taking joy in human unreason


Ginber 26, 000165

"More cleanup?" Robert shouted from the bathroom.

"After another meeting," Hardi called back.

Robert growled, and Hardi chuckled quietly. A week on Ming Ung, and both of them were worming their way into the good graces of their respective teams. That didn't mean they were exempt from ground zero cleanup duty.

Hardi straightened her business suit and grabbed her hat from her top-bunk bed. Sharing quarters with Robert wasn't bad aside from his horrendous snoring and tendency to oversleep and make them late to the meetings. Once the meeting started, there was standing room only.

"I'll meet you there," she called into the bathroom. Robert made an acknowledging noise.

Hardi was halfway to the door of their quarters when the room's comm chimed. Sighing, she went over to accept the incoming call and blinked as Markos's face filled the screen.

"Hi, um. Hello," Hardi said.

"Hey, babe," Markos said with a cheery smile. He seemed sober enough. "Where are you? How's the seminar going?"

Hardi mustered up a smile. "Very well," she replied. "I was actually just about to head out to—" Robert stepped out of the bathroom wearing a towel wrapped around his hips and a towel draped over his hair. Hardi's eyes widened at the sight of all that skin, but she quickly looked back at the comm and continued, "—a session."

Robert froze in his hair drying and caught her eyes, mouthing, "Mom?"

"Yeah, sure," Markos said. "When are you coming home?" he whined. "This place is all big and lonely without you."

"Markos, it took forever just getting here," she said. "We're just getting into the swing of things. It could be a while before I'm set to go."

Markos's pout became a frown and Hardi realized she'd protested too much.

His chuckle was forced as he said, "You sure you aren't enjoying the sights while you're out there?"

Hardi's smile was weak. "Well, it is a lovely planet." She kept her eyes firmly on the screen.

"I want you home," Markos insisted, false charm gone. "And I want you home soon."

Robert cocked an eyebrow at the tone, and turned back into the bathroom, closing the door silently.

"I got a call from your mother," Markos continued, "and she's worried about you wandering all over the cosmos. You should be here, safely behind a desk. There's all sorts of violence going on out there."

"I'm safe here," Hardi said reassuringly. "Just switching between classrooms and my cramped rooms. Look, Markos, I have to go."

Markos glared at her for a moment, powerless to force the issue. "Yeah," he said. "We'll talk again soon." He ended the call.

Hardi waited in the silence for Robert's commentary, but he came out quietly, fully dressed. He'd toned down his shirts since their arrival, and his shirt today was merely a crazy swirl of dark purple, rich brown, and black.

His gaze was somber as he said, "You ready? I've got the scans." He tapped the disk containing her brain scan and slipped it in his pocket. They had arrived last night. "We'll chat about them while we work."

She stood and picked up her hat, setting it on her head as she walked to the door. "Yes. Let's go."

They were housed in a cheap hostel, little more than a rustic mansion crammed with 30 people. Rooms had been assigned on a first come, first served basis.

Hardi and Robert moved quickly through the house and out the front door, Hardi ignoring the cheery calls of "Good morning!" from the other consultants and Justine, the native who ran the house. Robert waved back and grabbed a muffin from the counter with his usual charming smile. Justine's smile back was more lecherous.

The meetings were held right across the boulevard at a proper hotel. Hardi and Robert arrived early enough to snag a pair of seats in the second row of chairs ringing the conference table. Robert wandered off to get them coffee and returned with two shots of espresso. With the water contamination, no one was making whole pots of coffee.

"So... interesting morning, huh?" Robert said to her quietly as he sat next to her.

Hardi sighed softly. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Oh, come on," he wheedled with a grin as he handed her the little cup. "It can't have been too traumatic to see all this nude deliciousness."

To her horror, she blushed. Robert laughed out loud, drawing glares from other sleepy consultants in the conference room.

Hardi turned a little away from him as she muttered, "It's really not that funny. It was just bad timing."

"Uh-huh," Robert said smugly.

Hardi jumped as her comm buzzed against her hip. As she pulled it out to check it, Robert asked, "Who would be sending you stuff?" His voice was low as he continued, "Seems like anyone who would be messaging you would be here in this room."

"Shh," she responded and she looked over the message. "My comm is a little... special."

"Does it have superpowers?" Robert asked with a grin. "Can you get it tell my future— Well."

