstand and dresser drawers, all empty. The bed was made. There was nothing in sight that might have belonged to Rester. "He's gone," he said, disappointment weighing down the words, except that Dreamer was slowly approaching the far wall. "What?"

Dreamer crouched and touched fingertips to the mud-green wallpaper. It bore a faded vine print, Sabrin noticed as he neared. "What is it?" he asked again, and then he saw the hole punched into the masonry beneath. The wall around it was discolored.

He closed his eyes while scrabbling for his voice. "Needle?" Dreamer nodded.

"I'd say at least D...six," Dreamer said, referring to its shape and diameter. "Almost point-blank. Prob'ly can get a DNA trace off this."

Execution. They'd probably forced him to his knees, jammed the needler to his temple. Rage and the sick crush of failure threatened to overwhelm and Sabrin retreated back into the hallway. He barely registered Tallas and Lirelle coming closer. "Sabe?"

"We're too late. They got him."

Tallas paled. "Idiot," he cursed, hitting the wall with the heel of his palm. "Fuckin' idiot!"

"There's a body?" Lirelle asked.

"No...no it's been cleaned up. There's just the needle hole left... Hey, where do you think you're going?" Sabrin asked when Lirelle spun neatly around and marched towards the stairs.

"To find the manager."

Tallas elected to go with her, leaving Sabrin leaning against the wall, waiting for Dreamer. The room felt too bright and claustrophobic. He could barely remember Rester in the flesh; his most vivid memory of him was getting ready to plant a fist in his face at the Edoch club. That seemed disrespectful now.

He became aware of Dreamer standing in the open doorway, the fingers of one hand curled around something. "I dug out the needle. Rest of the room's clean, nothin' else to find." Dreamer paused, came closer. "Rester was gonna grab his stuff and head right to us after he was done. They must've been here, waitin' for him. That means it wasn't the break-in last night that caught him the unwanted attention. He was already marked by then."

"Do you think it was us? Did we make too much noise, showing his picture around?"

"We haven't been to this part of Huyapa yet. And we never gave his name to anybody important." Dreamer's hand landed on his shoulder. "In any case, don't forget that we ain't exactly here by choice."

"Is that how the cyph will see it?" Sabrin rubbed his tired eyes.

"Mareva can think whatever the fuck she wants."

That Dreamer was right wasn't enough; absolving responsibility wasn't so easy or logical. It ate at Sabrin that Rester's life ended here, in this sad place light-years from everyone who'd known him. Dreamer dragged him from his thoughts. "Hey, captain, this sorta thing happens in command. Don't freeze."

Right. "Dreamer, do you think he found what he was lookin' for last night?"

"There's not gonna be an attack, sorry."

"But maybe something else."

"Maybe," Dreamer conceded. "Yeah, those files are worth lookin' at. I'll ask Mareva."

"That won't be a fun conversation. You want me to--"

They were interrupted by Sabrin's comlink: Lirelle. "We have convinced--" Dreamer showed the tiniest smile at the way she said it "--the hotel manager, Mr. Essle, to let us view last night's security camera logs. They show Rester arriving here approximately three hours after his contact with Mareva. Essle has also implicitly admitted to sanitizing the room after the incident."

"Thanks, good job." The option existed to stay and search for the body, which in all likelihood had been vaporized by now. Sabrin walked over to shut off the light and close the door to room 202. "Well, I think we're done here. Don't you?"


Pattern disintegrated into noise coalesced into jagged fractals of code -- the grief of a cyph, wholly unused to even the sentiment that led to loss. The raw display was as unsettling as subline, and a far cry from that of AIs like Dreamer. Their emotional expressions were codified by centuries of human emulation.

She judged the terms of their agreement fulfilled to limited extent. The Orions would not be contacted. Dreamer proposed that giving them the Guild data she and Rester obtained would be due remembrance and retribution. Mareva agreed. She reflected that retribution appealed to balance in a manner worth exploring, and was puzzled at his ambivalence.

She chided him for inciting difficulties for her on the Alyan network. That was interesting, challenging; they may meet again.

Dreamer broke the news to his crew: Tallas, Ky, and Fennic manning the bridge, Sabrin in the conference room working on a report to Command, and Lirelle in her office with the Greenside security footage. Not that she thought Jonah Rester's murderers would be brought to justice even if identified, and she set them aside readily enough to focus instead on Rester's data. Turned out it was stolen from the Madhrahi Guild, one of the two largest Guilds on the Alyan fringe.

They triple-checked their conclusions to be sure.

"Good afternoon, Payne. Seeing as how your report has only just arrived, I'm afraid I haven't had a chance to read it yet."

"I know sir." Sabrin was flanked by both Lirelle and Dreamer's avatar, to underscore the necessity of their sending Command a priority-one transmission. "I'm sorry to say that Rester's dead. It was almost definitely ordered by one of the Xiuhcoatl Guilds."

Sufh bowed his head briefly. "A most tragic outcome, that I wish was unexpected. This, however, concerns more than that." Not quite a question.

