taking joy in human unreason

Esteemed Relations

Ginber 13, 000165

Beta Station. Not quite home for Hardi, it was where her mother lived now that Hardi's father was dead.

Hardi and Robert stood together once again waiting to disembark at an airlock. This time, though, the ship was clean if not new, and the line of people around them was quiet. Hardi and Robert were conspicuous by their lack of uniforms.

"Did you really need to wear that?" Hardi whispered to Robert. "You look like a clown."

Robert straightened his lavender shirt. "I, my dear, am a peacock in a field of pigeons." One of the soldiers behind him snorted a laugh. Robert shot him a look, but continued, "I know how station ladies are. I have to stand out from these military types, or I'll never get... noticed."

Hardi rolled her eyes and eyed his luggage dubiously as they moved forward in line. She refused to ask what was in the five bags, since the answer might be "more shirts like those."

They stepped onto the station a few minutes later and Robert took a deep breath.

"I'm so glad to be free of the stench of military bodies," he said.

"Our next transport is military, too," Hardi pointed out.

"Yeah, but we'll get a day off to cleanse our nasal passages."

Hardi rolled her eyes, but chuckled. "And you're going to party away the whole —" She froze. "Mom?"

The stern-looking woman standing a few meters away made her way over to the pair. "You're late," she said right off. She was dressed in a form-fitting marigold dress that flared at the hips.

"Mom —" Hardi started.

"You must be the famous Ms. Rhodes," Robert interjected smoothly. "I've heard so much about you."

He had. Hardi had messaged ahead to let her mother know she'd be on the station, but wouldn't have time to visit. Ms. Rhodes's reply was caustic enough to set Hardi off every time Robert mentioned their imminent arrival.

Hardi's mother looked Robert over. "I hope they were all good things," she said with a slow smile. She was the spitting image of Hardi with twenty years added.

"Of course," Robert said charmingly. Hardi sighed.

"Mom, we need to get ready for the next part of our trip. We don't really have time to —"

"Make time," Ms. Rhodes said firmly. "I haven't seen you in two years. Are you with this young man now? He seems much better than that thug. What was his name? Monroe?"

"Markos, Mom." People in the base were watching them, mostly amused. "Let's step outside, please."

Robert moved to guide Ms. Rhodes out, but Hardi's mother planted her feet.

"Not until you agree to have dinner with me!" she said, holding onto Robert's arm. "That's a nice shirt, young man," she praised as she looked up at him. "I'm Kathy Rhodes, by the way. I don't think we've been formally introduced."

"I'm Dr. Robert Yuk," he said with a little bow. "May I call you Kathy?"

"No." Ms. Rhodes smiled up at him coyly, "I think you can call me Ms. Rhodes."

Robert's eyes widened slightly. He shot Hardi a look with a little head tilt towards the door.

"Alright, Mom," Hardi conceded. "We'll do dinner."

Ms. Rhodes was grinning as she tugged Robert out of the base.

The receptionist stopped Hardi as Robert and her mother headed out. "We've got rooms reserved for you here, ma'am," she said sympathetically. "Just come back to whoever's on duty here, and we'll direct you."

Hardi nodded her thanks and headed out morosely, dragging along her bag.

Beta Station was as colorful as Kanka Station had been colorless. The art troupe Fanciful Feathers was based here and on Beta itself, so the station was brightly lit and the metal bulkheads covered in murals. Some were etchings into the metal itself, while others were painted or stained.

Ms. Rhodes prattled to Robert as they walked past bright scenes of fields full of flowers that eased into foothills, then rich red mountains. Robert just nodded and said "uh-huh" when he had to, but pulled his bags behind him with one hand and let Ms. Rhodes hold onto the other arm. Every minute or so, he glanced back to make sure Hardi hadn't run away.

"I do hope you like pot roast, young man," Ms. Rhodes said as she opened her apartment door. "Sally makes great pot roast. She might even have made enough to feed a tall boy like yourself." She swept into the mauve and brown entry.

