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: It's been a while, but what can I say? Can't always ignore real life (as much as I might want to). I hope this chapter's worth the wait though; it's the longest yet and it's my favorite chapter so far. And also, if you'd like to see these chapters earlier than when they appear on Nifty, they can now be found at Dabeagle's Doghouse. Check it out!
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|Vesuvius, the Chained Titan||Part VII
>From the first look, it was overtly clear why the Vesuvius and others of its class were designated Trident-class battleships by the Altairan Defense Echelon. The bow was slender, streamlined into a narrow lancet shape, and flaring outwards into a roughly cylindrical body. A tapered tail extended backwards from eight mighty ion engines, which once drove the vessel through space. Above and below the bulbous core section, slender masts extended outwards and swept back, completing the two outer prongs of the trident. Measuring almost two kilometers in length, the Vesuvius was a true battleship, bristling with hundreds of weapon emplacements scattered across its glittering, triple-armored hull. Though pitted and scarred by age and strife, its reflected glory now shone ahead of the Dream of Dawn like the morning star.
Dreamer crossed his arms anxiously as he stood on his bridge and watched the enlarged image of the Vesuvius on the holographic viewscreen. He was subtly filtering the sensor data being fed to Lirelle, so that the Dream would seem not to have moved from its former coordinates. Questions abounded through his vast digital consciousness. Why would Lirelle engineer their destruction at the hands of Telemachus if their fates were bound by the continued operation of Dream's sensors? Two apparent solutions arrived in Dreamer's mind: either Lirelle was not responsible for the activation of the ejection system, or his usefulness to her was at an end. If the former option was correct, then their mutually assured destruction would be his bargaining chip when they arrived. If the latter option was correct, then suddenly their survival became considerably more perilous. Dreamer frowned slightly; there were simply too many unknowns for an accurate mission assessment. As is his nature he chose to assume the worst-case scenario and proceed from there.
There was a certainty however; their course was stayed by forces greater than two people and a sentient farship. No doubt existed in Dreamer's mind that the reason the Kinjori sent a second expedition to the battle site was their recovery of the Altairan files detailing the resonator project. Perhaps the Altairans were misguided in how they deployed their weapon, but even with some feeble imagination the destructive potential of the technology was incredible, if it were ever freed from the confines of the Vesuvius' hull. The evidence of it surrounded them; the lethal hand of Vesuvius extended across a staggering volume of space, well enough to engulf an entire planet.
"Fuck, that was close!" Sabrin exclaimed as the Dream swerved past a large chunk of miscellaneous debris. Given their disparity in experience, Tallas had gladly relinquished helm control when the dark-haired young man recovered from the delirious side effects of the TS-S that mended his battered body. The concoction left the patient alert and free from any residual effects more severe than sleep irregularities, the flip side being that in large doses it invariably leads to a crash. Fortunately Dreamer was careful to remain well beneath that threshold when he administered his treatment.
"Sorry," Tallas's strained voice floated from what was becoming his customary station. His face was pale and drawn tightly over its angular framework, random strands of dark blonde hair matted over his forehead. Dreamer monitored his condition with increasing concern, wondering whether it was a symptom of simply fatigue or something much less innocuous. The closer they got to Vesuvius, the greater the psionic flux through the ship's shields. Dreamer calculated that it would be approaching 70% of critical when they actually arrived at the battleship, not accounting for any degradation of performance on Lirelle's part. As a sentient machine Dreamer was perhaps better equipped to deal with the field than his human crew, but nevertheless its effect was growing noticeable. Already the A.I. was having to concentrate more to maintain the myriad functions running simultaneously aboard the ship. The curse of self-awareness, he lamented.
"So exactly what're we going to do when we get there and find Lirelle?" Sabrin asked, frustrated due to Dreamer's deliberate vagueness the previous times he asked the question.
Dreamer didn't tell him that the reason he was vague was because he had no clear idea of the answer; he still didn't, but he figured Sabrin and Tallas deserved to be at least somewhat prepared for the task ahead. "That depends on what the situation is," he said said honestly, "Prolly first thing we'll have to find and secure her shuttle. That'd give us a lot more leverage to work with."
"This's gonna be a negotiation?" Sabrin's voice was laced with doubt, and a pinch of disgust.
"That's right. We can't kill her or even knock her out. Any interruption to the shield link-up and we're all dead." Dreamer said succinctly.
"Whose brilliant idea was this again?" Tallas muttered.
Dreamer purposefully ignored the comment and brought up a schematic of their destination, highlighting the location of the two resonators and the computer core. "All the Kinjori need to construct their own psionic resonator is a detailed technical scan of the device and the logs from the Vesuvius computer. Gettin' to either one'll take cuttin' through a half-dozen emergency bulkheads and shielding. If we're gonna have any chance at all she can't have finished both."
"And if she has?" Sabrin asked cynically without turning around.
"Lay off the pessimism will ya?" Dreamer sighed and rolled his dark eyes, all the while knowing the answer to Sabrin's question. During their day of rest, he'd spent time carefully installing replacement components for the ship's eight tachyon cannons and three torpedo launchers, bringing them to operational status. A human might call it paranoia or intuition, but something compelled him to complete the repairs, and to keep them a secret from his crew. The deadly armaments were now the Dream last bulwark against catastrophe: should the situation require it, Dreamer was prepared to fire upon both Lirelle's shuttle and the Vesuvius itself.
Lirelle cursed to herself as an errant electric charge sparked from the cutting torch in her right hand, jolting her back. She closed her eyes and took a few brief meditative exercises, willing calm over her emotions. Beads of sweat slowly trickled down her amber skin, and she wiped them off of her brow with irritation. She restored the onboard atmosphere with the intention of working without the impediment of an EV suit, but the torch's plasma flame had the unfortunate tendency to heat up the air inside the small chamber. Still, time was at a premium and haste was her foremost concern.
In front of her was the last bulkhead barring her access to the second of the Vesuvius' two resonators, and freedom. A blackened half-circle was seared into its dull gray surface, marking her progress. She raised the torch again, only to have a tremor arise through her tired muscles. In frustration she harshly gripped the offending arm with her other hand, directing a glare to it.
It was always in the back of her mind now. The banshee's wail of the derelict battleship resounded through her mind, a tempest of shadow and chaos raging all around her. She felt as though she were standing on an island in the eye of a storm, pushing with all her might against the winds which howled to consume her. The pressure on her mind never abated for a second; it was like a wall of water against a dam: unceasing, and so cold and effortless that it threatened to evoke despair. Lirelle gritted her teeth and reinforced her mental defenses, knowing that the moment she surrendered hope would be her last.
