Disclaimer: This stories contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|The Light of Fallen Stars||Part VIII
My dearest daughter,
I have entrusted the avatar, Dreamer, to bring my last words to you. Whether or not they ever find their destination, I am eternally indebted to him for offering me the second chance I never thought I would have. Should he bear you this letter in person, I ask that you trust him, as I have.
Lirelle, I cannot express my regret and sorrow, for leaving you and your brother so young to the world. I have done my duty to the Empire, but I have failed you as a parent and for that I have no excuse. Never doubt, however, that you are the most precious part of my universe. I love you with a totality that I cannot describe, and there is nothing I would not have done for you...I am sorry that I will never be able to. I won't see you growing up into the beautiful woman you'll become, nor share in the heights I know you will achieve. But remember in some way I will always be with you...believe me when I say that it could never be any other way.
If I could have only one wish, it would be for you and your brother to find life, and embrace it without reservation. Don't rob yourself of your chances for happiness, as I have. The Kinjori are wrong...what matters is not blood, but spirit. My greatest fear is that my death should become a burden to you, or keep you from your future.
There isn't much time left. I have so much more to say to you, but...there won't be a chance. Live well, my daughter. Take care of yourself and Emder. He will grow up, with the pain of never knowing where he came from. But he is strong, and so are you Lirelle. I know you will find your way, and I am so proud. I have attached here a letter for him as well, and if fate smiles and you are listening to my voice, then please present it to him. I don't want him to forget me...or believe that I have forgotten him.
Goodbye, Lirelle. I love you.
Thank you, Dreamer. Please see that this reaches Kinjor.
It would be my honor, Madia.
"There it is -- Nimrud, crown jewel of the Pellidorian Scythe." Dreamer spoke theatrically of the world on the viewscreen, so dazzlingly blue that it seemed wrought of polished lapis. The stars themselves seemed to dance around it, which upon closer inspection became millions of starships of every size and description. The Dream weaved into the ordered fray and took its assigned approach vector.
While virtually every star possessed some number of functional jump potentials within its vicinity, in only rare occasions is a star system vested of the inexplicable characteristics requisite to form a connection with another galaxy. Isis was such a nexus of intergalactic routes, with connections to the Andromeda Galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud. Like the old great trading ports of Earth, planet Nimrud was ruled by the pulsing life-blood of commerce. From it Nimrud and its satellite worlds drew their immense wealth and power. Their grasp of the trade routes was also their assurance to neutrality, as even the most imperious power would take pause before drawing the ire of a hundred nations by attacking such a system.
Sabrin drew in his breath as they approached Forseti Station, widely thought of as the true capital of Nimrud over the official locale planetside. Sabrin had seen still images of large orbital stations, but seeing one in person was an experience onto itself. Forseti was a truly tremendous conglomeration of alloys and composites; a chaotic, tangled spread of intersecting structures laid out in several overlapping series of concentric rings, measuring over a hundred-forty kilometers across its major axis. Once a collection of several spaceborne installations, more than a century of supplemental construction grew together to create a single facility that was at once city, marketplace, stardock, and bastion. If there were any place where they could offload their salvaged cargo for cash without drawing undue attention, this was it.
"Vessel 610H34, please transmit registry and customs documentation to Orbital Control and prepare for precautionary sensor sweep," an automated female voice informed them.
"Uh Dreamer? We don't have any documentation," Tallas said nervously.
Dreamer chuckled at the blonde's naivete. "Relax, I made some up yesterday. If anybody asks you're all free traders with the Irrunosh Corporation."
"I've never heard of that one before," Sabrin murmured.
"Oh, it's the name of a guy I once knew," the android smirked.
"Just how often have you done this before?" Tallas' voice was equal parts doubt, suspicion, and curiosity.
"If it makes ya feel any better, my registry's fake too. I forged it to get into Orion space," Dreamer gave him a wink, which did little to settle the butterflies in his stomach.
"What if they check the papers?" Tallas asked.
"Tal, they don't care," Dreamer rolled his black eyes, "this is Nimrud. Any and all are welcome here -- as long as they have money." On cue, a chime announced an incoming transmission from Orbital Control, with docking instructions, a copy of the station by-laws, and a booklet of advertisements and coupons for first-time visitors. "See?" Dreamer smiled.
