“D’kin Remert. Why has it taken you so long to respond to my summons?”
“Lord Shiric, I… ” Remert swallows a knot, fear and elation at war within, held at bay by an effort of will. “I never thought to hear from you again. I believed you had abandoned the undertaking.”
Lord Shiric’s voice rumbles from the lens. “What are you talking about?! I spoke with you not five turns past.”
Myriad faces, some of them disturbing at a visceral level, are suggested in the swirling eddies of Lord Shiric’s smokey Visage. They stare out at him in their turn and Remert struggles to maintain outward calm as the implications of Lord Shiric’s words strike home.
“Lord Shiric,” Remert adjusts his stance and bearing, “it has been nearly twenty-five thousand turns—one hundred and forty-nine years as they measure cycles on this Gog-forsaken world—since last you spoke to me.”
A protracted silence ensues.
Within the lens, smoke becomes mist blowing away to reveal the faces of two humans.
“Do you recognize either of these t’sunguc, D’kin?”
It could have been no others, of course. Perhaps something in his eyes spoke for him, or maybe it was the way he drew his next breath.
“So.” A boil of dark vapor eclipses the images. “A temporal disruption has occurred to separate me from you, D’kin; one beyond my power to prevent and too late now to rectify. I must assume the state of preparations, events, and outcomes previously reported to me have all been redefined subsequent to the disruption itself. Be succinct, D’kin. What is the status of your mission?”
“My Nee’m, the primary objective has been met. Centralization of the transfer locus is established. Our secondary and tertiary objectives have yielded mixed results. Even so, the several positive outcomes have been exceptional.”
“Elaborate upon the latter for me, D’kin.”
“The effort to foster Gray Moct’unguc has succeeded beyond expectation. Significant increases in both fertility and intelligence have been nurtured with auspicious results. Efforts to force development of Gray Troct’unguc were hampered by the destruction of the original breeding stock and a favorable phase one mutation. The genetic foundations of the Grays on this world do not lend themselves to such radical hybridization without altering the outcomes in unanticipated, often unacceptable fashion. Still, a promising hybrid stock has displayed unique characteristics and I am enthusiastic about the potential these specimens represent.”
“I find your optimism encouraging,” Lord Shiric says. He sounds pleased. “More than that, I am moved by your perseverance in the face of what you perceived as abandonment. Tell me, D’kin, why did you persist in what must have seemed fruitless effort?”
“The Method guides me, My Nee’m. My Mission was given with your aegis, but with or without it, I could not stand one day before Mong and excuse my failure by decrying my circumstances.”
“This is why I chose you over more highly-positioned applicants to be my surrogate on this world, D’kin Remert. Your resolve and persistence have surpassed my expectations. I look forward to celebrating your accomplishments.”
Remert is unused to effusive praise. He likes it, and it balances well against the blossoming uncertainty this conversation has birthed and nurtured.
“Due to the disruption and the presence of my adversary’s minions,” Lord Shiric says, “I have chosen D’nal Kudlac to assume the responsibility of Minister of the Change. You have three hands to prepare yourself for return to Kal’un Shiir’n. Here you will have sufficient opportunity to provide the D’nal with the detail he will require before he translates across the gulf, at which time your charge to me will be completed. You will be given a champion’s welcome with holiday and feasting throughout Kal’un Shiir’n, all in your honor before I return you, with my gratitude and endorsement, to your Congregate and certain elevation.”
The lipless slash beneath Remert’s blade of a nose opens to form the words that will lead him home, then closes again, his throat working to swallow them before they can leak out. He tries to recall how long ago he had despaired such a moment as this might ever be possible. The end of his exile, recompense for all he has endured, and the fruition of his paramount personal aspiration, that of elevation to the Second Circle, to be D’nal.
“Lord Shiric, I am exultant that the rift separating us has contrived to bring me back to you again. I am grateful beyond measure that my humble accomplishments have met with your approval.”
He performs a stiff, formal obeisance.
“I would beg your indulgence, My Nee’m. Processes currently in motion regarding the ’unguc variants of which I spoke have reached a critical juncture. I am loathe to leave them in the hands of those less intimate with their nature and development. If you would permit me to remain until this pivotal phase is completed, I will have served you to the best of my ability.”
A viscous plume roils Lord Shiric’s ceremonial mask. It churns, like liquid smoke, rising beyond the limit of the lens to capture it. Vaporous expressions in the boil might be an intimation of displeasure at having to revise plans at this late hour, or perhaps Remert’s racing mind is assigning meaning to random, shifting patterns. Vague suppositions, difficult to dismiss.
This late hour, Remert muses. How unconsciously he has come to think in the conventions of this world. After these many years—fifty-nine point six yarnn on this chaotic ball of confusion—who could blame him for adopting these conventions in the interest of survival and sanity? How long, he wonders, might it take to restore proper patterns of thought once returned among his kind?
His kind… How like them is he now? Will the Congregate hierarchy honor him for his accomplishments and, more to the needle’s point, will the First Circle and The Methshe forgive him for his deliberate transgression?
How could they not with Lord Shiric’s benefaction?
Lord Shiric is speaking. “I will send the D’nal at the rising, to whom you will relinquish operational responsibility. He will oversee the displacement and ensure continuity, leaving you sufficient autonomy to continue administration of your secondary and tertiary directives. Will that satisfy your need for closure, D’kin?”
“My Nee’m, you honor and humble me. I am grateful beyond measure for your gracious consideration of my request and for allowing me…”
“Nothing has changed. I require results from you and the D’nal on each element of your respective commissions. It will be your responsibility to deliver all specimens to the transfer locus prior to the displacement. My timetable is unaltered. You have five turns.”
