A.N. Many thanks to my Beta, WitchyWolf. Your insight is invaluable, and beats me into being a better writer.
~Lord - ~ Sprint started, daring to question the order. His fellow clevermen exchanged puzzled looks and slunk on past, down the corridor the Hive Master indicated.
Bonewhite was not in the mood to be questioned. ~What?~ he snapped, and placed a heavy hand in the centre of Sprint's back to propel him down the broad hallway. ~The dart bay - ~
Sprint baulked, dug his heels in and swung to face the older man, fingers curled into fists. ~I cannot...The Fair One - ~
~Your concern does you honour, but you leave now. ~ The Hive Master's features were set, a glitter in his yellow eyes Sprint had seen before, one the cleverman knew he should not push. The tall blade turned his back, hair slithering across leather as he did. ~We will find her.~
Stubborn, Sprint tried again. ~She is my responsibility, and Guide's instructions - ~
On a hiss, Bonewhite turned back, vexed, despite his tone. ~Guide is not here. I am. In this instance, cleverman, you prioritise my orders.~
Fighting an inward struggle, Sprint managed to jerk an acknowledgement. ~Indeed, lord.~
Hard fingers grasped his biceps in a crushing grip, and Sprint bared teeth under cover of the fall of his hair. Glancing up, he met the blade's scrutiny with as much guile as he could muster.
~Sprint... ~ Some vague emotion travelled Bonewhite's face, but he growled then. When he spoke next the tone was deceptively quiet, but no less menacing for that; it put Sprint on edge. ~Return to the dart bay, cleverman. I will not instruct you again.~
~Lord.~ Conscious Bonewhite's eyes rested on him, Sprint kept his gaze down, properly respectful, and dared sample the emotions surrounding the second. They writhed together, impatience, resignation, irritation, fury, all under tight control, a broth of violence he had suspected would take very little to trigger. Small wonder the Hive Master chopped and hacked at their enemies with such vigour.
~Do not try me, cleverman.~ Bonewhite rumbled, and leaned in, breath hot against his ear. ~Your compatriots can drag you there if they have to.~
Sprint could not let it go, and whispered back, ~You may need me.~
Silence fell between them, and Sprint resisted the urge to pull away from a hand that fastened on his arm ever tighter, unforgiving, a steel trap. Pushing a blade, one as powerful as Bonewhite, in these circumstances, could well be a suicide attempt, but Sprint believed the men Guide called to his side were capable of more thought than simple, violent reaction. Even so, he held his breath, life spinning on the tip of a knife. It only took a second... a second.
The Hive Master growled. ~Go. This one - ~ and he gave Sprint a shake, rough enough to rattle his teeth, before releasing him - ~comes with me.~
Meaning every scrap of respect he felt, Sprint swept into a bow, muscles relaxing from a tight clench. ~My Lord.~ On many other hives, a cleverman could not expect to be treated so.
The Hive master made a sound that expressed a deal of disgust, and he turned away after the last of Sprint's fellows disappeared along the bend of the corridor. ~You are a bigger fool than I thought.~ And under his breath, he added, ~And so, apparently, am I.~
Falling into step, Sprint judged it wise to keep his mouth clamped shut – at least for now; he did not want to push his luck. The Hive Master's precarious and notorious temper wandered into violent territory, and he preferred the idea of some other hapless being caught in its wake. As they jogged through the spilling darkness, and flashes of light from fractured conduits, Sprint focussed on the man at his side. Old. Though not as ancient as the Commander, he had an air of certainty, a cool unperturbed manner the younger man found comforting. Willingness to serve the Hive Master had never really been in doubt but with this campaign already showing promise of success, the cleverman found himself even more pleased Guide's alliance had taken him and those few of his birth hive that survived into service.
The path they took was not one in common use by clevermen, or Worshippers, and it made Sprint's hair crawl. If this had been up to him, he would have taken a far less obvious route. When they spun off into another area, which lead away from the main deck, he realised he should have more faith and know that a wily blade like Bonewhite would have more than enough tricks to pull others off their scent. Then they started to travel up, and Sprint allowed a grin to creep across his face, one the Hive Master spotted, even though they were hidden in the gloom.
