Works/Ring Water Phantom

From Eccentric Flower

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This is the third Ring story. It happens after "Surface Evidence" and "Meridian."

In preparation for writing this story, and eventually perhaps making a long-form work out of the Ring cycle (apologies to Wagner), I did a little planning and plotting and number-crunching that made me more aware of the structure of the Ring and how it works. It also made me aware that some of the information in this story flatly contradicts some in the earlier stories, especially "Meridian." The earlier stories are wrong. One day I will go back and revise them to fit what I now realize to be the facts.


The Ring: Water Phantom


It's a little embarrassing how long it took. I believe I would have solved it almost immediately if it hadn't been for the traffic.

Normally we see one or two ships per period (I'm finally breaking myself of saying "day," even if it's taken me nearly a year), and they don't linger; they come in from wherever we opened to, dock, possibly unload cargo, possibly load cargo, possibly unload or load people, take a few hours of leave, visit Catalan's for some fun, get back on ship, and by then we're ready to open again and send them somewhere else. And odds are we never see that ship again unless it's a Pergati regular.

But sometimes we do have periods where we're out of service. We can't open if there's what Dispatch calls a "sufficient" in the way. That's "sufficient" as in "sufficient gravitational well to interfere with us." Usually that just means a star. Dispatch likes to talk its own language.

At the time we were in a run of several periods where we couldn't open onto anyplace anyone wanted to go, and we were absolutely at capacity; we had three fours and three eights crammed in, so close that we were going to have to be very careful about the order we kicked them off. We had two tiny sub-eights tucked in between the fours, which would make me nervous, but I'm not Dispatch. And we had a fourth four sitting around nearby, waiting. No station leave for that crew. We had considered trying to turn a ship crossways just to get them a place to dock, but the captain of the stray eventually decided he didn't want to try the maneuver. They complain it's hard enough to dock with the Ring as is.

The crews were all getting frayed because of the delay. It always surprises them when they find out we're not some garden of earthly delights. They probably have more recent entertainment than we do - all movies are ages old when they get here, and you'd better guard a new book with your life once you get it, or it'll be "borrowed" ten times before you see it again. Once you've been to Catalan's, there really isn't much for transients to do on the station except have a couple of good meals, get drunk and cause trouble - and we have rationing on the meals. I was getting frayed trying to keep up with incidents. A lot of the other Ring staff were getting frayed because we run on minimal personnel. We aren't really equipped to deal with this many people in the station at once. So, in general, everyone was a wreck.

That's what conditions were like when the body turned up.

I didn't actually see the body in situ. I got the feed about that as I was dragging a Cleit fumwah back to its ship to explain to its captain what "banned for life" meant. Rob and Don, my main help, were off dealing with a pack of feral morons who thought it would be fun to cause a little property damage. I had recruited five temps so far in as many periods, and it was one of them, a Pergat named Sul who looked like a baby black bear and could toss someone three times his weight across a room, who spotted the corpse. I didn't catch up with the body until four hours later, on a table in Dr. Kohl's cold room.

"Vampires," I said.

"No puncture wounds," he replied. Dr. Kohl doesn't miss a beat. "And no obvious sites for major blood loss. These lacerations look horrible, but in my opinion they would not have bled openly to any great degree."

He wasn't kidding about the lacerations. The body looked like it had been whipped, mostly across the back and limbs but with some of the long welts across the front of the torso as well. They'd have been red and nasty when the victim was alive. They were still pretty nasty even in dead white, with patches of clotted purple-black as the last indicators that at one point this body actually had a blood supply.

"Bled to death very slowly somewhere else and was moved," I said.

"A possibility. But there aren't any signs of restraint, so the question then is why someone with ugly and painful but not incapacitating wounds didn't come find some help, or wasn't found while still staggering around in shock."

"Drugged. Locked in somewhere."

He shrugged. "I can't rule out drugs; I couldn't find enough blood to test and the stomach was empty. From there on, it's your job."

"Unfortunately. Anything else of note?"

"Yes. These are not what you think they are."

"I hadn't gotten that far yet."

"No, but I'm sure you were thinking that this fellow had been flogged. I thought so at first too. These are not contusions. You can see yourself that there's not much bruising or hematoma. In other words, whatever these are, they aren't strike marks. In fact I'm using 'laceration' for want of a term; they could just as well be severe abrasions."

"Doc, you're not helping."

He shrugged again.

About then my feed chirped. "Grey-woman!" In Pergot, of course. The female honorific doesn't translate well. Actually, a lot of Pergot sounds very entertaining when translated literally, but for your sanity and mine, I'll be more colloquial.

