I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. Treus recited the mantra under her breath as she stood at the window—a transparent wall, actually—and gazed down at the world she was about to leave. Normally a fairly crowded area of the space station, the lounge was empty save for her due to the early hour.
I can do this. I can do this. . .
Had anyone told her the sight of the blue- and white-swirled planet would be inspiring a panic attack at this moment, Treus would never have believed them. At forty-two, she was no freshly-molted fledgling about to take her first flight. She’d already been out of the nest. She’d spent nearly half her life on the cities that orbited Mimion, and she’d even been to the colonies—human and Shtawlky—on the moon and beyond as well.
But she’d always been able to return planetside whenever she’d felt like it. Normally a month didn’t pass without her making a trip down to the surface. And she spoke daily with family and friends. She couldn’t imagine how much more difficult such a separation would be for those without the sixth sense. The telepathic conversations she had with loved ones enabled her to feel close to them no matter how far apart they were.
Until now. She’d never gone so far away before.
I can do this. I can do this. I can . . .
Once her ship left the system, she had no idea how long she’d be able to maintain contact—without resorting to ship’s communications that were, of course, always available. Certainly there would be no more quick jaunts to visit her immense extended family on a whim. Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews galore—she’d said farewell to them days ago so she could concentrate on her final preparations.
Treus’ greatest shock upon exploring the ship was the total—she couldn’t find the right word at first—”lifelessness” didn’t seem quite right, as the crew was aboard and the ship was perfectly pleasant. Yet it was inanimate and strangely empty. Not at all like being surrounded by the maelstrom of life on Mimion’s surface. Even the space cities Mimians built were overflowing with plants and animals from below. Of course they took care the animals didn’t run amok. Yet still they were there.
And Treus had always sensed them and taken comfort from the presence. In contrast, the ship seemed eerily spacious. Even with so many others aboard, it was too big, too quiet, too still. She wondered how long it would take her to grow accustomed to the difference.
On one hand, she hoped to adapt quickly. On the other, she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to get used to such a stark difference.
But now her personal belongings were stowed in her quarters, and she was satisfied with the condition of her office. The linguistic and historical databases and the biological database had been successfully uploaded from the orbiting university. Her queries worked just as well as if she were at the original source where she’d taught for the past decade. She’d been given a tour of the ship and basic instructions she needed for shipboard life. And, albeit briefly, she’d met everyone else on board except for the captain, who was vacationing on Mimion and due back sometime that day.
Treus closed her eyes before they welled up. She knew once the tears overflowed, she’d never be able to stop them. She considered it among her worst traits. Not that she cried often—in fact, she rarely cried at all—but when she did, no quiet sniffles or sobs for her. Oh, no. The intense weeping invariably included a raging torrent of waterworks. The last thing she wanted was for her face to be swollen, blotchy red and soaked, and to have bloodshot eyes just as red as her face when she met the captain of Savitskaya.
I can do this, she continued with the litany and couldn’t even summon enough irritation at the sudden onset of nerves to help ward it off. I’m the daughter of empresses! I can do this.
That silliness did bring a smile to her face and cause the anxiety to retreat a bit. True, she could indeed count Shalay of Bergcrest and Marieguerite of Yodan among her ancestors—many generations back, even moreso for the latter. But it was so very many generations ago that so could thousands, if not tens of thousands, of other people.
Still, she couldn’t decide between drinking in the view for as long as she could, or turning her back now while she still had the composure to do so.
Squaring her shoulders, Treus turned sharply on her heel and strode…
…right into the man who’d been strolling up behind her.
They caught each other and danced around, and somehow regained their balance and disentangled before they ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor.
She liked his cologne, musky and masculine and mild. That was the first thought that came to mind after just having been pressed so tightly against him, even as she stammered an apology and tried hard not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the collision.
Treus felt the heat in her face and saw that he, too was blushing. She strongly suspected the heightened color looked far better on him. Even for someone from Mimion, she was incredibly fair from her pale white-gold hair to her ice-blue eyes. His complexion was darker, and his hair a deep, rich brown that matched his eyes. Those eyes were now crinkled with laughter as he regarded her.
She couldn’t hold in the laughter even as she apologized again. “I’m so sorry. I was completely lost in my own thoughts and never even heard you come in. Are you all right?” she asked, pretty sure she’d stomped his foot.
“I’m unscathed,” he said, chuckling. “You?”
“Just clumsy and embarrassed, not hurt,” she assured him. “I’m Treus,” she said, holding out her left hand even as he extended his right. In unison, they switched hands so they again ended up with the ‘wrong’ hand thrust forward. She dropped her hands to her side, waited a beat for him to pick, then clasped his left hand in her own. “You must be Captain Heath. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you after hearing so much from Shannon.” She’d been recruited by the Savitskaya’s first officer, a quiet avuncular bear of a man whom she hadn’t thought capable of raising his voice or projecting authority—until she saw him break up a bar fight on the moon colony. She been taken aback to see him wade into the fray, literally knock heads together, and roar for everyone to step back and calm down.
People had obeyed.
“We’re very happy you decided to sign on.”
“Likewise, Captain,” Treus replied, bringing her mind back to the present. While pursuing her, Sean Shannon had had nothing but the highest praise for Heath. So much so, in fact, that Treus was startled to meet such a young man. Then she realized she was likely misjudging his age. Shannon had said the captain had been twenty years in space, since he was twenty. But he looked to have aged more like a Mimian than a human, Treus thought. Although his body had lost the gangliness of youth, his face remained unlined. And she assumed that to his eyes—based on what she’d been told by others she had met from Earth—she appeared to be in her early twenties despite being twice that old.
“Just Gavin, please. You’ll find we’re a very informal group. Well, aside from Christine, that is. But we all like her in spite of herself.”
Treus smiled at his conspiratorial wink. He could only have been referring to Christine Carranza, the lead scientist on the survey ship. The woman was indeed a powerhouse with the bearing to rival that of any queen’s. It made her seem far taller than her average height. More importantly, Carranza had the intelligence to back up her arrogance. Treus could deal with the fact that the professor lacked any inkling of a sense of humor far better than Treus could have dealt with incompetence.
