Episode VI

Episode VI: Secrets

Nasael stared blankly at the terminal.  A mixture of frustration and satisfaction churned in his stomach.  With Sheeth in custody, the Alliance was one very important step closer to discovering the truth behind the attacks at DelCarjhal and elsewhere.  But not everyone shared in his triumph.  Skepticism had already reared its ugly head, giving way to difficult questions.  Nasael wasn't worried; he was sure any doubts about the boy's guilt would be resolved in due time.  But in the meantime, he was faced with the task of keeping Baird and Garren from forming their own conclusions.  At least, if nothing else, the thanai was on his side.
"That's why he wanted the data core," Aly said, staring at the image still frozen on the screen.  "He wanted to wipe any evidence of his involvement from its memory banks."
Nasael didn't believe it wasn't that simple.  "No, if that were the case, he would've left it to be destroyed with the rest of the Command Station.  There must be something else he wants from it.  Vital Aeden intel."
"Come on, you two," Garren said.  He stood just behind them with his large arms folded across his chest.  "All we know right now is that we've found a human that can manipulate magic.  While that is indeed unique, so is his cybernetic implant.  Perhaps it is the implant that grants him such abilities."
"Or maybe he's telling the truth," Sergeant Baird suggested.  He sat against opposite wall sipping tea.  "Maybe he's been ordered not reveal the nature of his abilities or how they came to be."
It was absolutely infuriating.  "How can you be so naive?" Nasael asked them.  "Someone had to have helped organize that attack.  Someone on the inside."
"You do realize that he can break free from those shackles any time he wants, right?"
Four heads turned to the rear of the ship.  Juli didn't return their stare.  Her attention was dedicated solely to the book in her hand—a technical manual of some sort.  She reclined across the wide seat behind the workbench twirling her hair between her fingertips.  Since the confrontation with the Lieutenant, she'd shown no interest in their investigation nor concern over Sheeth's loyalty.
"What was that?" Garren asked.
She didn't look up.  "Arus.  He can free himself if he wants.  You don't think a set of metal bindings is going to do the job, do you?"
Aly crossed her arms with a frustrated grunt.  "Make your point, girl."
Juli turned the page of her book.  She still didn't look at them.  "He's got a machine for an arm," she said.  "He could probably snap the hinges of those shackles pretty easily."
Nasael pursed his lips.  The transport had no brig, so Arus had been bound in chains below deck at the rear of the berths.  "The fact that his arm is mechanical does not make him superhuman.  I am confident he will not escape."
"And that laser-eye thing he's got?" Juli asked.  "I bet he could blast himself free with it.  Though I suppose if he really is some kind of sorcerer, he wouldn't need that, either."
Now Nasael's breath caught.  It was common practice when holding a magic-wielding prisoner to station other sorcerers to maintain a magic-inhibiting energy field around the captive to prevent them from using their abilities to escape.  How could he be so careless?  "Sergeant Mino," he began, turning to Aly.  "Is that something you can do?"
"Yes," she said, standing.  "I'm on my way."
As she headed down the stairs, Juli spoke again.  She seemed to be suppressing a laugh.  "You're wasting your time.  If he was a threat, he would've killed us all by now.  Why leave us alive to report his betrayal to the Alliance?"
"Unless you intend to contribute something to this investigation, I suggest that you close your mouth," Nasael shot back.  "We'll decide how to handle Sheeth."
Juli simply turned another page.  "Whatever you say."
"I'm going to go talk to him," Garren said, looking back at Nasael.
"No!" Nasael shouted, clenching his fists.  "Merculas, I know you and he are friends, but you must keep your distance until the council has interrogated him.  He will attempt to use your bond to influence your judgment!"
"I will not condemn a man without just cause," Garren told him.  "You may have successfully convinced us to place him under lock and key for the time being, but I will not turn him over to the council as a traitor without evidence to support such a charge."
Anger brought Nasael to his feet.  "Then you put us all at risk!" he hissed.  "The fact that he has not acted against us yet does not mean that he won't.  He could decide to eliminate each of us at his leisure.  A strangling while we sleep, a pistol in the back, whatever he wants!"
"I just don't believe he's a traitor," Baird put in.  "It just doesn't feel right."
That earned the sergeant a hard look.  "Doesn't feel right?" Nasael repeated, twisting his mouth around the words.  "What about the security footage?  What about the data core?  Standard procedure requires that the data core be destroyed in the event of a security breach."
"Plenty of soldiers have failed to follow proper regulations during the course of duty," Garren replied.  "You, of all people, should know that."
It was slipping away.  The entire case against Sheeth was falling apart based on nothing but the feelings and intuition of his fellow soldiers.  Only the thanai stood with Nasael.  "I'll interrogate him myself, then," Nasael said.  "I'll get him to say something incriminating.  I'll make him talk.  Will that convince you?"