Sabrin shook his head without turning around and plotted the course into the orbiting city. Earlier Dreamer reserved them a berth at one of the less expensive docking arcs, thirteen kilometers from the center of the Rosalind Hub. The small vessel inched beside the horizontal docking pylon, and the docking clamps connected with a dull tremor. Dreamer ran through his series of systems checks, displaying his progress on a secondary bridge monitor.
"Alright, what's the plan?" Sabrin queried, rising from the pilot's seat and leaning his well-built frame against Tallas' console.
"I've gotta scout out buyers for all that crap sittin' in the cargo bay. Once we have some cash we can see about makin' this place more livable for you humans."
"Yeah, I always thought that this place could use a major make-over," Tallas mused.
"I meant food and appliances and shit..." Dreamer grumbled, adding, "Smartass."
"Me and Tal can look into that stuff on the station," Sabrin suggested innocently enough, motivated in no small part by the prospect of their first real opportunity to 'hang out' since their perilous escape.
"Oh I see how it is, I slave away all day and bring in the dough, and you boys get to spend it right?" Dreamer said jokingly. Not that he minded work since as a machine he did nothing else almost every hour of the day. In fact, he found the idea of the young pair wreaking mischief aboard the station as they revelled in their newly found freedom to be unmentionably cute. As long as he didn't have to deal with the consequences later.
"Uh-huh." "Yeah." Both young men nodded vigorously with smiles on their faces.
Dreamer shook his head and grinned. "You boys are too much. Just don't be stupid while you're over there. We're not really in a dangerous part of Forseti but that doesn't mean it ain't there. If you wanna talk, use your comlinks and not the public system. And even though they're technically 'illegal' you both should be armed; I'll get ya some discreet weapons to carry."
"You really think that'll be necessary?" Tallas asked with a touch of concern.
"Can't be too careful after what we've been through. I don't really think anythin's gonna happen but just in case, y'know?" Dreamer replied seriously. The two young men nodded. "And I'll also look into findin' you two a doctor to get out those subdermal ID chips."
"Fuck, I totally forgot about those," Sabrin admitted, scratching the spot on his shoulder without realizing it.
"You two are just lucky I came along," Dreamer grinned.
"What about Lirelle?" Sabrin asked quietly. A noticeable pall settled over the three when her name was mentioned.
"I dunno, she hasn't tried to leave her quarters since we got that message," Dreamer said.
"Think she's in shock still?" Tallas asked, fidgeting uncomfortably.
"Maybe," Dreamer shrugged, "I mean, I've tried talkin' to her but she won't answer more than a word or two. I'd almost feel better if she'd yelled at me or somethin' but she isn't showin' any reaction at all."
"Can't imagine what it's like, having your brother killed right in front of you..." Sabrin sighed. The closest thing he could relate it with would be if Tallas was torn away from him in such a violent and visual manner, and that thought was so painful that he felt sick even considering it. He quickly took a few calming breaths and diverted his mind before the thought overwhelmed him. With his eyes lowered to the gray carpet on the deck, he was unaware that the exact same thought was running through Tallas' mind.
A thick silence ensued in the small room, until Dreamer finally cleared his throat to elicit the others' attention. "You two lemme worry 'bout what to do okay? I brought 'er here; it should be my problem." Tallas frowned a bit at Dreamer's assertion that it was solely his problem, but he decided to leave it for now. The truth was that his thoughts were still just as confused as before whenever the subject of Lirelle arose; more so after that message. In all honesty, Tallas had no idea what he would do if it became his responsibility.
"C'mon, I'd better brief you two on the side arms." Dreamer turned and signalled for the two young men to follow.
Lirelle laid back against the wall of her small cabin, sublimating her mind into the ever-dynamic flow of ship traffic outside. More than once on Ledon she whiled away the dreary hours at the tech shop looking out her office window, at the smattering of small vessels transiting to and from their parent craft in orbit. However, even the glittering current which entertained her eyes now were of little comfort. Her entire body felt numb and unresponsive, a reflection of the emptiness within her mind. Over the past few days she could barely motivate herself to eat and drink, and to sleep in the hopes of escaping the demons in her unconscious. The last moments of her dear Emder, whose face she had missed for the better part of five years, played over and over in her mind like a broken holovid.
