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“I’ve heard many pearls of wisdom claiming self-discovery as an arduous process. I never imagine it can be taken so literally.”

Even if May wanted to refute it, she couldn’t. “You’re not the one living it,” the Terran said instead, holding back a sigh to preserve her cool and collected façade.

Try as she might, May could not completely ignore the weariness creeping in her veins and protesting muscles. It had been a long day, a series of back-to-back revelations and events strung together into a chaotic production that brought her closer to her goal.

Still, the tiredness persisted. That she did not quite get her due rest the night before only compounded the problem.

“You keep a lot of secrets, Ling-sa,” Fence commented, fingers steepled together. “Many that you mentioned tonight I have not come across in my men’s investigation of you.”

“None of them is dangerous to anybody,” she claimed. “I can keep as many as I want.”

“Including not telling Min’ahsa-jo that yours is not a suicide case?”

“Including but not limited to that,” May kept her lips tight over her teeth, barely managing not to snarl like a heathen. “If by not sharing the details means no one will come after him, I’ll go on the hunt myself. He already has the whole LIF to take care of. I can handle my own concerns.”

The older businessman sighed, rolling his neck with an air of someone who had seen all, heard all, and found all lacking still.

“Lies, no matter the intention behind it, have a strange way of finding its way to light and reveals itself at the most inopportune moments,” Fence cautioned, amber eyes half-lidded as he regarded her with the patience of an elderly and none of the fondness. “And when it does, oh the ways they wreck even the strongest relationships can still surprise me even to this day.”

May tightened her jaw and tore her gaze away. She had received similar warnings multiple times since she began this affair, and yet…

Until she got to the bottom of this, until she was sure nothing nefarious would harm the only people she had left, she could not let go of her deception.

Fence didn’t wait for her confirmation or answer. “And, that is not my decision to make,” he concluded, clapping his hand once to bring the topic back on track. “Come, Ling-sa, do tell what secrets did that box of yours yield?”

~~o~~

Timestamps did not mean much for May other than a detail that changed from day to day, adding another tally to her length of stay on this Planet. She learned what she needed as part of her ‘blend in with the native’ plan and Kajakh had been very enthusiastic in his teaching when she asked.

Now, faced with an agenda left behind by a dead person, she finally found herself scrambling to remember every piece of Kajakh’s lecture.

Though in the end, only a small summary remained from that lengthy mini-seminar.

Namely, one second was one second; May’d checked via age-old comparison of OneMississippi, TwoMississippi, and so on. One minute consisted of 60 seconds and one hour, 60 minutes.

Any similarities with Earth’s modern timekeeping ended there. According to Kajakh, one standard day was made up of 26 hours. A standard week had six days and seven weeks amounted to a full standard month. Twelve standard months made a year.

Until this day, the Federation Timekeeping Standard had been in use since the Federation’s establishment more than a thousand years ago. May didn’t know what they were based on and frankly didn’t really care enough to find out how they sorted it among the different planets in different galaxies.

Not that she hadn’t tried. She did give a real go at understanding it. Mostly because of the gratuitous use of ‘standard’, but after viewing the local Ernan calendar based on the planet’s astronomy and moons’ movements…yep, May closed that particular topic at the importance of three-moons-movement.

That ended her foray into searching for the truth behind this timekeeping history, a fact that made Kajakh laugh and mentioned just how she always liked things simple and clean. He had looked so nostalgic back then.

Thanks to his thorough teachings, when the blaring calendar on May Ling’s secret bracer-comm blinked 1213.7.3-Lum, she instantly parsed it into 1213 Standard Year, 7th standard month, 3rd day - Lumira.

Lumira, the second day of a week.

The names of the days were the only thing that was not ‘standard’ in the whole standard timekeeping set. In order, they were Numia, Lumira, Borona, Eska, Muna, and Sesta.

Thank God I didn’t just scrap all those names behind. May Ling…just what did you get yourself mixed up in?

