Nine

Oct. 31st, 2012 06:47 pm
keaalu: (Default)
[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] good_as_gold
(Original post date: Nov. 16th, 2008 at 10:32 PM)



     “Yannis?” she echoed, quietly, and perked her head. “Sei told me of a man by a similar name. He said the man he knew was cruel, vindictive, and not to be trusted. Why would he say such a thing?” Her melodious voice had taken a harder edge, a more testing edge. “I warn you now, if this is all a trick…”

     “Of course he would say such harmful things,” Yannis sighed, tiredly, and allowed her to take her hand back again. “I was outspoken against him. I said their testing, their experimenting on such a gentle undeserving soul was unfair. They believed me to be meddling in the outcome of the experiment, and forbade me further contact with the project. Why do you think your guardian was so vehement in his description of me?”

     She shook her head, slowly. “I do not know.”

     He forced a grim smile. “To make you fear me, Marie. To make you run, and hide, before I could have time to give you the unpleasant truth about what they were doing to you! Why do you think we had to be so vigorous in our efforts to contact you? We could not risk that you slipped the net before we told you! You would have gone back to the ‘safety’ of your tormentors, and they would have sought us out and killed us, so they would no longer have to risk you finding out. Now the facts are in the open, and you know the truth about your existence? There is not much more they can do to you!” He covered her fingers with his own. “They will give you a semblance of peace, at least. They may attempt to take you back, but there will be little point in attempting to continue their macabre games. You are sufficiently empowered to make your own decisions!”

     Mirii remained silent for several long heartbeats.

     “I know. It is a lot to take in. But you will, dear. You will, and you will become a happier soul because of it.”

     “I do not know that I can just… believe you,” she apologised. “What you have told me sounds so… outrageous. So incorrect! How can it be real?”

     Yannis settled more closely to her on the bed, and kissed her hand. “We have proof, if you need it,” he said, softly.

     “Proof?” she seemed unsure of herself. “Proof of what, please?”

     “Proof of the duplicitous nature of those you so willingly share your life with.”

     “How can you prove such a thing?” She sounded frightened.

     “The green one’s true nature has been revealed to everyone,” he murmured, softly, leaning a little closer to her large ear. “We have interrupted the carrier wave from his puppeteer. Without the instructions from his puppet-master, without someone manipulating his actions, he can only behave in the way that is pre-programmed. And that is in a serving capacity. He awaits instructions, and obeys them. And that is it.”

     Mirii gave Yannis a very long, hard look. It didn’t seem possible. Iios was far too fiery, far too excitable and unpredictable – and disobedient! – to fit the role of a server.

     “I know. You do not believe me. In that case, I shall call him through, if you desire?” At her nod, he looked towards the cabin door, and elevated his voice a little. “Iios?” His pronunciation was atrocious, Mirii noticed – the name came out more like ‘Ee-ose’ – but anxiety over-rode most of her concerns about semantics. “Would you come in here, please?”

     Mirii gazed hopefully at the doorway – it was a trick, it was all a nasty, bad-taste trick, and Iios would reveal it to be just another stupid prank and he was sorry but she should have seen her face-

     Like a pale green ghost, Iios glided elegantly through the doorway, and inclined his head. He had a patient but totally bland smile on his face. “How may I assist?” he asked, and his voice was amenable, but flat. Dull. There was no ‘spark’ like she remembered.

     Mirii felt her hopes crumble. What if it was all true? What if all she had ever known and loved was all a fabrication? What if her marriage was a lie?!

     “Marie wishes to speak to you,” Yannis paraphrased, in the silence. “Would you be so kind as to indulge her?”

     “Of course.” Iios inclined his head, obediently, and turned his probing golden stare towards the anxious pen on the bed. “What do you wish to talk about, Mirii?”

     “What is wrong with you?” she whispered, trembling. Broken. Broken. My fault. Broken. He had to be all right, he had to be joking. This had to be a stupid bad-taste prank. It wasn’t possible that someone so alert, so alive, could have turned so… flat.

     “There is nothing wrong with me. I am functioning at all optimum values.” He gave her a patient smile. “For what reason do you believe my actions indicate I am faulty?”

