89. ...Long Live the King
~Ice clinks in a glass.~
Right. So it has been an eventful
few days hasn't it? We finally put S'jar bloody t'Chk out of our collective misery. My nividium operation is generating over a hundred million a day. My complexes are pulling in close to that. I have a fully armed rapid response fleet with Ea't in command... although I still need to get a proper tender for it. Oh, and I met with that collection a' devious, underhanded, backstabbin' crybabies what is the Yaki council.
Hyuh. I had to endure nearly nine bloody hours a' some of the most tedious temper tantrums masqueradin' as negotiations that you can imagine.
Most a' the time it was about as excitin' as watchin' a Boron fist fight... I mean: they don't have fists and, even if they did, all they'd really do is swim around squirtin' pheromones at each other that mean 'We live for peace!'
or, in galactic common, 'not in the face!'
I can't believe how many times I had to say the same bloody things, as if my position was gonna change just cos they tried a new way to imply that I should feel guilty for bein' stronger'n they are.
Seriously, the hardest part of the whole affair was NOT informin' the lot of 'em that if they ever point any of their guns at me again I'm just gonna slag or board their ships 'n either leave 'em all floatin' in the void with the trash... or keep 'em as something to play with. Which is when it occurred to me both that Thane and Lu are good for me and, also, juuust how slippery the slope is that my soul is on.
I tell yah.
Yeah and all a that was AFTER nearly a week a bribin' the more intelligent and influential of the lot with backroom deals and promises to sell 'em nukes
of all things. Stiiiill not feelin' like that's a good idea but, meh, needs must I suppose aaand... I hate to say it but Abmanckusset may actually prove to be a worthy ally. On the other hand I had to exercise ALL of my self restraint when dealin' with the Teladi. I mean Mary Anne I can deal with. Hell I think I might even be able to like
her... although I think that, when it comes to Snake Eye, she's actually a bit naïve. Nicodemus I can work with although I've already tasked Legion with payin' attention to that guy in case he decides to stab me in the back. Mel Gorda, Metricus Brano, just about all a' the Split clans if, for no other reason, than they make perfect sense to me. I understand 'em and they, at least, would never bother whinin'
at me cos they lost a fight that they picked in the first place. Hell! Even, and I can't even believe I'm about to say this but, again, Abmanckusset and the Paranid clans were, if not polite, at least willin' to acknowledge reality and... kinda... play nice. Abmanckusset and I were able to come to an agreement in which I'll sell him... err... it?
Bloody hell! What frackin' pronoun do you use when dealin' with a race that has, I shit you not, NINE bloody genders? Well, considerin' the bass of its voice I may just stick with 'he' and 'him'. You know, unless he pisses me off. In which case I'll probably borrow from Chief Jonzac's vocabulary.
But anyway! The big three-eyed bastard played nice, voted my way and even gave me a very useful present; namely a list of Paranid shot-callers what may help me convince the Paranid Empire that I'm useful and should be let into Paranid core sectors...
Heh heh heh.
Yeah. Would you believe I'm considerin' it?
It'd be nice to be able to build and supply advsat factories, which all need those Paranid space gems for reasons that no one has bothered to explain to me. And I do like those hornet missiles of theirs. And openin' up more markets for my traders is a potential plus...
So yeah. That's a solid maybe.
But those frackin' Teladi! They just don't get it. They. Attacked. Me. Then, in council, these obnoxious, connivin' little goblins try to extort me for...ahem!
I can't even say it. F-f-fuh... okay hold on. I'll get there. F-fuh! Fruh! Hoo..! Fuh-ree!
Hooo! I mean holy shit, right?!
Yeah. So like I said, before that particular bit a' insanity I was busy tryin' to control my temper and NOT threaten the lot of 'em with the consequences of earnin' my ire, which basically means moderate nuclear annihilation and heavily armed psychopaths stormin' their ships and stations. After THAT, though? I mean these greedy little lizards had the audacity to demand that I give
of all things AFTER they attacked and tried to kill and steal from me and mine.
It was okay, though.
It was good.
I kept my cool.
I didn't get mad or threaten' 'em or anythin'.
I just laughed in their faces.
HAAAA-hahahaha! Hooo-wee! I tell ya! It was quite the moment. I don't think those Clan Leaders liked it, actually. I mean there I was standin' in that pretentious and overly dramatic council chamber of theirs, with the fires and the darkness and them hidin' in their little thrones pretendin' that I couldn't see 'em... and I was laughin' so hard that tears were rollin' down my face! I mean I laughed so hard that I gave myself a stitch in my left side. Which sucked cos that bloody rib still hasn't healed from when Ricky kicked my ass. But yeeah! It was too good! For a few moments the only sounds in that whole place was the fires burnin' and me laughin' so hard that I nearly gave myself a hernia!
It was right about then that Thane decided to intervene, I'm guessin' in order to prevent the Teladi from doin' somethin' stupid like, you know, givin' me a reason to nuke the rest of 'em
. Not sure why he bothered, though. They're all obviously still takin' their cues from Huritas and, in the not too distant future, I'm gonna make a point a' huntin' that scaly bitch down. Maybe I'll chop her into kibble and feed her to my dog. Hell maybe I'll mount her head on a plaque and give it to Thane. He can hang it in that museum where he lives, in one the vacant spots Ricky left behind after she had him set fire to the man's treasures. Yeeah. I guess I just wasn't really feelin' that whole 'play nice and make friends' bit. Fortunately Thane is pretty good at makin' that pack a' mongrels dance to his tune. 'Sides, without Huritas the rest a those Teladi are kinda toothless.
