Enormous apologies for the lateness of this- just, argh.
It's also quite mushy. What can I say? It's spring.
Beliksjaden hadn't quite been paying attention to everything Chief Mirannon had rambled on about, but internal monitoring was one aspect he did have a thorough purchase on. None of the conversation between Admiral and Moff passed through any channel he could reach, but the in- station instruction to clear certain decks, prepare to dock shuttles, move to secure the safety centre, were clear enough.
Amberley noticed. 'He,' she said gesturing at the now- paused hologram with a boltgun, 'stops talking to me, and you start looking worried. What do you know?'
The engineer took a deep breath, wondering what to say that would make the situation any better. She noticed that too, and the psychic nutjobs- Rakhel, who had up until now apparently been mesmerised by the twinkling lights on one of the operations boards, and the tall, black-clad, sexily sarcastic one, Mydelin, came over to menace him.
He wasn't all that offended at the idea of being menaced by the one in the black bodyglove, wondered if actually saying so would be a useful stall; as the short, pudgy mad one in the too- small dress approached, decided against it.
'I don't think he wants this place back in one piece any more.' Beliksjaden said. 'In fact, considering the trouble it's been to him, I think he'd like an excuse to have it blown up.'
Amberley's brain leaped a couple of steps ahead. If this wasn't just a bluff, then he had either decided there was no solution, or found an alternative. That alternative probably included her, alive and- hm, responsive. Not necessarily well.
If he thought he could get her to do his bidding, after whatever adventures in the nervous system that sort of persuasion included around here if necessary, her political importance could turn the situation.
As, theoretically, could that of any of her colleagues, many of whom she would quite happily see introduced to whatever filled the role of torture chamber for these people. None of whom had stuck their head into the lions' den.
There were warships on the way; some kind of negotiation was an excellent idea, but at the moment it would be much safer to do it from a position of strength. If this was no longer one- and it could still be a bluff- then what? Escape, steal a ship, join the fleet.
Not as good an idea as she would have thought some days ago, but better than the alternative of waiting here to be assaulted, presumably by their equivalent of tech- guard; wait, there was a missing piece of the puzzle. Why?
'So what is this excuse he's just found, then? What might it be, why attack now?' she demanded of the Starfleet engineer.
The psykers hissed at him, and he tried to think of an answer that might actually satisfy them- think hard, try to come up with something before they noticed him obviously searching for an answer.
'This wasn't really his project. It just happened on his territory, on his watch, he didn't particularly want it or ask for it- because this is essentially the hind end of nowhere.
He tried to score political points by sending an attack group through to your space- you won't have heard this part- and it went catastrophically wrong, intercepted by your enemies instead of your own fleet. He lost- probably- four of our finest capital ships in the process.
Now this. Destroying the space-maker's control mechanism- didn't I mention that this is only operations control, not safety?- now, betting on strategic victory, he probably thinks it's a crazy idea, but it might be backed from above in a way that taking the sensible option simply wouldn't.
Especially with what happened to the forward force, picking a fight is the ideologically sound option. Plan B is probably to try to take you alive.'
Trapped by ideology- was it the same in both, in all universes? were the superstructures of complexity more universal than the nature of the elements, politics, bureaucracy, ideological correctness more omnipresent than the planck length and the mass of the proton? What a depressing multiverse it would be if that were true.
Amberley thought more or less the same- but was much more welcoming of the idea. If power and politics and the high level results of all this technosorcerous mumbo-jumbo remained the same, then there should be levers, pressure points somewhere.
Of course the first thing to do was to avoid being used as one of them herself; avoid falling into their power and getting to experience their interrogation and persuasion techniques the hard way- she was interested in them, but not that interested.
'So, who was lying to me?' she asked him, suddenly and without moving much managing to appear extremely dangerous. Beliksjaden decided there was little credibility, or survival value, in playing dumb.
'I was- earlier.' he said quickly. 'This place isn't going to cause anything like a cataclysm when it goes up- blowing it would cost time, money and the temporary ability to use the bridge- maker; none of that is enough to deter him now.'
Beliksjaden had not got the memo about symmetry breaking, and although he could probably have worked it out given some uninterrupted thinking time, hadn't, and didn't know that the operations room was theoretically vastly more dangerous. Which was fortunate, as that made him more believable.
