She needed to steady herself, and her heart rate, before one of the bestial Cylothian warriors roaming the ship picked up on her elevated stress levels.
And one of these hypersensitive Cylothian warriors, who was almost sure to be just around the corner (or worse yet, in the Extraction room), would almost certainly notice something. Their bizarre ears were sensitive to low sounds, and her irregular, pounding heart was one of those sounds.
She decided to think about inventory. There was a nice boring topic, a bureaucratic topic that would take her mind off the preoccupations that were elevating her heart rate.
Lab inventory. Blood sheets, needles, coagulates—
Lab inventory was a bad idea. Every imaginable item led her right back to the big mess she was in, and everything she’d done to cover it up. All of which seemed to be making more mess.
She felt a squeeze in her chest and her pulse elevating again.
Living quarter inventory.
Food inventory. There we go.
Talk about boring.
This interstellar diet was not a relaxing topic, but it did keep her mind occupied by revulsion instead of fear. Good. Think about that. Algae bars, Bardan blue fishbone pancakes, wheat and algae risotto.
Algae. She felt a brackish gag at the back of her throat.
Focus on that.
Not on how this might be the end of the end.
She moved her feet quickly, as if to confirm that the special, tailored human shoes she wore hadn’t been turned up to the gravity level of the Cylothians.
That’s how you knew you were caught. You were just walking along, and then blam. Your feet were glued to the ground.
Keep it together, she reminded herself. Just a few more Cylothian ‘days’ and you’ll be out of here.
She reached the door and gave a stiff turn, settling her features into the steely gaze she had set them to five Earth years ago. It was the steely gaze of a calculating, ice-cold scientist, and a mercenary.
And it was a lie.
“Doctor Milla Orel,” she said, and pressed her hand to the biometric screen.
The door opened, and she felt her heart throttle against her will. She fought hard to suppress the feeling and reminded herself of why she was here. She had only to remember her sister for an instant, and her blood turned to ice. Her nerves were steadied.
“Are we all here?” she said, and her voice was steady to her own ears, cold and hard.
The Cylothian advisers and warriors gathered in the room gave a vague gesture of assent. Milla had been on this ship long enough, putting up with these alien oppressors long enough, that she had come to recognize their nonhuman gestures.
The humans in the room—scientists, like her, though real, true mercenaries—nodded.
She made sure her voice was crisp. “Play the memory extraction, then.”
As she watched the segments of the ‘memex’ that preceded her message, Milla feigned an expression of interest and concentration. She screwed her eyes up a little, though her vision was perfect, and she brought her lips together into a tight frown. She hugged her own arms and dug one fingernail into her skin, deeply enough to hurt, just to keep a steady reminder to herself to stay unemotional and calm.
Meanwhile, she set her mind to thinking about other things.
How would they extract her? She went through the location of escape pods, spacesuits, the gel-print of Zythe’s hand to open airlocks without setting off alarms, the drugs she had composited over Earth months in the lab, able to work on them only in tiny segments of time when those overlord beasts weren’t watching. The drugs were to inject anyone who got in her way. She went over her escape routes, her backup plans upon backup plans.
The human resistance would give her those orders now, in this message, and she might only have moments to put her plan into effect.
The memex was necessarily boring, so as not to trigger any warnings to the Cylothians or reveal any particularly useful information.
For show, Milla requested that several moments be backed up and replayed. It was for dramatic effect, to distract the Cylothians. Particularly the formidable Tanin, who seemed always to be present wherever she was, and who unsettled her more than any of the other warriors.
It wasn’t just that he was big (his hand would probably crush her waist if he wanted to, and he towered at over seven feet tall), and that the deep, tattoo-like purple covering crept all the way up to his neck and around it, indicating that he was not only warrior class but also the most fearsome warrior she had ever seen. Most warriors only had coloring up to the middle of their backs.
It wasn’t just that.
He seemed particularly angry under his calm exterior, particularly suspicious.
And most dangerous of all, he seemed smart.
Zythe, her Cylothian ‘fixer,’ who was about as trustworthy as a solar flare, had not put any of these worries to rest when she had asked him about Tanin. Tanin’s power as a warrior was practically legendary, and he was smart.
And, to hear Zythe tell it, notoriously anti-human.
The hulking warrior was standing just feet from her now, his arms in much the same position as hers—the only difference being that the ropes of muscles and veins that made up his biceps bulged from his skin, menacing even in a resting pose.