Robert gave a little whistle as he peeked into the living room. This woman lived in style. Faux wood floors over the deck plating, floor to ceiling murals gracing the walls, glass tables and leather furniture. It didn't look comfortable in the least, but it sure looked good.

"You redecorated, Mom," Hardi called out as she handed to her bag to a young lady who had scurried forward.

Ms. Rhodes said something from the next room over, but Robert murmured, "A maid? And a thug? I really don't know you well at all, do I?"

Hardi glared at him and thanked Sally absently. "I don't have a maid," she muttered to Robert. "My mother has a maid. And Markos isn't a thug."

Robert's look was considering. "Maybe I'll get to meet him some day and judge for myself."

Hardi looked away. "Maybe."

"Sally?" Ms. Rhodes shouted. "Girl, go ahead and prep to serve dinner." Sally hurried, dragging all the luggage.

Hardi sighed heavily and led the way into the living room.

"Come, come," Ms. Rhodes said. "Sit while Sally gets everything ready. I figured you'd be late, so I told her not to set anything up until we got here."

"Yes, Mom, we see that," Hardi said. Robert swallowed a laugh as he sat next to her on the love seat.

"So, Doctor Robert," Ms. Rhodes said, "tell me how you came to work with my daughter."

"Oh, we're just investigating a case together," he said nonchalantly. Hardi shot him a warning look, and he winked conspiratorially at her.

Ms. Rhodes didn't miss a thing. "Medicine and computers together? That must be fun," she said.

"Luckily for the two of us," Hardi said dryly, "medicine has been using computers for quite some time. It keeps us from having to reinvent the wheel."

"Or the scalpel," Robert added helpfully.

Hardi glanced into the dining room to see places set and a roast on the table. "Looks like Sally's done setting up. Shouldn't we go eat before the food gets cold?"

"I think you're just glad not to have to wait in line," Robert joked as they stood.

"Silly me, thinking a military transport would have better facilities," she grumbled.

"If I still had the yacht, I'd let you borrow it," Ms. Rhodes said as they preceded her into the dining room. "But I sold it to this delightful man who gave the best — well."

Robert's grin widened. "Always good incentive to sell a yacht," he drolled. Hardi elbowed him and he chuckled.

Sally wasn't quite done setting up when they arrived, but the look she shot at Hardi was knowing. Throughout dinner, Ms. Rhodes grilled Robert on where he went to school, what type of doctor he was, where he lived, if he wanted children.

"Mom, don't ask whether he wants children," Hardi protested.

"Oh, it's fine," Robert said cheerfully. He leaned forward conspiratorially, and Ms. Rhodes leaned with him. "To be honest," he said in a low voice, "I've always imagined having nine kids, all in utero."

Ms. Rhodes snapped back, shocked. "You're a heathen," she declared.

"I know," Robert said sadly, holding out his hands placatingly. "I know." Hardi sighed and left him to the wolves after that.

Dessert cleared and brandy drank, Ms. Rhodes tried to show them to their rooms.

"Mom, we can't stay the night," Hardi said firmly. "We have to get back to the base."

"Oh, it's no trouble —" Ms. Rhodes started.

"It all has to do with our investigation, Ms. Rhodes." Robert sounded somber, but Hardi spotted the slight wink in her direction.

"Are you in danger?" Hardi's mother asked.

Hardi knew things could go downhill, so she said, "No, Mom, they just want to keep an eye on us." With a forced chuckle, "I'm sure you can imagine how much trouble this guy could get into."

Robert gave them a boyish grin and too-innocent shrug, which set Ms. Rhodes smiling again.

"We should get back, unfortunately," he said. "We don't want to lead the goons to your lovely home. Dinner was superb, though."

"Fine," Ms. Rhodes huffed. She surprised Hardi with a quick hug. "Stay safe."

"I will," Hardi assured her.

Her mother narrowed her eyes. "That means staying away from that Marius."

