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Reciprocity: The Lledumar Saga, Book 2 Part 2

By Robotics101 All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Scifi

Chapter 9

Prologue

A murder was committed to bring the Cuians into disrepute. One Cuian, in particular: Councillor Korrs Verntinus. The plan was to disrupt the Cuian application for membership in the Mainnstaad. However, while Alton Rhizikh – Chief of CenBioTech – had thought to kill two birds with one stone, as the saying goes, when he’d instigated a murder and gathered samples of a potentially valuable truffle, things didn’t quite work out as he’d imagined. Someone from the Empire’s Provincial Investigative Bureau was assigned the case, to determine whether it held ramifications for the Empire’s Mainnstaad. Given the evidence he’d planted at the crime scene was aimed at a Cuian High Councillor, he shouldn’t have been all that surprised. But he had imagined the Bureau would go straight to the Cuians. But it hadn’t, thanks to an over-zealous PIBian. And, if that wasn’t tiresome enough for Rhizikh, the biomedical researcher, Ryndeel Drinns, whom he’d given the potentially valuable truffles to, to research, found something no one expected. She tried to cover up her finding, but was oblivious to CenBioTech’s anti-sabotage measures, which alerted the biotech company’s Chief Director to a potential disaster. Now Dr. Ryndeel Drinns finds herself at odds with the man who had given her the job of a lifetime. She wants to prevent him doing the unthinkable, but is clueless as to how. We catch up with her and her friends in downtown Llantan as they play a game of cat and mouse with Alton Rhizikh.

***

When Drinns, Llandil, and Treems believed no one had followed them – Llandil and Treems, in unison, had said they thought they had been followed – they entered a tall building that resembled a toadstool; a tall cylindrical tower. They worked their way through a maze of corridors until they exited on the other side. They then doubled back. The idea was to make doubly sure no one followed them. They then entered a nearby alcove that led to a groundcar containment station.

The rain had stopped, but Llantan cowered under pewter skies.

Drinns spoke into a console on a wall. Moments later a door opened and a groundcar was brought out and parked a metre away. The groundcar was her new transportation.

Llandil was impressed, and admired it. Though he asked was it insured?

Drinns gave him a dirty look, eyes wide and gaped mouth, and then smiled. They may need insurance where they were headed, she quipped, but why couldn’t they get there in style?

She gave him a big, broad smile. The world of yesterday seemed light-years away, in happy moments like this.

Treems chimed in with ‘Amen to that!’, and proceeded to give the shiny new thing’s exterior a thorough inspection. Touched it here and there as she admired the groundcar, and exclaimed its beauty.

Drinns watched Treems inspect the groundcar; ran her fingers along its side. What were fingers for? She watched Treems caress the dark-blue groundcar from front to back with the tips of the fingers of one hand.

Then she put a stop to it, and declared it was time to go. If she let Treems spend too much time admiring the shiny new thing they might never get out of there.

Weapons fire erupted; pelted the groundcar.

Llandil let out an expletive and threw himself down with the others behind the shiny new thing as they were shot at.

He bellowed that he hoped Drinns had gotten that insurance after all! Who the hell did she think was shooting at them? Couldn’t it possibly be the groundcar sales guy, who’d realised she’d duped him?

Drinns rolled her eyes at Llandil, but was hoarse as she hollered they’d found them.

They? Llandil was incredulous.

Rhizikh!

Treems burst into tears and said they were gonna die!

Drinns said she would try to distract them, and for them to go hide behind that divider wall over there. She pointed vigorously at the thing she spoke of, a few metres away.

Llandil was wide-eyed and asked was this a good time for heroics? He was terse, unconvinced she was up to the challenge.

Drinns said she would try to drive out of there, draw the shooters away. They were to meet her back here in an hour. She was hasty in her explanation, surprised by her own confidence and heroism. Just don’t get caught!

Before Treems and Llandil could say anything to oppose her, Drinns scrambled into the groundcar and prepared to make an escape. There were more shots as she engaged the engine and revved it.

Llandil instantly realised he and Treems needed to get behind the divider wall behind them, and grabbed Treems by the hand and dragged her, though she sobbed, to safety. Relative safety, Llandil mused. If Drinns’s stupid plan backfired, he’d kill her himself. But he also hoped she would succeed.

He heard Drinns’s shiny, new thing accelerate away. Heard an echo of shots that followed her. And then he tried valiantly to console Treems as she cowed in fear. He couldn’t relieve himself of his own doubts, though, that Drinns’s ‘master’ plan would succeed.

He hoarsely told Illinny they had to remain quiet while Ryndeel distracted the shooters. It was their only hope. But she had to control herself long enough for that to happen. Would she do that for him?

Treems stared at him through moist eyes (her black eyeliner had run leaving dark squiggles down her face), and sniffles, then promptly embraced him and tried to get her emotions under control.