'The people, my colleagues, that you would need to kill to stop them rebuilding it are long gone to safety now, and safety/stability command that you would need to cause a big enough cataclysm to exert political pressure is rapidly disappearing behind a legion of troops. The only thing you have left as a hostage is yourself.'
The inquisitor had been afraid of something like that. 'You set us up nicely.' She didn't sound all that disappointed or surprised, although her team were a little by how calmly she appeared to be taking it, and started wondering when his brains would appear on the wall.
She did add 'Would you be willing to die for your Empire?'
What, I have an option? the engineer thought. Oh, right, death. Never believed all that about meeting the end with dignity until now. In fact I always thought there would be a time-and-motion study involved.
'Only on special occasions.' he said with as much aplomb as he could manage. 'I'm an engineer, not a politician- they're usually the only ones who can get more useful stuff done after they're dead.'
'Bring him.' Amberley decided, and nodded to Pelton, who was over by an access hatch. The big ex-Arbites stepped back, clicked the detonate button on the voxtrigger, and blew the charge- the hatch tumbled away into void space, a space that was actually the operational room for the control centre's shock-isolation mounting.
I hope no-one else around here knows much about architectural force fields on the hoof, Beliksjaden thought; this place could, well, turn on the shock-fields and we'd be stuck like insects in resin. Even without the explicit method, there must surely have been enough accidents to jog somebody's memory.
He wasn't struggling as hard as he could have been, because the being doing most of the dragging along was Mydelin. There was something about the smell of her that made it very hard for him to concentrate; she would probably hate to be compared to ozone and burnt saltpetre, but that was what came to him, and he liked it.
She was not keen on the idea herself, had glowered as hard as she dared at her boss when ordered to take him, but the inquisitor had simply smiled back.
She was probably supposed to vamp him into opening up, talking more and revealing useful things; although playing cold, distant, hard to reach and broodingly intent seemed to be her choice of method. It was working, too.
Cased in armoured bodyglove as she was, every curve showed black and slick, and she was from an inherently more physical breed- most citizens of the imperium would have been humorously horrified to hear a navigator described so, but compared to the starfleet engineer it was actually true. By his standards she was tall and strong and graceful.
That was actually the primary reason she found herself among an inquisitor's retinue; she was young, and ill at ease with the biological damnation coded into her heritage, and had decided to have as much fun as she could before time got her and she bloated up into a stranded slug-whale.
To that end, risk. Unsuitable hobbies, unsuitable habits, unsuitable friends, unsuitable relationships. Her family had got thoroughly exasperated with her and had more or less made her the official black sheep when she really did step over the line.
She would have preferred the navy- fast ships in harm's way- but her family had tried to cure her by arranging a job as the chief and actually only navigator on a tithe freighter, a lumbering administratum blunderbarge. Trying to tame her with dull responsibility.
It had been a horrible idea- she had been bored out of her mind, possibly literally, and there had been a handsome deck officer, half a dozen transfers to Battlefleet Obscurus turned down and chafing at the bit himself, and...and, well, pregnancy.
It shouldn't have been that surprising. The navigator genes had been grafted on to human stock, after all. Fertility was feasible enough. Viability, on the other hand- that did not seem to be an option.
She had been terrified- traumatised- by the monster growing in her womb; marinated in the immaterium for months already before she realised, and starting to look out at the warp it- herself- already through her mother.
Illegal, impossible, terrible, but also hers- she was the little helpless unborn wrinkly- skulled girl's mother, and it pulled on her, cried to her, and she knew it could not be...
the chirirgeons made the mistake of showing the child to her, the parasonic images of what would not live yet could, should, must- and watching her daughter realise through her that she would not survive snapped the last thread.
The next clear memory she had, some years later if the calendar was believable, was that of one of the house elders telling her that it had taken a lot of time and energy to have her reconditioned.
That, and she wouldn't have been worth it if it hadn't been done essentially to spare a more valuable member of the family from having to go on a suicidally dangerous attachment to the Inquisition.
The overly clever, surprisingly normal looking alien enginseer- who had led them down a blind alley, she thought trying to hate him- did stir something in her. She had wanted so badly to be a mother; the shock of realising that had actually been the first of the hammers that had broken her, the changes her little hopelessly contaminated innocent had made.