~Something amuses you?~
~No, Hive Master.~
Bonewhite snorted, and turned rapidly into a dark hallway where a single, frightened Worshipper cowered on her knees, genuflecting. Gripping her by the front of her tunic, he pulled her up so she had no choice but to look at him. She gave a tiny squeak of terror, pale eyes bulging, tumbling red hair sticking to her skin where sweat covered it.
"Lord..." she croaked, and clawed at Bonewhite's shirt, palms flat on his breast."I am yours to command."
"Oh, I don't doubt it," the Hive Master muttered, grimly, and hauled her to her feet, feeding hand already fixed on her chest.
Energy poured into the Hive Master so rapidly she did not have time to scream, and her eyes turned milky pale, dim, before she could have realised his intent. Laying her on the floor, he gazed impassively at her gasping for breath.
~You have not killed her.~ Astonished, Sprint scrutinised the woman, wondering if he missed a clue.
~I saw no reason for it. Come. ~ Bonewhite stepped over the woman, and continued on his way, the very air around him buzzing with new energy. He cast a look over his shoulder at the cleverman when he did not follow as expected. ~You are wasting precious time.~
~Do you believe we will find the Fair One?~
~It is in our best interest to do so.~ Scanning the way ahead, the Hive Master moved on, Sprint in tow. ~You, though, need to prove your worth. Do not think I allowed you to join me for sentimental reasons. You will be put to work.~
~I expected nothing less,~ Sprint stated, firm. Unspoken was the knowledge he would have disobeyed a direct order out of loyalty to Jennifer. ~Why did you bring me?~
Bonewhite chuckled. ~Bait.~
Sprint fell silent, and followed, hopeful the Second meant that as a joke.
"Are you out of your tiny freaking mind?"
A sharp toothed grin spread across Guide's face, and he stared down into the horrified features of Jennifer, the knuckles of her hand white from where she gripped his belt. "You might believe so."
"Jeez, you're mad. Completely insane -"
"No," he interrupted, "I am not." Taking her shoulders he gave her a little shake, so hair fell into her eyes. "Do you trust me?"
"What the hell kinda question is that?" She gave a shrug and a twist in a feeble attempt to get away.
"Do you?" It garnered him a hard stare.
Delighted, Guide chuckled, and resisted an urge to kiss her. "Only mostly."
"You're a bastard," she ground out, and cocked her head at him. "So what gives?" Speculation raced across her face. "What have you seen?"
"An interesting reiteration of research begun by someone we all hate – Wraith and human alike."
"Cryptic clues aren't helpful, Guide," she admonished, and winced as he pulled her further into the shadows. "Careful. Ankle's giving me hell."
He made a soft noise of annoyance and hunkered down, lifting her pant leg to check. Testing the joint with the tips of his fingers, Jennifer sucked in a breath when he prodded too hard. Puffy, warm, the flesh remained dented after he withdrew his fingers. This was a nuisance. Sitting back on his heels, he considered the options. Leave her here? Tempting though that was, if she were found and recaptured, taken off-world, then they would have no choice but to go through the whole sorry mess again. Such a prospect did not feature heavily in any of his plans.
"This may hurt," he said, having reached a conclusion and centred his feeding hand on the sore spot, hoping a focussed burst of The Gift might just swing the tables in their favour. Under his palm, Jennifer's flesh changed shade, looked healthier.
Fingernails dug into his wrist and left deep half-moons. "Understatement much."
Glancing up, he saw a tear track its way down her cheek, and she rubbed it away against the shoulder of her jacket. A smudge showed on her skin and then she blotted her nose against her arm. "How does it feel now?"
Gingerly, Jennifer placed her foot flat on the ground and leaned into it, putting her weight into it. She gritted her teeth, but gave him a nod. "Better."
Resting her shoulders against the wall, she poked him with a forefinger before sliding to the floor. "So. This research...?"
"Yes." Guide thought through the brief glance he had managed of this hive's data. "A name, my dear one. Michael."
"Tell me you're joking," she said, and her face was paler than before. "Please. Oh holy shit."
"I would not joke about something of this nature."
She waved his remark away. "I know, I know. Sorry." A range of emotion wandered over her face, disbelief, fear, concern, all of which Guide could admit to for himself. "How in the hell -"
"Ideas do not necessarily die with their progenitor."