Llandil hadn’t expected the embrace and was momentarily surprised. He’d go with that. He pressed back against the wall, embraced tightly by Treems. Heard the attacker’s fire drawn away as Drinns made what appeared to be a miraculous escape.

Well, what do ya know? he thought. Who’d a thought Drinns – a mild-mannered but sometimes touchy biomedical scientist – a person of extraordinary heroism?

Drinns accelerated through the exit into a street full of traffic and people, but didn’t hesitate to make her way through it and fired the groundcar’s horn.

The shooters had stopped, she noticed. So, they don’t want witnesses? That could work well for them. If they weren’t prepared to shoot in public, it said a lot about their orders. Relatively public, she mused.

For the next twenty minutes, she sped through streets and back ways, in the hope she’d lose her pursuers. But couldn’t take any chances, and checked everything that followed.

She bellowed she wasn’t about to end it all over some golden truffles! And then found somewhere to hide for the next forty minutes. She’d backtrack to the groundcar containment station when she felt it was safe to do so.

Then she thought of Llandil and Treems, and her eyes instantly moistened. She hoped they’d escaped detection and a bullet to the head.

She begged the gods of faraway Vlorhon for help. Let there be a way out of this nightmare, ‘please!’. And looked to the heavens for guidance.

An hour later, Drinns pulled the groundcar slowly, cautiously into the containment station. She searched for Llandil and Treems, but there was no sign of them. She pulled the groundcar to a halt, and leaned forward and placed her head forward on the console and sobbed softly. She jumped with a thump on the window. Though startled, she was more than pleased to see Treems, even though she noticed Treems was wearing angry for makeup.

Treems was terse with her, and declared she’d left them behind!

She yelled to her to get in! Quickly!

Llandil was calmer but sour, and said it was nice to see her, too. He slid into the backseat while Treems hurried around to the other side of the groundcar and got in the passenger side.

Treems immediately berated Drinns the instant she was in the groundcar. Drinns just seized her in the warmest, firmest embrace she could manage, right then.

Llandil whistled like a bird in the back seat. When they were ready, they should get the hell out of there.

The girls turned to look at him. Drinns leant over the back of her seat and patted him on the knee, and said with a smirk that he’d missed her, too.

He quipped on the groundcar’s new colour, and smirked. What happened to the old one?

She quipped it’d gotten a few nicks in it, and returned it to the seller and swapped it for another.

How’d she managed that without any insurance?

Less than twenty-four hours after purchase, the old one was still under warranty. She batted her eyes at him and grinned.

Incredulousness creased his face; shook his head. He, for one, thought they’d had way too much excitement for one afternoon, and should now get the hell out of there. He didn’t want to meet up with them CenBioTech goons again. Adjusted his coat and unruffled his trousers, and brushed them with his hands.

Drinns looked at Treems and she sniggered.

Weapons fire again pelted the groundcar.

The back window shattered and shards sprayed throughout the groundcar.

Drinns bellowed in horror to get down! She sped from the groundcar station. But it wasn’t an entirely respectable exit. Shots pelted the groundcar as it emerged indecently from the groundcar station. She was in no mood for complaints from pedestrians and other groundcar drivers as she worked hard to avoid a collision with them and wasn’t at all successful. She nicked a few groundcars as she drove the shiny new thing at speed from the groundcar station.

When they were clear, she enquired after their condition; she called to Treems and then Llandil. And begged them to speak to her!

Treems asked if they were clear? Had they escaped? She was fearful, and spoke from her crouched hidey-hole in the front part of the groundcar’s passenger side. But there came an audible groan from Llandil, from the back of the groundcar.

Treems bravely emerged to peer into the back of the groundcar to ascertain Llandil’s condition. She immediately screamed when she saw the dark wet patch on the front of Llandil’s coat. His bloody hands were on the wound; he tried to prevent the wound from bleeding out, but it wasn’t working. Blood trickled over his hands and down his front.

Treems bellowed that he’d been shot! And instantly wailed at the horror of it.

Drinns let out a string of expletives.

Treems bellowed to get to a MED-centre!

But Drinns had a different idea. She was of the belief that if she didn’t get them away from Llantan now, they’d all be dead by morning. She glanced at Llandil to ascertain his condition; he was bleeding out and wouldn’t survive, no matter they got him medical help. He’d be dead by the time they got him to a MED-centre. She made the heart-wrenching decision to leave the city as quickly as her new groundcar could manage.

***

Maxil Thynnes emerged from a doorway and walked a few metres along the parapet. Stopped and surveyed the work going on down on the spaceport. He’d promised to support Rhizikh’s campaign against the Cuians. He’d suggested airships as the delivery system for his solution. The airships were an ancient dirigible, filled with gas. To make them would require special materials and specialist labour. No problem; his commercial interests were measured in years with the suppliers of the necessary materials, and the right people to make them. He now worked hard to deliver them all on time.