Her body was screaming for another chance, and the wires and shackles planted in her head by the forcible healing were trying to drown it out, chorusing no, no, no.
Strangely, not as loudly as she was expecting. She supposed there was a practical limit, considering what was at stake was her relationship (ha) with the warp, and there was only so much they could do before reaching the point where it would be easier to put a bolt in her head.
Partly the strange environment here, the quietness of the immaterium, might have something to do with it- no, it would be a very unconventional method if it had.
It was forbidden specifically for her to research such things, so of course she had, and the brain, especially the psychic brain, was a much messier thing than most people thought; the best they might have been able to do while preserving her talent was just to cool her down, inhibit her from being a ravingly self- destructive deviant- down to the level of a merely unexceptionally average pervert, like so many of the notables of the Imperium.
And she was good, a more than worthy choice for an Inquisitor's yacht or a ship of the line if it came to that; her dance with nightmare had made her sharper, quicker, further and clearer sighted, capable beyond her years.
Attaching her to the Inquisition had also served the useful purpose of putting someone with a gun behind her just in case she had gone a few shades deeper into deviancy than they thought.
The conditioning had been more than merely hard and sharp forbiddings, they had tried to rub some of her own rough edges off her, cure her of extreme sports and extreme piloting, and she had had a lot of practise pushing against it. When she could swing it, she was still a rogue.
Feeling the pull of her xenophilia now, worse, being asked to indulge it, being trusted with it. Her family thought they had her chained to responsibility by her ovaries, but she didn't believe them; she wanted that responsibility at least, wanted a child, a second chance- wanted her first chance back, if only.
Chances were, they would hold it out to her, taunt her with it, make her behave with it, but she was too unstable, too badly damaged for that, in their eyes at least- they would never actually give that chance to her.
Or at very most, if they did, it would be somebody's pox- ridden fifteenth cousin, uncultured lardhead- there was a reason they were called the Navis Nobilite, but the closest equivalent they had, then, to trailer trash was the best she could expect.
No. But then, occasionally, she did as she was sitting in the sealed and shielded throne of visions feel another set of eyes beside her, a weight as if she was cradling her lost monster.
She ached for that responsibility, but breaking the rules again- fighting the shackles in her head for it- have to; she would never get it legitimately. Not within the family. Going rogue was the only option open to her.
Then again, a responsible rogue wasn't necessarily the worst definition of an inquisitor, from a certain point of view; and it was absolutely certain that her family would never let her rise. Didn't need a third eye to see that.
He was clearly attracted to her; hardly needed eyes at all, the way he was holding himself just shy of her, too excited to actually touch but close enough for body heat. I could seduce him easily, she thought. The hard part is going to be doing it through the screaming in my head...I wonder if he knows a good genetor magos?
'Why?' she decided to ask, and he jumped as if electrified. 'You stage managed that, played us, played your own side. To what end?'
'I was mostly trying not to die, and making the rest of it up as I went along.' he said.
'Nonsense.' she said briskly. 'If that was only it you'd have fled with the others and never been in harm's way at all.' She paused, deciding how far to go. They were two centimetres away from each other, and he smelt of discharged electricity and cherenkov radiation. 'Are you a thrill seeker, alien? Throwing yourself at doom and hoping to miss by as narrow a margin as you can?'
She tried to sound contemptuous, but evidently let too much of herself show through; he looked at her and said 'If I said yes, would you see yourself in the mirror?'
The correct answer was no, of course- thrill seeking engineers did not go far or last long. Then again, engineers responsible for damage control did have to balance one hazard against another and accept a level of personal risk, and this might be the largest damage control job in the galaxy at the moment.
Hoping the word translated adequately, she said 'I'm a medusa. I never look at myself in the mirror.'
There was a blue-white glare behind them, someone trying a little too late to trap them in the shock- cushion fields. No time to look back, Amberley decided. 'Which way to the shuttle bays?' she demanded of Beliksjaden.
'That way.' he said, pointing, and being perfectly truthful. 'Think of this place as sceptre-shaped, the thing itself is the ball, operations is at the top of the shaft, power and safety and all ancillaries are further down.'
