keaalu: Three colourful speech balloons (Coloured balloons)
keaalu ([personal profile] keaalu) wrote in [community profile] good_as_gold2012-11-16 11:46 am

Chapter 17

     An inky, moonless night had claimed the city of [Lanali]. Stars dusted across the cloudless sky, the smoky white band of the galaxy starkly visible against the velvet black. It should have been an incredible vista, to those lucky enough to be awake to see it, but familiarity had indeed bred contempt and most of the natives scarcely noticed it, happily sleeping away the visions of ethereal beauty.

     Not everyone in the dormant city was asleep. While Yannis and his crew slept, Sei moved quietly through the dark corridors, dutifully sweeping and vacuuming and mopping up the fine dusty sand that constant transit had tracked through the complex. Outwardly he was a picture of dedicated calm – the obedient servant, with no thoughts except those related to his work. Inwardly, the cob was a seething mess of conflicting emotions - fearful of what his captor was planning, worried that his need to see Mirii might blow their careful charade wide open, but above all simmering with barely-restrained anger at the individual that had torn them apart in the first place. And what he was doing to her! The lies, the unwanted and unwelcome touching. Keep your hands off her. I swear, if you touch her again-

     Concentrate, Sei. You should not allow yourself to get distracted. Mirii is safe, but she may be the only one who is, right now – and even she is not very safe. You have to get to the bottom of what Yannis is doing.

     Sei was subtle about his investigations, of course. Very subtle – silently gleaning clues from the areas he went to, under the guise of cleaning, filing it all away to be reconciled and cross-referenced later. He daren’t touch the computers, for fear of breaking his cover, but then he didn’t need to; screens left carelessly active showed him inventories, shipping logs, purchase orders. He couldn’t help but wonder where Yannis had got his funds from, because he was handling incredible amounts of money. It had to be dirty money, of course.

     As he moved into the corridors of the staff’s living quarters, a different sort of information became available – their routines and habits. Know thine enemy, Sei. You can keep safe if you know what to expect. Through the closed doors, assorted volumes and timbres of snoring met his sensitive ears for the most part – earthy, damp sounds from Brun’s room, high reedy little whistles from Ihks.

     If the sounds of tapping keys were anything to go by, Hueil was working even now – that was an important observation, Sei didn’t want to accidentally bump into the ondras if ever he got comfortable enough to snoop properly.

     Muffled voices filtered through the door of Asenka and Kolek’s shared quarters; Sei increased the sensitivity on his hearing as he mopped his way past, but quickly discovered that not only was it not useful, he didn’t really want to be listening to what the nyen were getting up to, and left them to it.

     Yannis, unfortunately, did not sleep with his crew. He slept in a cosy little apartment on the roof, snuggled up with a woman that should not be forced to endure his clammy, clinging fingers on her. Sei had to concentrate on not allowing his fist to clench against the handle of his bucket.

     Mirii, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. I promise I will find you a way out, even if I foil my own escape in the process.

     The cleaner’s cupboard in the lowest part of the reclaimed complex was an area of comparative sanctity, evidently free of any monitoring devices. Kolek had set up a crude ‘refuelling’ station in the room next door, with a thin mattress on the floor and a selection of electrical hook-ups, where the two siinu could rest and defragment and tend to their health. Keeping one’s thoughts as sharp as possible was particularly important, and it was conveniently close to the base out of which they would work.

     Sei set the bucket of murky water down next to the waste sink, and began to get his equipment clean. This sort of simple menial task had been something Mirii had enjoyed, when she was younger and the idea of making her own decisions made her freeze up. Being productive around the house had made her strangely happy, and it hadn’t required any use of her rudimentary imagination. The idea Yannis might be taking advantage of that? Turning her into a live-in housemaid under the guise of love?

     A musical twitter of ve-hei’ya attracted Sei’s attention from his bucket.

     “So have you found anything out, yet?”

     Sei looked up to find his twin lounging in the doorway, arms folded and shoulder propped against the doorframe. “I hope you are correct that he has no cameras down here.”

     “Why of course he does, brother, that’s why I’m being so brazen in talking to you.” Iios rolled his eyes, but his smile was good-natured. “The low levels are surveillance-free, at least so far.” He rocked away from the doorframe and ambled casually into the room; he smelt of old oil, and the long streaks of black on his shoulder-length gloves and filthy grey coverall confirmed that he’d been working on machinery of some sort. “At least reassure me your day has been more productive than mine?”