"Hello, Sul. What's the problem?"

"A fumwah is trying to destroy Corphon shop."

"Sul, I thought you could take on any fumwah in the world."

"Yes, as you say, but fumwah has friends."

I mentally ran through the list of my other help and sighed. "I'll be right there, Sul. Keep together."

I hurried to five:twenty-two, wondering if I could shove Corphon's entire shop out an airlock. Like all the other booze purveyors in the Ring, Corphon is a freelancer, not a company man, and has his own suppliers. We can't quota his liquor and we can only control who he sells to in a limited way. But one of these periods I'm going to lobby to have his lease revoked.

My mood didn't improve when I got there. It's hard to tell fumwah apart, but I was pretty sure this was the same one I had dragged back to its ship earlier. It was throwing a table against a wall when I came in, and shouting in the squeals - unintelligible to just about everyone but fumwah - that pass for their language. Fumwah sound like warthogs. They look like them too, only upright and a lot bigger. I suspect fumwah are the reason Cleit ships have corridors wide enough for three humans to walk side by side. When I came in, the fumwah turned to see me and shrieked something. I had time to think, "Oh, I guess it does remember me" before it tucked its head down and charged me.

I didn't have enough time to think of a duck-and-roll; I was in the middle of trying to simply move out of the way and was realizing it wasn't going to be fast enough when a small object flashed into the fumwah's path. The fumwah tripped over this object, faceplanted, and slid across the room on its chin until its head collided with the door frame just to the right of where I was standing. The impact was enough that I wondered if it dented the frame. I wasn't worried about dents in its head.

The small object unfolded long enough for me to see it was Sul, before he was grabbed and lifted up by one of the other three fumwah in the room. Another was out cold in the corner; I was guessing Sul's hand in that. The remaining one was coming after me.

Fumwah have a vulnerable spot, and it's not the one you think. (They're neutered anyway.) If you can get to the neck and clamp down on a particular blood vessel they pass out in a second or two. It's getting close enough to the neck to do it that's the hard part. If I let it pick me up, success would depend on whether it wanted to rip me with its (short but sharp) tusks or just throw me against a wall. I ducked instead, and as it reached down to try to grab me, I slid between its legs and tried to get upright so I could jump onto its back, but didn't make it before it turned around. It was making another lunge at me when I heard a sort of sizzling noise, and I rolled to the side as its face hit the floor in the exact spot I'd just been.

I unkinked and saw Sul sitting smugly on top of the other fumwah, who was likewise out cold. I wasn't sure if he'd done the job himself or if that one, too, had been fired upon by the Cleit ahpesh standing in the doorway with a synaptic pistol.

"We appreciate your arrival," I said to the ahpesh in Pergot, "but it would have been better not to have let this one -" I gestured to Doorframe Head - "off ship again in the first place."

"A thousand apologies," said the ahpesh, inclining its head slightly. "Indeed we pursued as soon as we knew it had escaped." It gestured and four other ahpesh slithered in; each wrapped their tails around an unconscious fumwah, slinging under the armpits, and slowly but with surprising ease, one by one, began dragging them out of the bar.

"Was anyone injured?" the ahpesh said.

"Let's find out." The three of us made the rounds. The entrance floor of Corphon's had mostly emptied out, wisely, when the tables started flying. I sent Sul down to check the lower floor, just in case. About then Corphon himself finally showed, and I was allowing myself to enjoy the ongoing argument between him and the ahpesh about damages when Sul tapped my arm.

"I think you must come down, Grey-woman."

"What's wrong?"

"There is a death. I don't know that it is from this."

The other two were too busy bickering to notice us leave, and the table Sul led me to was in a dark and underpopulated corner, so there was no one else around to comment when I saw the corpse's face and immediately started to remove his shirt. If Sul thought anything he kept it to himself. Pergati all secretly think humans are crazy anyway. The corpse's back and torso were covered with long marks that looked like he'd been whipped. Very few of them showed dark purple.

"Sul, where was the other one when you found it?"

"Four:forty-eight." Clear on the other side of the Ring, and it wouldn't have been sitting in a bar, not on deck four. Sul followed my train of thought. "It was ... protruding ... from a conduit access hatch. And it was unclothed."

"Meant to be found."

"Yes, I think so. Or else so many better places to put such a thing."

"Sul, can you get this to Dr. Kohl discreetly without me?"

"Of course," he said, indignantly.

"I owe you a bonus. I may need you next period. Stay in touch."