"You'll do no such thing," Garren said.  "You're not the senior officer here, nor are you the most level-headed person.  Whomever interviews Arus must be fair and impartial."
"Then let the council do it!"
"I will do so if there is just cause.  But Arus is someone I trust.  A teammate.  A partner.  A friend.  I will not turn my back on him unless I have legitimate reason.  That's why I want to talk to him."
Behind him, Baird nodded in agreement.  "I stand with Garren on this one."
"Being friends of his," Nasael looked from Garren to Baird, "I would trust neither of you to be impartial."
Garren frowned, but didn't reply.  Baird, however, pointed to Juli.  "How about her?  She has no history with Arus to influence her opinion of him.  She barely knows him."
Now Juli looked up from her book.  "Wait, you want me to do what?"
Nasael whipped his tail against the floor.  "This child?  She's done nothing but obsess over Sheeth since we found her.  How can she be impartial?"
Juli put her book on the workbench and stood.  "I'm fascinated by his implant," she said, her usually light voice taking a serious tone.  "I know nothing of Arus himself.  He could be a complete imbecile, a brilliant spy, or a loyal friend."  She walked up to Nasael and pointed a finger in his face.  "And this child is older than he is, Corporal."
Shades of grey and red rolled across Nasael's flesh.  "I do not approve of this."
Juli smirked.  "Then it's a good thing you're not the senior officer here."
As she headed down the stairs, Nasael turned his glare to Garren.  "Our blood will be on your hands.  Your compassion will be your downfall."
Garren shrugged and dropped into the pilot's chair.  "Not a bad way to go, I suppose."
*******
The transport's stiff beds were clearly not designed with comfort in mind, Arus decided.  Of course, it was difficult to get comfortable with his wrists and ankles chained.  Somewhere deep inside, a tiny flame of panic tried to kindle, but the feeling was fleeting.  Garren would come to his senses.  Baird, for sure.  And even if they didn't, the council would clear Arus of any charges.  Most of them, anyway.  Truthfully, his only real crime was taking the data core from Del'Carjhal.  But if Arus was to be punished for that, Aly would face judgment alongside him.  It wasn't her blame to take, and Arus would make sure that the council was aware of it.
Even now, as she stood silently by his bedside, he felt no malice toward her.  She was a victim, too.  She'd lost someone close to her—it certainly seemed as though Keese had been close to her, anyway—and she was only acting with the best of intentions.  If she thought Arus a traitor, he could see why she might come to that conclusion.  He had a lot of secrets, and secrets made people wary.
She never made eye contact and never said a word.  She simply stood with hands clasped together, silently manipulating the elements around him in a disruptive pattern that would prevent any magic user from taking hold of said elements within the field.  Before acquiring the Lifestone, Arus wouldn't have been able to comprehend such a concept.  But with the forces of nature at his command, it made perfect sense.  It was as though he was a carpenter attempting to build a house while someone continuously scattered the tools.
Not that it mattered.  Arus had no intention of escaping.  That would prove nothing; in fact, it would only enforce the perception that he was a spy or traitor or whatever they thought he was.
Come on, Garren.  If anyone was going to release him, Arus assumed it would be either Garren or Baird.  Neither appeared happy with Nasael's accusations, but they both quietly acquiesced to his demands.  Arus couldn't blame them given the Command Station's recordings, but he hoped they'd at least hear his side of the story.  As of yet, they had not.
Light footsteps came from the stairwell before Juli appeared in the doorway.  Her eyes were immediately drawn to the implant.  "Hi," she said in the casual way one might greet an old friend.
Aly didn't allow him a chance to reply.  "What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I was selected by the crew," Juli answered, wiping her hands on her jumpsuit.  "I'm supposed to find out if we can trust him."
The look on Aly's face suggested she did not approve, but she refrained from voicing any objections.  Juli sat on a bed across from Arus.  For the first time since they'd met, she finally made eye contact.  "Humans can't use magic," she began.  "It's a well-known biological impossibility."
Impossible for humans, sure.  But to chain the hands of the Maker with such restrictions was downright absurd.  "What do you want me to say?" he asked her.  "That I'm not human?  I'm as much human as you.  Check my medical records in the Alliance database."
"Records can be tampered with," Juli said.  "Would you allow Garren to perform a complete genetic analysis himself?"
After watching her marvel over the implant for the last day, the seriousness she now displayed was unexpected.  "Garren hasn't been trained in genetic research.  He's a medic, not a scientist.  Besides, we don't have that kind of equipment on board."