She felt her pulse elevating, so she drew her attention sharply back to the memex.
The memex messages sent to her through captured humans were her only form of communication with the resistance. Since no one from the resistance would willingly sacrifice themselves to capture (they could hardly afford that now, at this late point in the war, when so few humans even had the will to resist), the memexes were implants. Members of the resistance injected themselves with the latest memex updates on a weekly basis. They sometimes injected messages into the resigned and enslaved humans when they could.
But this capture was one of the former, which meant her message was no more than a human week old. Plenty of time for Control to have received her request for extraction and send a new message.
Milla’s messages came to her in the form of numbers. It was an ancient method of code, borrowed from human ancestors in the days of the Intra-Earth wars, in which the numbers corresponded to pages and words in a book.
The difficulty was in remembering the numbers when they came.
The image of a giraffe—an Earth creature with a very long neck—always preceded the numbers, as an alert that they were coming. In this case, the woman had a memory of entering a child’s nursery where the animal was pictured as a toy.
A male voice, a little scrambled, in order to capture the effects of real memory corruption, asked if something should be heated to forty-five degrees.
No, was he kidding? Fifty-seven.
The woman tidied something in the room. The clock read 15:18. The number 17 appeared on a child’s sock. The man appeared in the visual field to ask her how she had slept. Only four hours. She had woken at 4:07 and fallen back asleep at about 6:15. Well, 6:12 was the last time she had looked at the clock. It could have been sixty minutes later.
Milla’s mind reeled, rehearsing. She knew her elevated concentration was piquing the interest of Tanin. His moods were so easy to read. It was almost as if he gave off static electricity.
45-57; 15-18; 17-4; 4-7; 6-15; 6-12; 60-? Milla rehearsed.
The scene ended, five more numbers disseminated. Milla concentrated until she could see them, as though they had been written in her own hand on a piece of paper.
She had an excellent memory, and it was best for numbers. She closed her eyes to burn the created image into her subconscious, so that she could return to the present moment and be a believable analyst of the memex.
The memex ended, the memories of just before the capture—in a pirate attack gone awry—fading into a jumble.
“The capture sustained a head injury,” Joseph said, turning off the playback with a sweep of his hand. “It’s unlikely that further attempts at extraction will prove useful.”
One of the Cylothian advisers turned to the three human scientists and glowered. He was not a warrior: his skin and appearance was largely human, except for a large protrusion of his skull on the left side of his head, where the left hemisphere of his brain had developed an additional lobe. He was a details guy. The left and right hemispheres of the Cylothian brain aligned remarkably with human functions.
“What is your opinion, Dr. Mertel?”
Brent Mertel shifted. Milla was convinced he was a pure mercenary, but unlike Joseph, whose veins hosted only ice water, Brent didn’t like human blood on his hands. He rubbed his chin and looked at Milla for guidance.
She provided none. Her stance would, as it always was, be that they should adopt a wait-and-see position. It was possible that the captured woman would recover more memories.
This bought her time to wait until a rendezvous point, fake the girl’s death, and jettison her for pickup. A hairy business that involved a sealed bag good for protection from vacuum-induced cell obliteration for only half an Earth hour. Her chances of survival were pretty low, but it was the protocol.
Better than becoming a slave, anyway. Most people agreed.
“I think… well, as Milla… er, Doctor Orel says, usually, there isn’t any harm in waiting a bit to see if her injuries resolve.”
Tanin made a noise.
Milla looked at him sharply, trying to read his expression.
The adviser moved slowly, his eyes scanning the three humans and his big brain processing. Something about the advisers reminded Milla of lizards.
“You disagree, Commander Tanin?”
The adviser sounded amused.
“Of course not,” the warrior said firmly in Cylothian. Milla knew he spoke the human dialect the three scientists shared. His change was deliberate. “It isn’t my place.”
The adviser looked at him. Maybe it was the eyes, darting rapidly like a bird’s, and the stillness of the body, thought Milla. She looked at her shoes, feigning boredom.
“Yet you have indicated, through your unsolicited noise, that something the human has said displeases you. What is it? Please, hayarkan, tell me what it is.”
Milla followed the conversation in Cylothian, and she had to dig her fingernail deeply into her flesh when the adviser used the word hayarkan. Something with no equivalent in a human language, this was an indication from the adviser that he wished to share the same status in all things for the moment, meaning he was indicating that he valued Tanin’s intellectual opinion at the moment.
