Description: Kali's confrontation with the Admiral. Bryce has a new uniform and 'runs into' Kerril again.
Kali didn't have time to wonder how Adrian was doing in the Science Lab. She had her own problems at the moment.
"You can sit here, Ensign." First Officer Chell indicated a lone seat at the end of a long rectangular table. His soft, friendly voice, so unlike the unfeeling, almost cruel man who had led Adrian away, surprised her.
"Thank you, sir." She settled herself gingerly into the 'hot seat,' almost expecting it to burn her. The configuration of the room looked suspiciously like an inquisition chamber.
What did the Admiral want with her? What was this meeting about? She thought she was here to work.
"Don't be nervous. Just be honest and answer all the questions." He gave her a brief, encouraging smile before joining his fellow officers. She wasn't as suspicious as Adrian was, or even Bryce, or she'd be wondering if Chell had any personal reasons to be nice to her.
She shifted restlessly in the chair and looked around. Even a double-padded seat would bring no comfort here. A group of senior officers, shoulders dripping impressively with the silver and gold of rank, whispered to each other just out of earshot. None of them looked in her direction, but her psi perceptions told her that they were acutely aware of her. She wondered if they were discussing Adrian, too. He was a faint presence at the edge of her consciousness, a slightly stressed one whose mind was sharp and working.
The entire room snapped to attention when the Admiral walked in, like a storm entering an enclosed room. Kali's heart pounded in her chest as she belatedly jumped to her feet.
"Let's get this show in the fast lane."
Kali's legs felt like rubber as she sank back down into the user-unfriendly chair. The Admiral commanded her respect and obedience, but he was also the man who'd had Adrian tortured.
"Ensign Kali Tranton." The Admiral swung a monitor screen towards him and pressed a square button on the table. A control panel popped up and he pressed a few keys. "It says here you're a Tellaran."
She cleared her dry throat. "Y-yes, sir."
"Yes, but…" It felt like a race and she was running to keep up.
"Only among your own people?"
"Then what are you good for?" A hammer could have dropped and no one would have heard it.
It felt as if a million pairs of eyes were focussed solely on her. This was her chance, her test, and she had to impress them or be little more than a hostage.
Kali stretched her psi perceptions to the fullest, concentrating harder than ever before. The room was a sea of ripples, consciousnesses and feelings interacting and overlapping with each other.
"I may not be able to read human minds, Admiral," She kept her voice even and controlled, unconsciously trying to imitate Adrian, "but I am able to read emotional states. Given practice, I will be able to discern complex emotional variances."
He leaned forward, his eyes eager. "Can you tell if someone is lying?"
His sharp interest made Kali nod slowly as she tried to assess what he was really after. "That would be a useful ability."
His words followed hers quickly, barely allowing her to breath before pouncing with the next question. "But do you have it?"
"I cannot read human minds, but I am aware of underlying emotions. I can help you determine if someone is lying or not to a greater degree of accuracy. I can also sense aggression levels, which are very strong in this room."
The officers erupted into laughter as the Admiral said, "I would hope so. We are soldiers."
"But you're not in the heat of battle." She paused, thinking. "Correction. This is a battle, but not one with physical weapons. I am an unknown quantity. An alien." Her eyes and perceptions swept the room, finding the ones who had a reaction. "That makes some of you nervous." A few looked at her in challenge. One or two avoided her eyes. She didn't need her psi perceptions to read this. "You have great interest in a true telepathic ability among humans. You would give a great deal to be able to obtain this ability. But some of you are secretly afraid of it as well."
Kali didn't search the room this time. She projected directly into Admiral Verel's mind, keeping her mental voice soft, unthreatening. 'You are one of those people, Admiral.'
Admiral Verel's eyes opened wide and he stared at her.
'Rest assured Admiral; I can't read your mind. I cannot tell what you're trying to say to me.'
She hoped she had not made a mistake with her reading of his intentions.
"Clear this room." Verel's voice was ruthless, sending slivers of ice up and down Kali's spine. He held Chell back and whispered something to him. The First Officer nodded and followed the others out. No one turn back to look at her; it was as if they were abandoning a ship about to be consigned to the void of space. The door slid closed, but in Kali's mind, it was like the clang of a gate crashing down, trapping her.
What was it like to die far from her home world, away from the voices that had been her constant companions since her consciousness was born? For Kali, being among humans was an isolating experience even though it had been her own choice.
She had been a strong voice on the side of those who advocated breaking their legendary neutrality and joining the rest of the human race in the struggle against the aliens.
We cannot sit by and allow others die defending us! Neutrality does not make us superior, it only makes us cowards!
She had been woefully naïve and supremely ignorant of the realities of the Empire.
Her pulse was racing and her mind was in a chaos. Emotions bubbled over. She applied her mental discipline to bring them under control but a telltale drop of sweat slid down her back. "Sir, please don't hurt Adrian."
"Is that what you think I'm going to do?"
"I thought…" Her eyes lowered, unable to look into his challenging ones. "When you gave orders to Sub-Commander Chell…"
"You can't read my mind." This was not a question.
"You were telling the truth."
