Intaki V – Moon 5 – Astral Mining Inc. Refinery
The docking tug released her ship; the pod gantry extracted her capsule. Sakaane prepared for the usual amount of discomfort that accompanied disembarkation.
“Have you been expecting a delivery, or a message?” Bataav asked over their private channel.
The black podsuit peeled off and hit the floor of the washroom in the captain’s quarters with a wet plop. Slimy rivulets of containment fluid dribbled down her body into inconvenient crevices. She reached for the shower knob.
Bataav hesitated before answering. “A courier showed up shortly after you left. His credentials seem to check out.”
The bar of soap squirted out of her hands. She let it fall unheeded to the floor and tried to fight down a sudden irrational surge of anxiety. Darac Rin’s couriers had had verifiable credentials, too, else they would never have been allowed on the station, never mind granted access to the restricted capsuleer zones. That hadn’t stopped them from bringing her ill news.
Bataav heard her soft curse. “It won’t be about that. We took care of it.”
Yes, they had—and the anxiety was swept aside by grim satisfaction that twisted her lips into a cold smile. But then several gobs of shampoo suds slipped past her lips, killing the moment. She spat and turned her face up to the water to rinse her mouth.
Still, was it possible the courier was from the Serpentis? She mulled that over in her head for a few minutes before discarding the idea. It’d been months since the escapade in Vey, and even supposing the local cells were happy about that particular turn of events, they’d probably be unlikely to send a gift basket to an enemy as thanks. This courier must be from someone else. But why the trouble to come in person? Anyone she could think of who might need to reach her could do so easily enough through secured comms.
“What did he want?”
“He refuses to say.”
“Wait a minute. The courier is waiting?”
“Apparently his instructions are to speak only to you.”
She caught the note of disapproval in Bataav’s voice and decided it would be best not to delay further. A few minutes later, a damp towel joined the wet podsuit on the floor.
Bataav was sitting across from their unexpected guest, a carefully neutral expression on his face and a drink seemingly clasped casually in his hands, when Sakaane entered their quarters. She had tossed on her usual fatigues but left her hair down. The redline tube had transported her across the station in a matter of minutes; her honey-blonde locks hung in still-damp waves over her shoulders.
The courier had his back to her. He sat rigidly upright in that way people do when they’re uncomfortably aware of having overstayed their welcome but are unable, or unwilling, to leave. A glass of ice water—long since warmed to room temperature, Sakaane suspected—sat untouched in a puddle of condensation on the coffee table.
Bataav glanced in her direction; the courier turned to look and then jerked to his feet. “Madam President,” he said, and strode around the sofa.
Sakaane held up her hand to halt his advance. “Bataav tells me you were unwilling to leave your message with him.”
The courier glanced over his shoulder. Bataav had risen to his feet and was standing within arm’s reach. His drink had been placed quietly on the table, leaving both hands free.
“Please, I mean no disrespect.” The courier looked back at her with an apologetic face. “My instructions are quite specific. The message must be delivered, personally, to Sakaane Eionell.” He paused. “Delivered only to you.”
“Whatever you have to say to me can be said to both of us,” Sakaane said flatly. “Or, you may leave.”
The idea of not completing his mission didn’t affect the courier as Sakaane expected. If he’d been under threat for not getting the job done the way he’d been told to do it, he might have panicked or been rattled enough to plead with her. Instead, the courier stood quietly, studying her as if to judge her resolve. Fleetingly, she wondered if he might leave without giving her the message at all.
Finally, his hand moved to reach inside the jacket of his uniform.
“Slowly,” Bataav warned.
The courier hesitated, then retrieved a white envelope slightly bigger than his hand. It was somewhat thick and uneven. Holding it up to Bataav, he then presented it to Sakaane with a polite smile. It bore her name on the front and nothing else.
She took it. Despite the bulge of its contents, the package was surprisingly light.
