Hague kept trying to readjust his collar, but the damn thing was so constricting that it felt like a rope wrapped around his neck. This always happened when he lost control of a situation, or at the very least felt his hold on things slipping. He would become distracted by the little things: the sweat on his palms, the itch on his back, the tightness of his shoulders and neck. The damn uniform didn't help either. The current fashion among Earth Military was to have a black collar cut so high and stiff to show off your golden command pips, that it felt like two hands were permanently clutched around your throat. Back in the day when Hague had first joined, the uniform style had been far more practical. There was something about fighting a real war, as opposed to swanning around space at the beck and call of the government, that lead to uniforms you could actually fight in, let alone breath in.
'Ah, to hell with it,' Hague finally let out a gruff cough and just undid the collar completely. He was now in the surrounds of his office, only the dust covered walls would care if his uniform wasn't up to regulation standards. He then leant back in his chair, bringing his squared off fist to lean his face against. This was turning out to be one of the worst missions he'd ever been assigned.
Finally his computer gave a beep, and Hague just ran a hand down his face, quelling the urge to pick the darn thing up and hurl it across the room. Instead he straightened up slightly, cleared his throat and said: 'Ready.'
'Captain,' a clipped voice instantly came over the computer's coms, 'you've had an eventful first day, I see.'
Hague grinned humourlessly at the rest of the room. Now that was an understatement. He was glad that visual coms were down for the moment, he didn't think he could face the brass right now, not with his collar askew and his expression as dark as dead space. 'Yes, Admiral Chan,' Hague said clearly, 'very eventful.'
The Admiral gave a short chuckle that seemed slightly out of place as it crackled over the link. The communication software of Gethsenamee was standard civilian, and it would take a while to update it to full military standards. Then Hague could look forward to holo meetings with the Admiralty every time he stuffed up enough to get their attention. Fortunately, for now he could enjoy the anonymity of simply giving deference to a disembodied voice.
'Captain, I have to be honest with you, I was not expecting your mission to be quite so... successful, quite so soon,' the Admiral appeared to pick his words very carefully, dancing around them like a child around a bee's nest.
Hague didn't know Admiral Chan personally, but from what he'd heard the man got his job done... but to hear the strange unease in the Admiral's voice put Hague even more on edge. This stuff, this Black that had gotten Hague this mission in the first place, it was proving to be treacherous. It was a substance that had managed to spur the imagination of the government at a time when all they seemed to care about was control, security and ensuring Earth wasn't drawn into any more costly wars. For them to redirect resources to a benign mining planet on the edge of Common Space meant that the government were willing to risk for this Black stuff: and Hague knew from personal experience that the government only ever risked when they knew there would be a reward. The question was, what reward did they hope to receive?
'The incident with the former Temporary Colony Commander, ah-'
'Bunnings,' Hague supplied immediately, 'Chester Bunnings.'
'Yes, yes. It was unfortunate, Captain, but at least some good can come from this,' the Admiral's words were still vague, still tipping with unease as if he didn't quite believe what he was saying himself.
Hague clamped his teeth down, his jaw taking the tension like a coiled spring. Unfortunate? The incident with Bunnings was unfortunate, but they could still salvage some good from it? What planet was Admiral Chan on? Because it sure as hell wasn't Gethsenamee. Hague still felt the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach: the picture of Bunnings' arm clutching about as if it had a mind of its own, the fingers stiff and slick with blood as they reached out towards Barrow.... If Admiral Chan had been there, if he'd seen what Hague had seen barely two hours ago, then he wouldn't be talking about the "good" that could come from this situation, he'd be having a cold shower and booking the next transport to Earth.
'You said that the head geologist of the operation has come forward, that he told you personally that Bunnings had been in contact with, I quote "a strange black metal that is yet to be identified". Captain, can you confirm this?' there was a note of anticipation in the Admiral's voice, one that Hague found almost wretched.
Hague still had his jaw clamped like a clutched fist, and it felt like he'd have to jam a finger in the hinge just to loosen the thing up. The Admiral was running things by the book, Hague knew that, but there was no need to question his report. When Hague had mentioned the incident with Phillips, he had represented that word for word, as accurately as was possible. Well, he'd left out the little details like the way Phillips' eyes had stretched with concern as he'd found out what had happened to Bunnings, and the way Phillips had practically fallen over himself to try and get a sample of the stone to Rogers for testing. "Anything he could do to help," Phillips had kept stuttering, "anything he could do to help".
