Read on faithful, uh, reader! Chapter 36
Anto Klarisen hurried to keep up with the small parade the plump Explorien led. She was Ignezzia, or more properly Centurion Ignezzia, a middle ranking Explorien who was known to everyone in this group. There were too many Exploriens to know everyone, but just about everyone in the organization had a connection to everyone else. Ignezzia was in charge of supervising the cadets on Space Station Gemini, where all five of the Exploriens who trailed in her wake had trained. What would she want with them now? How had she even known they were here? Why was she here?
Ignezzia led them into a room that appeared seldom used, a simple place that had the feel of a classroom, or a study. She promptly sat behind the desk, and motioned for the others to make themselves comfortable. Anto very nearly goggled at the short Aravillian; first, she sternly collects them as if they had committed a crime, then she seems uncaring and friendly! Anto remembered Ignezzia well; she was a kindly woman who liked to smile, but she could be stern when she wanted, and had little patience with cadets who broke rules.
"Now." Ignezzia said as she was settled. She wore her hair in a bun, which was more grey then not, and small silver stars and moons dangled from her hair, in the fashion of the Aravillian Clan Laventia. "So as not to alarm you, I will explain why you are here, and why I am here." Her voice was like Yenne's, but it had a touch of arrogance to it, as if she was used to being obeyed and expected it. Her accent was less, and Anto sometimes forgot she had one. "The High Commander sent for me a week ago, saying you were on your way, and I came as soon as possible. Stars and Moons, what a ride I've had!" She arranged her hair where a wisp had come loose into her face. "But that is not the here and now. I am here to instruct you in the duties, responsibilities, and privliges of an Explorien, which you all are. You might have had the skill to come home on your own, but you do not know everything, never think you do, I always said." Ignezzia was short, rare for an Aravillian, but she managed to loom, her plumpness seeming to loom over the five cadets. Anto winced in his head; he was NOT a cadet any longer; Ignezzia had to realize that. "Tell me everything." Her bronze eyes glittered.
Anto gulped, and looked at the four other people who sat in the room. Well, David, Shaylor, and Yenne were sitting; Bantu stood stiffly. Did they trust Ignezzia? The High Commander told them to be careful of who they trusted, and she goes and apparently trusts anybody who falls into her lap! Anto looked at everyone else, until he noticed the dangerous glint entering Ignezzia's eyes, and suddenly felt the need to confess to everything he had done in his life. David saved them all.
"The High Commander has ordered us to put our past ordeal behind us, in an effort to heal." He smiled placidly, and calmly, as if it was simple ungarnished truth. Anto winced a little; being a defense Explorien, he had studied some psychology, and he knew trying to forget the past never healed, but he also knew Ignezzia had been a Communications Explorien before being promoted.
Unfortunately, it appeared Ignezzia did not believe it, and when she opened her mouth Anto was sure they would have to explain both a suspicious past and a lie. But Ignezzia did not pursue the question further, but her bronze colored eyes still glittered. "Well, I suppose there is some logic in that. I have always believed in telling people what they need to know, and you need to know some things. If you are to be Exploriens, no matter how wrongheaded raising you was, you will be Exploriens, not excuses for Exploriens." Ignezzia sounded hard, then she stood and drew herself up to full height, straining for every inch. "You will meet me here twice a week right after breakfast, and not a moment later." Then Ignezzia swept out of the room.
Yenne looked incredulously after her, and Anto shared the sentiment displayed by his fellow Explorien. What game was the High Commander playing? Anto had an image of he, and the five others, as large pieces on a chess board, of the High Commander moving them to her own design. But if she was trying to unearth a secret foe, why did she trust every person that fell into her lap, and why did she do things like setting Ignezzia on them behind their collective back. Unless Ignezzia was sho'gan vin. The idea chilled Anto's bones, a frost settling into his marrow, and he shivered despite himself. They treaded deep waters here, and the next step could put them under.
David Morrison stalked down the halls of the Central Command, glaring at nothing, seeing nothing, just concentrating on sending out waves that said ht anyone who bothered him would be severely sorry. He didn't know where he was going; it was almost two in the morning, but the Central Command was still abuzz with activity, if a muted buzz. He was high up, now, but since there were no windows in this part of the Central Command- not in most areas of the Central Command -he did not even think of the fact he was more then a mile above the ground. He just stalked.
