Black Mountain: Sounding the Horns of the Hunt

Jonak and I were bringing our vessel back to home when we got the call. I had recently switched teams within the Sisters of EVE, joining the Sanctuary at long last, and the missions could be draining. I'd been hoping for this one to be a nice, quiet trip back to base for reassignment briefing and a bit of a rest.

We were in Ammatar space, and there were no other Sister ships in the immediate vicinity. The only reason we were even coming through here was that our ship needed a quick overhaul from the station mechanics. It was secure space, which the Navies patrolled, and help calls were usually routed to them.

We did have other teams on standby, but the emergency call we received was from a ship, not an orbiting object. This was unusual, since ships were far more volatile and thus didn't usually have the time to call for help from anyone but their own supporting forces. Still, the call indicated there weren't many people onboard, and that it was a serious emergency, so we changed course and sped to their position.

As we flew there, more strange information came in. The ship was apparently an Ammatar caravan, which was natural enough, and was located in a system that bordered the Angel space nearby, but they were broadcasting on our emergency band. This meant they had foregone their own corporate channel to request backup, and while the emergency band would bring in the Sisters, it might also attract scavengers.

We made it to the ship and found it a smoking husk, its engines barely firing and its hull cracked to pieces. It didn't seem to have ruptured, though, which meant there might be people alive inside. The ship was a caravan and wouldn't have had any offensive gear to speak of, but I noticed several wrecks in the vicinity and suspected those were the remains of whatever force had been here to protect it. I couldn't see whether the wrecks were Navy or pirate ships, but it didn't matter. Nothing else moved, and nobody made to attack us. It didn't feel like a trap, and for veterans like us, that feeling is really all we need to decide whether to engage.

Deeper scans verified the caravan's structural integrity and life-support systems, and so we had official permission to board. We suited up, let our ship clamp on to the caravan, set up the tube connectors, and boarded, into smoke, fire, blood and screaming.

***

#1: What are we going to do about this case?

#2: Well, there've been reports of the station being destroyed, but nobody's really that interested in something that's been a derelict for ages, so there won't be any press. When our cleanup team got there for official emergency assistance, the damn Society had already cleaned the scene and gone. There was nothing left to salvage.

#1: Not even a bit of the machine?

#2: Especially not the machine. It's gone, and gone for good if I'm any judge.

#1: So there's nothing left? Whole mission was a wash?

#2: No, not at all. We found out some interesting things, and there's still someone out there who we might extract valid intel from if we can find her.

#1: Who?

#2: Some Angel woman.

***

We moved through the ship, judging who was salvageable and who wasn't. Cherrypicking is a cold concept at best, but when you're surrounded by the rapidly dying, you don't have time to give succour. Since there was a decent amount of ground to cover in a very limited time, we covered the main areas first - ops levels and living quarters - and checked the vitals on whoever was still in one piece. There were lots of people in shock, but they'd be alright. The hardest ones to leave were those who'd had some kind of surface damage; you never quite know if they'll be in so much pain that they'll cling to you and demand assistance, and sometimes you have to be nasty and give them a little tap on the injured area, just to make them let go.

We were checking on someone whose ribs weren't all intact, when he started asking about angels. It took me a moment to realize he was talking about the pirates, and that there was probably an Angel on the ship. I gave Jonak a look, then gave our patient a quick booster shot to clear his head, and asked him who he meant.

"There was an Angel representative on the ship," he said. "He rushed to the exits when we were attacked."

"Was he armed?" I asked.

"No, just had some strange device with him, but it didn't look like a weapon."

"What was it?"

"This curved metal thing, with a red ball in the middle."

I looked at Jonak again and said, "Doesn't sound like anything I know."

He gave me a strange look and said, "No, me neither."

After we'd strapped in those cases who were near-critical and prepped them for removal, Jonak told me he was going to look for the Angel, and that I should take the casualties to our own ship and stay there. It was a perfectly sensible idea: Someone had to tend to the wounded and, if something went wrong, be ready to make a getaway. Everyone else on the caravan was in good enough shape to live but not good enough to defend themselves if some pirate started wreaking havoc. And besides, Jonak had a lot more combat training.

