A Stranger in the Night
There were few things that Veska enjoyed more than an evening storm. They always made her feel like something exciting were about to happen. It had to do with the electricity in the air and the trembling in the ground. Every time the sky cracked, you could feel the life and power of everything around you. It was your choice in that instant to fear the will of nature, or let it fuel you.
A month from now, the thrill of being locked inside by the torrents of a summer swell would fade. The storms to come would frequent at least three times a week. And even if the thunder didn’t show, the incessant rain always made an appearance. But for now, it was new and it was exciting again, and Veska was determined to savor it for as long as she could.
At the moment, Veska sat reclined in her living room with her feet up. A light, knitted blanket was across her lap. A cup of li plum tea sat on a nearby table, its purple steam floating with the grace of a dancer on the cool evening air.
Veska was going over her assigned reading for the week, making annotations as she went. Before settling in, the young lady had donned a hefty pair of thick-rimmed glasses. They had no lenses, and were purely for show. But wearing them made Veska feel smarter, as silly as that sounded, and helped her to concentrate.
Kala had teased her about them once, blatantly stating that, in her opinion, wearing fake glasses when you didn’t need them was ridiculous. She hadn’t meant to be cruel about the remark, and later apologized for it, but the moment stuck with Veska and instilled in her a self-conscious embarrassment about wearing the beloved frames around other people. Now, she only ever wore them when she was alone, and a study night like this seemed the perfect occasion.
Adjusting the glasses, Veska reached for her tea. She brought the small stone cup to her lips and blew cool air across the surface of the steaming liquid before closing her eyes to savor the first taste.
Just then, there was a knock at the door. Veska’s eyes opened, her drink poised in her hands, the fragrant steam playing in her long lashes. That can’t be right, Veska thought. Surely, she must have misheard the distant thunder. But even with the thicker ear pads she had put in to compensate for the storm, Veska felt fairly certain it had been the distinct sound of three steady knocks upon the door and not the crash of lightning that had caught her attention.
Curious, she waited to see if the noise would come again. It did. As clear as day. What was almost more surprising, and somewhat unsettling, than the fact that someone was unexpectedly knocking at this time of night in the middle of a storm, was the polite and patient nature behind the sound. As if it meant to say, ’no rush here, just checking in.’
Veska set down her drink, threw the blanket off her lap and made her way towards the side entrance. Grabbing a shawl on her way, she wrapped it around her shoulders, covering her bare arms in anticipation of the evening's chill.
Though the situation was unusual, Veska had no reason to suspect anything of a sinister nature. Someone was outside in the pouring rain. So, without hesitation, she turned the lock and opened the door.
A tall figure stood just outside the circle of light that pooled from the open doorway. She saw right away that the person was not Hantae, so their unusually tall stature caught Veska by surprise. She was used to looking down at most alien species she had met, but this individual stood at roughly her same height. It lifted its chin, revealing the angular face previously concealed beneath the wide brim of an officer’s cap. Veska noticed the eyes first, shining at her through the darkness, one dark brown, one a crystal blue.
The evening visitor raised a hand to its hat, tipping it respectfully as it addressed her, “Good evening, Miss Leahy. My name is Vico Dioli. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to have a word with you. May I come inside?”
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Veska asked, “I just made a pot of li plum. It’ll help warm you up after that nasty fall.”
Dioli looked down at himself. The evidence of his mishap was splattered all over his coat. “Yes, thank you.” He said, and proceeded to wipe some of the mud from his boots.
Veska was about to head for the kitchen but stopped when she saw the way the stranger was dragging his feet against the entry mat. While he was preoccupied, she looked him over, her eyes landing again on the phaser rifle that was slung across his back.
“There’s a walk-in dryer just through there. If you wouldn’t mind leaving your boots and your rifle by the door…” He looked up at her. Veska fidgeted, but continued. “I’d appreciate it.”
He seemed to think for a moment, scrutinizing her and the situation. To her relief, he nodded and carefully propped his weapon against the wall. Veska gave the man a shy smile and left him to dry off.