“My ship is in hangar 279,” the courier said. “I will be there, at your convenience, once you have read the message.” To Bataav he said, “Thank you for the drink,” then bowed to them both and showed himself to the door.
Her fingers ran over the envelope. It was a different color and shape from the ones she’d received before, and made of paper that had a slightly rough and stiff quality to it, as if manufactured in a more traditional, old-fashioned way. It reminded her of pages in the old leather-bound books in her father’s study. Her name had been written on the envelope in neat, precise handwriting, not printed or lasered on. A fresh scent carried faintly from the paper. Whatever was inside felt delicate.
Wandering over to the sofa, she sat down and showed the package to Bataav when he joined her. “What do you make of this?”
He shrugged. “Open it.”
The stiff crease of the flap flaked into soft fibers as she ran her finger under it. Inside was a note on a single sheet of paper of the same quality as the envelope, and a dried, pressed flower. The note was also hand-written. The first few words appeared somewhat clumsy, as if the hand which penned them was out of practice. But by the end of the first line, the script had strengthened, the hand gaining confidence and recovering its style. The flower had been carefully preserved: its long azure petals were unwrinkled; the stamens were full of bright orange pollen. Free of the envelope, its scent was that much stronger.
Sakaane cradled the blossom carefully in one hand and held the note with the other. It said,
Please come to Maatrukaanan. Please come alone.
Below was a postscript. The writing was a bit skewed from the rest, as if the hand had hesitated before putting thoughts to paper.
The kuvalavarsa are in bloom.
She turned the note over, but there was nothing else written on it. “The kuvalavarsa are in bloom,” Sakaane repeated, confused. “These grow on Intaki in some places. Why should I want to go to Maatrukaanan to see them?”
Bataav took the flower from her and studied it. Having been dried and pressed, the plant had become extremely fragile. It was a testament to the courier’s skill that it had been transported in the envelope without damage.
“You wouldn’t,” he said after some thought, “especially when the invitation is anonymous.” He nodded at the note. “But the courier said he would be waiting, so the sender must be confident you’ll accept. The sender must also know you’ll need to be convinced it’s safe and worthwhile to go. So this...” He carefully laid the blossom on the table. “This is a token meant to do exactly that. Is the flower significant to you?”
“Not at all.”
“Hmm.” Bataav reached for a datapad, queried a search string, then paged through a few results. After a few minutes he grunted and frowned. “It’s poisonous.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Most lilies are. I don’t plan on eating it.”
He continued to study the information on the pad, then smirked. “Lilies. Of course—kuvalavarsa are rain lilies.”
It took her a moment but she caught on. “So, it’s a metaphor.”
“Seems to be.” He set the datapad aside. “Nothing else stands out. If the courier is waiting then you weren’t intended to have to search long or very hard to figure it out. But it still had to be obscure enough that someone stumbling onto the message would probably dismiss it.” He looked at her. “You’re going to go, aren’t you?”
Sakaane smiled. “Sure. I’m curious about this one. Aren’t you? It doesn’t seem threatening.” She pulled on his hand. “Come with me. You can check things out before I go to the meeting itself, wherever that happens to be.” Heading for the bedroom with the intent to change and finish with her hair, she added, “What’s the weather like in Maatrukaanan at this time of year?”
Viriette Constellation – Vey II – District 4
The courier had arched his eyebrow when Sakaane appeared in the hangar with Bataav at her side, but otherwise hadn’t commented that she was not going alone as the invitation requested. Now they were in orbit some two kilometers off the District 4 satellite over Vey II. The two capsuleers waited restlessly inside a cramped cabin, each conscious of the fact they were in space, in lowsec, in a small, fragile ship captained by a baseliner, and neither of them were in their capsules.
The fact the ship was cloaked was only a small consolation. The system was rudimentary and would only function as long as the ship’s main thrusters remained dormant. If the engines fired, or if anyone else happened to fly too close, the cloak would pop.
