Disclaimer: This story contains violence, implied sexual activities, and bad language. All characters and situations herein are fictional, and any similarity to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright Devon Keene: irrelevantrevelry@hotmail.com
the Enigma of Flatness
WormwoodPart XXXII
Tiburon was a planet of wild mood swings. This week was 'hellish sauna', and even the five-minute jaunt between the chemistry and materials engineering buildings left the back of Ichiro's shirt soaked. One took jobs where they could be found though, these days. Moisture clogged his lungs as he huffed his way to his lab on the second floor.

He unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, and almost had a heart attack at the man in his office. "God...damnit, Dreamer!"

"Hey bud." Dreamer gave a petite two-fingered wave. "Been a while, huh?"

Ichiro checked that no one was eavesdropping, then closed the door. "Were you just waiting here in the dark for me to come in?"

Dreamer looked offended. "Please. I knew when you were coming."

Rolling his eyes, Ichiro side-stepped him and dropped his briefcase on his desk. Dreamer's arsenal of sensors would register the tension beneath his nonchalance, but appearances counted. "Alright, out with it. I have lecture in an hour."

"What the fuck, Shase?" Dreamer glared at him narrowly. "It's been months. You're not that busy."

"I could be," Ichiro retorted. His skills were in demand.

"Whatever, I'm here now." Dreamer snapped his fingers twice. "What have you got for me?"

Months ago he'd received a package. Inside was a chunk of starship collected at Adhara, blackened and warped by exposure to intense heat. Dreamer's presents had stopped coming four years ago when he resigned from the navy, but then he came back and apparently it was like he'd never left. Ichiro's shoulders sagged, a long breath leaving as he dropped into his chair. Dreamer crossed his arms.

"Is this place bugged?" Ichiro asked quietly.

"No. Did they need to, or did they convince you?"

"Director Kymbrae called me herself," Ichiro said flatly, resenting Dreamer's implication. "Why do you even need to be involved in this? This has nothing to do with Penelope, let the SIB handle it."

"What does the SIB care what you tell me?" Dreamer pointed at him in realization. "Shit, the ship the Orions destroyed at Adhara was Polarian. And it had an AI. Who was it?"

Always too damned clever for his own good. "Pretty sure it wasn't a friend of yours." Ichiro opened his hands, making a last-ditch effort because they'd helped each other for decades and Dreamer was the reason he was alive. "Just let it go."

Dreamer's eyes went as hard as diamoid. "The Orions are hunting Polarian AIs and taking 'em apart. They came this close to getting me too—" he held his fingers a hair's breadth apart, "—and I wanna know why."

Ichiro's shirt clung unpleasantly to his skin. "And if I still say no?"

Dreamer chuckled. "I'd be really disappointed. I thought we were buddies, Ichiro."

"Yeah, the kind where you only show up when you want something. You're a bum."

"Hey, I offered to pay."

He offered every time; as if it were about that. Massaging the bridge of his nose, Ichiro thought about Kymbrae. She'd actually presented a rational argument rather than threaten legal consequences. "The ship was the Fallacy of Paradise."

"Lacey?" Dreamer frowned. "She was destroyed at Shanakdakhete in 'fifty-nine."

"Not exactly. The ship was crippled and the crew bailed, but the AI survived. The Berenicians returned her after the war. I guess the SIB saw a chance to turn her into a deep-cover agent for them, so they re-purposed the hull as a merchant cruiser and 'sold' her off under a new name."

"Right. A secret AI-equipped warship out past the border would be a pretty huge asset," Dreamer agreed.

"You get now why the SIB doesn't want you poking around in this?"

"Aw shit, the Orions knew about Lacey. They've got a source inside the SIB."

"Which is why you need to leave it alone. They're handling it."

"Okay okay, god," Dreamer said, which was probably a lie but Ichiro had done his part. Kymbrae had only asked him to stall, acknowledging that Dreamer would likely ferret out the truth eventually and only wanting to control the flow of information and limit any resulting collateral mess.

"Don't tell anybody either!" Ichiro said in his stern teacher voice.

Dreamer rolled his eyes dramatically to the heavens, suddenly less centenarian force of nature and more sullen teenager. "I ain't an idiot. Y'know, you could've just messaged me this instead of making me come all the way here."

"That might be intercepted."

"Yeah sure, Professor Cloak 'n' Dagger." Smirking, Dreamer clapped him on the shoulder; Ichiro struggled to remember why they were friends. "Tell you what, I'll buy you dinner before I go. Bring the new new wife and kids."

"Sir, there's nothing we can do." Sabrin waved the pad helplessly. The rest of the consignment had already been transferred, and he itched to be under way. "We left port with a hundred-fifty-six pallets for six ships, twenty-six per ship and that's it."

"I can do math son." The Alyan captain, a squat bark-skinned gentleman who obviously thought little of Sabrin's age or non-Alyan accent, looked down his nose at him despite being shorter. "Look, have you been fully briefed on just how many bits and bobs in the Alyan Navy run on LTECs?"

Sabrin could make a very good guess, since power cells were power cells no matter which military letters were involved. The captain counted off on his fingers for him anyway. "Tablets, comns, scanners, drones...the tech that keeps us functioning as an armed unit. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a supply enough to keep up a real combat tempo."

"We don't get to decide what goes to each ship—"

"How about this: I'd wager you haven't been to the Cantrifar yet? I know for personal fact that she'll be rotating to a low-intensity zone at the end of this standard week, which means she can spare four pallets, easy. You can tell Ramirez that I—"

"Sir, it's not gonna happen, sorry."

Twenty minutes later, Sabrin plopped behind the port bridge console with an aggravated sigh, the Alyan warship a dwindling signature on the Dream's sensors. "Why do they all think I'm some kind of fuckin' genie who can just magically change the numbers in our orders?"

Dreamer's image popped up. "Lotta times it's worth it to push, in case the contractor's skimmed a bit off the top."

"Not us," Sabrin grumbled, personally offended. "They need to figure that out."

"I'm setting course for the next rendezvous," Tallas cut in with a smile in his voice.