"Then just tell us why you can use magic," Aly interjected.  Her voice was calm—as would be expected from a thanai—but her eyes burned with a mixture of anger and frustration.
Arus leaned his head back and sighed.  He knew the importance of obeying his orders and the potential danger that public knowledge of the Lifestone posed.  Bounty hunters would want it, collectors would buy it, criminals would abuse it, and scientists would attempt to duplicate it.  What would happen if another Sartan Truce came for it?  What if another Kindel Thorus rose to power using the amulet as a catalyst?  No, it was too dangerous.  "I'm sorry," he finally said, "but you'll just have to verify my orders with the council."
"And if you've got a fellow spy on the council?" Juli asked.  "Someone on the inside to lie for you?"
This was going nowhere.  "Well, what would you accept as proof?  If even the council's word wouldn't suffice, what would?"
Finally, Juli grinned at him.  With a shrug of her shoulders, the tough interrogator facade fell away.  "I dunno," she said.  "I'm just asking the questions I know Nasael will ask.  If we don't have a good answer for him, he's going to whine incessantly until we do."
Arus couldn't help but smile.  Aly, on the other hand, did not seem amused.  "You are not concerned with Sheeth's unexplained abilities?  He is unlike any human in the known universe.  That does not arouse your suspicions?"
Again, Juli shrugged.  "If I allowed myself to become suspicious of everything I didn't understand, I'd never trust anyone.  I've been stationed at seven different outposts in four different galaxies in the past five years.  I've encountered a lot of amazing things in a relatively short period of time.  People, places, artifacts, stories, cultures, religions—there's a lot of seemingly unbelievable stuff out there."
"How long have you been with the Alliance?" Arus asked.
"I joined when I was sixteen, so almost six years now," she replied.  "Oria—my homeworld—had been struck by a virus that quickly spread amongst our nations.  We had no cure, and the thing spread faster than anyone could have foreseen.  Governments collapsed, countries fell, and our entire civilization was crumbling.  The Alliance helped evacuate our survivors to a new world.  It wasn't an easy transition, but without their help, our society would've been completely eradicated."
Arus bowed his head in respect.  "I'm sorry.  I know it's not easy to leave your homeland behind."
"It wasn't.  But the only reason we survived is because we left.  And while my people are still in the early stages of the transition, the Alliance has provided assistance through every step of the process.  Their help has been invaluable to us.  That's why I joined.  I wanted to be a part of something that reaches out to others the way the Alliance reached out to us."
"I joined for similar reasons," Arus told her.  "The Alliance helped my kingdom rebuild after attacks from both the kyrosen and the Vezulian Armada."
Her eyebrows raised in what appeared to be surprise.  "A couple of years ago, right?  I remember that.  Alliance ships from all over the charted universe were summoned to intervene.  Is that when you—" she cut herself off as though reconsidering the question.  "Nevermind."
There was a momentary lull while Arus debated internally.  He knew she wanted to ask about the implant again.  There were memories associated with that year that Arus wished he could erase, but at the same time, the events of the Vezulian War had given him the opportunity to help many people across various worlds—people he would have otherwise never met.  He still wasn't sure if he considered the implant to be a good thing, but he was sure that at least some good had come from having it.
"You want to know if that's when I received this," he finally said, motioning to the metal device embedded in the left side of his head.  "Right?"
Now she looked uncomfortable.  "No.  I mean, yes, but I don't want to pry.  I know I came on strong earlier.  I can't help it.  I love electronics and technological gadgets.  I am amazed at what we've learned to create and what those creations have taught us about the universe.  Your implant, specifically, holds such amazing possibilities!  But I won't ask you to talk about it if you don't want to."
Aly, largely quiet throughout the conversation, showed a hint of curiosity in her face.  Clearly, she wanted to know the full story, too.  Thankfully, it was a tale that could be told without mentioning the Lifestone amulet.
"Very well.  Where to begin . . . ?" he wondered aloud.
Juli scooted to the edge of her bed and leaned forward in not-so-subtle anticipation.  Once again, she wore her excitement on her sleeve.  Aly continued to maintain the magical barrier around Arus, but she made no effort to hide her interest.
"The kyrosen took me captive two and a half years ago.  Sartan Truce—their leader at the time—fitted me with this thing.  There were a number of reasons that I was chosen, the foremost of which was that I was the student of the two men responsible for his father's death.  The implant allowed him complete control over me.  He could program me with the latest fighting techniques then command me to use them against my people.  And that's exactly what he did.  I became his slave-warrior.  A killing machine."
Juli put a hand over her mouth.  "Maker's breath."
