An Impossible Price, pt. 3

My Sword & Laser Anthology retreat is over, so I'm back and posting again. Sorry for going away, but I really needed to get my head around that piece!

He handed the tablet back to Dana and opened the inner door of the delivery compartment built into the apartment bulkhead next to the door. Inside he found a substrate module enclosed in plastic, but with no label, just a note. He plucked the note from the packaging and scanned it.

A gift for you and your A.R.U.W.D. - MS

He grimaced. “It’s from Sobol.”

“Isn’t she the one who saved your life?”

“Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t forgotten about that. But she’s also the one holding the strings that were attached to that save, and I don’t know how many of those there are yet.”

He owed Madeline Sobol big time for getting him off of Haruna, a potentially lethal and uninhabited junkyard world. She’d granted him use of a ship, an act of charity that seemed destined to plague him with hidden costs. Receiving more gifts on top of that sounded warning bells in his mind.

“What does it do?”

“No idea. I’ll have to get it analyzed before I install it. Looks too small to be a vocalization module. Too bad, it’d be easier to deal with him if he could talk.” He could talk to the small bot with no problem, but Aru lacked the ability to speak in return. He communicated visually by outputting text to nearby displays.

An Impossible Price, pt. 2

Dana gave a half-smile and grabbed a couple of breakfast bars, tossed one to him. “Sorry, I’ve been swamped. There’s nothing better.”

“No problem,” he said, the breakfast bar package torn half-open. “It’s better than I’ve had in a while.”

She studied him while they ate. “So how bad is it?” she asked, voice carefully neutral, between bites.

His stomach roiled a little. Felt like his intestines were knotting. “It’s …”

He wanted to say “It’s not that bad,” but the words died on his tongue. “It’s … a lot.” Her eyebrows rose. “Upwards of five hundred thousand.”

It was a curious and disquieting sight. He’d always of ‘watching the blood drain out of her face’ to be little more than a phrase that writers, or maybe morticians, used when they needed to be poetic. He’d never actually seen it happen in front of him.

“It’s really bad, I know,” he said quickly, “but I’ve analyzed it carefully—I had little else to do for most of the trip home—and with Aru’s help, I figure—”

“Aru?”

“He’s an autonomous bot, helps me control the ship. He’s part of the deal. It’s a long story. With his help, I figure—”

Dana wasn’t listening, but she wasn’t exploding with rage, either. She had a distant look in her eyes, calculating. Hope rose in Corwin’s chest; this was exactly what he’d hoped to see. Dana worked in interstellar trade logistics, and he could almost see estimates and predictions running behind her eyes. “I’m going to have to meet this Aru,” she said finally. “Go over the numbers. I assume he has more specifics than you do?”

Corwin nodded and took his tablet out of his pocket. He started to hand it over, then noticed a message alert awaiting his response. “A package was delivered to the Night Star's hangar. I had it rerouted to your apartment.” No sooner had he read Aru’s message than the door chime sounded, and a glance at the door confirmed that the delivery had been made. Curious; he hadn’t been expecting anything.

The Price of Entanglement - Chapter 13, pt. 2

Her head was still in a fog when she left the clinic. Part of her wanted to be back in there tearing down the walls looking for him. Most of her knew that’d be useless, and a small part, the part that resented his leaving them, wanted nothing more to do with him or that place.

Toure had been reluctant to discuss the particulars of Philip’s—Cable’s—involvement with the lab, but she gathered that he wasn’t an employee, more of a test subject, a concept she found both disturbing and oddly appropriate. She’d thought he’d needed his head checked any number of times while they were growing up.

The Price of Entanglement - Chapter 13, pt. 1

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“You know that young man?” Dr. Toure asked, concern touching his voice.

“It’s Philip, it must be Philip. He’s my cousin,” Jo said, pacing back and forth. The forest was gone, the halls and rooms looking the way they should once more.

“That’s not the name he gave us,” Toure said, but he didn’t sound as though he disbelieved her, either. “He calls himself Cable.”

Cable? She mentally shrugged, then followed it with a physical one. “Philip, Cable, either way, he’s my cousin. I’ve got to …” Got to what? Talk to him? After all this time? What could she possibly say? What could he possibly say? “I’ve got to—to go.”

The doctor regarded her with a gaze that assessed her state, physical and emotional. He was silent a long moment, then nodded slowly. “It’s a complex relationship, isn’t it? It’s written all over your face. I won’t go looking for him to drag him in front of you. But I will pass along a message, if there’s anything you’d like him to know. A way to contact you, maybe.”

