Disclaimer: This stories contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
Author's note: Here we are, chapter four. Sincere thanks to everyone who wrote to me; your words motivate progress in the story, which hopefully is a good thing :) Now, on with the show:
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|Long Lost||Part IV
"Twenty-three years ago, the last great fleet of the Altairans met a far superior Kinjori task force at the binary system of Seos. They were outnumbered five to one, and so should have been annihilated. Instead neither fleets were heard from again and it was believed that they had fought to their mutual destruction," Dreamer recounted as if he were telling a ghost story by the campfire. "The wreckage of thirty-six hundred ships still drifts between the twin stars of that system."
"But if this happened 23 years ago that battlefield would've cleared out by now," Sabrin commented doubtfully.
"Not this time," Dreamer continued, "Sure salvagers've tried, but none of them have ever returned."
"So what makes you think we'll make it back?" Tallas asked.
"Because I happen to know why they never returned," Dreamer smiled eerily. "Altair may've been only delaying the inevitable, but after its fall some interesting rumors emerged concerning its lost fleet. It seems that their flagship, the Vesuvius, was carrying an experimental super-weapon which was to turn the tide in the Altairans' favor."
"Some kind of improved bomb, or EMP generator?" Sabrin asked curiously.
"Nothing so trite," Dreamer responded, "the Vesuvius was carrying what the Altairans called a 'antipathic psionic resonator,' a device that sends out waves of telepathic energy which interact destructively with human brain patterns. In short, it was designed to drive entire crews insane."
"I take it that since both fleets were destroyed that the thing didn't work like it was supposed to?" Tallas asked.
"Right on," Dreamer said, "the Altairans could produce telepathic waves but they'd failed to achieve a sufficient impact on human minds and the Kinjori were drawing close. Then someone came up with the brilliant idea of putting two resonators on the Vesuvius, set on a slightly offset rotating frequency. The patterns of interference between them would produce harmonics across the entire spectrum." Dreamer chuckled dryly. "The result was of course chaos."
"The Altairans might've been able to shield themselves against particular patterns of telepathic waves but not against a constantly changing barrage. They gambled that what they had would be enough and they lost, big-time. Ships were firing at every target they could, including on their own side; crews turned against each other and sabotaged everything they could get their hands on. The captain of the Vesuvius, in his madness, overrode the safety protocols and blasted the ship's atmosphere into space. No survivors."
"The resonators were never shut down, and so anyone who gets close loses their mind. That's what happened to those salvage parties," Dreamer smiled tightly.
"How do you know all this?" Sabrin asked. "I get the feeling these are more than just 'rumors' you're telling us."
"Very astute," Dreamer said sarcastically. "Three years after their conquest of Altair the Kinjori sent a second expedition to Seos. The ship was badly damaged when the crew went berserk, but the pilot managed to take the ship out of the resonator's range and make a wild jump before they were pulled into the star. I came across the derelict in the Dawkins System; the pilot was the only one still alive and she told me what the Kinjori had uncovered in the Altairan archives."
"What happened to her?" Tallas asked.
"She died a few days later from interal injuries."
"Okay, so we now know what's going on. Still doesn't answer how we're supposed to succeed where they failed," Sabrin said skeptically.
"Are you always so impatient? I'm gettin' to it," Dreamer replied, "the pilot of the Kinjori ship -- her name was Madia Wice -- she managed to adjust the ship's shields to partially block out the psionic waves. Usin' her own telepathy as a cue," Dreamer shook his head, "pretty damned ingenious."
"She was a telepath?" Sabrin raised his brow. Verifiable human telepaths only began appearing in small numbers shortly after the first interstellar jumps, despite an abundance of earlier claimants to extrasensory perception. The correlation was not lost on either professional or amateur investigators, but there has yet to be a satisfactory explanation for human telepathy itself, much less for any link between it and making jumps. Attempts to genetically engineer the trait have without exception resulted in failure; some of them notably spectacular.
"Quite a strong one," Dreamer confirmed, "We'll need one too if we want to make it through."
"I dunno; this whole thing sounds...insane," Tallas said doubtfully, "no joke intended."
"It's our best shot at the supplies we need," Dreamer insisted, "I'd bet that there's enough antimatter alone in there to last us through a couple lifetimes of jumps. Not to mention what other valuable stuff we can sell."