The work in toto would astonish. The cost involved, would stagger. He knew … no, believed that he’d be more than compensated for it by Rhizikh’s largesse, when his war without blood was complete. He’d be elevated to a new position of political power and status in Rhizikh’s new government.

He’d heard Rhizikh say he would be called a Powhatan in his new regime. Imagine. A Powhatan. But he didn’t know what that was. Even though Rhizikh had provided an explanation, it had gone over his head like a huge spacing-guild transport as it hurled itself into space. He knew very little about the history Rhizikh drew on when he spoke of the Powhatan. He cared very little where Rhizikh got his inspiration. If it helped him make money, the rest mattered less than the other. Well, that and the fulfilment of a promise, which he’d willingly agreed to years ago to help Rhizikh bring to fruition. Screw the Cuians. The overtime and energy expended on the preparations for Rhizikh’s bloodless war, though his war without blood, he corrected himself, as he’d spoken of it, would soon be realised.

He watched workers as they busied themselves; they worked to assemble one of the airships about a hundred metres away. The construction was under bright spotlights. From where he stood, on the parapet of his makeshift Administration building, on the edge of Bhuluse’s old spaceport, the workers were like busy ants.

The work was undertaken on the disused spaceport because it was the perfect location to do the construction work. It wasn’t so far from Lled that he couldn’t commute between the two locations, but far enough away so as not to draw any unwanted attention. Or be affected by Rhizikh’s solution; he was human, after all. And the local governor, Dannihan Bains (he called her ‘Danni’), his lover of many years, could be trusted to not speak of it. She’d be well compensated for her discretion.

But he kept her in the dark about the true purpose of the airships, Alton Rhizikh’s status as the head of the LFF and his plan for emancipation. He’d tell her everything when it was all over.

He and the Bhulusians had a lengthy, but salubrious history. But it still needed oiling, like many of the business relationships he’d cultivated over the years. And in approximately one hour and forty minutes he’d meet Governor Bains for supper. They still had things to discuss, and a relationship to feather.

Keep that one happy, he thought. But oblivious to the true nature of what he did. To share the details with her now would be pointless, he thought. She and the Bhulusians would be unaffected by it; kept from harm. He’d thank Rhizikh again for his largesse when he saw him next.

The negotiations he’d undertaken to transport the airships, he recalled, had, however, been a little difficult. Special arrangements had had to be made to transport the airships to all the important locations. Bribes had been offered some of the spacing-guilds that hadn’t initially agreed to transport the airships. How to transport airships as cargo to some of the regions, though, was tricky, to say the least. To keep the network oblivious to the true purpose of the airships was even trickier.

Secrets.

To keep secrets was even harder.

A female staffer apologised for the interruption.

She intruded on his reverie, but it’d be a necessary intrusion, he was sure. Just because Rhizikh wanted to conduct a war without blood didn’t mean business had to stop. In fact, business had to increase. Business was the backbone of the empire, any empire. Even a new one on the horizon. A secret war just provided additional opportunities. The supply of goods and services. The transport of troops and such. Not that Rhizikh had an army to move, nothing like that. Just the airships and the support crews for them. An army, perhaps.

The staffer pointed where he needed to signature the documents she presented him.

She was one of his small army of administrative assistants. He noted her tallness, she was svelte with big, blue eyes, and hair, striped with the same blue as her eyes, sat above her head like a tongue of blue flame. She beamed at him as she extended a reader and stylus in his direction. She held it firmly for him as he signed it in all the right places. It was done. Another contract was agreed to and authorised.

Commercial reciprocity.

The staffer called him ‘sir’ and thanked him. Her blue hair prominent before him, nodded and smiled, turned and was away.

He watched her retreat a short way along the parapet, part of the makeshift administrative building immediately behind him. She seemed to glide along the parapet, a sensuous walk. She suddenly turned right, and disappeared into the doorway. She’d done it, he noted, with garish finesse.

He saw the security officer then, uniformed in black and grey, as he stood by the doorway. He had watched the girl, too, with more than professional interest. He watched how the officer’s gaze followed the girl like a laser beam as it traced up a wall, from the bottom to the top. When the officer saw him, he straightened, slightly embarrassed. He needn’t be, he thought, the girl was attractive. He saw the officer nod, and instantly become a professional again.

He smiled at the officer, and nodded back. The officer soon spoke into a communicator. He updated others on his location and movement, no doubt.

