Changes of Mind
This part originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue.
237th of 2029 (063-98): Offices of Imperial Intelligence, Alsuy
Sector Chief Meiz Nohmonaa looked up as her appointment arrived. Frifrue Naaz Teequow; her presence sent a shiver down Nohmonaa’s spine. The title frifrue was usually translated as ‘baroness’, though her rank was not Imperial. Nobody was exactly sure which peerage she’d gained the title from, or indeed if she ever gained it from anyone at all. But nobody dared dispute her use of it to her face, at least nobody that wanted to live. While she appeared to be in her early middle age, nobody was sure of her exact age. Definitely a lot older than she looked. Imperial records of her went back at least fifty years. She was certainly attractive, tall, willowy, long raven black hair, deep penetrating eyes. A beauty, all right. If Nohmonaa hadn’t been so disturbed by her, she may have asked Teequow on date. Teequow was accompanied, as she always was, by her ‘aide’, Colonel Petris Fant. A stone-hearted sociopath known behind his back as “Pyscho Fant”, both for his nature and slavish dedication to his mistress. Again, Colonel Fant’s rank was not Imperial. Granted by the forgotten dictator of a minor nation on an insignificant world somewhere unimportant. Meiz would not have wanted to date him. Not only was it against her nature but, while he had a certain masculine attractiveness, five minutes of conversation left you with the distinct impression he was actively imagining doing extremely unpleasant things to you.
She bid the pair sit as they entered. They did without a word. Meiz played host: “Refreshments?” The silence that followed put Nohmonaa on edge but that she imagined was the point.
Frifrue Teeqouw got to the point. “So what is the job?”
There was little point in further attempts at ‘niceties’, so Nohmonaa pulled up the files. A hologram of a young innocent looking man appeared on her desk. “Lord Sakuya Trace. He defected to the Protectorate a few months ago. We need him back.”
Teequow steepled her fingers and leaned forwards. “And the complication is?”
The Sector Chief shuffled a little uncomfortably. “Complication? None, just particularly urgent.”
“You have at your disposal many, many, highly competent operatives, more than capable of dealing with even the most urgent situations. So, the complication, if you please.”
“Several factors make this particular job suitable for your… talents. The need is exceptionally pressing, failure is not permissible, the job needs to be followed through regardless of the cost or any collateral damage, and all in all, it would be far better if the matter was handled…” she phrased it delicately, “…outside normal channels.”
Teequow considered, thinking of pressing the point, but to what end? “So there will be no restrictions on how I carry out this job?”
“Lord Trace is often in the company of the son of one the Protectorate’s Councillors, Lady Manish to be exact. It would be preferable by far if he remained unharmed. However if it happens, it happens.”
The vaguest smile formed on Teequow’s lips “Yes, preferable by far.” There were few people that troubled Frifrue Teequow’s thoughts. Lady Councillor Manish was one of them. “I shall endeavour to avoid it. Now the refreshments you offered?”
Frifrue Teequow’s thoughts narrowed to the job at hand as Meiz’s aide left “You have something personal of the subject?”
Sector Chief Nohmonaa grinned; she had been prepared for this. She retrieved a simple pendant from a drawer, “His mother gave him this at his confirmation.”
Teequow let it fall into her hand unbidden. She closed her fingers around it and let her mind reach out to feel it. “A Makerite? Unusual for one to defect?”
“Yes, but he has.” Just the slightest trace of irritation in the Sector Chief’s voice.
Teequow closed her eyes and appeared to go into a trance, swaying slightly in her seat. Meiz felt deeply unsettled. She had dealt with psions before and none could be described as ‘ordinary’, but this one was something far out of the ordinary even by their standards. The room was silent for a good five minutes while Teequow just rocked, eyes blank. Finally she looked up, “You have a bathroom? And I shall require some jasmine tea.”
Meiz found the sounds of the Frifrue retching oddly reassuring. It was good to know she had some weaknesses. Teequow appeared pale when she returned. She sat and sipped the jasmine tea. “You have a comprehensive star chart, I presume?”
The Sector Chief nearly missed it, she was good, but Meiz could tell, she wanted this mission now, for her own reasons. No matter, if her interests and the Imperium’s now coincided, all the better. “Of course.”
Meiz watched with some awe as she scanned the night sky of various worlds. Her memory for detail must be impressive. Finally she stopped and looked up. “Here, this world, Kalu Marasiin. He will be here in two weeks. Accompanied by two men and two women.”
