taking joy in human unreason


Ginber 26, 000165

Hardi, why in all the worlds wouldn't we tell Wilder about this?" Robert asked, waving a hand at her comm. He'd just listened to the ransom note for the second time, and was sitting at the desk with his feet propped up.

"Yet. Not tell him yet." Hardi stood still in the middle of the room, staring at the floor with her hands tucked in her pockets. "And I... don't know," she said slowly.

After that deep voice had threatened to go on "vacation" for a week, Hardi had listened to the message again. And again, until the rough voice was etched into her memory. Robert had walked in on her standing as she was now, letting the file loop. She'd looked at him guiltily, but let it play for him.

Robert sat leaned back and balanced his chair on two legs. "Have you had one of your visions? Does it feature you as the heroine, saving the planet from the bad guys?"

Hardi smiled at him ruefully. "What, are you starting to believe the visions mean something?" When he didn't rise to the bait, she continued, "It's not like I can predict the future, like you keep thinking."

"Hey, I can hope," said Robert with a grin. "You could see us somewhere relaxing on a beach, away from destruction and mayhem." That grin didn't falter as he threatened, "But if you don't tell Wilder, I will."

"No," said Hardi. "Give me... give me 10 of those 48 hours."

Robert laughed incredulously. "Are you really going to try to catch these people?"

"They've got answers to what's going on," she said simply.

"Apparently not, or they wouldn't be holding up the planet at virus-point. They're on a ship somewhere," Robert argued reasonably, sitting forward again. "You can't get there, and you can't risk these people's lives for your personal problems. I'm surprised you'd even try."

Hardi closed her eyes and sighed. "You're right," she said softly. "Let me try to at least figure out where they are from the signal, though, and we can hand that information over to Wilder, too."

He shook his head. "A few more hours is too long," he insisted. "In fact, the four hours it's been is really too long." He stood up and walked around the desk.

Hardi put out her hand to stop him. "You know they're going to be idiots about this. They're going to put Samson on it, or worse yet, McKenzie."

"Come on, Hardi," Robert said with an admonishing look. "You could have a vision at any time and be indisposed for a few hours. You can't keep this to yourself." Moving around her, he walked to the door and leaned against the jamb.

Hardi thought for a moment. "Okay," she said, desperately stalling. "Let's at least go to the imager and look at my scans first. You've been hiding them for days."

"And in exchange...?" Robert prompted.

Hardi scowled at him. "In exchange, I'll march right down to Wilder's office and let him know what I found."

Robert smiled smugly. "Let's go." He gave a little spin and opened the door for her. Hardi rolled her eyes.

"Start telling me what you found," Hardi demanded in a low voice as they walked from the house to the hotel that was the team's base of operations.

"A few things here, a few things there," Robert said flippantly. At Hardi's look, he added more seriously, "It won't make a whole lot of sense until you see the images, but I can say that your neurotransmitters are out of whack in a weird way and there are some probably-insignificant differences in the way your brain's developed."

"Out of whack how?" Hardi pushed. "What are the differences?"

"It's not that simple," Robert said. "There aren't any red flags waving on any of this stuff other than your symptoms. Nothing that says you're ill or abnormal. And remember, you'd theoretically experienced something traumatic and vomited shortly before the scan. That could throw off some of the neurotransmitters."

"You were the one who insisted I go so soon after the vision," Hardi hissed.

A group of suited-up consultants leaving for clean-up duty eyed them as they passed. Robert smiled and waved at them, and one of the women gave him the eye as she waved back. Robert's smile became a grin.

"Hardi, you have to relax about all of this, or you're going to draw attention," he scolded. "You computer types have no poker faces, I swear."

"Don't worry about me drawing attention—" she started, and then she stumbled and was standing in the desert.

The man next to her was barrel-chested and dark-skinned. The sun glinted off his bare head. He leaned into her and said, "It is unbelievably imperative that we capture one of the Witches without hurting her." His voice was low and rumbling, hoarse from thirst. Despite the heat, she felt a shiver go down her spine at the sound of it.

"If we can get one aboard the ship," he continued, "we can probably settle all of this. They'll capitulate if we have a hostage." He waved a hand at the people in front of them.

The small group of Ungians sat among the scrub, looking surly beneath the array of pistols pointed at them.

"Apparently, a plague and a few bombs isn't enough," she quipped. "Darnell, this is absurd. Can we get this gun-waving over with and get back to the ship?"

Darnell gave a tired nod and stepped forward, yanking one of the sweat-drenched young men to his feet. "Where is your Witch?" he asked menacingly.

The Ungian spit in Darnell's face, and Darnell shook him violently. "Where is your Witch? he roared.

Hardi gasped, then choked on something vile-tasting. Sputtering and coughing, she rolled to her hands and knees. She tried futilely to wipe off her cheek, which was smeared with the drying vomit she'd been laying in. Her whole body was shaking.