A fresh shower of sparks flew as she relievedly sliced back into the reinforced alloy of the bulkhead. The bright blue flame was a focal point for her thoughts, turning her attention away from the vast, still corridors of the great warship. Ghostly, flickering monitors cast their weak light into the dark space, their screens displaying nothing but static, the silent paen of a lonely vigil over the tomb of six thousand people. Several times, Lirelle's heart had jumped when she thought some distant noise caught her ears, or a flicker out of the corner of her eye, or a wisp of exhalation on the nape of her neck. She told herself it was irrational -- phantoms borne of her stressed imagination, but her heart would not stop pounding.
Such presumption, would one small candle seek to repulse the void?
Lirelle's head snapped up and whirled around, her hand instinctively having unholstered and aimed her plasma gun at the source of the perceived whisper. But all that confronted her was the dreadful, viscous silence and the thumping within her chest. Damn, I won't hold out much longer against the psionic field, she took a deep breath to clear her mind and another look around the empty corridor before returning to work.
Experience taught Lirelle not to expect such luck as to finish her work and return to the Dream without them ever discovering she was missing. But at the moment she longed for the humor and camaraderie of her comrades. Former comrades, she corrected herself. She knew from the beginning that it would end like this, and for that a black well of hatred rose up from deep within her. She checked the sensor feed from the Dream and found it steady. Salvation was perhaps beyond her reach, but at least those she cared about would be spared.
"Easy..." Sabrin muttered under his breath as he maneuvered the Dream alongside the massive length of the Vesuvius with miniscule thruster bursts. Over the past hour his grating headache had grown worse, and something was aggravating his nerves, seemingly at random. The battleship filled their almost entire field of vision, absolutely dwarfing the angular form of Lirelle's shuttle, docked to one of the port airlocks.
"I don't think we've triggered the proximity alert she set up," Dreamer reported. Since Lirelle's uplink was relayed through her shuttle, Dreamer had exploited it to access its systems in an ironic reversal of their roles. "We're not too late, but she's cuttin' her way to the aft resonator now."
"How much time do we have?" Tallas asked.
"I'm not sure. There's too much shielding to get a clear sensor readin'. We should split up. Sabe, you go over and secure her shuttle. Shouldn't be that hard since I've already got access to the computer. Tal, you stay 'ere and keep an eye on things," Dreamer said with an authority rooted in decades of experience.
"What about you?" Sabrin prompted. He rubbed his hands over his eyes, looking older than he was.
"I'm gonna go talk her outta this," Dreamer smiled oddly. When Sabrin seemed doubtful he added, "Think about it. I've known her longer than either of you." By merely a matter of hours, but that was beyond the point. "I know more about Vesuvius and the resonator, and -- no offense -- but I've got the best chance of subduin' her if she resists violently." The two humans nodded in agreement, secretly relieved as neither relished a confrontation with their once-crewmate.
The small vessel docked at a nearby airlock to allow Dreamer and Sabrin entry to the interior, and then moved off to a holding position several hundred meters away. The purpose was to deny Lirelle physical access to the Dream, and also to allow a clear angle of fire for Dreamer's final solution. With a terse "good luck," the two separated in opposite directions after locating transoptic cable Lirelle employed to communicate with her shuttle. Following the silver thread as quietly as he was able, Sabrin was relieved that there was no chance of him becoming lost in the labyrinthian maze of corridors. In his mind he ran scenarios of what he would do if somehow he encountered Lirelle en route. Would she allow his arguments, or shoot him on sight? For that matter, could he defend himself? Sabrin excelled at the hand-to-hand sparring exercises taught at the Academy, but in this situation they seemed rudimentary at best. He decided then that if he survived this, he would renew his training in anticipation of the hardships ahead.
Eventually, the rounded maw of the airlock appeared ahead of him. Sabrin breathed a small sigh of relief at having encountered nothing on the way. Muscles tensed, he crept into the dimly lit interior and surveyed the controls which he had operated on their first two days inside the battlefield. He tapped his fingers over the yellow-and-brown touch buttons, switching control over primary systems to manual and opening a comn channel to the Dream. He grinned through his migraine when Tallas' grainy "This is Dream" came out the old speaker.
"Hey Tal, I'm in the shuttle and I'm done. There's no way that Lirelle will be able to control the system remotely."
"That's great! I knew you could do it." Sabrin glowed at the praise from his best friend. He leaned back in the chair, releasing a bit of the accumulated anxiety.
"Sabe?" There was a note of hesitancy in his voice.
"Yeah buddy?" Sabrin's head perked up. "Something wrong?"
"I never thanked you for saving my life again back at the Telemachus," Tallas said after a brief delay.
Sabrin ran his fingers through his dark hair, remembering how for one brief moment back there he saw his best friend, without reservation. A part of him was desperate to regain that clarity, but when the threat of death became less immediate his thoughts muddled again. So instead, he evaded the emotion. "Hey, what're friends for?" He tried to smile, even though Tallas couldn't see it.
"I'm serious," Tallas admonished. "Thank you. And I don't want you brushing it off like you always do. I mean it."
Sabrin smiled a little at that. "It's nothing that you wouldn't do for me," he said with absolute conviction.
Another lapse of silence followed, as Sabrin peered out of the cockpit window and saw the silvery shape of Dream nearby. He imagined that Tallas was looking at the shuttle at the moment, their eyes spanning all that distance.
"Wish I knew how Dreamer was doin'," Tallas finally said.
"Yeah, me too," Sabrin breathed. All they could do now was wait.
Dreamer's tall frame moved swiftly through the corridors, his footsteps so light as to be nearly inaudible despite his mass and speed. His eyes could "see" most of the electromagnetic spectrum, so the dim corridor was as bright as day to him. Not that it mattered even if his eyes were blinded, because he had a slew of other mechanical senses which imparted to him a degree of situational awareness undreamt of by most humans. What disturbed him was not his surroundings, but the emptiness left by the absence of his ship body. Although his mind was intact, it felt as though he were operating without the vast majority of his memories and several limbs, such were the parts of him left behind when his connection with the Dream is severed. It always made him feel vulnerable, especially considering that one such separation led to his avatar's attack of Sabrin and Tallas.
Conversely, Dreamer experienced a strange reassurance at the thought that his true self was some hundreds of meters away, and that even if he were to "die" in his present body, the person who was the Dream of Dawn would live on. It emboldened him, as it does all avatars, to take risks and do what is necessary.
