Chapter 2

            The blinking light on the console warned me that the Whisp was hungry, too. With a worried eye, I studied the readout of sol levels. It would get me to the main office on Ialu, but as soon as I cashed in this job, I would need to hit a fuel station. The gnawing pain in my stomach would have to wait.
            “Don’t worry, Whisp,” I said, patting the console affectionately, “This job pays enough to feed both of us.” Mother would have reminded me that the ship’s computer wasn’t really conscious. I smiled wistfully and wondered what she’d say if I told her who I’d talked to today.
            As I steered the ship back, the tension of the past few hours finally began to seep out of me – and with it, the desperation of the past few weeks. Arriving on Ialu had been relatively easy. Compared to some of the planets the Kaihmi traveled to, Ialu’s gravity adjustment and visa requirements were simple. Maybe, too simple.
            I grimaced as I remembered how confident I’d been when I’d landed. My ease at navigating the planet’s landing and legal systems made me think that I was equally prepared for a career as a deathwalker. After all, Neith had trained me. It wasn’t as if I’d never spoken to the dead before, so I figured I’d be ahead of the game compared to the soft planet-people who had only studied theory. That still made me shudder. The idea of sending people out alone with no more than theory was stupid and cruel.
            No wonder there were never enough deathwalkers to go around.
            The console signaled that we had entered the Ialuan entry field. I hit the command to relinquish control and sat back as the planet’s automated system guided the ship first into orbit and then into the atmosphere. No one had ever been able to explain to me how the field kept the ship from burning up, so I always watched closely, trying to figure out the trick. Then, as usual, I got distracted by the fascinating dance of the ships interweaving as the system matched destination to open airspace.
            It was beautiful as ever. I sighed and closed my eyes. It would be more beautiful if I didn’t have to face the main office once I landed. The tension that had seeped away started to take root again.
            “But I did it.” I touched the pocket with the priceless parchment inside.
            I wanted to believe that would make a difference. I had succeeded. Not only succeeded – succeeded at something none of them had dared to try. Thinking back to their haughty, scornful attitudes, I raised my head and hit my fist against the pocket. With a sound of disgust, I deliberately opened my eyes and leaned forward to watch the aerial display. Maybe, I couldn’t change them. But I would know. Better, I would know that they knew. No matter how they acted.
            With a half-smile, I leaned forward to enjoy the view.
            The pompous white-haired receptionist goggled when I walked through the door. From the way his eyebrows raised, he clearly hadn’t expected me to come back. His ridiculous expression was even better than the view from the ship. I snickered once before I caught myself.
            He must have heard it – he pulled himself together and sneered down his nose at me like a bird trying to peer around its beak.
            “I see you came to your senses,” his imperious tone rang in the pretentiously white hall. “Return the case to the sequentior. Your account will be charged 49.99al for reprocessing and incompletion penalties.”
            Ignoring his instructions was a special kind of pleasure. His glare spoke wordlessly, outlining my idiocy and inability to follow simple directions. That made revealing the parchment all the more satisfying.
            “Deathwalker Sephtis reporting Case T.1494 completed as requested,” I stated smugly.
            His eyes bulged, and his mouth actually, physically dropped. Actually, it kind of chewed the air as if he kept trying to talk, but nothing was coming out. Abruptly, it closed with a snap. He pressed his lips together, and his face reddened and swelled until I thought it would explode into his fluffy white hair. When he finally opened his mouth again, he was practically twitching with indignation.
            “How dare you attempt to submit a fraudulent completion!” he spluttered, waving his hands like a seizing bird and growing louder by the moment. “You mendacious upstart – I will have your license revoked for this!”
            A high-pitched buzz cut into my head, and sickly neon lights assaulted my eyes in an obnoxiously repeating rhythm. The shrill sound got closer as a fleet of shining white droids appeared from the opening behind the jabbering man and surrounded me. Belatedly, I realized that some of that dramatic hand-waving had been to signal the security system. Pounding feet joined the shrieking blasts as men and women raced in with expressions ranging from astonishment to alarm.
            Now my mouth opened and closed wordlessly. Did he really just call the guards because I did my job?
            “Arrest this mountebank!” he huffed and squawked to the growing mob. “I want him brought under charges! I want his repulsive crime divulged to the farthest reaches of the galaxies until his foul name can never escape its miasmic stench!”
            The faces around me were shifting to shock and disgust with a heavy dash of curiosity. The only astonished one remaining was mine. A rumble of voices rang out as the curious crowd fought to find out what the hell I’d done that was so dreadful.
            The droids, unfortunately, were not held by curiosity and moved forward as soon as he said to arrest me. The metal implements that appeared from their smooth white casings were as intimidating as Tomas’ tomb. The slow, patient way they moved toward me made it even worse. What were they programmed like? Cats?
            “What the hell!” I yelled, forgetting propriety as I tried futilely to back away. They were everywhere. “All I did was the job you gave me!”