Gavin added, “She wants to hold a mission briefing now that I’m back aboard. Did anyone tell you? Conference room D-13 at 9 o’clock. That would be in two hours.”
“Haven’t we already had all the information for the past week?” Treus blurted, then her face reddened again. “I’m sorry, that’s presumptuous of me to question the routine. Is there new information to brief us on or will we be reviewing?”
The captain shook his head. “Nothing new at all. It’s a formality Christine likes to adhere to. I guess it’s really not so much a briefing as a meeting to hear everyone’s opinion on the best way to accomplish the mission, and to compare notes to ensure everyone is starting out with the same information.”
~ ~ ~
Of all the times to get lost, Treus fumed. It was nearly nine, and she found herself on the wrong deck, of all the stupid things. She must have not paid attention and had gotten off the lift on the wrong floor.
Hurriedly retracing her steps, she excused herself as she deftly skirted around a crewmember who’d exited the lift, and darted back into it just as the doors were starting to close. She repeated the deck number and resolved to pay better attention and actually get off on the right level.
She rushed up the hall, hastily acknowledging the several crewmembers she dodged and got to the conference room with half a minute to spare. The pale gray door slid open and she stepped inside. Naturally everyone else was already there.
It had taken Treus some time to grasp the organizational structure she was about to join. Initially it had struck her as a realm with two queens, something that hadn’t made much sense to her. Jokes to herself about being the ‘Daughter of Empresses’ notwithstanding, Treus knew that she truly was a woman of Yodan, the only remaining real monarchy on Mimion. Certainly other queendoms still existed in name. But all of them had adopted democracy to some degree—with various levels of success, but still. They no longer had a throne with any power that passed from mother to daughter (or—in more recent times—parent to child). Treus knew they regarded Yodan as amusingly quaint at best, or pitifully archaic at worst. Ironically, although Yodan stubbornly clung to its royalty, it had been one of the very first queendoms to change its laws of succession so they no longer bypassed royal sons once a daughter was born. In some other countries—those that had become constitutional monarchies—the line of inheritance still included only women.
With Yodan being progressive in that manner, Treus hadn’t been disconcerted to find that the captain and second in command were both men. Their ship was part of a small fleet belonging to a research center on Earth called the Foundation. The vessels, all survey ships, ran the gamut from archeological surveys, to geological, to biological, to sociological. Savitskaya was a cultural survey ship, equipped with the personnel to handle archeology, anthropology, sociology and the ilk. The scientists/surveyors, led by the formidable Professor Christine Carranza, included linguists and historians as well.
The foundation had developed a successful system of exploration. First, geological surveys could study a world—inhabited or otherwise—from space. Then teams of biological specialists focused on flora and fauna. They didn’t hide from indigenous cultures, but nor did they seek them out. That was up to the sociological specialists, who could then use the data already collected to have some common points of reference.
So, Gavin Heath ran the ship, but Christine Carranza ran the mission. She and her staff were more than passengers, but not exactly crew as they had nothing whatsoever to do with ship’s operations. Treus found it bizarre, but the division of authority seemed to work just fine for them and—or so she’d found in her research—for most other Foundation ships as well.
An oval table took up the better part of the room. Christine sat at one end, her posture perfectly straight, cool brown eyes barely flicking to Treus as she noted her entrance. At the opposite end, his back to her, stood the captain. Five other people were there as well, but the only name Treus knew for sure was that of the first officer.
The same moment Treus moved to her right to take the one remaining seat, a voice came over the speaker in the wall behind her. “Bridge to the captain, we’re ready to leave orbit.”
Gavin spun around to acknowledge the message and he and Treus repeated their dance from that morning. Holding her perhaps longer than necessary, Gavin activated the wall com. “Acknowledged. Thanks, Sera,” he told the woman at the helm as he stepped back and gave Treus a slight bow and waved her past with a flourish.
She grinned and mouthed the words, “So sorry!” even as color flamed in her face.
“My fault,” he smiled easily as he took his seat. Treus slid into the chair halfway down the table, directly across from Sean Shannon whom she could have sworn was snickering beneath his beard and moustache. She shot him a wry smile and gave a little shrug.
Looking less than amused, Carranza cleared her throat and all eyes turned to her.
“We’re three weeks from Viszla,” Carranza said, her voice was surprisingly girlish for one so austere. Not that she was tiny by any means, she was of average height and had a trim figure. The high voice, although unmistakably a woman’s, sounded like it should come from someone without the silver streaks through her dark hair. She didn’t have many lines on her face, but those that were there, were deep. No one dared mock her tone as lacking gravitas. At least, never more than once. “I trust everyone has reviewed the information and is thoroughly familiar with it. Thoughts on the matter? Ms. Treus?”
“Professor?” Treus was far too old, and had too much confidence in her experience and ability, to be intimidated by a blunt question, even from someone as formidable as Carranza. Yet she wasn’t sure what exactly the lead scientist was asking.
“Your general opinion, please.”
Treus nodded and settled back in her chair, folding her hands before her on the table. “I think it’s important to keep an open mind,” she said with no further delay. “The advance data is most certainly invaluable. And the more we have, the better. So please don’t think I’m diminishing it, or discounting the efforts of those who gathered it for us. But no matter how keen an observer someone is, a different set of eyes and a different perspective always help.
“For example,” Treus continued, “My guess would be that the solution appears to be pretty clear cut to you and most of your team, Professor. A small nation on Viszla wants independence from the unified planetary government. Sounds pretty silly, right? Absurd, even. It’s all one planet, all interconnected. One tiny piece of it can’t simply declare itself separate. That makes no sense at all. . .
“. . . To someone from Earth, with your world government. But to someone like me, from a planet like Mimion which—strong monarchies notwithstanding—never had planetary leadership centralized into a single person or entity, perhaps I have an easier time understanding.”
“Mimion isn’t unified?” Gavin looked startled. “What about the Council?”
Treus gave a wry smile. “Mimion doesn’t have a world government,” she corrected gently yet pointedly. “But for the most part, we all get along perfectly well. And the Council’s main function is to facilitate communications. Although, granted, some members do wield considerable influence outside their own realms. But that has more to do with economics or personalities than anything else.”