“My instructions are to wait here,” the courier had said over the ship’s internal comms when they arrived. “Special arrangements have been made to get you to the surface.”
They waited. A few hours passed.
Suddenly, alarms sounded through the ship, startling the capsuleers to their feet.
The courier’s tense voice crackled over the comm system. “We have a visitor. Algos off the port bow.”
Sakaane and Bataav sprang to the window to look. The destroyer had warped in at range to the satellite and was barely a smudge against the backdrop of stars. Lights on its hull blinked ominously like eyes.
It sat for a few moments, then abruptly swung around and warped out.
The alarms ended. The capsuleers began to breathe again.
Not long after, Bataav, arms crossed and leaning against the frame of the viewport to keep watch on the scene outside, stood up straight and gestured. “Here’s something. Look.”
A shuttle emerged from the planet’s atmosphere on a heading that would bring it to the nearby satellite. The logo for InterBus was emblazoned on one side and brightly lit.
“This is for you,” came the courier’s voice, “though I’m afraid you’ll have to use an escape pod so they can pick you up.”
Bataav and Sakaane exchanged looks that mirrored each other’s mounting trepidation, though they obligingly left the cabin and headed for the nearest access hatch, crawled into a pod that smelled faintly of stale vomit, and allowed a nervous, wide-eyed crewman to strap them in. A moment later the pod jettisoned, sending the capsuleers careening into space.
“Next time someone sends me a flower,” Sakaane said through gritted teeth as she fought against g-forces the pod wasn’t entirely able to eliminate, “remind me of this.”
Bataav grinned. His lips alternately stretched and compressed in unnatural ways as they continued to spin. “I think this is kind of fun.”
The laugh she would have laughed was knocked clean out of her by the jarring impact of being scooped to a cargo bay and the sudden return of gravity. They expected someone would appear to let them out but no one came; instead, a vibration that quickly increased in strength crept through the wall of the escape pod and into their restraints. The shuttle was descending into the atmosphere.
They landed without incident and were freed by a fresh-faced InterBus employee who apologized profusely for the inconvenience, hoped they were well, and quickly ushered them through the modest, compact spaceport. They were taken to an outdoor arrivals area away from the main gates, where it seemed small- and medium-sized shipments were handled. The employee promised they would be picked up shortly and then hurried away.
Sakaane shaded her eyes with a hand, blinking against the afternoon sunlight. Nearby, a sign proclaimed:
The forest that gives birth to the world.
“Well, we’re here.”
Various locals milled around the pickup lanes in front of them, most standing by idling trucks or other durable-looking land vehicles parked in NO PARKING zones, dusting off jeans and tossing hardhats aside while waiting to receive cargo from inside the building. As the minutes ticked by, they glanced with increasing interest at the two capsuleers, who stuck out in stark contrast against the locals’ rugged industrial air. Before leaving the Astral station, Sakaane had changed into crimson robes with silver accent stitching that caught the light. The robes were long and made of a soft material which comfortably hugged her midsection. A cowl piled around her neck in loose folds. Bataav was dressed in a dark tunic with intricate patterns stitched in black thread over the shoulders, plus dark trousers and boots.
“Have you ever visited this colony before?” Bataav said conversationally, though his eyes were carefully scrutinizing their surroundings.
“No. So no one here that we know, then.”
They fell silent, each contemplating for the nth time who the invitation might have come from.
An LAV that looked like it had been through its share of combat roared up to the curb. It was spattered with mud that partially obscured a logo. Only the letters STRY and VICE were visible below the emblem. A man with sunglasses, tousled hair bleached to blond from working outdoors, and a deep tan to match, wearing brown fatigues and a light jacket hopped out.
He took a long look at the capsuleers, then strode past them into the building. Sometime after, he emerged again, lugging a heavy box he could barely see over. He got it to the LAV, balanced it precariously on one knee and the rear bumper, and managed to get the vehicle’s trunk open all without upending the package. They heard him grunt with the effort of sliding it inside.
