Post 14: He’s here.

Cael left his suitcase with Alberich and weaved his way back between the looming towers of metal crates.  He hovered in the personnel entrance for a moment.  Still safe from view, he adjusted his narrow, tan jacket and buttoned it down to where it hung mid-thigh. It wouldn’t do much, but it was better than nothing.  He took a deep breath and dove into the night air, flipping up his collar as he ran to protect his face from the icy wind.

He kept close to the row of warehouses, skirting around the edge of the expansive lot.  The many ships sprawled about, being loaded or unloaded by teams of men in puffy coats and pants, were a hodgepodge of independent suppliers.  Not one vessel matched another in class, size or origin.  Some were bulbous shells waiting to be filled, others were smaller and more aerodynamic, a few were pretty beaten up; more still were simple discs or much smaller egg shapes that were intended to drag their wares behind them.

Was this truly all they had coming in? With no provisions coming in from the Company?  Rayner may have understated how dire the situation really was here.

Cael had to stop behind a caravan of parked utility trucks, freshly unloaded from the back of a refurbished military craft; its every angle utilitarian yet menacing, and the insignias all haphazardly blacked out.  He crouched within the center tire of one of the trucks to catch his breath.  His lungs were working hard in the thin atmosphere. Three years of sitting around also hadn’t done his body any favors.  Out of habit, he pulled the flask from his back pocket, but could feel that it was empty.  He silently cursed himself, but his head was already swimming a little.  It would have been a bad idea to drink right now, anyway.  He took deep breath and pulled himself out of the tire.

Alberich sat against the wall of his wedge shaped hiding place and hugged the kampdator to his belly.  He flipped the screen to another camera angle as he followed Cael’s progress to Lukas’ ship in the distant corner of the concrete platform.  Every few seconds, his eyes involuntarily darted to the triangular opening only twenty feet away.  Leaving the ship seemed like a good idea at the time.  He hadn’t liked the idea of being trapped in there, waiting for Lukas to show up; but here, even in the hiding space he felt so exposed.

Cael crouched behind a stack of the great, coin shaped containers, the first one reaching just over his head.  The dome craft loomed on its side before him as he snuck around the side of load to peak at Lukas’ black wing.  Just as his eyes grasped the silhouette in the shadow, a metallic boom rocked the containers he was leaning against.  He dove to the ground and looked up to see the three fingered claw of a crane gripping the very top container.

“Oy!  You can’ be goofin’ around down there!”  Cael looked further up to see a man riding in the crane’s cabin which was safely held aloft on sprawling stilts.

He waved up at him.  “Sorry!”

There was no other obstacle between him and Lukas’ ship.  So… no choice but to just walk up, he supposed.  Plan A, in action.

He was still a bit winded from the run, but Cael stuck his hands in his pockets and walked up as casually as he could.  He was approaching the wing from behind, and as he got closer, he could see the entrance hatch was down.  Cael stopped a comfortable 50 feet away and waited.  He shivered as a gust of wind swept over him.  Now to wait; the bait must wait, so… he waited.

He looked down at the laveli pad on his forearm.  No sign of Lukas.  Wait and wait; wait, wait, wait.  No longer warmed by the exercise, Cael hugged himself and shivered as he looked around.  The stack of containers lost another few layers to the crane.  He peered into the darkness under the dome craft.  As he recalled, Lukas had some kind of stealth getup that let him melt into the shadows.

Nothing.

Seriously?  Cael was freezing out here!  Where the hell was this guy?

He pushed up his sleeve and typed at the laveli pad.

He’s not coming.

                Alberich replied.  He has to.  It was part of the deal.

Cael hopped around a little.  He looked to the open hatch.  How nice it would be to at least get out of the wind.  He looked back to the now squat tower of disc containers.  He scanned the shadows again.  Was Lukas really not going to show up?  Was it a trap?  Was Ilya even in there?

Another cold gust of wind blew through him.

Screw itI’ve been waiting for almost an hour.

                Alberich replied.  He’s here somewhere.  Be patient.

                I’M FREEZING.

                So what are you going to do?