     “It has been… interesting,” Sei allowed, swirling dirty water out of his bucket and rinsing the sand into the trap. “I had not anticipated there being a laboratory in the building.” After a pause, he corrected himself. “A small, primitive, under-stocked laboratory, but it seems sufficient for what is needed.”

     “What would Yannis want a lab for?” Iios narrowed his eyes, echoing his brother’s suspicion. He shed the cleaning gauntlets from his long arms, dropping them into a tank of cleanser. “Seems far too academic. He’s a common criminal, trafficking in expensive drugs and illegal explosives, nothing he has to make for himself.”

     “So I thought, as well, but it would appear that is over-simplified. He is doing something with a virus.” Sei dumped the empty bucket under the tap, and began to fill it with hot water and detergent. “Or rather, his virologist is, on his behalf. I have not been able to determine precisely what, yet. I do not think the virologist knows, himself; he just has been told to find a vaccine.”

     Iios’ lips tightened to a fine line. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

     “I do not, either.” Sei watched the thick white foam mound up in the bucket and spill over the sides, like the bubbles had in Mirii’s bath, the other day. The idea of Yannis sharing those bubbles with her was a perturbing one. He steered his wandering thoughts back to the vaccine. “Yannis has told him the samples come from a local hospital. If he is to be believed, the virologist thinks he is working on a vaccine to save dying children, but I know Yannis is not so altruistic as he claims to be. I just… do not know where the samples are being obtained from, or what benefit he hopes to get from it.”

     “Well, Yannis is a spiteful, vindictive little man, so you can be pretty confident his ‘benefit’ only serves him.” Iios swiped a hand through his hair, and dislodged a cloud of fine silty dust that hung like smoke in the still air. “I wonder if it’s all to do with the obsession he’s got about the eumin council.”

     “In what way?”

     “You knew they kicked him out, right?” At Sei’s nod, Iios spread his hands. “Isn’t that enough? He wants vengeance. Perhaps he wants to kill old Bor, and this virus is the only way he can do it without them suspecting him. He just needs to ensure he’s immune to it before he goes on the warpath.”

     “You are talking about a bioweapon.”

     Iios nodded. “And if he infects one eumin, what’s to stop it spreading through their whole society?”

     “So it is all the more important that we succeed in creating the vaccine. Maybe I will be able to steal enough of a sample to vaccinate the rest of the population.” Sei stood and watched as the suds surged up over the rim of the bucket, followed shortly by the water. There was probably some cryptic moral hidden there, in the way the scalding water overflowed and steamed away down the drain. Not unlike my life, right now, going down the drain.

     “Oh, hey, woo. That looks like it’s signalling a good time for you to go and rest. Let me take that.” Iios hastily turned off the tap and claimed the bucket. “Go and get some rest, because you can’t be operating at your peak. You need to clear your head a little, your buffers must be full of memory fragments. I can easily finish the floors for you. There’s a bed in the next room.”

     “I need to carry on here-” Sei reached for the bucket.

     Iios set a hand on his brother’s shoulder, gently but firmly holding him at arm’s length. “No, you need to go and rest. The place is almost spotless already, and you haven’t had any down time in the last few days. I won’t have you falling over on me.”

     “Yannis said-”

     “-that you could rest when there was nothing needing doing, right, he said the same to me. There’s nothing for you to do, so you’re only following orders by going to take a nap. Working until you fall over will make him more suspicious.”

     “But he will suspect-”

     “Sei, Sei. Shush.” Iios held his snout closed with both hands – only a symbolic gesture, but it got his twin to be quiet. “It’s fine. Go and rest. I’ll cook something fitting up for if he asks, but he won’t. So long as you’re awake and getting on with your chores before anyone else is up, he won’t suspect a thing. He won’t even care.”

     Sei managed to quirk his lips into a tired smile. “Thank you, brother.”

     “Mm. Just make good use of it.”

* * * * *

     Eri sat down at the old dining table in her cabin with a heavy thump on the chair cushion, as though her legs were suddenly incapable of supporting her, and let her head flop into in both hands, propped up on their elbows. Before her accident, she’d have probably ordered something indulgently sticky and sickly sweet from the galley, to comfort her stuffy mind, but the lifesaving procedure had left her with no sense of taste whatsoever. The benefits of the synthetic body outweighed a lot of what she’d lost, of course, but every now and then she really, really missed the ability to lose herself in a good dessert. If only tiredness wasn’t such a familiar sensation. She exhaled a pulse of hot, stale air from her bellows in a sigh.

