The betwixt book one, p.14
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       The Betwixt Book One, p.14

          
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  Chapter 14

  This was the first time in my life I’d been in a situation like this. Never before had I been placed before the proverbial firing squad with one chance to justify my actions or die. That’s what this was – I could see the look in Jason’s eyes, the sheer intensity – this was a test for me.

  I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I kept playing with them – touching my fingers together, running my thumbs along my wrists, flicking the tips of my nails.

  Jason looked at me for another long moment. It might as well have been just the two of us in the room. His eyes were like a search beacon in a pitch-black night – plastering me against the wall with nowhere to run.

  “This is where you tell me your story,” he prompted. “All of it,” he qualified with a growl, in case I was under any illusion that he wasn’t serious.

  “I…” I took a breath as I spoke, and my voice piqued like a kazoo, “Well, I don’t know.”

  “You start at the beginning,” he answered my question before I even had a chance to push it out. “You tell me where you came from, why you are here, and what you are.”

  I flinched. No one should say what like that. Not unless they were looking at some kind of monstrosity or the unidentifiable scum you scrape of a spaceship that’s been through too many alien clouds.

  “I…” my voice was so quiet, I could see him lean in to catch it, “You’ve already read my file.”

  “What I know about you could hardly fill a half-page of a data pad. Your identity file was brief, to the point, didn’t contain any flags or red lights – no crimes or indiscretions. You were clean, so all I know about you is you’re a floater waitress who buys sophisticated weaponry and fights strange creatures with the agility of a battle mech. Forgive me if, under the current circumstances, I demand a bit more than that.”

  I flinched, this time with the full-body jerk of someone who has had a bucket of space-cold water thrown over them as they slept. I couldn’t help it; Jason’s words were so frozen, so biting. In the Med Bay, on the planet – he’d been genuinely concerned about my welfare. Now he was ripping into me like a Crag attacking his steak at the dinner table.

  He had two sides, I could see that now. One was the Commander, and one was Jason. I was clearly talking to the Commander now, and the Commander demanded to know everything. I wanted to believe that Jason was still under there somewhere – that this brave, tough act was more of a ploy at extracting information than how he really wanted to treat me. But I still couldn’t get past that look in his eyes. Commander Jason Cole wasn’t going to stop until he got what he wanted.

  Okay. The beginning – he wanted to know everything from the beginning.

  I took a breath so shallow it didn’t seem like any air reached my lungs at all. “I was found in an abandoned cruiser, Universal date 2573, Cycle 34. I don’t know much about the cruiser, what kind of ship it was, or where it came from. All I know is it was intercepted on a path to the GAM HQ – Station One – but you would know what headquarters are called,” I gave a small, pathetic laugh, “Because you’re in the Galactic Military and all—”

  “Continue.” He kept his arms crossed as he leaned heavily on one hip.

  “Oh, y-yeah. Well, as soon as they found me, they took me to Earth, set me up in an orphanage—”

  “Why was your ship on an intercept course for Station One?” the Commander cut in, voice far louder than mine in this small room.

  “I don’t know.”

  “What did security scans of your ship reveal?” he fired another question at me.

  “I… I never got any information. What Sister Mirabella told me—”

  “Jason,” Doctor Cole interrupted, “Stop hounding her.” Doctor Cole was looking excited again – that same fire leaping up behind her eyes as it had the first time she’d met me. “You said your ship had been on an intercept for Station One?”

  I nodded, happy to look at someone else other than the fuming Commander.

  “Doctor Cole,” Jason’s voice was full to the brim with warning, “This is my interview—”

  “That’s why we couldn’t find you.” Doctor Cole sat back in her chair, a half-smile fattening up one cheek. “God knows we looked on every planet we could – but you weren’t on a planet; you were in a goddamn space ship.”

  “Doctor Cole—” Jason turned to his mother, arms uncrossing but forming far more menacing fists at his sides.

  “That still doesn’t explain,” Doctor Cole continued, obviously ignoring her son, “Where you’ve been for the past thousands of years.”

  I stopped. My mind ground to a halt. Thousands of years?

