They were about her age: one blonde and tall with the cares of the world settled into the lines of her face; one black-haired and petite with her head on the blonde’s shoulder. She appeared innocent enough as to seem much younger than she was. Their skin was white like frosted glass, with a hint of transparency. They were Silmn, the first Michal had seen in several years. Certainly they were the only ones she’d seen since arriving in the canyons who had not been already made into statues. Michal thought she recognized flight uniform trousers on the blonde, while the other wore a simple skirt. Both wore long-sleeved black shirts and slept with their arms folded across their stomachs.
“Don’t bother with them, they’re completely insane.” Kelakelal had come silently right up behind her, and she jumped when he spoke.
“But they’re so peaceful...”
“Look at the chair. You think I did that?” He turned back towards the lab and Michal followed. It was full of shelves and cabinets, and her first impression was of cables, gears, and chrome.
“You certainly made me angry enough to destroy furniture.” She looked around the lab with more than slight interest. “I’d destroy you first though.”
“Michal, you restore my faith in people with your refreshing honesty. I’ll always know where I stand with you.”
“I don’t know enough about this subterranean funhouse to lie.” She peered at a shelf slightly above eye level. “Is that what I think it is?”
“The fire control from a Silmn space fighter, yes. Those girls back there jumped cosms somehow and their craft blasted a crater through a whole residential warren when it embedded itself in the rock under full throttle. They killed over a hundred Elementals, and what’s more, they know it. I’m afraid the younger one is rather tender hearted.” He was bustling around a stool of some sort, attaching wires and probes according to some scheme Michal could not decipher. “Frankly, I don’t think she was quite all there to begin with.”
“And the elder?” Michal glanced over her shoulder at him. “You know, I could help you if you’d undo my wrists.”
“Nice try, but no.” He screwed a set of lenses onto his goggles and kept working. “The blonde was the pilot. They’re inseparable, you saw that. She was caught under a bit of rubble with a statue embedded. It was three days of the Rockmasons invoking away the rubble before we found her, trapped face to face under that statue screaming into her mind.” He gave a cruel laugh. “Really, they’re useless.”
“Why keep them around then? Send them to the lights, or whatever they call it.”He looked at her like she had two heads — this was clear even through the mask and goggles. “They’re xenos. I’m the Royal Xenomason. I have to have xenos to mace or else my title’s fairly pointless, isn’t it?”
Malachi straightened up and stretched, lightheaded. He blinked his retinal clock on and off.
"Doctor Rokh! Good, you’re still here." It was Commissioner Jervis at the office door. He was taller than Malachi and darker, wearing an immaculate uniform with unidentifiable brown spatters across one sleeve. The two Nathi glared at each other with the ease of long practice..
Malachi jerked back to what he was doing. "I can’t take patients, Jervis, I’m shipping out tonight."
"Yes, I understand that you’re not here, your door-pass has been revoked early, and you’re not on the clock. I’m not here either." Commissioner Jervis stuck his brimmed officer cap under his arm and grinned nastily.
"What’s this about?" Malachi sighed. "Does another one of your bully-boys need treatment you don’t want on your department’s record? Seriously just enter the code for torture again on the form like last time.”
"Hah," snickered Jervis. "Something like that." He shoved a young woman into the room. She gasped, stumbled with her hands locked behind her back, and her flyaway red hair fell across her face as she fell hard against Malachi’s desk.
Malachi stepped over her and advanced on the Commissioner. He poked Jervis hard in the chest, heedless of the risk this posed to his career. "Jervis, what is this? I’m shipping out in five hours, I can’t play your stupid games!"
Jervis knocked Malachi’s hand aside with a perfunctory blow. "Just what it looks like. Check her out, report back on her viability. I’ll wait."
"No you absolutely won’t. I don’t have time for this."
"Sure you do. You’ve already shipped out according to the system here, or you will have as soon as I get to a terminal. Do this and I’ll make sure you still have a seat."
Malachi backed up a step. "You wouldn’t dare strand me here."
"Doctor Rokh, I am commissioner in charge of warbride Intake. There is nothing I won’t dare."
"This isn’t how warbrides are treated.”
"She’s not a warbride."
"Then what is she?”
"Classified. That’s what she is. You going to do this one simple thing for me, or am I going to shoot out your kneecaps? Nobody here would dare stop me."
Malachi balled his fists at his sides. It was true — he’d seen the results of Jervis losing patience on the autopsy table. "Fine, come back in two hours. I need her records."
Jervis smiled sweetly. "She hasn’t got any."
"I can't just shine a flashlight down her throat and tell that she's healthy. I need baselines, history. If I'm going to do your dirty work at least let me do it right. Why’s she so important anyway?”
"She killed a man, if you must know."
"The last doctor I brought her to. I don’t like you at all, so you were the next obvious choice."
Malachi ignored the insult and glanced derisively at the girl, who sat against his desk quietly sobbing into her knees. "Her? Seriously? ‘Calling her Ill-fed’ would be benevolent untruth."
Commissioner Jervis stood up. "Nevertheless.”
“Can’t you just have a computer do this, or one of your experimental medics? They’ve got at least as good neurals as I do.”
“I did. Something about her violently resists scans. You’ve already been fired, so we lose nothing if she takes you down.”Malachi stuck his hands in his pockets lest he wipe that smile off Jervis’s face. He looked at the sobbing girl at his feet and remembered his mother. He could get to the shuttle before Jervis caught him and escape the planet - he’d done similar as a child during the war - but he knew enough of Jervis’s methods to know that would be a death sentence for the girl. He couldn’t do that, no matter how much he hated Jervis.
The elderly woman passed him again on her way back to her seat. "Young man," she began, and looked up and down the aisle. "Young man, have you done something terrible?"
"I hope not," he quipped, ignoring Leah’s bloodstained bandages. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, the bloodstains, of course." She beamed a grandmotherly smile in his general direction. "I wanted to hear your story before I started screaming."
"Oh, her." He nodded at Leah. "Yes, everything is properly in order. Please go away."
She would not be moved. "What’s your story, my dear? I do love a good scream, it’s been ages. And this is such a confined space too."
The man in the aisle seat next to Malachi left the row with a glare and affronted huff. The woman settled next to him. "Now dear, please explain this bloody young woman."
"Or you’ll scream."
"Or I’ll scream, yes. I was in the opera as a lass, did you know?"
"I just wanted to be sure." Malachi found himself strangely enjoying this despite the horror of the situation. "What do you want to know?"
"Oh, start at the beginning. I’m all ears, dear."
"My dear woman, you know that’s physiologically impossible."
"Yes, I do have a spleen to vent, but let’s start with ears, shall we?"
"Short version then. I am Doctor Malachi, Rokh. Perhaps you’ve heard of me in the worst light already. Here are my credentials."
The woman inspected his card with a polite harrumph. "I see. Do go on."
"The rest of it is hardly your business." Malachi tried to turn away.
"I see. I should scream, I think." She reached a pudgy hand over to shake. "Indella Manderst, stage name.” She smelled of lavender and talcum.
"Pleased, uh, to meet you, Miss Manderst." Malachi gingerly shook her hand, which completely enveloped his. She was large, in the sense that skinny people called "jolly" before their own advancing years turned them "jolly" themselves.
"Indeed. You’re a despicable little weasel, Dr. Rokh, but I enjoy tolerating you.""Uh, thanks."