This was bad. Milla felt like the room was closing in around her.
She concentrated on her numbers.
“I find it unusual,” Tanin mused, “that so many of the humans sustain brain injuries upon capture. And that they never recuperate their other memories. And that Doctors Mertel and Orel always advocate maintaining the captures here on the ship, in spite of repeated failures at their attempts at resuscitation.”
The adviser stared at him.
Another adviser, one with a right-brain protrusion on the side of his head, came to life.
“One of your points is excellent,” he said.
And the two advisers looked at each other, their faces stoic and ugly.
“We will take it under consideration,” the advisers said in unison.
Tanin’s expression did not change. The time for hayarkan was over.
Thank the fucking galaxy, Milla thought.
She looked up at the advisers expectantly, as if she had not understood a word of their conversation. Brent was nervous next to her.
Maybe he is part of the resistance, she thought.
There was a long and uncomfortable pause. Even though the three scientists were here for money and liberty, and the Cylothians needed their expertise, the aliens believed they were a superior species and the humans were expected to maintain some kind of decorum in their presence. This meant not asking questions, and replying only when the advisers questioned them.
“Doctor Orel, your opinion,” the left-brained adviser said, after peering at Brent for a long time.
“I think we should wait and see if she recovers any useful information,” Milla said simply.
It was all she could do not to add a snarky comment, something that would make Tanin look like an idiot. But it was not only unnecessary, it would blow one of her most useful covers: the Cylothians believed her understanding of their language was very limited and weak.
Even those precision-oriented lizard-heads screwed up, and they let out a lot of secrets in her presence.
The adviser sighed. His floating chair spun slowly back toward the screen. “We will allow a xgtan for the human to recover. After this time, if she has no further useful memories, we will send her to Rigadth on our next refueling. Is there anything of interest in the memories captured?”
“I will need further time to analyze,” Brent said.
“I see nothing,” Milla said.
Joseph was quiet. He was thinking. Finally he shrugged. “Nothing strikes me as unusual. There are some useful images toward the end, of control panels and computer screens on the pirated ship. These could reveal information. Nothing else strikes me as useful.”
The adviser was quiet, staring into the wall. Milla had to work very hard to keep her body from reacting to the anxiety she felt. If her heart beat too quickly, or any of her biometrics went too far out of whack, the fearsome Tanin would sense it.
And he was already suspicious of her.
“May it be so,” the adviser said, finally.
Tanin saluted perfunctorily and the group filed out of the room.
There was something about the human female that was not quite right. Tanin had suspected it for some time, though he had never acted on it. It wasn’t his place to analyze, after all. It was his place to protect the ship from human pirates and Eretrean warriors who might attempt to steal their precious human cargo. That was his mission and his only mission and Tanin was a superior warrior from a long line of warriors. He took his profession and class seriously, and his honor even more so.
Even if he had another agenda.
The protection of the ship was one of little prestige and even less real challenge, hardly befitting a warrior of his class. But it was one that would put him closer to his goals, so he had sought the position, to the general surprise of many and probably some loss of respect among his peers.
It made no difference to him. Tanin was a loyal subject and a loyal warrior, but that did not stop him from forever keeping his personal revenge motives in mind. Provided that they did not interfere with his assigned duties, he was within his code of ethics to make the choices he had made.
He really had no problem with humans, and in fact, though he would never even admit as much to himself, he probably sympathized with the cause of the human resistance. It wasn’t their fault they were physically and mentally inferior—having insisted, for millennia, on not weeding inferior genes from their gene pool, or bifurcating their physically strong and the mentally strong in order to maximize each group’s potential. He was not a philosophical Cylothian—that was for advisers and discoverers—but he believed that the humans should be left alone. They were weak, they did not adhere to their own codes, and they were not trustworthy. But Tanin was not predisposed to gratuitous violence, nor did he think that problematic species like the humans should be destroyed if other options existed.
But again, it wasn’t his place to make that argument. The thinkers had concluded, after the first humans had successfully colonized a planet in their own galaxy without achieving a more enlightened state of being, that the humans were not a problem that could be ignored. Once they achieved light-speed travel, of course, they had to be contained, and the war had begun.
