Chapter 18

Nov. 26th, 2012 10:02 pm
keaalu: A picture of a box of pencils, with the word prolific, to show how busy I am! (Prolific pencils)
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     Yannis didn’t dither long in the factory after speaking to his contact; it wouldn’t take the man long to package up a sample of the virus (or so he’d promised), and the eumin didn’t want to spoil the unexpectedly good relationship by keeping him waiting, down there. He returned to his apartment to change his clothes, wanting something lighter to wear, so he didn’t feel like he was baking in his own skin in the scalding noontime sun.

     He peeked out of the city-facing window, to see where his phoenix was; just visible through the reflections on the glass roof, he found Mirii in the garden room just below, watching tiny fluttering creatures flit around the feeders in the flowers just outside the window.

     “Marie?” He scooted himself down the spiral rail on the staircase, and headed for the lounge.

     “Yes?” She turned away from the window, and gave him a curious look. “You have changed your clothing.”

     He wondered if she’d given up correcting him on the pronunciation of her name, or just decided she didn’t mind that much, any more? “That is correct. I am about to make a slightly unplanned trip to the city for a little while, as my contact has some information for me. My previous clothing would be too warm. Would you like me to get you anything?”

     “May I come with you, instead?” She closed the gap between them, her elegant stride silent against the thick carpet. “I would rather that than be bought anything. The city is pleasantly busy, I rather enjoy visiting.”

     He quirked an eyebrow. “I see no reason why not. You may if you so wish, but I am only going to see my contact.”

     “Darling.” She half-scolded, and took one of his hands firmly in hers. “How is it in any way different from our first visit to the market? You did not go for my benefit then, either. I still enjoyed the trip.”

     Yannis actually pinked up – caught. “All right. But we will have to be careful – in the event your guardian does not find us himself, I am sure his puppeteers will be close behind him…”

* * * * *

     As usual, Yannis’ contact sat waiting for them at the centre of the plaza, jaws methodically working as he chewed on a (probably unpleasant) snack of some sort, with market patrons swirling around him like a sea of rust and beige against shale cliffs.

     “Is that is your contact, on the rim of the fountain?” Mirii wondered, peering ahead. “I was not aware that krell ventured so far from their homeworld.”

     Yannis kept his fingers crossed that ‘krell’ was the name of the species, not the man’s personal name. “I suppose you could say he and I are rather the mould breakers. As are you, dear.” He squeezed her fingers, gently - and felt her squeeze back, ever so slightly.

     The krell watched them approach out of inscrutable brown eyes. “Well, hello there,” he greeted, curiously, flicking a forked tongue over his blunt snout. “I wasn’t expecting you to have brought company, Yannis.”

     “Mirii likes the market,” Yannis explained. “She finds home a little too quiet, right now.” He stared very seriously at his contact, trying to imply a subtle threat in his gaze. “I did not anticipate there would be a problem with allowing her to accompany me.”

     The man spread his hands and shook his head. “No problem at all. Just a little more daring than I thought you’d be, is all, what with everything else going on. Or is that the point, to prove to ‘em you’re not scared?”

     “Something like that,” Yannis agreed, evasively.

     He bowed deeply to her, and kissed the back of her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

     Although Yannis subtly rolled his eyes, Mirii seemed to appreciate the gesture, smiling bashfully and bending her legs in a polite bow. “It is nice to meet you at last also, sir. Yannis tells me much about you.”

     “Oh he does, does he?” The alien arched a brow at the eumin, warily.

     “Yes, and I am very grateful for your kind help. It must be a very difficult job that you do. I would be scared of going against people so powerful.” She paused, and cocked her head. “Forgive me, I am not sure what to call you. Yannis has not told me your name.”

     “My name? Not many people care to actually ask that, you know,” the alien mused, tapping his thin lips.

     Yannis bristled – the barb was clearly intended at him – but miraculously remained silent.

     “You can call me ‘Tark’,” he suggested, after a little more thought. “It’s… a little generic, just the short version of my family name. I’d love to give you more, but it’s not safe for me to do so right now, you know?”

     Mirii nodded, seriously. “Of course. Yannis has explained how important the work you do is. I would not like to put you in jeopardy.”

     “I gotta say, it’s nice to see the two of you out and about together,” Tark offered, unexpectedly. “Yannis has been worrying about you, you know? Since he got you away from the monitors, he was scared you were gonna be damaged for life by what they did to you. Nice to see you’re getting over it, at last.” His thin lips pulled away from his sharp little teeth in a grin that didn’t really reflect in his eyes. “I told him you just needed a real man to look after you an’ you’d be fine, but the guy wouldn’t believe me.”

     Mirii remained silent, but let her gaze fall away to the ground. Her smile wasn’t quite so full as it had been, an instant before.

     “You don’t believe me either, huh?”

     “I… would like to,” she explained, very carefully. “There have been a lot of sudden changes in my life, recently, and it is not always easy to know what I should be believing.”

     “I guess that makes sense,” Tark agreed, nodding to himself. “If you come from living in a world where folk lie so easily that they can construct a whole life for you, and pretend it’s all real, you’d come to expect the same thing when you arrive in a different place.”

     “That-… wasn’t strictly what I meant…” Mirii stumbled across the words, uneasily.

     “I mean, s’gotta be pretty tough to find out the man you were having sex with wasn’t even real.”

     Yannis noticed, with a fair dollop of satisfaction, that Mirii didn’t even protest, this time.