     The consistent lack of progress was grinding everyone down. It had begun to seem like the Hah’zeept’i special services were being intentionally obstructive, as though they thought they had something to prove. Velia had at least managed to wrangle some emergency passes to the surface while they waited for the bureaucrats to authorise full crew access, and led a team down to the principal city to liaise with the police and start their own investigations.

     Hauura seemed to be feeling better, at least, even if the only outward sign was that she paced and waved her arms more. Her mood certainly hadn’t improved, although no-one could quite tell how much was just churlish camouflage for her worry, and how much was genuine pique that as acting captain, she couldn’t go down and lead the search herself. (After hearing the xniki’s bitter complaints about the super-dry desert air, most people pinned it onto the first option.)

     Eri scooted her chair back and sagged forwards until her cheek rested on the tabletop, letting her arms dangle in midair for a minute. Her bed was visible from this angle; the warm colours of the bedspread and the soft texture of the fabric had a sort of soporific quality that made her feel like dozing off right here, on the table. Although she knew she wouldn’t get a punishing crick in the neck, any more, sleeping at the table wasn’t good for one’s mental health. With a grunt of effort, she pushed herself to her feet and turned to her bedroom door, hoping to be able to get her head down and just… not think for a while.

     In the periphery of her vision, she spotted a blinking light in the communications recess, and turned to it. Someone had been trying to get her attention – but on a secure channel. How odd? Couldn’t be anyone on ship staff, they’d have just called her – or failing that, come and hammered on her door in person. She arched her back and stretched her shoulders, trying to wake herself up a little; another habit from her old life that she still couldn’t quite shake, but it did seem to help, a little.

     Not entirely sure what she was letting herself in for, she thumbed receive.

     The screen filled first of all with incomprehensible junk. “What in the world-” She frowned at it, baffled… then looked closer and spotted the tiny indicators among the jumble. “Computer, please run this through personal security filters nine-three and seven-two-two.”

     Working, the computer acknowledged, in little gold letters that popped up over the gobbledygook. Secure cipher decryption in progress. Underneath, the incomprehensible noise sorted itself into letters, which then unjumbled themselves into words.

     ‘My beloved Hairball’, the first line of the message read.

     Iios! Only he ever used an insult as a term of endearment. Her synthetic nature didn’t keep her heart from leaping to her mouth. So he was still alive! She mashed hasty fingers over a set of protocols built into the screen, ensuring the message was securely saved to Ardea’s central memory.

     Please, forgive me for taking so long to get this message to you. Opportunities to get unattended access to computer terminals have been few and far between, and I’m forced to use a personal encryption to get this message to you in secret. Please please please
don’t try to reply to it, because I will definitely not be available to answer, and you may end up blowing the cover I’ve worked so hard to build up.

     Brother is with me, and he is well, if a little emotionally unsteady. Mirii is here also, although we have not been allowed significant contact. We have been taken prisoner by Yannis-


Horrified, Eri felt something stall in her chest. Covering her mouth with her hand, she had to take a second or two to recover her composure before she could continue reading.

     – the same Yannis as Sei had problems with on ia’Maura. Please do not worry, we are safe (for now, at least). He has a ridiculous contraption in his hideaway that believes has successfully reprogrammed us-

     Eri found a very small smile came automatically to her lips. Knowing Iios, he was probably particularly enjoying that aspect of it. He’d always had a penchant for trickery, loving to catch people out, see the look on their faces when he surprised them. Good to see all that practice getting put to actual worthwhile use, not just entertaining a bored synth.

     -and we are happy to play along with it. It gives us the freedom we need to snoop around and try and figure things out. This is not a simple game he is playing, Eri, something serious is at stake and I am sure he has something nasty planned. I would not be surprised if it was all down to personal vindictiveness, after his banishment by the eumin council.

     Sei and I don’t yet fully understand his plans, although he seems to be working on a virus of some sort. We can only imagine it will be used as a weapon – it’s hard to get full details on his project because he’s subcontracted half the work to another laboratory, and we don’t have contact with them. Sei is working with the resident virologist to develop a protective vaccine.

