Bryce was bursting with enthusiasm as he juggled two large metal luggage cases, one in either hand, and a smaller one jammed against his body. “I’ll be the best PA ever! You’ll see. You won’t regret it.” His bright, cheerful voice and ingratiating attitude brought a grin to Kali's lips.
“I already do.” Adrian's flat voice was like a douse of tepid water, but nothing was going to dampen Bryce's thrill at being assigned to the Trykor, even if it was as a personal assistant - though, being one to a Firster was a privilege for a lower grade like him.
Adrian's face was pale and there was a bright sheen of sweat on his forehead. The medical unit had released him in time to board the Admiral's ship. Rather than a ride on a powered conveyance, he had reluctantly accepted the use of a burnished black metal cane with a padded curved handle to assist with walking.
Bryce wasn’t about to let Adrian ruin the best day of his life. “Where's the rest of your things? Should I get a cart?”
"That already looks like a great deal," said Kali, while holding her own large metal case, was trying to keep out of Adrian's line of sight by standing slightly behind him.
"Oh, these?" Bryce's head indicated the two large ones. "These are mine. This," he angled his body to show the smaller case, "is his."
"Adrian," her gentle voice asked, "Don't you have any more luggage? I'm sure Bryce will get it for you."
She found herself holding her breath as she waited for his answer. Adrian hadn't said more than two words to her since they saw each other again in the docking bay. Only a single nod with an expressionless face, and a carefully shielded mind. This was more than his normal lack of conversation, there was a marked chill between them.
"There is none." He might have well been giving her the weather report.
"All he needs is a squirt of oil occasionally to keep the gears running." Bryce smirked. "Didn't you know?"
Frosty eyes turned in his direction, chilling the air and sending a shiver up Bryce's spine. “Should I request a replacement?”
“Now, let’s not be hasty here.”
“I thought so.”
"I'm sorry I called you a machine."
"An ancient machine."
"Gears are Pre-Invasion."
"Maybe in Firster grids where the rich people live, but not down in the slums. We were lucky to have gears."
"You're exaggerating," Adrian said dismissively as the ear-scraping sound of metal on metal announced the connection between the two ships.
A grey-clad trooper checked the safety readings on his panel, a line of marked yellow buttons waited his attention. "Seal secure." He pressed the next yellow button. There was a sliding scratching sound and a thump against the wheeled hatch. "Clamping locks engaged. Docking tunnel pressurizing." A whoosh of stale recycled air raced through concealed pipes in the bulkhead.
Captain Tarn came down the corridor towards them. Everyone straightened their uniforms, even Bryce who had his hands full and dropped one of the cases with a crash. He hastily picked it up again.
Adrian already had his usual look of neat perfection but eyes, narrowed in suspicion, marred it. Normally the senior officer on the ship did not concern himself with the minor matter of crew transfers. Either he was here to gloat over his accomplishment or it was to be a formal handover at the Admiral's orders, the passing of a prize from one hand to another.
Eyeing the nervous-looking Bryce with displeasure, Tarn nodded in acknowledgement, "Lieutenant."
"The docking tunnel is pressurized and ready, sir," said the grey-clad trooper.
"Open her up."
Grasping the wheel in both hands, the trooper bent his legs and with a heave, and pulled with all his might. The resisting wheel creaked complainingly but rotated, slowly and then with increasing speed until it stopped abruptly. He released the final catch and pulled the hatch open. A hiss of air and the faint creaking sound from the other end of the tunnel announced the opening of the Trykor's hatch. Lighting strips lit up the tunnel in an eerie green glow.
"Let's go." Tarn stepped into the tunnel, the green light bathing his face, making him look ill. "Admiral Verel is waiting." He led the small procession to the other end, Adrian next, then Kali and Bryce walking faster to keep up to the Captain's longer strides.
The Trykor's docking hatch led to a corridor somewhat similar to the Sedener's, but comparing the two would be like saying a tiger is just a bigger cat. It was considerably wider, enough to drive a few tanks through two abreast, and someone who wasn’t colour blind and completely without taste or imagination had chosen dignified shades of blue and grey to colour its walls.
The greeting party, if that was what it was, outnumbered them by two to one. The Admiral - it was hard to mistake the row of stars stuck on his ranking strip - was a tall, imposing man with thinning brown hair and shrewd, judging grey eyes. Beside him was an officer, a Captain by rank, plus a lieutenant and an assortment of troopers wearing side arms.
Captain Tarn stood to attention as his own small party lined up behind him. "Admiral."
"Captain…Tarn, is it?"
Verel's eyes raked the line behind him, homing in on Adrian's impassive face. "And Stannis?"
Tarn turned and introduced his men. "This is Lieutenant Stannis and…"
The Admiral said, "The Lieutenant will follow my first officer, Captain Chell."
"I don't understand, sir," Tarn looked uncertainly at the Admiral.
Verel was no longer paying attention to Tarn. His voice was like tempered metal as he addressed Adrian. "I expect my orders to be followed immediately, Lieutenant."
Chell said, "This way."
There was no reaction on Adrian's face as he followed the first officer. He no longer had any expectations; that way nothing could surprise him. Four guards fell into step behind him. Kali was about to go after them but Bryce blocked her way with a case and whispered, "You can't do anything for him. You're just going to get us in trouble. We can help him later."
She flashed him an angry look.
Tarn said, “Admiral, the Lieutenant has agreed to cooperate, you...”
“Are you presuming to tell me what to do, Tarn?” In the Admiral's eyes, the rest of them were faceless nuisances, without even benefit of rank.