Shifting the subject back to the matter at hand before Carranza grew impatient, Treus continued, “The point is that I can understand a small group not wanting to answer to anyone else, regardless of the prevailing wisdom. It would be very easy for the minority to feel like they were being bullied. Because even with the best intentions, a majority can turn dictatorial, sometimes deliberately and sometimes without meaning to or even realizing it.”
“Ms. Treus, it sounds like you have a prejudice against world government,” Carranza’s eyes narrowed in disapproval.
Treus smiled, unperturbed. “Perhaps I do. Or perhaps you’re hearing my statements through your own filter of a bias favoring a strong central government.”
Carranza’s glower mellowed to a thoughtful frown. “Of course. Or both. Every person is a product of his own culture.”
Nodding, Treus said, “True. A person can’t help but be affected by how she was raised. But,” Treus added, “That’s not to say that some people aren’t better than others at moving beyond those limitations, thinking outside the parameters they were used to. It’s all a matter of self-awareness and flexibility. Which I hope the people of Viszla on both sides will have enough of so that negotiations can do some good.”
“What else?” Carranza said.
“We received profiles of the, what would you call them? The ‘major players’ in the conflict. I’d be interested in hearing what everyone thinks of them.” Treus had already formed her own opinions. She wanted to hear what everyone else thought.
Her colleagues comments showed that their assessments mirrored her own. Just reading the briefings, Treus found herself already wanting to knock heads together. To offer effective counsel, she’d have to put aside that impulse. It would be difficult, but she knew she could.
After some deliberation, she decided ‘protesters’ was the least incendiary name for the small group seeking autonomy. The connotation seemed to be far less negative than for terms such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’, or ‘rebel’ or ‘malcontent’.
Tiouhcan Metzel, Matan Aeiou, Aken Bedarr: the three personalities Treus felt she needed to decipher. Or at least communicate with.
Tiouhcan Metzel, the leader of the protesters, did as much harm as good to the cause. A firebrand and flashpoint for public opinion, his passion motivated a multitude of followers even as his intractability hurt any chance of a resolution.
Not helping matters was the equally adamant stance of the local authorities. Matan Aeiou inexplicably believed that ignoring the problem would make it go away. Hence she refused to engage in any dialogue at all. And if that strategy didn’t work, she’d stomp dissenters into submission.
Not the best atmosphere to step into for negotiating. The only thing Treus counted as a positive was that Aken Bedarr, the planetary leader, saw Earth’s offer of outside assistance as beneficial rather than as an intrusion. Bedarr had invited them, at considerable risk to his political standing, to attempt to broker a truce.
Still, the last thing she expected was to hear Professor Carranza saying, “Ms. Treus, I believe it’s best for you to take the lead on this mission. You’re the most qualified to act as a negotiator. I’ll assist you as best I can, as will the others.”
Carranza was so self-possessed as to be very difficult to read. The only other person aboard with mental reticence was Gavin Heath, due to having spent so much time among Mimians. Otherwise, Treus found her psychic shields getting a workout. Such as now, as she blocked the startled emotions of everyone else at the table.
Treus controlled showing her own reaction but was torn between feeling like the assignment was a vote of confidence, and that the stunned reactions of everyone else, however unintentional, were a figurative slap in the face. Then again, their surprise could be more a reflection on Carranza than on Treus, she thought, vowing not to jump to any conclusions.
Without pause, Treus said, “All right. Thank you, Professor.” She remained all business. “To that end, there is more our contacts on Viszla can do. I’d like all the historical detail they can find on the area, regardless of how minute. I know it will be a lot, but we could find helpful tidbits amidst the data. Also, the more information they can find on Metzel, Aeiou, and Bedarr, the better. Education, training, even social and family. No telling what could prove to be useful.”
“Then we’re done for the moment,” Carranza said with finality.
~ ~ ~
Her fondness for technology was growing, Treus realized, although like almost all Mimians, she liked it kept offworld. Mimion itself was virtually technology free, and its inhabitants intended to keep it that way. Thus far, they’d managed for hundreds of years. Yes Mimians had built several cities in orbit around Mimion that housed millions of people, natives and otherwise. And there were dozens of much smaller space stations for all sorts of scientific purposes—astronomical, meteorological, geological, and others—and even those dedicated to advancing technology. There was a settlement on the moon as well. It had expanded over time until millions of people called it home.
Yet Mimion itself remained pristine, its population relatively small and its various cultures all agrarian. People sowed and harvested by hand or with the help of animals, wove by hand, and handcrafted tools, dishes, and jewelry—anything and everything. Light came from fire, be it candles or lanterns. With few exceptions, medicine remained holistic. Illnesses were treated—with incredibly high success rates—with natural remedies and the seventh sense. Transportation was still mostly by foot, or by horse or boat. The exception to both was medical ships that could be anywhere on the planet within minutes in case of injuries. Another exception, grudgingly accepted by nobility, was communication devices that allowed commoners to do what royalty and aristocracy had always done: converse instantly with almost anyone anywhere on the planet.
But yes, Treus mused, technology certainly had its place. Thanks to advanced communications, they had the wealth of information ahead of time. She kept telling herself that was a good thing even as she turned off the monitor and slid the keyboard back from the edge of the desk to make room for her elbows. Face in hands, she rubbed her eyes and massaged her temples.
The whole team was helping sift the historical records. Treus was going through the biographical records herself. She wanted to know as much as possible about the people before she got there.
Nor was Treus alone in her thinking along those lines. First Minister Bedarr had asked for complete information on her, Carranza and the rest of the sociology team, and on Captain Heath and First Officer Shannon. Treus’s estimation of Bedarr rose even higher. And perhaps now that she was about to make planetfall, she’d get to meet him, or at least speak with him in person.
A beautiful globe of blue and white swirled together, Viszla showed no brown or green that Treus could see as she stood between Heath and Carranza in the shuttle cockpit. She’d known the planet was covered by water, but seeing it was different.