Hardi gave a tight smile. "Let's go, Robert." She took all of their collective luggage from Sally and led Robert out of the apartment. She ignored his quick good-byes and her mother's demands that she call whenever she arrived... wherever.

Robert exhaled loudly as they walked back towards the base, the murals going back down mountains to foothills and fields.

"That was invigorating!" Robert said with a grin.

Hardi gave him an incredulous look and shoved his bags at him. "That was exhausting."

"Hmm," was all he said, still smiling slightly.

"So, did you have a maid when you were a kid?" he asked after they'd walked a few paces.

"You're kind of stuck on that," Hardi noted sardonically.

"It's just that I haven't seen that kind of luxury since medical school," he said with a shrug. "Those doctors... whoo."

"All of that —" she waved vaguely in the direction of her mother's apartment — "is from my father's life insurance payout."

Robert whistled softly. "How much of that money did you see?"

"Not much," Hardi said with a quirk of her lips. "They had a rocky relationship, so Mom figured she was owed a little dancing on his grave."

"A full-time maid, though?" Robert marveled. "That's a lot of dancing. What does Sally do all day?"

"Hmm? Oh, she's Mom's companion, too," Hardi added with a sideways look.

Robert's eyes bugged. "Wow," he muttered.

Hardi nodded shortly. "Yup." She pointed him to the left at a fork as he drifted to the right.

"Well," Robert said after a moment, "she's certainly pretty enough for it."

Hardi knew she shouldn't ask. "Sally?"

Robert clucked his tongue disapprovingly. "Your mother, of course." Hardi punched him lightly in the shoulder.

Beta Station's military base was quiet when they trudged in. The receptionist called someone up to escort them to their rooms, and they parted ways at their doors.

Hardi took a long, hot shower, washing away the evening. She crawled gratefully into the little, hard bed, asleep before she could think too much about tomorrow would bring.



She was grumpily tugging on her second shoe when she felt a wave of vertigo and found herself standing on the shore of an ocean.

She tore her eyes from the horizon long enough to watch a wave rush over her toes, but looked back up anxiously.

She knew his ship would be home soon, the sun was setting. Then he'd be home and she'd never let him go.

She felt her father's warm hand on her back.

"It's time to go in now, babe," he rumbled. "It's getting cold."

"I know, but... When will he get back?" Her voice was plaintive.

Her father's jaw tightened, but his voice was gentle as he suggested, "Let's go in and talk about it."

"Babies?" her mother called from the house. "Dinner's ready!"

"See?" her father said. "We should go in."

She shook her head and yelled back towards the house, "Mama, you have to wait on Michael to get here!"

There was a crash in the house, and her mother stormed out towards them, running in the sand in a nightgown, hair wild. Her eyes went big at the sight and she looked at her father to find tears in his eyes.

"Papa?" she asked quietly.

"He's dead!" Mama screamed as she stumbled to a halt in front of them. "He's been fucking dead for five years and you have to keep reminding us!" Her voice cracked at the end.

"Oh," she said. Then she remembered.

Hardi raised her head to find Robert kneeling in front of her, watching carefully. Her hands were still on her shoe, prepared tug it on.

"Good morning," Robert said cautiously.

Hardi wiped tears off her face roughly, and felt her stomach heave. Robert caught the look on her face and grabbed her arm to propel her to the bathroom just in time. For the second time in less than a week, he rubbed her back and hummed soothingly until her stomach settled.

When she finally sat back, he said, "Another blackout."

She nodded and took a tentative deep breath. "How long had you been waiting?" she croaked.

Robert glanced at his comm and tapped at the screen. "Ninety-ish seconds, I think."

"Hmm," Hardi grunted. She got up slowly and headed back into the bedroom, picking up her lost shoe along the way. "I want to go back to bed," she said wistfully.

"No, now's the time to get the scan done," Robert insisted. "Sleep or food can wait." He pulled her away from the bed and towards the door. She hopped to place her foot in her shoe and stomped it into place as she stumbled after him.

"Tell me about it," Robert demanded as he brought up news on his comm.

