Thursday, August 27, 2015

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter IX: The Conversation That Wasn't

32 Spring 1928

Lyta snuck glances at her brother as she drove. Todd was in the back, engrossed in one of his books. Lukas had the passenger seat and was watching the windshield intently. No one spoke. No one had spoken for hours.

In truth, Lyta would have preferred for Ti to be in her antelope, but the logic of the situation led to inevitable conclusions. Ti had struck up a relationship with the Humanist ranger. He would need to be the one to answer her questions and keep her mind away from awkward trains of thought. Todd certainly couldn’t be in the same vehicle as the ranger; he was too unpredictable. And while Lukas was willing to work with Ti, he seemed unwilling to sit beside him for a dozen hours at a time if there were other options. So Ti, Fennec, and the ranger had settled into one antelope, while Lyta and her two brothers had taken the other.

Lyta ran her fingertips lightly over the dimples in the antelope’s wheel. Half a dozen times she’d tried to speak, tried to get out some of the thoughts that had been swirling in her head since they’d met up with Lukas at the border tower. She wanted to ask him how he’d come to be in the company of slavers, whether he was ashamed and disgusted by the tasks they’d put him to, if he was planning on going back, if he could live with himself if he did.

But every time she tried to speak, the words stuck in her throat. Her brother’s jaw was set, his eyes intent on the road. There was nothing to see, but he stared anyway. It was a stare that brooked no interruption.

Lyta let out a slow exhale. There was still time, she told herself. She could do it tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow she’d be braver.

She blinked a few times at the thought. When had she ever needed to be brave to speak to her brother? She shook her head. Tomorrow.

33 Spring 1928

Lukas was still beside her in the antelope, but they had swapped out Todd for Fennec. Ti had taken the ranger away to Peace River early just after dawn, and Lukas had bought an antelope for Todd to range ahead as a forward scouting party. The cab was no more active than it had been the day before. Lukas wasn’t speaking to Fennec, and Fennec seemed content to answer silence with silence. Lyta couldn’t shake the feeling that if either of them started to talk, it would end in a shouting match. Maybe it would end with a gunshot.

What must Lukas think of them, Lyta mused. She knew he still blamed Fennec for what had happened at White Rock. Fennec directly and Ti indirectly. But perhaps the person he felt most betrayed by was Lyta herself. Fennec, after all, was not family. She had other loyalties, even if they had not been obvious at the time. Lukas, with all his double-dealing over the cycles, surely must have considered the possibility that Fennec was never entirely on the level. When she betrayed him, part of him must have felt resignation instead of surprise. At the very least it would have been an opportunity to say, “I told you so,” if there had been anyone around to say it to.

But his sister? That was a different matter entirely. Ever since the war in Baja that had taken both their parents, the only constant in Lyta’s life had been her brothers. For a long time, they were the only people she let inside her icy façade, the only ones she’d let herself care about or love. Even now, she would do anything to keep them safe, to keep them with her. Surely Lukas must see that.

But did he? She tried to look at it from his perspective. Perhaps as far as he could see, the last twelve cycles had been nothing but one betrayal after another from his sister, from the moment he woke up from his coma in the middle of the Great White Desert to find that Lyta had accepted Bestha and Amaraa as foster-parents. Perhaps in his mind the side-mission in White Rock had only been the last in a long series of disappointments and disloyalty. It was an uncomfortable thought.

She wanted to explain to him that there were greater forces at play than her love for her brothers. Than even her own life. That she had been doing what she thought was best, that she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself if she’d done otherwise.

He probably wouldn’t believe her. Or if he did, he wouldn’t understand. She’d tried explaining it back in the Humanist Alliance and it hadn’t worked then. She saw no indication that it would work any better now.

She suppressed a sigh. There was still time to talk to Lukas. They were far from the North. It didn’t have to be today.

33 Spring 1928

Lukas threw the caravanner down at her feet and immediately about-faced to rejoin Fennec. Lyta’s jaw worked a few times, but by the time she’d recovered herself, her brother was well out of earshot.

She stared down at the body – alive, she quickly verified, but unconscious – and a bolt of fear went through her. She could piece together what had happened quickly enough: Lukas and Fennec had been spotted by a patrol from the caravan. They’d been challenged. They couldn’t afford to be captured and couldn’t afford to let the patrols report what they’d seen. Guns had been drawn. Lukas and Fennec had shot first, leaving them with two bodies to deal with before morning.

It could have been otherwise. Easily. A gunfight was never a sure thing. What if the caravanners had got off the first shot? Even if they hadn’t killed Lukas, they would have drawn attention from the rest of the caravan. It would have taken Lyta several minutes to run over, even at a sprint. They would have been on their own and vastly outnumbered. If they were lucky, they’d be captured, the entire mission blown. If they were unlucky… Lyta glanced down at the body at her feet. There were plenty of ways to be unlucky.

When they got out of immediate danger, she would talk to Lukas, she promised herself. She would remind him that despite everything, she was still his sister. She still loved him. She was still on his team, even if they were on opposite sides of the planet or opposite sides of a battlefield. That no one – not Ti, not Fennec, not even Jonas – could change that.

She sighed and pulled out a pair of zip-ties. She would talk to Lukas later. For now, she had more pressing concerns.

34 Spring 1928

Lyta finished the final moves of the Perfect Form and settled herself to the ground in an easy stretch. Todd was off scouting the spooked caravan, but Lukas and Fennec busied themselves with their makeshift camp. Fennec had been watching Lyta practice the Perfect Form for nearly a season; she paid it no more mind than she would the sight of Lyta cooking over a campfire or cleaning her gun. She caught Lukas watching her, though, from the corner of her eye. She resisted the temptation to stare back at him.