     “You got a good man now, though.” He gave her arm a pat. “He’ll look after you.”

     “I hope so,” she agreed, although her voice was strangely reluctant.

     In his pocket, Yannis’ communicator buzzed, like an irritable insect. “Excuse me.” He stepped away, put his hand into his pocket to check who was buzzing him, and bumped something cold with his fingertips. A little bottle. It felt like? He didn’t remember putting it in there – for that matter, it was still cold. Tark must have slipped it into his clothing without his notice – the scrawny giant had never seemed to have such pickpocket tendencies, and he couldn’t help wondering what else the man may have helped himself to on their other meetings.

     Inspecting his communicator, Yannis grimaced his annoyance. Hueil had pinged him, wanting to discuss something “of great importance” – although important to whom, Yannis was unsure. He and the psychologist only ever saw eye-to-eye on a literal basis, most of the time, and what Hueil thought was important was often far from it. Yannis thumbed an acknowledge, and sent his own ping that he’d discuss it when he returned.

     “Everything all right?” Tark prompted, when Yannis turned back.

     “Of course. Just my psychologist, wanting to talk to me. He can wait.” The eumin waved a dismissive hand, airily. “Marie, I need to discuss things with my friend, here.” He took both her hands into his. “I will catch up with you shortly, if you are happy to look through the stalls for yourself?”

     A little crestfallen, the pen nodded, silently, and moved off into the throng, ears drooping.

     “Still don’t get what you see in her,” Tark said, sniffily, the instant she was out of earshot among the natives.

     “Oh, she has her moments. There are times where her promise does show through – not often, granted, and even less frequently when she is feeling hard done by, but every now and then I remember why I embarked on this project.” Yannis slid a small glare askance at Tark. “On the other hand, this was your idea of humorous, I expect?” He lifted the little vial.

     Tark made a little noise of indifference down his long nose. “If you think that was funny, you need your sense of humour taking a look at,” he quipped. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to keep your woman on your arm the whole time, and how much she knew about your little project. Getting you what you wanted sounded like the important bit.”

     “Hm. Well, you were right not to mention it in front of her. She does not know about it.” Yannis had to back down from his irritation, reluctantly.

     “It’s not quite finished, yet,” Tark cautioned, watching Yannis turn the vial between finger and thumb. The liquid inside shimmered and shifted like ground mica. “But it’ll do what you want, if you’re getting impatient. S’up to you if you want any more work done on it.”

     “That depends. Precisely how easily can I get it into someone?” Yannis slipped the vial back into his pocket. “I had time to think over the problems you described, and if it is going to be that difficult to encapsulate into an oral delivery form, I would prefer we do not spend the next half a year attempting to achieve the impossible.”

     “We’ve only tested the whole virus in animals so far, but it’s looking good. It’s certainly as contagious as you wanted it. It causes encephalopathy – makes the brain swell – which makes infectees aggressive. They lash out, scratch and bite, and often pass it on before we realise they’re infected in the first place.”

     Yannis nodded thoughtfully. “That might work,” he accepted, with an unpleasant smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Plus, it appeals to my sense of righteous vengeance to see such venerated individuals as Councillor Bor reduced to snarling animals…”

     When Yannis finally tracked her down, Mirii had found a little haberdashery stall, and now sat on a bolt of fabric, watching an older woman sewing little beads among the careful hand embroidery on a heavy brocade top. The older woman didn’t seem to mind having a visitor; she quietly explained what she was doing, gesturing with the needle as she worked it through the fabric. Yannis watched them for a second or two, until he worked out that they were speaking in native Hah’zeept’i, and he didn’t understand a word of it. It made him… edgy. They could be saying anything about him.

     “Having fun, dear?” he wondered, deliberately attracting her attention away from the craftswoman.

     “Ah, you have finished talking to your friend?” Mirii bowed politely and bumped cheeks with the stallholder, and softly said her thanks before taking her leave.

     “What were you talking about?”

     “I asked her about some sewing techniques, and she was explaining for me.”

     “You enjoy sewing, do you?” He smiled, privately, his fancy tickled by another possible money-spinning idea.

     “I have done a little, yes,” she agreed, not suspecting for a moment that the man had any ulterior motive for asking. “I enjoy the artistic side of it, although I am still not terribly good.”

     They meandered away from the fruit and vegetable and fish and meat stalls, and away from the stink that hung around the stalls selling hot food, and ended up – not entirely by chance – in the ‘clothing’ district of the market, where the subtler tones of light incense perfumed the air.

     Mirii’s eyes had rounded out to great big blue pools of wonder in her face, astonished and delighted by the incredible array of brightly coloured fabrics. Most stalls here sold the raw materials – among the simple linens were scattered rich silks, sheer gauzy organza, even heavy, sumptuous velvets which looked most out of place against the hot sands. Dotted among them were rails of skilfully embroidered dresses, multiple ruffled skirts, and exotic tunics with diaphanous sleeves that looked almost as billowy as the skirts beside them.

     Jewellery stalls mingled among the clothing, glittering as cheaply and cheerfully as the tacky glass ‘diamonds’ they sold. Mirii didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the price tags – she browsed curiously through all of them, making just as many appreciative little sounds about the cheap ones as she did the heavier, more expensive pieces. Yannis watched her like a hawk, taking note of the colours she preferred, the styles her dainty fingers lingered on.

