Nale was sitting on his bed in the ship quarters, fully dressed, looking at the thing in his hand.
It was a metal device the size of his fist, curved and with a little opaque sphere set in the middle. The sphere had a red sheen and showed a faint triangular halo. As he rolled it in one direction, it turned yellow, then orange, blue, indigo and purple. He rolled it back to red and found that while it couldn't roll far in the other direction, forcing the sphere a little would turn the red to green; though when he let go, it shifted back to red.
It was a catalyst for the Book. The machine could not be set off unless someone nearby activated this device. Otherwise, the Book would remain completely inert, and supposedly appeared quite innocuous. It was also the first piece of actual proof Nale had been given that confirmed the veracity of their mission, and while he had been happy in the past to heedlessly go along with his directives, he was very grateful that ops had seen fit to give him one of these items. Not because he might have to use it - that eventuality seemed ugly and enticing, all at once - but because it gave him an anchor, a counterpoint to the weirdness that surrounded this whole mess. The more he had found out about the hunt, the less real it all seemed. This catalyst would keep him going.
Nale held it up to the light, watching the refractions. The catalyst's surface had an oily sheen, so that the light danced through the spectrum of colors, but the sphere set in its middle drank in all light like a black ocean and gave nothing out in return. Nale thought of how amazing it was, that these small things might effect such big changes in the people around them, and he mused that it was really quite the same with his team and the rescue missions they'd done. Oftentimes he had wished that his own team, and the Sisters at large, could make more of a difference, but then - he rolled the sphere back and forth - they'd just have to make do with what they had.
Since its discovery, this little piece of equipment had become the very basis of their mission. It came from a set of several catalysts that had just recently surfaced and, according to the Sisters' analysis, gave final proof that the Book not only existed but had also surfaced outside Jove space. Nale and everyone else on the team had been given clear instructions that if they were to retrieve the Book they were allowed to set it off in an emergency, but not unless absolutely necessary, and preferably not amongst large groups of people. The Book supposedly had an area of effect, and they must only ever turn it up to blue levels, which would be enough to disable most people. Higher levels would permanently mark anyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity.
They themselves were safe from the Book's effects, something apparently to do with a combination of genetic makeup, personal strength, and simple immunity to having their brains scrambled for peace. The Book, Nale had been told, would reach into people's minds and forcibly eliminate warlike, angry and hateful tendencies, and would probably lobotomize the poor bastards in the process if set on too high a level. But for those who'd managed to get through the Sisters' regimen, these feelings were so faint to begin with, so little a part of their personality, that their removal wouldn't cause any permanent damage. The machine might have some effect, the Sisters administrators had grudgingly admitted, but it shouldn't be anything to worry about.
Roll the sphere, roll the sphere, red to green.
There was a knock on the door, and Shiqra, a teammate of Nale's, walked in without waiting for a response. Shiqra was a thin man, full of jittery energy than that made him look like his skin had him trapped. He wore tight clothing and didn't smile so much as implicitly grin, and had the brusque manner of someone who'd done more than his share of high-risk rescue missions. He'd been one of the first to get recruited.
Before Nale could utter a word, Shiqra said, "We've got a lead. Solid one, this time. Need to head off right now before Empire gets a word of it."
'Empire' was their codeword for everyone who wasn't a Sister, and applied particularly to some of the more sinister forces of the four Empires, each of which, while still in the dark, was slowly becoming aware that the Sisters were after something.
"Where is it?" Nale asked.
"With the Angels," Shiqra said and left the room.
One journey later, they were at an Angel station, and the noise was deafening. They were hardly even out of the docking bays and into the marketing area proper before they were assailed by sensory overload. Roadside vendors shouted at them from every direction; booster peddlers walked around dragging locked plexiglas carts, their chemical wares clattering inside; and sweaty, stinking Drop maniacs, with their characteristic soaked rags bound over their temples, sat on the curbs and screamed at things that weren't really there. Condensation from body heat covered the walls, and the Angel banners that hung on every wall were limp and dark with wet grime. The clamor was giving Nale a headache.
Strictly speaking it wasn't necessary for the Angels to allow these huge marketing bazaars on their stations - they were a tightly run criminal organization whose business deals tended to be of a subtler nature - but they'd long since discovered the benefits of networking and of providing social hubs. Some of their best recruits were reportedly merchants who had come to an Angel station in search of profits, found they liked the atmosphere, and decided to get involved.
It made sense that these people be the first to dredge up the Book. Aside from their entrepreneurial spirit they were the prime harvesters of Jove technology, were spread around most of known space, and were notoriously effective when it came to stealing other people's things. They were wanderers, too, and had never been content merely sit at the Serpentis' heels; always exploring, always pushing further.
