Chapter 16

Nov. 12th, 2012 10:15 am
keaalu: (Nanowrimo Participant)
[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] good_as_gold
     Expecting to be flown down to the city in a little shuttle of some sort, Mirii was surprised when Yannis instead led her to a rickety old lift that plunged all the way down through the old factory and its associated mine workings. The doors opened to a great cavern which had probably once contained a whole fleet of mining vehicles but now was home to only a small cargo transporter and Yannis’ private conveyance – a bright, sporty little red number that floated on antigravity emitters, parked close to the tunnel that led to the outside.

     The short access tunnel opened onto a dusty road that led down from the inland mountains; they waited to allow a couple of farm vehicles past in the opposite direction before setting out, but otherwise the track was empty as it plunged down through the desert, passing straggling clumps of drought-resistant plants and small oases.

     It was only a few minutes’ drive through roasting temperatures to reach the outskirts of the city. Mirii turned her face up into the breeze, enjoying the feel of it ruffling through her hair.

     “Enjoying yourself there?”

     Mirii glanced down at Yannis, and smiled back at him. “It’s very nice,” she confirmed. “I hope I do not hurt your feelings, because your home is very nice and I appreciate your care, but I have been feeling a little… cooped up.”

     “I know, and I am sorry, but we have to be so careful.” He extended a free hand, and let it rest on her thigh. “I am quite sure they are still watching our every move. The slightest slip and they may snatch you away from me. I should not be at all surprised if your… guardian? Observer? I am not sure how to define him-”

     “You mean Sei.” Mirii filled in the blank, quietly. “You think he may come here. You think he may have somehow followed me.”

     “Yes, I do. Forgive me. I wish I did not have to fill your head with such troubling thoughts, but it would not be fair to keep such things secret from you. I hope you can forgive me, one day.”

     Mirii found a fleeting smile for him. “I appreciate your honesty. Thank you.”

     They left Yannis’ vehicle in a secure garage a few minutes’ walk from the city centre and the market, and walked the rest of the way together along one of the extensive walkways above and around one of the canals, passing stallholders setting up their floating kitchens to prepare noon meals for the thronging shoppers. The smell of rich spices and roasted meat made the air laden with scent; Mirii inhaled deeply, and wondered what it would be like to taste the products that filled the air with such interesting, complicated scents.

     “Hungry?” Yannis wondered, watching her sniff.

     “I beg pardon?” Mirii flicked an ear, curiously. “Oh – no, I do not eat. I am just interested in all the scents.”

     “You could try something, if you’re feeling inquisitive. I can buy you a little sample of something.”

     She shook her head. “No, thank you. I would not be able to taste it.”

     “Never mind.” He gave her fingers a squeeze. “Having tried some of the local, ah, delicacies, I can reassure you that you are not missing anything.”

     The market trip seemed to have buoyed Mirii’s flagging spirit, but Yannis as always had an ulterior motive – he’d not agreed to visit the market to keep the resident vacuous airhead happy, after all. He had an important person to meet. He halted just as they emerged from the side street into the market square. “Listen, I have to go and meet a contact of mine. Will you be happy to browse the stalls on your own for a little while?” He caught one of her hands and pressed a fat little fabric bag into her pale palm. “Buy yourself a little something, perhaps.”

     Shocked, Mirii tried to snatch her hand away, but the eumin’s fingers were quite resolute. “But I could not possibly-” She tried valiantly to hand the purse back, but Yannis used all four hands to keep her fingers closed over it until she stopped fighting.

     “Of course you could. Please. It is not much money, and I want you to have it.” He smiled, broadly. “You already reminded me that I am keeping you from reclaiming your own. If you feel like you cannot possibly accept it as a gift, then you can repay me later, when it is safe. All right?”

     Mirii stooped, and brushed the tip of her snub snout against his hair. “Thank you, dear.”

     He watched her mingle into the thronging crowds, her height making it impossible for her to disappear altogether, then turned away to his own business.

     His contact sat on the rim of the central fountain, where the noisy splashing of water and boisterous children would hopefully keep curious ears from accidentally hearing anything they shouldn’t. “Took your time,” he greeted, his thick tail dangling behind him and stirring the water, directing a chilly reptilian stare at the approaching eumin.