I kept the criticals conscious as I shuttled them through the tube back to our ship. It would make the ride more unpleasant for them, but until I could get them into our sick bays and do a more thorough scan, I couldn't risk having them slip into a coma. I kept up a gently rolling dialogue all the way, asking them about their trip here, and keeping their minds off things as much as I could.

They told me things I already knew, that they were an Ammatar caravan that had gone to the border of Angel space for some strange business. I nodded and hummed and encouraged them to keep talking, trying to judge their state by the strength in their voices. It was a secret mission, so the Ammatar corp they belonged to had washed its hands of them beforehand. If they landed in trouble, they'd be on their own. Their Ammatar employers had heard that the Angels had been making deep-space incursions into hereto unexamined pockets of space and digging up various items, including some that might prove of marked value in the future. The Ammatars didn't particularly know what these items were, and had little interest in any particular ones, but they wanted to strengthen their illicit trading ties to the Angels just in case they could reap some profits or get first dibs on lucrative offers. That was why, I realized, they hadn't sent out an emergency call to their company, but only to the Sisters.

Everything had gone smoothly, they said, until the capsuleer showed up. He'd likely been on a pirate hunt and had destroyed every Angel ship around them, then gone for the caravan. Since they'd been without protection, no Navy forces had shown up, and the capsuleer only stopped firing instants before the caravan was about to explode. He untargeted, sucked the pirate wrecks dry of hardware, and left without a second thought, though whether he'd run out of ammo or merely out of patience was anyone's guess. Of all that had happened to these people, I heard their voices take on the hardest tone when talking about that capsuleer.

I'd only just gotten them into the sickbeds and hooked them up when there was a warning sound. I rushed to the bridge and checked the scanners. The Ammatar ship was going critical. I hailed Jonak and yelled at him to get out, but got no response. I was about to check whether our connecting tube was still intact when there was a bright, bright flash, a shower of stars, and whatever was left of the caravan was reduced to a dead tangle of metal. Nobody could have survived that explosions, and my quick scans showed no life vessels of any kind in the vicinity. The ones we'd left on that ship were gone, and Jonak with them.

I pinched my eyes shut and rubbed my temples. You distanced yourself from this, of course you did, and you shoved it down into that place where the memories lie, but you knew it would rise again, some day.

I was about to set my ship on course when the scanners informed me that someone had entered it just before the explosion. My stomach turned, and for a moment I had the strongest feeling that it was the Angel, or one of the dead Ammatars, or someone else I didn't know at all. I immediately checked the person's identity, and breathed out deeply. It was Jonak.

***

#1: Have our guys come up with anything to explain what made Nale lose it so thoroughly?

#2: We're looking into the nanobots, whether he got too high a dose of them. Personally, I doubt we'll come up with much. Might've been the bots, or his previous illness and whatever that did to his head, or something entirely different. We don't know everything about what happened out there.

#1: And nothing useful from Zetyn?

#2: Very little. In his lucid moments he's been perfectly willing to talk, but it's half fact and half religious diatribe. Quite frankly, I don't think we can trust anything he says, other than that Nale was definitely getting unbalanced towards the end.

#1: Shame. I don't like losing operatives, or losing control of them. We're supposed to be better organized than this.

#2: I agree. But with an operation of this magnitude, you can never plan for everything. If something catches you by surprise, you deal with it as swiftly as possible, contain the ripples, and move on with your plan.

#1: My thoughts exactly.

***

I immediately asked Jonak if he was okay, and he nodded his head. I was about to ask whether he'd found anyone, but held my tongue; everyone on that ship was dead, we knew that, and Jonak's face understandably didn't look open to any more questions. And besides, we needed to take care of those three survivors on our ship.

I began keying in the course, assuming I'd be going with Jonak to sick bay, but he told me to stay at the helm. He said he could easily take care of our patients - at this point it was mostly an issue of keeping them comfy and hoping they'd survive the trip - and he preferred me to stay at the helm for manual adjustment so we could get to base in better time. I agreed, so we took off.