He approached the last bulkhead near the resonator and could just barely hear the crackle of a plasma torch being wielded. He also analyzed the flashes of light on the wall and estimated the user's location and stance. However, he know that tactics here would accomplish nothing, as Lirelle must voluntarily relinquish her aims for them to survive. His first step was to announce his presence without a fatal blow in response. A three-pronged device emerged from his right palm and converged together, forming a spark of energy between them. Readying his evasive reflexes, he walked calmly out from behind the wall partition, arm outstretched and weapon aimed. "I wouldn't reach for your gun if I 'ere you," he said softly.
Lirelle's hand paused at her holster. Her torch flickered out while she slowly turned around and stood up, her body uncoiling like a venomous snake. A glimmer of surprise flashed through her demure features before the collected mask slid back in place. She didn't touch her gun, but her hand remained where it was. "Why wouldn't I Dreamer? I don't imagine you have it deactivated this time," she said slowly.
Dreamer ignored the implicit challenge and took a calculated step forward. "Why'd you betray us Lirelle?"
"I regret that, but it was necessary," Lirelle said evenly. "You wouldn't have been harmed."
"Like hell," Dreamer said, his calm voice dripping with vitriol. "Next you'll say the Telemachus was a fireworks display to keep us entertained while you were away."
"I don't know what you mean." Lirelle punctuated her statement with a single shake of her head.
"The antimatter ejection system on the Telemachus was activated," there was a dangerous edge to Dreamer's eyes. "And thanks to your lovely virus stallin' our engines we nearly got a bellyful of antimatter. What'd you do, set up a neutron beam to trip the circuit when we got close?"
An expression of genuine contrition appeared on Lirelle's face. "No, I had no idea that would happen."
"Right," Dreamer's voice was unconvinced. "So you are an agent of the Onyx Hand," he said.
"I told you I wasn't!" Lirelle snapped.
"I don't need to explain myself to you." The corner of her lip curled ever so slightly upwards in defiance. "You won't fire. I am your only protection against the psionic field."
"Try me," Dreamer's voice brooked no doubt. "One way or another I will stop you."
"You have the parts you came for Dreamer. Leave me!" Lirelle eyed her opponent warily. Precious minutes were slipping away while they faced off with each other, and she could ill-afford further delays. She decided to play her cards while she still held them. The android was undoubtedly faster, but perhaps the certain knowledge of psionic shield failure upon her death would hold him back long enough for her to act. Her hand twitched almost imperceptibly towards her gun.
"Don't," Dreamer favored his simple warning with a small smile, "My weapons are locked onto the Vesuvius. I'll destroy this ship before I allow you to leave with scans of the resonator."
"And condemn Tallas and Sabrin to death?" Lirelle asked incredulously. She did not believe Dreamer was capable of such an act.
"I wasn't the one who condemned them," Dreamer said, narrowing his eyes. He gauged Lirelle's moment of weakness and stepped closer, saying in a much stronger voice, "You're better than this! Damn it Lirelle, we can all still walk away."
"No we can't," Lirelle said in a strangled voice, backing away towards the bulkhead. Moisture glimmered at the corner of one eye. "Dreamer, this does not concern you! Please...leave me to what I must."
"Don't you understand the consequences if that technology ever leaves this ship?" Dreamer demanded.
"You're the one who doesn't understand!" Lirelle gestured emphatically behind her. "They will kill him if I don't deliver this data!"
Dreamer had little idea who 'him' was, but a light of understanding switched on when he heard those words. Kinjori culture itself was predicated on the bonds of family. The blood which tied together members of a Kinjori house could not be broken even in death. The android allowed a note of sympathy to pervade his consciousness, but his course of action remained as clear as it ever was. "Millions of people will die if you do this Lirelle. Entire worlds'll be snuffed out of existence, if not by the Kinjori, then by some other power-hungry empire."
"Someone will re-discover the technology, even if Vesuvius is lost," Lirelle said weakly, trying to rationalize her choice.
"Maybe so, but are you willin' to have that much blood on your hands Lirelle?" Dreamer asked, emphasizing her name. "Are you willin' to be responsible for unleashing this horror on all humanity?" He knew he was pushing it, but he stepped in closer and stared directly into Lirelle's brown eyes, though never dropping his arm. "If you are any part Madia's daughter you could never even consider it," he half-whispered.
Each quiet word slammed into Lirelle as much as any physical blow. How had it come to this, with a beginning so promising? A whirlwind of pain, doubt, and remorse wracked her body, and she staggered backwards with eyes shut, a few tears escaping to slide down her cheeks. Her gun was forgotten as she slumped against the dull gray metal behind her. "No...no why does it have to be like this?!" she hissed through clenched jaws.
"You know the right thing to do," Dreamer said gently, lowering his weapon. His face was compassionate now, a radical transformation from the implacable visage he presented seconds earlier. Lirelle tilted her head upwards and met his eyes. Her fine-featured countenance was haggard with fatigue, marred by the mental and physical hardships she was forced to endure. At that moment, staring into those blood-shot brown orbs, Dreamer knew that he had accomplished what he set out to do.
Suddenly, a priority-one signal code came through his transponder link with the ship before it went silent entirely. Alarms rang through Dreamer's brain as he said, "Lirelle, something's up. I need to access your uplink."
Lirelle nodded numbly, and Dreamer picked up the transoptic cable to initiate a connection via the fibers in his fingers. He patched through to the Dream's onboard comn system. "What's goin' on?"
"We've got a problem here," Tallas' static-filled voice came through. "There's a Kinjori battle cruiser approaching fast."
"What?!" Dreamer swore to himself. This considerably complicated their situation. Lirelle had straightened herself and was intently listening to the transmission.
"They must've come from the far side of the star, they're jamming our--" Tallas' voice dissolved into a wash of hisses and pops.
"Fuck! How'd the Kinjori get 'ere?" Dreamer shot Lirelle an accusatory glare. "D'you know about this?"
"No, I swear," Lirelle's face was just as confused as his.
"They must be after the resonators... I've gotta get back," Dreamer turned to leave, noticing that Lirelle had fallen in step with him. "What're you doin'?"
"The right thing," Lirelle responded without inflection.
Dreamer managed a tight smile, over his irritation that what should have been his triumph was disrupted by this new crisis. Just then, a previously unseen bulkhead lowered into place, deftly slicing Lirelle's transoptic cable in two. Instantly, neither of them was receiving telemetry from the shuttle or the ship, meaning that Lirelle no longer had access to the shields. All around them, additional bulkheads descended noisily, trapping them. Wordlessly, the two people glanced obliquely at each other. Shit.