     Yannis pursed his lips, dismissively. He still didn’t actually know the man’s name, nor his species, but he came highly recommended and seemed to share a little history with Hueil. Didn’t mean he had to like the thug, though. “I had matters to attend back at the factory. Bes should have told you I was going to be delayed.”

     The man tilted his head, and held open one hand in acknowledgement. “He did. He just didn’t tell me how long you were going to be.” He slipped his fingers into one of the big pockets on his loose gilet, hunting blindly for something among the loose change and food wrappers. “An’ I know an euphemism when I hear one. Wife holding you up, was she?”

     “What?” Yannis followed his line of sight, to where Mirii was browsing the stalls.

     “Not your usual taste in women, I gotta say,” the alien said, dryly, finally locating the little drawstring purse he was looking for, and holding it out to the man. “And a kiravai? Didn’t think I’d see one of them so far outside Imperial space.”

     Yannis curled his lip, dismissively. “Not my woman. Technically. Yet.” He hastily accepted the bag and slipped it into a pocket in the lining of his jacket.

     The alien arched an eyebrow, unwrapping the waxed paper from around a stick of dried meat. “An affair with one of the stuffy prudes? I didn’t think it possible. Or are you still, ah, ‘wooing’ her?”

     “A little of both, I think. Technically, neither is quite right either.” Yannis found a dry patch, and leaned back against the rim of the fountain. “How familiar are you with ‘sentient’ machines?”

     “Synthoids? I know a little.” The man nodded, chewing thoughtfully. “Uncommon creatures, for sure. You trying to say that’s what she is?”

     Yannis simply nodded his agreement.

     The other of his contact’s eyebrows came up to match the first, although it seemed to be as far as the man was willing to go in the way of demonstrating his surprise. “How did you manage to land yourself one of them, then? Didn’t know they was on the general market – or the contraband one, either, for that matter.”

     “I have ‘liberated’ her from a treacherous, abusive social laboratory, which set her up with home and ‘husband’ as an experiment and fabricated a whole life of lies for her.” Yannis clutched a hand to his heart, theatrically, then snorted. “At least, that’s what I told her. Naïve little stick of circuits is naught but a cross between an adding machine and a sex doll with delusions of grandeur. Believes everything I tell her.”

     “An’ there was me thinking our business was the more important aspect of your life, right now…”

     “Oh, it is! My plastic consort is but a small part of my master plan.” Yannis spread his hands. “She will provide me a valuable source of income, in a variety of ways. As soon as this fuss has all died away and she has been forgotten by the powers that be, I will persuade her to hand over the access codes to her bank account.” His lip twitched, as a self-congratulatory smirk tried to escape. “Not like dear doctor Sei needs money any more. What will he care if I drain his bank account? And by which point, it will be too late for her to have any say in things, haha! The money is not my only ulterior goal, thought. Right now, I need to work at winning her confidence. As soon as I have that, I can begin to mould her into what I desire, not what some unimaginative scientist has told her she should be.”

     The alien snickered and curled his lip. “Your ‘type’ of woman is available from the back alleys of every major city of all inhabited planets in the sector – and cheap, too. Why bother go to all that effort with the synth? You could sell it for infinitely more, and buy yourself a whole harem to tend your libido.”

     “Oh, pff. Why does your kind always think in terms of money?” Yannis flipped a dismissive hand. “Once she is content that what I tell her is normal, and an expression of love, I will have ‘that kind of woman’ available any time I want her – wanting to please me. For free. That is worth far more than the finite funds I would get for selling her. And if it comes to the worst, she can always be reprogrammed.” He shot his co-conspirator a lascivious wink. “I may even allow you to see her, if all goes to plan. You will be less likely to damage her than your usual bed-warmers.”

     The man snickered and flicked his tail, and took another bite of his snack, flicking his long tongue over his lips. “How’s your brat doing on that vaccine?”

     Yannis’ expression compressed into something irritable. “Complaining. I think that is all he actually ever does, because he seems sorely lacking in progress right now. Why do you ask?”

     His contact shook his head. “Jus’ thinking. We might have to change the recipe up a little, see? Depending on how far he’s got, you might be able to reuse the basics, but he’ll need to scrap it if he’s close to cracking it.”