ISHTAR’S NOTES - PROGRESS REPORT:

  1. Visit VA – got registered – set correspondence to Ishtar ID – encrypt all incors
  2. 33-Lum – Lawyer Hiko – Mom and Dad’s will reading – paperwork to sign off Zach’s shares
  3. Process Deneb’s handover – talk to Aktya-jo
    • Clear Deneb for take-off
    • Register license under Ishtar.VA
  4. Send regret letter to Lisier Mira – Erase incor
  5. Buy Thranh leaves – Erase incor
  6. Get route from internal manifest – done; need to return before someone notice they’re gone
  7. Nimuth-Homyu Chaos – investigated – explored – results compiled; sent biolocked copies to Uri
  8. Lawyer (?) – Grandpapi and Grandmami’s things – open the damned box! – learn some damned Ancient Terran
    • Visit the VA for their chip decryption tech (?) – pull strings with Aktya-jo
    • Get the dictionary copied
    • Research Ancient Terran puzzle boxes
    • Get the items authenticated and appraised – ARE THESE EVEN SELLABLE?
  9. Get a Will ready – include passwords for data cards’ locks sent to Zach (appoint. 6.21-Lum – Lawyer Hiko)
  10. Get to Homyu
    • Contact VA – comm. officer – buy forged messages – set up origin: Misturi Planet – encrypt and delete from workstation (reminder buy better comm-bracer)
    • 19-Ses – hotel booked in lower town - Clear Deneb for travel; get a guide from VA
    • 20-Num – Activate the auto-messages
    • Contact Uri
  11. Buy Thranh before leaving – find a new supplier; last batch was rather stale
  12. Buy better comm-bracer – Gryx-201 type maybe? – confirm its heavy-duty capability before buying
  13. Find channels to sell Terran antiques to
    • Possible names (recheck VA forums/sources): Fence, Hirki-nam, Zetaph
    • Possible places: Guroto auction house, Homyu Art Consul, Nimuth Imperial Art Collector (Terran division)
    • NOTE: consult Aktya-jo for best/safest/profitable contacts
  14. Arrange with VA to send data cards to Kajakh a week after departure for Homyu

Rather than a solid plan of action, the list was closer to a bastardized task-keeper and research-note-reminders with liberal use of shorthand.

However, seeing that the haphazard list still had many things unchecked, uncrossed, it became an irrefutable proof that May Ling had planned to live out more days than the investigators had suggested in their outrageous hypothesis based on a bag of leaves and lack of proper investigation.

With so many things left to do, none even come close to resembling a bucket list, how could May Ling even think about ending her life?

If May interpreted the dates correctly, then May Ling had planned to clean up her traces and go to Lower Circles before leaving for Homyu. Little Gorgon was definitely involved, quite significantly too from the looks of it.

Though this list exonerated May Ling from one crime, it condemned her to a few others.

Namely running a covert operation behind everyone’s back that might or might not skim over the lines of legality. That sentence regarding taking an ‘internal route manifest’ was a suspicious one.

Above all, it proved May Ling had been actively and willingly deceiving Kajakh. Going as far as making a new name to conceal her transactions and activities…to what end?

Just to go to Homyu?

Or it might have something to do with the inheritance from her grandparents that she didn’t want anyone to know about, including her own AI? That box she couldn’t open until now.

Huffing a loud sigh, May rubbed circles on the side of her forehead, trying to stave off the headache building behind her eyes.

It’s like the more I find about this girl, the more reckless she becomes.

May swiped the list close, more than ready to explore what other advantages the comm-bracer had to offer.

For one, it had unrestricted CINe access. May could tell from the dynamic news list rolling to include topics EVE would have censored due to their ‘distressing nature’.

Then it also had incor connections to May’s accounts that she’d accessed the day before via EVE, and one addressed to Ishtar.

May wasted no time in accessing Ishtar’s incor transmission history, only to pause at what she appeared. Aside from three messages in the incoming transmission section, the incor list was clean.

Too clean.

Apparently, May Ling didn’t take her chances here either.

May opened the most recent one from Uri, the date putting it on the day when May was hospitalized. Most likely Uri hadn’t received the news of her friend’s plight when she had sent the message.