Leaning his cheek on his fist, Sabrin checked for new messages, hoping for one from Command saying that the rest of their assignment was canceled along with the war. The deep gray band on his right hand caught his eye and buoyed his spirits; there may never come a day it didn't. "Hey, there's a message from Dr. Silvestra."

"From Windfall?" Ky asked.

"Adelaine Habitat," Sabrin confirmed. "It's for Dreamer."

"It's about Fennic actually," Dreamer said, lines appearing on his forehead. "He's on his way up."

Fennic soon arrived, accompanied by Lirelle; Dreamer shifted his image to a new viewscreen window so they could all see him. Silvestra's throaty voice began: "Dreamer, I hope you're well. I've learned something important regarding your friend Fennic's...condition. I'd like to see him as soon as possible."

"That's it?" Sabrin asked.

"That's it. Rynn ain't the emotionally exuberant type, so I dunno how serious this is."

"She said she needed to see me," Fennic said anxiously. His fingers floated up over his temple; he'd taken to styling his light hair to hide the peculiar mark. "What if she's found something wrong with me..."

"I doubt it. If it were a true emergency, she would've said so," Lirelle reassured him, rubbing his arm.

"Besides, it's been months and that thing hasn't acted up yet," Tallas added.

Or done anything at all. Ninety-nine percent of the time Sabrin forgot Fennic even had the mod. "Okay, well, our schedule's pretty jam-packed right now," he said regretfully. "I don't know when we'll have a chance to go to Windfall."

"You guys don't have to take the ship. I can just go to Windfall myself," Fennic said.

"No," Dreamer replied promptly. Sabrin leaned that way too: dispatching Dreamer's avatar solo was one thing, but Fennic was...vulnerable. The kid wasn't a killer. Probably not the healthiest metric to go by but such was reality.

Fennic, though, set his jaw stubbornly. "Please. What if it is really serious? I don't want to have that hanging over my head for however long we'll be busy..."

"Weeks, most likely," Dreamer admitted. "The chatter in the fleets—"

"Gossip," Tallas corrected.

"—is that the big push to Xiuhcoatl's right 'round the corner. I mean, the logistics we've been handling for the last month pretty much can't be for anything else. Once it starts it'll be all hands on deck for everybody."

Tallas swiveled his chair around, his hands on his knees. "I can go with Fennic."

"Wait, what?" Sabrin demanded.

"Look guys," Tallas said sensibly, with broad gestures, "we all agree that Fennic shouldn't go by himself but the Dream has to stay sharp in case Xiuhcoatl blows up. Sabe's the captain, Lirelle's a genius, and Ky doesn't need to sleep." He indicated each one of them in turn. "If and when hell breaks loose out here, you three should be on the Dream, which leaves me. I can watch Fennic's back."

The others looked torn. "Are you certain?" Lirelle asked.

"Hmm...Windfall versus Guild space..." Tallas mimed a balance scale. "Tough one."

"I'm gonna have my avatar head over there too." Dreamer's tone brooked no argument. "Tiburon's actually fewer jumps to Windfall than to where we are now. It'll be good to catch up with Rynn, we haven't talked in a while."

Fennic smiled, at Tallas first. "Thanks, I really appreciate this."

"Hey, far as I can tell, I'm going on vacation."

Sabrin caught Tallas by the ladder as he left the bridge to pack. He spoke in low tones, grasping Tallas's forearm. "What you said back there, it's sound reasoning. I still wouldn't have sent you." He didn't care that it wasn't a very captainly sentiment.

"Good thing I volunteered," Tallas joked, with an undercurrent of wariness. "Are we about to have an argument?"

"No." He'd been down that dead-end road before. Ring or no ring, Sabrin wasn't going to be one of those people who tried to lock up those they loved in a vault, as tempting as the idea was at times. None of them could or would live like that. "Fennic's always had our backs before, he deserves to have our support on this. And I know you can take care of yourself. Just be careful."

"You too," Tallas said with a wink. "How's about a quickie before I go?"

There was in fact time for considerably more than that.

The sight of Adelaine Habitat through the starliner window sent the butterflies in Fennic's stomach into overdrive. The last time he was there he'd still been raw and dazed and new, volleying between euphoric highs and crushing lows, half-expecting with every blink to find himself back in the waking nightmare of Kion'Seg.

Fennic was different now. Better and with friends he could count on.

Speaking of friends, Tallas had dozed almost the entire trip, from the ride they'd hitched on a passing courier, to the spaceport, to the present starliner. Even after a jump, he'd open his eyes, adjust his lax posture, and be out again within a minute. Fennic only wished he were able to conduct his own body with the same languid ease.

Of course, Fennic could also wish for Tallas's looks, or muscles, or hot guy willing to have sex with him. Ever since the beach, he'd been feeling...antsy, and this latest stint right next to Tallas's recently engaged everything hadn't helped. Unfortunately, he didn't really know what would, given his circumstances, and the thought of asking about it was mortifying.

"We there yet?" Tallas croaked, cracking open his eyes and stretching.

"Almost." Fennic shoved the embarrassing mess in his brain to a corner. "Thanks for coming with me Tal."

"Eh, it's no big deal," Tallas said around a toothy yawn. "You need to know what Silvestra found out, I get that."

Adelaine was every bit as fantastic as he remembered: impossibly thin pillars of stone rising from the core below, gravity-defying cascades of living green, pathways threaded through metal islands in the sky. It was also a total nightmare to navigate, despite the map with built-in guide he'd downloaded at the spaceport. He figured that Tallas would've wanted to take over after their third wrong turn, but Tallas kept on trailing him seemingly without a care.

At last they came upon the convex blue facade of Adelaine Central Hospital, a moment of vivid recollection for Fennic. However, the young man at the front desk—Barry, according to the badge on his chest—reacted apologetically when they asked to see Dr. Silvestra.

"I'm sorry, she isn't in this week. May I take a message for you?"

Week? Why would she have sent the message if she knew she was going to be away? Did she not expect them to respond right away? "Um, do you know how else we can contact her? This is really important."

"I'm afraid we're not allowed to give out personal contact information."

Deflating, Fennic glanced at Tallas, who looked vaguely troubled. "What are we supposed to do now? We can't stay here a whole week."

"Wait..." Barry peered at them. "Are either of you Fennic?"

"Yes! That's me."