  I felt my mouth drop open, my lips parting without any conscious act of my own. “S-sorry?” I stumbled over the word. Thousands of years? What kind of game was the Doctor playing? Was she trying to annoy her son into blowing us all out an airlock?

  “What the hell are you talking about—” Jason began, arms once again crossing, but this time with a stiff readiness that looked like he was trying to put a Crag into a headlock.

  “Thousands of years.” Doctor Cole looked up defiantly at her son. “You may not choose to believe me, Jason, but that won’t stop me from speaking the truth. That’s when the last of Mini’s people died. That’s when she must have been born – the end of the last Twixt War.”

  I caught a glance at Jason’s face. His expression was two parts pure frustration to one part exasperation. “I don’t need you making up stories, Doctor Cole. I imagine Mini can do that for herself.”

  “Thousands of years?” I repeated, voice hollow as if I were mindlessly repeating some phrase I didn’t know the meaning of. “How—”

  “Stasis, maybe,” Doctor Cole shrugged. “Cryo. The Technology would certainly have existed. It makes sense the more I think about it. Set you on a ship with enough evasive maneuvers built into its programming that it will avoid stars and any damn populated area of space – they could be certain you would arrive at the time you were needed. If they’d left you on a planet, who knows what wars could have ravaged it, what random spatial anomalies could have befallen it – space is still, dark, and safe, for the most part.”

  I stared at Doctor Cole with the same expression of complete incomprehension that Jason had – except Jason’s looked far more dangerous than mine.

  “Doctor Cole,” he tried again, “Stop—”

  “No, Jason, I’m not going to stop. This is important, very important. She needs to know where she came from far more than you do.”

  “Thousands of years.” My voice was more certain of itself. “Floating in space, alone, in cryo?”

  “Yes.” The Doctor nodded her head sharply. “The perfect plan. A ship floating in some quiet, quiet cluster with a program built in telling it to avoid any signs of life, other ships, and anomalies. Floating as the millennia pass. Waiting until the right time came—”

  Jason let out a massive sigh and cupped his brow in one large hand. “Goddamn it, mother, you can’t honestly be suggesting a ship could run that long – run cryo, run an evasive navigational program for that long. No ship would have the energy, the fuel – life support would burn out after the first 100 years. We’re talking thousands of years ago – you think they had effective scanner tech? You think they could develop an evasive navigational program sophisticated enough to keep a lone cruiser out of contact of everything for that long?”

  “Jason, we aren’t talking about a race with our level of technology. You may not believe in The People, the Twixt, or anything else I’ve ever studied. Even you aren’t stupid enough to deny that there have been races in this galaxy, beyond this galaxy, that have demonstrated far more technological sophistication—”

  “Okay, so you’re telling me an ancient, highly sophisticated ship took her,” he gestured to me over his shoulder, “To Station One. Station One didn’t bother to have a poke around the advanced alien tech? Didn’t bother to run tests on the kid that appeared on their doorstep—”

  “I don’t know, Jason,” Doctor Cole snapped. “I can’t answer what tests your GAM may or may not have performed. You’re the one in the army – why don’t you go and ask?”

  Things were degenerating into another mother-son battle, except this time with an edge. At least for me. They were tit-for-tatting over the possibility of me having been set adrift in space for thousands of years. This was stupid. “I think Ja- I mean, the Commander – is right on this one. I think if I’d been found on an alien ship that had been drifting in space for thousands of years, the GAM wouldn’t have let me go. I grew up normally. Well, as normally as any halfy floater, anyway. If I’d arrived on the literal doorstep of the GAM in an advanced, unknown vessel, I don’t think they would have ever let me go.”

  “Perhaps you had assistance in escaping, child,” the Doctor said, voice much quieter.

  “What does that mean?” Jason spat. “You need to stop spinning fairy tales, Doctor Cole. Here we deal with facts and probabilities, not the remotest fantasies that entertain your mind. If you want to believe Mini is some prophesied child who harkens from a mysterious long-lost race that abandoned her in space so she may one day return to fulfill some warped destiny – go ahead. I’m going to need more than your word on that—”

  “I do not believe this conversation will yield promising results,” Od spoke, causing everyone to turn his way. “A demonstration of considerable effect – I believe that will be the only thing to convince the Commander.”