"I've lost the uplink, the shields are down!" Tallas said, frantically manipulating controls above his console.
"The Kinjori've extended their shields around us. Around all of Vesuvius too," Dreamer's displayed image said, regarding gravely the massive shape approaching them. Though only a third as long as the derelict beside them, the black-hulled warship presented an imposing profile, all hard lines and angles as is typical of Kinjori design. Its lean, jagged hull flared outwards and down, reminding him of a colossal raven with its wings spread in downstroke.
"I thought you said the Kinjori don't have the sensors for a psionic shield," Tallas spat out.
"Obviously they've made some improvements," Dreamer said sardonically, "Incoming transmission, audio only."
"Unidentified spacecraft, this is the war vessel Chalnas of the Kinjori Hegemony. You are in transgression of classified operations and are hereby ordered to stand down and surrender. Do not attempt escape."
"Charming," Tallas muttered. The deck beneath his feet trembled slightly and he saw that the cruiser had locked onto them with a tractor beam.
"They've locked weapons on us," Dreamer said.
"What's happening on Vesuvius?" Tallas asked with concern. The arrival of the cruiser momentarily diverted his attention, but he couldn't shake the growing impression that there was something very wrong aboard the battleship.
"It's a total blank over there; there's too much interference close to the resonators. I might be able to sneak a signal past their jamming to the shuttle though."
"What're our options?"
"Not much. As long as they're holdin' up the shields they pretty much have us by the balls," Dreamer said, then paused as new data arrived. "I've also picked up two short-range interceptors. They're headed for the shuttle."
"Can we stop them?" Tallas asked.
"No way I can see," Dreamer responded grimly.
Tallas cursed under his breath as he watched, helplessly, the two small combat craft gliding towards his best friend. His chocolate eyes travelled up to the ominous expanse of Vesuvius's hull, and suppressed the shudder that sprang from the very core of his being. "Start working on that comn signal," he ordered Dreamer before turning to his console. A new idea was brewing; his mind twisted against it and he wasn't even sure where it came from, but somehow he knew it would work.
Lirelle grazed her hands over the new bulkhead barring their way to freedom. "Damn the Altairan penchant for redundancy," she swore. A grimace crossed her face as a new wave of hot pain flashed through her mind, which at the moment seemed tattered beyond repair when her neural link to the Dream was suddenly ripped away. A warm, strong hand pressed against her side, steadying her swaying body.
"The Kinjori must be shieldin' us now," Dreamer said from behind her. "Where'd fuck did all these bulkheads come from? I thought upper-level control systems were all down."
"I thought so too--" a shudder ran through Lirelle's body as a sensation of desolate cold touched her senses. Immediately her heart rate jumped and her skin grew clammy, as the memory of the whisper returned to her. Cautiously she glanced to Dreamer, and saw that his big body was frozen in place but his black eyes were darting black and forth with frenetic speed. A nearly imperceptible movement perturbed his graceful lips, almost as if he were whispering some arcane mantra. "Dreamer?" She grazed her hand against his arm.
The man's head snapped back to face her at the sound of her voice, a vaguely disturbed expression marring his handsome features. "Something was trying to access my systems," he said. "It wasn't the Kinjori."
"I felt it too," Lirelle said. "Something's not right with this ship." Breathing shallowly, she glanced around them, from her tools scattered on the floor to the flickering monitors. A chill ran down her spine when she realized that the pattern of static on every monitor was identical. "Dreamer..." she breathed, focusing her vision on a single monitor. In those changing, shifting lines of gray and white she began to see an undercurrent of order, of purpose. A theory began formulating in her brain, causing her eyes to widen involuntarily. Quickly, she gathered her telepathic faculties and formed a wall around her mind, like a psionic shield in miniature. Turning to the android, she urged, "Dreamer, whatever you do, don't let it into your mind!"
Dreamer acknowledged her with a nod, noticing the same designs she did in the monitors. "We've got to help them get away from here," he whispered.
"As long as I'm cut off from the Dream the Kinjori are holding all the cards outside," as those words passed Lirelle's lips, their course of action became clear to her. "Dreamer," she pulled on his sleeve to get his attention, "we must finish cutting through that bulkhead and destroy the resonator."
"The field will be useless with just one," Dreamer said, finishing her thought. "And the Dream'll have a chance to escape."
The two of them rushed back to the metallic wall, Lirelle picking up her torch and protective visor, and Dreamer reconfiguring his plasma gun to cutting mode. With renewed fervor they began slicing again into the alloy, proceeding from opposide ends of the crescent. As he worked, Dreamer fought to reject the dark presence encroaching at the periphery of his mind, probing and testing his barriers like a circling predator.
You resist the inevitable. I am the devourer of all thought.
Dreamer forced the voice back and pumped more energy into his plasma emitters. In the moments when the presence first made itself known, he had touched its quasi-mind and glimpsed its hideous malevolence. It was a pitiless chasm he could not hope to describe, the nexus of more than a million minds whose final agonized throes echoed across the vacuum of space back into the Vesuvius computer, giving parturition to a manifestation of fury and hatred seething and frothing within its digital warren, watching and waiting. Dreamer's every instinct recoiled from it, fought to escape from it; was this fear? How was that possible?
The sound of the other plasma torch stopped and Dreamer looked down to see that Lirelle had dropped her tool and was clutching her temples, her face scrunched in pain. Rapidly he crouched down and took her hands in his, gazing into her face.
"God the p-pain..." she rasped, "I can f-feel it eating away at my mind..."
"Focus on me Lirelle," Dreamer ordered urgently, "Ignore its influence, look at me! Remember where we are, what we're doin'."
Such diminutive flames...any gust of wind could extinguish them.
Fuck off! Dreamer yelled mentally. "Concentrate Lirelle! You can fight it!" In desperation he dug his fingers into her hand, drawing blood. "The pain in your mind's an illusion! This pain is real!" He pressed into the wound to emphasize his point. "Focus on what's real! Fight!"
Lirelle grimaced and closed her hand tightly, causing more blood to issue forth. The dark red liquid seeped between her slender fingers, a few drops splattering on the floor. Finally her absent rocking stopped and her haevy breathing regained its regularity. She opened her hand to see the blood, and then looked back up to Dreamer. "Thanks," she said hoarsely.
"Don' mention it. C'mon, we've got work to do." Dreamer stood back up and resumed his cutting.
