Part 7

It occurs to me now, once I've started the telling, that I may have neglected a very important fact. Why was John Meelak so desperate to make Ay'nin's capture such a public thing? Why did he purposefully attempt to turn the entire colony against her with a pack of lies?

To save his own ass.

Lorraine was settled for Trilinium. Tril for short. Forget everything else you know, or think you know, about what happened at Lorraine and listen to me. Forget those stories about "unexplained electrical currents" because they were just that. Stories. Yes, the currents existed and, as far as the Founder's Group was concerned that was why they settled Lorraine. However, if you have learned anything in the short time I've been telling this story, you should know that the Founder's Group was simply a puppet, its strings pulled by Central, the consummate puppet master.

As I understand it some member of Central was visiting another planet that used Tril as a power source. Seems it gives better energy output than any nuclear power plant without the inherent dangers of a catastrophe.

Central, of course, loved this idea as it solved many of the problems Earth was facing.

Pollution, depletion of nonrenewable resources such as oil, coal, and gas, and massive blackouts because of too much strain on the infrastructure. Lorraine was the only planet they found which had an abundance of Tril and Central had no problem overlooking the fact that the Chochasi already lived there.

What was one underdeveloped, primitive species when you were talking about solving most of Earth's economical problems in one fell swoop?

Insignificant.

So why wasn't Meelak a happy camper? He would, after all, be credited with the salvation of Earth once the Tril project got off the ground. It would be his ticket to retirement - the good kind.

Things are never that easy, though.

It seems the member of Central who first discovered Tril on that distant planet failed to observe or inquire after its refinement. And, seeing as he was on that planet with his secretary "unofficially", he didn't keep any records of its location. He died shortly afterwards in a transport accident. His own private vehicle blew up on egress, killing him and his pilot. A bizarre twist of fate? Or the acts of a scorned wife? I don't know, and either way it doesn't matter much.

What it all amounted to was tons of unprocessed green rock sitting in crates in tents and sheds all over Lorraine. Their application for anything other than paperweights failed as spectacularly as the idea of reusable Kleenex.

John Meelak was flunking out in Central's eyes. For him, failure meant execution.

I imagine it was his hope that the potential of the Chochasi holocaust being revealed would divert his superior's attention and give him the time to find a way to apply Trilinium.

I find it quite ironic how everything eventually panned out. Central committed a grave atrocity to utilize a resource they couldn't find anywhere else. When it was discovered they did not, in fact, have the means to utilize said resource - a failing entirely Central's own - more death, destruction, and heartache ensued.

Imagine how different things could have been if that one man had a greater sense of fidelity. Imagine how different, if his wife hadn't found out.

Imagine how different...

Imagine.

***

"Explain to me again how this happened?" Sub-Commander Kaleb Simmons said as he circled his two subordinates.

Enforcer George McCaw swallowed and shifted his weight, "Sir, we lost her trail by the river."

"I know that. What I don't understand is how a woman who could barely stand when you brought her in here could have escaped in the first place!" Simmons's voice built up to a resounding roar that made the others in the room flinch. "Your utter inability to follow orders is more than enough to have your job, not to mention your life. If you find this woman before tomorrow you'll have an honorable discharge. If not..." Simmons left his sentence hanging, aware that the two Enforcers knew of their fate. "Dismissed."

As the two men fell over themselves to leave the tent Simmons settled at his desk and scowled at the opposite wall. He'd already told Meelak that they'd captured the half-breed. He didn't relish the thought of having to recant that.

***

JP breathed a sigh of relief when she leaned back against her closed bedroom door. She and Robert had been back in Lorraine now for two days and everywhere she went she felt the hairs of the back of her neck prickle, the classic sign of being watched.

It was more tiring than actively trying to hide a secret, the simple act of always being watched. It made her jumpy and paranoid to the point that even Sonya had commented. Sonya, their dear friend who knew something was up and was hurt that JP and Robert hadn't confided in her.