            Some of the humans heard me. I doubt they believed me, but a new clamor rang out. Since my protest didn’t make the droids so much as hesitate, I was too busy trying to watch all of them to pay attention to what lie the old fusspot was telling. There had to be something, some way to at least make them stop long enough to explain. To find one sane person who would listen. Panic had my thoughts skittering in circles as I darted my head from side to side – to stay out of reach. Like this morning’s meeting, I had a sinking feeling that this was a test I hadn’t studied for.
            No! I had!
            “I am Deathwalker Sephtis,” I shouted desperately, “license number 020-59274-411-13. I have been falsely accused of a crime without evidence and request representation by Order…” Shit! What was it? “214 Subsection B.19.”
            Please, be the right one!
            The droids were too close. In another instant, those frightening metal prongs would touch me, and do who knew what. Nothing good. I flinched away instinctively before I realized that they’d stopped moving.
            Every single one of them had stopped. As the shock of that sank in, I could only stare blankly at the white statues surrounding me. Did that actually work?
            Abruptly, the disturbing metal implements snapped back into the white casement. I jerked back automatically, bumping into a robot behind me. As soon as I made contact, I jumped back. They’d gotten so close I was going to send them crashing like dominos if I wasn’t careful!
            I forced in a deep breath and reminded myself that they were no longer trying to kill me (right now). Feeling moderately calmer, I became aware of the horrible din of humans shouting at each other. The old bird was the loudest, huffing about how I dared to present a false report and that I needed to be arrested immediately. Everyone else’s shouts were so muddled together, it was hard to tell what they were saying. I think some were trying to find out how he knew it was fake. Others seemed to be demanding the case number.
            The main point for me was that none of them were paying me the least bit of attention. Maybe, it was time to cut my losses and try a different system.
            I edged toward the door, and the rows of robots in front of me closed ranks with a definitive clang. My breathing started to speed up again, and my chest felt tight. It seemed that I was going to stay here until the humans decided what to do with me. I glanced at the fluttering white hair in the crowd of people (many of them now glaring at me) and felt my spirits sink.
            With a heartfelt sigh, I sank down onto the floor in the middle of the robots. I couldn’t do anything about the humans until they calmed down. By then, I needed to be calm myself, or my chances of getting out of here without jail time would be zip. Deliberately, I closed my eyes and took a deep, soothing breath. Seeking silence as Neith would say.
            I couldn’t find it. Even if I blocked out the general hubbub, my heartbeat was rushing in my ears, and my stomach was growling with the fervor of a prehistoric beast.
            Blowing out the breath, I put a hand on my stomach. It felt like it was trying to eat right through my skin. And my food money was getting further and further out of my reach. My next deep breath came out as a sigh, and I gave up on calming down. Maybe, they’d give me a meal in prison.
            Opening my eyes, I found (surprise!) a wall of shiny white robots. At least they blocked the noise a little. Lifting my head, I could see that the crowd was as rowdy as ever. And… oh, no. Some of them were heading for me. Instinctively, I huddled down behind the robots. Mind scrambling, I pressed my hands to my forehead. Think. Think! What were they planning to do? And what could I do about it?
            The cursing above me made my hands drop, and I had to raise my head and see what was going on. It wasn’t easy to do without jumping up and giving away my position. It looked like the two men who had started toward me were cursing as they tried to get past the tight formation of robots. Huh. I lifted my head a little higher. Although the men were swearing and ordering the robots to move, the shining bots stayed exactly where they were – even when the men attempted to push them aside.
            Had the bots malfunctioned, or were they protecting me?
            A sudden rise and fall in the crowd’s arguments caught my attention. I couldn’t see much from my position, yet the noise was definitely getting quieter. In fact, after a moment, it stopped entirely. What would cause that? I couldn’t think of anything good. Nervously, I craned my head. All I could see was people’s backs.
            Another sound started, quieter and more repetitive. I blinked. Footsteps? The crowd seemed to be moving aside, and many of the men and women were bowing their heads at someone or something I couldn’t see. Then, a familiarly annoying voice broke the stillness.
            “Ter Dryst, at last! You will see that this charlatan is put in chains!”
            I winced and hoped that the ensuing silence didn’t mean the newcomer was nodding in agreement.
            “How very historic of you, Enna. You realize that we no longer use chains, don’t you?” a deep, cultured voice responded dryly.
            “He deserves them!” The old man hissed.
            “Does he?” The stranger sounded only mildly interested. “What has he done?”
            “He lied, Ter Dryst, about completing a case. Attempting to submit a fraudulent completion is a level 7 offense!”
            “Indeed it is.” Was the man really that calm? “And where is this offender?”
            “Hiding there! The bots were supposed to arrest him, but he tricked them somehow.”
            Belatedly, it occurred to me that I should probably be standing for this. I started to scramble up, thought better of it, and instead slowly stood, trying to give off the same air of nonchalance that I heard from the stranger. Ter Dryst, right?
            As I stood, I got my first glimpse of him. I wouldn’t have known he was someone important from his clothing. He wore the same gray that was favored by deathwalkers, and his shirt and pants seemed otherwise unremarkable. His face, however, had a power to it. Maybe presence was a better word. I couldn’t really explain it, yet for some reason, I was sure that no one could meet this man and not realize that he was someone with authority. As if he wore power the same way as he wore his clothes.