  Jason cocked his head Od’s way. “What do you have in mind?” Jason cast his eyes in my direction.

  My heart skipped several beats, my eyes widening at the prospect of having to give the Commander a demonstration.

  “Unfortunately,” Od shook his head sorrowfully, “We have nothing at this point.”

  Jason rolled his eyes, the weariness at their edges crinkling the skin and making him look much older than his years. “You’re wasting my time—”

  “The answers you seek, and those that Mini herself requires, can only be found with the Rain Man.”

  “The Rain Man?” I spoke before the Commander could. My sheer confusion at the conversation was starting to catch up with me. I was a ball of worry and frustration, and I couldn’t sit here any longer as people made the most fanciful claims about me. “Who is he?”

  “He’s a librarian.” The Commander’s voice was softer and had lost the interrogator’s edge.

  He was such an enigma – one moment kind, the next a harsh galactic commander. You ask him for his assistance, and he’d leap to your side – get in his way while he’s protecting the needy, and he’d likely shoot you on the spot.

  I swallowed the smile that crept to my lips.

  … Sorry, had he said librarian?

  Jason could obviously see my disbelief because he put up a hand quickly. “We’re not talking about a regular librarian. The Rain Man travels the galaxy collecting information – all the literary, historical, cultural, and technological works of every race he comes across. Technically, it’s them, not him. They are a long-lived race who make it their life’s work to collect and store the information of the galaxy.”

  “I’ve never even heard of them.”

  “You work in a diner.” Jason’s voice was to the point. “Why would you have?”

  He had a point there. Still, a race that traveled the galaxy collecting every book ever written? Why hadn’t we started there on our quest to find out more about The People, rather than heading to some random Crag moon? “I don’t get it, If this Rain Man, or Rain Men, or whatever – if they have all this information, why didn’t we go there first?”

  Jason looked ready to laugh, his half-smile pumping up his cheek and giving him more color than he’d had all day. “You’re asking me this? I’m the one supposed to be asking you why you showed up on a private dig site on a Crag moon.”

  I turned to Od.

  “The Rain Man is hard to find.” Od sat forward and looked up at the plain ceiling above us. “Or at least the Rain Man we are after, anyway. Through certain channels and at certain times one can make remote contact with him. Never in person. The most I have ever received are data messages, encrypted files. The information we would seek may be in his collection, but how to find him?”

  “Can’t you ask him? I mean, if he contacts you – if he told Doctor Cole about the dig site, if he seems to care about this situation enough to know something about it – can’t you ask him to help us?” Frustration twisted through my gut. I felt like I was constantly being pushed around in a circle, blindfolded with no control over where I was going and in what direction I would be thrust next.

  “It is complicated,” Od began.

  “This whole thing is complicated and getting more and more convoluted by the minute. I want straight answers. Why were you at that dig site, and what are you doing gallivanting across the galaxy?” Jason turned to me again, but this time he’d lost his harsh edge – I could still see the tired desperation behind his eyes, but most of the fight had gone out of him.

  I felt weary, too. I needed to be alone to try to figure things out. “We were looking for weapons,” I said, voice even but distant. “I left the station because I fought a Twixt. Well, two Twixts. I didn’t believe it at first – when this tiny, red alien told me I was the descendant of some kind of… of something different. Some ancient race with the ability to see the Twixts, to fight them.” I shrugged. “I got his point when that ghost ship came to the station, and I saw that thing in the cargo bay.”

  “That was you? Ripped white blouse.” The Commander let out a mirthless chuckle.

  I looked away quickly. “That was me. Then again in your engineering bay.” My voice was cracking, but I didn’t care; I wanted to get everything out. I was sick of keeping secrets. It wasn’t getting me anywhere. The more I thought I was protecting, the more I realized I didn’t know.

  The Commander was a dark shape in my peripheral vision as I stared at some scuff mark on the floor. What his expression was, what his body language entailed – I was too scared to look over to check.