     Yannis finally looked properly at him, narrowing his eyes and trying to gauge how bad the situation actually was. “Why? Is it not virulent enough?”

     “Oh, it’s plenty contagious – maybe too much so, we’re kinda having issues keeping its effects restricted to eumin. Which might, might not be an issue for you, see?” The man spread his hands. “Depends on your definition of ‘acceptable’ when it comes to unintended casualties.”

     Yannis offered a dismissive little sniff. “If that is all you are concerned about, I do not see the problem.”

     “Naw, the issue right now is survival outside the body. Capsid keeps breaking down. Right now, the stuff has to be kept warm an’ wet, so infection has to be by exchange of fluids.”

     “…I did not ask you to design me a fancy sexually transmitted disease.”

     “I know, but you might have to settle for one. We might not be able to get it to work any other way, and it looks pretty certain you’re not gonna get a pretty little freeze-dry powder you can sneak into a salt shaker.” He mimed the act of sprinkling powder, just in case Yannis wasn’t clear on the concept. “I didn’t specify the fluid, mind.”

     Already growing uncomfortable and fractious in the noon sun, Yannis could feel his temper stirring the heat around in his chest. “If you are going to keep changing things and adding things I have not asked for, why do you not make the vaccine, when the product is finished?” he sniped, folding his arms. “Are you enjoying watching my staff flail around in confusion, or was that the point, to prove we cannot succeed, and you can add on additional charges by providing the vaccine as well?

     His contact’s voice descended to a threatening rumble, like a leaking steam pipe. “Making vaccines kind of isn’t the point of the work we do, friend. We make weapons. We don’t design bulletproof headgear to go along with the bullets, see? What you do with what we sell you is up to you. You wanna be sure you won’t catch it, when everyone else is bleeding out their ears and rolling around in the dust, you make yourself a vaccine. Dun matter to me – I’m immune.”

     “So remind me of the point you are keen not to make.”

     “Look, you want a custom virus? Fine. It’s what we do, and we’re good at it. But they take time to design, and you keep adding extra specs when you ain’t even paid for the basics yet.” A long slender finger gave the eumin a stern prod in the arm. “I took on this job because Hueil vouched for you as reliable when it came to payment, but I ain’t afraid to put up my hands and say ‘I’m out’.”

     “You will get your money.”

     “So you keep saying, but I ain’t seen anything since the first two instalments. Do you even have any funds left?”

     “My second in command is waiting for the latest transaction to process. You know we have to be careful – or do you want the police on our collective backs?” Yannis promised, through gritted teeth. He could see himself going from plans to spend the absolute minimum, to pledging riches he wasn’t even entirely sure he was going to be able to get hold of yet. “Complete this for me, and I will see to it that your lab gets a significant bonus for your efforts.”

     “Hm.” The reptilian face didn’t look especially mollified by the assurance. “You just make sure you hear me, eumin.” A long, silken gold hand with fine scales closed on his shoulder, digging its nails in just hard enough to border on painful. The voice dropped another couple of decibels to a soft, predatory growl. “You try and fiddle me, and what you get at the end won’t be what you think you’re getting. I’m coming through loud as, yeah?”

     Yannis shook the hand off, irritated. “Oh, perfectly. And you will get your money. Don’t worry about that.”

     At last, the two would-be terrorists parted ways. Yannis remained at the fountain to watch as the alien slouched away, stooping to reduce his gangrel height, and finally melted away like a ghost into the crowds. Ugh. He splashed water from the fountain over his face, but it provided little relief. Unlike the natives, he couldn’t simply shrug off the blistering heat – he needed to seek shade. And his newest plaything.

     The tall gold kirasiinu had vanished from sight. For a few heart-racing seconds, Yannis was convinced she’d taken fright and bolted – naïve little thing, haha! No, she saw through your trickery and even now is running for the closest police station. In what universe did you think you could trust her? Certainly not to go shopping alone!

     [Adrenaline] surged through him, making his heart race and his legs unsteady, and he was on the point of calling his crew for urgent assistance… then rounded a corner, and saw her quite happily browsing a fruit stand. Stupid, Yannis. She is not anywhere near as smart as you credit her for. He swallowed the lump in his throat, and tried to encourage his heart to slow down.