Twenty minutes later, a bright flash signalled the convergence of their two torches. "Stand back," Dreamer cautioned Lirelle barely a second before slamming his open palm into the center of the bulkhead with the force of a battering ram. A thunderous clammor resonated through the room as the half-meter-thick circular section of metal plating was punched out of the surrounding alloy and sent flying backwards into the room beyond, crashing against the transparent cylinder surrounding the resonator. Even Lirelle was momentarily awed by the show of strength.
"Subtle," she murmured, packing up her tools and swinging the bag over her shoulders.
"Hey, I was aggravated," Dreamer drawled in the way of explanation as he stepped through the still-smouldering hole. Wisps of acrid smoke wafted through the air, stinging Lirelle's nostrils and eyes. The room itself was an enormous two-storied chamber, encircled on both levels by rows of consoles and monitors, all flickering with the same static. To her they felt like eyes, each affixed upon them. Rising from the circular central gallery was the cylinder of inert gas which housed the resonator. A spidery pattern of fractures traced where the plate struck its surface, and inside she could see the device to which so many people lost their lives. It was smaller than she imagined, a rotating metallic sphere cradled by two pylons protruding from the floor and ceiling. Small golden arcs of energy sparked over its surface, while the air itself around it seemed to waver.
So this is responsible for everything, Dreamer thought, his mind filling with loathing for the whirling machine.
How foolish, to believe that will stay my wrath! We are at but a beginning.
Dreamer gritted his teeth and activated the magnetic soles on his boots to brace himself before picking up the massive piece of bulkhead. Gripping it with both hands, he struck it edge-on against the fractures, shattering the plastic-like composite in a shower of fragments. Immediately the air gained an electric tinge as the gases within escaped and transferred their ionization to the outside.
Without hesitation, Dreamer tossed the metal disk aside as if it were a giant frisbee, aimed his arm, and fired a bolt of white-burning plasma into the device. He watched, not lacking a small note of satisfaction, the sphere explode in a fiery spray of sparks and metal shards. Inside his mind, he felt the presence pull back, though he doubted that the reprieve would last for long. For good measure, he fired four more bolts successively into the supporting pylons, reducing both halves to charred piles of rubble on the floor.
"Men," Lirelle rolled her eyes and turned from the devastation. "Now that you've had your fun, let's see about us getting out of here."
Out of the small cockpit window of his shuttle, Sabrin watched the pair of graceful vessels descend from the boomerang-shaped silhouette of the battle cruiser looming above him, backlit by the brilliant yellow light of Seos B. A beam of golden light extended from its belly to another silhouette, much smaller and ellipsoid in shape. Ever since he lost the signal from Dream, Sabrin had fought an internal battle on whether to contradict his instructions and take matters into his own hands, or wait. Now it seemed his decision would be made for him.
He wish he knew what was happening in the rest of the ship. The shuttle's sensors were frustratingly primitive, even by Kinjori standards. They were sufficient to inform him that the interceptors were on a direct course for his position, and that their weapons were charged. Combat was obviously out of the question -- compared to the sleek Kinjori interceptors Lirelle's shuttle had the equivalent speed and armament of a floating crate. And how long could the shuttle last against the cruiser's modern weaponry? That was a possibility Sabrin did not care to explore.
"Miss Wice, this is Nenzeth. Forgive the intrusion but we are here to save you the long journey to Kinjor by collecting that which was promised to us." The voice from the intercom startled him slightly, and he realized that the Kinjori must've mistaken his lifesigns for those of Lirelle's. "Our envoy will arrive momentarily. Please do not incite our goodwill with impetuosity."
Polite sons of bitches, Sabrin thought as he considered his position: the Kinjori believe that he held the resonator scans and computer files they sought, so that and the equipment aboard Vesuvius were his only bargaining chips. If the Kinjori take control of the battleship or learn that he did not possess that data, then his life and that of the Dream were no longer necessary. Quickly, he opened a channel to the cruiser while inserting a set of instructions into the computer. "Kinjori warship, I've planted explosives around the computer core and the resonators. Stop your approach or I'll detonate them," he said firmly. Simultaneously he triggered an overload in the lateral sensor arrays, sending a flood of scanner-blinding thoron particles into the surrounding space. He doubted that the Kinjori would fall for his bluff, but he figured it should buy them some more time.
"I presume you are not Lirelle?" the Kinjori commander inquired.
"She's not available at the moment," Sabrin answered facetiously. "Now tell your ships to stop, or kiss that resonator goodbye." Glancing at the sensors, he allowed himself a small smile when the two interceptors came to a stop eight hundred meters from his position.
"Your brazenness is commendable; alas your tactics are not. Were your threat legitimate, there would be no need to hinder our sensors so."
"Then why've your ships stopped?" Sabrin shot back. "If you're so sure I'm lying by all means come aboard. Nothing would make me happier than to see your prize go up in flames." He was glad that the channel was audio only, as certainly his anxious expression and palpitating heart would give him away in an instant. He had an urge to congratulate his acting skills when a pause ensued, and he imagined this "Nenzeth" debating with his subordinates.
"Suppose for the moment our acquiescence. What is your intention?" Nenzeth finally said.
"I'll give you your precious data, but I want some assurances first."
"Safe passage out of this system." Sabrin said evenly, though his mind was running at a feverish pace. Nothing in his experience was close to preparing him for hostile negotiations, and he eminently hoped he didn't instantly betray that fact.
"Was that not our original covenant?" Nenzeth's voice dripped such false sincerity that Sabrin almost laughed aloud.
"I take it then that your warship is an evocation of the dove of peace?" he returned in the most sarcastic tone he could manage. "I think you got the color wrong."
The man on the other side actually laughed slightly at that, though it was a sound that Sabrin would be more than happy never to hear again. "Were we unconcerned with time I would be pleased to continue this discourse, but for now I suggest that this banter is counter-productive. How may we reassure you of our benevolence, beyond our more-than-adequate word?"
"You 'may' start by pulling back your interceptors," as Sabrin spoke, he noticed a flashing indicator on a nearby monitor. It's the Dream! He surreptitiously tapped a few controls and a text message appeared on the screen: 'Am monitoring situation. Use earpiece to talk.' After a brief scramble, he found the small device and nestled it into his right ear. He switched it on and sent back a confirmation signal.
"Sabe, Dreamer's sneaking this signal past their jamming frequencies. We're workin' on a plan out of this so stall them as long as you can," Tallas' voice sounded scratchy and distant through the poor-quality connection, but Sabrin was nevertheless elated for the support.
"I foresee that will not be the sole stipulation," Nenzeth interrupted his hidden reunion with his shipmates.
"I also want you to power down your weapons and engines, and disengage the firing protocols."
