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Authors: Sean Williams,Shane Dix

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Space Opera

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BOOK: The Dark Imbalance
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She thought she saw him shrug, but he was too for away to tell for certain.

“There is no need for apology if one speaks the truth,” he said, with wry humor to his tone.

“We have asked the High Humans for this information, too,” said Murnane into the silence that followed. “They haven’t told us anything that might conceivably help, on that or any other subject. I for one find their silence unnerving. Do you know why this might be the case?”

“No,” said Roche.

“Given that your Box came from this Trinity, which had connections to this High Human called the Crescend, do you think its destruction would be of some concern to him? Would he respond to a call for more information, perhaps?”

“I really don’t know.” Roche hoped he would not respond; if the Crescend revealed to the council that she had lied about the Box’s destruction, that certainly wouldn’t count in her favor.

“The Crescend never contacted you while the Box was in your presence?”

“No, never.”

“Do you expect him to?”

She resisted the urge to ask where this line of questioning was going. “Look, I went to Trinity to collect the Box, but met no one while I was there. I was rendered unconscious in orbit, and when I woke up the Box was... in my possession. That’s all. You’re obviously hoping that I can act as some sort of link between yourselves and the High Humans, but I don’t see that as being an option. I’ve never communicated with them, and I doubt I ever will. Why should they bother with me? I’m just someone who happens to be caught in the middle of all this.”

<1 hope you know what you’re doing, Box,> she whispered via her implants to the AI in her body.

it said.

“We are
all
caught in this,” Murnane said. “But outside of the enemy, few individuals have had such a catalytic effect as yourself.” He paused. “Is there anything else you would like to tell us, while this council is in session?”



“No,” she repeated.

“Will you submit to a probe by one of our reaves to verify the answers you have given us?”

The question surprised her. “Why do you need that? The hard data speaks for itself, and I’ve no reason to deceive you.”

“Nevertheless—will you?”

If she said yes, they would know that she was lying about the Box. Although she knew it would look suspicious, she had no choice but to say: “No. I’m sorry.”

“Will you allow us, then, to examine you and, if necessary, take a genetic sample?”

She squirmed.

the Box replied,



Again, she had no choice. “I’d prefer not to,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Murnane studied her for a long moment. “As are we,” he said. “But we cannot force you to submit to either examination—nor would we wish to.” He gestured helplessly. “This meeting is now concluded. We would ask you to return to your ship, Roche, and—”

“What!”
Roche snapped. “Aren’t you even going to discuss what I’ve told you?”

“There is no need,” he said. “We’ve been conferring by epsense the entire time.”

“But you can’t just dismiss me!”

“Can’t we?” He took a step toward her. “Roche, we had hoped that you would provide us with information that is both new and verifiable. We had hoped that this might show us a way to combat the enemy we fear has infiltrated every group we deal with and perverts everything we attempt to do to stop them. Now it seems certain that you yourself have fallen into the same trap—either willingly or by accident.”

Roche felt herself straighten, her tired back and stomach muscles tensing as though ready for attack. “Meaning?”

“You have told us
nothing,
Roche. You claim that Adoni Cane is one of the enemy, yet you can offer no explanation for this surety nor a reason for his atypical behavior. Of what value is his genetic data under those circumstances? You offer us names that you assure us are relevant, but do not give us a context in which to place them or access to the records you say they came from. On what grounds can we possibly use them as means to uncover the enemy among us? You cannot tell us why Sol System has become the focus of so much concern—you can’t even tell us why
you
came here without resorting to vague explanations involving this mysterious AI of yours! And as to
that,
well, I hardly need to state how the council feels.
If
it existed at all, its tenuous connections to the High Humans might have been exploitable, but as it stands—”

“I’m telling you the
truth
,” she broke in angrily.