Wanna hear somethin' strange, though? And, by "strange" I mean mildly to excruciatin'ly terrifyin'
dependin' on how long I think about it.
Wen Digo voted in my favor... and he did it with a smile
. Motherfrakker stepped into the firelight so I could get a good look at him and, lemme tell ya, I think that guy scares me more'n Ea't does. I'm not sure if it was just Thane's anxiety rubbin' off on me or what but lookin' into that guy's eyes was just... yeah I don't even know what to compare it to. It felt like one a' those moments when you wake up in the middle of the night just SURE that your nightmare followed you out of the dream and that you're about to die horribly in the jaws of some half-seen monstrosity with foot long teeth and... yeah-okay I'm gonna stop now. Gotta preserve my dignity in case anybody ever listens to this shit.
Right. So where was I? Oh.. yeah.
So, to the surprise of absolutely no one and the endless irritation of the Teladi clans I have now been officially
recognized as a Yaki Clan Leader.
Eri lifted her head and then, when she was confident that nothing else was on its way up, closed the toilet lid. Her guts, normally as cast iron as her pilots accused her of being, felt as slick, slimy and churning as the hold of a prosperous fishing boat. Her mind just kept trying to tell her something that she couldn't, wouldn't
accept. It was that scent; that scent that should have been on a beach a hundred thousand light years away, mixed with suntan oil and campfire smoke and the clean salt air of southern California. Eri had been catching it everywhere as if its owner was just down the corridor, just in the next room, just behind her, right next to her and close enough to reach out and touch. Only it couldn't be. It COULD NOT be. And yet there it was.
Eri moaned and felt her guts heave again.
Once, during the night, she'd started awake sure that she'd just heard an angry whisper from beside her rack. "What are you DOING here, Eri?"
And even before she opened her eyes she could smell that scent in the air, so close that her heart ached with need and loss. And her mind, barely awake and free from the leash that her conscious mind imposed upon it, had been surprisingly adept at connecting the dots.
"Once you have eliminated the impossible," she quoted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (via Sherlock Holmes), "whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
She took a breath and exhaled heavily. Then she bent over the tiny, stainless-steel sink to wash her face and rinse her mouth out. The water tasted of metal, ionization, and electrolytes. She inhaled slowly and focused her mind on an imaginary horizon. After several breaths she felt her guts settle a little. She closed the tap with a quick swat and then turned and exited the little water closet.
She'd been trying not to face the truth but it was undeniable. It didn't make any sense and she didn't WANT it to make sense. She didn't want to believe it. She WANTED it to be impossible. But, when she got out of the way, it was the only conclusion that made any sense. But now what did she do?
'Don't you mean: who do you betray?'
It was a vicious, hateful whisper from the depths of her mind. To Eri that whisper sounded very familiar and just a tad intoxicated. She groaned.
Beyond her office the sound of impact hammers, bellowing deck hands, and roaring planes announced the changing of the CAP. Eri glanced at the clock on the wall. It read 20:03. She sighed bitterly. She didn't even know where the day had gone. She'd been stunned motionless while the world swirled around her. Her squadron leaders came and went, dropped off their reports, asked their questions and accepted their orders. Out on the hangar deck planes were refueled and resupplied. The hands on the clock marched ever onward and now the day had wound down. The majority of the Necromancer's crew had likely made their way to the galley or to their racks or to some hidden, secret places where they could find a few moments of stolen privacy. All while Eri stood still and wrestled with a dilemma that she could share with absolutely no one.
From her office Eri could hear the standby pilots yelling in the pilot's lounge directly below her. There was a quality to their excitement that told her that they were watching a game and that at least one of them was rooting for one of the teams. She snorted remembering one of the worst fights she'd ever seen aboard a deployed ship. The Lex had been on a lengthy patrol of the system. One night when they were way out in the Kuiper belt a game was up on the big screen. When deployed no one got to see any live news. Everything was reviewed before the crew was exposed to it. During the game one of the pilots, a spiteful little prick named Ed Vacca who'd heard the news from a family member, had spoiled the game for the rest by revealing the outcome. It had taken six of the ship's master-at-arms to break up the fight that followed.
She took another breath and stepped behind her desk. She was distantly aware that in all likelihood Drakhar had just been made the newest of the Yaki Clan Leaders. She was so worked up by the conclusion her brain kept trying to make that she didn't even care. Instead her eyes were locked on the tiny piece of plastic on her desk; a lollipop wrapper decorated with tiny lettering and rainbows.
"What the hell am I gonna do?" she whispered.
She looked around her office and sighed again. She didn't know what else to do but to call it a day. Which meant little more than sitting around waiting for whatever was going to happen next in her tiny stateroom instead of in her tiny office. She shook her head and reached for the button that would put the local computer terminal in sleep mode. Just as her finger touched the button the icon for her inbox flashed. She glanced at it and saw that there was now a tiny '1' added to the icon, indicating an unread message. After a moment she opened her inbox... and reeled as if she'd just been punched in the face.
Yeah. I think all that really means is that now I have to attend those goddamn council sessions and cast a vote every now and then. Oh, and that I now have actual RIGHTS and that, if one of these other mongrels comes after me I can... err... do what I've already been doin'. Aah! Hell if I know. Thane sent a book over. Yaki law.
