BERNIE HOPED SHE LOOKED calm and in control in spite of the fact she could tell by the evolving headache coupled with the tightness in her chest that her blood pressure had ascended to vast new heights. She grabbed a patch from a niche in her workdeck and slapped it on her arm next to the other one knowing a quick meditation session to bring it down was out of the question. A large, imposing woman who didn’t tolerate numerous things including disloyalty and incompetence, she nonetheless had a tender heart and loving soul. She knew what it meant to work and she knew the heartbreak of losing someone you loved, both of which were evidenced in the gathering streaks of grey adorning her temples. Such experiences were deeply etched in her face as well, yet life and optimism still managed to shine from her almond shaped, emerald eyes.
After the conversation with Bryl she’d tried to get in touch with the research team yet wasn’t surprised when every attempt failed. All were trained in contingency procedures and being captured by enemy forces was something they’d been prepared for, especially since the previous group had met a similar fate. Whether they were dead or alive she didn’t know, but knew there was little she could do without more information.
Thus, the message from Antara had been expected as well as the unmistakable code embedded within. On a world embroiled in perpetual war the use of code words was a way of life. But it was the fact the team lead herself was back onworld that took her by surprise, so much so that she’d let fly with an expletive she’d sworn to delete from her vocabulary after letting it slip sometime back at the monastery during a quality inspection. She’d embarrassed herself as well as everyone within earshot on the factory floor and had promised the Benefics never to do so again. She looked heavenward, muttered a penitent, “Sorry,” and resumed dealing with the matter at hand.
Antara was more than the team lead. She was Bernie’s protégé and like a daughter, the relief she’d felt that she was still alive nearly overwhelming. How safe she was, however, remained to be seen.
Within moments of their arrival onworld Antara had sent a short and cryptic comcon message: Back onworld in company of potential new customer. ETA 1hr. To an outsider, including hopefully Antara’s escort, it appeared innocent and to the point. However, in company of was the tipoff. When used instead of a simple with that phrase indicated someone who couldn’t be trusted to the point of being not only hostile but potentially deadly. She’d immediately notified the chief of security and made sure her c-com had adequate charge to serve as a defensive weapon if required.
The unexpected contact had arrived approximately forty-eight minutes ago and since then she’d talked to so many people she took a moment now to go over the list, making sure she hadn’t forgotten anyone. Most important had been her recent conversation with Bryl which had fortuitously tipped her off regarding the situation and provided suitable motivation for handling it. She hadn’t had a chance to get back to Bryl but certainly would when things settled down.
So now she waited, eyes fixed on the digichronometer on the opposing wall as another minute flicked by.
She jumped at the sound of muffled voices outside her heavy door which included the deep booming tones of a male, rare to say the least in a woman-run economy where most men were on the battlefield. Her comcon pinged as her secretary announced their arrival and Bernie hefted to her feet behind her workdeck to open her door and greet them.
Relief washed over her when Antara entered, looking tired but otherwise unharmed, the man with her not so much tall as built like a bull with a heavy crop of carefully groomed black hair with a splattering of grey which framed hard eyes as cold as space.
“Welcome back, my sister,” she said, smiling as casually as she could. “I’ve been concerned for your safety when we lost contact.”
“Thank you,” Antara replied. “No need for worry, we’ve been well cared for.”
More code, Bernie noted. Clearly her experience had been quite the opposite.
“This is General Spoigan,” she continued, nodding toward the imposing man beside her who was giving Bernie a rather disdainful look. “He’s very interested in c-com technology and would like to acquire several units for his subordinates. In return he has agreed to release the members of the S&I team who were detained along with myself upon our arrival on Cyraria.”
“We’ve been working on a similar technology,” Spoigan interjected, “but since you’ve obviously already achieved the objective it will save us valuable development time and resources to simply obtain it from you.”
“I see,” Bernie said, heart racing at the prospect of a trade that could return the remainder of her hijacked employees. “Have a seat and we’ll talk about it. We’re only a distributor, not the manufacturer, but should be able to help. Have you defined your specifications?”
Spoigan settled his bulk into a lush leather chair as Antara did the same, discretely maintaining as much distance from him as she could.
“Not yet,” he replied. “I’d like to see what options you offer first.”