She looked around with blurry eyes and saw that she was on a concrete floor overlaid with thick, clear plastic. Blinking rapidly, she realized she was in a small temporary room with plastic walls. Sealed. She shuddered.

"Hardi," said a voice—Robert's—over an intercom. "You're under quarantine at the moment. Stay calm, please."

"You're our first off-worlder case!" chimed in a more excited voice, quickly cut off.

"Oh, you've got to be shitting me," she whispered. They thought she'd been infected. She had to get to that man.

"Hardi, stay calm," Robert said again.

"I hear you," Hardi croaked. She spit to clear her mouth, but ended up heaving again. After her stomach settled and she crawled away from the new mess, she asked, "What the fuck happened?"

"You had an episode in the hallway," Robert explained. Hardi could see him now outside the room, looking in through a window. Several other people were crowded in with him.

"We... There was concern that you were exhibiting some symptoms of the bioagent," he continued.

Hardi was trying again to wipe her face and hands, but her shirt was filthy down her left side, too. She spotted a clean rag and chemical cleaner in the corner and stood up carefully. Surprisingly stable despite her still-fluttering stomach, she walked across the little room.

"So run your tests and let me out," she said as she sat again and scrubbed her face and hands clean. She shook wet detritus from her shirt, but gave it up as a lost cause when it stuck to her arm. "I haven't been drinking the local water."

"We're figuring out what to do with you," said that first voice—Hardi frowned at the hint of mad scientist glee there.

The intercom snapped off suddenly, but Hardi heard Robert's now-muffled voice say, "Kyle, try not to be a jerk about this. We aren't even sure if she's even infected."

Hardi couldn't make out what Kyle's higher-pitched voice said in response, but Robert said, "Let's just let her—" Hardi strained to listen, but he had turned away from the window. She caught, "There's no blood in her... Those are late-stage symptoms, and she didn't exhibit... Won't hurt to let her sit for a couple of days and observe."

Hardi took deep, slow breaths, trying to convince herself that Robert was protecting rather than thwarting her.

She stood again and surveyed her new domain. The walls were clear plastic, the type used in makeshift hospitals and quarantines. Below the observation window was an attached set of sleeved gloves, like a laboratory glove box for handling completely enclosed specimens.

Hardi supposed that specimen was her.

There was a long plastic bench with a back near one of the walls, and on it an inflated plastic pillow on it. Hardi doubted she'd feel sleepy any time soon.

The voices outside the room died down, and Robert's voice came over the intercom again. "Hardi? Come here and let me take a look at you."

Hardi trudged over to the gloves and let Robert check her vitals through the gloves. "You seem fine enough," he concluded. He spoke directly to her now without the intercom, and the room behind him seemed empty.

"Robert—" she started.

"Shush," he said, serious for once. "You were saying something about not drawing attention, I think?" he asked.

She scowled. "Robert, I saw—"

"Shush," he said again.

Hardi's eyes narrowed. "You stop telling me to—"

"Shush," Robert hissed.

Hardi flinched and pulled back from the gloves. "Fuck you," she whispered back. "You got me in here, and you want me to stay here, locked away from the answers."

"No, I want you to drop this," he insisted quietly. "Hardi, you were willing to risk the lives of these people to solve your problems. You can't do that."

"Wait, so you want me to drop this, leave these—" she glanced behind him and saw no one—"visions alone, but you want me to stay under the radar? It doesn't work that way. Look what just happened."

Robert's jaw set. "They want to keep you here indefinitely."

Hardi knew he wanted to keep her here indefinitely. "Don't you want to know what I saw?" she taunted.

He shook his head. "It can't be worth it," he said.

Hardi sighed and turned to sit on the bench, but found herself in the desert again, but still able to see the quarantine room. Her stomach lurched and she blinked at her double-vision, stumbling on the plastic and the hard dirt.

"What's wrong?" asked a woman beside her. "Darnell, have something to drink." The woman held out a silver flask.

She blinked and swayed again, and sat down hard on the ground, cutting her hand on a rock. Her large, dark hand. She stared at it as she clambered up, both confused and reassured.

"I'm... me," she said, her voice a scratchy bass. "Who are you?" she whispered to herself. "What's that room you're in? Is that on this planet?"

Her stomach roiled.

"Hardi?" she heard Robert ask dimly. "Hardi, are you okay?"

"Hardi..." she whispered. "I see you. Do you have answers for us?"

She took advantage of her semi-awake state to struggle like a madwoman. The double-vision ended, and Hardi's legs crumpled.

"Fuck!" She clipped the edge of the bench and sat on the plastic and concrete.

"Hardi?" Robert asked insistently. He kept his voice low. "Are you alright?"

She just shook her head. "He saw me," she said hoarsely. "He saw me as I saw him. He's down here, Robert, and he has answers and the way to stop this bioagent." She shook her head again, numb. "You have to let me go find him."

Next story: Pursuit

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