Nicola stared out the conference room window, watching the busy construction site across the road. Dusk settled as the second sun set, and construction lights snapped to life. Deadlines on the new Air Force Headquarters had to be met, even if it meant working round the clock. The thack and grind of metal movement was oddly calming, in its way. Progress. Tangible proof of recovery.
"Lady Cantaglia?" the intercom buzzed with a female voice.
"General Alhar's office. Confirming the Nomad Hunter's arrival at 25:30. High Council representatives to meet in main lobby at 25:15."
"And..." the voice hesitated.
"And?" Nicola turned to face the table. The secretary's voice hesitated.
"The Envoy would like to speak to you."
"Isn't she with the General in the War Room?"
"No ma'mn. She's here. Says it's urgent."
"Send her in."
Now that was strange. The Envoy hadn't spoken to her directly since her arrival in New Mecca six weeks ago. She knew Aereon in passing. And from daily council briefings. But the elemental was not one for socializing, or even reminiscent small talk. Though Nicola had sensed the weighty gaze of the other woman – was she even a woman in that sense of the word? - on her from time to time as confirmation came in from the Nomad Hunter three weeks ago. It made the hairs on the back of her neck twitch, though she certainly had no call to fear the prophetess whose words had saved her squad from defeat in the NecroWar.
The door clicked open, and Nicola inclined her head in respect to the clerics flanking the ethereal envoy. Honor guard and escort, tradition for someone of Aereon's esteem. "Lady Cantaglia." the elemental's voice was lyrical and airy as her namesake. "Thank you for seeing me."
Nicola inclined her head a second time. "Of course. Though I'm surprised you're not downstairs overseeing arrival protocol." She crossed her arms in front of her. That prickly feeling was back.
"Hmm" Aereon breezed halfway across the room, obviously not feeling the need to corporealite fully, much less sit down. She stopped even across the table from Nicola, regarding her. "You may leave us," she muttered to the three cloaked escorts. They bowed and silently complied.
The door clicked and Aereon spoke again.
"You will be part of the receiving committee." Statement of fact. Obvious.
"Civilian Defense Minister." Again, a fact. Nicola nodded.
"You were, in fact, the one to sign off on the RG Project and present the final plan to the High Council. You approved the choices for this first meeting."
"I signed the papers. And I approved the project scientists' and military's choices, yes. Your choices, I was told."
"My best guesses," the elemental nodded, " for calculated success. Given the options and variables available." Nicola felt something in her words, foreboding.. and hesitation? That was not like her. Nicola uncrossed her arms, leaning her palms on the table.
"Respectfully... we're past the 11th hour. We have a hour before our guest arrives. If there are changes that need to be made, it's best not to mince words."
"I shant." Aereon solidified for a moment, rewrapping her cloak over her shoulders. "I just wish to warn you, that things may not go to plan so simply. " She paused, meeting Nicola's gaze. "Especially where our guest is concerned." Nicola snorted, pushing back from the table, shaking her head.
"That goes without saying."
"There is a danger... he may not cooperate. He is willful."
"I'm well aware of his exploits. Believe me, I did not sign off on this project without a lot of contemplation. It's a risk for everyone. But, as it was your actions that set this whole project rolling..."
"Not mine alone, Lady Cantaglia."
"Prophets, politicians and entrepreneurs. Don't worry, there will be plenty people to take blame if it doesn't happen."
"Yes. No. Nicola... it may all rest with you tonight."
Nicola squashed the "what?!" behind gritted teeth. Arms crossed again, she waited.
"... He may reject the others." Aereon's face clouded, gazing inward. Her body dissolved. Nicola's brow furrowed, and she reflexively fought the hot-ice feeling behind her shoulders. Her voice took on that breathy, sing-song lilt that bellied her more ominous predictions. "He may, in fact, choose you."
"Sirs, Ladies, the Nomad Hunter has landed." The page bowed, turned on heel and retreated. The noise level in the echoy entrance lobby dropped suddenly, and then resumed as attendants and representatives hurriedly took approved positions behind the military guard, who for their own part, had been standing at the ready since their arrival. Nicola suppressed a smirk as she glanced right to where General Alhar stood at parade rest. With the General's policy of "5 minutes early is 10 minutes late" the guard had probably been at attention since 24:30.
For all the impression it would make on their distinguished visitor, much less a bunch of pampered, crabby politicians up way past their bedtime. She shook her head, willing the diverting thoughts away. The stimulant she took 4 hours ago must be wearing thin, as she often lapsed into disordered hysteria when overtired. Politicians, she reminded herself, should not giggle in the face of seriousness. She took a deep breath and assumed her game face, modeled as it was on her mentor, Kofie, the Prime Minister, standing to her left.
An excited silence fell about the chamber. All eyes on the intricately carved inner entrance doors of the Capital Dome, with their mosaic patterns and Arabic calligraphy. The doors quavered suddenly, the slight air pressure change signaling the outer doors had opened. And then with the sound of boot on wood, two identically garbed hooded figures entered.
