Shivering a little, I took the last few steps to summit a small mountain overlooking the city. The adrenaline from the encounter with the skythers had shocked me out of my depressive thoughts. I was fairly certain I had lost my attackers as I fled the streets, and there were no public paths that led up the mountain; I had discovered my own way long ago. The rain clouds lingered over the city ahead of me but above me the sky was clear. The skyscape was full of an unfathomable number of stars. The moons hung in the sky, the Toru nebula sticking out like a great swathe of purple paint on a black canvas. I could see my breath in the moonlight. TAU ships dotted the sky above the orange glow of the city, where I gazed. I sat down on a large rock, legs aching from my impromptu run. Behind me forested wilderness stretched on for miles, and a breeze blew past me like the breath of a massive creature hiding in the dark, beckoning me to run away with it, away from the light and into the vast, welcoming shadow. But I knew I was alone.
I clenched my fingers together as my hands rested beside me on the rough stone of the summit. I had spent the past two days living in the past, but getting ambushed in the alley was a good wake up call.
I rubbed my hands together. Why did they attack me? I had nothing of great value on my possession; even the rations case I carried was not expensive under normal circumstances. I figured they weren’t after money, unless they recognized me and hoped to ransom me.
Then there was the matter of the needle. They must have hoped to drug me, probably to knock me out for a good long while so they could capture me. That would make sense if they wanted to hold me for ransom. But if so, why did the skyther shoot at me with an E-gun? Perhaps he was trying to cripple me so I couldn’t escape, but the blast completely destroyed the rations case, and I was covering my chest with it. If I hadn’t done so, he would have shot me right in the heart and judging from the power of the weapon I would have died.
I furrowed my brows. It was likely that he meant to cripple me, and just had poor aim. It’s a good thing I had that case to protect me. But I wished he hadn’t destroyed it.
I stood up, and retrieved a pen and paper from my pocket. I turned around and leaned over the rock I had been sitting on and began writing.
“Due to complications, I regret that I couldn’t bring any supplies tonight. But come back tomorrow night. I’ll have some rations for you then.”
I took a few steps toward the forest. I approached the usual tree, and slid the paper snugly into the crevice of a branch, making sure it wouldn’t blow away in the wind. My eyes caught movement in the darkness of the woods, and my ears lifted.
A small creature scampered up a tree, and then there was nothing.
I sighed, and began my journey back to the city.
“So glad you decided to continue the story,” said the investigator.
I nodded, and lifted my ears slightly. Even after a night’s rest, my legs still ached from running the night before. I hadn’t been very active in recent days. We were back in our usual room with light cascading in from the large window to my right, and the whole routine of the thing was starting to feel strangely normal. A skyther came in with our drinks and some breakfast, placing them gently on the table before leaving through the door at my back. I sat in the same seat with the investigator wearing the exact same black and blue suit, sitting across from me with her computer ready to record and her hands ready to type. Her smile seemed as fake as ever, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I had gotten into this situation.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to take up two days of your time and then abandon you before the conclusion.” I leaned forward slightly, gazing at her face. “Especially since you said you’ve become invested in the story.”
She laughed strangely. “Well, I hope you had a good time at the market last night,” she said. “Did you get what you wanted?”
I nodded slowly. “Yes, I did.” She was staring at me intently.
“I’ll admit I was surprised that you bothered to buy groceries at all when I remembered that the temple is outfitted with food synthesizers. You must have wanted something special that the synthesizers can’t create, right?”
Her gaze was intimidating, and I cleared my throat. My hands absentmindedly flexed. “I did. I had been… thinking about getting some artisanal dishes. I’ve been growing a little tired of eating synthesized food every day.”
She pointed to my plate of chicken and rice. “That looks just like what you had for lunch yesterday; wasn’t that synthesized?”
“It is- I’m saving the good stuff for later.”
“To be honest, I haven’t decided yet,” I said. I scratched my forehead, and felt a bead of sweat. She was pressing me too hard, and I had to turn the tables. “So before we dive into the next part of the story, I had something I wanted to talk about.”
“Oh?” she said. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
I took a sip of my drink. “To be honest, I don’t fully understand why you’re here conducting this investigation.”
“Like I said yesterday, I’ve been sent here because the TAU suspect you of working with the Brotherhood. They want to know about your involvement with them…”
“Okay. But you’ve been giving me mixed signals. It seems like you want to hear the story in full, otherwise why would you be going along with it? But you’ve repeatedly asked me to cut ahead and complained about me taking my time. Which one is it? Do you really want me to just talk about K? Or do you want me to give the complete story? I would imagine that for an investigation such as this, one in which the goal is to determine a powerful authority figure’s allegiance, that more detail would always be better. Yet on the first day in particular, and before admitting to your true mission yesterday, you continually implied you wanted me to skip ahead. Yet clearly, that isn’t true. Can you see the contradiction?”
Silence hung in the air. I breathed calmly. Her eyes fell away from mine as she considered how to respond. I knew something was up with her.
At last she looked up at me. “I wanted to see how you would react,” she said, confidently. “It’s… a fairly standard procedure.”
I folded my arms. “So, this whole time you’ve actually wanted to hear the full story?”
“Yes,” she said, and smirked.
I believed her; it only made sense that all along she had wanted to hear all the details of the story, employing reverse psychology initially and feigning disinterest. But it still didn’t fully make sense. Her methodology seemed a little too erratic, and a little too malleable. Over the past few days she had acted in strange ways. The only consistent behaviour that I could see was that everything she said, and every action she took, she was always trying to look inconspicuous. Even in this moment. And once I realized that, I knew that either her intentions were sinister, or she didn’t really trust me at all.
My ears lowered as I stared at her. None of this made any sense. She adjusted her hat, emblazoned with the TAU symbol of Earth. Had they really sent her to test if I was affiliated with the Brotherhood?
“Well, that clears some things up,” I said, lifting my ears and trying to look relaxed. “You know, we might have gotten along better if you had just been upfront about it from the beginning.”
She leaned back. “Yes, I know… but I was sent here to test you. Part of that means… withholding some information. But for what it’s worth, I trust you.”
Her smile was so close to genuine this time, but not quite. She’s offering me trust so that I will do the same. I didn’t know what her intentions were. But I knew that I had to keep playing along if I was going to find out. And I was determined to find out.
“Thank you,” I said. “Are you ready for the next part of the story?”
She clicked a button on her computer, and looked up at me with a wicked smile. “Of course.”
I narrowed my eyes and leaned forward, grabbing my drink. “Well get ready- this is where the story gets interesting.”