Echoes of Esharam by Robert Davies (The Specimen Chronicles #2)

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ECHOES OF ESHARAM Copyright Š 2018 Robert Davies All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by Indigo an imprint of BHC Press Library of Congress Control Number: 2017952213 ISBN: 978-1-946848-96-3 Also available in ebook Visit the publisher at:



Specimen 959 OTHER NOVELS

When the River Ran Dry

Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring. ~ Carl Sagan ~



the cottage with folded arms as the old caretaker made his way up a footpath where the gathering machines waited, silent and cold on the old road. Summer’s end was within reach and soon they would clatter to life and seek out their harvest in the trees beyond. A lingering mist moved through the sprawling orchards like a lazy ghost, neither hindered nor helped as it swirled slowly among the heavy, fruit-laden branches and she watched it for a while. Again, the notion had pried its way in, seeping through the cracks she thought mortared and tight, calling out for her to revive a faith long gone if only to prop up the thin supports of hope one last time. She wanted to tell them her opinion—she wanted them to leave it alone because years had passed and nothing had come of it, but it was not her place. Now, they seemed different and no longer moved by mere fondness or sympathy; the possibility had shifted from dreams and wishes to the place where plans are drawn. It was clear that something had changed. Closing the door behind her as she turned, Rez could hear Marelle’s delicate voice from the kitchen where she cleared away their breakfast dishes, singing The Guardian’s Tale softly in the way mothers distract and comfort

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their children during thunderstorms. She fought against it, determined not to give in and dredge hollow wishes from the muck of reality, only to watch it fade into oblivion and with it, another piece of Marelle’s sanity. It was not in her nature to rely on good intent. Rez preferred the bedrock of her life remain rooted in ordinary pragmatism, but the moment demanded of her something she found most difficult to give—it asked her to trust. Perhaps, she thought with a vague smile, the strange machine they showed her where it stood deep inside a grand house at the bottom of the hill might make Marelle whole again. She didn’t understand its purpose and they hadn’t made promises, Rez knew, but the possibility had never been so real—not like this. She padded softly down the hallway, watchful of the time. “The gallery called this morning,” she said at last. Marelle returned a coy smile. “Are they interested, or is this another of Gelan’s intrigues?” “He is a shrewd negotiator,” Rez replied, “but he knows what price your last showing demanded; I think he is genuine this time.” “He is genuine where the fee he collects is concerned.” Rez smiled and pulled a wrap from its hook; the air would warm when the sun crested the trees, but not for a while. “Remember, they are bringing a visitor this afternoon and he would like to see your new landscape.” “It is not finished,” Marelle replied cautiously. “Who is he?” “I do not know his name,” Rez lied, “but he seems to be an important person—a traveler who visited long ago.” Marelle stopped and turned to face Rez. “How long?” “Many years, it would seem.” “He knew me then?” Rez closed her eyes and said, “I believe so.” She had been waiting since they first called up from the house about the visit, knowing Marelle would see a hidden meaning. They all agreed to avoid references to the past for this reason, but it would become inevitable if what the old Khorran said was true. If they had indeed found a way to give Marelle back all that was stolen, Rez knew, she would see it immediately and react. Marelle nodded silently and walked toward the rear entryway, still shrouded in tiny purple flowers that blossomed in late summer. Waiting before a


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broad apron of smooth paving stones that led from the back door onto the lawn, they watched another air car speed up the valley from the south. It hovered for a moment above the big house before dropping slowly behind the new groves. Rez couldn’t speak of it direct, but the old, persistent feeling of anticipation crept in once more, tugging at her from the margins. They paused another second, looking only at the treetops and what Rez knew waited beyond. This time, she thought with a determined smile‌maybe this time.



