Nale and Hona were sitting side by side on their ship's bridge, each listening in on the broadcasts from the Angel ship they were tracking.
It was the usual external stuff about docking plans and routes, along with internal notes concerning commands and confirmations of commands. They were doing it in shifts, each crew member on Hona's ship listening to the individual channel of his corresponding member on the Angel ship. Hona had twice already predicted, erroneously, that Draea's ship was about to attack the bait, and everyone was rather tired of waiting, herself foremost. She had used executive privilege to wiretap the Angel ship without its knowledge, and would have to answer for it later.
There was a buzz, and one of Hona's crew said, "Wait, they're being hailed. And ... wow. Locked, webbed and scrambled." Immediately a lot of Hona's crew raised their hands, in quiet acknowledgment that their own channels had filled with related data.
"Alright, let's get moving," Hona said. "While they're bargaining, we'll-"
"Captain, they're boarding!" someone said.
"Enemy team's already attached to ship. They're boarding now."
"Get us there right now and ready for boarding," Hona said in a fast and clear voice. "Team assemble in dock area, now. That includes your people, Nale, in case we need medics."
As the personnel put the ship on autocontrol and rushed out with her, Nale and his team followed. "What's going to happen?" he asked on the way.
"Idiots decided to board the Angel ship instead of bargaining with them for releasing your precious cargo. Which means that people are going to die, on both sides. It's stupid and reckless, and I can't imagine what type of person would take it this far."
"The type that stalks my teammates and fires veinshredders into their throats?" Nale said darkly.
Hona glanced at him but didn't comment. She turned to someone else who had a wireplug in his ear and asked, "Time to board and status on vessel?"
"One minute hard, two on soft, two-four-zero on dark," he replied, "and our people are getting torn to shit. Ma'am."
"We'll board dark, then."
"Angel crew's been on recon missions that included contact. They're close-combat trained. If they're losing, it means we need a different tactic."
"And if the attacking crew didn't all breach, ma'am? What if we're spotted by someone aboard the enemy vessel?"
"If these psychopaths decided to board an Angel ship and have a shootout, I don't imagine any one of them wanted to hang back and look out the windows. Get in gear, we're sneaking in."
They poured into the Angel ship, Hona's men and Nale's team. Monitors inset in the boarding corridor showed their destination, hovering still in space, the red light from the sun glinting off its carapace. It seemed dead to Nale, and in a small way helped him get ready for what he'd see on the inside.
The situation was nothing new to the Sisters, who were used to working as medics in hostile grounds, but they still found themselves in an awed silence of horror when they boarded the vessel. Draea's team had reveled in death. There was blood and viscera everywhere; walls were spattered with vermilion sprays, and corridors were covered in what had once been parts of human beings. Where Nale walked, his boots stuck to the floor.
They made their way through the ship, following the trail of blood. Back in basic training the Sisters had offered lessons in army lingo and signage, and Nale, hungry to master everything on offer, had taken to it. When Hona's team communicator whispered coded status commands, Nale understood him.
General fighting. Local team retreating. Hona shared a look with her team member. Draea's forces weren't going for their prize right away; they were exterminating the ship's crew. She whispered back to him. Cargo bay. Setup.
They took up places in the cargo bay, which on this industrial was thankfully large enough to easily accommodate their teams. Nale estimated that Hona's crew outnumbered the assailants three to one, and his own men - outfitted as they were now with the minimum of armor and weaponry - added a few to the mix. He did not feel very hopeful about the entire situation, but at least he took comfort from the thought that only he and his team knew the full, true nature of the machine. If his enemies did anything with it, he and the rest of the Sisters should be the only ones left standing.
It really wasn't much of a comfort, come to that. Especially with Hona around. Nale really did not want to see her get hurt, and it shamed him that right now he apparently cared more about than about Berkhes's death. Still, it was Sister credo: The living before the dead.
Nale surveyed his team. Everyone was holding steady, in alcoves and behind obstacles that would hide them from view. He moved silently between his men, giving them encouragements and ensuring they were keeping their nerve. The only one who startled when Nale walked up to him was Shiqra, who surreptitiously grabbed at one of the pockets on his combat suit. Nale asked him if everything was all right, to which he assented.
After getting back to Hona, he asked her, "Think one of your men can do me a favor?"
"Depends," she said, then added in a more pleasant tone, "But I'm sure we can try."
"One of my men is holding something I don't think he should be. Right-hand pocket, on the thigh. I've no idea what it is, but I have a feeling he's going to do something stupid, and I don't want a confrontation right now. One of your soldiers is located next to him, and I want him to keep an eye on my man. If he makes a move, opens his pocket or whatever, restrain him."
"You got it," Hona said. "I've no more patience for rogue agents than you do."
"Thanks," Nale said, and gave her a smile that she returned.
It wasn't long before Draea's people entered the bay, stalking in as if they owned the place. There were four of them, and Nale, hiding with Hona behind a crate, marveled sickly at how they'd been able to take down an entire crew of Angels, even if the poor soldiers had been completely unprepared.