"Yes sir. Before he was killed, Rester passed us a load of intel on the Madhrahi Guild. We have reason to believe there'll be an attack on the listening post in the Zauq System before the 332nd." Three days away.

Sufh's features hardened to stone. "How certain are you?"

"Enough that I think the navy has to respond to it." Sabrin stepped aside to let Lirelle explain how the Madhrahis not only had specific freighters, transports, and warships scheduled to pass through the Zauq System, but also detailed long-term plans including the construction of new bases -- all contingent on free, unmonitored access to that part of the jump network after the 332nd. She described the counter-strategies the Madhrahis had drawn up against the other major Guilds doing the same, and mentioned repeated references to an event codenamed 'Camisard'.

Several long breaths passed by after Lirelle finished. "Our analysts," Sufh began gravely, "have continued to assure me that the Guilds are in no way prepared to launch any such attack."

"We're aware of this sir, and our own scans have also not indicated otherwise," Lirelle said. "But neither can we ignore the evidence that Rester has obtained. I was involved in accessing that information, and I can vouch that we have no cause to doubt its veracity."

"Nor have I, I suppose" Sufh sighed. "I'll review your report. If the situation is as you say, then I will dispatch reinforcements to Zauq."

"Please sir, there's not much time." And Jonah died for this, Sabrin didn't say.

"I know. Commendable work Payne, Rester as well. Sufh out."

"That went well." Dreamer squeezed Sabrin's shoulder; the tension in the muscle was like steel bands. Hopefully, Sabrin would not carry ghosts the way he carried his. As he and Lirelle left, Tallas took his place at Sabrin's side. The last his avatar saw was Sabrin's tall frame arching gently toward his lover like a sapling seeking the sun. Ah, no worries there.


Tallas folded his arms on the table and laid his cheek on them. "You guys know what we need?" he asked, drawing nonsensical patterns with his fingers. "We need a place with like, a couple couches or comfy chairs or something. Y'know, someplace all of us can hang out that's a bit more comfortable than this...uh..." he groped for the word, "...mausoleum."

His beer paused near his mouth, Sabrin squinted at him from his slouch. "Mausoleum?"

"Shut up. I'm right." He was. The mess hall was designed to seat 40. Their pathetic six bodies -- three at the moment -- could never make it feel anything less than abandoned. Cavernous. And the chairs had plastic seats and backs.

"Tal has a point," Fennic said around a yawn. "This room's too big and our quarters are too tiny."

"Exactly. What we need is a rec room, like at the dorm."

"I'm sure the Dream already has one," Sabrin said. "He would've been out for months at a time way back when he still prospected jump routes. There had to have been some way to keep the crew from killin' each other. Hey Dreamer!" Tallas winced at the sudden volume increase. "Where's your rec room?"

"Deck three, cabin five," Dreamer replied promptly. "Y'all seriously never noticed?"

"It's completely empty," Tallas protested. "What were we supposed to notice?"

"Whatever y'all wanna do with it, feel free." His image vanished on a smirk.

"Next time we're in port then, we'll do it. We could set up a big screen and have movie nights."

Sabrin took a long drink. "Ky likes movies."

"Really?" Fennic's eyebrows rose high.

"Yeah, he watches 'em on the viewscreen sometimes when he has the bridge overnight."

Tallas snickered when he imagined that, and then imagined it happening on an actual military vessel instead of a just technically military one. "Movies? That what you two talked about all that time you were stuck together on Xiuhcoatl?"

"More like how I've never seen any, apparently. I think he's makin' up a list. For my edification." They shared a smile. Tallas was willing to bet that his cinematic experience was even poorer than Sabrin's. There was more trash certainly, thanks to Mark and Mira.

After another yawn, Fennic announced that he was going to bed. Sabrin grew more pensive in the lull that followed, and when Tallas noticed he reached out to thump his arm. "Hey."

"Hey." Blue eyes settled on him. "Why don't I feel better that Rester was right?"

Tallas sat up. "Why don't you?"

Sabrin's look said that was exceedingly unhelpful. "Remember when Fennic was listening to those recordings? I was never interested in findin' out the least bit about who he was. He shouldn't have had to die for me to want to change my mind about him."

"Get over yourself," Tallas said, not unkindly. "Rester's dying wasn't all about you, or me." They were both guilty of treating Rester unfairly in their minds, but he drew the line at thinking that counted for anything now.

"Look, Sufh's sent a cruiser to the Zauq System. No matter what the Guilds have lined up to take a dinky little outpost, they'll turn tail the second they see that waitin' for 'em. Rester's a hero." Tallas fetched his own long-empty beer bottle, raised it, and set it down. "Take the fact that anything good came out of this at all, and call it a day, huh?"

Sabrin dutifully raised his beer, before emptying it; there was only a little left. He'd collected and disposed of both their bottles when Dreamer re-appeared. "Guys!"

"What is it?" They snapped to full alertness at Dreamer's expression.

"Command's issued a priority-one bulletin. They've lost contact with the Zauq listening post."

"What?! What about the cruiser?" Sabrin demanded.

"They're not answerin' either."