His fingers were uncooperative as Adrian struggled to put on his dark grey shirt. No one helped him. They only stared, as if he was an exhibit behind an energy field, or they simply didn't care, which was more likely. Stabs of pain at the back of his head made him wince occasionally as the tracer continued its invasion of his brain. It took all of his considerable self-control to stop from reaching back and trying to dig it out with his fingers.
"Is it in?" Admiral Verel strode in and instantly dominated the room.
Adrian's spine stiffened at the commanding voice. He shuddered internally, as if a thousand snakes were slithering over his body, ready to sink their poisonous fangs into his flesh if he made a wrong move.
Lifting his uniform jacket from the chair, he slid a stiff arm into the black sleeve, trying to be the cold, inhuman machine that had no reaction to anything, not even the arrival of the man who had the ability to make his life a nightmare.
Sub-Commander Chell, a bulky man who dwarfed Adrian, said, "Yes, sir. It's in."
Adrian pulled the ends to straighten his jacket and stood impassively, not looking at any of the quasi-human beings in the room.
"Lieutenant Adrian Stannis," the Admiral said formally and crossed into his line of sight, standing with his hands on his hips. "You belong to me now and I expect many great things from you. If you disappoint me, you will not find me a forgiving master. Do you understand?"
Adrian's jaw tightened in anger and his eyes flashed in dark defiance, but he was a realist. With the device burrowing into his head and the only person he might give a damn about in their power, he had no choice. His voice was taut. "Yes." He made a slight but deliberate pause before adding. "Sir." It was a small gesture but he refused to give this man everything.
The Admiral's eyes narrowed as he watched him carefully. He did not miss the act of defiance. He plunged his hand into his pocket and brought out a small rectangular control that fit in the palm of his hand. On its face was a small screen, various buttons in red, orange, green, and two slider controls. He held it up to Adrian's eye level. "Do you know what this is?"
"A remote unit."
"This is for the device in your head." His thumb slid one of the bars up a notch and he pressed a larger red button.
Adrian hissed at the shot of pain in his head. His fists tightened and teeth clenched, fighting the need to cry out.
The Admiral pressed the button again and the pain stopped. "It isn't simply a tracer. It is a sophisticated control device. If you disobey me or anyone of my people, I can bring you to your knees." His thumb hovered threateningly over the red button. "If you do not produce regular results, I will turn this on full and leave it on until I feel that you've learned to be more cooperative. If you leave the proximity of the main device, the slave unit inside your head will begin to burn out your brain until there is nothing left. I understand it is quite painful and produces madness. As long as you are on this ship, you should be safe. Do you understand?"
This time the response was quicker. "Yes, sir."
"Good. I like my people to understand what I require from them. Then you will have no excuses." Admiral Verel began circling him like a ruthless predator looking for the best place to strike. "You've caused a great deal of trouble for the Empire, Stannis. Wasting years of work and a considerable fortune in resources when you destroyed all the materials relating to the neutron wave project." He stood behind Adrian now, coming close to his ear, his voice low and menacing. "You thought you were smart. You thought you could get away with it. But no one can beat the Empire. We always win in the end." Every word blew hot air straight onto Adrian's ear. "In my eyes, you are nothing more than a criminal and should be treated as such. You're lucky we don’t ship you to a lifer penal colony and leave you to die. But you're too useful, or so they tell me, and I intend to use you to the fullest extent. Do you understand?"
There was a dead, sinking weight in the pit of Adrian's stomach; he understood completely. They were not going to kill him after he finished the neutron wave project. He was trapped in this hell for as long as they found him useful. The only way to end it…
"And don't think you can terminate yourself."
Adrian's eyes flickered but there was no other reaction.
"The device in your head also acts as a limiter. You cannot kill yourself. Now, Sub-Commander Chell will show you to your cabin. You will go to Science Lab 4 at 0800 tomorrow and report to the Tech Commander. You will do everything he tells you to."
Bryce ran his hands lovingly across the light blue bed covers. They were silky beneath his fingers, a guilty pleasure. "Oooh, I could use a few like this. I might never want to get up again."
Everything in this room was made of shiny new materials he'd only seen on entertainment vids. Did people really live like this? Like kings? The drawers and cupboards recessed discreetly into walls, sliding open to reveal technical wonders. He bet you could put dirty clothes in and they'd come out clean, pressed and in whatever colours you wanted. That would make his PA work a breeze.