The only solid masses of any size were the ice continents at either pole. Otherwise, the world was speckled with islands, the tops of vast submerged mountain chains. Only two percent of the surface was above water. Those from Earth who’d colonized the world centuries ago originated from Melanesia and Micronesia. Hence they felt at home among the waves.
The young man who welcomed them when they landed was on the short side with a face so round as to be cherubic. His expression was as sunny as his complexion was swarthy and he wore nothing more than a scarf wrapped around his hips. The brilliant red and yellow material reached to his knees.
Even wearing light slacks and a loose sleeveless shirt, Treus felt stifled by the heat and humidity as soon as she stepped out of the shuttle. The hottest days on Mimion didn’t compare. Only the depths of her homeworld’s volcanic caves would come close.
“Greetings! Greetings! Thank you so much for coming so promptly. I’m Palla Nevarre, the First Minister’s assistant. Anything I can do for you, you have but to ask. We’ve prepared quarters for you, and taken the liberty of providing some cooler attire if you would care to avail yourselves of it. The meetings are scheduled to start at your leisure, of course, but we anticipated giving you a few days to acclimate. If you’ll follow me.” Nevarre gestured for them to follow along the sandy path through the rock garden.
The ground seemed to be either sand, or some form of stone ranging from pebbles to boulders to solid rock. Treus wondered if there was anything at all on Viszla that had the consistency of soil.
High temperature notwithstanding, Treus felt an instant kinship with the exotic world. The sea teamed with life, she could feel it. And some of the thoughts she felt that, with enough time and concentration, she just might be able to translate eventually. But that would have to wait till her task was completed. Still, the press of life after having been in an isolated ship even for those weeks comforted her.
Treus had never fancied herself attuned to the seventh sense. Perhaps she needed to reconsider that particular self evaluation, she thought.
~ ~ ~
The open-air room—if something constructed more of curtains than walls could be called a room—reminded Treus of the city of Rorrimt back on Mimion.
The draperies, lightweight yet opaque, provided privacy and still let cooling ocean breezes circulate in the dwellings. Treus regarded the garments someone had so thoughtfully provided. The material was lovely, vivid blues in a fabric so light it floated in the slightest movement of air. It would certainly preferable over her own outfit which was already soaked from a mixture of humidity and sweat.
Thankful for something else to wear, she stripped off the soggy clothes, stood under a cool shower for a couple minutes, then dried off as much as possible.
She tied the sarong around her waist then caught herself. These people’s ancestors came from Earth not Mimion. Whereas Mimians set great store by privacy—not invading another’s space or belongings or thoughts—physical modesty wasn’t a taboo that had ever arisen. Had Mimians colonized Viszla, they likely would have simply gone naked most of the time.
Treus remembered that the Viszlans did not, so she wrapped the sarong and her torso instead. It barely covered her hips, so she wore a second of the same color around her waist. Much better, she decided. It wouldn’t help her cause to scandalize the local population.
A light dinner had been planned for them in two hours. In the meantime, Treus wanted to get a feel for the place. She reclined in a hammock of a cool porous material. Taking a few deep breaths, she closed her eyes and allowed her body to relax.
She easily kept the onslaught of others’ thoughts at bay. Non-telepaths, they didn’t project with any power to speak of. Instead, Treus listened to the sounds and absorbed the mood in the immediate vicinity.
Treus felt as ease and content. The atmosphere was relaxed, the lack of tension in the air making her wish the whole stay could remain so pleasant. She could hear a whole flock of birds overhead, and was suddenly glad to be beneath an overhang. And she could hear the surf pounding the rocks some sixty feet below her room. She heard voices as well, young and old, and laughter and playful shouting.
Idyllic. Yes Treus knew better than to rely on such a superficial assessment. Still, she could enjoy it while it lasted.
~ ~ ~
It lasted all of another thirty minutes. Sean Shannon burst into the area, tearing the curtain as he did so and startling Treus awake so suddenly that she nearly fell out of the hammock. She got to her feet and was even more flabbergasted when the first officer gathered her into a bear hug that was particularly warm against his bare chest. Like her, he wore a native outfit. Unlike hers, it covered only his hips.
“Thank heavens you’re still here.” He released her as quickly as he’d grabbed her.
That made no sense. Especially since she could tell something was very wrong. “Sean, what happened?”
“Gavin and the professor are gone. No one’s seen them for an hour and no one can find them.”
“Gone? Where would they go? Did you check with the ship? Sorry, never mind, of course you did that already. Who saw them last?”
“A couple of children saw them walking toward the docks. They think they and another man got on one of the sailing ships.” A bunch of ships have already sailed. And we found their com units. They were smashed.”
“Smashed?” Treus repeated, feeling dumb even as she did so. “All right, let me try.”
Although Gavin and Carranza weren’t family or telepaths, she had a good working relationship with the professor, and an even better one with the captain. So she didn’t anticipate much difficulty contacting them. Treus reached out with her sixth sense, psychically calling them. No answer, but her mind did brush each of theirs in turn.
“They’re unconscious,” Treus told Shannon. “And whatever the last thing was that happened, they were alarmed. Agitated. But I don’t think they’re hurt.”
“I’ll have the Savitskaya track those ships till we can find out which one they’re on.” He activated his com unit but only static came back. She got her com from the table but had no more success than he did.
“Can you track them?” Shannon asked, frustration plain in his deep voice.
“No, our ability isn’t directional like that. As they get farther away, their thoughts will get fainter. But the ship could be on any heading. I can contact our ship, though, and put them on alert.”
Shannon growled deep in his throat. “Good idea. Tell them I’m on my way. This has to relate to the mission,” he snarled, then got his voice back under control. She didn’t envy the kidnappers if Sean Shannon got his hands on them. “There’s no other reason for anyone to target them. I’ll find Gavin and the professor. You do what we came here to do. Maybe resolving that situation will help us get them back. Unless you have a better idea?”
Treus shared his anxiety. And she could tell he wanted her to have some miracle solution, but all she could do was agree with him. “But I’ll keep trying to contact them. When they wake up, I’ll tell you. Maybe they’ll be able to help us find them.”