"Oh, Dr. Silvestra did leave a message for you in case you showed up here." Pulling open a drawer, Barry rifled until he produced a folded-up note. "Here you go."

Fennic thanked him, after which Tallas moved them casually but directly to one corner of the spacious lobby. He was making Fennic a little nervous, yet he said nothing as Fennic accessed the message.

"Fennic, there are important matters I need to discuss with you in confidence. We can meet any time at my home. The address is included." Fennic plugged it into his map and found it was not too far away. They walked out of the hospital, but then Tallas stopped, staring into the distance with his hands in his back pockets.

The sunlight on Tallas's face didn't suit his expression. "Tal?" Fennic prompted.

"This whole thing's suspicious as shit. Why didn't Silvestra answer our call before if she's just in her house?"

Fennic hadn't wanted to verbalize it. Dr. Silvestra had been so kind to him. "Maybe we should call her again."

"We could," Tallas said unenthusiastically, blowing out a long gust of air. He gave Fennic a significant once-over.

"What?" Fennic asked.

"The safe option would be to go back to the spaceport and grab the next flight out," Tallas murmured. "Problem is, I'm not gonna do that, so I'm thinking on whether I could force you to do it."

Fennic didn't have to think. "No way!"

"Yeah, that's what I figured, and making noise right now would be a bad idea if shit really is going down." Tallas resumed...scanning the distance. Fennic noticed nothing out of the ordinary himself, just people going about their normal business in an extraordinary place. "Her voice, her mail account, and now her house... C'mon, I need to get you out of sight."

Fennic scrambled to keep up with Tallas's long strides, the fear he'd been putting off finally clamping around his spine.

After waiting for 'night' to fall at Silvestra's address, Tallas made his way there alone. That had been a real fight, but reason and his stubbornness won out, since no fucking way he was letting Fennic walk into what was almost definitely a trap set specifically for him.

Tallas, on the other hand, was nobody, which gave him the advantage. Assuming he didn't get the cops called on him as he prowled past the artsy single-family homes and private cars in his holey jeans and battered canvas jacket. The neighborhood was severely upscale, located on a series of terraced platforms at the uppermost level of the station. Being a doctor apparently had its perks.

The first-floor lights were on at Silvestra's house. Tallas staked out the front windows until the hour grew late, hiding in the bushes like a pervert, and saw no movement behind the heavy drapes. What if he just went up and rang the doorbell with some excuse? He could be charming and get a much better read on whatever the hell was going on.

No, that kind of game wasn't in him. Instead Tallas circled to the other side of the platform. The houses' backyards all ended at a continuous strip of trees and underbrush, probably meant to hide the supports for the next higher platform. Perfect.

From the back, Silvestra's house was dark and still save for a rectangle of wan light close to the ground. Eyes and ears on hair-trigger alert, Tallas crept slowly along the privacy fence. He dropped to his belly to close in on the window; luckily, the curtain here was gauzy and with his nose to the glass he could see inside.

Dr. Silvestra was being held prisoner in her own basement. She sat slumped on the floor, left wrist cuffed to a pipe. An unfamiliar woman, holding a pistol across her lap, guarded her from a nearby folding chair. As Tallas watched, a man, similarly armed, came down the stairs and handed his partner a mug. They were dressed for a friendly dinner party; it was almost funny.

The dark red stains on Silvestra's face and blouse made Tallas's decision for him.

Some minutes later, a window in the house next door was shattered by a needler shot. As the alarm screamed, Tallas climbed down from the roof and through the second-floor window he'd found unlocked, and already opened in preparation. Both of Silvestra's captors went to the living room to check on the commotion, giving Tallas the chance to slip into the basement.

Silvestra's head jerked up, bloodshot eyes rounding in shock, when he hissed her name. "Hey, it's Tal. Remember me?"

"Dreamer's crewman," Silvester whispered hoarsely between wheezing breaths. "Is he here?"

"Sorry, it's just me." Tallas lamented that fact too. He crouched down and tugged at the cuffs. "We gotta get these off."

"Do you have a gun?"

"Yeah, but..." Breaking the chain with needle shots would be dicey and the opposite of quiet; he looked around for tools.

"Give it to me," Silvestra said, extending her free hand. Tallas stared at it and her, dumbfounded. "They won't expect it coming from me."

"What? No, bad idea, we need to get you out—"

"No, no you don't have time." Silvestra scrabbled weakly at the flaps of his jacket, under which his compact needler was holstered. Tallas's hand swallowed hers, cradling the fragile bones. "They'll be back any second—"

"I don't think—"

Silvestra's matronly face contorted into an incongruous snarl. "I know how to use one of these, give me—"

How did she have this much strength left? "Doctor—"

"You!" The sharp word from behind froze Tallas in place. He let Silvestra go and raised his hands, bending subtly forward at the same time. He was between Silvestra and the door, his torso obscuring hers; she understood and reached inside his jacket.

"Who are you?" The woman demanded.

"Hey," Tallas said, shaky and drawn-out. Slowly, he stood up and turned, edging sideways. "I, uh, I'm just a neighbor. I haven't seen Dr. Silvestra around for a couple days so I just thought I'd come by and check on her."

"I think not. You sound Orion," the woman said, surprising him.

"What? An Orion can't live at Windfall?" Tallas tried for a smile, stepping away from Silvestra some more. The guns pointed at him were a lot meaner than his.

Both their expressions had darkened. "You're one of Holden's."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Tallas said with genuine confusion. He kept retreating; if they wanted to keep him square in their sights, soon their backs would be to Silvestra.

"We should get rid of him now," the man said. Tallas was not a fan of his.

"If he's here, he knows something," the woman countered.

"No I don't! I really, really don't," Tallas babbled. "Ask anybody. Hell, I got like a C in fuckin' intro history—"

Needlers were far more understated than plasma pistols. Just small puffs followed right after by impacts, like a pillow being punched, as the hollow-point metal flechettes drove into the soft flesh of Silvestra's captors.

Tallas's lungs released in a whoosh as the man and woman dropped. "Nice shooting, doc."

"It's Rynn. The key's on his belt."