“Are you sure?” The Sector Chief could guess who these people were.
Until this point, Colonel Fant had remained silent. “My Lady doesn’t make mistakes.” You could feel the anger as he hissed.
Teequow placed her hand softly on his knee. “I am sure the Sector Chief understands that, Petris.” He continued to glare at Nohmonaa. The Frifrue kissed him, then returned her attention to Nohmonaa. “Certain.”
Nohmonaa brought up the holographic image of three women and two men. “Will any of these people be among his companions?”
Her answer was surprisingly forceful. “Two of the women and one of the men.”
This concerned Meiz. “You have any idea who the fourth might be?”
The Sector Chief did not like this new factor but there was little that could be done. “The details of those three and two others are in these files.” She handed the Frifrue a datachip. “Is there anything else you require?”
“Yes.” She mentioned a name, a man’s name. “I will require him.”
Nohmonaa thought she was ready for anything but her answer had shocked had her. “Him? Why?”
Impassive. “He will be there, better with me than otherwise.” Nohmonaa found the phrasing unnerving.
“He’s currently serving thirty years for his crimes.”
No change, emotionless. “He is here on Alsuy, and his release is well within your powers.”
Nohmonaa pondered, drumming her fingers on the desktop. She pulled up a file on her computer, studied it then touched the intercom. “West, draw up a section 36 release for Prisoner…” she read from the file, “…IMR 10548310. Currently held in Ishashmuu Detention Barracks.” Back to Teequow, “I will have him delivered tonight. I assume you will want to leave immediately?”
242nd of 2029 (070-98): Enroute to jump, Trepidation, The Prouse Belt
Our last stop before Kalu Marasiin. An uninhabited system in Protectorate territory, safe from prying eyes. Afira, as always, had made short work of skimming the sole planet, a gas giant with the somewhat distressing name of Trepidation. With our tanks full, there was no reason to remain and we were heading out to the jump point when the alarm sounded. A ship, her beacon bleating a distress call. Sakuya had quickly got a fix; the boy was figuring his way around a sensor panel with surprising ease.
“I’m certain, Siish. It’s on the third moon. According to its transponder, Angel Dethor, an AK412 schooner.” His attention went back to his display. “Registered from Hiryu in the Empty Quarter sector. Can’t get anything more.”
Odd, very odd. Jane certainly thought so. “The AK412 is a standard Protectorate design, so what is one registered from there doing here?”
Afira offered an answer. “Would make sense if she’s Sesheryn. They use a lot of our designs still.”
“Maybe, but why is a Sesheryn here?”
I could think of one possible source of answers. “Fakri might be able to shed some light. He’s Sesheryn, remember.”
“I hadn’t forgotten, Isabella. And it had already occurred to me. Ariaryn, bring him up here. The rest of you get your sidearms; I still don’t trust him.” Siish had had an arms locker installed on the bridge after our last ‘adventure’; he wasn’t going to be caught like that again. “You, too, Isabella.”
Afira helped me as usual. I’d been spending a lot of time with Ariaryn and was getting better but the others still had concerns. “Fakri, now, yes? Getting awfully familiar with him.”
I had to smile, she was right. I had been spending a lot of time with him. “I find his company pleasant, that’s all.”
“No, it’s not, Isabella; you sparkle when you’re around him. Everyone’s noticed it.”
Damn. I blushed; she was right. I was attracted to him. “I like him, he makes smile, he’s got a brain in his head and he plays a mean game of Zamkii, much better than Siish or Ariaryn.”
“He’s leaving when we reach Kalu Marasiin. Keep that in mind, Isabella. Guard your heart, my sweet.”
A soft sigh escaped my lips, “I know, and I am.” I had to; she was right, could be nothing there.
Ariayn returned with Fakri after a few minutes. “The bridge; I am honoured, Kaptan.”
“You’re here for a reason: You might be able to help us.”
“Anything I can do, though it would help to know with what. My minder was less than informative as to why I was summoned.” Ariaryn’s lips curled ever so slightly upwards. He almost smiled. I think he was warming to Fakri, too.
“We have ship in distress. We think it might be Sesheryn. I was hoping you might be able to confirm that.”
“If I might look at the sensor data.”
“Ariaryn, take over sensors from Sakuya.”