"Well Sabrin, if you think it's worth the risk then I'll go with it," Tallas turned.
Sabrin braced his chin against his hands in thought. He knew how desperate their situation was and Dreamer seemed to know what he was talking about. Still, the thought of seeing Tallas perish, especially by his hand if he lost his mind in that interstellar graveyard, was too horrible to bear. "You're sure that this'll work?" he asked Dreamer.
The android came back with, "Would you really believe me if I said yes?"
Sabrin nodded and sighed. His inclination was to proceed, but he'd be damned it were his sole decision. "Tallas, I'm leaning towards going, but I'm not your keeper or your commanding officer and if we make this decision it's gonna be mutual," he looked into his friend's eyes.
They paused for a moment before Tallas smiled with a new conviction. "We go."
"Awesome," Dreamer flashed a crooked grin and said in a teacherly voice to Sabrin, "I'll bring you the coordinates for Seos so you can practice your calculations before we jump." He disappeared before Sabrin could utter a comeback.
Sabrin turned and Tallas was stifling a laugh behind his hand. He gave him a mock glare and stormed off to the bridge.
Since the apparent loss of their second expedition the Kinjori have steered clear of the battlesite between the two stars. Seos A and Seos B were virtually twins of the same spectral class, orbiting each other at a scant 110 million kilometers. As with all binary systems, the presence of two gravity wells in close proximity produces a larger number of potential jump points than are found in single-star systems. It was therefore here at this nexus of travel routes where the Altairan fleet chose to intercept their Kinjori nemesis.
Orbiting at a comfortable distance from both stars is the cold, barren planet of Ledon, for which the Dream of Dawn was now headed. With the advance preparation and the absence of Imperial police on their tail, Sabrin handled the jump without incident. The second time he almost felt liberated, especially since Dreamer had gratiously reconfigured some of the displays to those he were more accustomed to. The A.I. suggested that both he and Tallas find some sleep before they reached orbit and they were happy to oblige.
While his crew was asleep, Dreamer was attending to some long-delayed matters. Twenty years ago he discovered the crippled Kinjori starship Jashun VI and its single survivor. Before her death Madia had gave him a single request. Since their jump to Mirfax he had been sending continuous narrow-band tachyon transmissions into the local network, and just now he was receiving a response. To his considerable surprise it originated from Seos Outpost on Ledon. He initiated the comlink and saw the image of a woman in her mid-twenties, with long black hair and liquid brown eyes. Her skin was a shade of golden brown that reminded Dreamer of honey. She was dressed in a simple blue-gray civilian outfit and was sitting behind a desk in a dimly-lit office. Datadiscs were stacked on the table behind her and engineering schematics were tacked onto the walls.
"Hello," Dreamer began in the his most formal tone. "Are you perchance Lirelle Wice?"
"Yes," her voice was austere but held no hostility. Dreamer noted within a dash of the rolling Kinjori accent, "Do I know you?"
"Not yet, but I would like to speak to you about your mother, Madia Wice. I was a friend of hers."
Dreamer noted the slight but definite change in demeanor; hard lines appeared on her youthful face which weren't there before. "Unlikely. The Kinjori do not employ ship's avatars." Her eyes narrowed and she slipped into an informal tone. "Who are you? What do you hope to gain here?"
"Forgive me, I neglected my introduction," Dreamer said gently, "I'm the A.I. of the farship Dreams of Dawn, but you may call me Dreamer. I was with your mother in the days before her death. She told me of you."
"Is that so?" Lirelle's facade betrayed a hint of anger and her voice hardened. "Listen, I don't know who you think you are, but how dare you come here and--"
"Do you recognize this?" Dreamer held up a pendant with a delicate, silken black cord. On the end was a teardrop-shaped piece of bright green, polished jade. Dreamer turned it a bit so that Lirelle could see the sigil engraved on its surface.
Lirelle's eyes widened in shock and she staggered back a bit, as if somebody had struck her between the eyes. Her hands clenched into fists as she took a few hoarse breaths. "That...where...how the hell did you get that?!" She hissed, losing her composed exterior for the first time.
"I told you," Dreamer's voice was calm, "I was with your mother in the days before her death. I will arrive at Ledon in three hours. I'll be pleased to meet with you at that time."