                 I’m going in.

That’s not in any of the plans!

Cael pushed his sleeve back down and started walking.  His heart raced as he reached the ramp up to the hatch and his head began to swim again in the thin air.  He needed to get himself together!  Ilya was counting on him.  He took a slow, deep breath and stepped onto the dark, rubbery surface of the ramp.

No alarms.  He took another step and paused.  Nothing.

Cael looked up to the black hatchway, then turned back to the platform behind him.  The tower of containers had been completely cleared now, but from his position, the dome craft, back lit in the orange safety lights, blocked his view of most of the grounds.  He could see no one coming, no movement or sounds that would indicate alarm so he turned back and slowly crept the rest of the way in.

Except for the orange glow cutting in from the entrance, it was pitch black inside.  Surely Lukas was waiting for him in darkness.  Cael held his arms out from his body, readying himself for an attack as he took another step.

Suddenly, the hall flooded with UV light, and an alarm seemed to flood his ears; a high tone that throbbed, like the vibration of a bell after being struck.  Not a particularly distressing noise, but piercing, impossible to ignore.

UV light?

He looked down to his chest to see if his Legion infected skin had accidentally been exposed, but he was safely concealed under the jacket.  Cael remembered the flashing on Lukas’ wrist that sent him running when he was only in the air lock.  He was beginning to get an idea of the technological superiority of Lukas’ and Alberich’s people.

Well, no time to lose.  Cael looked left and right down the arched hall.  He ran to his right and reached a dead end without seeing a single hatch or doorway.  He ran back, passed the original entrance and hit another eventual dead end.  Completely at a loss, he turned around and ran back to the entrance.  And there, across from the entrance hatch there was a definite gap in the wall.

That was new.  Wasn’t it?

The new wall set into this recess leaned over him and reached the ceiling in a smooth curve.  In the center was an air lock door with a bar handle.  Cael wrenched the handle up and the door swung down to reveal the flight cabin, also lit up with the UV light.  All kinds of warning graphics were going wild on the windshield that arched over him, hiding the starry sky beyond it.  The floor was at an even steeper angle than the ramp, but he was able to climb up to the empty pilot’s chair.

Cael felt like a child sitting back in it.  He leaned forward and tried to find something that looked like a control panel.  There had to be other rooms on this ship.  There had to be a way to access them, but everything in front of him looked blank.  He reached a hand up to the windshield and the warnings blinked out.  The UV lights and alarm also died.  Cael froze.

A small, bright square popped up.  It was a room, gray, bare.  He could see Ilya sitting on a large bench, hugging her knees, staring blankly in front of her.  Was this on the ship?

The room blinked out and he was staring up at the stars again.  It took him a moment to realize one of his arm was burning up.  He rolled up his sleeve and slapped at the laveli skin until it self-illuminated.  Alberich had keyed two words.

He’s here.

                Cael looked back up to the stars and slapped at the windshield.  Nothing happened.

“Where are you?!”

He fell back pressing his palms into his eyes.  What should he do?

“Cael?”  It was faint and muffled, but it was Ilya.

Cael pushed up from the chair.

“Ilya?  Ilya!”

There was a long silence and then:

“Cael?”

He jumped out of the chair and slid back to the dark hallway.

“Ilya!  Tell me where you are!”

He turned left and ran blindly into the inky blackness. He slapped at the laveli skin again to brighten its glow.

“Ilya!  Ilya, where are you?!  Say something!”

He hit the end and tried not to panic as he listened for her.  Nothing.  He headed back and followed the hallway to the other end.

“Ilya!  Say something!  Please!  Tell me where you are!”

“…Cael?”

“Ilya!”

She was there, behind the wall.  He ran his hands vainly over the surface, trying to find something he knew wasn’t there, a crack or panel, anything.  He knew he would have seen it before, but he held up his laveli arm like a lamp anyway and searched.

“I’m going to get you out of there, Ilya!  Are you okay?”

He did a double take at the laveli.  He was such an idiot.  He could use it to talk to the ship’s computer.  Alberich would lose his access to the cameras, but there was no time to worry about that now.