"It wasn't newsworthy," Hardi sighed. "It was just me on a beach waiting for a dead guy."

"Dead lover?" Robert asked. The station was pretty busy this morning with people going to work, so Robert pitched his voice low.

"Brother," she replied. "My — the mom flipped out about me always reminding her of his death. I guess I forgot it pretty often."

"That sounds pretty dreamlike," Robert mused. "Do you ever have these... things about something other than death?"

Hardi thought back to her first vision, the woman struggling to find her likely-trampled daughter in the aftermath of the first Ming Ung attack. Then the one earlier this week: the woman killed in the bank. "No," she said sadly. "Always about death, although I've only had three."

"Even still," Robert said, "that's disturbing." They walked quietly the rest of the way.

The scanning portion of the med center was typically unmanned — when patients or doctors made appointments, they specified all the parameters, and everything was automated when they arrived and signed in. Robert handled all of the sign-in process for Hardi. "To keep things off the books, like you asked," he muttered to Hardi.

"Thank you," she whispered back. "I won't even comment on the lime green shirt this morning."

He winked at her.

Once in the exam room, she stripped down and slipped on the med center gown. Looking warily at the jug of juice she had to drink, she propped herself up on the scanner bed and started chugging. It was thin and strangely chalky, but would lull her into the half-sleep necessary for the scan while helping highlight brain activity.

Last drop dutifully gone, she lay back on the bed. The device was deceptively small, just a metallic rectangle that Hardi slid her head into.

She watched the screen inside, and took a deep breath when instructed to. The machine took a scan. She then inhaled and held her breath while another scan was taken.

As she felt drowsiness overtake her, images and videos began to flicker rapidly on the screen. Faces, shapes, a video clip of the Ming Ung bomb, pictures of Uthla Main, Markos, videos of Robert, pictures from the Provence Premiere Banque bank hold-up, her mother.

She didn't know where he'd gotten all that media, but she lay passively while it all flashed before her eyes, letting them draw forth responses the scanner duly noted. When the show ended, she waited while yet another quick scan swept over her skull.

With a shaky sigh, Hardi slid out from the box and off the bed.

"When will we have results?" she asked Robert wearily.

He worked at the console as he said, "Oh, it'll be a few days. We'll probably be on Ming Ung before we get them."

Hardi glanced at a clock in the hallway as they headed out of the med center, and did a double-take. The scan had taken two hours. Hardi slumped as they walked out onto the concourse.

"Listen, Robert, I might just go turn in," she said. "I'm pretty wiped out."

He glanced over at her and said, "Let's get you some good food. That'll help you feel better."

"Good food" apparently meant a large burger, fried onions, and ice cream.

"This isn't very healthy," Hardi remarked Robert piled up a track with both of their meals.

"Nonsense," he said. "All of this is very nutritious. It's chock full of macronutrients." He headed to a table.

Hardi blinked as she thought over what he said. "Hold on —" she started, then gave up and followed him.

"I know you must be tired if you let that slide," Robert quipped. He set a small mountain of food in front of her that she eyed dubiously. She slowly opened the wrappers.

Robert kept an eye on her while she ate, and when she started drooping, gathered up all their trash. "Let's get going," he said as he tugged her out of her chair. She went along obediently, fingers trailing along the murals on the corridor walls as they walked.

The base was in absolute chaos when they arrived.

"We've been trying to reach you two," admonished the receptionist on duty this morning.

"What now?" Hardi grumped.

The receptionist shot her an annoyed look. "We're moving up the launch of the Harris Kilter."

"What?" Robert asked. "What's going on?"

"You'll have to ask Captain Mitchel for the details of that, sir," she said stodgily. "Your luggage — all of it," she said with a mild glare at Robert, "has been moved on board."

She held up a finger, then said, "Yes, ma'am, I have them here... No, ma'am, Hinley hasn't reported in yet. I'll page him again, but he's off the radar — I'm not even getting an automatic acknowledgment from his comm... Yes, ma'am, they're heading onboard now —" She pointed Hardi and Robert toward a passageway with an airlock sign above it. "They have a lot of questions..." she confirmed.

