Stranded - Part 5
She found him in a small, sparsely furnished room in a quiet part of the station. She had gotten lost on the way down. Twice had to double-back down narrow passageways lined with doorways identical to the one she now stood outside. On the shuttle over, through the checkpoints and past the graffiti soaked walls, she had thought about what she would say and how she would say it. But now, standing here, listening to the rusty shunt of the door lock disengage she wasn’t so sure. She should leave. Go back home and pretend that none of this ever happened. But then the mechanism sighed and the doors pulled apart and there was nowhere to go but inside.
He was well-built with long hair that draped across sweat-slick olive skin pulled taut by the muscle underneath. Exactly as her informant had described. Well, almost. He hadn’t mentioned the wheelchair. It looked small and awkward beneath his large frame. She stared a little too long, but if he noticed her discomfort he didn’t say anything.
“Mr. Ansacre? Berlin Ansacre?”
He said nothing so she pressed on.
“My name is Adriel Ghislaine,” she said, just as she’d practiced.
“I’m a reporter with The Scope,” she continued, feeling only slightly guilty about the lie. “I understand you were on board the Thukker caravan that passed through here a few days ago. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“I do mind. But we both know that’s not going to stop you.” His voice was like bottled thunder. Even in a wheelchair, he practically crackled with pent-up energy.
She tried to sound desperate, which wasn’t hard because by now she really was.
“I know the caravan was attacked. What I don’t know is by whom or why. I need to know what you saw.” She moved closer, touched him lightly on the arm. “Please, it’s important.”
Later, she would remember the look of cold purpose in his eyes. How he had grabbed her arm, and with a single firm tug, pulled her off her feet. His left arm a blur from somewhere behind, locking her in his lap and the feel of the blade pressed in tight against her neck. Right now though, all she felt was the insect swarm of panic buzzing through her head.
“Who sent you?” He hissed into her ear. “How did they find me?”
“No-one sent me. Please, oh, please... I’m sorry.”
“Who sent you!” The knife cut into her skin.
“No-one, I swear! I came alone. Please, no-one knows I’m here.”
She bit her mouth closed on the words but it was too late. No-one knows I’m here. She felt the knife start to move and she knew she was as good as dead. But then he did something she would never have guessed. He let her go. She crawled across the room, a table-top vidscreen flicking to life then fading as she scrabbled past and onto her feet.
“I believe you.”
“Oh, now you believe me?!” A cocktail of adrenaline and fear and anger rinsed through her voice. “You couldn’t have decided that before sticking a knife to my throat!”
“Because a minute ago you were lying. For a reporter, you’re not very good at it.”
Adriel felt her face flush red, but whether it was the anger or just embarrassment at being caught in a lie, she wasn’t sure. She was a reporter, after all, and it was only a matter of time until she would be working for The Scope. All she needed was one big story. This story.
Quiet seeped into the room, hung there for uncomfortable seconds.
“Still, I’m sorry. I should’ve known just by looking at you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She said, momentarily forgetting the thin line of pain across her neck.
“It means I’ll tell you what I know. But, first, I want to hear what brought you all the way out here.”
She sighed, but it caught in her throat. Folded her arms over her chest, put them at her sides, folded them again. Eventually, she settled on the edge of a wide metal shelf, gripping it tightly to stop her hands from shaking. A coarse fabric was bundled at the far end. His bed, she guessed. But she didn’t care. It was as far from him as she could get and still be in the same room.
“Two months ago I was contacted by a man named Malon Shircore. He claimed to be a member of a research team working on a top secret program-“ she held up a hand “-yes, I didn’t believe it either, but then he started sending me proof. Bits and pieces mostly. Files and research notes, a lot of which I didn’t understand, but it was clear that his team was working on fullerene-based biological applications. Specifically, nanite-infused blood plasma. They even got as far as a first-generation prototype.
“Interesting, but not exactly news. Why contact you? He dissect one too many small animals and suddenly grow a conscience?”
