Changes of Mind
This part originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.
228th of 2029 (054-98): Protectorate Central Command Complex, Daramm.
We touched down and checked in. It was much easier than our previous visit. I even got a salute from the young korneet on the security desk. Except for Afira and Siish, the others were puzzled at that.
Jane was the first to ask, “OK, Isabella, how come the salute?”
Sakuya seconded before anyone could even think of talking. “Yeah, what’s with that?”
“If you’d care to recall, I was actually an officer in the Imperial Navy.”
Ariaryn spoke with his usual slow deliberation “No, eager young korneets do not salute Imperials. They precious rarely salute their own officers. That’s reserved for the silver hats4.”
Jane kissed her lover. “Yeah, so spill.”
Dodge. “Oh, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him.”
Sakuya tackled my dodge like an overenthusiastic puppy. “Yeah, Issee, why? He gave me a really nasty look.”
“I really don’t know why you’re all so interested in this. It was just a salute.”
Ariaryn again. “Yes,” slow and deliberate, his very sharp mind turning, “the only other one he saluted was Siish, or Siishubuu Manish Vebmral, to be more precise.”
Uncomfortable. “It’s really not important, he just did for some reason.”
Jane wanted answers. “Siish, is there something we don’t know about our dokhtor?”
“If Isabella doesn’t want to answer, she doesn’t have to. So drop it.” Sometimes a big brother is handy.
Jane did not look happy at this, but, “Okay.”
Sakuya however was not so easily deterred. He looked at me almost pleadingly. “Why, Issee?”
Afira took his hand; she had a way with him. “It’s okay, Sakuya, not important.”
He looked at her, curious still, but her answer was enough for him, at least for now.
Kirsov’s office was as plain as ever, guess the head of black-ops for the Protectorate needs to appear mundane and mediocre. His trusty seror, her hair in its usual neat but boring style, was there to greet us. I wondered about her; I’m sure Kirsov’s secretary would be far more than simply an efficient clerk. “The geenant will see you shortly; I may get you some refreshments?”
You should never underestimate Ariaryn’s powers of observation; I missed it. “He’s been promoted?” A statement far more than a question.
Her answer, simple, straightforward and as uninformative as ever, “Yes.”
We didn’t have long to wait, hardly enough time to drink our teas, or coffee in my case and juice in Sakuya’s, before Kirsov’s door opened. I’m glad I’d finished mine. A smartly dressed Imperial Admiral emerged with Kirsov. His eyes fell on me immediately. “Isabella, it’s been awhile.”
For the second time today, everyone’s eyes bored into me, including Siish and Afira’s this time. “Yes, Darius, eight years at least, I think.”
“You are looking well. It would seem the Protectorate agrees with you.”
“I find myself comfortable here. And you are looking well too; promoted, I see.”
“Yes, a few years ago. My career has been progressing well. It would seem you’ve gone into a similar line of work?”
“A… no, a simple ship’s quack by trade.”
“Mmmm… your presence here would seem to dispute that, dear.”
“You haven’t been in a position to call me ‘dear’ for a long time, Darius. But your presence here is interesting.”
He smiled like some grinning cat playing with a mouse. “We must catch up while I’m here.” He proffered a card. “My comm while I’m here.”
“My ship leaves tomorrow, sadly.”
“I’m free tonight; dinner?”
I started, “Sadly, I think…” and that’s when I noticed Kirsov. Don’t know what, but there was a look in his eyes, not sure how to describe it, encouraging, you could tell he didn’t want me to answer no. Curious, I paused to think. It had been a long time and he had nothing to do with what happened. “But, yes, why not?” I glanced at the card; an address, a hotel in Waicir. “I’ll meet you at your hotel, we shall say six, yes?” I made a point of phrasing the question in Lurglic5, a reminder to him of what I was now.
He grinned, “Good, and you have any ideas we’d go where?” He’d got the point.
Afira piped up, “Iesejk’s; was wonderful when we went there, wasn’t it, Isabella, yes?”