"It's probably another attack," Hardi said as they headed quickly down the corridor.

"Maybe," Robert agreed. "It could also be something going on here, some protest."

They stopped in front of the guard at the airlock and dug out their IDs. He checked them carefully before waving them in.

"Exec officer Borino and the senior staff will be holding a briefing on the situation once we're underway, ma'am, sir."

"What's going on?" Robert asked. Hardi had no idea how he was remaining so calm. He was probably used to not knowing what was going on around him.

"The XO will explain everything, sir. Your comms?"

They held them out, and the guard sent them their room info and granted them access to the ship's computers.

"I miss the Paradise Island," Hardi complained as they cycled through the airlock.

"Better the food lines, no coffee, and back-stabbing roommate than checkpoints, missing luggage, and no information?" Robert asked with a knowing smirk.

Hardi sighed. "The coffee was a showstopper," she mused. Robert chuckled.

"Pardon us!" chimed two voices behind them.

Robert flattened himself against the wall to let two young women hauling a massive crate pass.

"Sorry, ladies," called Robert after them. His head tilted as he watched them hustle.

"Don't be a jerk," Hardi said. "Let's get out of everyone's way." She stuck to the edges of the corridors for the rest of the way to their rooms.

Hardi stepped into her quarters and looked around in dismay at the tiny, dark room. "Whose bright idea was it for me to take this trip?" she muttered as she turned on the light. It didn't brighten the room much.

"I got the impression it was yours," Robert said from the doorway.

Hardi jumped and whirled. "Don't do that!"

"There's a note on your system," he said. He was smiling, but his eyes were tense. He slid past her to the bunk and sat while Hardi got into the comm at the desk. It was more an end-table than a desk, really, at barely a meter wide.

One distracted video message from Lieutenant Commander Schuler, medical officer.

"Ah, yes. Ms. Rhodes," she started. "We have some preliminary word of the side effects of that biological attack on Ming Ung. Victims that have been exposed to contaminated food and water have begun to experience extensive thinning of mucus membrane tissues. Ask your doctor what that means."

Hardi paused the playback and looked at Robert.

His smile was more of a grimace as he said, "In advanced cases, nasty hemorrhaging."

She nodded and continued the video.

"The public doesn't have this information, and it's imperative that they don't get it. We'll arrive on Ming Ung fifty-four hours after departure, and we won't have FTL comm access during the trip." Schafer's lip curled. "We shouldn't have to worry too much about you two 'consultants' blabbing."

Schafer sighed and glanced off-camera. "Grab any data you need from the station before we depart, and don't oversleep and miss the senior staff meeting at 07:00 Ginber 15." The video ended abruptly.

Hardi gave Robert a sardonic look. "They've got a lot of respect for consultants around here, it seems."

He glanced up from his comm and said, "I don't suppose you 'saw' this?"

"No," Hardi said with a sigh. She set her comm to start crawling for bioagent lab identification techniques, deployment methods, etc. This wasn't her usual area of expertise.

"Besides, " she added as she glanced up at him, "I don't seem to see things in advance."

"Inconvenient, that," Robert murmured.

Hardi drummed her fingers on her tiny desk. "How'd you have time to watch that video before coming here?"

He chuckled a little. "I just had a note saying to see her note in your inbox."

Hardi rolled her eyes. "So who's the lazy one? Anyway, what now?" She started queuing up some basic medical information on plagues and diseases relating to mucus membrane thinning. Robert could probably tell her more, but she wanted to do some independent research, too. Just in case he really was just the class clown.

"I've gotten some raw data from people there — they don't seem to want to spare me the time and effort to send any already processed info," Robert complained. "I'll start playing with the numbers, even if I am duplicating their work."

"I guess I get to hurry up and wait," Hardi said with an eye roll. She set about pulling more data onto her comm.

Next story: Planetfall

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