Zero (Thick of Mind, Part 19)

Day 54. 64 pages, 30,172 words. Working on it.

Pretor The pressed on the door chime and waited, stiffly at attention, until the commander-or-whatever acknowledged her call. When the door opened she strode in unhesitatingly.

“Overspecialist The,” the commander said. “Are we prepared for this … forgive me, are we calling this an assault, an incursion, or a covert civic … something?”

“Technically it is a grey-page sanctioned extra-Fleet research and data collection operation,” Pretor said, “although I admit that is quite a mouthful even by my standards.”

“Indeed,” the commander-or-whatever said, “but that really doesn’t excuse me. Considering the sheer mass of terminology in my own title, I should be good at this by now. If I recall correctly I am an Independent Operations and Logistics Administrator, Biorelic Procurement and Research…” he extended a gloved hand and tapped his pad theatrically, leaned in and read on, “…AstroCorps Special Weapons Division and Six Species Liaison Authority, Second Grade,” he chuckled. “I’ve been adding gibberish to my name for the past eighty years and it gets ahead of me sometimes,” he gestured to a seat opposite his desk. “Please, sit.”

Pretor sat. She’d half-expected the scientist to offer her refreshments – he was a Bonshoon, after all, not a Molran, and as much as she consciously attempted to avoid stereotyping it proved difficult because Bonshooni sooner or later always fell victim to stereotype. Still, this one seemed different. Cool, collected, and sleek in his dark not-quite-SWD uniform. Clearly physiologically Bonshoon, but more like a large marine mammal in its natural environment than one hauling itself about on land. He looked … capable. And he didn’t offer her refreshments, which she would have politely declined in any case because she’d eaten and drunk adequately with the rest of her team after their final preparatory drill.

“The retrofitting is complete,” she reported, “and all units are prepared. We will arrive in the volume in eighty minutes,” she didn’t even need to check her timepiece for this, but her peripheral earguard display let her know in any case, “and approach at decelerating cruise. We are configured and coded to read as a Blaran hop-dust freighter making a routine delivery, and the requisite drills have been prepared.”

“I understand the contact group has even undergone some measure of augmentation in order to pass for Blaran.”

“The initial contact unit is largely Blaran, Administrator,” Pretor confirmed, “of a modestly-augmented caste. The Molran command group have taken cosmetic alteration to match.”

“Please, my friends call me Zero,” the scientist chuckled, “I feel rather a nooble when people start throwing the titles around.”

Pretor nodded, more to herself than to the scientist. Sooner or later a Bonshoon would always slip up with some informality or concession to comfort or – or some bonshery or other. It wasn’t bigotry, it was just a fact. “Zero,” she said smoothly.

“And the suppressor?”

“The Qash’Tai will arrive in the volume in ninety-five minutes,” Pretor replied.

“Leaving us fifteen minutes to keep them fooled before the pretense becomes pointless, and unpleasantries commence,” the scientist said. “I assume this will be enough time to get us in place.”

“Ample time,” she said. “We have reports that the target settlement is capable of extremely rapid relative deployment so obviously the strategic placement of the field suppressor ship is going to be key. Disabling the enemy’s mini-whorl armaments so they can’t immediately obliterate the Qash’Tai on her arrival will be our primary breach objective.”

“Yes,” Zero said mildly, “I understand this is the most heavily-armed pleasure den in the near arm.”

Pretor favoured him with a thin smile. “I would hesitate to call Happyface a pleasure den,” she said, “but you are quite correct. They have had Godfire, it seems, longer than most Fleet and AstroCorps organisations.”

“According to SWD myth, the team that went to steal the weaponry from the Core included a notorious Blaran thief,” Zero said. “He apparently gave…” again he tapped at his pad, “…Happy Gretchen the schematics, possibly in return for her assistance in his disappearance, possibly just because it was more fun this way. But whatever the explanation, the fact remains that Happyface has been armed with mini-whorl ordnance for some two hundred and forty years, and they have been developing and learning more about it in parallel with AstroCorps SWD all that time – and with considerably more information finding its way to them from us than the other way around.”

There was a respectably un-Bonshoon note of sternness in his tone, and Pretor inclined her head. “The risk is considerable,” she said, “but we are confident we will be able to subdue the settlement’s security. With any luck, once your biorelic procurement is complete, we will be able to commit to full sanctioned deployment and remove this cho’gule from the board entirely.”

“That would be nice,” Zero said. “Only once all of the samples are safely removed, of course.”

“Of course,” Pretor echoed.

She sat and studied the Administrator for a time, since he didn’t seem to have any other questions and was satisfied to sit in silence.

His name wasn’t really Zero, she knew. It was a nickname – another not-quite-dignified Bonshoon concession to comfort and indulgence – and was short for Sample Zero. She’d heard, from quite reliable sources, that he had started his silent-listed Fleet career as one of the very biorelics he was now in charge of tracking down and studying. This much at least made sense to her, since the Bonshooni were the only truly viable Molranoid biorelics in existence. Why and how he had succeeded in making the leap from organic sample to research team member, and from team member to project leader, and from project leader to all of those titles he now sported … that was a bit murkier.