"Requiring us a minimum of thirty minutes to re-initialize either?" the voice bore a faintly amused quality, as if he were indulging a small child. The tone stirred Sabrin's ire, but he willed himself to remain calm. "And if we cooperate, what are our assurances that you will uphold your pledge of consignment?"
"Don't count on 'em cooperatin'," Dreamer spoke in his ear. "They know we've got no way to tell if they've really disengaged the protocols."
"Why would I lie? If you don't get the data you're gonna kill me." That wasn't a lie, Sabrin reflected.
"A compelling rationale," Nenzeth replied. "Nonetheless I am reticent to render my vessel bereft of defenses."
Is he kidding? "I'm hardly a threat to your ship physically, weapons or no weapons," Sabrin said.
"You flatter me--" a pause and some traces of background conversation. "One of the resonators has been lost," Nenzeth noted with a distinct hint of displeasure. "Explain yourself."
"He's right, psionic flux's dropped to zero along nearly all bandwidths," Dreamer informed him. "Me or Lirelle must've taken out the aft resonator."
"That was just a...demonstration of my sincerity," Sabrin fibbed, spinning furiously. "No need to get hysterical," he said with more confidence, "You'll still get the data you want if you agree to my terms."
"It seems we have little other recourse. However," Sabrin could practically see the razor-toothed smile on Nenzeth's unknown face, "if you would please elucidate one other matter for me...I recognize that shuttlecraft around you, but not this curious farship I have in my grasp. Is it your property?" -- Sabrin did not answer -- "For I wonder whether the prize I seek may be extracted from its databanks."
"You stay away from him!" Sabrin burst out, forgetting himself. "There's nothing aboard that ship you want!"
"Ah..." That small sigh of acknowledgement made Sabrin's blood run cold. "I see. I judge it time to arrange a new covenant between us. The data you possess is of great importance to me and of lesser utility to you. Conversely, your ship--" Oh no, Sabrin's eyes widened, "--is of great importance to you and means nothing to me. Therefore I propose a trade, a ship -- and life -- for a piece of information. Is that not a bargain?" A veil of dark drew across the console and Sabrin jerked his head up, in time to see the Chalnas gliding gracefully forward and tractoring the Dream beneath its titanic wings, eclipsing the much smaller vessel in shadow. A purely psychological move, but an effective one -- Sabrin's heart wrenched when he saw the warship manipulate the Dream as casually as a toy.
"Relinquish what was promised to us, or you will bear witness as we dismantle your vessel, piece by piece, to verify what you have told us. Or, perhaps interrogating your crewman first would prove a more fruitful preliminary exercise." Nenzeth said, not missing a beat.
"You evil mother fucker!" Sabrin seethed, virtually trembling with rage. The question of how could anyone treat lives with such casual brutality crossed his mind, with no answer forthcoming. His eyes shot white-hot fury at the haughty profile of the cruiser, and if his consciousness had any influence on reality the vessel would have burst into flames without a second of hesitation.
The opposing man lost none of his composure. "I grant you fifteen seconds to comply," the Kinjori said simply and closed the channel.
"No!" Sabrin slammed his hand against the console. "Fuck!" He looked up and saw that the two interceptors have begun moving again, taking up holding positions to both sides of the shuttle.
"Sabe! Sabe, listen, open an uplink between the Kinjori ship and the Vesuvius computer!" Tallas said urgently. "I'm sending you the protocols to use."
"What?! That's exactly what they want!" Sabrin exclaimed. In his mind, he had no doubt whatsoever that Nenzeth would promptly dispatch all of them if they were to hand over the data -- which they didn't even have! The sheer insanity of the situation strangled a half-laugh out of his mouth as he wondered how the universe could be so twisted. Any moment now, he knew one of the cruiser's cannons could explode in a glorious radiance, and consume the only thing in his life he ever truly cared about. God Tal, I wish I were back home with you...I'm so tired.
"Open the uplink Sabe! Trust me!" Tallas yelled plaintively through the channel.
You have no idea how much. Sabrin bit down hard on his lip, using the pain to invigorate his senses as he input the command sequences Tallas sent him into the shuttle's computer. A warning klaxon filled the small cabin with its raucous whine, and he punched a control angrily to shut it off. The sound announced a power spike, the last precursor to a weapon discharge.
"I regret to see you value possession more than your comrades," the cold ultimatum arrived from the cruiser.
Sabrin slapped his hand onto the large triangular button and a cascading series of displays appeared. "Uplink established!" he shouted.
The prismatic torch bit extinguished in a wheeze and a sputter of pathetic light. Lirelle shook it with annoyance, then sighed and moved to replace it. If they escaped, she would be glad to never see another one of the tools again. Above her, Dreamer worked with the consummate, enviable efficiency so characteristic of a machine. He glanced down and gave a crooked smile, looking eerie from the plasma light reflected in his eyes. "Say Lirelle, not to be a downer or anythin' but what's to keep Vesuvius from lowerin' another bulkhead in front of us after we finish cuttin' through this one?"
"Well we can't just give up," Lirelle said exasperatedly and pressed the casing back in place with a click.
"I don't remember sayin' that," Dreamer said innocently. "I simply wanted to highlight the potential shortcomings in our escape plan."
"Are you always like that?" Lirelle shook her head and re-ignited the torch.
"What?" Dreamer grinned.
"Inopportunely flippant," Lirelle responded.
"Hell, we're prolly gonna die in here anyway and I don' wanna spend my last seconds mopin'," Dreamer said cheerily, and Lirelle had to chuckle a bit at his attitude. Suddenly, the deck plate began to tremble and the nearby monitors began to flicker with actual technical displays. Slowly the two people turned their faces towards each other.
"What was that you said about dying in here?" Lirelle said half-jokingly.
"Work faster," was Dreamer's only response.
All across the hull of the proud battle cruiser Chalnas, the orderly assortment of windows and various glowing pallets began to dim and quiver erratically. The pulse of the beam holding the Dream of Dawn in place faltered, its strength sapping into the surrouding space, until it disappeared altogether. At the same time, systems which had laid asleep for more than two decades aboard the Vesuvius strained back to life, making painfully obvious their years of deterioration. A shuddering groan rippled through the bowels of the great warship as its fusion reactors re-initiated, though their renewed lives would be short.
"Well I'll be damned! All primary systems of the Chalnas are bein' disrupted!" Dreamer explained in jubilant surprise.
"Tractor beam's down; I'm layin' in a course to the shuttle," Tallas scrambled into the pilot's seat and brought the Dream's ion engines to full power, feeling the pleased whine of freedom through the deck plate beneath him.