Something told her that she should be feeling more than what she was, that her mind should be consumed by a brilliant fury spurring her to righteous vengeance like the heroes in those old Kinjori sagas. Instead there was only a pervading sense of loss and defeat, a lingering impression that her fate was handed to her when she betrayed those she cared for and everything she once claimed to hold dear. She turned back to the dim walls of the small cabin and the image in her mind was replaced by that of her three former crewmates. She couldn't say she knew them intimately, but what right did she wield when she placed them in danger? For that matter, what of the millions that would have perished if she had completed her mission? Would Emder have thought himself saved, if he knew she paid for his life with so much blood?
By any measure it was a moot point. The betrayal of this ship and its crew already happened, as did her failure to accomplish that which compelled her to the act in the first place. All she had left was the life she herself damned, at a crossroads all leading to oblivion.
Dreamer already forgave her; she could see it in his eyes back on Vesuvius. Lirelle marvelled at that fact; despite his occasional jarring impropriety the A.I. impressed her more every time they met. She couldn't understand how he could forgive her so easily, which only intensified her guilt whenever she faced him. In fact, every moment she remained aboard the Dream the knowledge that she was being sheltered and fed by the ship and crew she exploited gnawed away at her. They were finally at an inhabited system, and Lirelle realized the time of her imposition was at an end. She would leave them the shuttle, as some measure of atonement for her past transgressions.
Lirelle dressed and gathered what few possessions she had in her quarters, cognizant that the internal sensors were monitoring her and dreading the inevitable conversation. Most of her possessions were still in the locker on deck three, though she planned to pawn most of it anyway on Forseti. The door opened for her without resistance, but she barely took ten steps down the hall before Dreamer's handsome face appeared on a nearby monitor.
"No goodbyes?" the corner of his lip curled up knowingly.
"I...It's better this way," Lirelle said quietly, avoiding Dreamer's piercing gaze. "Where're the boys?"
"Shoppin' on Forseti," Dreamer's black eyes shone inquisitively. "And I'm engaged in some riveting negotiation with a Mr. Amridukale for six canisters of liquid verocesium. Looks like you've got the ship to yourself."
"Look Dreamer...we both know I have overstayed my time here, and I would appreciate it if you would leave me in peace," Lirelle said, resuming her walk. Dreamer's image kept up with her by darting seamlessly from monitor to monitor.
"Riiight...and what exactly d'you expect to accomplish once you've left?" Dreamer asked rhetorically, not preventing the doors to the elevator from allowing Lirelle inside. "Languish at another nobody tech shop for ten years, till you can throw your life away on some suicidal quest for revenge against Nenzeth?" The doors opened again and Lirelle stepped into the now-packed cargo bay.
"I can't stay," Lirelle sighed, "I have no right to be here. Not after my actions."
"Under the circumstances--" Dreamer began.
"You don't know the whole story Dreamer," Lirelle interrupted, turning to lock her eyes with his. Sadness glistened in them and her body sagged a bit as a new wave of pain washed through. "I betrayed you too...if you've forgotten. Don't waste your time playing advocate for the damned." She returned to the locker and pressed her hand on the DNA-sensitive touchpad.
"No Lirelle, I don't know the story. And I'm sorry that you can't live with yourself now," Dreamer's tone was biting, "But y'think you're gonna get the revenge you so desperately want by chargin' off alone on some foreign planet with barely any money and no support?"
"What else am I supposed to do?!" The distress within Lirelle's mind transmuted to a sharp anger. "Remain here and delude myself into believing all is well? Sit around all day fixing grav plating and purging plasma vents while the murderer of my only brother walks free?" She relaxed her jaw and pulled open the locker door, but sifting only half-heartedly through her belongings. A part of her wanted to be convinced and they both knew it; all her life was spent searching, and the Dream was the first place where she felt truly secure. But the guilt loomed over her like an inescapable cloak, and she feared she would suffocate if she saw the accusing looks in the eyes of her crewmates.
"Throwing away your life won't atone for anything; not his death, not the sabotage of this ship -- which, I might add, you made up for later. All you'll do is give Nenzeth peace of mind 'cause he won't have to worry 'bout ya anymore," Dreamer persisted. "Deny him the pleasure. We could use your expertise here."
"How can you forgive so easily?" Lirelle shook her head in disbelief. How can he even stand to see me after what I did?