“Ilya!  Don’t worry.  Everything’s going to b-”

The wall gave way and he fell forward into the darkness, planting face first on something hard as he went down.  He rolled over and looked up from the floor but the shadows cast by the laveli only confused everything.  A wave of nausea hit him and he closed his eyes.

“Ilya?”  He whispered.  “Ilya, are you okay?”

He reached out, hoping to feel a soft hand or leg.  Instead, he hand brushed cold metal, then rubber tread.  Cael opened his eyes again to see Ilya’s bike propped up next to him.

“Ilya?”

He tried to sit up and was rewarded with fresh pain and overwhelming pressure in his sinuses.  Cael felt under his nose and drew his hand away to see blood running down his fingers.  He looked ahead of him to see a solid wall.  It was a trap then.

It felt like Alberich had forgotten how to breathe after he watched Cael sneak into Lukas’ ship.  He kept surprising himself with ragged gasps as he constantly switched between the cameras, trying desperately to keep an eye over the entire loading platform.  The poor quality of the video that streamed through was driving him crazy.  He kept thinking he saw an odd shadow move here or there, forcing him to sit on that view until he was sure it was just his imagination.

This had not been part of the plan!

He switched the kampdator back to the remote view of Lukas’ ship.

“What the hell is he doing in there?” Alberich hissed to himself.  He shook the boxy kampdator in his lap.  “Give me the signal, dammit!”

A quiet click echoed in the hangar and Alberich’s heart skipped a beat.  Was that a door closing?  He held his breath, eyes glued to the triangle opening.  Maybe it was noth-  He heard footsteps.  Those were definitely footsteps.  Steady, purposeful; they were moving slowly and getting louder.  Alberich almost couldn’t move his hand to reach the keys only a few inches away from his grip on the kampdator.

He’s here.

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Post 13: “Just a little disagreement with management; nothing you’ll have to worry about.”

He turned to the pilot, “I want to talk to Rayner, now!”

Cael squatted by the pilot’s chair to see the screens properly.

This gate was much closer to the bright little sun than in Ilya’s system.  It seemed as if the gate wasn’t established in relation to the sun at all, but to the planet they were approaching.  That was not done for inhabited systems but… Manana Corporation; Riga was purely a mining system, then.  It would only take them a day at most to reach … Cinaed, no, no, wait they were heading for its moon, Kennet.  That made more sense.  The gravity would have been intolerable on the massive terrestrial planet.

“I can’t get him, boss.”

“What?  What do you mean you can’t get him?”

“They won’t let me talk to him.”

“Who is this ‘they’?  Let me talk to them!”

The pilot switched the radio to the whole Ko Thri as the boss cleared his throat and attempted his best at commons; his ‘r’s rolling through clenched teeth.

“I want talk to RRaynerr.”

“Like I said, friend, you don’t need dat old man.  We can take care of you just fine.  All contracts with de Manana Corporation….”

“I make no deal with Manana.  With RRaynerr! I hearr Misterr RRaynerr or I take meat back thrrough gate!”

“Okay!  Okay!  Hold on.”

Cael looked back at Alberich, who was sitting in the doorway again.  The man shrugged.

“If it isn’t my old friend, Gopala.” A scratchy voice chuckled, “Running a bit late.  Your delivery was expected yesterday.”

“Had some trrouble on way herre.”

“Yes, seems to be a lot of that going around.  Everything good now, I assume.”

“What is going on herre?”

“Well…” Cael could hear him take a long drag off of a cigarette, “why don’t you go ahead and come in, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

The boss exchanged glances with his pilot.

“It is… safe?”

“Oh, quite.  Just a little disagreement with management; nothing you’ll have to worry about.”

With no one willing to continue over the radio, Cael and Alberich went back to the kitchen to prepare the next meal.  Word had spread among the men about the message and there was a new energy as they filed in to eat.  They even harassed the two cooks for what they had overheard, the past tension forgotten for the moment.  Afterward, Cael pulled his handle-less suitcase from one of the cabinets and dropped it onto the prep counter.

“God, I could use a drink.”

