The Gargle felt like a doomed ship.
Thankfully, nobody on the ship found it in them to blame it on her, regardless of the stories that were starting to circulate. When they finally were allowed to leave, the big question was if they should carry the dead bodies with them. In the end, they had agreed to do it. It felt wrong to leave them with the navy. That didn’t make it any easier to have the coffins onboard in the hangar. There was a ceremony performed by the military, but like everything else, it felt unreal. All of them were anxious to go home. No doubt they shared some bond now, but it was not of the kind that helped them.
The trip back home felt like prison solitude to Emma, even though it was not true.
They ate every meal together, they talked, laughed and sometimes cried, but there was an emptiness that nothing could fill. Maybe it was for the best. Sleep took up most of her days. She had been given both sleeping and relaxation meds, but she took neither. Fifteen hours pr. day was not unusal. It would have worried her, but it felt fine. It was like the body was saying - I need this, don’t worry. The rest of the time she spent reading and exercising. She also had an urge to sing, hum, whistle – whatever could make a melody. As long as she was alone it was fine, but several times, especially when she was eating, she had to be conscious about it. Not because somebody would care about a little singing, that was quite ok. It was the tree-part voices that would freak people out. Hell, it freaked her out. She couldn’t do it consciously, but it still happened daily. If she had somehow cloaked a ship and sung a missile out of existence, god knew what else she could manage with her voice. She did try to find more information about the music boxes, but the only thing she managed to track down was their previous storage location. It was back on Earth, in a storage area that now belonged to the marines for some reason. Her chances for getting any information from them were slim, but she had sent a request none the less.
And then they were home.
Emma had always thought of her parent’s house as home, but for once her room on the Ark had the same effect. She took a long shower, found the most comfortable clothes she owned and walked around the Ark. It was late in the night, so there weren’t too many people up and around. The stories would have reached the Ark many days ago and the questions would be abundant, but not tonight. Her lab was just as she left it. The music boxes were cold to touch, as dead. What was she to do?
“Computer, can you run diagnostics on living tissue?”
“Can you scan me?”
“Yes, but I must inform you that I do not have the capabilities of a medical scanner.”
“What does that mean?”
“I can scan most biological functions, but I cannot analyze neurological functions.”
Probably for the best.
“Can you please scan my throat and show the image on screen, please?”
“Please sit down next to the scanner.”
The scanner head came out and went around her head in silence. The image came up promptly on the screen. She looked at it for a moment, but realized she had no idea what she was looking for.
“Computer, do you detect any anomalies on my scan?”
“Could you please show me in detail?”
The imagine turned into 3D and zoomed in an area.
“There are significant anomalies to your voice bands.”
“I am searching our database for references, but no luck so far.”
“What exactly are the changes to voice bands?”
“There seems to large structural changes to them, including the addition of new voice bands. There is also more muscle tissue surround the organs.”
Hearing someone else say what she already suspected was a strange feeling.
“Computer, please scan all of my body and look for anomalies.”
The scanner went around her several times and even though she knew it was only a computer, she felt as she was standing on a pedestal for an embarrassing display. The scanner head retreated, the computer making her wait for the verdict.
“Two anomalies found. Displaying onscreen.”
Emma was no neurosurgeon, but she knew a brain when she saw one. Unfortunately this one was hers.
“What is it?”
“There seems to be an enlargement in the frontal lobe and the cortex.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you know then?” Emma said, more to herself than the computer.
“The enlargement seems to be done by increasing the folds with a complex pattern.”
“Ok? Is that significant?”
“I don’t know. It is very efficient. It increases surface area without increasing the total volume.”
“And that is important how?”
“I don’t know. My stipulations suggests that it is similar to a compression algorithm.”
She didn’t need to hear more. She hadn’t expected the changes in her brain, but again she was far less surprised than she should be. The music boxes had changed her, perhaps still were changing her. But for what purpose? Wherever the boxes came from, and whoever made them, they had to be so far advanced that they made humans and everyone in the known universe look like children meddling with toys. And yet, they were gone. There had been a warning at the end, she was quite sure of that, however vague the feeling was.
Her Glas shivered slightly, startling her with its incoming transmission.
She accepted and looked at the face of her brother.
“Hi sis. Are you ok?”
She hadn’t turned on her own camera, so he could only hear her breathing.
