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Dean Comry was not a theologian. Oh, he had his training, certainly, but as the head of the Fleet Church on Bethel he was not much called to ponder the great questions. Mostly, he just served as priest of the large church in the capital, signed forms his secretary gave him, met the occasional new priest, or performed some ceremony or other that required his presence. He could rattle off the differences in doctrine and practice that led the Church to divide in two during the Dark Ages, but could not explain the arguments or the logic, could not say why the Fleet Church was right and the Ormus Church wrong. He simply knew that that was so. Explaining the deeper, core truths of the faith in clear, powerful, easy to understand language; that was his gift. He was known for his excellent sermons, for his charity work, for his piety.
He was most certainly not a warrior. Oh, he trained once a month with an exorcist team, a group of soldiers and AMWS pilots who wielded their weapons and their faith against attacks by the demonic Divs, but Bethel had not seen such an attack in his lifetime, and hopefully never would.
As neither a warrior nor a theologian, he was thus a terrible pick for what Bishop Stein wanted him to do. He read the message again, hoping that he might have misread it before, but it was clear: “Salvager Isolde has put up for sale a sealed container of stolen Church property. The contents are of great temporal value, but their spiritual import is greater still. Lead your exorcists to reclaim it, and hold it for my arrival. Use any means necessary to acquire it. Do not attempt to open it.”
There was nothing for it; he would have to do it. It took him a few moments to remember how to summon his exorcists at other than scheduled time, but soon enough the signal was out. He only hoped that there would be a way to settle it without anyone getting hurt.
Seth was busy wolfing down his lunch — flavorless, but blessedly containing neither beans nor cultured yeast — when his communicator buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket, continuing to shovel mystery meat in thin sauce and rice into his mouth as he read the message.
As he continued to read, his eating slowed and a smile spread across his face. The contents of his box were valuable, all right. If the message Izzy had just forwarded to him was legit, Scientia was willing to pay more than ten times his asking price, enough to fully restock the Isolde, pay off all the back pay he owed the crew, and wipe out half his debt in one fell swoop. Not only that, but they were offering the best bonus he’d ever seen for delivering it himself and on time: a complete servicing and refit of the Isolde, free!
He permitted himself to daydream for a moment of what he might be able to do with Scientia-built parts. A Z.R. Engine to replace the hundred-year-old tokomak, and he’d never need fuel again. Real, high-end armaments for his AMWS. Maybe even a faster core for Izzy, if he could figure out a way to get it without their techs noticing her. Yes, this was as good a deal as he could hope for. Somebody else might offer more money, but it wasn’t worth waiting for if it meant missing out on the refit.
Seth checked the contract attached to the message. It was all pretty standard stuff, the usual sale, delivery, and nondisclosure agreements. They had one weird clause, that they wanted him to bring along an observer as a passenger to guarantee the safety of the cargo. He supposed that made sense if they were willing to pay this much for it, and though normally he’d refuse to risk someone he didn’t trust discovering Izzy, he’d take that chance for a deal like this. For the money they were offering, he’d stuff his hold with them.
They had a specific observer in mind, of course. A woman named Kodesh. They had some identifying information attached — he stopped and his smile vanished when he saw Nadeshiko’s picture.
“That’s it,” he said. “I give up. The universe hates me.”
“Hates olive us,” hiccupped the drunk at the next table. “Yer notso spessul.”
Nadeshiko lay back on her bed and flicked the remote for her holo. She set it to project two-dee on the ceiling, not wanting to immerse in much of anything right now, and began flipping through the channels.
There was, of course, nothing on. Children’s programs, several religious stations (one each for the two big churches and several for denominations unique to Bethel), fourteen soap operas, and some sort of a sport that appeared to involve an enormous number of mecha trying to destroy each other while attempting to roll a heavily armed, but apparently immobile, mech through a constantly moving goal. Judging by the scoreboard, there were more than a dozen teams. If that was a scoreboard — the Edgetown Zebrankies appeared to have some sort of a waterfowl listed next to their name, in lieu of a number.
She gave up trying to understand the sport, and flipped to another channel. “…police have no suspects at this time,” said the news announcer. “Returning to our top story this afternoon, we have new information regarding the destruction of the Great Desert refugee camp.”
Nadeshiko bolted upright and switched the display to the wall.
“Military sources are reporting that the camp was destroyed by a rogue AMWS of unknown origin. After a brief but fierce firefight, the attacker was destroyed.”
Nadeshiko stared in horror as grainy footage of U.R. Hod vanishing in the explosion of a military AMWS played. She barely saw the mecha; underneath them, the camp was burning, ruined. Large portions of it were simply gone, glassy craters marking where military-caliber AMWS reactors had been destroyed.
“Rescue teams continue to search for survivors, but it is believe highly unlikely that anyone survived the attack.”
All day, Nadeshiko had been trying not to cry. No longer. The sobs that came ripping up through her seemed to want to claw out her chest on the way up. No tears flowed, but she fell back onto her bed, curled up and bawled. She had known, known, that lives would be lost if she left the camp. She’d let Viri argue her down, and now he was dead.
