Lieutenant Junior Grade Palladia Conté had seen more than enough tragedy for her rank. The commendations in her flawless record said so. Why did she keep reading it? What did it matter anymore?
Palli’s eyelids quenched sparkling purple eyes momentarily as she remembered classmates and shipmates who had also weathered loss. She had stood by many of them, offered comfort, been strong. But when it happens to others it is easier to objectify the pain, distance yourself from it. When it happens to you, and the world falls apart and refuses to be put back together again, what do you do? She had been too young to process the death of her mother. It remained with her throughout her life as a memory of fact, emotionally neutral, more a curiosity than a wound. But their deaths…their deaths left such an emptiness—an emptiness that gnawed away at her heart.
What do you do? Palli had heard that there was a place where you could buy peace…
Rebellion: Some time ago Zeta had come to terms with that decision even if it grated against the perfect edifice of her childhood upbringing. She was no longer a child. And they, they had ceased to be perfect long ago. How could two brilliant people be so... tiresome? She had asked herself that question countless times.
Zeta was tired, tired of not seeing the endgame. To a Reti that was maddening. But perhaps she was seeing it and simply refusing to believe it. After all, every year it got worse, didn’t it? Yes, perhaps she saw it all too clearly: an endgame where all her childhood illusions were obliterated. So if living in the now was all she could have, she wanted some semblance of peace; and peace was what a friend had given her. She shook her head. No, she knew better than to call that person a friend. And she also knew that that peace wasn’t real, but it worked.
It should only take a couple of minutes…
The City of Living Dreams, where any wish can come true for the right price. Lieutenant Palladia Conté had escaped there time and again over the last eight months. Within its embrace there had to be at least a thousand ways to forget the pain… and forgetting was a kind of peace. But it certainly wasn’t peace that was pounding frantically at her ears or gathering as beads of sweat on her forehead.
That evening her steps had taken her to the cavernous entrance bar to Zephyrs, the largest entertainment complex on the planet. She noticed him immediately. One look at that fine face in his high-necked black longcoat, and she had set herself on an intercept course. Their trajectories would have intersected just before the enormous bar counter if it hadn’t been for the Thesian couple who stumbled across her path.
By the time she located him again, his back to her now, the expression on the bartender’s face changed her tactical decision to a discreet retreat. She really did not want to find out what kind of ID he had flashed the man. But as the bartender vanished through the curtain behind the counter, the man in the longcoat turned around, dark eyes sweeping across the room, measuring the crowd.
Palli almost turned away when vanity or desperation countermanded prudence. She stood her ground, took off her dark glasses and met his eyes. They paused on her, moved on, and then came back. But they didn’t slide down from her face as she had expected. When they let go of her it was to glance at a hand-held e-pad.
In a moment he was next to her, his head bowing down to whisper in her ear: “Lieutenant Palladia Conté.” His smooth Earth French accent didn’t lessen the stabbing coldness of discovery that shot through her. It took a conscious effort to keep her knees from buckling. “I need your assistance.” Before the instinct to run kicked in, he added, “You have no choice, you have just been conscripted.” He flashed a Space Force badge emblazoned with the name Philippe De Broglie, and fringed by a Command Center Acronym she did not recognize but stacked with enough bars to outrank a Navy Commander. She should have run. The mere fact that he identified her meant her career was over anyway. Why did she stay and obey?
Scouring through the city morgue is not what you want to do in the middle of an athadine drop. Together, they found the three bodies in the police report, all of them catalogued under the same sub-heading: puncture wound into the chest cavity. The entry point had been different in each case, but one thing was common: the wound consisted of one single thin line, ending in the same place, the middle of the heart. The mineral traces identified the metal. Welding rods were an unusual weapon, as unusual as an assassin that could see your heart. The time of death on the last one had been barely six hours earlier.
“Three bodies. Matching DNA on two of them.” De Broglie reported after examining the third victim. The man at the other end of the communications link asked a question. “No, none match the DNA on the knife.”