She stifled an aggravated grunt. “If he’d wanted to get in touch with us, he could have any time over the last few years—but I’ll send you my contact info. Just in case.” She smiled a bit sourly. “Can’t hurt, I guess.”

The Price of Entanglement - Chapter 12 Revisit

It's been a while since I last worked on this, so tonight I'm posting a recap while I redigest what I've been on about in it. New material tomorrow! If you need a more extensive revisit, check out the category view for the book so far. 

When she awakened, she was in an unfamiliar location and had no idea how much time had just passed. Her room looked like a refurbished hospital relic from the 20th century, only with worse lighting and slightly run-down facilities even by the standards of the time. She repressed a shudder as she looked around. There was nobody else in sight.

She lay for what felt like half an hour before voices attracted her attention. She’d considered getting up and leaving, but a lethargy like she’d never felt kept her fastened to her bed more effectively than any restraint could.

The voices got closer and stopped outside the door to her room, where they remained for a minute. They were just muffled enough that she could make out that the voices were male, but not what they were saying. Footsteps retreated away just as the knob turned and a middle-aged man of dark complexion and warm, friendly brown eyes entered the room.

“Ms. Rush, I’m glad to see you’re awake,” he began. “I’m Dr. Toure. There were some … complications with your anti-radiation treatment.” He had a pleasant voice, low in timber and pitch. It was the sort of voice that was made for telling stories, or doing voice-over narration. She decided she liked him.

“Ah— … complications?” Her mind raced. She felt much better than she had before she’d been moved, though she still felt like she was suffering a mild sunburn over much of her body. It felt worse in her right arm, she realized, moving it for the first time since she’d awakened.

“I’m afraid so, yes. It looks like at some point during your trip into the ironworks, your right arm came into contact with electrite. The effects were relatively mild; the contact was brief, and through your clothing. You’ve suffered first degree radiation burns to much of your body; most of that has already healed. Your right arm suffered second degree burns. We transferred you to this facility as a safeguard. We’ll need to keep you under observation for a time.”

“But you said it’s first and second degree burns. Why couldn’t I have stayed in the hospital? What is this place?”

“We’re a lab that specializes in radiation, and we’re more experienced in treating it than the hospital staff.” For the first time, she detected a trace of hesitance in his otherwise pleasant bedside manner. He was keeping something back, she thought. “As for why we moved you here, electrite radiation is … unique. Prolonged exposure is known to affect the quantum state of the exposed matter. The effects of short-term exposure are temporary and largely unnoticeable. Your exposure was, as near as we can determine, short enough that you’ll probably not encounter any trouble. But we want to be sure. The brain … there are a lot of quantum interactions up there in our skulls, so it’s best to be sure of what we’re dealing with.”

She just stared at him for a moment. “You’re saying it could be affecting my mind?”

“I don’t believe it is,” he said. “It was hard to tell while you were unconscious, but if you’d suffered dangerous levels of exposure to your head, your behavior would probably be erratic. We’ll keep you under observation to make sure,” he smiled, “but I strongly suspect already that you’re okay.”

True to his word, Dr. Toure kept her overnight for observation. She’d been given a burn cream that she was told would be particularly effective in dealing with the burns she’d sustained. When morning came, she awakened early to find most of the pain had gone away; her right arm still pained her and still looked somewhat reddish. Elsewhere, the red had faded, leaving her arm to contrast beautifully with her otherwise ghostly skin.

She rose and searched about the room, quickly finding a set of clothing in the closet. She was in a double-occupancy room, but was the only occupant, so she had to assume the clothes were for her; her original clothes had been burned after her exposure. They weren’t quite what she would have expected. They were new, but they looked store-bought, not like something a hospital might keep on hand. She dressed and sat down to wait. She didn’t have to wait long; Dr. Toure himself stopped in to deliver breakfast. He nodded approvingly upon noticing the clothes. “Good morning! I see you’ve been looking around. That’s good. How are you feeling today?”

In the distance behind him, she could hear other voices, people arriving for work, greeting each other in the halls and labs. She smiled at him. “I’m much better, thank you, Doctor. Where did these clothes come from?”

“They were supplied by your employer, Ms. Rush,” he smiled. “We don’t keep such things on hand. Now we should really examine you and hopefully let you get on your way, no?”