At any rate, none of this was his problem because Cylothian warriors need not concern themselves with most humans. Warriors were for protection against and occupation of more difficult species. The weak, fragile-bodied animals hardly constituted a threat technologically or physically, and most had been absorbed into the Cylothian pacification system. They were of little use to the warrior gene pool.
Unless they were carriers of the rare X-562 gene. Those humans were so rare they had been traveling all over the galaxy for ten Cylothian Hyle-sun orbits in search of them among the dispersed members of the resistance, who were bound to die long before they found a habitable planet to occupy.
So humans did not fall into Tanin’s order of business. He was not supposed to occupy his thoughts with them at all unless they were carriers or posing a threat.
But he did think about them. He detested those humans, like Milla, who turned on their own race for the dishonorable payment of wealth. They had sold out their own species, again and again, for their own comfort and relative freedom. It was pathetic, and to a Cylothian warrior, it was against the very fiber of his being.
He was already predisposed to be suspicious of Milla; this was part of his function as a guard on this ship. The humans did not adhere to their own codes of ethics, so they could never be trusted. He treated all things as threats; that was his nature.
But Milla was a special kind of threat, and she seemed to have an agenda beyond her mercenary tendencies. Tanin kept a close eye on her.
Due to his elevated status, he was free to run his ship’s security and the affairs of the military as he saw fit, with very little input from the advisers or the home planet command. The advisers held a position of higher authority than Tanin in cases of decision-making that was not military in scope, or if a new direction needed to be taken. But Tanin was otherwise his own boss.
Observing Milla fell under that category. Tanin had decided not to report his suspicions of her to the advisers, and he justified this decision based upon the fact that he had her completely within his control and she might perhaps reveal information that would be of use to them militarily if he did not interfere with her activities.
He followed her, several turns of the corridor behind, when she left the Memextraction room. Her gravity shoes—adjusted for the comfort of humans as well as for the purposes of reporting her location at all times—would tell him where she was, anyway. And the whole ship was equipped with movable listening and visual devices.
Not that Tanin needed any of that. His hearing was exceptional, and he could smell and hear the human from where he was, a few hundred filons behind her.
She returned to the lab after leaving the Memextraction room, but Tanin’s suspicions were aroused by the fact that she had done it in a very haphazard way. She had taken a longer-than-necessary route, passing through the mechanics section and the waste management area, before following an outside corridor to the farthest entrance from the lab.
He stopped outside the lab and tapped his wrist displayer to life. The skin of his forearm shimmered and formed a mercury-colored screen for a moment before displaying his options. He quickly scanned through the visual captures in the lab to get the best view of Doctor Orel, and observed.
Once again, the doctor had settled in at a screen station. She opened half a dozen screens at once, an unusual trait for humans and one that made Tanin suspicious. Typically, Milla had three screens open at any time and became easily distracted if she added any more.
But after certain captures, she did this same thing.
He sniffed the air. He could smell a contrail of stress left behind by the human. Beneath that scent was the smell of her human skin… Tanin dismissed the scent quickly and focused on the smell of stress. She had hurried here, and she emitted a tiny bit of sweat. The temperature was not high enough for that to occur for any other reason, and she did not smell like a sick human. There were also no human viruses on this ship, unless something undetectable had come through with the new capture.
He scanned through Milla’s open screens. Inventory, a human book of writing, a table of samples from the captured human, the health scans of the capture, and a human chemical structure sketch.
Tanin zoomed in on the book.
Always this same book.
Though it was not his place to think, he did think. Very hard, in fact. Why would the human always return to reading this same book—a mass of words that conveyed a fictitious story (another thing he could not see the use of)—immediately after discussing the case of the captured girls’ memex? And what could a fictitious story have to do with the captured girls’ health? Why had she taken the roundabout route?
As he was thinking, he heard the human make a noise. Her body seemed suddenly and inexplicably agitated. She stood up, walked toward a wall, then turned and walked toward another. Tanin watched as she shook her hands up and down. He pulled up the biometrics being conveyed through her shoes. Her heart rate was very high and her blood pressure had jumped. She had unusually high levels of adrenaline.
Then, quite suddenly, she made a turn and began heading for the door.
Tanin moved with the incredible agility of the Cylothian warriors, an agility unmatched and almost impossible to fathom by the humans. Like lightning, he moved around the corner of the corridor and out of Milla’s sight.
When Milla exited, however, she paused and looked both ways in the corridor.
She couldn’t have detected him? That was impossible.