The black-haired woman visibly regained her composure and nodded tightly. "If this is some type of deception--" her voice bore a dagger's edge.
"It isn't," Dreamer interruped whatever threat was to follow. "I'm sending the rendezvous coordinates and my registry code. I look forward to meeting you."
Lirelle tipped her head slightly in acknowledgement and terminated the transmission. It's good that A.I.s don't experience fear, Dreamer mused, or else I think she would've been quite terrifying. He looked at the pendant in his palm and remembered when Madia's shivering hands had pressed it into his. A panel on his forearm slid open and he dropped it inside the narrow compartment beneath. There were some hiding places entirely unique to androids.
Two hours and fifty-six minutes later, a small, battered transport shuttle rose from the rocky surface to meet the orbiting farship. Two pairs of maneuvering thrusters fired in precise sequences, positioning the sharp-angled craft so its port airlock aligned with that of the larger vessel. A flexible tube unfolded from a recessed bay around the hatch and wrapped itself snugly over the dented hull. An invisible force-field sealed the lock and atmosphere pumped into the space. Dreamer stood waiting in front of the airlock, silently running through systems checks and initiating airlock entry protocols. As the inner hatches slid open he was acutely aware of the sleek barrel of a plasma gun pointing directly at his face. Unperturbed, he smiled and reverted back to his natural voice, "Welcome aboard Lirelle."
"Alright, I'm here, tell me what you know," if Lirelle was surprised that Dreamer seemed to have anticipated her movements she didn't reveal it.
"I'd be happy to, but why don't you put down the gun first?" Dreamer smiled easily. His eyes glittered as he said, "I took the liberty of deactivating it when you passed through the airlock."
"Heh, I suppose never try to bluff an avatar," the corner of Lirelle's mouth curled up. She lowered her gun and neatly re-latched it to the magnetic holster on her leg. "But if you are under the impression that without my firearm I'm at your mercy, you've got another thing coming," she said, her preparations for hand-to-hand combat barely registering on Dreamer's physiometric scanners.
Dreamer however had no intention of contesting her assertions, even though his senses and physical capability were substantially superior to that of a human. He smiled again and said, "We can talk about who's at whose mercy later. Right now I'd like to invite you to the conference room." Reaching into his arm he retrieved the pendant and tossed it to a surprised Lirelle. "We can talk about how I got to have that and how you got to be here."
Lirelle followed the android through the corridor, feeling the pendant in her hand. Her memories of it were fuzzy, but there was a familiarity to the smooth, cool jade surface which comforted her. Her fingers slid over the intricate curves and lines etched into its surface. These were Kinjori runes, bearing in them the life-line of her family through many generations. All the years spent on that backwater rock called Ledon, and now that for which she had sacrificed so much to learn is delivered practically on her doorstep? Lirelle had to shake her head a little to accept the reality of it.
Dreamer led his guest to the conference room and directed her to a chair, seating himself at the opposite side. He leaned back in a relaxed pose and folded his hands on the table. Lirelle sat up straight, her eyes piercing into his. "Now, talk. You said you knew my mother. How?"
"Straight to the point, cool," Dreamer smiled, "I found her ship adrift in the Dawkins System twenty years ago. She was the only survivor."
"The Dawkins System? That's three jumps from here." Lirelle's voice evidenced her disbelief.
"Not back then. Madia made an almost blind jump from Seos to escape the battlefield. We found the ship adrift, badly damaged. We pulled her out but she'd lost a lot of blood and had internal injuries. She died a few days later but before she did she gave me that--" Dreamer gestured to the pendant in Lirelle's hand, "and asked me to give it to you."
The woman glanced at the bauble in her hand, then looked back up at Dreamer and asked suspiciously, "If what you're saying is true, then how'd they get out? Nobody else has."
Dreamer recounted the story of the battle and the resonators aboard the Vesuvius, noticing that Lirelle was following along as if she already knew it. This was interesting, as Madia mentioned that the Kinjori had classified their findings from the Altairan secret archives. She did not appear to be a high-ranking officer of the Kinjori Armada, though he supposed she could be a disguised member of the Hegemony's intelligence branch, the Onyx Hand. Her face took on a fond, proud expression when he described her mother's shield modifications.