“Cael, did you know the boss’s name was Gopala?”

“No idea.  In fact, I was just thinking about how I never learned the name of anyone on this ship.  I guess we never really got the chance for introductions before, you know.”

“Me neither.  I can’t decide if that makes it easier or harder.”  Alberich looked over as he started to rinse out the pan to see Cael rummage through the mess inside his case, pulling clothing and papers out of the way.  “Those men that died, I hardly even knew them, and I got them killed.  Should that make me feel less or more guilty?”

“I’m going to need you to focus here.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t feel bad about what happened, but there’s a time and place for that, and it can’t be while we’re trying save my friend.  Not to mention our own necks.”

Alberich walked to the serving counter and scooped all of the leftovers into their bowls.

“Okay then, big guy, let’s go over the plans again.  He’ll be waiting for us when we get there. So, before we leave the ship, we have to find a way to see around us.  Once we good look around; Plan A?”

“He’ll probably be watching for us, so we sneak out with the cattle.”

Alberich popped the rice tray out of the service counter and brought it over to the deep sinks next to Cael.  “I hide while you act as bait for Lukas.  You draw him out, negotiate an exchange but I’ll make an emergency call to the authorities.  If all goes well, we’ll escape in the confusion with Ilya.”

“Plan B?”

“If he doesn’t come to you, I act as bait.  Again, try to get authorities to slow him down.  If he triggers a pigeon memory, I’ll probably just run.  And that will distract him long enough for you to rescue Ilya.”

“Which leads to Plan C?”

“I get myself arrested.  He’ll know where I am, but he won’t be able to touch me; and, uh you’ll figure things out from there.”

“Just like the good old days.”

Cael found what he had been looking for in the pocket of his brown jacket.

“What is that?”

Alberich watched him pull out a flimsy, translucent, square pad and flop it onto the counter.  He casually tossed everything back into his case.

“Oh, it’s just levali skin.  I was using it back in the office to access the skrina… it helps with communication.”

“What like a translator?”

“Hmm, it does that too.” Cael gently rested a few fingers on the pad.  When Alberich looked back from the sink, the square had clouded.  Black lettering faded into life across the surface and winked back out.  Cael looked up and shrugged.  “It’s like a universal interface.  It will find a way to talk to pretty much anything electronic that accepts signals.  This little baby is going to be our window.”

It was a relatively smooth ride down in Kennet’s thin atmosphere.  The two men spent the time strapped to the wall in the dining room.  Even if they had been allowed in the Ko Thri again, there wouldn’t have been much to see.  Kennet’s orbit had it hiding behind Cinaed for the next few days, plunging the moon into an extended night.

No one was as eager to get off the ship as they thought they would be once they landed, and Rayner was invited on board to talk before the boss would agree to unload the cattle.  Cael brought over two mugs of coffee as the two settled at one of the tables in the empty dining hall.

“Welcome back to Sanne City, Gopala; or sorry, Flore City.  They’ve renamed a few things already.”

Rayner was an old bag of bones with two days of scruff and refined bearings.  He shrugged out of his puffy, long coat to reveal a crisp if plain suit.  The material looked stiff and restrictive, with a tie dark synched high on his neck, yet the man seemed completely at ease as he slipped out of the suit jacket and produced a thin case from his breast pocket.  He removed a cigarette.

“You don’t mind.”

The boss shook his head and waved.

Cael and Alberich hovered over the square levali in the kitchen.  The pad was no longer translucent but filled with moving images from the various cameras around the port.  The night was bright in their little window from orange security lights, and they could see great space fairing crafts of all shapes littered across the bay.  It was technically the middle of the day, and so there was a great bustle of activity for their eyes to search through.

“You’re probably wondering what in helvede is going on.”  Rayner took a long drag off of his cigarette.  “I was telling you the truth when I said you have nothing to worry about.  We can’t afford any missed deliveries at this juncture.”

Cael stroked the levali to expand their view into a shadowy stretch of property by one of the warehouses.