I suppose I should get around to readin' it sometime. Course I'll prolly just make Legion do it. Hell. He's prolly already done so, now that I think about it. I'll ask him to keep me informed of the bloody law when it becomes relevant. Not that I'll do anythin' different, a'course. I'll just be well informed regardin' which laws I'm breakin.
Right. Now you'd think that that particular achievement woulda been cause for a celebration. And I suppose it was but-ah... yeah. There were other things, immediate and life threatenin' things, that needed tendin' to.
Short version? Legion managed to locate the assassin Gil warned us about. Oh, and Chinomu had a REALLY bad night.
The mail was from a generic temporary account with nothing but a number to indicate the identity of its author. The subject, however, was about as personal as it could be. It read: 'TRAITOR'. Eri felt her blood run cold and a slow wave of nausea rolled upward and outward from behind and below her navel. Her skin was suddenly slick, cool, and several sizes too tight. Her knees buckled and she distantly felt her ass collide with the chair behind her.
As if of its own accord her hand reached out and touched the icon to open the message. An instant later she recoiled as dozens upon dozens of windows opened in a cascade of diagonal piles across her monitor like cards being spread out on a table. The one at the very top, facing her like an accuser, was a news article with the title: DECORATED USC PILOT GOES ROGUE. Beneath the title and framed by columns of text was a picture of her in full dress uniform. She was smiling. Her eyes were bright and youthful. A single Lieutenant's bar was pinned to either collar.
Her eyes narrowed and she bared her teeth. She remembered the morning when that picture had been taken. She'd just been promoted and her plans for the evening involved a brand new club that had just opened near the base and a brand new lover to explore it with. And her plans for the weekend involved spending time with her favorite ten year old in the whole wide universe. Her eyes dropped to the body of the story. It was about a madwoman who'd opened fire on a civilian transport, killing fifteen hundred innocents out of anti-AGI paranoia. She reached out and closed the window with a snarl. The window immediately behind it read: DELUSIONAL PILOT DESTROYS PASSENGER TRANSPORT. 1500 DEAD. The one after that: THE MADNESS OF FEAR. The one after that: BE AWARE. BE VIGILANT.
She closed page after page with a trembling hand. The majority of them showed her picture, often in uniform. In one of them she was grinning ear to ear while climbing out of her first rapier. In another she was shoulder to shoulder with her squad from the Lex. In every one she saw a light in her eyes, a simple contentment in the set of her face and the easy confidence of doing what she was born to do. It hurt to see it. She could almost remember what it felt like to be that woman; fighter pilot, officer, leader, respected member of the United Space Command and, at least in one little girl's eyes, a hero.
Each new page hit like a kick to the gut. They were chronological. The first articles being from within days of her disgrace. Later articles showed pics of her friends and associates and often linked to video of an actual interview. They included questions like, "So did you ever see this coming?" and "Did you ever suspect Lieutenant Chinomu of harboring such paranoid beliefs?" and "Were there any warning signs?" and "Do you think more could have been done to avert this tragedy?"
She closed article after article until, suddenly, she was looking at a black and white picture. In it an elderly man and woman were stepping out of the front seat of a hover car while a middle aged woman and a young girl climbed out of the back. The photographer had surprised them. She could see the shock on her grandfather's face and knew that, an instant later, his expression would have hardened into anger. Her grandmother, on the other hand, was looking directly at the camera and Eri knew she was about to blister the fool's ears for him. Her mother, however, looked stunned and, judging by her posture, Eri knew that she'd been drinking. But it was Yomi that incited the sudden sob in her breast and the hot tears in her eyes.
Yomi had always been a smiling, happy child; a mischievous little sprite with a gentle heart and radiant spirit; a girl that would dance into the room twirling about a newly sprouting flower or pretty flowing ribbon or a picture that she'd drawn, or some bit of news that adults simply dismissed but which she found wondrous. In the photo that Yomi was nowhere to be seen. Instead a sad-eyed little girl was barely able to lift her head to look in the camera's direction.
"OH!" Eri heard herself cry out. Her fingers tried to touch her sister's face through the holo display. "I-I'm s-sorry!" she wept, barely able to form the words through a sudden onslaught of grief. "Oh! Little b-bird! I-I'm s-SO sorry!"
The window closed by itself. Eri blinked and leaned away from the holo screen. The next window thrust a video at her. It showed a leaden sky looming heavy and grey behind a stand of distant trees. The camera panned down, revealing that the photographer was standing in a graveyard. She heard the wind blowing past the camera's unshielded mic. She heard the photographer sniff, as if in need of a tissue. It was a small, feminine sound. The camera panned down even further and Eri heard herself gasp a single breathless denial. "N-no!"
It was multi-plot grave marker, clean and grey against the grass. Three names were etched into the marble.
~Beloved Father and Grandfather~
~December 24th, 2860-
June 14th 2944~
~Beloved Mother and Grandmother~
~March 18th 2868-
June 14th 2944~
September 5th 2832-
June 14th 2944~
Eri was on her knees. Both of her hands covered her mouth. Her face was wet with tears. She couldn't breathe. The sound escaping her throat was both pitiful and horrific. It was the sound of a grown woman crying like a babe.
The window closed.