One person who was definitely not warming was Sakuya. Fakri still terrified him and he was clearly relieved by that. Ariaryn brought up the data as Fakri stared intently at the display. “Yes, she’s Sesheryn. A Reeve’s8 ship, this far from home. My guess she’s on Feoderate business, odd.” He studied the display closer. “There may be a coded datastream in this, you know?” He turned to face Siish straight on. “You are going to assist.” Much more a statement than question.
There was just the smallest note of offence in Siish’s reply. “Naturally, Vu Agent. We Luriani look after our friends.” Then his voice softened as he addressed Sakuya, “Do you feel up to investigating that with him?”
It was obvious that Sakuya did not feel up to it, but, “Yes, Siish, I’ll do it.”
Afira: “I’ll come help.”
Siish’s mouth opened to say something, then closed. A pause, “Yes, I’ll take the helm while you do.”
242nd of 2029 (070-98): Trepidation III, The Prouse Belt
Afira had made a point of keeping her body between Sakuya and Fakri. She touched his hand, stroked his back lightly and occasionally ran her hand over his hair as he worked. It seemed to help. Fakri, for his part, realised what was going on. He made sure he kept his hands in sight and kept that physical separation. Siish piloted us towards the moon while he worked. There was never any doubt that we’d go in. Any ship in distress, but especially a Sesheryn. We’d just entered orbit when Sakuya finally piped up, “Yes, there’s a hidden datasteam here. It’s coded and very well hidden. It’ll take a bit to decipher.”
“It’ll have to wait a moment. I’ll need a sensor sweep of her before we go down. I’ll put Raledenet in low orbit over the site. Think two or three passes should do.” His attention turned to Fakri. “No need for you to be there while we do that. But you may stay on the bridge; we’ll need you later.”
He stepped away from Sakuya; the boy’s relief was palpable.
The third moon didn’t have an official name, just Trepidation III. It was huge though; over 6,000 kilometres in diameter and with a cold dense atmosphere made up mostly of nitrogen with considerable traces of hydrocarbons. A primitive soup that might spawn life one day, may already have; nobody had done a detailed study, as far as the records showed. Siish brought Raledenet down low, skimming into the upper reaches of that atmosphere. Three orbits, three hours, more or less. Sakuya only focused on the sensors for a part of each pass, focusing his attention on cracking the code he and Fakri had found for the rest. Siish had just completed the third orbit.
“So, Sakuya, what can you tell me?”
“It’s been there awhile, some kind of snow on it. It’s cold, same temperature as the atmosphere.” He put some images up on the main viewer. “Looks like it’s crashed; damage around the drives, I think. And looks like the hull has been breached.”
Ariaryn surveyed the images. “Those are laser burns, I’d say. She didn’t crash; she was brought down.”
Siish wanted information from me, too: “So, Isabella, any chance of survivors?”
“Very low to none, I’d say. Nobody would survive long down there. Might be some in the low berths though.”
“Jane, any signs she has power?”
“No, Siish, cold and dead. Batteries might be possible, so maybe low berths are working.”
He considered. “We’ll need a team to go to her. Ariaryn, Isabella and,” his attention fell to Fakri, “Vu. Your people, you might be able to see something we miss.” Pause. “But they’ll be armed, remember that.” Obviously Siish’s trust was still in short supply. “Sakuya, you’ve made progress on that code any?”
“Yes, Siish, I’m close.” His voice was trembling, why? “If… if… umm… if…” stuttering, “If I could have his,” he looked at Fakri, “help, I might be able to crack it before we get down.”
I joined Afira to stay by Sakuya as he and Fakri worked. He seemed to be relaxing a little as he lost himself in the task at hand. I glanced up at the main display as we descended. Siish was bringing her in slowly, cautiously. Something was off, here, and taking chances didn’t seem wise. “I’m going to put her down about two kilometres from her, but I’ll do a fly over first. I’ll need you back on sensors, Sakuya. How is that code coming?”
He didn’t look up, still engrossed in code. “About fifteen to twenty minutes Siish. Nearly there.”
“It’ll have to wait. You can get back to it while the others investigate. Ariaryn, Isabella, and Vu, get to the airlock and get ready.”
I felt the gentle shudder as Raledenet settled onto her landing gear. We were all standing ready, oxygen masks and cold weather gear. The intercom crackled, Siish “Surface gravity 0.4G, it’s a balmy minus four Celsius and there’s an electrical storm. Be careful and I’m sending the sensor data on the crash site to your portacomms.”