As he put the link on standby, Palli offered, “I don’t think those wounds were caused by any knife…Sir.”
“There was a knife.” A flicker of emotion crossed that impassive face. “One of them used a knife…none of these. There is a fourth one still out there.”
“De Broglie,” a new voice called out from the communicator. He let that call join the comm. link. “Landé here. I cut into Planet Police private comm; correlated the names of those three. They have a known acquaintance, a Planet Native, name Cour Matin, found ten minutes ago, in the alley behind Zephyrs.”
They returned to the casino entrance bar, the front room of an elaborate gambling and pleasure center, attached to one of the largest luxury dens in The City of Living Dreams. Palli knew it well. But she couldn’t explain the oppressive feeling that swept over her this time as they drove up. The garish lighting of the street was barely holding its own against the midnight darkness. For a moment she thought that feeling was shame but it had to be the next stage in the draining of the drugs from her system. Athadine withdrawal. She’d never experienced it here in The City. No, she reserved that for the base, as a fitting backdrop for the drudgery of the week. But he had taken away all her pills. And he had rank. Her own half-Deneuvian physiology was doing the rest of the job, metabolizing away the residues of the drug.
She knew Planet Police didn’t take kindly to outworld interference. Yet, the ID De Broglie flashed them got them immediate access to the body behind the building. As he knelt, pretending to examine the victim’s face, the palm-held scanner sent its data to the main unit that Palli was holding. If this was the same assassin, the M.O. had changed. This man had died of a heart attack. Strangely, though, there was evidence that someone had tried to save him. The heart muscle had been defibrillated at least three times.
She handed him the scanner readout as he returned to her. One look at the data drained all the color from his face. “Mon Dieu.” His face turned towards hers with violent suddenness. “Who sells you your drugs?”
“You are kidding…in The City? Who doesn’t?” She backed away from him. “That’s, that’s life here. Sir.”
“No, the source. Who’s behind it all, this operation, this bar?”
“I’d guess someone at the top,” she glanced upwards at the seventy-story building, “literally.”
In a matter of minutes they were back at the bar and striding into the gambling hall beyond it. De Broglie barreled the bartender, right arm near the point of breaking, directly through the crowd. Two table bouncers tried to stop them. Palli took care of them. The man at the back, singled out by the bartender, called for his bodyguards. They didn’t have a chance to draw their weapons.
As Palli stood guard, De Broglie lifted the man across the table and repeated his question, “Where is your boss?” Conditioned fear kept the man’s lips shut until he found himself pinned against the wall by the throat, his feet dangling a foot off the ground. “Don’t you understand? I am trying to save his life.” Fear of this madman overcame every other fear. The man talked.
Snatching the emergency key from the head croupier’s counter they commandeered an express elevator. Palli glanced down at her bloodied knuckles, realizing she hardly felt a thing; wondering, for the first time, how long she had been taking that stuff. At least her reflexes were intact. “What are we up against, Sir?” She really didn’t expect him to answer. He hadn't before. He did this time.
“Three days ago the body of an eleven year old human girl was found two blocks from your bar, stabbed to death.”
Palli felt a cold wave converging on the pit of her stomach. Who would bring a child to a place like this?
“The autopsy,” he swallowed against the anger and continued, “found the DNA of three of those men all over her.”
The deepening sickness almost became vertigo as she caught his reference to the bar as ‘hers’.
De Broglie continued as the elevator slowed. “The autopsy also found certain genetic modifications on the girl…high density muscles…gills…” Startled, Palli considered the implications. Genetic engineering had been outlawed for two decades; but what did that have to do with -? “…and an incipient electric organ.” As the door slid open, he added, “She had a sister, 17.”
Palli wiped away the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand, the stinging of salt on broken skin suddenly painfully present. Her legs barely held her up as the realization that hit De Broglie moments earlier finally broke through the dissolving narcotic haze.
