Project 16 – Day 133

"Nothing?" The voice, not deep but not high either, growled at her. "He responds to all my stimuli and yet you say you can feel nothing?"

"I feel nothing, it's like he isn't there." The girl intoned back tiredly, he had asked her these questions many times.

"Hmmmm." He turned back to his paper strewn tables. He muttered as he shuffled the documents. She strained her ears without appearing to do so, a habit she got into early and practiced often. "…encouraging…undue involvement…can't influence…ah here it is." He grabbed a sheet of paper from it's fellows and stalked across the lab as he read it. He was going over the procedures, she knew, the ones she only dimly remembered. The ones that had made her a host for his creation. He was fanatical about checking and rechecking his hypotheses. She just grinned to herself while his back was turned and placed a hand gently on her belly. He might be a brilliant scientist, but he knew nothing of people. Though there was no outward sign that she carried new life in her, she knew it was there all the same. She had survived as long as she had in the undercity of Farjeist by lying to men and women far more powerful than he. If they could not read her face, then he had no hope of getting the truth from her.

No undue involvement? No influence? She laughed inside, she was all kinds of influencing his precious creation. Every day she taught him more about the world he would be born into. She had not chosen to be his mother, but now that she was, now that she knew what she was mothering, she was determined to keep him from growing up in a sterile lab. No child should face that as they come out of the womb. Hers certainly wouldn't.

--

Project 16 – Day 185

She shuffled the papers as quietly as she could. She was careful to never move more than one at a time, lest she forget how to place them as they were. She had no real fear of discovery, the drug she slipped in his food would keep him out for hours yet. But if he should notice the next day which papers were moved, he would know exactly what she had found out.

A small tremor in her mind made her stop and put a hand to her stomach. Not yet, she told the life inside her, it was not his time to move just yet. Though her hand rested on her belly, it was more an instinctual reflex than anything else. She could feel him resting all through her body. She did not look any different, no swelling of her abdomen as from a natural pregnancy. He was a new kind of human, even a womb could not cage him. She shook her head and went back to her search. He was still a human, and he would not be born here.

Finally she found it, the one document she was seeking. Carefully she read it down, read it to him as well, knowing she could not take it with her. As she reached the bottom her eyes widened. There were a few lines scrawled separate from the rest of the notes. So that was why he never let her have even the barest contact with other people, she thought as she read. Well and well, she knew now didn't she?

A second to replace the papers, and then she was silently striding out of the darkened lab. No cage could hold her either.

--

Tefarel let the weighted steel door slam behind him. The front room of their hideout was deserted, but that was typical. Small and lit only by the one dingy window, it was designed for the express purpose of making someone feel as if there was nothing alive in the lonely building. Thin dust colored carpet kept their footprints from showing, a scarred old wooden table of a fashion long since abandoned was lying on it's side, and two matching chairs had their base parts scattered across the perpetually dirty room. Tefarel could never decide if he liked or hated this room. He always appreciated how well it's apparent decay was thought out, it effectively turned aside all but determined intruders, and yet it reminded him too much of the house he had been born in.

He remembered very little of that house, but the general impression of dust and grime had stayed with him. That and the emptiness. The emptiness when his mother could barely spare him a glance from where she sat at the wobbly table with her bottle and her stack of papers. The emptiness when his father would stroll in, bleeding more often than not from some drunken fight and she would have to patch him up. Then the emptiness when his mother disappeared without a trace and his father left for good. Tefarel shook his head sharply, trying again to forget that. That was done and gone, the past had no place in the present. He was tired and dirty, and wanted nothing more than to leave those memories forgotten forever. Letting the ghosts of years gone fall behind, he slipped behind the cunningly draped curtain and through the inner door into the interior of his cluster's headquarters.

This room was warmly lit, despite the lack of windows and had a sense of belonging that the front room and the half-remembered house of his youth never managed to instill in him. An ancient couch rested against one side wall, it's springs and cushions so worn that it threatened to swallow any who tried to sit there. It also served as a bed for Demion, known in the cluster as "The Eyes," whenever he allowed himself to go off guard duty and sleep. It was empty now, as Demion and two others were arguing over a board game on the rickety folding table just inside and to the right of the doorway. The diligent guardsman had a hand on the grip of the pistol at his hip, however, as he turned from arguing in his phlegmatic way over who's turn it was. Tefarel wasn't surprised, Demion had undoubtedly heard the outer door opening. He gave the guardsman a tired smile and Demion relaxed back into his seat, the game forgotten as he waited expectantly for Tefarel's news. The other two at the table, Rayle "The Faces" and Tevas "The Tongue," soon realized Demion was no longer listening and turned to see what had the older man's attention.