She groaned as she collapsed on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She wished she could tell her friend something, even as simple as "It's not a matter of us not trusting you. It's a matter of endangering you life." But she didn't dare. She didn't dare breathe a word of any of this to anyone, not even Robert. They had decided to not talk about it as much as they could and had made arrangements to meet before returning. They had also worked out rudimentary hand signals which they thought covered everything they might need to say.

JP still felt woefully out of her depth.

A sudden, eerily familiar chill grabbed her body and JP sat up so quickly she made herself dizzy. She studied the room and waited until she felt it again. "Cerina," her whisper was barely audible but immediately she felt it again.

JP stood and looked helplessly around the room. Cerina was here. Okay. Fine. What next? How did one communicate with a ghost?

A sudden image filled her mind, its the accompanying emotions enough to bring JP to her knees.

Ay'nin.

Cerina had just shown her an image of Ay'nin, lying somewhere apparently unconscious and injured.

JP nodded that she understood and once again waited.

This time, an area of forest at the edge of town entered her mind and JP made what she hoped was the logical conclusion.

Go there.

Without hesitation she threw some stuff into a bag and headed out the door, ever vigilant of Enforcers. It took almost a half hour before she reached the spot and stopped, suddenly unsure.

A sudden rustling in the underbrush caught her attention and sent JP back a few steps. She watched with wary eyes as a woman emerged, somewhat familiar. It was several minutes before she reconciled this flesh and blood person with the transparent wraith she had seen only once before. "Cerina."

The woman nodded and smiled, "Yes, JP."

"How..."

"I've taken corporeal form in order to guide you safely to Ay'nin. She's in dire need of your assistance."

JP looked around for any witnesses and then gave her consent. "Let's get moving, then."

***

Ay'nin groaned and rolled onto her back until she hit what she figured must be a tree. She had woken from her conversation with Log Jam to a fuzzy world bathed in white light and vague outlines. Her head still pounded and her leg, well...

She remembered, vaguely, being shot in the leg when the Enforcers had engaged in a truly wonderful show of random shooting. The energy charge had seared its way into the flesh just below her right knee cap and the wound had swiftly become infected.

So she was dealing with a fever, could hardly walk, barely see, and had no idea if she was going in the right direction.

*"Ay'nin."*

She started, and hit her head against the tree. "Shit. Balwin, don't do that."

*"You have to get moving. A search party is headed this way."*

Ay'nin snorted and closed her eyes, "And here I thought they'd given up on looking for little 'ole me."

*"Simmons won't stop. It's his life on the line now."*

"Simmons," Ay'nin muttered as she managed to pull herself to her feet, her arms flailing in an attempt to orientate herself. "You know who he's working for?"

*"No. Turn to your left. A little more... Stop! Forward. Careful, there's a tree coming up. Good. Keep going."*

It went on like that for quite some time, Balwin giving direction and Ay'nin swearing every time she misjudged what meager images she could see and walked into something. "This is ridiculous! I'm done. I quit." Ay'nin sat down on a rock and glared at the spot she thought Balwin was in.

*"You quit! Since when do you quit?"*

Ay'nin didn't answer.

*"When things get too tough you just decide that you don't want to play anymore, is that it?"

"I'm tired, Balwin, worn out."

*"That doesn't give you the right to start this thing and then just give up!"

"I didn't start this! You did! You and Cerina! You haven't lost anything so don't talk to me about persevering and crap like that!" She felt a hand grasp her chin suddenly and knew, if Balwin had taken the time to gather his energy to interact with the living world, he was really pissed.

*"Don't presume to know everything, Ay'nin."* His voice was quiet and cold, with the tiniest hint of pain underneath.

"Ay'nin!" Another voice, belonging to a human, broke their stalemate and she felt Balwin disappear as JP tumbled closer and knelt in front of her. "God, look at you." JP grasped the side of Ay'nin's face and she reveled in the coolness of the younger woman's hand.

"How did you get here?"

"Cerina led me."

"Cerina? How-"

"I took corporeal form, Ay'nin," Cerina's voice was calm and surprisingly close by. "You both have to go now. Hurry! I'll meet you at the cave later."

