The Pilgrim of Cele — 6

Chapter 6 — The Hunter

He’d been so close…

Who in the hell catches the galaxy’s most notorious fugitive and lets him go? If that idiot had held onto him for one more day it would have been over. And he needed Paul Kane alive, not jettisoned into the void. He’d make damn-sure that captain got a courts-marshal.

James Lambert sidled up next to him at the front of the cockpit and took the adjacent chair. “Down to 5%.”

When Orion spoke it was not as Orion:

“I know.”

James sighed, and when Orion glanced toward him he saw dull eyes sunk in darkening sockets.

“You look like shit,” he continued. “If you’re worried about the supply you might try actually sleeping. ‘Course, it would have helped if this wasn’t the leakiest damn scrap-heap this side of Sagittarius A-Star.”

The Astrolabe was an outmoded mining craft with a counterfeit junk title. Originally built for short trips to the asteroid fields outside of Rigel B-VII, but retrofitted with a light-duty Alcubierre Drive, it was never intended for the kind of distances they needed it to cover. The scrubbers couldn’t handle it.

“Yeah,” James breathed. He leaned forward, setting his elbows on the console to hold his face in his palms. “I’m sorry, man. I did my best. Under the circumstances… I mean, breaking down in a place like that. We were lucky to get anything untraceable at all…”

“Don’t feel guilty over it.”

No, James had plenty of more important things to feel guilty about. It really informed his character that he was more troubled by his shortcomings in black market negotiations than by the slaughter of thousands. The thought compelled Orion to spit on the deck.

“Come on, Abel. Would you stop doing that? It’s disgusting.”

Abel grunted and said, “James, don’t be a pansy.”

“I’m just stressed out right now, okay? I mean, what’re we gonna do? We gonna start spacing the crew? Our air ain’t gonna last forty-eight-standard and we’re at least seventy-two from the nearest port.”

“Yes, yes,” Abel said.

He found it difficult to muster much sympathy for those involved in the Weller Station Massacre. Far as he was concerned they could all be spaced and the galaxy would be a better place for it, but he hadn’t spent all this time infiltrating their outfit to blow his cover in the interests of sympathy, or even justice. His “training” for the Central Security Agency had taught him a lot about a lot of things, and one of those things was that sometimes you have to let the bad guys win in the short run if you intend to win the long-game. As much as he wanted to unravel the stitches of James’ mind, he said: “I think I have a solution.”

James shot upright and stared at Abel with a welter of expressions. “What? Really?”

“Yeah, check it.”

It had been Orion’s plan all along, once he’d learned Kane had been ejected from the navy vessel, once the pod had gone dark and the only potential point of interception was that little M-class colony ship. If he didn’t find Kane aboard The Ark it was doubtful he ever would.

He knew Kane was a fall-guy. He also didn’t care. His mission currently was to bring him in so the circus could generate a media spectacle.

It was all politics, theater. Kane had already been convicted by the real courts, the secret courts within the agency. And Kane wasn’t being protected by The Clan; he had been fingered as a sacrificial offering. And once he was proverbially crucified for the incident the people’s fears would be allayed. They would feel safe again in the knowledge that the Weller Station Monster was dealt with; they would be comfortable in their illusions. But the circus was intended just as much for those truly responsible, to lull them into complacency. It sold the belief that Central had been duped into buying the fiction that Kane was the culprit. The agency had to convince those responsible that it had taken the bait; then Orion could go after the real perpetrator: the one called “Constellation.”

“We’re going to steal their air?”

“Got a better idea?” Abel asked rhetorically. “We can catch them within twenty-four hours. Why don’t you send out a tight-beam distress signal? If we have any luck they may respond; might even slow down for us.”

“What if they identify us?”

“Then we handle it,” he said with a cold glare.

Orion had learned something else during his time with the CSA: sometimes the good guys had to be bad guys in order to accomplish a mission. It was simply inescapable. When dealing with the worst criminals in the cosmos, you’ve got to play hard ball. What he didn’t understand was why the massacre was allowed to happen in the first place. Central had told him to stand-down, so that’s what he did. They’d said he couldn’t stop it on his own, which was true. He’d have gladly died trying but the CSA didn’t make a habit of losing assets to heroism.

“All right,” James said, a shade of hope already blunting the edge in his voice. “Let’s do it.”

Like searching for music in a violin or a forest in a tree, science had sought the mystery of consciousness within the brain. Yet they were in error, for the mind was gestalten, extending beyond the physical into dimensions unseen. But it did not elude the sintaps, explorers of those realms within the doors of perception.

Layla would have scanned Samuel for the aptitude during Kai’s frenzy, relying upon that event to obscure her own activities, were it not for Sister Diana. Turned out she didn’t need to, anyway. She was confident he did not possess it. She knew from prior experience, recalling the other males: Cerberus and Quentin.

Poor Quentin.

She thought of the aged photograph she still possessed, the one printed out in hard-copy from one of those novelty booths at a carnival. The one upon which she had written “Be my Valentine” in pink ink. It prompted her to smile tragically.

She had been a different person then — and she needed to focus on the present, not a past that could never be recaptured. As she was wont to do, she forced the reminiscences from her mind and, in so doing, felt his presence through the bulkhead before she knocked on the door. “Brother Samuel, I have brought your repast.”

She felt him approach the door and it slid aside to reveal his raven hair and pale complexion draped in the humble garb of The Exegesuites.

“Th…thank you,” he stammered and reached out a hand for one of the trays but she subtly shifted away from his grasp.

She knew he was familiar with Pasticha. The question was one of degree. She would be testing him, but she would not tell Brother Stephens. If he and Sister Diane were going to play her and Samuel against each other there would be some things she needed to withhold — to protect her own interests.

“Please, may I come in?”

“Uh, sure.”

How easy it would be to seduce him. A convenient way to extract information, to follow Sister Diana and Brother Stephens’ orders — that is, if they were not so puritanical. She smiled at him nonetheless. A little flirtation could go a long way and dismantle his suspicions without alarming the sensibilities of the others, make it easier for her to shadow him.

He stepped aside to let her by but she stepped forward with enough of a delay to appear natural yet prematurely enough to “accidentally” brush against him as she passed. “Get the table, please.”

Samuel activated the collapsible table and Layla deposited his tray on its linoleum surface.

“Are you…” he glanced at the second tray. “Would you care to join me?”

She permitted a grin to part her lips. He was conforming to her plan. But if he were a Pastichor…it could be a ruse. He might suspect her intentions and be manipulating her into believing he was easily manipulable.

It was a disconcerting thought.

His memories were not memories, only impressions, conveying no more the intimacy of his past than does an afterimage reproduce the intensity of the sun.

He lay upon his cot, fortunate to have quarters of his own even if they were no larger than a closet. Raising his arm he regarded the device upon his wrist. But he had no intention of contacting the Adjudicators; rather, he studied the scan of a hard-copy photograph. It was all that remained to him of his previous life. That life before he had been disappeared by The Institute, before the Xanthar had devoured his thoughts. It was all that remained to him of a life before he was code-named Orion.

It was all that remained of Quentin Valentine.

Editor’s Note: Again, I’m sorry I got this one to you guys so late. The Pilgrim of Cele is one of my favorite continuing stories to read on Medium and I know that some of you probably feel the same.

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Leo Charles M. — June 2 Ch7

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