|Forum Home > Now This Ain't No Frak > Let's make a deal. (part 4)|
At long last, I got it into a shape that I'm mostly happy with. Hope it meets with everyone's approval.
James used minimal thrusters and took extra care while making his final approach. He wanted to take the time to look at the Resolve through the shuttle pod's windows.
It hung below him, looking frozen in the crystal darkness of space because of matched velocities.
His ship, James' ship. His home. His livelihood. His true love.
James had bought her right after graduating from flight school on Mars. It had been an ordeal scraping up the funds. He hadn't done anything illegal in the process… although the authorities might say otherwise. He'd only sold access to his trust fund and various insurance policies to other people who had then faked the appearance of James' death in order to claim the benefits. It had been the only way he could afford even an old Pelican light freighter.
She'd been built in 2224, but James had had her old nameplates removed and her transponder flashed without even looking. As far as he was concerned, she'd been new-built when he christened her the Resolve. Her frame might have been ancient, but it was solid, and her primary engine assembly and reactor were both less than five years old, and in good repair. And James poured his heart into making sure he and his crew kept her running smoothly.
She was his freedom. His escape from a cage that he'd never been able to see or explain to his friends or family, but that he'd always felt just the same. She had given James everything that he had in his life, everything that he'd dreamed.
And in return…
James looked down at the cylinder cradled in his lap. It was made of cool metal, as wide as James' fist and twice as long. And it was indistinguishable from the one James had been given in the Golden Tong diner. Hell for all James knew, it was the same cylinder. But it meant something different now.
He picked it up in one hand and squeezed, as if hoping he could crush the thing and thereby make it never have existed. But it was much too solid for that.
James looked up again. Out the window. At his ship.
…there was nothing he would not do for her.
* * *
Of course, there was the matter of the people inside James' ship.
"What happened, Captain?"
The question greeted James the very moment the shuttle pod's hatch opened. No welcome back, no applause, no sigh of relief. Half of the Resolve's crew was squeezed into the corridor, a look of anxiety on every face.
The pit at the bottom of James' stomach deepened, and he nearly vomited right there. What was he supposed to tell them? "I'm sorry, but we got pinched and now we're working as double agents for ImpSec?" Some of his crew despised the Empire as much as James; they'd never accept his deal with Ian. But his mind rebelled at the thought of keeping them in the dark.
James looked at each of them in turn. They'd been through some desperate scrapes before. Their lives had been in danger on more than one occasion, and it was only because they had been able to depend on each other that any of them were alive at all. That took trust, the absolute faith that your partners were both capable and doing their damndest for their own sake and for you.
Was this any different? The crew had all signed up knowing they would be performing shady, dangerous work. But taking jobs from crime bosses and unscrupulous port administrators was different from taking sides in political conflicts. Taking the original K'Nes job had been bad enough. Betraying the cats to the Empire would cross a line.
Ian had said the cats would never even know anything had changed. Could James actually trust Ian anymore? The thought of not being able to trust even his oldest friend made James dizzy.
"Captain?" Stephen Faraday, the Resolve's chief engineer, reached forward as James staggered against a bulkhead. But James waved the man off after bracing himself with one arm.
"Set us on a course back to Phoenix," James said. The words were weak, so he tried to put some steel back into his voice before continuing, "I'd rather not spend any more time here."
He looked at his astrogator. Pritesh Patel hesitated for a moment, then nodded and headed down the corridor towards the bridge.
"Captain?" this time it was one of the TI squad members asking. The youngest one, Hawking.
But James shook his head. "We got the package," he held up the little cylinder for a moment. "That's all that matters right now. And I'll dance a jig once this job is over."
He knew the crew would not be satisfied with this evasion. It was obvious from their glances among each other that they suspected something was going on. But it was also clear that they knew this was the end of the conversation, at least for a moment. Slowly, they all shuffled away back to their stations or their bunks, leaving James in peace.
He closed his eyes and shook his head to clear the last of the dizziness. He still didn't know what he was going to tell them. But right now, it didn't matter. Right now, he was safe again. He was home.
James patted the bulkhead with his hand.
"Almost done," he said. "Just a little further and you'll have some brand new wings. I promise."
The gentle, familiar hum of engines and systems was his ship's only answer.
* * *
Deep within the armored heart of a bunker sunk hundreds of meters into the ground beneath the Imperial Residence was a barren, cavernous room. In the very center of this room, spread upon the unpolished ceramcrete floor, was a shallow pool of greasy black sludge. And in the center of this puddle there stood a woman, gaunt and naked.