She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, and groaned softly. "Dammit all to hell... why couldn't he just... stay... dead."
"Lastlight is definitely dead," Guide said, and tore a strip of cloth from his under-shirt, which she snatched from him with an impatient growl and began to bind her ankle. "I do not doubt that." He helped her finish tying the bandage with a neat knot, and surveyed their handiwork. "Will that assist you."
"Yeah." The woman prodded at her ankle, winced slightly, but gave a final nod of satisfaction. "You ain't half bad, nurse."
Guide snorted at her, and rose to his feet, helping her up. "I was unable to retrieve a great deal, Jennifer, but what I did looked most disturbing." An unnatural quiet spread through the ship, alarming him, and Guide lifted his head, questing along the narrow paths of telepathic relays, unwilling to do more than test them with the very lightest touch. "I do not need to tell you that we cannot have such enquiry reprised."
"Gods no," she agreed, emphatic, and caught his hand when he extended it, keeping close as they moved along the wall edges.
"Then for that reason we must find this queen, and do what we must."
"You intend to kill her, don't you?"
"I see no other alternative, Jennifer. These ideas are dangerous. We cannot allow them to proliferate." She fell silent, and Guide knew she dwelt on the inherent differences in their society. "No more than any human society would allow a dictator to live if caught."
"It's hard to accept," she said at last, as they rounded another corner and continued the long slog to find Obsidian, "that justice in your society is delivered summarily -"
"Our lives are harsh... were harsher," he interrupted, and they came to a halt before a transporter, one of the few functioning it seemed. "Food was scarce – always. Only the fittest and cleverest survived."
"Your species doesn't have the monopoly on starvation," Jennifer said, and her eyes glittered. "Some are able to move past that crap."
Toggling the controls, Guide's fingers moved across the console, features impassive. This was where he knew they would always differ, that the perspective of their individual species could never match. "We are what we are, Fair One."
"Well, just because you've always been this way doesn't make it right."
"We were not, once," Guide said, and they shimmered out of existence and back before he finished speaking. "Once, we were too few to risk our population in such a way." A weighty silence followed, but Guide knew she would want to pick at his statement, so added, "Now is not the time to become involved in a debate." He studied her, noted the martial light. "We will have this conversation, but not now."
"Damn straight." A hardened stare met him head on. "Now where?"
Lightening flashes of blue light followed by hard shadows that seemed almost solid surrounded them as they moved, the eerie silence unnerving. Beside him Guide could feel Jennifer's fear coasting through her, a pressure that built in him too, one that threatened to fracture his concentration. In this half-light, she could barely see, and it added to her anticipation, a creeping, unbearable sense of foreboding.
Fighting past the distraction and as delicately as he could, he coasted telepathic tension, knowing they could not hope to get away from an oncoming group whose own fear amplified the already too prevalent emotional fallout. He skinned the uppermost layers, withdrawing as quickly as he had entered, taking with him a random thought that had filtered through of the leading cleverman's psyche. Ephemeral but useful, and an idea took shape.
"Quick," he snapped, and they ducked into a niche.
Ignoring Jennifer's surprised yelp, he placed his hand over her mouth, clamping it tightly enough so she got the message. Careful to make not the slightest sound, Guide eased his blaster from its holster and released Jennifer's mouth when she nodded her assent. All he could hear at first was the tiny wheeze from their breathing and then, clearer, came the sound of boots, amplified as it bounced from the walls, enhanced by the clevermen who now broadcast with the subtlety of a hammer until it all but approached an enveloping cacophony.
Taking a risk in the small time allotted to him, before those others got in earshot, Guide leaned down and whispered, "Trust me, little one."
"What?" Understanding and fear wrestled, flickered brief as a will-o-wisp in her, and she lifted a hand to his face; Guide seized it, pressed a brief kiss to its palm. "Guide..."
"The dart bay – go. Do not get caught." She gave a silent nod, but clung to his fingers for a fraction longer.