nearly gone when they shuffled slowly in, drawn to Qural’s table by an orchestra of pleasing aromas. Banen waited patiently while Theriani picked through a platter piled high with wedges of melon; the tiny Revallan could be difficult to move after so late an evening. Professor Tindas worked carefully at his teacup, blowing on it in bursts like a flute player between short, tentative sips that amused Rentha more than it should. When they found their places at last, the quiet returned. Rantara sat curled on a long settee, busying herself with a selection of bite-sized pastry and for a moment or two, Norris watched her carefully so she wouldn’t notice. Even in the chasm, when he was still a captive and at her mercy, he couldn’t help but admire her beauty. He never spoke of it to the others, but the attraction had always been powerful, made all the more urgent in the moments when she stood close, her breath brushing past his ear. She was his enemy then—his tormentor—but still he was held by that voice and her dazzling eyes. He smiled at the thought, remembering how difficult a task it had been, falling in love with one he so hated only months before. Was it the same for her, Norris wondered, sitting quietly in Qural’s parlor and delivered from Bera Nima no differently than he? Were the necessary

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adjustments to a new life in a distant land easier for him to reconcile, simply because they were unavoidable? After all, his condition as an alien traveler living day-to-day so far from home was not of his own making. For Rantara, it was something different indeed. The unlikely path she followed to a quiet gathering in an Anashi diplomat’s house was twisted and uncertain. The decision to turn away from everything she knew was hers alone and she made it deliberately. She had come out from Kalarive as he had, but her history in that most horrible and foreboding of places was not one born of nobility or sacrifice. Instead, hers was a story of brutal savagery and domination over those who lived or died according to her whims. But circumstance, and the accident of her growing interest in Norris, had changed her. In every way, that same circumstance had become a deliverer, opening her to the possibility of a fresh start and a better life. He watched her. For so long, Sergeant Onallin Rantara had been their most hated enemy, but barely a fortnight later, she meant more to him than any other. As he looked on, imagining the burden of a past she would always carry, Norris remembered what Rantara had been, now a stark and persistent contradiction of whom she had become. When they first arrived on the Anashi home world to rest in the opulence of Qural’s estate among the hills above Aremor City, there was suddenly little to do. They were delivered from Bera Nima at last, but the absence of their struggle to escape left a strange void each found difficult to fill, even as they basked in the warmth of their freedom. Hesset was gone soon after, returned to her birthplace on Casta and a slow recovery from an ordeal in the embrace of her family she had been so sorely denied. To no one’s surprise, Banen remained, arguing that Norris’ health would be guaranteed before he would consider a move. Theriani stayed at Banen’s side, as always, but an unexpected bond had formed between the deadly little commando and Rantara. Most believed they had gravitated to one another only by a shared experience as elite soldiers few can understand or appreciate, but Qural wasn’t fooled. From her view, the bond between former enemies was not so mysterious and unlikely—they had simply discovered a genuine friendship and neither cared if others found it odd. Norris, the only human to occupy their known space, was differently placed. But for the handful of friends who sustained him after a calamity he barely survived, he drifted in an ocean of alien worlds, waiting for the conclusion Qural had promised him only days before. Inside the mysterious Tran-