Pouring a second cup of tea, she platted some marple biscuits in case he was hungry, and returned to the living room. Veska collected her text books and folded the throw blanket she had been using, finishing just as her guest reemerged. His clothes were still dirty, but at least they weren’t dripping with rain.
Dioli wasted no time making himself comfortable. He parted the walls of his large duster as he plunged into the nearest chair, revealing a colorful outfit beneath his black coat and the gilded hilt and scabbard of an impressive-looking sword. Veska looked at the weapon and then back at the man. He met her silent question with a smirk that said, ’Where I go, it goes.’ Veska sat a little straighter, maintaining a firm grasp of the warm stone cup in her hands.
She wasn’t frightened, but she was wary. Swords weren’t a common weapon used on Ursus anymore. But, judging by the peculiar way the stranger was dressed, maybe it was just part of his uniform.
He spotted the refreshments she had laid out and went after them eagerly. All the while Veska kept her eyes trained on the complicated lines around the man’s mouth, watching the way they moved and changed as he took quick, but deliberate bites.
Now that she could see him clearly in the light, Veska was able to identify what he was. Mr. Dioli was a Devourer. She had never met one of his kind in person before tonight, but seven years of xenology helped her to recognize the distinguishable form of his jaw and the shapes it carved into his gaunt cheeks. Her gaze drifted across the man’s face, taking in his full lips, his manicured mustache and the dark makeup that was painted heavily around his multi-colored eyes.
In studying her guest, Veska also noted the bent shape of his nose. It looked like it had been broken, likely more than once, which was shocking for a Devourer. Their people were known for their flexible skin and adjustable bone structure. She wondered what could have happened to him to inflict such permanent damage.
Finishing the biscuits, Dioli wiped his hands and mouth with a silk handkerchief pulled from his breast pocket. The colorful fabric was then carefully folded and tucked back into place.
Now his attention was on her and Veska was left wondering what to say to the man. Her face started to grow warm under the scrutiny of the stranger’s gaze.
Is he studying me? She wondered. Veska supposed that was only fair, after all she had been shamelessly starring at him for the past several minutes. I wonder what he sees in me?
“Your glasses are fake.” He said. The observation was as much a blatant statement as it was a harmless remark, but hearing it instantly set Veska’s face aflame with flushed embarrassment. She had completely forgotten about her stupid glasses! Quickly she took them off and folded the frames sheepishly in her lap, her cheeks burning a deep purple.
“They’re for studying,” she all but blurted out. Veska’s ‘cool composure’ had been shaken and the time for casual observations with a mysterious Devourer had past. “Anyway, what can I do for you, Mr. Dioli? It’s awfully late and I have a big exam tomorrow.”
He didn’t answer her, but glanced around the room instead. He eyed the light fixtures, the plants and the wall cubbies where the family’s books and trinkets sat on display. Reaching into his coat pocket, Dioli retrieved a round, hand-held device. A few keys were pressed on the sensor pad which caused the small dome at its center to hum and rise into the air. The pod stopped a few inches above the base in Dioli’s hand and hovered there.
“Before we begin,” he said, “I’d like to do a quick sweep of the area, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.” He pressed the pad with his thumb and sent the dome zooming forward. Vesak dogged the device as it swooped past her shoulder, swinging her head around to see it scanning the room’s various nooks and crannies in a meticulous flyby.
“Hey, now wait a minute! You can’t just snoop through my things without permission.” The beads that hung around her face swung and clacked together as she turned back toward him. Letting this stranger into her home maybe hadn’t been the best idea.
“I’m just scanning for bugs.” Dioli said calmly, “I have to be sure no one’s listening.” The pod returned and landed smoothly on its base, glowing a soft blue before turning off. Satisfied, Dioli put the disk back in his pocket and reached again for his cup.
“Who would be listening? It’s just me here.” Veska tried to keep her tone light, all the while growing steadily more wary of the sword-barring man she had let into her living room.
He must be paranoid, she thought, and instantly brought to mind the stories she had once heard of astronauts plagued by ‘space madness.’ A lot of strange things could happen to a person up there. Again, Veska’s train of thought went to the man’s broken nose and the trauma that could have caused it.
