Two

Oct. 31st, 2012 06:31 pm
keaalu: I say I am writing, but actually I have a game of solitaire open (nano procrastinate)
[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] good_as_gold
(This originally was titled "Day Three" but that messed up my knowledge of where my chapters had got up to. I was quite confused at how I could possibly have two "chapter 15"s.)

     Sei had never been the sort to just sit and grieve. Once the shock had worn off, he had thrown himself into answer-finding – if only to distract himself from the darkness that threatened to consume him. He had to know what had gone wrong, it couldn’t just be an accident, not when he was so utterly sure it must have been sabotage – so there had to be clues among the wreckage. There had to be something, some tiny clue however small to chase down that would at least give him a lead, a head start! A chemical trace, an inorganic signature that might lead him to the manufacturer of the explosives, a piece of hardware not obliterated. Because right now? He was totally, utterly stumped.

     That Iios had made plenty of enemies was not in doubt. Not only was he Kiravai, he was… unconventional. Didn’t mind upsetting people – enjoyed it, often. Loved to feel like he had power over individuals by leading them astray… But this didn’t seem like the sort of thing one of his foes would do. They’d want to see him humiliated, first – beaten, broken, shamed, small. Not just… just blown to smithereens. Right? Sei crushed the idea down, afraid that his mind would formulate the appropriate species to nullify his hypothesis – as there were those, like the Usurians, who’d forego the posturing and just stamp their enemies down. But he wasn’t going to think of them. Not at all. He squeezed his eyes closed and banished the thoughts with effort.

     The crew had tractored all the debris except the engine core into the largest cargo hold, and Sei had fallen on it like a ravenous animal, without even waiting for it to finish clicking and smouldering and slowly cooling. While the engineering team ran their distant scans of the core, he’d sifted and sorted, tidying the twisted heap of blackened alloy into smaller heaps, and then smaller heaps. The most insignificant-looking shreds of material got analysed a dozen times over, for organic materials, chemical traces, spectral changes, radiation damage…

     Sei had been digging through the wreckage all day and most of the night, cross referencing his and the engineers’ results against reference figures, when Eri finally summoned the courage to go down to visit him – something she’d been holding off doing, just in case he’d found… something… something like a… a piece of one of them. A lack of a stomach didn’t stop nauseating feelings fluttering through her chest. She didn’t know what she’d have done if he’d looked up at her and handed over a toe, or a feather, or an ear-…

     Sei looked haggard, his clothing hanging raggedly off him, his skin covered in so much soot and grime that his oily iridescence was completely invisible, and his usually-impeccable hair looked like a sad, curly green mop on his scalp. But there was a gleam in his eyes, and that terrible despondency had finally begun to lift from his shoulders.

     “Sei?” She went over to where he sat in the centre of the pile, picking her delicate way across the haphazard mass of twisted metal, and wasn’t unsurprised when he put his arms around her. He stank of soot, but she didn’t have the energy to scold him; it seemed… irrelevant. “Are you okay?”

     “They’re not here,” he murmured, into her shoulder, and she could feel him shaking with relief. “They’re not here.”

     “You mean-” She felt her emotions do a great somersaulting kick inside her.

     “I mean they’re not dead, Eri. They were not in the vessel when it was destroyed.”

     “You’re sure?” She wasn’t sure if she’d rather collapse or dance out of relief; instead, she clung to him, and felt him tighten his own relieved grip around her. “You’re absolutely, one-hundred-percent, not-a-shadow-of-a-doubt sure?”

     “No traces of any of their components in the debris, and no trace of any of the chemicals used in their construction. They were not on board,” he confirmed. “Someone wants us to think they are dead, but they are not…!”

     “But if they’re not here…” She drew back, and cast her gaze around the mess of twisted metal, grimly. “Where are they?”

     Sei looked… crestfallen. “I had not thought so far into the future,” he admitted.

     “Come on. We best go talk to the command crew.” Eri extracted herself from Sei’s arms, and tugged upwards on his hand. “If they weren’t aboard, then they’re either still on Waystation Six at Tas-umskel, or someone’s abducted them. And if they’re on a ship we better start looking for them now!”

     Sei just stared up at her, for a moment or two, dumbly. “But-… we do not even know that is what happened-”

     “Just… come on,” she instructed, dragging him to his feet. “The quicker we confirm they didn’t die on Auspice II, the quicker we can start looking for them!”

     “Should I not neaten up…?” he protested, nonetheless letting her haul him up out of the debris.

     “Afterwards. I think they’ll be able to tolerate an untidy Siinu for a few minutes while you put their minds at ease.”