     It is important that you pass this message to Coracina Central Command – and Pandion Command, if you have to. We don’t know how contagious the virus will be, if it escapes and goes feral we may have a major problem on our hands.

     I will contact you again when I have more details to pass on.

     My love always. Take care of yourself. K


     “Ohh, you can’t stop there. Tell me where you are, you wretched cob!” Eri cursed, softly. It wasn’t really a surprise that he didn’t give her his location – he didn’t want Aramus crew swooping in and spooking the man so he fled and didn’t finish whatever he was up to – but it didn’t make it any less frustrating, or easier to deal with.

     She leaned across the terminal, and thumbed one of the controls, opening a channel to security. “Velia? It’s Eri. I have something important I need to discuss with you. …no, it has to be in person. You never know who might be listening, eh?”

* * * * *

     Whether it was the subtle movement that disturbed him, or he had simply slept very lightly, his bed-warmer had already arisen, when Yannis finally stirred out of a deep, satisfying slumber the next morning. He stared at the empty pillow beside him for several drowsy seconds, struggling to process what was going on, and made himself feel like an idiot for instantly wondering again if she had run away. She is not going to run away unless you make an effort to frighten her away, you idiot.

     Mirii had gone nowhere except a different position on the bed, facing the garden. She sat on the end of the mattress, feet primly together on the floor, wearing a sheer dressing gown atop her nightdress, watching the subtle peach of dawn creep into the thin clouds on the horizon.

     Yannis propped himself up on one arm, and wiped sleep from his eyes with a free hand. “Marie? Is there something wrong? Can you not sleep?”

     Mirii flickered a brief glance back over her shoulder at him. “There is nothing wrong, and for a technicality, I do not sleep, as you would understand it,” she corrected, quietly. “Right now, I am just thinking.”

     “Thinking, eh? I heard that can be a dangerous business.”

     Recognising the joke, Mirii managed a strained chuckle. “Perhaps.”

     The mattress shifted underneath her as he scooted himself over, rolling out of the quilt with a grunt of effort. “What are you thinking about?” he prompted.

     “Going outside. Greeting the morning.” She looked down at him, brows raised optimistically. “Would you come with me?”

     “It is quite chilly out there, this time of day – not to mention, damp. To do what?”

     Her hopeful expression turned to one of resignation. “Just to keep me company. It is not important.”

     He bumped her gently with the point of his shoulder. “Nonsense. If it is important to you, it will be important for me, too. Just permit me the time to get dressed into something a little warmer. You do not feel the chill the same way I will.” He gave her a probing little glance. “That cannot possibly be all that had you so worried.”

     “No, it is not the only thing I have been thinking about. Dear…” For the first time, she allowed herself to echo his terms of endearment, although it had an awkwardness about it. You have not added things up to your satisfaction, you should not be so… forward, presumptive, as to call him ‘dear’. “Please do not think ill of me, but. What would you say if I were to ask you if I could leave?”

     He straightened a little. “You-… you want to leave me? Have I done something wrong?”

     She smiled at him, perhaps reproachfully. “I do not want to go anywhere right now, and it is only a hypothetical question. I just miss my people.” She studied her interlinked fingers, where they rested in her lap, and added, in her mind; and I miss my Sei. “It is quite lonely here. I am the only kiravai this far out, and most people do not understand my customs. Some day, I think I may want to go back to them. If they will have me back.”

     “Well, I would be disappointed, of course!” He chuckled, affectionately. “But it is your life. I would not stop you if you truly wished to depart.” He snaked an arm around behind her, gently. “Is that all that is bothering you, darling?”

     Mirii let her gaze meander back to the dewy garden and the strengthening dawn. “I was thinking about what you said to me yesterday. That we have been followed. About… obtaining closure.”

     “You have been thinking about Sei.” It didn’t take the world’s greatest mind to work that out.

     “Yes. I am sorry.”

     “Is that why you asked about leaving?”

     “…I am not sure. Maybe a little.”

     Yannis sighed and gave her a squeeze. “If you truly desire closure, I will speak to my contact in the police.” He pursed his lips. “If maybe we can trick him into coming to us, we could break the controls on his actions, return him to a life of useful obedience. You would be able to safely speak to him, then. Would you like to try that?”

     Mirii shifted on the spot, uneasily. “…maybe I would like more time to think about it,” she admitted.

