“It’s the principle of the matter.”
Aishwarya’s voice could be heard through the door of the elevator long before it opened up.
“We are supposed to be an altruistic institution. How does it look if we show up with the Navy by our side?” the voice continued.
It didn’t take a genius to understand what the conversation was about, but Emma was a little bit surprised when she saw who Aish was talking to. Dr. James Mohammed Maalouf, chief of staff and generally known as cranky guy, did not engage in common discussions. Nor would one want to. He was known to treat people based on how well he liked them. He was also one of the few people who actually knew her background.
“I understand your argument, and it does have some merit. However, the Vanduuls will not show up unarmed, in fact, they will come as they usually do, meaning fully weaponized ships. It’s my job to make sure that our staff, you included, are secure. Also, the Vanduuls could be insulted by our lack of, what should we call it, mutual ability to blow each other up.”
“And what if the Navy starts shooting? It’s not like you can control what they do, even though you requested them.”
“I’m willing to take that chance.”
Emma walked over to them.
“So it’s official now?” she said.
They both turned around, a little surprised to see her standing there.
“Emma, they are going to bring battleships!”
Emma just nodded and looked at Dr. Maalouf.
“Ms. Acord, perhaps you can manage to convince Ms. Banerjee of the soundness of preparedness?”
He emphasised you just enough that she would notice it, but not Aish.
“Emma, don’t tell me you agree with this?”
“I think unusual situations require unusual thinking. If I was going alone, I would not bring the Navy along, but there are many more lives at stake here, and I think Dr. Maalouf’s request is the right one as seen from his perspective.”
“Thank you, Ms. Acord. Now, if you would excuse me, I have things to prepare.”
He left using the stairs as always.
Aish and Emma were both silent until the door closed behind him. Then Aish gave her a friendly punch in the arm.
“If you said that only to stay on his good side, I’ll punch you a lot harder.”
“You are welcome to try,” Emma said and smiled, “but I do agree with him.”
Especially after what her brother had told her.
“It’s against the whole mission we are trying to accomplish!”
“I don’t think our mission says to go out into space and be completely naïve about what we meet.”
“Bah, there you go twisting my words again.”
“We can’t all be idealistic pacifists.”
Aish took her arm and started walking towards the cantina.
“So, anything new with you?” Aish asked.
“No, not really. Well, my brother was here earlier.”
“Your brother was here. And I missed him? Again.”
“I think Liu was quite enough for him.”
“What? That slut met your brother?!”
“Hush, not that loud.”
Aish let go of her arm.
“It’s not like I’m shouting out a secret. She’s a slut.”
Emma didn’t disagree, but felt no need to verbally confirm.
“It was a coincidence. And relax, if I ever were to hook up my brother with anyone, it would be you, you know that.”
“It better be.”
“Anything new with you?”
“I don’t have time for new. This meeting is taking up time that I don’t have.”
Aish was one of the few people who had actually tried to study the Vanduuls, she had even spent some time on-board one of their ships. That gave her some respect, because people thought her brave. Emma was pretty sure that the truth was that she was just that naïve. Impressive, none the less. Aish was kind and smart, but it was like she had a filter that just didn’t pick up on certain things. Combine that with too much honesty, and you had a potential problem. That was maybe why she liked her so much.
“You’ll manage as you always do.”
“Let’s hope so. What do you think they will give us?”
Emma’s thoughts flashed to the data package.
“No idea. Hopefully some of their history and culture. Whatever they give us, it will be a big step.”
“So you don’t think this is just a random act of one clan?”
“No, it probably is, but you know, one small step, one giant leap.”
“I hope you are right. The Vanduuls are close to be regarded as the Tevarin, someone better rid of.”
“Because of the recent attacks you mean?”
Aish fell silent. They walked over to cantina area and picked up one of the todays each and found an empty table. Emma didn’t really feel hungry, but the food vanished fast enough.
“By the way,” Aish started and took another bite and then continued to talk with food in her mouth. “Did you ever go on that date?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“You go girl! How did it go?”
“Ok, I guess.”
Aish made a frown.
“What do you mean, ok? You’re gorgeous, smarter than the lower bottom of people put together and can kick any man’s ass. Didn’t you like him?!”
“Inside voice. His best friend is sitting right over there.”
Emma indicated with her eyes. Aish turned around quickly and looked at him. Emma felt like smashing her on the head.
“So? No second date?”
“I don’t know. Neither of us has asked.”
“Do you want to?”
That was the question. Paolo was a great guy, but the whole idea of a boyfriend was still a strange concept. He was too great to be a person to try out and see if she was ready for any kind of relationship.
“I’ll let you know when I know.
Aish had to go as soon as she had finished her meal.
Emma checked the time.
There was still another 20 minutes before the laser’s rounds were finished, but she might as well prepare some other stuff in the lab meanwhile.
