Footsteps. She could hear footsteps, fading in and out of hearing. Boots on metal, clicking sharply.
A voice was saying something, but the words kept slipping through her mind. It felt as if her thoughts were slicked with grease; she couldn't seem to focus on anything. The voice. She had to know what it was saying. She didn't know why she had to know, only that it seemed more important than anything else.
"…condition stable. Vital signs healthy, no major injuries. Minor concussion, but the helmet softened the blow enough so that it didn't kill her. Preliminary scans suggest above-average physical condition and evidence of dedicated training comparable to Fire Warrior standards."
A doctor. The voice had to be a doctor. She felt strangely pleased with herself at the deduction. Straining, she managed to open her eyes slightly, seeing the room she found herself in through a blurred slit. A sea of white assailed her; white walls, white ceiling, white floor. A white coat on the doctor pacing around the room, and a long braid of white hair draped over his shoulder.
A hiss echoed, and someone entered from the left. There was a door there, then. Whatever they had shot into her to make her mind like this – sedatives, said a voice in the back of her head – was wearing off.
The new arrival crossed to the foot of her bed – bed? – and looked her over. "How is she?" he said. His voice seemed… she couldn't say what. It was gone again.
"She's fine, Shas'vre," the doctor said. He looked at something she couldn't see. "Your man hit her hard enough to give her a concussion. If it wasn't for her helmet, she'd be in emergency care right now."
"Ui'Or'es will be reprimanded for excessive force. How did the Treatment go? She responded well?"
The doctor paused. "She didn't need it."
"Didn't need it?"
"There was nothing there to remove. It's like she just never had them."
Them? She could feel the lethargy draining away from her muscles, slowly.
"So she is the one," the Shas'vre breathed.
The one? She didn't know what they were talking about; what they thought she was, or wasn't. All she cared about now was that she was unrestrained, and they were unprepared and unarmed.
"So it would seem," the doctor said. "I only wish the Ky'ralas had more extensive medical facilities."
"We're just running up to jump eight. Six more, and we'll be at the Enclaves. Once we're there, you'll be able to run all the tests you want."
The doctor nodded slowly, and walked around to the side of her bed. He reached down to brush a strand of hair away from her face. "By the end of the kai'rotaa, we'll be that much closer to-"
Now! Her hand shot up and her fingers clenched around his wrist. She used him to drag herself up from the bed, rolling off the side and coming up behind him. She twisted his arm behind his back, ignoring his yelp of surprise and pain, and locked her free arm around his neck.
"Back off," she told the Shas'vre. Slowly, he straightened from his tense crouch, letting his hand drop from his waist. She would bet her life had had a pistol concealed there.
"Shas'la Fi'rios," he began.
"Where am I?" she demanded, cutting him off.
He raised one hand in a pacifying gesture. "You're aboard the Ky'ralas, a Kel'shan class Il'fannor."
"That doesn't explain anything," she snapped. "Where are you taking me? Why did you…" she trailed off. "You saved me…"
The Shas'vre gave a soothing smile. "Yes, we saved you. It was unfortunately necessary that we had to subdue you, and Ui'Or'es will be reprimanded for his… heavy handed… methods."
"Why?" she asked. None of this made any sense. The Ethereals ordered her capture or death, and now she had been saved by these, when everyone else in the Empire would kill her on sight? "Who are you?"
"Why?" he said. "Because we believe that inside you lies the key to saving the Empire."
"Saving the Empire," she repeated, sceptical. She was almost used to hearing claims like that from the Gue'la she had fought on Kar'elis before any of this started, but to hear the same from a Tau was absurd. The Greater Good had no room for the individual, she knew. It was why the Ethereals wanted her dead.
Kar'elis… The world stuck in her thoughts, though she couldn't say why. There was something about it, something to do with it, or with that time…
"I know," shrugged the Shas'vre, and the gesture sent a jolt through her. "It sounds ridiculous, but believe me, I am deadly serious. We need you."
"And who is 'we'?" she asked, distracted. There was something about him… Kar'elis… and him…
"You would know us as rebels," he said simply. "We hail from the Farsight Enclaves."
Farsight! She had thought the renegade Commander dead by now, like everyone else. The schism he had caused was over, stamped out with Commander Shadowsun's rise to supremacy within the Fire Caste. The Enclaves had passed from the Empire's attentions.
"And you?" she asked.