“We are coming to you now, will be docking in half an hour.”
Her brother nodded. Suddenly she wished that she had the video feed on anyway, just to be able to express her feelings without saying a word.
“Can you meet us in docking bay? We are in a hurry.”
“Ok, yeah, sure.”
“Thanks. See you there then.”
She sauntered down to the docking area, wondering what she was going to say. She had the crystal in her pocket and Kri’s words floated in her brain like some unwanted melody. Her growing brain that at the moment felt nothing but sluggish. She had expected her brother, not the woman herself. Her brother was easy to handle. Was her presence an indication of urgency? At least she couldn’t hide behind protocol or ignorance, like her brother could.
They had already docked when she arrived.
Her brother was standing outside the bay doors, his eyes meeting hers the moment she turned the corner. He scan her whole body in seconds and looked relieved for a moment. He made no effort to try to hug her, as always trying to be professional in public. Never mind that there were no one around. He gestured for her to enter the ship. She felt too tired to insult him.
Madame Clair Tussaud was waiting for her on the other side.
She took Emma’s hand and gave her big, warm smile that actually extended to her eyes, but Emma knew better than to trust her anyway.
“Emma, I’m so glad to see you. You wouldn’t believe the things we’ve heard about you.”
“They are probably all true. Or perhaps the truth beats fiction this time.”
Clair held on to her hand and lifted it up to take a closer look on the ring. Emma had put it on on purpose.
“Fascinating thing. Do you know anything about it?”
“No more than that it ties me to the Lady of the ship for all eternity.”
“All that, just for besting her Knifemaster?”
Emma couldn’t help suppress a laugh.
“I didn’t best anyone. I got my ass kicked, which you knew I would.”
“I did not know anything of the sort. I trusted in your way of doing things.”
“So you’re blaming me for the death of my team, and the fact that we almost ended up with a war bigger than we ever had before?”
Claire managed to look hurt.
“Of course not dear, quite the opposite. I think you saved as many as possible of your team, and averted the war, while succeeding with your mission, if I’m not wrong.”
“Why couldn’t you have briefed me beforehand? You used me in every possible way, and for that several people are dead. Being such an excellent judge of character, what do you think I’m feeling at the moment?”
“I guess you are right, in some sense of the word. I did use you, but in no way was that mistake. If not you, then someone else had to go, and to be perfectly honest, I think the chance of anyone achieving what you did is as close to zero as you can get. In fact, if anyone but you had gone, I think it’s likely they would all be dead now.”
“You knew all this, and still you sent us!?”
“Hmm, you really are tired. You are usually more perceptive than this.”
Emma felt her muscles tense.
“Of course I didn’t know the scenario as it played out. I’m using hindsight, but in the sense that I’m very glad that I made the choices I did. If I had known our operation was that compromised, I would have sent more people to look after you, but make no pretense, I would still send you and the team.”
“What the hell is on that crystal anyway?”
Emma felt in no way eager to play this game with her, but it was the only way. Information had to be earned.
“It has to do with the Vanduul attacks. Someone is coordinating attacks on the UEE for some purpose that I do not know. Most likely there are humans involved. The information is names, locations or proofs of the people involved.”
“Your brother told you as much. But why did the Vanduuls and the Lady show up with a horde ship, just to deliver a data crystal?”
“To send a message? I don’t know. Does anyone know how the Vanduul community works, if there is anything like that?”
“But what was the message?”
Emma already felt tired of thinking.
“I don’t know. Show of strength? Perhaps strength was the only way to show up? After all, it seems likely that some people knew what I was really doing there.”
“Knowing that for sure would have been better.”
Claire suddenly looked a lot older.
“Can’t you just tell me why they did it? To be honest, my brain is not at its finest.”
“I would if I could.”
“What? Don’t give me that crap. You can do whatever you want!”
The smile on her face was rare.
“I mean that I don’t know either. It doesn’t make much sense. I was hoping you had some information that could shed some light on the matter, or that the Lady said something relevant.”
“What? Then how the hell did all this come together?”
“Now that I won’t tell you.”
Emma got the feeling that the chief intelligence officer of the Advocacy was not entire happy with what she knew. Claire looked to be somewhere in her 40’s, but that was probably deceiving, like so much else with her. She got that look that meant that she was thinking something through, and would not speak before she was finished. Emma turned to her brother, who was standing behind her. He was staring into the floor, but he met her eyes. There was a look of worry in them that was unusual.
