When Kali ventured back into the cabin, the lights were dimmed. Thinking Adrian must have left the room while she was away, she was about to turn them back on when in the shadows, she spotted a lumpy form on the couch, a thin blanket stretched over his curled body. In the stillness, his breathing was the only sound, shallow, at times ragged painful breaths, as if he were dreaming unpleasant things.
His clothes lay neatly draped over the back of the chair and the bed was untouched. There was a lump in her throat.
She knew that despite what he had said earlier, Adrian didn’t want to be alone, but he felt he had no choice. He thought it was the only way he could survive; perhaps the only way he knew how. More than ever, she was determined to help him, but she knew she would have to be patient.
She didn’t know what the Admiral had done to him, and she doubted if Adrian would tell her, but she knew it had caused him a great deal of pain. After all the Empire had done to him and was going to do, he might never want to trust anyone again.
Mornings were supposed to hold promises for a new day. For most people that is. To Adrian, the realist, it was nothing more than another opportunity to be disappointed.
His stomach was queasy and his mouth tasted bitter as the acid churned in his stomach. He spit out the cleansing water and wiped the back of his hand across his lips as he studied himself in the mirror.
Eyes were blood-shot and face lacked a healthy colour but otherwise he appeared normal. No one could tell he had a device that was still shooting random jabs of pain in his head. It was only supposed to take a few hours to attach itself to his brain. Perhaps it was adjusting, becoming familiar with his brain pattern and body chemistry. How was he supposed to work, to concentrate with this pain in his head? He should visit the medical unit before reporting in. There was more than enough time.
He re-entered the bedroom and averted his eyes when he saw Kali getting up, the soft beige nightgown, translucent in places, giving her a soft, feminine aura that was hard to imagine in the severe black uniforms. "The bathroom is yours, Ensign. I'm finished."
Kali winced at the formal address. So it had come to this? Adrian had always called her by her name, either first or last, depending on the formality of the occasion. He never used the impersonal gap-encouraging rank before.
"Thank you." She decided to pretend that everything was normal even though it was little more than a sham. "You're up early."
He stared at her for a moment with his deep, liquid hazel eyes. "I have to go."
"Thank you for the bed last night. You didn't have to do that."
"Tell Bryce to clean up when he shows up. And have him deliver breakfast to Science Lab 4." With those orders, he left.
Kali stared after him, her eyes heavy with thought. It was going to take more than patience. It would take a miracle and a great deal of creativity to reach him.
"The pain is normal," said Dr. Grift while his patient slid off the examination bed. The bio-readouts showed multi-coloured graphs of Adrian's mental waves and in the centre, a scan of his brain.
"You said the device only takes a few hours to attach itself." He slid the grey shirt back up shoulders that still bore ugly red scars, and refastened it while he tried to understand the scanner results.
"That's right." The scans clearly showed a small black area that did not belong to a normal brain. "It has successfully integrated with your nervous system."
"But I still experience pain."
"Well, you would."
Adrian was getting the full picture. "I see."
"I'm glad you do. I do hate having to explain the obvious. Especially if it's unpleasant."
"I need to be able to concentrate."
The doctor punched in a few commands to save Adrian's scans. "If you're looking for chemical aid, you won't find any. Not until the Admiral changes his orders. They tell me you're a bright man and a Firster. Genetically superior to the rest of us. I'm sure you'll find a way to adjust. You're dismissed, Lieutenant."
"Well, well, well…look at who decided to grace us with his presence. If it isn't our former Tech Commander." The hostility rolled in waves towards Adrian the moment he entered the Science Lab. The squint-eyed man was a familiar, perpetually tanned face in a tech-white knee-length coat with a swirling science emblem. The Tech Commander markings were new and nearly made Adrian's lips curl in sarcasm, but he maintained an impassive expression, more like the cowled face of death than an emotionless statue.
This man was a known quantity, a dangerous little sycophant with no talent, ordinary intelligence and a disgusting ability to do 'favours' for those who could hide his ineptitude and advance his career. If his family had not been rich and had the right political connections, he would have spent his life in the junior ranks. A spoiled, vicious, nasty product of his class, only marking time until he inherited his family's fortune. Until that fortune had been wiped out. That just left him spoiled, vicious, nasty and with a desperate need to succeed despite having mediocre abilities.
Adrian had detested him the moment he set eyes on him. There were far too many like this man; parasites who rode on the success of others. Alan Kegan.
The toad appeared to have come up considerably in the Empire food chain. Kegan had been a simple lab tech - one who required constant supervision - on the neutron wave project. It was obvious he found the right people to suck up to. And even more obvious that he was after revenge. Pain pierced Adrian's head again, a constant nagging reminder of his position. His jaw tensed but he remained stony-faced.
Kegan came right up to him, toe-to-toe and a nose shorter, deliberately invading his space, but someone like him could never intimidate Adrian.
"Professor Stannis." He spat out Adrian's title like a bad taste. "You nearly ruined my career with that little stunt of yours. To think I admired you once. Looked up to you even. But things are different now. I'm in charge."