“Yes.” I returned my attention to Darius, “Yes, Iesejk’s”
He bowed slightly to Afira then me, “Excellent, I shall look forward to it.”
When he left, the others almost instantly turned on me, wanting answers. Afira got in first, “Okay, so who is he and how do you know him?”
I thought for a moment, what to tell them, should I tell them? Yes, important: “Darius Vilis, I was involved with him when I was in med school. He was only a commodore then, but pretty high up in Naval Intelligence.”
Siish now, “And he’s here because...”
“Don't know, honestly,” a chuckle, “And doubt I’ll find out over dinner.” But Kirsov had wanted me to, he obviously had a reason and I wanted to know what that was: “So, geenant, why do you want me to see him?”
“Just might be useful to have somebody… close to him in the future.”
That would make the second time in as many days somebody had hidden something. I was ready for that to stop. “Yes, but here and now. Not like you didn’t know we we’re coming. So, why?”
He wasn’t ready for it to stop, however. “Exactly why I said.” Very firm and quite clear he had no intention of budging, but I could tell he wasn’t relaxed any more either.
I considered a moment; no, not worth pushing right now, not in front of the others. I smiled, not like I couldn’t get to see him alone if I wanted; Mother had seen to that a long time ago. He was watching me as I contemplated and I could see his relief when I let it go.
“So, we should all come in to my office and get on with the task at hand?”
He waited for us to get comfortable. “So, Siish has filled you all in already?”
He took the lead, as usual; a natural leader, my brother. “Only the barest details, geenant.”
“Well, a pretty straight forward mission: travel to Kalu Marasiin, find a dead ship that’s floating there. Vias, Augusta-class battle cruiser, killed in one of those minor battles during the war. Retrieve her datacore and bring it back. Siish has a chip with all the details. Nice easy job for you all.”
I wasn’t finished with him and I wanted him to know. “And asking why would be pointless, I assume? It would have autowiped when she was lost. Plus, not like anything on it would be remotely current.”
He leaned back in his chair and grinned, “Your file covers just how determined you can be, Lieutenant.” That stung; my Imperial rank, it really stung and he knew it. He wasn’t letting go either. “But fair question. Your file also covers your intelligence and loyalty.” Not let go, but not unfair either. “The Augustas are one of the Imperium’s latest ships6. A key unit in their fleet. About three months ago one of the survivors, an Imperial but Luriani, has come to us. Wants to rejoin his people.” The was a gap, a look of disdain. Yes, any Luriani in Imperial space had a reason to leave now, I suppose. It’s not pleasant being the enemy. “He tells us the kaptan had just reset the autowipe when she died, so there is actually a chance it wasn’t purged, a good one. Looking over the schematics would be a big help if we ever have to face the Imperium again.”
“Yes, I can see that, but surely as soon as they realise we’ve got it, they’ll take steps to make sure it's not valid. Codes and frequencies can be changed just in case something like that happens.”
He laughed, “Yes, so it’s important you all make sure they don’t realise we’ve got it.”
229th of 2029 (055-98): A docking bay, Daramm Up
My dinner with Darius had gone surprisingly well. The food was certainly excellent. He’d lost none of his charm, and I must say he was still just as attractive as when I was a 22-year-old med student. The conversation had been a bit stilted to start with; he clearly was pumping me to find out why I’d been in Kirsov’s office. Obviously he, and by extension the Imperium, were less than fully aware of my situation. However, a couple of things he let slip gave me the distinct impression he was not totally ignorant of it, either. Still, there did appear to be genuine concern as to my well being here; he certainly wanted to know why I’d stayed. For my part, I did enquire into what he’d been doing the last eight years. He was just as good at avoiding answering those sorts of questions as when we’d been together. I found myself strangely nostalgic after. My life in the Imperium seemed so far away now, another life entirely. A tinge of melancholy about what I’d lost. But it was good to see him again, never thought I'd see anyone from that life again, especially him.
