|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: email@example.com
||the Enigma of Flatness
|Dear Enemy||Part XXVIII
The Synochrion, the Pelesus, the Parthereum, and the Epheme. Four ships, four attacks; Sabrin needed to tell the others to look for the remaining three except he couldn't tell if his mouth was working. He was stalling on the wrongness of the scene. The ship, the people on it were in the past and he'd made peace with that; they were wrong to be here.
"No sign of the other three cruisers at present," Lirelle said.
"Prob'ly out cruisin' for more outposts to hit. Sabe! Tal! Get it together!" Dreamer's bark brought reality back into focus. And he hadn't gotten the words out; Lirelle had reported on her own initiative.
Sabrin tore his eyes from the viewscreen. "They haven't charged weapons, and they're not actively scanning."
"Okay, no need to panic quite yet," Dreamer said. "There's no sign that they know who we are."
True; the Synochrion looked to be in the middle of major repairs and wouldn't be snapping into action anytime soon. Their six Hanzu attendants weren't shooting at or tractoring them, were still allowing them to tow the Zoroastria. "All it'll take is for somebody to look me or Tal up in their database," Sabrin reminded the others, wishing he'd made up a fake name for himself after all.
"They might not," Dreamer said, "There's no reason to."
"Rather not count on it. What'd be our chances if we--"
Dreamer shot that idea right down with a vigorous shake of his head. "Too many unknowns right now to go jumpin' the gun. Gimme a little time to analyze the tactical situation with the Hanzu."
"Yeah, okay, that makes sense," Sabrin said. 'Unknowns' is right. "Fuck, she had to have known... Hail the Zoroastria."
Croy appeared on a side viewscreen window, meeting his eyes steadily like she was expecting his call. Sabrin noticed Dreamer's avatar standing a short distance behind her. "Captain," she said.
"That's not a Hanzu ship in that dock," Sabrin said, his tone demanding an explanation. He had to play this carefully; not many people outside the Empire would recognize an Orion design when they saw one.
"Sorry," Croy actually seemed genuine, "I haven't been completely honest with you. It wasn't right but our situation was critical and we needed your help to get here. All I can ask is that you hear me out."
"First thing's first. Ghant!" he called Dreamer over. "I want you back here. Now."
"Yes sir," Dreamer said in the least deferent way possible and gave a sloppy salute. Croy took no action to stop him, only watched.
Sabrin waited until the shuttle was en route. "Okay. I'm listening."
"The ship ahead's an Orion strike cruiser, the Synochrion. I'm an intelligence agent for the Orion Imperial Guard, and I had been on a long-term assignment to Xiuhcoatl."
"It's classified..." Croy sighed, then continued, "It also doesn't matter. The important thing is that this whole area of space is going to get very dangerous, very soon, and I've been recalled home. Captain--" she emphasized the word "--come with us. All of you."
"To the Orion Empire." Sabrin didn't have to fake the shock.
"Don't listen to what the media here says about us. We're all just people, same as everyone else, and we definitely have a place for people like you...skilled, resourceful, honest... You're freeborn, captain, and believe me none of us are going to try and take that away. It'll still be your people and your ship, only no more 'favors' to the Guilds, no more dodging pirates."
Croy must never have wanted for clients when she was running her freight business. "I...I'll have to talk it over with my crew."
"Of course. Just think about it, that's all I ask," Croy nodded, giving a tentative smile. "The Hanzu will be sending a diplomatic convoy to Orion space in five days. We here on the Zora are leaving with them, and I'm hoping you'll still be with us then. In the meantime, if there's anything you need, just let me know. Like I said, we couldn't have made it without you."
"Don't mention it," seemed like the thing to say.
"I'm crossing my fingers that the Hanzu can fix up the Zora in time, or we'll be hitching all the way back to Orion...not the most dignified way to travel. Anyway, no one will be threatening us here, so rest...and keep your comns open. You'll be hearing from Captain Iohannis on the Synochrion, and probably some Hanzu too at some point. Please think about the offer."
"I will." Sabrin hoped the effort his smile took didn't show. "Payne out."
The channel closed. "This is good," Dreamer said.
He had to have heard that wrong. "Didn't have enough fun in the Empire last time, Dreamer?"
Dreamer's expression was unimpressed. "I meant that, if we can last five days, we can ship out with the Hanzu convoy and it'll be easy then to get away."
"So I should go along with Croy."
"You haven't had any trouble doin' that so far," Dreamer smirked. "Break out from a bunch of Hanzu ships or their entire Nomad Fleet. Ya don't need AI powers to do the math on that one."
No, which didn't mean Sabrin had to like it. There was a reason he never tried out for intelligence; lying gets exhausting. He returned his attention to the Synochrion -- best case scenario was that the cruiser squadron left with Camisard over; mission accomplished. Less than best case scenario... "We've gotta get back and warn Command. If they're gonna send their ships into the fringe they have to know what they'll be up against."
Zauq already showed what a single strike cruiser could do; four of them would be capable of sniping out any unit the Alyans or Polarians might deploy under the expectation of fighting mere Guild forces.
Lirelle and Dreamer shared an unreadable look. "What?" Sabrin asked.
"It'll be a hard sell to Command unless we've got proof the Orions were at Zauq," Dreamer said.
"During our stay at Forseti Station, I inserted a spy program into the Synochrion's mainframe," Lirelle added. "It will have copied all subsequent system logs."
Sabrin's jaw slackened. "How... When were you two gonna share this with the rest of us?!"
"When it came up...and hey! It did," Dreamer said. "Look, you and Tal were paranoid enough the first time those four showed up. The Orions didn't catch us doin' it, so it's fine and ain't ya glad now we went behind your backs?"
Had Dreamer's avatar been there, he would've gotten a good shove for taking that kind of risk and not telling them. Instead, Sabrin could only press his thumb hard into the bridge of his nose. "Depends. Can you pull the data out undetected?"
"Possibly. I will have to examine the available points of access," Lirelle said. "And be assured, I will brief everyone before I begin."
"Great. Thanks." With a plan, Sabrin felt almost calm.
"Dreamer," Tallas suddenly spoke up, and Sabrin realized he hadn't seen Tallas turn around, hadn't seen his face since they recognized the Synochrion. "Where's that transponder Mark gave us?"
"It's in machine shop two. Fennic, go on, I'll show you where," Dreamer said. Fennic scrambled off the bridge.
"Your friend Mark? He's aboard that ship?" Ky asked.
"Tal, I'm not sure if this is--" Sabrin tried. Mark Tamirrey was a...complicated knot in his mind and their current situation wasn't one that cried out for more complication.
"We're not ignoring him." Tallas's glare brooked no arguments, before uncertainty and a little guilt crept in. "He'll want to see us."
Fennic brought the amber marble cradled in his palm like some kind of treasure. Annoyed at himself for the sentiment, Tallas snatched it roughly. The craftsmanship was sublime; art and function wedded. Mira's batshit aunt really knew her stuff.
"The signal is secure?" he heard Ky ask behind him.
"The device employs an ultra-low power carrier, almost in the upsilon band," Lirelle said. "Virtually impossible to discern unless one were specifically looking for it. Of course, this also limits the effective range..."
Tallas tuned out Lirelle talking about the transponder's technology and her and Dreamer's attempts to replicate it. The marble would warm in his hand, after a while, like it enjoyed his touch. Tallas found the button and a soft yellow glow appeared from inside.
"Does that mean it's on?" Fennic stared at the small light.
"It's on." The glow brightened by orders of magnitude. "There's another one in range." Tallas's heart quickened. He raised the transponder up and activated the tracking function. The light quivered and condensed into a single bright line shooting through the center of the sphere. A quick check against his console confirmed it. "It's on the Synochrion."
"The other one's not movin'. Tamirrey might not have it on him," Dreamer said. "We're comin' up on the factory ship. Tal, give it here, I'll keep an eye on it for you."
Tallas reluctantly handed it to Dreamer's avatar. Mark's face on that last morning; he'd never seen quite that expression on him before. Not even Sabrin knew how he'd abandoned Mark bare and hurting and used. Mark deserved a better goodbye.
Following another of the Hanzu's tersely worded text-only instructions, Tallas guided the Dream into one of the factory ship's many launch bays. The bay was unlike any he'd ever seen, a floorless elliptical cylinder lit like daytime. The walls were lined with some kind of webbing and supported arrays of articulated arms. Once their engines were cut and the tethers released, Hanzu tractor beams took over moving both them and the Zoroastria. The ship shuddered as the moorings made contact.