     At last, he’d watched her enough, and found a piece that seemed to match her tastes well enough for his purposes. “Marie? Come, come here.” He waved her over, with a smile. “I want you to try this one on…” The jewellery was made only of cheap synthetic stones, but it sparkled as well as the wild crystal. Wouldn’t break the bank, and it might just pamper her vanity enough for her to look more favourably at him again.

     She approached with her head cocked to one side, curiously, but seemed pleased by Yannis’ discovery, and let him fasten the simple clasp at the back of her neck. The elegant net of tiny beads draped like fabric over her neck, forming a deep collar that spread down onto and across her shoulders. The stallholder clucked incomprehensibly in such a broad dialect that even Mirii didn’t understand her, but after a little hand-waving got the tall pen to lower her head, so she could thread a small silk bouquet into her hair, just above her ear.

     Mirii peeked in the mirror, and smiled, turning her head this way and that and watching as the net of blue and lilac beads moved and shimmered against her gold skin. The little cluster of flowers in her hair matched the crystal flowers sewn into the collar of the piece.

     “You look wonderful,” Yannis complimented, for once being absolutely honest, and gave her a little squeeze. Perhaps not so alluring as he would have liked, and definitely not sexually attractive, but very pretty. Like an exotic pet, bred for its looks. Something he definitely wouldn’t mind having on his arm for a little while.

     She glanced away, shyly. “We should not waste the stallholder’s time,” she scolded, reluctantly, putting her hands up to the clasp hidden in the back of the necklace.

     “How is it we are wasting time, dear?” He lifted his wallet, by way of explanation, already drawing out a slip of finely printed silk paper. “Do you not want it?”

     Her lips parted in a little oh! of surprise. “Please, do not be silly.” She tried to close the purse, but his fingers were in the way. “You do not need to buy this.”

     “Need? Maybe not. Want? Absolutely.”

     “But I still cannot repay you yet-!” she stammered.

     “A gift bought for a friend to cheer her spirits does not need to be repaid,” he scolded. “I did not do this because I expected payment from you.” Well, not yet. And not with money…

* * * * *

     Brennan had always considered himself to be a fairly sane, well-adjusted man, but solitary confinement and sensory deprivation was quickly driving him crazy. How long had he been down here, anyway? Had to have been a good few days, at a minimum, but it felt like weeks, cooped up on his own, with only his bleak imagination to keep him company. How was a man supposed to silence the twittering voices in his head when there was nothing to distract the senses? Breathing heavily for something to listen to only worked for so long before it gave him a headache, and rattling his cup against the floor was almost as tiresome. Picking at the back of his hand, relishing the sharp pain of broken skin, only held his attention until the pain grew too unbearable to continue.

     The pervasive, muffling silence made it difficult to tell what noises were real, and what were just his thoughts, whispering away to him in the dark. Those genuine, external sounds that slipped through the gloom – the occasional gurgle of a pipe, buried somewhere in the wall, or a clunk when something struck the hatch in the ceiling – were too loud. The boom of a gong, the clatter of a stack of plates dropped from high up. It got under his skin, made him increasingly fractious. He shrieked for them to shut up, but they didn’t pay any attention. Just kept on whispering in the dark.

     Along with the voices, primitive, aggressive fantasies of revenge flickered inescapably in the back of his mind. Even the cramped, toxic nightmare of the Bubble had never triggered such horrible images. He covered his head with his hands and rocked, quietly, trying to will the frightening and uncontrollable visions away with thoughts of sweeter things – but the flowers rotted, the animals grew pin-sharp arrays of teeth and claws, the landscape turned black and dead as imagined fires tore through it. And Yannis – ugh. The more he tried to blot the visions of sadism and violence out, the worse they became.

     He couldn’t even get up and pace around to relieve the monotony, most of the time. It was only really safe to walk around when the latrine was empty. He knew exactly how big his pit was – slightly oval, four long strides in diameter at its widest point – but without any reference points to pinpoint where he was, and hallucinations plaguing his waking moments, the risk of kicking the bucket over was all too real. He had indeed kicked it over once or twice before, when it had been empty – the hideous clatter of noise brought tears to his eyes. Instead, he stayed sitting on his bed, and tried to keep his numbed senses working.

     At least the smell wasn’t so noticeable any more. He had grown immune to his own unwashed stink.

     His only real relief was when the ceiling hatch opened and someone or other – usually a thickset usurian with only one ear – lowered his dinner and a clean bucket down to him, and took away the latrine. The interaction was fleeting, mere seconds of light and sound.

     He felt like he’d been buried alive. That the circular cell in which he was trapped was sinking slowly into quicksand, squeezing the air inside, pressing down on his eardrums.

     The portions of simple food – usually a roll of some sort, baked with an uninteresting gloop of vegetables and meat at the middle – did little to assuage his growling stomach. Hunger rolled continually around inside him, like his insides were full of small, biting worms. (No, do not even stop and think about worms. You do not need to add any more hallucinations to your collection.)

     The hatch in the ceiling unexpectedly opened, making him flinch. Brennan squinted against the light, arm raised to protect his eyes, but couldn’t see well enough to identify the silhouette. “I have already had my supper,” he reminded, croakily – his voice sounded unfamiliar even to him, and uncomfortably loud.

     “That was your breakfast,” the voice corrected – it did not belong to his usual jailor, although Brennan could not immediately tell who it was. “And this is not a food drop. Stand up.”

