Not knowing quite what to expect, Malak cracked open the flap out to the tunnel gingerly and met with a blast of frigid air that damn near took his breath away. Refrigerated cold made a valiant attempt to sneak past his body in an attempt to suck the warmth from the room beyond. Shivering, despite the layers of thick clothing, Malak edged forward, sealing the opening behind him. Rab would skin him for sure if he got cold. Colder, he amended.
For some reason the Terran claimed he felt the slightest draught, though Malak remained unconvinced and privately thought Rab enjoyed the challenge of ruffling any nascent calm out of sheer bloody-mindedness or boredom. For nigh on two days, then, while the storm raged, battering at the tent, which thrummed like the strings of a guitar, and their small shield generator maxed out keeping them from, in the first instance, freezing to death, and second, buried in snow, they'd engaged in needling each other. It passed the time. He hadn't wanted to kill him more than once.
Hard blue light spilled through the opening, a sudden shock of laser brightness, when he pulled apart the seam. Blinking back tears from the glare, he peered through his lashes, squinting at the outside. Steam jetted from his mouth. Backing into the relative darkness of the tunnel, he searched through his jacket pockets for his visor, locating what he didn't want first: dagger... check... string... check... dried meat and fruit... check. He found it in an inside pocket, its slender shape muffled by the thick layers surrounding him, and gave it a thorough inspection before setting it over his eyes. The shield wrapped round his face, misting before it hummed to active mode.
Scrambling forward again, Malak hissed with pleasure when he emerged into a brilliant day, the sudden bite against his skin a shock. Stretching his back, his vertebrae gave an audible pop and Malak stamped his feet to shake the stiffness from his legs. It felt incredibly good to get out of the cramped quarters and away from the ripe scent of unwashed bodies. Fresh air spilled into his lungs. It tasted of snow and ice, and he relished the crispness of it against his tongue before the visor adjusted, its parameters set to accommodate for both cold and snowfield. A rapid scan of the surrounding landscape revealed a sea of white. Sculpted by the wind into fantastical shapes, all coloured in different shades of blue and turquoise, sweeping waves of frozen sea foam. As he turned slowly, the tundra came into sharp relief, beyond it the high range of hills where the jointly run outpost operated, and then in the far distance the spires of an abandoned Maker city preserved by polar temperatures rose, glistening needles of jet.
Glancing up at a sapphire sky, the orb loomed, casting its shadow onto the ground, the energy field keeping it there a faint buzz in his ears. He studied it as long as he could bear, hoping, this time, to make out some form of marking, anything that would help them to understand its greater function. It remained a vast pit of nothingness that sucked in awareness like a black hole devoured stars. Thoughts didn't penetrate it - or any physical tool come to that. Not that it stopped anyone from trying, and there'd been countless attempts over the years. He ripped his eyes away, banishing the implacable approach of deadness that accompanied a too long contemplation.
The top layer of snow swirled when he scuffed it, beneath it hard-packed ice, deeper blues shot with pale streaks of green and hints of brown. A slight wind blew individual crystals off the top of the small pile he'd accumulated, sending them scurrying over exposed ice to clump together in the shelter afforded by the sled. The machine glistened, metal parts quicksilver grey from the chill, the markings on its side dulled by scratches and scrapes but otherwise unscathed by the worst the storm had offered.
A cough from behind alerted him. “You gonna stand there all day?”
Malak canted his head to the side, willing to join in. “As good a choice as any, Rab.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I thought you were busy rebuilding the sentinel from the noises you made.”
Rabarn grinned at him, flicking his eyes up at the orb, a flash of white through the thicket of dark beard he sported. A week more and he would start to resemble one of the great apes of Terra. “Yeah right. Proof, Mal, I want proof.” He wandered over to the sled, sliding a gloved hand over its flanks. “Lucky for us it's still here, I guess.”
Malak gave a snort and moved to join his friend, testing the cords holding it in place. “It would have been more surprising if it hadn't.”