A group of lifesigns approached, and they were instructed to prepare a representative. "Guess we should say hello," Dreamer said.
"Not you, Dreamer," Sabrin said firmly, "I don't want 'em scanning your avatar."
"My avatar can spoof basic sensors."
"Well, 'til we know that's all the Hanzu have, let's not risk it."
In the end, Tallas and Lirelle were at Sabrin's side as the outer airlock hatch unsealed. Tallas swallowed a wave of vertigo at the vast, open space beyond. A part of the Hanzu moorings were visible, several thick cables resembling braided ropes. Handholds. Tallas grabbed one and found it unexpectedly stiff.
"Can you see them?" Sabrin asked.
"Not yet." Hand anchored and fighting his body's instincts telling him he would fall, Tallas leaned out through the disorienting threshold where the ship's artificial gravity ended.
"Captain Payne!" came Croy's yell somewhere above, insofar as that direction meant anything in this place. Craning his neck, Tallas saw Croy and her first mate outside the Zoroastria, pulling themselves along the cables.
"Here!" And Sabrin was out too.
Microgravity was fun past the first couple of seconds. Some deep breathing and muscle memory kicked in, which made him faster than Sabrin. "Hey, what's the hurry?" Tallas stopped Sabrin with a hand on his ankle. Then because he could, he levered along Sabrin's body and swung into his path, gripping the cable with his legs.
"Show-off," Sabrin muttered. His eyes found Croy. "Captain! What should I be expecting?!"
"They don't really expect much out of outsiders! Just don't say or do anything threatening and you'll be fine!"
Sabrin gave her a thumbs-up, before flashing Tallas a here goes nothing look; Tallas gave an encouraging smile in response. "Good thing we're not armed."
"Well, not personally, but the Dream's right there."
Lirelle caught their attention and directed it towards six spindly figures. Each held a towing machine resembling the handlebars of a bike, which pulled them briskly through the air. The group split up, three for them and three for Croy. Tallas braced himself.
The spacekind looked like humans who'd been pulled like taffy -- stretched-out arms, legs, torso. In pictures it made them seem frail, but in person they projected strength and solidity as they moved with sleek economy. They wore form-fitting, ultramarine uniforms with silvery arm and shin guards, leaving bared hands and hand-like feet. Don't stare.
Two of the Hanzu stopped at a respectful distance while the third closed in. Probably a full head taller than Dreamer, the man transferred his tow to his right foot and examined them with slate-colored eyes. He pointed at Sabrin; Tallas noticed all ten of his long fingers bore rings of varying description. His voice was deep and flat-accented. "You are the captain of the Swiftsure?"
"Yeah, that's me. Sabrin Payne." Sabrin clearly debated whether to try for a handshake; he did extend his hand only to have it ignored. "Um...nice to meet you. These are members of my crew: Tallas Anderholt and Lirelle Wice."
"We know your names." The man showed no interest. "Captain Croy has vouched for your presence here." He produced a reader and handed it to Sabrin. "These are the areas of this vessel to which you are allowed access, and the rules which you must obey. You will be responsible for your crew's behavior."
"I understand sir."
The man nodded and departed with his guards. When they were far enough away, Sabrin turned to Tallas with an exaggerated expression of relief. "Wow, Dreamer wasn't kidding about 'em not being friendly."
"Maybe it was just him." Tallas glanced at Croy, who appeared to be having a more rewarding interaction. He couldn't make out the conversation but a spacekind smile was the same as a unmodified human one. "Head back?"
With their feet back on the Dream's deck, Sabrin skimmed the reader's contents. "Most of the ship is off-limits."
"Not that we were plannin' to poke around much." Tallas rolled his shoulders. "Ugh, I could use a break. Dreamer, will you let me know--"
"The second Mark replies."
Sabrin gave Lirelle the reader and followed him back to his quarters. Dropping his jacket on the way to the bed, Tallas arched in a full-body stretch and pillowed his head on his hands. "You hungry?"
"Not really." Sabrin sat on the deck with his back against the mattress, dark head tilted back.
"So, we've met the spacekind."
"We've met them and are on one of their home ships," Tallas reiterated. Tense as things were, the boy he'd been was thrilled.
"Yup." This time, amazement tinged Sabrin's voice too; there was room for it here in their tiny private space. He laughed and ducked from Tallas mussing his hair, caught the marauding hand and held it to his chest. "We've gone a long way."
"Y'know, this could still blow up on us, but...it's good you didn't go the way I wanted. Chances are we wouldn't have found out about the Hanzu or that they're workin' with the Imperials otherwise."
"What are you talking about?" Sabrin asked, twisting his head to meet Tallas's eyes.
"I was all for Dreamer to grab Croy, you knew that--"
"No I didn't," Sabrin insisted, causing Tallas to furrow his brow. "Why didn't you say so this morning?"
Tallas was pretty sure he'd made his vote clear. "What does it matter anyway? It was your decision."
His answer strangely seemed to upset Sabrin more. "Why?"
Tallas was still digesting that as Sabrin's head turned back towards the ceiling. "I didn't make a decision this morning. The clock was running out and I...froze. I didn't want to jump to Hellespont 'cause we had no idea what was gonna be here. And I didn't want to tell Dreamer to take Croy and probably kill somebody doin' it." He let escape a gust of breath. "Left or right. I fuckin' couldn't--"
"Stop," Tallas said firmly. "Don't worry about it, things turned out okay."
"And what about next time?" Tallas had no answers besides the platitudes they'd both heard a thousand times at the Academy, so he kept his mouth shut. "You wanted to grab Croy."
"Yeah but like I said it was your call to make."
"But why?" Sabrin repeated. "You could've told Dreamer to do it."
"Uh, last I checked you're the captain." Obviously.
"I never thought that applied to you." Sabrin's statement left Tallas blinking. "I mean, it's definitely never stopped you from decidin' shit without me before."
"If you're gonna keep throwin' Adhara in my face--"
"No, no, sorry..." Sabrin wouldn't let him pull his hand back. "I just meant that there's been lots of times before when you took the lead yourself, didn't wait for me. So...why didn't you this time?"
Sprinting for the potential, bounty hunters at their backs, Tallas honestly hadn't thought of giving Dreamer the order himself. "I dunno...I guess, maybe, I didn't want to make the choice either."
Sabrin was silent for a moment; when he spoke there was no recrimination, only weary acceptance. "That's not fair."
"No one said it was," Tallas said. "Did you want me to go over your head with Dreamer?"
"Yeah see, the whole 'going over my head' thing. Tal, you've always had this way of...of gettin' into wanting to do something, sometimes, and then it's fuck what anybody else says. I love that about you."
Trust Sabrin to like the same bouts of bull-headedness that also drove him up the wall. Warmth spread through Tallas's chest and brought a smile to his lips; all the better that Sabrin almost definitely had no idea that what he'd said would lead to it. "Thanks. But a ship can't be run by committee, right?"
"No, of course not." Sabrin slumped. "Sorry, I don't know what I'm tryin' to get at with this."
"We'll figure it out." Tallas shifted to give Sabrin a proper one-armed squeeze. "Hey, seein' as how we only finished one year of the officer track, we could've done a lot worse."
"The commandant would be so proud." As far as they knew, Commandant Zhan has never been proud of anyone or anything during his Academy tenure. The leading theory was that he was on Astral-Ishasa as some kind of heinous punishment -- so, basically like the rest of them. Though there was one maybe, sort of exception: he and Mark still kept in touch.
In the evening, the transponder light changed from yellow to green, meaning someone was at the other end. Sabrin followed the taps of Tallas's finger: FORSETI ALMADO 14 in basic Orion four-code. His quizzical look went unaddressed as they waited. To their relief, the marble blinked back with a time and a location.
This time, Dreamer insisted on coming along as backup. Between him and Tallas, Sabrin felt like the clumsiest of oafs hauling himself through the expansive, cylindrical corridors of the factory ship. The Hanzu all but flew past the three of them, swooping from handhold to handhold -- or foothold -- with breathtaking agility. Some slowed down and regarded them curiously, a few smiled or waved to their greetings, and none tried to talk to them. Maybe there was an injunction.
"Do they sleep?" Tallas asked. The lighting and activity levels were unchanged from earlier.