Adriel managed a smile. “Something like that.”
“His team worked for a small subsidiary. They received specifications, raw materials and funding and then simply handed over whatever they had when the deadline was up. Sweatshop science at its finest.”
He nodded slowly, listening.
“The teams were kept small and isolated. No-one knew what the others were working on, but somehow Malon found out. And he didn’t like what he’d found. So much so that he contacted me.”
“A little far-fetched don’t you think? What could possibly have been important enough to risk his career, maybe even his life, by selling out company secrets?
“This.” She pulled a datapad from her jacket pocket, thumbed the biometric scanner and held it out to him.
“You’re going to have to get a little closer than that,” he said, gesturing at the wheelchair.
“Uh-uh. This time you come to me.” She spoke slowly, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice.
Adriel thought she saw him smile, a flicker of amusement gone as quickly as it appeared. He worked the arm panel and the wheelchair quietly closed the space between them, then he leaned forward and, never breaking eye contact, snatched the datapad from her.
He stared at the image for a long time. She watched as his brow furrowed, the muscles in his jaw tightened and relaxed, his eyes narrowed and then widened. As though his face couldn’t decide what emotion to express first.
“A corpse?” He shook his head. “Whatever it is, it’s not human,” he said at last, handing the datapad back to her.
“Not unless someone changed the mould,” she agreed.
“What the hell was your scientist working on?”
“That’s what I was hoping you could help me with. What did they take from that ship?”
He thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t know.” He sounded almost apologetic.
“Wait-what do you mean you don’t know? You fought the raiders. Apparently, the only person on board that did. Why would you do that if you weren’t trying to stop them? You had to have known something the others didn’t.”
“Sorry to disappoint you. But I don’t.”
“Unbelievable. You threaten me, almost kill me, and all you have to say is ‘I don’t know’. Thanks for nothing.” She got up to leave.
“They were professionals, that much I can tell you. They knew exactly what they wanted. An entire ship of cargo and all they took was a single crate. No bigger than a coffin-”
They stared at one another.
“You don’t think...” Adriel began, but she was already moving towards the door.
“I think your scientist friend has a lot of explaining to do.”
“He would,” she said. “If he wasn’t already dead.”
She got lost on her way back to the shuttle. She’d been so busy thinking about what Berlin had said that she hadn’t been paying attention to where she was going. And then she was so busy looking for a sign or a map or something to get her out of here that she didn’t notice the man until she almost walked right into him.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, and smiled meekly. It was a pretty smile. It had gotten her out of trouble many times before. And into it more times still, she thought sourly.
He smiled back. And then pulled a gun from his coat.
“You’ve been asking entirely the wrong kinds of questions.”
Two short coughs. And then he was gone and she was falling.
It hurt less than she'd imagined. Bullet wounds look painful on the dead, she supposed, precisely because the body was already cold. A moment's pain frozen and stretched into eternity. What must it be like, she thought, to have your life anew? Would it change anything, or would you still be the person you always were? Would you have given up when you had the chance?
Her fingers traced a path of blood, obscuring the datapad's screen. Dabs and streaks, all different shades of the same crimson. It was all here. Everything she had pieced together over the past weeks. She wondered if she should have told Berlin about the weapons. It didn’t matter. She hadn't figured it all out yet, there hadn't been enough time, and she realized just then that she never would. Still, the implications were clear. And the possibilities terrifying.
She clutched the datapad tightly. An anchor when every part of her wanted to drift away, dragged into oblivion by currents beyond her control. Alone in the darkness she cursed the scientist for finding her, for choosing her to confide in. Cursed him for being a coward. No. She was the coward. The one who was afraid of giving up, of admitting she was scared. The one who would follow a story to the bitter end, in this life or any other. Adriel Ghislaine, fearless reporter. The tears were warm on her face and the pain tore at her insides.
And then she was floating. The station's gravity control must be malfunctioning, she thought. The technicians would have it fixed in no time. And with that she closed her eyes and drifted into the darkness.