     Obediently – although he wasn’t sure why – Brennan did as told. “Why?”

     “You will find out in short order. Now step back, unless you want a rope in your face.”

     Brennan watched as the rope – or was it a snake? There had been plenty of snakes creeping around the floor just shy of his mattress already, it could join them – dropped down from the pool of light, its tip writhing back and forth like a serpent’s tailtip. “Do you want me to climb this?”

     The voice didn’t answer. Instead, a light phunk! echoed through the cell, and something stung his upper arm, a sharp bite like from an angry insect. “Ah-!” He swatted at it, and found a short, feathered dart sticking out of his clothing even as the world began to swim before his eyes. “What-… what is-… doing?” His voice had grown thick and awkward, like his tongue had swollen to fill his mouth.

     “Moving you.”

     A shower of molten metal dripped down the rope into the cell, pooling into a shifting column at the bottom; Brennan had enough consciousness left to realise that it was probably the resident psychologist, the long-bodied ondrai male, but clarity was rapidly slipping away as the sedative took hold.

     “While it has been entertaining to watch your brain melting, Yannis finally has need of a subject for his test.” Hueil stepped forwards and caught him as his knees buckled, using Brennan’s momentum to get the eumin to step into the lifting harness. “So my personal little experiment will have to stop. It has made entertaining viewing, I must say.”

     By the time Brun gave a grunt and hauled on the rope to lift both eumin and ondras from the cell, Brennan was deep in a drugged, senseless slumber. Which was probably good, Hueil mused, since he undoubtedly wouldn’t appreciate where he was going to end up.

* * * * *

     Whether they were actually making any headway or not, Dren couldn’t tell – he did know he’d certainly never seen the small laboratory quite so busy, with at least three assays in progress at any given minute and a variety of genetic analyses and recombinant technologies working quietly in the background. He could have done with having an ‘assistant’ like this weeks ago – although truth be told, the synth could probably have run the place singlehanded. Dren had become the assistant, very nearly – even now, he was giving the unused glassware a good scrub in a sink full of soapy bubbles, while Sei flitted between assays, sampling each at the appropriate time without even needing to use a stopwatch.

     It was probably over-optimistic to think the peace would last. Distractions were rather par for the course, working in an unscientific establishment where most of the staff thought he wanted or needed their help, and some distractions were downright annoying. And his employer seemed to have become the biggest hindrance! If he wasn’t there to ask inane questions that anyone with the smallest nugget of brain would know the answer to, he wanted to heckle the machine, for reasons known only to himself. Dren generally hated his visits, because they usually led to foul-ups in the experimental process – added contaminants, missed reagents, botched timecourses. How much easier it would be to work in a distant laboratory, reachable only by long-distance communications.

     Unlike now, with Yannis as large as life and more than twice as annoying. The eumin showed up just after noon, not seeming to care to hear about their progress. Instead, he plopped his weight down on the closest stool, and hooked his feet up onto an unoccupied patch of bench. “Your new assistant is working to your satisfaction?” He didn’t bother trying to hide his smirk.

     Unable to quite work out the reason for the sneering look – or indeed whether it was directed at him personally or the machine – Dren just nodded. “Miraculously? Yes, we are actually making some progress. It’s nice to have someone around who knows what he’s doing, for a change.”

     “Progress on the vaccine? Excellent news. In that case, you will like the little gift I brought you.” Yannis plucked the vial from his jacket pocket, and set it delicately down on its end. “Fresh from the hospital pathology department.”

     “Wait, is that a sample of the actual virus?” Dren’s ears perked up, and he all but applauded. “Ah, fantastic!” He picked it up, delicately, and examined the grimy little bottle. “It’s a shame they couldn’t have kept it a bit cleaner. Did they drop it in the canal or something?”

     “It is a hospital, Biohazard, in the poor end of town. They cannot afford the luxuries you are used to. This is itself probably a recycled vial.”

     The vul flashed his teeth, very subtly, not appreciative of the intended guilt-trip. “I have worked in under-funded facilities myself,” he reminded. “If the exterior of the vial is this filthy, what does it suggest about the contents?”

     Yannis lowered his voice to a see-saw of threat. “It suggests that you should get on with your analysis, and stop challenging me, if you know what is good for you. I am sure I could find another virologist if I tried hard enough.” He pointed over Dren’s shoulder. “Your assistant seems to be coping admirably without your help, for instance. Perhaps I should terminate your employment now, and stop wasting my money on someone who is clearly not capable of doing the job.”

     Dren growled something soft under his breath, but backed down. “Just remember you want a vaccine, here. I can’t get you a vaccine if the virus is too filthy and contaminated to isolate in the first place.”

     “Oh I have faith in your abilities, just not in your ability to stop whining and get on with it.” Yannis lips pulled up into a terse, unfriendly smile. He moved as far as to the door, before pausing again. “And doctor, please do not forget I will want to see you once you are finished here for the day. You will wait for me in the command centre.”

     Sei inclined his head, politely. “Of course, sir. Please be reassured, I am not capable of forgetting such an instruction.”

     “You used to be a doctor?” Dren wondered, when Yannis had finally left them in peace, giving Sei a curious look. With a quick flick of the wrist, he pulled the plug out of the sink, revealing his clean glassware as the water level dropped.