The dry, short laugh which followed took Lirelle by surprise. "You wouldn't be sayin' that if ya knew me," his eyes grew serious but the smile remained. "Some people're easy to forgive. What you did was...annoying, yes...inconvenient, certainly..." he flashed her an artfully humoring expression which forced a faint smile from her lips, "...but malicious -- I don't think so. And I can forgive a brief lapse of judgment. God knows I'm a guy who should understand brief lapses of judgment," he gave a dashing, lopsided grin.
"This one's some number of years shy of 'brief'," Lirelle muttered self-deprecatingly.
"Everything's brief when it's in the past."
"Is that your way of telling me that I may simply brush away the mistakes of the last five years as though they meant nothing?" Furrows appeared between Lirelle's delicate eyebrows. "Emder died. You, Sabrin, and Tallas almost died. And if I had given Nenzeth the resonator technology who knows how many would've followed." Suddenly she formed a fist and slammed it into the locker door, swinging it forcefully into the one beside it. "All because of me!" She leaned against the lockers and raised a dazed hand to her sleek black hair, trying to keep the tears from forming.
"But you didn't give 'em the technology," Dreamer reminded her. "You know it was the right choice so stop beatin' yourself up over it!"
"I should never have had to make that choice Dreamer!" Lirelle shouted, a few starry teardrops slipping from the corners of her eyes. "And if it weren't for my pride I wouldn't have," she whispered.
"What happened?" Dreamer gently prompted. He was aware that his avatar body had concluded the meeting and called him back to the ship.
Lirelle sighed heavily and resigned herself to finish her confession. She never believed in the old Earth faiths, but at that moment she could see some measure of absolution in another's attentive ear. She never realized how much she needed to share that part of herself with, to unlock the part of her life which had never seen light. Perhaps Dreamer would condemn her for it or perhaps he would understand -- it didn't matter. Her lips moved with purpose as she began her story, set on the capital world Kinjor of eight years ago...
"...I was eighteen then; freshly minted from the Armada advanced placement program with a specialization in engineering. Class valedictorian, four merit recognitions, cited most promising graduate--" she chuckled bitterly. "'Kinjor's brightest rising star'. Everyone knew I was being groomed for the officer track. Hell, they were even taking bets on when I would make admiral."
"There was just one thing marring that perfect image -- my mother's disappearance. Command classified everything; we never even knew there was a second expedition to Seos, much less that she piloted it. Madia had no immediate family left, and we never knew our father, so she took our ancestral lifeline with her when she simply disappeared with no resolution, so long before either me or Emder were of age to carry it on. I heard the whispering in the shadows, of how the Star of Kinjor had a broken heritage. It drove me harder than anything else, to convince myself that I was better for it because I'd accomplished so much without our ancestral birthright. But I knew no matter how far I rose there would always be the unspoken pity in their eyes, the hidden disdain. There were times I hated Madia for severing the lifeline and abandoning us, but even then I missed her so terribly; her face, her scent, her touch. Maybe it was instinctual -- I don't know." Lirelle paused, glancing at Dreamer. The A.I. was listening with a carefully crafted look of interested neutrality.
"Learning what happened to my mother became my overarching ambition. I investigated every option open to me, used all the resources and influence I wielded and some which I did not. Emder helped me where he could -- he despaired as much as I for our mother's disappearance. Finally after three years I traced the silver threads to Seos, and that damned battlefield. I could feel it deep down in my bones: the object of my obsession was right there, in that graveyard... But there were so many questions, and I knew of only one place where the answers to them might possibly exist."
"The Kinjori Classified Archives," a small light kindled behind Dreamer's eyes.
Lirelle nodded painfully, her strained body slowly sliding to the floor. She rested her arms limply on her bent knees and hung her head between them, staring at the dull deck plating. She laughed tragically, the sound more a dry rasp than an expression of merriment. "I was so goddamned cocky. I thought a 23-year-old junior-grade lieutenant could break into the Onyx Hand's sector post at Makkhanur and download secret records from their secured database without being caught. As far as I was concerned I believed I could do anything. Every part of my life was great and I had this vision of the last piece of the puzzle falling into place -- a single piece: that's all I saw it as. I at least had the presence of mind not to tell anyone about the plan--" she shook her head sadly, "except for Emder. We had no secrets from each other and I knew he'd want to help. By then he was in the same program I graduated from and just as confident as I was."