Ay'nin heard Cerina's retreating footsteps and tried to catch a glimpse of her form as JP pulled her to her feet.

"Come on, lean on me." JP looked down at Ay'nin's leg as they walked, saw the blood and oozing puss and winced. "We're almost there."

"Liar."

JP found a laugh somewhere and let it out as she blinked to keep the tears from building up in her eyes.

***

"Okay, just sit down here." JP guided Ay'nin to a spot against the cave wall which was relatively free of loose rocks and dust. She pulled her pack off her back and dug around until she found her water and the sweater she had stuffed inside. "Ay'nin, I'm going to clean this off now." She looked nervously between Ay'nin's leg and face, not sure what she was doing.

Ay'nin nodded, "M'kay."

JP took a deep breath and resolutely focused her attention on the injured limb. She dribbled water onto the wound, her shaking hands making her miss more often than not. Every time Ay'nin jerked or hissed in pain JP had to stop and close her eyes to keep from breaking into tears.

Just forget it's Ay'nin. Forget it's Ay'nin. This isn't your friend. Forget, forgetforgetforget! The mantra ran through her head as she carefully cleaned the wound and wrapped a torn off bit of her sweater around it.

"What happened?" JP leaned closer when she received no reply. "Hey! Stay awake!" She shook Ay'nin's arm relieved when the orange eyes blinked open.

JP leaned a little closer, "Christ," she muttered.

"What?"

Ay'nin's eyes were fogged over, sort of like an advanced cataracts. "What did you do to your eyes?"

"Nothing."

"Ay'nin, you can barely see. This isn't 'nothing'."

Ay'nin grunted and shifted then pulled a rock out from underneath her leg. "I fell out of a tree."

"You fell-" JP blew out a breath and reached around to the back of Ay'nin's head. There were several large lumps there and a bit of dried blood. "You've got a bunch of knots back there. Probably a concussion." She turned her attention back to Ay'nin's eyes. "This can't just be from hitting your head, though."

Ay'nin grunted again and leaned carefully back against the wall. Every bone in her body ached, every muscle felt like it had been sprained or pulled and JP wanted to know how? She closed her eyes and forcibly turned her attention elsewhere.

She listened to the scuff of JP's shoes and the rustle of fabric as she emptied the contents of her bag. She listened to JP breathe and curse and putter around nervously, unsure of what to do with herself. "Hey!"

JP started, having almost forgotten about Ay'nin. "Yeah?"

"C'mere." When JP obliged Ay'nin gestured vaguely to the spot on her left. "Sit."

A moment's hesitation and then JP was beside her, still and quiet and warm. Ay'nin clasped JP's hand and focused on that.

***

Robert concentrated on maintaining a normal walking pace through the city square. People were watching him and they were everywhere. Even in the public washrooms, it seemed. He kept his eyes ahead of him instead of falling on his "baby-sitters". He did allow his fists to clench and his jaw muscles to bunch in irritation and was acutely aware of the grinding of his teeth.

This was... Unacceptable.

The fact that some people held this much power to disrupt the lives of everyday citizens was mind boggling to him. It just wasn't fair.

He mounted the steps to his house with a growing sense of relief and fought the inclination to turn around and stick his tongue out at whoever was paying attention. Robert moved through the house quickly, not interested in speaking to anyone.

JP was gone.

She had vanished, poof, into thin air. That had sent his own paranoia through the roof. She wouldn't just disappear without saying anything to him, not unless she had one damn good reason. The only thing he could think was that it had something to do with Ay'nin.

But then, how would she have gotten any information on their friend? Better yet, how would she have gotten out of Lorraine?

He ducked into his bedroom and stopped cold when his eyes fell on his bed. A folder, thin and blue, sat quite innocently on his pillow. His eyes scanned the room, looking for anything else out of place.

Robert approached slowly, detoured to his desk to grab a pencil, and then continued to the bed. He poked the folder with his pencil, not sure what he was expecting.

Poison gas maybe? Sleep darts? Yeah, right.