The woman's walnut eyes were open, but unfocused and still. Her dark hair hung in unwashed clumps about her shoulders. Thin strings of it clung to the roughly healed scars upon her cheeks. Her wax-gray skin stretched tightly over her bones and withered muscles.
If she was breathing, the motion of her ribs was too slight to be seen. The only sound in the entire room was a tiny, intermittent dripping as beads of grimy liquid congealed upon the woman's skin before trickling into the slime which covered her ankles.
Light speared into the room as a heavy door rolled open at the chamber's edge. A man stepped into the opening, then waited while the door rolled shut behind him. Once the room's dim light had been restored, the man walked towards the middle, stopping only at the very edge of the black pool.
The man was short and more than a little plump. He wore a dark suit and tie, and his brown hair was cropped close to his skull. Lately people had taken to calling him Frane, though this was not his name.
Frane said something into the quiet. His voice was like a knife scraping against glass, and his words echoed within the hollow chamber.
The woman in the pool said nothing.
A few moments later, the door rolled open again. Another man stepped through. He was not much taller than Frane, but was lithely muscled and moved with practiced grace. He made his way across the floor and took a position next to Frane just as the door finished closing behind him.
"We were able to arrange a substitution," the new man said. People called him Lambert, though this was also not his true name. "The K'Nes will receive a healthy specimen."
"Will they believe it is genuine?" Frane asked.
Lambert shrugged. "What does it matter? They can learn nothing useful."
"If they suspect the substitution, they will try again," Frane growled.
Lambert's expression was pure contempt. "Let them. What could they do, even with a true sample?"
"Any suspicion at all is dangerous—"
"Only so long as we insist upon this farce! We don't need to hide the malfunction. We don't need to find a repair. We can simply discard this corpus and replace it with a less troublesome one." He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
At the center of the black pool, the gaunt woman's eyes had suddenly sharpened. She lowered her head, then turned it and her whole body towards the two men. Her joints crackled at the movement, and muck squelched around her feet.
"I will not exchange hosts," she said. Her voice emerged roughly from her throat and her dry tongue smacked against the roof of her mouth. "Not over this trifle."
The others merely looked at her for a few seconds. Then Lambert said, "Your obsession with that carcass is what endangers us all."
"It is essential. The singularity has grown dependent upon its nature."
"So you have claimed," Lambert sneered.
The woman's eyes flitted over his face and even in the darkness her pupils narrowed.
"You disbelieve me."
"I am hardly the only one," he did not cower before her gaze. "Your excuses wear thin. A guardian none of us knew or felt? Willing to defy the nature of its construction? Bonded exclusively to a lone mortal? I find it most implausible."
"You have seen the entity."
"I have seen conjured images and heard whispers tailored to stoke the fears of feeble-minded beasts and mortals. I had believed we were beyond the influence of such trickery and intimidation."
He took a step forward now, into the black puddle. There was a soft hissing noise and smoke rose from the spot where his shoes touched the ooze. Behind him, Frane only watched placidly as he strode onward.
"But I see that you can be provoked by such transparent insinuations" he said. "You have grown too fond of flesh, and now you fear your curse like a common animal fears death. It controls you."
In front of him, the gaunt woman held up a hand. Lambert stopped walking, and his shoes sizzled in place.
"You think that you could wield it, then?" the woman asked. "Would you have me simply hand it over?"
The woman lowered her hand, "It would destroy you."
"How many times have you repeated that empty threat? I have not yet lost my nerve or my mind to believe it."
The woman looked at him for a long time. Then her thin lips curled back to display pale teeth.
She placed her hands on her belly, pinched the papery skin there, and tore. Only a little blood ran from the wound, despite tissue hanging freely in a great flap. She reached a hand inside her abdomen.
It came back out clutching a glassy sphere ten centimeters in diameter. The globe's surface glowed with a faint blue light whose intensity rose and fell in slow pulses.
The woman lifted it to her face and seemed to hesitate for a moment. But then she extended her arm again, offering its contents towards the man who had encroached upon her pool.
Lambert tilted his head for a second, as if surprised to have his demand met so easily. But then hunger began to burn in his eyes and he reached out his own hand to grasp the proffered orb.
For a few seconds, nothing happened, and Lambert merely admired the object's flawless surface, raising it to his nose for a closer look.
Then the sphere glowed brighter. Its blue light turned to white and blazed with all the intensity of a star. Lambert's hand and arm caught fire, and the blaze swiftly engulfed his entire body.
