Black Mountain: A Pleasant Surprise

Draea's team was convinced they'd thrown off any trails, and contacted the Society for further flight instructions. They received a bookmark labeled "hidden kitz", along with two pieces of coding information that they added to data chips they'd picked up along the way.

The bookmark took them to an ancient stargate that looked like it was falling to pieces. There was no detectable activity on any part of the gate, and after trying several times to establish basic contact Krezek threw up his hands in disgust.

"Have you tried the password?" Draea said. She was sitting at the controls on the other side of the bridge, running last-minute checks on their weapon systems in case the gate flung them anywhere interesting.

"There's no point in trying the password unless I can get a channel to the gate."

"Try the password."

"There's no point!"

"Krezek-"

"No!"

Polok, who was standing behind Draea, leaned in and murmured, "We're all on edge here, so don't push the boy too hard. Remember the nestlings."

She stared at him in incomprehension, then ordered Krezek to get out of his seat. She moved over to his place, and he started hovering around her like a parent having his infant inspected, asking what she was planning to do. She said, "I'm planning to drill a hole in your head if you don't stop breathing down my neck. Go have a drink."

Polok hung back, without comment. Once Krezek had left, Draea said to him, "I don't think that the dead piece of metal we're seeing on the screen is only that and nothing more. I'm going to open a monoplex channel to the gate and throttle transfer from the data chip. You, on the other hand, are going to explain the nestlings."

Polok had taken Draea's old seat and was leaning back in it so much that he could place his feet up on the control board. He grinned and said, "I figured you knew about this already. Krezek and I worked on some assignments a few years back. Ugly stuff, mostly, with a lot of tense downtimes and waiting in bad places, so we ended up shooting the breeze. Krezek was good backup, by the way, but he was an absolute A-type who just had to do things in his own orderly, logical fashion. He gets a strange kind of peace out of it, and if things get too chaotic - not messy, just nonlinear - he'll develop some really weird tension relievers."

"So far, nothing new," Draea said, "neither on the gate nor Krezek. Nestlings, explain."

"When Krezek was a boy he was, like the rest of us, rather ... special. Brilliant, but he had no concept of right or wrong, or why on earth he should follow social mores. I do this stuff because I like it, you do it for whatever reason you have, but to Krezek, death and torture are just ways of relieving the tension, and bringing the universe back to order."

"Still nothing. Maybe I should open multiplex instead. Keep going," Draea said.

"One day, after he'd suffered some particularly vicious beatings from his stepdad, or his teacher, or whoever put that dark little seed into his childhood head, he went down to the local bird-feeding park and sat down by its little pond. They were using Soft Crumbs there, you know, stuff that's chemically designed to attract birds so they won't be frightened off by hyperactive, screaming kids. So he brought a few bags of Crumbs, tossed a handful out into the pond in front of him, and these tiny little baby birds start swimming up to him. And Krezek, wonderful, twisted Krezek, starts picking them out of the water, them so calm and relaxed from eating all that chem-laced bread, and he wrings their necks. He picks nestling after nestling out of the water, calmly twists its neck so its tiny beak is pointed towards its tail, and lays it to the side, until he's got a nice big pile of dead little birds. And the funny thing is, he doesn't do it with any kind of menace or satisfaction. It simply feels like something he needs to do, to fulfill his role and adjust the balance of the cosmos or what have you. He opens bag after bag of Crumbs, tosses endless handfuls to the poor young, and by the end the pile of birds is bigger than he is. He only stopped because his hands were getting too greasy from their down."

Draea stared at him. "That's ... messed up," she said at last.

"Yes."

"I've cut more throats than an army of barbers, and that's still way messed up."

"That's Krezek. Any luck on the transmissions?"

"No, but I've got an idea. We've been sending this signal encoded - which is stupid because there's nobody here to spy on it anyway - but since we're not actually getting a response from the gate, we've no idea whether it's accepting the transmission method. And if it isn't, the rest of the message it receives is just going to be some random stream of garbage. I'm going to try sending it with just the base encoding, nothing fancy."

"Is this all highly complicated?"

"Mmm, not so much. Why?"

"Because I've been looking at the control board, and you've been doing quite a bit more than just hailing the gate."

"Mind your own business," she said, without much rancor, but paused her actions.

"It's almost as if you're sending data to someone else, too."

"Yeah?"

Polok ambled over and sat down beside her. "It's no mystery, you know."

