taking joy in human unreason


Ginber 26, 000165

"His name is Darnell," Hardi whispered to Robert through the glass, "and I'm pretty sure he's the one that left the ransom note." She leaned heavily on the wall separating her from the observation room. Her ass hurt from her slip off the bench.

"How could he see you?" Robert asked. He was examining her yet again, checking her hand for a sprain. "None of the other ones could."

"I don't know!" she said, jerking away her hand. "If I knew, it wouldn't be such a problem."

Robert made calming motions. "Shh, shh. There's nothing you can do about it in here. Wilder's got the information on the attackers, and he says he'll put the best people on it. They're tracking as we speak."

Hardi growled. "You're shitting me. Robert, he saw me. He saw that I was here, in this room."

"Ah," Robert said, his good cheer returning. "Hardi, we've got security here. No one's getting in or out."

Hardi bowed her head. She needed a new tack. "Robert," she said, "I might be the only one who can reason with this man. We're probably having the same type of visions, except that I'm coming from the other side—I want the attacks to stop." Robert was looking interested. "That gives me a way in with them that no one else here has."

Robert took her hand again and flexed it.

She plowed on. "I'm not contaminated. We both know that. We can walk out of here and not be a danger to anyone."

"But how do we get you out of here without anyone noticing?" he asked absently. Satisfied that her hand was fine, he pulled his hands back out of the attached gloves.

Hardi tamped down a grin of victory. "Nice and easy. You're going to create a distraction, and we're going to slip out."

A small smile played on his lips as he asked, "What kind of distraction?"

"Something that can't be traced to you and that will evacuate the building would be nice..." Hardi paused. "Assuming you're tagging along with me, that is."

Robert's smile grew, and he matched her lean on the other side of the wall. "I'll come up with something." He tapped his finger against his mouth, considering. "You need anything in the meantime?"

Hardi looked around the room at the two puddles of vomit, the little pile of rags and cleaner, and her own messy clothes. "No," she said. "I'm just ready to go."

Robert rubbed his hands together briskly, and headed for the door as he said, "Get some rest, but be ready." The door closed quietly behind him.

There was no way Hardi could sleep in a room that smelled this rank. She lay back on the bench and arranged the little pillow, which squeaked annoyingly against the bench. She closed her eyes and sighed, trying to relax the kinks out of her back.

She woke from a dead sleep, heart pounding. She rubbed her eyes, wondering who put the sand in them.

"Hardi," she heard from a low voice. "Let's move, woman."

She looked around in panic, making sure she was where she was supposed to be. Plastic room. Robert was at the door. She hopped off the bench, taking a quick inventory. Clothes, check. Drool, check. Shoes, no. She gave the dried vomit a wide berth and wiped at her cheek.

Robert finished unsealing the door by the time she got there and stood waiting with a sly smile. "You're adorable when you sleep, you know," he said.

"Shove it," she huffed, wiping her cheek again. He chuckled. He was decked out in conspicuous black-on-black with a black beret perched on his head.

"Honestly, Robert, who dresses like that?" Hardi sighed.

"What?" he asked innocently. "I'm being sneaky. Lose the coveralls," he said as an aside.

She stared at him, eyes wide. "No."

"Lose 'em," he insisted. "They've got tracking stuff in them, in case, you know, a problem patient breaks loose. There are other clothes over there." He waved at a pile of clothes and cleaning wipes bench outside the enclosure. "Hurry."

She washed and changed quickly into the all-black clothes, her back to Robert. He'd been disturbingly thorough, including panties and a snug-fitting sporty bra. She peeked over her shoulder; he was facing away from her, watching the door out to the hallway.

"Let's go," she said when she finished.

They ducked into the corridor and made their way quickly to the back stairway, Robert keeping up with Hardi's brisk pace for once.

They slammed out the back door into an alley without being stopped. Sirens rang around the building, but there were no investigators in the back alley. Robert coolly slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses while Hardi squinted in the harsh Ming Ung sun. He pulled another pair out of his shirt pocket and handed them to her.

She looked at him, then the glasses, then back at him. "How are we getting out of here?" she asked, snatching the glasses. She had to admit they helped.