Well, one entered, one stumbled. The sharp sound of chains on the marble floor punctuated the door's echo. "Here about the bounty." the male voice was pitched low. He shoved the other figure forward. "Hell of a reception for a wanted felon. Looks more like a coronation than a custody transfer." His hooded eyes swept the room, the flack camo poncho billowing slightly.
Divided military squad in dress uniform still standing tense but unmoving, ministers in dark formal robes gathered on the left behind them, nervous scientists and others on the right. Hardly, Nicola thought to herself, keeping the bland professional smile on her face.
The man shoved his prisoner to his knees, tapping the silent figure on the shoulder. "Quite the party, even for a bounty of this size. Did you know about this?" he kneed the man in the back, only earning a grunt in response.
"And where is the purse-keeper anyway?" His eyes swept the room again. "Cuz I've been having a serious case of deja vu since the pick-up."
Aereon materialized in the center of the guard, nodding as she glided slowly to the pair.
"I knew it," the man muttered, knife suddenly in his hand. He pointed it at the elemental, and gasps filled the air, drowned by drawn weapons suddenly cocked and trained. "Did you even ever remove the original bounty, air witch?" Aereon raised her hands to the men behind her, motioning dismissively. Weapons lowered slowly, hesitantly. She smiled tightly at the man a few feet in front of her.
"Mr. Riddick, I presume."
The big man flicked back the hood of his coat with his free hand. The knife didn't drop. Black goggles met her gaze, obstinate frown marring his otherwise handsome face. His booted foot shoved the kneeling man forward, who hit the floor sideways, shoving back his hood as well.
"And Mr. Toombs." Aereon, glided back a step, a tired expression crossing her face as she eyed the fallen merc. "Welcome back."
"You never learn, do you?" Riddick stepped forward and kicked Toombs in the chest. "I kinda hoped, after I 'saved the universe' for you and all, that you might, maybe let me alone. But no, always gotta disappoint." Aereon returned his stare, smiling wanly.
"Mr. Riddick, as usual, you misunderstand the situation at hand."
"Doubtful." he grunted. "You send a hired dog out to ferret me out eight years after I save this little corner of space from total annihilation, and offer him twice the going rate for even triple max slams? Suicide mission for even the dumbest bravo-hound, " he kicked Toombs again. "But do you even understand the word 'gratitude' lady?"
"Sir, you'll doubtlessly have the unending gratitude of generations to come on this and many other worlds," Aereon began.
"Funny way of showing it."
"But, as I said, you misunderstand. That bounty, as you call it, was actually a recruitment fee, meant to be split between yourself and any agent successful in your enlistment." Riddick snorted.
"Penal system education, remember?"
"What she means," Prime Minister Kofie stepped forward to join the group, feigning cheerful welcome. "Is that we have a proposal we'd like you to consider, and the fee is merely our good will offer that you'll hear us out."
"Not interested." The knife point flicked toward him.
"Not. Interested." The baritone enunciation echoed in the hall. "All I want, all I've ever wanted, is to be left alone in some quiet, lonely place and be forgotten. And you people always have to be up in my business." The Prime Minister's shoulders fell. He obviously didn't read the file Nicola mused. Too busy listening to stories and folk songs to be mindful of the man versus the myth. Hakem, you are a master of PR, but you should know better than to believe your own hype.
"Have you ever considered returning to your homeworld, Mr. Riddick?" Aereon's voice was even. She paused. "What is it you dream of, in that quiet, lonely place?" Riddick stared at her, a twitch between his eyebrows. He said nothing.
"A million credits. To discuss a dead world. What do you have to lose?" She circled him slowly, thoughtful. "You could buy a lot of privacy with that. Even your own ship, since I doubt Mr. Toombs will be wanting to escort you further on his."
"Figured that bioscan key-in was a bit too high-tech for dog-boy here." He kicked Toombs again, who squealed, no doubt, in the hope that someone would get the god-damn gag out of his mouth, and better yet, move him out of Riddick's immediate foot range. The knife came down.
"Fine, you got 10 minutes. And five of them are already up."
"Breeding? You have got to be kidding me." Riddick stared after the guards dragging Toombs out a side door. The rest of the squadron save honor guard had been dismissed. "I was fucking Lord Marshall of a whack-job religion of death worshipers. You get points for irony though."
"Mr. Riddick, sir, it's more about recolonization. Repopulation... and we..."the frazzled scientist paused in his hurried speech, hands circling nervously, glasses slipped down his nose as his face took on a look of horror. " Oh my god, did they... did they alter you?" Riddick snorted.
"Hardly. But that doesn't mean I'm looking to knock anyone up. Let alone several someones. On purpose." He watched the slender, bespeckled man retreat defeated to his colleagues, pleading silently to them for help.
" It's not just about the recovery effort here," Lt. General Houston stepped forward smoothly, blond head nodding in quick deference. Nicola watched her. Kij was attractive and no-nonsense, probably a predisposed choice over Gen. Alhar. From his psych profile, Riddick would probably gut the protocol happy Alhar, on principle. Riddick's attention snapped to her, his lips not quite lifting out of their frown. "There are military concerns as well, both in the overall goal of of reclaiming Furya and other lost worlds for strategic import and safety, but also in the military arts and history we'll lose if we don't have experienced veterans to instruct them."