Then he looked up at the night sky, and saw a multitude of stars. And toward the horizon, he saw a planetoid: Innus III, a gaseous mass, Bhuluse orbited. But its distance from Bhuluse relegated it to moon size. A face of pale-blue and stars for clothes, it tinted everything on Bhuluse the same colour. It’d soon be bigger and brighter than the background stars. Much bigger. But not as big as Bhuluse’s second moon, which wouldn’t make an appearance this night. When it appeared, though, it arrived like a spotlight on the horizon, arched quickly into the sky, then descend rapidly not far from the place it had launched itself on the horizon. It orbited Innus III, too; an elliptical orbit. It moved ahead of Bhuluse and then retreated behind it as Bhuluse caught up with it.

Distracted suddenly by a bright light, accompanied by a whirr, he watched a space transport hurl itself into space. It was a big, bright streak in the night sky as it arced its way into space. As it passed the atmosphere-space threshold, its luminosity suddenly winked out.

The transport had been huge. Transports were huge spaceships; they could carry a small city within their bowels. If it wasn’t for a unique blend of technologies they used, it would never get off the ground, or traverse the vacuum of space between planets. Thought about the task at hand now, and realised it would take one transport an hour for two weeks. That’s how many transports it would take to transport enough airships to enough cities to spread enough of Rhizikh’s solution to be enough of a catalyst for change. That’s just one aspect of the immense task he had, to carry out Rhizikh’s pre-emptive strike in his war without blood on the Cuians, and humans everywhere. The one’s that had crossed him badly.

The Lledumarian High Council had not supported Rhizikh, had declared his solution too dangerous to be allowed to exist, and told him to destroy it. He angrily dismissed the Council’s timidity as a moment of cowardice, and decided to do what he hadn’t planned to do. Except as a last resort.

He wasn’t sure what exactly would happen in that transformation process Rhizikh spoke of. He shivered at the thought of it; was glad he wouldn’t go through that experience, given he was human. Rhizikh had assured him that he’d be protected; if he wore the right protection and stayed far enough away from the hot zones. Bhuluse would be spared the horrors of his war-without-blood to come.

But arrangements had to be made in preparation for the inevitable result.

He recalled how, when Rhizikh had finally heard the news about the clandestine agreement between the Cuian Councillor, Korrs Verntinus, and the Mainnstaad observer, Throuse Jafftynn, to side with the Cuians, he secretly declared war on the Mainnstaad, too. There was no way, of course, to have Jafftynn’s behaviour brought before the Mainnstaad without hard proof. Verntinus would certainly not confess to bribery. To have the matter brought before the Mainnstaad would be very risky. To do so would certainly mean he’d draw unwanted attention to the Lledumarian Freedom Forum. The impasse was awful. It sickened. Rhizikh just seethed in the gloomy light of revelation.

Rhizikh had said he had originally planned to incriminate Verntinus, but providence had appeared like a borealis and provided a new possibility which excited. He’d left the other plan to manifest in due course, and put all his energy into the new solution. He’d never asked the details of how Rhizikh would incriminate Verntinus, overwhelmed by his solution, and what he’d planned to do with it. The idea, the gist of his revenge on Verntinus was intended to put the spotlight on Verntinus, and questions would be asked.

Rhizikh’s reciprocity.

The clatter of work-noise increased suddenly, which refocused his attention. He turned to see what it was, and continue to watch the earnest work given to build the airships. One airship every hour would be built. The organisation astounding. But he’d managed to establish work schedules and support for thousands to achieve his goal. Most of the crews were Bhulusian, with a few thrown in from here and there. Had all sworn to secrecy; all had signed confidentiality agreements. This had pleased him.

All they knew was that they built his new advertising campaign strategy.

He pondered briefly the airship’s history, how they’d be used in Rhizikh’s war without blood. His secret but short war he’d soon have with the Cuians. It wouldn’t be matched by anything else in history. Not that he knew much about history. It wasn’t his field. He worked in commerce. He was a businessman who’d been incredibly lucky and successful. He’d achieved more than he’d ever imagined possible. He was the lord of a vast network of commerce. His network’s tentacles spread throughout parts of the three sectors – that was something he could at least feel some pride about. Rhizikh’s war without blood, however, didn’t make him feel entirely at ease, even though he believed the plan would succeed. It would achieve all Rhizikh imagined it would.

But despite Rhizikh’s belief that blood wouldn’t be spilt, he was sceptical: blood would be spilt. War always resulted in bloodshed, and always would.

The airship was a marvel of ancient history. He knew, given the current technology in air-transport, that the element of surprise would be on their side. No one would stop to think, hopefully, beyond their novelty, seeing the ancient airships float silently in the skies above their fair cities. No one would imagine, so it was thought, he hoped, that their presence would presage anything menacing or untoward. No one would imagine that they carried Rhizikh’s solution which was about to be precipitated upon their lives and the lives of their loved ones with incredible ferocity. The ruse conceived, the cover story, was that the antique airships were simply instruments of advertising. And that they’d provide a spectacle in the skies above cities everywhere in the quadrant and elsewhere.