“I think you were aware, things had been going south for years.  This moon has always had a problem holding onto the atmosphere we pump into it.  Nothing can survive on its own with our long breaks from daylight.  These problems we could deal with as long as the company kept investing in the area, as long as there was a good payoff at the end of a contract.”

The boss nodded and took a sip of his coffee.

Cael swiped at the pad to move onto the next camera feed.

“But, investment leveled off.  Contracts started to include settlement clauses.  Not a problem for old men like me, enough money and space to make myself comfortable; but asteroid mining is a young man’s game, and young men look to start families… eventually. Kennet is no place to raise a family.”

Another long drag, “It seems everything came to a head just a few months ago.  A man named Edgard Dessal lead an uprising, a surprisingly successful one.  I think even he didn’t expect to win.  It was over so quickly they had to name it after the fact; the Moun nan Rebellion, the Rebellion of the People.  Not very creative, but then.… ” he shrugged.

“Manana people killed?”

“There were a few targets, big bosses on sight, you know?  Then those who fought back were killed.  Everyone else was given a choice to join or leave.  I’m obviously still here.”

“There!” Alberich shouted.

Rayner looked over to see the two cooks’ backsides as they hovered over the prep counter.  The boss shook his head again and waved dismissively.

“Where,” Cael whispered.

“There,” he tapped a corner of the laveli and their view zoomed to a deep shadow stretching out behind a massive blocky cargo ship.  Its battered dome shape lying unnaturally on an edge as disc shaped containers were being attached behind it, three across, filling six to a level.  A slight distance away, Cael could see the small dark wing that was Lukas’ ship.

“I can’t believe we found him.”

Rayner cleared his throat and lit another cigarette.

“I get the feeling they don’t like me hanging around, but… I’m a familiar voice to our suppliers, so it’s been difficult for them to shake me.”  He let out a rasping chuckle.

“Good to hearr.”

“You said you’d had a bit of trouble, yourself.”

Alberich and Cael looked back to see the boss fidget and take another sip of coffee.

“Ah, yes.  Some cows sick.  Had to burrn entirre floorr to prrotect ship.”

Rayner shook his head and sighed.  “That must have been some illness.  You’re sure the rest of the herd is healthy.”

The boss squared his shoulders and met Rayner’s eye.

“Yes.  I made surre.  No morre illness on ship.”

Slipping out with the cattle was messy and bumpy, and Alberich nearly lost the kampdator twice as he crouched among the bovine.  The cows were herded one floor at a time down the ramp out of the back of the ship; the two men easily hopping over the protective railing once they reached inside the mamoth hangar.

They had to sneak around for a while, dodging and weaving among the corralled livestock and giant crates before they found a safe spot for Alberich to hide a few hangars away.  A series of the massive disc shaped containers were propped on their sides.  Alberich crawled along the wall under their bottom arcs until he felt hidden.  He made sure he had enough space to squeeze between two of them if he needed a second escape route.

“Okay, can you see me on the kampdator?”

“Yes.  You’re wearing the laveli?”

Cael raised his forearm to show the laveli skin wrapped most of the way around his wrist.

“You remember how to call me if you see him?”

Alberich looked down at the box in his lap and worked a few buttons that lined the edges of the screen.  Cael felt a warm pulse along his wrist and he nodded.

“Okay, then.  Here we go.”

Post 12: “They all hate me.”

Cael and Alberich were pretty much left to themselves after the incident.  They kept to the kitchen and dining hall, sleeping on the tables, wrapped in blankets given to them by the boss.  They spent the first couple of days deep cleaning the kitchen in silence, which was just fine as neither one of them much felt like talking just yet.  Unfortunately, it gave Cael’s mind too many opportunities to return to Ilya; to worry and make plans, imagine scenarios and make new plans, only to throw them all away and worry some more.

The others methodically burned, bleached and scrubbed every surface inside the ship when they weren’t working their shifts on the cattle levels.  All but a few of the UV lights had been returned to the water filters, and the men used the remaining lamps to obsessively check and recheck their work.  Cael made sure to cover up and hang back during those sweeps.