He maneuvered the folder to the end of the bed and then, in one swift motion, pushed it off the edge and jumped backwards as it spilled its contents onto the floor. Robert stared suspiciously at the papers, noting the seal at the top that identified them as lab reports.

He dropped his pencil and gathered the papers then read them. It was the report on the Chochasi bone he and JP had given his father. It verified that the bones were about a decade old, originated on this planet, and were of a bipedal species.

Robert grunted, grabbed his bag full of the toys Faal had Lambert had given them, and headed out of his room.

***

"JP? Ay'nin?"

JP jerked at the voice and quickly moved into a crouch as Cerina came through the cave entrance. "What took you so long?"

Cerina kneeled and placed a gentle hand on Ay'nin's forehead, "Sorry. I took a wrong turn into a group of Enforcers. Ay'nin?"

"Hmm."

JP readjusted the blanket she had thrown over the hybrid, "She isn't doing too well. I... I don't know what else to do."

Ay'nin's eyes opened and tracked slowly around the cave, "Camera."

JP and Cerina exchanged a look. "What? Ay'nin, what did you say?" JP clasped either side of Ay'nin's face as Cerina started searching the cave. JP looked over her shoulder when Ay'nin didn't answer, "Do you know what she's talking about?"

"Balwin and I found a video camera right before her house got burnt down. Ay'nin made sure she took it when she ran. It must be around here somewhere."

It didn't take Cerina long to check all the usual storage places before she let out a triumphant cry and held the camera up. "Found it."

JP took the device and studied it. "It doesn't work."

"Ay'nin seemed to think someone could get it to work."

JP looked up at the former spirit, "You think you could get this into town? Take it to Robert?"

Cerina nodded, "Sure." She headed to the exit but paused before leaving, "Do you need anything else?"

JP blew out a breath and resettled herself at Ay'nin's side, "I don't know what would help. Unless you can somehow get us to a hospital." JP shook her head and grimaced as she checked Ay'nin's leg. "Go on Cerina. We'll be fine."

Cerina waited a few more seconds, her strange red eyes staring at them before she gave a curt nod and disappeared out the door.

***

Meelak looked up at the knock on his door, "Come in."

Bruce Pincinati, Meelak's security director, entered and settled his considerable bulk in the chair across from Meelak. "You're not going to like what I have to say."

Meelak narrowed his eyes and studied Bruce, "Did one of those spineless little idiots send you in here to deliver bad news cause they were too chicken?"

Bruce shrugged, "Sort of. We've lost track of JP Tupo."

"Define 'lost track'."

"One of my men last reported seeing her exit her house. After more than an hour he contacted the Enforcer who was supposed to be following her. He said he never saw her."

"So, essentially, you mean she's..."

"Vanished."

Meelak nodded and started twirling his pen. He pursed his lips and stared at the wall.

"Really, sir, how important is she? We know that they don't have any concrete evidence and she certainly isn't going to find any out there in the basin."

"A few hours ago I got a report from Simmons. He had Ay'nin but she got away. He said she was injured. Undoubtedly, JP went to help her."

Bruce nodded his understanding. "If you'd like I could go out there, direct the search."

Meelak shook his head immediately, "No, you're the only half-competent person working for me. Simmons knows what's on the line. I've found that nothing motivates a man like the threat of losing his life."

Another knock interrupted their conversation. Meelak's aide appeared with a report in his hands. "Sir, the latest medical reports from the mining camp."

Meelak sighed and rubbed his eyes, "Just give me the highlights."

"Uh," the aide muttered and shuffled the papers, almost dropping them in his nervousness, "another seven people have died and...twelve more have taken ill, sir." He looked up and shuffled his feet.

"Thank you. Get a message to Wesley Cho, please. Tell him I'd like to speak with him. Immediately."

The aide nodded and disappeared. Bruce chuckled as he too stood and prepared to go. "Anything else?"

"Keep an eye on that Burke kid. These people have something going on, I just don't know what it is. Yet."

"Of course."