Nale spotted a few Angel representatives, who nodded genially to them. Angel officials routinely kept up a highly visible presence on station, but stayed calm and unafraid to chat with the civilians. It was clear that this was a place where people knew each other, and where business was expected to tick on without undue hassle. Nale's worries about standing out in the crowd had proved unfounded, too: There was such a mix of people here that even with their Sisters badges on their arms, Nale and his team didn't attract the slightest bit of unwanted attention. He was relieved, and hoped it would stay that way.
The badges were the standard Sisters wear, worn by members in war-zones to show neutrality and protect from harm. They probably weren't really that necessary as far as protection was concerned; people didn't usually get bothered at these stations for no reason, and those nice Angel officials wouldn't hesitate to crack skulls if any trouble arose. But what the badges brought as well was special dispensation. Sisters were often allowed with very little explanation to pass into places closed to others, and nobody liked to question or delay them too much. After all, the skin they were saving might one day be your own.
Nale and his team were searching for a particular vendor, and trying to do it without asking any questions, but so far they'd had no luck. Two of Nale's other teammates, Berkhes and a big, hulking man called Monas, were lagging behind, looking around and, in Nale's mind, taking a little too long to get to where they were going. They were five on the task force; Zetyn, their tech guy, was back on the ship, while Shiqra was lagging even further behind.
Shiqra suddenly started walking faster, passing Berkhes and Monas and reaching Nale. "I've got it," he said to Nale.
"You know where the guy is?"
"Yeah, just figured it out. Come on, let's get moving."
They walked down several streets away from the main square, towards the fancier areas of the station. Shiqra, Nale and Monas led the group, but Berkhes lagged a little behind, looking thoughtful. Nale didn't comment; Berkhes was an old friend who'd shared innumerable missions, and was as dependable as any man he'd ever known. If he needed to work something out, he'd be given the space.
At last they came to a house that shone with affluence even by the standards of others around it. Its entrance was guarded by Angel officials who betrayed none of the warmth of their brethren down by the market, and the team was barred entrance.
And there it might have ended, in more ways than one, if someone hadn't come out of the house, muttering curses. It was a female Angel captain, and Nale immediately approached her.
"Excuse me?" he said.
"I'm Nale, Sisters of EVE," he said, offering a hand which she shook.
"I'm Hona, Guardian Angels, special forces. What do you need?"
"We desperately need an audience with this merchant. Is there any way you could help us?"
"Help is usually done through deals. What could you offer me and my team?"
"Well, uh, if you get a papercut I could probably bandage it," Nale said.
Hona stared at him for a while, then asked, "Is Arak expecting you?"
"No," Nale admitted.
"Is he going to be happy about whatever offer you have for him?"
"I honestly have no idea."
She stared at him a little longer, then said, "Well, you're Sisters and I've got sympathy for the cause. And plus, it'll probably piss Arak off, which is all for the good as far as I'm concerned. So I'll let you in under my authority."
"Is it going to get you into trouble?" Nale asked.
"Doesn't matter. My task force has been decommissioned. I was looking for some work for us, or at least a little help in finding a person I know who's gone missing, but apparently neither are worth Arak's time. I'll have to find the guy myself, clearly, then start flying aimlessly through space. Maybe you'll have better luck than me."
She spoke to one of the security guards, then waved the Sisters in and walked off.
They entered the house. Arak the merchant resided on the second story, in a massive Caldari-esque chamber. Pieces of onyx ochre and splinters of cooled gelidus ice were carefully placed, offering half an aesthetic view and half an undertone of religious symbolism. Multihued globes of cytoserocin, a gas cloud that constantly revolved and coalesced, lay in porcelain bowls designed for sacrifices to the gods. Nale looked at a celadon sphere, and its purplish shade gave him a shiver.
One wall was completely overtaken by a sand waterfall whose quiet hiss felt soothing to the ear. In the air, laser birds flew around, 3D images projected by hidden vidcasters. It was a remarkably nice office, and the whole effect was only slightly spoiled by the giant Quafe cooler behind Arak's desk. It was full of Red Quafe, a special version with selected rogue ingredients, and the reason became apparent as soon as the team entered. Arak, overweight and clad in figure-hiding robes, sprung up from his desk, paced to them and shook their hands. His brow glistened. He waved his hands at the birds. "Their flight is symbolic, too, the patterns. They're casting good luck on this room, good business luck."
Nale followed his lead and sat in a chair by the desk. "We understand you had a recent shipment come in with some strange things, including an inert block of shaped metal. We'd like to buy it."
"What, sight unseen?" Arak said.
Nale's team looked at one another. This was a little too easy.
"Uh, have you used it?" Nale asked.
"Nope, I haven't. It just got in, doesn't seem to do much, design isn't familiar, but it just looks like some old, broken-down machine and I can't imagine what anyone would want with it apart from antiques interest." The words came out in a gabble. Nale noticed two open RQ bottles on the desk.