A smile crept into Draea's features.

He continued, "I don't mind. I like a good fight. But I can't help wonder why you want him. I doubt he could fight his way out of a tent."

She said, "To be honest, I'm not even sure myself. You can have the rest of them as far as I'm concerned, but him, I need to talk to. When we activated the Book, something happened, and he was part of it. You didn't have any visions during the blackout, did you?"

"Nope. Stone cold," he said.

"Figured. I did."

"And he was in it?"

"He was. And what's more, it feels like we're connected now. He feels like the other side of me, one I wasn't even aware that I had."

Polok gave her a strange look.

"I know," she said. "I don't like it much, to be honest. I saw some things in the fugue that I need to clear up, and I've got an ugly feeling that if I don't deal with him now, he's going to become a much, much bigger problem later on. So I'm leading him to us."

"How do you know it wasn't just some total hallucination?"

"Two reasons. First, it felt more real than anything. Second, well ... toss a bullet." She pulled out a small knife from her belt, and stood up, but remained where she stood and did not turn to face the bridge.

Polok looked at her askew, but got up, pulled out a gun, took out its clip and dislodged a bullet. The manufacturer's initials had been stamped on the circumference of its rear end.

"Face the bridge," Draea said, still facing away from him and staring out at the stars. "Toss. No countdown, just toss."

He shrugged, and threw the bullet in the air, away from them.

Draea leaned her head down, closed her eyes and lifted her shoulders. She then raised the knife and, without turning, threw it back over her head.

She kept her eyes closed, and heard Polok say, "However the hell you did that, you shouldn't have been able to. And you owe me a bullet."

She laughed, sat again and opened her eyes, then pressed the activation button for the data sequence to the gate. For a few moments, nothing happened. Then there was a spark, a series of sparks, and the gate became illuminated in electricity which arced towards their ship and surrounded it. Draea saw her vessel start to move, align, prepare and, finally, warp.

A few seconds later, they dropped out of warp in front of an abandoned station of Gallente design.

They flew up to it. Draea transmitted the second code she'd received, and the station, its immense bulk floating inert in space, opened its docking bay and pulled their ship inside.

***

Once they were safely docked, they got out of the ship and into the bay proper. A special container for the Book was waiting for them, so they yanked it out of its original box, which they'd been wheeling around on an electric pallet, and put it into the container. It instantly closed and auto-sealed.

Using passwords sent by the Society, Krezek accessed the station's status monitors and found that large parts of the station were dark: Not in use and unable to power up to any kind of active functionality, although the atmosphere systems were apparently kept working on minimum capacity. The only fully functioning areas were a few kilometers away, in a complex of labs both scientific and otherwise. Krezek got more and more excited the further he inspected the data; apparently these were real complexes, with hi-tech facilities, torture labs - no one had said the Jove were nice - and all sorts of automated machinery to change the systems around and even alter their interior architecture. The deeper one got, the more mutable the systems appeared to be.

Polok asked Draea, "Those passwords for the station controls, you didn't share those as well, did you?" She shook her head.

Krezek was too enraptured to notice. He said, half to himself and half to anyone in the vicinity, "Gods, I'd love to try out some of the stuff they've got here. Do you see this? Self-modifying walls! And it's all wired up. It's like the blueprint for the world's biggest rat maze."

"What's keeping you?" Polok asked.

"Well, there's not much I can do with it, apart from make it reform itself. I'd need a live subject if it's to be any fun."

Polok looked at Draea, then back at Krezek. "I think there I can offer a pleasant surprise."

***

The Sisters ship docked at the abandoned Gallente station. Its crew - a blithe Nale, a watchful Zetyn, a frowning Monas and a very angry Hona - made its way onto the bay.

Nale had plugged the tracking device into his ship and used it to find his way here, though it wasn't until the device received data directly transmitted from Draea's own ship computer that they'd really taken off.

Zetyn checked if they could access the station's status monitors, but no luck.

Nale took the lead. They took another few careful steps, Nale at the forefront, until he stooped and picked something up. It was a little bronze pellet, and as soon as he touched it, tiny blades shot out and nicked his fingers. He didn't flinch, but lifted it to his face and smiled.

"What's so funny?" Hona said.

"We're being ambushed," he replied.

There was a tink-tink-tink sound as something bounced towards them. It was a multiburst grenade, set to kinetic. As all but Nale started to turn and run, it exploded, and the shockwave threw them unconscious onto the floor.





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