“Of course,” Bernie agreed, bringing up the ones available to offworld customers and angling the holographic projection so he could see. He leaned forward to read them, her heartrate doubling as his expected disappointment flashed to anger.
“These are not the features I witnessed on Professor Denale’s unit,” he growled.
“I’m sorry, General,” Bernie replied sweetly, “but these are all we can offer for export. Esheron has strict technology transfer laws, as I’m sure you’re quite aware.”
“This is not what I came here for,” he said, volume of his voice rising as he stood up and rose to his full height threateningly. “I assume you’re ready to take responsibility for the demise of your team. Furthermore, I represent an entity who can crush your miserable world, if necessary, to obtain it.”
“I’m sure that neither of those actions will be necessary, General,” Bernie said with a calm that even surprised her. “Perhaps you can make direct arrangements with the manufacturer, obtain an offworld license and thus bypass export regulations.”
“Yeah, that’s more like it,” Spoigan declared, sitting back down but looking far from relaxed. “I assume you can set something up immediately.”
“Of course,” Bernie answered, smiling for any number of reasons, none of which involved keeping him happy other than possibly offering him one of her bloodpressure patches. On the other hand, if the man keeled over it would eliminate the problem at hand. She retrieved her c-com from its niche, noticing Antara stiffened, perhaps thinking she intended to take him out right there. As satisfying as that would have been it would undoubtedly set off an intragalactic incident that probably wouldn’t end well for either side, especially those still captive on Cyraria.
“Excuse me while I contact the facility,” she explained, quickly selecting the needed contact at the monastery and establishing the connection.
The conversation while silent was nonetheless devoid of any incriminating information, just in case the man was telepathic or his cronies were further along with their research than he’d indicated. As previously arranged after Bernie received Antara’s original message, the monk offered to see their alleged guest right away.
“You’re in luck, General,” she said, terminating the connection. “Considering how far you’ve traveled they’ll see you now rather than cause you further inconvenience.”
Spoigan’s reply was but a grunt and Bernie had to bite the inside of her lip to preclude a smile as with some effort she got up from her chair and came around her workdeck to escort them outside to where a shuttle was waiting.
It was a clear sunny day, the azure sky interrupted by a few fluffy, white clouds banking the horizon, a stiff but warm breeze stirring the early summer air. Bernie settled somewhat awkwardly into a seat that was clearly a bit small and coded in their destination. The craft lifted silently and effortlessly considering the load it was carrying and headed toward Twiozopa City, beyond which the Ledorian monastery sprawled atop a looming, grass covered hill.
As soon as they were airborne Spoigan cleared his throat. “If you try anything, Madam Tucana, be advised that I have Professor Denale’s mindprint and I will see to it that she is immediately dispatched at the slightest provocation. Do I make myself clear?”
“Indeed, General,” she replied evenly. “If I should decide to try anything I will keep that in mind.”
“Hmmmph. You people are really quite given to hyperbole, aren’t you?” he added sarcastically.
“On a world where you never know which day will be your last it’s quite easy to keep things in perspective,” Bernie replied. “Detachment is essential. I’m sure as a military officer you understand.”
Their vehicle skimmed the domed rooftops of the city and proceeded through the smoke and dust of the manufacturing sector toward the towering edifice overlooking the valley that stretched beyond. A short time later it settled in an expansive stone-lined courtyard flanked by pillars that stretched skyward amidst a stand of sparkling holodendril trees, the musical tinkling sounds of its dancing silvery leaves filling the air. A terraced fountain graced the cloister’s center, the soft rush of falling water mingling with the whispering breeze which cast droplets along their path toward the entrance as if in welcome. At their approach a flock of birds occupying the path soared away amid the flutter of several dozen wings.
Bernie stepped over to the security alcove, allowing the embedded biometric reader to identify her, then led them through a towering pair of double-high wooden doors that creaked open on ancient hinges as they approached, an odd blend of past architecture coupled with modern sensor technology. Their footsteps echoed in the vaulted corridor the same width as the walkway outside, more ornate yet unmarked doors widely spaced on both sides, walls and floor alike comprised of rust-colored sandstone. When they arrived at the far end Bernie announced their presence by palming a small pad beside another over-sized door.
“Who is there?” an unembodied yet gentle voice responded to which Bernie introduced herself and stated they were the party from Woeyel Industries.