Eri recoiled as if she'd just been slapped. She blinked and tried to focus. The next window showed a picture of a baby-blue hover car that had gone off the highway, slid down an embankment and collided with an ancient cedar. The front end was smashed into the cabin. The doors had buckled with the impact. There was blood on the windshield. There was blood on the tree. There was a faded sticker in the lower right corner of the back windshield. It wasn't obvious in the picture, where it just looked like a white smudge in the flash, but Eri knew that the sticker once showed a smiling frog on a lily pad and that it had been affixed by a smiling nine year old girl.
The window closed and Eri reeled again. The next window was a black and white video file. It showed an elevated view of the same car. It took Eri's stunned brain a moment to realize that she was looking at traffic cam footage. In it her mother was behind the extended steering wheel of the car, meaning that she'd overridden the computer in order to manually drive the car. The feed was only thirty seconds long but Eri saw enough to know the woman was shit-faced drunk and that both of her grandparents were trying to make her surrender control of the car to the computer.
She felt her heels dig into the meat of her ass. She stared at the video and listened to her breath hitch in her throat. She felt as if all the stars in the sky were going out one by one. The light was dying and there was nothing but darkness ahead. Then the window closed. In the next was a news article. The title was an accusation.
11,768 USC and ATF PERSONNEL KILLED BY PIRATES.
The picture was worse. It showed the shattered wrecks of several frigates and the photographer had managed to capture several dozen corpses floating in the dark like frozen dolls while rescue and vehicles searched for survivors.
Eri swayed as if she'd just taken a blow to the head.
The window closed.
The next window was a scrolling list of names; eleven thousand seven hundred and sixty eight names. She closed her eyes and nodded. "I know," she whispered. "I know..."
The list of names vanished. A small window opened and a brief series of words flashed and vanished in the center of it.
Eri trembled. She could almost hear the voice asking the question. Her belly trembled but when she spoke her voice was steady. "Why are you
There was no answer.
Eri sighed. Just then her inbox icon flashed. There was no pop-up. Just a new message alert. She frowned but tapped the icon to open the inbox. There was a single new message from Seldon. The subject read: 'Can we talk?'
Eri frowned and stared at the message. It occurred to her then that her computer had already been compromised and that Seldon tended to trust her with details that she might not want to share with the person on the other side of those pop-ups. Which is precisely when the message opened of its own volition.
"Oh shit!" she whispered.
listen. Things got a little tense the other night and I've been thinking that maybe we need to clear the air. Drake's on the Necromancer to meet with H'nt and I'm with him. Crazy Split's doing his mad scientist thing and just had to show the kid what he came up with. Anyway, I should be done in about 20-30 mizura and, once the kid's away, I should be able to get away. You know, if you want to finish that bottle? If so I can meet you wherever. If not, well, frak you too.
Anyhoo, lemme know. - T
The window where the question appeared vanished.
"Wait!" Eri shouted, suddenly on her feet. "WAIT!" She screamed and then stood still to listen. Suddenly she trembled as if someone had just doused her in ice water. Seldon just told the both of them where Drakhar was. "Oh SHIT!"
She lunged for the hatch and, as it opened, wiped her face with the heels of her hands. A moment later she was using the rails on either side of the ladder* to fly down to the deck below. A moment later she was sprinting across the non-skid toward engineering and the ladder up to deck three. Crossing the hangar deck while dodging the deck crew, reaching engineering, maneuvering around the engineers, hauling herself up two ladders while barking at a slowpoke to get a move on, opening the hatch and sprinting nearly three hundred meters up the deck three corridor while managing to dodge more crew members and several cargo sleds before skidding to a halt outside H'nt's workshop took roughly two minutes. As she reached for the call button, however, she froze.
What did she say? What could
'Who you gonna betray, Eri?'
That hateful part of her mind inquired again. It sounded just like her mother.
Her breath trembled across her lips. Her hand was shaking. She lowered her hand from the intercom controls and stepped back. Thirty meters aft two crewmen were having an argument over the origin of meatsteak flavoring while they maneuvered a hover sled around another crewman who'd apparently dropped his laundry. She turned her head and looked forward but the corridor was clear to the next pressure hatch. She didn't know what to do. It felt like a hole had just been punched right through the middle of her and all of her hope, faith, and purpose were collapsing into it. Within her mind's eye she could see the stars going out one by one.
'What do I DO?!'
The two crewmen glanced at her as they passed. One of them was insisting that the flavor the other enjoyed was actually the results of rats getting into the vat while the other was trying to convince herself that the first was full of shit. Eri leaned against the bulkhead behind her while that impossible scent filled her nose. It was different, she realized. The scent had evolved. Where it had once been wreathed with sunlight and flowers, clean linen and potting soil, crayons and marker fumes, horses and little girl laughter it was now woven with ozone, gun oil, clean, healthy, adult sweat. Yet there was no doubt about who that scent belonged to. Eri would know it anywhere. It was so like her own, that scent, as similar and distinct as two of the same flower raised in different gardens.
In that instant, Eri could have screamed. She wanted to. She wanted to throw back her head and howl with grief and rage. She wanted to find the bastards who'd given the order...
"...You will destroy that tango, Lieutenant! Do you hear me?! Destroy that target!! Open fire, Chinomu!!"
... that put her and the owner of this particular scent here on this ship, in this corridor, with all the grim truths that accompanied their situation looming around them.