     “The people I worked for called me a surgeon,” Sei corrected, although he never once paused in his work, carefully measuring out little portions of various chemicals. “Although that definition is not strictly correct, as I had no contact with organic tissues. The closest approximation you would recognise would be an investigative electrical engineer.”

     “Oh.” Dren couldn’t quite hide his disappointment – his hopes for a qualified medical doctor drained away with the soapy water down the sink. “So… you were a surgeon that worked on other synthoids, right?” Turning the hot tap on very slightly, he began to rinse the flasks free of residual bubbles, and carefully threaded each onto its own individual stem on the drying rack. Such simple menial tasks usually allowed him to concentrate on the theoretical aspects of the job, but not today. “I can’t imagine it kept you very busy.”

     “I had sufficient work to keep me occupied. The current kirasiinu population is small, but the hope was that it would grow. We would have needed more trained specialists in place in the event they wished to move away to different colonies.” The dark face flickered, ever so slightly. Was that regret? Disappointment? The expression vanished almost as soon as it had appeared, before Dren could concentrate and get a proper look. “I was to have helped in the training of other engineers, as well as building and programming.”

     “I suppose at least you can still fix yourself, or your friends, if anything arises while you’re working here.”

     “Correct.”

     Conversation dried up as they got stuck in with the analysis of the virus itself – not that small talk was really the synthoid’s forte, Dren mused. He’d been polite but quiet prior to the arrival of the new sample, only answering those questions directed at him, and didn’t seem especially inclined to change the habit now they had some fresh samples to work with.

     By mid-afternoon, Dren’s eyes were too dry and sore to stare down high-powered microscopes any more, and he had to take a break, leaving his ‘assistant’ to continue on. He cupped his hands under the cold tap and used the water to rinse the air-conditioned dryness from around his eyes and whiskers. Ugh. Jokes that Hah’zeept only had two types of air – hot and dry, and freezing cold and dry – weren’t so far off the mark as he had hoped when he’d arrived on the planet all those years ago. He flipped a switch on the drinks machine, and watched as a hot water bubbled into a prefilled cup of freeze-dried kheem, then sagged into the only comfortable chair in the entire place to gather his thoughts.

     Over the top of his cup, Dren watched the cob move quietly about. The suspicions that had been niggling at his mind ever since their first meeting weren’t going away. He was far from an expert in the discipline of synthetic intelligence, of course, and his eyes might have been playing tricks, but there was just something about his co-worker that puzzled him. Nothing to do with the way he worked; nothing at all to do with the quiet, dedicated way he handled the equipment and noted down results. Something more about his behaviour. He sipped at his drink and watched, for a while.

     At last, he managed to pin down his thoughts long enough to look at them carefully, and work out what it was that bothered him. The way the creature worked was just too precise, too fluid to be some basic mimic. Assuming for a moment that he was genuinely operating from “basal protocols”, like he claimed – these basic instructions alone were so well-programmed, so ultra-sophisticated, that it boggled Dren’s mind how much more complex the advanced subroutines would have been.

     There was no way Yannis and his non-scientific morons could have reprogrammed a brain as complex as this – certainly not with the cobbled-together equipment they had hidden away in the factory’s lower levels. It was like assuming a person could perform complex neurosurgery by sticking a scalpel up through someone’s nose and wiggling it around a little.

     Under the guise of noting down results, the vul picked up a scrap of paper and hastily scribbled a note on it, then folded it in half and stuffed it into the cob’s pocket as he passed. It was a simple question – Yannis claims to have altered your programming but I think he has been tricked. Y/N? You can trust me.

     The synthoid barely even flickered – certainly didn’t react to the note. Dren watched him move around for several more long seconds until it was clear that his tall friend wasn’t interested in seeing what had just been put into his lab coat. The long black fingers never even strayed anywhere near the pocket, let alone went seeking out the scrap of paper..

     Dren sighed, disappointed that his hypothesis seemed to be disproving itself without any active input from Sei, and got back to work. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe Yannis had found a way, after all. Maybe these basal algorithms were the only things hard-coded into synthetic brains, and advanced programming was a soft-code overlay. Zap the poor creature with a high-intensity magnetic pulse, and anything not programmed with physical, immutable connections got erased.

     He was midway through a spectral analysis when he saw it. A lopsided scrap of crumpled paper – now smoothed out and folded into a crisp square – lay on top of the little disposable plastic weighing trays.

     Dren straightened, ears perking a little. How long had that been there? He reached for the pipette next to it, and in the same motion surreptitiously palmed the scrap under the top sheet of paper on the clipboard he was scribbling his results on.

     He knew instantly that it was indeed the original scrap of paper he’d stuffed into the machine’s coat pocket; faint writing could just be seen through the back, and he would recognise his own spidery handwriting anywhere, even upside down and back to front. What excited him was the neat, ruler-straight writing that had appeared below it.

     Dren made sure his back was to the camera before unfolding the tatty little lopsided sheet of scrap paper and reading:

     You are correct. I tell you this because I indeed consider you a trustworthy person. I hope I may be able to discuss my concerns with you, as we must try and work out what Yannis’ plans involve before they come to fruition.

     Dren scribbled a reply on the scrap and tucked it among the pipette tips. What plans?

     The note he got back chilled him all the way to the bone. With his behaviour towards you in mind, do you seriously think he has employed you to research a vaccine for a childhood illness?

     Dren glanced up, and met the serious blue-eyed gaze watching him so intently between the tall burettes and resin exchange columns. The keen intelligence in those eyes – and deep concern – was so impossible to miss, he couldn’t understand how he’d not suspected the trickery sooner.