He did not scream, nor did he move. He stood passively as the white flames rose up and consumed him. For the barest instant, the flames contracted into the shape of a woman, tall and proud. She glared with wordless fury at the other, thin and injured woman at the center of the pool. And then her fire flickered out, and she was gone.
The Orb fell with a plop into the dark slime. It kicked up a small shower of droplets, but they did not stick to its surface, did not mar its appearance in the slightest. Both the gaunt woman and Frane simply looked at it for a moment. Then the woman bent over and picked it up with one hand. Without ceremony, she inserted it back into the wound in her stomach, and folded the hanging flesh over the hole. Then she closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath.
The surface of the black pool quivered. It lapped at the woman's feet, and then drew up around her in a swirling vortex. The ooze congealed into ropy tendrils which wrapped around her body until her figure was completely obscured.
And when the dark whirlwind had run its course, the pool was gone, and so was the woman. In their place was a single, broad-shouldered man with a mouth just slightly too wide for his face.
"Have you found a way to repair the sabotage?" Vin Dane asked.
He held up his right hand to his face to inspect. Already, it appeared to be covered in sweat as the Soul Web's particles lost coherence and began to melt away. He set his brow and forced them to hold their appearance using the endless magick available to him.
Frane shook his head, "The damage has gone beyond software by this point. And we don't have the tools to modify or replace the physical particles."
"Can you build the proper tools?"
"It could take years, maybe decades, to recreate the technology. If we had access to the right technical manuals, that might change. But the Horadrim have sealed their networks against us." Frane paused. "I think they have objections to your policies."
"Perhaps we should treat that as a blessing," Dane sneered. "Better they isolate themselves than risk them growing suspicious and becoming a nuisance."
If Frane had been the Human he seemed to be, then he might have shrugged. Instead, he kept still.
"I will make a court appearance tonight," the Holy Terran Emperor said. He flexed his hand, making sure its appearance and movement were appropriate. "Have a replacement for this fool," he gestured at the scorch marks on the floor, "ready for me afterwards."
* * *
"Excellent, Captain Welthammer! Excellent!" Miao K'Rowr Na'Yurr half-purred half-squealed as James handed over his package.
They were aboard Na'Yurr's ship, the Insured Risk. The Miao Assistant Operations Manager had not wanted to meet on Phoenix itself, nor anywhere near the planet. Instead they were three days' burn away from the jumpgate, deep in the system's Oort cloud where no Imperial sensor could identify them nor any probe approach without being noticed itself.
The K'Nes quickly passed the cylinder to one of her assistants, who immediately floated through a hatch and out of the room.
"Did you have any trouble?" Na'Yurr asked sweetly.
James shook his head. "Your contact seemed a little impatient about waiting, but that was all."
He was surprised at how easy the lie came. He'd been afraid that he would be a nervous wreck. But either fear of discovery, or else the number of times he'd practiced this conversation let James get through it without breaking a sweat.
"Well I'm glad to hear it, Captain. Obviously, it's always a risk dealing with someone you don't know. But sometimes there is simply no other choice. I'm always grateful when my less secure investments pay off."
"Right," James tried to smile, but couldn't quite tell if that was the appropriate reaction. "Well then, regarding my payoff…"
"Of course," Na'Yurr opened a drawer of her desk and slid a small data chip across the surface towards James. He picked it up, turned it around between his fingers, and raised an eyebrow.
"You will find your reward in a container at those coordinates, Captain. It shouldn't take you more than another day or two to get there."
"What?" James was taken aback. "You want me to just fly to some blind location and take it on faith that you've dropped a hypergenerator out there? How about your techs install the thing now, before we leave."
Na'Yurr stroked the whiskers on one side of her face as she shook her head. "I'm afraid not, Captain. I've no desire to take any risk of associating myself and my ship with any contraband you may acquire. The Insured Risk will be leaving long before you reach the generator. Don't worry, I can assure you that the Model Four was designed to be quite easy to install. It's almost entirely self-contained, just needs some standard data and power links. Your own engineers should have no problem with it."
"That's assuming it's actually out there at all!" James protested.
The silence from the other side of the desk was deafening. Neither Na'Yurr, nor either of her remaining assistants (both of whom were quite heavily armed) spoke or moved, they even appeared to have stopped breathing. James risked a glance over his own shoulder at Lieutenant Shrak. The stoic infantryman kept his gaze fixed on the empty air in front of him, but he had sucked in his lips.