“Let’s hope so. You go talk to Nevarre and see if he can help search, and move up the meeting date. I’m going to the shuttle. Maybe that transmitter can power through the interference. But I suspect it’s deliberate jamming and I won’t have luck. Just as well they already know I’m on my way back.”
“I’m not sure. Bring down search teams. Scan from orbit. Maybe both. I’ll have to see.”
Treus found Nevarre waiting where the meal had been set up. Under other circumstances, she would have appreciated the beauty of the artful display of colorful foods. Instead, she drew Nevarre aside and spoke quietly. “There’s a problem,” she said, and told him what had happened.
“That’s terrible. Are you sure? I’ll alert the authorities and the president immediately. We’ll do everything possible to find them right away.” His voice shook with distress. “Do you think it’s wise to meet with Metzel? If his people had anything to do with this . . .”
“We’ll find out soon enough, but there would be no logic in him being behind this. Regardless, we still have a job to do here.”
She saw admiration mixed with skepticism in his eyes and felt the conflicting emotions emanating from him.
“Chief Aeiou is here. I’m sure she’ll want to personally oversee the search. I’m not sure about Metzel since he wasn’t due for two days. But I’ll find out.”
“Thank you. Any help you can give will be greatly appreciated.”
“If you’ll come with me, I’m sure the chief will want to talk to you.”
~ ~ ~
The chief’s clothes, although brilliantly multi-hued filmy material, more closely resembled the style Treus was used to. Knee-length and loose-fitting, her trousers were tailored. And she wore a sleeveless shirt that showed off muscular arms and shoulders. Aeiou did not have the look of a person who sat around and let others handle fieldwork.
She fixed Treus with an inscrutable look as they were introduced. Her handshake—the right hand, Treus remembered—was firm but her expression was neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Treus had never seen such a study in neutrality.
Treus admired Aeiou’s mental control. The woman betrayed a glimmer of dislike directed at Nevarre but it didn’t show on her face or in her professional tone as she thanked him, politely dismissing him at the same time. As he left, Aeiou said, “Ms. Treus, I appreciate your coming so quickly. Anything you can tell us could prove to be very helpful. Where is Mr. Shannon?”
The question was tinged with concern, yet Treus detected underlying irritation. Evidently, Aeiou had wanted them both there. Aeiou’s displeasure grew when Treus told her Shannon had gone back to the ship. Treus marveled at how well the other woman continued to outwardly hide her reactions.
“Why did he do that?” Aeiou asked.
“Because communication are out and the rest of the crew needed to know what happened. And might be able to help.”
“Why is that?”
Treus felt a wave of asperity and made no effort to conceal it. “Because they’re our friends, not just crewmates. The crew deserves to know.”
“Fine. What can you tell me?”
Had Treus not been a telepath, she might have believed the mollifying tone. As it was, she knew Aeiou was fuming. Perhaps later Treus wouldd point out the advantages of honesty in good communications. But now wasn’t the time.
“All I know for sure is that they left their rooms, their coms were destroyed, and now they’re unconscious. What some children on the beach said is that they saw them board a ship. A man was with them.”
Aeiou frowned. “How do you know they’re unconscious?”
“Because they’re not answering when I call them. But I can still sense their presence. So I can tell they’re not awake.”
Aeiou’s frown deepened. “You said their coms were broken.”
Great. The last thing Treus wanted to do at the moment was to have to attempt to explain her psychic ability to someone who obviously was completely discounting it. Treus had assumed that Aeiou already knew all about her and her people’s seven senses thanks to the information requested and sent ahead. Evidently Aeiou hadn’t read it, or hadn’t believed it.
“I’m a telepath, Chief Aeiou. If they were awake, I’d be able to talk to them.” As Treus spoke, she tested the link again and received no response. At least it hadn’t grown any fainter, so perhaps they were no longer moving. And they were still there. Treus shuddered to think of the alternative.
Aeiou stared at Treus as if she wanted to look right through her. “Now’s not the time for games, Ms. Treus.”
Treus folded her arms, unwilling to engage in a debate. “Indeed. So what are you doing to find them? Can you track the vessels that have left the island in the last hour?”
“No, we can’t.” Aeiou’s veneer was beginning to crack. Some of the emotion, particularly frustration and irritation, was beginning to show. “But we’ll check all the vessels we can find and put out an island wide alert for Mila and the surrounding ocean traffic.”
“Thank you, Chief. I’d appreciate it if you’d keep me informed. Likewise, I’ll let you know if I learn anything.”
“Of course.” Aeiou nodded, her facade firmly back in place. It contrasted strikingly with the stray thought Treus caught, “Like hell I will.”
Treus was in no mood to argue. Aeiou could believe whatever she wanted, no matter how foolhardy. “Nevarre can reach me whenever you need me. Or you can get me or Sean via the coms, if the interference clears.” She told the chief the frequency they used.
“And where will you be?” Aeiou’s deadpan delivery hid a wealth of surliness.
“Meeting with Metzel as soon as he arrives.”
“Metzel!” Aeiou’s voice rose before she got it under control. “I’d advise against that. His group is probably to blame for the abductions.”
For the first time, Treus’s opinion of the other woman took a hit. “On the contrary. The abductions were likely intended to stop the meetings. It’s unlikely his group has anything to do with them. They have no history of violence and Metzel in particular is a pacifist. They won’t change tactics on the eve of negotiations, least of all by moving against the outsiders brought in to help them.”
Aeiou snorted, so Treus didn’t waste any more breath on the topic. She’d deal with the chief’s derision later. “I’ll check in with you in a few hours, Chief Aeiou.” Treus took her leave, glad to be away from the woman.
Treus didn’t care how efficient the investigator was reported to be. Narrow-mindedness and single-mindedness were not the same thing. The latter could be a huge asset, whereas the former was an equally potent liability. No wonder the two sides couldn’t reach a compromise.
Treus found Nevarre waiting for her a short distance away. “Tiouhcan Metzel will be here in an hour. Thus far, the kidnappers haven’t made any demands and no one is taking credit for grabbing them. The First Minister has told Chief Aeiou to give him hourly updates.”