A thick brow twitched upwards. “Engineering is good.”
“Good engineering is better.”
“True that,” Rabarn dead-panned, lips pursed in concentration. His visor darkened when he glanced up at the horizon. Nodding at the distant spires, he said, “Trip out that way?”
“I think that would be a good idea.”
“That's what I was afraid of,” Rabarn muttered as he swept the snow crust off the sled's nose. Here and there it persisted, leaving behind a glistening layer of ice. “Better decamp then.”
“You don't sound too enthusiastic?” Ice covered the pins keeping the tent rigid so Malak banged at them with his knife handle, hoping to loosen it up. Chips bounced off, slivers of crystal, but too hard to break entirely. He might as well have been hitting diamond. He glanced over at the other man, and put his knife back in its scabbard. “You worried?”
“Hell yes, aren't you?”
Now he thought about it, Malak could admit to a tightening in his guts and a general queasiness that had nothing to do with Rab's cooking. He gave a shrug, meeting Rabarn's knowing smirk with a brief show of teeth. There were stories. Lots of them. None of them ending in a pleasant way. How many of them were no more than myth was anybody's guess, but the old ruins did resonate at a very deep level – one that turned the marrow in his bones to sludge. Attention back on his task, he unfastened one of their tool packs and reached for a torch, igniting it with a flick of his thumb. Orange light flickered at its tip, the heat intense as it pulsed steadily, changing to cherry red as it grew hotter. Careful to touch only the ice casing, Malak started work, turning them to steam that chilled and turned solid again almost as soon as it hit the ground.
“Asked you a question...?”
A frown tightened Malak's brows. “Thought I answered it.”
“Not so much actually.”
“You're so damn funny.” Attention on getting their equipment stowed, Malak moved in on emptying the tent. “Need a hand here if you're quite finished being an ass.”
“If there was one thing we could claim,” Rabarn said, cheerfully, as he joined in heaving boxes to the sled, “it's that you've got a really great grip on idiom.”
“A most useful tool given the company,” Malak agreed. A noise similar to a strangled cat emerged from his throat when he hefted a container into the rear compartment. Another shove pushed it into place, followed a second later by another wedged into the gap it left. “Careful,” Malak snapped, “you nearly got my hand.”
“Damn,” Rabarn said, with obvious and galling unconcern. He headed away, and if his direction was anything to go by, his next target for packing was the tent. “I'll try harder next time.”
“Both hands. Very useful.”
“Keep 'em out of the way then.”
Malak snorted, both irritated and amused despite himself, but worked it off with physical exertion. Sweat dampened under his arms, gathered in the centre of his back and beaded his brow. Pausing for a moment, he took off the visor to wipe it away, squinted hard at the distant ruins. Above, the sun spat out light but no heat, dazzling as it reflected from the white expanse lying between them and their goal.
“That's the last one,” Rabarn said, interrupting his thoughts, and gave him a thoughtful scan as he settled the large, plasglas container on the sled with a thud, a small cloud of powdery snow rising up around it. Hands on his hips, he nodded towards the silhouette of the city. “We aren't the first to go in there.”
“No,” Malak agreed, not taking his eyes from the horizon. “But let's hope we find something worth the trouble.”
“Let's hope we do, but nothing that'll prefer to chew on our half-baked arses,” Rabarn muttered, opening the sled canopy and swinging into driving position. He was the better at this, Malak reluctantly acknowledged – had been ever since they were boys. Rab's fingers played over the controls. “Ready?”
Finished battening down the equipment, Malak slid in beside Rabarn and checked all his weapons were close to hand. “Let's go. No point in delaying the inevitable, is there?”
Rab snorted, a heavy brow lifting as he considered that thought. “Fully kitted?”
“You bet. If anything so much as shows a pointy tooth...” He exchanged a long glance with his friend. “You?”
Rabarn's mouth curled at the corners, no humour in the expression at all. “Better believe it, Mal.”