When the men filed in to the dining hall with their bowls, there was no joking, and no eye contact, barely even amongst each other.  Cael had spent the last three years with a constant companion, and by the end of the second day he could already feel isolation getting to him.  He scraped left over curry into a couple of bowls and looked over at Alberich, shoulders deep into one of the massive vats rotated down onto its side.  Soapy water splashed out around his hanging belly, completely soaking the payjama pants he still wore from Bhara.  Backing out, the large man reached up for the hanging water hose.  After a good rinse, he knocked the vat to rotate straight down, letting the water flow to the line of drains at the center of the narrow kitchen’s floor.  Cael handed him the bowl as he pulled himself up.

“Here, I’ll mop up.”

“Thanks.”

Alberich tried to quickly wring the excess water out of this ruined kurta and looked out to the dining room as the last group of men walked out.

Cael pulled the sponge mop down from its hook by the door.  “So, how are you holding up?”

He sighed, “They all hate me.”

“Well… you did kind of… incite a mass panic….”

Alberich shot him a hurt look, “You should have stopped me.”

“Tried that, if you’ll recall.”

“They shouldn’t have listened.”

“Look, I hate to say it, but it’s not as if you were wrong….”

“Killing anyone is wrong.  Killing out of fear is wrong.”  He recited angrily, pulling open a drawer to grab a serving spoon to eat with.

“…aaaand you’re kind of intimidating when the carrier memories take over.  I would cut them some slack.”

“I just can’t wait to get off of this ship.”  He heaved himself up and sat back on to the counter as Cael pushed the mop under his feet.  “But then as soon as we get to port, we’ll have to deal with Lukas again.  I feel so goddamn trapped.”

“It is a predicament.”

Alberich shook his head and scooped a bite into his mouth.

Cael crouched down to get the mop handle in the right position to push any soggy debris out from behind the vats.

“Do you have anything planned this time?  Like a real plan, not just rushing him.”

“If he’s a strong as you, rushing definitely won’t work.  Not if I’m hoping to get Ilya out of this safely.”

“That’s right, your wife… who called you a coward.”

“Yeah… she was pretty mad.”

Alberich cocked an eyebrow as he dug into his bowl.

“Look, it wasn’t my finest moment, but I was going crazy, or maybe I was already crazy.  It’s too quiet there, no excitement, no trouble to get into so far away from everything.  I’ve never left a place by choice.  There was always some kind of immediate danger to run from, you know, sort of forcing the decision.  But on Bhara, it was too easy to stay.  Ilya made it so easy to push back the decision another day.  I had been thinking about leaving within that first year, but there was never any reason to.”

“So I come along and to rescue you from this… horrible life of peace and marital bliss.”

“I thought; I guess I thought it would worry her less, if she saw that we had to leave to help you, meaning I would have to leave while she stayed behind.  And then this Lukas fellow turned out to be much scarier than I had anticipated, and waiting around for her to get used to the idea wasn’t an option anymore.  I knew she would figure it out.  I just never imagined just how quickly, or that she would come after us.  Leave her family behind?  Ilya already had two husbands when we married, you know; and a baby.”

“A ready-made family.  Who wouldn’t run from that?”

“It was just a business deal.  Not long after I had arrived on Bhara, I found myself caught up in a bar fight in the city.  It’s a little hazy, I may have started it.  I may have just offended the local patrons with my presence; but by the end there were several people with glass cuts and nasty bruises.  Being the good sport that I am, I decided to tend to them until the police arrived and threw us all in jail.

“A couple of the men I had helped turned out to be cousins of Ilya’s.  Word got back to her mother, and imagine my surprise when I was released into the custody of this random girl.  The women are so small, that’s what I thought she was, a little girl.  And then there wasn’t so much of a deal offered as an explanation of how we were going to proceed if I was to stay on Bhara.  I would marry Ilya so that I could set up a practice in town.  She would assist me in any way that I needed, and her presence would help smooth over my introduction to the townspeople.”

Alberich caught Cael smiling to himself.