The woman headed back the way she came, back to the outer corridor.
Milla checked the message three times, but on the third time, it was obvious there was no confusion, no mix-up of numbers. The message would have been unintelligible in that case, and in this case, it was very, very clear.
extraction impossible remain place lengthy wait information coming luck
Extraction is impossible. Remain in place. There will be a lengthy wait. Information is coming. Good luck.
She closed her eyes as the message sank through her like a cold liquid. Her fingers and toes seemed to go numb. Her heart felt like a frozen stone, though it began to beat more wildly than ever.
What could have gone wrong? Her message? Maybe they hadn’t received it.
But no. No, they had received it, because they had specifically referred to the extraction.
She sucked in air to get control of herself, but she lost it for a moment and brought her hand to her chest.
She could launch herself now, in an escape pod…
Don’t be stupid.
For one thing, the commander would come after her. But even if he didn’t, she wouldn’t last longer than a week in space, alone, and she’d die just like that first dog they’d sent into space eons ago, floating around.
Her eyes flew open.
Why? What could possibly be—
It’s not your place to question it.
She felt panic rise up in her throat for a moment. She was sure she couldn’t breathe.
Didn’t they understand that if the truth got out, she’d be snatched up and sent to some grunting Cylothian mate, unable to escape and no longer in place to report to the resistance?
Maybe they don’t care.
Milla felt herself losing her grip. She felt her psyche swinging wildly outside of the box of calm she had created for herself. She could feel it rising up inside of her, ready to drown her, a red-colored tide that was going to send her tumbling over the edge—
She interrupted her own thoughts. A switch flipped inside her mind.
Whenever you feel panicked, remember your mission, your destroyed home.
Her sister’s face formed in Milla’s field of vision, her hand reaching out toward Milla, her voice small and screaming.
Milla’s heart hardened.
Never forget why you are here. Now you are a soldier, and you do your job with no regard for what happens to yourself.
She stood up, clearing away the screens with one motion of her hand.
Her preparations had to be destroyed and hidden. Her mind had something to do and she needed to do it without thinking about anything else.
She walked calmly to the door and stood in the corridor. Then she began to walk back the way she had come.
She felt him before she saw him. A shiver went through her, and she had felt this more than once. Almost like a cloud of energy preceded the man.
Not man. Alien.
And then, there he was.
Her mouth fell open and her heart leaped. She cursed herself for not anticipating him sooner, for not preparing herself for his hulking presence.
He was in the corridor, taking up the entire space, his dark eyes fixed on hers and his body rigidly planted. The indication was clear: he was not moving.
And he was there to confront her about something.
She willed herself not to freak out, not even inside her chest and her own body. But she could not help it. Her insides were going hot and cold and writhing beneath her ribcage.
She dropped her eyes to the warrior’s wiry muscles, the sinewy shape of his forearms and the bulk of his biceps. If he wanted to, he could crush her right here with one hand.
“Good evening, Commander Tanin,” she said, using her most cheerful, and slightly sarcastic, voice to cover her fear. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your brooding stare?”
Her voice was clear and sassy, but inside she felt nothing but panic. Tanin was a clever one; most warriors seemed like robotic morons to her. He seemed to have a bone to pick with her and he seemed like he might pick up on her sarcasm.
It wasn’t really a Cylothian thing, so they usually missed it, which was why being disrespectful, human-style, was the easiest way to mask fear.
“Can you explain to me why you chose a non-economical route to the lab after leaving the Memextraction room?”
Inside, Milla breathed a sigh of relief. Outwardly, she let her face fall into an expression of guilty confusion.
She had an answer for this.
“What do you mean, non-economical?” she said. Her voice was purposely unconvincing. “I just went…”
Tanin brought a screen, mapping her path on the ship, to life between the two of them.
Milla dropped her eyes. She felt a flush of color stain her cheeks.
She was very good at convincing herself that the lies she was telling were true.
“I needed to go through, um… there. Because there’s someone I wanted to… you know. See.”
She looked up at Tanin, pleased to see that her story was at least disrupting his previous thoughts.
“See,” he repeated.
Milla let out a sigh and rolled her eyes skyward. “Oooohhhh!” she sighed. “See, Tanin. See. You know, like I want to see this person.”
Tanin’s face remained impassive.