Truth was, Hague hadn't even been able to allow Phillips to get that sample to Rogers. As soon as Phillips had mentioned a "black unidentified metal" being involved, Hague's day had gone from terrible to universally damned. He'd sent a message to the Paris, locked down the dig site the metal had been found at, and cracked his knuckles on the side of his desk in an attempt to get his cool back.
'Yes,' Hague said eventually, keeping the sigh from his voice, 'those were Phillips' exact words. I've since had one of the Special Units from the Paris down at the dig site to take a look, and they have confirmed that the metal in question is Black.'
There were several seconds of silence, finally punctuated by Admiral Chan taking a deep but quick breath. 'I see. You are under strict orders to keep knowledge of this incident quiet, Captain, and I expect Phillips to be reassigned to Earth, stat.'
'Admiral, I understand the need for the highest secrecy, I really do, but reassigning our head geologist when we are just about to open up a dig site, seems extreme. We needs someone who knows those rocks-'
'The decision is made, Captain, follow your orders. I want Phillips to leave with the Paris: as soon as your doctor down there can transport Bunnings to your old ship, I want it to leave for Earth immediately. I understand that your initial mission parameters had the Paris staying on in dock until your dig at Brown 89 was operational, but that will have to change. The Excalibur is currently on mission two systems away, and will be on call, should you need her.'
Hague felt his expression sour, as if he'd just thrown back a cup full of jet fuel. The Excalibur's Captain was none other than Frank Arnold, a bitter man who had sat on Hague's court marshal baying for his blood even well after the charges had been dropped. Arnold hated Hague with about as much force as a sun going nova. Something to do with the fact that Hague wasn't the first career military officer his ex fiancée had been engaged to. When he had met Carla the first time, she'd been on the arm of Frank Arnold, laughing, smiling, and just generally being the centre of the man's galaxy. When Carla had left Arnold for Hague, well, the man hadn't exactly taken it well. A barely suppressed ball of white hot rage was one way to describe Arnold, a loose canon waiting to go off in Hague's face was another.
Now Arnold was coming here, or at least would be if Hague "ran into any trouble". That was like promising to send the four horsemen of the apocalypse if you scraped your elbow. There was no chance in hell that Hague was going call Arnold, short of this whole planet exploding. To top it all off, Carla was due in as soon as the dig site was operational. This whole situation felt like someone was deliberately throwing a burning torch onto dead autumn leaves just to see if they'd burn.
'Captain,' the Admiral continued, 'I want you to push on, to keep the original timetable for sector Brown 89. The sooner you can have the dig site operational, the sooner we can sort this mystery out.'
Hague doubted getting Brown 89 operational was going to solve any mysteries. He wasn't a precognitive, by any stretch of the imagination, but he still recognised the unease spreading across his chest as the first signs that this entire mission was doomed. Opening up Brown 89 sounded like opening up Pandora's Box. Soon Gethsenamee would be overflowing with more than red dust and mild mystery.
'Yes, Sir,' he eventually managed, 'I will report again when necessary.'
'Captain, one more thing. My, ah, colleagues at Future Facilities have requested I remind you that weekly status reports are required for subject Barrow. They are very keen, apparently, to see how she takes to the situation,' the Admiral now appeared to be choosing his words so carefully that he had almost lost the ability to talk.
Hague crossed his arms and leaned into them heavily. Subject Barrows, huh? She was the absolute last thing he wanted to think about right now. He still hadn't decided whether to admit that she had been present in the med bay to the Admiralty, let alone file a report on it to Future Facilities. While it was true that Hague had the authority to temporarily lift the Negligence Act if he saw fit, he didn't really want that decision to have to go on file. A whole bunch of stuffy bureaucrats working for Future Facilities would be on the comlink questioning his decision, asking him if he appreciated the consequences of letting a Precoger "run a muck". Truth was - after what Hague had seen in the med bay, the way Bunnings' arm had gone for Barrow like a desert yearns for water - Hague was going to be very careful with her for now on. The Dr simply hadn't a clue why Bunnings' body had acted that way, because, as he'd assured the shocked room, the patient was still under a coma. Bunnings' disembodied groping could have been directed at anyone or anything, the Dr had suggested... but Hague wasn't so sure.... Damn, he wasn't sure about anything that was going on here.
'As far as I'm aware, they are still awaiting your report from her initial day. However, I have reassured them that due to current unforeseen circumstances, it is unlikely that you will be able to give that report any time soon.'