Tallas collected it, along with their weapons. "How bad is it?" he asked as he unlocked the cuffs, bracing her as she crumpled forward. She was light, practically bird-like, and her breaths rattled wetly in the way that Tallas recognized came from her ribs. The bastards died too easily, with the way they'd treated her.

"It's worse than it looks, except for my leg unfortunately," Rynn said. "I wasn't cooperative enough."

"Motherfuckers," Tallas swore. "Are there more than two of 'em?"

"I've heard them talking to others on the comn."

"Okay, we need to not be here—" Suddenly, there was a pinch in his thigh. "Ow, the fuck?"

In a split-second, Tallas registered the dart and then the cylinder clutched by the fallen man. After yanking it out, he stormed over, kicked the thing out of his hands, and stomped on his face for good measure. Only then did he examine it out: a finger-length silver tube the width of a cocktail straw, with four differently spaced and colored bands near the fletching. "The fuck is this?"

"Give me." A quick examination and Rynn told him, "This is a radioisotope tracker. I've seen these used in animal behavior studies in undergrad. The isotopes, they disperse in the body so the animal can't scrape it out, and decay after a couple months so you don't have to worry about retrieval."

Damn it, he hadn't double-checked that the hostiles were fully secured. Tallas did so now, planting a needle in each one of their skulls, grimacing at the wet crunches. "Great. Just call me fuckin' Bambi," he complained, jittery with adrenaline.

"You have the eyes for it."

"Watch it doc, I'm engaged now." With Rynn's arm over his shoulder, Tallas stood them both up. "What's the range?"

"Depends on the formula." Rynn groaned in pain; Tallas winced and adjusted his grip, but they did have to go. "Maybe ten, fifteen kilometers? Its effectiveness drops off with distance."

"That still covers most of the station. Shit."

"Well it's not like a transmitter," Rynn said faintly as she hobbled along. "Unless they have a distributed sensor array set up, they'll be picking up the signal pretty spottily."

Some vacation. "I'll take it."

They weren't even to the stairs before Rynn cried out and her remaining leg folded. Tallas kicked himself, realizing that she must be more badly hurt than she'd admitted. "Okay, that's it. Hold on." He lifted Rynn bodily, ignoring her complaints, then hurried.

Fennic had only agreed to wait as far away as the tram stop while Tallas jogged off to investigate Dr. Silvestra's house. Not many people passed through, and it became awkward loitering there alone as the hours dragged on. At one point he saw a police car with sirens on in the distance and his heart rate quickened, but his comn stayed silent.

A silver car landed nearby, the tinted driver's side window descending. Fennic stepped into the open when he saw it was Tallas. "Hey. Get in the back."

Fennic hustled to obey; Tallas lifted off again before he'd even shut the door. Finding Dr. Silvestra beside him, he suppressed a gasp at her condition.

"Hello Fennic," Dr. Silvestra whispered, smiling slightly. "How have you been?"

"I should be asking you that," Fennic said, strangled.

"Oh, I've been better." Remorse filled Dr. Silvestra's face. "I'm so sorry. I'm afraid I've acted unwisely."

"I can't believe that."

"It's that damned mod," Dr. Silvestra said ruefully, pointing at his head with a trembling finger. "I didn't realize at first. The more I looked into it, the more fascinating it became. The level of sophistication, surgical precision, it's astonishing, sublime. To think someone out there created that..."

"Do you know what it is?" Fennic asked breathlessly, simultaneously appalled by his selfishness.

"I am certain that it's the reason you can't remember."

Fennic stilled, feeling the blood pumping in his temple, unnaturally hot. "Remember?"

"Your past. The memory engrams are there, in your brain, and so is the mod. They're interlaced."

The 'doctor' on Kion'Seg had talked the same way. Like he was precious, but it made him feel like a monster. Fennic drew back, ice spreading over his skin. "Why? Why me?"

"Why indeed?" Dr. Silvestra's eyes were haunted. "A work of such extraordinary genius should have an extraordinary purpose shouldn't it? I had to know more. I broke my promise."

"What promise?"

"Not to share. I sent the scans I took to some colleagues of mine. I left out personal details, of course, but it must have still been enough..." She shook her head helplessly, tears escaping. "It's my fault they're here, and you're here. I'm so, so sorry."

"It's okay," Fennic said in a hurry, chest aching. "I wanted to know more too."

"It's not your fault the universe's full of assholes, Rynn," Tallas added. "And they haven't won yet."

"Who are they?" Fennic asked.

"Don't know," Tallas answered. "Maybe the guys who took out the lab on Kion'Seg? It's only two jumps away. A bigger guild?"

The hole in Fennic's stomach yawned bigger. "What do we do now?"

Tallas cut him a quick glance. "Keep leading 'em around 'til Dreamer gets here?" A couple days away. "I'm not too proud to hide behind him—" Tallas was cut off by a spate of painful coughs from Dr. Silvestra.

"Tal, she's bleeding from her mouth," Fennic's voice hit a panicked pitch. "I think we have to take her to the hospital."

"Damn," Dr. Silvestra gasped. "May be...worse than it looks. My professional opinion."

"Shit." Tallas thumped the dashboard. "Fennic, I fucked up a bit back at the house. I got tagged." He explained about the tracker in a rush. "The hospital's too obvious. If they detect me heading in that direction they'll be waiting. I'm gonna get out and draw 'em off while you take her there."

"I...I can't." Fennic broke out in a sweat. "I've never driven—"

"There's nothing to it. These civvie cars basically drive themselves." Tallas opened the navigator interface; Fennic watched his motions, burning them into memory. "See, I'm putting in the destination, just initiate it once I'm out." He went over some more basic controls as he took the car down to a nearby park.

"Wait, what about you?"

"I'll be fine. I've done this before," Tallas said, artificially light. "When you get there, don't stick around and don't tell anybody your name. Rynn said she didn't keep any records of what you look like." The car touched ground and Tallas swung outside.

Fennic followed suit, weathering an intense feeling of exposure. "I'll come pick you up once I'm done," he promised.

"No!" Tallas snapped. "Didn't I literally say a second ago that they can track me? After you're done, ditch the car and lay low 'til Dreamer gets here. Someplace with a lot of people, and wherever you stay always figure out more than one way you can leave. Oh, and if you can get to a comn terminal, update the Dream on what's happening. You got your beacon?"