"Yeah, in shifts," Dreamer said. "Can't speak to the Hanzu specifically but the spacekind are usually two-thirds up, one-third down at any time. No day or night for them."
Mark -- assuming it was him -- had picked an odd meeting place. It was a small, bowl-shaped space at the end of an access shaft, formed incidentally by the convergence of the surrouding machinery. "Are we allowed to be here?" Sabrin's question sounded small in the bass hum that filled the air.
"This is a blind spot in the internal sensor coverage." Dreamer checked out their surroundings. "The other transponder's gettin' close," he said, looking in the direction they came from. We're both early. "I'll hide down there. If things go south, you know what to do."
Make semi-loud noises of distress; Sabrin rolled his eyes and patted Dreamer's shoulder. He and Tallas settled into the wait.
"Hey, what's 'Almado 14'?" Sabrin asked, sotto voce.
Tallas averted his eyes, fidgeting. "The Almado's a hotel on Forseti. Room fourteen."
"Oh." Where he and Mark... Sabrin's stomach twisted. "Um...it's okay."
"What?" Tallas knit his brow. "How is it okay?"
"I just...I don't blame you. For what happened that night...with you and him..." Sabrin floundered; there was a reason he hadn't brought this up since he and Tallas got together.
"It wasn't Mark's fault, I came on to him."
Alright, it did hurt to hear Tallas say that. But he looked pained and guilty, which completely wasn't what Sabrin meant. "That's not what I... Okay, if I was gonna blame anybody it'd be myself, 'cause of the way I reacted to what you told me."
Tallas shook his head. "No, you didn't make me go to Mark."
"But you wouldn't have if I hadn't fucked up--"
"Hello?" They both jerked at the voice.
Tallas licked his lips and called out, "Hey, we're here." Sabrin held his breath.
Preceded by his shadow, Mark's uniform-clad frame came into view. Mud-green eyes landed on them and widened. "Oh god! It really is you guys!" With a strong push, he closed the rest of the distance between them and wrapped his arms around Tallas. "Ow!" At the yelp, Sabrin realized that both of Mark's hands and forearms were covered in bandages.
Beaming, Tallas gently separated them. "Yeah it's us, what the..." noticing the same, he whacked Mark's bicep. "Idiot."
Mark cringed, then immediately yanked Sabrin into a similarly crushing -- and probably painful -- hug. Sabrin gave it back gladly; the full reality of their old friend's presence drowned out his misgivings.
"Shit, I can't believe it," Mark's expression was a note of pure joy. He pulled the glowing transponder from his breast pocket. "I thought this fuckin' thing broke."
"No it works. What the fuck happened to your hands?!" Sabrin exclaimed.
"Hold on, one sec." Mark retrieved a comlink; Sabrin tensed all over. Mark said into it, "It's clear."
"It's them?" a female voice asked.
"Yeah it's really them. I'll introduce you some other time. Bye now," Mark said all at once and closed the channel.
"Wh-who was that?" Tallas asked.
Mark took in their pale, spooked faces and turned apologetic. "A friend of mine on the ship. I didn't know what the fuck was goin' on with this--" he wiggled the transponder "--so I had her watching my back just in case. Don't worry, she's okay. Trust me."
God, Sabrin wanted to. After a beat, Tallas visibly released the tension in his body, saying, "Okay, we do."
Mark brightened again; Sabrin realized that he'd been as nervous as they were. He smiled. "Now c'mon, what happened to you?"
"Aw, it was fuckin' heroic, man!" Mark held out both hands, palms-up. "The Synochrion was tanglin' with another cruiser, one-on-one. We took two cluster torps in the starboard aft. Coolant trunk's punched full o' holes, control lines jammed and the dorsal spar cannon was gonna fuckin' explode unless yours truly did a manual shunt." He laughed, way too happy about what would've taken his skin like old bark cracking off a branch. "That coolant's nasty shit, I'll tell ya."
"God," Tallas winced. "You'll be okay?"
"Still a bit tender, but I'll be better than new in a few more days." Mark flexed his fingers and Sabrin watched with a storm of conflicting emotions. This was what he'd dreaded, from the moment he saw the Synochrion on sensors. Mark had acted bravely and incredibly, and had he saved the Synochrion's battle with the Alyan cruiser? Part of Sabrin wanted to grab Mark, scream in his face why were you there?
"Who were you fighting?" Sabrin found himself asking.
"Locals," Mark said, oblivious. "Our intel was for total shit. The target was supposed to be just a tiny outpost and when we get there, there's a fuckin' cruiser waitin'. We licked 'em though."
"Don't you know who those 'locals' were?" Sabrin had to keep poking at it, like a sore tooth.
"Alyans," Mark answered easily.
"Hey," Tallas spoke to Mark, but his hand was on Sabrin's back, warning. "How'd you get to be here anyway? And where's the rest of your cruiser squadron?"
Mark shrugged. "We split up over a week ago; dunno when we'll meet up with 'em again."
"But they are in the area?" Sabrin asked.
"I think so."
"Last we saw, you were off to Andromeda," Tallas said.
"Oh yeah, Andromeda..." Mark began talking about being in another galaxy, how the space looked familiar yet wasn't, knowing that they were two and a half million light-years from home. "...but I bet you two've been places too. The farship that came in with the Zoroastria, that's yours, right?"
Sabrin nodded. "The Dream of Dawn."
"You should come over if you can," Tallas added.
Mark's features twisted with regret. "Better not. I'm sure that bay's under surveillance. Speakin' of which, don't sweat the Synochrion being here. I've got your back."
"Thanks." Tallas hooked an arm around Mark's neck and pressed them close for a moment, forehead to temple. "Really."
Sabrin ducked his head; he wasn't jealous, exactly, didn't think he was because he knew Tallas. Instead, this was something private and intimate that was just between the two of them, born in the wake of Sabrin throwing away Tallas's admission of love on Forseti; he felt like no right to witness it.
"I, uh..." Mark's cheeks reddened as he licked his lips. "Tal..." His gaze flickered to Sabrin.
"Oh, okay. Well, that night...that was a mistake, wasn't it." More a statement than a question, spoken with a sad smile.
"I'm really sorry. It never should've happened."
Sabrin kept quiet, though he didn't resist when Tallas's hand found his. "Mark," Tallas said, "you should know that Sabe and I are..."
"Oh!" Mark took in their joined hands and pushed back, eyes round with panic. It was almost funny from a guy who outweighed him by more than fifteen kilos. "Oh fuck, Sabe, I swear I would never have--"
"It's okay." Maybe if Sabrin said it enough it would be, for everyone. "We didn't get together 'til after Forseti."
Mark broke into a wide, relieved grin. "Well, then...that's awesome! Congrats!" He clapped them both on their shoulders, wincing again as his bandaged palms made contact; the man was ridiculous. "And about fuckin' time, too. Y'know Sabe, Jayan was convinced that you were asexual."
Sabrin was startled into a coughing fit. "What?!" he squeaked.
"Well, you hardly went on any dates and you treated 'em like chores -- remember Sai Napova? And poor Tal here had just been hurling himself at ya for so long--" "Hey!" "--that you can't blame us for drawing certain conclusions."
"You assholes have gotta learn to mind your own business."
"Sai." Tallas had a wicked glint in his eyes. "I remember Sai."
Sabrin still maintained that an invitation to demonstration of advanced hand-to-hand combat didn't constitute clear intent of a date -- much less dating, as in the first of plural. Really, it was Sai who had made assumptions and then reacted poorly to having them corrected. Their laughter soon reverberated across the small space.
Keja was lying in his bunk instead of hers, reading, when he returned. Their other two roommates were nowhere in sight.
"The fuck are you doin' on there?" Mark grumbled, shoving her feet aside so he could sit and pull off his boots. Fuck, he was so past ready to have hands that didn't feel over-scrubbed with steel wool. When they came off the day after tomorrow, there was gonna be a party.
"So...what?" Keja sat up and bowed close, her breath and wavy black locks teasing his ear. "Do I need to hold you while you cry? Steal a tub of ice cream?"
"Fuck off." Mark shoved her away. Jacket, shirt, and trousers came off; he stretched out on his back, crowding Keja to the side.
"Ugh, you need to go to decon." Keja wrinkled her nose.