She went to the elevators and found one available. Inside the elevator she found herself staring at her reflection. Her face looked younger than she was. In two months she would be turning twenty-nine, but she had no problem passing as in the early twenties. Her hair was a little longer than what she was comfortable with, but that was just an old habit. Her hazelnut eyes matched her hair perfectly. On her left side, there was a thin, but long scar running down her jar, courtesy of a piece of metal floating in zero g. Sure, people could like her outsides, but could she ever reveal her insides to anyone? Of all the hundreds working for the Ark, only two people actually where she had come from. There weren’t any restrictions for her, she could tell anyone about her background, as long as she didn’t reveal trade secrets, but she never had. It felt wrong. She didn’t know why. She had her brother once, and he had given her all the standard answers.
Fright of people changing their opinion about her.
Closing the door to the Advocacy once and for all, although that wasn’t true even if she did tell someone.
The elevator signalled that she was on her floor.
She noticed that something was strange the moment she stepped into the lab. It was like she could smell it. It reminded her of something she hadn’t felt in a very long time.
It smelled like weather.
On the desk the boxes were placed exactly like before. The laser had one more round to do. She cancelled the waiting period and told the laser to go ahead. She double-checked the reports, but they were consistent. The boxes seemed to gather all of the energy. No temperature leak whatsoever. She resisted the urge to press down on a new box. Instead she picked up the first one and looked at the symbols again. The laser finished and retracted back into the wall.
She couldn’t be sure that she had charged them enough. And how would she turn them all on at the same time? She picked up number two and held one in each hand up before her eyes. She could see the symbols that linked them easily enough. She held them closer together to see what they formed.
The two pieces snapped together like two magnets so fast that she lost them on the floor and jumped two steps back. She could see them grow together, black tendrils filling out the pie-shaped area left between them. It was over so fast that she couldn’t believe it. The new piece lay on the floor, exactly the same shade as before, but now a completely new piece, a piece of an arch.
What the hell was this?
She scooped it up with two trays, and put it back on the desk, suitably far away from the other pieces. Part of her waited for an explosion, and another part wanted to try two other pieces. There was no doubt what the correct thing to do was. Protocol said to notify her direct superior and one of the tech-specialists. What would happen after didn’t need an educated guess. They would take it away from her. Most likely she would never see it again.
It was completely unacceptable.
She was going to hear that music, no matter what. After a little hesitation she picked up the new piece and placed it on its old spot, and then she slowly pushed it towards the third box. The same thing happened. Box by box, it grew into a black ring. There was only box left, and the ring would be complete.
“Fuck me, this might be the stupidest thing I have ever done. C, have you noticed any changes in the boxes?”
She pushed the last piece towards the ring.
“This better be good.”
The ring completed.
There was no fanfare.
Nothing happened. She saw nothing. The computer noticed nothing. It was just a black ring.
“How hard is this going to be?”
As if the ring heard her, a ripple went around the ring in a clockwise direction. It was like a snake moving inside and it made her skin creep. It was easy enough to see what the ripple had done. On the desk lay a torus. Every symbol was gone and only a smooth surface remained.
Except for the two indentations.
It was as clear an invitation she had ever seen. Then and there she almost decided to stop. Then she could hear it. Or perhaps feel it was a more appropriate word. It was unlike anything ever before. She could hear faint music, but she also felt and smelt things, it was like seasons were passing her by in seconds. Water was running over her skin, sun made her cheeks warm, grass tickled between her toes. Her eyes were closed, but colours invaded her mind. Rainbows, northern lights, stars.
Then it all stopped so abruptly that it was almost physically painful.
Before she realized what she was doing, she leaned over and pressed two fingers on torus.
In a moment of clarity she realized what she had done. Nothing seemed to happen. Then she removed her fingers from the torus. Two long strands of black tendrils followed, as glued to her fingers. She could feel the panic rising, but with pure will she placed her fingers down again on the torus.
Then it started to sing.
It sang to her, through her, within her. She could see the torus change from black into pure light, somehow lifting itself up in the air, moving towards her. Somehow she knew that it had no harmful intentions. At the same time another part of her brain were screaming. That thing can make you think and feel whatever it wants.
The torus let go of her fingers and hovered above her. It was a disc of golden light that seemed to expand. All the time it continued to sing to her in a language that defied any reason. She felt the universe be born, she could feel the explosion that was a beginning, she travelled on the wave as it expanded, then she suddenly stopped and saw it from beyond. It was all music, everything she saw was music. Everything was vibrating; playing its perfectly shaped tune, a gigantic orchestra that existed for no other reason but to play this score.
She was an atom, an element.
A protein, a cell, an organism.
There were beings, so many beings, coming and going, then a shape and a symbol which lingered in her sight.
Then there was silence.
The last thought that went through her mind was that she could no longer stand.
It did not matter.
The torus was all around her, holding her up.