“Like, I’m—oh, God, you know what, I don’t have to answer to you about every single thing I do—”
As she said this, she started to push past him. As she had expected, the warrior’s reflexes were sudden and fierce; her hand was enclosed in his thick palm and he immobilized her by twisting her arm just slightly.
“You do answer to me when I have security concerns, Doctor,” he said, his voice steady and calm as though he had just woken from a nap. “So tell me. What were you doing there?”
Milla let tears well up in her eyes. He hadn’t really hurt her; his movements were swift and precise, and her arm was simply stopped cold in the air. But she wanted her explanation to look good, and she wanted it to confound the commander with a range of human emotions in the hopes of confusing him.
“I… I… there’s a Cylothian worker there who I like to… I’m… you know…”
His grip was loosening as she struggled against it. But his gaze was stern and almost as confining. He burned into her with his eyes.
“Interested in him,” she said, as though making an embarrassing admission.
The Cylothian warrior did not find the information funny or even interesting. His face remained completely stoic.
“I’ve observed you reading a human transcription on numerous occasions,” he said. “I’d like to know about the content of the written material.”
Milla hadn’t been prepared for this. She had an answer, but she had expected the question from an adviser if it came from anyone. Not from one of these thug warriors. Not from the commander. Not after he had asked her another question that hit so close to home.
She could feel her body reacting to his question: her face flushed, her pulse quickened. Her heart began to kick at her chest. Her mouth fell open and her chest went cold from the inside out. “I… it’s… a book, a story. None of your business.”
Milla was sure that she sensed a flash of anger in the warrior’s eyes, and it terrified her. She was really pushing the limits of disrespect here.
“Why do you choose to read the book after viewing a memex?” he asked.
Milla willed herself to keep calm. If he had something on her, something concrete, something he could act on, her feet would be glued to the floor.
“I read it… all the time. I read a lot of books.” She was stammering. She lifted her chin haughtily. “What’s this got to do with anything?”
There was a long and terrible pause. Then Tanin seemed to change his mind, as if called away by someone down the hall. He leaned toward her. “I know you’re up to something,” he growled.
Milla felt an icepick of fear cut right through her chest. The warrior had to lean down—way down—to get close to her, and when he did, his muscles shifted beneath his strangely colored skin and the purple color of his warrior markings deepened. His mouth was very close to hers, and she was able to see the change in his teeth as the vampiric fangs grew.
She felt a wave of heat travel through her, along with the fear.
Then Tanin stood up to his full height and looked down at her. By the time he spoke, his teeth had retracted. “Very well. Continue on your way, Doctor Orel.”
Milla made sure to meet his eye—even though that funny feeling of fear and heat burned through her uncomfortably, like a mild electric shock—until she walked past him. He stood to one side, and she could feel the heat of his body against the side of her face.
The Cylothian warriors weren’t vampires, of course. Their teeth grew in any excited state. Sex, conflict, and apparently just a plain old adrenaline rush could all bring the teeth out. They didn’t suck blood, though they did bite in battles, and some, evidently, during sex. It held a perverse appeal for some of the humans who went willingly to their sex slave ships.
Milla was resolute, as she stormed down the corridor and tried to focus on her next move, that she found those teeth disgusting and terrifying, and nothing else.
Tanin knew now, with no doubt, that the human was lying about something. Certainly her explanation about wanting to see the Cylothian worker had made sense; human women attracted to the superior size and strength of the Cylothian men abounded. But the answer had come too quickly, too easily, even if she had buried it under a lot of hemming and hawing, acting like she was embarrassed to tell the ‘truth.’ In fact, her physical reaction had revealed her to be relieved: her heart rate had declined, and her voice had become steadier when she gave him the answer, even if she was pretending it had embarrassed her.
The question about the book, though, had set her off.
Tanin accessed her computer records for the day and went to the book, looking at her behaviors. He had already looked through the book dozens of times, seeking and never finding the secret she kept in there. There was nothing in the content that would indicate information, and the file had never changed; she had uploaded it one time from the human archives. She maintained, also, a picture file; each page was an identical copy of the actual book.
He knew that must be something.
And then there was the other oddity in her use of the file; she seemed to be searching for something. She flipped through pages, seemingly at random. Back and forth, as though looking for something.
Why not use a searchable file, then?
There was definitely something to this book.