"We made for the capital city of the kingdom," Arus continued, staring blankly at the floor.  "Truce wanted to sell the implant technology, but in order to do so, he first needed proof of its capabilities.  What better proof than using a single teenage boy to conquer an entire kingdom?  So we headed for the castle in Cathymel.  It was there that I was forced to . . . " A lump formed in Arus' throat as he relived the events.  These were memories he forced into the recesses of his mind on a daily basis.  "I was forced to fight and slay my former master," he continued.  "It was shortly after delivering the killing stroke that Damien and Kitreena, officers with the Alliance, incapacitated me.  When I awoke, I was onboard the Refuge, and finally free of the implant's control."
"I can't imagine," Juli began, shaking her head.  "I just can't imagine how you must have felt when you learned of what you'd done."
"Oh, I knew," Arus explained.  "I was conscious and awake the entire time.  I watched myself slaughter my village's militia on the Lamonde Plains.  I watched myself cut down good men on the castle steps.  And I watched as my blade pierced my master's heart.  I saw it all happen, but try as I might, I couldn't do a bloody thing to stop it."
"Maker's breath!" Juli gasped again.  "It's no wonder you don't like talking about it."
"It certainly isn't a memory I cherish," he said.  Tears welled in his human eye, but he managed to hold them back.  "Anyway, somehow word of the implant's abilities got back to Kindel Thorus, admiral of the Vezulian Armada.  However it happened, Truce wound up promising the technology to Thorus in exchange for passage off of Terranias.  Both were double-crossing each other, of course, and I was caught in the middle as the centerpiece of their schemes.  To make a long story short, the string of events that have come to be known as the Vezulian War were a result of Truce's creation of the implant and Kindel's pursuit of it."
It was clear that Juli regretted having ever prodded Arus about the implant.  "I had no idea," she said, shaking her head.  "I had no clue.  Most of us in the tech field thought you were the product of some breakthrough medical research."
Arus raised an eyebrow.  "I told you earlier that it was used to control me.  Remember?  When we met upstairs?"
Now she giggled.  "I probably wasn't listening," she admitted.  "My mind was too preoccupied with the billion-and-one questions I had."
Aly had been so quiet that it almost startled Arus when she spoke.  "I remember."  Her expression had changed from suspicion to what he could only describe as contemplation.  Interestingly enough, she was no longer maintaining the magic-inhibiting field around him.  "But there must be more to the story," she added.  "None of what you've shared explains why you can wield magic."
Arus let out a long breath.  He looked from Aly to Juli and back again.  "I know you both want answers about my past.  There are reasons why I won't volunteer the rest of the story.  Consider, if you will, the potential consequences should knowledge of the implant's capabilities fall into the wrong hands.  Consequences not just for me, but for the entire universe.  Commanders could control armies.  Governments could control citizens.  The risks of bringing this thing to the public eye are far greater than many realize.  Likewise . . . "  He paused for a moment, unsure as to whether or not he wanted to continue the line of thought.  "Knowledge of my other abilities could result in far more serious consequences."
Neither Aly nor Juli spoke.  Arus allowed his final statement to hang in the air.  They needed to understand the weight of the information he'd shared.  They needed to know the risk he was taking by revealing the truth about the implant.  If they couldn't understand that, they'd never accept his silence regarding the Lifestone.
Eventually, Aly headed for the stairs.  "I do not believe you are a threat to us," she said quite matter-of-factly.  She then disappeared into the stairwell.
"Blunt as always," Arus muttered.
Across from him, Juli's mouth was agape again.  When she finally saw Arus' questioning look, she stifled another laugh.  "I'm sorry," she said.  "It's just . . . I think that's the closest thing to an apology that I've ever heard from a thanai."
*******
Nasael was not going to be happy.
Aly marched up the stairs with all the confidence of her grandfather.  The magistrate would commend her for carrying herself as well as she had, all things considered.  The prospect of having a traitor in their midst was unsettling, but the situation had to be assessed using logic and reason, not emotion and assumption.  There was nothing more to be gained from holding the lieutenant captive.
If his story was true, the information he shared made him vulnerable.  And if he was lying, it was a lie that would attract the worst kind of attention.  There were many undeveloped, uncivilized, barbaric governors across the universe that would salivate at the prospect of forcibly controlling their subjects.  Either way, Arus' tale had the potential to put him in a very precarious position.  And while that did not preclude his guilt, too many of the variables now stood against Nasael's accusations.  In cases without sufficient evidence one way or the other, Alliance code required the subject be released.  The only sensible course of action was to provide a full report to Alliance commanders and allow them to handle things however they say fit.
Nasael's prying eyes immediately narrowed when she ascended into view.  Aly held her head high.  While she shared his suspicions at the time of Arus' arrest, she was not prone to the same bouts of stubborn defiance.  Nasael had thus far proven himself incapable of exercising reasonable judgment in matters of uncertainty.  Of course, the same could often be said about humans. 
