The Avalon remained far enough from the Szacante's homeworld, Dresha, to not register on the blue-green planet's proximity detectors. Jaya gazed out at the planet, serene and marbled with aqua, as she packed her gear into a small satchel. The world seemed suspended gently, far from its binary stars. Aside from the twin suns, she had heard that Dresha looked like Earth, from a distance. Blue and green with white clouds ebbing and mixing together on its surface.
But those were little more than legends now. Few had returned to Earth in almost three hundred years, and for hundreds before that, it had lost its aquamarine allure. When the last humans had departed for life in the colonies, their original home had been dusty and brown, supposedly even the oceans were obscured from space by dingy cloud cover.
"You ready?" Rhodes asked, strapping the last of his gear into his belt and putting it away in a similar satchel.
"Yeah," she said, punching in the code for the small shuttle's doors.
The team boarded the tiny shuttle. It was a civilian ship – as plain as they came. The extraction team wore civilian clothing, and stowed away their military-grade gear in hidden compartments. As far as the Szacante could see, they were tourists. Humans traveling to Dresha on an exotic getaway.
As the shuttle closed in on the planet, the crew played cards, civilian gear strewn casually around the seats. When the Dreshan space controllers connected for customs inspections, they answered the questions simply. Although Jaya could sense the subtle changes in her crew – faint tensing in the jaw, stiff line of shoulder, breaths shallow and controlled – the Szacante interviewing them apparently could not. He waved them on, signing off and allowing them to proceed towards the planet.
Once the orbital checkpoints had been passed, the pilot guided the shuttle into the city, but away from the central port. It was still night on this side of the planet, and Iralu City glowed below them, blue-white and clean against the black of night. The team donned their gear as the shuttle closed in on Doctor Vasuda's apartment building.
"Okay, team, the key is quick and quiet," Rhodes said, briefing the team as Jaya finished inspecting the gear of each member of the strike team. "We're going to drop in from above – it will be a one-shot flyby, so be sure you're ready. Expect heavy surveillance and guards in the apartment. Reports from some of our eyes in the city say there are at least ten on the front, mostly plainclothes, ten on the roof, and two or three inside. We're taking our chances with the roof – they will be easy to spot. We're more likely to take them by surprise than they are us. Use that to your advantage. Commander, gear check?"
"Pass. Everyone is ready to go," she responded.
"Then let's go."
They lined up, pressed against the smooth metal wall as the shuttle door opened. The air rushed in, and Jaya felt its chill sting her eyes and tease a strand of hair from the headband that secured it away from her face. She smoothed the hair back and put on her mask. Her fingers gripped an anti-grav device firmly, ready to activate as soon as they reached the building and dropped from the shuttle.
"Approaching target," Rhodes said. "In three…"
Jaya crouched like a sprinter, feeling the muscles in her legs already thrumming with adrenaline. The lights of the city flew by outside.
She sensed the breathing of the crew aligning as they took the same position, ready to leap when the next word came out of Rhodes' mouth.
"One! Let's go!"
They leapt – six bodies springing into action, moving with precision through the shuttle doors and plummeting. They activated their anti-grav fields in near-unison, a small tremor rippling through the air at the six simultaneous impulses. Though they were dark, nearly invisible in black against the heavy night sky, Jaya scanned the roof below them for guards. She spotted one immediately, near Thompson's trajectory.
"Thompson," she called over the comm, "You've got one right below you."
"I see him," he replied. "So does my burner."
She could almost see the gesture that would have accompanied that comment, and she knew the sights of his gun were trained on that Szacante guard below.
Sure enough, as soon as she saw the slender being's head tilt up, as if to look at the sky above, he dropped. Light travels fast than sound, and sure enough, a moment later, she heard the delayed zap of Thompson's particle gun.
The roof rose smoothly up to meet them, and Jaya set herself down firmly on the ground, ducking behind a low utility box immediately. The other five were scattered across the roof, but she saw them take cover as well.
"One down," Thompson said. "I haven't seen any others, but if anyone heard that, they'll come by to investigate."
"Let's hope no one heard," Jaya said. "We don't want them calling in friends."
In the dead of night, Tynan was still awake, still poring over the data he and Min had reassembled the day before. He had not been permitted to leave his apartment, and the security forces had been bringing him food daily. He had asked for more tofin, the nut that Szacante powdered and baked into small energy bars, but something made him think they had not taken his request seriously. Perhaps it was the small, cryptic smiles that had formed on their narrow lips, or the laughter he had heard when he closed the door to his bedroom, claiming to be turning in for the night.