Tanin was in his quarters, where he kept a pod to conduct his security investigations. There were more issues aboard the Cyloria than he had imagined there could be. Most were petty issues of worker dissatisfaction and petty crimes, but inventory was disappearing, and that wasn’t a good thing. He felt pretty sure information was leaking through someone, and he was almost positive that someone was Milla. However, he didn’t trust that assumption completely, so he kept his investigations entirely private.
He brought up the memex and a video of the room—and Milla—as they had watched the first playing of it. He played the video quickly, not wanting to sit through the entire file, but found nothing in the footage to indicate that Milla had noticed or heard anything during the memex.
That had to be it, though.
Tanin had long held the belief that the humans were clever enough to plant a false memex as a form of messaging. It had actually garnered a bit of respect within him that one might have done such a thing, particularly those brave humans who allowed themselves to be captured to deliver the message. But their decoders had worked on it for such a long time and come up with nothing. No hidden tapping or expressions or symbols appeared in a consistent theme. Topics of discussion were rarely related, and people and places rarely repeated themselves. If there was a preset code among them, it defied the codebreaker’s minds.
The book must have had something to do with it. He knew this. She always went to that book. But how could the book contain the message—
An alarm sounded, signaling he was urgently needed. He brought up a comms screen reluctantly. He was so close…
“Commander,” an adviser began. “We have a security issue requiring your attention.”
Tanin nodded, reading the location of the ‘situation’ from his screen.
The loading area.
Tanin strode into the loading dock, his spine stiff and his full height making those around him cower ever-so-slightly as he passed. He surveyed the situation: the flight crew of a recently landed shuttle was looking confused and miserable next to their cargo, which had been opened for inspection and none of it packed up.
Contraband, then. Tanin sniffed. This kind of cheap, mercenary piracy was beneath him.
Yet it was part of his assigned duties, so he would handle it.
He looked around, crossing his arms behind his back. An adviser named Helic O floated to him, his weak, twisted limbs a real tangle in the chair beneath him. The man’s protruding forehead bulged only slightly, but on both sides, giving Helic an unusual perspicacity for insight that made him a good police consultant.
Tanin indicated he should speak.
“Contraband,” Helic said, nodding because he knew Tanin already knew what it was. “It’s the type that seems odd.”
Tanin looked around. Another warrior stepped toward him and handed him a bio-sealed container. It was small—too small for much of anything.
“You’ve scanned this, I presume,” Tanin said briskly. “What does it contain?”
“DNA samples,” Helic said.
Tanin raised his eyebrows.
“Of a human female.”
Tanin shifted the box in his hand. “A carrier?” he asked, without thinking much about the question. His mind had already worked through the equation: a sample was only good contraband if it had some value, and the only human female DNA samples that had enough value to warrant being smuggled were those positive for carriers. Though he still couldn’t quite work out what the game might be; they’d obtained only one carrier, and there was no reward for such a thing. No one on the ship had any monetary incentive to locate a—
Unless someone, like himself, was motivated to find a specific human.
Out of revenge.
He stared at the box, almost as though he himself were responsible for it.
“No, sir,” Helic was saying, as he was thinking all of this. “That’s just the thing. This DNA is not carrier DNA. It’s…” His voice trailed off. “It’s Doctor Orel’s DNA.”
Tanin snapped to attention. “You told me this was smuggled in, in this freight ship. Not out.”
And why, indeed, would Doctor Orel’s DNA be useful in either case?
Helic looked perplexed. He had no answer to the question.
Tanin paused, his mind searching through his memories and suspicions.
As always, he had not quite reached a conclusion he could articulate before he was acting upon his instincts. A feeling of what had happened traveled through him, and the sensitive ghant on his back crawled as though being eaten by fire.
He swiftly tapped on his wrist displayer, deploying an order to lock down the traitor, Milla Orel.
She was in the lab when she felt the gravity change. A lock, a little click. Even though she wasn’t moving at the time, she could feel herself being pulled violently to the floor.
She looked around the room. Joseph and Brent hadn’t even noticed. They were busy attending to the captured girl, and it would seem that the force made no sound.
She pulled on her feet, and her leg muscles strained. Then she dropped to the floor and began to try and remove her feet, but the shoes had locked around them. So silently.
This was it.
She stood back up, her heart racing, her mind whirling around. She looked in as wide of a circle as she could, hoping to see some means of escape. But of course there was no escape. Even if she found a door and an escape pod, even if she could see them, she couldn’t get her feet out of those shoes.