     “Of course. You can take all the time you need, my sweet. I could not abide upsetting you, and I fear this will only take you backwards, not achieve the closure you need. Do only what pleases you.” He smiled, kindly. “Things that make you happy. I was pleased by how happy you were at the market! And you said you enjoyed cooking, yes?”

     She probably sensed where he was leading the conversation, but she asked the question anyway; “would you like me to make you some breakfast, while you bathe?”

     “Although I would prefer to have your company while I bathe,” he teased, “breakfast would be very nice. Thank you.” He ran his fingers through the fine strands of her hair, then kissed the side of her neck, gently.

     Mirii put up her hand and covered his lips with two fingers, with a sad smile. “Please. Not yet, dear.”

     “Of course.” He backed off, and there was a glint – just a glint – of something ugly in his eyes. “It does pain me that you could not taste the masterpiece you created last night, darling. Maybe sometime in the future, if you wished, we could devise a way for you to taste.”

     She gave him a serious, probing look. “Much as I would like such a gift, I do not think it is possible.”

     “Because your builders told you so, I should not wonder. Pssh. I can not help but wonder if they did not see it as an essential, and thus simply did not bother. There will always be a way if you want it, dearest…”

     The ripple of soft birdsong echoed off the cliffs when Yannis finally manage to escape the maudlin clutches of his pet phoenix and leave his apartment. He slotted his arm into his jacket and tugged the door closed behind him; the bolt made a solid, satisfying clunk as it locked. The desert hadn’t quite shucked off the chilly night-time air, and haze-dilute dawn sunlight stained the metalwork of the landing platform an unrealistically romantic sparkly pink where it reflected off the cold condensation.

     Yannis shivered, in spite of efforts to the contrary, wishing he’d just rolled over and gone back to sleep until the sun had risen a little further, so it was not quite so frigid when he finally ventured outside. The quilt was warm, and his woman might be nothing else – those straight lines were hardly cuddly – but at least she was warm. And, he had to grudgingly admit, a good cook.

     We will have to try and devise a way so you may taste, dear. He curled his lip, scornfully. With luck, she’d forget all about that ridiculous notion before he had to look like he was making an effort at designing something.

     Besides, having no sense of taste had other benefits he was certain would come in handy in the bedroom. He licked his lips, optimistically. Once he’d gently coaxed her towards the idea of trying it, of course.

     Progress was sadly slower than he’d thought it would be. Certainly once the initial shock had worn off, she’d grown quite reserved – almost aloof. Or maybe, she wasn’t so gullible as she looked. Yannis pursed his lips, annoyed.

     Perhaps bribery was the way to go? He winced a little at the hit his accounts would take, but figured it would probably be worth it. A few little somethings to cater to that famous kiravai vanity, and she would no doubt be putty in his hands. Convincing her that her old nestmate was far away out of her reach couldn’t hurt, either; he knew she was having second thoughts. Heaven forbid that her trust in him got weaker, after all this work! He’d have to be careful if he was going to introduce the good doctor, though; give it a few days while they tried to “catch” him.

     Them once she was low, crushed by what her wonderful, intelligent husband had become, he could swoop in to the rescue and nurse her heart back to health. He snorted a laugh to himself. Yes, Yannis. I am sure that will work. He shook his head at himself, tiredly, trotting down the stairs behind the rooftop entryway. This lovesick fowl will probably take patience and a gentle hand, and I do not know I will have enough of either to achieve it. Maybe I should simply discuss how easily a partial rewrite of those unsophisticated processors will be?

     He settled himself behind the communications desk in the command centre, appreciating the clean room and pleasant calm, while his merry band of morons was still lost in slumber. (The lazy ingrates. The machines might be infinitely stupider than his crew, needing their little mechanical hands held and instructions given the whole way, but at least they were making themselves useful.) He punched in the frequency to call his contact in the other laboratory, and settled with a hot drink and his feet up to wait.

     The alien took a while to answer, and the chilly reptilian features stared into him for several moments before their owner eventually spoke. “Didn’t we only talk yesterday, eumin?”

     “Indeed we did. We are now talking again. Does that pain you?”

     The man’s hostile look intensified. He obviously doesn’t like early mornings, either. “Get to the point.”