Once the box was secured, he approached Sakaane and Bataav and tipped a hat he wasn’t wearing. “Ma’am.” He cast an uncertain look at Bataav but then added, “Sir,” and jerked his thumb at the LAV. “Thayl, with the local forestry service. I’m your ride.”
“Wait,” Sakaane commanded as Thayl turned away. “Prove it.”
“Oh, right. I forgot.” He fished around in his jacket. “Here. Sorry, guess I kinda crushed it.” He pulled a kuvalavarsa from his pocket. Unlike the dried one that had come with the courier, this flower was fresh—or had been. It drooped limply on a broken stem and one of its azure petals was half torn off.
Sakaane took the flower from him. “All right. But who are you taking us to see? Where are we going?”
Thayl yanked on one of the LAV’s doors. “Let me get this for you. It sticks a bit. Rolled down an embankment the other day.” He made sure she was settled in, then slammed the door and went around to climb into the driver’s seat. Bataav chose to sit in the backseat, behind Thayl.
The forester gestured vaguely out the windshield as they roared away from the spaceport. “I’m taking you out thattaway. Currently surveying in the area and needed to come in to pick up some things, so it was no problem to take on the favor to pick you up, too.”
“Favor from whom?” Bataav asked.
“The bairaagi,” Thayl said easily.
Sakaane looked over her shoulder at Bataav. He shrugged at her. Bairaagi—someone who had withdrawn to a solitary place to live a life of spiritual seclusion.
She tried again. “Who—”
Thayl shook his head. “Don’t know much else. Stumbled across the place a while back while trying to track down dry spots for fire season. In the middle of nowhere.” His face reddened a little. “Kinda crashed into it, actually.” He patted the dash of the LAV. “This baby got decommissioned some years ago, and we pick ’em up now and then. They’re great for us—lots of rough terrain where there aren’t any roads. Even decommissioned, they can still take a beating in the forest and run forever. Makes a hell of a racket going through the woods though.” He snorted a laugh. “So anyway, here I come, crashing out of the trees. Nearly ran over the hut before I realized it was there.”
He refused to say more for a while, keeping them entertained instead with talk about his work and the land around them. It’d been quite some time since they’d seen any signs of civilization when he turned the vehicle off the highway. The road wasn’t paved; the LAV’s big tires kicked up gravel as they gained speed again.
“It’s pretty remote out here,” Thayl said after they’d gone some distance. “That’s kinda why I like my job so much.”
The road wound its way more and more into the hills and the forest, and the farther they went, the more rough the lane became until it was little more than a couple of ruts between the trees. Thayl was forced to slow down to a comparative crawl to navigate the bumps and rocks and fallen logs that cropped up in their path.
“Guess you folks wouldn’t be used to this. You need this kind of a truck to get into these parts,” he said as he eased two wheels over a particularly big trunk. That side of the LAV pointed up nearly to the sky, with branches scraping unceremoniously across its outer casing. Sakaane clutched at the door handle, hoping her seatbelt wouldn’t give way and send her tumbling into Thayl, while Bataav had braced himself and was watching the forest floor creeping closer to his window. “We try not to carve too many new paths to keep the forest intact,” Thayl added casually as the rear wheel finally thumped over the tree. The LAV’s shocks protested but quickly stabilized so they could continue on. “But last season was bad for fires so we’ve had to go in a bit more than we like.”
Finally, the LAV lurched to a halt. Outside, a piece of blue forester’s ribbon fluttered from a low-lying branch.
Thayl looked at Sakaane. “You’ll have to go on by foot from here. The bairaagi forgave my intrusion, and even agreed to have me come check on things now and then, and bring a few supplies, but I had to promise to always leave this monster here.”
Sakaane looked. From the tree with the ribbon, a narrow walking path disappeared into the forest. Unstrapping herself, she shoved the door open and got out. Then, as an afterthought, she reached back into the cab and snatched up the flower Thayl had brought her.
