– 51 –
As she came to, Wendel calmly opened her eyes. She was sitting on the floor, her hands secured to a fixture behind her. Looking to either side, she saw a darkened bunk. Across the room, someone was chained to a wall pipe. “Toller,” she whispered.
Conscious, Toller nodded to her and jutted his chin to the door. Then he jerked his head to one side, indicating something behind him. He wiggled his shoulders and gave her a slow nod.
Wendel smirked and curled her fingers up to examine her bonds. Locking strongfiber loops. He had something that would open these? She watched him shift and work, both of them listening through the quiet.
Bootsteps approached, followed by discussion, then the sound of a key. In came two men wearing grey coveralls off the loading bay. They shut the door behind them and turned on the light.
One walked to Wendel and tilted her face up. Meeting his eyes, she felt a rush of recognition. She had been right about the undercover shipping network. Poke a web at enough points, and the spider comes out to investigate. She only regretted the boy’s involvement.
“This is she. Wendel Harper.” He sucked his teeth. His rough black countenance showed him to be some years older than his associate, and his posture was military. “We’re going to have words about your presence in our doings. Possibly you made an honest mistake or two at the beginning. But now you’re meddling. And we won’t have it, not from you or your group.” Her group.
Wendel’s voice stayed light. “Leanders Aynsdotr. It was your patterns that tipped me off. Pirates and thieves.”
“Call us what you want, we’re not petty.”
“You’re building an interesting stock of materials. What is it you want here at Genesee disaster? You didn’t come all this way for little old me.”
“You know much less than you think you do. Don’t worry, we’ll teach you more about us before the day is over.” He turned to the other man. “Well done. Let’s get them all on board, and we can go.”
She watched Toller in her peripheral vision. Aynsdotr’s lackey stooped to reach the restraints. With unexpected grace, the boy slithered from where he sat, trapping the man’s feet. Toller grabbed his shirt collar, using his arm as leverage to bring him down. The boy kicked him in the head hard enough to knock him out.
Wendel saw Aynsdotr draw his weapon as Toller grabbed the electric baton from the downed man’s belt. The boy flung it across the room into Aynsdotr’s face. In the time it took for him to scream and drop his aim, Toller closed the distance, wielding his broken cuffs like a sap. Rooting his feet, he swung it straight across Aynsdotr’s temple, dropping him to the ground.
Wendel watched Toller pause for the next couple breaths. He blinked and began to search pockets. He withdrew a rectangle key. “Here, this is it.” As he leaned toward her, she caught his gaze with a piercing look. He let her search his eyes, appearing slightly embarassed. Satisfied, she relaxed, leaning away so he could unlock the cuffs.
She stood, rubbing her wrists. “We have to find Leiv, and the others. We have to get off this ship.” Looking at Toller’s puzzled face, she realized she was grinning. She raised her eyebrows and started to laugh.
– 52 –
The four Generals looked from the observation window onto a large patch of space that billowed inward and out. It was defined by a minute fringe of light that only instruments could clearly magnify. The four of them stood transfixed. It caused the mind to chatter in every possible direction.
“You see why it’s been difficult to study, then.” General Ionos of the Libran Federet took a sip of whisky and turned to face the projection dais in the center of the room. The others followed suit, though General Alisandre let his gaze linger on the vortex for another moment. It felt like a familiar puzzle. Just as he turned away, he saw a flash of blue-green aurora.
“We know what you mean now about the ghost ships, the random images.” General Lucay gestured with his glass to the projections, live relays of skewed shipboard readings. “In the course of our approach, instruments reported five bogeys, then twenty-five, then two, then a small fleet. Scout ships found nada while all this occurred. The placemap read the bogeys as asteroids, and the network read them as com points.” He rubbed his forehead with a bewildered smirk. “Then they started wheeling around like a flock of damn birds.”
Ionos nodded. “Yup. Just like that. Though it’s never the same twice. The false echoes, we call them shadows. We’ve been watching for patterns, set some programs to scan, but so far the only trend is an activity increase with no physical correlate.” He played back the original recording. “The shadows started early yesterday.”
“Around the time of the fires in Aquari Home?” General Iparia swished a sip of whisky.
“Not long before.” Ionos swept his finger along the arc of the barely visible formation. “This Alpha’s captain thought he saw the arrival of completely unknown ships. He raised alarms, but recon was barely out before displays changed again, showing nothing as before. They confirmed the false readings, and that was our first sighting.” He reinstated the live view. “This is why we’re convened. We don’t have anything like this on record. Not in all twenty-four generations.”
“What about the other two vortices we’re watching?” asked Lucay.