It didn't matter. He was used to working without sleep, and a big idea could keep him going as easily as tofin, so he sat under the covers again, deep into the night, Min at his side, sorting through data and trying to fill in the blanks they had left their first time through.
"Analysis is inconclusive," Min said, frustration creeping into her tone. "We're still missing pieces, Tynan."
Min's connection to the work server had been severed when they refused him access to his office and his files. VI operated on a cloud, and were not permitted to store information that was proprietary to a person or a company, though they could be given temporary access to servers with that information. This was meant to preserve the integrity of the VI personality algorithms. There had been a few significant court cases where a VI had been forcefully wiped of data. The cases were argued as murder, and in a sense they were. Now the VI had protected rights, almost personhood. But still, as frustrating as this was to him, he couldn't imagine the sensation of losing something that was once like knowledge. To suddenly be unable to access knowledge that used to be at the tip of a holographic tongue…
"I know," he sighed. He itched to be in his lab, or at least his office. This empty space in his mind was terrifying and infuriating. He knew enough to be able to convince himself that the explosion must be impossible, but not nearly enough to convince anyone else.
He set aside his data pad.
"Perhaps I need a break," he said. "My brain isn't like yours."
"A break would be advised," Min said.
Tynan stood, stretching his legs and arms out. His joints were stiff from hours of sitting, and his eyes felt dry.
A small, muffled thud from the living room stopped him mid-stretch. It was a strange sound, like the guard had tripped over the furniture, but he'd heard no grunt or shout of pain or even angry curse. He exchanged a look with Min and crept quietly to the door and opened it a crack.
He was not expecting what he saw in front of him. The guard was on the ground, face to the floor. There was no blood, but he was utterly motionless. A human woman, dressed in black, was standing in the center of the room.
The woman looked up and saw Tynan staring out from the bedroom.
"Doctor Vasuda," the woman said, her voice gentle. Tynan imagined soldiers like this trained their voices to sound so unassuming. He also imagined he must be the target.
He hadn't decided if he should be afraid or hopeful.
"What is it?" Min asked.
She had come up beside him and followed his gaze to the human.
Tynan instinctively raised his hands to his head – the universal gesture of "I'm not armed." The human had not raised her weapon, but he noticed the confident way she held the gun. He was certain that she could move almost faster than he could think, if it became necessary.
"She's not shooting." Min said, projecting her voice only through the implant in his ear, so the human couldn't hear her.
So? Tynan thought to himself.
"She doesn't seem to want violence. Perhaps she is here to help us," Min offered. "Perhaps she knows something the Arbiter wouldn't tell you."
"I'm here to help you, doctor," the woman said, reaching out her hand in a gesture Tynan recognized as indicating friendship. "We're here to help you escape."
What do I do? Tynan wondered, feeling the frantic feeling of panic creep up his chest. He turned to Min, looking her directly in the steady, blue image of her face. She nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Our window is closing quickly," the woman said again. "We have a transport on the roof."
For some reason, it was the only thing he could think to say. Despite owning a penthouse apartment, Tynan did not like heights, and somehow the idea of climbing onto the roof scared him more than the guns in this soldier's hands.
"The Union believes you were framed for that accident. We're here to bring you to Argos, where you will be granted political asylum."
"In return for what?" he asked, feeling his wits return as the human seemed to be less and less likely to use her weapon.
"We just want to work with you to solve this crime," she said.
"There's a security team," Tynan said. "They have surveillance. I hacked the audio in my room, but…"
"We took care of the rest of it," the woman said. "We used a targeted EMP blast, but they will have been alerted that something is wrong. We need to move fast, doctor. If you want to get out of here, you need to come with me now."
The woman moved a step closer, her hand still outstretched.
"I'll come with you," Tynan said suddenly.
He went into his bedroom, thinking quickly. He couldn't do anything locked in his apartment, and while he didn't know what these humans might want from him, he couldn't really say more for his own government at the moment. At least this might give him a chance to learn more about what happened, and start to solve the crisis he had found himself in.
He grabbed his data pad from the bed and moved back into the living room. As soon as he exited the bedroom, he was shocked to see that the room he had believed to be empty was full of humans – six of them, dressed in black with black masks, rifles in hand. They had been there the entire time. Tynan felt a chill go through him.
"Let's move," said the woman.
One of the humans – a man – spoke into his comm.
"We've got the doctor, are you in position?"