“I assume you have the crystal with you?” Claire asked.
Emma just nodded.
“And you have the passphrases?”
“Might we have them?”
She gave them the crystal.
“And the passphrases?”
“In a moment. First I have some questions.”
Claire’s reaction was both small and short, but Emma knew what to look for.
“First, I want you to prepare an information package about what really happened and make sure it gets publicity. I don’t want the media to go spinning this the wrong way.”
It was Claire’s turn to nod.
“Second, my implants are malfunctioning. I would like you to fix it.”
Claire looked at her brother and nodded.
“Do you know how it happened?”
“I might have strained them too much in the fight.”
“You might? What exactly did you do?”
“I ran an overload program.”
“Ok, I can see the reason for that. What does the diagnostics say?”
“I can’t reach the implants. They acknowledge, but that’s about it.”
Her brother gave Claire a large Glas tablet. She started reading, her face not giving anything away.
“That is unusual,” Claire said.
“What is?” Emma asked.
“We were monitoring you when you suddenly went offline. That was before you went on the mission. We assumed it was a glitch, but we are not able to connect to them now, even with override codes. All we can do is confirm that they are there and working. We have to inject you to reestablish contact.”
“And how often does this happen?”
“It’s pretty rare, but in combat situations stranger things have happened. Did anything special happen before you left?”
Emma didn’t have to pretend to think, except the thing she thought about was whether to tell the truth. Maybe later.
“No, not that I can think of. And I could access them fine until after the fight.”
Her brother opened up a drawer and took out an injection pistol. Claire entered something into the device.
“Ok, the injection is primed and in contact,” Claire said.
Her brother placed the pistol on her thigh and pulled the trigger. It stung else than she expected. Perhaps they had improved it since last time.
“Ok, here we go,” Claire said. “Contact initiated, and…”
Claire’s eyes narrowed.
“What?” Emma asked.
“That’s not right.”
“What?!” Emma asked again.
Claire eyes were not happy.
“Your implants just destroyed the injection with incredible speed. Treating it like an attack.”
“That’s not supposed to be possible,” her brother said. “The recognition codes are hardcoded into every replica. The only way to do that would be to reconfigure every replica at the same time, which is not only physically impossible, but the heat exchange itself would kill you.”
“You sure you picked the right batch?” Claire asked.
“Of course. It must have been something else,” her brother said.
“Try it again,” Claire said.
Reconfiguring everything at the same time. Physically impossible for them, not for the music boxes. What else had it done to her?
“Ok, I have double checked everything,” Josh said and placed the injector on their thigh again.
“Just a second,” Claire said, “I need to adjust something.”
Emma didn’t like the sound of that, but kept quiet.
“Ready,” Claire said.
This time it hurt more. Claire’s eyes never left the tablet.
“What the hell?!”
Emma felt a tingling, warm sensation in her thigh.
“What’s going on?”
“That’s a bloody good question. Did you get injected with something while on the horde ship?”
“Yeah, but only by Aish and the ambassador. The Vanduuls wanted to give me something, but they weren’t allowed.”
“And you are certain about this? They watched over you while you were unconscious?”
“No, but still…”
Her brother put his hand on her shoulder.
“It can’t be a trap. The Vanduuls don’t have that sort of technology. Nobody does.”
Claire did not look convinced.
“Let’s take a blood sample and analyze it,” he said.
That would definitively cause a problem.
“I’m sorry Emma, but we need to keep you in quarantine until we figure this one out. We can’t take the chance.”
“Quarantine? Are you kidding?”
“What if they really have something that can attack our implants? What if you are carrying it? I don’t have to explain the consequences of that to you.”
She didn’t. Emma wasn’t sure if it would matter for Claire that the technology didn’t come from the Vanduuls. That the possibility existed was a game changer. They would never let her go. They would lock her up and do every test possible to her.
“I…” Emma started, but stopped. The truth would not help her.
“It’s probably a fluke. You’ll be out again in no time,” Josh said.
“The pass phrases,” Claire said.
For a second Emma considered to refuse, but she couldn’t. Not even for this.
For once she believed she could see real pity in Claire’s face. She gave them the words.
“Thank you,” Claire said. “Just so you know, we already have the media package ready. We want the same thing.”