“No, Admiral, I would never presume. It’s just...” Tarn was a prudent man, though less charitable, narrow-minded people might have a different name for him. “Nothing, sir.”
“Good. I was afraid you had something further to add.”
Captain Tarn looked briefly at Kali and then he turned and went back down the docking tunnel, a lonely figure fleeing the scene of battle.
Verel glanced at Kali and Bryce, looking through them as if they weren’t there. He turned on his heels and left, taking the rest of the contingent with him except for a short, baby-faced lieutenant.
Bryce eyed the officer warily. He felt as if he’d just been abandoned, or thrown out with the garbage. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t care,” said Kali. “I just want to know what they’re going to do with Adrian.” She made a move to towards the exit.
The lieutenant’s words were rushed. “I’m supposed to show you to your cabins.” Now that the Admiral was gone, he had relaxed noticeably and there was an open, friendly expression on his face.
“Do you know what they’re going to do with him?”
“Just a routine exam in the medical unit. You’ll both be getting yours soon enough.”
“Do medical exams onboard your ship usually come with armed guards?” she asked with sarcasm.
“Not usually.” The lieutenant shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “But we heard your lieutenant was difficult. The Admiral doesn’t like people saying no to him. So he does things, never bothers to ask.”
Bryce said, “Well he’d better get used to it. Adrian says ‘no’ all the time.”
“You forget yourself, crewman,” the lieutenant said stiffly, “This isn’t your exploration ship anymore. You will refer to the lieutenant by his proper title at all times.”
“Course, sir. Sorry, sir.” Damned officers, thought Bryce. All the same. At least Adrian never insisted on his. The idea that the arrogant loner might be one of the better ones was a strange thought. This was not the ship with the gold-lined corridors of Bryce's dreams, though he was still hoping for the beautiful women.
“The name’s Lieutenant Sanderson. I’ll show you to your cabins.”
The medical unit doctor, Grift by name, was a raven-haired man with a gruff manner. “Take off your jacket and shirt, lieutenant and lie faced down on the surgical table.”
Adrian complied without expression, though a knot of fear was churning inside his stomach. Despite his resolve to no longer act human, he was still more human than he hoped.
“They did quite a number on you,” noted the doctor objectively when he saw the angry red scars on Adrian’s body that looked like the work of a deranged artist. Adrian leaned the cane against a chair, removed his shirt and jacket, draped them neatly over the back of it, and climbed onto the table. The armed escort stood nearby like silent sentinels.
A shudder passed through Adrian's body as his flesh touched the frigid metal surface. His head turned to face the doctor.
“Hold him down.”
Before Adrian could react, the four guards pinioned his arms and legs to the table in vice-like grips. Every fibre of his being flinched at being touched but he forced himself to be a cold, unfeeling machine, his body not moving a muscle even as panic rose from the depths of memories that were still too new to be forgotten. He could not control his pounding heart or the lungs that expanded to meet the increased stress.
“Just relax, Lieutenant. It’ll be over quickly.”
Adrian's mind told him it was pointless to struggle. What could he do against so many? He was in their power. They could do anything to him. Fear and anger blended into a mixture that burned. He pulled against the arms holding him down but they might as well have been bands of steel as they constricted tighter around his wrists and ankles.
“Lieutenant, don’t make this any harder than it has to be. You’ll only hurt yourself.” This was no kind-eyed medical assistant; it was a professional doing his job in the service of the Empire.
Hands forced his head facedown and held him in place. Something cold, hard, and metallic was placed flat at the base of his skull. He struggled again, this time more as a gesture of defiance than a genuine attempt to escape.
There was a prick as something penetrated his skin, a faintly itchy feeling and then he screamed. Something was being inserted into his head. The pain was excruciating and his body fought desperately to free itself from this invasion. His breathing came in shallow, wheezing gasps, like a man drowning. Despite his efforts to fight the pain and remain a machine, he moaned in agony as the object burrowed deeper. His violated brain fired off flurries of erratic impulses. The cries became gasping sobs. His shoulders hunched, his body instinctively tried to curl in against the metal surface, unconsciously seeking the position of a child in the womb.
Adrian! Kali’s panicked mental voice broke through the storm of pain inside his head. Her strength and comfort flowed into him. He did not want to be vulnerable to her but he didn’t have enough energy to fight both the pain, and her offer of help.
When they finally let go of him, the pain still remained but had lessened.
“It would have hurt less if you didn’t fight us.” Doctor Grift sighed. “I’m going to be seeing a lot of you, aren’t I? As if I don’t already have enough to do. All right, get him up.”
The guards manhandled Adrian off the table until he stood on swaying feet. He stared blankly at the doctor. For the first time, the man of the mind wanted to put his hands around someone's neck and squeeze the life out of him, as they were doing to him. These people were taking the only thing he had left, leaving only an empty shell.
His hand went to the back of his head, expecting to feel wet, sticky blood, but there was none, only a sealed cut where the device had penetrated his skin. There was something small and hard beneath the surface, at the base of the brain. “What did you do to me?”
“A sub-dermal tracer. It should be finished attaching itself to your brainstem in a few hours." The doctor's voice was clipped and factual, as if he was reciting a list of items he'd remembered just for the occasion. "You'll experience some discomfort until then. Don’t try to remove it or interfere with its function. Pain will be the least of your problems if you do. It has safeguards against tampering. You can put your clothes back on. I’ll check on it tomorrow when you have your physical examination. Do remember to come back. I don’t want to have to chase you around the ship.”
Adrian's jaw tightened in anger, but he refused to show any emotion on his face.
It was an electronic tether. The Admiral wanted to make certain that his prize would never be able to escape