Warping wasn't an option with our patients, and Jonak retreated to sick bay to watch over them during our lengthy trip. We had monitors on the bridge that showed our patients' status, but I knew from experience that I'd be way too busy working with the AI to get us home in good time, so I kept them off to avoid the distraction. If anything were to go wrong, either with Jonak or the patients, several emergency procedures would immediately notify me.

At one point I did turn on the sound feed from sick bay, just to give it a quick check. All I heard was Jonak murmuring quietly to one of the patients, and, after a while, the patient whispering some response. The sick man's voice was haggardly and full of pain, and I felt very relieved that he had Jonak there with him.

***

#1: What's Zetyn's state?

#2: The same. He still suffers from acute claustrophobia and is making even less sense than he did before. We're keeping him under examination, but I doubt it'll be for much longer.

#1: Did we really get nothing useable from that man? He was a solid operative, reliable and quick.

#2: Right now, all he does is rock back and forth in the isolation compartment, asking us what the formula is. Sometimes he'll throw himself at the walls, and if he sees anyone on the other side of the safety glass, he screams himself hoarse.

***

At last we got close to base, so I hailed sick bay and said, "Docking in a few. Get ready for evac."

A couple of minutes later, I heard Jonak return to the bridge. His steps were soft and slow, and he laid a hand on my shoulder, saying, "Don't bother."

I turned and silently looked at him.

He said, "It's quiet now, back there."

I closed my eyes and sighed deeply.

We'd been so close, and with everyone we'd lost, I really had hoped we could save these three.

So we docked in silence, and we made preparations for the burial of the dead. That should have been the end of it.

Until I found that video.

Something gnawed at me, something about the whole trip I couldn't quite make sense of. On a sleepless night, some days later, I made a nocturnal trek to our offices and called up the videos from our flight. The sick bay ones hadn't been filed - we Sisters are good at humans, usually, but bad at bureaucracy - and all I could get my hands on were general monitoring records for the ship's entrances, bridge and exits.

I went over some of my own actions while I'd been in route control, and kept looking for some kind of flight bump or course deviation that I knew I hadn't made. It wasn't so much to assuage my conscience, but rather to completely eliminate the chance that what I was looking for was anything as normal as a simple mistake.

It wasn't until I had switched to the other videos and watched Jonak's miraculous entry a dozen times that I noticed what I'd been missing, or rather, what he'd been missing when he finally turned up on the bridge.

Setting the viewers to magnify and sharpen, I focused, and focused, and focused, aiming the unseen eye directly at Jonak's pocket. There was a clear bulge in there, one that definitely had not been present when he entered the caravan, nor when he came back to me on the bridge.

Focus, focus, focus.

A curved bulge, its axis slightly more voluminous, like it had a ball set in its middle.

Like the Angel had brought on board.

I didn't want to know any more. I didn't want to be on the roads that would lead to a place I'd never quite escape from. So I shut down the viewer, and I left our office, and I went home, and some time later, I finally slept.

***

#1: And this one, we're sure he never told anyone else?

#2: Positive. We took him in for soft questioning, got his report, then administered the nanobots.

#1: How's he now?

#2: We're keeping him isolated while we clear up his business and set up the accident. We should be able to execute in two weeks' time. The biggest hurdle is the coroner's reports, since the Sanctuary always has to give such incredibly detailed ones when our people die.

#1: Is it going to be a problem?

#2: No. And when he's been dealt with, along with that poor bastard Zetyn, we'll have finished this sorry little venture. The remaining catalysts have already been put into recycling.

#1: It's a shame. I liked working with him. If he hadn't taken a look at those videos, or seen what I carried back onboard the ship, he might've survived this whole damn mess of a project.

#2: Still. Loose ends.

#1: Yes. Speaking of which, there's still the matter of the Angel woman.

#2: No matter. With everyone else gone, she'll have a hard time finding anyone to believe her story. We'll keep out some long-term feelers for her, but it's nothing we need concern ourselves with. As far as this institution is concerned, the Book is tightly closed shut, forever.





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