“They remain stable. Only the Photuris Vortex is evolving, thankfully.” Ionos cleared his throat. “Lucky us. At least the effects don’t reach as far as Photuris itself.”
Alisandre met the eyes of Iparia sidelong before suggesting, “The Loramer Institute may be our best resource for investigation.”
Lucay grunted. “What, those softnoggins?”
Iparia briefly closed his eyes. “Those softnoggins have made great strides recently, if you haven’t been paying attention. Theoreticians are most useful when dealing with the unknown.”
Ionos nodded. “If you can debrief them, Alisandre, and have them send someone, the sooner the better. Someone with steel nerves. I won’t deny the shadows have everyone on edge.” The younger General nodded.
“Isn’t your son an officer on this ship?” Lucay asked Ionos over his whisky.
“He is, in fact. Lietenant Corporal Tyson Sorens. His office is on third deck if you have any questions regarding the crew.”
– 53 –
“Down this way. We’re headed towards Drift 9,” directed the pilot, calling her ship by name. Toller tailed at her inconspicuous yet rapid pace. They ducked into an intravessel transit. No one had tried to stop them. She fixed her mind on Leiv – where might they have brought him? If he knew what was going on and wasn’t captive, he should be at their rendezvous.
Toller kept his head down beneath his hood. He eyed people’s movements, seeing no one familiar, and nothing particularly strange. He assumed they were going straight to the ship bay, so he nearly missed Wendel exiting at the residential floors.
“I thought we were leaving,” Toller said as he caught up to her.
“We are, but I have to get something first.”
“Really?” asked the boy with some distress. He recalled the memory of Cheli’s face, still looking up at him as tides of fire and ash rushed to engulf Anzi.
“Absolutely. Head back to the Drift if you want, I’ll see you there.”
“Oh, no.” Toller paced her grimly. “Besides, it’s not going anywhere without you.”
Maybe, thought Wendel. She focused on the room up ahead. He would be there. Him, or what she needed to find him.
From paces away, the door burst open, Leiv emerging full speed carrying a pack. Wendel gasped as they practically ran into each other, and Leiv leaned in to kiss her on the mouth. Without a word, they turned and sped to the ship bay.
– 54 –
“So, how goes the hunt for our elusive rabbit?”
General Alisandre snorted as he keyed his remote data to the small projection table. A display opened of a feral-looking man with long, straight dark hair. His grin mocked them as it rotated around, facing every corner of the room. “General Iparia, Sturlusson is no rabbit.”
“No, he is lower. I honor him with the title of rabbit, because when we capture him, I will dine well.” Alisandre looked at the senior General’s slender face, set in stone. He knew of the death of Iparia’s sister on the day Sturlusson collapsed the Freshwater Consulate. The man hadn’t been connected to the incident till days later, when they found his signature in the rubble: the trisected triangle with a crosscut on each arm, stamped on a phronium coin.
General Iparia was now the strongest proponent of the intergalactic effort to apprehend the man whose mysterious agenda had wreaked destruction and chaos in nearly every federet.
It had been a long hunt. General Alisandre followed it as the news crossed his desk. Agency squads for intergalactic criminals fell in his jurisdiction as the capital planet General, and Sturlusson was already on the enemy roster when Claymore took the post.
Raev Sturlusson was known for maneuvers that crippled operations, and he didn’t shy from taking lives. He announced himself often. They were still tracking the full extent of his network. This one man had made so many enemies, caused so many personal vendettas, that it was only a matter of time.
“We have word of two separate cells, one in the Vertris Federet, concentrated on Lurin-”
“-of course,” muttered General Iparia.
“-and one in the Libran Federet, focused on planet Ionos.”
“I assume General Ionos knows about this?”
“Yes, but it concerns him little. This group hasn’t directly acted on any of his planets, and the forces to pursue it are mine.”
“Then he is practically harboring them.”
“Hardly. He’s put every resource at my disposal and opened every pathway I’ve requested. He knows it can’t be long before they make a point of their presence, but you can’t blame him for being currently preoccupied here.” They both turned their heads briefly to the blank wall in the direction of the Photuris Vortex.
“Even so. The magnitude of Sturlusson’s crimes makes him a top priority.”
“That, he is. We’re very close now.”
Alisandre watched Iparia’s jaw work for a moment before he spoke. “I depart for Freshwater shortly. I intend to supply aid for Ionos. Another Alpha base here at the Vortex, and I think a team or two to help take care of the vermin problem on his home planet.”
“No doubt he will appreciate those offers. If you wish to send special ops, please have them report to my mission chief, Commander Georg Hertez.”
Iparia nodded and went to the door. He paused before it to salute. “I would like every update, General Alisandre.”
