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(Written 2008, just never posted, for some reason? Oh well, I’m posting it now!)

     Mirii found herself unable to engage her dormancy protocols. After she had bathed, she had sat in front of the mirror combing non-existent tangles out of her short, damp hair for what felt like… hours. She wasn’t really paying attention. That is, her chronometer dutifully tracked the passage of time, but she didn’t really notice it. All she noticed was the sad whirl of grim thoughts that now plagued her – why did they lie to me, why did I not notice, how could I have been so stupid? At least, she reasoned, the tears had dried up. No more pathetic blubbing, like she had spent so many disconsolate hours doing. She was no less frightened, of course – a discovery like that would take more than an hour or two to recover from – but something about it seemed… less worth getting upset about? No, it was not that… Could it be she was trying to find a better way of dealing with it? She wasn’t sure. She just knew she was hurting, and… angry.

     Yes, she was angry! How dare they treat her the way they had done! Like some… some stupid laboratory animal to be set menial tasks, to see how well it would be able to perform under its training? The imi trained to press the correctly coloured light-plate to be rewarded with a piece of crispy animal skin, the auwu that returned obediently to the hand that flew it! Was that the reason for the attention she was given? Not ‘I love you, dear’, but ‘you have done well, so here is a reward for you.’

     “Marie?”

     The voice distracted out of her bleak thoughts, and she looked up to find Yannis in the doorway. She studied her visitor for a few disinterested moments before letting her chin rest back into her hands. “It is pronounced Mih-REE,” she corrected, quietly. “Can I help you?”

     He advanced into the room, halting a respectful couple of strides away. “I wonder if I may help you, dear,” he corrected, with a genial smile. “I said I would call you when we arrived at Hah’zeept. Well,” he spread his hands, like a proud salesman demonstrating some new, exciting product, “we are here now. Will you accompany me?”

     She perked an ear, thoughtfully, and studied her hands for a while, before finally nodding her agreement. “I think I ought to dress properly first, however,” she pointed out, baulking from the idea of publicly striding around the ship in naught but her (meagre, translucent) bedclothes.

     Although, an unexpected streak of angry devilishness suggested, it would prove to everyone you are no lab animal with only the capacity to take directions, and be pushed around. It would shock them out of their complacency. She squashed the thought down, alarmed that she could think it – only a short time ago she had found any decision-making difficult, and yet here she was, considering acts to shock and horrify the ones she thought she had loved! She wasn’t sure if it made her feel pleased or alarmed. Pleased that she had finally found it in her to make a decision that was purely to indulge herself, and alarmed that she should be deciding such vulgar things!

     Thankfully, he didn’t see the darkness that had bubbled up briefly inside her. “Of course, dear,” he agreed, and gestured to the same small door Zuff had directed her to so she could obtain her nightgown. “Pick something that pleases you, and once you are dressed I can take you to the bridge.”

* * * * *

     Gazing through the thickened glass windscreens, Mirii noted that Hah’zeept was indeed a glorious jewel of a globe; swathed in clouds, it glowed with brilliant, glittering blue oceans, and large irregular landmasses that punctuated the azure with shades of golden and brown, and at either end of the spindle were the purest white polar ice-caps.

     The golden beauty of the land betrayed the fact that it had been a beautiful but barren, lifeless world until the colonists arrived. The deep greens of vegetation covered only a few large temperate islands – three-quarters of the available land had as yet gone undeveloped, primarily in the central areas of the larger continents.

     There had been no indigenous species at all – until the colonists arrived, the seas had been empty, the lands bare rock and desert. No fish, no insects, no plants, no animals, not even bacteria. A perfect clean slate on which to work.
     The first colonists had taken with them aquatic life, and plants, and livestock, and pets, and – although it had taken a huge amount of work to provide enough silt and compost for the plants to grow in – now there were verdant green margins to all the major rivers, and the oceans.

     “It is beautiful,” Mirii observed, softly.

     Yannis grinned. “I knew you would find it pleasing,” he said, sneakily, setting a daring arm at her waist and standing closer to her.

     Mirii couldn’t quite resist the urge to shy away. “Do you live here?” she wondered, trying to edge away without making it too obvious what she was doing and watching as the globe swelled to fill the window as Asenka piloted the ship down.

     “Live and work,” he confirmed, pretending not to have noticed her uneasy departure; it reassured her that his feelings were not hurt. “I will have to take you to visit the street markets, at some point – they are held around and on the rivers themselves, and are really quite remarkable!”