  “The Twixt was inside one of your cores – doing I don’t know what. You drew it out. I tried to fight it,” I smiled vaguely, still staring off into the distance, “Except I didn’t know how to make my gun work.”

  “So you threw it, instead?”

  “Yeah. After the fight, we managed to get the gun back.” I flinched as I spoke, but I had to keep going. I felt it was important for me to own up to everything right now. Even if the Commander wouldn’t believe me, it didn’t matter. I had to tell the truth and hope he wouldn’t pull his pistol from his holster and shoot me. Of all the people in this room, the Commander was the only person who hadn’t lied to me, hadn’t refused to share information with me.

  “Yes, you did.” the Commander’s was much quieter now. “And I’d like to know how at some point.”

  “We went off-station. They said we’d be going somewhere to look for artifacts or something. We ended up on that moon where you found us. I’m not sure what we were expecting to find, but that Twixt thing that was a surprise.”

  I looked up.

  He was looking my way.

  “I don’t expect you to believe me,” I added quietly, “And I don’t have any evidence to back up what I’m saying. Od used to have a trapped Twixt in some kind of containment field, but that’s destroyed now.”

  He nodded.

  “If what Od says is right, and the Rain Man is the only one with real evidence, I guess you aren’t ever going to believe us if we can’t meet him. I don’t know what happens now,” I was careful with my words, saying them so slowly and clearly they sounded like a prayer, “But you need to know that Doctor Cole didn’t have anything to do with this. We turned up at her dig site, unannounced and uninvited. Crag’tal, he doesn’t have anything to do with this either – he tagged along for this bit of the mission. Even Od, well, he didn’t do anything wrong – I was the one who boarded those ships illegally.” I left out the bit about Od shutting down the security systems and showing me the way because the Commander didn’t need to know that. “So if anyone deserves to be punished over what happened – it’s me.” I put a hand to my chest and rested it there. I could feel my heart beating through my ribcage, shifting my fingers up and down.

  The Commander didn’t say anything for a long, agonizing moment. “Let’s say I believe you. Let’s say I think, for one moment, that a diner waitress had the smarts to illegally board a GAM Cruiser, to obtain high-tech weaponry, to plot a course to a Crag moon. You honestly willing to fall on your sword – take the blame? Now, we aren’t at war, but disabling security systems on GAM ships still counts as treason. You know what the punishment for that is?”

  “No.”

  “Do you want me to tell you what the punishment is, or do you want to start telling the truth, instead?”

  “I am telling you the truth. I don’t know what’s going on, and yeah, I’m still a crappy diner waitress – but I don’t lie. I’m not lying now. I’ve made some pretty stupid mistakes. I don’t have the smarts as you said; I’m a halfy floater. But there’s one thing that I do know,” I looked right at the Commander, concentrated on staring right into his eyes, “Those Twixts are real. You can’t see them; I can. Believe me, Commander, they are there.”

  We stared at each other for perhaps an eternity until he pulled his gaze away.

  “I don’t know what’s going on,” he repeated, this time with far less finality and with a broken glance my way. “But I’m not above asking a few questions.”

  I became still – that calm, unbelieving still you get after you realize a sudden movement from your side was not an attack but the innocent flutter of some leaf. Was the Commander… was he going to let me off?

  “If both of you say the Rain Man has something to do with this,” the Commander sighed heartily, “Well, I can put in a request for an audience.”

  Od practically popped at that. “You, you can do that? He will ignore – he will ignore you!”

  Jason shifted his neck from side-to-side. “I’m a Commander in the GAM; I’d like to think I demand I bit more respect.”

  Doctor Cole snorted. “It’s not going to work, Jason – the Rain Main doesn’t drop what he’s doing and race across the galaxy on the whim of some—”

  “No, Doctor Cole, it works just like that. If the GAM wish to peruse leads in investigations into threatening situations – and I’m not taking a leap when I classify your friend on that moon as threatening – we have the authority to demand practically anything. You may not like it, but that’s how the galaxy works.”

  Doctor Cole was silent, eventually giving a shrug and shifting back in her chair. “Whatever you say, Jason. If you can honestly line up a face-to-face meeting with the Rain Man – well, I might start sending you Christmas cards again.”