“Are you?” Murnane moved closer again, his own anger evident in his face. “There is much to suggest that what you are doing is far from innocent. Ameidio Haid is a convicted criminal who, as the Commerce Artel points out, has not served his full term; who is to say you don’t have criminal intent in mind as well? Add to that the fact that both your young friend here and the pilot of your vessel are the subjects of biological experiments; if Adoni Cane’s genetic data and physiognomy turn out to be peculiar, could he not also be an experimental subject, and not the enemy you claim he is?

“Then there are the credibility gaps in your story. How did you come to the conclusion that Adoni Cane was one of the enemy? How did you survive Palasian System when even the Kesh destroyer sent to monitor the situation did not? Why did you come here? And why has your arrival caused such a furor among all those who have known you: the COE, the Dato Bloc, the Commerce Artel, the Surin, the Kesh, the Olmahoi... ?

“Even if what you are telling us is the truth, and Adoni Cane
is
one of the enemy, then how can we trust someone who openly admits to having one aboard her ship—as part of her
crew
?”

Murnane shook his head. “It may seem like we pre-judged you, but we have done nothing of the sort. We simply considered all possible conclusions prior to your arrival and allowed you to show us the one that best fitted the circumstances. Because you seem not to be dealing honestly with us, we are forced to conclude that Adoni Cane is a fake, or a misdiagnosis, or an enemy plant. We are unsure of
your
motives, but we are sure that we will no longer allow our precious time to be wasted examining your spurious claims and false offers. We have work to do, Roche, and a distraction such as this, even if not maliciously intended, does the enemy’s work for them.”

Tight-lipped, Roche forced herself to speak calmly. “If I could just say—”

“There is nothing more to be said,” Murnane cut in. “Hue Vischilglin will escort you and your companion to your vessel. Once you’re on board, the protection offered by the
Phlegethon
will be withdrawn.”

Vischilglin appeared, expressionless, at Roche’s side as Murnane turned his back and moved away without another word. The Heresiarch made no move at all. Roche let herself be taken by the arm and led away, furious but impotent, as a growing murmur filled the fane.

3

SHCV
Phlegethon

955.1.30

0900

went well,> Roche muttered to the Box as Vischilglin directed her through the council and back into the petal from which they had first emerged. <‘Talk to them,’ you said. ‘Exactly what we need,’ you said. Whatever happened to getting access to their resources and getting on with the job?>

the Box responded smoothly.



Feeling humiliated and frustrated, Roche avoided the eyes of everyone around her as she walked by. They thought she was a fool—or, worse, some sort of collaborator.

the Box intoned casually.

She stopped midsentence as its admission sank in. did
the Crescend give you an override phrase that actually worked? It doesn’t make sense—especially in the light of recent knowledge.>




telling
me about it?>




She couldn’t help the sarcasm. The modified ulnar nerve along her arm was throbbing with remembered sensation. Data had burned along that path to the valise she had once believed the Box to inhabit. She wondered which pathways it used, now that it was completely inside of her....

“Well, that could have gone better.”

Roche recognized the man’s voice as one from the interrogation. She looked up to see a fair-haired, diminutive figure waiting for them at the top of the stairs, an almost condescending smile beaming from his small, triangular face.

Vischilglin didn’t give Roche a chance to reply. “Stand aside, Junior Primate Nemeth,” she said, pushing past the man and heading back down into the thick cloud they had climbed through to get to the council.

“That’s
Assistant Vice
Primate to you, Co-adjutant Vischilglin,” he objected, following them down the steps.

Only then did Roche realize something odd about the council—or rather the people who comprised the council. They were all plenipotentiary envoys, co-adjutants, assistant vice primates, senior aides—underlings with fancy titles. None of them were the real operators. Perhaps, she thought, the situation in Sol System was too risky for the superiors to come, so their assistants had been sent instead.

Then she realized another thing: she had heard the name of Assistant Vice Primate Nemeth somewhere before. She stopped and turned to the man. He stopped also, a couple of meters away, behind Maii. Mist from the cloud created a slight haze between them, but not enough to obscure the man’s crooked grin.