     “You were not like this earlier!” She all but fell off the bed in her haste to get to him. “You were… alert! You laughed and teased and were just… alive!” She stared hard at him, as if trying to scare him into confessing, but he just gazed back, blandly. His hair was thick and spiked with a sort of gel, she noticed, and his clothing had been changed – traces of an acid-bright yellow green substance clung to the creases on his face, around his ears and nose – what had they done to him?

     “This is how I am,” he explained, and repeated; “I am functioning at all optimum values. No faults have been determined by system diagnostics.”

     She held his hand and tightened her fingers on his; they felt very slightly tacky, as if he’d been holding something gelatinous, but he didn’t tighten his grip in response. His fingers were slack, unresisting. “Do you not love me?” she pleaded, as if trying to get through a barrier to the real Iios, the captain who had been so strange but so nice-… “ ‘I love you, little sister’,” she said, mimicking his voice. “That was what you said. Less than a day ago, you said it to me!”

     “Forgive me, but I do not recognise the familial epithet you have used. I am a machine designed for helping, thus I do not have ‘siblings’.” The patient smile never wavered.

     She rounded on Yannis, angrily. “You broke him!” she scolded. “The last time I saw him, he was alive! Stupid and disobedient, but alive! This… this walking… automaton! This is not my brother-in-law! It can not be!”

     “I must correct you, Mirii.” A gentle voice spoke from behind her. “Although my behaviour may have changed, I remain the same individual.”

     “That is not possible!” she told him, attempting to remain steady but her voice rose into a wail of despair at the end of her sentence. “You’re lying, you’re both horrible liars-!”

     “Steady, Marie,” Yannis soothed, catching her elbows from behind. “Please, forgive me, I should not have broken the news to you so abruptly-”

     “You broke him,” she wept, subsiding to the ground, and didn’t resist as he took her into all four of his arms. “You broke him…!”

     “Not broken,” he argued, gently, letting her sob into his shoulder. “I merely revealed an unpalatable truth, because I could not stand for you to live in such a deluded, lied-to state. They do not care, because to them you are merely an experiment, but I could not allow it to go on.”

0o0o0o0o0

     It took Mirii a long time to even begin to think about calming down – Yannis endured having her head on his shoulder with a well-disguised impatience. It was a little like he imagined it would be to try and hug a beanstalk – all the women he’d known previously had at least some padding at the front! There wasn’t even a scrap of spare (fake) musculature on this little slip of gold nothing. She was just long and scrawny.

     “I will call Zuff down. He can get you settled into more comfortable surroundings,” Yannis decided, at last. Plus, he is a doctor, so he is more inclined to care, and he has more patience than I do! “You do not deserve to remain in the servants’ quarters after all this.”

     ‘Zuff’ turned out to be a muddy-looking grey coloured Vul, with a sour expression crimping his nose – although it looked like it was his nickname he was particularly unimpressed by. “Yes, sir?” he greeted, drawing the words out into a surly drawl. “You called me here for a reason, or just to admire my feet?”

     “Less of your lip,” Yannis scolded, quietly. “The lady does not need to hear us bicker. You will take her to the guest quarters and see that she is properly clothed and made comfortable.”

     Zuff opened his mouth to protest that the guest quarters were currently Yannis’ quarters, but the man held a finger to his lips and gave him such a black scowl that he swallowed his protests. “Of course, sir. Madam?” He crouched next to her.

     Mirii lifted her head, at last; her eyelashes had become little wet clumps. “Yes?” Her voice was quiet, thinned out with emotion.

     “Would you accompany me?” He held out a hand.

     She studied his hand blankly for a few moments, before finally nodding and slipping her fingers into his dark palm. “Of-… of course,” she replied, softly, and followed him obediently out of the room, wiping her eyes.

     Yannis watched them go, satisfied, before finally rising to his feet and turning to face his newest ‘employee’. “Iios?”

     “Sir?” Iios stepped forward.

     Yannis promptly disregarded everything he had been about to say and made a face of pure disgust. “You are still filthy. Did I not tell you to bathe before coming here?”

     “I was in process of doing so when you changed your plans and called me here, sir.”

     “Of course, you were,” Yannis agreed, sourly. “Ach. Well, I can’t have you trailing around the ship like that. I will call Asenka down and she can direct you to the baths. Wait here.”

     The sleek green head nodded. “Of course, sir.”

