PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 46 of 66 )
: “ Maluk Tawus ”
Somewhere In the Border Worlds
14 Feb 2681
“N'lirhk, see if you can’t collapse the signal into a sigma cycle count. I’m going to try running another decryption matrix.”
Velina Sosa is an encryption specialist attached to the UBW Department of *CLASSIFIED*
She’s aboard the BWS Codespeaker, currently located in *CLASSIFIED*
Needless to say, she’s the best at what she does.
She just can’t tell you what that is right now.
“It does not fall into any recognizable trough or peak structure I can discern, Velina.” The harsh "v" and growling "a" might have been disquieting to another person. If we’re going to be quite honest, working next to a seven-foot Kilrathi in an enclosed area with no one else around might be disquieting to another person.
Even if she noticed, she wouldn’t care. Admiral Richards had written on her performance evaluation once: “Velina has the rare mix of genuine compassion and myopic devotion to her work.” He’d once joked to her in the mess that she wouldn’t notice if the Emperor served her coffee if she was in the middle of work.
“You’re wrong,” she’d said, smiling and stuffing a small piece of carrot into her thin mouth.
“You’re saying you’d notice the Emperor?”
“I’m saying I wouldn’t notice the coffee. Who the hell has time for caffeine? I’m trying to work here!”
He’d been right.
“Dammit!” She leaned back in the patched leather chair. The Nephilim communication and language codes had no rhyme or reason she could discern. No patterns. Without a launching point, she couldn’t even begin to decrypt their command channels…at this point, she couldn’t even intercept a shopping list.
“Get some rest, Velina. Bless the good devil, but you’re exhausted.” Muhar Kramer’s impressive physique stretched the buttons of his favorite purple shirt, and he reached out a hand to help her up.
“You can be a real tannock, you know that, Peacock?” She accepted his friendly offering regardless and got up, angling towards the small cot which awaited her a scant twenty feet down the hall.
“Keep those modules running! I want full etymological run-downs with my morning bagel!”
Her staff cheered back an affirmative. Two in the morning (EST) and they were cheering orders. Intell people really are that crazy. It’s not just an act to get out of doing the dishes.
The problem with being a mental worker is you’re never really "off-duty." Velina broke more ciphers in the shower than she did during her office hours.
It also means, for all intents and purposes, sleep is a rarity. Your mind still works even when your body is exhausted. Every night is the one before final exams.
She poured herself another glass of decelerant. It was worth a shot.
She spat, almost half-choked, as the doorchime sounded.
N’lirhk ambled in, ducking his head to avoid the non-KAA (Kilrathi Accommodation Act) approved doorframe.
“N’lirhk. What’s got you prowling the hallways this evening?”
“I thought it pertinent to mention. Years ago, as you know, we Kilrathi encountered these Nephilim. For centuries, a throbbing piece of one of their holy ships resided within the temple. When Thrakhath desecrated the temples, he discovered its true nature. A remarkable device, capable of opening its own jump points. We adapted it, years later… your kind rather unimaginatively dubbed it the Sivarnaught.”
Velina sat up, excited. “You’re kidding! Where is this ship now?!”
“Ah, well… it was destroyed.
Velina deflated. “You love doing that to me, don’t you.”
N’lirhk’s lips parted, fangs bared. He chuckled, a signal it was not a challenge.
“One must find their entertainment where they can. Especially since you forbade me to kill anyone on board.”
“You know how hard it is to wash blood off the wall? Anything else?”
“I…” The Kilrathi paused, unsure of his words. “Mistress Velina knows I hold her cipher-warfare skills in the highest regard. But some of these…”
“Stop.” Her voice, so often perfectly modulated to resemble every girl-next-door, was steel. “What’s going on, N’lirhk.”
“There are some on this ship… Beltane… Peacock… I do not trust them.”
Sosa frowned. “Beltane was your co-worker under the K’sihrak regime, N’lirhk. As for Peacock…”
“He’s a servant of the Great Dark. He admits it as such.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “He’s a Satan-worshipper. Sorta different in human culture. His tribe worships a being they call ‘Maluk Tawus,’ the Peacock Angel. Hence the name. Thing is,” she said, shaking her head, “He claims he can ‘speak’ to the devil. That he’s in everything. Claims it’s what gives him such an intuitive grasp of codes.”