Draea went over to a particular box without hesitation. Nale surmised she had pulled its location from some dying Angel.
The box was situated on a low shelf, and Draea pulled it out and placed on the floor with apparent ease. It was under electronic lock, which she fixed by placing the barrel of her gun alongside the mechanism and shooting it off. Gunfire wouldn't harm this ship; like so many others it was just as well-protected from the inside as from the outside.
Draea reached in and, with a grunt, lifted out the Book of Emptiness and placed it on the floor, where she regarded it for a few breaths. After it did not turn on, glow, smoke or explode, her three teammates visibly relaxed. They walked in closer and gave the machine a look.
It really was inconsequential in appearance. Only a few oddly curved lines here and there, and the strange way in which it caught the light, gave the faintest idea that it might be more than a glorified Quafe vendor.
"Heavy, is it?" one of Draea's people asked.
"Wouldn't want to carry it far," she said.
It was at that moment Hona gave the signal to her men, who broke cover, rising and aiming their weapons at Draea's team. "Move and die," Hona said.
To their credit, none of Draea's teammates twitched. They slowly looked in Hona's direction, and Nale, who had gotten up and was standing next to her, felt uncomfortably like he was watching a pack of animals deciding on their prey.
"Drop your weapons and step away from them," Hona said.
Draea and her team mates looked at one another, then shrugged and dropped their guns, though none of them moved nor raised their hands. "What are you planning?" Draea said, coolly.
"Taking you back in for questioning," Hona replied. "Nobody needs to get hurt."
Which was a complete and utter lie, Nale knew. She was planning to kill everyone on Draea's team. But she apparently didn't want to risk the Book, which he knew said more about her interest in him right now than it did about the machine. He felt a small wave of gratitude that was immediately washed out when he noticed what Draea was still holding, palmed in her hand. It was a catalyst. And her thumb was gently turning its sphere.
Time crystallized, and two truths materialized in Nale's mind. The first was that Draea's team, for whatever ungodly reason, was likely immune to the machine, which contradicted everything they'd been told so far. The second was that Draea was about to turn the blasted thing on, the effects of which would be completely unpredictable except for the very real and definite mind-death it would likely have for all of Hona's crew and for Hona herself.
In a moment he would later not know whether to rejoice in or regret, he turned to Hona, said, "I'm sorry," and, to her brief surprise, hit her square on the jaw. She crumpled to the floor, and Nale barely had time to turn back as he saw someone in Draea's team plunge something into his own neck, while Draea grinned and clicked the catalyst.
There was an infinite whiteness.
Nale is walking through a desert. It is night-time but he doesn't feel cold. There are other people here, he thinks; they're almost visible, like shadows detached from the earth, milling about in every direction.
He comes to a leafless tree whose limbs extend like the entirety of space, their buds glowing blue and red. A wind whispers through the branches, gently hissing his true name. He keeps walking, the tree bending to stretch its branches in his direction.
He comes upon an entry to a small quarry, the ground before its dark opening surrounded with rounded, polished rocks. He picks up a rock and it turns soft in his hands. He drops it again and walks onward.
The desert ends, and turns to black basalt. He keeps walking.
The further he goes, the clearer his path becomes. His doubts begin to melt away. He is here. Of course he is here. He has always been here.
He comes to a cliff face, and he sees a dark ocean below, its seas black as the earth.
Around him the spirits flow over the cliffs and plunge into the ocean, joining its waves. He wonders if he should turn back, but he knows that even if he tried, the onrush of spirits would turn against him and push him off. This is his path. This has always been his path.
He stands there, looking into the abyss.
For a moment he is filled with fear, uncertainty and loneliness, the last vestiges of his past existence. But they fade away like the other shadowy spirits, passing out of him, never to return. He knows what he is and what he wants, what he has always wanted.
He steels himself, and he takes a deep breath, and he jumps. And as he falls he turns in the air, looks up and sees Draea standing at the top of the cliff. She glares down at him, her pale skin standing out among the ethereal shadows that surround her. One of those shadows seemed more substantial than the rest, hovering motionlessly behind Draea while the others float back and forth, but he can't make out what or who it is.
He plunges into the black sea, shattering on impact. There is no pain.
He remains conscious and feels himself be slowly torn to pieces. It eats him up, pulls him apart, disintegrates him.
He's gone. He's void. There is no him any longer; he is of this world but no longer of this world. He is the black sea, and he is the black sky. He is the black sea, and he is the black mountain. He is the black mountain.
The shadows speak to him in a cacophony of voices. He hears them all. They tell their stories, and he understands as one can only understand when one hears all voices and not merely the faint whisper of the one.
Slowly, a new presence begins to rise, and it is him. He parts from the black sea, but he does not part. He leaves the black mountain, but he does not leave. He floats up to the black sky, but he does not need to join it.
He is the black sea below, and the black sky above, and the black mountain which casts its shadows over the world.
He understands everything.