Shaking her head at the few items of clothing in Adrian's case, Kali said absently, "Don't you already have enough problems getting up?"
A locked tool kit, a box of slotted, wafer-thin data crystals marked in letters she didn't understand and an advanced personal data unit.
"That's not the point. At least, I'd be comfortable." He flopped backwards onto the bed and wriggled, enjoying the auto-fit mattress forming gently around his eager body. His eyes were half-lidded in pleasure. "Ahhh."
"Are you quite finished?" Kali asked acidly, glaring at his audacity.
Bryce popped up and got off the bed quickly. "Sorry. It looked so…good. I just had to try it. I would never take liberties."
"Honestly, Kali. I wouldn't dare. Adrian would probably stare me to death. Besides, if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have this posh assignment." His eyes were sly as he asked, "You wouldn't know why he picked me, would you? It's not like we're friends. We can't stand each other most days."
"I keep asking myself that." She smoothed the ridges on the covers where Bryce had been lying. "My only answer is temporary insanity."
"You're worried about him, aren't you? That's why you're here."
"That's none of your business."
His eyes rested on the wide comfortable bed, the stuff of dreams and eye-popping commercial advertisements for a low leveller like him. "You know, there's only one bed in this room."
"That is also none of your business." Her voice was like cubes of ice raining on his parade.
"Just thought it was strange was all. I didn't think that you and he…I mean, I can't imagine Adrian getting close enough to a woman..." His eyes widened, "you don't think he's a…"
"Sorry, I have a big mouth."
"Yes, you do! And if you want to continue being Adrian's PA…" Kali screamed and her hand went to the back of her head.
Bryce handed Kali a glass of water, after he figured out how to operate the complicated-looking dispenser taps in the bathroom. He hoped it was drinking water. "You all right?"
Her face was ashen and her fingers shook as she took the glass in both hands. A sip was all she could manage before she gave it back to him. Her mental walls were firmly in place but she could still feel the pain. "It's Adrian. They're doing something to him. They're hurting him."
"Bastards!" He put the glass down and looked at her helplessly, wanting to put his arms around her but afraid it might be misunderstood. Instead, he patted her wringing hands. "It's going to be alright, Kali."
Her eyes were shimmering. "No. It's not. I thought…once he gave in and did what they wanted, it would stop."
"It never stops. He's got something they want. They never let go of people like him. Not till they get every last drop of his blood and then some. That's why I never do anything good enough for them to notice. All of this…" He waved his hand expansively at the riches surrounding them. A moment ago, they seemed like something that belonged in a palace, but now he realized, they were just worthless trinkets to make the prison more comfortable. Compared to Adrian, he had the better life. At least the people who mattered, would never give him a second thought. It was much safer that way. "…it's not worth it. Not for what they make you pay for it."
She bent forward, hugging herself, and rocking back and forth, but was this because of her own need or Adrian's? "I thought they would stop."
The tone in her voice, gave Bryce a suspicion. "Kali, what did you do?"
The cabin door slid open noiselessly. Adrian was framed in the doorway, behind him stood the hulking first officer, Chell. Bryce hastily drew his hand back from Kali's and stood up.
"Tomorrow, 0800. Don't forget," Chell said curtly before he left.
Adrian stepped slowly inside. His eyes saw them but there was no reaction on his face. He stood in the centre of the room, and for a brief moment, his eyes seemed lost, pained and then the mask returned. "Get out." He sounded like a computer lacking the programs that made its voice sound human and not like a soulless synthesized voice.
“Adrian, I know something happened.” Kali reached out a hand towards him. "Did they…"
Adrian’s voice became steely and full of controlled anger. “Get out!” He could not stand the pity in their eyes or the soft compassionate voice that reached in to warm the coldness he used to protect himself. “I don’t need you. I don’t need any of you. Get...” His jaw tensed as a stab of pain pierced the base of his brain. On the outside, he only looked angrier. “Out! Get out!”
“I know when I’m not wanted.” Bryce picked up his two metal cases and headed to the door. “Going to find my own cabin. I’ll be back tomorrow.” He took a last glance at the two of them before stepping out and letting the door slide closed behind him.