     They finally flew low over a small suburb of a larger city on one of the large temperate islands, in a mountainous area that overlooked the bright, bustling metropolis snuggled into the valley cove below, facing a broad expanse of sea. They slowly came up on to a large building perched precariously on the front edge of a sort of broken escarpment. From the front, the place was all sleek chrome and frosted glass, built to blend in with the stylish buildings below and looking like a research institute. From the back, the side that faced the escarpment and was mostly hidden from view by a decorative wall that made the stylish institute look a lot bigger than it really was, you could see it was rather more crumbling – an old factory bought and dressed up on the cheap. Mirii felt a little disappointed, but squashed the feeling – she was here as a guest, not to complain about the aesthetics of the place she was to live!

     Besides, Yannis’ home looked nice – it was a small, stylish two-floor apartment built onto the front of the institute, looking out over the city, and Mirii could see a small garden at the front. She felt a little pang of regret, at that – Sei had a large, beautiful garden, full of the exotic plants he’d been given by his science friends, or had collected by himself from his visits to other worlds. He had never tired of showing her around it, either – demonstrating the velvet texture of the leaf of the black scissor-palm, explaining the exciting and lethal red trumpets of the predatory chalice (which reminded her of the hallucinogenic carnivorous sweet-wine creeper native to Tsu’s world), sharing in the sharp, electric scent of the glowing blue moonflower when it bloomed and sent out its spores on the darkest of nights… The quiet thrill of a stolen kiss under the weeping boughs of the giant unknown specimen from an unexplored world, the heady excitement of a loving embrace and a bit of daring intercourse way, way up in the protective, flattened branches of a spindle-palm. What if I am wrong, what if I am wrong. She felt the words flicker an unsteady tempo in the back of her mind. What if he is the liar, leading me on? What if he has broken Iios, not ‘fixed’ him?

     Yannis slipped his fingers into hers, and smiled, and she felt a slow reassurance creep back in. No. Our brains are too complex to reprogram. All he could have done is like he said – break the carrier wave, and reveal him for what he truly is. She followed him warily across the beaten old tarmac towards the apartment, watching out of the corner of her eye as the ship’s crew vanished in the opposite direction, down into the ramshackle interior of the back of the old factory.

     “This is my home,” Yannis said, as he ushered her through the front door. Inside, it was cosy; the carpets were deep pile and the walls painted in deep, warming shades. The furniture she could see was a dark, opulent type of wood, polished to a mirror smooth and dressed in gold. “For now,” he offered, “I would like you to treat my home as your home. Once you are a little more settled, we can think about the future, but for now all I want is for you to have a nice, quiet, calm environment to regain your bearings in. Is that acceptable?”

     She glanced hesitantly down at him – she wasn’t entirely sure she liked the idea of being quite so close to him, particularly if it meant she would be living in his home.

     “I mean you no harm,” he reassured, apparently noticing her hesitation. “Indeed, I hope it means you will be kept from harm, in the short term! I do not desire anything from you, in terms of work, loyalty, obedience, anything. The only thing I should like for you to do – at least, for now – is to stay in the building. I have… associates, shall we say?… who do not believe I should be so willing to trust you so wholeheartedly.”

     Mirii stared at him, anxiously. “I am not a danger-”

     “No, no, and I know you are not!” he smiled, reassuringly. “And I trust you. I know you to be honest and well-mannered and an all-round gentle, thoughtful, moderate young lady. But the fact remains that not everyone will be so accepting. There are those who are just waiting for you to make a mistake. To slip up, to reveal all the less-than honest intentions they think you have.”

     “But I have no dishonourable intentions in mind-!”

     “I know,” he caught her hands and gave her a smile, soothingly. “I know. But there are those who will take a little more convincing. There are those who simply believe you to be a slightly more advanced form of the same automaton as your… guardians? Watchers? …whatever we elect to call them. I have, ah… tenuous allies… who believe you to be just as mechanical, and they would love to try and remove your free will. Until I can be sure you are safe, I would merely like for you to stay on the property for a little while. All right?”

     She nodded, tersely. Something about it felt… not quite right. “I will do so,” she confirmed, softly.