"Shields are online, chargin' weapons... Those interceptors're comin' about, headin' right for us," Dreamer regarded at the pair of slender profiles darting towards them with reckless impunity. Overconfident, he smirked to himself and acquired a target lock on the closer attacker. Kinjori interceptors were built for speed and maneuverability, not armor. Not to mention that, with its engines fully restored, the Dream was just as fast and only marginally less agile. "I've been itchin' to do this since that cruiser got 'ere. Unless you've got objections?" He asked Tallas with an astutely raised brow.
"Not now!" Tallas chided agitatedly as a pulse of energy lit up the forward shields. "Fire!"
Dreamer smirked and sent a pair of tachyon beams from the Dream's forward ventral cannons straight into the bow of the first interceptor. Its flimsy shields withered and buckled in merely a few seconds under the assault, allowing the deadly deams to slice clear into the interior like a hot knife through butter. As precisely as an assassin's blade, the beams pierced into the fusion heart of the warship and unleashed the fires within, tearing the small craft to molten shreds in a colorful explosion of red and orange. Sensing the danger, its companion banked sharply to starboard, strafing past the Dream's flank. It sent out two more energy bursts back towards the farship, swinging around in a wide arc to make another run.
"Sabe?! Where's my avatar?!" Dreamer yelled through the un-jammed comn channel.
"How the fuck should I know?!" Sabrin replied frustratedly, watching the situation unfold aboard the Vesuvius with increasing dread. Power conduits were rupturing all over the ship, as bursts of barely controlled energy surged outwards from the fusion reactors. In the absence of a stable structural integrity field, the stress was fracturing the hull at a dozen vulnerable points, each with the potential to develop into a full-blown hull breach. Worse yet, the ion engines were powering up, sending gut-wrenching spasms through the complaining docking tube.
Sabrin's mind was torn between the two roads open to him. How was he to make a decision when he had no idea whether Dreamer could even reach him? Another heart-stopping shock shot through the shuttle's old frame, nearing jostling him off his chair. To decide whether to possibly leave someone behind to die...he couldn't make that choice. Instead Sabrin spang up and stumbled through the creaking interior to the airlock.
The circular section of bulkhead flew forward and richocheted through the corridor with an ear-splitting crash. Immediately behind it, Dreamer and Lirelle bounded through the smoking cavity and landed in a dead run for the shuttle. Around them was a scene of sheer chaos: showers of sparks rained down from above, dancing like dying embers amongst the debris littering the deck. No order or patterns existed in the monitors now, as their unsettled glow illuminated the passage of the two running forms.
"Dreamer!" the echo of Sabrin's voice drifted through the hallway. "Goddamnit Dreamer you're such a fuckin' drama queen! You just have to escape at the last possible second, don't ya?!"
"You'll pay for that loverboy!" Dreamer hollered back, picking up his pace.
High above the Vesuvius, a half-dozen dazzling beams of confined energy lashed through the ink-like black and into the side of the second interceptor. The port engine array splintered away and exploded, leaving the small craft to spiral out of control and slam into the side of the rousing battleship in a spectacular plume of flame and tortured metal. Cringing at the impact, Tallas swung the Dream around in a wide curve and came to a stop near the shuttle. "The Chalnas' secondary weapons array's comin' back online," the A.I. said with alarm, "Firin' solution in thirty seconds."
"About fuckin' time!" Sabrin's eyes widened when he saw Lirelle stumble in and collapse against the aft partition, but his mind had no time to properly register the event as the shuttle jerked harshly from the airlock clamps and rose upwards from the battleship's hull. Beside him, Dreamer threw himself into the other chair with immaculate elegance, the only evidence of the past ordeal being his scuffed uniform and slightly mussed hair. His black eyebrows scrunched together in annoyance as he gave Sabrin a glare.
"Drama queen? I'll show ya fuckin' drama!"
"The shuttle's off!" Tallas took the Dream on a dive towards the small Kinjori craft, hoping to shave off a few more seconds from their exit. With a blast of its thrusters, the shuttle banked abruptly and wheeled behind the Dream, launching itself through the shuttlebay force-field with a final boost. The Dream's twin ion engines flared to full power, propelling the small vessel away from the Vesuvius at a significant fraction of the speed of light.
Arriving physically on the bridge, Dreamer's eyes narrowed at the rapidly dwindling profile of the Altairan battleship and its Kinjori companion. Beneath the tail of the Dream, three torpedoes emerged and drove themselves back towards the disabled vessels. During his earlier mission assessment Dreamer ran through a list of weak points in the derelict Vesuvius, and it was for one of those points that his antimatter-laden warheads were now headed. "See ya in hell," he quietly bade his nemesis.
In precisely timed intervals, the torpedoes smashed through the armor covering a rounded segment along Vesuvius' long body, dealing a fatal blow to the primary plasma manifold of the starboard fusion reactor. The entire midsection of the battleship erupted in a titanic explosion that made the death of the Telemachus seem like a road flare in comparison. Tongues of fire tore forwards and backwards along the length of the ship, appearing to rip the hull apart from the inside out. A chain of secondary explosions followed, hurling out waves of charred debris and molten slag, consuming the rest of the great vessel in a fitting eulogy to its blighted existence. Fiery concussion waves rippled outwards and dashed their fury against the immobile Chalnas, their sheer energy and force blistering the exposed hull and finally buckling the spaceframe beneath. The stricken warship listed to its side, bleeding trails of plasma from multiple wounds.
The reunited crew watched the destruction with a sense of poetic justice as the Dream spirited towards the nearest jump potential. "Well Dreamer, was it really worth all this?" Tallas asked half-jokingly.
"Obviously," Dreamer said as though it were the most evident thing in the universe. "You did see those torpedoes work, right?"
A palpable lull settled over the farship Dreams of Dawn on the following day. Near the edge of the battlefield they jumped to the uninhabited star system of Seegrieve, to rest and refuel before they made their way to the nexus system of Isis. Dreamer discreetly monitored the interstellar networks and scanned for signs of pursuit, finding none. He roamed around the ship, attending to ship matters and beginning the process of rebuilding his stripped machine shops. He also outlined a program of upgrades for Lirelle's shuttle, which had suffered rather more wear during the salvage mission than the Dream had.
