Her Instruments, Book 1: Earthrise

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      Reese’s head came into abrupt, unpleasant contact with the bottom of the console. “Ow!”

      “Rrrph, I’m sorry!”

      Reese pushed back from beneath the environmental controls, leaving the tools beneath the console. Irine was standing behind her with sagging ears, wringing her hands. The felinoid Harat-Shar’s breath came in soft visible puffs, and she was wearing socks on both feet and tail.

      The Earthrise was always in need of repairs, but Reese fled to the engineering deck when she most particularly wanted to be alone. The cold usually deterred the rest of her crew from following. Not that she left it that cold just to convince them to leave her alone; it was honestly good for the electronics.

      “I didn’t mean to startle you,” Irine said as Reese sat up and rubbed her head.

      “You didn’t startle me,” Reese said, then amended, “Much.” She scowled. “Well, don’t just stand there, Irine… what is it?”

      “I’m afraid there’s a call for you,” Irine said, chafing her arms.

      “I thought I told you not to both—”

      “Bother you, yes, I know, but this thing’s lighting up so many security alarms on my panel I think it’s going to blow up.”

      Reese eyed her. “Security alarms.”

      The Harat-Shar girl sniffed, her socked tail curling behind her. “Even the handshake is encrypted. Talk about an obscene amount of money… ”

      Reese stood, the beads braided into her black hair clicking against her shoulder-blades as she shook them back. She ignored the clenching in the pit of her stomach with difficulty. “I’ll take it. Go see how the loading is going.”

      “Okay,” Irine said, and stepped silently on her socked feet toward the lift.

      Reese watched her go, then stalked to the fore of the ship. Built in the Terran solar system, the TMS Earthrise‘s bridge spoke little of the amenities and luxurious waste of space so common to Alliance-built vessels; the human had to wedge herself between a few crates to the forward-facing windows with their communication consoles. As Irine had testified, a real-time comm request flashed on the screen inset on the side wall, the lagged blink of secure traffic.

      Not even her curiosity could untie the growing knot in her stomach. Reese could think of few reasons a small-time trader captain might receive such a high priority, highly private signal. She didn’t like any of them.

      “This is Theresa Eddings of the TMS Earthrise. Accept the incoming signal.”

      The computer chirped its response; Reese rested one brown hand against the console and leaned back to watch the slow blink transform to a handshake screen. The header information stunned her, and then tied the knot in her stomach much, much tighter. Ulcer material. Definitely.

     TO: Theresa Eddings

      TMS Earthrise

      Docked: Starbase Fos

     FROM: [ Scrambled ]

      Not only a message, but one from someone who refused to identify himself. The last time she’d seen a scrambled source, six years ago, she’d had reason to rejoice. She’d also ended up promising to pay up for the miracle at some future date. At the time, she’d been sure that she’d refit the Earthrise and rise above the small freight contracts she’d been able to afford… the idea of paying her mysterious benefactor back hadn’t worried her.

      Somehow, though, her imagined pay-offs never materialized. Bad luck dogged the Earthrise, and for every score Reese managed, something needed repair, someone needed repayment early or somewhere interest compounded faster than she could handle it. Six years later, she had just enough for the cargo she could hear being loaded right now—the cargo and enough food to keep them from starving, and that was it. Certainly not enough to pay back someone who’d bought the Earthrise back from Reese’s creditors, with enough left over to fill her holds with new hope.

      Reese’s misgivings doubled as the handshake completed and a line of gibberish ran across the bottom of the screen; once the parade reached the other side, it gave the appearance of being completely still save for the twitch of the characters changing. Beneath this line, two numbers popped up in either corner. She knew them, of course—the right one indicated how many Well satellites this missive was jumping to get to her real-time, and the other, at zero, the amount of identified attacks on the encrypted stream.

      A fine sweat popped up on Reese’s dark forehead. Every second of a Riggins-encrypted Well transmission cost one thousand fin—far more than she could earn back with the Earthrise in months. This was also the exact same way her benefactor had last used to contact her. Her time had run out.

      On the flat black above the stream, a sentence in amber appeared.

      You will remember us, we presume.

      “If you are who I think you are, then I could hardly forget,” Reese said. Her words appeared one by one in response. There was a long pause. Then:

      We told you, long ago, that when we returned we would tell you that we requested your aid in the name of the High Priestess of the Amacrucian Church.

      And that took away all Reese’s doubts—and hopes—that this was some new obscenely rich person who wanted something from her. With a sigh, she said, “What can I do for you?”