"Why do you need
me to go with you?" Ella said, and every syllable struck home
with infallible accuracy. "Explain it to me one more time."
"You are the best choice to deliver the new data about genetics, dear one," Atiron murmured, soothingly, and placed the palm of his hand at the small of her back to usher her towards the platform. "Your voice is the true authority, in this matter, on both planets."
"Oh yes, how could I have possibly forgotten -” she muttered, and rolled her eyes - “of course I am.” The tonal shift hinted she didn't believe him for an instance while her back twitched, as though she wanted to shake him off. “It's so well-documented that we're tolerated across the six for our scandalous lifestyle and even more shocking contributions to the field of biogenetic diversity.” Unable to find a response to turn this aside, Atiron sheltered in silence, edging them both towards the bank of functionaries busy scanning travel documents. Eventually, Ella growled, "You're so full of shit, don't even dare think I'll fall for whatever it is you're trying to spin to me."
A grin twisted Atiron's mouth and he looked down at her, much appreciative of both her temper and defiance. "There are many reasons I admire you, Ella."
"Atiron, shut the hell up. You are dancing on my one remaining nerve." The glare she cut him with should have have cleaved him in two, but it didn't. Over the years, he'd got used to worse, but under his fingers her muscles had tightened more and gave the impression of a grenade ready to go off. She added, voice tight, "You know how you feel about Terran hospitality?"
How could he forget? "Yes," Atiron replied, cautious about saying more and thus left himself wide open for another argument.
"What makes you think I feel any different about the attitudes of your people?"
"I know you do not," he said, hoping this might ameliorate the situation.
In a detached sort of
way he watched a group of about ten step up onto the gun-metal grid,
its bank of lights turning red as it began the power up, while Ella
grumbled under her breath about the likelihood of a
less-than-pleasant welcome. Around the terminal, the safety gates
began their descent, lowering until they were an opaque, glossy
perimeter impervious to all forms of mechanical and etheric
interruption, the figures inside shrouded in a shimmering caul of
pale yellow. Remembering, it impaled him, the free fall. Both death
and resurrection in a single occurrence.
“Pay attention, damn you.” A punch to his upper arm made him glance at Ella again; it hadn't been too hard. This time. "And tell me why the hell you are insisting I attend when you know they'll laugh me out of the Council?"
"They may try, but it is backed by several independent -"
"The majority of whom are Terran. You know exactly how that's viewed."
"Not this time." Atiron shook his head, reaching for her hand and clasped it in his own in an effort to appeal to her. "Ella, we have outside corroboration."
A tawny gaze scanned him, sceptical at first, and then he saw dawning hope begin to filter through her scepticism. "Who?"
"Not who, what."
"When did you hear this and why haven't you mentioned it until now?"
"The implications -"
"Oh don't talk more bull, Atiron, just give it to me straight."
"Not here." Despite their discretion, they'd started to attract attention; Atiron shifted uneasily, uncomfortably aware of covert glances. Ella had narrowed her eyes, suspicious, but fell silent after she'd studied him and gave him a curt nod. "I swear I did not know until a few days ago and that's what drove my decision for you to attend the Council with me."
Surprise flashed on her face and the dull poke that meant she wanted to rifle through his recent memories jabbed at him. Opening up a narrow gap, he swept her where he wanted, imagery shaping until a crystal gleamed in his thoughts, smoky grey, and she seized on it, turning it first one way and then another as she examined it. Privacy filter the narrowest he could manage, Atiron opened other images. Ella flicked through each of them rapidly, pausing over some, and when she found what she looked for, focussed on it with the intensity of a laser.
"That?” There was a pause while her thoughts spun round themselves. “I see."
Atiron tightened his fingers around hers. "I didn't want you to come – it's far too dangerous for you." An undeniable truth. They'd spent so many wasted years attempting to find a place they could settle with impunity. "Tracitral is expecting us, which should prevent too much attention being lavished on our arrival."