She raised her head. "You were testing me?" Her perceptions were telling her something else about the Admiral, but did she have the courage to test it? She squared her shoulders.
"I do not like people I don't understand, Ensign." He tapped the table twice with his fingers as if to emphasize this.
She was afraid, but there were worse things than fear. "You also don't like people you can't control, Admiral. People like Adrian."
His voice became hard and menacing, and his eyes contained fire that would burn anyone who would defy him. "You have a nerve, Ensign."
"That is what I am offering you, Admiral." Her manner was respectful but there was steel behind her words.
"My abilities. The ones that told me you are wary of people who can read human minds even though you are looking for them. And the ones that told me even though you demand obedience, you respect those who are brave enough to stand up to you."
"This is more than an ability to read emotional states."
Her head dipped in acknowledgement. "It is the ability to apply it."
He continued staring at her for a long minute, the fire in his eyes still threatening, but she remained calm and returned his gaze without flinching. It was one of the hardest things she had ever done. Standing before the Senate on Tellar and voicing her opinions was child's play compared to facing this daunting man.
Kali normally preferred working around confrontations or diffusing them, unless she felt strongly about something. Or someone.
"I like you, Ensign. You may yet survive." His voice changed, he was almost friendly.
"Thank you, sir." She hesitated before asking, "And Lieutenant Stannis?"
"You would have done better not associating with him," said Verel.
"He is also audacious, Admiral."
"He's highly intelligent," she countered.
"He's more trouble than he's worth."
"No, he's not or you would have had him killed."
"He can be of great value to you, Admiral."
"He's a dangerous man."
"That's why he's of great value."
Verel snorted. "You're good."
"But not good enough?"
A smile appeared on his face. “Good enough, but not in this case. The Empire will have his obedience; there is nothing else for him. He is too valuable a resource to lose.”
"Admiral, Adrian possesses the qualities that you want in your officers."
Kali fell silent and her head bowed as Verel watched her across the long table. He had a daughter her age. She was spoiled, strong-willed and full of frivolous thoughts. Not like this young woman who was standing up to him for the sake of someone else. Loyalty was something he understood. “You care about him.”
Her voice was quiet. “Isn’t that the real reason you have me here, sir? If he doesn't cooperate then you will use me against him?”
Verel sighed heavily and stood up; kneading the small of his back and an old injury that still bothered him. The aliens were a tough lot who never gave up and neither had he.
He came slowly towards her. “We are not monsters, Ensign. We do what we must for the sake of humanity and humanoid worlds like yours.” He stopped a few feet in front of her. "For that, people like the Lieutenant must lend their abilities."
He sounded like many of the politicians on the news services, the ones who stirred people's hearts with fiery speeches, including hers. They were words that fired her imagination and demanded her response.
Bravery, responsibility, security and standing in the gap against the aliens for the sake of the humanoid worlds. It had sounded so heroic. She had left Tellar looking for the ideals and found something far from it. Living in the Empire had opened her eyes and rubbed off the lustre. She still believed in the ideals, but it had become an increasingly cynical belief.
And what they were doing to Adrian… “Even against his will?”
“For the security of the Empire, the freedom of some must be sacrificed." He sat on the table, curling slightly towards her, like a father trying to explain the harsh realities of the universe to a child. "People are our greatest assets, Ensign, our greatest weapons. If it weren't for human ingenuity and determination, we would all be wiped out by the aliens or all enslaved. Do you want that?"
"Of course not. Humanity cannot afford mass freedom, Ensign. People cannot pursue their own selfish agendas, especially if they possess the talents required to keep the rest safe." His eyes focused in the distance, far above her head, remembering his battles for the Empire. "The rebels don't understand this. Bunch of short-sighted ingrates. We must all serve the greater good if humanity is to survive.”
“You make it sound so noble.” There was a trace of wistfulness in her voice. She left Tellar searching for that nobility, but now she wasn't sure what it meant. Kali wondered if Adrian had travelled this path of disillusionment on his way to losing faith in the human race.
Admiral's voice was impassioned and strong. “Saving the human race is a noble endeavour. I have dedicated my life to it.”
Kali wondered if he really believed what he was saying.
“I’m glad the Lieutenant has you, Ensign. He’s a stubborn man. He will not break easily. And make no mistake; he will be broken. Fleet Command has ordered it.”
Her blood froze at his words. “Please, Admiral...”
“If you really want to help him, then persuade him to serve the Empire, not his own interests." He became the commanding, no-nonsense Admiral again. "In the meantime, you will be a good addition to my staff. Your psi abilities will be useful when we negotiate an alliance with the Verindi."
When the Admiral changed the topic, it was changed. "The information packet will be available to your ident code in an hour. Familiarize yourself with it and report to my office...” He checked the monitor. “...looks like I’ve got meetings all day tomorrow. Damned useless things. All right, see me in two days. My assistant will send you the time. Do you have any questions?”
The topic of Adrian had passed, but there was still an opportunity to help him if she became a useful member of the Admiral's staff, and gained some power and influence. It wasn't her way but these were desperate times.
She put on the face of the dutiful and conscientious ensign. “When will the negotiations with the Verindi occur, sir?”