He gave a sad smile. "Do you not remember?"
And she did. Crashing back to her came the realisation of his identity. The ice-canyons of Kar'elis; the Gue'la and their smoke-belching vehicles that melted the floor beneath them, the lines of Fire Warriors enveloping them, firing and firing and firing until there was nothing left to fire at, and right there next to her, that same sad smile turned on the Gue'la as he killed them-
"M'yen," she breathed. Her arms dropped limp, and the doctor scrambled away from her.
"Yes," he said. "I thought you were dead, Vash'ya."
He gave a low laugh. "Yes. It's the name you've been awarded."
"Between Spheres? Fitting, I suppose." A name. Months – years, now – on the run from the Empire, and now she was awarded a new name by a face she hadn't thought to see ever again. If it wasn't happening, it would have seemed absurd.
"I thought so." His expression became suddenly serious, that melancholy smile briefly touching his lips. "Three years ago…" he began.
"Three years ago, I died," she said. "Or at least, that's what everyone thought, and the Aun seem to want to keep it that way."
"I didn't know you were-"
"Nobody did. You aren't to fault here, M'yen. If anyone is, it's me."
"No," he said, his voice firm. "Not you. The Ethereals."
"How do you speak abut them like that? Surely the Greater Good-"
"The Greater Good," he said dryly. "It is nothing but what the Ethereals want. They have enslaved our race, Vash'ya. Enslaved. O'Shovah saw, on Arthas Moloch, all those years ago. He saw, and it has been his mission since that day to free the Tau from the Ethereal's shackles."
"Then the rebellion, the rumours…"
"All true," he said, then corrected himself. "Nearly all true. We had hoped that more would come, from the Fire Caste at least."
"But the ones that did go – they were malcontents, undesirables. You wanted to build a future on that base?"
"No. They might have been that way when they came, but we-"
A keening siren cut him off. Green lights flared on the walls.
"Jump," he said. "No time to talk more. We've got to get to safety shells. Follow me."
He led the way through the door, and she followed; the doctor trailing behind. At least the safety shells were still the same. Everything was changing all at once, and she clung to this one static element like a rock in rapids. It was ironic, it occurred to her – change and progression were the Tau Empire's ultimate ideals, and when they happened to her, it was overpowering.
M'yen took them down the long corridor outside the infirmary – she assumed it was the infirmary; her gaze was turned inwards, trying to make sense of the situation she had been thrust into. Again, she thought dryly. First the Aun, now M'yen and the Farsight Enclaves. She wondered if M'yen had ever thought if she wanted to help them. It sounded like she was simply swapping one version of the Tau'va for another. The Greater Good of the Tau Empire, or the greater good of the Farsight Enclaves. There seemed no difference from her position.
Her thoughts were broken when she felt the doctor's hand on her arm. She turned, pulling free. "Don't touch me," she said, more sharply than she intended. After being on the run for almost three years, it was all she could do to keep from bolting for the nearest exit. Being touched and grabbed was too much.
The doctor seemed to understand. He removed his hand, nodding respectfully. "I apologise," he said, smiling. "I tried speaking, but you seemed lost in your thoughts."
It was her turn to smile ruefully. "Sorry," she said. "What is it?" Too abrupt, she realised, as soon as she had said it. She was going to have to get used to conversation again.
"Just my own curiosity," said the doctor. "What you did in the infirmary was… impressive. And yet you're still only a Shas'la?"
"I was a Fire Warrior for less than a year," she replied. "The first Trial by Fire is after four years."
"Then you've eluded capture for over three years?" he asked, his voice serious.
"Three years, two months, and seventeen days."
He paused, considering. "Were you ever told why the Ethereals were hunting you?"
"No." The doctor just looked at her, that faint smile back on his lips. Without knowing why, she found herself telling more. "All I know," she shrugged, "is that it's Empire-wide. One morning, I woke up and I was fair game to anyone who recognised me."
"Fair game?" he said, his azure eyes glancing into her own.
"Kill or capture."
He frowned. "I see. Well, at any rate, we should be able to enlighten you on that account."
She echoed his frown. "You mean you know why they want me dead?"
He nodded, and his silk-white braid shivered where it hung down over his shoulder. "It's the same reason that we want you so badly. Within your body contains what we believe to be the key to making our utopia a reality across the Empire."
