No Way Back – Chapter 24

Here’s the next chapter!  I’m glad to have it here because now I can get to writing the interesting parts!  I don’t have any cute little quips today, so here it goes.

Chapter 24

“Every time you’ve asked me what I was doing on that ship, Commander, I told you the same thing.” Chi’bi sat across the desk from Grai’gahrd as she spoke. She hated saying the same thing to people, an irritation that was only made worse by repeatedly answering the question to the same person. “The Au’sharh picked us up during a recon mission. They held us separately, then told me if I complied with finding new ‘Bot pilots that we’d all be free to go. I had just finished turning in my trainee and…” Her cool blue eyes dropped to the floor as her ears fall back to her hair. Remembering the last few hours before her pick-up always made her more sad than the whole of the mission. She blinked and wiped the developing tears from her eyes before looking at Mergrayne and continuing. “They lied to me. They said that Djarn would be safe. That he’d be waiting for me. He wasn’t. So, I broke into a comms center and sent out a distress call.”

The commander’s head rested on his paws that formed the top of the triangle that his elbows made with the desk. He’d heard the same story from her several times. Identical, in fact, in every detail. This time, though, he no longer doubted her sincerity. He’d been waiting for her to send out a communication from the ship back to the Au’Sharh to report any further intel gained. But it never came. What had come was her request to have a private conference with him where she explained that the human was not a normal human. He was, instead, a part of the illegal slaving of unaffiliated races for combat reasons. It seemed impossible. A human was not capable of operating these machines! But here he had evidence that they not only could but had the ability to best his own pilots. This was disturbing news, indeed. “Alright, Lieutenant. I believe you.”

Chi’bi blinked. “You doubted me?”

“You disappeared with your entire assault group! That’s five Bots. Someone had to have given away their positions and plans in order to take all five, don’t you think?”

Her eyes narrowed in an angry glare and her words took on an enraged hiss. Her closed fists slam down on the desk in her rage as she speaks. “How dare you!? Why the hell would I let Djarn get captured? I love that man whether you like it or not!”

Grai’gahrd let his still-clasped paws fall to the desk. “I can only go by what intelligence tells me. Someone had to turn in the group. Five years later, I catch you on an Au’Sharh personnel transport unbound. What else did you expect me to think?”

Chi’bi understood, but the taste of insult still swam in her mouth. “I don’t know how you operate, Commander,” she spat the word, “but an elite combat arm doesn’t betray each other.”

“No. You just find others to replace your unavailable lovers, right?”

“Go to hell. You have some nerve considering your ‘living arrangements’ with certain medical officers.”

Grai’gahrd laughed at the gross insubordination. He’d known her long enough to know that she would kill to save Djarn. That wasn’t limited to anyone, not even him. “Alright. I apologize. That was over the line and wasn’t deserved. How about we take it down a notch so we can actually discuss something seriously.”

Chi’bi’s arms fold in against her chest, the glare never leaving her eyes, but she nods. “You wouldn’t have called me in here just to goad me like this.”

“That’s right. It turns out that I have reason to accept your story.” He stood and walked over to a separate media display, one that filled the wall to Chi’bi’s right with a display of what lay in front of the ship. Once there, he tapped a code into the display’s control device and the image changed to a security recording. The image was slightly grainy but was clear enough for her to recognize the ship’s ChromeBot hold. A moment later, a form ran from the lower left corner of the display and stopped in the middle of the room. Its head turned away from the camera as it pointed at something, and then its voice filled the room.

Chi’bi’s heart fluttered as she heard the words that the human spoke. It was him. Robert really found the Bots. She looks away, unable to watch the screen as the feeling changed to a sharp pain, but the voice doesn’t leave. Each word stings her in a way that she can’t ignore. She finally looks at the Mergrayne to find him smiling at her. “Why? Why are you doing this to me?” The anger was gone, replaced with the hurt of feeling her heart break once again.

“I had to make sure it was legitimate.” He taps the control pad again and the image returns to the forward view. “You’ve developed feelings for this human, didn’t you?”

Chi’bi just nods as she stares at the desk.

“Forgot about your Djarn that easily, did you?”

A sob escapes her lips before she can respond. “You know that’s not how it works…”

“Yes, your ‘attachment.’ A load of bull, if you ask me. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I brought you here to find out what you taught him.”

Chi’bi finally looked up at him, a tear rolling down her black-and-white-furred cheek. “He’d be the pride of any combat arm.” Before she could say more, the door chime rang. She couldn’t help but turn to look in that direction.

Mergrayne walked towards the door. “We’ll finish that thought in a moment. Perhaps it’s best if you slip to the back desk for a moment. After all, your human has arrived.”