The door to the suite of apartments was open. Just inside, two men in dark suits lay face down on the tiled floor, their weapons still clutched in their hands.
“The girls were on the way to Canaris, to visit my sister.” Mercilessly, De Broglie went on. “The ship’s layover was only one hour. The oldest must have thought it was just enough time to get, what you call, a hit.”
The rolling wave of nausea swept through Palli again. She had seen girls that young, barely legal for The City, come into the bar. She had always assumed they were the spoiled children of some mega-magnate.
“Someone must have…distracted her…maybe doubled the dose in her glass …while her sister waited outside alone…” He had to pause. “The car was found abandoned a block away.”
There were bodies strewn everywhere in the living room. Obviously a party had been interrupted. Coming from the next room, was the sound of one voice, and muffled whimpering. A smell like myrrh blasted their senses as they stepped through the darkened hallway.
“I discovered a neat trick today.” The voice was worn raw. The face was filthy, hair disheveled, clothes torn. Her body was soaked. With one hand knotted around his necktie she was holding a 100 kilo man down. With the other she was pressing on his chest. The man was pale as death and covered with sweat.
“I can see your heart, you know...and if I match my field to the rhythm of its spikes...I can speed it up.” The man gasped desperately and kicked his legs. “I can slow it down...” He groaned as his eyes rolled up. “I can stop it.” He shuddered.
“AND I CAN START IT ALL OVER AGAIN!”
“Zeta!” De Broglie stepped forwards, pushing Palli back with a warning. “Don’t let her touch you.” The sound of her name somehow got through. She dropped the gasping man and turned around, a mask of utter hatred for a face. In one leap she swallowed the distance between them, smashing her hands into De Broglie’s chest. Though untouched, Palli felt every hair on her body stand on end and her head snapped back involuntarily.
The next second, the youth screamed in pain and stumbled to the floor. De Broglie still stood, and he repeated her name, reached for her. But she was on her feet again. The shock of incredulity gave way to realization. She said something about metal and struck again. This time she grasped his coat by the shoulders at the same time that she pummeled his stomach with both feet. The fabric ripped and he was sent tumbling backwards into a display case against the wall.
“Yes!” she snarled in satisfaction as she held up the right half of the longcoat. The glittering threads along the ragged edge, the source of her exultation, explained her reaction. De Broglie had come prepared, but not for her strength. That temporary distraction was Palli’s chance. The girl hadn’t even noticed her smashing the real-wood chair, arming herself with two wooden stakes. De Broglie stirred in the middle of the shattered wall unit. The girl started towards him, her back fully to Palli. Palli could end it right there. But that was not what he had come here for. Yet if that was the only way to save a commanding officer’s life, she had to... even if it was the last thing she did for the service.
Palli hesitated too long. A cough from the man on the floor behind them, reminded the girl why she was there. She turned with the same animal swiftness that had caught them by surprise. Pure hatred frilled that savage forehead and the myrrh-like scent got suddenly stronger. The girl’s filthy clothes went from soaked to drenched. “Zeta,” that’s what De Broglie had called her.
She turned at the sound and saw Palli for the first time. From behind matted hair and grime a pair of sea-gray eyes focused on Palli’s face. The forehead fluttered for a second. The question that started to form on those lips almost pierced the nightmare’s veil. Palli remembered enough French to understand the shriek that followed, “GET OUT!” The girl turned her face, more away from Palli than towards the man. And that action gave Palli a glimmer of hope. In her madness she was seeing someone else there. But whom? Who could reach through? The form her lips had taken correlated with memories of childhood: ‘Maman...Mama!’
“Cheri,” Palli called out in desperation.
The girl stopped. “Maman?”
Palli scoured her own past, piecing together a word, a phrase, a sentence, calling the girl to her arms. It worked. The mask of ire shattered and the fearsome beast shuddered helplessly. “But Mama, Mama,” she gasped through heaving sobs. “You don’t know—you don’t know! I—I left her alone—They killed Mia, ‘CAUSE I LEFT HER ALONE!” She plunged into Palli’s arms and melted into uncontrollable tears.