Without knowing what he was doing David walked out into the catwalk area. What this was was a walkway suspended over a drop; the hollow centre of Central Command that was where waste and other things were dumped far into the bowels of Velex to be incinerated. This was renowned as a place for thinking, sitting with your legs dangling off into what seemed an infinite drop. David did just that. He had been here only once before, during his five week ‘primer' ‘suitability' tests, where each candidate for the cadets were screened to see if they possessed the strength of will be live as an Explorien. It was almost the same circumstances that had led him here then as it was now, although then his mind was troubled by petty things, and now his mind was preoccupied with the fate of the known Universe. God, how could any sleep with that on their minds?
David sat, staring down into the drop that never seemed to end. The Central Command was almost two miles high, and it descended so far into the earth, that a drop from the top went on for more then four miles before hitting the incinerator on the bottom. A popular method of suicide, if David remembered his gossip, although there was no record of it. David never recognized the fact that Exploriens kept tight control over what was left of the news industry.
He felt so disenchanted with it all. his whole childhood he and Anto had played at being Exploriens, his entire education had aimed at it, and now that he truly was one, he had to devote his life to rooting out Exploriens who used- no, abused! -their uniform to serve vile evil. For unknown purpose. David just sat there like a useless lump, which was what he was in truth. Despite the black clothes with the tee shirt colored blood red, despite the fact he was an actual member of the most powerful organization in the Known Universe, he was useless and stupid when it came to stopping the sho'gan vin. Why, he should jump from this catwalk right now-
Suddenly there was a shove from behind him, panic filled David even as it happened, and David's heart leaped out of his throat as he fell in a jerk, hands catching the railing. There he dangled for a second, feet swinging off into the unfathomable drop that loomed below him. David gasped as his grip suddenly slipped for a split-second. "Ohmygod..." he breathed. He looked over his shoulder, and suddenly things spun, and his precarious grip to the edge lessened. "Oh God!" He yelled out, then let loose a couple of real curses. "I didn't mean it about the jumping!" He yelled in a frustrated manner, as if God had heard him thinking about jumping, and then had done him a favor by pushing him. Slowly pulling himself up, inching back onto the catwalk, David cursed himself. All those tests of alertness so many years ago, and now he was so lost in his thoughts he could simply slip off of a stable catwalk. He was halfway up, and David began to feel relief flood his limbs, warmth after the cold shock, when he noticed a Krigoni female standing there, regarding him as he slowly ascended with icy curiosity. No panic, no felling for the person who had almost dropped three miles into an incinerator... nothing was in the Krigoni's black eyes. David shivered, which made his arms wobble, then yelled out in an unsteady, wavering voice. "Help me!" He could probably make it up himself, but help would be more then appreciated.
However, the female, who was an Explorien Sentry, judging by her trimmed black uniform, actually showed shock. Maybe she had not heard him fall, had not heard the curses and yelling as he had dangled precariously over the drop. She glided towards David, and he prepared to extend his hand. God, how could he be so unaware, to slip off a catwalk?
However, as the Krigoni female, icily imperious, reached David, she cooly kicked his face. Shock filled David so completely, his face burning from her blow, his limbs already weakened by his near death experience, that he let go as a reflex without thinking. Instantly David fell, and the little air he had left in his lungs went into a scream.
* * * ************************************************* * * *
Shaylor sat idling nervously with a blade of highgrass in the water gardens located on level 13 of the Central Command. He was waiting for Audua, and the tinkling sounds of small fountains, and artificial streams did nothing to soothe him, and made him think only of bathrooms. The bench was hard, and Shaylor shifted. You would thin with all the technological wonders of the day, there would be decent benches for sitting.
It was approaching evening, and Shaylor gave a little start as small lights appeared everywhere, lighting up the small waterfalls, illuminating the fans of water in the lilly padded pools. A couple of Exploriens walked in the dim light, and it was easy to forget you were in the largest building ever built, easy to believe you were in an idyllic water garden of which Krigon was famous for.
"Boo." A voice whispered behind Shaylor's back, and he jumped about a foot. Suddenly he was standing- he didn't remember rising -and whirled to face Audua. "Stars and Moons..." He breathed. "Do you realize you could be Dantu, or one of his ilk?" He tried to be angry with the beautiful Ingori woman, but it was impossible; one look at those vaguely cat-like eyes, and anger melted. He just looked at her for a moment, then blushed furiously, then instead of being embarrassed he decided it would be best to act as if nothing had happened. Suddenly he looked again. "Stars and moons! What do you have on!" He knew it was bad to use the same exclamation twice in a short period, yet he was unused to seeing Audua in anything but purest white robes.
Audua was dressed in clothes that reminded him of Yenne, yet the way she wore them made them seem even... less.
"These are accepted clothes for an Ingori sikis; the rules have been lessened in recent years in an effort to attract more believers." Audua made a dismissive gesture with one of her four thumbs. "So, Shaylor, let us sit." Suddenly they seemed to both gain uncertainty, or loose haste.