After his explanation was finished, there was a brief pause before Lirelle said in a slightly angry voice, "And only now are you coming back to appraise me of this?"
That comment struck a nerve, in a manner of speaking. "Some other stuff happened in between," Dreamer muttered defensively. "But I'm here now, aren't I? Geez you'd think you'd show a little gratitude."
The sudden break from Dreamer's light-hearted demeanor took his companion off-guard. "I apologize," Lirelle's face softened as she realized that the man has been nothing but courteous to her since they first met. "I am grateful to you for bringing this back to me," she said sincerely, "I've learned to be suspicious after living near Vesuvius for five years."
"People hasslin' ya for the secret to that battlefield?" Dreamer asked. His casual facade was firmly back in place.
"How'd you know?" Lirelle was surprised. This was her first meeting with a sentient android and she made a note to herself not to underestimate them in the future.
"I got the feelin' that you knew what I was talking about when I was tellin' the story," Dreamer responded vaguely, "You know what the Kinjori found on Altair III don't you?"
"Yes, I do," Lirelle said, confessing her knowledge for the first time since her arrival at Ledon. She'd had more than her share of trouble for the mere rumor of possessing that information, mostly from the treasure-hungry wreck scavengers who came to Ledon in droves, but since Dreamer already knew the story admitting to it now seemed a small matter.
"And I take it you're not an officer of the Armada nor an agent of the Onyx Hand?" She nodded, "How'd you find it then?"
"None of your concern!" Lirelle snapped, then reconsidered her outburst and continued in a softer tone, "I needed it to find a way into the graveyard."
"That why you studied engineering?" Dreamer asked. "I investigated your name on the Kinjori network," he shrugged at the return of Lirelle's suspicion.
"I was searching for a way to neutralize that psionic resonator field, so that I could find my mother's ship and determine her fate," she raised the pendant. "Without it her memory can't be placed to rest."
"I'm glad I could help," Dreamer said sincerely. His ship self updated him of developments elsewhere in the ship, namely Sabrin and Tallas waking up. He moved to conclude their talk. "One more thing, Madia recorded a message for you before her death. I've downloaded it to this datadisc and you can watch it on your own time," he dropped the small blue rectangle to Lirelle's slightly trembling hand. "I've got things to do now but I'll see you to the airlock. It's been fun, maybe next time we meet you won't have a gun pointed at my head," Dreamer grinned widely as they walked out of the room.
"Damn I'm exceedinly sorry about that and everything before," Lirelle apologized profusely, "I was just--"
"No offense taken," Dreamer responded, "I'd be lying if seeing all those dead ships so close didn't make me a little crazy too."
"I was apologizing for being rude, not crazy," Lirelle said, smiling a bit. "You don't want to see me crazy."
The two of them arrived at the airlock, where Lirelle's shuttle waited. The young woman looked up deeply into Dreamer's black and gold eyes and said sincerely, "Thank you Dreamer, really. Thank you for everything. If you wish compensation--"
Dreamer waved off her offer. He couldn't betray Madia's memory by accepting Lirelle's offer. "Madia was a special person; I'm just glad that I finally met her daughter. I see a lot of her in you, Lirelle." He smiled as he issued an invisible command, opening the airlock doors. "Have a safe trip home. If all goes well we're gonna be on our way soon."
"I'm curious...where're you headed?" Lirelle asked from inside the docking tube.
"The graveyard," Dreamer grinned, "we're gonna see if we can beat the odds." In the split second before he answered his mind had already deliberated on whether or not to answer truthfully to an extent which would take a human several hours. He decided he would and see where it took them, pulling on a small string buried deep in his mind. His inkling appeared to have bore fruit as Lirelle froze in her tracks, an expression of open astonishment on her face.
"Wait, you...you're going to the graveyard?" she sputtered. In an instant her entire situation changed, catching her off-balance.
"Why yes we are," Dreamer said, the corners of his mouth curling.
"But why? You're a farship," Lirelle asked, her mind scrambling to restore some order to the whirlwind of her thoughts. They're going to the graveyard! I thought I'd be picking up right where I left off on that ancestor-blighted rock but this is a whole new game now.