0o0o0o0o0

     Sei shifted uneasily at the front of the briefing room. Making presentations to his peers was never normally something that fazed him, but right now he was acutely aware of just how filthy he was…

     “Your report, Oilskin?” Hauura invited, gruffly. Short on patience, as always…

     Sei straightened himself up and rallied his nerve. “It is with relief I report that neither Iios nor Mirii were aboard Auspice II when she was destroyed.”

     The collective sigh of relief was like a whistle of air from a punctured tyre.

     “You’re sure?” Pau chased, slumping back in his chair.

     “You feel confident to say he was not in there, Oilskin?” Hauura added, gruffly. Her voice was her typical ill-tempered grumble, but her fins were all flat and inoffensive.

     “Absolutely confident, madam.”

     “Howso?”

     “To put it bluntly, I have extensively analysed the wreckage and there were no body parts to be found among the debris,” Sei explained, grimly. “I also believe the ship was being remotely controlled, although I cannot be absolutely certain of this because we did not think to record the appropriate traces in the minutes before the explosion.”

     “What is to say that there was simply no evidence to find?” Pau asked. “That their parts-… that is… um… the, uh, components of… their bodies… uhm...” He scratched his head, painfully aware that his attempt not to be offensive was ending up becoming even more so, the insides of his ears flushing scarlet. “…were not just… vaporised?” he struggled on. “Or outside of the field of the collector bubble, and we just didn’t collect them?”

     Sei shook his head, politely ignoring the unintended insult. “Neither seems likely. Had the explosion been of sufficient magnitude to completely vaporise every last trace, there would not have been such sizeable ‘chunks’ of debris of the ship itself. And they would not have been ejected from the blast at a greater speed than any other inanimate component, especially given it is unlikely they would have been at the centre of the detonation.”

     “What I still fail to understand is why,” Velia challenged. “What purpose does faking his death serve? Unless there’s been an accident down on Tas-umskel, and someone bureaucrat somewhere is trying to cover it up.”

     “Aside from that it is obvious someone wants us to think he is dead, I can think of no logical reason for it,” Sei agreed, bluntly. “Perhaps it is just Umskel’i bureaucracy, but it would have to be an impressive ‘accident’ to kill someone as resilient as my brother, and I am inclined to think it is more to avert an attempt to follow, to rescue. Perhaps one of those individuals he has wronged in the past desire their vengeance.”

     “Doctor? Please, don’t take this the wrong way, but…” Velia studied her fingers. “Is there any chance your brother himself could have faked the accident?”

     Sei visibly bristled, ears coming belligerently forwards. “How dare you suggest-”

     “Please, sir,” the fal broke in before he could work himself too deeply into his temper. “You yourself surely recognise it wouldn’t be the first time he has done something overly dramatic to achieve an end.”

     Sei stared at her, disbelieving. “There is overdramatic and then there is this, Velia! Why in all the Holy Principles would he have tried to fake his own demise?!”

     “Please, doctor. If it helps to remain objective, consider them as though they were strangers.” Velia held his angry gaze with her own steadfast one, unflinching. “Your wife is attractive, polite, obedient, easily persuaded and completely in awe of the captain, right now. No matter what you may be here for in the first place, he has been known to… how can I put it delicately… rove?”

     Sei knew she was referring to Iios’ early tendencies to get distracted by any pretty face that presented itself, regardless of marital status and even gender, and he had had one or two affairs early on in his and Eri’s relationship. Each time, he would end up crawling back, and she’d ultimately forgive him and things would even back out.

     After all that I have forgiven him for in the past, I do not think I could forgive him if he ran away with Mirii. Especially not in such a way. “No,” he asserted, softly. “No, he would not do that. She would not do that. Especially not in such a manner!”

     “True,” Hauura grumbled, nodding her ponderous head. “Silver Tongue would not mince his words. If he wanted Little Gold, he would have said so.”

     Sei only felt vaguely comforted by the Xniki’s words. He decided not to mention how Iios had jokingly confided in him that he would have to watch his back, lest he got a knife in it so Iios could have both ladies all to himself.

     “Additionally, I do not believe the individuals who perpetuated this crime were particularly intelligent,” Sei observed. “They would have been cleverer with their technique.”

     “Please, sir. Explain your reasoning?” Pau coaxed, sitting forwards. Of course, chemistry was an interest of his – not anything he’d ever developed outside of a personal interest, but he was fairly good at it nevertheless.

     “I found that the walls of the ship’s hold were covered with a weak tricobalt residue,” Sei explained, pointing to the display where a chemical spectrum had flashed up to accompany the image. “It seems that a quantity of explosive had been placed inside to fool us into thinking the detonation came from an equipment malfunction, and by the concentration of residues my instinct is to believe it was left by the gravity well, to look like a magnetic bottle failure. There was insufficient to cause the core annihilation that should have resulted from such a fault, however.”