Mydelin made a leap of logic that turned out to be perfectly accurate, if couched in her own cultural terms. 'You're a magos explorator, militant, both. Not part of the normal staff of the station- you've been to the fire before.'
'My home and my comrades are with the forward fleet- flagship of deep field recon in fact, HIMS Black Prince. I will not close the gate or see it closed with her on the wrong side of it;
your strays too, the survivors of your force deserve- or at least are almost certainly hoping for- better than being brane- lost, adrift in a toxically hostile universe.'
They looked at him, open-mouthed. 'For an outnumbered, unarmed hostage, you have a great deal of nerve.' Amberley said, although managing to make it sound as if it was a good thing.
'If there was anyone else here I'd gladly hand it over to them, but there isn't, so somebody has to stop this descending into more of a clusterkriff than it has to be.' Beliksjaden said.
This is somehow better than the alternative? Amberley didn't say. 'This grand moff, where would he be?'
Beliksjaden waved his hands in the air a bit, trying to figure from the starfield he had last seen and which way they were pointing now, 'About that way, thousand parsecs or so. In an Executor heading this way at top speed- seventy, eighty minutes, maybe.'
That was little more than confirmation of the bad news they had already figured out for themselves. They needed to remain free and out of his power for at least that time, then come up with some kind of a plan to get to him face to face, gun to gun if need be.
Rakhel interrupted their thinking with an ill-timed outburst, frothing at the mouth, pointing at one of the slate-grey inspection panels and shouting 'It's green, it's green in disguise-' and stabbing it with a very small dagger and beating on it with the butt of her laspistol.
With such material as this, but then she had done similar things before. First order of business was to keep moving, and stop the deranged one making too much noise- the inquisitor set about that, and Beliksjaden decided to take a chance.
'When you say medusa,' he said to the navigator, 'that does translate- we do have a legend of a beautiful woman cursed by the powers that be with the ability to kill with a glance.'
She looked at him, and the preprogrammed reflexes they had embedded in her bit, hard. she twitched, tried to push him away, tried not to push him away at the same time, said 'I don't want to hear that. Shouldn't.' Shaking.
Beliksjaden chose his words carefully. 'There are monsters, there are people who can be monsters. I don't believe you're one of them. the creature of the legends wasn't, to begin with- she only became an abomination after she was treated as one.'
'More power to her, then.' Mydelin snarled. 'At least abominations get the right to bite back.' She shook her head- at least that gesture was common. 'I'm your captor- what gives you the right to believe anything at all about me?'
'because it's obvious,' the engineer said, 'that you've been hurt, and better neither but if you have to, medusa's choice- better, less painful as monster than as victim.'
Mydelin looked almost turned to stone herself by that; so painfully true, and she had been much less of a monster and much more often the victim than she wanted to admit. 'What are you? You're an outsider, a renegade, a machine-man, how can you be a seer?'
'You could have just said 'engineer' and that would have covered it.' Beliksjaden pointed out. 'Luck, cynicism, guesswork, maybe a little hope. Something else obvious- you're an artist, or very like it. You have a gift, a vision- maybe literally- that you can't help but exercise, follow wherever it leads. In a lot of ways it is you- sorry, that was too close.' he realised.
'My gift is what's turning me into a monster!' she shouted at him, and he did what might have been the worst thing possible for her. Kissed her, over the third eye.
He loomed, entitied, filled her vision in this pale and terrible clarity, full of knowledgeable complexities and a nature that justified the term human, and the conditions and prohibitions in her head tried to kill her. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed against him.
Crap, he thought. Don't know anything at all, just similar enough to be terribly different, if there's a peromnal congruence our chemistries might not be that far apart, wishful thinking, leave her for a medic- unlikely they'll be much help. Willing to help, that is.
Drag her along, carry her as best he could, keep the situation as fluid as possible- the only thing that made sense at the moment was to get out and get a shuttle, some way to keep the situation at the level of talking rather than shooting.
He held her up, shambling after the Inquisitor who was now carrying her own loony psyker, ranting about dividing by spacelike infinities and spiral world lines and fields full of walls. She almost made sense with the last part.
Actually, she made quite a lot of sense. The wormhole was still open, and Beliksjaden had just had the thought that he was an engineer, not a bloody political fixer, and the next best thing to one that they had was on the other side of the hole in space. This could be quite an interesting flight.