Imperial City, Centauri Prime
Mira sat on a stool in the school courtyard. It had once been a beautiful garden, the gathering place of a top-tier academy for young girls. Arranged on the clean swept dirt yard, one of the potted plants had managed a sickly bloom.
Today, there was a mix of children milling around and waiting their turn for vaccination. Mira had been spending the last few days delegating or concluding her responsibilities. This free vaccination for the city children was the last thing to be done before she could put her plans in motion. Plans to leave the homeworld.
The light was fading, the crowd growing thin. The last child, grim-faced and prepared for the worst, stepped up to Mira and offered her arm.
Mira smiled at the teenage girl. “Have you been well? Do you get enough to eat?” Mira asked, as she had of all the other children.
“Barely,” the girl said. She looked away from the needle, flipping her single long lock of dark red hair across her shoulder. “Doctor, I need your help,” she said, very quietly.
Mira looked at the girl a little more closely. “With?”
The girl hesitated a moment, plucking at a loose thread in her skirt. The dress she wore would have been the height of commoner fashion, several years before, and was ill-fitting despite some obvious attempts to alter it. Her only jewelry, a silver pendant in the shape of a skull, might have been delightfully scandalous weeks ago. But now, when chemical ash and bone dust tainted the very air they breathed, the girl’s little skull pendant was tasteless by any standard, at best rude teenage defiance.
“I need a supply of sedatives,” she said, still speaking quietly. “Long-acting ones would be really good. But whatever you have is okay.”
“Hmmm…” Mira finished administering the vaccine and started tidying up her things. “Sedatives can be dangerous. I should know what type you need in more depth. Why don’t you meet me at the main gate in a few minutes. We shall walk back to our homes and discuss the problem on the way.” Mira stood and took her bag in hand. She smiled at the girl. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name. I’m Mira.”
The girl smiled, hesitant and brief. “Gaz. See you at the gate then.” She moved away quickly.
Mira nodded and went to find the school’s administrator. After listing the symptoms of adverse reactions to the vaccine and who would be available to help, Mira mentioned, “Of course, your students are charming. One girl was especially delightful, a little coquette named…Gaz? She must have a dozen young bucks trotting after her.”
The administrator chuckled. “Are we speaking of the same child? Gazpari Arscampana? That one scares the boys off faster than a Nakaleen Feeder. The most curious thing is, she seems to like it that way.”
Mira smiled sweetly at the administrator. “Arscampana? That name is so familiar…could I have met her father at a society function? Before the Troubles.”
The administrator’s outright smirk broke into a laugh, a barely smothered guffaw, before he schooled his features back to sobriety. “I doubt it, unless you liked slumming– that is, moving in commoner circles. Mind you, Dib Arscampana has long had ambitions to higher strata, but his chances were slim even when the sky was whole. Chasing phantoms for the whole world to see. Poor deluded fool.”
“Ah. Now that you mention it, I think I remember hearing about him. Didn’t he try to expose some young noble for conspiring to place sterilization chemicals in the water supply of poorer districts?” Mira smiled and winked conspiratorially. Then, with a head tilt and and a flutter of her lashes, she made her excuses and left. It still baffled her how easily distracted males were by a little cleavage and an eyelash flutter. Mira left by the back gate of the school and pulled a drab coat over her dress in an alley while she waited for Darquin to meet her.
An unexpected noise made her duck sideways and pull her knife before checking to see what it was. A familiar chuckle and a soft peal of alien words came out of the shadows. “Easy, you nearly walked right into me.”
Mira growled in frustration and tucked her knife away. “Why can I never get the hop on you?!? You must be some sort of demon-phantom.”
“Heh, I’ve been called worse,” Darquin shrugged. “What’s up?”
“I was approached by a girl at the school who wants a large supply of fast-acting sedatives. I’m going to meet her at the school gate and sort out what she thinks is her problem. Her name is Gazpari Arscampana, daughter to Dib Arscampana.”
He grinned. “The name rings a bell.” At Mira’s confused expression, he added, “It sounds familiar.”
“Well, you might have heard it before. He was a media tabloid reporter that specialized in ‘Unexplained Phenomena.’ He made headlines every now and then, trying to expose something or other. Nothing ever came of it, that I remember.” Mira buttoned her coat and picked up her bag. “I doubt this will take long. It’s probably a misunderstanding of some sort.”
“So not a trap?”
“I would have expected a more convincing lure, if it was. Would you like to be present for our discussion, or will you be following from a distance?”
“I’ll be there,” he grinned, “doing what demon-phantoms do.”
Mira snorted and chucked a small piece of rubble at him. She hit him squarely in the chest and left a white dust mark on his dark clothing. “Hah!” She grinned and mock-fled.
Darquin glanced at the new white mark on his shirt. “Jump,” he muttered through a smirk. “Get the jump on you.”
From a different direction, Mira crossed the street and approached the front gate of the school. She preferred to give a location a good look before arriving at a meeting. The girl was leaning against the wall, playing a handheld computer game. Street traffic dribbled past them. Nothing suspicious. Windows in the nearby buildings were either boarded up or had patched, tattered curtains drawn tight.