     Once he was calm, he ambled over to see what she was up to, trying not to betray the way his legs were still a little unsteady. Mirii was selecting samples from a massive pile of round pale orange fruits; Yannis noted she was being very particular, and picking off the most undamaged, perfect specimens, and couldn’t help a smirk. There were some benefits to having a computer hanging off your arm, evidently, even if it was only to ensure you didn’t get substandard fruit.

     “What are you doing, dear?” He slipped an arm around behind her, glad when she didn’t push him away.

     “Picking out ingredients for a recipe.” She started on a second pile, fingers dancing between the stacked green and red selections and lifting out the most perfect ones she could find. “I have had to make a few small adjustments from the instructions as this market does not stock two of the items. I hope it will still taste acceptable.”

     “I am sure it will all be fine,” he agreed, although he wasn’t entirely sure what he was agreeing with. “You have ended up quite a long way into the market.”

     “I analysed the surrounding stalls, and this merchant has the best price per unit weight,” she explained, holding out her hand to receive a handful of heavy copper-coloured coins in change. “Thank you, sir. Not to mention, he has the best selection.” She hung the bag of fruit and vegetables carefully on her arm, and gave him what could only be described as a satisfied smile, proud of her small achievement. “So I can purchase more for the same finite funds.”

     “Excellent work, darling.”

     She flicked an ear and preened a little at the compliment, then looked down at him, head quirked. “How is your friend? Did you discuss what you needed to?”

     “Not my friend,” Yannis quipped. “That is to say, he is in good health, but he is only an acquaintance I met through my work. I find his manners a little too… abrasive… to want to call him friend.” He lowered his voice. “Darling, I do not wish to alarm you, but he tells me that your guardian had been seen in the city.”

     Mirii darted an uneasy glance around herself. “What? Is he here now?” An impossible to interpret mixture of alarm and curiosity mingled in her gaze.

     “I do not believe so. My contact thinks he has returned to his vessel, perhaps to report in to his superiors.” He exaggerated a sigh. “He does not believe you have been spotted, but… I feel it would be prudent to return home, for now.”

     Mirii nodded, just the once, although it didn’t quite hide her disappointment.

     Yannis took her hand. “I am sorry we could not prevent him from coming here. I had hoped this world was far enough outside the normal trade routes that they would not be able to track us this distance.”

     “You did what you could,” she reassured, quietly, allowing him to lead her back towards his vehicle. “His coming here may not be all bad. It may also give me the chance I needed.”

     “The… chance, dear?” Yannis licked his lips, apprehensively. “What chance might that be?”

     Thankfully, she didn’t seem to pick up on his unease. “To confront him. To explain that I know his plans, see through them, and want nothing more to do with them. I am not sure which I would prefer – never to see him again, or to ask him why he did it to me,” she explained, then forced an apologetic smile. “I also just want to be sure. We have shared so much, for so long, I do not like to contemplate just… throwing it away, not without hearing it from his lips. Please do not think me ungrateful for your help, but-”

     “Dear, you should never feel that you have to apologise over this. I completely understand your need for closure. I would be more concerned at your state of mind if you did throw everything away with no second thought. If I had been so thoroughly used, I think I would need to hear it from the pretender’s lips, as well.”

     “Closure,” she repeated to herself, quietly. “An end of an era. The resolution of a series of events.”

     “Is something worrying you, dear?”

     “…the finality of it all makes me uneasy.” She flicked one drooping ear, making her earrings chime together. “What is the chance they will track us to your home?”

     “Slim to negligible. He has not even seen you yet, remember? My home is perfectly safe,” Yannis reassured. “And if it comes to the worst and they do pick up your signal, the old factory is full of hiding places in which we can safely wait, until they recognise you are no longer there and leave us in peace. Now please, indulge me in a question,” he reached down and nudged the bag with one hand, “Explain the fruit to me. Since I distinctly recall you telling me you could not even taste, let alone eat.”

     She looked away, coyly. “I wanted to cook dinner for you. So you had something to look forward to when you returned from work.”

     “You can cook?” Yannis narrowed his eyes, feigning suspicion.