The examination was brief, confirming Dr. Toure’s prognosis. The burns were healing. Her right arm was still fairly painful, but the redness was gradually fading. “So that’s it, then?” she asked.

“That’s almost it,” he smiled. “I’d like to give you one more treatment of the burn cream for your arm before you go. A little time should take care of the rest, provided that you rest.”

She sighed audibly. She’d been forced into an awful lot of resting lately. She was getting tired of it. The sounds of a group of people passing outside the door reached her. They were talking; one of the voices sounded subtly familiar, but she couldn’t place it.

“How long do I have to …” she trailed off, her head filling with a familiar buzzing, prickly dizzy sensation. She lost her balance and slumped where she sat on the edge of her bed, catching herself with her arm. Dr. Toure reacted with admirable speed, catching her by the shoulder to steady her, face a study in alarm.

“Ms. Rush. Jo! What is it? What’s wrong?”

She felt both drained and suffused with energy, the room around her transforming. She was in her room in whatever facility it was she’d been sent to, but she also seemed to be deep in a forest she didn’t recognize. It was very old growth, if the size of the trees was any indication. She could see them super-imposed over the room, over the doctor, over everything. She clutched at Dr. Toure’s hands; they were reassuringly solid. “Do you see it?” she half-whispered, gaze wandering up the trunk of a massive tree that must have been four feet around; nothing like it grew anywhere near the city.

“See? See what, Ms. Rush?” He tried to get her to lay back down again. She didn’t resist at first, thinking it a fine idea, until she saw him.

It wasn’t Archerd, of that she was certain. Nor was it the young man she’d seen under the ironworks. He was dressed wrong; he looked like he was from the present, her own time. He wore dark clothes, a t-shirt, black jeans and boots. His hair was dark brown and somewhat ragged and spiked. Her gaze was drawn to him like a magnet. He stood out clearly to her against the backdrop of the forest. His back was to her, but he looked familiar. A name danced on the tip of her tongue, frustratingly close but out of reach.

She sat up, pushing Dr. Toure’s arms aside as though he wasn’t there. He was shouting something behind her, but her attention was all on the young man ahead of her. He was looking around, apparently trying to get his bearings.

She tried to walk toward him, but slammed into the wall of the lab room and grunted in pain. Okay, that’s still solid, no matter what it looks like, she thought in a corner of her mind. She started making her way around the wall toward the door. On the way, she slammed into one of the trees of the forest; they were quite solid too. Dr. Toure tried to restrain her, but she slipped his grasp and darted out through the door and into the hallway.

The hall beyond was surprisingly long. She started running but was forced to slow to a walk when she found the forest floor uneven enough to protrude above floor level in places. She nearly tripped several times on tree roots and branches and simple unleveled ground. The young man was several dozen meters ahead of her, but not moving terribly fast; it still took her more time than she’d have guessed to catch up to him. “Hey,” she called out.

He turned, startled, and faced her. As he did, his head brushed a leafy tree branch; he knocked it aside. His eyes widened in shock. Hers must have done much the same. He was like a younger version of Gran, his face several years younger than hers but already weathered with scars and signs of hard living. “Philip?” she gasped.

At the sound of his name, he turned and bolted. She stood and stared after him, emotional confusion overwhelming the light-headed feel of her altered state. The forest faded around her; she settled back to the hallway floor off the root she’d been standing on. What was Philip doing here? He’d been moving like she had, seeing both the hall and the forest at once. He’d touched that tree branch. “What IS this place? What’s going on?”

Homecoming - Day 11

“Thanks, Aru.” And I hope you’re on my side, he didn’t add.

With little else to do, he settled in with his tablet and interfaced it to the various data stores he had about his person, built into his clothing for the most part. May as well get a little work in, he thought. It was futile; it sounded like they were tearing Aru’s chassis apart out there. Maybe they were looking for the bot’s central operating unit.

“Rendezvous with the larger ship in approximately 1 minute, 30 seconds,” Aru informed him. He gave a shuddery breath. “Any idea what to expect?”

“More of the same, only with better detection equipment,” Aru said. If text on a screen could ever said to be emotive, then this read as apologetic.

“Well then. It was good to know you, however briefly. I guess bots aren’t all bad.”

“It’s been fun,” Aru admitted.