I hurried to Dispatch. I was pretty sure Flanagan was still on duty.

Flanagan is my gossip contact. I have official access to all the information, but he's a lot faster. "Oh, good," he said when I came in. "Just the thing for a slow period."

"I guess you folks don't have a lot to do right now," I replied.

"Not a thing until we can finally get rid of some of these pests."

"Tell me about it. I just had to fight a fumwah for the second time this period, which puts me two over quota."

"Ouch. Well, what are we picking my brains about?"

"I was just wondering if there was anything unusual in this crop."

"Unusual, meaning what?"

"I don't know. Out of the ordinary. Odd behavior. Skeletons in the closet. Supicious manifests. New races."

"Oh, well, we have that. One of the sub-eights has a system of registry I don't think I can even pronounce. It starts with a click and gets worse from there."

"What do they look like?"

"Good question. They're tankers."

What he meant was that they were a race that had some atmospheric or other requirements that made it impossible for them to leave their ship. The classic example is an aquatic race which has to travel in a giant tank. Actually "aquatic" might not be accurate - the liquid (or gas) could be almost anything. My predecessor's notes have a report about a race who live in petroleum. Although I've always wondered if he was making that up.

Didn't seem likely I'd be able to get a look at them, but then, if they were tankers, they weren't walking around the Ring bleeding people to death either.

"What are they carrying?"

"Nothing."

"Passengers?"

"Not even. Manifest says personal vessel."

"A private ship? Someone's rich."

"Or they have cargo they're not telling anyone about."

I talked to Flanagan a while longer, but it was a useless crop. Two of the fours were normal Pergati freight and the other was the Cleit cargo ship. Of the smaller eights, one was a human passenger transport, and the other two were exotic-freight crewed by mixed races, none of which were news to me. The other sub-eight was a courier, which made sense because only very precious cargo or urgent news is valuable enough to justify sending a small ship through the Rings.

At that point, I probably should have followed up on my two corpses, but I wasn't sure Dr. Kohl had seen the second one yet, and besides, I had been awake long enough to lose count of when I'd last slept. I went home.

Meridian wasn't there, which wasn't surprising. I hadn't had more than a word from her in four periods. Like all of Catalan's staff, she was just too busy right now. I didn't mind; I was in no mood for anything but sleep.

I got about three hours of it. Then the feed chirped. It was Rob. "Why aren't you asleep?" I asked.

"Sorry to wake you," he said, "but, y'know, it's only nine."

"Yeah, I'm off schedule right now. S'okay. What's the problem?"

"Well, we got a weird thing here and it's better if you see it."

I couldn't get more out of him than that, so I cursed to myself and put on clothes and hauled myself out to deck five again, source of all my pain.

At least it wasn't Corphon's again, or I might have gotten myself fired for conduct unbecoming. It was a tiny place appropriately named Pipsqueak's. It got mostly regulars and was mostly very quiet and well-behaved, which is why it was surprising to see Rob and Don presiding over a scene of utter ruin. Most of the tables in the bar were in places they weren't supposed to be, and one of them was in pieces. Over to one side, lined up against a wall, Don was keeping watch over eight patrons who were obviously in disgrace. They were also obviously pretty banged up. And they were all female humans. At the other side of the room, as far from the wall of shame as possible, Rob was interviewing a young male human. Rob gestured me over.

"This sprocket comes into the bar," Rob said, "and starts talking to one of the lot over there, and then all of a sudden there's a fight. All of them doing their best to beat the hell out of the other seven. And this character's sitting right in the middle of it just kinda smiling and not doing a damned thing."

"Is that correct?" I said to the young man, who was, in fact, smiling and not in a way I liked.

"Really, what was I supposed to do? I couldn't get out of my chair without becoming collateral damage."

"Hm. Any idea why your presence seems to be an incitement to riot?"

"I'm sure I don't know," he said. But his face said he knew perfectly well what the fuss was about and he was pleased as hell about it.

I looked at the information Rob had handed me. He was one of the passengers on the human ship. "Fine. We may want to talk to you again. Now get out of here. I want you back on your ship as fast as you can get there. If I find out you've been in any more trouble before your ship leaves, I'm going to tell your captain to ship you to your destination in confinement. Do you understand?"

"But I haven't caused any -"

"Go. Before I decide to confine you myself."