They made their way onto the balcony, and the woman grasped one of Tynan's arms. A man on the other side of him did the same. He was about to protest the strength of their grip, when the air around their feet shimmered and warped, and Tynan felt his feet rise off the ground. One of the soldiers was holding a small device – a controller for an anti-gravity field – something he had studied thoroughly in his undergraduate years. He knew how simple it was, how effective and stable it was, and yet the sight of the world plummeting around him was enough to make his mouth dry with fear.
"It's alright, doctor," the first woman said. He noticed her voice remained gentle even after he had agreed to come with them. Even as she had begun to orchestrate their escape. "We're almost to the ship."
They landed lightly on the roof, and the team moved in unison, running towards a small, transport shuttle parked not far away. The woman was gripping Tynan's arm strongly enough that he was pulled along at a faster clip than he was used to, and before he knew it, he was seated in the ship and watching the doors close around him.
One of the soldiers pulled out a small tool kit and sat down next to Tynan.
"We need to disable the tracker," he said.
"What?" Tynan asked, and then he realized – every palm drive was enabled with tracking technology, to assist with navigating software and in providing the best possible information to the user. But of course, it could also lead the government straight to him.
"Yes," he said. "Right. Of course."
He offered his arm out, palm up, and the technician went to work.
He really hoped he hadn't made the wrong decision. But he supposed it was too late now to change his mind.
Armstrong and Tully were waiting for them in the Avalon's small docking bay when their shuttle arrived. Jaya could feel the edge in the air – Armstrong was anxious to start talking to the scientist, and while Tully maintained his usual relaxed appearance, she knew something was unsettling him as well. Tully baffled her at times – for all his friendly nature, she found his expressions to be inscrutable.
Jaya and Rhodes escorted the tall and gangly Szacante from the shuttle. Jaya had been struck by this being. It was not that tall and gangly was anything unusual for the reptilian species, but this one had a particularly willowy quality about him. Jaya thought he looked like he might blow over in a wind storm. His lanky arms swung by his side, the silver-grey sheen of his skin nearly matching the metal of the walls.
While the Szacante most closely resembled humans of all the alien species, their expressions were still harder to read than human ones. Jaya struggled to identify the subtle emotions communicated on his face, but she did notice the way his eyes moved about. They were a pale green, more iris than white, and they seemed to take in every detail. Aside from that, his expression was unreadable.
"Doctor Vasuda," Armstrong said. He brought his left hand to his right temple, in a traditional Szacante greeting. "We're looking forward to working with you."
The doctor returned the gesture, along with one of the few expressions shared between their species: a smile.
"I believe we want the same thing," the Szacante said, his words coming out crisply. "To solve this puzzle."
"We do indeed," said Armstrong. "We have our conference room prepared for the meeting. This way."
They led the way up to the Avalon's conference room. Food was provided – both traditional human meals and traditional Szacante meals had been brought from Argos. The military was going out of its way to make the doctor feel safe and welcome with them.
Jaya imagined it must have been a difficult few weeks for the doctor.
"We discovered a link between a corporation we believe to have terrorist connections and your work," Armstrong began the conversation. "The corporation is called Calista Holdings."
The Szacante seemed to perk up at that.
"Yes," he said. "They expressed interest in my research a few weeks ago. I denied them access. I am not interested in corporate dealings."
"Well, they purchased the remains of your laboratory from your government the other day."
The only word Jaya could think of to describe Doctor Vasuda's reaction to that was "gaping." His mouth dropped open, and his eyes stared as blankly as they seemed capable of, which was not very. There always seemed to be some series of thoughts rushing by behind his eyes.
"That is… I would have said that is not possible, but I will believe just about anything now," he said, and his voice sounded resigned.
"They have connections to this group," Armstrong said, handing the doctor a briefing on the Sons of Priam. "They promote rebellion against The Union government, and spread fear and discontent through random acts of violence. They hit an agricultural colony last month with a biological weapon. Late last year, they managed to destroy a city with a powerful warhead. And of course, you've heard of their most recent attack on the news. They're tough to pinpoint, as their violence seems to be truly random, hitting wherever they can."
The Szacante looked up: "My research. It was for the best, but like most everything powerful, it has potential applications that are… less than ideal."
Tully snorted: "You can say that again."
"I don't know what I can do for you," the doctor continued. "But I will help."
"You can start by giving us a rundown of your research. After that, we'd like you to serve as a consultant. Help us identify signs that they're using your research and what they're using it for," Armstrong said, regarding the doctor with gentle scrutiny. "Can you do that for us?"
"Yes," the doctor said.
"Okay, then let's get started. Tell us about your research, and please…" Armstrong winked, "dumb it down for us meatheads."