“Is she?” Impressions of irritation and resignation ebbed across their link – with which he could sympathise – twisting to a tight coil that Ella beat with iron determination. The sense of it subsided gradually as they waited, until she'd reached a stage of simmering resentment. He brushed her mind, the touch subtle, seeking to calm her further.
“I'm fine,” she murmured and met his concern with a frank look. “I'm not about to run amok.”
“So much is at risk.”
“By the six -” Ella began, frustration leaching back into her voice, but Atiron shook his head, silencing her.
“We are in complete agreement, dear one, on all points.” He squeezed her fingers and then let them go, resting her hand on his forearm. “We must trust each other.” Ella made a rude noise, but relented from her rigid stance, leaning against him while the queue diminished, glacial. A small knot formed at the grid, complete with hand waving and harassed expressions, Atiron noted, and stamped down a faint kernel of annoyance at a possible delay.
“I trust you,” she said, at length and, attention switched back, he gave a soft snort of laughter. A glimmer of a smile tilted her lips. “Mostly.”
“I'll take that,” he said, with mock gallantry, and earned a sharp jab with her elbow. She gave a jerk of her head to the side, and Atiron slid a glance over his shoulder. An anxious presence announced itself.
“First,” said the beset, human, official, who appeared at his side with oily efficiency, hands full of tablet and stylus, “please provide your point of arrival in as much detail as possible. Calibration has failed and the next alignment is within twenty standard minutes.” The young woman's eyes cut towards Ella, curiosity lighting them from within, acknowledging her presence with a murmured, “Processor.”
Ella gave her a stiff nod in return, brow raised in question at Atiron.
Retrieving the slab from the woman's slack grasp, Atiron considered her narrowly, then ran his fingers across its surface, a tingle running up through his fingertips as a faint pulse of energy passed through them. A rapid glance down the screen told him all he needed. He grimaced. “Is this what's caused the damage, Officer...?”
“Veldarm.” The harried expression returned in full measure, disfiguring an otherwise pleasant, open face. “In part. The Machine sent a pulse down the lines and reset the algorithms.”
Atiron's brows lifted a fraction. Had it, indeed? “The previous travellers?”
“Arrived safely, First,” she said, and he could hear her relief. “By a small margin.”
Yes, there were times when alignment failed in a spectacular fashion, resulting in a remarkable, and colourful, display. Fatal for anyone caught in it, of course. “Praise the Goddess Liata,” he said, invoking his family deity. “What can I do?”
Officer Veldarm offered a bow. “Codification will suffice.”
Atiron grunted and typed into the machine, nails clicking against the surface as he input the data. A few swipes across its screen cleared the tell-tale footprints that would lead anyone to personal information, and he handed it back to the officer with a faint smile. “If time is short, you'd best hurry.”
Veldarm spared a glance at the tablet, appeared satisfied, and said, “Follow me, First, Processor, please, if you will.”
“Oh goody,” Ella muttered, sotto voce, “my favourite bit.”
Falling into step beside Veldarm, they waited while she handed over the tablet. It seemed to satisfy the technicians, who plugged it into the grid's main interface with barely a glance. “Please,” Veldarm said, “take your place on the grid.”
As they'd moved in front of a few others still waiting their turn, Atiron smirked. “Are we the test subjects to ensure alignment is correct, Officer?”
A faint hint of colour rose up the woman's neck, dusky skin acquiring a rosy glow that spread to her cheeks. “No... no... First... Processor... not at all...” The appalled expression sitting on her features - that he could suggest such a thing – spoke more than the stumbling, wretched nonsense that burbled from her lips. “I know... that is... we know that your journey...”
“What do you know,” Atiron hissed, leaning forward soon as his feet touched the grid. But she stepped back and the mantle fell in front of them, a cloudy sparkling interference that cut them from the outside and then the silence came.
Atiron's guts seized, clenched in a fist that strangled them and then ripped them apart. Every nerve ending screamed. Every neuron exploded.