     The Eumin smirked. “There’s a good boy. See, is it not so much better when you just do as you are told?”

     “I regret that my frame of reference is insufficient to determine whether this is ‘better’, sir.”

     “That was a rhetorical question,” Yannis wagged a finger, heading for the small inbuilt communications device built into the wall. “Asenka?” He jabbed a finger down on the call button, and spoke into the microphone. “Yes. We’re done. Take him away and get him washed, he’s still covered in the mucoid and looks disgusting.”

     A charmless female voice chuckled a raspy amusement in response. “Just want him cleaned, Boss, or do I have your permission to, ah, do anything else? It’s been a long journey and we still got a few days left to travel, and I get soo boored…”

     “Do you not have Kolek around for when you feel the need to tend your bottomless promiscuity?” Yannis snapped, irritably. “He is your partner, is he not?”

     “Pish. He’s boring, and he has been for months,” she retorted. “A hind needs a bit of spice in her life every now and then! And the big budgie looks like fun, I’ve never had a Kiravai before.”

     “Oh, just… do whatever you like, Asenka.” Yannis flapped a dismissive hand, even though he knew she couldn’t see it. “You normally do.”

     “Goodie!” she squeaked, and closed the channel.

     Yannis sighed, tiredly, and turned away to follow Zuff and Mirii to his cabin.

0o0o0o0o0

     Back on Ardea, Sei and Brennan had spent a good day or so simply poring over data. They’d persuaded the Tas-umskel intrastellar monitoring stations to give them all the shipping data for the past month, and Umskel’i Import and Immigration Control had given them a full, photographic list of all individuals that had visited or departed the planet in the past two months. It was a massive amount of data, even after they’d number-crunched it on the ship’s main computer, and was quite difficult to whittle useful details out of it.

     First, they looked for Eumin; they told the computer to rule out all Umskel’i, all members of all familiar species – Vuls, Xniki, Ondraii, and so on. They whittled down the remaining few thousand to a handful, and the only Eumin among them was Brennan himself. So no leads there.

     Then they looked to the shipping data. They first stripped all ships that had gone in or out through Immigration from the list, which discounted most ships – they guessed that a person did not walk through immigration with a case of explosive resins without attracting attention! Interestingly, the other ships that had gone in and out had been observed, but not followed up – Sei put that down to the fact that the Umskel’i were a friendly, Xenophilic species, who kept Immigration logs mostly so local governments had an idea how many to cater for.

     There were a small number of ships that attracted Brennan’s attention, however – small ones that came in silently, broadcasting no greeting signal at all, then left just as silently, avoided Immigration, even avoided other tourists as much as possible. He had no evidence that any of them were Yannis’ vessel, of course – he had no absolutely conclusive evidence that the man was behind it! But some of them made him suspicious, and Sei agreed with him.

     When they found the two ships that met just within the sphere of Tas-umskel’s main monitor, they knew they were onto something. It looked like they’d been picked up accidentally; a combination of bad navigation and being too frugal with the engines meant they were still just within monitoring range. The small vessel came out from Tas-umskel on a trajectory that led from one of the poorly-inhabited island states, avoiding most busy shipping lanes, and (more importantly) the larger of the two vessels – the one which had come from the direction of the galactic rim, and had a strong tricobalt resin signature – peeled away and left the system very rapidly afterwards. The smaller ship returned to where it had come from on the island, and remained there for a further nine days.

     They had begun to think perhaps it was a false alarm when the vessel re-emerged, heading from the island to Waystation Six; it arrived a day or two before Auspice II, and remained there until a short time before Auspice left. It could have been coincidental, of course, and perfectly innocent… Except that the vessel not only had a trace of tricobalt in its particulate signature, but it made a very hasty departure – it didn’t just leave the station, it sped away like an arrow, making a beeline for neutral territory. The monitors tracked it briefly through Deep Umskel’i Territory, but it vanished shortly thereafter.

     “Now that is a vessel in a hurry,” Brennan stated. “In the event they do not have our friends aboard, they are carrying something which is probably not permitted under interstellar law.”

     Sei nodded, thoughtfully. “And going where, I wonder?”

     Brennan was already on his feet and making for the door. “Only one way to find out,” he remarked, feeding his arms through his sleeves. “Coming?”