Just then the hatch in front of her opened and she found herself staring into the emerald green eyes of the Captain of the Necromancer. "Chi-no-MU
?!" H'nt was surprised and reflexively adopted the furious high Split monotone.
"H'nt," she said and then realized she didn't have a clue what to tell him.
"What do here?!" he demanded.
She told him the truth. "I'm looking for Drakhar."
H'nt's eyes became green fire. He would require an explanation. But what did she tell him? What could
she tell him? She shook her head and actually tried to smile. That scent was in the corridor with her. It was close enough for Eri to know that it's owner was listening. "Nevermind," she said and started to walk away.
H'nt stepped into the corridor and allowed the hatch to close behind him. "Ericka Chinomu," he called to her. She turned and looked back over her shoulder. He was watching her with an unreadable expression. "Port cargo hold," he said.
She stared at him for a moment with her mouth open. For an instant they stared at each other. Then H'nt turned away and began making his way forward, presumably to the lift. She shuddered. Split were nearly impossible to read but there was a sudden settling in her guts and her mind showed her another star going dark. An instant later she realized that she was less than a hundred meters from the forward most deck 3 access points to the multi-level holds in the center of the ship. A bolt of icy adrenaline kicked her in the guts and she turned and set off toward the cargo hold at a dead sprint.
The Necromancer's cargo holds were enormous compartments with fluctuating segregations composed of force fields, nano-walls and, often, enormous stacks of crates containing everything from food and potable water to ship to ship missiles. The compartments themselves were divided, much like the hangar deck, by emergency hatches that would close in the event of a hull breach, loss of pressure, fire, or atmospheric contamination. For the most part, however, the holds were enormous spaces that could, and regularly were, filled with hundreds of thousands of tons worth of goods to be used or traded. Eri reached the first of the deck three access points, palmed the hatch controls, stepped through and...
There was a sudden, deafening thud!
and the world leapt sideways. Darkness swallowed the light and small, brilliant specks of color filled the void. She was distantly aware of a voice, of hands searching her person and then taking hold of her by the armpits, of being dragged and then there was a sudden, chafing sting of plastic cutting into her wrists as her hands were secured behind her back. "Uhnnn!" she groaned. Immediately afterward a wad of cloth was pressed between her teeth. She blinked and tried to resist but she was still stunned and the rag was shoved back into her mouth. Before she could work it out of the back of her throat another was pulled taught between her teeth and tied at the nape of her neck. She thrashed and searched for her attacker but saw nothing, not even the leg and knee resting on the side of her neck.
'What the FRAK?!'
Erie roared behind the gag. The knee vanished and Eri thrashed to roll over and look behind her. The strips of plastic binding her wrists behind her immediately snagged tight. She heard several more of the tiny plastic tics!
informing her that all she'd done was cinch her bonds even tighter. She wasn't just bound; she was bound to
something. Eri turned her head and rolled her eye to look over her left shoulder. There was an exposed pipe on the bulkhead behind her. Eri snarled and searched again for her assailant but there was nothing to be seen. Only the woman's smell was apparent.
~Sweat. Ozone. Silicon. Gun oil. The sweet smell of grape candy.~
Eri screamed behind her gag. She thrashed and heaved against her restraints. The cuffs cinched even tighter. They were now cutting into her flesh. 'Slow down, woman,'
she chided herself. 'Get your head in the game.'
She blinked. It was hard to think through the bright, throbbing pain at the back of her head. She'd been hit on the spine at the very top of her neck. Her vision was still blurry and spattered with floating stardust. 'I need to see my hands,'
she thought. 'Okay,'
she nodded. 'I can do this.'
She contracted her belly and pulled her hips forward. Simultaneously she reached downward, trying to slide her ass past the cradle the cuffs made between her wrists. It wasn't easy. She had to work one butt-cheek at a time while rolling between her side and back. 'God damn it woman!'
she cursed herself. 'Just had to have that extra pastry every morning, didn't you?!'
With a snarl and a lurch she got her left cheek through the cradle... and then instantly panicked. 'Oh HELL no! I am NOT stuck!'
With a feral yowl she heaved her shoulders toward her pelvis while holding the longest crunch she'd ever attempted. She felt several of her abdominal muscles spasm and another tried to cramp. She flailed her left foot and caught something on the wall. It was barely a tiny rise off the wall but it was enough to provide momentary leverage.
Eri screamed into her gag and lunged into an even more violent crunch... and her right cheek slid past the cradle. Her hands were now behind her hamstrings. 'Oh frak me!'
she cursed inside her head. 'That's it. No more pastries and I start...'
she heard the end of that thought and froze. She'd nearly promised herself that she would go running with Seldon every morning. At which point she found herself staring at that lightless sky again. All the stars were going out. She thought of her mother with a perpetual drink in hand and a sour, angry sneer on her face. She thought of her Grandfather, the strongest and most stoic man she'd ever known. She thought of her Grandmother, tiny, prim, proper yet with a mischievous twinkle in her eye and an endless supply of bawdy stories to tell. The sudden emptiness was so heavy that it was physically painful. Eri sobbed behind her gag as fresh tears burned in her eyes.
Then, suddenly, she felt as if the old lady were right there; right in front of her and staring down at her pitiful granddaughter who was, just then, tied up in a knot of her own making. Eri could feel the woman's strength, her pride, and her... faith
. Eri felt as if she were staring into the old woman's eyes and the woman was willing
her to know something, to KNOW...