Mark snorted; she'd dealt with far worse than a little sweat and he needed to fortify himself before facing that torture chamber. Whatever happened to sponge baths administered by physically and ethically flexible nurses? "Micrograv's hard work. Besides, my stink wouldn't be a problem if you'd fucked off like I requested."
"Don't think you're derailing me, Tamirrey." Her expression softened; Mark wasn't fooled. "C'mon, out with it."
"It was great seeing 'em," he said honestly. The hole that had been ripped out of their circle of friends by Sabrin and Tallas wasn't one that could be closed, though they who were left were long past accepting it. "Hopefully they'll be here for a couple more days."
"And the lovely Mr. Anderholt...?"
"Still lovely." Possibly more so, and his memory was idealized. "It was pretty much like I'd expected." A mistake. As someone who considered himself a connoisseur of mornings after, no it wasn't a surprise at all.
"Sorry." Keja rubbed his abdomen.
Mark shrugged. "He's with Sabe now."
"Shit. Well, at least he'll always have the memory of you rockin' his world."
"I'm happy for them." Mark glared, propping himself up on his elbows. "If there were ever two people who should be together, those two are it. They're like, fuckin' soulmates." And he couldn't believe he'd just said that word. Mark sank back down with a groan, covering his eyes with his cruelly mummified arm.
"Sorry," Keja dragged out the syllables. "A thousand pardons for tryin' to be sympathetic and shit."
"Thanks," Mark mumbled. How pathetic had he been that she'd made even this much effort? Okay, that was over. Arm down.
"Ya want me to find Dvarick? Take your edge off?" Keja wagged her eyebrows.
The arch of a body beneath his, eager and always that tint of desperation. "No." He hadn't decided yet whether Cody Dvarick was a mistake too. Keja fell squarely on the side of yes, hence the relentless mockery. "Alright Safsir, we've got plans to make."
"Yeah?" Keja's voice curled like smoke. Her smooth caramel face was radiant like this; Mark allowed a moment of regret that they'd fucked only that one time, when they were both newly minted ensigns on the Perovinion. Particular aspects of their personalities were simply too similar though; what they were now was much better.
"I wanna know the second somebody even thinks suspicious thoughts in Sabe and Tal's direction."
"Don't be nervous."
"I'm going to chat with the captain of the Synochrion. Why would I be nervous?" Sabrin huffed.
"Just agree with everythin' she says and you'll be fine." Dreamer's clap on the back made him stumble a bit. Sabrin suspected he was still pouting about not being introduced to Mark the night before.
In case his itinerary wasn't fucked-up enough, Croy had assured him that she'd be there to hold his hand all the way to and through the meeting. And damned if he didn't feel a little better seeing her waiting outside, with a smile and two Hanzu tows. They made good time to the drydock, where the Synochrion sat in a bubble of air.
Floating through 'space' without a spacesuit, surrounded by nebula and Hanzu ships, was another novel experience. Despite himself, Sabrin felt a growing exhilaration as they approached the Synochrion. The scarred warship bore a terrible beauty, a heartfelt expression of destructive purpose. At the airlock, he reached out to touch the cool, dark gray hull plating.
The interior of the Synochrion was sharper-angled, less inviting than those on the Dream. Sabrin kept close to Croy, avoiding eye contact. His nerves prickled down his back as he passed the other Orions, wondering if the next one would be the one to recognize him.
Croy led the way into the captain's office, standing at attention. Sabrin fought not to do the same. "Reporting as ordered, sir."
"At ease." Croy made introductions; Captain Iohannis barely smiled as she shook Sabrin's hand. She gestured for them to sit. "You're out of uniform, commander."
"Since I haven't been formally debriefed, I'm technically still undercover."
"However, it might give a...misleading impression of Orion discipline to our guests."
Sabrin doubted very much that Iohannis cared one bit how they came off to him or his crewmates. Croy's lips thinned. "I'll speak to your quartermaster ASAP, sir."
"Good. Have the Hanzu given you an estimate on repairs to your freighter?"
"The engine damage was too extensive," Croy admitted, "We'll have to rely on the Hanzu to take us back to Orion space."
Iohannis nodded, a hint of satisfaction in her pale blue eyes. "Hmm...these local warlords can be a nuisance. It's lucky you were able to find assistance from a civilian ship in time." Sabrin listened to his wiser instincts and stayed quiet. To his surprise, Iohannis's voice was the tiniest bit warmer when she addressed him. "Captain Payne, Commander Croy must've been very convincing for you to have gone to all this trouble for her."
Sabrin couldn't guess what part of the truth she wanted to hear, if any of it. He cleared his throat. "We wanted to get away from the Guilds, she said she had a way. It was worth a shot."
"And she's offered you residency in the Empire."
"That's right." Sabrin glanced at Croy, also focused on his reaction. "Can't say it's not tempting, but I think I need more info before we commit to anything."
"I'm sure the commander would be more than willing to share," Iohannis said, more to Croy than to him. "In any case, immigration's not my concern."
The rest of the meeting proceeded in a similar vein, with Iohannis sniping at Croy in the guise of asking questions. Sabrin wasn't unhappy to be ignored, not that he wasn't wishing he was anywhere else. Finally, Iohannis dismissed them verbally and by pulling out a reader.
The door closed and Croy started walking, with a subdued, "Sorry, captain." As they reached the nearest stairs she'd summoned a fresh smile. "Hey, would you like to join me for lunch?"
Sabrin froze; he'd just been optimistic about escaping the Synochrion unscathed. "I...I really should be gettin' back to the Swiftsure."
"I've met your crew. I'm sure they'll be fine without you for an hour or so," Croy said. "C'mon, since I've asked you to come with us you should try some Orion food. It's uh...not the best, here, but not the worst either," she finished sheepishly.
"I wouldn't want to put out the galley crew."
"It's no trouble, they'll be gearing up for B shift right now." Croy stopped and faced him fully. "Please, I feel like we haven't been properly welcoming so far."
Since turning her down a third time didn't seem wise, Sabrin found himself in the mostly-empty mess hall with Croy and a handful of C shifters. Croy brought over two laden trays; he dutifully sampled and asked the names of everything, while wishing she had gotten more muoy rolls and put less vinegar sauce on the rusorro. But it was good, nostalgic.
"So what was the deal with Iohannis?" Sabrin asked in a low voice, spearing a piece of thick, oily bread with his fork. "Does she object to us going to Orion...?"
"No, it's not that." Croy scanned their surroundings for eavesdroppers, quick and professional. "It's got nothing to do with you or the Swiftsure at all actually." She gazed down at her meal, apparently debating how much to say. "You've probably noticed that this ship's taken some damage recently. Captain Iohannis lost over forty people in that battle and she thinks I could've prevented it if I'd been doing my job."
Our intel was for total shit, Mark had said. Iohannis blamed Croy for sending them to Zauq without warning them about the Alyan cruiser. It wasn't her, of course, it was them, and was that something to feel guilty for? At least, Sabrin could say, "I don't think you would've done any less than your best."
"Thanks." Croy smiled.
"Hey, tell me about Orion," Sabrin said, figuring it was better that she was talking instead of him. "Iohannis said you'd oblige, right?"
Croy had grown up on Harphin, regarded as close to a core world. As she talked about exploring the blue marshes with her brothers, Sabrin realized that part of why he had asked was to hear about the Orion Empire she'd lived in, instead of the one in his memory.
Mark appeared with a cardboard box and a petite woman in tow; Sabrin and Tallas had Dreamer with them. Greetings and handshakes were exchanged all around.
"Shit, your ship's got an AI and an android?" Mark maneuvered closer, delighted grin splitting his face as he reached out and poked Dreamer's shoulder. "Oh, awesome! Can we trade? Ow!"
"Asshole." Keja pulled her hand back and sidled up to Dreamer herself. "It's obvious where his eyes are."
Dreamer whispered something in her ear that made her giggle, and wow Tallas didn't need to be dealing with this. "Hey, what've you got there?" he indicated the box.
"Oh, yeah," Mark pulled it over and messily tore through the tape at the top. "After Forseti, I asked the guys back home to send me your stuff, just in case 'cause I'm only one stationed outside the Empire right now."
"Did you check it for bugs?" Dreamer asked, frowning.
Keja snorted. "They did on Astral-Ishasa, and then we did when we got it, but feel free. Maybe third time's the charm."
"Aw, man..." Tallas got a lump in his throat as they went through just the topmost few items in the box -- very carefully, to keep everything from scattering in the microgravity.