"Yeah, but I'm not as sparklin' new as I used to be. We need components and supplies and that's where we're gettin' 'em."
"I had no idea you were already insane. You ought to fit right in," Lirelle's eyes spoke of concern and something else.
Dreamer chuckled. "Y'know what they say. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, I've got the specifications for Madia's shield. With a bit of work that should keep us outta the rubber-padded room."
"That shield will be useless unless you're hiding a telepath somewhere, and I don't think you are," Lirelle said in a rush to find out more, inadvertantly revealing more than she intended. Her last statement did not escape Dreamer's attention. "And how would you know that?" he asked, already fairly certain of the answer.
Lirelle also realized that fact and answered truthfully, "I'm a telepath, like my mother."
"Really?" Dreamer's curiosity was piqued. It was extremely unusual to see the direct inheritance of telepathic ability, as it was encoded in combinations of genes which rarely transmitted in their entirety to the next generation. "I suppose you sensed Sabrin and Tallas when you came aboard then."
"I knew there were two people onboard, yes," Lirelle confirmed. Her expression changed to one of tacit disapproval, "Don't tell me you are planning this mad venture with a crew of two, when neither of them is even a telepath."
"I agree that some aspects of the plan have yet to be satisfactorily resolved," Dreamer said dryly.
Looking into the android's clear eyes, Lirelle came to a decision. She almost laughed at the irony of it; in five years there had never been an opportunity this good, and it arrives when she no longer had any reason to seize it save for her sacrifices. Nevertheless, she knew her circumstances and was determined to do what she must. Not only that, but she felt now a connection to this ship, and the prospect of him falling prey to Vesuvius was disturbing to her. If she played her cards right, they might all have new lives when they returned from the graveyard. "Let me go with you," she told Dreamer, "I can operate the shield and I'm familiar with the area."
"Why would you want to go?" Dreamer queried in a neutral tone. Lirelle noticed that the A.I. didn't rebuff her. "You've got what you were looking for; what's makin' you want to risk death with us? Couldn't be 'cause of my breathtaking good looks," he joked.
"You did something very important for me -- something which I will always be grateful for -- and I'd like to help you if I can," Lirelle continued, then took an exaggerated glance around her. "And don't take this the wrong way, but you'll need all the help you can find on this one."
"I told you you don't need to pay for--"
Lirelle smiled, "I know, and it isn't as if I'm not reaping any rewards from this. After all Ledon's a hole and there's cash in those ships. But I'm offering my help as a friend, who would be distressed to see her new friends lose their minds in the graveyard out there. We are friends now, are we not?" A twinge of guilt impacted her consciousness for that, which she brushed aside for the moment.
"I'd like to think so," Dreamer responded. He still had his reservations, but he allowed none of that to show as he held out his hand to the young woman before him. He knew that it could have been fate or astonishing luck that arranged these circumstances, but his analytical mind could not simply accept that at face value. Nevertheless, Lirelle just solved many of their problems and his smile was genuine as he shook hands with the young woman. "Welcome aboard then, m'lady," he said cheekily, "may we all live to regret our decisions."
In a darkened crew cabin, Sabrin groggily opened his eyes to see the off-gray expanse of Ledon moving lazily past the window. We've reached orbit, he realized, rising slowly from the bed and stretching his knotted muscles. His stomach felt a bit uneasy, either from the jump or the rations Dreamer fed him afterwards. He brought the lights to full with the wall switch and shuffled into the vacant bathroom. "Is Tal up yet?" he asked as he splashed water on his face and peered at his pale reflection in the mirror. Since their escape his sleep had been the playground of strange, frenzied dreams that slipped away like phantoms the moment his eyes opened, leaving him as though he had barely slept at all. Oh well, as if five hours counts as a real night's sleep anyway.
"Yup, he's gettin' dressed now," Dreamer answered, through the intercom this time. Sabrin quickly pushed that image out of his mind and proceeded quickly through his morning ablutions, checking to see that his depilatory was still effective and attempting to smooth his mussed hair into some semblance of order. He thought back to his argument earlier with Dreamer and frowned. Whenever he saw Tallas now he had to consciously suppress his confused emotions from surfacing on his face. Walking back into the room, he threw back on the faded black jeans and threadbare blue shirt he had on earlier. They would have to find some new clothes soon lest what they had disintegrate from too many passes through the laundry chute. Sabrin could only imagine the insufferable expression on Dreamer's face if that ever happened.