The door opened slowly and was unexpectedly silent, revealing a huge, semi-circular room lined with windows that overlooked the city and valley beyond. Directly in front sprawled an intricately carved wooden workdeck behind which sat an ancient man clothed in a heavy, slate-colored robe, his head topped with a mass of unruly white hair.
“Greetings, my friends,” he said, rising to bow. “It’s my understanding you’re interested in our product. I am Friar Johann. How may I help you today?” He gestured toward several straight-backed chairs and resumed his position on his own.
Spoigan sat on the edge of his, clearly impatient with the friendly protocol.
“I will eventually need several thousand units like the device Professor Denale had when we, uh, worked together on Cyraria,” he said. “It’s my understanding that we should be able to work around the export regulations with some sort of license agreement.”
“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Friar Johann answered graciously.
“Where’s your manufacturing facility?” Spoigan asked. “It’s my understanding that you make them here.”
“But indeed we do, General. We have a secure facility underground,” he replied, nodding toward the stone floor. “It wouldn’t do for us to be disturbed by an itinerant bomb or other missile should any battles come this way.”
“I’d like to see it.”
“Of course. But first I’d like to determine exactly what you’re looking for. Each unit is custom manufactured for its user. They cannot be transferred or used by anyone else without explicit permission from the unit’s cellmate, if you will.”
“Cellmate?” Spoigan asked.
“Yes. The bond between the unit and its owner is at the cellular level. It’s unique and matched precisely to your DNA.”
“I see. Will that present a problem acquiring them for my subordinates? Or can that information be obtained remotely?
Friar Johann smiled. “There are various options. Remote acquisition, of course, is one. Or they can be fitted for you and transferred with your permission. That way you retain ownership and control of the devices and can access everything they contain which, of course, also means you can commandeer them at any time.”
For the first time Spoigan actually looked pleased. “Yes, that would have many advantages,” he agreed. “When can we get started? How long will it take?”
“How many do you need, General?”
“Initially six hundred eighty-four. I may eventually return for more, but that would provide a good start.”
“We would need a day or two to produce them since each is individually assembled by a few highly qualified residents of our abbey.”
“I see,” Spoigan said, frowning. “How long would I have to wait for mine?”
“We should be able to take care of you today, a few hours at most,” Friar Johann replied. “When would you like to get started?”
“The sooner the better.”
“Excellent. But first let us pray.”
Again Bernie bit her lip at Spoigan’s startled expression, then exchanged an instantaneous conspiratorial look with Antara as the friar came around from behind his imposing workdeck and bid them form a circle. Bernie bowed her head and closed her eyes, then snuck a peek when Friar Johann failed to speak. Spoigan was looking straight ahead until the friar gestured for him to do the same. He looked down with obvious reluctance but kept his eyes open, which was apparently good enough because the priest immediately raised his voice in solemn prayer. Bernie quickly closed her eyes.
“Our trusted Benefics of the Most High God,” the monk began. “We request your grace and blessing as we prepare another of your children to commune through your channels for the most holy and righteous of purposes, to assure peace and harmony throughout our troubled galaxy. We ask that you guide this work and assure the safety of those who enter in at these sacred gates. In your most holy name. Amen.”
Bernie and Antara clearly enunciated an emphatic amen while Spoigan scowled and pursed his lips, as if debating whether or not to acquiesce.
Friar Johann’s gaze was riveted on his, awaiting a response which eventually came out sounding more like a grunt than acknowledgement of divine petition. Apparently satisfied nonetheless, Friar Johann nodded and tucked his hands inside his robe.
“All is well,” he said. “Follow me and we shall begin the cellmate process so you can be on your way as quickly as possible.”
Spoigan waited for Bernie and Antara to go first, snarling under his breath, “Remember what I said about trying anything,” as he took up the trek behind them.
“Indeed, General,” they replied in solemn unison. “We remember.”
This should be interesting, Bernie thought, eyes fixed straight ahead as they left the room. As she recalled, the cristobalite lining the area to which they were headed coupled with her and Antara’s natural telepathic abilities could help them obtain additional insights into the General’s intent. However, it was essential that they shield their own thoughts because it was possible, depending on his capabilities, that it could provide the same benefit to him.
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