Another wave of pain made Adrian clench his fists. Kali’s concerned eyes were just as painful as what was happening inside his head.
If it hadn’t been for her in those lonely, desperate hours, he would already be conditioned. But she was also the reason why he was trapped here. With anguished eyes and a throat constricted in pain, he said, “I need you to leave.”
“I want to help, Adrian. You can’t do this alone.”
“I...am alone. Now get out.”
“This is my cabin too.”
His hand gripped the back of a chair as another wave of pain made him nauseous. It took all his strength to keep it from showing on his face. He knew he must look deathly pale but that couldn’t be helped. “I know. Kali…come back later...I need to be alone.”
“All right, Adrian. I’ll go, but not too far.”
After she left, another stab of pain caused Adrian to double over and grip the back of the chair tightly with both hands. His knees buckled and he slid to the ground.
Sub-B deck was a busier place compared to the officer's deck. More people rushing about engaged in important business. The colours had a variety of greys, producing a graduated shading effect, and a rich royal blue. Much more interesting than the institutional grey of the Sedener. Even bare metal was more interesting-looking than the yawn-producing grey paint that some non-descript quartermaster must have ordered by the ton.
And whoever it was must have been related to the person who designed the dull grey jumpsuit uniform he wore. Bryce was self-conscious that his drab crew uniform stuck out like a sore thumb against these richer colours.
But he wasn't on the Sedener anymore, was he? He smiled even though his arms were killing him. He was sure they were about to fall off if he didn't find his cabin soon. He knew he shouldn't have brought so much over but they were his things. There was no way he was going to leave them behind.
What just happened in Adrian's cabin troubled him, but there wasn't anything he could do. Besides, Kali was with him. That should be all right.
"What are you doing here, crewman?"
He turned around slowly and was blinded by a vision of perfection in a black uniform, with an engineer emblem over her left breast and junior lieutenant marks on her collar. The woman had dark brown hair cut short like most female officers, though hers was a tasteful bob. Her lips were full and had a deep red shade like a rose he'd seen once in a nature vid. The eyes were light hazel to match her hair and she was regarding him with curiosity.
There were beautiful women on a flagship. He knew it. All other thoughts dribbled from his preoccupied brain.
"Do you speak or do you normally stand with your mouth open?" The vision's bitingly sarcastic voice made him realize he'd been staring at her like a star struck gold fish.
"S-sorry," he stuttered, still stunned by her beauty. "I think I'm lost."
"I'd say you were. Crew quarters are three decks down."
Bryce wasn't sure he liked the way she said, 'down'. He hoped she wasn't another one of those officers who looked down on those who weren't. That would put a crimp in things, but he was never one to give up that easily.
"Well, I was told to come here." He fluttered a small plasti-sheet at her, which was difficult since he was only crimping it between two fingers while trying to keep his hold on his luggage. "Here's my order sheet."
"Oh, you're dropping luggage off? Why didn't you say so?"
"Well, yes and no. It's my luggage I’m dropping off and I'm trying to find my cabin."
Inside he was still jumping with joy over the fact that he was getting his own room and wasn't going to be joining the communal quarters of the lower ranks. Seemed PAs for Firsters and senior officers were supposed to be of a higher level than your ordinary PA and had special privileges. He was going to enjoy this.
"Your cabin? Here? Yeah, right. You're crew. You sleep in the Lump." The Lump being the slang term for the 10-crew rooms where the lower ranks were 'lumped' together.
Bryce bristled. This woman might be beautiful but his taste had limits. He wasn't sure he liked her. "If you don't believe me, look at the orders."
She grabbed it out of his hands and peered at it closely. "You're right; it does say deck B, corridor 7."
Her gorgeous hazel eyes narrowed and there was a chill in her voice. "B7-11. That's next to my cabin! This must be a mistake. This corridor is only for JGs."
"Just Guys? Then what are you doing here?"
"Oh, very funny. Don't quit your day job," she snarled sarcastically. "You're…" Her eyes swept him from the top of his dishevelled head to the bottom of his jumpsuit legs. "…not a special, are you? You don't look all that special and you're wearing crewman drab."
"Did anyone ever tell you that you're rude?"
"Only the people who really like me."
"Haha. You must be a real laugh at funerals."
"You plan on dying any time soon?"