'Thank you, Admiral.' Hague couldn't imagine having to call up some soul dead warden from Future Facilities right now to have a conversation about their "property". They never actually referred to Precogers that way, but Future Facilities even had guidelines about how Precogers were to be treated and under what circumstances their abilities were to be utilised. Guidelines, actual guidelines. Hell, they probably even had a manual, if you'd ask them. Hague wasn't about to cut Barrow a break, but he had to admit to himself that Future Facilities seemed to attract the shadiest, nastiest and just plain malevolent scum Earth had to offer.
'Just one more thing, Captain.... good luck.' With that, the Admiral's com link simply cut, leaving nothing but silence echoing in Hargue's ears.
He finally leant back against his chair, casting his eyes to the left and out the big windows that offered a commanding view of the main dig site below. Metal grey equipment on red and brown rock - that summed up Gethsenamee completely.
Okay, so orders were to churn full steam ahead. Ignore the fact a man was dying in the med bay below. Ignore the fact a man who hated his guts was soon to be his only life line. Ignore the fact he'd seen the limb of nearly dead man lunge after a Precoger like hand punching through a grave. Ignore everything. Concentrate on digging. Those were his orders.
Hague sighed, letting his eyes search over the view from the window. The view, though barren, was simple, and Hague really needed simple right now.
Anna leant against the window, pressing one palm into the glass till it chilled the skin like a cool swim on a summer's day. The view was hardly calming – grey mining equipment against barren red rock – but at least it was something she could try and get lost in. She forced herself to study the detail of the blue glass domes that covered each of the dig sites, interconnecting with each via these dark black corridors. She concentrated so hard on the colour of the glass, the angle of inclination, the contrast of the stark rock behind.... Even though it was hardly a pretty picture out there, at least it was better than the one circling around her mind.
She had known, she had known helping the doctor would turn out badly. She hadn't seen it in a vision or anything, but her first gut instinct had told her to get out of that med bay before something terrible happened. If only she'd listened to herself….
Anna didn't consider herself a soft person, not any more anyway. The experiences of her adult life, from living on the streets to being imprisoned by Future Facilities, had all given her a hard perspective. She was a cold realist, she fancied, someone who could assess the likely cost and pain of a situation without shedding a tear. She still kept her anger, god knows she still kept that, but she'd tried to let go of the fear long ago. She couldn't abide the damsel in distress routine. Anna didn't want people to come to her aid because she was a powerless victim, she just wanted people's help because what was happening to her was wrong. Anna could and would look after herself, ensuring no situation ever broke her… it was the only thing she could really take pride in any more.
As Anna stared out the window, she realised that was why this situation irritated her so much. It hadn't been the terrible visions of that man in the med bay covered in a slick patina of blood. It hadn't even been the sensations, the taste, the sound, the smell that the premonition had left her with. It had been the fact that it had crippled her: in those moments when that vision of something so old, so terribly ancient, so incredibly past - Anna had frozen. She had seen the patient's hand reach for her, even hear her scream echoing back in time, but it had taken Hague to break her free. If he hadn't been there to pull her backwards, Anna would have just stayed in that moment staring into the future like a powerless child in the face of something she could never understand.
It had taken someone else to save Anna, when she should have been able to do it herself… and that's what ate into her mood, chilled her thoughts and set her mouth into the thinnest of lines. She had no idea what she had seen in the patient's future, no idea how something so obviously from the past could exist within a future moment. It was like a snake eating its tail, or two mirrors set before each other so their they reflected each other on and on into infinity. It was so hard to put her finger on it, but all Anna could verbalise was that something had been wrong. The patient's future had been warped, twisted somehow… and full, just full, of the smell of something old.
Anna stretched her neck from side to side, and tried letting go of a deep sigh. The tension in her body hadn't really eased much since the incident in the med bay. It felt like she was still carrying the shock around, and it drew heavy against her limbs, cheeks and eyes. She felt tired, fatigued, angry.
Why the hell had Hague asked her to do this? Why the hell had she accepted….
Anna took another sigh, this time it shook through her ribcage like a bird flying wildly at the bars of its cage. She couldn't kid herself. The real reason she was angry, the real reason the frustration pulled at her like an angry mob, the real reason she stared down at the eerie dig site below – was that Anna was worried. She didn't know what would happen next….
Apparently her task in this game was simple enough, all she had to do was use her abilities to predict earthquakes at a new dig site. She would sit in a chair on the main operations deck, as far as she'd been told, and try and tune into the people around her, to the ground beneath her feet. If she would see the world shake, her colleagues scream, the mine collapse in a hail of dust – then she would raise the alarm, all digging would cease, and safety force fields would be locked in place. Absolutely simple, right? Well everything Anna was feeling right now told her that it sure as hell was not going to be that simple. Every sense she had, every iota of instinct and foresight was leading her to believe that none of them were prepared for what they might find under the soils of Gethsenamee.