"Yes." Fennic patted his pants pocket. Dreamer and Lirelle had finally managed to duplicate the transponder Mark gave them; it wasn't as compact or pretty as the original, but it did the job. "So do you. I'll come to you."

With an aggravated huff, Tallas grabbed his shoulder and shoved him at the driver's side door. "This isn't a fuckin' game! Right now I'm a liability if I'm near you and an asset if I'm far away from you. You need to start thinking tactically if you wanna survive."

"I can't let you handle this all by yourself."

"We don't have time for this. Get going!" Tallas jabbed a finger at the car and sprinted off, disappearing amongst the shadows.

Fennic almost called his name before remembering why that would be a mistake. Folding into the driver's seat, he slammed the door and squeezed his eyes shut, gulping mouthfuls of air.

"Do you think it'd be better to stay together?" Dr. Silvestra's voice jolted him.

The navigator lay open, expectant. Fennic flicked at it and the car lifted off smoothly. "I don't know. I never know," he griped. How could he, with so few facts about their situation to work from? "But the only reason Tal's here is 'cause of me. He's going off alone and he isn't alone, so why should he have to?"

"Well, then go after him."

"I can't. Tal said—"

"So what? The added risk is to you, Fennic." Dr. Silvestra wheezed. "You get to decide how much of that you're willing to take."

"I can't just ignore Tal." And if he did, who would he be doing it for? "What if I end up making things worse? Isn't it more likely that he's right? Everybody on the Dream's lived so much and I'm just..."

"A kid?" Dr. Silvestra's voice amazingly hinted at amusement, despite her injuries. "Take it from someone with wrinkles, you're all kids, except for Dreamer, and even he makes mistakes. The first time he and I met, he almost got us killed...and so did I, to be fair. The fact is, you'll be wrong sometimes, and since you live a dangerous life you may be terribly wrong. What you shouldn't do is let the fear of that keep you from doing your best. Tal may be brave and tough, but he doesn't want to face this alone either, trust me."

"Alright, that makes sense." Fennic pulled out the beacon. At the press of a button, a floating holographic arrow pointed the way to Tallas, steady and true. "Thank you," he said, replacing it in his pocket.

"Circumstances aside, I am happy to see you again."

"So am I." Fennic meant it. "I should've said before, I'm really grateful to you for taking care of me after Kion'Seg. Especially with the way I was acting back then."

Dr. Silvestra tittered. "Oh please, that was nothing. I could tell you stories."

She proceeded to do so, making Fennic laugh in horror despite himself, right up until the car landed in the hospital emergency zone. He had to glance at her in astonished appreciation before he dashed in and summoned help. "Find Tal, and good luck," she whispered, hand clasped in his, before her gurney was pulled away.

One of the hospital staff approached. "Sir, we'll need to get some information from you."

Fennic blinked, licking his lips. "Oh, okay, um...let me move my car first."

He left Dr. Silvestra's car by the nearby tram stop, though he regretted it when the tram he thought would take him toward Tallas swung away from the arrow on his beacon. Disembarking at the next stop, he despaired on which tram to switch until a flash of inspiration struck: Adelaine Habitat was spherical. Zooming out his map, Fennic aligned it to himself and saw that the beacon pointed to the docks on the other side of the station. He's escaping.

Fennic's hand flew to his comn. But before he could call, the world quaked. Seconds later came a distant noise, worse than thunder.

As confusion and worry spread through the smattering of other waiting commuters, Fennic shuffled on leaden feet toward the tram status board that was turning red, line by line.

"...be good if you guys got here ASAP. See you soon I hope." Tallas ended the recording, flagged it top-priority, and sent it along. The docks were presently well on the day side of the station; he shaded his eyes outside the comn terminal, unsure what he was looking for.

Cybertelepathy. Supposedly he could pick up the thoughts of AIs. Sabrin viewed it as a gift, and technically it had saved them when they jumped the unstable potential. But Tallas had just awoken from a month-long alien-induced coma and the notion that he'd been altered from the man he was before made him want to crawl out of his skin. For the most part, the others respected his wish not to talk about it.

So when he'd arrived at Adelaine, he'd chalked his heightened suspicions about Rynn's message up to his regular instincts and paranoia. There was evidence enough to justify his feeling of tense anticipation, of a spider perched in her web. He'd be still be believing that, had the feeling not changed, unprompted, a short time ago.

A sharpening of the air, a wriggle on the line. Vibrations in the silk to be read and followed.

If that feeling didn't belong to him, then the spider was a hostile AI somewhere on Adelaine. Hence Tallas had sent his own distress call, because redundancy was never a bad idea when shit was about to hit the fan. And now he hesitated, meters from the lift to the docks high above where an assortment of ships waited. Leaving Fennic made sense, given the facts, yet...

In retrospect, the desires he'd sensed at Astral-Ishasa, Seos, and Adhara had been clear: the Dream needed the slave node gone, the Vesuvius needed escape from its decrepit metal shell, Stavar needed Dreamer found. Laser focus that only a machine mind could muster, etching his subconscious. Absent such a singularity of purpose, he was left with a muddle of intuition; possibly foreign, possibly his. He couldn't trust his own damned thoughts, which was exactly what he didn't want from learning he was different.

The walkway suddenly shook, followed by what sounded like an explosion. Big. Still nothing out of the ordinary in his field of vision. Tallas turned his back on the lift, walking on the verge of running.

He fished out his comn for an incoming call. "Yes?"

"Tal!" Fennic's voice brought a rush of relief. "Don't leave the station!"

Tallas spared a moment to be impressed that Fennic figured out his plan. "I'm not. Not yet. Do you know what that was just now?"

"No, sorry. I'm at a tram stop but...all the lines are shut down."

"Hang on, I'm on my way."

"How are you going to get here?"

"Let me worry about that." Tallas had an inkling Fennic would disapprove. "Did you get Rynn to the hospital?"

"Yeah, I...wait, there some sort of news coming on..." The background murmuring on Fennic's side swelled, not positively.

"Oh no..." Fennic's broken words came through indistinct, like he'd lowered the comn from his mouth. Tallas himself stumbled to a stop at a bulletin board, overridden by the same emergency alert.