"Do you know what it is?"
"Oh sure, I've got some idea, but I'll leave it to the experts to decide."
Nale cast a glance at Berkhes, who surreptitiously rolled his eyes. Neither of them believed Arak had any idea at all.
"Do you have it here?" Nale asked.
"No, it's at my warehouse." Arak leaned forward on his desk, nudging the RQ bottles. "You know, I don't usually inquire on these things, but I'm curious as to why the Sisters would be after something like this."
Nale sat back in his chair. "We hear it might have some healing properties, but we need to research it first."
"You people have remarkably good spies, then, since I hadn't even started to put out word that I had the machine."
"We're quite happy getting here first, thanks," Berkhes said, and flashed him a small smile. "Could we see it, please?"
"Oh, it isn't here. I don't store any of my merchandise on-site, so I'll need to send a couple of people with you to a warehouse elsewhere"
"I'm sure we can find our own way," Shiqra said in an impatient tone. "Regarding payment-"
Arak held up a beringed hand. "No worries, I trust the Sisters. We can discuss it when you get back. Here's the address."
He keyed in a combination on his console. The laser birds settled on his desk, where they melted into words and numbers on the desk surface. "I'd like to give you the location inside the warehouse, but can't, sorry. Policy. My men will go with you and pull out the right box."
They paid their respects and exited the building, setting off towards the warehouse in tow with Arak's enforcers. As they walked down the street, Berkhes whispered to Nale, "I'm not at all sure I trust Shiqra. He's been acting a little nervy lately. When we were at the market I think I saw him get a message on a transmitter, something that certainly wasn't meant for the rest of us. And he keeps fiddling with something in his pocket that ... well," Berkhes added with a little grin, "I really hope isn't what I think it is."
He was about to say more, but Shiqra walked up to them, smiled and said, "I'll catch up. I need to send a quick message to main base about where we're going and what our plans are." Shiqra dropped back, and Nale looked to Berkhes, who raised one eyebrow but said nothing.
Once they got to the warehouse the merchant's crew let them in. They entered the building, which was so massive that Nale couldn't see to its end in the gloomy light. It was full to the rafters with stuff, stacked on ten-floor scaffoldings and surrounded by metal walkers with giant, piston-pumped arms.
"The guy really is a collector," Berkhes said.
They were led deep into the warehouse. At last the merchant's men stopped, and keyed in numbers on a console. An automated machine slid along the rails of the scaffolding, clamped on to a small box, pulled it out and lowered it to the ground.
Nale and his companions looked at one another, all of them sharing the thought that this contained looked much too small to hold the Book.
Nale and Berkhes walked up to the box. "I've got a bad feeling about this," Berkhes said, and Nale nodded. One of the guards walked up, knelt in front of the box and unlocked it, then stepped back a respectable distance.
Nale took a look around the room, taking in his teammembers' faces. Berkhes looked fairly calm, having apparently arrived at the same conclusion that Nale had. Zetyn was feigning an unimpressed look, but his excitement easily shone through. Shiqra just looked dyspeptic.
Nale turned back to the container. He opened it, looked in and felt like his entire body had deflated, a mixture of loosened nerves and disappointment.
In the box, which was far too big for its contents, was a catalyst. It was larger the one Nale had been given, the size of his entire forearm instead of his fist, but otherwise it was exactly the same.
Nale sighed and turned to Berkhes, intending to ask him what to do now, but stopped short when he saw the man's face.
Berkhes stood stock still, staring out at empty air as if he'd seen infinity. Then his eyes bulged, he stuttered something, and blood began to spurt in great gouts from his neck.
Nale and his companions immediately went for the nearest shelter, all of them veterans of a myriad firefights, all of them filing away their burgeoning grief for later. The merchant's men, slower and inexperienced, stood their ground, and moments later Nale heard a telltale swoosh that he'd only half-registered while staring into the box. Both men grimaced and clamped their hands to their necks. They half-managed to reach for their guns before collapsing on the floor, spouting blood.
In the deepening shadows, Nale spied a team of people moving towards them. Some guy in combat gear marched right up to the box without sparing the Sisters a look. He lifted it and looked inside, and seemed about to say something when there was a bang, and the front of the man's chest bloomed red. He fell to the ground, dropping the box and sending the catalyst tumbling out of it.
Everyone around saw that it was not the Book itself. There was a hushed silence, followed by a barely audible "... shit!" somewhere in the dark, and the sounds of gunfire and running. The Sisters remained inert and completely quiet, Nale included, until he felt the cold steel of a pistol laid against the back of his neck.
A voice said, "What you're looking for has already left." The pistol was withdrawn, and there was the sound of running feet.
Nale stood very still, listening to the receding gunfire. He remembered that voice. It belonged to an Angel captain called Hona.