"The covert incursion was textbook; I hacked the security grid and set up a feedback cycle on the scanners. We slipped into the complex through a maintenance conduit and uplinked with the tertiary data junction in the backup computer core -- why I had this installed," she tapped the neural port behind her ear. "Should've occurred to me that it was all too easy; that the Onyx Hand didn't acquire its reputation for being oblivious," she noted caustically. "We were almost out of the compound, Emder behind me, and then I hear this crack...I turn around and there it was, the force-field I thought I'd deactivated, between me and my younger brother. The look on his face as he tapped his fingers against that field--" a few more tears glided from Lirelle's eyes, before they clouded with hatred. "And then he appeared."
"Nenzeth," Dreamer spoke to confirm.
"He knew where we were and what we were doing from my first access of the grid -- didn't catch the permutation triggers in the sensor feed. He was just toying with us, watching to see how many hidden traps we would spring. He said that he was 'impressed', and offered me the choice." Breathing heavily, Lirelle closed her eyes and focused on reining in her emotions. Verbalizing her memory was proving far more difficult than she'd imagined, as with each word she relived the horrible moment. "My quest to find Madia's fate was unchanged, but along with it I was to deliver him the data on Vesuvius' psionic resonators -- it was that choice which bound my soul to the devil. Nenzeth claimed Emder as his 'collateral,' and then handed me the information I destroyed my life to obtain. A week later I suspended my commission with the Armada and headed for Ledon." Lirelle opened her eyes, waiting for disgust to appear on Dreamer's face.
Eternal seconds passed until Dreamer finally said, "Did you expect me to despise you for a mistake you made five years ago?"
"Don't you understand?! If it weren't for me none of this would have happened!" Lirelle's anguished cry pierced the room.
"Maybe not to you, but eventually Nenzeth would've had somebody else go after that resonator, and do god knows what with it. You realize how much good you did by blowing that thing to hell?" Dreamer asked.
"And that's meant to absolve what I've done? I sold my soul to that monster and Emder still died." Finally shimmering drops ran freely from her reddened eyes.
"Emder died so that millions could live. Look I don't know what you believe about fate or predestination or anything like that but the fact is that you were there, at Vesuvius. Whatever terrible mistakes, whatever sins of pride got you there, you were there to obliterate that perversion of technology. Nenzeth will never have it now. No matter what he does or will do, he'll never get what he wants." Lirelle's watery eyes rose to find Dreamer's imaged replaced by the physical form of his avatar, standing tall and solid by the entrance to the cargo bay. His black eyes shone with a fearsome intensity she'd never seen. When he spoke his voice was adamantine and crystal clear, "Deny him that again, Lirelle! Live! Don't let him wipe out your memory, and Emder's and Madia's, the way he wants!"
Moving with subtle, angelic grace, Dreamer approached Lirelle's curled form and crouched down before her. He said softly, "As long as you can go on, learn from your mistakes, follow what you believe -- he can never have your soul."
Ragged sobs tore from Lirelle's throat as all the suppressed pain and anger poured from the place deep within her heart, the cage that she never dared to unlock. Silently Dreamer wrapped his strong arms around her sinewy body, pulling her into the blanket of his body heat and letting her bitter tears splashing into the fabric of his uniform. He knew that they were yet far from the endpoint, but as the two of them huddled on the stark metal floor of the cargo bay, he found new cause for hope. "If nothing else, I want you to know how absolutely amazing you are," Lirelle said from Dreamer's shoulder after her tremors calmed.
Dreamer smiled broadly and ran his hands soothingly over the taut muscles in her back. "Aw shucks, thanks ma'am," he drawled thickly.
That elicited a weak giggle and a light elbow from Lirelle as she drew up and wiped her crusty eyes. "'Ma'am'? You're the elder here," her normally liquid voice was scratchy from crying, but Dreamer was glad to see her wit return. It was short-lived however, as a troubled look returned to her face. "What about boys?"
"They're intelligent adults," Dreamer reminded her tactfully. He stood up and extended a hand to pull Lirelle to her feet. "They'll understand."
"Promise me something though," Lirelle said seriously, "When the time for vengeance comes, you won't hold me back."
"Believe me," Dreamer replied with a thin smile and a deadly earnestness in his eyes, "After the way his cruiser manhandled me out there, he'll wish he'd never been born."