And it’d worked. Their city hosts hadn’t suspected their true purpose. Had licensed him and his dirigibles. And, why should they suspect anything? He was well-known in all those cities by the authorities. They didn’t question him when he’d approached them with his marketing idea, his intentions. No city authority had.

More secrets.

He decided then to go down and inspect the nearest work site, and headed back along the parapet. The nearest workplace was about a hundred metres from him, and would take about fifteen minutes to walk it. As he walked back along the parapet, the security officer come to attention, and quickly spoke into his communicator. He’d let security know that the boss was on the move.

The officer nodded and called him ‘sir’.

He glanced at the officer as he stepped through the door, and the officer moved to follow him. He heard the officer fall in step behind him and come through the doorway after him, close the door with a clack. He also felt a change in temperature and air pressure.

Rhizikh had wanted an update every few hours, so he prepared to give him one in about thirty minutes from now.

***

Drinns shakily, heatedly, told Treems to look at Llandil’s wounds, as she leaned over her seat in the groundcar on the side of the road, about fifteen minutes after the attack on them back in Llantan. He would’ve died anyway! Treems sat in the opposite seat, and wasn’t easily convinced or so easily consoled. She sobbed uncontrollably.

She begged Treems to listen. They had to stay alive. They had to let him go. They had to stay alive now, for his sake.

She reached out to Treems and touched her shoulder, but Treems wouldn’t have a bar of it and flinched from her touch. She curled up into a foetal position and continued to weep incessantly.

Drinns, using some tools she found in the back of the groundcar, dug a makeshift grave by the side of the road. She then slowly dragged Llandil’s limp body in the light rain toward the dark hole. She let the body slump into the hole, and then spread leaves and other wet debris over it. She stood silently, then; paid silent homage to the scientist, and friend.

She returned to the groundcar and Treems’s gentle sniffles.

Drinns would mark the grave on a map, so they could return when this nightmare was over and properly care for him.

Treems berated her, bellowed she hadn’t given him a chance! Treems was furious. He’d be alive now if she hadn’t been so selfish! Her goddamned heroics!

Drinns just stared at Treems in shock, and again reached for her, but she flinched away and continued her lung-sucking sobs.

They were as good as dead, anyhow, Drinns mused sourly. Rhizikh’s henchman, whom she believed they were, had no intentions of letting them live. Illinny, Illinny, she thought, and turned away to look out the window at the tardy makeshift grave where her only other friend lay, still and lifeless.

Shock gripped Treems, she knew, and behaved accordingly. She too was shocked. But she didn’t want to think about why she didn’t respond the same way as Treems; she’d analyse herself when there was time. Right now, getting her and Treems to safety was her top priority.

She engaged the groundcar and headed for Hrammalyn.

Drinns had prepared for the journey into the southern regions of Llantan and beyond. She’d made adequate preparations for the trip the past few days, all packed in the rear compartment of the groundcar – though some of it must now be soiled, riddled with bullet holes – in readiness for the drive to their destination: the ancient fishing village of Hrammalyn. She thought there’d be sanctuary there, though not the original reason for going – privacy was the original reason. They could spend a few hours there, together, and plan their futures, together.

She hoped Treems could stay longer.

Treems might contribute, in time, when and where she could, when she was ready, she hoped. When she’s ready, she thought; not right now. That was the furthest thing from Treems’s mind, right now. Drinns had planned for them to spend a few hours in a villa that overlooked the sea, which she now wanted; could use a soother. She hoped her and Treems would enjoy that after what had happened, but found the thought of enjoying anything a remote idea. Her body shivered like a bird ruffling its feathers; it was fatigue. And the cold air hissing through the broken back window.

Hrammalyn was still an hour away, but unknown future had arrived sooner.

Drinns glanced over at Treems; she slept in the passenger seat. She hoped Treems would recover. If she didn’t, she would surely die. She hadn’t been prepared for the violence, for Llandil’s death; neither of them had. But Treems had suffered, suffered badly. She felt wrong for not being as emotional as Treems, but she was sure that it would come.

Was that her immediate future? A few hours from now? A few days from now? She had no idea.

She believed that if the agents didn’t know where they’d gone; they probably wouldn’t keep up the search for them. Those CenBioTech goons, as Llandil had called them. They were really Rhizikh’s goons; she believed it. They’d surely focus their attention on finding them in the city. Surely.

And if they did, they probably wouldn’t for long, right?

She had tried to vanish without a trace, but failed. Rhizikh must have known why she’d left, she reasoned. And that meant he wasn’t going to forget about her in a hurry. Had to be the reason for the shoot-to-kill order; had to be. He must now know that Councillor Dwadd Hranns had visited her, and deduced it was to inform her of his attempt to sell the discovery to the High Council. Must be, she reasoned.