He went about fully unpacking the box later in his quarters. There was the pile of clothes, T-shirts mostly, that he'd never expected to see again. The wristwatch Sabrin had bought for him, still set to the time in Raal-Dakhir. The pack of cards with the skulls on the back, that Mark had shoplifted. The mini-camera Mark had 'borrowed' from an obnoxious classmate.
"Hi." Sabrin appeared at the bathroom door, backlit and wearing only shorts. Tallas quickly raised the camera and immortalized the gorgeous picture before he could protest.
"Y'know, Mark's stolen a lot of stuff," Tallas said as he checked that the camera had worked. Sabrin's leather jacket had also came by way of Mark, though the circumstances there were somewhat obscure.
"Yeah, that was quite the kleptomaniac phase." Sabrin plopped down next to him. "It was a phase, right? He stopped?"
Tallas quirked the corner of his mouth. "Got your wallet?" His fingers closed around a thin ball chain; following it yielded a small carbon-composite rectangle, and then its twin: PAYNE, S. D. Tallas jingled them playfully in Sabrin's face.
"Quit it." Sabrin scrunched up his face and batted it away.
"C'mon, they're yours."
"Don't want 'em." Sabrin shook his head. He idly picked through some more of the detritus of their old lives, smiling in disbelief. "I can't believe those guys actually hung on to all this junk."
"We had fun tonight, didn't we?"
"Yeah, almost like the old days..." Sabrin's smile slowly faded. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Shit, what're we doing?"
"What?" Tallas feigned non-understanding.
"Have you forgotten why we're here? A war's starting, and Croy, the Imperials, they started it."
"I know." Tallas clenched Sabrin's tags in his fist. "I thought we were saying goodbye to Mark. We never really did it last time."
"Doesn't feel like goodbye. It feels like we're getting pulled back in," Sabrin said. "Tal, if it hadn't been for that disc, we'd be exactly like them. Hell, we're not even that different now."
"We aren't, not from Mark or Keja at least. We're all Orions."
"No we're not...not after what they did to us," Sabrin said, causing Tallas to suck in a sharp breath. "And now they're attacking other countries unprovoked, trying to start a war that'll get a lot of innocent people killed... They're the enemy."
He knew that. Of course he knew that but the hurt of Sabrin's words was still shocking, worming thorugh his gut. And at the same time, how the fuck had he missed the fact that Sabrin had cut away their whole past like it was cancer? It occurred to Tallas that even back on Forseti, Sabrin had been against contacting Mark.
"So Mark, what, he's the enemy too?" Tallas spat. With everything he's risked for us?
Sabrin said nothing at first and rage spiked red-hot behind Tallas's eyes. He was a heartbeat from exploding when Sabrin deflated and said, "No he's not. He couldn't be."
"Orion's part of you and me, Sabe. It's not as easy as calling 'em all monsters and being done it."
"Not gonna be as easy as changin' the subject when they start talking about what they've done either."
Tallas had an opportunity he never thought he'd have to reconnect with an old friend, apologize for wronging him and leave on better terms. He'd wanted one night of just that before they dredged up all the new ugliness that had sprouted in the interim, which he didn't think was too much to ask. "It's not like Camisard was Mark's idea."
"That doesn't make him not part of it."
This was the way things were going to be. Tallas filled in the other side of the equation. "Like how after this, we're gonna warn the Alyans and Polarians about their squadron." Who would then be ready for the Synochrion and its sister ships; Tallas couldn't stomach thinking farther than that. Conscience, however, allowed them no other choice.
"Has Lirelle said anything about it?"
"Not yet, but you know she'll figure it out. Are we gonna tell Mark?"
Sabrin's chuckle was more of a sob. "What fuckin' good would that do, huh? Fuckin' nothing, and we still have to do it. We owe him at least that fuckin' much for being our friend."
"Yeah, we're friends." Tallas took a trembling breath; for a moment he was consumed by hatred, razors threatening to tear him to shreds. He hated Croy for arranging the attacks, himself for proposing that they go after her, and the Orions for coming here to the Alyan fringe where they had no fucking business being.
Useless, all of it. "What do you wanna do, Sabe?"
Sabrin rubbed his eyes. "Fuck, what we have to, like always. We'll hash things out with Mark." His fingers left his eyes reddened. "If we don't do it now, then next time the situation might not be this...civil."
"Who knows if there'll even be a next time." And how could that possibly be what they were hoping for? Tallas uncurled his fingers; the tags had indented his palm.
In the morning, Lirelle delivered a workable solution for accessing her spy program on the Synochrion. It involved Sabrin accepting Croy's invitation to a casual dinner between their crews; the Zoroastria was in constant communication with the Synochrion and thus represented the least protected access point.
Ky baked two pies but insisted on staying behind with Dreamer. Sabrin privately decided was for the best; the temptation to use Ky to pry out Croy's secrets was still there but now it was tangled with the details of her life, her devotion to her crew -- abeit less than to her duty. The idea of all that being a lie, another of Croy's chameleon shifts that enabled her to blend in and manipulate, had also lost the comfort it'd once offered because it was too easy. The argument with Tallas dragged on Sabrin like a stone as they headed for the Zoroastria.
The Zoroastria's crew had set up a spread of Orion and non-Orion foods, nothing fancy except for Croy's stashed bottle of pre-Schism Altairan wine. The conversation flowed easier as the bottle dwindled, more on the part of Croy's people as Sabrin was watching his intake like a hawk and he assumed his crewmates were doing the same.
Over the course of the evening, the party naturally split into two groups. Sabrin and Tallas engaged Croy and Telio, while Lirelle had her own rapt audience of Fennic, Mike, and the assistant pilot Kieu -- now the sole pilot with her superior Doyle bedridden, waiting for a new right arm. Half-listening to their lively voices, Sabrin had to marvel at Lirelle's ability to socialize while simultaneously tapping into the Zoroastria's systems by remote. Chalk one up to Kinjori breeding.
At one point, Croy excused herself with an exasperated eye roll to take a call. Telio grinned and shook his head. "It's hard to imagine that we here could have underestimated the captain's importance, and yet such appears to be so."
"Did you all know Captain Croy was Orion?" Tallas asked.
"It...was a surprise." Telio lowered his voice, broad-boned face rueful. "I may have reacted poorly at first. But we've seen that she is, at the core, still the same woman we've known for so many years."
"Then you're okay with going to Orion space?"
"I don't know the future," Telio said. For the first time in the evening, his perennially jovial demeanor clouded. "What I know is a lifetime under the Guilds' thumb. The captain's always promised that we'd be free of them, one day. She still has my faith."
"You've got a bad history with the Guilds?"
Telio chuckled. "Who doesn't? You could ask the same of Mike, or Kieu, though I'd prefer you did not," Telio gave his younger crewmates a fatherly glance. "All the Guilds do is take, in one way or another. At last they've brought justice down on themselves."
"I don't know if a war's good for anyone," Sabrin said -- except some things were worth fighting for, or against. If the Alyans or Polarians had chosen on their own to mount a campaign against the Guilds, Sabrin might have cheered them on. Camisard -- Croy -- polluted it despite both ultimately coming to the same outcome.
Telio shrugged. "What will happen, will happen. I won't shed a tear for them."
"Us neither," Tallas said honestly.
Hobbled by their cover, Sabrin couldn't ask whether Telio knew he'd be trading one set of overlords for another, far stronger one. Nor how Telio's estimation would change with the knowledge that they were all expendable -- and were nearly expended -- to Croy for the sake of her mission. Instead, he sipped his wine and steered the conversation elsewhere.
When Croy returned, maybe it was Sabrin's imagination but he detected a note of strain in her smile. "Captain, can we talk in private for a moment?" she asked.
She didn't lead him far, just to the corridor outside the mess hall. Sabrin's hands were in his pockets, one on his comlink with the panic button pre-set, as he kept his expression blandly curious.
"The Hanzu convoy'll be leaving at oh-eight-hundred hours the day after tomorrow," Croy began; Sabrin discreetly released his breath and moved his finger off the button. "They'll want your decision about coming with us, as soon as possible."
"Oh, uh..." Sabrin didn't know why he was still putting off the lie. Was it worry that, when he said yes his face would twist into a sour shape and give him away? "Before I answer, can I ask you a question that's been eating at me?"
"Why are you workin' so hard to get us to accept your offer? Once the Hanzu showed up, you didn't need us anymore."