Tallas deftly raised the long, wooden chopsticks and brought the piece of crisped ribbon pasta into his mouth, savoring the diffusion of the mild, feathery taste. A half-hour of searching had found him and Sabrin a reasonably-priced eatery which featured an Orion-native menu. It wasn't quite home, but both of them figured it would be the closest they would ever experience again. In any case given the flavor of their diet since the escape even a simple bowl of takklhi was sheer nirvana. Several bags of clothes, cookwear, and other living accessories sat beside their feet, the result of a morning's worth of foraging. Rummaging through second-rate department store racks and haggling with the vendors for the past few hours brought him a strange sense of peace; engaging in such a mundane and familiar activity had injected some much-needed normality into his frantically surreal life. The fact that Sabrin was trying on clothes right next to him didn't hurt either.
Local time was shifted a ways from that of the Dream, and so from a Nimrudian dietary perspective it was the vacant time between breakfast and lunch. The restaurant was a tiny pocket of serenity in the dazzling sensory feast that was Forseti; the two Orions had been nearly overwhelmed by the sheer number and diversity of peoples streaming about the massive station. Here the mundane freely intermingled with the impossibly exotic; on every concourse could be seen every manner of clothing and adornment; from T-shirts and gowns, to masks and feathers, to veils and chains, to white eyes and violet lips. It was truly a microcosm, of the awesome and wondrous inhabited universe.
A few other patrons milled about quietly, unheedful of the two young men sitting at the table by the window. The man with dark hair set his chopsticks down on the bowl in front of him and leaned into the high-back chair with a sated look on his chiseled face.
"Well I'm full," Sabrin announced, taking a napkin and wiping the last traces of the tangy sauce from the corner of his lips. A brief fantasy of licking off that sauce flashed through Tallas' mind and he blushed slightly, looking away.
"I'll bet. You ate enough for three people," Tallas teased, though it wasn't far from the truth.
"Yeah," Sabrin grinned and glanced to see their waitress approaching with her perennial smile. She was a petitie green-eyed woman in her twenties, with overtly dyed chestnut-colored hair braided and tied back into a complex knot. Instinctually Sabrin returned her flirtatious smile, which had grown bolder in the time since their entry. Across from him, Tallas' right hand curled slightly beneath the table. It was irrational, but Tallas couldn't help the jealousy that welled in his chest whenever his best friend directed that stunning smile towards another, particularly if the person were female.
"Could I get you boys anything else?" the young waitress, whose nametag read 'Jasmi', visibly swooned and her voice gained an upward lilt which made Tallas' teeth grind harder.
"No thanks miss," Sabrin answered in a friendly tone. "May we have the check? Combined please."
"Right away hun," Jasmi winked and started to turn, but apparently thought of something and remained, much to Tallas' irritation. "Hey, you boys wouldn't happen to actually be from Orion, would ya?"
Sabrin thought of lying but decided there was no reason to, "Yeah we are. How'd you tell?"
"I thought I heard an accent in your voice but I couldn't place it till now," Jasmi's lips pulled wider at the inroad to conversation. "Can you believe it? I've been workin' here three years and you're the first genuine Orions I've ever met. So, what brings you so far away from home sugar?" Tallas didn't fail to notice the casual endearment.
"Just doin' a bit of travel," Sabrin answered vaguely.
"Oh? Business or pleasure?" Jasmi asked sultrily.
"Business," Tallas couldn't stand it any further and answered in Sabrin's place, chill distinct in his voice. "Which we really must return to. So if you would please bring us our bill?" Unconsciously he placed the slightest emphasis on 'we', which fortunately Sabrin seemed not to have noticed.
"Oh of course, I'm sorry," Jasmi withdrew a bit but the lascivious smile remained firmly in place. "Oh, I don't know how long you boys're plannin' on staying, but if you want someone to show you around don't hesitate to give me a call."
"I'll keep it in mind," Sabrin said politely and watched the waitress turn back towards the kitchen. "That was rude," he chided Tallas when she was out of earshot.
"Oh come on, her?"
"I was just being nice," Sabrin protested mildly. "Why do you care so much about this?"
"I--" Tallas' startled expression froze momentarily as he thought frantically for an appropriate cover response. "I just think she was actin' a bit...forward, that's all. I mean, she doesn't even know your name."