"Um.... Ok." Shaylor said unsurely. He had no idea why Audua had told him to meet her here, and the few ideas that had come to him were so foolish that he rejected them outright. Suddenly, he noticed something resting just above Audua's breast, something heavy, and green, made of something like jade, visible only because of the clothes she was wearing. "Audua.... is that the ring I gave you?" he asked incredulously. "I had no idea you kept it, let alone wore it around your neck, that is.... ah...." He could think of no other way to finish. Audua had no interest in him, aside from maybe as friends, he was sure. Yenne had been trying to get them together ever since they had left Aravil, he was sure, but Shaylor would not ruin a friendship by falling in love- or by revealing that love, in the very least -and he was sure Audua would make the first move, despite Yenne babbling about her not being bold enough.
Audua mumbled something to herself, something he was sure that he wasn't supposed to hear but did, owing to his Krigoni heritage. Krigoni did have sensitive hearing, after all. Something about the waiting period being up, and it being alright as long as they did not.... coloring fiercely, he straightened and tried to listen to the rest. Finally she appeared ready to speak in a normal tone. "Oh course, Shaylor. I have heard it said a Terran will give a ring if he is interested in a girl." She smiled blandly. "But then, you are not Terran, nor are you Krigoni. You are a mixture, and you were raised on Aravil." Shaylor stiffened. A crossbred, was what he was, and some people called beings like Shaylor, and they invested the word with as much hate and scorn as any racial slur. It was tough not having a race to call your own.
"Um... err.... ah....." Shaylor hemmed and hawed, trying to make sense of what Audua was saying.
"You have given me the interest gift, have you not? And if you do not act further within thirty two days, I may act, also true. Well, I am acting." Audua seemed afraid to be honest, but determine not let Shaylor know exactly what she was saying.
"No, I mean, I didn't mean the ring like that, exactly, but... ah.... that is if you thought so...." Shaylor railed off, and he was afraid his face would burn off. "What are you implying, Audua?" He finally got out.
Audua grimaced almost fiercely, and her eyebrow ridges, delicate raised lines, drew down. "I am saying.... Oath of the Ancients, Shaylor, I love you!" She burst out, then appeared almost cold. "Say something, you oaf." She snarled. Shaylor gulped, and remembered a story Yenne had told him about a week ago, about Audua drawing a knife to her when she had thought Yenne had insulted her. Shaylor coughed, and looked around the garden for inspiration.
"Uh, I am... fond of you, Audua, that is.... Did David put this up to you? He did, didn't you? I knew I wasn't worth loving, no one ever has, no one will, and..." He clamped his mouth shut. This was a friendly chat, not a therapy session. Suddenly he was very conscious of his windpipe as Audua calmly put her elbow against his throat. He could barely breathe.
"Look, I'm tired of your self pity, you no self esteem. If you have any wrongheaded beliefs about yourself, say them now." She deliberately took out her dagger, an intricate silver thing, narrow, so as not to draw much blood, edge gleaming as if it was sharped often, then laid it before her on the moss. "I will hear no insult."
Shaylor stared. Simply stared at the Ingori woman, who stared back expectantly. Finally, he came up with one, and that opened a flood gate. "I'm too ugly-"
"Really, you're quite handsome." A smiling Audua offered, eyes smiling proudly. Proud!
"And I'm stupid.-"
"Actually, you're one of the smartest people I know."
"And I'm a coward-"
"You've never been a coward ever since I've met you."
It went on like that, him naming one of the countless flaws in himself, and she countering it with the opposite. Finally, late in the night, when all the other couples had gone off to find a room, they were still sitting on the bench, arguing over whether or not Shaylor was good or worthless. Finally, near midnight, it wound down. It had been the most amazing conversation Shaylor had ever had, easily.
Audua went up on tip toes to kiss Shaylor lightly on the cheek. "We will go slowly, Shaylor, but I hope you realize that you have friends, and you're loved." She blushed, orange deepening to red, but left as self possessed as Shaylor had ever seen her. Stars and Moons, she was beautiful.
WHAM! David's limp body crashed into a flat platform that jutted out into the fall. The air that was left in useless lungs whooshed out, and David lay still on the metal, a small trickle of blood tracing its way down his chin, until it dripped slowly onto his already blood red uniform. Suddenly, he coughed twice, and small droplets of blood sprayed into the air. Wincing, he tried to feel his head, but soon pain enveloped him again, and he lay still on the platform, dead, alive, it was impossible to tell. However, after a few minutes, it was apparent his unconscious body was slowly, with glacier-like meticulous slowness, inching for that second drop, the one that would make the last seem a pleasant dream.