"Sorry, I ditched my army the other side of Underverse. And the rest of my training can probably be bought from the Company or the Merc Guild. Advice though, don't waste your bank on slam guard training videos, those things are shit."
"Mr. Riddick," the scientist – Dr. Othnhaus, was it?- stepped up again. "Surely, at least one of the women we've presented, the appeal of choosing others, even for a few weeks...
"Or just the medical tests, we'll pay you a contractor's fee..." Nicola didn't like his pleading tone, or the game their guest was playing with them. All the women lined up off to the side, admittedly attempting too hard to not look like the military veterans they were, were fit, attractive in various ways and had volunteered for this duty, despite the obvious danger.
The genetic scientists had declared them ideal candidates for racial diversity and lineage progenitors. Aereon and various other mystics (oh the joys of religiously diverse politics) had considered the choices presented after the psychologists had narrowed the initial field of candidates the scientists had approved. The fact that she had to interject the order that all the women be sent to a cosmetologist two weeks ago after the final list was approved still rankled. But she knew she was dealing with a man's world, and the male gaze, or one male gazing right now, and she was ultimately, a realist. Yes, Riddick was eying the line-up again, making a pass behind them, circling back to the nervous scientists and gathered politicians. He shook his head, clearly incredulous.
"So, your government wants me to pick out who I want to have sex with, let you play doctor Frankenstein, maybe train some cadets if I have time," he glanced at Lt. Gen Houston. "And that's it?"
Dr. Othnhaus nodded. Riddick glanced at the General, the Prime Minister, and Aereon in turn. Each affirmed in their way, with various degrees of enthusiasm.
"Whoever I want, huh?" His goggles swept the room, pausing on Lt. Gen. Houston, meaningfully. He grinned when she froze. "Don't worry sister, saw the ring." He chuckled. Shaking his head again and looking at his shoes, he muttered. "Fucking stud service." He rubbed his face thoughtfully, trying to erase the humor. "Been paid to do some far-out shit... but this?'
"Fine." He looked up suddenly, arm shooting out, finger aimed. "Give me her."
Gasps reverberated around the chamber. Per Aereon's prediction, he was pointing at Nicola. She was the only one other than Aereon who didn't respond, Nicola noted, somewhat gratified when Kofie stepped in front of her protectively and Kij shouted "No!" Even Alhar set his shoulders defiantly and grunted. Nicola fought back the blush at the scoffing noises that were half humored dismissals from others in the assembly.
They thought it was a joke, insult to insult from Riddick at their offer. She could see him watching her through the sudden rush of bodies between them. He wasn't smiling. He wasn't laughing. He was studying her. She remained impassive as the room quieted. Riddick dropped his arm.
"Respectfully, sir..." one of the scientists, not Othenhaus, squeaked. "The Defense Minister is not on the list of..." Riddick snorted, flicking his gaze to the man.
"No deal then." He shrugged, turning to leave.
"Once a week." Nicola didn't know where her voice came from. Oh she'd thought about this, half-heartedly, after Aereon had left her in the conference room. A flippant weighing of her options in terms of duty and herself – were it to come to that.
It wouldn't, of course. She wasn't attractive, "plain" would be a compliment. And since she'd left the military after the war, her weight had been creeping steadily up past what was considered fashionable, even for middle-aged women, which she was not. But her daily life considered of long sit-down meetings, mostly with men twice her age, who often mirrored the 'fat cat' political cartoons the papers caricatured them as.
She measured her self-worth by her political and social accomplishments, not her looks. Respected for her negotiation skills between the civilian and military branches, as well as fledgling treaty efforts with the re-awaking post-war star systems. So yes, for five minutes, as she returned to her suite to don formal robes for this event, she'd entertained the idea of a convicted felon, a rogue armada leader, a folk anti-hero having somehow ferreted her out as the last woman in the universe. This, of course, after he'd casually slaughtered the rest of them. Or they'd all had their faces ripped off by some coincidental random Rykengoll surprise attack. Sure. She'd considered what to say to the last known Furian survivor to convince him to participate in the RG project. What she could ~realistically~ sacrifice of her time and self for people and country. Like she didn't already whore herself out for political ass-rapings in the Helion senate on a weekly basis.
Once a week, Soldays perhaps, as if a dowdy Mata Hari or Scheherazade could expect to retain the attentions of the elusive convict/war hero for more than a day. Afternoon tea and me. Right.
"Once a week." She repeated, as everyone fell silent and stared at her. Her head was spinning and she was trying not to hyperventilate.
"Solar week or one in seven, sister?" The smooth question make her laugh. Gods knew why.
"One in seven. You must cooperate with the medical end of things." Her voice sounded surer than she felt. Why was she feeling so shell-shocked? She stared down the senate's best orators and blandly ignored death-threat temper-tantrums from military brass. So why did this stranger she'd never met, universal anomaly that he was purported to be, unnerve her so suddenly?
"Done. So where do I sleep till then?"