     “So. Our terrorists are resourceful enough to get hold of tricobalt explosives, but not smart enough to use them? Sounds like our dear captain should be able to get away from them all on his own,” Velia commented, dryly.

     “I hope you are not suggesting we just ignore him, commander,” Sei warned, quietly.

     Velia gave him a lopsided smile. “Of course not. I was just thinking how difficult it’s going to be for us to find a start point… Come on, Saifa.” She caught Pau’s arm and pulled him out of his chair. “The quicker we get looking for rogue arms dealers, the quicker we’ll be able to start to narrow down where the stuff might have come from.”

     “Please, do not forget to check vessels leaving the system!” Sei called after them, but for once didn’t get up to follow them.

     Hauura paused by his chair, and let her giant hand rest on his shoulder for a moment; her long fingers stretched all the way down to the centre of his chest, and she drummed the fingertips gently against him. He covered her dark hand with his own, gratefully.

     “Fates will bring him home, Oilskin,” she promised. “Be sure of that.”

0o0o0o0o0

     When Eri finally went to look for him, Sei was still sitting at the main briefing room table, long after all the rest of the crew had long gone, his shoulders slumping, his head hanging low on his sagging neck. He looked emotionally exhausted.

     “Come on, love,” she held out her hands to him, and took one dark hand into each of hers. “Bath time. Now.”

     “Bath…?” he echoed, blinking tiredly up at her. He felt stupid, as if his brain had run down so far it was utilising basic processors only. “…?”

     “Come on,” she gave him a gentle tug and coaxed him into motion. “We can get you freshened up. Get rid of some of that dust you were so worried about earlier.”

     “A minute in the sonic cleanser would be more efficient,” he argued, but there was no conviction in his words and he didn’t hold back, following her with a slumping, shambling stride, like a tired seng puppy.

     “Perhaps, but it’s not much fun, is it? Noisy, too.” She gave him an affectionate smile. “You deserve a little TLC after all that hard work.”

     Once safely back in his quarters, Sei sat forlornly in his bathroom doorway and listened as she ran hot water. He was a mess, he mused, staring at his haggard reflection in the mirror opposite, although his soot-coloured clothing didn’t help. He pulled the shirt up over his head and inspected the grey fabric more closely, smoothing it absently between thumb and forefinger; ruined. Typical. Lucky it hadn’t been one of his favourites, because hot chemicals had bonded permanently into the natural fibre.

     “I should point out,” he mumbled, quietly, propping his arm on his knee and resting his chin on his elbow, watching the mound of bubbles rise in the tub, “that whether the water is hot, tepid or cold makes no difference to me.

     “Oh, shush,” Eri groused, good-naturedly, swirling her hands through it. “You just can’t help some people. C’mon, clothes off. Unless you want to bathe fully dressed.”

     Woodenly, he did as instructed, dragging a trouser leg the half-dozen steps to the bath but unable to summon the energy to shake the fabric from his ankle. Eri bit her lip and tried to ignore the lean expanse of black skin on display, watched out of the corner of her eye as he stepped over the edge of the bath.

     It looked like the hot chemicals from the scrap pile had put a permanent wave into his hair, because it didn’t look inclined to spontaneously smooth out. She smiled, in spite of herself – attractively tousled. He looked too exhausted to know what he was doing to her, though – sank into the water, and just sat motionless for several long minutes while she busied herself gathering his scattered clothing into the laundry chute.

     “Would you like me to help you?” she asked, at last.

     It took him a moment to respond. “…what?”

     “Would you like me to give you a hand?”

     “I-…” he blinked, dumbly. “I can reach adequately.”

     He might be able to reach, but he still hadn’t reached for the soap. Just sat there staring at it, as if it’d grow legs and walk over all of its own accord.

     “All right, all right. Dama Bossy is going to be taking charge,” Eri sighed, and plucked a comb off the bathroom shelf. She ran the comb through his hair, briefly, and watched as a cloud of black soot particles bloomed into the water. “You are absolutely filthy,” she groused, in an attempt to lighten the mood, squirting shampoo into the loose, deep turquoise curls. “You could very nearly be a pale Siinu, you’re covered in enough soot that no-one would know the difference.”

     He gave the faintest huff of tired laughter, but didn’t speak as she energetically rubbed the soap into his scalp. She wondered what thoughts were whirling through his mind – how many hundred thousand terrible scenarios he’d gone through already. She herself was plagued by the same terrible shadow of not knowing, but helping her brother was helping her distance herself from it, somewhat.

     “We’ll find them,” she promised, gently, watching as the lather she was generating went grey with fine soot particles. “He’ll get word to us somehow, and we’ll find them. You can be sure of that!”
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