“He does not believe in…” N’lirhk searched for the word, “a God?”
She shook her head. “Worse. He doesn’t think God believes in us. That’s why he went away and left the devil in charge of everything.”
“As said, I do not like him.”
“How do you think I feel? I was raised Catholic!” Sosa laughed, downing the last of her anesthetic. “Don’t give it a second…”
She was interrupted as the ship lost its center of gravity and tilted violently. N’lirhk and she both crashed to the floor. She felt her lip bleeding and realized she must have bitten it.
“Peacock!” she yelled into the communicator. “What the hell just happened?”
“Sorry, Velina!” he called back. “That Jason Dye character… the chief engineer? He accidentally cut one of the electrical systems to the starboard artificial gravity generator.”
She swore under her breath, then crossed herself. Engineers were always in short supply out on the rim. Occasionally you had a genius like Sykes, or one of Kruger’s resurrectionists, but for the most part you dealt with guys like Dye. Drunks or burnouts who were either too old, too stupid, or too incompetent to cut it anywhere else.
Do what you can with what you have, had always been Richard’s motto. “Get that idiot Dye off-duty and make sure he isn’t working alone anymore! Yeesh!”
The anesthetic was starting to make her feel light-headed. “N’lirhk, I promise you Muhar is nothing to worry about. If you think Beltane’s a problem then keep an eye on him for me, okay? And tell you what,” she said, digging out a heavy data-crystal package, “if you’re going to be prowling all night, why not listen and record the spikes and dips on a tickchart for this comm. package? But for right now, I’m going to sleep.”
If the Kilrathi was somewhat startled by her brusque response, he gave no indication. One silent nod of the head and grudging tread out her door later, she was alone again.
Through the port directly above her bed, the stars. Each pulsing their own unique signal. She remembered a friend’s dissertation on quasars... mysterious signals they still didn’t quite understand coming from deep space. He’d included a quote from famous poet Traci Shell, who’d said:
Light dances in blackness long, the night an ebon glove
And quasars trill their sad whale-song, a melody of starlight love
Stars singing to each other across the galaxies. Love that transcended light-years.
She’d always liked that.
“Dammit!” Another wasted three hours and countless terabytes of processing power. Another false track.
“Want some Nicozine?” Peacock handed her the small porcelain mug she’d staked her claim to when they’d been brought on board.
She took it gratefully. Nicotine was a requirement for codebreakers. For stable neural accelerants, it couldn’t be beat. And now with new chocolate flavor!
“These cycles… they just don’t make any sense. Either the Nephilim use a language structure completely unknown to us, or they’re transmitting gibberish on all their channels just to spite me.”
“You, in particular.” Peacock smiled. “Not a tad self-centered, are you, Velina?”
“Not a bit. I just… hey, N’lirhk! Got those analyses for me?”
The heavyset Kilrathi signal expert lumbered over to her, dropping the heavy printout on her workstation. He eyed Peacock warily. “Completed, Mistress.”
The lights dimmed for a moment, and a husky, drawling voice came over the intercom.
“Sorry… tripped the breakers for a moment.”
“Idiot engineer…” Peacock swore.
She picked up the top sheet. Her eyes flicked over it for a moment, then she looked up at him, angry. “N’lirhk! You tannock! This is completely off! Look!” She reached into the data storage cabinet, pulled out another archive disk. “This is the analysis I did two days ago on the same thing…you see all the different tick marks? What the heck did you do, listen to it with one ear…”
And she stopped.
She had it.
“Peacock! Get me a signal resolver!” The well-muscled Kurd jumped to it. Throughout time unrecorded, no man had ever refused that tone of voice from a woman and lived to tell the tale.
She slotted both archive tapes into the heavy machine, and watched as it collapsed the two tick charts together.
“See,” she said, excited, “we were running off the premise they were working within a bandwidth of audible sounds. But insects hear through vibrations in their exoskeletons…” and she slapped N’lirhk on the arm, who amazingly did not react, “and Kilrathi hear some sounds we don’t. Which is no wonder we couldn’t crack the code! We only had like half of it!”