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sceptor, memories from a year in his life he could no longer see would be returned to him. Like a transient amnesiac suddenly restored, he would remember the moments that passed seventeen years before and with the flood of memories, he would understand. But there was more; in time, perhaps, Doctor Kol and Haleth would find the path that would lead him home. Through it all, there was Rantara. She ruled over a nightmare world in the bowels of a canyon prison awash in squalor, hopelessness and violence, yet she had found salvation by events no one could have foreseen; the former Sergeant of the Guard stood in the doorway of a new life. But hers had changed, and in no more important way than her deep, unexpected attachment to Norris. For the first time, Rantara’s life would follow a course of her own choosing, yet it was securely entwined with another’s and willingly so. No matter the destination, Norris’ strange journey had become hers. Qural waited while house attendants removed the last empty plates and cups. “Darrien, it is time. Banen is now satisfied your physical condition will allow you to reconnect with the Transceptor so your memories from before can be restored; Haleth is ready.” Norris felt Rantara’s hand reach gently for his. He felt no fear or reason to hesitate, but the anxiety in her eyes was obvious. The ancient Searcher machine’s power was stunning, but old and unrelenting suspicions that kept her in a cage of distant solitude for so long remained. Her contempt for the Anash—a product of her upbringing—only made worse her worry that Norris could be injured or forever changed. She knew nothing of the elusive and mysterious Searchers, but their connection to those most powerful Anashi figures made them objects to be watched and distrusted. The torment had not compelled Rantara to violence, but it lured her to a place where the imagination runs free; a boiling cauldron of thoughts and images where strangers might conspire to take him from her. Professor Tindas nodded for Haleth to step forward. “I would rather avoid applying a deep sedative before the transfer,” he began, “but doing so would extend the download time. Also, you must adjust to the effects of the sedating agent for other purposes and future applications, Darrien.” Norris nodded, but Rantara stood and moved suddenly between Haleth and Norris. “Wait,” she said evenly. “How long will this transfer take?”

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“With the full sedative,” Haleth replied, “a few hours; he will be awake again before mid-afternoon. As his body becomes accustomed to the agent, he will be able to receive memories at a much faster rate.” Her eyes narrowed and the others saw the cold darkness of her nature emerge once more. Driven by an instinctual need to protect Norris that had become automatic, she moved in close—effortless and with the grace of a dancer that hid the murderous power within; she wanted answers. “That doesn’t explain anything. You just told Darrien he would have to be unconscious for ‘other purposes.’ What does that mean?” Her tone had changed. Suddenly, and with a low, growling delivery, the voice betrayed again Rantara’s distrust of Haleth and the Transceptor. He stood still, gathering his words carefully in the awkward silence. “The agent itself carries properties that can cause a shock to human blood chemistry if not regulated carefully, Sergeant. We learned this from Darrien’s time here before and I want to allow his body to adjust in slow increments until it has become accustomed.” Rantara was unimpressed, stepping quickly toward Haleth, startling him so that he nearly jumped backward. “And then you said ‘future applications,’” she continued coolly, “which means more time hooked up to this damned thing. So I’ll ask you again, Haleth; why does he need to become accustomed to this sedative?” The tension was rising and no one dared to speak. Haleth had once again found himself the target of Rantara’s relentless scrutiny and Qural wondered if those terrified souls heard the same voice in Bera Nima’s interrogation chamber. As it was, her fury could be roused easily if she smelled a danger to Norris’ safety, but it would be made worse if the implied threat carried with it a deliberate lie. The burners on the vile, muddy floor of the chasm had turned to ashes what remained of many who had stupidly tried to deceive her and Norris reached to pull Rantara back, hoping to distract and ease her down. “Can’t we do the transfer in one pass?” he asked. “I thought the sedative would let you finish it without the need for other sessions.” “We will,” Haleth replied cautiously, grateful for the distraction. “This can be accomplished by a single session in the Transceptor, but the extra preparation is needed so your body may accept a more lengthy exercise later.” It was clear Haleth spoke to an event that had not been made clear to Norris and the others. He looked at once to Qural, held in time on a thin