Vu and I had headed for the up port without the others; it seemed best. So here we were, standing in the docking bay where he’d tried to take Sakuya less than three weeks ago. It was uncomfortable being here, memories still raw. I forgot a moment that Vu was beside me. “Say one for the Luriani, they do know how to make a ship look good.”
I looked up at Raledenet, she was beautiful. “Yes, it’s important to us. Many things are.” Us, I was Luriani now, it was important he knew that.
“Mmmm, yes, I suppose they are. I imagine the crew will not be happy to see me.”
“No, they won’t.”
“Well, shall we get this over with?”
“Yes, Vu Lul, I think so.”
They were waiting in the common room, sitting there impassively and they were all armed. They waited a moment when we entered before Siish spoke. “You’re allowed in your stateroom and in the common areas, nowhere else. You understand that?”
Vu remained expressionless, “Yes, kaptan.”
“And if you break that rule, we will shoot to kill. You understand that?”
Blank, deadpan. “Yes, kaptan.”
“You’ll be under my and Ariaryn’s eye every moment.”
The first crack in his expression, a tiny smile “Yes, I imagine I will be. I really don’t want any problems. I’ll just stay in my room for the most part.”
Siish did not reciprocate. “Three jumps and then we’ll drop you off at the scout base at Kalu Marasiin, all done.”
“Sooner I’m off your ship, kaptan, happier everyone will be, I do understand that. Now, if you’ll show me to my room, I’ll be out of your way.”
Siish turned to me, “Stateroom six, right next to Ariaryn’s. Show our… ‘guest’ to his room, please, Isabella. We lift off in twenty minutes. Ariaryn will be preparing dinner as soon as we enter jump.” Back to Vu, “You’re free to join us. I wouldn’t want you leaving with an ‘inappropriate’ impression of our hospitality.”
236th of 2029 (062-98): Offices of Imperial Intelligence, Alsuy
Sector Chief Meiz Nohmonaa looked over the files once again. The situation was bad. To say Sakuya Trace was a valuable asset, as the files did, was an understatement. He was an inspired genius; according to the testing, his level of intellect appeared in perhaps one in tens of thousands. His particular bent, once in several life times, if that. He, of course, had no idea of what he was; typical for an inspired genius. In his head were critical secrets that could not be allowed into hostile hands. But doubtless they already were. Nothing that could be done about that now. But what he was capable of achieving would put whoever he achieved it for to the front in a vital strategic race. And he could not be allowed to achieve it for anyone other than the Imperium. The report that had just arrived made it clear Special Agent Vu had failed and failure in this matter was unacceptable now. Steps needed to be taken, the Imperium either needed him back or needed him dead. It was that simple. She needed someone she knew could get this done and had just the right person. She tapped the intercom. “West, arrange a meeting with Frifrue Teequow for tomorrow. And order in some jasmine tea.”
236th of 2029 (062-98): Lake Umral, Mastiraak
Mastiraak, a nice quiet world, total population a little over three million. A backwater, its major industry was agricultural produce for Stalwart. Nobody ever came here aside from the odd tourist looking for a secret getaway. What passed for a starport here was a few concrete blast pads and prefabricated buildings in the middle of a salt flat. Perfect for us; Siish had decided to stick to such worlds. Less chance of being noticed. We were hauling twenty tons of farm machinery, five tons of mail and four of high tech ‘luxury goods’. Kirsov had arranged the cargo, totally innocuous. Most of yesterday had been taken up with its delivery. Siish had likewise decided taking a day or two for rest and relaxation would be wise. Most ships do so here; it’s a nice place to unwind and we didn’t want to attract attention. I was sitting by the shore of a pleasant lake in the afternoon sun. I’d brought Vu. Siish had wanted to leave him locked up in his room but I pointed out that might look a bit odd if anyone asked. He’d been less than keen on the idea. But Vu had been on his very best behaviour during jump, helping with chores and joining in at night in the common room. I had to admit, he had a very good singing voice. Eventually, Siish had agreed, but he had insisted that Ariaryn and Jane tag along and they were both armed. Discreetly; weapons were very strictly controlled here, but Vu was well aware of the fact that they were. So here I was, on a pleasant spring afternoon, sitting by the water with a man I’d been facing down with a gun a month ago. He’d brought a picnic.