"Captain," Na'Yurr said after a disturbingly long pause, "I know you may not have dealt with many K'Nes before, so I will forgive what could otherwise be taken as a very grave insult. However, you should know that if one can be certain of anything in this universe, it is that any K'Nes merchant you meet would sooner die than break a contract." She hissed those last words like they were a terrible oath, and both of her assistants visibly shuddered.
"As payment for your service," she said, "you were promised one Model Four Miao Mercantile Hyper Generator. It can be found at the coordinates on that data chip. I give you my absolute guarantee. Both the Nhur Llan and the K'Nes Llan itself will enforce the contract you have signed with me, should you find its terms are not fulfilled."
"Right," James said slowly, "sorry. I suppose I'm just anxious to have the device. I'd hoped it would be mine immediately after delivery."
In an instant, Na'Yurr's demeanor was relaxed and cheerful again. "And I wish I could give it to you directly, Captain! But alas, the nature of our work requires a certain degree of caution, as I'm sure you understand. Nevertheless, I have no doubt at all that you will be satisfied with your reward."
"Hope so," James pocketed the data chip.
The Cat grinned, "It has been a pleasure, Captain. I'll be in touch with you about future opportunities, I am sure."
"Uh, thanks," James stood, as did Shrak behind him. "Though I'm not sure when I'll be out in this part of space again…" He really wanted to get away from the Cats.
"Nonsense, Captain!" Na'Yurr dismissed his reluctance with an airy gesture. "I never let an asset go to waste once it has proven its worth. And despite its quality construction, even the Model Four will need maintenance from time to time. I think it is in both of our best interests to maintain a continuing business relationship."
James had that sinking sensation in his stomach again. He stood in front of the desk awkwardly, unsure of what to say or do.
As he watched Na'Yurr smile, he could not help but notice how very sharp her teeth appeared to be. "Until we meet again," the K'Nes said.
Well, I thoroughly enjoyed that!
It wrapped up the story, but still leaves the reader wanting to know more about the broader picture of the new Imperial universe.
Still looking forward to what happens when James tells his crew. Is Freak part of the crew in this universe?
A K'Nes ship named the Insured Risk? I love it!
I don't recognize who Frane is. Are we supposed to, or is he a new character?
Are the K'Nes suspicious that Vin Dane is a Caal? Or are they wanting a "sample" for other reasons? It's not quite clear what the sample is... the damaged nanobots? A sample of DNA from Vin Dane?
So, Scyr-Dane's Soul Web is malfunctioning? Glad to hear it. It was a bit ambiguous at the end of TI9 if the anti-Soul Web weapon worked or not. Also glad to hear that the Horadrim are not necessarily allies of Scyr-Dane, although the exact nature of their diplomatic relation has yet to be fleshed out. Between that and his broken Soul Web, it makes Scyr-Dane a little less invincible.
The internal Caal politics are interesting. Scyr-Dane seems to be their default leader for now, since he had the Orb. I'm still not sure what their end game is, though.
Great job, keep it up!
Really glad you liked it! I had a lot of fun writing it, but I was worried that I might have tried to do too much with the Caal and the intrigue.
>Still looking forward to what happens when James tells his crew. Is Freak part of the crew in this universe?
I don't think so. Last we saw Freak was with the Golden Ticket crew, and I don't really think I want James to have interacted with that bunch yet. Maybe sometime in the future.
>I don't recognize who Frane is. Are we supposed to, or is he a new character?
Frane is totally new. He was part of what I'd been struggling with in my original drafts, which just had two or three unnamed Caal-possessed Human advisors talking to the Emperor. It got really confusing and lame to keep writing "the figure on the left said", and so I decided that I had to come up with unique names just to keep them straight. I imagine Frane as being something like a Chief of Staff (while Lambert was some intelligence chief or director of ImpSec), but really he's just there to provide exposition. If you want to imagine a more detailed story for him, or kill him, I would not have any objection.
>Are the K'Nes suspicious that Vin Dane is a Caal? Or are they wanting a "sample" for other reasons? It's not quite clear what the sample is... the damaged nanobots? A sample of DNA from Vin Dane?
I guess I didn't make it absolutely explicit, but it's supposed to be a sample of Soul Web nanobots. I figured the K'Nes wanted to follow up on their operation to sabotage Vin Dane's Soul Web, since he wasn't showing any public signs of being affected by it. If they'd gotten a genuine sample of the malfunctioning web, they'd know something weird was going on. So the Emperor's agents went to great lengths to pass on some normal nanobots (possibly harvested from Miro Creed or McNeilly's head). That way, the K'Nes could just think that the operation to deliver the nanobot virus failed.