Hague had set things in motion, had done what had needed to be done. He'd locked down the Black, shipped Phillips and Bunnings away, and said a final good bye to his old ship. He'd even unpacked his belongings and wiped the dust off the bed in his new quarters. There was one final thing he hadn't done though, and be damned if he wasn't going to get to do it before he turned in for the night.
He marched up the steps, boots banging against the thin metal. Gradually, as he ascended them, the view from above became clearer, and it was one hell of a view. Unlike the command deck, with its panorama of the dig site, Hague wanted to see what the real Gethsenamee had to offer: so he'd walked all the way to the furthest dig site, to climb one of their observation points. Behind him was a view back into the dig site, before him a view of blood red plains of barren rock stretching up into mountains as far as the eye could see. They were completely bare, with not a structure, a tree or even a twig in sight. They were literally just rock and dust. He fancied that perhaps Earth would look the same way if you erased every sign of every living being, which was truly a chilling thought.
As Hague finally crested the metal stairs, his boots coming to a rest on the metal catwalk of the viewing platform, his brows knotted with confusion. Standing before him, leaning against the safety rail, was Barrow's guard.
'I didn't expect to see you here,' Hague said, drawing up alongside him, ensuring his face was stern but neutral. He wasn't exactly sure where this guard fit into everything. Hague understood that it was policy of Future Facilities to ensure none of its subjects were without guard, but who exactly did this guy work for? This was Hague's command, not Future Facilities', did that mean he had rank over this man? Or was it the kind of situation where they were simply expected to tolerate each other? Future Facilities was technically a civilian operation, which made the guard civilian, not military. He wasn't in the chain of command, so how was Hague meant to treat this man? He'd been given direct responsibility for Barrow, but not for the guard. Hell, he still didn't even know the guys name.
The guard didn't answer, just kept leaning on the railing and staring off into the distance. He was still in that jet black uniform of his, with only a slice of chin visible to let everyone there was still a leaving, breathing human under there.
Hague cleared his throat. 'I thought your brief was to never leave the side of your charge-'
'She's in her quarters. Door's locked form the outside,' the guard supplied in a deep, quick voice.
Hague nodded, letting his eyes flick up to the horizon before them. The line the red mountains cut was so dramatic, so still, that Hague almost found it beautiful.
Almost a minute ticked by before the guard righted himself, drawing up into a ramrod straight pose. 'I needed air,' he supplied suddenly.
Hague gave a half smile. 'The air you get here is the same air you get back in Main Building. We're all in the one connected bio-dome here – the air should be just the same everywhere.'
'Right. Then I needed the view,' the guard kept staring out at the horizon.
Silence edged between them again. Hague had no intention of breaking it. For all his worries about where this man fit in, Hague didn't have any reason not to trust they guy… yet. If he wanted to take time to stare off into the bleak beyonds, and if Barrow was really under lock and key, then Hague didn't have a problem with it.
The guard finally turned around and faced Hague directly. 'What happened in the med bay should not have happened, 'he said slowly and clearly, 'it was against guidelines.'
Hague faced him squarely, posture even, but face stern. 'I've read your guidelines, and I know, ultimately, that I have command discretion. I chose to allow Barrow to use her… abilities at the request of the chief medical officer. It was a command decision, and one I stand by.'
'No, Captain, you chose to use Barrow, not to let her use her abilities, and there is a difference,' the guard's mask was still fully in place and gave nothing of his expression away. 'According to your records, as you have never had direct command over a Precognitive Human before, I suggest you consider your future decisions regarding them more carefully.'
Hague's hackles started to rise, and he could feel the colour sweeping up his cheeks. Was he being dressed down by a Future Facilities guard? Was he being taught a lesson in humane management of Precogers by a man who spent all day imprisoning them? 'Now listen here-'
'Captain, I don't mean any offence. It's just advice, and I'm just a guard.' With that the guard turned away, his black armour glinting under the sun, and walked back down the metal stairs.
Hague didn't order him back, just listened to his heavy boots against the thin metal grow quieter.
Well that was a turn up for the books. It seemed every god damn thing about this planet was there to confuse him. First a dangerous new metal, then a mysterious sickness, and now advice from a Future Facilities guard who never showed his face. Hague was just going to have to stiffen up and deal with it, because he was beginning to realise that Gethsenamee was only getting started at throwing mysteries his way.