Bataav started to get out too.
“Hold on now,” Thayl said. “You can’t go. You know the invitation is only for her.”
They exchanged looks. For a moment, Bataav looked like he wanted to argue, but in the end, slowly pulled his door shut.
Sakaane came around to his side of the LAV. “I’ll be okay,” she said after he rolled the window down.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. You want to bet your safety on a flower?”
She looked at it, then back at him, and finally gestured to their surroundings. “Didn’t we already do that?”
Bataav looked unconvinced. He reached inside his tunic, producing a small pistol not much larger than his palm. “Take this, at least. I know you don’t have yours.”
She nodded; the robes weren’t conducive to wearing her usual shoulder holster, but the pistol he offered was small enough to fit into a pocket and she’d known he would be armed. She took it.
Thayl leaned out his window. “It’s just under a couple of klicks up the trail. You shouldn’t have any trouble. I have a temporary station set up not far from here. We’ll wait there and come back for you when you’re done.”
“How will you know that?”
Thayl smiled. It was a friendly smile and showed no trace of malice or deception. “The bairaagi has ways. After all, you’re here, aren’t you?”
He gunned the engine. Sakaane waited until the LAV’s bulk had lumbered out of sight, raising a hand in farewell at Bataav’s face looking back at her through the window. Then she hitched the hem of her robes up in one hand, carefully holding the dying flower in the other, and started up the path.
At first the path was cramped and closed in, as if wanting to be kept hidden from the forester’s road despite the bright blue tape marking its location. But after a hundred or so feet it widened into a trail lined by trees comparatively younger to those growing in behind them, and Sakaane wondered if, at one time, this part of the forest might have seen use that had since been forgotten, and all that remained was the path she strode on.
She began to enjoy herself and wished that Bataav was with her.
Finally, the path ended at a small clearing. She paused in the shadow of a tree, wanting to survey the area before making her presence known. As Thayl had said, there was a hut, though it was larger and sturdier looking than she’d imagined. Its entrance faced southeast to catch the morning light. Nearby, a stone firepit smoked, the grey tendrils curling upward before being whisked away. A chopping block with an axe dug into it sat nearby, while a fraying canvas chair had been placed upwind.
On the far side of the clearing was a man on his knees, tending to a bed of wild rain lilies. As she watched, he finished with his work and pushed himself to his feet, brushing off his hands.
Sakaane drew back as he walked toward the hut to give herself more time to study him before he noticed her. Then his head turned and she saw him properly. The shock of recognition whipped through her like lightning and she staggered, reaching out with one hand to clutch the nearest tree to keep herself from falling. A dizzying blackness swept over her vision. The other hand, still holding the kuvalavarsa with the broken stem laced between her fingers, fell lifelessly to her side.
She blinked and looked again, drawing in a few ragged, sharp breaths. The man before her was almost a stranger compared to the last time she’d seen him. His face looked more worn than she remembered, and even now the eyes cast about in deep contemplation, only seemingly noticing the immediate surroundings out of instinct. Instead of silken robes, he wore a coarse tunic made of what appeared to be hemp that she guessed he’d grown or harvested from the surrounding forest. His beard reached to his chest. The grey at his temples had lengthened into streaks that faded into long locks of brown hair falling down his back. He’d thinned considerably, too, in that way people did when their diet consisted of simple foods after having been accustomed to a richer palate.
Sakaane had come all this way not knowing who had summoned her, yet all the while expecting anyone but him. That it might have been him had never crossed her mind, had been the very furthest idea she would have considered. Now, the sight of him evoked a confusing whirlwind of emotion and she wasn’t sure if she should rush forward or just turn her back and walk away.
A gust of wind blew through the trees, pulling at her robes. The cowl slipped off her head but she didn’t notice. The sound of countless disturbed leaves and pine needles echoed the sudden roar in her mind. Her throat constricted tightly, painfully, choking her, and all she could manage was to breathe out his name.