     “So what is he doing?” Dren whispered, as faintly as he possibly could, hoping the large ears would still pick up on it.

     Sei shook his head, almost imperceptibly. I do not know. But I intend to work it out.

* * * * *

     Down in the laughably-titled “Infirmary”, buried deep in the old factory, Doctor Hueil sat at the little computer terminal tucked away in the corner, using the remarkable peace and quiet to get his thoughts down in writing. His least favourite person – the noisy, aggressive, sexually-voracious Asenka – had attracted his attention lately, and not in a good way. He wanted to get his ideas straight before he took them to Yannis, though – the man knew he didn’t get on with Asenka, and he didn’t want to be accused of a simple knee-jerk response to an overheard conversation.

     Like every other new addition to the old factory, the little ‘medical’ suite was another hastily built and poorly provisioned ‘plug-in’ done as cheaply as possible, which ultimately benefited no-one but Yannis. Doctor Zu’fenia in particular considered it most inadequate, using it as yet another excuse for sour temper and rafts of bitter complaining.

     The ondras often felt he was the only one who could see Yannis’ long-term aim, and the angry furore over the medical suite only confirmed it. The crew had assumed it was for their benefit – hence the uproar over the poor provisions. Hueil snorted a private laugh. Of course it wasn’t for them! Yannis had no ‘duty of care’ to provide anything more than an adhesive dressing to stick over their cuts and grazes. If any crewman needed medical assistance, they could visit any of the multitude of clinics in town, and pay for it with their own money.

     No, the ‘medical suite’ was only really an extension of the equally poorly-provisioned, cheaply-built laboratory a floor or two above. Somewhere to keep test subjects under observation, and watch how they responded to the infection, because trying to do that while the subject was still in the tank would be plain impossible.

     Since going to fetch the troublemaking Brennan from the tank, the small isolation cubicle had acquired its first (potentially long-term) occupant, inoculated with a dose of the virus. If it was as contagious as Tark had promised, they’d given him a more than ample dose. How long it would take him to actually start showing symptoms was another question altogether.

     Brennan lay in an uncomfortable partial spreadeagle on the hospital bed, his limbs shackled but only tightly enough to prevent him reaching to release himself. Not that he looked like he was about to try and escape, right now; his lips were open, and the faint drone of snores strained through the closed door. Still sleeping off the sedative, evidently – meaning this little haven of calm and quiet would quite probably soon vanish.

     Hueil wrinkled his over-long snout, distastefully. The rank smell of effluent still clung about the place, even after the eumin had been given a good thorough (and most undignified) bath while still zonked out, then dressed in simple pale green bedclothes that looked more like prison coveralls than hospital garb. Brennan’s original clothes had long since been removed and destroyed in the boiler-room incinerator, even, and the place still smelled.

     The sound of hoofs drew the doctor’s attention; dainty little beats and a light, trotting rhythm, which ruled out Kolek’s slow, heavy stride. Pair that with the conversation he’d half-heard outside his door earlier, and Asenka’s arrival didn’t actually surprise him all that much. How interesting that Yannis’ second in command and most trusted sneak-thief should be getting so uncomfortable.

     Hueil put out a hand and switched his computer terminal over to standby mode, just to keep its little squeaks and chirps quiet, then settled motionless in his corner to watch what she would do. One of the advantages of being a mindprobe – he could implant a subtle suggestion in her mind, and keep his visitor from turning and seeing him unless he wanted her to.

     As he’d hoped, Asenka looked right through him, pushing the door closed behind her. She moved all the way across the monitoring room to the sheet of glass separating the isolation room from the rest of the suite, and peered in through the window, fingertips braced against the frame. Her naked tailtip kept coiling and uncoiling, a sure sign of anxiety.

     Hueil watched her for several discreet seconds before speaking. “Asenka, hello. What brings you down to the old sociopath’s den, hmm?”

     “Huh?” She glanced around at him, only just managing to disguise the way she’d startled. “Oh, hey. Right, doc? Didn’t see you there.”

     “That much was quite obvious.” Hueil smiled that typically long, strangely melancholy ondran smile. “Our paths do not often intersect, for good reason.”

     “You mean, you’re a creepy bastard who always makes me uneasy? Right.” She grimaced, and turned back to the window. “So what are you doing down here anyway?”

     “Much the same as you, I would expect. Checking on the progress of the project.”

     “Hn. Right. That’s why you’re hiding in the corner.”

     “…And that’s why you’ve sneaked down here without telling anyone.”

     “Point taken.” She sighed, faintly, and curled her tail into knots again. “So what’s wrong with the guy.”

     “He has a virus. We will be monitoring his response to it, and to its treatment.” Hueil tapped his lips, and watched her, carefully. The silly hind was making no effort to disguise her emotions – he often wondered if nyen simply couldn’t – and heavy rafts of worry oozed out of her. Worry for whom, though? Herself? Or the snoring test subject? Or someone else entirely? Who could possibly command such loyalty from such an untrustworthy little whore? He would have to drop some subtle hints, next time they met, and see how she responded.

     “Where’d he catch it?” she chased, when he didn’t immediately add to his explanation.

     “Does it matter?”

     “It does to me, ’specially if it was us what gave him it.”

     “What would lead you to suspect such a strange thing? He may have already been infected when he came here.”