– –

Dharcia lead Ter’link and I down the hallway. It was unusual in that she was leading the way to the Commander, someone who she’d expressed a general dislike for. “He said to be here at 2300 sharp. We’re not going to be late.” Her words were spread by the slight pant she’d developed during the quick transit from the Commons to the officers’ quarters. She was rather surprised that the request had included all three of them, though, and I could tell by the response that she’d given when the order was passed directly to her: “You’re kidding, right?”

I did my best to keep pace with the faster beings that surrounded me. It wasn’t fast enough because Ter’l kept catching my shoes with his feet. I ignore the repeated impacts and follow Dharcia along her path without complaint. The last thing I needed was to question the rush or why the sudden demand for a meeting. I just knew that if I didn’t keep up that we could very well be late. We really don’t want that.

“Dharcia, it’s just around the corner and we have five minutes. Slow down!” Ter’l grumbled as he decides to slow to a normal pace. “I know that the Commander can be rough, but he’ll be okay with us being there on time.”

Dharcia skittered to a stop and turned around to face the Eil’phae. “Look, Commander Grai’gahrd is very big with his military discipline. We need to be outside that door now!”

“And we pretty much are. Walk.”

Dharcia huffed loudly with her tail hanging low as she began back in the direction of Mergrayne’s office. She motioned for me to follow, shaking her head as she added, “Fine. We’ll walk. I don’t want to hear it when he gives us trouble for being late.”

A minute later we find ourselves standing outside of the Commander’s office. I straighten out my uniform and hair, then take notice to Dharcia doing the same. I turn to look at Ter’link to find him simply standing with his hand-paws in the pockets of his overalls and a smirk on his face. I hear Dharcia cease her adjustments and press the door signal with a soft click. After a brief pause, we hear the Grai’gahrd’s voice through the speaker. “Come in.” The door slides soundlessly open and we cross the threshold into his office.

The room itself was dark. Not the coloring of the walls, all of which were the same off-white of the cell I woke up in, but the lights were dim within and didn’t carry far from the walls. A desk sat a few feet in, surrounded by a trio of empty chairs and a single occupied one. Commander Grai’gahrd sat at his chair and watched us enter the room with what looked like irritation.

“Come in and take a seat.”

Dharcia, Ter’link, and I all complied. I sat in the middle chair with Dharcia to my right and Ter’l to the left. Before anyone else can say anything, I act without thinking and speak. “Commander, is there something wrong, sir?”

The room was deathly quiet for a moment. No one spoke, Dharcia and Ter’link out of discipline and the commander for whatever his reasons were. After what seemed like an eternity, the Ru’therian pushed back in his chair and stood. His voice was his normal around me, condescending and aggravated, but this time more conversational than anything. “Robert, you know that you’re not supposed to speak first.” He looked at me as I winced but didn’t say anything. “I’ll forgive it this time due to the nature of why you’re here.” He walked over to the wall to my right and activated the security feed to the ChromeBot hanger, letting it play through until we all leave the screen. Still standing at the end of the video, he stops the display at the end, leaving the image of the DarkWolf on-screen. “I want to know how you knew everything you mentioned. There is no reason to falsify information. I need to know how it is that you know more about these machines than some of our best techs.”

I shift in my seat to get comfortable, then answer the question. “Sir, I know these machines from a game that I used to play on Earth. The name of the game was… I mean, the name of the games are ChromeBots and ChromeBots 2. It’s a combat simulator that uses machines that bear an undeniable likeness to the machines you have in your hold. Sir.”

He nods, then walks back to his seat and slowly takes it. His continuation is suddenly calm and measured. “This confirms some of what I am aware of.” He looks at Dharcia for a moment, then back at me. “How is it that you came to be on-board my ship?”

Dharcia quickly jumped in. “Sir, that’s unnecessary, don’t you think? He’s been through this before.”

His eyes stare at Dharcia as he remains facing me. “He has, but I don’t mean when he woke up.” His gaze returns to me. “I mean, what were you doing before you came here?”

I hear Ter’link shuffling next to me, but I answer readily. “I was in college, sir. My…” The word catches in my throat as I try to speak. “…girlfriend taught me to play. She’s been working with me for years on it, teaching me tactics, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the individual weapons. It turned out that she was an alien.” I look over at Ter’l for a moment, then continue. “An Eil’phae.” Ter’link starts to stand as I keep speaking. “She did something to me that made me sleep. Then, I woke up on-board.”