A familiar gorgon-haired, pink-eyed girl appeared on a holoscreen, waving four cards with circuit-like patterns highlighted on its surface.

“I got your data cards,” she began, clearly not impressed going by the small glare she was directing at the camera. “While I don’t like how you keep using those Voyagers as couriers, I understand the stake here…but must you put a biolock on these? I want to know what’s going on right now! Not when some lawyer gives me the password when reading your will!”

You and I both, Little Gorgon, May agreed wholeheartedly.

“Are you expecting something to happen to you, or is this just another paranoia, hm? I bet they’re keyed to Kajakh! I just know it. Why can’t you share a little with your bestie who went behind her parents’ back so that she can go to Homyu with you, huh? You’re not planning anything stupid, are you?”

She ran a hand through her tentacle-like hair. “Well, nothing stupider than what we already have going,” the girl sighed. “I said it before, I’ll say it again: we should get Kajakh in this. He knows more than us, he’s part of the company! I know you don’t want to burden him with unfounded suspicions, but hey! Proof!”

Uri brandished the cards like live weapons.

“I won’t tell Kajakh about this – yet. Though I think I get to know what he doesn’t is the only highlight of all this hide-and-seek thing we have going, something has to give soon. We can’t keep going behind his back. If you already know what happened, don’t wait too long. Tell him. Work together with him.

“So yeah, I’ll keep mum for a while longer, but if you don’t go to him after our trip to Homyu, I’m bringing these to him, you get me. Whatever we find on Homyu, even if your grandparents’ inheritance is not enough to cover the company’s loss, we have to tell Kajakh. As much as I hate to admit this, they don’t call him a genius for nothing. He can make more from this much than we ever can.”

With that, she put the cards back into a box, snapped it close before putting it away.

“Speaking of the trip - still can’t believe we’re doing this,” the pink-eyed girl almost squealed with delight. “Have you finished vetting our guide yet? We’re about to leave! I’ve packed and everything! I told Mom and Dad we’re going for one last fun trip before going to Mira, but I think Dad knows I’m lying.

Uri rolled her eyes playfully, with a grin and a wink, she continued, “Yeah, lying to him takes special skills. Loulidites you know.

However, her expression dropped and adopted a somber mien as a thought occurred to her. Biting her lips, May Ling’s best friend tentatively said, “Speaking of the Loulidites…there is something I really need to tell you. But…let’s meet up. It’s better to talk about it face to face. We still have some minor details to iron out.” Just like that, her cheerful manner returned and she closed the transmission with a happy, “Call me back soon!”

By the end of the message, May remembered Uri’s message on May Ling’s official account about her empathic condition and how she had to leave Er-na to treat it.

But the crux of Uri’s rambling that shocked her the most would be the part where May Ling actually went and investigated her company’s accident…and she found something.

Her eyes moved towards the four cards on the bed, ones whose copies were in the Little Gorgon’s hands.

“If these are the proof, then…”

May’s fingers twitched to open one of them right then and there, but there were more messages in the incor list and she didn’t know how to activate a data card anyhow. Seeing how Uri said they were locked, what if a wrong gesture erased the whole thing. Or worse yet, only keyed-in to Kajakh as the alien suspected.

Tearing her eyes away from the deceptively inconspicuous transparent cards, May played the next unread message, the label indicated it came from Entoji Aktya.

The Aktya-jo from VA on May Ling’s list, May noted. VA?

She opened the message and promptly jumped in surprise when a large alien head made an appearance on the holoscreen, its two large, unmarred dark blue eyes occupying a third of its head, and subsequently, her attention.

That was before she realized that it had mandibles…and its eyes weren’t actually eyes but a couple of unidentified head-organs when its real eyes blinked just under those large and ovals organs.

“I’ve never felt so grateful that my first look of this guy is not in a face-to-face meeting”, May mumbled, teeth gnawing on a thumb in a nervous gesture. Insects and her did not make a good mix even before the whole universe-shaking change happened.