A strident female voice rang out from every speaker on board the ship. “Attention unidentified vessel. Attention unauthorized boarders of the registered trade vessel Night Star. The Night Star, its cargo and its crew are under our protection. Stand down and prepare to be boarded.”

Corwin’s breath caught in his throat. Protection? He wasn’t sure whether to be elated or more frightened. The ship shuddered faintly as it connected with the other, then all sound stopped. He pressed his ear to the bulkhead, catching the faint sounds of conversation. Their noisy search was over.

“Attention boarders of the Night Star. You have 5 minutes to evacuate the ship and return to your own, now that they have docked. Failure to comply will carry … consequences.”

“Is that Sobol?” Corwin asked in a whisper. The voice was certainly familiar, though he was hearing it through the bulkhead. He couldn’t be sure.

“99.8% match to Madeline Sobol’s voice,” Aru confirmed. Then he popped up an exterior view of the action from an aft-facing camera.

The vessel attached to the Night Star was big, but the small ship approaching from behind was fast, and what it lacked in size it made up for in bristling weaponry. “That’s what she uses for security? That must be military grade!”

“Negative, though it is only one short step below military grade,” Aru corrected. On the display, Sobol’s ship fired a warning shot. It was invisible to the naked eye, and to the camera, but the Night Star’s computer responded immediately with telemetry on the missile volley, painting them with markers and noting course, velocity and acceleration for each.

Corwin realized the cargo bay was silent, and had been for several minutes. He felt the deck lurch under him and saw the larger ship start to drift free of the Night Star. “They’re going for it, Aru!” And indeed, they accelerated sharply, quickly leaving the field of view of the aft camera.

The camera’s image was abruptly replaced by Sobol’s coldly beautiful face. “Captain, so good to see you again, and in one piece,” she said with what almost seemed like genuine warmth.

“And just in the nick of time,” Corwin agreed.

“Well, I couldn’t sit by and let my investment be threatened, could I?” she asked. “How did you keep them from finding you? I got here as fast as I could after getting the A.R.U. bot’s signal, but I had feared we were too late.”

“I’ve come across this class of ship before in the course of my work. I know the layout better than they did,” he said. He was loathe to give up the secret of the hidden compartments to her. She might have saved his life just now—possibly, anyway—but he was still smarting over the debt he owed. He stayed where he was, unwilling even to leave the compartment lest she see where it was over the feed.

“That’s such a relief to hear, Captain Koell. It was an expensive trip to get here as fast as we did, but thanks to your ingenuity, it was worth it.” He cringed a little at the mention of the expense.

“In fact, I’ll tell you what. Since it was in the interest of protecting my investments that we’re here, I’ll keep the expense of losing those missiles off of your debt to us, and only charge you a percentage of the fuel cost to get here. That shouldn’t put too much of an additional burden on you, don’t you think?” Her smile seemed sincere. Her gaze was like a sharpened spike.

He smiled a sick little smile. “Always a pleasure doing business with you, Ms. Sobol.”

“Do try not to get into any more trouble on the way home, Captain,” she said with a smile of her own. “And do let me know when you arrive; I have some work you’ll find fascinating, and it will help you pay off your debt a little bit quicker. You’d like that, right?”

“Of course,” he said, though he suspected they had different ideas about what constituted interesting work. “I’ll contact you once I’m home.”

“Excellent. Until next time then.”

The connection was cut. Aru threw up an alert. “Captain,” he began. “I did as you requested. I negotiated with the other ship’s computer while we were interfaced, and I have the files you asked for.”

Corwin stared at the deck for a moment, then nodded, reading Aru’s words. “That’s great, Aru, thanks.” He spent a few minutes pouring over them, looking for anything useful His researcher’s eye caught a pattern in the ship’s flight log; whoever they were and whatever they were up to, they spent a lot of time in the same general region of space, and if his grasp of the navigation coordinates was correct, it was a region focused closely around Haruna, the world he and Aru had just escaped from.

“Son of a …” he breathed.

“Problem?” Aru asked.

He had no idea if Aru had digested the contents of the files, or even cared what was in them. “Just … trying to make sense of it all, Aru,” he said. He felt bad for lying, but until he was sure, he had to reserve his trust. “Let’s just get home.”

He was weeks late coming home from the bar, had a sketchy new boss, a group of possible new enemies, a friend he couldn’t trust, and had gotten a brand new grand chasm of debt he’d be lucky to ever climb out of. Dana was going to kill him.