De Broglie was up. He said something in French as he reached them, a gentle whisper, a pet name; and the sobbing subsided for a moment.
Father? Palli translated in her mind. It couldn’t be. He was standing beside them and the child repeated, “Pere Philippe?” She collapsed into his arms in a renewed flood of tears. Fits of trembling and incoherent screaming alternated with disconsolate weeping as she crumbled under the weight of the guilt. But he held on to her and kept repeating the same thing over and over again, “He will forgive child, He will forgive.”
The Central Command Acronym finally made sense to Palli, the gray and black uniform De Broglie was wearing under the longcoat put it all together; it was the Chaplaincy Corps emblem of the Space Force. Philippe De Broglie was a priest.
In what had to be barely minutes, but seemed to Palli hours, he returned the girl to her and went over to the man on the floor. The electronic scan confirmed that the damage to his heart was irreparable. De Broglie spoke to him in the man’s native tongue. Palli could not believe the few words she understood. The man shoved him away. But as De Broglie started to stand, a deep convulsion wrenched the man’s body. With panic on his face he reached up, grasped him by the sleeve of his shirt, and brought him back down. De Broglie knelt down again and opened a pocket on the side of the scanner carry-bag. He set a little bottle down on the floor and put a long strip of white linen across his shoulders, and held the man’s hand as he started to pray.
Palli led Zeta out of that room and out of the apartment. Most of the bodies on the way were stirring. If they all lived, then she would have only five deaths on her conscience. Only. Palli glanced sideways at the face she was cradling. It probably would have been lovely under any other circumstances. But here, now, with sunken eyes and cheeks, the girl was a picture of emaciated emptiness. Every so often a spasm would break the silent sobbing.
De Broglie led them out into the night, to another building, and a quiet room. Somewhere in between half a dozen glasses of water, the girl accepted two protein bars from him, the first one reluctantly, the second one eagerly. Then he sat across from her and waited. Just before dawn her eyes finally met his. He said something. She nodded, sobbing quietly. And he put the linen scarf across his shoulders. Palli turned away to watch a sight she had never seen before, sunrise in the City of Living Dreams.
“I will need you to escort her to this office at Space Port 104.”
Palli glanced from him to the girl sleeping peacefully on the couch. “Planet Police may raise some objections to her leaving.”
“They’ll have me.”
“You are going to confess to the murders?”
“I won’t have to. My clothes have traces of their DNA. And I have motive—They killed my niece.”
“You don’t have opportunity, Sir. The first three were dead by the time you arrived planet side.”
“They don’t know that.” He studied the morning sky. “I arrived...through a clandestine route. There is no record of my entry.”
Palli pondered the irony in that reply. Only Planet Police were supposed to have access to the entry records of The City, and then only keyed to an anonymous personal visitor code. That was the whole point of The City, no one could find you. You could lose yourself from life for as long as you wanted. Yet De Broglie had found her, identified her. He had access to all their records, and the power to circumvent them?
Perhaps what he had told her had been true, that it had all been a coincidence, that in scanning the database of recent frequent visitors (a database that is also not supposed to exist) in search of potential support in hostile territory, he had just happened to notice Palli’s military service flag.
His luck. Her loss. It didn’t matter anymore anyway. Places like The City were strictly off-limits to military personnel in training, especially those with security clearance. It meant immediate expulsion from the officer’s program and possibly a court martial. She changed the subject of her thoughts. Nodding her head at the outside world and the previous night she asked, “You really believe there’s such a thing as deathbed repentance...even for a man like that?”
“I don’t make the rules...In hindsight, that’s a good thing.”
And the look that crossed his face as he focused purposely on the outside sky answered the impertinent challenge she held back. Yes, even to those four he would have offered forgiveness.