***

"Robert." The hissed whisper sent his heart into his throat and he almost threw the laptop across the glade. He looked up, into a vaguely familiar and obviously not human face. "This is from Ay'nin." She extended the video recorder.

"Wha-"

She smiled, "Forgive me. I'm Cerina."

"You're..."

"I took corporeal form to guide JP to Ay'nin. She was injured and in need of help. Ay'nin believes that this recorder has proof on it. It's vital that you try and view it immediately."

He took the small device and turned it over in his hands as he thought, "Are they..." He trailed off, unable or unwilling to voice his fears.

"JP is fine. Ay'nin is..."

"What?"

"I think she's dying, Robert. You need to hurry."

He nodded and focused on the recorder, "What are you going to do?"

"Skulk."

"Be careful."

Cerina grinned, "Please, I'm already dead." She titled her head momentarily and her brow scrunched, "Sort of."

He watched her disappear from the small clearing that was, technically, still within the city limits. He had already sent the report to Faal and had just been finishing with the "special" instructions they had been provided it. They would ensure that, no matter what happened to him, JP, or Ay'nin, Faal would eventually have the entire story with no Swiss cheese type holes.

He looked the recorder over for a half hour before he decided that it simply needed a power source. After some creative wiring Robert plugged it in directly to the laptop and rooted through the media player.

Robert swallowed as the pointer hovered over the play button. This could be it. This could solve all their problems. Or, it could just be another huge letdown. He swallowed and pressed the button.

***

"Here, drink some of this." JP held the water bottle up to Ay'nin's lips. Most of the liquid ended up running down Ay'nin's chin and the small amount that she did swallow led to a violent coughing fit.

JP held Ay'nin's shoulders to keep her from pitching forward into the dirt, too weak now to do much of anything. As much as JP tried, she couldn't keep the worry from gnawing at her. The only good thing was that Ay'nin couldn't see her face, her eyes. "This can't just be from hitting your head."

Ay'nin groaned and nodded, "But nothing else happened."

"You're sure?"

"Yes."

JP fussed with the blanket and thought about how she might jog Ay'nin's memory. "When did you start to really not be able to see?"

"In the woods, running from the camp."

"Camp?"

Ay'nin nodded and fumbled with her pocket. "They're strip mining at the mountain. This stuff." She pressed the stone into JP's hand. "There are crates... Full of that."

"Okay." JP nodded, "This might be something. Did anything else happen?" Silence. "Ay'nin."

"M'thinkin'." Ay'nin closed her eyes and tried to really remember what had happened however long ago it had been. It was fuzzy and confused, she was sure because of the concussion. "No."

"You sure?" JP shifted and kicked up some rock dust. She wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

"No."

JP sneezed.

Ay'nin's eyes popped open, "Wait."

"Huh?" She rubbed her nose and sniffled, "What?"

"Dust. There was dust. I sneezed... No, I didn't sneeze. But..." Ay'nin trailed off as she stared sightlessly at the opposite cave wall in thought, "...there was dust. In my throat, up my nose, in my eyes."

"Dust from this rock?"

Ay'nin nodded and squinted. There was something else, too. Something she'd seen and heard, it was niggling at the back of her mind waiting to be rediscovered. "There were people. Lost of people and they... They were sick."

JP made a face at the rock she held and scratched her nose, "This whole thing is getting confusing. You think this rock made the miners sick?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe," JP muttered, "we have too many fucking maybes."

***

Tamara Faal leaned back in her chair as she studied the picture in her hand. It had been taken over six years ago, during one of the happiest times in her life. She and Barbara had been floating on cloud nine in their newly, officially, committed relationship.

She smiled as she remembered their honeymoon; a trip to Hulos, Earth's one and only "Pleasure Planet". It had been cut short, though, because of a national disaster back on Earth. Tamara needed to get home to help cover the disaster's effects on the colonies and Barbara, as Director of Domestic Affairs, needed to get home to help sort the mess out.