Jane and Ariaryn were swimming; despite Vu’s presence, Jane did not want to miss the chance and, well, Ariaryn really can’t say no to her, whatever he may have thought.
“I thought Luriani normally swam naked?”
“Oh, we do, but it’s a little hard to conceal a gun without a costume, don’t you think?”
He just grinned, “Of course. Some more kemse, Manish Wa? It’s one of my specialities.”
I took a slice. He was no Ariaryn, but he was good. “Thank you. I’m not familiar with Sesheryn cuisine, but this is quite delicious.”
“My mother taught me the recipe. She insisted on her children learning solid old fashioned household skills without relying on technology. She thought it built character and ensured independence.”
This was the first time I’d ever heard him talk of his family. Normally he avoided personal conversations. “Probably wise, certainly appears to have worked in your case.”
“She would argue perhaps a little too much.”
He seemed to be opening up a little; I was intrigued “Why would she argue that?”
“She does not approve of my career. Most of my people avoid Imperial service.”
I knew this; most Sesheryn were still deeply suspicious of the Imperium7, especially after the war. “So why did you choose Imperial service?”
He leaned back. “The Imperium is the way of the future. It will dominate human space, no question, it just will. And probably a good thing. You ever hear of the K’kree or the Aslan?”
I had, vaguely. Other major races; I’d learnt about them at school, they didn’t seem that important. “Yes, a little.”
“The K’kree. Herbivores, unified, huge and hate all meat-eaters with genocidal passion. You really want that whole patchwork of human states to try facing them? Or the Aslan, driven by their desire to conquer land. Either would make short work of the Protectorate or my Sesheryn, wouldn’t they?”
“If they got here, yes, but they’re a long way off. Whole sectors away. It would take, what, almost a year for a K’kree ship to get here, let alone an invasion. Even more for the Aslan.”
“The Vilani were at least as far from Daramm as the K’kree and they got here. Your Luriani friends will tell you all about that. The universe is waking up, Manish Wa; we need a single powerful human state or we will disappear.”
I pondered this awhile, he seemed quite sincere and just a touch concerned. “Mmmm… but the Imperium. I lived there, was born there, not exactly the nicest of governments.”
He leant forward. “I’ve read your files, your Luriani friends, just as capable of being…” he seemed to be searching for the right word, “un-nice.” I shuddered, drew my knees up, arms around me and wrapped myself in myself. I just couldn’t answer. He looked, realized, and was horrified, “I’m so sorry, Manish Wa. I had no intention of dragging up such a painful past.”
I just sat and rocked, not sure how long, minutes? Finally I found my voice, “I’m sorry, too. But I’d like to go now.”
The look on his face was guilt; I’d seen it on Mother’s. “Of course; I’ll pack the things immediately. I really, really, truly am sorry.”
“I know, but I’d like to go.”
Earlier notes appear with Part 1 of the story.
4. Protectorate officers of flag or general rank.
5. Luriani Anglic, the native language of the Verasti Dtareen. It uses the same question form as Standard Luriani where the question is phrased as a statement with either yes/no or the information desired at the end.
6. The Augusta-class battle cruiser entered service during the later stages of the Luriani War and incorporated many of the lessons from the early fighting. Intended to rebuild the strength of the Ley and Fornast fleets, only twenty nine were commissioned before the end of hostilities (with five being lost). However, the class’s production run continued post war and for many years they formed the main combatant strength of the fleets opposing the Protectorate.
7. The Sesheryn culture of the Empty Quarter emerged from Luriani-influenced free traders during the long night. The Sesheryn Feoderate was a loose alliance of independent worlds that at this stage was in the process of being absorbed by the Imperium. The Sesheryn normally retained close ties to the Luriani and most were strongly sympathetic to them during the Luriani War.