Bryce wished he could loosen his collar to cool off the heat that was building inside his uniform - did they always keep it so hot on these fleet ships - but he didn't want to let go of his 'meagre' possessions. Not with this woman here. She'd probably shove them in the recycling unit.
"You'd like that wouldn't you?"
"If I gave you a thought, I might."
"Where's your cabin?"
"Don't try to get fresh with me, crewman; you won't be here that long. Not once I sort out this mistake."
He rolled his eyes, seeking the gods that resided in all ceilings, and shook his head. "If you were the last human being in this universe, I wouldn't date you!"
"Then that would make you an alien, wouldn't it?"
"But but…" His first meeting with a beautiful woman onboard this ship was not going the way he'd planned. "That's not fair!"
The woman smirked. "Now, let's see about putting you in your real place."
"D'you think they made a mistake?" His voice rose in uncertainty.
"What do you think? An ordinary crewmember like you? It has to be someone's idea of a bad joke. Probably someone in admin division. If I find out who did it…" Her eyes were no longer hostile. "It's not your fault crewman. Someone was trying to use you to get to me. They shouldn't have done that to you. We'll sort this out. Follow me."
Bryce went after her as she led the way imperiously back down the corridor. He knew it was too good to be true. Why would anyone give someone like him a cabin? "You said before only JGs and specials live in this corridor?"
The lieutenant turned her head to look at him, her hazel eyes sparkling when they caught the light at the right angle. "That's right."
"Who are the specials?"
"We have all kinds on board. Top scientists, 'Fed VIPs, of course the really top people live on the officer's deck. We get the medium levels here. And Firster PAs, but those are rare. Only the Admiral has one."
Bryce stopped. "I'm one."
"What?" She turned to him in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"I'm a Firster PA for Adrian, I mean Lieutenant Stannis."
"Yoooou?" The level of incredulity in her voice was almost insulting.
"But…Firster PAs are educated, usually Level 2s. You can't be more than a Level 3."
"Yeah, well…" He wasn't about to tell her that he was a Level 4. "I am."
She studied him, even more carefully this time, noting every crease and smudge on his uniform.
Bryce felt naked under her intense gaze.
"Goes to show you, can't judge by appearances. Sorry, I shouldn't have treated you like that."
He grumbled under his breath. "Shouldn't treat anyone like that." He was used to it though. That was the way of the Levels.
"What'd you say?"
He was going to say, "Nothing," as he normally would have, but he found himself blurting out, "You shouldn't treat anyone like that. Even if I wasn't a Firster PA. I'm still a human being."
She stared at him, making Bryce feel even more naked and wondering what in the universe had possessed him to make trouble. He might be a special PA but she was an officer, even though she was only a junior grade. "You're right."
"I am? I mean, of course I am."
Her voice lowered to a bare whisper. "You're not a resister, are you?"
"Of course not." The suggestion of it sent fingers of fear up and down his spine. "I'm not crazy."
"I'm glad. I don't like associating with crazy people. They're…"
The woman chuckled. The light mood softened her face. "Yeah. I would never endanger my family."
"I don't have any."
"Oh. I'm sorry about that."
"It's nothing. I never knew my parents," said Bryce, a lump forming in his throat. He hadn't thought about them in ages. "They died in the Algar III plague."
"Damned aliens. We're still dealing with their germs."
"Yeah." He shrugged. "I don’t like talking about it."
"Let's get you settled then."
"Next to your cabin?" he asked with a hopeful grin.
"Don't get your hopes up. I'm Kerril by the way. Lieutenant Sealey to you."
"Kerril Sealey. That's got a nice ring to it." He rolled it around his tongue like a delectable morsel. "Kerril Sealey."
"Don’t wear it out. What's yours?"
"Bryce? Is that a first name or a last?"
"Well, if you must know, it's Vilane Bryce."
Bryce sighed. He always had this problem; it came from having parents with an odd sense of humour. Too bad, he never knew them long enough to give them a piece of his mind. "No, no, no…It's Vi-lane."
"Still sounds like villain to me."
"Now look here. If we're going to be neighbours, can you at least be nice?"
"Why?" Then Kerril smiled and the corridor seemed to flare up with the light of a thousand stars. "I'm just kidding."
"Is it always going to be like this with you?"
"If you're good."