Fakri looked as Arairyn checked his combat rifle. “Is that really necessary? I’m not going anywhere; there’s nowhere to run to on this world.”
Ariaryn didn’t look up as he replied, “Yes, it’s necessary.”
The airlock hissed and we got our first look at Trepidation III. The surface was lit by an eerie glow. It was raining and we could see lighting flashes from the storm. They were impressive. It took us about thirty minutes to cover the ground from our landing site to the wreck. The landing gear on one side had given way and she was leaning off to one side. She was cold, dark and forbidding. Ariaryn made us halt when we were about twenty metres from her. “Vu Agent, I’d like to go scout her first. I have your word of honour you will stay here with Isabella?”
“Yes, of course.” Simple and to the point. Ariaryn nodded his acknowledgement and headed off.
We sat in silence for a few moments before he spoke. “One more jump and then you’re rid of me Manish Wa.”
I was slow to answer, “Yes.” I don’t think he detected the note of wistfulness in my voice.
“I will miss our time together; I have really enjoyed the past two weeks in your company.”
“As have I, Vu Lul, as have I.” Not sure why I repeated myself but I did know I wasn’t looking forwards to his departure.
“You do know you can call me Fakri; I have overheard you using my first name.” I couldn’t see his mouth but his eyes told me he was smiling. “Accidentally, of course.”
My mood lifted a little for some reason. “Thank you, Fakri. And please, call me Isabella.”
“I believe thank you is appropriate; I’m afraid the oxygen masks preclude a traditional Sesheryn kiss.”
I’m sure my eyes betrayed my smile at the thought. “Then, perhaps when we’re back on the ship?”
I heard a chuckle. “Yes, perhaps, Isabella.” A pause, then, “Isabella, would you be so kind as to pass me the PRIS9 please?”
I handed them to him. “I am sure Ariaryn will be making a full scan; he is more than competent.”
“I am in absolutely no doubt of that, but he did not grow up around Sesheryn ships. I might pick something he’d miss.”
I nodded my acknowledgement, and he slowly swept the site. “So, do you see anything out of the ordinary?”
He continued scanning. “Yes, I do.” He handed the PRIS to me. “There, over by the thrust plates, directly under them in the extreme ultraviolet, what do you see?”
I scanned the area, then scanned it again and a third time just to be sure. “Nothing.” I was puzzled.
“Exactly; there should be something there. It should have the rank of the Reeve but it’s not there.”
Still puzzled. “I thought Reeves didn’t have rank? You were a Reeve or you weren’t. They’re all equal.”
He was chuckling again. “Not exactly; some are more equal than others. It’s all to do with the amount of respect they can command. It should all be detailed there under the thrusters but it’s not.”
“Mmm… A lot about Sesheryn I don’t know, but it makes sense. But what does it mean that it’s not there?”
He suddenly sounded serious. “I don’t know, but it’s not a good sign.”
Ariaryn returned a few minutes later. “Her hull’s been breached in four places, no signs of life and no recent movement around her. Other than that, seems clear to go in. You two ready?”
“Yes, but Fakri found something.”
He looked over at Fakri. “What did you find?”
“It’s a Reeve’s ship, but it doesn’t have their ranking. It should be written in the extreme UV near the thrust ports. But it’s not there.”
Ariaryn took his PRIS and scanned, “No, nothing there. And what does this mean?”
“I don’t know, it’s sort of like finding a Wurlana ship without its history painted on, just not right.”
Ariaryn considered, then took a deep breath. “Well, the only place we’re likely to find answers is inside. So we should get going.”
242nd of 2029 (070-98): Angel Dethor, Trepidation III
We entered the dark ship through a breach in the engineering compartment. It was a mess; clearly something had hit this hard. There was snow on the floor, she’d been down awhile. We started to move towards the hatch to the main compartments when we saw it, a body.
“Isabella, check them please. Vu, see if you can find any power.”
I knelt and turned the corpse over; a young man, late twenties to early thirties, half his face scorched and burnt. He’d been dead a good time from the state of him. I examined closer using my medscanner. “His skull is cracked; looks like he was thrown by something, probably an explosion. I’d say died of internal injuries. But the body’s been moved post mortem.”
“This class carries two engineers. Vu, any sign of power or another body?”