I was mostly trying to scare him into actually moving so that he'd be well away from the scene before I released the combatants, but it didn't work as planned. When they saw him heading for the door, two of them launched themselves after him, and seeing the competition getting an early start, the other six immediately followed. They just about knocked Don over, and it takes a lot to knock Don over. The battle started again as they were trying to claw past one another to get through the door. It took another ten minutes to break up that fun, even with three of us, and when we were through I was so annoyed that I snarled at Rob and Don that I didn't want to see any of these women on the Ring again and left without even bothering to confirm that they were all visitors.

I admit that I was letting personal biases get in the way: Surely all the human women in our permanent population had more sense than to act like that. Squealing, catfighting hormonally-charged little idiots!

I obviously needed to go back to bed.

Early the next period, I went to Dr. Kohl. I confirmed what I already knew, which was that the body from Corphon's had died the same way as the other, and got a couple of photographs - neither body had any identification, which is unfortunately pretty common on the Ring - and did what I should have done the period before: Went to the human passenger ship, found someone in charge, and started asking about missing persons.

It took a while, but the advantage of going in the "morning" is that we don't offer rooms to transients whose ships are in dock - they sleep on their ship. And most of them were either sleeping in or sleeping it off at that hour. So availability was good, and all it took was time before both corpses were definitely identified as passengers. You don't need their names, so I won't bother pretending I remember them.

The disadvantage of a passenger ship is that you can't usually interview friends and family. The people on this ship were basically making a one-way trip to go found new lives in a distant place, tended to be unattached for that reason, and hadn't had a lot of time to form social groups on ship. About the only piece of real information I got was that both gents were not shy and retiring - they'd had sex with at least two other passengers each, plus one wry comment that there were probably several others they'd been with who weren't admitting to it. Still, this wasn't too startling. It gets dull on those long trips.

About the time I was wrapping up this process, my feed chirped. "Hey, stranger," Meridian said when I answered.

"Who's the stranger? You've been so busy over there I'm surprised you can walk."

"That was crude."

"I'm feeling very unladylike. What can my crude self do for you?"

"I was thinking lunch."

Meridian might have been able to walk, but she was definitely not at her best, and lunch was subdued. She clearly needed a couple of periods of rest.

"And I mean rest without sex," I added.

She smiled wryly. "What about you? I think you might need rest with sex."

"I think what we both need is to get these ships out of here - Can we help you?" The last part was addressed to the woman who was standing by our table, looking like she wanted to say something. I looked - and then I took another look.

She was not, I suppose, exceptionally beautiful physically. She didn't look like a Venus arisen or some sort of exotic love goddess. She looked normal. But there was some sort of attitude about her, some atmosphere, that when you looked at her, your first thought was, "I would like to have sex with this woman," and your second thought was, "And she would like me to have sex with her." Except with more urgency. If she'd said, "Come with me right now and we'll do it in the back tunnel," I might very well have said yes ... and Meridian definitely would have - I could read it in her face.

"Ah, I see now," the woman said.

My feed chirped.

"What?" I said to it, and then didn't process what I heard - poor Sul had to repeat himself. The second time, it sank in.

Meridian said, later, that the fact that I got up and left was telling. She hasn't explained what she thinks it tells, but I bet I can guess. I admit that I don't have a sex drive like some nymphomaniacs I could name, but the fact is that this was about the only thing that could have pulled me away from that table at that point - because the idea that ANOTHER person had died in the same way before I'd been able to figure it out was so much a personal affront to me that anger kicked in and overrode everything else - even the feelings of jealousy because I knew Meridian was probably going to go have fun with this woman without me.

No, I didn't process that at that point. I went to go find Sul and we took the body of a young human woman, found dumped in a seldom-used gantry tunnel way down on deck nine, wearing nothing but a neck ornament, to Dr. Kohl's. A small voice was shouting something in the back of my head all the way there, and when I got there the voice got a little louder, and I called Rob and Don, and when they got there I said "Pipsqueak's?" and they both didn't need more than a couple of looks at her face - and the neck ornament - before they nodded.

"We're going to have to go back to that ship and tell them another of their passengers - this is not going to be fun."

"There have been more of these?" Rob asked.

"Oh, that's right, you've been elsewhere," I said. "Too damned much going wrong around here." I pulled out the piece of paper from earlier that period, with the names of the two male victims. Don read over my shoulder. "Hang on - Rob -"

Rob came to look. "Jess, do you have the info from the bar?"

I dug around in my pockets - fortunately I had been too tired to be very organized the last few periods - and found the paper which had the names and ship information of not just the eight women, but the smug young man.

"Coincidence?"

"No," I said. Suddenly my head hurt. "He needed to give you a phony name of a passenger on that ship, and he knew there were two who weren't using theirs anymore."