Accepting such short-sighted and impulsive decision-making was one of the sacrifices the thanai made by electing to coexist and cooperate with the intellectually stunted species across the universe.  It wasn't their fault, after all.  But to the humans' credit, they did not jump to the same extreme conclusions as the corporal.  Whether or not that was a trait of the Clu or simply Nasael's own personality, Aly couldn't say.
"What are you doing?" Nasael demanded.  "Why are you not watching over Sheeth?"
Garren rose from the pilot's chair, and Aly took his place.  "The lieutenant must be released.  I cannot support his continued captivity."
Nasael looked as though he'd just been accused of treachery himself.  "What?!  But he—"
"He is not a threat to us," she said, cutting him off.  "If anything, he is more of a threat to himself."
Now his expression turned to astonishment.  "But the Command Station!  The data core!  Surely, you can't think—"
Again, Aly interrupted him.  Best not to let his arguments build up steam, she figured, lest he be that much harder to pacify.  "I have stated my position on the matter," she said, keeping her voice calm.  "Whether or not you agree is not my concern."
Sergeant Baird spoke.  "What changed your mind?" he asked, sounding more curious than concerned.
She kept her attention focused on the ship's navigation controls.  "Whether or not Lieutenant Sheeth wishes to share that information is up to him.  It is not my right to speak for him."
Sergeant Garren, who'd been grinning from ear to ear, headed for the stairs.  "I'll go release him."
As soon as Garren was out of sight, Nasael slammed his hands down on the console and spoke into Aly's ear.  "Are you mad?" he whispered.  "You know Sheeth was involved in the attack on Del'Carjhal.  He had to be!  We know it was an inside job.  You don't find it a bit suspicious that we discovered all these secrets about the lieutenant at the same time?"
"There is more to consider than what you've mentioned," Aly told him.  She still refused him the dignity of eye-contact.  "Taking everything into account, I believe it to be a matter of coincidence.  Should additional evidence present itself, I will alter my stance accordingly."
Nasael ground his teeth and whipped his tail against the floor again.  "Clu do not believe in coincidence."
"You have the right to hold whatever short-sighted views you wish."
For a moment—a brief one—it seemed as though he might back down.  Instead, he lowered his voice to nothing but a whisper.  "What did he say to you?  How did he get into your head so quickly?"
There was no point in arguing.  There were plenty of points to be made—Arus' determination to save Keese, her own involvement in the theft of the data core, and the lieutenant's story about the implant—but none would satisfy Nasael's paranoia.
"Sergeant Mino!" Nasael hissed.  "Tell me what he said!"
Finally, Aly made eye contact.  "Ask him."
"Curse you!" he growled, stomping away in a fury.
"Relax, Boss," Baird put in as the corporal marched by, grumbling under his breath.
"Let him vent," Aly said.  "It is my experience that the more petulant species of the universe find it helpful to release a certain amount of aggression before they are capable of rational discussion."
She didn't look at him, but it sounded as though Sergeant Baird stifling laughter.  "I suppose we all have our flaws," he said.  "Kind of like how thanai always say precisely what they're thinking."
Now she turned, giving a puzzled look.  "Why wouldn't we?"
Baird's smile disappeared as he sipped his tea.  "Oh, no reason!"
*******
The stairs stretched quite a bit farther than Arus remembered.  Had Garren's wide frame not been ascending in front of him, Arus assumed Nasael would be waiting at the top with that impudent glare of his.  He would still be waiting, for sure, but Garren's presence provided Arus with a few more precious seconds of respite before facing his accuser.  Master Eaisan would have told Arus that Nasael was a bully—nothing more.  But it was much easier to identify a bully than to coexist with one.  He's only doing what he believes to be right, he told himself.  There are too few out there who do that these days.  At least give him credit for that.
Juli followed them both in silence.  She had said nothing to Garren about Arus' implant or anything else they discussed before the sergeant arrived.  Arus appreciated that; it gave him confidence in her, a trust he hoped to establish with Aly and Nasael one day.  Then again, Garren said it was Aly who recommended his release.  That left Nasael as the lone dissenter, a position that was undoubtedly difficult for him.
For a fleeting moment, Arus found himself considering the idea of telling him the truth.  The whole truth.  But he dismissed the idea just as quickly.
Surprisingly, Nasael said nothing when they reached the upper deck.  He sat on the floor near the rear of the ship, head rested against the wall near the workbench.  Arus looked at him for a few moments, hoping to somehow open dialogue so that the whole ordeal could be put to rest.  But Nasael refused to make eye contact, and Arus wondered if it would be better to simply let him be.  If and when Nasael wished to address the matter, Arus would gladly do so.  Until then—
"Sir," Aly said from her seat at the helm.  "We have received a message.  New orders."