“Yes to power, batteries; No to bodies. I’ll bring up the emergency lights if you’d like.”
“Yes, bring the lights up. Can you tell me how much charge is left in the batteries?”
“I’d have to say almost full.” That didn’t bode well for survivors in low berths.
“We’d best move on, find out what happened.” I found it odd the way Fakri seemed to accept Ariaryn’s orders without question.
Beyond the hatch was the cargo bay and passenger compartment. We ignored them; if anyone was still alive in a low berth they’d be just as good or bad after we finished with the rest of the ship, and knowing what had happened might be a big help dealing with any survivors. It was eerie moving in the dim red light, reminded me of the Apuludukii during her final minutes. Bad memories; I suddenly wondered what had happened to the other survivors, fourteen of us crammed into a little boat.
“Isabella!” Ariaryn’s voice snapped me back to the present. I looked at him. “We need to climb, up to the bridge.” A tinge of concern in his voice. “You’re up to it?”
“Yes, fine, Ariaryn, you want me to go first?”
“No, I’ll take point, Vu after me, then you.”
We headed up, three decks then out on to the control deck. There were nine staterooms, the bridge and the boat bay here. Ariaryn halted when he reached the top. “There’s been gunfire here, I can see at least four bodies.”
“Well, whoever was shooting at them is long gone so may we proceed?” Fakri sounded impatient.
Ariaryn just grunted his disapproval as he hauled himself up out of the access way. “Okay I’m going to check for booby traps and unexplodeds, so you two stay put ’til I call you up.”
It was chaos when I finally dragged myself up onto the control deck a few minutes later. I could see the obvious signs of combat, bullet holes, burn marks, and bodies. I scanned and could see at least five from the access way. Fakri offered his hand to help me out, surprisingly strong. He turned to Ariaryn. “So, shall we investigate?” Perhaps he wasn’t taking leadership quite as well as I had thought; Ariaryn certainly wasn’t appreciating it as he snapped back, “You’re here to help, Agent, not take charge.” He let that sink in but Fakri was right. “The hatch to the bridge has been welded shut, from this side. I’m sure there’s some cutting gear down in engineering, I’ll get it while you two check the bodies. There’s seven in total here.” He pointed. “Agent, I assume the Imperials taught you the basics of investigation ?”
He smiled, “Yes, we covered the basics.”
A women, human, middle-aged, shot through the head. Somehow, she seemed quite serene, dead on a nameless moon in a nowhere system; I wondered what she had died for.
“So, does your medscanner tell you anything we can’t see for ourselves?”
“No, head wound, death would have been instant.” I looked at the scanner again. “She has children.” I said it matter of fact, five years, I’d become so immune to death five years ago. “Can you add anything?”
“Sesheryn, from the tattoo; married to a Reeve, from the ring, other than that, no. But I imagine we’ll find her husband here somewhere. His ring will match hers.”
We checked all the bodies and Fakri took images and measured bullet holes. But all of it told us nothing. If there were answers, they were on the bridge. And that would have to wait for Ariaryn’s return.
It took him about ten minutes to get back. Another five to cut through the welds. The hatch swung open with ease; there was some kind of metal mesh curtain on the other side. The bridge was a shambles, looked like somebody had let off a few kilos of explosives in there. Ariaryn looked at Fakri. “So, any ideas why, yet?”
“No more than you, I’m afraid. What I want to know is why was the door welded shut?”
I swear the two of them would have stood there all day pondering. “Well, perhaps the answers are in there.” It wasn’t like me to snap, nor Ariaryn to hesitate; something about this ship was making us all edgy. I drew a breath. “I don’t like this ship; it’s making me nervous and I think it’s getting to you two, too.”
Fakri was perhaps less than convinced. “How can a ship make you nervous?”
“It just is, Fakri, I have no idea why but it is.”
Ariaryn had been quiet. “She’s right, something’s wrong here and the sooner we get this over with, the better, I think. So, shall we?” He indicated the bridge, pushed aside the curtain and stepped in.
242nd of 2029 (070-98): The Bridge, Angel Dethor
Ariaryn seemed stumble as he stepped in, Fakri reached to help steady him and fell, heavily, as Ariaryn grabbed at the hatchway for support. He missed and collapsed to the floor, he blurted, “Stay!”