Mira crossed the street and went around again to approach the girl from the correct direction. “Ah, young lady. I’m sorry to keep you waiting so long.”
“Thought you gave up on me.” The girl slipped the game device into a pouch hanging from her shoulder. “Or were ignoring me.”
Mira studied the girl until she squirmed. “I do not ignore genuine requests for aid. I take such things very seriously.” Mira suddenly brightened with a smile. “Come! I will buy you dinner. There’s a cafe three streets over. We will sit on the patio and pretend to be family friends.” The doctor cheerily linked her arm with Gaz’s arm and started practically hauling her off. In the process, Gaz was partially obscured, pinned between the buildings and Mira. Mira chattered aimlessly about her own school days (back when dirt was new and prehistoric creatures roamed the planet.)
Gaz let herself be dragged along the uneven pavement, though she threw several looks over her shoulder. Once they settled into their seats at a patio table, Gaz leaned in, gesturing with one hand and putting the other on one of Mira’s. “I’ve got to get my father out of the city … maybe off planet … quick. He won’t want to go. And I don’t have time to argue with him this time.”
“What has you so worried?”
“My father is Dib Arscampana.” She snorted, allowing herself a single derisive grin. “You’ve probably never heard of him.”
“He’s the reporter, yes?”
“He says ‘journalistic investigator,'” the girl frowned. “Always talks about conspiracies. Most of it’s pretty dumb. But he found something real this time. And they’re on to him. I’m afraid for him. I follow the traffic on my father’s data net. Whenever he mentions them, there’s some really creepy data spikes — ghost traffic from non-existent network hubs. And he’s being followed. Me too, sometimes. Not today, I’m pretty sure.”
“Who are these people? Did your father find out their name?”
Gaz instinctively looked around, then spoke so softly her words were barely more than an exhalation. “They’re called… Drakh. Dumb name.”
Mira felt her hearts chill at the mention of that name. Gods help me if I have to deal with them directly, she thought, I don’t know if I can. “Where would you go?”
“As far as I can.”
Mira frowned. “Do you have plans already laid?”
“Well, everybody ignores Jux Prime — that’d be good — maybe even Quadrant 32. That’s half alien already. I’ll keep him knocked out and packed in a shipping crate, if I have to. That’s what I want the sedatives for.”
Mira raised an eyebrow, but the waitress brought food before she could inquire further. From her seat against the wall, she took the opportunity to scan the outdoor dining area. She also asked the waitress to package a meal (“For my invalid father.”)
Once the waitress was gone, Mira leaned closer to Gaz. “It’s not exactly safe to keep a person sedated for extended periods of time. It would also attract attention for a young girl to be traveling alone during these troubled times. I think you should meet with a friend of mine. The three of us will surely find a better solution.”
Gaz and Mira left the diner with a packed meal for Gaz’s father. The Centauri girl led Mira through the broken, once proud streets toward her house.
Before the house was in sight, Mira felt the handheld comlink in her pocket buzz once — then twice. It was a prearranged signal from Darquin. He had scouted ahead. And it was no longer safe.
“Gazpari, dear,” Mira said quietly, “is there a place where we can get a good look at your home… without being seen?”
To Mira’s surprise, Gaz simply grunted and changed direction without missing a step. They traversed a maze of canopied alleys before slipping into a tattered shell of a building. Gaz took her through the ghostly remains of walls and doorways until they reached the other side of the building.
She stopped next to a small hole, nodding her head at it. Curious, Mira peered through it. The hole provided a good view of the house facing them. And there was a scratched, colorless load-skimmer in front of the house.
Mira’s comlink buzzed again. Darquin’s signal again.
Then his voice came from a dark corner. “Nice hiding place.”
Gaz turned, startled. Mira put her hands on Gaz’s shoulders. “It’s all right.” Mira then switched to worker caste Minbari. “What is it?”
“Five guys went in,” Darquin said, “most of them armed.”
“Hmmm…well…that’s not good. What would you suggest? My aim is bad, but I can lay covering fire if we need to keep them inside or make them go in a particular direction. It would attract attention, though.” Mira mentally scrolled through the little she knew about this neighborhood while blocking Gaz’s access to the peephole. “Are we certain that the father is in there?”
“I think he is,” Darquin said. “The new guys went in like they own the place. If they’re going in to get him, let’s use that.”
“So, we allow them to drag the man out? Then what? We don’t have a vehicle to use to follow theirs.”
Darquin grinned, then shrugged at the obvious (apparently, in his opinion.) “We take theirs. As soon as they dump him in the back, we take ’em out. Drive away. We dump the skimmer and move on.”
“With armed men?” Mira said. “Reckless. Especially with a father and child–”
Darquin stepped closer, drawing their attention. “No time to debate this. We move now or we lose ‘im.”
Gaz chimed in, glowering up at them. “You better be talking about my father — and how you’re going to lose him if you don’t hurry.”
Mira blinked, then raised a bemused eyebrow at her precocious charge.
Darquin shrugged, speaking in Centauri. “Well, you heard the dark empress.”
Mira nodded and suppressed a smile. Handing Gaz the food, she said, “Stay here and wait for us.”
Gaz grumped, watching from her hiding place while Mira and Darquin emerged onto the broken street beyond.