As Imogen disappears through one door off Saffron’s central hub, her cousin Lief opens the other. “What is that?!”
“Hey, get out of my room!” Lilly yells as she jumps past him and pulls the door shut. Imogen’s cousin has seen Snowball, but at least the zerg is still in lyote form.
Out in the main space, Lief plies Lilly with questions. “But what is that?”
“It’s a dog.”
“I’ve seen a dog before, I have. That’s not a dog. Dogs don’t have spines. Where’d you get it?”
“Mar Sara.” Lilly returns to the pilot console and resumes making adjustments as they leave New Cardiff behind. This gives Lief something new to ask about, as the science vessel is a sort of technology he has never encountered. He asks Lilly if he can try flying, and she happily agrees as that is a much safer topic than a zerg in disguise. “Have you flown anything before?” she asks.
“No. Well, aye, but here you just tell the airship where to take you and it goes there. You don’t actually do anything. There’s no pilot training on Umoja, no need for it. What kind of interface is this, anyway? It won’t do what I tell it to.”
Lilly looks at the switches and dials. “A pushy one.” She gets them a little higher and then lets him take over, advising him on what the controls do as he needs them. Or just after, in some cases. Her teaching philosophy is that the best way to learn is to just do it. Lief does all right, all things considered. He has no experience, but he does have quick reflexes.
Lief asks whether Lilly has ever been in a crash, and she reminisces about a few, expressing her opinion that they happen quite often, even to supposedly-skilled professional pilots. Lief tries another button, and gentle muzak fills the cabin as he accidentally turns on the Exploracorp music sampler.
“So, why do they call you Leaf?” Lilly asks, making casual conversation.
“Because it’s my name,” Lief replies. “Or do you mean, why do they call me Lief the Thief?”
“Do they call you that? Are you a thief?”
“I only take small things.”
“Oh, like wallets?”
Lief looks at Lilly in surprise. “No, things that wouldn’t be missed. Like the third of four sandwiches.” Lilly raises an eyebrow at that cryptic comment. “Never take the last of anything,” he explains further. “That’s what gets you noticed.”
Lilly shrugs. “I wouldn’t know. I’m not a thief.”
Lief continues, perplexed, “And why would I take wallets? What would I do with pictures of people’s families and such?”
“For the credits.”
“That wouldn’t work on Umoja.” Lief’s people do not carry money because their accounts are all linked to their identification. He has a subdermal chip that gets scanned whenever he makes a purchase. Lilly examines his arm and notices a slight bump at the site of the implantation. She briefly thinks of her own chip, in the back of her neck, something that she still has not done anything about. There could be more systems out there than just Saffron’s computer that will recognize her one day. But that thought evaporates as Lief asks her questions about identification in the Dominion. She shows him her card, and he marvels over how long it must take to read information off it using terran eyes.
Conversation returns to Saffron and her capabilities. Lief asks about weaponry, and Lilly happily talks about the EMP and the irradiator. He is surprised to hear that the latter can kill zerg. Lief has only fairy tale notions of the creatures, including that they cannot be killed and that they are large insects. Lilly tells him about several different types and insists that they can be killed. She cannot resist telling her favorite story yet again, even though Lief has already heard it. “Imogen climbed up the side of one and stabbed it in the face!” It occurs to her for the first time that maybe Imogen was actually collecting a sample and not just being a general badass. But it is still a good story.
They return to the topic of the ship not having lasers, and Lilly points out that Saffron is, after all, a science vessel. Lief asks whether she is a scientist, and Lilly shrugs. She does collect specimens, though her opinion is that Imogen does more of the sciency-type work. Lief prods her about her military past, and she points out that it says right on her Dominion ID that she is a former soldier, honorably discharged. End of story. She does not tell him that the ID is a forgery, of course.
* * *
In her room, Imogen sits on her bed, trying to obtain a state of inner calm. The Queen of Blades has twice demonstrated to Imogen the ability to do something psionic across interplanetary distances. When she and Lilly took the cerebrate sample, the queen knew and transmitted a message to Grom’s ship. Then on Hyperion, when Imogen was entranced by Egon’s artifact, Kerrigan lashed out at her through it. Imogen does not have an army of organic transmitters at her beck and call, nor does she have an ancient xel’naga device. But what she does have is twenty-some years of close ties to Aiden, who is a mere eleven months older than she is. He never exhibited any sort of psionic aptitude or interest, but they were thick as thieves throughout the majority of their lives, and she hopes she will be able to pick his mind out of the millions out there.