     “I want a sample of the live virus. My virologist says he cannot do anything else with ‘surface anti gens’, whatever they are, and needs the full virus to develop the vaccine.” When the man straightened and opened his mouth to complain, Yannis lifted both hands and elevated his voice. “And I will pay you everything I owe you, right now, plus an additional instalment towards completion, and a bonus at our next meeting.”

     The chilly eyes narrowed. “And where in this are you planting the trap, huh? Give me a dud credit token, will you? Fraudulent currency?”

     “I was going to transmit the funds to you now, as a show of good faith.” Yannis lifted his chin, arrogantly. “If you do not want it, then I will pay for the services I have received thus far, and take my business elsewhere. They may not have your scientific excellence, but there are other labs that I am quite sure will be able to ‘knock something together’ for me.”

     Silence reigned again for a few moments. “All right,” the man backed down, at last. “I appreciate your generosity. I’ll see if my staff can get you something to work with.”

     Yannis had to restrain a smirk; it looked like the alien would have preferred to have taken a vice to a sensitive part of his anatomy than give Yannis any sort of compliment whatsoever. “Inform me when you are ready. I will meet you at our usual place.”

* * * * *

     Deep in the windowless old factory complex, Yannis’ crew were at last finally stirring.

     Giant video screens flush with the walls and a cunning arrangement of lights gave the illusion of windows, and the creeping dawn broke over an entwined pair of nyen, still drowsy, not quite fully awake.

     Asenka lay in a lazy curl between Kolek’s legs, chin resting on his stomach, but for once her usual sleepy, satisfied smile was nowhere to be seen. She actually looked… perturbed, which in turn made Kolek uneasy.

     “Something’s got you upset, and it ain’t a bad dream, right?” the hart intuited. “Something about our illustrious boss?”

     “Right,” she confirmed, quietly. “He’s making me twitchy. He’s not telling us all of what he’s up to, and it’s making me nervous. I’m meant to be his second in command, and he’s keeping secrets from me.”

     “Sure it’s ’cause he’s making you twitchy, and not just ’cause you’re just upset he’s not told you all the gossip?”

     Asenka pursed her lips at him in a tired glare. “He’s got something big up his sleeve. You heard him talking. He’s after some kind of revenge against his people, and he’s not giving us the full story because he knows we’d drop him like a hot rock.”

     “What makes this so different to trafficking illegal explosives?” Kolek wrinkled his nose on one side, giving his drooping whiskers an oddly comical lopsided look. “It’s not like we don’t already have blood on our hands, here. We’ve always just followed the money, and hang the consequences.”

     She snorted a laugh, but not at his looks, and it came out more mocking than amused. “I guess the potential for wholescale genocide just makes me uneasy, Kol.” She let her brows knot into a tired frown. “So what if we might not be good at staying the right side of the law, and our history is pretty inglorious? Somethin’ about this really makes my skin crawl. This ain’t some petty crime, any more, I ain’t so sure I wanna be caught up in it.”

     Kolek put his hands down to cup her face, stroking his thumbs gently across her cheeks. “So we ditch him, and break for the horizon. We’re good at vanishing, remember? Twice already we took new identities, guess there’s no big deal about doing it again, right?” He walked his tail down her spine, using its muscular curls to squeeze the tension out of the small of her back. “Just… slip away when no-one’s looking.”

     She grunted her pleasure and let her head roll sideways, resting her cheek against his abdomen, her hair tentacles undulating softly as he worked across her back. “That’s not the point,” she groaned. “Didn’t we ought to maybe try stop him?”

     “Stop him? Go above and beyond our personal safety?” He chuckled. “You’re not going all self-sacrificing on me now, are you, Zen? Maybe them oh so noble machines actually had a good influence on you.”

     “Rrgh. Trust you to let the point go sailing over your empty head.” She curled her own tail around his, and tugged him away from her. “Point is, this cuts pretty close to home in a lot of ways. There’s plenty of folk would wanna see nyen obliterated out of the galaxy too, you know. What if he wanted to wipe us out?”

     “Now you’re just trying to obfuscate the issue-”

     “Besides,” she interrupted. “Being homeless, the first time we made ourselves disappear? Working our way through the shelters, building up from absolute rock bottom? That was pretty dang hard. I don’t wanna go through all that again unless I got absolutely no other option.

     “If that was all you wanted to say, why didn’t you jus’ say it?”