Stretching his body one last time, he emerged to see Tallas leaning against the opposite wall, waiting for him. "Hey, how'd you sleep?"
"Really good," Sabrin fibbed and smiled, "You?"
"Okay," Tallas answered, "Those mattresses are kinda hard but at least it was warm." Tallas despised the cold and the chronically inadequate climate control in his dorm was a constant source of complaint.
"Hey guys, now that you're up I'd like you to come to the conference room and meet somebody," Dreamer's image appeared on a nearby monitor.
"Who?" Sabrin asked curiously.
"Somebody who'll help us on the mission," Dreamer responded a bit impatiently, "I'll explain the rest when you're here. Get movin'."
When they reached the dimmed conference room, Dreamer and Lirelle were sitting cross from each other, examining a schematic of the Dream's shield generator. "Sabe, Tal, I'd like you to meet Lirelle Wice," Dreamer announced as he and his companion stood up. "Lirelle, meet Sabrin Payne and Tallas Anderholt. They're the boys that busted me outta Astral-Ishasa."
"A pleasure," Lirelle extended her hand.
"Likewise," Sabrin said, shaking her hand. "Nice to meet you," Tallas followed suit, then asked, "Wice? Are you related to Madia Wice?"
"Yes, I'm her daughter," Lirelle answered.
"I see," Tallas smiled and nodded.
"Lirelle's agreed to give us a hand past the psionic field. She's got a background in starship engineering and she's a telepath so she can work the shields."
"That mean you can read our minds?" Tallas queried.
"No," Lirelle smiled at the common misconception. "I can only passively read the thoughts of other telepaths. In order to read your mind I'd have to initiate a mental link, and you would know if that were the case."
"But you can sense our presence here, right?"
"If you don't mind me asking, why've you agreed to join us?" Sabrin interjected in a reserved tone. There was something about the woman which stirred his instincts, but he didn't know if it was legitimate concern or simple paranoia on his part. She certainly seemed genuine enough, especially if Dreamer with his arsenal of biometric sensors trusted her with critical data.
"Dreamer is a good friend of mine," Lirelle said vaguely, looking at the two young men. Sure they were cute, but they were strangers and her situation was yet too uncertain to reveal too much at once. "Besides, that battlefield's a gold mine and with my share I can buy my way off Ledon."
Sabrin nodded, "If we make it out alive."
"What's with the pessimism?" Dreamer interrupted, "We've been lookin' over the shield specs and we're pretty sure that we can make Madia's mods work."
"Didn't you say we had no power for shields?" Sabrin said as the four of them headed back to the table and seated themselves.
"We have a little," Dreamer's voice showed a hint of exasperation, "B'sides, runnin' the shield against just the psycho field'll take only a fraction of its normal full power. You can look over the specs yourself if you want," he gestured to the floating diagram.
"My apologies, I didn't mean to doubt you," Sabrin let slip the sardonic tone before he could catch himself. A glimmer of ice flashed through Dreamer's dark eyes. Tallas seemed to sense the increase in tension and prodded the meeting along with "We should talk about the mission?"
"Well," Lirelle also seemed relieved and clasped her hands in front of her, "when we enter the field I will be employing a portable neural interface to link with Dream's short-range sensor feeds and shield generator controls, so that I may manipulate the shield grid with nearly zero lag. However, that means I must remain aboard the ship, so someone else will have to handle the salvage operations. What experience do you guys have in spacecraft mechanics and extra-vehicular operations in zero-gee?"
Sabrin and Tallas looked at each other hesitantly. Neither of them could claim more than what they had studied, their experiences in VR simulators, and their introductory field exercises at Tokembor Station, back at the Academy, and they told Lirelle as much.
"Wait, you are attempting this venture with a pair of wet-eared kids?" Lirelle said to Dreamer, her eyes wide.
"I don' know what that expression means, but, uh, yeah," Dreamer answered wryly.