     Asenka shot him a look that said quite clearly she knew he was lying, but she didn’t challenge him.

     “Are you quite sure you are well, Asenka?” Hueil prompted, carefully. “You seem somewhat… perturbed. I can find Zuff, if you wanted him to ah, take your temperature.”

     She pouted her bottom lip, in a sort of facial shrug, and shook her head. “Just wanted to see for myself what was going on down here. Boss isn’t telling us a whole lot.”

     Well, that was true enough; no duplicity carried through her words. He would have to sample her a little deeper to see what else had got her so worked up. “Would I be right in thinking it is with good reason?”

     “What?” She glanced back at him, this time looking at him a lot more seriously. “Why would it be with good reason that he’s keeping me in the dark? I’m supposed to be his second in command, I’m supposed to take over if he’s too sick to do stuff himself. What do you know that I don’t?”

     Hueil offered his most guile-less look in return. “I couldn’t possibly comment. Unless, of course, you have been discussing things outside his doorway the same as you have been mine.”

     Asenka just stared blankly at him for a second or two… then realisation punched her between the eyes. The shock slipped out through her wide-eyed openmouthed stare before she could suck it back. “Don’t act like you know anything about what was going on there,” she snapped, but the quaver was obvious in her voice.

     “What was that you just said? ‘Please do not tell our commander that I was caught committing treason outside the doctor’s doorway?’ ” Hueil propped his chin on his hand. “Maybe you will have to make it worth my while, Asenka. I could always make room for a little extra cash to fund my experiments.”

     “Are you trying to extort money out of me?!”

     “Why not? It would seem the logical thing to do, especially if you want your secret to be kept.” He made a show of touching his index fingers to his lips, as though pondering something very deep and meaningful. “Although, I have lately been wondering how a position of command would suit my unique skills. When Yannis finally comes to his senses and ditches you and your lover as the capricious, treasonous whores you are, I shall have to make sure I am close at hand to take up the slack.”

     The hind spluttered wordlessly for a second or two. “You even think about it, and I’ll-… I’ll…”

     When a suitable threat failed to materialise, Hueil filled in the blanks. “Go running to Yannis, and tell him how nasty, how unkind I was?” He smirked. “Do you seriously think he will care? Even the tiniest smidgen?” He lounged artfully back in his chair. “You know, we are probably quite lucky, working here, as I doubt you would find an employer who gives his workers as much freedom as Yannis gives us. He does not concern himself with our politics.” He gave one hand a dismissive little wave. “On the other side of the coin, I strongly suspect that means he also will probably not care if certain members of staff were to, ah, ‘disappear’.”

     “In that case, you better watch your back,” she snapped, shakily, leaning forwards and balancing precariously on the tips of her hoofs. “Because you might be the one that ends up getting a knife in it.”

     He watched her disappear, and smiled privately as the measured stride turned into a hasty rattle, the instant she thought she was out of earshot. For all her arrogant, puffed-up blustering, a genuine fear had broadcast out of her, clear and hot and delicious. He smiled to himself; always felt so good, reminding her kind of scum just where she belonged in the universe – down in the gutter, as a barrier between him and the filth that oozed up out of the latrines.

     Better that he was sure of her wavering resolve before he told Yannis, though. Then he could scrub her out in one motion, instead of give her an opening to gab her way out through – because if there was one thing the hind was good at, it was exploiting loopholes and lying her way out of trouble – and leave himself with half-finished issues and a pair of vengeful street rats to contend with.

* * * * *

     When Yannis returned to the apartment, it was to find Mirii in the lounge, close to the big windows, with the lighting set low to improve the view of the thousand stars all emerging from a glorious sunset. The large screen on the wall quietly played the evening news, but she didn’t seem to be watching it. A large plain piece of fabric spread across her lap, and she seemed to be using the heads of a package of pins to mark out some sort of geometric pattern. Perhaps copying what the woman at the market had been doing?

     After a detour to the kitchen, to find himself something to eat – after sampling her cooking, he was surprised to find himself enjoying seafood again, after all those years in the Bubble eating nothing but slimy, tasteless fish – he went to sit beside her. Mirii didn’t move away when he settled next to her, and didn’t flinch when he spread an arm around her shoulders.

     “How has your day been, dear?” he wondered.

     “Pleasant. Relaxing.” She paused, and slid her gaze sideways for a second or two. “Although I have been a little at a loss for things to do,” she chastised, gently. “There is only so much housework a pen can do before she begins to feel like a servant. Or runs out of things to clean.”

     He gave her a little squeeze. “I know, dear. I am sorry.” Although mostly sorry that I cannot quite summon enough energy to care, and sorry that the status quo is not likely to change any time soon. “As soon as your ‘trainers’ have stopped looking for you, I will give you a little more freedom.” He stroked his fingers over the fabric in her lap, careful to avoid the tips of the pins. “You appear to have found something to take your interest.”

     She arched a brow. “It is hardly wearable. Perhaps I should have requested that you purchase loose beads, and not the elaborate necklace,” she sighed.

     “Next time I go to the market, I will see that I purchase some for you.”

     For a while, they simply sat together, quietly enjoying each other’s company. The news droned quietly away in the background, mostly incomprehensible; Mirii didn’t need subtitles to understand, and Yannis just didn’t care. Local politics couldn’t have interested him less – the world was just a convenient, poorly policed world to work out of.