The deep red of late afternoon before her, turned slowly into dusk as she sped toward Hrammalyn, toward the sea. The breeze from the shattered window chilled her to her bones. She wore a coat but it didn’t keep out the cold. Tried turning up the heating.

CenBioTech would continue to operate as normal, or as normal, and be oblivious to their situation. Everyone would go to work as they normally did, and not behave as if something terrible had happened. Because no one would know why they’d disappeared, if they even noticed. Would be business-as-usual, alright; but it’d be business without some of the best and brightest biomedical scientists on Lled, she reasoned. She enjoyed the self-praise for about ten seconds, and a smirk briefly creased her drawn face. But the day’s events tarnished it, quickly wiped it from her face, replaced it with a deep frown and moist eyes.

It’d been a tough, sad day.

She soon doubted Rhizikh had either the people or resources spare to look for them. Fatigue affected, like a punch in the gut.

Where did she head? Treems looked like she’d been in a fight. Her black-rimmed eyes had streamed down her cheeks, and left thin dark veins. She adjusted her coat, pulled the hood up as she shifted in the seat.

Drinns looked over at her and smiled. She was weary from all the driving, but didn’t want to stop just yet. Could’ve been the end for all of them, she realised; if they’d stayed or gone back to Llantan and were found. She swallowed hard as she contemplated her mortality. But quickly tried to put the thought of death out of her mind.

She told Treems she headed south to a coastal port, a place called Hrammalyn. A place where they could rest and recuperate, and plan their future there, in private. A place where they wouldn’t be disturbed.

Treems quipped bitterly that it was her hope.

There’d be a lovely view of the bay. Drinns tried to sound happy, desperately tried to get Treems to think about more positive things. Though, even she had trouble doing so.

Really? Treems was almost positive. Doubted they’d see much in the dark.

Drinns gave her a wry smile. She heard a hint of recovery in that last remark.

If she hadn’t come back … she probably wouldn’t have gotten to see it, Hrammalyn. Even if it was at night. The words slowly rolled off Treems’s tongue and the hint of recovery on them.

Drinns stammered not to say …

Treems insisted it was true. They’d both be pushing up Zillia’s now, if it wasn’t for her fucking mad bravery. Like Gregor would have said …

Really? Drinns gently mocked her. Had she really demonstrated fucking mad bravery?

Yes.

Treems’s answer was more subdued. She turned away to look out the window, as the darkness descended quickly, now; Treems seemed to look at her reflection in the window.

They needed to support each other, now; they were all they had left. And when Treems didn’t lash out at her or sob, she told her they’d both been brave back there. Heroes. She thought she’d lost them both. Well …

Treems was dour, and watched her shuffle in the seat until she was comfortable.

Treems slowly fell quiet, after a while, engulfed by weariness, and soon asleep. Drinns reached over and gently grasped Treems’s forearm, gave it a gentle squeeze.

Drinns inhaled a deep breath, exhaled and shivered. She tried to be watchful as they headed toward the port city of Hrammalyn, difficult in the circumstances. She fought the tiredness. The rain had returned, too, the dreary rain, and further dampened her enthusiasm. She watched it pelt her new, shiny black thing, that now sported a few nicks and dents, bullet holes and a shattered back window, through which the cold rain attacked her.

Twilight had come, and left a thin band of light that hovered above the skyline. The first stars were visible, and twinkled high overhead, between gaps in the low clouds. Drinns thought she saw the lights of Hrammalyn ahead, a few beams of light reached through the treetops in the darkness as it enveloped them.

To stay awake, she recalled the little history she’d learned of their destination, she’d never been there before, and shared it with Treems to stave off fatigue.

She told Treems how Hrammalyn boasted a population of roughly 14,321 locals. That’s just during the off-season. She smiled at Treems. But the population more than quadruples in the summer, the height of the tourist season.

Treems was sarcastic when she said, so that’s what’s special about it.

She noted Treems’s sullenness, and thought that at least she responded better, a little bit better. She kept on about Hrammalyn.

Hrammalyn was an ancient fishing village. Did she know? Boasted of a history stretching back beyond a few thousand years ago, being one of the oldest coastal ports near Llantan. Had picturesque scenes. Lumbers beneath a mountain range that broods over a beautiful half-moon bay. A tourist destination to be sure, but it was the perfect place to hide for them. It’d give them a chance to rest up and plot their disappearance from public life. Or life away from CenBioTech.

She glanced at Treems and expected a harsh retort, but none came. She chatted on.

They could plan themselves a new future there, free of the horrors these past few days.

At Treems’s crooked smile, perhaps a sour smirk, she reached over and grabbed Treems’s hand and squeezed it affectionately.

Treems quipped dourly it’d be blissful, and laughed nervously. Then, the sombreness distorted her voice, and said she’d thought she was going to die back there.