"Hey," Sabrin's voice rose, "We're right here, so if you got somethin' to say, say it to our faces." His ire was sparked more by the chagrined expression on Tallas' face than any damage to his own ego. He knew that back at the Academy Tallas was embarrassed by his relatively poor performance and that, however well-hidden, that sensitivity still resided in his psyche. "Contrary to what you might think, we're neither stupid nor ignorant. We brought the ship this far and if you don't like our experience then you are more than welcome to find another berth."
"I intended no insult, but you must realize that sifting through this battlefield will be like navigating through a three-dimensional minefield. There will be unexploded munitions, live plasma feeds, antimatter pods...we can ill afford mistakes," Lirelle said with steel determination. She wasn't about to throw away her life catering to some child's naivete.
Sabrin's voice was every bit as sharp, "We don't intend on making any." He took a deep breath, "We're not a couple of teenagers on a joyride here. Believe me, we know how dangerous this is and what'll happen if we mess up, but if you think you can condescend to us 'cause of a few years then I will demonstrate how wrong you are."
Lirelle found herself impressed by the young man's fortitude, but the issue was still unresolved. "I just don't want you to fall prey to overconfidence," she said in a tempered voice.
"We will do well to remember that," Sabrin countered.
Finally, Dreamer had enough of the strife and brought his hand down on the table. "Enough!" he said in a booming voice, "This accomplishes nothing. If you wanna to talk experience I have an order of magnitude more than all of ya combined, and then some. We've got a job to do."
"He's right Sabe," Tallas said, hoping to pacify the still-fuming Sabrin. He placed a hand on Sabrin's arm to turn his attention to him. "Lirelle's just looking out for us."
"I'm sorry, I was simply concerned," Lirelle said sincerely. She realized that, despite Dreamer's probable lifetimes in space, he never spoke to her with superiority for it. "I hope you'll accept my deepest apologies for any offense I aroused," she gazed into Sabrin's blue eyes, "I never meant to doubt your capacity or your resolve."
Between the three of them Dreamer felt his anger draining away. In the past Tallas more than once dampened his temper, and today was no exception. He sighed and said, "I'm sorry too for getting all defensive. Thanks for helping us with this."
"Awww, sweet!" Dreamer grinned and received glares in return. The A.I.'s sudden shifts in expression could still catch his crew of three unprepared. "Now," he continued, seeing that he had their attention, "the way we've set up the shield..."
For the rest of the briefing Dreamer and Lirelle ran through the intricacies of salvage operations and what they could expect inside the field. Though he would never admit it, once Sabrin was calmed down he appreciated Lirelle's professionalism and her obvious depth of knowledge. It was decided that he and Dreamer will go outside to the drifting wrecks, Lirelle will maintain the shields, and Tallas will scan for any hazards which may appear. At one point the question came up of whether they should hire more people for the mission.
"Absolutely not. I wouldn't trust anybody we find here on Ledon farther than my arm. Greedy, unscrupulous, untrustworthy connivers all," Lirelle said vehemently.
"I agree," Dreamer said more neutrally, "I was lookin' for a telepath 'cause we needed one for the shield but I don't like the idea of bringing in some stranger on this. This ain't a friendly place an' you can bet we don't want the Kinjori breathin' down our necks; no offense--" he looked to Lirelle, who nodded in agreement, "Gotta be careful."
"Alright then," Sabrin said, and that was the end of the discussion.
All of the humans were feeling fatigued by the time the meeting was over. They decided to leave in the morning, giving time for Dreamer to finish his preparations and Lirelle to wrap up her affairs on Ledon. Tallas walked with Lirelle to the airlock where her shuttle was docked. "I hope you and your friend weren't overly incensed by my earlier callousness," Lirelle said to the blonde outside the round hatch.
"It's okay," Tallas smiled gently, "Sabe can be defensive sometimes."
"You guys are best friends?" Lirelle asked.
"Since before I can remember," affection was evident in Tallas' voice. "I'd do anything for him."
"I know the feeling," Lirelle looked up into the man's dark eyes and said with a trace of nostalgia, "He must be something special."
"The best," Tallas said quietly. "Have a safe trip," he smiled with that end to conversation and walked back to his quarters. Lirelle lingered a while and thought about what she saw in those eyes. Her own eyes were hardened by years of hardship and self-sufficiency, but in those tender chocolate pools she saw those things which she had nearly forgotten in her exile. "Good luck kid," she whispered and headed to her trusty little shuttle.