The two of them and Tefarel were the three youngest members of the cluster, and the only ones still in their teens, though Tefarel would leave his teen years behind him in another few galactic standard months. Rayle had joined them only three months ago, but already she was fitting in like a pro. Her call name, "The Faces," came from her ability to lie straight faced and believably to anyone of any gender, species or class. She wasn't terribly pretty, but she was compelling with her long dark hair and slanted dark eyes, and though he hadn't known her long, Tefarel was already finding himself drowning in those eyes whenever she looked at him.

Tevas had been with the cluster even longer than Tefarel. He was the salesman of the group, painting deals with his honeyed tongue until buyers forked over half again as much as they had originally intended. He was a valuable member even if he was a stuffy prick most of the time. Hoping to not have to converse on any meaningful level with any of them, Tefarel dropped the disk full of pilfered security codes on the table and kept walking. Trust Tevas to not let it go at that.

"Hard job?" He drawled sardonically from his place at the table.

Tefarel turned to glare at him, but his heart wasn't in it. He was just too tired and dusty. "Not especially. Just too damn many conduits that haven't been cleaned since this rock was colonized. I'm tired and filthy, you have your info to sell, I'm going to go take a shower." Tevas looked like he was going to say more, but a combined look from Demion and Rayle kept him quiet. Tefarel flashed them a grateful look and continued up the nearest stairway towards his room.

For as shabby as the place looked from the outside, the cluster headquarters was well outfitted inside. Having spent his early years on the dusty desert world of Comaron II, Tefarel was certainly appreciative of running water. On that planet even the showers were dry and felt more like you were being sand blasted clean. Water flowing in a torrent over his body, even cold water, always felt like a luxury. His sleeping room shared a bathroom with three others, but of their occupants one was downstairs playing a board game, and the other two were off world for some job or other. So he didn't bother to knock before trudging in. Without hardly even looking up he started the water running to let it heat up then began wearily shedding his clothes into a dusty heap on the tile floor. He was just reaching for his belt buckle when the sound of the door opening jerked his gaze up at the intruder, his mind already forming the obscenities he'd like to fling at Tevas for not knowing when to knock. But the curses died before reaching his tongue, it was not Tevas who had invaded his privacy.

Rayle, with her eyes downcast and her hand still resting on the handle of the door she had just closed behind her, took one tentative step into the room. For a moment she just stood there, while Tefarel stared open mouthed, his hands still at his belt. She was almost as tall as he, with a lithe and agile figure. Her tight black pants made her legs look even longer, and her short midriff top let plenty of darkly tanned stomach show. A cascade of dark hair partly obscured her face on it's way past her shoulders. She had never shown any inclination towards him before, and he was struck dumb. She has never looked so beautiful. Rayle was the one to break the spell that held them both immobile. In a liquid rush she was suddenly wrapping her arms about him, pressing her bare belly against his, nuzzling her face into his shoulder. Not knowing or caring why, Tefarel returned the embrace. No matter what brought it on, he was happy to hold her until she wanted free of his arms. He could feel her lips moving against his skin, but it was impossible to hear words over the rush of the water. Something that felt more like connecting than simply a hug passed through him, and instantly she gripped him tighter. No, he would not break away when it felt that good, whatever the motives behind it.

Too soon, for all such seem to end much too quickly, she let go. Sharply severing the cord that bound them briefly, she turned and sprinted out the door, closing it loudly behind her. Mystified, Tefarel stared at the imitation wood for a long moment. Slowly he came back to himself, steam from the still flowing water was filling the room with haze. The water was surely now too hot even for him. The bathroom's one mirror was starting to fog up as well. For a moment he just stared at himself, wondering what Rayle saw when she looked at him. Where his clothes had not covered was streaked with dust and dirt, his blonde hair looked grey from it. Strangely enough that made his eyes look bluer and brighter than their usual greyish cast. He shook his head both to clear the hair from his eyes and the fog from his brain. With clumsy fingers he dropped the rest of his clothes on the pile and stepped into the steaming stream. Rayle was almost forgotten in the first ecstatic rush of hot water washing away the dirt and sweat.

Before he could do anything more than run the soap over himself a wave of dizziness washed over him with the cascading water. He swayed, dropping the soap, and was barely able to catch himself. With both hands braced against the tile wall and head bowed, he willed himself not to fall. He barely registered the steaming water pounding on his neck as he disjointedly watched the streams of soapy water runnel off his legs. Everything seemed to shift before his eyes, never settling down, always that dizzying swirl. I must be even tireder than I thought. He managed to wash out his hair, always with one hand on the wall steadying him. Reaching down to shut off the water threatened to lay him flat as the world reeled about him. He grabbed for the nearest towel, not even caring if it was his, and stumbled out of the bathroom, one hand trailing against the wall for balance. Once in his room he collapsed on his bed without care as to how wet he was. The walls continued to spin until he could no longer hold his eyes open and weary sleep overtook him.