While Treus appreciated the attention and intention behind the request, privately she questioned if one hour was too brief a timespan. Well maybe Sean would have some good news for her. Treus excused herself and tried her com. When it produced only static, she telepathically contacted him.
In spite of the dire circumstances, she had to smile at his response as initial shock gave way to wonder.
“Whoa! Treus? Treus, that’s amazing. I mean, I knew you could do that, but,” Shannon cut himself off and got to business. “No luck yet? So what does Chief Aeiou say?”
As Treus replied, she could sense his sharp disappointment and dread. She told him how the interview had gone, including mentioning the official’s ire that Shannon had departed.
“Yeah, well you can imagine how bad I feel that she’s displeased,” he snarled. “Treus, we’re not having any luck from up here. Counting hundreds of ships surrounding the island, there are 2.13 million people within three hundred square kilometers. There is nothing about Gavin or Carranza that would differentiate them physically from anyone else down there. Everyone is Earth stock. Well, except you, but even your biochemistry isn’t distinct enough to set you apart from the crowd. We’d better pray they wake up soon and that you can find them that way.”
“So what will you do now?” Treus asked.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Shannon admitted. This is Aeiou’s territory. You’d think she’d be the best person to find them, and that she can act more quickly then we could. But I’m still not going to wait around and do nothing.”
~ ~ ~
Tiouhcan Metzel defied preconceptions from the outset. Treus recognized him from the files she’d reviewed. Unusually tall for someone of the prevalent ethnic group on Viszla, he stood out even more thanks to the red hair that matched his temper. His fair complexion contrasted with his deep brown eyes.
He favored Treus with a brilliant smile as he strode forward to shake her hand, his own left hand outstretched, she noted with interest. He radiated emotion and charisma. Treus shored up her mental defenses to mute the force of the man’s personality.
“I’m so sorry to meet under these circumstances. Our local disagreements are bad enough, but to have visitors snatched away, people trying to help, no less. It is terrible. Is there any word on your missing friends?”
“Not yet, but soon, I hope. Shall we get started?”
An area had been prepared for them, a white marble table under a roof and surrounded only by the billowing curtains. Metzel took a seat across from Treus and they regarded each other over the plates of fruit and pitchers of water on the table.
“Forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn,” Metzel said, “But I do want to state the obvious. The Organization for Milan Independence had nothing to do with their disappearance. Nor do we condone what happened. I was quite relieved you didn’t cancel our meeting.”
Treus gave a reassuring smile, not that he looked for a moment that he lacked confidence and needed to be reassured. She neither saw nor felt any signs of duplicity from him, and that encouraged her. “I’ve never found it helpful to close down communications.”
“So, where do we start?” He settled back in his chair and spread his hands wide. Even so ostensibly relaxed, he looked coiled and ready to leap to his feet in an instant and deliver a rousing oration.
“I’ve read all the reports and the news articles, seen hours of video. A great deal of it even claimed to quote you specifically. Tell me what you think. I don’t mean evaluate the media, but if there are any misconceptions or misinformation, now is the perfect opportunity to correct it.”
He leaned forward, eyes sparkling with intensity. “It’s very simple. We Milans aren’t like everyone else on the Viszla. Yes, we love our world and are very proud of it. But we also love our own little island here. You no doubt know that the seat of the Viszlan government is on the opposite side of the globe. No one but us pays much attention to our little speck on the ocean.
“But then someone decided it was important to standardize, to homogenize. They complained our stores’ hours were too long some days, and too short others. They tried to levy a tsunami defense tax when we neither needed nor wanted it. Those are just two examples. They might sound trivial to you, but they’re indicative of the overall problem.”
Treus wasn’t familiar with that particular detail. “You don’t want protection from tsunami?”
“A common, and inaccurate, assumption,” Metzel said, unperturbed. “I’m sure you know, Mila is the peak of a mountain, a very steep, lone mountain surrounded by deep ocean. The tsunami walls they designed are for island groups in the shallow seas. And there, they will indeed do a great deal of good. But not here, not with this geography. The government wants us to pay regardless, and says they will modify the engineering. But it’s not feasible. So we really can’t see agreeing to pay for it.
“And as to matters such as when our shops are open, bah!!” he scoffed. Treus felt the contempt rolling off him. He continued, “It’s none of their business! Literally. It has no effect whatsoever on some busybody bureaucrat on the other side of the world who is sound asleep during our daylight hours.”
Treus swallowed a smile and endeavored to look understanding but not sympathetic. She couldn’t take sides and still be effective. It would be enlightening to hear the opposite side of the debate. Thus far, Metzel and especially Aeiou were confirming Treus’s initial impressions. Certain petty bureaucrats were having control issues which in turn were exacerbated by the chief’s authoritarian disposition. Metzel’s flouting of the law, rather than working within the system to change the laws, only made matters worse.
“Tell me what your goals are, and which are most important to you.”
“Autonomy. Sovereignty.” Now the sparkle in his eyes ignited into blazing passion. “They’re meddlesome. They’re interfering in matters that don’t concern them, that have NO effect on them. No effect whatsoever.”
“But do you really desire total independence? Would you curtail travel or trade? Would you mint your own currency? How separate can you really afford to be? This is a tiny island with a big population.”
“Independence doesn’t mean isolation.” Metzel’s words sounded like a well-used battle cry. “It simply means that total strangers who’ve never been here have no right to tell us how to live.”
“That sound reasonable to me,” Treus said. And in truth it did sound logical to her. So far, at least. “So as part of a compromise, you’d be happy with the right to veto taxes?” Even as she said the words, Treus imagined the horrified screams of the money counters who would consider such an action a perilous precedent. Still, it would increase accountability on how money was spent.
He looked taken aback, dark eyes opened wider and mouth slightly agape. “A tax veto? That’s a new idea.”
“Maybe a few new ideas will provide a faster resolution.”
“Which will benefit all concerned,” Metzel said, sounding as optimistic as if he considered an agreement already reached.
If only it turned out to be that easy. Treus was afraid she knew better, though. As she formed a reply, she sensed Gavin waking up. She choked back her words so abruptly that it caused a coughing spasm.