If he is still alive.
Imogen stays in her room for hours, stretching out with her psionic senses, until finally, she latches onto something that feels familiar, that feels like Aiden. He is alive, and she does not sense any fear or pain. Rather, there is confusion, curiosity, desperation… and some sort of fuzziness. It seems like he is unwell in some way, like maybe he is under the influence of something, sick or drugged. She never knew Aiden to use anything stronger than alcohol, but maybe with pressures mounting because of his side-hustle, he got into something else. A lot could have changed in the year and a half she has been away.
* * *
As they near Jarban Minor, Imogen emerges from her room. She asks Lief if Aiden was in good health last time he saw him, and whether he had picked up any new habits along with his new business venture. When Lief mentions Aiden merely drinking casually, Imogen asks if he was into anything harder. Lief points out that that sort of restricted stuff is not readily available on Umoja. He seems to be telling her all he knows, but Imogen notes how Lief looks around, alert, as he continues pestering Lilly with questions. There is some wonderment in his eyes, certainly, as the science vessel is a novelty, but she can tell he is playing up his curiosity. It makes him easier to underestimate. He is not concealing anything from her right now, but if he wanted to, he probably could.
Since there is the possibility of zerg attack on the planet’s surface, Imogen checks if Lief knows how to use any weapons or even has his own. To her surprise, he carries a small gauss pistol, which he pulls out to show them. It is lighter than a Dominion marine gauss rifle but packs the same punch, according to Lief. He and Lilly discuss its specs, and Lief laments that there is not much in the way of firing ranges on Umoja for practice.
They all turn their attention to Saffron’s sensor suite on the final approach to Uncle Leo’s coordinates. The life signs sweep reveals that, in addition to smaller creatures corresponding to terrans or similarly-sized zerg on the ground, there are large creatures in the skies. At first, they worry that these could be some kind of enormous zerg, but then Imogen and Lief recall learning about Jarban gliders in Mr. Banda’s Year 10 ecology class.
“Are they going to be a problem?” Lilly asks.
“Not if you stay clear of them. They’re kind of like aerial whales,” Imogen explains. “Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.”
“But keep an eye out for the mists. This planet has some intense ones that roll in out of nowhere. Could make visibility suddenly quite bad.” As they get lower, Imogen points out to Lief the creep down on the ground, advising him to try to stay clear of it. “It’s hard to move through because it’s so sticky. And there’s a chance of getting infested, so the less contact you have with it, the better.” That alarms Lief, but the best Imogen can do to reassure him is point out that she and Lilly have not gotten infested yet.
Lilly sets Saffron down about a kilometer away from the coordinates Uncle Leo gave Imogen. The landing on rough terrain strains the systems enough that Imogen has to do some quick repair work before they head out. Lief wonders whether this counts as a crash.
Imogen leads her cousin off the ship, giving Lilly privacy to check on Snowball. Lilly opens up her room and finds him still in lyote form. He stays that way but rushes over to the minifridge where the Power Thirst is stored, pawing at it. Lilly takes out a piece of the hard candy she also bought on the exostation and offers that to him instead, saying, “I’ve got something else for you to try, buddy.” Snowball curiously examines it and then takes it into his mouth, which when open is a stringy, oozing mess, definitely not the jaws of a lyote. Rather than chewing or even sucking the hard candy, Snowball seems to absorb it. “Eh? What do you think? Do you like it?” Snowball heads back into Lilly’s room and curls up on her bunk to rest. The candy seems an acceptable bribe for good behavior.
Who knows how fat he’ll be by the time we deliver him to the Queen of Blades… Lilly reflects as she heads out. She seals up Saffron’s hatch and thinks for a moment that she should enable the motion detectors she installed on Antiga. Then she remembers that she had only planned to do that and had actually settled for old-school traps there. After this mission, I’ll get that put together, she thinks.