Mergrayne nodded slowly. He seemed very calm about the whole situation, and that began to make me nervous. “I see. You’ve cleared up a few things and corroborated a few others.” He slowly turns his chair to his left as he speaks. “I have a few reports here that indicate that you were a part of the Au’Sharh “Kee’into Sharh” program. This loosely translates to “False Snake.” It is a highly-illegal training method that uses species not in the UFO and trains them to be soldiers and pilots that do not have to be accounted for because they don’t exist. Not to us, anyway.” He turns his head to face me but keeps his body pointed away. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done about it because they aren’t full members of the UFO. It is good that we found you, as the way they treat these slaves is to break them down into mindless automatons that simply follow orders to survive. If they don’t, they starve to death and are fed to those who have broken.” Dharcia gasps as she hears this. Ter’link says nothing, but his surprise is heavy in the air. “So, it’s a good thing that you’re here.” The wolf stands and slides a datapad from his desk, dropping it in front of me so I can read it, then walks to the still-displayed DarkWolf image. “It also appears that your statistics are the stuff of legends in the simulation world. Almost untouchable. It would have been interesting to see that fight.” He turns and looks me dead in the eye. “Too bad I don’t believe it.”

“Maybe you should.”

That voice…

Chi’bi walks from around the entryway to his private office. “After all, I wouldn’t have trained him any other way.” The Eil’phae looks directly at me with her cool blue eyes. “Hello again, Robert.”

For a moment, all I can see are those eyes. The bright hues take me back home, back to after that first date with Allessa. There was no alien connection, no starship that I was on permanently. It was just the girl I’d loved for years. The very next moment brought the remembrance of my current situation. The coloring on her face and her elongated ears. My ears are filled with the sound of rushing water as I become filled with rage, and I barely hear Dharcia voice her concern. I stand slowly and can feel my legs and arms trembling as I d so. Once I’m upright, I speak loud enough to drown out the conversation about the ethics of bringing her in like this. “You let this happen to me.” The room stays quiet and Chi’bi’s gaze falls to the floor. “YOU let this happen! What the hell is wrong with you?! Why are you here?!” I start to push towards her and Ter’link jumps to his feet just in case. I stop at the desk, keeping it between her and I to prevent her from attacking me. “This whole mess is your damn fault!”

Commander Grai’gahrd finally breaks his stunned silence and barks an order. “Ensign, calm down! She’s here at my request.” He looks at the saddened stance of Chi’bi as he continues. “I understand that this is hard for you. That what she did to you is not only painful but unforgivable. I know that you are not happy with the situation and neither am I.” He walks to his desk and stands between Chi’bi and myself to bring my full attention on him. “But, you’re going to have to learn to deal with it. As of this moment, you’re assigned to ChromeBot Defensive Arm Six. And so is she.”

Chi’bi looks up at the commander, surprise lacing her features. “Defense?! I’m an elite pilot! To put me on the back half of the grid–”

“Is my prerogative.” He snaps a quick about-face and growls at the black-and-white Eil’ph. “I still don’t trust you and I want you where I can see you. And as for him,” He hooks his clawed thumb in my direction, “I trust him even less! At least if I have you on the Defensive Arm, you’ll be the last to leave my sight!”

“No disrespect, Commander, but you need me on the front lines. You and I both know that none of your pilots here can outgun me.” Chi’bi looks past him at me. “And I guarantee that he’d take you down, no problem. You’ve seen his combat stats. You want him on assault.”

Dharcia opens her mouth to speak but Grai’gahrd cuts her off with a swipe of his paw. “I don’t care what you think! I’m in command here, Lieutenant, don’t you forget it! You’re not under my brother anymore! He’s still MIA!”

The mephit refuses to be cut off again and raises her voice. “Commander!”

“What?!” The lupine male spins around growling, then clears his throat and hides his glare. “Yes, counselor. What is it?”

“Before you assign them, why not have Robert at least tested for his skill.” Dharcia looks in my direction, something I can barely see with my back still generally towards her. “I haven’t looked at his numbers yet, but if they’re as impressive as Chi’bi’s boasting, you don’t want to waste that skill.”

Chi’bi interjects before the commander can respond. “I’d be willing to bet my career on him out-scoring almost anyone here. Even you, Commander.”

Mergrayne looks between Dharcia and Chi’bi, then sighs and steps towards his wall-sized display. “Is that a fact, Lieutenant?”

“Yes?”

He smiles, an act that seems more predatory than anything. “Alright then. You win. I’ll take that bet. If he can best me then I’ll put you both on Assault One.”

“But sir!”

“No. These are the terms.”

Chi’bi sighs and nods, doing all she can to avoid looking in my direction. “Alright. And if I lose?”

Grai’gahrd growled in his excitement. “When you lose, I turn you over to the High Counsel for gross treason and assign him to scrubbing the bathrooms.”

I finally stop staring at Chi’bi in my rage and look at the Commander. “Fine. Let’s just get this game over with.”

Ter’link, Dharcia, and Chi’bi let out a groan. The Commander smiled and nodded. I simply left the office at a near run.

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