     “Thank you, darling,” he said, and kissed her hand, tenderly. “Now, I regret that I have duties to attend. I have not had the opportunity to inspect my colleagues’ work in many days. Would you be so kind as to excuse me? Please, make yourself at home! Go where you like, examine whatever device you choose. No door is locked to you! Not even this one will be locked, to you.” He gestured to the front door, through which they had walked only minutes before. “It will be locked from the outside, to prevent people entering, but you have as much free reign as you like. You may even leave, if that is your desire – although I hope you do not choose to leave!” He grinned, sheepishly, and scratched his head. “Now I truly must depart. I should rather remain and talk to you all day, but I must attend my duties. Please forgive me.”

     She nodded, silently, and gave him the smallest little wiggle of her fingers as a wave goodbye. She watched the door close behind him, and felt her careful composure fracture a little bit. It was a nice apartment, cosily furnished and very easy on the eye, and she had been told she could leave if she truly wished, but she knew that he was basically saying “you will not leave.” A cosy jail cell was still a jail cell.

     She engaged in a very slow survey of the building; two floors, and relatively open plan, with a high, vaulted ceiling with visible beams running across from side to side. Once a person had moved through the hallway, they came out in a large dining area, with a big table and high-backed chairs, and a thick fur rug in the centre of the floor. A centrally-placed spiral staircase rose up to a mezzanine floor, bounded by a silver and frosted-glass barrier that would rise to waist height, on her, and you could see a taller dividing wall separating the upper floor first into two halves down the middle, and then the right-hand half was further divided a short distance past the landing. The ground floor was similarly divided, under the mezzanine, with a single central wall separating it into two long halves – the leftmost half contained a kitchen, decorated in rich wine reds and mahogany-coloured wood, and the rightmost half contained the lounge, with long, sumptuous velvet seating and thick, thick carpets. A broad fireplace (filled only with decorative, spiralling wood) ran along the outside wall, and the far end was a sheet of almost pure glass, gazing out unbroken onto the garden. She padded down the kitchen, running her fingers hesitantly along the marble work surfaces, and slipped out through the cunningly disguised door in the side wall out into the garden. Most of the garden was placed over the polished, sophisticated side of the institute; one could lean over the retaining wall and stare a thousand or so feet down at the rest of the suburbs below. It meant that a person didn’t have to have their view impeded by roofs, but it also meant this was not the place for anyone suffering vertigo!

     She retreated back into the apartment, trying to enjoy the feel of the soft grass beneath her feet but not quite able to convince herself she was happy. The upstairs was almost as open-plan as the downstairs – the bathroom was on the rightmost side of the mezzanine, with the latrine in the smaller walled-off section, and a huge bathtub and a shower and a steam-generator in the larger section, and just like on the downstairs level, the entire front wall was glass; anyone could look in, if they chose! Luckily there were blinds, but Mirii found they were stiff and ill-used. She’d have to work on repairing them. The bedroom was on the larger side; it contained a huge double bed, with a beautiful view of the garden, with a massive wardrobe cut into the wall all along one side.

     Mirii found it a little unsettling that there was only one bed, and it was designed for at least two people to sleep comfortably in. Do not wish to hurt his feelings, but I do not know that I desire to share a sleeping area.

     She settled down alongside the side of the bed, between the covers and the glass of the window, and gazed sadly out at the garden, hugging her knees. The relief that she’d finally been told the truth had begun to fizzle out – it felt as if a bell was tolling, a great clamouring noise signalling the biggest mistake she had yet made.

     I will work this out, she told herself, hugging her knees. I will find my resolution and I will be happy. If it means I must divorce myself from my old lifestyle, then so be it.

     And it was a good solution! Logical, sensible… so why did it make her feel so… wrong?

* * * * *

     Once they had determined there was nothing more to be gleaned from the burned-out remains of the Island Telecomms office, and had notified the local police of the disaster, Sei and Brennan turned their attention to the tricobalt trail that led away from Tas-umskel. It proved surprisingly easy to follow, and their small, speedy vessel made better time than Yannis’ larger cargo-carrier. Even as Mirii was settling into her new home, watching the video library Yannis had provided so she could familiarise herself with the world and its customs, the pair were making good time to Hah’zeept, and finally arrived only two days after Yannis’ team themselves had.

     Unlike some, Sei was not ordinarily one to jump to conclusions on worlds based on their galactic locale – he knew from experience that simply being a “rim-world” did not mean the planet was home solely to thieves and murderers. Imperial territory was almost as far from the galactic rim as possible, and yet the Kiravai were hardly renowned for their friendly and welcoming natures!