“Since I’m already going to be quarantined, can I know what’s on the crystal?”
“Do you want to join us?”
“Would that get me out of quarantine?”
Come clean now, or have awkward conversation later?
“Now what?” Claire asked and took up the tablet. She gave Emma a strange look.
Emma didn’t dare to utter a word, but her brother did.
“Yes, now what?”
Claire gave him the tablet. He took it, looked at it and laughed.
“I told you! Just a random fluke.”
“That’s one hell of a fluke,” Claire said.
Emma felt lost.
“Your implants are communicating just fine again, here, look,” Josh said and gave her tablet.
Empty diagnostics field were rapidly filling up with number and graphs. Every field turned green.
“Check with your own Glas,” he said.
She did. Everything worked as if nothing had ever been wrong. Claire did not look happy.
“But what about the injections?” Emma asked.
“The only explanation is that there is something wrong with the batch,” Josh said.
“Is that even possible?” Emma asked.
“Do you have a better explanation?” Josh asked.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I do.
She shook her head. Claire regarded her with the stare of an interrogator.
Emma felt her skin crawl. Could be possible that not only had the music box caused the change, but also that it knew what was about to happen and had reversed it actions to preserve her and thereby itself?
“So now what?” Emma asked.
Claire took the tablet out of her hands. If she insisted on a blood test, a scan or anything else, this wouldn’t matter much. She could feel her brother’s hand tighten ever so slightly. The silence seemed to last forever.
“Fine. But if anything strange happens, you tell us immediately. And that’s not a suggestion, understood?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. I also want a full report by tomorrow morning. Now before we leave, is there anything else you want to mention?”
“I tried the pass phrases when I was under attack. It’s a two part encryption system, isn’t it?”
Claire gave her a smile and left her with her brother. Josh sat down in a chair. He didn’t try to mask any of his feelings from her, not when they were alone. For that she could forgive his stiffness the rest of the time.
“How was dad?” he asked.
“Busy as always. I think he has put together some scheme to track the horde ship.”
“Yeah, I would be surprised if he didn’t.”
“And are you ok? I didn’t know that all this would happened. She didn’t even tell me about the ritual.”
Emma looked at him.
“And would it have made any difference?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Hard to say now.”
He flicked his thumb under his index finger repeatedly.
“Josh, what do you want to ask?”
He shifted his gaze slow, but steady.
“She didn’t ask you, but I have to. Won’t you please come back to us? We need you.”
You need me, Emma thought. That was troubling enough. Still, going back was not an option.
“You know my answer. I won’t come back. Not now, not ever.”
“Can you at least tell me why not?”
She shook her head, almost so little that it was imperceptible.
“You know if you ever need my help, all you have to do is ask.
“Even after this?”
“Especially after this.”
He smiled, if only a little.
“Thank you. I will hold you to that, you do now that.”
“Freelance agents always get more paid, don’t they?”
“Not the ones running around with borrowed implants in their body. They might as well have sold their soul.”
She felt as if punched in the stomach. Sold her soul, was that what she had done already? Luckily her brother didn’t notice. They talked a little about work and family, before Emma gave him a big hug and left for her room.
When her head hit the pillow, the room was spinning and not in a good way.
She had wanted to get away from all the complications, only to take care of herself, work in the Ark and perhaps, some day, start a family of her own. No Advocacy, no mission, no trouble. It had worked so far, but that illusion had exploded like a thin glass on a stone ground. The alluring feeling was back, just as strong as it had been earlier. She longed for it, for the thrill, the challenge of it all. At the same time it made her sick. She had failed her last test mission, failed because of fear, her own stupid, groundless fear, and a man had died because of it. The best operative ever trained. So far the only operative to have a paralyzing fear of killing others. The universe certainly had a sense of humor, she just didn’t share it. Only Claire knew the truth, and she kept saying that it was only beginner nerves. Emma knew better.
She closed her eyes and started humming.
It had become a night ritual. It helped clear her mind in a way not much else could. She also liked how she could play with melodies, both old and new. She could almost sing two tunes at once now, and she knew instinctively if two tunes could match. Conscious thought kept slipping away, replaced by strange thoughts and places, even conversations, all on the verge of dreaming.
She felt its presence first.
She opened her eyes and looked at the creature that appeared to standing beside her bed.
“Hi Emma, thank you for the songs. Now I have one for you.”