            Instinctively, I bowed my head and raised my left hand in the Kaihmi sign for greeting. The same sign I would have used to our leader at home – though I would probably have waggled my fingers at him since he was my great-uncle.
            The stranger raised an eyebrow at the gesture and returned my gaze with a scrutiny that made me feel exposed and small. Then, ignoring the old man’s squawks and fluttering, he walked toward me purposefully. The robots parted as if by magic. If I hadn’t been convinced of his position before, I would have known it then. Whoever he was, he was important.
            I swallowed. Would this man believe me? The fact that he was calm wouldn’t keep him from arresting me. I could tell that much, and it made my pulse jittery. He might not be upset enough to have chains made. But would he allow it if others wanted to?
            “Deathwalker Sephtis, is it?” His question interrupted the panicked flurry of thoughts.
            I had to swallow and clear my throat before I could answer.
            “Yes, sir.”
            He held out his hand, palm up. I stared at it blankly.
            “The document, please.”
            Hurriedly, I pulled the parchment out again. I hesitated only an instant before laying it in his hand. It was my only evidence. It was also my only chance of making him believe me. I held my breath as he opened it.
            What did that mean? His expression hadn’t changed a bit. The uncertainty was making my heart beat like it would burst!
            “Enna,” the man said at last, making me flinch, “by what methods did you test this parchment?” There was a startled rustle among the crowd as the man turned, holding out the parchment before him.
            “Test?!” Enna squawked. “There was never any doubt!”
            A few of the other deathwalkers fidgeted uncomfortably at that. Whether because the man hadn’t tested it or because they knew Ter Dryst would not approve, I didn’t know. While I wanted to hope that they were upset to find out that they’d almost lynched me without any evidence, I figured it was more likely they were scared for themselves.
            “So it was not tested beyond the basic completion scan that showed it to be questionable?” The man’s expression and tone never wavered. I was beginning to wonder if he felt emotions.
            I opened my mouth to say that he never let me submit it for the completion scan, and I got a sharp glare from the man that shut me up fast enough to put me in orbit. How had he known I was going to talk? Across the room, the old man’s mouth was opening and closing like he was having a fit.
            “It… He-” he spluttered. “You expect me to allow such an obviously fraudulent completion to be submitted?!” He blurted at last.
            The man’s eyebrows raised. The air felt electrified, and I could have sworn everyone in the room held their breath this time. A few edged silently away from the old man. That tension held as the Ter Dryst silently crossed the room and thrust the hand holding the parchment into an opening that appeared on the side of the desk. When he pulled his hand back, the parchment was gone, and the box it was in began to glow. An almost inaudible hum filled the air.
            As the moment dragged on, I began to shake. I knew the parchment was real, but would the machine agree? My hands fisted at my sides. What was I going to do if it didn’t? Or – better question – what were they going to do to me if it didn’t?
            The glow and hum snapped off simultaneously, and though it felt like forever, I knew it had only taken a second or two.
            “Completion accepted.”
            The computer’s recorded voice was so soft and kindly that it took a moment for it to penetrate. When it did, my insides melted in a giant puddle of relief (though thankfully not literally), and I wanted to jump up and down and cheer. I also wanted to rub the old bird’s face in that metaphorical puddle.
            Around me, however, a tide of disbelieving mutters was rising, led by the old man. When I heard accusations of forgery, my elation quickly switched to the urge to tear out my hair. They still didn’t believe me! What would it take to convince them?
            Even as I thought it, my mind supplied the answer. While the others ran their mouths, I shifted to where I could see Ter Dryst’s face. If I could find some way to convince him, I knew in my bones that the others would follow. I looked at his emotionless face and didn’t have a clue what he was thinking. My instincts said that he had a specific plan in mind and that if I pushed him now, I would ruin everything. Accepting that for the moment, I bit my tongue and watched him like a sterrling. The more I watched, the more I was reminded of Tomas.
            That was actually reassuring – if he was on my side.
            In the midst of the rising confusion, Ter Dryst remained silent and unperturbed. While the others babbled, he reached calmly back into the opening and extracted the parchment. In that same unhurried manner, he turned back to the nearest droid. His silence began to spread like a shockwave as the crowd noticed his quiet actions.
            “Advanced Verification Tests: All Levels.”
            His placid order had instant results. The bot’s gleaming exterior slid and adjusted, opening the top and reshaping the bottom to make it wider and shorter. The metallic whine of its movements rang in the now silent room. Ter Dryst placed the parchment into the top, and the white material enclosed around it. The complete shape was a polished white pyramid with rounded edges. Inanely, I wondered whether the shape actually had anything to do with what it was doing.
            I stopped wondering as this too began to glow. Piece by piece, the color changed from white to green until the entire mound glowed a bright green. Growing up in a culture where green meant illness and lies, I was afraid to ask what that meant. Around me, the crowd gasped.
            Ter Dryst turned and cast a stern glance over the crowd, landing on the old man.
            “The completion is authentic.”

Continue to the next chapter…

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