Drinns could barely prevent tears when she heard that, and just stared hard out the window. She had to be strong, for them both. If they were to get through this, survive this shit-storm they’d been dragged into, she had to be the strong one because Treems wasn’t. And didn’t know when, if ever, Treems especially, would ever get over Gregor’s death.

She couldn’t shake the thought that disaster couldn’t strike twice, and sooner than later. That Terfezia and FM wouldn’t ever come together again in some unsuspecting biomedical scientist’s experiment. It seemed inevitable. Any biomedical scientist that worked on those truffles for the same reasons as she had, could conceivably make the same discovery. She winced as she thought about it, and made an angry fist.

She tried to distract herself with more thoughts of their destination.

It’d be autumn in Hrammalyn, and the fishing village would slowly shut down in preparation for the winter. Pleasure craft would be moored or taken south for the winter. The popular summer tourist haunts close their doors as winter drew near. Fewer people would be out and about, as touristy things stopped. But not a bother for her and Treems. They’d be conspicuous, true; but she hoped their presence wouldn’t be queried beyond that of late season tourists, taking in the autumn views and the long-haul eateries; the one’s that served the fisheries. If they kept a low profile, she thought, everything should be fine.

She thought about the villa apartment she’d worked to secure. It’d have a view of the bay, so the property manager had said. Treems would enjoy that, she thought; she hoped. Looked over at Treems who stared silently out the window. The apartment would also possess all the necessary conveniences, which they’d need to recover.

The groundcar collided with the rain in a new downpour, ‘oumphed’ and moaned. And water came through the back-window and wet everything, them included.

The women eventually arrived in Hrammalyn, and, on the outskirts, Drinns put in a call to the property manager. She slowed the groundcar and stopped. Flipped open her communicator like she was opening a jewellery box, and searched for the manager’s number. When she found it, she said, ‘connect’.

She called herself ‘Binnar Gadds’, and said she’d arrived in Hrammalyn. Could she please get access to the property?

A woman’s voice, thin and chirpy, came from the communicator. The woman sounded happy and genial. Drinns ended the call and turned to Treems, and quipped they were in. She drove on.

Treems wore a frown, as if she’d just heard Drinns say something wicked, and shook her head.

What?

So, what’s with the false name?

Just a security measure. One of many she’d employ to keep herself … stopped, and corrected herself. To keep them safe. She berated herself for the faux pas, and in a more genial tone, asked Treems if she liked it?

Treems just shook her head in stunned disbelief.

Would she have to do that? Because …

Only if she wanted to. It was up to her.

Treems fell silent, thought about it.

She soon quipped, mockingly, that if she did, it would sure as hell be better than ‘Gadds’. Sounded to her like something bangral sheep had hanging off their rear ends.

Unsure whether to punch her or laugh; Drinns decided to laugh. Soon, they were both laughing. Laughter was good.

Drinns brought the groundcar to a sudden halt, again opened her communicator and searched for a map of the district. When she found it, she studied it, memorized the coordinates of the villa. Made a mental note of it. Then closed the map and the communicator.

Wouldn’t be long now, and drove on. The rain seemed to weaken in the semi-darkness. The moody, lamp-lit streets suffused the darkness with the intensity of a few large candles.

The villa, like many of the village’s residences, was located not far up on the lower slopes of the mountain backdrop. The rocky slopes of the mountain steadily grew steeper the higher one looked. The mountain, even in the semi-darkness, though a dark smudge, was unmistakable; the top had vanished in the clouds. The mountain rose high above the ancient fishing village like a sentinel, and provided a spectacular backdrop to the region.

Treems spoke about Llandil as if he was with them, and wore a forced smile. That he’d have said, “Are we there yet?” She rubbed her face with a hand, and smeared a single tear across the remains of her dark eyeliner-streaked cheek.

She quipped to Treems that it probably wouldn’t have been all he’d say, and watched her for a response. In the same instant, the pair burst into nervous laughter.

Drinns again stopped the groundcar, breaking hard and swerved the groundcar to the side of the road and parked. Her and Treems came together in a warm embrace. They hugged each other tightly. Some bad feeling was dispelled, and hope restored.

She told Treems they’d soon be at the villa, and was she hungry?

Treems quipped dryly, why wouldn’t she be?

She stared at Treems, and said was she channelling Gregor? Because it sure as druff’s eggs, sounded like it.

Treems smiled, and rubbed her belly in mock imitation of something else Llandil was famous for doing. Whenever he’d felt the need to eat, he’d rub his belly, and at the same time say he was hungry.

She and Treems exchanged surprised, bewildered looks. Remembering Llandil’s behaviour elicited more nervous laughter in their time of sadness.

Drinns drove on.