"Your utopia?" she asked, her voice dry. In this galaxy, even in just the small corner she had seen herself, a utopia was a false hope. Cynical, but true.
He gave a small shrug. "Optimistic, I know, but it is better than what the Empire offers. Slavery with them, or freedom with us."
She just shook her head. Choices like that were never choices, no matter how altruistic their proponents. Freedom was never as free as it professed to be. The chains just became invisible.
"I know what a claim like that must seem like, after what you've been through," he pressed, "but believe me, we want the best for everyone."
"Find me an Aun that will say differently," she replied.
He smiled again. "I know. It's our word against theirs. Just wait until we arrive, and you'll be able to see for yourself."
M'yen turned. "We're here," he said, indicating a door to his left. "Ly'ran, get strapped in. I'll help Vash'ya."
She strode past him. Help? The simple fact that he assumed she would need it stung. Stung far more than it should have. "I may have been absent from your utopia, M'yen," she said over her shoulder, "but I remember my way around a starship."
"Vash'ya," he started, but she ignored him and strode into the Safety Shell chamber. Despite her words, it seemed the Ky'ralas had facilities different to those that she remembered. Instead of the two neat rows of opaque Shells, nineteen pads were arrayed in a circle around the centre of the chamber, and dozens upon dozens of Shells nestled high up in their own alcoves.
M'yen caught up with her before she reached the centre of the chamber. "Vash'ya," he said again, his hand closing on her shoulder. "I didn't mean-"
She shook him off. "Don't touch me," she said sharply. "I can look after myself, M'yen. I don't need you watching over me."
"I know," he said. "But there are things you don't know – things you can't know. We do things differently in the Enclaves, and behaving like you would in the rest of the Empire can cause problems."
"Just show me how to work the damn Shells." It seemed easy enough – the pads gave access to the Shells, and once you were safely inside, the Shell retracted back up into its alcove – but she was not going to look like an idiot after what she had said. Even if it meant asking M'yen for help. Better to ask for help than to prove it was needed.
He stepped past her. "You stand at the back of the harness station – the pads on the floor. Tap the green key, hold out your arms, and let the Shells do the rest." To demonstrate, he took his own place in the closest station, reaching out to the controls mounted on his left and tapped at the green stud there. He gave her a nod, and held his arms out to his sides.
She started when the Shells swept down from above like one of the Gue'la drop pods. It landed in front of him, then split open down the middle and enfolded him. She saw vaguely-familiar clamps and braces moving into place around him, and then it was closed. It beeped twice, then slid smoothly back up into its alcove.
She glanced around, and was startled to see that the doctor – Ly'ran – still hadn't entered his own Shell. He gave her another smile. "Go on," he said. "It's your first time in the new style Safety Shells, so I'll wait until you're done."
"So if anything goes wrong, I won't just me stuck until the jump ends," she said dryly.
His smile deepened. "Exactly."
She turned away, walking to the station opposite to the doctor. His smiles were more than just a doctor's interest in the safety of his patient, and it made her uneasy. Not because she found him unattractive or distasteful – he was more than good looking, she thought, acutely aware of him behind her; with those icy eyes and smooth features, not to mention that braid of luxurious silver-white hair that hung to his waist – but because she still hadn't worked out how she felt about herself yet.
And there was M'yen. They had been lovers, all those years ago, and she didn't know if he still felt the same way. She suppressed a snort. I don't even know if I still feel the same. He's… different. More driven. But back in the infirmary, he had been the same M'yen she had known back on Kar'elis and before; if only for a moment.
She shook her head as she stepped into the station, turning her face back to the centre of the chamber. Now was not the time. Not with Ly'ran's eyes on her, and that smile staring at her. A breath escaped her lips as she depressed the green button to her left.
She started again as the Shell dropped down in front of her, and only just remembered to get her arms up before it snapped open and moved in on her. She saw Ly'ran shift his braid behind his shoulder, and then the two sides of the Shell closed together around her. Two cushioned clamps locked around her arms, and she felt the clamps pull them down to an almost forty-five degree angle from her. A breathing mask slipped over her face, and the padded interior of the Shell – designed to protect from any impacts or damages sustained by the ship while in the Warp, where most of the crew was largely superfluous and simply got in the way of the hardier drones – pressed around her.
She had a vague sensation of movement, before the fast-acting cryogen chemicals shot through her bloodstream from the clamps around her wrists. Whiteness enveloped her.