The girl’s name, according to the exit documents, was Zeta Reti. She sat quietly next to Palli for the entire trip to the space dock, and most of the flight. A long sigh and a subtle relaxing of her body signaled her willingness to speak. She made eye contact ever so briefly and said, “Thanks... for taking me out of there.” She paused and then added, “I...didn’t hurt you, did I?”
Palli forced a smile. “No.” And then she thought to herself, I can manage that quite well on my own. “Will you be alright at home?” The paperwork didn’t say where home was.
“I am not going home. Not yet anyway.” Palli’s questioning look made her go on. “I am going to Onossi.” That answer turned the question in Palli’s eyes into obvious surprise, to which the girl replied, “I have to stand trial, you know.”
The choice of court shouldn’t have surprised Palli, given De Broglie’s profession, but it bothered her deeply. From all she had heard, Onossi, a self-proclaimed theocracy, had the sternest judicial system in the Civilization Conference.
The girl got lost again in the vista of drifting stars in the window viewscreen. She was indeed beautiful. But something else held Palli enthralled, something she could feel in the rhythm of her breathing. At times it would become shallow, quicken, but just at the edge of panic it would stop abruptly. Holding her breath, Zeta would turn towards the window and wipe away a tear, and then exhale long and softly until the steadiness was restored.
It was that steadiness that had a mysterious hold on Palli. There was something behind the deep sorrow in those eyes, something that had the power to hold the horror and the pain at bay, something that would not let despair conquer this child. Palli could not name it or its source. But, whatever it was, it had to run impossibly deep to quench so thoroughly the fires of the nightmare she had just lived through.
Palli considered her own ‘nightmares’ and the sequence of events that had led her to frequent The City. They didn’t compare. She felt that strange shame again. Her career was over. In a way, it was a good thing her father was not around to see this day.
As the ship docked at Space Port 104 Palli’s heart started racing again. The burning in her stomach returned. She’d give anything to have just a fraction of the strength that guided that child silently along the steel-lined corridor. A young man, an Army PFC in the Communications and Network Control Corps, met them at the end of the jetway. His salute caught her unprepared. She returned it.
“Corelius Lioncastle, Ma’am. I am here to escort you.” He picked up their bags and led them to a Combined Services Communication Corps office in the Space Port management floor. The man behind the desk stood up as they came in, his uniform Navy, his rank Captain, his nameplate Landé. She came to attention instantly, the trained stance overcoming the weakness in her knees. The burning in her stomach, though, spread throughout her whole body.
“Lieutenant, thank you for bringing Zeta.” The girl at her arm looked up into familiar eyes and she allowed herself to be led to the chair behind the desk. As she sat down she looked into Palli’s eyes one more time and mouthed a ‘Thank you.’ “Corel, you have the rest of Lieutenant Conté’s orders?”
“And travel papers, Captain.” The young man drew a slim brown envelope from his jacket pocket and handed it to Palli.
“Good. At ease, Lieutenant.” Captain Landé sat on the edge of the desk. He opened the folder he’d been holding. “Lieutenant, I have been reviewing your file.”
Palli’s knees almost gave out as the Captain scanned the document before him. Only the young man caught the sudden flash of panic that crossed her face. He reacted to it with a firm shake of his head. Palli braced herself for the worst.
“Quite impressive.” He said as he looked up. “Your actions at Sirius Parnassus a year and a half ago helped uproot a most dangerous conspiracy within Navy Command.” Palli swallowed, expecting the next sentence to start with ‘But.’ His next few words were lost, drowned out by the pounding of her heart until she got it under control; and then she could not believe what she heard. “That Philippe trusted you enough to help in this mission, says even more.” He returned the folder to his desk. “When you are done with your Combined Services training, I urge you to consider all that a career in the Navy has to offer.” He closed that comment with a brief smile of approval. Palli couldn’t tell anymore whether she was still standing or not. He went on. “You understand you have been exposed to information that we, that is, I would rather not be revealed.”
Palli managed to analyze that statement. She thought about access to databases that are not supposed to exist, interception of police communication, clandestine entry into a planet with state-of-the-art border control; and a group of people with unusual surnames working together.