I didn’t quite ignore him. I braced myself, took a breath and stepped carefully in. It was like a wall of voices screaming in my head, I couldn’t think and everything around me seemed to spin. I grabbed for the frame of the hatch as Ariaryn had, but I managed to connect and stay upright. A wave of nausea. I fought the urge to vomit, clinging to the frame for dear life as I frantically tried to focus and drive the noise from my mind. Finally my head started to clear. I looked down, both Fakri and Ariaryn appeared to be unconscious. I waited a moment longer for the screaming in my head to subside. It didn’t stop, but I did manage to push it far enough away to be able to stand unaided. I reached down to check both of them. They were alive and softly moaning. I needed to get them out. There was a moment of hesitation, which one first? I grabbed Fakri, I told myself he was in more danger. He was heavy and it took a few minutes to manhandle him out the hatch. No time to rest, I bent and took hold of Ariaryn. Heavier still, I cursed as I forced him out. Then me, up and out. Only then did I collapse, to lay panting on the floor beside them. The screaming slowly subsided leaving only a splitting headache.
Fakri was the first to start to recover “What the Larmri!10”
It was the first time I’d heard him swear. “No idea.”
“My head feels like it’s about to explode. You have some analgesics in your medkit, I hope.”
I opened it, retrieved a bottle of pills, took two for myself then handed it to him. “Raidon, powerful, no more than two.”
He uncorked his water flask, lifted his mask and swallowed before laying back on the floor. Ariaryn was coming around now, groaning. I handed him another bottle. “Byraalin, two, now, then rest.” I knew exactly what he was going to do, and he did it. He got to his knees before he fell back to the floor “Take the painkillers, dokhtor’s orders!”
He reluctantly took the pills. “We need to get back in there and find what in all the Gods’ names caused that.”
“Let the drugs take effect before either of you go doing anything.” The pain was already dulling for me. “They shouldn’t take long to kick in.” I tried to lighten the mood. “I really don’t want to pull you out again. You could both do with losing some weight.”
Ariaryn snorted, he sounded offended. “I am not overweight!”
Fakri concurred. “Neither am I!”
“Lighten up, you two.” Something was very wrong here. I stood and made my way to the hatch and peered in. “I can see three bodies in here.” The bridge seemed different somehow now.
Fakri crawled over and looked. “Where? Can’t see them.” He rubbed his temples. “And you sure only two? Feels like I’ve been on a month-long bender.”
“There, over there.” I pointed. “And yes, sure, Raidon is addictive. Though you don’t seem the bender type.” I grinned; Fakri’s mood at least seemed to be improving.
Ariaryn dragged himself over to join us. He gazed intently into the bridge, searching. “Isabella, I can’t see any bodies either.”
“There, over there, and there, and there!” I pointed and emphasized where each was.
The two of them just shock their heads. “I can’t see them, Isabella, and I’m pretty sure your Fakri here can’t, either.”
I just stared at them both. “You honestly can’t see them, can you?”
They both nodded. “Neither I nor Mman Lul here can see them. So, what is going on?”
“No idea. Agent, but I know I don’t like it one bit.” Ariaryn reached for his portacomm. “Ground team to Raledenet.” The comm just crackled. He repeated, “Ground team to Raledenet, come in please.” Still just static. Again, “Ground team to Raledenet, please respond. Siish, Sakuya, Jane, Afira, anyone can hear me, no?” Just the white noise of a dead channel.
Fakri sounded worried. “You gave a status report just before we cut into the hatch?”
“Yes, and now, nothing.” He paused to think. “We need to leave.”
“I’m damned if I’m going to just run, Ariaryn!” Anger, why was I angry? “Look, whatever’s in there doesn’t seem to affect me as badly. I’ll go in alone.”
Ariaryn was not keen. “Too dangerous.”
Fakri had the same opinion. “And if you collapse, how do we get you out?”
I thought a moment. “Tie a line around me; if I go under, simply drag me out.”
Fakri went to say something; Ariaryn raised his hand to cut him off. “Okay, but first sign of trouble and we haul you out, Okay?”
I was a little nervous as they tied the line around me, a harness so as to avoid injury if it was required. No what I was feeling was a little anything and nor was it simply nerves. I was terrified at the prospect of facing that room again. But I was determined, too; I was going to do it, no matter what.
Ariaryn tugged at the harness and line as he tied the final knot. “Right, in, scout, and out again. You understand? First sign of anything, you get out of there.”