  The Commander cast a confused glance his mother’s way then looked back at us. “If this Rain Man has all the answers, we’ll soon find out what they are.”

  I sat up straight, letting my hands rest still by my side. “Are you serious? You can meet with him? Won’t it take weeks, months – or god knows how long to get to him? You can’t divert your whole ship. Where is his planet—”

  The Commander put up a hand to stop my chatter. “The Rain Men live on ships; they aren’t planet based. They are a flotilla of massive libraries. We find the Rain Man you’re after, put in the official request – and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle. No, I won’t be diverting my whole ship. Depending on where he wants to meet, we will either rendezvous at a station, meet on a planet, or I will take a light cruiser to his vessel.”

  Od jumped to his feet, his face as round and happy as a lollipop.

  The Commander shifted back, eyes narrowing at the sudden movement. Surely, even he could see Od was popping with enthusiasm, not rippling with danger.

  “You will honestly meet the Rain Man? You?”

  The Commander looked my way quickly, and it was clear he was equal parts surprised and amused – wanting to know whether to take Od seriously. “Ah, yes.”

  “You will take us with you? You will take us to meet the Rain Man? It will bring hope to this quest – he will have information, maybe even artifacts – he will know things I have no hope of finding elsewhere—”

  I tried not to laugh at the exasperated look on the Commander’s face. It was like he was dealing with an excited child who wouldn’t stop recounting the fantastic day they’d had at the zoo.

  It was funny how things could change so quickly. Five minutes ago, I was dead sure the Commander would throw me out an airlock for illegally boarding his cruiser – now I couldn’t stop smiling as he was overwhelmed by an enthusiastic, tiny alien.

  Was he actually serious? Could he arrange a meeting with the Rain Man? What would the Rain Man have to say?

  Just as I started to imagine an entire ship stuffed full of books with a strange, wonderful alien at its center – the mood changed.

  “Not going to work,” Crag’tal spoke up for the first time. “What about Tarian Mercs?”

  The Tarian Mercenaries – I’d forgotten all about them.

  “Tarians don’t give up,” Crag’tal rumbled, his voice far deeper than even the Commander’s. “They keep trying until get what they want.”

  The Commander uncrossed his arms, lifted his head slightly until the muscles of his neck were taut and visible, and looked at Crag’tal without any hint of a smile. “I don’t need a lesson in the psychology of a Tarian—”

  “They haven’t got what they’re after – they don’t stop until they do,” Crag’tal repeated. “Not lesson – fact.”

  The look on the Commander’s face was not nice. It suggested that maybe Jason didn’t like Crag’tal.

  “Well,” I started speaking before I’d even opened my mouth properly, eager to distract the Commander from enraging the bull Crag. “Maybe they want you to believe that. I mean, if they were after the Twixt – that’s long gone. So wouldn’t they give up—”

  “Don’t know what after – might not be gone. Could be you.” Crag’tal was even more to the point than the Commander.

  I felt sick. “That’s silly,” I rallied. “I’ve never even met a Tarian…” I trailed off, realizing my line of reasoning was about as flawed as Jason’s desire to anger Crag’tal. Was I honestly suggesting that the Tarians couldn’t be after me because they’d never met me? As if they only carried out mercenary activities against family and friends? Or perhaps required a “Getting to know you” session before they sniped you from afar.

  “This is a GAM Cruiser – even if the Tarians come back, we can take ‘em.”

  Tarian Mercs, the Rain Man, the Commander, my mother, thousands of years alone in space – there was a lot for me to think about. There was no way I was going to get any sleep tonight.

  What made it all worse was the fact I didn’t have a Hipop to cuddle up to. He’d been left behind on the planet. Though, thankfully, Crag’tal had arranged for him to be picked up and looked after. It meant I would be alone, facing whatever would come next with only the people in this room.

  I looked at the back of the Commander’s head as he tried to settle Od down – the Kroplin was still dancing at the prospect of meeting the Rain Man. Could I trust Jason? Everything was in his hands now. He had the power to make or break this – to send me off to prison or set me on my way. It was all types of agonizing waiting to find out which one he’d choose.

 
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