Pretor was accustomed to such murkiness. It was where she and her team operated, on the sharp edge between commendation and skinswitch. And when AstroCorp SWD – the Monsters – got involved, murk was actually reassuring. When everything was crystal clear and all questions were answered, you knew you were probably preparing for your last mission.

As for the stories of Zero being telepathic … well, she wasn’t prepared to commit one way or the other on that. It was entirely possible, even if Bonshooni generally lacked the mental hardware for such a construction. He had narrowed their hunt down to the Happyface cho’gule, after all, and was quietly confident that they’d find some kind of biorelics of the type his department were interested in. And he hadn’t done it entirely on rumour and intelligence gathering, although he’d been quite up-front about the fact that that had been a large part of it.

Whatever he’d done, he’d done it from halfway to Chalcedony. If Zero and the Happyface samples weren’t psychic, then Pretor didn’t want to know what they were. For that matter she didn’t particularly want to know if they were psychic, either.

Her job was to get her team into the settlement, take out the big guns so the suppressor field could remain intact long enough for them to gut the place and take all the samples Zero wanted, before burning the rest. Nothing else was important, except insofar as it affected her team’s ability to achieve its targets.

As if thinking about Chalcedony had put the word into the air for Zero to pick up – and incidentally making it that much more difficult for her to ignore the likelihood of his telepathic ability – the Administrator leaned forward. “I read in the brief that the master of Happyface –  this … Happy Gretchen … is a veteran of the Chalcedony uprisings?”

“She is a wanted war criminal according to the Six Species charter,” Pretor confirmed, “although the last attempt to bring her in, I understand, was a grey-page infiltration operation during some celebration or other-”

“Happyface’s two thousandth year in operation,” Zero said, his voice turning impressively cold and hard.

“Yes,” Pretor had dismissed the detail as unimportant rather than forgetting it, but was a little surprised again at Zero’s attentiveness. “The operation failed dramatically, which is the only reason we know about it at all,” she nodded. “But it might be misleading to connect her with Chalcedony too closely. She has connections with the old and the new Chalcedony regimes, but she is responsible for atrocities in a dozen other conflicts. And as you know, her cho’gule is currently nowhere near Chalcedony.”

“Hm,” Zero nodded. “She is formidable, then?” Pretor wasn’t sure how to respond to such an appeal to pure speculation, so she spread her upper hands noncommittally. “Where the previous infiltration failed, we will succeed,” Zero added, “because…?”

“We have a different objective,” Pretor replied, “and a different suite of tactics and resources. We are no more guaranteed success than the last mission was, however.”

“Of course,” Zero nodded, “of course.”

Pretor waited a short while longer, and then prepared to leave. “Unless there was anything else…”

“Hmm?” the Administrator blinked as if surprised to see her, although Pretor could tell this was a show for her benefit. Most people wouldn’t expect anything more of a Bonshoon, but Zero was sharp – in his own way. “Oh, no,” he said, “thank you, Overspecialist, I’m sure we are as prepared as we can be.”

“The main variable here would seem to be the samples,” she said. “Can you tell us any more about what degree of resistance or interaction we might expect from them? Your notes were comprehensive but…”

“I was unable to glean anything more before we went into soft-space,” Zero said. “I cannot reach them – or indeed anyone – from here. Even finding out as much as I did was anomalous,” he confessed. “My range is nowhere near that of an aki’Drednanth, and most of what I know is simply standard intelligence – and that, I have already shared. I think most of the samples we will be gathering will be basic null biorelics, catatonic and nonfunctional. But there may be others approaching my own level. Nothing dangerous, I think – if I had thought we were likely to encounter an active telecidal, I would have advised you to factor it into your tactics,” he tilted his head and smiled. “How does one factor a murderous telepath into a grey-page sanctioned extra-Fleet whatever-you-called-it, anyway?” he asked.

“You’ve got me there, Zero,” Pretor admitted. “Perhaps if we encounter one, our mission logs can form the foundation for future tactical outlines.”

Zero grinned. “Maladin,” he said.

“I’m sorry?”

“My friends call me Zero,” he said, “but those I hold in particularly close confidence call me Maladin. It’s a name I’ve left behind somewhat, since the titles were crowding it a bit … but it never left entirely.”

“I’m not sure I have earned the privilege,” Pretor said, “but I appreciate it. Maladin,” he seemed pleased but expectant, and so she dusted off some of her old communications coursework and asked, “Maladin, is that a family name or…?”

“I don’t remember,” Maladin said with a little laugh. “I’m afraid I’m an awful bonsher like that.”

“Perhaps the biorelics in Happyface will be able to help you figure it out,” Pretor said, her mouth on autopilot to cover her acute discomfort. Self-deprecation in a Bonshoon was always obscurely horrible to witness.

Maladin’s grin widened. “Perhaps they will, Overspecialist,” he agreed. “Perhaps they will.”

THE END

This entry was posted in Astro Tramp 400, IACM, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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