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border between the quiet and those horrors Rantara could inflict with so little effort, but Tindas intervened quickly. “Darrien, the extended transfer duration Haleth speaks of is the purpose Qural spoke of the day you arrived from Sannaris—it is the ‘larger question.’ After your memories have been restored, you will understand so much more about the events from your time here seventeen years ago; you will know.” Norris nodded and stood, steering Rantara gently back toward the consoles where she leaned with folded arms in silence. “Then we should get started, right?” Norris continued, but Qural saw her chance. “Sergeant, while Haleth attends to preparations for Darrien’s memory transfer, I wondered if we could walk for a while and discuss other matters.” Rantara said nothing, seemingly unable to break a malevolent stare she aimed only at Haleth and Tindas. Qural approached her carefully and spoke again. “Will you join me for a short walk?” At last, Rantara stood above Norris where he sat, cradling his face gently in her hands. “I’ll be right back, Darrien,” she said softly. “Don’t let them do anything until then.” The others watched in silence, observers of an oblique experiment in behavioral studies few of them could’ve imagined only weeks before. Once more, the strange, unnerving duality that defined Rantara’s persona was on display. As if by the pull of a mechanical lever, she had been shifted suddenly from the cold, remorseless killer to something else; a gentle, loving girl only Norris, it would seem, could know. As they filed slowly from the room, Rantara followed Qural outside, crossing the lawn to where the old gate once stood in a time before any of them were born. They walked beneath a flawless sky, dotted here or there with delicate, wandering clouds that pulled equivalent shadows across the surface, each flirting with the bright sun. They went in silence until Qural paused at last. “Have you given more thought to our offer?” Rantara looked away, but Qural saw the hidden meaning at once. It was not the process, or even the Transceptor itself that made her uneasy; there was another reason not as evident or clear—something deeper made the prospect a horror in Rantara’s mind.

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“I know you do not approve of the Transceptor, Sergeant. You are troubled by Darrien’s connection to it, but the machine can bring some peace to you if we are allowed to expose the events as they occurred instead of veiled behind a convenient fiction made by the Oardin Kelai Sisterhood.” Rantara turned abruptly to Qural. “And what then? If you take those memories and show them to the Chief Magistrate, she will see a lot more than just the reasons why Creel died. She will know exactly what I did to him—she’ll see all of it.” “Is that not the point?” Qural replied. “They made a lie and attached it to you, but merely to conceal the truth and prevent a scandal that would place the surety of their income in serious jeopardy. The Sisterhood committed a grave betrayal and Tremmek has kept it as a collar around your neck ever since. The Magistrate alone will see the images, but she will understand and you will be free of it all, finally and absolutely.” Rantara glanced at Qural before turning away. Her tone softened as the images pushed their way through once more, unavoidable and clear. “You don’t understand, Ambassador; I didn’t just kill Mozam Creel, I tore him apart.” Qural watched her closely as she paced and fidgeted. “They used plastic containers to remove the pieces of his body. The Sisters wouldn’t even approach me; I was crying and shaking, but they stayed outside in the corridor because they were afraid I would kill them, too. I could hear their whispers, warning the others to keep away. I heard them say I was insane—a murderer and an animal.” She closed her eyes as the images surfaced again, unrelenting and with a terror only the child inside could feel. “The flooring had to be replaced because it was soaked in his blood…” Qural stood motionless. It was not regret for what happened so long ago she heard in Rantara’s voice; the Sergeant held only hatred and contempt for her attacker. Instead, there was hesitation buried inside the words; subtle at first, but obvious when Qural allowed the clues to gel. Rantara was embarrassed. She knew what the Magistrate—the highest legal authority over the whole of the Khorran people—would see and feel. Raniru Ven herself would experience through the images in Rantara’s memories an indescribable act of savagery few could understand or imagine. It would make plain the reasons so many feared her, shunned and kept on the fringes of her own society. Worse still, the memory of that night would put her brutality on display