Robert had a pose of careful nonchalance as he pointed down the alley to their right. "That way," he said, trying not to pant. "I've got a little stash."

"I meant who's picking us up?" Hardi asked as they took off at a jog.

"Hopefully Lucia," he panted as he dug out a comm. "I called her, but she hasn't called me back."

"Give it to me." Robert handed her the comm, and she rang Lucia. Robert led them around a corner as Lucia answered.

"What?" Lucia asked coldly. She was sitting at a table or desk, her beaded hair even stringier and more tangled than when Hardi had last seen her.

"What, no 'hello', dear?" Hardi asked sarcastically.

"Hardi..." Robert warned.

"Wait," she said as Lucia moved to end the call. "I'm sorry. Look, you're our assigned tour guide, right? We need a tour."

"Absolutely not," Lucia said firmly.

Hardi shook her head slightly when Lucia didn't offer any explanation. "Why not? We can pay," she bluffed.

Robert was opening a trash can and pointing to a 10-gallon jug of water and a case of medical supplies.

"It is not worth my life," Lucia was saying. "One of yours is contaminated. We know, and I am not dumb. You would spit on me to infect me."

"No, look," Hardi said quickly. "Water and medical supplies, all yours if you can get us out of here."

Lucia scoffed. "I do not want your contaminated water. You are crazy, thinking you see visions."

Hardi growled and cursed under her breath. Robert took the comm from her and grinned into it.

"Hello, Lucia," he said slyly.

A corner of her mouth tucked up against her will. "Dr. Yuk, I will not help you."

"Not even by letting us borrow your car?" Robert asked with a puppy-dog pout.

Lucia sighed. "Where would you take it?"

"We're following a lead on the attacks," he said conspiratorily. "We need to check out a spot out in the desert, but we don't have a vehicle of our own."

Hardi looked around impatiently, then put the trash can lid back on and pulled Robert to the corner of the alley, behind a door. There was enough shade there that it would take some concentration for anyone to spot them. She pulled him down into a crouch.

Lucia's eyes narrowed, gone cold again. "What lead is this?"

"We don't want to get anyone's hopes up, yet," Robert temporized. "We figured that if anyone wasn't going to be inclined to overreact, it would be you." He tried one of his more charming looks on her, but her look didn't soften.

"Your people will not pursue this?" she asked suspiciously.

"Not... yet," Robert said. "They want to collect a lot more evidence, and we think it won't hurt to just go take a look."

Lucia tugged at her lower lip as she thought. "Water and medicine, and I will go with you, in case she botches the effort."

"Deal," Robert said quickly before Hardi could protest. Hardi didn't react, though. She just sat with her head back against the wall, facing where a passerby would approach.

Robert jostled her with an elbow, and she turned her head to look at him, eyes obscured.

"How soon can you get here?" he asked Lucia. He told her where they were.

"Twenty minutes," she said after a moment's calculation. "Have the supplies ready."

"Lucia," Hardi said quietly just before Robert ended the call.


"Thanks," Hardi said.

"Do not thank me until I arrive, off-worlder," Lucia replied, but Hardi imagined her voice was a little less cold.

"That was... nice of you," Robert said after ending the call.

"Just wanted to make sure she'd get here," Hardi said shortly.

Robert took the hint, and they sat in silence until two hovercraft pulled up slowly. The sirens had died down, then escalated again, presumably as the consultants realized they were missing a patient and called the police again.

Lucia and a young boy got out of each hovercraft, and Robert scrambled to his feet. Hardi was slower to get up, and watched from the shadow as Robert was introduced to the boy and helped him carry the supplies to his vehicle. The boy left with a gust of foul exhaust fumes, leaving Lucia, Robert, and Hardi in the alley.

"Shall we?" Robert asked them both.

Hardi pushed off the wall, feeling twice her age. She climbed into the backseat and shut her eyes.

"You can't sleep, Hardi," Robert said over his shoulder at her. "You have to navigate." He shook of her knee.

"Give me my comm," she said, "and I'll give you the coordinates."

Robert patted his pockets, then froze. He patted them again. "Well..." he said.