Which didn’t affect her telepathy, luckily. Even as she got her wind back, she listened. Best to learn what she could and see if it was wise to let him know at that moment that she was with him in spirit.
After Treus stopped coughing, she said, “Would you excuse me please? In fact, why don’t we break for an hour? Then if you’re interested, I thought you might like a tour of the ship in orbit.”
Metzel nodded graciously and Treus hurried from the room as quickly as propriety allowed. She glanced hastily about as she walked, not even sure where her feet were taking her. It was hard to find solitude among the billowing walls.
She found herself outside where a natural wall of volcanic stone hid her from view. She didn’t want to be disturbed while she assessed the situation.
The first thing she sensed from Gavin was disorientation and a searing headache, coupled with the discomfort half lying on a hard surface. Then she felt his panic soar when he realized his wrists were manacled behind him, his feet were bound as well, and some material covered his eyes. A tug told him his feet were anchored to something and he heard the rattle of a chain.
Treus admired how he relegated the fear to the back of his mind as he sat up. “Professor?” he called quietly. “Christine?”
Treus shared his disappointment when there was no reply. So she still had no clue where Professor Carranza was.
Very softly, a telepathic “whisper”, Treus said to him, “Gavin, shhhh. Don’t say anything at all.”
His despair flashed into her mind as he thought that she too was a prisoner.
“No, Gavin, I’m still on Mila. I’m fine. So is Sean. He went back to the ship. Only you and Carranza are missing. I can communicate with you, but I have no idea where you are. Can you picture the ship you were on? Or the people who took you?”
She followed his memories as they crossed his mind. The man, short and dark like most of the locals, heavier than usual with a wider face and a chipped front tooth, who’d approached them said if they didn’t cooperate and follow him, he’d start shooting the children playing nearby. The ship looked like a large catamaran beautifully sleek even with its sails furled at the moment.
Once on board, Gavin and Carranza had been forced below decks where they’d been grabbed and injected with a tranquilizer. That was all he knew until five minutes ago. “Christine? Did you find her too?”
“Yes. She’s not awake yet. Soon, I hope. Gavin, we’re doing all we can to find you. But we’ll need your help. I know you can’t see, but anything else you can tell me might be important. What do you hear? Smell? Feel?”
He fought through another wave of emotion, and Treus tried to provide what comfort she could. “We’ll find you both, Gavin. And I won’t leave you. But try to concentrate.”
“It’s hot. Stifling. I don’t hear anyone. But I can hear a faint hum, like a fan. Maybe an air recycler. Wherever I am, it’s small. I can shift and touch four walls. And it’s moving, like I’m still on the water. But it’s really moving, bobbing. Like I’m in something small, not on a ship.”
Treus tried to relax her focus just enough to scan the area around him, even though she didn’t know where that was. Carranza was nearby. Treus didn’t detect anyone else. They seemed to be alone.
“Gavin, I need to let Sean know you’re awake. But I’m not breaking contact with you, so you’ll hear me talking to him. He’ll be able to hear you as well.” Matching actions to words, Treus said, “Sean, you there?”
“What is it, Treus? Any news?” Sean ‘sounded’ eager.
“I’m talking to Gavin. He’s all right, but he doesn’t know where he is.” She told Sean what else she’d learned. Then, in the back of her mind, she felt something stir in her link with Carranza as the woman came gradually awake. Like Gavin, the professor had to battle fear, but from her Treus felt strong waves of anger and indignance. Physically, she had the same pounding head, no doubt due to the drug, and was bound and blindfolded.
“Professor, it’s Treus. The Savitskaya and the local authorities are all searching for you.”
“Ms. Treus? Are you in trouble as well?” Carranza’s voice sounded strained and dismayed.
Treus repeated that she and Sean were safe, even as she ‘heard’ Sean give the order to have sensors sweep the water, looking for two isolated lifesigns. Of course it was a longshot. There could be a hundred people mere dozens or hundreds of meters away from where the pair was being held. But it was worth a try.
Even before his joyous exclamation, Treus sensed Sean’s elation. “We might have found them! Launching shuttles now to check.”
“Sean, don’t endanger the ship,” Gavin said. “Who knows what if any weapons they have.”
“Don’t you worry, we’ll be careful. And we’ll have you out of there in no time,” Sean said, his confidence growing.
“Do you want me to notify Chief Aeiou?” Treus asked.
She could feel Sean hesitate and knew that he strongly disliked the Viszlan woman. “No, we’ll be there in a couple minutes. If we’re wrong, then we can see if she has any better ideas.”
“Hang on, Gavin, Professor. It shouldn’t be long,” Treus added her own encouragement. Her spirits skyrocketed when Carranza, in her ever cool tone, calmly declared that she could hear the shuttle engines. A moment later, Gavin said he could as well.
Treus followed psychically as Sean declared they were fishing some containers from among the waves. The area was clear and sensors didn’t detect any booby traps on the floating cells. Minutes later, Gavin and Carranza were free and not too much the worse for wear although Sean stated they were both going back to the ship for the doctor to check over. And that he would pick up Treus on the way. Relief flooding over her, she couldn’t hold in a goofy grin. She thought it was good she agreed with him about going to the ship, because the force of his declaration made it beyond clear that there would be no arguing with him.
“We can conduct the negotiations up there. It is neutral ground, after all. It could help a lot.” Then something nagging at the periphery of her awareness caught her attention. Someone was looking for her. Someone she didn’t know; someone who was looking to kill her. And looking for her with such fierce concentration—thank all that was holy the stalker didn’t realize—that it was the psychic equivalent of screaming her name.
The stone wall, four sheer meters, that had hidden her was now proving to be a mixed blessing. In front of her, a few meters away, was a hundred meter drop-off to the ocean. And the ledge, although plenty wide as it was, ended about thirty meters to her right. To her left, it led back to the main recreation area.
The person was coming from Treus’s left. She couldn’t jump, or climb to safety. And unlike many of her fellow Mimians, Treus’s sixth sense fell short of telekinesis. She couldn’t use psychokinesis to fly away, or to drive off the approaching threat.