"Are you really?" Adrian's voice was acid on unprotected ears.
"You think you're smart but who's laughing now? All I have to do is tell the Admiral you're not cooperating. Then what do you think will happen?"
Adrian's lips lifted in a snarl and his eyes were cold as the deep of space. "What do you think will happen to you if this project doesn't produce results? I doubt if the Admiral is a patient man and you are the Tech Commander. Push me too hard and I will bring you down with me."
"Is that a threat?" Kegan's face was so close, Adrian could see the individual hairs of the stubble on the man's cheek and his hot breath carried the smell of coffee with too much sugar.
"I do not issue threats, only inescapable facts."
"I can make your life very uncomfortable."
"Was that a threat?" Adrian's fearless eyes drilled into Kegan's, making the man take a step back.
"I'm the Tech Commander."
"Are you trying to convince me or yourself?" There was no sarcasm in his voice. None was needed.
Kegan's tone abruptly changed. He became friendly and his eyes were sly. "If you do well, I could see to making things a bit more…pleasant for you. I could try to convince the Admiral to allow you some medication. He and I are close."
Adrian snorted in derision. "So that's how you received a promotion you are supremely unqualified for."
"You'll pay for that," Kegan shouted.
With a bored voice, Adrian said, "If you've finished this charade, I'd like to start work."
Kegan picked up a large screened datapad and threw it at him. "Here! Phase One. You remember it don't you? The one I was working on?"
With reflexes still dulled by his ordeal, Adrian nearly dropped it but there was nothing wrong with his ability to deliver scathing comments. "You mean the one you botched and I had to be brought in to fix your mess?"
"Well then you should be able to do it faster, won't you? You have one month."
"That's impossible. Phase One took…"
"I know how long it took." Kegan stepped too close again. Adrian decided that sugar in coffee was disgusting and resolved he would never have that combination."I worked on it, remember? I told the Admiral you would be able to complete it in a month. He likes fast results and I intend to give it to him."
"You're a fool. It took two years to generate the right compression wave."
"Yes, but we know how to do it now, don't we? At least you do." Kegan paced in agitated steps. "I have to hand it to you. You made sure you were the only one who understood the whole thing. The rest of us looked like idiots after they found out what you'd done. None of us could reproduce the results. We didn't even come close."
Adrian gave a cynical laugh. "You tried?" He hadn't hid anything. They couldn't produce his results because none of them had his brains.
"Yeah, we tried. Fat lot of good it did. A whole year wasted and we couldn't get past Phase One. Then they decided to bring you in. Some people wanted to have you executed. Did they tell you? But they consider you too valuable."
The Sedener had been an illusion. Adrian thought he had escaped the Empire, had passed out of their radar as a failed researcher, a faulty genius, no longer a treasure for their greedy hands. In reality, they had given him a long leash and reeled him in when they found him useful again. He was a fool too; he hadn't fooled anyone.
Kegan sneered as he smelled success. "Now you know the truth. How does it feel?"
"Do you think death scares me?"
A cynical female voice said from behind him, "Adrian isn't afraid of death."
Adrian's back stiffened as the harsh voice chilled the room.
"He's only afraid of life. Isn't that right?"
Without turning to look at her, Adrian could already see the steely black pupils and jet-black hair in his mind's memory. There was no reaction in his voice, only a passive acknowledgement of her arrival. "Professor Boudreaux."
"We weren't that formal with each other once upon a time." She came around to face him eye-to-eye, another figure in a tech-white lab coat but one possessed of an icy beauty, almost like a colder, female version of him. Her coat was pristine, with no markings, designating her as a civilian.
Tamara Boudreaux was a brilliant woman in her field of Wave Dynamics. A ruthless, ambitious climber. They had got on well and the sparks between them had provided for some spirited discussions. Adrian always appreciated people who didn't waste his time.
"Times have changed."
"So I've noticed." She ran a finger sensually along his collar as he stood passively, but inside him where primal urges were encouraged by biological reactions, was a different matter. He never expected to see this icy beauty again, a woman who stirred sensations in his body but not the warmth associated with the positive, complex impressions that came from Kali.
Boudreaux's chuckle sent ripples of excitement and apprehension down his spine. "You haven't changed."
"We're working together?" He kicked himself for such an obvious question.
"Does that displease you? Or make you uncomfortable? I hope it does…you bastard." Her eyes flashed with fury. "You destroyed my career until they found out what you did."
"I warned you to leave."
"Yes, but you didn't tell me why!"
"Then you are after revenge as well?"
"I will get my revenge one way or another." She came close, her voice an icy whisper only the two of them could hear. "I'm not a fool like Kegan. I know how to make you squirm." Her voice was seductive in its menace. "You have a consort now, don't you?"
"No; he reacted before he could control himself. His heart was racing.
Boudreaux took a step back with a satisfied smile that was far from her eyes. "You should never have crossed me, Adrian. I’m not a good enemy to have."
He was composed again and looked at her impassively. "Do we plan to start Phase One today?" It was as if she hadn't just threatened him. "Or would you like to save time and tell the Admiral that we've already failed to meet the target?"