..."I believe in you."
Eri was suddenly still. It was a whisper in her heart, a memory from long ago. Yet it was as warm as sunlight.
Eri gasped. The deck was cold under her shoulders. The air was cold and smelled of rubber, ozone, and CO2 scrubbers. She was on a pirate warship in a hidden sector impossibly far from home. There was a war between the commonwealth and Sol and she'd taken refuge with the enemy. Her family had been destroyed and the people she loved were dead and gone.
'Not all of them,'
she thought and clamped her teeth down on the rag in her mouth. She looked down at her hands and began wiggling her legs through the cradle between her wrists. In a few seconds she pulled one boot and then the other through. Then she took a good look at the cuffs that bound her hands. They'd been threaded around a pipe. Eri clenched her jaw and immediately began working her hands up and down to drag the plastic of the cuff back and forth on the pipe. She was even in luck. There was a threaded coupler less than a meter off the deck and, after she got her knees underneath her she was able to use her abdominals to yank the plastic cuffs over the threads and raised surface of the joint. In moments she was yanking the severed bits of plastic off her wrists and pulling the gag over her head. She spat the bit of wadding out of her mouth and then tried to take stock of her situation.
The holster under her right arm was empty. She'd been disarmed. She was on deck three, which put her on the cargo hold's second story catwalk. The hold itself was cavernous, broken by temporary walls and enormous stacks of cargo crates all or which were neatly arranged to permit a crewmember to visually inspect each and every manifest with a minimum of effort. The compartment was lit from both above and below. Paths for crew and lift trucks were marked by running lights in the deck. Yet, because of the size of the compartment, and the mountains of cargo within it, there were many shadows.
Eri's eyes narrowed as she tasted the air. That scent was there to be followed. If she had a canine's sense of smell she'd have been able to track it effortlessly. Instead she simply caught random whiffs on the shifting currents of the hold. Two levels below, through the grating of the catwalk, a lift truck whirred along, entering from the rear of the hangar deck. As she watched, the driver expertly lifted the clamp, took hold of a crate of silkworm missiles and removed it from the stack in front of him before backing up, performing a smooth one eighty and heading back the way he'd come all as a single, continuous action. She shook her head and began moving aft.
The catwalk was a suspended platform for maintenance and troubleshooting. The ship's teleportation technology was capable of loading and stacking cargo while force fields, temporary nanite walls and, sometimes, good old fashioned straps and netting were used to prevent shifting during maneuvers. Despite the tech, however, it was often necessary a crewmen to get close and make hands-on adjustments or repairs to either the cargo or the ship's automated systems. Hence the catwalk.
Eri thought, 'it also makes for a damn good sniper's nest.'
She was perhaps one hundred meters aft of the hatch she'd used when she heard a man speaking. She couldn't make out what he was saying. Engineering was just aft of the hold and the hangar deck was just forward. The ambient noise wasn't quite deafening but it was more than enough to obscure a single human voice a few dozen meters away. Even so there was something in the tone and cadence that Eri associated with her employer but, because of both the noise and the many obstructions to her line of sight, she couldn't be sure. After another twenty meters aft she made a right on the grid-like catwalk and moved toward the centerline of the compartment. As she did she cleared a mountain of crates to her left and suddenly stopped, agape, at the sight below her.
Perhaps a fifty meters aft and two levels below her position the man was standing in the middle of a wide aisle. He had something like a racquetball in his hand and was bouncing it off the deck and a nearby cargo container while, apparently, talking to himself. He was lit by both the overheads and the running lights and clearly silhouetted against the aisle and crates behind him. Which made him an easy target for an even halfway decent marksman.
she thought. 'He's a MORON! What the hell are you doing you idiot?!'
There was an open cargo container beside him but he wasn't paying it any attention. He was just bouncing his ball and, she guessed, talking to someone through the subdermal communicator he was equipped with. What was worse was that he was completely alone.
'Where the hell are your guards, you fool!'
she demanded of him and shook her head. 'Of all the bone-headed, brainless, irresponsible..! What the hell is wrong with you?! You KNOW there's an assassin on this ship!'
Eri suddenly felt cold. Her skin suddenly seemed clammy, slick and too bloody tight all at the same time. The instant the thought went through her mind she understood. And, just then, she turned her head to look to her right.
The air filtration system on the Necromancer was adequate. It certainly wasn't the worst ship she'd ever been on. But there were priorities. The command levels, engineering, and the hangar deck were all high priorities. After that the ship would prioritize the people spaces; residential compartments, the galley, lounge, etc. Cargo holds, however, weren't considered terribly important. So there was a fair amount of particulate suspended in the air. Eri would have guessed that it was comprised of dust from the machine shop several frames forward, all the dust tramped out of engineering which was just aft, and the odd bit of dust and detritus that clung to cargo crates and containers as they made their rounds throughout the universe. As a consequence the shadows around her possessed a silvery hue and slight glare because of the slight clouds of dust in the air. Out of the corner of her eye Eri saw one of a patch of that dusty fog move under an overhead light. It was just a slight swirling in the airborne particulate but that movement was against the breeze
as if someone had just moved along the catwalk at her two o'clock and taken cover behind a mountain of crates containing meatsteak cahoonas.