“I had no intention of making any kind of report when I returned to base, Sir.”
“Good.” He glanced at the timepiece on the inside of his uniform’s right cuff. “Corel will escort you to your flight’s gate.” He started to round the desk, paused and placed his hand on the closed folder as he remembered one more thing. “Please accept my condolences on the deaths of your father and brother. Their service in the Diplomatic Corps will be sorely missed.” He paused again. “Had I been your commanding officer I would have insisted you take a leave of absence, time to regroup at home. Consider that when you get back, a month or two. If you need it a recommendation from my office will be sent immediately.” With a nod he gave her leave to exit. “And again, thank you.” His salute and her conditioned response returned all sensation back to her body. The Army PFC stepped forward and led her out of the office.
Palli found herself breathing again as they walked along the port’s main corridor. She opened the envelope glanced at the orders and shook her head. “I—I don’t understand.” She had expected instructions to report to the nearest Navy Security Office, or as a minimum, return to base for termination of service. She flipped to the attached transit log with its standard year’s record. All travel to The City’s system had been expunged, replaced with stops at Navy ports and commercial thoroughfares. The surprise in her eyes prompted the young army private to speak up.
“I, er, had to scrub some records. Your travel files for the last eight months in the Space Transport and Border control databases were, um, accidentally erased.” He cleared his throat. “Father Philippe’s suggestion.” At the reaction of her eyebrows, he added, “Oh, I reconstructed a new plausible set, no one will notice, I promise.”
It took a second for the import of his words to hit Palli and a visible effort to keep her eyes from welling up. She didn’t quite succeed. She had to wipe away a tear from the corner of an eye. Eight months of stupidity had just been summarily erased. Her heart was racing again but not with apprehension. Elation started to rise to the surface and then tumbled into dismay as a single thought kept echoing back within her. Why me? I chose this... Why me? She... she... “You are sending her to Onossi for trial.”
“They are,” the young man corrected her. “I am not one of them. I’m just a friend.”
Palli did not bother to analyze his response. She went on with her protest. “But it’s not fair. She’d probably be better off tried at The City than by a bunch of religious extremists.”
“Ma’am, I think you are misinformed about Onossi. That reputation about having the harshest judicial system in CivCon is based on the fact that their judgments are final, beyond appeal in any CivCon court.”
“Still, a jury of peers, fallible human peers, like her, like you and me, might be more…sympathetic.”
“Perhaps. But Onossi has the only court in CivCon that accepts substitutionary payment.” Palli stared at him uncomprehending. “Whatever punishment, whatever sentence is served by Father Philippe for those crimes at The City, is accepted on her account, as if she had served it.”
That reply silenced the rest of Palli’s argument and left her in a sort of daze. She hardly remembered saying goodbye to PFC Lioncastle. She hardly remembered the trip itself, though she successfully changed transports at Base 122. All she could remember was the silent sliding of the stars past the viewport and the echoes that their sparkles made in her mind, echoes of sea-green eyes reverberating with deep sorrow, a sorrow that was somehow buried beneath the waves. Maybe she could never fathom the strength she had felt in Zeta’s heart. But she now knew a measure of the depth of that mysterious force that stood behind it.
Palli pondered that thought. It had been more than a year since those Palli had loved most dearly had been suddenly taken away from her. She had tried to be strong then, but there had been no one to give her strength. She fell. And De Broglie, in the middle of rescuing another life, picked her up, gave her a second chance. Some would call it mercy; Palli called it love.
© 2008 R. E. Diaz
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens
A Physicist in Engineer’s clothing, R. E. Diaz spent 20 years in the Defense Aerospace Industry, from performing Lightning Protection analysis on the Space Shuttle to the design of Radar Absorbing Materials. When not writing fiction for the U. S. Patent Office, Diaz spends most of the time attempting to infect unsuspecting students with a love for Maxwell’s equations.