     Understanding that being out here did not necessarily mean he was going to be mugged, however, did not in turn put Sei at ease. He didn’t like being so far away from standard Coracina patrols! This planet was technically not a member world – they had little of worth that could not be obtained more easily from uninhabited globes, and were happy to remain neutral trading partners, rather than file for active Coalition membership. This meant that the closest Coracina patrol route passed through this area a good parsec or two away from this planet itself. If they ran into trouble, getting help might be tricky. Ardea was keeping tabs on them, of course, but with such little evidence available, authority to chase this very hypothetical lead had not yet been granted, and Ardea was stuck in the Tas-umskel system, chasing very minor (and ultimately useless) leads.

     “I do not recognise this world,” Sei admitted, warily, easing their vessel slowly into a high orbit and glancing sidelong at Brennan. “What does the guide say?”

     Brennan squinted at the screen. “Well, it is known on Coalition stellar charts as… Har… Zeepit?” he attempted. “Taken from the natives’ tongue, meaning ‘the yellow land’, apparently. The inhabitants are mostly extra-galactic colonists, who took up residence approximately five hundred years ago, Coalition Standard Time.” He glanced up, and wrinkled his nose at his friend, who simply nodded for him to continue. “It is not highly inhabited, if the population data is anything to go by,” he added, quietly. “The colonists usually reach sexual maturity in their thirtieth year, and are said to choose not to be highly prolific because of it, so their population remains quite small. Additionally, there are large tracts of undeveloped land; perfect for criminals to hide out in, I would say!”

     “Indeed,” Sei agreed, softly. “But it may mean our target is easier to find.”

     “And it may mean so are we!” Brennan pointed out, sourly. “We best be on the alert, friend! Lest they come looking for us.”

* * * * *

     Eri and Victora were not the only ones to be concerned that their relatives had waltzed alone into the unknown. Although she hadn’t specifically said so, Hauura was seeming increasingly anxious – it was hard to tell, with her wonky moods and often sour manner, but the longer Sei and Brennan were gone, and the longer it went between reports, the shiftier and more anxious the big female became. The two men had originally been fairly prompt with their contacts, but the less they had to report the more abbreviated their calls, and the longer between them.

     After their last call, to say they were going down to the planet to see if any of the locals had seen anything, Hauura had promptly excused herself from the bridge, and vanished off down to her quarters, causing more than a few ripples of chatter around the command deck.

     Now, Eri had never been the sort to pay attention to the gossipy rumours – when the big raun had got on so well with Iios, for instance, back when she joined the crew, bringing with her tales of a disregard for command and a surly temper that somehow never materialised, there had been the insinuation that somehow she was just big enough to satisfy the captain’s sexual appetite when Eri wasn’t in season, and he’d tamed her temper with nights of wild passion. And a lot of the crew believed it! But not Eri; she had absolute confidence in the idea that Hauura was not another of Iios’ “conquests”. His sweet voice soothed her synaesthesia, that was all.

     The current rumour was that a jealous Hauura had somehow had something to do with this latest catastrophe, which was why she kept on squirreling herself away in her quarters. Eri wanted to see what was actually troubling the big female, and maybe offer help, if she could…

     All Xniki officers had large suites, placed relatively centrally in the vessel, usually close to the engine core. They had an unusual dislike for seeing the stars outside their windows – perhaps a residual agoraphobia? – and the large rooms were all maintained in a highly humid condition. Eri dithered outside her door for a long time. She knew Iios got on strangely well with the giant female, but his relationship with her seemed to be the oddity rather than the norm. The raun was happy for everyone else to know she was a cratchity, bad-tempered old jerga who tolerated rather than liked them.

     Finally, she plucked up the courage to press the buzzer, and in reply got a prompt, surly yawhat? that made her jump. “I… came to see if everything was all right, Hauura?” she asked, after finally getting her hackles to flatten down again. “As you were, ah… not acting like your normal self.”

     “Ach, come in, come in,” Hauura instructed, irritably. “I can not be standing here by the intercom all day!”