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like a horrific, instructional video describing psychotic, criminal behavior to medical school students at the moment she meant to start over and find a normal life. Qural moved close and spoke in a low, even tone. “I do understand. Those moments—what Creel tried to do—were not your fault. You were little more than a child and you defended yourself, Sergeant; there is no shame and you must not ever feel otherwise. Because you carry Jodrall’s Condition does not mean you are a monster!” Rantara had learned to avoid the thoughts and blot them out. She couldn’t change what happened long before, but ignoring the memories had become a valuable, acquired skill. Others would be surprised to know she could experience the unsettling torment of buried fears, but their perceptions had never concerned her. Through her adult life, all that mattered was waking up alive each day. At last, given over to the slight possibility of delivery from a nightmare, she turned and said, “When they’re finished restoring Darrien’s memories, I’ll give Haleth what he wants.” Qural decided to change the subject. “When we demonstrated the Transceptor in the first days after your arrival,” Qural continued, “you experienced Darrien’s memories of your evening out together in Tevem, do you remember?” Rantara smiled suddenly at the thought, still delighted Norris had looked so often at her on a splendid summer evening in an outdoor café. “I remember,” she said softly. “It was nice.” Qural waited a moment, watching Rantara closely. “Extracting memories of this sort can be difficult, especially those we try our best to conceal because they are painful or unpleasant to recall. As this will be your first meaningful connection to the Transceptor, Haleth has asked that you rest a while.” “I feel fine,” she answered flatly, but Qural continued. “This is not a question merely of your physical condition, Sergeant; your mind must be at ease and free from distraction by other concerns.” “What concerns?” “He does not wish to insult or provoke you, but Haleth worries your unique personality might make for a state of mind that is not conducive to this process.” Rantara understood at last and said, “He means my temper.” “He would rather not complicate the matter.” “Don’t worry, Ambassador; I’ll do as he asks.”

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They walked on for a time until Rantara stopped, just for a moment, looking past Qural’s shoulder toward the ridgeline above the orchard. “When he wakes, what will Darrien find inside those memories?” The question was sudden and unexpected. Most thought of Rantara as little more than a physically gifted killing machine—an instrument in the hands of those in authority to use when it suited them. But Qural had learned not to underestimate Rantara’s intellect; the thoughtfulness she heard was surprising, perhaps, but no longer unlikely. In the final days on Kalarive, Inspector Torbal knew it, too, when he found the Sergeant to be much more than she seemed and Qural had learned from his mistake. “He will find many things,” she replied. “Darrien was with us a long time, and…” “I meant memories of the time he spent alone with you,” Rantara said abruptly. Qural swallowed hard and it felt as though the color had drained from her face. “Has he mentioned this?” “He said you told him there was something more than friendship between you—that you lived together for a while, up in those mountains.” There was no point in trying to evade; whatever Norris had told her, Rantara would not tolerate half-truths on so personal a subject. It was surely a matter of time anyway, Qural reasoned, and she decided to face it head-on. “Yes, we did. I wanted him to know and understand before the memories were restored so that it would not be difficult or awkward for him, considering now his relationship with you. That was a long time ago, Sergeant; the circumstances…” Rantara held up a hand. “I’m not asking out of jealousy, Ambassador. He was worried, maybe because he thought hearing it would make me angry, but I was only curious.” After a moment, she turned once more and the clear expression of sadness had returned, though Qural could not make out why. Rantara was showing herself to be a most complex personality and the facets now numbered higher than ever before. “I’m not the possessive, ignorant savage you believe me to be, Ambassador. As you said, that happened a long time ago, and before I ever knew him; it would be stupid and childish for me to hold it against him—or you—years


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later. I understand what it took to find and save him from that place; to save him from…from what I was a part of.” Again, the subtle torment from her past bled through, working hard to reveal a carefully hidden place where the fears and vulnerabilities of her nature were kept unseen and strictly controlled. “I know what you risked by doing it,” she continued, “with or without my help. But more than that, I know you care for him and no matter how unlikely or strange it may seem to you, I am grateful.” Qural smiled and nodded; a window had opened as they walked, and though difficult to read at first, she saw the opportunity and knew it would not remain for long. It was risky, from a certain perspective, but her reasons for inquiring further were sound. “Sergeant, this has raised a question, but I want to ensure you do not misunderstand my meaning or withdraw from what might seem too personal. May we discuss the Choice?” Rantara only nodded with a slight grin, as though she had been waiting for the words all along. “You’ve been talking to Tindas.” “Yes,” Qural replied cautiously, “but I understand much about Khorran culture and because of this, I am familiar with the changes you are experiencing. However, I did not realize the extent to which it has progressed.” Rantara stopped. “That’s not a discussion I wanted to have in public, Ambassador; the Professor takes liberties that weren’t his.” “Please understand, he mentioned it only to me, and for the sole purpose of ensuring yours and Darrien’s well-being; he did not intend to gossip.” Rantara looked away. “What do you want to know?” “Have you discussed this with Darrien?” “Not yet.” “He is not from our place in the galaxy; he has no understanding of the Choice and his part in it.” “I know that.” “Would you prefer the Professor made Darrien aware?” “No! I don’t want him to hear about it from a stranger.” “The Professor is hardly a stranger, Sergeant; in truth, Ommit has known Darrien far longer than you.”