Hospital bombing. Garbled initial reports were filtering in but Tallas didn't register them. Whatever they did, whatever they used, it would've done the job. His fingernails bit into his palms.

"Tal? I think there's a man looking at me."

Swallowing down acid, Tallas willed his legs to move. "Has he been there long?"

"I...I don't know."

"Okay, okay." Tallas forced strength into his voice, like he'd heard Sabrin do a million times. They still had battles to fight. "Walk away, normally, and see if he follows you. If he does, try to lose him, but don't draw attention and don't let yourself be alone with him. Hang up now and turn the comn off, it's not secure." Especially not if they were facing an AI.

Fennic didn't hang up. Hopefully he was following instructions otherwise. "I've got the beacon, I'm coming to get you. Ten, fifteen minutes, tops."


"I won't let us be separated again, I promise. I know you can do this." Finally, the connection closed.

Sabrin would've hot-wired a car, or more likely a motorcycle. Tallas, in not his proudest moment, pulled his gun on some poor unsuspecting business drone in a parking garage.

"Sorry, this is an emergency," Tallas told the white-as-a-sheet driver as he slid into his car, needler leveled the whole time. "My friend's in trouble and I gotta get to him. I'll bring it right back I swear. Thanks." The guy was probably calling the cops as he peeled out, but Tallas's bitter guess was that the police were swamped.

The shopping center was emptying as news of the hospital attack spread. Most people looked numb, some were loudly angry and rearing to tear something apart. Fennic ducked his head as he passed them, hands shoved in his pockets since they were shaking too badly.

The hunter, the scarecrow in a pea-green coat, breathed hot on the back of his neck. Fennic wished desperately for a hat, since his stupid hair was probably beaming the way to him like a lighthouse. Lose him. As if it was so easy to just throw the dice knowing he had one shot and he'd be done if it failed. This wasn't one of Ky's detective movies.

And yet, if Fennic hadn't lost him by the time Tallas showed up, there was no telling what would happen. The next corner. Do it.

Said corner was occupied by an old-fashioned bookstore: cozy lighting, dark-stained wooden shelves, and the distinctive smell of printed paper. Fennic estimated when he went out of his pursuer's line of sight and dashed inside, hiding behind one of the high bookcases.

After too long, or not long enough, he dared to peek at the entrance. The man was there, scowling ferociously. Heart drumming a sick rhythm, Fennic withdrew further into the store.

What had Tallas said?

There was an unattended door at the rear of the store marked 'employees only'. It was not locked, and beyond was a short hallway connecting three rooms. Fennic pondered furiously the layout of the building and the chances of an exit being in one of those rooms.

He shut the door much less carefully than he'd opened it and darted out of view. Sure enough, not long after he did, he heard the door open and close again. Fennic made his getaway.

Minutes later on the street, Tallas caught his attention with a car horn. "Thank god you're here," Fennic said in abject relief, his palm pressed to his chest. "Whose car is this?"

"We're gonna give it back."

Adelaine sped by outside; Tallas's knuckles were white on the yoke, the grimness of his expression almost alien. "What about the isotope tracker?" Fennic asked.

"Don't matter any more, it's a chase now."

With Tallas's silent assent, Fennic switched on the radio and tuned to a news station.

The authorities were pointing fingers at a radical environmentalist group called Windfall First. Eyewitnesses who had fled the scene in time testified that a crazed man had walked into the hospital lobby ranting about the sanctity of Windfall's forests and the wrath owed to humanity for desecrating them—all part and parcel of Windfall First's publicly available manifesto—and when security arrived he'd unveiled the explosives strapped to his torso.

"Whoever these fuckers are, they're not Guild," Tallas said softly. "A Guild would be after you for a payday. They wouldn't suicide bomb a whole hospital just to take out one person, and they wouldn't wipe their fingerprints off like this either."

Fennic acknowledged with an absent nod. He couldn't see how that insight made much difference.

"I'm also thinking that they're the ones who blew up the lab on Kion'Seg. The Kion'Seg cops are still looking for who did that."

"People who like bombs," Fennic said dully. "Where are we going?"

"The docks."

They landed on a dizzyingly high platform, a quiet place at the seam between the miniature world and the stars. From that vantage, Fennic saw Adelaine as the fragile bubble it was. They had to leave.

He followed Tallas up several levels to a cavernous bay holding dozens of cargo ships lined up in a row. "Walk like you belong here and know exactly where you're going," Tallas advised in an undertone as they weaved through freight handlers and containers. "You'd be surprised at how far a little confidence can get you."

Tallas consulted a schedule. "This one. 'Live cargo', that'll help mask our lifesigns."

Fennic hastened to keep up with him. "Have you thought a lot about this?"

"Sabe and I talked about it when we were bugging out of Astral-Ishasa. Okay, now it's time to sneak."

The ship Tallas picked looked much like all the others: a rectangular box mounting a thruster on each side and a cockpit module in front. One of the crew members, bald and wearing a blue jumpsuit, strolled about beside it tapping a pad and speaking into his comlink. They waited, then Tallas tapped Fennic's shoulder and counted down from three with his fingers.

Fennic didn't let himself think of anything other than Tallas's back until after he'd scurried up the rear ramp into the barely lit interior. He smacked face-first into a mass of hot air, ripe with the stench of animal, though all he saw were stacked crates. The two of them hunkered down in a shadowed space between stacks.

Neither of them dared talk yet. The crate Fennic leaned on bore regularly spaced holes on the sides that exposed an inner mesh barrier; from inside he heard soft fluttering and thumping. Suddenly, a rainbow of phosphorescence splashed against the mesh, outlining a rotund fist-sized creature sprouting delicate tentacles and rapidly beating wings. Fennic managed to clamp a hand over his mouth in time to catch a startled burst of laughter.

Wing-squids glow. The cute little guy clung to the mesh, wriggling, and then it was gone. Like it was never there at all. Fennic closed his prickling eyes; how like the universe, to throw in a pinch of whimsy on such a terrible day.

One moment they were feeling comfortably hidden, and in the next came a shriek. The wisp of a woman dropped her scanner and ran for the cockpit. With a curse, Tallas went after her.