Boldness and obedience. That was what the Admiral demanded and that was what she was going to give him, at least on the surface.
“Seven days. We’ve arranged to meet at a neutral trading planet.”
“What kind of alliance will we be negotiating?”
“The details will be in the packet. If you have any other questions, see my First Officer.”
“You’re dismissed, Ensign.”
Early the next morning, Bryce studied himself proudly in the reflective surface in his cabin, rotating his body this way and that to model his handsome new outfit.
It was an officer’s uniform! No more dull grey jumpsuits for him!
If his old mates could see him now! Bryce sighed. They’d probably laugh. They’d never understand. That didn’t matter, though; it made a difference to him.
After years of drudgery in the lower ranks, serving his 12-year sentence, he thought he’d never be free of it. Maybe he’d get more respect now. People wouldn't automatically look down at him because he was a low leveller. Hopefully, it would make a difference with the women. Maybe even Kerril, whom he hadn’t seen since the first day.
He straightened the angled collar and brushed the sleeves. It was time to go to work. Breakfast for Adrian. It was only then he realized he had no idea what the man wanted. He’d never asked and Adrian hadn’t seen fit to tell him. He groaned. Getting any information out of the tight-lipped man was going to be a chore.
Probably not a ham sandwich. That was for lunch. He seemed to like the coffee. Maybe toast with butter and an assortment of jams? That’ll have to do for now.
Bryce opened the door and headed to the mess hall, and…crashed headlong into someone. He groaned and rubbed his head.
“Watch where you’re going you oaf!”
“Sorry.” His mouth dropped open at the sight of Lt. Sealey.
"Oh, it's you!" She eyed his gaping mouth and said, "You're doing it again. Have you never seen a beautiful woman before?"
He closed his mouth and tried to look offended rather than embarrassed. "Where?"
"Haha. Still trying to quit your day job, I see."
The new uniform didn't seem to be working, at least not with this woman. She was still as abrasive as ever. "Well, if you're trying to make me not like you, you're doing a bang up job of it. Congratulations. On my list of people I wouldn't want to be trapped on a desert planet with, you would be right up there. Right in front of the man-eating slugs of Delgar 4. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have better things to do. Like washing my hair."
He stalked off, and this time it was Kerril with her mouth open in astonishment. She ran after him. "They're disgusting."
"Have you looked in the mirror lately?" He kept walking.
"Did I cross the line with you?"
"You have a line?"
"Look…can you stop walking? I'm trying to apologize."
Bryce stopped and turned to face her as she continued, "I think we got off on the wrong foot."
"That's your idea of an apology?"
"I'm not the only one who said things. You compared me to a man-eating slug."
"No, I didn't. I said you were worse than a man-eating slug." He had no idea why he said that. Why did this woman make him say these things? He had to get away from her or it was only going to get worse.
"Take that back!"
"No!" Damn. He did it again.
They glared at each other. Bryce was hot under the collar, and she was beautiful when her eyes were flashing with anger. But his pride was an ornery creature. "I have work to do. Don't follow me."
Bryce arrived at Adrian's cabin and took a few deep breaths before he pressed the announcing button. As he waited for the response, he wondered if he could request to be moved to a different cabin. One far away from Lieutenant Kerril Sealey.
Kali opened the door. She was already dressed in her black uniform.
He asked, "Is the Lieutenant decent?"
"I wouldn't know. He's not here."
"Oh." He hadn't expected that answer. He knew Adrian awoke early, but this was ridiculous, even for him. "Do you know if he's already had breakfast?"
Kali let him in and went over to the dresser. "He never came back."
She picked up a brush.
"He never came back…you mean from working?" He looked around the room. No clothes needed to be put away, the bed was already made and there were no assorted odds and ends needing him to sort them out. This was even easier than he'd imagined.
"Yes. He must be very busy," said Kali.
"But he's got to eat. And sleep. I mean, he is human. Just barely."
"Take the breakfast to the Lab."
"I think I'll do that." Wanting to make a good impression, he said "You know, Kali, you don't have to clean up the bed. That's my job."
"I don't know if I could get used to that." She brushed her hair a few more strokes and put the brush down, looking at herself critically in the mirror.
"Well, get used to it."
Kali looked at his half-reflection in the mirror before turning around to face him. "You might as well know since there's no way to hide it from you."
This sounded interesting. "Know? What?"
"Adrian and I don't sleep together. He sleeps on the couch."
"You're kidding. He has you here and…nothing?"
"He's not that kind of man."
"I knew he was strange. You're a beautiful woman and… " His eyes automatically checked out the relevant loveliness. She had a wonderful pair of legs. And her eyes were a soft…
She snapped her fingers, causing him to blink. "Bryce. Pay attention and stop speculating. I don't want this to get out. I'm serious. No one is to find out that the two of us aren't intimate."
"Can I ask why?"
"No. But it's important."
"All right. But I think it's a waste." He shook his head to emphasize that it wasn't just a waste, it was a tragedy.
"He's not ready."
"I don't understand that. What's to get ready? All you have to…"
"Bryce," she said quickly, "don't you have to get some breakfast for Adrian?"
"Yeah. I'll go."