Hardi glared at him to silence him on that subject. "It's not 'superpowered', Yuk, it's just got a few extra receivers on it, a little wider listening range than the standard comm."

Robert was quiet for a moment, then said, "So that's why you charge that thing so much."

Hardi just nodded. The message was probably audio-only, but just sounded like chirping gibberish in her earpiece.

"My comm should have decoded this," she muttered. Robert leaned to look over shoulder as she manually tried different players and settings. All gibberish.

Shay Wilder stood at the head of the table, stocky and square in a blue pinstriped suit, with hair combed up and out to match the boxy look. Everyone in the room quieted down and gave him their attention, save Hardi.

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for being here to save lives," he said in his soft, high voice. "I'd like to start this morning's meeting." Wilder was in command of the assembled team, and always led these morning-long meetings.

Hardi rolled her eyes at the commencement of the meeting, but kept her head down under her hat and worked quietly on her comm. Nothing was making this recording playable.

Wilder continued, "Ms. Kincaid, can you provide us with an update on contaminated native people?"

Paula Kincaid informed them that there were 40 more known cases of contamination since yesterday's meeting, all locals. She took several minutes to get her comm working with the room's large-scale display—as she did every morning—and then proceeded to show them graphs that had an extra day's data point on them.

Wilder went around the room, asking his managers of their sections' status while Hardi worked furiously and other minor consultants snoozed.

"Any luck?" Robert whispered very quietly in her ear. She shook her head, but gave up on playing the recording for now, because she thought she'd found something interesting in the metadata on the recording. She checked again.

Hardi sighed loudly when she noticed how well obfuscated the senders' location was, then froze. She felt Robert freeze next to her.

She looked up slowly to find Shay Wilder and most of the room looking at her. Another consultant across the room snickered.

"Are these meetings boring you, Miss...?" Wilder asked. His voice was calm, but his eyes narrowed as he looked at her.

"No, Mr. Wilder," Hardi responded. "This meeting may be the second most fascinating thing I do today." Her smile was carefully pleasant. "Aside from working to save lives, of course."

Wilder's eyes narrowed further for a moment, then he turned back to everyone else. "Well, let's not hold everyone here for longer than we have to. Gene, please carry on with your report."

Robert's finger jabbed her in the side. Hardi was already working on the message again. The destination of the message was plain as day—a comsat about 90 kilometers from here. When Robert leaned in again to snoop, she tilted the comm away from him. She gave the meeting about half of her attention while she waited for other attempts to decode the recording to fail.

"Alright everyone," Wilder said an hour later. "Let's go be life-savers." He waved them all up from their chairs and led the way out of the room.

Hardi got her and Robert out of the room in record time, and headed back to their room.

"Hey," Robert said stopping. "We're on cleanup duty." Everyone else was headed in the other direction, so they had the hallway to themselves.

She looked over at him in shock. "I have—this thing—I have to figure out what it is."

"Then do it in the lab, whatever it is," he insisted. "They probably picked it up, too," he said with a wave towards the other consultants.

Hardi chuckled. "Not likely. They aren't listening, or we'd be doing something more than picking up rubble."

When Robert opened his mouth to argue, she waved him down. "Listen, you go clean, and cover for me. I'll let you know what I find out about this later."

"I don't think this is a good idea at all, Hardi. In fact," Robert continued, "I really think you should lay low for a bit. Interrupting the meeting isn't a good way to stay under the radar." He tapped his pocket significantly.

Hardi shook her head. "I'll be in our room. You go be outside. Consider it a favor in exchange for this morning," she said sardonically.

Robert laughed. "You just keep pretending it was a horrible experience." He turned and swaggered down the hall.

She rolled her eyes and headed back to their hostel, and parked at the tiny desk with her comm.

Two hours and countless settings, decoders, and standard decrypters later, Hardi found the combination that would play the recording using a combination of old algorithms still used here on Ming Ung. With a sigh of relief, she listened to the message.

"Stubborn Witches," said a gravelly, male voice. "If you want a reprieve, if you want to safely drink your water again, you'll give us what we want. We have the antidote. You have the knowledge." The man sighed, and the rumbling voice was tired as it continued, "We just want to know how to make the visions stop. Tell us and we'll leave you in peace. Get back to us within 48 of your hours, or we'll go on vacation for a week."

Next story: Observation

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