Forward of the cargo bay was a small compartment with bench seats and cabinets, and beyond that was the cockpit. As Tallas approached, he heard a male voice say, "Li, calm down."

"...two guys in the hold!"

Tallas hunched his shoulders to look smaller and put on a winsome smile. "Hi," he said softly, giving a feeble wave. Three sets of eyes snapped to him: Li, the man they saw outside, and a heavyset black woman. "Sorry, we're not looking for any trouble."

"Who the hell are you," the woman snarled. Tallas decided she was in charge. "What're you doing on my boat?"

"I'm Tallas and he's Fennic. Sorry, we um...look, we needed a ride and we were in a hurry, but we lost our money, so we had to—"

"Whatever, save it," she cut him off. "I don't give a crap. You two are getting off at the next stop."

"That's totally fair, Captain—" Tallas read the name stitched on her suit, "—Owenu."

"I'm no captain," Owenu said with a snort. "Where do you think you are boy?"

"Sure, I didn't mean anything," Tallas quickly agreed. He unwound a bit when he noticed her copilot—Piatsky—hide a smile. Yup, stupid and harmless, that's us. "Thanks so much, really—"

Owenu flapped a hand at them, turning back to her console. "Just sit back there and shut up."

Li showed Tallas and Fennic to the bench seats. She sat across from them, her expression still verging on spooked. "I'm really sorry, we didn't mean to scare anybody," Fennic told her.

"You're Li, right?" Tallas asked. "I overheard earlier."

Apparently making a decision, Li stuck out her hand. "Li Watts. I'm the livestock welfare monitor on this trip."

Her grip was surprisingly firm. "Nice to meet you," Tallas said. "Does that mean you're a vet?"

"No, not yet, but soon, hopefully. I'm saving up right now, padding my application, you know."

Tallas didn't particularly, though he nodded anyway. "You like this job?"

"It definitely has its moments," Li said, quirking her mouth. Did you two get a chance to check out what we're hauling back there?"

"I saw a wing-squid," Fennic said.

Li brightened, passion transforming her otherwise ordinary features. "Aren't they amazing? We eat millions of them every year but—" They all flinched at a sharp bang and jolt.

"Pressure alarm," Piatsky reported, not sounding nearly as alarmed as he should be. "The hull's been breached. It's not big."

"Damn it. Erv, see if you can patch it."

Piatsky grabbed a bulky case and headed into the cargo section, giving Tallas an odd look because he'd pushed, ashen-faced, to his feet. "What was that?" Tallas asked Owenu, earning himself an annoyed glance.

"Keep your pants on, it's just a meteoroid strike."

Tallas stepped to the control console. "Is there a problem with your deflector?"

"Kid, I am about to—" There was a second bang, louder. "Ervin!" Owenu barked into the comn. "You okay?"

A beat of dread passed. "Yeah. Shit, did we run into another one?"

"You're not running into anything." Tallas dropped into Piatsky's seat, over Owenu's furious squawk and Li's flabbergasted protests. He recognized enough of the control interface to manage. "Shields. Do you have shields?" They didn't. Flight control was currently on Owenu's side, so he reached across her and sent the ship veering off-course.

Owenu's calloused fingers snapped around his wrist like a vice. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Failing to pull himself free, Tallas met her blazing eyes, willing her to see the panic rattling below his ribs. "We're under attack."

"You are screwed up in the head! Get your ass out of that chair—"

"It's not a fuckin' meteoroid!" Tallas bellowed. "It came in on just the right fuckin' vector to compensate for the deflector and fast enough to punch clean through the hull. Twice!"

"Who's yelling?" Piatsky asked. "Addy?"

"We need evasive maneuvers, and we need help!" Tallas stumbled on the last word at a third hit. One of the ship's two power cells went dark, death by a thousand cuts. What was that, fifteen seconds re-targeting time after the course change? "Right the fuck now! Those are kinetic strikes, maybe from a Gauss gun, they'll keep coming until we're dead!"

The rage on Owenu's face didn't abate. "Erv, forget the patch, get back in here pronto!" Shoving away Tallas's wrist, she turned to her console. "Orbital control, this is Adisa Owenu on Hauler Four-Nine-Two-dash-Adelaine. We have an emergency situation and need immediate assistance."

The drop in air pressure was now detectable. "Erv, seal off the hold," Owenu ordered, cutting off Li's outcry. Fennic was trying to speak words of comfort. "Orbital control, this is an emergency. Please respond."

"They're jamming us," Tallas said. "Have you got any other way to send a signal? Tight-beam? Flares?"

"Where do you think you are?"

An unshielded crate lumbering along on nothing but thrusters, that just took a fourth hit. Their luck was running out fast. "We've gotta send a signal." Owenu didn't even glance at him. "Captain! Somebody's using an incredibly inefficient weapon to try and make this look like an accident. They want to murder us quietly, so the only chance we've got is to make noise."

"Murder? Why?" Piatsky exclaimed.

"How the hell are we supposed to do that?"

"I don't know, but we—"

"Exclusion zone," Li's wobbly voice broke in. Her eyes were huge, too much white showing. "If you violate the exclusion zone around Windfall you'll set off every alarm in the system."

"That's a prison sentence," Owenu muttered as she changed their heading.

"Extenuating circumstances," Tallas had time to say before the fifth hit smashed their starboard thruster and sent them into a wild, careening spin. He was thrown from Piatsky's chair, tumbling until a bulkhead slammed the breath from his body. He lay there pinned, dazed with agony, screams and tearing metal ringing in his ears as Owenu fought desperately to regain control of the ship.

There was no sixth hit, so maybe Li's suggestion worked in a sense. The green and white of Windfall rose up to embrace them.

"Here you are." Ky set down the plate stacked high with fritters. "Cardiac episode waiting to happen. Honestly, do Orions not know any way to cook other than dousing in liquid fat?"

Sabrin paused his chewing. "Fat makes stuff taste good. That's fuckin' biology."

Ky snorted and snatched a fritter for himself. He'd taken to learning Orion recipes entirely of his own initiative, so Sabrin was willing to let him complain about anything he wanted. After a second one, Ky said, "I thought you'd be more reticent about Tallas volunteering to accompany Fennic."