Plummeting. No air. No breath. No heartbeat. Senseless entropy.
Drag air into labouring lungs... breath... breath...
Sight returned. Hearing. Life sparked in each cell. For more moments, he hung there, aware of everything and nothing, centring on becoming one.
Nausea and disorientation receded fast and he reached for Ella's hand, fingers tighten about hers for a second, and then he let go. They stepped off the quad together, still shaky, blinking like newborns entering harsh light. A rush of queasiness alerted him to Ella's discomfort.
"You are unwell?"
he asked, concern and affection fighting for dominance when she took
his arm, lightly resting her fingers in the crook of his elbow.
She gave him a wan smile. "I'll do." When he didn't take his eyes off her, she grimaced. "Travel sickness." A sense of well-being washed over him. "See."
Dubious, Atiron huffed. "You are certain you -"
"Don't fuss," Ella whispered. "Look." A jerk of her chin drew his attention to the approach of three figures.
Straightening his shoulders, Atiron tipped his head in acknowledgement when they drew close. He knew two of them well, functionaries from his daughter's estates, but the third he did not. Dark copper hair tied back in a long plait, the male's features were sharp-edged, and from under thinly plucked brows orange-red eyes flickered over Ella with ill concealed distaste. Such an open display of disgust warranted intrusion so he pushed at the male's boundaries; they were solid, hard as the shell of a blantu. Intriguing. There were few he couldn't read and he viewed the newcomer with deeper interest, examining him for clues.
Nothing seemed outside
the ordinary. Shabby, dark green robes with a brown fringed belt tied
at his narrow waist. Long feet clad in sandals, bare to the heat of
summer, showed beneath the skirt, a thin silver chain on both ankles,
dust whitening his coppery skin. Not a thing to either recommend or
warn. Unprepossessing, even. But still, Atiron's nerves jangled a
warning in spite of outward appearances. Perhaps it was the frozen
expression in his eyes when it settled on Ella?
Wrists crossed, Atiron recalled his manners, raising his palms to his chest, which the newcomers echoed politely, murmuring greetings to finish the brief ritual. Niceties dealt with, he wanted answers and eyed his daughter's two favoured advisers, but their faces were stony and gave nothing away. Not even a nod of greeting for Ella though they knew her through working together over the years many, many times. After much initial and uncertain jostling, they'd come to hold her in high regard.
Silence snapped round them, tension building, fermenting with all the eagerness of a particularly noisome broth.
Atiron lost patience and took proceedings into his own hands. Addressing the taller of the two from Tracitral's household, he snapped, "Introductions are in order, Kardom."
"Of course, my Lord." Jolted into action, Kardom bowed, and gestured with one long hand towards the rigid figure standing to the rear. "Lead Geneticist of the Cabal, hTal Cejet."
Atiron lifted a brow, somewhat amused by the use of Cejet's full title and its inherent pomposity. "I am honoured by your presence," he murmured, gracing the tones with merest touch of sarcasm, and touched his brow with his middle fingers. The rings of his rank glittered briefly, but the point had been made judging from the rapid progress of a number of emotions that lit the scientist's aura. Stiffened shoulders helped give it away, too. "I have read a few of your theses -" and he turned to Ella, taking her by the elbow to bring her into the conversation - "as has Processor Jenkin."
Ever gracious, Ella inclined her head, raptor's eyes fixed on Cejet with keen appraisal. At her neck, escaping the confines of the severe style she wore, her dark hair curled in wisps; Atiron effected distraction from the course of what would, undoubtedly, be ludicrous rhetoric. "Yes," she said, her voice languid, dismissive, "and they are quite interesting. Though I would probably question your findings, Lead."
Atiron slid a glance at the pompous Lead through narrowed eyes, careful to quell vicious amusement at that one's expense. Cejet bit off a retort, colour leaching from his copper skin to leave it with a nasty greenish tinge. "I agree, Processor," Atiron said, adding fuel to an already intense fire. "There's been little peer examination of the results, and what there is is inconclusive."