Croy considered for a few seconds. "I was undercover on Xiuhcoatl for a long time, and I saw so much...desperation and cruelty and decent people struggling, and I knew it was all gonna get so much worse. I was getting out, but I wanted to save the people close to me too. Of course, I didn't save anyone, it was you." Uncomfortable under her gaze, Sabrin looked down the corridor. "The point is that I see you, and your people, and I hate the idea of you being stuck in the fringe. You deserve a way out and that's something I can give."
"You want to save us."
She chuckled. "I suppose it sounds a bit self-important."
"Not if it's justified... Okay captain, I accept." Sabrin forced a smile, hoping it wasn't as brittle as what he felt inside. "We'll go with you." There, easy. They could return to the mess hall and toast each other all the way to the bottom of Croy's bottle.
It was the naked relief in Croy's answering expression that had Sabrin going to Lirelle's office once they were back on the Dream, asking about the call Croy had taken.
"It was from Iohannis, not the Hanzu," Lirelle said. Data stolen from the Synochrion spilled down the screen behind her. "That's all I can tell you. You say that Croy appeared agitated?"
"Yeah, definitely," Sabrin said. "I doubt the Hanzu would go through her to ask about us. I think it was Iohannis who wanted to know whether we were going to Orion."
"Quite possibly, but why would Croy lie?"
Second nature? Sabrin pondered the situation from Iohannis's perspective. The Dream wasn't the least bit a concern of hers, except for one angle -- the same reason the Zoroastria had a self-destruct. "My guess? She didn't want us to know that Iohannis was gonna destroy the Dream if we didn't side with the Imperials."
Lirelle's expression darkened. "How do you surmise that?"
"It's what I'd do, if I were on a top-secret mission and some civvie ship IDed me. Frankly I'm a little surprised she hasn't done it already; maybe she actually likes us." Sabrin imagined Croy's lie to have been for their sake and her own; she didn't want them to panic and get destroyed, but even more she didn't want them to panic and escape. If that was paranoia, or cynicism, then it was the least of the issues on his mind. "Lucky for us we were always gonna go with Croy."
"Hey guys, what happened last night? Everything okay?" Mark's looked mostly concerned, and a little upset that they had lost one of their all-too-few days together.
"Sorry, dinner with the Zoroastria's crew," Tallas said. "Couldn't get out of it 'cause, y'know, officially we're not doing anything."
"Lucky bastards. Iohannis's got all of us on double and triple shifts for the last week, gettin' the Synochrion back into fighting shape," Mark griped good-naturedly.
"Even with your... Hey, your hands are all better!" Tallas said, happy.
"Hell yeah." Mark held them up, the new skin slightly smoother and paler than the rest of him. "Zoroastria huh? With Commander Croy?"
"Yeah. You know her?" Sabrin asked.
"Not personally, but I'd love to buy her a drink sometime," Mark said, eyebrow lifting at the look that Sabrin and Tallas shared. "She hauled our collective asses out of a real bind," he explained with a bit of hesitation. "We weren't in great shape after our dance with the Alyan cruiser, probably couldn't have made it all the way back to Orion space. We needed a drydock on the down low and had fuck-all idea where to get one 'til Croy came through with the Hanzu. What, is she cold or something?"
"No, she's not..." Now would've been the time for Sabrin to bring up Camisard, and the Dream's part. "She...she's nice."
Tallas's look urged him on, but Sabrin noticed he wasn't stepping up himself either. "Mark, we're shipping out with Croy and the Hanzu tomorrow morning. Oh-eight-hundred."
Mark's face fell. "Guess tonight's gonna be it, huh? You guys set for how you're gonna get away?"
Sometimes, Mark's loyalty was humbling. Warmth and guilt mingled in Sabrin's chest. "Yeah, we've got a plan ready."
"So, uh...where's Dreamer tonight?"
"Forget it, he's out of your league, man." Tallas shoved him playfully.
"Fuck off! That's not what I meant!" Mark said with mock outrage as he shoved Tallas back, which turned into a rather flaily, pathetic microgravity wrestling bout. Sabrin made a valiant attempt to stay neutral, which predictably ended with both of them dogpiling on him.
Dreamer had agreed to stay behind because it was their conversation to have with Mark. Yet, neither of them could bring themselves to start until they were almost out of time. Finally, Tallas blurted out, "Mark, we gotta tell you something."
Sabrin's smile plummeted off his face. Mark blinked in confusion. "What?"
"Why'd you guys hit that Alyan outpost? What's your mission out here?"
"I...I'm not sure. Iohannis gets handed orders and we make it happen. It's mostly been search-and-destroy since we launched."
"But your last mission, when your squadron split up," Sabrin pushed. "Camisard--"
"Where did you hear that?" Mark blanched, looking younger with his freckles standing out.
"It involved the Guilds, and four targets. The Synochrion was in the Zauq System, the others--"
"Guys, I'm serious. Where the fuck did you hear that?!" Mark winced and reined in his volume. Sabrin caught a glimpse of hurt. "What's really going on?"
"We're working for the Alyans," Tallas said.
Mark closed his eyes in a visible effort to order his thoughts. "You guys told me you were freelancing," he said faintly.
"Our jobs come with Alyan Command. And we work with the Polarians too, sometimes."
"Mark, why are you out here?" Sabrin bore past the hunted, defensive look they were putting on Mark's face. "Did you know that Camisard's gonna set off a war between the Alyans and Polarians, and the Xiuhcoatl Guilds?"
Exhaling heavily, Mark said, "I'd figured we were starting some sort of war."
"You figured?" Sabrin didn't understand how Mark could be so blase about it.
"Why did Imperial Command order this?!"
"I don't know!" Mark shouted. "We weren't briefed on the ultimate objectives. But it's not out of line with Imperial long-term strategy, stirring up a war to tie down the opposition. Command probably had too much free time on its hands." Sabrin began to reply but Mark had already made the next deductive leap. "Croy's part of Camisard, right? That's what really brought you here, you followed her."
"She framed the Guilds for the attacks," Tallas said.
"'Guilds', as in plural? That's smart, they'll be more effective resistance if they have to band together," Mark muttered before addressing them again. "Except now, you know that it was really us, and you're gonna take that to your new bosses." His hand scrubbed across his cheeks and mouth, plowed through his hair leaving upright tufts. "Shit."
"Look, we're sorry." Tallas said, woefully inadequate; Mark didn't even seem to hear. "There's more. One of our crewmates put a spy program in the Synochrion computer while we were at Forseti."
"Oh, awesome." Mark's eyes were narrowed and distant. "I've got to take this to Iohannis."
Mark jerked at Sabrin's yell and fingers digging into his upper arm. "The hell...I'm not gonna fuckin' give you away! Fuck, Sabe, How can you even fuckin' think that?! I'll come up with something."
Sabrin managed to loosen his fingers through the fight-or-flight haze. "You can't go to Iohannis."
"Uh, yeah, I have to. Don't you two get it? Our mission OP's completely fucked! If we go back out there now--"
"But if the Imperials--" Sabrin cut himself short. The squadron would adjust its tactics, get back the advantage over the Alyans and Polarians. He saw Mark's gasp and knew he'd gotten it too.
"Oh, god..." Mark's muscles trembled under Sabrin's hand. "You...you want us to get jumped?"
"No!" Not Mark, never, but the cruisers... "It's just, Imperial Command has to stop." Whatever they were doing now on the Alyan fringe, whatever they did four years ago at Adhara, and everything in between. Tallas maneuvered next to him in an implicit show of support, despite his wrecked expression, and Sabrin took what solace he could.
"Mark, why don't you come with us this time?"
Mark worried his lower lip. "I can't. You know I can't."
"Why not?" Sabrin seized on the notion, talking over Mark's continuing no's. It'd been a mistake not to insist back at Forseti. "Fuckin' duty? Look at what's happenin' out here. Hell, look at what the Imperials did to us."
"I haven't forgotten," Mark's face pleaded for them to believe him. "But I can't just go..."
"Why? I'm sure we can get you out--"
"I'm sure too but it's not as easy for me as it was for you, okay?"
Sabrin was taken aback by the bitterness in Mark's tone. "What's that supposed to mean?" Tallas asked with a frown.
"You two didn't have a choice about goin', I know. But even if you had I still wonder..." Mark met their eyes, suddenly small and vulnerable. "Orion's my home, and yours too, once. Astral-Ishasa was a hole, yeah, but growin' up...it wasn't all bad was it? Me, Jayan, Rafi, Elise, did you miss any of us?"