So soon! So much yet to do! Finally! If Remert is in the least unsettled by the immediacy of his nee’m’s deadline, his face exhibits none of it. “Measured here,” he says, “ten point six six days. Deviation?”
“No more than one half-turn.”
“Plus or minus twenty-five point six zero hours,” Remert says to himself, calculating the least time remaining for him to accomplish everything. “All will be in readiness, Lord Shiric. You may rely upon me.”
“I continue to do so, D’kin.”
The lens darkens and Remert’s axe-faced stoicism reflected in it alters not at all. The revelations of the last minute are stupendous. The weight of the task before him and its immediacy invigorates and appalls him. The soon-to-be disastrous addition of an unprepared and officious D’nal to the equation is the very last thing he needs now. There is nothing for a D’nal to do but meddle and confound well-laid strategy. He exhales a fervent prayer to Mong for Precision With Haste and unseals the door. It swings inward to reveal H’seven at the portal.
“I told you this was a bad idea,” Remert says.
“The audience is over. He’s gone.”
“No, he’s not.”
Confounded, Remert looks back at the lens.
H’seven grasps the collar of Remert’s ceremonial raiment and drags him from the portal. Stepping through, he approaches the darkened lens, squares up to it, and says, “I am H’seven. I have something you need. Let’s talk.”
A profound stillness answers. The lens is blank.
Remert, from the vestibule, “I told you. He’s gone.”
H’seven is strident. “I know you can hear me. You gain nothing by your silence.”
The door to the chamber seals with a soft, solid finality, leaving Remert excluded in the vestibule, fuming.
Total darkness pours from the lens, flooding the chamber, engulfing H’seven in Night.
Shiric’s voice is ponderous. “You speak as though you believe yourself my equal. I do not know you.”
“How fortuitous, then, that we have come to this intersection.”
“What do you have that I need?”
“An object of power you believed was lost to you.”
“The object. It is in your possession?”
“I have only to reach out my hand.”
“Then do so. Show it to me.”
“When we meet, I will present it to you.”
“Show it to me now. It is within my capability to reach out my hand and end you where you stand, if only for your presumption.”
H’seven shrugs. “Which is why I will not present this prize for you to have absent an agreement. I would prefer to consider this a collaboration of mutual benefit. As to equals: such speculation invites unfair comparison. I offer you the solution to riddles that currently vex you. In return I ask only a modest boon, one you may effortlessly grant.”
“You appear to have a measure of comprehension well beyond the scope of anything my agent there could have conveyed to you. Some might deem the knowledge you possess uncommon. You should consider such familiarity perilous.”
“I consider it currency.”
“What is it you want in exchange for this intangible object of indefinite potential?”
“To stand with you in the place where worlds are made and unmade and receive your aegis as Marshal in the war to come with your upstart adversary.”
“Nothing more. Well, parades and feasting and revelry, of course. Same as Remmy. But no, just those things and that.”
Silence draws out so long the blackness pouring from the lens seems to breathe.
Shiric breaks it. “No.”
“Just like that?”
“The object you speak of is better lost on your world than mine.”
“Lost? Did I say it was lost? It is in motion. Do you assume that motion to be in your best interest?”
“So. It is NOT in your possession.”
H’seven taps the lens with a steely forefinger. “Is this thing on? I said it is within my grasp.”
The darkness laughs as though he had said something hilarious. It winds down to a chuckled, “Thank you for that, anyway, but the answer is still ‘no’.”
“Who is to say, when I reach out MY hand,” H’seven says. “the object might choose to return to you in a way less conducive to your exaggerated primacy?”
The darkness is not laughing now. “Are you… attempting to challenge me?!”
H’seven taps the lens again. A fragment of its dark material chips off and plinks onto the stone floor. “Pray I do not.”
A pulse of Black power smashes against the chamber walls with sufficient force to shatter stone, casting flechettes about in total darkness as the great door buckles with a metallic scream and pieces of its frame splinter off with gunshot sounds. Illumination does not return.
. . .
Kami is standing just inside the vestibule to the lens chamber, watching Remert. He appears stunned, staring as if in disbelief at the heavy portal door, twisted, hanging askew.
“Are you all right, Director?” she says.
He seems to awaken from his daze, straightens himself. “Yes,” he says. He takes a step back from the portal and turns her way, fixing Kami with a haunted expression. “No.”
He recognizes the insignia on her uniform. If he was wondering what she was doing in this highly restricted area at this inopportune moment, at least her classification is appropriate.
“May I take you somewhere, Director?”
“No. Thank you, Technician. I trust you will arrange damage assessment and clean-up.”
“Of course, D’kin.”
“Then I will leave you to your responsibilities.”
Kami follows him out into the corridor and watches him make his way to the nearest bounce. He enters and does not reemerge.
She rummages up a spreader from her waiting runabout’s toolbox, using it to pry the blasted door open enough to peer inside. The lens is intact, but the clean-up detail is going to need a high-pressure hose and some wire brushes to remove the erstwhile Deputy Director from the surfaces of the chamber.
“Doctor Ahn,” she says to the air. A few seconds tick by. “Yes, I am. Thank you, Doctor. I’m ready for an upload, are you? Good. No, not yet; another Seven will be fine. Ten minutes. Wait, hold on… “
Another runner slews to a stop beside Kami’s idling rig. A lanky fellow, whose uniform displays the same emblem and nomenclature as her own, steps out onto the raw stone floor of the corridor and affects a casual amble in her direction.
“Make it twenty,” she says. A pause to listen produces a laugh. “You’ve got a filthy mind, Doctor. I’ll try that. Get a fresh one out of the vat and I’ll be there by the time you have it warmed up for me.”
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