“Chief Aeiou, can you hear me?” Treus called. The chief was much closer than her friends. At least, Treus hoped she was.
“Ms. Treus? Where are you? How are you doing that?”
Treus pushed through her anger at the other woman’s belief that Treus somehow had planted a speaker nearby. “Aeiou, listen to me. Just shut up and listen. I’m outside, on one of the ledges overlooking the water. About twenty meters west of the south exit. And someone is hunting for me with the intent to kill me. I’d really appreciate your sending some officers to help. The person is a man, and might be armed, so please be careful. And hurry.”
Treus heard Aeiou curse that this was ridiculous even as she ordered several officers to double-time it to Treus’s location.
The wall was vertically sheer, but it wasn’t straight. There were outcroppings that Treus could hide behind.
“Hang on, Treus, we’re coming,” that from Gavin, even as Sean said, “We’re almost there. Just ten minutes.”
“You’ll need to be faster than ten minutes,” she said tersely, hoping Aeiou got the message as well.
“Ms. Treus, Mr. Nevarre and the Chief are looking for you.” The man’s voice that called out sounded absurdly pleasant. It betrayed no terseness or eagerness, or hostility. “Ms. Treus?” Now he did sound puzzled. She easily read thoughts of, “Where the hell did she go? I saw her come down here. Why would she hide?”
“I know that voice,” Carranza said, still ‘speaking’ in Treus’s head.
Gavin concurred, saying it was undoubtedly the man who had attacked them. Why he was switching to killing was anyone’s guess, but Treus wasn’t in the least interested in finding out.
“Aeiou, HURRY! Any second he’ll find me,” Treus said.
“I don’t know how you’re doing that, but I want you to stop,” Aeiou said. “I don’t appreciate the joke, and I don’t enjoy hearing all of you as if you want me to think your voices are in my head.”
Exasperated, Treus said, “Just Hurry! Or what you’ll be hearing in your head is me being murdered. Probably thrown off this precipice,” she added as she ascertained the man didn’t have a weapon on him.
“Ms. Treus?” the man’s voice called again, much closer.
Treus had to decide between hiding as long as she could, and when he found her he’d know instantly she was aware of his intentions, or meeting him and trying to stall.
She opted for the latter. As casually as she could, she stepped into view, saying, “Someone calling?” She looked pleased to see the man who stopped short. “Oh, hello, I wasn’t sure I heard anyone. Were you looking for me?”
He smiled at her, and Treus marveled that he looked so friendly. “The Chief asked me to find you. She’d like to have a word, if it’s convenient.”
“Thank you so much. Tell her I’ll be right there,” Treus said.
Of course he wouldn’t simply walk away. Treus knew that, yet she still found herself wishing he would have.
“I’d be happy to escort you.” He waited politely, standing so that she’d have to pass between him and the drop. If she cooperated, all he’d have to do was shove, and no would ever have been the wiser to what had happened. If her body were ever found.
“That’s very sweet. I’ll be just a few minutes though. Need to make a little stop. If you’d be so kind as to tell her I’m on my way, that would be great.”
He just stood there a moment, his brow furrowing slightly. Then all pretense vanished and his expression twisted into pure ugliness. “I guess it is true what they say about you.” He moved forward, carefully blocking her way.
So much for stalling. Where the hell were those police? Treus kept backing up. “You realize Chief Aeiou knows exactly what you look like,” she said, her voice hard. “And that the two people you abducted have been rescued.”
That stopped him and he suddenly looked nervous.
“Oh, yes, it’s completely true. If what people say is that I have telepathic abilities, a sixth sense you don’t have. Aeiou is listening at this very moment. And already sent help. They’re right behind you.”
At that, he gave a guffaw of disdain. “I expected better than that ploy.”
But that part hadn’t been any ploy. Treus put a hand on the rock beside her to keep her knees from buckling as an officer behind the assassin took aim and felled him with a single shot from some sort of energy weapon.
Treus felt overwhelmed by her friends’ reactions as they realized she was no longer in danger. She didn’t even care when she saw Aeiou, still supremely annoyed, striding down the pathway behind her personnel.
“Thank you, Chief. I’m glad your people were so fast.” Treus called to her as the Chief ensured the prisoner was secured and carried off before dealing with Treus.
“You want to tell me exactly how you do that little trick of yours? Cause I don’t like it. At all.”
“No trick. That’s what the sixth sense is: telepathy,” Treus said. “Surely you’re not so secluded here that you don’t know there are plenty of telepathic species.”
“Never paid much attention to those types of stories,” Aeiou replied.
“Well now you know they’re not just stories.”
Aeiou looked unconvinced, but she made no further comment.
A few minutes later the shuttle landed and Treus went to meet it. Even with bedraggled clothing and mussed hair, Carranza managed to look as composed as ever. Gavin looked exhausted, but his eyes brightened when he saw Treus. “Are you all right?”
“Me? How are the two of you?”
“Eager to get back to the ship,” Carranza replied dryly.
~ ~ ~
Not bad for her first negotiation, Treus thought. Metzel and Aeiou had mixed like explosives to a flame, so she’d kept them separate. Most of the discussion had not been face to face at all. She’d talk with one, then with the other, and went back and forth—over the course of several months—until a truce had finally been reached.
She’d also learned, much to Aeiou’s chagrin, that her attacker had nothing to do with the people seeking Milan independence. Instead, he’d been a devout—if seriously misguided—advocate of a strong central government and fierce supporter of Aeiou. He’d wanted to blame the kidnappings and subsequent murders on Metzel, thereby discrediting and ultimately derailing the separatist movement.
The whole crew congratulated her and threw a small celebration, which Treus appreciated. But she found the private celebration afterward with Gavin even more satisfying. Impatient that her sixth sense couldn’t reach all the way back to Mimion, Treus couldn’t wait to tell her family how well everything had gone.
And that when she returned home, it would likely be with a husband.
But there was no rush on that, and she was looking forward to seeing a great deal more of the galaxy first. Their next destination sounded fascinating. She wasn’t exactly sure what to make of reports of talking rocks and dancing trees, but it would be fun to find out.
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