He was not truly comfortable with what I was doing. “Yes, I understand, and don’t worry, moment I think I’m slipping, I’ll be out of there.” That was honest, I didn’t know what was causing the terror in that room, psionics I guessed, but I knew I couldn’t handle it long.
Fakri was clearly nervous. “I’ve encountered a lot of strange things in my time.” He put particular weight on the words ‘a lot’. “Things I can’t explain and probably don’t want to, but whatever is in there is beyond anything I’ve met before. Be very careful, Isabella.” The stress on those last four words left me no doubt he was more than worried.
“It will be fine, a quick in, check the bodies, look round and get out. No heroics or loitering. Trust me, I don’t want to spend a second longer in there than I absolutely have to.” I gave Ariaryn’s knots a totally unnecessary tug to check them. Ariaryn did not make that kind of mistake. “So let’s do this.” I braced myself, took another breath, gently moved the curtain aside and stepped in.
The screaming hit me as soon as I was past that curtain. Not quite as bad as before; maybe the painkillers were helping. I held onto the frame of the hatch to steady myself again as I pushed the screaming as far out of my mind as I could. Another deep breath, then I moved towards the closest body. It was a man, human. No obvious wounds; curious. I ran my medscanner over him. Massive neural trauma. That’s what had killed him. This was not at all reassuring. I thought about relaying this information to Ariaryn and Fakri but I was sure it would be followed by them hauling on the line to drag me out. So I kept quiet. I did a fast physical search. A handgun nearby but nothing ‘out of the ordinary’. I snorted at that thought, everything in here was ‘out of the ordinary’. Odd; that seemed to help push the screaming a bit further back. The next body. A woman, same neural trauma. Definitely not good, especially as the screaming was getting worse as I moved further in. I didn’t bother with the search this time. I needed to press on while I could. The last one, male, older. I didn’t need my medscanner to see the wound in his chest that had killed him. The screaming was almost overwhelming me now. I heard Ariaryn yell, “Enough, I can see you swaying. You’re not coping. Get out now.”
“No, just a quick check. Fifteen seconds tops.” That’s when I saw it, the ring, matching the one on the woman in the other room. I reached to touch it. The moment I made contact it felt like my brain was being ripped apart cell by cell. My mask filled with my own vomit, I collapsed onto all fours. I felt the line go taut as Fakri and Ariaryn put their full strength to it. A box, in other hand a box. A glowing pulsing light. Every neuron in my brain was being shredded, I wouldn’t last until they pulled me back. Instinctively I reached for that pulsing glow. My finger made contact and for the brief instant before I lost consciousness, my body and mind burnt with unimaginable agony.
242nd of 2029 (070-98): Askiimir
Three figures, two men and one woman stood in silence waiting for the shuttle up to their liner. Suddenly the woman yelped and doubled over as in pain. One of her companions reached to steady her “What hurt you, Frifrue?”
Frifrue Teequow looked up at her lover, her voice calm and reassuring. “It’s alright, Little One. But the Uhuln has bonded to a woman.”
The second man looked on with disgust, for both his companions.
Colonel Fant was deeply concerned as he held his lover. “But, My Lady…”
She cut him off. “Do not concern yourself; even the most powerful psionist would take months to attune themselves to the Uhuln.”
246th of 2029 (074-98): Raledenet, in jump en route to Kalu Marasiin
I woke in bed, my head still ached. I rolled over to be greeted by Afira’s smile. “So, back with us, yes?”
I groaned, “How did I get here?”
“Vu, he went in and pulled you out. How are you feeling?”
“Like somebody’s driven a dreadnought through my head.” I glanced around; I was in my own room. “Could you grab my medkit, please? I need some painkillers.”
A small giggle escaped her lips, most uncharacteristic of her. “As a dokhtor, don’t want to check what you’ve been taking while you’ve been out, first?”
She did have a point. “Yes, of course.” She handed me a datapad. I looked; through and quite competent. “Ariaryn’s done a good job.”
“Wasn’t Ariaryn who took care of you. Vu did, seems he’s a qualified paramedic in addition to being a spy. He was quite insistent on it, in fact.” Another giggle.
This irked me, for some reason. “He’s not a spy, he’s a Ministry of Justice Special Agent, quite different. And what’s with the giggling?”
She beamed. “He’s as smitten with you as you are with him, Issee.”
One of those Luriani deep belly laughs. “He is and you are, no point denying it.”