“It was you who hailed us before we came here,” she said. “Before that drone intercepted us.”

Nemeth executed a slight bow of the head. “I’m flattered you remembered me.”

“What do you want?” Roche was in no mood for small talk.

He gesticulated expansively. “Perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask what it is
you
want—from
me
?>

She studied him for a moment, then turned and continued after Vischilglin down the steps. “I haven’t got time for these games,” she muttered irritably.


replied the girl, maintaining a steady plodding pace behind her.


said the girl.

said Roche.

She paused for a few seconds before adding:

Roche could hear the footsteps of the man following her down. Vischilglin strode ahead of her, a tall broad shape plowing through the mist. Far from the chatty, affable guide she’d been when they first met, she had hardly said a word since the hearing.

her
mind?> Roche asked Maii.






Roche sighed. <1 only came here looking for answers. I mean, what were they expecting to find in me? A savior or something?>

said Maii.



said Maii.

Roche frowned.

the girl replied.

Roche smiled now. she said.

They stepped out of the clouds and back into the landscape of rolling valleys and trickling waters. Roche groaned inwardly when she remembered the distance they’d come to get this far. Her legs and back were sore from standing for so long.

As though someone had read her mind, an air-car resembling a large silver spoon hummed into view. There were seats for four people in the bowl, all empty.

“I thought you might be weary,” said Nemeth from behind diem. “As attractive as the scenery is, there’s no need to view it on foot twice.”

Roche glanced at Vischilglin, who was frowning. “You arranged this?” Roche asked, suspecting an ulterior motive.

“It is not the council’s will,” said Vischilglin, scowling.

Nemeth shrugged expansively. “Since when did the council start dictating courtesy? I’m offering you all a lift—including yourself, Co-adjutant Vischilglin.” He smiled. “Well, are you coming or not?”

* * *

The air-car sped quietly across the uneven terrain, leaving the steps they had just descended far behind. Although they didn’t move alarmingly fast, there were a couple of moments when the car slued to avoid a jutting ridge, making Roche feel a little uneasy.

Nemeth didn’t appear to be troubled by the craft’s sudden movements. He sat beside her, looking out at the rolling landscape sweeping beneath them, his face split by a seemingly perpetual smile.

As if sensing her staring at him, Nemeth turned to face Roche, and his smile widened.

“Now isn’t this so much easier?” he said. “Perhaps we could even take a more interesting route back to the docks.” Over his shoulder to where Maii and Vischilglin sat, he said: “Do you think the council would approve, Vischilglin?”

The woman grunted an affirmation. She really had little choice now, Roche thought. Nemeth laughed and turned back to look at the scenery.

‘Tell me,” said Roche. “What exactly
is
it you think I want from you, Nemeth?”

“All, now, that’s the question, isn’t it?” he said. “Make no mistake: I can do any number of things for you, Roche.” He glanced over at her. “If I were so inclined, of course.” When she didn’t react, he went on: “You come at a peculiar time, Roche—when the council is desperate for answers that none of us have. It feels constrained by the very precepts that allowed it to come into being so quickly. It is...
limited
by its nature.”

“You mean it’s for Pristines only,” said Roche.

He nodded. “But some of us fear that ‘Pristines only’ may not be enough to combat this threat.” He watched the view silently for a few moments; when he spoke again, the smile had faded. “I lost my family back home, you know,” he said. “They were caught in an insurrection while I was serving in a completely different system. A local terrorist branch whipped up enough anti-government action—in the form of riots and infrastructure sabotage—to warrant calling in the army. Thousands of innocent people died in the ensuing repression, including my family, and it achieved nothing for either side. It turned out that the enemy was responsible for the whole thing. The terrorists were just a tool—the means to an end. And that end was to cause as much destruction and misery as possible.”