Eri shifted her weight onto the balls of her feet and began moving cautiously toward the author of that movement. She kept her head down and tried to keep the mountain of meatsteak cahoonas between her and her target, who she believed was on the catwalk just beyond them. She crept forward to the railing and then froze, searching the shadows and fog as intently as she could. Below her Drakhar was still talking to himself and bouncing his ball against the floor and cargo container. She was distantly aware of him laughing.
Just then her eyes picked out what she was looking for and she froze like a rabbit catching a raptor's shadow. It was just a shimmer in the air like the haze above an open flame, but it was a shimmer with contours
. It was also less than three meters away. From the corner of her eye she could make out the shape of a lithe figure, lying prone on the top of one of the meatsteak cahoona crates. She could also make out the shape of a long-barreled rifle. Thirty five meters to her left Drakhar threw back his head and laughed. At that exact moment Eri heard the almost imperceptible whine of the rifle's capacitors charging.
"NO!" Eri heard the word before realizing it was her that was shouting. She leapt forward and threw her arms up both to block the shot and get the woman's attention. "DON-Uhn!"
There was a flash of light and something punched her just where her chest met her shoulder. A moment later the world was spinning. She saw the cargo hold whirl around her. The catwalk railing leapt up and under her. She saw the mountain of crates. She saw Drakhar running across the deck below. His face was pale with shock. Then there was darkness.
The next thing she was aware of was the screaming. It was far away but insistent. There was a huge, blunt pain just below the left side of her jaw and a wicked ache just beside her left breast. Between those two pains was just fire. An image screamed through her mind of a planet ablaze with the impact of a meteor. She smelled cooking meat and it was hard to breathe. She could see her employer's chest and jaw above her.
"Dra-Dra...!" she gasped, needing him to hear. He didn't look at her. "Dra...!" She tried to scream his name but could only wheeze and stutter. "Dra...!" She needed to speak. She needed them to know... before it was too late.
Her mind recoiled. Her head spun. 'Too late!'
It was a panicked scream inside her mind. She crushed it with a snarl. She reached out and clutched at his shirt. She saw her right hand in front of his face. He brushed it aside. She could see him shouting, barking orders to someone. She needed him to look at her. She needed him to hear before it was too late. So she gathered her strength and her will and screamed. "Dra-KHAAAR!"
Her employer met her eyes. There was a kind of horror
in his gaze. he'd never looked at her that way before. It made him look very young.
"D-Don't!" She stammered. "D-d-don't!"
"Hey! Hey!" he shushed her. "It's gonna be alright. Just hang in.."
She clutched at his bloody shirt. "D-don't...!" She made a fist around the cloth of his shirt. "D-don't...!"
He took her hand in his and held her eye. She opened her mouth to say more but the darkness was too close. Warmth and consciousness rushed out and took her with it. She heard Drakhar. "I NEED A MEDIC!"
She blinked. The sweat on her brow was cold and the air moving across her skin felt like ice. The darkness beckoned.
she fought it. She had to stay awake! "Yo-mi...!" she gasped.
Suddenly there were hands upon her. They brought waves from a sea of pain to crash upon her shores. A familiar voice, gentle and forgiving. "Damn girl!" It was Seldon. It was Seldon and there was kindness in the woman's voice. "That looks like it hurts."
That kindness was worse than any injury. Eri was instantly in tears. She looked for her friend's eye and tried to answer. She could only whisper. "It d-AAAAAIIIEEEeeee-Hai-hayeee!"
The ocean hurled a tsunami of flame upon her. The sun rose behind her eyes. She swooned, lost in the ocean that had come to drown her. Then she heard Seldon again. "Oh, don't be such a baby," her friend chided her. "Unless you WANT all my marines to think you're a pussy."
"What the frak...!" Eri gasped. It seemed like she was looking up from the bottom of a well. She met the other woman's eye. She felt simultaneously hurt, angry... and like laughing
in the other woman's face. "Can't you see I'm... dyin'
here...?" She giggled at her own joke. She was suddenly afloat in a sea of a different kind. It was red and gold and sooo sweet...
"AAAAOOW!!" She roared as bright pain lanced across her cheek. Eri blinked and glared at face of the marine above her. Seldon grinned back at her. It was the same old grin, the 'Seldon Special', but Eri suddenly saw it an entirely
different light. That smile was the glare
on Seldon's shield. It was the gleam
at the tip of her sword! Eri saw it. She saw the BRILLIANCE of it! It was like a blazing star in the sky that had recently been so dark...
She felt it just on the other side of the fragile world around her; empty and endless; the whole of the universe held within it... every planet, star, galaxy and supercluster, every atom of stardust hurtling through the void at astronomical speeds pretending, for just a moment, to be a woman, a warrior, a guardian...
"It's your light," she whispered to Seldon. "The light at the... wash
... of your wave..."
"AAAAAOW!!!" she roared. "God DAMN it, Seldon!"
"Hey." Seldon whispered at her and Eri met her eyes. "Eri? You need to listen. I'm your friend and you need to hear me. Okay? Eri? Eri, you need to fight
! Do you understand me, bitch? You need to fight for your frakking life right here and right now."
Eri met the other woman's eye and saw the darkness there. She understood it. Didn't Seldon get it? It was the black that held the light. It was herself. It was the blackness at the center and circumference of all things. It was the void looking back at her through the other woman's eyes. She felt herself rushing outward into it... and it felt good.