“The Sakhimi people are, I would say, benignly agoraphobic of anything off planet; but they never really have to deal with the outside, so the few of us who venture in are kept politely at arm’s length.  If I tried to blend in, wear the kurta and payjamas, they would look at me more suspiciously; like I was trying to hide who I really was.  I was allowed to live among them, but not as one of them.  I never got a chance to see if all of Bhara was like that.  I rarely even left that tiny farm town.”

“You wife included? Keeping you at arm’s length, I mean?  Did you never…”

Cael stood and cocked his head as the large man fumbled for words.  “We were never intimate, no.”

“Are you serious? You’re telling me you went how many years…”

“Three.”

“Three YEARS?”

“Well, I was never quite sure how she felt about it.”  Cael thought of Ilya’s determined face as they walked through the abandoned streets that last night, watching Alberich from the corner of her eye.  What was he going to do with her?   “But I was very fond of her, you know.”

Alberich cocked an eyebrow at him again.

“I just didn’t want her to get hurt.  So… I decided sex was definitely out of the question.  Too messy; and… especially if she got pregnant, too dangerous… for everyone involved.”

“Because she’s so sickly.”

Cael sighed and hung up the mop.  “Yeah.”

“If she’s so weak, and has all this family on Bhara, why has she come after you?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe some of my crazy rubbed off on her.”

“Maybe she really loves you.”

“God, I hope not.”

Alberich frowned but said nothing as he watched Cael pick up the second bowl of curry and start eating.

They spent the next few days strategizing.  Cael was careful to direct their conversations away from the pigeon memories, as they now took to calling them; not wanting to trigger another situation while he was alone with the large man. Yet, he needed as much information about Lukas as possible.  He was tempted to try to get the therapy sessions set up on the kampdator, but he wasn’t sure how Alberich would react if he was aware that they were being viewed.  Plus, there were literally hundreds of sessions, and it would take more than a few days to trudge through and analyze.

Alberich was even more fearful of a relapse than Cael, causing the conversations to often devolve into frustrated silences.

“What did he say when you first saw him?”

“I told you, I can’t remember exactly.”

“What do you remember?”

“He, he was friendly, like he really knew me.” Alberich’s focus softened, “It was as if I really were a long lost friend.”

Cael snapped at his face until he focused again.

“I’m okay.”

“Just making sure.”

The next day.

“I’m telling you I don’t KNOW!”

“But he had to have told you something, anything to convince you to come back with him.  Even if it was a lie, I want to know what he said.”

“Just that he was going to take me back to our people.”

“Did he say why you were taken away from your people in the first place?”

“No he… well, just that it was a mistake.  That I was too important to have been let go.”

“Okay, did you ask what he meant by that?”

“No, I…” he watched Cael throw his head back with a loud sigh, “Look!  It was really hard to ask him anything.  He has this way of dismissing your questions.  I would ask him something, and he’d answer it without actually answering it, and at the same time make me feel like I was wasting his time with the question.  But I didn’t really need all the details, did I?  What kid doesn’t want to hear that he’s unique and important; especially, a giant, fat teenager with no friends?  It only took one whole afternoon before he almost had me on the ship.  I think it was the first time the pigeon memory surfaced.  It started as this horrible sense of foreboding…”

Cael tensed up as Alberich’s thoughts turned inward.  The large head rose suddenly, “Can we stop for now?”

“Yeah, let’s take a break and get lunch started for the others.”

The following night, they lay on their respective tables.

“Have you ever seen inside his ship?”

“Not with my own eyes, but the memories being inside did hit me once.  I can’t really….”

“Let’s move away from that, then, shall we?  Good?”

“… Yes.  I’m good.”

“Good.  What is the fastest he’s ever caught up with you?”

“Once, about two, two and a half years ago, I had just lost him and arrived through a gate by passenger ship only to find him already waiting for me on the other side.  I was so sure… It was one of those places that had a station right next to the gate.  Luckily for me, it was a very crowded terminal and I was able to lose him in the resulting chaos.  Not… so lucky for some others, though.”

“So, we could arrive to find him already at the port, possibly days in advance.  I figured as much.  When Dr. Vitor-Bieito told us to expect Lukas the next day, I knew he had to have something way beyond the tech you see out here… this is going to be tough.”