She spoke as though the last several hours hadn't happened.  "Let's hear it," Arus said.
"It's text-only," she told him.  "I'll send it through to the terminal."
A second later, the screen on the opposite wall lit up with the image of a well-dressed middle-aged man with closely cropped hair and a bony facial structure.  The text beside the photo described him as a potential suspect involved in the attacks across the Omega Region.
"Certainly doesn't look like a pirate," Garren remarked.
Arus was already thinking the same.  "Unless they're not pirates."
Garren's face was inquisitive.  "That's what the Luncians call them.  Alliance command confirmed it, too."
But Arus wasn't convinced.  "That man who spoke to us back at Del'Carjhal said they weren't pirates.  What would he gain by lying to us?"
Behind them, Baird pushed himself to his feet.  The exoskeletons provided the support, medication, and mobility he needed to be able to get around.  "I agree.  Something doesn't seem right with this whole 'pirate' story.  There's got to be more to it."
"Why would Command lie to us?" Garren asked.  "Wouldn't it better serve our mission to know the truth?"
"Unless the truth might somehow put us in danger," Baird suggested.  "There are a lot of possibilities."
"What does the message say?" Juli asked on her way back to the workbench.
Arus cleared his throat.  "Lieutenant Arus Sheeth, Interim Commanding Officer: With respect to your current position and the tactical advantage provided, you and those under your command are ordered to reroute to the planet Irius, located at the coordinates below, to track and apprehend a person of interest regarding the recent wave of attacks carried out against Alliance personnel.  Intelligence reports that the subject has strong ties to those responsible for the attacks on numerous outposts across the Omega Region.  It is of paramount importance that the subject be captured alive and returned to Alliance Command for questioning and possible prosecution."
Garren put a thumb against his chin.  "Tactical advantage provided?  I wonder what that means."
"The scanners," Baird said.  "When we reported our position a few hours ago, we told Commander Shalett that our ship doesn't appear on scanners.  That's why Command was unable to confirm our location.  If we go to Irius, we can probably sneak in quietly before anyone even knows we're there."
"Wait," Juli interrupted.  "What's wrong with the scanners?"
"All readings are blacked out approximately seven lengths in all directions," Baird responded.  "We haven't been able to determine the cause."
Arus had forgotten that Juli was hiding in the storage unit when he and the others discovered the problem.  "The implant's scanners are experiencing the same issues.  Diagnostics do not reveal any mechanical flaws."
Were it not attached, Juli's jaw might have been on the floor.  "No way!" she exclaimed, racing to the storage unit.  She yanked a tattered purple backpack from the bottom compartment and started digging through its contents.  "Does it really work?" she asked no one in particular.
"What are you talking about?" Baird asked, following Arus to the back.
"This!" she said, drawing a fist-sized sphere of metal and wires from the bag.  "I had been working on this for months, but I never got it functioning.  At least, I didn't think I had."
Arus took the device and looked it over.  It was little more than a series of circuits and wires inside a poorly welded aluminum shell.  "What is it?"
 "I was trying to build a portable version of the scan inhibitors used by starships in ghost ops.  You know, something that would let G.A.T. teams ambush enemy troops without begin detected on approach.  I probably hit the power switch accidentally when I stuffed myself into the storage compartment earlier."
A tiny green light emitted from beside the sphere's power switch.  Arus flipped the switch and attempted to run a scan with the implant.  Sure enough, white dots populated the radar where each of his comrades stood.  When he flipped the switch again, the dots vanished.  "Impressive," he said.  "I'm a bit relieved, actually."
"I call it a scan jammer," she said, grinning from ear to ear.  "I can't believe it works!  I've been fiddling with it forever, but I hadn't had a chance to test it after my latest round of adjustments."
Baird took the device from Arus and looked it over.  "Can you make more?  A few of these things could help us explore Irius quietly."
Her smile vanished.  "Uh . . . Well, the thing is . . . " Whatever the thing was, she clearly didn't want to say it.  "I don't really remember how I made this one.  It's been a long time since I originally put it together, and I lost all my notes when we left Del'Carjhal.  I mean, I remember a lot of it, but some of the details are fuzzy.  I'll have to study this one and see what I can come up with."
"Well, we're going to have some time," Garren put in from the navigations terminal.  "It will take a little over two days to reach Irius in this washtub of a ship."
Juli nodded and took the jammer back to the workbench.  Arus returned to the wall terminal and stared a the target's photo.  The profile placed him among the higher-ranking pirates, perhaps even a member of leadership.  His last reported location had been the city of Karris, a larger settlement on Irius.  "We'll have to stop at an Alliance fuel depot along the way, but we should be able to make it.  Aly, let's get moving."