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Rantara’s jaw tightened and Qural moved to ease her. “Perhaps we can enlist Banen to this purpose. After all, the Doctor is aware of the Choice from his experiences treating Khorrans in his care, but also, he is Darrien’s doctor; would that be acceptable?” “Maybe,” Rantara replied. She was softening again, but slowly. “Another Khorran would have seen the signs long before and responded properly, simply by natural process, Sergeant. Darrien is human; he cannot be expected to do so because they have no equivalent custom. “I’m aware of that, Ambassador, it’s just that…” “Have you not made the Choice after all? The Professor is convinced that decision is now settled, at least for your part.” Rantara stopped her. “Is this a discussion or an interrogation, Ambassador?” Qural looked down and said, “I apologize, Sergeant. I am concerned for the effect hearing of this will have on Darrien, but also for you; I know what this means.” Rantara turned away. “I have decided. It wasn’t easy to consider, after what I did to him before, but none of that could change what he is to me now. It was my task to reflect and decide, and I have; I made the Choice.” “Yet something troubles you. Do you suspect Darrien does not regard you in the same way?” Qural’s words were coldly direct, but made from an honest and practical question. Still, the meaning they held inflicted an unseen wound as Rantara considered the possible result and she clasped her hands together noticeably as she turned to answer. “I don’t know! I…I want to believe he feels as I do, but as you said, he’s human—it’s not the same for them.” “Sergeant, I understand enough about the Choice to know delaying will accomplish nothing. Can it be so different for Darrien? I do not wish to offend, but I know him better than anyone; the principles are the same for humans, except for ritual and the obvious absence of Tepseraline. Despite the staggering odds against, even your respective physiologies are nearly identical.” “I know it will have to be discussed at some point, but…” “The decision is yours, of course, but if I might offer advice from my experience…” “I’m listening.”


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“Banen understands, and he is prepared to describe the Choice for Darrien as his doctor if you decide to allow it.” Rantara looked again at the tree line where the leaves wobbled and danced in place as a gentle breeze made its way up from the valley. Qural’s concern was real enough—she clearly acted out of friendship and Rantara saw it. “All right,” she said at last, “tell Banen I’m leaving it to him.” “I will,” Qural smiled. She waited for a moment as Rantara walked in a broad circle, tracing shapes into the warm, bare soil with her toe. “Sergeant, there is one other question.” “Oh?” “We know of the conception inhibitor administered to male inmates when they are processed into Bera Nima.” Rantara turned away. “What about it?” “I only mention this because Banen was given treatment to reverse that condition a few days ago by my own physician and…” “And?” “Was the practice extended to Darrien?” Rantara shook her head. “No. They didn’t process him in like the others. Tremmek wanted him brought down from a transfer shuttle direct to Banen’s cave on the upper tier.” “Banen’s cave?” “Their quarters—where they lived inside the chasm walls.” “I see,” Qural replied. “May I ask why so fundamental a part of in-processing was bypassed in Darrien’s case?” “Tremmek never intended for Darrien to stay that long; he was supposed to have been there only for safekeeping so the scientists couldn’t…” “Yes, Sergeant?” “The bastards at Voralem wanted to pull everything from his mind—a forced, chemical interrogation that would’ve killed him. They thought he was a spy, sent from Terran space to report on our strategic capabilities and make it easier for the humans to invade.” Qural moved close. “Your government knows of their existence?” “Not the way you mean. They knew of humans only after our scouts found and captured him on Karroba; Tindas obviously kept Darrien’s first visit seventeen years ago a well-hidden secret from my government.”