"Dammit, Robert," Hardi swore. "My comm was working on cracking their location."

Lucia growled, "You have shit for brains."

Hardi and Lucia caught each other's eye in the mirror.

"I'm sorry!" Robert exclaimed. "I'm not perfect. I brought the sunglasses, didn't I?"

Hardi didn't bother dignifying that with a response or mourning her lost comm. She could mod a new one if she didn't end up in prison. "Show me a map, Lucia, and I'll try to remember the landmarks. For now, just get us out of the city. We can circle around if we have to."

Lucia obligingly brought up a map on the console and drove carefully out of town. Robert slumped in the seat as Hardi leaned between them to reach the map. She struggled to remember what she'd seen around and behind Darnell: craggy cliffs, sand and rock, dry trees... a spire rock formation.

"Got it," she muttered after a minute of searching. "Head in that direction," she told Lucia. Lucia set the course and let it autopilot once they were out of the city.

Two hours later, they were underneath a spire. "Where are the people?" Hardi asked. "There should at least be the remains of a settlement here, right?"

"If they were nomadic, it would be difficult to see their remains through searching like this," Lucia supplied. "They are very good at not destroying the environment." There was an edge of accusation in her voice. Hardi and Robert both ignored it.

"Let's drive in that direction," Hardi said, pointing towards some spires to the west. "They have to be around here somewhere."

"It is almost nightfall," Lucia pointed out. "We won't be able to ride long after dark, since we have been riding all day."

Robert chuckled, "Ahh, solar power. I worked in a colonial hospital once that had its life support machines jacked into solar-powered batteries during the day. Luckily, they had backup generators that they could use every night, because they used up all their money on the panels and only had tiny batteries."

Lucia and Hardi looked at him in horror.

He shrugged. "These are the kinds of places who need medical consultants." He thought a moment, then added, "And educated engineers."

They drove until the battery was down to 5% without finding a hint of the settlement.

"We will have to sleep here, in the car," Lucia said.

Robert futilely tried to straighten his legs in the front seat, then sighed. "Being tall isn't always a win-win."

Lucia leaned back her seat and stretched, also too tall to do so fully. "No one is going to be comfortable tonight, Dr. Yuk."

Hardi curled up in the back seat as Robert muttered good-natured complaints. Hardi tried to rub the kinks out of her back discreetly, to no avail. She finally drifted off to sleep to the soothing sound of Robert's now-familiar snoring.

She woke already struggling when the big hand clamped over her mouth. "Be silent, off-worlder," hissed a man's voice.

She bucked and kicked as she was dragged out of the hovercraft head-first. She bit at the hand covering her mouth and was rewarded with a slap. She blearily saw Lucia and Robert subjected to the same treatment. Each of them froze when they were twisted to face the five men with guns standing apart from them.

The gunmen talked quietly among themselves while the burlies held them still. Hardi knelt, gasping for breath, and was reminded of her vision where Darnell and his assistant determined the fates of others so easily.

The oldest of the gunmen gestured to the men holding them down, and they were heaved up to their feet. "Walk," said the gunman.

They walked.

Hardi figured the distance at something like three kilometers judging by their pace, but the desert flatness made it a very rough estimate. There was a low-slung permanent village here, solar-powered, with buildings made primarily of an adobe-like brick.

They were escorted into a two-story building and sat in a meeting room. Their hands were left unbound and their captors gave them water in sealed packets.

Hardi caught Robert and Lucia's eyes and gave them a determined look. Lucia quickly shook her head "no". Hardi subsided.

"You will take a short wait," said the elder gunman. "Do not try to escape."

Hardi rolled her eyes and leaned back in the chair, glad to be sitting again.

Ten minutes and a lot of escape-scheming later, the door opened and an old woman came in. Her hair was waist-long and colored in shades of reds and greens, and littered with beads at various points along the length. She toddled in, squat of figure and hunched with age and came to stand in front of the three at the table.

She looked up at them with a cheery, crooked grin. "Why hello, little bugs," she crooned. "It's so good to see you!"

Next story: Opening Salvo

Previous story: Observation

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