     Asenka huffed and scooted herself backwards and out of reach. “Least you could do is humour me, love. Maybe I got some genuine concerns, here. Maybe, we don’t know enough about what he’s playing at, and might get us all killed in the process.”

     “Aw, Zen. Dry up. He’s just stamping his feet at the other eumin, posturing like it’s gonna make a difference to anyone ‘cept his bloated head. It ain’t that big a-”

     She cut him off with a curt snap; “If you’re not gonna listen to me, at least tell me you’re not gonna listen, right?” She flounced away into the bathroom, hoofbeats echoing across the reinforced tiles like sharp little gunshots.

     “Zen-” Kolek groaned and covered his face.

     Words floated back to him through the open door. “I’m not talking to you until you start taking me seriously...” She continued to mutter, but the droning roar of the shower drowned out anything else. She sounded genuinely hurt, for once, not just playing up to it to get her way.

     Kolek crept into the shower behind her, pressed a kiss to her shoulder, and made sure he apologised properly.

* * * * *

     It was purely by chance that Iios happened to be walking down the corridor through crew quarters, his arms full of machine parts that looked like they were destined for the old mine lift, when Asenka left her suite a short time later.

     Never one to miss an opportunity, she stepped out into the corridor, and blocked his way, arms folded. “I want a word with you.”

     “A word, madam?” Iios cocked his head. “Just one word? I am not sure I understand.”

     Asenka restrained a sigh, and clarified; “I mean, I need to discuss something with you. In private.”

     “Forgive me, I have a list of work to attend, and Yannis has instructed that I do not cease my chores for anyone but him.” The soft gold-eyed stare didn’t stray from her face. “I do not think he likes my time being used non-productively.”

     Asenka knew he was making a veiled reference to the time she’d ‘helped’ him with his bath, and tightened her jaw, annoyed.

     “Should I request leave?” Iios prompted, delicately. When she failed to instantly respond, he evidently took it as a ‘no’, and walked around her.

     “Look, quit the act. I know you’re fooling,” she asserted, sidestepping to remain in his way. “You might have Yan blinkered to what you’re up to, but you can’t trick me so easily.”

     “I am not sure what act you are referring to, ma’am. I am merely conducting my chores.” He tried to navigate around her again, but she moved in the same direction, to stay in his way. “We could discuss things while I work, if you would prefer? I am capable of multitasking.”

     “I need to talk to you in private,” she emphasised. “Do you understand me?”

     They danced slowly down the corridor, the nyen stepping into his way in an attempt to block him, but forced back a little each time by the siinu’s inexorable approach.

     “Look, will you just… stop, for a friggin’ moment?” Asenka placed her hands on his midriff and tried to push him backwards.

     Obediently, he stopped where he was, watching her carefully.

     She lowered her voice. “Look, you can talk to me. I know I work for him, but I promise I won’t tell anyone.” She peered up into the alert yellow eyes, looking for any hint of cunning duplicity, but all that looked back was the bland, dutiful servant, guileless. “Come on. I know you’re still in there, captain. I need to discuss what’s going on here with someone that knows how to keep a secret.”

     “Forgive me, I am not sure I understand. There is no-one ‘inside me’-”

     “I mean,” she lowered her voice, “you’re still you. No-one’s... ‘reprogrammed’ you.”

     “That is correct, madam. My higher functions have been erased, not revised.” He inclined his head. “However, the term ‘reprogrammed’ seems to better fit with most people’s understanding of the situation.”

     “Oh, come on. Kolek’s stupid machine, it’s a cobbled together sack of soggy fewments,” she pleaded. “It can’t possibly have actually worked!”

     “Madam, your behaviour is quite aberrant. I am growing concerned that you are not well. Would you like me to call the doctor?”

     At last, she backed down. “No. No, it’s all right,” she mumbled, dispiritedly. “Guess I just got my hopes up when I shouldn’t have. Get back to your chores.”

     “Of course.” He bowed steeply, twitched an ear, and glided past her.

     She watched him continue down the corridor and wrinkled her nose, stumped. He either genuinely had been punched all the way back to factory settings, or the guy was much, much smarter than Yannis gave him credit for.

* * * * *

     I think Asenka may be on to us, Sei; she just challenged me in the corridor. We may have to find a new place to discuss plans, because I fear the cleaner’s cupboard might soon acquire some covert surveillance…


Chapter: 6207 words   |    63,568 out of 100,000