      We would that our errand could have waited, for it was not our intention to call in your favor so quickly. Still, Fate does not always allow for wishes. Theresa, you owe our seat a favor. It would please us greatly to call now this favor.

      There it was. Reese sighed softly, then said, “I have no money—”

      It is not money we need, but aid of a different kind.

      The stomach acid that had been busy on her esophagus relented, just a little. “How can I help?”

      We sent one of our beloved people to investigate the disappearance of some our own. In the course of his investigations, he ran afoul of the local law, and is thus imprisoned. This does not disturb us unduly. What disturbs us is that in the course of his investigations, he may have aroused the ire of powerful foes who may not have had recourse to vengeance had he remained mobile.

      “You want us to liberate him,” Reese finished. Her nervousness returned full force, and she spared a brief, longing thought for the bottle of chalk tablets in her cabin, wards against the stomach upset that plagued her so often.

      Just so. You may return him to us once he is freed, or keep him, or advise him on how best to hide. Naturally, you may want to take his opinions into account, but given his inconveniencing of your goodly ship you may consider his opinions as seriously as you feel the situation warrants.

      Reese cleared her throat. “I feel it necessary to point out that my ‘goodly ship’ isn’t exactly a warcruiser.”

      We trust your ingenuity will provide the way where simple brute force would not.

      Reese stared at the amber words, so innocuously presented. She couldn’t imagine this going well, but: “I owe you a favor. If this is how you want to call it in…”

      It is.

      “Then I will do my best.”

      The next words didn’t immediately appear. In the small space it gave Reese for breathing, she re-scanned the conversation and managed a breathy chuckle. The whole exchange sounded like something out of one of her romance novels, and while her misgivings still had a grip on her stomach she couldn’t help the smallest feeling that she was being cast in some great adventure. Backwards, of course. She was apparently the knight in shining armor.

      It is well, and we are pleased. Given the rescue of our unfortunate wayward investigator, you may consider yourself quit of your obligation to us. I will send the relevant information on termination of our contact.

      “Thank you.”

      The real-time stream cut off with the attack counter at seventeen. Reese hadn’t been watching the numbers, but the sight of them now made her clench her fists. Encrypted streams usually accumulated a few attacks as a matter of course. People liked to poke at them, just because there were there. But this—what the bleeding soil had this person been investigating to warrant such a concerted effort?

     NAME: Hirianthial Sarel Jisiensire


      Nurera, Bath-Etu

      Allied Colony Inu-case

      Sector Andeka


      Investigation of cause of missing persons.

      Suspected cause: lost to the slave trade.

      Reese stabbed the pads on the console, setting it to trap the information before she squeezed out of the front and ran to the nearest cabinet. A few chalk tablets later, she stared at the ceiling with eyes as vibrant a blue as the seas of Terra at Earthrise. The man had been prying into the slave trade, and their mutual benefactor was sending her to fish him out of jail before the slavers caught up with him and sold him off. Paying her benefactor back would have been easier, even if she’d had to take out a thousand loans. She ground on the last of the chalk and warily wound back to the fore to stare again at the screen. The final chunk had loaded in her absence. There was now a picture of her charge on the screen.

      He was an Eldritch.

      Reese dropped into the console seat and gaped. She’d never expected to see a real Eldritch in her lifetime. The race’s isolationism and xenophobia were so extreme they’d become a stock offering in her yearly romance subscription—Eldritch women learning to love despite their social conditioning! Eldritch men reluctantly learning to touch their alien lovers! Paintings of pale Eldritch in unfathomably silly costumes, drooping artistically in the arms of humans… that and the occasional flat photo in the u-banks were Reese’s only exposure to the people. The Eldritch didn’t leave their planet.

      And yet here she was, about to fly off in search of one.

      A real picture. Of a real Eldritch! Reese leaned closer.

      The elongation Reese had assumed to be artistic license was real. Who would have known? And just like on the book covers, it was unsettling; the Eldritch looked human, so to have them be ever-so-slightly different in proportion was disturbing. Apparently the cream-white skin was real too, and the straight hair that looked like a heavy, silk sheet. He had a long face, a nose a little too straight, and framed in white lashes his eyes were a truly unlikely shade of wine-dark red. He looked fragile, like the distressed damsel. Like too much trouble.

      A real Eldritch. In the hands of slavers! Reese sat back, and even in the gear she’d donned to work in the frigid engineering bay she got goosebumps. There were so many rumors about the Eldritch and their powers and their culture it was hard to sort out which might be true… but all of them suggested that a slaver would pay a small mint to get his hands on one. And this was her assignment?