Nemeth looked at Roche, who sat watching him carefully. He remained outwardly relaxed, except for his hands: his knuckles were white where they gripped the armrest. When he realized this, he quickly loosened his grip and his smile returned.

“So, do you have any family, Roche?” Nemeth asked.

Roche felt a stab of pain. Never knowing her parents had been a constant regret throughout her childhood. As an adult, she had aspired to COE Intelligence in order to track them down. Upon reaching that goal, however, she had forgotten about her parents entirely, too busy with her own life to worry about the one she might have had.

“No,” she said. Another part of her was glad that she could forestall his obvious gambit. While she could feel compassion for his loss, he would have to engage her intellect, not her emotions, in order to get what he wanted. Whatever that was.

If he was disappointed by her reply, he made no sign. He simply nodded and changed the subject.

“In a second we’ll be entering one of the main longitudinal ducts that run down the hull from minaret to crypt,” he said.

Vischilglin leaned forward in the cab. “That’s fore to aft to us,” she said.

“Even at the speeds we will be going,” Nemeth continued, “it will take us ten minutes or so. But please don’t be concerned by that,” he added in response to a look of alarm in Roche’s eyes: to travel any significant length along the giant ship so quickly would demand speeds greater than one or two thousand kilometers per hour. “We’ll be perfectly safe.”

They raced toward what at first appeared to be nothing more than a wall, but as they flew closer, Roche saw it for what it actually was: a giant tube lying on its side across their path, suspended by invisible forces ten meters or more above the rolling hills. It was so thick that its top was obscured by the cloud cover, and for a moment Roche wondered how they were going to get past it—or into it, if this was in fact one of the ducts Nemeth had mentioned.

A moment later the craft swept beneath the massive cylinder and into its shadow. Their speed eased slightly as the air-car rose toward an enormous portal on the underbelly of the tube, easily thirty meters across and hanging open like a slack and lipless mouth. From it issued a cold breeze; not strong, but enough to make Roche shiver.

“An air duct?” she said, hearing a faint susurrus coming from within. “Seems a bit primitive on a ship like this.”

“Believe me,” said Nemeth, “it’s purely for aesthetics.”

Then they were inside—and caught by a tremendous, rushing wind. The air-car lurched violently as it began to accelerate along the tube. Roche gripped her armrests as she was pressed back into her seat and knocked from side to side with every buffeting motion. Beside her, Nemeth laughed at her obvious alarm.

Another air-car—this one a single-passenger model shaped more like an egg with two limp, trailing spines—swept past them, barely missing by a meter. Startled, Roche looked around properly for the first time. Inside, the tube was easily wide enough to hold a hundred air-cars. Lines of lights trickled along the walls; every now and again, larger, brighter patches would rush by, too quick to take in. Other air-cars continued to pass theirs, less quickly than before, but thankfully none came as close as the first one.

“Aesthetics, huh?” she said to Nemeth over the sound of the wind; some sort of field-effect was keeping the worst of the turbulence at bay; otherwise he would never have been able to hear her.

He laughed out loud again. But this time it was with an almost childlike delight: he was enjoying the ride.

“You would’ve loved Palasian System,” she said.


Roche looked around her, concentrating for the first time on the bright patches as they went past. Indeed, now that she looked, she could make out brief impressions of the levels as they flashed by: here, deep purple and icy, there, soft pastels. One of the portals was much larger than the others, and through it she glimpsed angular structures in the distance, across flat, metallic plains; levels devoted to the ship’s working, she supposed.

Clearly Maii had lifted this method of looking at the levels from the way Nemeth moved his eyes.

said the girl. <1 can’t read much beyond that. I suspect he’s taken us this way because it gives him a natural shield to hide behind.>

Roche turned back to Nemeth. “Scenery is all very well,” she said, “but when are we going to
talk
?”

“We can talk now, if you like.” He swiveled in his seat to look at Vischilglin, who regarded him stonily. “Do you think the council would object to us having a little privacy?”

BOOK: The Dark Imbalance
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