"Acknowledged," she replied, sliding her fingers across the ship's control panel.
Baird returned to his tea.  "Lieutenant, what is our target's name?"
Arus looked back at the screen.  "Jakub."
*******
Nasael stared blankly at the wall.  He could hear the others talking about their new orders, but that was the last thing on his mind.  He should have let the evidence against Sheeth build further before confronting him.  The case was strong, but it was clearly not enough to sway those already loyal to Arus.  A solid argument would need to be made, one with irrefutable evidence showing Sheeth's true colors.  With time and patience, it could be salvaged.
In the meantime, Nasael would have to cooperate with the rest of the team.  His rank required him to submit to the orders of his superior officers, so he would follow instructions and do his part.  However, if Sheeth expected him to do something that would compromise the security and goals of the Aeden Alliance, a line would have to be drawn—even if that meant disobeying orders.  Internally, Nasael began to prepare himself for the possibility that he might have to make some difficult decisions in the future.
"Hello, Nasael."
The voice tore him from his thoughts.  Arus stood beside him, looking down with that glowing red eye of his.  "What is it, Lieutenant?" he managed to ask.  The question came out far better than it sounded in his mind.
"I just wanted to say that I harbor no hard feelings," Arus told him.  "I understand why you came to the conclusions that you did, and I have no intentions of treating you any differently than the rest of the team.  I'd give my life to protect them on the battlefield, and I'd do the same for you."
It was impossible to stomach.  "That's very noble, Lieutenant," Nasael said, rising to meet Sheeth's gaze.  "But I want you to know that the feeling is not mutual."
*******
"Is she still in pain?"
"For the moment, no.  But she shouldn't expect to be runnin' around after Ellie any time soon.  Unfortunate as it is, I don't have anything that will help like the Aeden stuff.  Keep a tight grip on their medical supplies, they do."
"What do we do when the salve wears off?"
"Wish I could tell ya.  I've given her all the ointment I had.  Wasn't much, and I ain't got access to the stockpiles of a physician."
"Do you know of any sellers?  I'll take anything I can get."
"There are a couple of guys in District Two, but what do ya got to barter with?"
"I don't know.  I'll figure something out.  How do I find them?"
"They don't sell out in the open.  Viochiati would run 'em out real quick.  I'll see what I can find out.  In the meantime, we've done all we can for her.  She should be good for the next day or so.  Be sure to have some food for her when she wakes up.  Poor thing is gonna be starvin' after all this time.  And remember: If she aggravates the wounds at all, they'll split again.  She'll have to remain still for at least a week."
"Got it.  Thanks, Jass.  We owe you big for this one."
"Just take care of her.  When she's back on her feet, I'll be satisfied."
Trista heard the voices long before she opened her eyes, fragmented echoes drifting through her mind like bottles on the open sea.  The voices grew clearer and louder as consciousness neared, each syllable vibrating through her body like the pounding of a drum.  When she finally came to, two blurred figures turned and exited the tent. 
The tent.  Her tent.  She was back at the cove.
Ever so slowly, the world came into focus.  Judging from the dull light coming through the flaps, it was either early morning or late afternoon.  She lay on her stomach with a sheet or covering of some sort draped across her back.  The wounds she received as a result of her lashings felt heavy and numb, and even the slightest movement required far too much energy.  She was weak.  She was tired.  Her stomach growled, yet the thought of food was altogether unappetizing.  The more alert she became, the worse she felt.  Nausea welled up, her head pounded, and the light from the tent flaps became a blinding glare.  At least I'm home.
As the voices outside her tent grew distant, Trista panicked.  "Jack . . . " she murmured, struggling to make her voice audible.  Mustering all of her will, she lifted her head and called again.  "Jack!"  The second attempt was barely louder than the first.
Another voice responded, one outside her field of vision.  "Trista!  You're awake!"
Suddenly, Misha was in front of her, gently guiding her head back to the pillow.  "Stay down, stay down," she said, kneeling beside the bedroll.  "You're in no condition to move around right now."
"How did I get here?"
"We carried you," Misha told her.  "Jack, Fynn, and I.  Jack found you collapsed in an alley and brought you out of the city.  From there, we each took turns carrying you along the border until we reached the cove."
Try as she might, Trista couldn't remember anything beyond her release from the prison facility.  "How did he know where to look?"  The simple act of speaking was a chore.
Misha looked away.  "I should let Jack explain.  I'll go get him."