Returning the salute, he sighed inwardly. “General Iparia. You will have it.”
– 55 –
Cross-legged, he perched on a rippling plane of light in a room of vibrating azure walls. His hands were raised, contacting midair frequency terminals. Words and lines of light under tattoos and scars glowed in synch with the programs around him.
He’d been expecting the call that he tapped to project before him. A woman’s face displayed in 3D monochrome, the covert connection offering but a weak signal. He examined her hair in grayscale.
“Where is Leanders?”
She made a face. “Busy. Otherwise occupied. We’re switching to plan b.”
“So be it. How’s that going?”
“They’re doing their job perfectly, which is to say badly.”
“Excellent.” He drew a long breath. “You know what you’re doing from here.”
She nodded. “We’ll both be out of communique for some time, is that right?”
“Excepting anything through the media.” He tilted the camera downward, but the view was blocked by a shipboard control unit. “It’ll happen in stages, and you’ll be in a position to watch it all and keep up.”
“If anyone can do it, it’s me.” She kissed her fingertips and waved to him. “See you on the other side, boss.” Another call alert flashed as her image disappeared.
He took the incoming signal, which was a sending-throughport. From a spark wobbling at chest level entered five gently glowing wire frame avatars. He dispersed his frequency terminals and stood to greet them.
“You’re all here, so I take it our trials have been thorougly successful.”
The last wire frame to emerge nodded her head. “We’ve reached certainty rates on all auric testflesh programs. The mechanical side is functioning at 92%.”
“That will do. And you’re all willing to do this yourselves?”
“We are. It will work similarly on us, if not entirely the same. Our end of the signal is strong, only we five need carry the connection.”
“Then we’re ready.” Sturlusson stood and stretched. One figure handed him a green sphere. It gloved his hand in light, which spread to cover his body with a framenet like those around him. “Bring me through.”
The six of them joined hands in a horseshoe, and the murmuring hum arose. The two open ends touched the sending-throughport. The body frames, Sturlusson included, together folded rapidly into the spark, which winked out behind them.
He was released by the electric net on the other side, standing before the five who had sent their avatars. He opened his arms and bowed, lifting his eyes to speak with them from there. “That you five accept this responsibility, when it’s not even your cause-”
One raised his hand. “Our aims have become intertwined. Signalman.”
Raev lowered his bow even further. “And for that the living and the dead for whom I stand are deeply grateful to the Vedani.”
They nodded to him, some smiling. “The vector group is ready in the next chamber when you are.”
“This has been a work of long years, friends. I walk lighter knowing the blood of my father and home shall have its vindication.” The five parted to let him pass, and he strode forward to open the door.
In the adjoining hall stood twenty people in two facing rows. Upon his entrance, they took a knee and planted their fists on the floor, eyes glowing. They rose and all stood before each other, the five Vedani behind Sturlusson.
“You last remnants of Hirylien. All the years I searched for you, that we searched for each other, precipitated this moment. You know the truth now as I discovered it, and we are bringing it to them. So that finally, the rage burning in our hearts for our lost families and futures can be shown as the grave injustice being perpetrated on all peoples of the Imperium. We are their warriors. This is our first step.”
“For all you’ve suffered, you have agreed to suffer more to bring, if not ultimately justice, then some retribution. To put an end to one of their great poisons. You all have what you need to survive the time of onslaught, and let us draw each other through this fire to the other side victorious.” All twenty dropped a knee and knuckle pounded the floor. Sturlusson did the same, bringing down both fists at once. The pounding subsided.
“Remember, this is only the beginning.” A smile stretched wide on his face, growing into a full grin. He turned to the five behind him standing respectfully in salute. He gestured toward one, her Vedani hair silver against blue-white skin. She nodded slightly, and all five murmured subtonally, making microgestures.
A door on one side of the hall opened, and in came a cart bearing capped tubes and dosers with three doctors. It stopped at one end of the double line, and the doctors started inoculating them with the brassy serum. Raev Sturlusson and the Vedani joined them at the far end.
Through the door followed a rack carrying necessity packs for twenty-one Hirylienites, and behind that a rolling freezer billowing cool air. The entire vector group had been injected, and a pack was set behind each of them. The chest freezer took the place of the med cart, and from it came racks of flasks to distribute. Each flask was a secure carrycase for a smaller set of tubes, filled with liquids and some powders.
Sturlusson paced between the two lines. “Familiarize yourselves with these. This carries our mission, as well as your individual salvation and assurance. Be able to use them as needed, without thinking, under any duress you may encounter. Put it where you can immediately access it. These will save much more than just yourselves.” He zippered his into a pocket. “Assemble things and get in groups.”