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“Why did they suspect he was here to assess your military strength?” “Because my people suspect everyone and everything, Ambassador; you, of all people, should know that.” “But Colonel Tremmek disagreed?” “He didn’t care either way, but he was clever enough to recognize an opportunity. Once he was safely inside Bera Nima, Darrien became a bargaining tool for Tremmek; a valuable commodity he could trade for profit, or maybe a high position in our government.” “But the prison is maintained by your government; why could they not remove Darrien?” “No one goes to Bera Nima willingly, Ambassador, not even our officials. That is why it is so feared and how it functions as the perfect deterrent; everyone stays away unless they have a reason that is unavoidable, and a secure way to get out again. Darrien was sent there for that purpose—to make sure the researchers could no longer tear his brain apart.” “I am familiar with your research station at Voralem, but may I ask how you know these last details?” “It was all there in Tremmek’s communication logs. I hacked into them long ago, and it was obvious what he meant to do.” Qural’s astonishment was immediate. “Colonel Tremmek would seize others and hold them for ransom, even if they were not sent as prisoners?” “Of course! Did you think Bera Nima was built to punish only criminals or political prisoners? The Prime Assembly doesn’t interfere because it serves their purpose, even if they’re too cowardly to admit it, so he was free to hold and ransom anyone he liked. More than one official who crossed Tremmek’s masters found themselves on the floor of the chasm, fighting for their lives. If they survived, Tremmek gave them the choice of payment and parole, or a life sentence. Most could arrange for the ransom money and the rest…” Qural knew the answer, but she needed to ask just the same. “What became of those who could not manage such an arrangement?” “If they didn’t cause trouble, they were left to live or die on their own; they were not my concern.” “And if they became troublesome?” “Then my guards would pull them out of the mud and shit they lived in and bring them to me. I’m sure you already know how that story ends.” Qural listened, but after a time, Rantara was becoming restless.


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“It is good that Darrien was not given the inhibitor, Sergeant; he remains normal, at least in that sense.” After a while, Rantara looked closely at Qural. “Doesn’t speaking of the Life Choice and my affection for Darrien bother you?” Qural smiled and shook her head slowly. “Our time together was wonderful, but I always knew it was temporary. I remember it for what it was, and so he is like a brother to me now; the romantic, emotional impulses have faded. My comfort is rooted only in his safety and happiness and both are firmly in your hands now. That knowledge brings me much relief and joy.” “His happiness?” Rantara snorted. “Darrien is so far from his home, no one knows how far Earth even is, let alone its coordinates! How can he ever be happy, knowing he may not see his family or friends again?” “Those questions have answers, Sergeant, I promise. We do know where Earth is; information from the Flash Trap that brought him taught us that long ago. In a few hours, we will speak with him on this subject and when we do, you will understand, too.” Rantara suddenly understood the nexus of their discussion meant Darrien might one day go home and, perhaps, his eventual and permanent separation from her. She held her breath, just for a moment, but there was nothing more to say. Qural put her hand gently on Rantara’s shoulder. “Let us go and see if they are ready.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Robert Davies is a born-and-raised Michigan kid with an overactive imagination and love of literature that eventually became a disease, curable only through the odd, frustrating therapy of writing fiction. A Navy veteran, musician, private pilot and erstwhile traveler, he crossed oceans and countless borders to find and understand Earth, only to leave it behind in the pages of his first novel. Released from the University of Portland with a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Rob has spent the last twenty years as a contract manager in the information technology and telecommunications industries. He currently lives in southwest Washington with his wife, Stephanie, daughter Natalie and two mildly overbearing female tabbies.