     She smiled, hopefully,. “Yes! I have been told I can cook very well, in fact. I took the opportunity to look through the recipe books in your kitchen, and picked something that made use of local ingredients.”

     He quirked an eyebrow, but now looked amused rather than suspicious. “You expect me to trust a chef who cannot taste what she is cooking? How will you know if you have put enough seasoning in?”

     “Well, I have never had a problem so far. My parents always told me-” Mirii went awkwardly quiet, swallowing the rest of her words.

     “Come on, dear. What did your parents always tell you?”

     She looked sidelong at him out of big, swimming eyes. “What if they were not really my parents?”

     “You are not trying to tell me you believe yourself to have been born, are you, love?”

     “No,” she shook her head. “Just that… well… I was told that I had been adopted to give me a good start in life. That my ‘parents’ were carefully chosen from dozens of candidates, and had good social status, good morals, had done community work in the past, and whose children had all grown up already.” She hesitated, then murmured; “what if they were not my parents, either? What if they were just yet more scientists, analysing me, testing me? Checking my responses were appropriate?” Her voice descended to a whisper. “What if that was just another trick?”

     “It is… possible, I imagine,” he agreed, thoughtfully, making a big show of considering the options when in reality he was worried he was about to slip up. Her ‘parents’ were an unknown he hadn’t known about to factor into his deception. “Did they tell you much about themselves?”

     “A little. Maybe I did not ask enough. At the time, I was satisfied with what they told me, I had no reason to probe for inaccuracies in their story.” She shook her head, sadly. “Maire Aemi had worked in a bank when she married her husband, and general {name} had retired from active duty several years before.”

     “Your ‘father’ was in the military?” What a perfect opportunity!

     Mirii nodded, silently.

     “Well, I do not like to make assumptions,” he lied, “but it is of course possible that both were just more analysts. In many societies it is often the military that funds such vast projects, correct? Perhaps you were one of their research projects.”

     “Military?” Her voice was weak. “What-… what purpose could I possibly serve in the military? Females do not serve active duty.”

     “Perhaps you were to be the dutiful housewife, the loving partner to the super-soldier,” he mused. “That green one-”

     “Iios.”

     “-…yes, him. He was a military officer, correct?”

     Mirii’s brows creased together. “He was not designed with any single career in mind, and he left Imperial space long before I had been created.”

     “So you have been told. I cannot help but wonder precisely how long it would take to create a creature of such wonderful complexity as yourself? Your construction may have been initiated long before he left.”

     “But it was his choice to join Ardea, and they are not a military organisation-!”

     “Darling.” He enclosed both her hands in all four of his. “You need to stop excusing the ones that mistreated you. You may be the product of an expensive research program, but that does not mean you owe it anything. They brought you into being, and that is the limit to which they should have any claim over you. If the only way you can reconcile the thought is to think of yourself as a refugee from a cruel military regime, so be it.”

     She studied their interlinked hands, silently.

     He squeezed her hands, sadly. “Softening a concept with inappropriate semantics allows us to forget what it is we are afraid of,” he reminded her, gently. “And we should not allow ourselves to lose respect for something because we have lost sight of what it is. If you were created with military funds, I doubt they will stop at anything to get you back.”

     Mirii sat silently the entire drive back, her hands resting slackly in her lap and her features pinched, the small bags of food sliding back and forth by her feet. Her cheery offer to cook dinner seemed to have fallen by the wayside, the lovingly-selected fruits no doubt getting bruised by their current maltreatment.

     “I did not intend to scare you, love,” Yannis said, softly, barely audible above the purr of the engine.

     “I know.” A watery smile flickered across her lips, but quickly evaporated in the hot desert air. “It is not your fault. Every time I think I have managed to reconcile the concerns in my mind, another doubt comes up. It seems everything I have ever known is a lie, of some sort. Cold trickery.” She let her gaze drop to the dusty road flashing past below. “Everything I have ever known, everything I have ever cherished, everything I have ever loved and valued. Did any of it have any value?”

     Yannis stretched out a free hand, and closed it around her fingers, squeezing them. “If it created you, dear, then there must have been some value in it all.”

     She managed a more genuine smile, this time, but remained quiet.