I slumped back into my bed. “Maybe, give you maybe.” I hated to admit she was right. “But nothing can come of it.”
The smile on her was one tinged with sadness. “I know.” She hugged me.
I sighed resignedly. “Falling in love’s an aneer, sometimes, Afira.”
“I know that, too; Siish, me, real aneer there.” She kissed me on the forehead. “Mind you, aneer, you could, you know. Do you good. When was the last time?”
My turn to laugh. “Far, far too long. Augustine, over a year ago now.”
She looked a little shocked. “Really! And you a dokhtor, you know that can’t be healthy.”
I just giggled and pushed her playfully. I regretted it instantly. “Ouch!!!” Seemed my head wasn’t the only thing that still hurt; my entire body ached “Enough talk about that. Now pass me my medkit, I need some more oi aneer11 painkillers!”
Fakri came into see me later; Afira had told me he’d been checking on me several times a day. I was touched and Afira was right, I was falling for him. I forced such thoughts from my head. He was a Special Agent for the Imperial Ministry of Justice and he would be gone in a day or two.
He sat the edge of the bed. “You’re looking better; how are you feeling?”
“Sore as all larmy, to borrow your colourful term, but I believe I owe you my thanks for pulling me out.”
He looked a little awkward. “Nothing, honestly, just returning the favour.”
“Nonetheless, I am very grateful.” I don’t know quite what came over me, maybe too many painkillers, but I leant over and kissed him on the cheek. He looked very awkward; I just smiled, “I believe it’s the custom of your people. Or so I’m told.”
My smile was returned, “Yes, yes it is.” There was a moment of awkward silence between us, so I broke it. “So, what happened down there?”
He thought for a moment. “Well, when you went down, I ran in to try and get you. Exactly the same thing as before happened, head spinning, unable to stand and then it just stopped, instantly all went away. I got to you and got you out. Pretty simple really. Ariaryn was about two seconds behind me.” He reached over and picked up a box, that box, the one the Reeve had. “You had this clenched in your fist, took both of us to pry it from your grip. What is it?”
I took the box. About eight centimetres by five centimetres by three centimetres, a dull silver box. It felt warm in my hand. “No idea; it was in the Reeve’s hand. Mind you, it had a glowing light on it when he had it. I touched that.” I studied the box, there was no sign of the light.
“Clearly that was the off switch, then.”
“Yes, but what the hell is it? It feels warm.”
“Warm? I didn’t feel that.” He extended his hand. “May I?” I handed it to him “No, cold. So it only responds to you.” He pondered, then laughed “You’re the doctor, you might to run a few tests on yourself.”
“I most definitely shall.” My thoughts turned back to the ship. “And after that, what did you find on the ship?”
He shrugged. “Honestly, not a lot. A few more bodies, no survivors; the computer had been shredded with explosives so we couldn't retrieve any data. However your young Lord Trace did manage to decrypt the datastream. It’s a set of coordinates on the mainworld of the Khingir system; you ever been there?”
“No, didn’t even know there was a Khingir system. You?”
“No, none of us have. It’s a backwater world half way between the Imperium and Protectorate.”
I was baffled. “Awful lot of mysteries in that ship.”
He nodded, “Yes, far too many.”
“So what’s Siish going to do?”
“Report it to the appropriate authorities; pretty much what I would do, too.”
That was Siish, by the book. “Yes, he would,” I smiled, my brother, it was good to have family. There was one thing that was still puzzling me. “So, tell me, Fakri: just how did you get my ‘second’ to let you look after me?”
There was a strange look on his face, a mixture of bashfulness and impishness. “I can be very… persuasive… when I want. And besides, I think Ariaryn is starting to warm to me.”
Notes numbered 1 through 7 appeared with previous parts of the story.
8. The Reeves were the officials of the Sesheryn Feodarate. They formed what passed for a government and administrative service.
9. Portable Radiation Imaging System, an advanced personal imaging system capable of scanning a wide spectrum of electromagnetic radiation from infrared to gamma rays.
10. A Sesheryn word meaning the underworld or hell, derived from the Luriani term lamry for the place of torment of those who break faith with the Luriani Gods. Normally used as an expletive.
11. The use of the copula oi (to be) marks a verb as the present particle form, where (like Anglic) it can be used as a verbal noun or adjective, e.g., awar to live; oi awar living.