     The rooms were only accessible via an airlock, to keep the moist air inside. Eri had never visited a Xniki’s private quarters before, and was a little leery of what she might find. She watched the entry light cycle from the alert yellow-green to the all-clear blue, feeling the air grow heavy against her skin, then pushed the inner door open…

     The lighting inside was relatively subdued, and a calming bluish hue, as if underwater. The first officer’s quarters were strangely normal, otherwise, although adapted for the Xniki’s heavy build – she had a couch and a table, squat little backless dining chairs, and a rumpled bed with the same standard-issue sheets. Through a door Eri could see the bathing facilities, which were the one exception to the norm – the latrine and the shower stood separate to a large tank of clear, blue water.

     Hauura herself sat in the middle of her floor, all the furniture pushed back out of the way, except for the very low, heavily carved table that was the focus of her attention. Now she no longer had to work so hard to keep her skin damp, the raun had shed her form-fitting moisture-retaining uniform for something more comfortable – light, flowing robes that allowed the warm, humid cabin air to soothe the spots where the heavy, near-watertight fabric had rubbed. She sat on a broad cushion on the floor, her heavy body slouched forwards over something.

     “Is everything all right, Hauura?” Eri walked around her to get a better look at whatever she was up to. “We were a little anxious when you vanished off the bridge so abruptly.”

     Hauura grumbled something indecipherable and picked up a little silver stylus, and waved it through the flame of the oil lamp at the centre of the table.

     “Um… may I sit with you a while?”

     “So long as you remain silent,” Hauura replied, gruffly, but gestured with a long-finned hand to the floor opposite. “And do not bark. Your words are sour-tasting, Speckled-Hands.”

     Of course, the raun’s synaesthesia wouldn’t help Eri’s case – her native Vullish ‘tasted’ particularly unpleasant to Hauura. Xniki polygenes had a tendency to have their senses “wired up wrong” at a cellular level, and often perceived unrelated senses in unusual ways – certain colours would have smells, or words would have particular colours. Hauura was obviously one of the unlucky ones – and to make matters more difficult, Eri knew no Xanu to be able to communicate more easily. It’d have to be Commonspeech, when Hauura finally invited conversation. Eri remained obediently silent, and watched.

     Hauura glanced up from her work; she was doing something typically Xniki-enigmatic, with shells and bright dye and an oil-lamp carved from a pale green stone. She rearranged the shells twice, and mumbled a few consonant-heavy phrases. “I ask the Great Mother-Father that Silver Tongue be brought back safely to us,” she answered the unspoken question, at last, passing her flippers ponderously over the top of the oil lamp, then using her stylus to carve another sigil into the brutalised tabletop.

     Silver-Tongue? Of course, she must mean Iios. “You’re worried about him.”

     “Naturally. The Captain with the Sweet Voice respects me more than the chattering ones do,” Hauura confirmed, gently huffing the dust from her new carving. “He maintains order among the stupidity that goes on here.”

     “But he’s always trying to annoy you, Hauura. I never considered you might-… that is, I’m glad-… but…”

     “Ach, true, he is indeed juvenile. But he is wise and has good logic, and his stupidity does not come with malicious intent.” She didn’t even glance up – splashed a droplet of pale green ink over the shells and studied the patterns it made over the ridged surfaces, and hooom-ed softly for a moment. Her natural voice was deep and resonant, and Eri could easily imagine Hauura calling to her peers through the endless oceans of her homeworld.

     “Is that a good sign?” Eri prompted, quietly.

     “Omens are unclear,” Hauura rubbed ink into her carving and watched as it soaked along the grain in the wood. “Hmm. Good, bad, I do not know.”

     She seemed almost… sad, Eri noticed. She had always found it hard to read Xniki moods, as they were so ponderous and thoughtful compared to her own Vullish excitability, but the giant did seem distinctly disappointed, if nothing else.

     It was a surprising change from the norm for the big officer – as a species, Xniki seemed genetically incapable of being anything except blunt, usually to the point of outright rudeness, and Hauura herself seemed perpetually testy (at least, all the times Eri herself had seen her). Eri had been perfectly content in her opinion that the big raun was devoid of even just a single feminine bone in her entire body, even if she was genetically (mostly) female, but right now she came across almost like a worried mother, wondering where her errant child had gone.

     “Is there anything I can do?” Eri wondered, softly.

     At last, Hauura looked up, and met the concerned gaze in Eri’s pale eyes. “No,” she replied, after a moment, but her face had scrunched into what appeared to be a vague smile, and she brushed the tips of her fingers lightly down Eri’s arms. “Have faith, and trust the powers to bring him home safely.”

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February 2013

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