     “It does reassure me to see you looking so much better, dear,” he said, stroking her arm with tender fingers. “I was not sure if I should have begun to fear you were broken forever.”

     “Thank you for being patient with me,” she murmured, softly. “I am sorry that I have been a little… complicated, lately. Like I said to your friend Tark, it is not always easy to know who it is safe to believe.”

     “You do not have to apologise. I know how hard it is. I only want you to be happy,” he lied. Right now, what I want is for you to trust me enough that I can find out if you are as ‘fully functional’ as that unappreciative prude of a husband led me to believe.

     She watched his fingers move. “It was very noble of your friend to put himself in harm’s way for me. He did not have to endanger his own safety for me.”

     “Well, he is my friend. I would hope that means he is yours, also.”

     He leaned closer, and kissed the side of her neck; her skin had an odd, almost cool texture against his lips, smooth like perfect silk. It had a strange quality underlying it, too – he wasn’t sure how to define it, except that it was not precisely living. The subtlest sensation of static made his lips tingle pleasantly when they made contact.

     “I love you, dear. I want only what is best for you.” His lips worked their way up the side of her neck, mapping out the fine structure of the synthetic muscles beneath the smooth skin. He couldn’t help wondering just how different she felt, compared to a normal kiravai – where he would have expected to feel pumps, high-tensile cables and micro-engineered joints, he felt only flawless skin and muscle.

     He was immensely gratified when she let her head drift around to the side, pointing her nose away, letting him reach a little better. He nuzzled the little hollow behind her ear, stroked his fingers up through her hair. I will have to ensure Tark gets another little bonus, he mused; the man’s comment in the market had no doubt begun to reassure Mirii that all was above board and honest.

     “Darling? I need to discuss something with you,” he murmured, softly, lips brushing close enough to her ear for their motion to be felt.

     She smiled. “Of course.”

     “Do you remember we had discussed your desire to obtain a degree of closure on your old life?”

     She remained quiet, for a fraction of a second – just long enough to signal a flicker of regret, or perhaps unease. “I remember.”

     He ran his fingers gently down her arm, reassuringly. “…do you still wish to confront your guardian?”

     “Are you trying to tell me you have made contact with him?”

     “Yes. I told you I needed to speak with my contact? Well, we broached the subject, at the market. Tark had been watching discreetly, from a distance, every time your guardian returned to the surface in search of you. We were not sure how safe it would be to approach him, since he is stronger than we and of course, his operators would be angry at our so-called theft.” Yannis exaggerated a sigh. “Tark agreed that he would at least attempt it, on the proviso that he could locate him, and the meeting was in public, for safety’s sake.”

     Mirii filled in the blank. “And he has made contact.” Her voice came out oddly flat.

     “He has, yes. He has not told them where you are, or who you are with. They know only that he may be able to get in contact with you.” Yannis watched her face for clues, but her expression was carefully neutral. “If you do not want to do it, I will understand. Until he arrives here and we can disrupt the signal controlling his behaviours, it will not be safe to try and predict how he will react, anyway. But it is all up to you, of course. If you are scared and would rather not, no-one is going to force you into anything. What would you like to do?”

     Mirii studied her fingers, and nodded. “Yes,” she agreed, softly. “I would like to meet him. And-… yes, I am scared. But I would like things to be over. I would like to be able to move on, without worrying about when my past may catch up with me.”

* * * * *

     The sunset had well passed and the sky grown inky by the time Yannis finally headed back to the factory, to look for the newest addition to his staff. The sprinkling of stars overhead seemed to drink in the last of the day’s warmth, leaving the air desert-chilled and forcing the eumin into a hasty scurry before the fingers of the night-time breeze could make it through his coat.

     Up in the otherwise abandoned control room, Sei still stood quietly waiting for instruction, in the last remaining pool of light from an overhead panel, presumably so that he didn’t disappear into the shadows as he had the first time.

     “Ah, good. You remembered.” Yannis smiled, coolly.

     “Of course, sir.” Sei inclined his head. “I do not forget things.”

     Yannis grunted – about as close to an complimentary acknowledgement as he’d get. “I have placed an order with one of the shopkeepers down in Lanali city, and am expecting a selection of groceries brought to the factory early tomorrow morning. You will meet him at the lower gate, and bring the supplies up to my apartment. You can ask your twin for directions if you do not know where to go.”

     “Of course, sir.” Sei bowed deeply. “Will that be everything?”

     “No.” Yannis smiled, thinly. “Marie wishes to speak to you. I therefore shall lay down some ground rules you will follow, if you wish to remain functioning. Is that understood? It would be a shame for Biohazard to lose his assistant, and after you have proved so helpful to him.”

     “Of course, sir. Please be reassured that I cannot disobey a direct instruction.”

     “Of course.” Yannis’ smile broadened into a self-congratulatory smirk for a heartbeat before he managed to regain control. “You will explain to her how you were instructed to follow her, recapture her, and take her back to your masters. If she asks, you are not to mention any alterations to your programming. You are a puppet. You are an automaton. All I have done is remove the remote controls on your behaviour. Is that understood?”

     “You are asking me to lie to her, sir?” Sei perked his head curiously to one side.

     “Why, is that something outside of your programming?” Yannis gave him a hard look. “If you cannot actively lie, then consider it acting. Something you were quite good at in the bubble, if I recall correctly. Plus, none of it is strictly incorrect, is it? You are just a puppet. Now, anyway.”

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

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