     “If you would prefer to have the time to yourself, this evening, I can order my dinner from one of the restaurants around the marketplace,” Yannis reassured. “Oomia will still be in town for a while longer, I can ask her to bring me something up when she returns. You do not have to waste time cooking for me.”

     “No.” Mirii shook her head, then repeated, more firmly; “No. My life may have been a sham, but it does not mean I have to stop enjoying doing what I am good at. I would like to make dinner for you.”

     Yannis smiled. “Then I shall look forwards to sampling your cookery.”

* * * * *

     When Yannis arrived in the command centre, after dropping Mirii safely off in her gilded birdcage, it was to find Asenka with her chair rocked back onto two legs, hoofs braced against the computer terminal, scribbling busily on a tablet. Probably going through inventory, if the familiar bips and chirps from the device were anything to go by. “Right, boss,” she greeted, not bothering to look up. “How was town.”

     “Overcrowded, smelly, and full of traders selling their overpriced tat to tourists, as always.” Yannis made a show of dusting the last traces of fine sand off his clothing, then did a double take at seeing Sei standing quietly to one side of the control room, almost invisible in the shadows. “What is he doing there?”

     Asenka arched an eyebrow and tapped her tailtip against a chair leg. “Doing what you told him to do, boss.”

     “…beg pardon?”

     The hind gestured with her stylus. “You told Ee-oss to bring him up here once he’d took a shower, right? I checked with beloved other, who confirmed it. He also said, you didn’t tell the guy what to do when he got here, so he’s been waiting around up here for you to quit pissing about in the city.”

     Folding one set of arms and placing the other set firmly on his hips, Yannis moved to stand directly in front of him. “Could you not have found something useful to do with yourself?”

     “Forgive me, sir. You requested that I attend the control room for instruction prior to doing any other work.”

     Yannis cursed softly under his breath. “Wretched machine. You couldn’t have asked Asenka for guidance?”

     “No sir.” Sei gazed politely down at him. “You were quite precise. I can not disobey a direct order unless it conflicts with my basal protocols.”

     Yannis rolled his eyes. “Ugh. All right. Follow me.” He flicked a hand in a come hither gesture, and the soft sound of even footsteps followed him into the corridor.

     “What is to be my new purpose, sir?” Sei asked, remaining a polite stride behind him.

     “My virologist needs a ‘research assistant’, although I suspect you may be more of a safety blanket, so he can think we care about him.” Yannis threw up his hands, annoyed. “You will help him out during the day. By night, I expect you to help your fellow machines in maintaining this cesspit – cleaning, repairing, vacuuming up all the wretched sand that always gets in, whatever needs doing. Understand?”

     Sei inclined his long head. “Of course, sir. I will endeavour to be of use. Where and when should I recharge?”

     Yannis shrugged. “Whenever there is nothing immediate that needs doing. I will not have you resting on the job. Kolek should have set your… brother-” The ridiculous sentiment threatened to stick in his throat, but he had no other definition readily on hand and couldn’t stand the damn machines correcting him on how he pronounced their identifiers. “-up with a place to recharge his batteries, you can share facilities.”

* * * * *

     Acknowledge timer, take sample, add to reagent, discard and replace pipette tip, wait.

     Biohazard sighed to himself, and rubbed his temples, trying to massage away one of those special combination air-conditioning-and-eyestrain headaches this tiny lab was getting famous for.

     Virology was a fascinating field, granted, but this sort of analytical chemistry wasn’t his favourite part of it. It wasn’t even as if he could go and get himself a hot drink while he waited, because Yannis was an eternal cheapskate and refused to purchase an automated sampler. He had to stay protectively close to his stopwatch the whole time, lest he miss a vital timepoint, or sample it too late.

     Acknowledge, sample, discard pipette, wait.

     At least it all looked like it was working, at a crude visual level. The further the suspension ran, the brighter the green liquid became, meaning less unbound protein remained in solution. If he could get these artificial immunological tags to stay on for longer than a few minutes – and at body temperature, not in this kind of chilly solute – the marker would call the immune system in to destroy the virus. Theoretically. It was just far too labile at higher temperatures!

     The door clunked, softly. I seem to have visitors. The young dar glanced up as the door opened, and watched with barely-veiled suspicion as his employer entered the room, followed by an unfamiliar figure dressed in a simple work coverall.