Flames snapped and crackled as Cejet fought his natural tendencies to retort, to offer challenge, aware all attention now fixed on him as they waited for a reaction. A visible shudder passed through his lean frame and he offered a slight bow to Ella; Atiron's esteem for him rose a fraction. Perhaps there was hope for this meeting, after all? "Your own work is also quite useful, Processor."
Ella's lips curled a little, a martial gleam and speculation in her eyes as she scrutinised Cejet. "Perhaps, if there is enough time, we can make comparative studies, Lead?"
Any nausea Ella experienced had fled Atiron noticed, and he grinned to himself. If he knew his consort, and he thought he did, then war had been declared.
"I await your pleasure, Processor," Cejet murmured, but a guarded tone had crept into his voice and deliberation in his attitude.
From small things, Atiron thought, come great achievements. "Now we've acquainted ourselves with each other," he said, jovial, earning a look of disgust from Ella and a raised brow from Kardom, "perhaps you could enlighten us as to your reasons for meeting us before we've even left the terminal?"
Taken aback by such a bold approach, Cejet floundered. Much as he wanted to probe him etiquette forbade it, so Atiron held back and took perverse delight from the way the scientist wriggled while he searched for both plausibility and an excuse. Eventually, he said, "I wished to meet the Processor."
"Indeed?" Atiron grunted, and swept a cold look across him. "Why?"
"Yes, why?" Ella echoed. Curiosity moved over her face. "You would see me at Council." Realisation made her cock her head. "Oh, of course, you wish to dispute the findings of the Hegemony."
"You understand quite well," Cejet said, and made no apology for his breach of manners, "Processor."
Four sets of eyes settled on Cejet, and Atiron vacillated between taking insult or holding a grudge for a later date. He decided on the latter course, one he would examine in more detail when he could bring it to Tracitral's attention.
"Quite," Atiron snarled, the smidgeon of goodwill he might have developed fading like mist, and impelled Ella through and past the three men. Kardom and Recoldor followed in their wake, leaving the Lead with a smirk on his face, staring after them, hot orange gaze fixed squarely at the base of Atiron's neck.
As soon as Atiron thought they were out of hearing range, he muttered, "If he thought -"
"He did though," Ella interrupted, trotting to keep up with his long stride, "and would have killed me where I stood if he could have got away with it."
Kardom hissed, and Atiron snapped, "If you have something to say spit it out, or should I bring this to your lady's attention?" If he could. Yes, there was a bald truth in that. Cejet would have taken Ella's life with no more thought than the slaughter of a herd animal. "Speak."
"First," Recoldor murmured, mildly, "we had no choice but to allow him to attend. He called on your daughter and she agreed to it."
Had she, indeed? That placed a rather different set of rules on what just happened there, and Atiron clenched his hands to fists. Beside him, Ella's features had grown flinty, her aura shrinking until it glimmered at the surface of her skin, no more than a thin sheet of energy. Viewed externally this looked dire, but he also knew Tracitral walked a rocky path that gave her little room to effect an acceptable retreat. As a clan they had to maintain good face and yet also needed to remain impartial, in spite of any attempts to subvert due process in order to colour the judgement of those they called ally. Adept as he was at playing the game, Atiron despised it wholeheartedly. He preferred to deal in honesty and there was little enough of that in good supply.
Outside the terminal, a flitter waited, whirls of silver and purple that merged at its nose to blossom into shades of red into a stylised open hand with an open eye at its centre. A mistral stirred dust on the silvery routes out of the city and sent the long tails of the mastheads to flap and whirl, the tiny bells on their pointed tips ringing with a golden voice. The sun bore down on them, a blistering summer heat and it made Atiron wish he'd worn fewer robes.
"Damn," muttered Ella, and he slid a look down at her. Sweat beaded her brow and ran the length of her nose. "I forgot how hot it gets here."
"And likely to get hotter," Atiron said, without the faintest trace of irony.
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