The alien said something but she missed in her horrified fascination with how the mandibles moved click-click-click like with every word spoken, her brain churning with theories as to how did it even talk human?!

Reality caught up with her when the moving picture stopped, indicating the end of the message, and May realized that she didn’t listen to anything the alien had just said.

“This is no good.” Incensed at her newly discovered speciesism, May forced herself to take in the alien’s features. “It’s not an insect,” she attempted.

Truth be told, the alien’s resemblance to Earth’s insects she hated only extended to the mandibles and compound-eye looking head-organ. His eyes actually resembled a human’s, if a human’s sclera could be black and pupils red surrounded by yellow irises.

The alien’s head was a wrinkled, elongated shaped mass pass its head-organs, hanging heavy like a brown eggplant. Its skin color darkened the further it got from the face, and from what she could see, the same pattern occurred from the neck down as well. A set of twin follicles resided above the mandible, inert and stirred only when the alien’s mouth moved.

“It’s not an insect,” she repeated.

Seeing three-fingered hand steepled before its face in a familiar human-gesture helped in driving that point home. He wore formal Ernan wear, complete with the elaborately embroidered poncho and tunics.

“Not,” May pushed through gritted teeth as if each word could plan a seed of conviction in her aphid-hating heart, “an insect.”

Fighting back waves of nausea that had nothing to do with her weakened condition, the Earth-native replayed the message, straining her tolerance to listen to what the alien had to say.

“Ishtar, dear girl, what have you gotten yourself into?” the alien began, voice sounding male, while its mandibles clicked rapidly. “I have no doubt you will take this as an affirmation of your ridiculous theory. My advice? Don’t.”

And just like that May’s imagination worked overtime to superimpose an image of a wise-sounding zen-inducing Shifu speaking to his pupil, with twin mustache to complete the picture. It was only half-effective.

“Not every shadow hides gruesome secrets. Not every disaster has a culprit. Life comes with its ups and downs. Accept it, live with it,” Aktya-jo continued his sermon, whiskers moving up and down in tandem with his mandible’s clicking.

“Rest well, and after you heal, come back. I’ve taken the liberty to take down your call-for-partner from the Association’s forum, so no one noticed the connection between Voyager Ishtar and the heir of LIF for one. I’ve kept the Deneb and your suits in my hangar. When you want to reclaim them, come.”

A rattled voice emerged from the alien, a sigh perhaps, as his body sagged with weariness.

“Father warned me about your family’s tendency for mandible-clicking shenanigans; stars know he encountered enough of those from your grandparents’ days. I had foolishly thought that when your Mother refused to take up a Voyager’s life, I would be spared my father’s headaches. I should have known better.”

The alien shook his head exasperatedly while stroking his whisker in fond remembrance. “Nevertheless, what’s done is done. You have your bloodline’s penchant for chaos; it is not always a good thing to answer to, dear child.

“I’ve retrieved just about all the travel logs your grandparents filed with the VA. I feel I shouldn’t but it’s also part of your heritage…honestly, for such a small Terran you have a talent in making my whiskers twitch like a storm is coming.

“I have my doubts, and they grow each day especially after the news of your hospitalization, but these are your heirloom. Altair and Victoria would want them to be handed to you, no matter where they will lead you to.

“Do not make me regret this, Ishtar,” he rumbled gravely, mandibles clicking overtime. “And that boy, Kajakh, you should tell him. Voyagers have partners for a reason. Relying on one another is one of the tenets that make us as strong as we are today. Just like your grandmother and grandfather. Remind him if need be that once he too felt the burning desire to travel among the stars.

“Take it from someone who has seen more of the galaxies before you were even born. Secrets are toxic; kept too long, it will corrode even the strongest of bonds.

With that cheery parting remark, the screen turned blank.

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A note from IoshiLeo

Finally we know that May Ling was actually a very active girl...who had a penchant for secrets and going behind people's backs.

Well, May is getting to know her host better! Stay tune to see what else May Ling's puzzle box hid!

Thank you for reading!


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IoshiLeo

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