He met her gaze, “The Federation has been monitoring you, Miss Leahy. That’s why my visit had to be unannounced. I apologize for the late hour, but we’re running short on time. It’s about your sister, Kala.”
A switch flipped inside her and suddenly Veska's senses were on full alert. She set down her tea and leaned forward. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“Sometime in the next few days, the Federation will inform you that your sister has been killed.” Her eyes widened with fear but he continued before she could interject. “This will be a lie, but it is very important that you act as if you believe them.”
Struggling to filter the avalanche of reactions and questions tumbling inside her, Veska sputtered for a moment, her mouth agape. “What?! That doesn’t make any sense. Why would they tell me that if it wasn't true? And what do you know about it anyway? Kala is... is safe, at Station Fifty-Nine."
"That's the last you've heard from her?" Dioli asked, genuinely surprised. "That was over six standard months ago."
The fact that he was correct about the length of time between her and sister's communications told Veska that Dioli was at least somewhat informed on Kala's situation, but that didn't mean this stranger was telling her the truth.
He hadn't shown her any credentials, and his uniform gave nothing away as to whether or not he was a reputable source of information. In fact, the man's costume implied quite the contrary. Dioli looked like an -albeit epic- hodgepodge of eclectic galactic fashion that seemed to span multiple galaxies and cultures.
Veska reined in her initial reaction and gave Dioli a stern, questioning look."Why should I believe you?" She asked. "I don’t even know who you are.”
“Who I am is not important, in fact it would be better if you don’t know. That will make lying to the Federation easier when they come to you later. As for whether or not to believe me, you’ll be pleased to know that you don’t have to choose. Once we’re done talking here, I’m going to transmit a CQC..." he paused, "That's a cross-quadrant communication."
"I know what it means." Veska replied.
Dioli nodded and raised a hand apologetically, "A CQC to your sister’s location. Then you’ll be able to see her and she can tell you herself.”
This was unreal. Veska felt as if she had been suddenly thrown into an alien espionage thriller. The mysterious stranger, the secrets, the collusive government conspiracy. To be honest, part of her loved it. If not for the fact that any bad news involving her sister set her stomach squirming, Veska would have otherwise jumped at the opportunity to participate in something this sensational.
Chewing on her lip, she sat for a moment, taking her time to collect her thoughts. Veska glanced up at Dioli. He looked back expectantly, almost impatiently.
“Kala is safe, right? Wherever she is? Before we do anything else, I need you to promise me that.”
Not bothering to delve into the inherent fatuity of trusting the promise of a complete stranger, Dioli nodded and did his best to look genuine. If this gets me out of here faster...
“I promise.” He said.
Veska leaned back a bit, her shoulders releasing some of their tension. “Alright then. How do you plan to send a CQC?”
“From my ship,” he said, rising from his chair. Lightning stuck close by, drawing Dioli’s attention to the storm raging outside. “It’ll be easier if the signal doesn’t have to breach the cloud cover.” He glanced at Veska. “Have you been in a space cruiser before?”
Veska’s eyes widened, momentarily mesmerized by the idea of riding in an actual interstellar starship. But caution quickly reeled her back to Ursus. She paused, squinting at Dioli as he readied to leave.
“How do I know this isn’t all a trick so you can kidnap me or something?”
He chuckled then, and surprised Veska with the musical inflection of his laughter. “Don’t worry, you’re not my type. And I don’t mean that as an insult," he said, shrugging casually. "It’s just nature.”
Dioli winked at her then, confirming a hunch she had from earlier.
As he made for the side door, Veska stopped him. “Where are you going?”
He paused, “…Back the way I came?”
“Up Acaleerah?” She asked, her tone heavy with skepticism.
This time it was Veska’s turn to chuckle. Walking back towards the kitchen, she retrieved a key fob from the ceramic bowl in the hallway. Veska then stepped into a nearby closet, and came out holding a long metal bat.
Propping the bat against her shoulder, she dangled the fob from her finger. “This will be faster. Where did you dock?”