They started to loosely form plans A, B and C.

Another night.

“What information do you think Lukas will be able to get from Dr. Vitor-Bieito?”

“I’m not sure.  She wouldn’t betray me if she could help it.”

“I’m not questioning her loyalty, Alberich.  Let’s say, he tortured her, no drugged, he drugged her.  Some painless, truthy type serum.  What information could he use from her get an advantage over you?”

The man sighed and thought, “Maybe that the pigeon memories still come in uncontrollable fits.  That they leave me just as clueless as before they came.  That I cared for her and trusted her more than my own parents.”  Alberich pulled the blanket tighter around him and rolled over so that he faced the wall.

Cael began to work on plans D and E without him.

It had been a few years since Cael had been through a Zhouwen gate.  A rare sight, even for the frequent traveler, who was often strapped to a seat with only views out of the sides of the ship.  After days of minimal contact, he and Alberich got special permission from the boss to be in the Ko Thri so they could witness the approach.

The pilot was busy communicating with the gate’s artificial intelligence long before they could pick out its light from the stars.  Only in the more populated systems were the gates physically manned and policed.

“Our reservation code checks out and permission has been granted for the next hour, boss.”

“Good.”

Cael watched the pilot flip a series of switches before sitting back to brace himself.  A strong vibration built under their feet as the sleeping jets roared to life in front of them to slow down the ships approach.  He looked over at the boss, who sat in the copilot’s chair, his arms crossed over his half opened jumpsuit.  He tried to say thank you but the roar drowned him out.

The boss looked at him, “WHAT?”

“I SAID!  I WANTED TO THANK YOU FOR LETTING US COME UP, TODAY!”

The boss grabbed Cael’s collar and pulled him down so he could yell directly into Cael’s ear.

“MANY OF MY MEN ARE PLANNING TO LEAVE THE CREW ONCE THIS IS OVER!  I can’t say I blame them!  And I really can’t blame you for what happened either!  HOWEVER! Once we reach port, I’LL BE HAPPY TO NEVER SEE THE TWO OF YOU AGAIN!”

The boss pushed him away.  Cael adjusted his collar and nodded grimly.  He turned back to a screen that showed an straight, unenhanced view of the gate.  The blinking lights were distinctive now, though underwhelming.  Just red and white alternating at the center with solid blue points of light at the very edges of the dark wings which were extended to catch what little of the distant sun’s rays.   Cael thought they were surely getting too close when their proximity finally triggered the gate into action.

A warm ball of red silently began to glow beneath the center of blinking lights.  The red turned to yellow, and then extended down to a slit of white before fading to a pale blue and almost disappearing altogether again.  The pilot’s screens, however, were going crazy.  That faint blue line in space was, for the pilot, a kaleidoscope of color and energy that radiated wildly in every direction.  The jets were shut off again, and the quiet stillness of their approach in the face of the chaotic screens made Cael feel discombobulated.  He looked back to the screen that showed the unenhanced view and his stomach turned further.  He struggled to push down the feeling of vertigo as they seemed to fall toward this crack in space.

It seemed like they had been right on top of it before.  He waited for the ship to pull away from him. That slight stretch as the ship would sink through the tear in the fabric of time an space.  Why was it taking so long?  Why in the hell had he asked to come watch this??  How would Ilya hold up?

A hand on his shoulder made him jump.

“Cael, are you okay?”

He turned around and looked up at Alberich’s concerned face.  He turned back to see a new, brighter sun floating in empty space on the screens.

“We’re through, then?”

“Hey, boss.  Listen to this.”

The pilot flipped on the radio.  It cut into a recording of a woman’s smoky voice.

The boss leaned forward.  “Ah, she’s talking that commons speak too fast, what is she saying?”

Cael listened through the recording a couple of times before repeating it in Sakhimi.

“On behalf of de Moun nan Rebellion, you are welcomed to de newly liberated Riga System.  All former contracts with de Manana Corporation will be honored in good fait’.  Please, come join us in a new beginning!”

The boss’s eyes bulged in alarm.  “… WHAT?”