"AAAAOW!" Eri bellowed. The repeated blows had started a ringing in the center of her head. She could hear it echoed in the air around her. She glared black hate at the other woman. "STOP. HITTING
Seldon grinned at her. It was one of the most terrifying things Eri had ever seen. Behind the light, behind the glare and the gleam and the singing, screaming light at the wash of the wave there was utter and complete blackness. "Then stop bloody well trying to die on me, bitch." Seldon's voice was as bright and deadly as her smile.
Eri blinked. 'What?'
she asked, hearing her voice echo in the dark. 'What do you mean?'
Seldon looked away. She was yelling at someone. There was a great commotion nearby and Eri knew it was important but she felt like just a tiny thing, like a leaf, adrift on a great and terrible ocean. She felt herself slipping... and suddenly understood.
The thought was a bolt of lightning. 'I'm dying!'
the thought was ice. An instant later she was trembling, shaking, feeling the slick, hard, sharp, patterned surface of the deck plates digging into the flesh covering her spine and right shoulder blade. She was staring out across an endless field of patterned steel as it drowned beneath the ruby-black pool of her own spreading blood.
"C-cold!" she gasped and her breath was as dry as bones in the desert. Her breath was fluttering in her throat. All around her the world looked like a watercolor painting that someone had tried to paint on the surface of a pool. She could see the stardust floating in the void. The darkness held the light and the light roiled and undulated like clouds. Infinite planes and possibilities danced right before her eyes. Yet within and around them, holding all within the singular emptiness of it's eternal presence, was the black, the void, the endless singular mind looking through every single set of eyes. It was waiting for her.
she wept. 'Oh no!'
It was true. 'I'm really dying!'
Her eyes swept the faces around her. Seldon. A pair of marines. Drakhar barking orders like Aries on the battlefield.
'But why is he so close?'
She tried to follow his hands while his warm breath moved over her cold, damp flesh. Blood. There was blood on his hands. His sleeves were soaked.
She shook with sudden grief. "YOMI!" She heard her sister's name erupt from her lips. 'LITTLE BIRD!'
There were tears on her cheeks.
She willed her eyes to Drakhar's face. He was shouting at someone. Others were shouting around and back at him. His eyes turned back to Seldon and then, as he noticed her, directly into Eri's soul. Those eyes were as pitiless and cold as arctic ice and empty skies but there was something new as well, as if the sun was turning ice to gold.
The darkness swelled behind her and Eri reached for him with her eyes. "...d-d-don't k-kill h-h-her-er...!" She wanted to seize him but couldn't. "...p-puh-plee-eese!"
She could see the black behind his eyes; endless, eternal, singular and pitiless. "Look," he commanded her and directed her eyes to a strange sight. A woman's left arm lay upon the bloodied deck plates. It was wearing a flight officer's uniform and was blasted free at the shoulder. Eri could see the burned and blasted remains of meat and bone. The anterior deltoid was charred and blackened and had pulled away from the end of the humerus which gleamed brilliant white between the burned and shrivelled meat. Eri shuddered as her thoughts rushed away from her.
Her own voice shrieked within her mind. 'It's my LEFT! My SMART hand is lying in a pool of MY blood on the deck plates... just... OVER... THAAAAYRE..!'
Eri heard herself wail as she wrenched her eyes away. She snarled as she sought Drakhar's face again. He peered back, still and cold and completely, utterly present with her. "Do you still
want me to spare her?" he asked.
"Yes!" There was no hesitation and Eri was instantly grateful for it. "Yes! P-please!"
Her breath was too shallow and pain was black teeth biting with every shallow, gasping breath. The darkness was endless behind her and her light was rushing forth. She wanted to fall outward. The black was cold but the light was warm... like a late summer evening...
"Why?" the question was as cold and threatening as a bare blade. Eri blinked and met his frozen eyes again.
Eri willed herself to hold the man's gaze. 'She's m-my suh-SIS-ter!'
Drakhar never so much as blinked. He was very close to her now. She could smell him, young and strong and vital. She could feel the heat radiating from the open top of his shirt. His breath was a hot wind. His eyes never left hers and, after a moment, he nodded. A wave of relief flooded over her. Her sister would be safe.
"I'm here! I'm here!" a young man's voice rushed closer.
"Give it to me," Seldon barked at him. Then, to Eri, "you're gonna be okay. You hear me?" There was a prick on the skin of her neck. "You're gonna be fine."
Seldon's voice was like sunlight on a cold day. Eri sought her face. Everything was glowing. There was light everywhere. It was so beautiful.
"Oh hey," Seldon leaned in close and skewered her with a stare. "Just," her eyes opened wide and her eyebrows rose toward her hairline, "whatever you do?"
Hearing Seldon's voice was soothing. It felt warm and safe and made Eri want to cry. Her friend had forgiven her. She wasn't alone. Yomi was...
"Hey bitch! You better be frakkin' listening to me! You need to stay away from that goddamned light
! You hear me? Seriously, girl. You die on me'n I'm gonna have to whoop that ass."
Then, quiet and ominous, close as a lover whispering in her ear. "Aye," Drakhar growled like a wolf at her throat. "You can't die, Chinomu. Cos if you do?" he growled, every bit as menacing and sincere as a naked blade. She sought his eyes and found them. They were as bright as the winter sky. "I'm gonna ship your sister back to the Wakiya in six. Separate. Boxes."