I was too damned tired to do math. Bar at, what, ten last period? Together by eleven at latest? Dead by five this period, according to Dr. Kohl ... too damned fast. "Come on. All four of you."

What I like about Rob and Don is that they didn't ask, they just kept up. Sul did too. I decided I was going to offer him a regular position. Dr. Kohl never asked anything; he put facts together on his own, and when I made him grab his field kit that was enough.

The dock that the private sub-eight was using was seldom needed. It had the look of a place not regularly maintained; some of the corridor lights were out, and the utility rooms in the area were sealed and hadn't been opened in a while. No cargo from this ship. Only one access tube led to it, empty and unpromising. The locks were open, which frightens me but is normal practice; I am assured that if the tube failed the emergency cutoff would seal off the breach instantly. In this case, though, for once I was glad. We could walk right down into the ship without needing to cycle anything.

"They might be armed," Dr. Kohl said mildly.

"I know, but this is a tanker and the arms locker is all the way up on deck two and we may not have a lot of time. You'll be out here; you may be needed, but only afterward."

"Automated defenses?" asked Rob.

"They'll be turned off. Its victims have to get in under their own power. That's also why there'll be a way into the tank. Any other reservations?"

They looked at each other. Rob shrugged.

"All right."

We had to go slowly, because there was barely any light; we'd have tripped over our feet. Whatever these creatures were, their vision didn't work the same way. It would have been much easier to charge in than to creep in, a step at a time, worrying about noise, thinking about what we couldn't see ahead. I'm sure I was shaking. The boys, of course, were imperturbable.

We headed forward, a little faster now that our eyes had adjusted, until we heard noises. It wasn't a language I'd ever heard, but it had the rhythms of speech. I signaled to Sul, who was the hardest to see, and he peered around the corner at all-fours level, then gestured to us and charged in. There was a loud shriek. The rest of us turned the corner to find five small gray blobby bipeds with lizard-like features, one of which Sul was sitting on, and another of which he was holding onto by the tail with both hands. The other three were trying to get out of the room, but Rob and Don together block a door really well.

"Well, these aren't what I was after," I said when we had gotten them into a holding pattern. "I guess the tankers are elsewhere in here. Anyone want to take a stab at language? Do you understand Pergot?" I said to one of the lizards, who was squealing bloody murder. Didn't appear to sink in.

I tried Bak'ti. Nearly everyone can speak a little Bak'ti, and there is only a little Bak'ti to speak, but these creatures were especially bad at it. I did manage to get that the five of them were the entire crew, and that there was one other being on the ship. When I asked about that other, they very abruptly said nothing.

"I think they are frightened," Sul said.

"I think you're right, Sul. Come with me. Rob, Don, don't let them touch or do anything."

Sul and I walked around the half-lit corridors until I found the one that became a downward ramp.

"Someone would have to cross the crew rooms to get to this," Sul said quietly.

"I know. I think that's why the crew is scared. They know exactly what's been going on."

As we neared the bottom, a new light source was becoming evident. The hallway was turning purple, a dark purple verging into the ultraviolet. We turned a corner at the bottom of the ramp -

The ramp/corridor had opened into a large, long room. There was a narrow walking space along all four walls of the room, surrounding the center, which was the open top of an enormous rectangular tank. The walls of the tank were transparent; we knew this because the purple lighting was also repeated at various intervals down the depth of the tank, outside its walls, shining through them, giving the water (or whatever the liquid was) in the tank a blue-purple luminescence. In fact the faint purple lighting in the room itself wasn't the main source of light; mostly we saw each other, and the room, by the glow coming from the tank.

We also saw, at the far end of the tank, something that took a while for my brain to resolve - I don't speak for Sul's. Gradually it came into focus. The dark striations were the tentacles of something large, amorphous, blue-black which was keeping most of its body below the waterline. The white form enclosed in the grip of these tentacles, but held above the waterline, was Meridian.

"Pull them out," I hissed, and ran to the far end of the room without stopping to see if Sul followed.

We tried to reach in and grab, but the wet creature was slippery and, as soon as we touched it, began to squirm. "It's going under!" I grabbed what I could reach of Meridian's body - was she dead? Unconscious? I couldn't see her face. I managed to get my hand beneath one of the tentacles and under one of her arms, conscious of pain at the same time the back of my head heard Sul cry in Pergot something like "It stings!" He was trying to pry away one of the tentacles and it had wrapped itself multiple times around his arm. Now it was attempting to tug him into the water. Pergati are far stronger than they look, but the creature now was using the wall of the tank for leverage - how many tentacles did the damned thing have? - and I wasn't sure how long Sul could hold with nothing else to grab. And it showed no signs of releasing Meridian. We were in danger of all being dragged into the tank.