     “What’s going on?” he wondered, warily, keeping pipette in one hand and stopwatch in the other as a clear indicator that he was busy.

     Yannis waved the hand holding a small vial full of what looked like dirty straw-coloured liquid with a grandiose flourish. “I bring you the latest sample, fresh from the hospital.”

     “Right.” Biohazard’s brow furrowed a little more deeply. “And… that person following you is…?”

     “You wanted another assistant.” Yannis gestured grandly to the visitor. “Well, I have found you one.”

     Biohazard matched stares with the stranger; the pale, luminous blue eyes seemed to stare clean through him. An awkward chill probed its fingers up his back. “A kiravai,” he managed, at last, flatly. “Is this your idea of a joke, Yannis? Send me an ‘assistant’ in the form of one of the greatest enemies my species have ever known.”

     Yannis si-ighed, melodramatically. “I gave you an assistant before, and you sent him away, claiming he was an idiot. I send you a new assistant – with, as requested, ‘more than two brain cells to rub together’ – and still you are not satisfied.”

     Biohazard found himself reduced to angry spluttering for a moment, unable to find a good enough retort.

     “Besides, this is not a kiravai,” Yannis added, unhelpfully.

     “Could have fooled me!” Biohazard finally found his voice.

     “Explain to him.”

     “Master Yannis is correct,” the black kiravai confirmed, stepping forwards and politely inclining his long head in greeting. “I am kirasiinu, a synthetic life form. I am an accomplished mimic of the biological life form I resemble, however I am not strictly alive, in the sense you would understand it.”

     Biohazard stared at him, lips agape, for a full few seconds. “You… abducted a synthoid?” he managed, at last, in a childlike squawk.

     “Oh, please. He came here all on his own.”

     The dark head quirked to one side. “That is technically incorr-”

     “I shall leave the two of you to get acquainted,” Yannis interrupted, airily, already walking towards the doorway. “And I expect some actual progress on the vaccine, next time I speak to you! I am not paying you to sit around drinking [keem].”

     “It would help if you gave me some actual samples of the virus, not… useless surface proteins!” Biohazard snapped at the retreating back, but the door sliced his words off.

     It was only after Yannis had left that Biohazard realised he’d been distracted into missing two whole timepoints, and would have to start the whole sequence over again. “Oh, for crying out-… small wonder I never get any damn work finished, around here!”

     The dark cob walked over, with a strange, gliding sort of gait. “May I assist, sir?” He peered down at the sheet of instructions, laminated into a sheet of protective plastic and already covered in a variety of stains.

     Biohazard let the pipette go skittering off across the table, and slumped against the stool’s high back. “If you like.” He put his goggles down and pinched the brow of his nose. “I suppose you don’t have to worry about getting distracted by anything, huh.”

     “That is correct, sir.” The nimble fingers danced through the glassware on the table, and selected replacement vessels identical to the ones containing Biohazard’s assay. “What is the procedure we are following?”

     Biohazard quietly watched him acquaint himself with the laboratory. “Trying to analyse and develop a vaccine for this virus.” He gestured a gloved hand at the small vial. “It’s a nasty one. There’s an outbreak in one of the southern cities, lots of children are dying.”

     One long black ear twitched, strangely, but the synthoid otherwise remained silent. There was something about its-… his manner that made Biohazard a little edgy, already.

     “Yannis stamps his feet about my ‘lack of progress’, but it’s more difficult than he realises. He still hasn’t given me a sample of the actual virus, yet! I don’t see how he thinks I can generate a whole vaccine when I don’t have the whole organism, yet.” The vul pushed himself gracelessly off his stool, and trudged over to the tiny kitchenette and drinks machine, stripping off his uncomfortable protective gloves. “I’ve done about all I can with the surface antigens. They often lyse with the reagents I try, and they’re complex enough that I can’t get the immune tags to stay stuck on, except in chilled solutions. I can’t use that as a vaccine!” He punched one of the buttons on the machine, and listened to it clunk softly to itself.

     The cob began to measure out portions of reagent, following the protocol. “Have you considered targeted gene therapy? A DNA vaccine, perhaps? You would not require a sample of live vaccine.”