“More than that…”
Why was it so quiet?
She turned and saw Beltane, his fiery Irish features grinning above the barrel of the laser carbine pointed at her head.
“That’s right, no one move. Now that you’ve cracked that, I’ll be glad to take the data off your hands, Ms. Sosa.”
N’lirhk growled, but Velina waved a hand at him, signaling him to stand down. “Harry, let’s talk about this. You can’t get anyw…”
He laughed and fire a blast above her shoulder. She cringed, felt the heat of the charge flash past her left ear. A second caught N’lirhk in the right leg. The Kilrathi went down, hard.
“You think you know so goddamn much? Man, when R’deck sees what you’ve got here, he’ll make me a rich man. It’s all been planned out.”
Peacock struck then, his sculpted hands knocking the blaster to the ground. The trigger component shattered.
"Lousy piece of junk.” Beltane turned, sneering, drew a claw knife.
“Like it? Little present from my employer.” He tossed it from hand to hand, demonstrating his clearly expert use of the weapon. Peacock circled him, his fists clenching reflexively.
Beltane swung, scoring a small scratch on Peacock’s arm. “Face it, nigger. I’ve got three years of Confed Special Forces training, another two on the Kilrathi homeworld, and this knife. What’ve you got, huh?” He swung again, another glancing blow against Peacock’s left leg. “Well? You got anything to stop me from slicing you into cutlets?”
“No,” Peacock replied, blood dripping from his cuts. Beltane swung again, and Peacock caught his arm, raising his knee sharply. “But I talk to Satan.” The red-haired traitor screamed as the hard bone of Peacock’s knee snapped his arm at the elbow. Peacock dropped to the floor and swung around, knocking Beltane on his back. The claw knife skittered out of reach.
Velina kneeled beside N’lirhk. “Hey, Kat! You all right?”
N’lirhk snorted. “Only a flesh wound.”
“…so we still don’t know who hired him?”
Velina shook her head. “No sir, Admiral Richards. Sorry. Guess the important thing is he didn’t get away.”
The Admiral nodded. He looked more tired these days than he had. For someone like Velina, who’d worked with him during the original Kilrathi War, it was almost painful to see the Old Man becoming, well, an old man. “Best we can hope for. Damn good work on these decryptions, Sosa. I’ll forward them to UBW HQ right away.”
“Thank you, sir.” She flipped off the communicator. As she did, the lights in her room went off.
“Dammit Dye…” she swore, then crossed herself again. It was Sturgeon’s Law. 90% of the engineers are idiots.
Her door chimed again.
N’lirhk walked in, careful not to show any favor to his (reluctantly) bandaged leg.
“How’s the leg?” Velina asked cheerfully, if only to annoy him. He snarled in response.
“This Beltane creature…”
“Already taken care of. We’re dumping him at the next depot we jump to.”
N’lirhk shook his head, a curious human gesture he’d acquired. “His mention of a name… R’deck. It concerns me.”
Velina had never seen a Kilrathi like this before. N’lirhk looked nervous. Skittish as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.
“There are certain… I do not know how to say it, but the Kilrathi call it hrakgrasts. Certain… dark places. Run by dark beings.”
“Are we on that whole kn’thrak thing again, N’lirhk? Because I told you…”
“I speak of beings like… Tolwyn. Dark men. With dark aims.”
“Oh. You mean like Black Ops. Well what…”
N’lirhk stood, pacing around the room, his tail twitching. “Humans are not unique in their inventions of such creatures. We Kilrathi have them too. R’deck is a name I heard once before, in a half-decrypted message.”
N’lirhk met her eyes with his own vertical pupils, swimming vision stare. “In the ruins of K’sihrak’s palace.” He retracted his claws, a gesture of submission. “I thought you should know.”
Velina didn’t quite know what to say. “Uh, well thanks, N’lirhk. I’ll pass that along.
The Kilrathi, satisfied, left with an almost-friendly wave.
Velina fingered the small filigree chain
She keyed the remote, and sparks flew from the screen. She dove behind her chair, swearing.
“I am going to kill that engineer…”