--

"Tef?" The soft voice barely penetrated the haze filling his mind. It seemed so very far away. Much too far for him to muster the effort needed to answer across that distance. A cool weight on his forehead felt nice. So nice in fact he leaned into it, hoping it would spread to the rest of his body. He was boiling and longed to throw the covering blankets back, but could not get up the strength of will or limbs to do so.

"Tefarel, what did you do to yourself out there? You're burning up!" Every time he heard that voice he wondered why he took orders from such a meek and soft-spoken sound. Then he would see the eyes of Jeralyn "The Mind" and remember just who commanded the cluster's activities and why. She may not have sounded like much, but she took no nonsense and was brilliant to boot. Even without opening his eyes, he could see the face that went with those words and tried to follow orders and answer.

"Dirty damn conduits…" was all he managed before drifting off into a fiery blackness.

--

"Wha?" It was the most he could croak out at first. His mouth tasted, and felt, like the driest dustiest corner of Comaron II man had yet found. His limbs felt as if they were cased in cement for all he could move them. Even rolling his head to one side to see more than the dull ceiling took extreme effort. He had been sick, and for some time it seemed. He had had fevers before, as a child on a newly colonized world it was common, and he remembered that particular feeling upon waking from one. The way everything ached and didn't want to move, the way his mouth yearned for some other taste, yet his stomach reeled at the very thought of eating anything. The way everything seemed brighter than the day before because he had passed through danger and survived. It wasn't actually all that different from waking up after finishing a tricky assignment.

"So you're awake. Finally." The lazy drawl made him smile. One of his more pleasant neighbors in the cluster house was apparently his caretaker of the hour. Rylan, known as "The Feet," was something of a roaming operative. Though he worked in much the same way as Tefarel did, he preferred to move from world to world at will. He never came and went on any kind of regular schedule, so it was hard to predict when he'd be at the headquarters. He was, like almost all of the males in the cluster, both taller and older than Tefarel, by six inches in one case and eight years in the other, but was the one who had played big brother to the younger thief on occasion. He was the one who had helped Tefarel hone his skills when he'd joined the cluster. Not that he'd needed much training. He had spent his early life on Comaron II after all. Between that and the street gang he'd briefly joined on Dorscan VII, Tefarel had a good grasp of how to turn quick fingers and wits into a profession even before he joined the cluster. His cluster code name "the Hands" had been earned in that street gang and brought with him into the cluster. Soon after his first assignment, those in charge had deemed it singularly appropriate for his talents.

"What's happening?" Tefarel managed to sit up and rub his sleep heavy eyes.

"You woke up just in time for the action." Rylan flipped his long hair over his shoulder and leaned against the doorframe as he answered. "The separators are planning a raid on the republic's navy outpost here on Destat, and they've contracted Jeralyn to have a few of us in on it. We've been making plans for it while you've been delirious from whatever you caught out on your job. So if your part isn't what you wanted, tough."

"How long have I been out?"

"About two days, give or take a couple hours."

"Who all is in on this raid?" Tefarel knew Rylan wouldn't have all the information, but he currently didn't have another source for news. "And what is my part?"

"I dunno how many of us are involved for sure. I'm on the team doing the actual raiding, along with a few others who just came back from off world jobs. There are a few other teams with side jobs to divert the attention of the authorities. You're on one of those." The older man shrugged. "Other than that, you'll have to ask Jeralyn or someone else in charge."

"So Rayle isn't on this assignment?" Tefarle wasn't sure why that question came to mind. He just couldn't seem to get her out of his mind. He hoped he sounded casual. He really didn't want to end up with Rylan, and thus the entire cluster, teasing him about infatuation.

"No," The man smirked and his grey eyes twinkled with mischief, but said none of the things Tefarel feared he might. "Her talents aren't really suited to raiding. I suppose she could have been on one of the diversion teams, but I hear she's been missing since you got back."

"Missing?" Tefarel didn't like the sound of that. It could be nothing, she might have just wanted a break, but something in him said that this disappearance wasn't right.

"Yeah, Demion saw her leave the headquarters the night you got back, and she hasn't been seen by anybody since then." Rylan shrugged. "She's probably just going off and doing her own thing for a bit. It wouldn't be the first time someone's done that around here."

"Yeah, you're probably right." Tefarel wasn't sure he agreed with Rylan though. Logically it sounded good; Rayle wasn't the target of any enemies he knew of, she hadn't seemed unhappy with her circumstances in the cluster so there was no reason for her to just leave. Yet something deep in his gut told him that there was more behind her disappearance than just needing some space or alone time. And then there was her hugging him that night he'd gotten sick. What had that been about? He wondered. Was that why she left? It didn't make any sense to him. Tefarel didn't notice Rylan leave the room, so lost in his thoughts as he was. Without even thinking about it he lay back and soon fell into sleep again with his mind a dizzying whirl filled with thoughts of Rayle "The Faces" Brenton.