     Sei, however, hadn’t made any move to follow. He was still pecking carefully at the screen, mining more information out of the data. “Give me a few more minutes,” he requested, distractedly. “I will follow you shortly.”

     “Why, what are you doing?” Brennan leaned down over his shoulder.

     Sei gave him a cursory glance. “Checking the strength of their engine signature.” He gestured a finger to the sensory plots that showed how the ship had departed the system. “If it is suitably stable, we should be able to follow the tricobalt residue out of the system and track them to wherever they have gone.”

     “Egh, Sei? The sensors on my vessel are too old to track a residue as exotic as tricobalt,” Brennan apologised, and scratched the back of his head, sheepishly. “I am not so sure something like that will be helpful.”

     “No matter. We can use a modified ramscoop to collect the microscopic amount of particulates they will have left. Signal strength is patent all along their flight path, and has not degraded to a statistically significant degree over the past few days.” The dark cob smiled, hopefully. “We may just be onto something here. Now what was it you wished for me to come with you for?”

     “Nothing so exciting as chasing tricobalt,” Brennan replied, sardonically. “I simply thought it would be prudent to check the island first. It would not do to chase this vessel all the way from here to the Outer Rim if Yannis has in fact remained on Tas-umskel.”

     Sei wrinkled his nose in a grimace of agreement. “No, that would not do at all…”

0o0o0o0o0

     They managed to avoid Eri most of the way down to the docking hangar; Sei had expressed a reluctance to have her joining him, because it would only put her at risk as well – and how better to damage Iios than by harming his wife-to-be? Unfortunately, Eri had grown a lot more wary in the days following the accident, and getting no reply when she paged his room alerted her that he was more than likely sneaking about…

     Eri was making her own way down to the hangar deck when she finally found him; he passed the mouth of the corridor she was in a fraction of a second before she herself left it. She lunged out a hand, and managed to catch Sei’s wrist as he passed. “Hey. Hey. What’s going on?” she challenged, chasing them down the corridor until Sei finally halted.

     Sei gave her a sheepish look. “Councillor Brennan and I were going to use his vessel to start to investigate some of our leads,” he admitted.

     “Without me?” Eri planted her hands at her hips and treated him to her blackest scowl.

     “Um, well… yes?” Sei perked his ears forwards, and attempted to give her his most hopeful smile. “If it makes you feel better, Victora is not coming either.”

     “Victora hasn’t just lost her soon-to-be Lifebonded,” Eri corrected, sourly.

     “And that is precisely the reason I do not want you accompanying me,” Sei insisted, enclosing her hands in both of his. “Please, Eri. If Iios has been captured, it cannot be for a simple reason. Imagine if they were to take you, also?” He clasped her hand up to his chest. “I do not do this solely because I am afraid you will be injured. I do this because I need a contact in Vista.”

     “Oh, come on, Sei,” she scolded. “What sort of idiot do you take me for? I’m a botanist, for Gavos’ sake! I’m not a police officer! What good can I do here?!”

     “The fact is, Eri, you are a botanist in the fleet. You are an officer! I am…” He waved his hands, as if he would be able to conjure up the description he wanted. “At best, I am an ambassador, and a poor one at that! At worst, I am a troublemaking busybody. I have no authority to go around ordering the crew about!” He smiled, sadly. “The only way I will make any headway in this is to conduct the investigation myself, on my own time, using resources I have available to me.”

     “And that relates to me… how, exactly?” Her scowl had softened, though. Marginally.

     “I need you to be my contact in the fleet, dearest Eri.” Sei scooped her hand towards his lips, and brushed them very lightly over her sleek fingers. “Pass on details to the police, help me co-ordinate things. I will not be able to do much from my own side. Would you do that for me?”

     She dithered, and gazed down at her feet. “I don’t seem to have a lot of choice, do I?” she sighed. “Because I know you’ll stop me following you somehow.”

     “Thank you, darling.” He nibbled her brow, very gently. “I knew I could count on you.”

     “Yeah, yeah, all right. You better all come back in one piece, though, you hear?” Eri groused, and gave his backside a flick with her toes.

     “Well?” Brennan challenged, quietly, once they were out of earshot.

     “She bought it,” Sei confirmed. “She should be quite content to remain home from now on…”
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