Tamara snorted as she put the picture down. She never thought she was going to end up with a politician. Reporters and politicians didn't usually get along because of the conflicting nature of the two professions. They had intended to take a second honeymoon, this time on Earth. Barbara had always wanted to go to Africa

She felt her lip curl as her mind called forth the ensuing events. The trip hadn't happened. Paradise was once again cut off at the legs, just like their honeymoon. Only this time, it was permanent. Tamara had come home early one night for a romantic dinner and had been just in time to hold Barbara as she died in the reporter's arms.

Murdered.

The dinging of her computer pulled Tamara out of her morose thoughts. All these years, and it could still put her in a major funk. She opened the e-mail, her heart speeding up as she noted the sender.

Robert Burke.

Tamara opened the attached vid file and pushed the play button.

She had to watch it four times, the colours reflecting off her face in the darkened office, before it really sunk in what she was looking at.

"Holy shit."

***

Wesley Cho wiped his brow as he stood and approached the door to Meelak's inner office. He had to physically force himself to take the steps which would put him in the lion's den.

He had nothing. No, correct that. He had less than nothing. They had more unprocessed Trilinium ore than they could handle, more than he could test in a thousand lifetimes, and yet, he couldn't figure it out. Not as a power source or refinement into a metal or alloy; he couldn't even find a practical application for Tril as decoration!

Cho took one last fortifying breath as he opened the door and took his seat across from John Meelak. Meelak held one finger up then resumed typing for several long seconds. He finally finished and sat back, studying the Tril project leader with speculative eyes.

"Mr. Cho, I'm sure you know why you're here."

"Of course."

The phone rang. Cho just barely kept his sigh of relief in check.

Meelak glared at the device before answering it, "Meelak." Long silence and nodding. "No, of course. I'll be right there." He hung up and stood. "Tomorrow morning, first thing, be here to continue this discussion." Meelak left his office then and Cho allowed his head to drop back against the chair as a tiny bead of sweat ran down his face.

Meelak strode purposefully down the street towards his house. This was more than a little disconcerting. He couldn't imagine what his superior wanted. "Guess I'll find out," he muttered to himself as he mounted the steps of his front porch and stepped inside.

He looked around and then stepped into his living room. Just like last time. "You wanted to speak with me."

"You're starting to lose your support, John."

Well, nothing like cutting to the chase, "I'm sure they understand that it's just a matter of time before we solve the Trilinium problem. I was in a meeting with the man spearheading that opera-"

"I'm not talking about Trilinium, John."

Meelak shook his head and took a step closer, "I don't understand."

His superior stood and circled his footstool, "The potential for disaster regarding Ay'nin and the Chochasi has a lot of people very nervous. To say that they're unhappy with your methods of handing this would be...an extreme understatement."

Meelak laughed, "You don't seriously think they have anything on us? We're talking about a bunch of kids and one recluse!"

"Those kids went to Earth and spoke to Tamara Faal."

Silence.

"You're slipping, John, you should have known that."

Meelak shook his head and found an argument, "With her history no one will take anything she has seriously. Besides, that she's helping them means nothing. She'd listen to anyone who even knew the name Chochasi."

"The point is that you let them find Faal in the first place. And you continue to meet with failure while trying to effectively stop them. Right now our future is full of more question marks than you could count and you know how pessimistic most of the Members are. They're assuming the worst and, frankly, I agree."

"My record-"

"Is being questioned! Cleanup of Lorraine was your duty, your responsibility. You assured all of Central that there was no evidence left to be found! And what of Ay'nin?"

"What about her?"

"You told us she was dead!"

"I thought she was!"

"That's the problem! You thought. You should have been sure!"

The room fell into tense silence, the two combatants staring at one another. Meelak finally turned and sat on his couch, "So?"

"Solve it to our satisfaction within the next two days and you'll retain your life. Is that understood?"

Meelak glared from the corner of his eye then scrubbed his face with his hands, "Yes, ma'am."

With that, Naomi Burke grabbed her coat and disappeared outside.

To be continued...

Return to the Academy

There ya go, another part. Hoped you liked it. Comments welcome at sbzarben@gmail.com