Her mind was clear, as it always was after she finished the Form. Four or five weeks ago, she would have found her cheeks flushed with anger at being caught doing a GREL-created exercise. But she was no longer conflicted about it. It had helped her survive the weeks in the ESE with her sanity intact. It helped her now. GREL-created though it might be, it was a tool that could be used for good, and Lyta was no longer ashamed to use it.

She wondered what it might look like to Lukas. The last time they had spent time together, half a cycle ago, the thought of doing anything associated with GRELs would have been anathema to her. She had changed in the intervening time, in ways both obvious and subtle. She wondered how many of them Lukas could make out just from watching her.

For that matter, she wondered how Lukas in turn had changed. Something in him must be different, to have willingly joined a slaving operation in the ESE, even as an undercover mole. Lyta would not have been able to do it. Lukas – the old Lukas, the one who was constantly playing the angles and always finding a way to obey the letter of an agreement while keeping his own spirit – that Lukas would not have been able to do it either. Or at least, so Lyta allowed herself to believe. Something had changed in him in the last half-cycle. She hoped it could change back.

She had not talked to him after they’d sent Todd away with the caravanners, and the day had been too tense, constantly looking out for scouts Benelice might have left along the road. But she would talk to him. Maybe not right now, not while she was stretching and he was standing lookout, but soon. Tomorrow. She would certainly talk to him tomorrow.

36 Spring 1928

The quarantine examination room was, like most clinics, too brightly lit. Lyta leaned against the wall, eyes closed, her fingers tracing the cracks between the tiles. The medical tape at the crook of her elbow pulled against her skin and the gauze itched. She resisted the temptation to pull it off.

She was alone in the room. The technician had left some ten minutes ago, leaving her alone until Sherriff Green’s machinations pulled through.

She found that she was not terribly concerned. From what Fennec had said, Sherriff Green was one of Ti’s kith, and he’d agreed to help them. That was enough for Lyta to trust that he was on the level. If he’d planned on leaving them out to dry, he wouldn’t have offered to help them in the first place.

It was funny, Lyta thought, how she trusted the Sherriff sight-unseen after a cycle of absence. And even a cycle ago, it wasn’t like she’d had extensive interactions with him. Yet here she was, comfortably entrusting her safety and freedom to a man she had barely met. She trusted Green because she trusted Ti and the network he’d built.

She trusted Fennec too, trusted her to do the right thing, even in the face of adversity. Her execution might be flawed, but her heart was always in the right place. If Fennec thought something was worth doing, it usually was, Lyta had discovered.

She turned the thought over in her mind and was upset to realize she could no longer say the same thing about Lukas. For as long as they’d been working as mercenaries, Lyta has always looked up to her brother. She had always thought that no matter what he did, Lukas’ heart was in the right place. He wanted to keep his siblings safe; he wanted to get their family fortune back. He might have twisted himself up in Gordian knots of moral reasoning to get there, but it always came back to that.

She wondered if it was still the case. If, even in the ESE, even with slavers, Lukas’ guiding motivation was still to protect her and Todd. Or if, true to his parting words on the train to Port Arthur, he had decided to break with them entirely and was now looking out only for himself. It upset her that she didn’t know the answer.

She would ask him, she promised herself. That wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted hanging over a relationship. She should know for sure, one way or the other.

She rested her head against the white tile wall of the examination room and breathed slowly, wishing she knew what Sherriff Green was doing behind the scenes.

37 Spring 1928

Lyta listened to the conversation between Lukas, Fennec, and Todd with increasing alarm. She had no problem with the idea of asking Sherriff Green to bring Riley into police headquarters on some false pretense. If Riley was in fact one of the Bear’s five “beta-bels”, it was best to have him in a controlled environment before he realized they were on to him. Certainly better than knocking on his door and hoping for the best.

But as the talk turned euphemistically towards torture, Lyta felt her heart speeding. She clenched her hands around the arms of her chair and tried to work through her own thoughts in the hopes of calming them down. This wasn’t the first time Lukas had talked about “firm interrogation.” Just about every time they’d ever interrogated someone, talk had eventually turned to the nasty things Lukas was going to do to his hapless victim. Lyta would stand by and watch him, trying to look menacing and usually failing. Even so, she’d never had a problem with him threatening violence before. It had certainly happened often enough.

The problem, she realized, was that she’d always assumed he’d never act on his threats. She’d watched him interrogate dozens of people and his words were always so much bluster. Maybe the victims had seen it too; maybe that’s why they never talked. Still, she’d never had a problem with Lukas declaring he’d break fingers or inject white sand because she knew he’d never really do it.

Now, she wasn’t so sure.

They had to find the webble, that was certain. If they lost it, they lost the chance to find Bearden and probably the chance to save Jonas. After a day of fruitless investigating, Lukas was trying to get answers in the most direct way possible: through Riley Markus, and consequences be damned.

Lyta cared about the consequences. If they tortured people to get what they wanted, were they any better than the Bear’s people? What made it worse was that they’d worked with Riley in the past; he was an associate at the very least. Todd considered him a friend. If Riley stonewalled them, which seemed likely, would Lukas really torture him to get answers? Would he be able to live with himself if he did? Would Lyta be able to live with herself if she let him?

She bit down hard on her lower lip. There had to be some other way. She wished she knew what it was. She wished that just once a mission could go smooth. And, looking across the table at the swelling argument, she wished desperately that she could have her brother back.

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