Meanwhile, Lirelle seemed to be the topic no one was willing to broach. Tallas greeted her reappearance onboard with a mute stare, a tense and somewhat uncomfortable expression on his face. Sabrin, for his part, was simply too emotionally and physically exhausted to muster much of a response other than a subdued "keep an eye on her" to Dreamer. Eventually Dreamer decided it would be simplest for all involved to confine her to quarters and deal with the issue later. Lirelle didn't resist, and the A.I. perceived that she had more pressing matters to ponder. Her only demand was sleep, given that her mental faculties were dangerously depleted after holding a barrier against Vesuvius for more than 25 straight hours.
In their own quarters, Sabrin and Tallas took turns in the shower and then retired to bed with their own thoughts. Sabrin slipped into a deep slumber almost as soon as his head touched the pillow, the uncomfortable mattress forgiven by the relief felt by his over-stressed body. When his eyes opened again, it was to the sight of a blue-green gas giant. He had set the course to it the previous day, as it was the richest source of deuterium within range.
Sabrin stretched and lazily rose from the bed, reaching for the shirt he wore out of Astral-Ishasa. The ship was eerily quiet, an impression only enhanced by the slight rumble from the power cores. Back in his old life, the nights were always livened by a hundred different noises ranging from distant sirens of the city to the gentle trill of cicadas echoing from the park. And at least twice a month some inebriated classmate would come pounding on his door, mystified as to why his keycard didn't function in the lock. It was all so impersonal, but the Dream was different. It and its four occupants were almost a world in themselves.
He walked into the bathroom to wash up, and then rapped gently on Tallas' door. Sabrin heard a soft "enter" and stepped through, spying his friend's supine form laying on the bed. His heartbeat quickened as his eyes followed the glint of light tracing the streamlined curves of Tallas' shoulder and side. Unconsciously he began imagining running his hands along the smooth, unblemished skin, feeling the heat and firmness of the muscles beneath.
"You sleep any?" Sabrin asked in a concerned voice, sitting on the edge of the narrow bed.
"On and off," was the reply. Slowly, Tallas twisted his shapely torso around and tilted up his head to meet Sabrin's eyes. Sabrin's eyes were drawn to the soft, pliant skin of his friend's neck, then to the subtle "V" of his collarbone, before he forced himself to divert his attention. "I keep thinking about it."
"Vesuvius?" Sabrin prompted, placing a soothing hand on his friend's bare shoulder and squeezed it slightly. He felt guilty for being excited by the closeness with Tallas' body when his friend was being troubled by something, so he did his best to suppress the reflex.
Tallas nodded. "Did Dreamer tell you what happened?"
"About the ship being evil and alive?" Sabrin frowned slightly; his mind still didn't know quite what to make of the idea, which Dreamer described to him only vaguely. "Sort of, I couldn't catch all of it."
"I can't quite shake the feelin' that I did the wrong thing," Tallas whispered, shifting his eyes back to the window.
"What're you talking about?" Sabrin said, uncomprehending. "You saved all of us."
"I felt it -- Vesuvius I mean -- as soon as we went into that battlefield, like this faraway monster I could barely see. And then when we got close, I could feel its hatred, the sheer pleasure it got from cruelty, its absolute contempt for all life -- and I used it against the Kinjori." He shuddered.
"You did what you had to to protect us Tal," Sabrin emphasized his point by firming his grip.
"But I released that thing from its prison, and now I don't know what'll happen," Tallas half-whispered. Sabrin sensed that his friend was growing more agitated and knew he needed to calm him.
"Shhh..." Sabrin leaned in closer, taking his hand and gently guiding Tallas' face back towards his own. "Thank you for saving my life," he said, his azure eyes sparkling. Time seemed to slow as a small, startled expression came to his friend's face and his breath grew short and quivering. Their hearts pounded in their chests, for an instant as one. As though emboldened by some outside force, Sabrin dipped down and lightly brushed his lips against Tallas' cheek. A single touch, reaffirming everything their friendship was and the potential of what it could be.
"Now, I want you to get some actual sleep, okay?" Sabrin drew back and asked in a paternal tone. Tallas nodded numbly.
"Would...would you mind staying for a while?" Tallas asked timidly.
"Sure thing buddy," Sabrin smiled.
Some hours later, Dreamer released the lock to Lirelle's quarters and summoned her to the bridge, where Sabrin and Tallas were already gathered. After fifteen minutes, the young woman appeared at the doorway, greeting the others politely with a wan smile. Her dark beauty was still evident, but worn haggard by a strain unbefitting her age. "What's this about, Dreamer?" she asked.
"I'm pickin' up a signal off the Kinjori net, the same one I used to first contact you," Dreamer said in a serious tone. "It leads to a message somebody left in your old mailbox back on Ledon. The datestamp's less than twelve hours old."
Lirelle nodded grimly, stepping forward to input her personal access code. Sabrin had the impression she already knew what it contained.
The viewscreen was initially garbled, but eventually resolved into a grainy image of a man standing with his arms folded behind him. His face was austere, accented by a thin, aquiline nose and short, graying hair that was perhaps once as black as Lirelle's. A pattern of etched lines marked the passage of too many years, or too many experiences. However, his eyes shone with the cold, adamantine glint of a cut diamond. There was unspoken malice behind that face, one which Dreamer had seen far too often. There was no doubt in his mind: it was Nenzeth.
"Miss Wice--" his voice, clipped by the quality of the recording, held four pairs of eyes raptly at attention. "How'd he know you're still alive?" Tallas asked quietly, receiving no response.
"It is most regrettable that you have declined to fulfill the terms of your compact with us." Sabrin had nearly forgotten how much he despised that voice. "I fear that, with this latest dereliction, your life and that of your brother have become forfeit. Consider this a portent, for your chosen fate." The camera panned away, revealing an indistinct human shape crouched near the far wall. Right before their shocked eyes, Nenzeth drew his weapon and fired two shots, the first into the figure's head and the second into his torso. The form collapsed in a heap on the floor, two dark imprints on the wall where his body had been. Sabrin's breakfast rose in his throat, and he was thankful for the low resolution which barred any details.
Nenzeth efficiently re-holstered his weapon and turned back to the camera, his face bearing no trace of the fact that he just murdered a man in cold blood. "A pitiable end, for once such an honorable line. Au revoir, Miss Wice."
The screen turned blank, leaving only the viscous silence enveloping the bridge. Tallas' eyes were wide, a sickly pallor over his thin face. Subconsciously Sabrin pulled closer to his side, hoping to share some measure of comfort between them. Dreamer's hands were closed into tight balls, his teeth gnashing in outrage. Lirelle had watched the entire message with her face frozen in an unscrutable expression and her mouth set in a firm line. Wordlessly, she turned and walked off the bridge.