Then, hands, someone else pulling a tentacle away - Rob. And Don was helping Sul, arms around his waist. I'd have laughed at the sight - Don hugging the teddy-bear Pergat - but I was too busy. And now I had another arm around Meridian. Her face - something in her mouth - this thing had something in her mouth! I lifted her, tried to pull her away, and the appendage came out of her mouth, far too long, retreating with a wet suction noise.

She wasn't dead. She was breathing. She didn't even cough. In fact she looked blissful.

"You see, you misjudge me," said a voice. I was able to turn just enough to see the woman, the woman of dreams, standing not far from me, calmly, beside the tank.

"Sure I do," I grunted. "Let go of her."

"I give her complete joy. She'll never have anything like this again. You think she'll come back to you? You can't compare."

"Maybe not," I said, "but she'll have her life."

"And you think she'll thank you for it?"

"Let her go!"

"You're not immune to me, you know. I saw you. It took me a while - I was the wrong form for you first. But I saw."

"That was your second mistake, coming anywhere near me," I said. "That's how I knew you."

"What was my first mistake? Oh, yes, all those foolish women. You're right. That was an error. It attracted notice."

"No," I said through clenched teeth, still tugging, braced against any purchase my feet could find. I was going to get Meridian out of this creature's grasp even if it tore her skin off. "Your first mistake was murdering people on my station."

And, probably because Rob had finally loosened the grip on enough of the tentacles - I doubt the creature surrendered her - just then Meridian came free with another sickening wet noise.

Strangely, the thought of that didn't bother me nearly as much as the one that had been in her mouth. It seemed like less of a violation somehow.

The unearthly woman hadn't gone away; she had given up on me, moved past me; now she was after Rob, who with Sul had begun trying to find any traction to pull the creature from its tank. I couldn't hear what she was saying. She was stooped, very nearly whispering to him, near his ear. I saw that he was listening. He hesitated.

And Sul backhanded him across the ear with his free paw.

Rob shook his head, blinked, grabbed a tentacle - Don had another - and the three of them pulled the creature entirely from the tank.

It was a squid. But not. It had squid features, octopus features, far more tentacles than either, extra deformations, bumps where one would not expect bumps. It squirmed. It had no visible eyes of any kind. And the phantom woman began to scream.

She didn't try to persuade us. She didn't try to lure us. She didn't melt or change form or do anything else. She just screamed, and kept screaming as the creature flopped around, struggling, desperate for the tank, until all at once she flickered like a light going out, and then she was gone, and the sound stopped as abruptly.

Fifteen seconds later the creature stopped moving.

We waited another five minutes before letting go.

"Thank you, Sul," Rob managed to say.

"If it wanted to lure me," Sul replied, "it should have appeared as a Pergati female. You humans do nothing for me."

- - -

Ten periods later. After another two periods the stars had finally aligned, and all our docked nuisances were long gone.

The private sub-eight had been left to its crew. I didn't know what story they were going to tell, or whether they would get to their destination, or what they would be tossing into space somewhere along the way. I felt they deserved an amnesty. They'd been through abuses I can barely imagine. Far from giving warning, when they realized what we'd come to do, they told Rob and Don exactly where to find us. If they'd been any stronger, or had weapons - the creature chose its crew carefully - they'd have killed it long ago.

I was sitting in a quiet bedroom with Meridian, checking the progress of the many welts across her pale skin.

"Desecration," I said.

"Silly," she said, turning around to grab me by the waist. "At Catalan's, it's a joke, you know. They say, 'I didn't know you were into that sort of thing.' I've seen some of the staff come in looking a lot worse, and smiling about it."

"Even so."

"That's not really it, is it?"

I smiled wryly at her. "You know me too well."

"Well?"

"Well ... She ... it ... said you'd never want to go back. That nothing else could compare."

She considered it, got a faraway look for a few seconds. "She was right."

"What?"

"Well, she was. I've never had an experience like that. Probably never will again."

"Great."

"No, no, you don't get it. Yes, that's true, but that's not all. That's not enough. It might not even be the most important part."

"I guess I don't understand."

"I guess you don't. But we'll work on that."

She smiled and pushed me backwards onto the bed.



Copyright © September 2007. Do not distribute or reproduce.

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