He headed off and took a single glance back, watched her retreat into one of the hallways. Focussed on the job, Guide considered his next step. Lead them away, give Jennifer time. And if he managed that, then, well, a successful day. Mouth twisted with glee, Guide ran at the group and their drones, then slipped back towards the brig, which took them by surprise. The emotion fluxed, pulsed with confusion at first, torn, so he fired at a conduit. That snapped their attention exactly where he wanted. Flame flickered along the wall, but he raced into it, ignoring the burn of hot air when it scorched his lungs and flesh, even though pain made his eyes water. He grimaced, carried on, could feel the energy in his body deplete while he healed.
The choreographed pursuit through the close-knit corridors continued for some minutes, twisting and turning in the maze. Not certain how far away he got, Guide halted and took cover behind a column. Close on his heels, the group would catch up soon so he had to take a few more down. As they hurtled round the apex of tunnels, one of the clevermen presented him with a perfect target. A sweet spot at the throat, bare from a tattered collar and ripped leather. Eyes narrow, Guide's grin sharpened when he squeezed the trigger. He only waited long enough to see the man crumple to the deck, then turned and ran.
Charging down the corridor, he hurled round a corner, listened for the thunder of feet as they surged after him, took aim again, took a drone down and targeted the Handler. Exposing himself for a second, Guide ducked behind the cover of another pillar, and fired, hitting the leader smack in the centre of his chest. Almost as soon as the mental link severed, the drones stumbled about, confused, blocking Guide's aim. He gritted his teeth, but fired again, let off a number of shots in quick succession. More by luck than any particular skill some hit home, the stricken men jerking in nervous response when the blaster interrupted neural pathways to send them crashing to the deck.
Guide gave a satisfied hiss - now they would come after him rather than an, as yet, anonymous human - and circled to an offshoot that would lead him back on his tracks. Rage fuelled them and it gave him just the edge he needed, one he would exploit mercilessly. The desire for revenge, unthinking and blind, lead to mistakes. Mistakes he relished as an old warrior. And, if in their arrogance, they were certain of victory, then so was he, but for very different reasons.
Bonewhite pushed the cleverman hard against the wall, and gave a mental order to remain still. Damn the youth. Did Sprint truly grasp he was there on sufferance? Peeved barely touched the surface of his mood, and the Hive Master's patience, already bordering on non-existent, fled in terror. As soon as the sounds of movement passed them by, he let go, and moved away, scanning the corridors, listening.
He held up a hand when Sprint began to ask a question, then studied him. ~You are only here because you would find a way to separate yourself from your brothers -~ he took a step closer and stared into the youth's golden eyes - ~ and I prefer not to mount a rescue for you as well.~ Chagrin crept across Sprint's features, and he opened his mouth to protest. ~Don't bother to deny it.~
Bonewhite stalked in front of the cleverman, unwilling to engage in further conversation, but he could sense the younger man's energy threatening to burst through his doubtful control. It was a matter of time before he did something hot-headed. Did he really have time to coach more seemly behaviour into the boy before either of them got killed? Somehow, the Hive Master doubted it, but he hoped he would live to regret his decision – a far preferable outcome to the alternative.
A myriad thoughts whirled around Sprint, most of them subliminal, but a few filtered to the top. For the most part, they examined the role he had with the Fair One as confidant and assistant, as well as what it meant to be in such a position. Bonewhite found himself in some affinity for the confusion the youth struggled with; she surely caused a great deal of disturbance. Fear and a sizeable quantity of ambition also galloped beside each other towards the winning post. Like all good Wraith, Sprint did not appear short of a driving need to out-perform his fellows, and Bonewhite knew this propelled him as much as any other reason or his seeming empathy for a human. He wanted more than anonymity; he wanted to rise in rank to Ember's second. A worthy ambition, one that could see him move to another hive some day. Perhaps even into the favour of a queen?
So how could he fault the youth for his dreams. The Hive Master sighed, contrasting his own early years. Every bit as driven as this young Wraith, which gave him permission to ease off the pressure. After all, having the cleverman where he could keep an eye on him helped.
They turned into one of the antechambers where a few dead lay, and Sprint moved forward with a swiftness that impressed the Hive Master. No waiting for orders, then? The young Wraith's fingers moved across the console, tracking and assimilating data, his whole attention fixed on what he tried to find. The Hive Master hovered at the entrance, keeping watch, all too aware time was not on their side, and though the cleverman worked at speed it still felt as if the universe would end sooner than this. Perhaps the dead could yield some information as well? He crossed to the nearest cadaver.