The last thing Trista wanted was to be left alone, but Misha darted outside before she could protest.  A brief glimpse of gray flashed through the tent flap as Misha exited, revealing gloomy skies above the cove.  Trista loved rainy days, and in that brief moment of solidarity, the soothing sound of raindrops pattering against the tent was a welcome comfort.  It reminded her of their early years on Irius, evenings when she and Fynn read ghost stories to each other while Jack and Misha prepared dinner for everyone.  She was still getting used to homeless life back then, but it was better than the life from which she'd fled.
"Trista!" Jack exclaimed, bursting into the tent.  "You're awake!"
Somehow, she managed a smile.  "I'm awake.  And I hear I have you to thank for that."
Jack sat beside her bedroll and folded his legs.  "Everyone had a part in it.  Even Ellie."
"How did you find me?"
"Luck," he said.  "I came out of an alley beside the tribunal area, and you were lying on the opposite side."
Trista closed her eyes.  "Tribunal?  I don't remember that.  The last thing I remember was being released by the Viochiati."
"Well, you—" Jack stopped mid-sentence and looked at her.  "They released you?  Why?"
Even the memory of her interrogation was fuzzy.  Visions floated up in her mind, scenes from what may as well have been another life, but Trista couldn't connect the dots between the images.  "I don't remember," she finally admitted.  "I remember being whipped.  There was an old man in a prison cell.  My cell, I think.  He tried to force himself on me.  They put a bag over my head at one point.  And then I was standing in the middle of the street.  I don't know how it all happened."
Jack's expression became solemn.  " . . . Do you remember when I abandoned you there?"
That memory was clear.  "You didn't abandon me," she whispered.  "You did the only thing you could."
"I should've gone with you," he told her.  "I could've protected you.  I could've helped you escape." 
It wasn't often that Jack allowed any sign of vulnerability to seep through his otherwise resilient exterior.  But anytime he put his family in danger—whether intentionally or otherwise—he always came down hard on himself.  "You did the right thing," she said again.
"Then why do you have seventeen gashes across your back?"
The mere mention of her wounds caused Trista to wince.  It would be a long time before she'd forget the stinging lash of those whips; she couldn't even visualize it without seeing glowing cords of fire tearing across her flesh.  But seventeen?  "They really did a number on me, eh?" she said, forcing a smile.
Jack didn't look at her.  "It's going to be a while before we can get you back on your feet.  Jass is going to help us get some more medication for you, but without proper treatment from a skilled doctor, the healing process will be a slow one."
His answer helped to quell a quiet fear she hadn't yet acknowledged.  "So . . . I'm going to be okay?"
Now he looked at her, his mischievous smile returning.  "You didn't think we'd let you get away from us that easily, did you?  You're going to be just fine."
The relief of his statement allowed Trista to release a deep breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.  All that remained was to heal, and hopefully they could put this bloody incident behind them.
"You're going to have to take it easy, though," Jack added.  "No running around the beach or making the journey into the city."
"That's going to be hard to explain to Ellie," she replied.  "How has she handled all of this?"
"Actually, she didn't even know what was going on until we brought you in last night.  We tried to be quiet, but we must have disturbed her in our scrambles to get you situated here.  She came running into the tent while Misha was cleaning your wounds.  Poor girl was terrified."
The thought of scaring Ellie made Trista's heart ache.  "Where is she now?"
"Last I saw, Fynn was trying to convince her to skip rocks with him," Jack told her.  "The rain seems to have picked up, though.  They may have gone into the other tent."
"Can I see her?"
Jack shrugged.  "I'll try.  She was pretty hysterical a while ago.  Thought you were dead.  She kept crying about 'the man in the video' or something like that.  I'm figuring it's something the Viochiati showed her as part of the conditioning process."
"The poor thing," Trista murmured.  "Please tell her to come see me.  I want to let her know I'm going to be fine."
"Will do," he said, standing.  "We'll need to get you some food, too.  I doubt the Viochiati filled your stomach."
"Ugh," she groaned.  "I don't know if I can handle food right now."
Jack waved the notion away as he headed for the flap.  "You need to try.  No one said recovery would be easy!"  With another blinding flash of grey, he slipped outside.  Almost immediately, Trista heard Misha's voice.
"Did you tell her?"
"No," came Jack's reply.  "She's got enough on her mind as it is."
"But she should know.  She has a right to know what happened, Jack."
"Best not to worry about it for now.  No one is going to find us here."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive.  There were no witnesses.  And even if there were, Karris is a big city.  The odds of them tracking us down are slim at best.  We have time."
The conversation made Trista nervous.  It was not uncommon for Jack to withhold information when he felt it was in the best interest for those involved, but Trista didn't like being kept in the dark.  Whatever the subject of Misha's anxiety, it apparently had put her on edge.  And that put Trista on edge.  What happened during her absence?

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