Treems leant back in the seat, and remembered more about their friend. He’d have said, “What? What?”, and plead his innocence. Demand to know what had caused them to laugh. He’d have sat back and behaved like a guilty little school boy, too. But he’d have acted as if he hadn’t done anything wrong. And, of course, he hadn’t.

***

Back on Janx, Raxxman had left Director Tzonn’s office to go several floors down to the shared office with Jonathon in the tall, glass and steel, Provincial Investigative Bureau. He knew there was something wrong with the Strinarr case. Knew, deep inside, from years of experience, that somehow, somewhere, another clue to the revenge murder case that now frustrated him, would present itself. Maybe never. He exhaled hard, the weariness like a planet had been placed on his shoulders. There was something about the Strinarr case, though, that just didn’t add up. If Traans’s heads-up was true, and he now believed it was. But there was a missing link. The link between the actual murder and the perpetrator, the thing that linked it to the person in Llantan, on Lled. And this unknown thing gripped him like a vice, couldn’t escape it, even if he wanted to. He also had a reputation to keep polished.

He never lost. Or, at least, that he hated losing.

The office he shared with Jonathon was located on a lower floor, so he took a turbolift. If he’d taken a standard lift, the descent would have certainly meant a stop at every floor on the way down, which, if he’d done so, would not have improved his present temper.

Thankfully, the office wasn’t far from where the turbolift deposited him. He was soon at the communal office area nearby the office, and searched for coffee. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a small crowd gathered around a big vidnet screen; they observed the news. Saw flickering images, and heard a pleasant female baritone present the news. She presented the news with a charming inflection, which instantly struck an amenable chord with him. Then something the newsreader said, instantly captured his attention. Enthusiasm for the case blossomed instantly into a million-petaled flower, as he heard what he believed was the missing link in the Strinarr case. He turned and rushed into the office with a renewed sense of urgency.

Told Jonathon to get him on a flight to Lled!

Jonathon stammered, surprised, wide-eyed and gaped mouth. What’s the rush? He’d just got back here. And quipped dryly that he didn’t think commercial flights went there. They probably did, but not directly.

Raxxman hastily explained to Jonathon, between excited breaths, what he’d just heard on the news. That a Lledumarian biotech company by the name of CenBioTech had found a remedy for the Lledumarian version of the human bacterial meningitis. The fact that it had found a remedy for their version of bacterial meningitis wasn’t the thing that excited him; it was the thing that had provided the remedy that had aroused his curiosity: Terfezia. A rare fungus found in the western region far from Old Xintito, on the planet Old Xinar.

Heatedly told Jonathon, wide-eyed, to instead, charter a company ship!

Jonathon teased him and asked him to remind him what the case was all about, and tried to sound clueless. Chartering a company ship, he reminded him, would be costly; he’d have to justify the expense. What’s Terfezia, in the world of crime? He gave Raxxman a wide-eyed, dopey look, to which Jonathon seemed immediately sorry.

Raxxman stood in the doorway to the office, frowned, and momentarily scratched his head. Felt an odd soured expression spread on his face, then slackened; like he’d eaten his least favourite food. Then, without further ado, he sourly launched into an explanation.

Terfezia, if Jonathon recalled, and frowned at him, was the name of a new variety of truffle. And hard to find, apparently. He was quite sure he’d already explained this to him. Their more common name was Desert truffle. The very same kind of truffle Ellura Strinarr had been asked to go find for the Gyhains, allegedly; west of Amal, on Old Xinar. Remember?

Jonathon looked everywhere but at him. A sure sign that he’d known, but had pranked him, kidded him. He toyed with the idea of cuffing him for being a dick. He decided not to; Jonathon was apt to be a dick, but he needed him right now and didn’t want to lose him.

Jonathon soon got the point and cursed, used an odd expletive (‘Shitting dwevils!’). Fumbled things on his desk, shuffled documents and reading devices aside, as if he looked for something important.

Raxxman explained that it was the clue he’d been waiting for. The missing link! Though he frowned at Jonathon’s colourful language and odd behaviour. Now he was to get him on the next flight to Old Xint! And added, ‘Please.’ Then turned and headed out the office.

Jonathon mentioned his contact on the Mensuria Glavia … calling after him.

Raxxman stopped and looked over his shoulder, and saw Jonathon gesture like he was writing.

Traans?

That one, and pointed a stylus at him. He was right after all, wasn’t he?

Maybe. Raxxman shrugged. It’d take more than supposal to bring a conviction, though. Though he now knew he had several pieces of the puzzle to work with, and all pointed to Lled and the Lledumar. A revenge murder for bribery, just as Traans had said it was.

Where did he head now? Jonathon frowned after him as he weaved his way between chairs and tables in the communal area.

He’d be in Tzonn’s office! Hollered over his shoulder, and gestured toward the ceiling as he rushed toward the turbolift. He would argue himself back on the case. And to wish him luck.

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