* * * * * * * * *
Yenne sat in her room. It was past midnight, but her mind was troubled. She kept worrying about Shaylor, and Audua, and David, for some reason. Something pricked in the back of her mind, something ominous and dreadful, a feeling of blackness in the marrow of her bones.
David had said... wait. When she thought of David, the prickling feeling increased in intensity. Something was wrong, or her name was not Yenne of Clan Valavan. On a whim- it was important to follow your whims, in Yenne's sense -she picked up her cell phone and speed- dialed David.
One ring... two.... three... four... Yenne was sure that her hunch was right by the third ring, and each successive ringing made her even more sure, even more certain, then she had been an instant before. Something was wrong, something wasn't right, and she had to do something. Stars and Moons, she remembered the day when she had thought of herself as brave, but recent events had taught her different. She was brave, but not as brave as someone in an Aravillian Holy Book, like Graendos, in Mhythios, and Hailenne from the Lagada, or one of the Goddesses in the Fademme. She would do what needed to be done, and could not do more.
After the seventh ring Yenne hung up, and speed dial Shaylor. It rang three times.
"Uh... hello?" He said thickly. Her half-bred friend had probably been sleeping, Yenne guessed, but would not mind being woken up for this.
"Something is wrong with David... I have a bad feeling." The blackness was settling in her bones, a second layer of scum, covering the sickly green sense of wrongness she had felt first on Nu.
"Alright... I'll get Bantu up, and we'll run a search with the Central Command Central Computer (CCCC)." Shaylor said. Anyone not raised on Aravil would have been angry at being woken up for a hunch, but Yenne knew that Shaylor was aware of how often an Aravillian's hunches were correct.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Susan Morrison frowned in thought. Here she was, a cadet- first class, no less! -and she was participating in something that would get her expelled if anyone found out about it, even her dearest friends. But it was nessecary, nessecary because of the very reasons she wore the uniform of the cadets, with the small badge on her collar signifying 1st class.
It had been David's death three years ago, unexplained and without even a body for the funeral, the lack of an investigation, the very lack of a reason why, that had compelled Susan towards the Exploriens, although she had often played at being a Commander before with her small friends, when young. She would find out what had happened to David, and why it had been covered up.
That had been the beginning, one year ago, when she had passed her suitability courses, and had been sent to Space Station Taurus, orbiting Aravil. However, after a scant three months, it was clear she was among the top 10th percentile of Cadets, was promoted to 1st class, and transferred to the Central Command. It had also been the start of this nameless organization, the on whose meeting she was presently attending, deep in the bowels of the Central Command. She rearranged her thick blonde hair, pulled back in a simple pony tail, and with startling blue eyes regarded everyone around the simple, rough hewn table.
No names were given- doing such a thing as they were, hunting out the evil, was illegal no matter how right and just - but she recognized most people anyways. Ilsha Giashu, the Krigoni female who was Susan's roommate, sat directly opposite, and three others, two who she knew by name, shared the table. The sho'gan vin had touched them all somehow, and they were determined to root it out no matter what the cost.
Suddenly, Ilsha cocked her head, pale blue face set in worry. She trusted everyone here, and was remarkably warm hearted for a Krigoni. For a Krigoni being the operative part of that phrase. "I hear something." She said, her voice more friendly snow then cold hard ice. "A phone." This time, owing to the quiet, Susan heard it as well. It sounded twice more, then stopped. "This way, out onto the landing." That was what they called the simple metal platform that extended into the central dropping shaft of the Central Command.
Susan led the way, and almost fell off into the precarious darkness when she saw. "Oh..... mygod." She said faintly. "David?" Susan called more loudly, her voice echoing off the sides of the drop. Her older brother, who she thought three long years dead, was lying there on the metal! Could it be?
"You're not helping him just standing there." Dranton, the muscular Velexian, said, and he moved with haste, but somehow seemed calmly sure he would arrive before David slid off. He was sliding, Susan realized, and would soon fall, this time surely to his death. Had he fallen here? If so, it would be a miracle for him to live. God, he was supposed to be already dead! If he died again! She was making no sense. Dranton dragged David carefully into their secret room. "He's hurt badly."
Susan found herself again, and was soon taking charge once more. She was sort of the leader of their little group, and she was the one who decided what they did more often then not. "He needs a doctor..." She began, and silently squeezed David's hand, which was cold and clammy, but still held life. Hold on, big brother. She thought. I don't know how this is, but you're not going to die as soon as I've found you again.