It'd been easier not to when it wouldn't have helped them survive, those first few perilous weeks. After that, it was still easier to keep it locked away, remind himself that their dream was always to leave Astral-Ishasa and so the callousness of the Empire obviously made them lucky. Sabrin threw his arms around Mark, squeezing as his heart was squeezed by a vice. "If there'd been a choice back then, we would've stayed with the rest of you. A lot of that life was good, Mark. You gotta know how much of that was 'cause of you."
The press of Tallas's arms followed. "And you also gotta know we love you, right?"
"Yeah, okay--" Mark sniffed and cleared his throat, sounding rougher than usual "--okay, let's not let this lovefest get weird." Tallas promptly cuffed him on the back of the head. "Hey!"
"What? You didn't want it to get weird."
Sabrin had needed that laugh, the break from their reality which was always going to end lose-lose. "Mark, do what you have to do to take care of yourself, okay? That goes for all of you back in Orion."
"You two better do the same." Mark glanced at his watch. "Not much time left. Probably be a while before our next meet-up."
Tallas slipped his hand into Sabrin's. "Maybe we should just make it goodbye, huh? Face it, we can't keep pretending that we aren't on different sides, and since we're not--"
Green fire flashed in Mark's eyes. "You're wrong Tal. No matter what happens, I'll always be on your side," he said, and grinned so brilliantly that both Sabrin and Tallas would recall it for weeks after. "Now's no time to mope, boys. We'll see other again. Count on it."
Their scheduled early morning had Tallas wrapped around Sabrin in bed shortly after their somber return to the Dream. They moved against each other in the dark, fingers digging into sweat-slicked skin, haunted by both desperate hope for Mark's vow and desperate fear of the same. Such was Orion -- contradictory and difficult, impossible to box in, light and shadow and never easy.
Sabrin piloted the Dream into formation with the Hanzu convoy and the Zoroastria, hitched to the Hanzu transport. As the Synochrion dwindled on the viewscreen, he imagined the marble with its glowing line.
One jump left the turquoise swirls behind. Soon, they neared the potential for the second jump.
"What do you think will happen to Croy and her crew after we're gone?" Fennic asked.
"I doubt it'll be anything good." Dreamer said.
Xiuhcoatl, Camisard, and the promise of a better life. Sabrin formed the word sorry as he began jump preparations. He wondered what Mareva was up to; she might have given this one a virtual chuckle.
The Hanzu ships and the Zoroastria vanished in synchronized bursts of light. Despite every appearance that it would participate in the group jump, the Dream stayed where it was. Lirelle quickly deactivated the jump-abort program and the countdown began for jumping to a different destination. With the Dream's jump vane recharging much faster than those of the Hanzu, they were well on their way back to Alyan space by the time the Hanzu ships returned to investigate.
Mareva's signal came to Dreamer readily enough. A sea of data danced, coalesced in welcome, teased his name. He plunged right to the question of if she'd given the Zoroastria's location to bounty hunters.
Retribution, she answered, because Jonnie had gone to Xiuhcoatl for Croy. She had perceived that Dreamer desired retribution against Croy as well, had anticipated that he would welcome being witness to its delivery. Uncertain why she miscalculated. Yet, the signal threw up curious peaks, was the final outcome favorable?
There wasn't really any point in getting mad, not that he didn't. Dreamer hung up. "We gotta stop talkin' to her," he said to Lirelle, who'd been monitoring.
"Did she confirm our suspicions regarding the bounty hunters?"
"Yup. Thought she was doin' us a favor." Dreamer tilted his chair back onto two legs. "Y'know, I think I figured out something about cyphs. On their own, they ain't got a lot of initiative."
Lirelle nodded. "Seems reasonable. Their original programming would be reactionary, aimed at protecting the integrity of the networks."
"Mareva gets it from the people she talks to and runs crazy with it, and that's how you end up with a Sudree Ahns or a bounty hunter party." Excitement, energy -- she had been humming with it as she shared what she'd done with the information Dreamer had asked her to get, less an eagerly performing puppy than a hungry wolf.
"We would be well advised then to avoid making any further requests of her."
"I'll say. Blacklist, check," Dreamer's index finger traced the air. Hopefully, without them feeding her any more fun ideas, Mareva would just leave them alone like she did Rester after he got cold feet.
Lirelle stood and shut down her screens. "It's late. I believe I shall retire."
Dreamer said her name as she passed him, gazing up to catch her dark eyes. "When are we gonna have that conversation about the program you pulled off the Orion disc?"
Lirelle's face shuttered. "As you know, I have yet been unable to recompile it."
"Yeah, but by now you've got a pretty good idea why, don't ya?" Dreamer knew her talent. If the program was actually impossible to recompile, that rather narrowed down the options for what it could be.
"I wished to exclude all other possibilities before making such an inference."
Dreamer's mouth curved mildly. "It's part of an AI, right?"
Regarding him carefully, Lirelle said, "AIs are by no means my field of expertise." Dreamer would bet his last gram of antimatter though that she'd been reading her ass off. "That said, I would speculate it to be a core module."
The program code came instantly when summoned, laid out in perfect detail. Dreamer had never seen a core this way; like all key AI elements, the core module -- the nucleus of an AI's personality, the soul to the poetically inclined, which Dreamer wasn't -- operated on fundamentally different principles than ordinary computer programs. Decompiling it was akin to vivisecting a human being; the parts couldn't be put back together. And it made a mess.
"Dreamer, what purpose can be served by the decompilation of an AI?"
Had that been the plan for him, too, if he hadn't escaped from Astral-Ishasa? Dreamer sprang to his feet, jaw clenched. "There ain't one, as far as I know. Ya definitely wouldn't learn anything about AIs by doin' it. It's just...destruction."
"I'm sorry," Lirelle said.
"Breakin' news: Orions aren't nice," Dreamer said, smiling to show he did appreciate the sentiment. The Orions weren't irrational, either; they wouldn't have sent ships all the way to Adhara just to make a trophy of an AI core. "Thanks for all the work you've done on this."
"I'll remind you that at present, what I've said remains speculation."
Dreamer chuckled and prodded her down the corridor with a hand on her back. "Lirelle, trust me when I say that you don't use that word the same way most people do. But go ahead and make sure as much as you want to."
"The others will need to be informed," Lirelle said at the door to her quarters.
"It can wait." His internal sensors confirmed Sabrin to be still hunched over a mess hall table with a hand fisted in his hair, working on the reports that would go to Sufh and Kymbrae. One chair over, Tallas thumbed Sabrin's tags that now hung off his neck as he scrolled through pages of news, searching.
The jumpsuited hordes had descended in full force upon the Selene's Tear to ready her for war, which meant all the temporal logjams, red tape, and petty squabbling that a well-honed military machine could muster. Selene counted as a small mercy that at least Alex was in a better mood with the Recusor gone.
Selene's image met Preya after her very calm, forceful discussion with the yard techs about the new 'streamlined' protocols for the shield generator. She was pleased that Preya's expression cleared at her appearance. "Yes, Selene?"
"Captain, the hissy between the PDG and IDS teams on deck five's sorted, and the fuel supply officer's head has been successfully extracted from his ass. We're back on schedule for launch in two days."
Nodding, Preya headed for the bridge. "Very good. Was there much bloodshed?"
"My drones'll get it before it stains." Selene made a face. "Oh, Corporal Ueshgarh says all their equipment's accounted for. He and his squad are makin' sure everything works before they move it to the armory."
"Well, let's hope their assignment here will be brief. Is that all?"
"For now." Selene huffed, knowing how long that would hold. "Y'know captain, every time I go through this shit I wonder if anybody in HQ remembers that I'm s'posed to be a non-combat vessel."
"Perhaps once, but still?" Preya offered a wry glance. "Your war record is far longer than mine."
"Don't remind me." It was sad, how much of her long life that she'd spent playing scout, picket, skirmisher, or fire support, instead of doing the job she'd actually been designed for. Selene was meant for a bygone era, born at a time when those of her like were already sliding into history, and god, didn't that make her feel old?
Alex called her on a frequency reserved for personal communications. <YOU SHOULD KNOW YOUR BROTHER'S HERE>
Glad as she was to see him, there was also trepidation because she couldn't think of a reason Dreamer would be visiting Polaris now. With her long-range sensors down, Selene requested and received a patch into Alex's. Yup, that was him alright.