Everyone was lying on the ground, some moving, some not. Nale hauled himself up and surveyed the scene.
Hona's entire team lay sprawled, their eyes rolled back in their heads, froth on their mouths. Draea's own crew was beginning to stumble around, shaking their heads as if to dislodge cobwebs. Draea herself was now standing, swaying but keeping erect, staring fixedly at Nale with an expression that was half murder and half wonder.
Then at once, the people who were conscious seemed to do a kind of mental shrug, looked in the direction of the machine, and realized that it was no longer there. Neither, for that matter, was Draea's bounty hunter, Yorlas.
Both Nale's people and Draea's remaining crew started to draw their guns, but Draea raised a hand and yelled, "No!" In their daze, the people obeyed her and lowered their weapons.
She rubbed her eyes, grimaced and said, "I really wish it hadn't come to this. Krezek, open comms to our ship and get a speaker going."
There was a crackle, and then Yorlas's voice was omnipresent. "Boom," it said. "Hello, Draea."
"How'd you manage to break out of the fugue so early?" Draea asked.
"Adrenaline shot," Yorlas said.
"Were you working with someone else?"
"Man called Shiqra, on other team."
Nale quickly looked around, and saw that Shiqra was gone. His Angel guardian was lying on the ground, comatose. Beside the angel lay an unused mini-syringe full of a strong soporific. Nale realized Shiqra hadn't been immune to the Book and must've been planning to render himself unconscious, trusting that Yorlas would come to his rescue.
"He's with you, I imagine. Book take him out?" Draea said.
There was a moment's hesitation before Yorlas said, "Yes," and the undertones Nale heard in word encapsulated far more than he would ever be able to put into words.
"And you have the Book, on our ship, currently en route to destination unknown, right?" Draea asked.
"Still in system, but getting ready to leave," Yorlas said with some satisfaction. Piloting ships all alone was difficult; their AIs compensated well, but there were a lot of minute adjustments that needed to be made. "Otherwise, yes."
"Excellent. To sell to the highest bidder, I imagine"
"Yes. Was supposed to be private project of true art, but with Shiqra gone, no point," Yorlas said.
"How sad." Draea said. "By the way, did I tell you I was promoted? Team leader."
"Congratulations. I'm very happy," Yorlas said.
"You should be. They gave me executive privilege." Out of her pocket she pulled a small, circular disc, the one she'd acquired at the Society's direction and activated with their assistance just before they'd set out. "Any last words?"
"That'll do." She pressed a button on the disc. There was a squelch from the radio, followed by silence.
"Cranial explosive," she said to the others, who were staring goggle-eyed at her. "They didn't trust us. Good for them. Krezek, get over here, please."
The tech rushed to her, clearly eager to obey.
"Can you disable this ship? We'll take the one from the Sisters to ferry us to our old vessel."
He hesitated, then said, "I can, yes, absolutely, but are you sure it's a good idea?"
"It'll attract less attention. We might get hailed by Angel troops on our way to pick up our old ship and the Book. Besides, we've left this one a little red, and it won't be long until those people start to smell."
He nodded, and walked off, leaving her and Polok in the bay.
She turned and walked up to Nale. "Anyone left on your ship? And by the way, if I see any of you little peacekeepers reach for their guns, Polok here will ventilate you."
Nale shook his head. "We took the entire troop."
Draea walked closer and slowly reached out her hand until it closed on the neckline on Nale's shirt. She grabbed it tight and pulled close, so that she and Nale were standing chest to chest. "If you try to follow us," she said in a low but clear tone, "you do realize what will happen to you."
Nale just smiled, and Draea's face took on something that, in a person not homicidally insane, might be considered simple contentment. And with that, she left, her enforcer following on her heels.
Nale looked at the prone figures around him and said, "Yeah, I guess we'll have a little explaining to do at some point. Zetyn."
The Sisters' own tech guy stepped out from behind a crate. "Yeah?"
"Radio any nearby Sisters teams for help and get them to send a scouter vessel, one with a mechanic onboard. We'll get them to dispose of this while we hunt down the Book."
"To be honest, that ... stinks of a coverup," Zetyn said.
Nale turned to him and in a very relaxed voice asked, "Do you want us to explain to the Angels why we were found sitting in a roomful of their men that have all effectively been lobotomized?"
Zetyn raised his hands in surrender, turned and started prepping his comms equipment.
Monas, another of his team members, walked up to Nale and pointed behind him. Hona was sitting there, propped up against a support girder. She looked vacant, and tired.
"What'll we do with her?" Monas asked, and immediately answered the question himself. "We should leave her."
"No!" she suddenly said, loud and clear. "Hell, no. I'm going where you're going. I'm going to get this damn woman."
Nale turned to Monas. "You heard the lady."
Monas rolled his eyes. "Alright, boss. So how do we find this Draea?"
Nale said, "I've got a feeling," and pulled something out of his pocket. A disc, covered with sockets and wirings, that Draea had dropped there for him to find. A tracking device.