     “Considered it.” Biohazard cupped his hands around his mug, and inhaled the fragrant steam curling up off the surface. “I’m struggling to work out the genetic sequence to generate the antigen.” He sighed, tiredly, and took a long mouthful, relishing the sharp, fragrant astringency. “So what’s your name, anyway?”

     “Sei, sir. Yannis has informed me you are called Biohazard? It is quite an unusual name for a vul.”

     Biohazard snorted his drink up his nose. “No, that’s just... typical of Yannis,” he grunted, annoyed, once he’d managed to stop choking. “Please, can we not use Yannis’ nickname for me? He only does it to yank my tail in the first place.”

     “I am sorry, I do not understand. Would you clarify, so I may correct the behaviour?”

     “I’d prefer it if you called me by my real name. It’s Dren.” He held out a hand, optimistically.

     Sei looked down at the hand for several seconds, until its owner gave up and took it back. “I am pleased to meet you, Dren. I hope our work here will be productive.”

     “Me too.” The vul rinsed out his cup, and tiredly got back to work.

* * * * *

     For someone with such a well-provisioned kitchen, Mirii was a little perturbed to find that Yannis didn’t seem to have used any of it. Why buy such a rich selection of tools if you did not plan to utilise any?

     She didn’t need to have the recipe book to hand – she could have remembered something infinitely more complicated with no problems – but having it propped open in the special wooden rest had a pleasant domesticity about it. Small bowls contained her carefully selected fruit and fish, half of which she had prepared already, weighed accurately by hand. The rest awaited preparation, like the tough brown tubers she was currently peeling. She wielded the long knife carefully, paring the tough skin from the vegetables but ensuring she left the most flavoursome layer just beneath intact – a skill that most other creatures would have found almost impossible, without years of practice and special tools.

     Beneath the calm exterior, her mind was a whirl of confused unease. There was something about Yannis’ behaviour that she was not at all sure she liked. That he was compassionate, and devoted, certainly – generous, too, with all the little gifts. Never raised his voice, spoke kindly to her, even gave her a safe, comfortable home and did not request any form of payment in return.

     The constant affirmations of love were what was making her particularly uneasy. He used a lot of affectionate epithets when talking to her, rather than her name. Dear. Sweetheart. Darling. My love. She wasn’t about to rule out the idea he might indeed love her, of course – he was not kiravai, and she had never studied eumin mating rituals, so this might be normal for them. He may well have fallen in love with the creature behind the glass, out of reach until he could rescue her. Who was she to assert that he was not being truthful?!

     It was the rest of his mannerisms that didn’t quite seem to fit together with the outward image he tried to portray. He was very keen to tell her about how badly she had been treated, how much she had been lied to, how Sei was even now following her and trying to keep her from finding out the truth… but never yet had he asked how she was. How she was coping. How she felt to have had her world turned upside down. Almost like he enjoyed making her feel unhappy – so he could make her feel better? Feel needed?

     Not to mention, they had gone to the market for only a short period – and although he had tried to pretend it was for her enjoyment, she knew it was only because he wanted to meet his contact. Now, she was back in her cosy prison cell, with its locked door and sound baffles.

     The thoughts conflicted in a most unpleasant way. I wonder what he would say if I informed him I would like to leave? Even if I confirmed I understood the risks, and absolved him of any responsibility?

     Without even having to ask him, she knew the answer would be no. He might… ‘soften it with sentiment’, as he had said earlier, and make out if was for her own good, and that he enjoyed having her company above all else, but the locked door was proof he did not want her leaving.

     What if, she finally allowed herself to consider, he was the trickster? He was the one playing the games, lying to her, trying to mould her into something she did not really want to be? But why? What could possess someone – someone that didn’t even know her! – to be so unnecessarily unkind?

     Frustrated, she sliced through the core of the vegetable, using more strength than necessary, and embedded the blade in the plastic chopping board. She pursed her lips and levered it free, running a fingertip over the deep welt, but couldn’t quite find the energy to care.

     He can buy another one if he is concerned, she thought to herself, grimly. But I do not imagine he will care in the slightest. He is obviously rich, and has not seemed to care about damaging his things thus far.

--------------------

Chapter: 6915 words.   |    57361 out of 100,000

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February 2013

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