~Lord...~ He looked back at Bonewhite, a glint of sharp teeth in his expression. ~I know where the Commander is.~
Bonewhite stopped rifling through a corpse's clothes, and cocked his head. Interesting. ~Do you?~
Striding to the dais, he tapped a few keys, and snorted. Oh yes, there was a trail; Guide left hints so subtle most would believe them glitches, but not to those who knew him well. It seemed their estimable leader had decided to go after this queen. Which did not surprise him at all. Throughout their long, admittedly, fraught association, Guide had never been one to take the easy option, and wanted all his pieces in place. Yes, he could understand the reasons behind this chase, but he deplored the need for it. Where there never reasonable alternatives?
According to the schematics, the trail of bytes lead to one of the chambers set deep in the hive. One in use more commonly by Worshippers, and a place visited only on rare occasions by either blades or clevermen. Bonewhite had visited similar places only a couple of times in his life – which was more than enough. Corpses were stored there before disposal, and those that dealt with them lived close by in its Stygian darkness.
~Lord, this place...~ Sprint's tones carried more than a hint of disgust, and Bonewhite sympathised.
~We have no choice but to follow, cleverman.~
A quiet sound captured Bonewhite's attention and he jerked his head at the entrance. Taking up a stance to one side of the door, he readied his weapon, and gave a nod of approval to Sprint who had set his shoulders against the wall. A small group headed in their direction, no more than three by his reckoning. A human female, two Wraith, clevermen he guessed. Their energies shifted, ill-defined at the moment, just... a few... more... his fingers tightened on the blaster, trigger finger slick... moments...
"What do you mean?"
Bonewhite recognised her voice before he saw her, and he saw Sprint's mouth stretch into a wide grin.
"Jennifer," that one said and made a grab at the woman's arm just as she drew close to the door. The Lantean made a tiny choked sound and wrapped her arms round his neck, an embrace the cleverman returned with obvious reluctance, conscious of Bonewhite's rampant disapproval. "You are well."
"No... no, dammit, I'm not." The muffled sentence reached the Hive Master only because he strained his hearing. "Guide's gone off -"
"This much we know, Fair One," Bonewhite interrupted, and she let go of the cleverman, gave him a little shove so he took a step back.
Swinging to face him, she cocked her head. "Not news then?"
The Hive Master scrutinised her, noted the worn edge, dark shadows, the filth on her clothes and skin. "Hardly, Doctor. You know Guide would choose not to leave this alone."
She rolled her eyes. "Don't I ever." Her shoulders slumped, and she lost balance. Alarmed, Bonewhite reached out and caught her before she fell, but she pushed at him. "I'm okay."
"Clearly you are not," he said, irritated to find out he needed to nursemaid yet another before locating the Commander. "You have been injured."
"No more than usual."
He gave a snort, and after guaranteeing she could stand on her own, the Hive master eyed the two clevermen who attended her. They stirred uneasily under his gaze, but it was Songster that spoke up. "We came across her heading for the dart bay, my Lord."
His gaze shifted to the woman. "How fortunate for you."
"That's me. Lucky." The Fair One gave an eloquent shrug and arched a brow at him. "Let's cut the kumbayah-yahs for now and go find Guide."
Unable to glean any specific meaning from her phrase, the Hive Master agreed the one thing they had to do was find Guide. "Sprint has tracked him," he said, and they crowded round the younger Wraith. Songster and his brother, Note, cocked their heads, interested. "And Guide has tracked the upstart to this area."
His claw tapped on the screen thoughtfully, and Jennifer traced the route Sprint highlighted for them to take. "What's down there?" she asked, and all the Wraith exchanged a quick glance. She caught the looks, and stared hard at Bonewhite. "Someone going to tell me what's going on?"
"What makes you believe I will take you?"
"The same reason you want to keep Sprint with you," Jennifer snapped, and lifted her chin in clear challenge.
Bonewhite gave a bark of laughter, and saw anger drain from her, swiftly replaced by worry, as well as an answering amusement. "It is an experience I cannot truly explain," he said, and wondered just how she would fair when she saw the true nature of Wraith.