"Aw, c'mon, nothing was going on." Sabrin was about to continue when he spied Jasmi arriving with the bill in her hands. He turned and smiled as he took the flexible pad from her hands, albeit in a more reserved fashion than before now that he was aware of Tallas' glare. "Thank you miss," he said with a certain finality which prompted the waitress to depart, a somewhat disappointed look in her eyes. Once she was gone he tapped the ship's account access code onto the bill and pressed his thumb against the signature square until the small confirmation chime sounded.
Leaving the bill on the table, Sabrin stood and picked up some of their bags, while a now somewhat contrite Tallas followed suit. Wordlessly the pair exited the small restaurant, into a long, gently curving walkway finished in uniform hues of beige and dark gray. A row of windows positioned every four meters or so along the outer wall opened into space. The two walked a short distance in silence before Tallas placed a hand on Sabrin's shoulder, guiding them to a stop next to a window. The superstructure of Forseti, a complex sheet of weaved silver and gray, reached to the artificial horizon.
"Don't be mad, I overreacted, you can flirt with anybody you want," Tallas said in a single breath, not quite looking sincerely apologetic. Still Sabrin got his point and grinned in response.
"Nah it's cool. You're jealous; I get it."
"Yeah right!" Tallas punched his friend's arm playfully. They'd returned to familiar territory and he felt at ease once more. "Obviously she saw I was out of her league and decided to try for someone more on her level."
"You wish," Sabrin snorted, "You haven't been on a date in how long? Two years? Three?"
"I didn't have time, with school and everythin'," Tallas mumbled, averting his eyes. Of course the truth was that Sabrin was the only one he ever wanted to date and that he only dragged himself on those other "dates" to allay the suspicion when it built too high. "Besides, I've got high standards. Not like those prosthetic airheads that're always buzzin' around you."
"Whatever you say dude," Sabrin chuckled and gave a contemplative look out the window. His azure eyes sparkled dark like gemstones against the elegant lines of his face, the slightest sheen of stubble visible along his strong jaw. Tallas to suck in his breath and willed his fluttering heart to calm. "It's weird, us chatting like we used to. With everything goin' on I think I've forgotten what normal was," he said in a faraway voice.
"This isn't exactly normal either," Tallas commented, stepping in closer and sharing Sabrin's vista. An egg-shaped bulk freighter crawled slowly past, six ion engines blazing. "I think we have to find a new 'normal' from now on," he said softly.
"Maybe you're right," Sabrin turned back towards his friend, catching those chocolate eyes with his own. "Hmm..." that throaty moan sent shivers down Tallas' spine, "us chatting like we used to, above some alien planet, just returned from some death-defying misadventure. I could get used to that normal."
"I could do without the 'death-defying'," Tallas said half-jokingly.
"That's not the important part," Sabrin chastened gently, not knowing why he was suddenly whispering.
"Yeah I know..." Tallas' voice drained away into the depths of those blues. Sabrin felt as though a hand had wrapped itself about his beating heart, and his breathing grew irregular as his face edged closer to Tallas'. As if seized by an unknown force, everything in his mind blurred out of focus except for those ruby lips. It was so beautiful, so right, and so...terrifying. Still he approached, until he could just barely feel the Tallas' soft exhalations against his skin...
Without warning, a brief chime rang out from Sabrin's comlink, causing the two young men to snap away from each other as though they'd burned. Tallas' eyes were splayed wide; shock, chagrin, and embarrassment filtered through them. What'd just happened?
"Dreamer to Sabrin, come in," a surprisingly clear voice appeared.
Shakily, Sabrin brought a hand to the pin on his right collar and pressed the small activation button. "Yeah, what is it?" he hissed into the comlink, struggling to regain control of himself. A part of him was relieved for the A.I.'s intrusion.
Dreamer ignored his rude tone. "We may have a problem. Look out the window, above the station core."
Sabrin knotted his brow and did as the ship asked, his eyes widening in shock when he saw what it was that Dreamer was referring to. Tallas, noticing his actions, did the same and enacted the same response.
Half an oxtant upwards of the cluster of blue, crystal-like needle towers which marked Forseti Station Command, four new ships had appeared, oriented bow-down. Their red-accented hulls resembled a quartet of crimson knife blades, poised for the kill. The vessels' long, sleek forms and outboard engine nacelles were instantly recognizable to both young men. After all, they had seen the configuration frequently enough before -- these were Orion warships. Emissaries of their former home.