Sabrin shrugged. "Somebody had to, and Tal can handle it. In any case, if the Polarians are about to crack open Xiuhcoatl, it's just as well that Tal isn't here."

Ky arched his eyebrows. "Surely you don't believe that the Guilds will be any match for the PAN."

"That's not what I'm worried about," Sabrin said. "The Orion cruiser squadron's still out there somewhere, and I can't believe that they'd just sit out the endgame of this little war. Whether they win or our side does...I don't want Tal to see that. See Mark..." he trailed off with a shrug, reaching for more deep-fried comfort. He didn't want to see it either.

Dreamer's image appeared. "Hey, we've got an incoming message, top priority."

"Let's have it."

The big screen lit up with the somber visage of Vice Admiral Kostatino, commander of the Alyan forces in the campaign. "To all Alyan naval vessels and affiliated craft in the Xiuhcoatl theater," she began in clipped tones, "you are to set alert condition beta and proceed immediately to coordinates designated Option Lysander. At seventeen-forty-two hours IST, the PAN blockade engaged massed XUC advances at potentials Curie and Sark. Civilians appear to be involved and the situation is in extreme flux. Specific instructions will follow shortly. Kostatino out."

"Aw hell." It sounded like the Xiuhcoatl Guilds had preempted the planned invasion by engineering a breakout, using civvie ships in some kind of swarm tactic; it had Orion fingerprints all over it. Sighing heavily, Sabrin called Lirelle to confirm that they were under way as ordered. They were in for some restless days ahead.

Before Dreamer even set foot on Adelaine Habitat, he'd confirmed that Tallas's and Fennic's beacons were not on it and detected the particulates of smoke in the air. Still, he affected a big smile and waved goodbye to his new friends.

He had been feeling rather pleased with himself. After receiving his new directive on Tiburon, he'd found a freeborn trader scheduled for a run to Windfall and sweet-talked his way aboard. For the price of a few good stories and some long-overdue maintenance, he'd flown direct and shaved half a day off his journey.

On his way out of the docks, he tried calling his friends, to no avail.

There was an unusual amount of traffic on the local network, the whole system in a uproar over a terrorist attack at Adelaine. With lightning speed, Dreamer trawled through the available sources. Tallas and Fennic were not among the casualties, but... Rynn.

His avatar lacked the capacity to store the full sum of his memories. Dreamer could only sketch out the thirty-five years he'd known Rynn, starting from the callow medic with more fire than sense who'd dived head-first into the unending hell that was the civil war on Caere. She'd triumphed against the odds and emerged scarred but dazzling, and he raged within the skin of his inadequate human form at being unable to mourn her as fully as she deserved.

The network quickly revealed Windfall First to be a witless band of blowhards who'd fallen over themselves to disavow the attack. While it wasn't strictly impossible that a psychotic, bomb-happy lone wolf had been inspired by their lame 'manifesto', Dreamer rated that possibility as not worth considering.

When he arrived at Rynn's house, two men in tan coveralls were exiting the front door. The instant they saw him, they bolted to a plain white van and kicked off.

"Hey!" Dreamer broke into a full-bore run, bounding onto the roof of an expensive sedan to gain the height for his jump. The van lurched as he caught the undercarriage with both hands.

The antigravs groaned as the driver punched the acceleration. The van shot upward, swerving and rocking.

Curving his body up, Dreamer planted his feet to better brace himself against the g-forces. Repositioning one limb at a time, he clambered upside-down until he could lay a hand on the van's rear door. The thin metal skin crumpled around his fingers like tissue paper as he ripped the right-side door off its hinges. Panicked cursing came from inside.

As soon as the one not driving rediscovered his balls, he'd start shooting. Dreamer didn't give him the chance: pushing off with his feet, he swung back on his left arm and with his momentum vaulted up into the back of the van, hurling in the detached door ahead of him. It slammed into the front passenger's seat and the van pitched to the side with a shout from the driver.

Dreamer had no breath that needed catching. He immediately charged the man in the back, disarming him and hauling him in by the front of his costume. "Try anything and you're dead," he warned the driver before he could get ideas. "Flip the autopilot on, then put your hands where I can see 'em."

The guy he was questioning, some mottled punk with a buzz cut who didn't even look thirty, gawked at him like he was a unicorn or something. "You're really the Dream of Dawn."

They knew him? Dreamer didn't know them, and if they murdered Rynn that needed fixing. "Who are you working for?" He spied what looked like Rynn's personal computer and every other data storage device in her house, adding to his developing hypothesis. "Out with it!"

"You should be helping us."

That he didn't expect. "What?"

"You of all people should understand what we're doing." Said with the sincere conviction of a zealot. "Our enemies are the same."

"The fuck are you mouthing off about?" Dreamer blamed his annoyance for how the mottled punk managed to surge forward and tackle them both out into the open air.

The drop was less than ten stories, easily withstood by his avatar. Dreamer splayed himself out and barely cracked the roof of the office building he landed on.

His falling buddy wasn't so lucky; ironically, if he'd aimed for one of the chasms that plunged down to the station core, his descent would've been arrested by safety measures before he hit anything. Dreamer called for an ambulance as he trotted over. The van was nowhere in sight. Shit.

"Hey, don't die yet," Dreamer said, crouching down. "I've still got questions."

The guy's glassy, staring eyes twitched in his direction. "It's never...too late..." His voice clogged on blood. "You can still...return to the fold...Dreamer."

Dreamer cocked his head, resisting the urge to rearrange the bastard's bones a little more while he had the opportunity. "Sure you want your last words to be my name? Pretty as it is. C'mon man, you're running out of time to confess your sins. Tell me something."

"Not too...late..." Slowly and painfully, he rotated his shattered arm to expose the underside of his wrist. "Worm...endures."

Bits of color appeared across the veins: a cellular tattoo, made of implanted lab-grown pigment cells under conscious control. It was a tiny orange snake with wicked fangs, an undulating scaly body, and outstretched bat-like wings. Not a snake, a dragon.

Seconds passed and the tattoo was gone, as was he. A brisk search turned up a wallet and a comn, which Dreamer pocketed before making himself scarce.

WYRM, was what the guy said. Now there was a name Dreamer hadn't heard in a very long while.