The holo was buzzing and the urgent message warning was blinking across the bottom. She had to get a grip on herself. She had to be strong. Was this how a master of the Mizrahi Arts behaved? Weeping and being irrational when there was work to be done? She took a moment and concentrated, dissolving her pain at the chemical level. It took longer than it should have; she really was running herself down, her system having to work much harder than usual just to keep her moving and conscious. There just weren’t enough nanites to completely transform the neurotransmitters filling her brain with loss into normal, functional, energetic activity. The best she seemed to be able to achieve was numb. But she could work while numb; it would do.
She played the message. It was brief: an official request from the Office of the Director-Captain for her to tag along with some untrustworthy deliveryman named Mikra to make sure he didn’t try to open his cargo. Well, why not? There was nothing for her here on Bethel anymore.
She began to pack. If he accepted the delivery, Mikra would have to leave almost immediately. Fortunately, she didn’t own much; a view changes of clothes, a few million books and vids in a plastic-coated card, a second card with a detailed medical library, and the reader for the cards half-filled a small knapsack, leaving ample room for first aid kit and her folding exercise mat. Everything else in her apartment, the furniture and bedding and dishes, had come with the place. Whoever next came here from Scientia would take it over and make it theirs.
An incoming call buzzed for her attention, and she opened it.
“Hi,” said the jerk who’d (barely) driven her back from the refugee camp. “You ready?”
She stared. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re Mikra?”
“The very same,” Seth said, with a mocking little half bow. “Looks like I’m going to have a new career of giving you rides.”
“So, you ready?” Seth asked.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said.
“Wow, better contain some of that enthusiasm, doc,” said Seth. “Any friendlier, and I might freeze to death.”
Nadeshiko closed her eyes and sighed. “You have no idea what I’ve been through today,” she managed to squeeze out through her teeth. “I have nothing left for being friendly, and even less for being annoyed. So let’s do the job in front of us with as little talking as possible, okay? Peace?”
“Hey, I’m perfectly fine with a stony silence,” said Seth. “Don’t go doing me any favors.” He walked out the door.
Nadeshiko stifled a cry of frustration and stalked out after him. Peace offer rescinded: he really was just a jerk.
Seth shoved his hands in his pockets and walked toward the spaceport, glancing back only once to make sure Nadeshiko was following. This wasn’t going to be a fun trip at all, but maybe that was a good thing. The more she disliked him, the easier it would be to keep her from poking around the ship. He was starting to regret being so hasty in taking this deal; no matter how good the money was, the risk of somebody discovering Izzy was going to keep him on edge until the Dammerung was far behind them.
His communicator buzzed. “Yeah?”
“Boss, it’s me,” said Izzy. “There’re AMWS units in the spaceport, surrounding me, and foot soldiers guarding the approaches to the landing pads. I don’t know who they are, but nobody’s shooting at them, so they’re either government or have a really good excuse. They’re demanding we hand over your box.”
“Shit,” said Seth, stopping in his tracks. “Okay, get the crew to their AMWS and ready to launch on a moment’s notice. I’ll be there as fast as I can. In the meantime, if anybody starts shooting, you hit space as fast as you can, got it? We’ll find a way to meet you out by the fifth planet.”
“Got it, boss. Good luck.”
Nadeshiko came up behind Seth. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Listen, go back to your apartment. I’ll be back for you in a little bit.”
“What’s going on?” she repeated.
“Just a bit of a hassle,” Seth answered. “Go back and wait, all right?”
“I’m supposed to be observing you. How do I know you’re not trying to pull a bait-and-switch on us?”
Seth sighed. “All right, you really want to know? Somebody’s surrounded my ship with AMWS and infantry, and I’m going to try to get past them and onto my own AMWS.”
“Wow,” said Nadeshiko. “That’s incredibly, suicidally stupid.”
“Thanks,” said Seth. “Now, since you’re not suicidally stupid, you’re going back to your apartment, right?”
“Nope. The stupid part is trying to get rid of half your fighting force.”
“Okay, seriously, doc. You’re unarmed and –” Before Seth could finish the next syllable, the world spun crazily. He was suddenly facing the other way, with his arm twisted painfully behind him and Nadeshiko’s arm wrapped around his neck, slowly choking off his air. A moment later, she spun him free.
“You enjoyed that!” he wheezed, blinking dark spots out of his vision.
“Yes. Yes I did.”
Sigh. You have no idea how much worse the Seth-Nadeshiko dynamic was before I revised. And while I like Nadeshiko kicking Seth’s ass at the end there, and it’s important for setting up the next sequence, there are shades of Strong Independent Woman ™ to it. I think the next bit helps with that.
Also there’s this whole thing of Nadeshiko struggling to control her emotions that’s easily readable as a nasty misogynistic stereotype of women being irrational and emotional. All I can say is (1) she’s actually controlling her emotions too much here, and is going to pay for it later, and (2) she’s really, really not the character for whom self-control and emotional outbursts are going to be an issue.
But mostly… yeah, there’s some stuff here that if I could go back and redo everything from scratch, I’d change dramatically, but it’s too much, and I like some of the directions all this is eventually going enough that I’m going to try to work through the problematic bits, fix them up as much as I can, and acknowledge them down here in comments.