Seconds passed. Her eyes even fell on a scalpel, and she had the idea to saw through her ankles. Absurd, of course.
It would take too long.
She wouldn’t be able to move.
She would bleed to death.
She reached for the scalpel anyway, when the overpowering voice of Commander Tanin broke through the door as soon as it cracked open.
“Milla Orel, human, you are hereby under house arrest pending the completion of an investigation into the smuggling of DNA aboard the Cyloria.”
Tanin was in front of her almost immediately. She let her mouth fall open; she should say something. Deny the charges. But she knew she was done for. She could see it in his face, even if his face had changed not at all. It wasn’t as if warriors smirked.
But he had wanted to catch her, and now he had.
He reached for her hand, and she flinched. He held her steadily by the wrist, turning her hand over until her palm was face up.
Even though she was terrified, and even though her world was crashing down around her, she could not help that a shiver of sexual excitement raveled through her when he drew his finger along her palm, a gentle touch beneath his steely fingers. He made a slow circle on the center of her palm. The gesture was probably some Cylothian accusation, but to her it felt… sexual.
“Doctor Mertel,” he said, without taking his eyes off Milla. “Come here, please, and sample Doctor Orel’s blood for the purposes of mapping her DNA.”
Brent looked confused, Milla could see in the corner of her eye. But he did as he was told.
Milla looked pleadingly at him as he came for the sample. Maybe he was resistance, and maybe he would know what to do.
But what had Tanin discovered?
Please don’t let it be what she thought it was.
Nervously, Brent took a DNA collector and pressed it into her finger. She felt a sharp pinch and then the heat of the sealant. The device beeped—an antiquated signal that she had found so charming but that now struck terror in her heart.
Milla kept her eyes on Tanin, knowing she should say something, but what? Without knowing what he knew there was no way to know what she should deny.
And how had he figured it out?
Then, the warrior moved, and his free hand appeared in her field of vision.
Oh, no, Milla thought. Her heart felt like it burst. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes.
She looked at Brent, hoping that somehow the look in her eyes would be pleading enough that he could understand what she was asking for.
“Type Doctor Orel’s sample with this set of DNA, please.”
Brent took the sample. “I… um… what am I looking for?”
“Please bring them both up,” Tanin said coldly.
Brent did as he was told, and the room was silent as the samples were analyzed and organized. Even if the Cylothian technology was incredibly fast—much faster than the human version—it still took a while to produce the entire reconstructed helix where human genes differed, used for identification.
The result was so obvious to Milla that she lowered her eyes immediately and a fat tear dripped out of her eye. The others took longer, and her mind was blank as Tanin moved behind her, bringing her arms to her lower back. Restraints closed around her wrists as she heard Brent’s voice:
“I don’t… I don’t understand.”
So much for him being the resistance.
Another wet, hot tear.
Pull your shit together, she told herself. This was bound to happen someday. You still have your pride.
She lifted her head and threw back a strand of her hair with a defiant shake of her head. She looked at Tanin and gave him a smirk.
Then she looked over at Brent and shrugged.
“These are not the same,” Brent said. He was looking strangely at Milla. “Except… wait, I think I’ve mixed them…” He looked down at his table, his mind obviously confirming that he hadn’t mixed anything up.
It was then that Milla realized no one was saying anything about the thing she really didn’t want them to know.
Brent looked back at her. “I don’t understand…” he repeated.
Tanin moved to stand in front of her. “I don’t either,” he said, menace in his voice. Tanin didn’t like missing things, and he didn’t like not knowing what was going on. “But I do know something illegal when I see it.”
Joseph was watching the whole scene quizzically. He looked to Brent.
“It’s not her. She’s not… Doctor Orel.” He held up the canister. “This is, though…”
Milla shook her body furiously. “That’s right. I’m not Milla Orel,” she said. “Aren’t you clever.” She added an extra degree of mockery. Perhaps if they became distracted by something else, they wouldn’t keep looking at the DNA, and then perhaps they wouldn’t find the truth.
Tanin was looking at her with a trace of amusement now.
Her boots released. Another pair of hands caught her from behind.
“I’m quite interested,” he said, “to know the ‘why’ of this.”
Brent looked on, his face indicating that he, too, would like to know.
Then Milla felt the cold stab of anesthesia. Probably a truth serum as well. Oh, God.
Brent faded from view, and the room spun around just before it went completely black.