Alex and Dreamer were already talking, so Selene asked to be patched into that too. Dreamer's avatar waved at her, followed by a chorus of greetings from his crew. Selene's brow furrowed at the downcast air on the Dream's bridge. "Hi everyone. What brings y'all to the Arch today?"
"We're here to be debriefed," Sabrin said tonelessly. He in particular looked exhausted, like he'd missed a couple good nights' sleep and not for the fun reasons.
"And Tseandja, and the vice admirals," Dreamer said. With a quarter of the Blue Fleet assembled at the Arch, its seniormost officers were also aboard lending their presence. "And we just got done doin' the same thing for the Alyans. Our poor boy here's gonna have brass poisoning by the end of it." Dreamer gently shook Sabrin by the shoulder, more supportive than jesting.
<THE GAME'S CHANGED> Dreamer transmitted privately, followed by a stream of data flagged as privileged for her only. Processing the information was like plunging through ice into dark water.
<YOU BRING THE BEST PRESENTS / HOW'S YOUR CREW HOLDING UP?>
<HOW DO YOU EXPECT? / SABE AND TAL HAVE A FRIEND ON THE SYNOCHRION>
Selene pasted on a smile. "Sorry Sabe. Wish I could show you guys a proper Polarian good time after you escape but..."
"That's okay, sis. I know my way around the Arch."
"I'll meet you at the dock," Alex said. "I'm looking forward to seeing all of you again, or for the first time."
The next morning, Preya opened a message from Headquarters that turned her face and body to stone. <PREYA'S BEEN BRIEFED ON ORION INVOLVEMENT / LOWER RANKS ARE NOT AWARE> Selene sent to Dreamer.
<HQ IS GOING TO TRY KEEPING THIS UNDER WRAPS? / DON'T KNOW HOW GOOD AN IDEA THAT IS>
<NO OTHER CHOICE / WE CAN'T GO TO WAR WITH THE ORIONS> That was the edict from on high, the reasoning behind it as logical as it was galling for Preya to say and Selene to hear. If the public knew that the Orions were behind the attacks, there would be a mandate for retaliation against the Empire.
<FUCK YEAH WE CAN>
Selene didn't believe Dreamer's bravado; they'd both been on the losing side of a war before, during the Schism. As spotty as intel on the Orions was, one thing was sure -- the PAN would be vastly outnumbered. <YOU SAW THE PROJECTIONS THREE YEARS AGO / THEY'RE WORSE NOW / NO WAY WE CAN WIN>
<SO WHAT'LL THE FLEET BE DOING OUT THERE? / NOT THAT THE GUILDS DON'T DESERVE A SMACKDOWN BUT THIS TIME THEY'RE INNOCENT>
Innocent or not, they would be struck because someone needed to be as payback for Camisard. <REVISED DIRECTIVES ARE TO KEEP CONTROL OF THE SITUATION AND LIMIT HOSTILE ACTIONS> Typical HQ-speak that wouldn't take a day to go to hell once they were in the field. A limited, 'clean' war was oxymoronic. <FORCE A QUICK SETTLEMENT FROM THE GUILDS>
<AND THE ORION CRUISERS?>
Their battle plans were being redrawn to keep their ships concentrated as much as possible, reduce their overall vulnerability to hit-and-runs. Maybe lives would be spared; had anyone thanked the Dream's crew for their service? <THANKS TO YOU THEY WON'T CATCH US OFF-GUARD / WE'LL GIVE THEM A FIGHT IF THEY COME LOOKING>
<SOUNDS LIKE HQ'S COVERED EVERY BASE THEN>
Selene knew Dreamer's worry and returned it. No matter that the Dream wasn't being deployed; he'd be out there sooner or later, for whatever awfully compelling reason that always seemed to pop up where her brother was concerned. <WE'LL WATCH OUR BACKS / YOU BETTER DO THE SAME OR I'LL MAKE YOU MISS THE ORIONS>
<COPY THAT SIS>
At their distance, the Polarian warships were gray slivers with blue pinpricks for engines. Several dozen were near the potential, and as Sabrin watched another one, a two-engined destroyer, separated from the Arch and headed for them.
He rubbed his temple; a full day since the debriefing and he was still drained. Director Kymbrae's doll smile had been the only one in the room. Once the grilling began, he'd quickly recognized that many of the high-ranking Polarians there wanted him to be lying, or plain wrong. The Alyans had been much the same way, and then too it had taken most of the day for them to be convinced of the ugly truth.
Light-years away, Jonah Rester was being laid to rest on the world of his birth. Sabrin thought it a strange custom of the Alyans, leaving dead bodies in the ground. They did it even when there was no body, buried an empty box. Sabrin had declined to attend the service; such ceremonies were for the benefit of the living, and he'd said he hadn't known Rester enough to need it.
On the table, the remnants of their take-out dinner cooled. Genuine Polarian and filling, if a bit bland.
"Why do you suppose the Orions sent a diplomatic mission to the NSC at the same time they planned Camisard?" Ky asked quietly, mirroring Sabrin's gazing out the mess hall window. With the bombing, the Recusor had cut its mission short after just one stop.
"Mark thought it might've just been bad communication between factions in the government. Left hand not knowing what the right's doing and so on."
"I see. Is that what you believe as well?"
"I've got no idea." Imperial politics were Mark's thing, not his. To him the leadership of the Empire was a monolith, inscrutable and overwhelming from their distant bastion on Juna.
"It's interesting to think of what may have resulted, had the Recusor's mission succeeded."
Impossible to think of, more like. "You think the bombing was connected to Camisard?"
"Look hard enough and you can see patterns anywhere." Ky shrugged. "All in your mind, obviously. Apophenia."
"Didn't know there was a word for it."
"The Onyx Hand is full of eccentrics, so one learns eccentric things in their company." Ky leaned closer. "It must've been difficult Sabrin, to see your friend on that cruiser."
"Yeah, I guess." But he was glad he did. Sabrin didn't really want to talk about it.
"Were we to remain here, it's not impossible that we may have to fight the Synochrion."
"What're you gettin' at?"
"Given the current state of affairs, have you considered moving on from this region of space?"
Sabrin gave Ky a sharp look; Ky's voice had been neutral, and so was his current expression. "You want us to run?"
"We are quite adept at it," Ky reminded him with a wry tilt of his mouth. "I wasn't advocating any course of action, however. I only wish to point out that we can avoid putting ourselves in the position of actively opposing your former comrades...should you want to."
The option hadn't crossed Sabrin's mind this time. He glanced at Fennic and Lirelle laughing at something Alex's young male avatar said. Dreamer would point out the Selene's Tear in the window if he asked. "Dreamer's got ties here, and Sufh's been good to us so far. I'm not ready to give that up yet."
Ky nodded, smiling.
"Everyone," Alex announced, "there's a broadcast from PAN Headquarters. It's Admiral Tseandja."
"Here we go," Tallas mumbled as they all turned to the live feed on the big screen. Sabrin remembered the black-haired man at the head of the table during the debriefing. Not as old as he'd expected the Commander-in-Chief of the Blue Fleet to be, more solemn than openly hostile or skeptical like some of his subordinates. He spoke now with a steel-edged gravity that belied his willowy stature.
"To the officers and crew of the Blue Fleet, and all the citizens of the Polarian Alliance: on this day we move into the lawless space beyond our borders, to find and defeat those responsible for the unprovoked attacks of twelve days ago. These cowardly attacks, which resulted in three hundred and eighty-seven deaths including thirty-six Polarians, were only the latest in an escalating pattern of aggression against our nation and our allies.
"The depredation of our trade, the destruction of our ships, the abductions of our people...for too long we have treated these incidents as the actions of mere criminals. We have hesitated to commit to what we knew in our hearts must be done. The pirates and their Guild masters are well-armed, organized, and numerous. They have been waging a war against us for years, and we have been paying the price for not acknowledging this truth.
"Today, our forbearance ends. Today we go to seek justice for all the loved ones we have lost, to ensure that there will never be another Camisard. We will finish this war that the Guilds began. I expect each of you to conduct yourselves with the honor and professionalism that defines the Polarian Alliance Navy. Look out for one another, and we shall prevail. Swift journeys."
The first batch of slivers flared white and winked out. Another group followed, and another.