“There is absolutely no way that all of that is true.” The investigator’s voice was firm, disbelieving.
I chuckled. “It is true.”
Her mouth hung open in disbelief, almost disgusted. Annoyed at the very least, that I had the tenacity to say such a thing was true. She regained some composure, and stuffed a stray blonde lock beneath the rim of her dark hat.
“You must be lying,” she stated.
I shook my head. “I am not lying.”
She eyed me cautiously. “So you’re telling me that you jumped out of a moving starship onto the ground, then grappled to the bottom of an enemy ship, and while hanging there, shot down a valicorr, climbed up the rope and had a hand to hand battle with another valicorr while hanging beneath the ship, which you kicked off onto-”
“Hey!” I interjected. “What did I just spend the last half hour explaining?”
I continued, “I’ll have you know, this isn’t even the most unbelievable thing that happened to me.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “This can’t have been what happened.”
“Fine,” I said quietly. I leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what really happened.”
She smirked, and eyed me confidently. “I knew it.”
I leaned back. “So, I pointed out K on the ground beneath us, and Joëlle flew the Firebrand down toward the valicorr. Omega and Jonathan and I had created a myrok disguise by jury-rigging the food synthesizers to create a costume. Joëlle faked a crash near the dropship, which startled the valicorr into dropping K. Because I was tallest, I was at the front of the costume and operated the myrok’s arms and head. As the ramp opened we fired some flares to make it look like the ship was sparking and exploding from damage.
“We rushed outside, with Jonathan in the middle of the costume and Omega at the back, operating the back legs, and the tail (with their tail, of course) and we all gave our best impression of a myrok howl. The valicorr turned and ran back into the dropship, leaving K’s body on the ground. They flew up into the air, and when they were sufficiently far, I picked up K and shoved her into my fake mouth. The valicorr pilots, terrified, followed the dropship back into the hangars of the mothership. And then we ran back inside the Firebrand and took off, flying low, to get away from them before they realized what had happened.”
The investigator raised an eyebrow at me, and we shared in an unspoken staring contest. I was fuming.
At last she snorted, and spoke up. “Did that really happen?”
“No!” I cried. “Of course not!”
She leaned forward, her brow creasing. “Why are you wasting my time with these lies?”
I tilted my head to the side, in a mock pose of contemplation. “Oh, what a good question? I hadn’t considered that. Why am I wasting your time?” I stared at her. “Why do you think I would waste your time with lies?”
She paused. “I don’t know.”
“Ah, I see. You probably don’t know because there is no reason for me to lie. What was the point in me telling you that nonsense about the myrok costume? Where did it get you? What justice did it do for my story? There was no point, except to illustrate to you that it was pointless. So why would I spend thirty minutes explaining in detail fabricated events? I wouldn’t. I’m not telling this story for you. I’m telling it for me, and for my people. So stop being so adversarial. You are a guest in my home, and I can have you removed if necessary.”
She sighed. “I’m not the one being adversarial,” she said. “The TAU would not be happy about that. I can’t help but find your story difficult to believe, and it’s important that I get the exact truth.”
“Well it’s the truth,” I said. I crossed my arms. “Do you want me to continue the story? Or have you had enough? You’ve been nothing but disrespectful to me. I think I’ve been playing your game long enough.”
I surprised myself by standing up from my seat. I couldn’t figure her out. I knew something was wrong… but I was growing very tired of trying to determine what it was. Why was she here? I turned my back on her and stepped away from the table.
“Wait, Talcorosax!” she called out. “Where are you going?”
I stopped, and looked back at her. “It is, quite plainly, none of your business,” I said.
She stood up, slamming her chair into the table. “You can’t just lie to me and then walk away! You’re under investigation by order of the TAU authority under suspicion of association with the Brotherhood. As the king of the skythers you should know the treaty between Earth and Astraloth is at stake if you-”
I planted my palms onto the table. “Am I really?! Is that really why you’re here?!” I shouted.
She fired right back. “You know that’s why I’m here! I already told you!”
My ears twitched, straining to detect the smallest waver in her voice. “You’ve been pretty contradictory so far,” I said. “All I’m saying is, between the two of us, we both know that you lied, one way or another, about your mission. I’m not the liar here.”
She shut her eyes. Sunlight poured in from the windows. “Fine,” she conceded. “I misled you. I was ordered to do so.”
“Right,” I said.
“Maybe… maybe we should take a lunch break,” she said calmly, as though neither of us had just been shouting.
“That’s an excellent idea,” I said. “We can reconvene in a few hours, if you really want to.”
“Alright,” she said.
I inhaled through my nose, and stepped toward the door.
Then her voice broke into my thoughts. Her tone was chilling. “Enjoy your artisanal dishes, Osax.”
My ears twitched. I whirled around. My voice was cold. “Don’t call me Osax.”
I left the room with the image of her sly smirk stamped on my mind.
I patrolled the ornate halls of the temple. Royal skyther guards stood at nearly every corner, bowing to me as I passed. Sunlight painted the floor and walls in a crisp, cool glow. Leaves rustled in the trees outside. I stepped out onto a balcony, and watched the bustling city below. Despite the sunshine, the air was cold. The presence of the TAU ships in the sky above me felt suffocating. Could she really be telling the truth?
White clouds gently drifted along the horizon. It was so picturesque. A bright sunny day, with humans and skythers mingling together. Flocks of birds soaring overhead, beneath the starships which hovered above. Skyther and TAU military officials teaming up and sharing resources. And the investigator and I hiding away each day, prying at each other’s brains.
I furrowed my brows. My fists clenched on the railing. My eyes landed on the market district way off in the distance. Even from here I could see the massive billboards and advertisements. If the image was of a beautiful utopia, then beneath the paint, the canvas revealed a darker picture. Innocent people struggling to survive. Corporations and impersonal powers pulling strings and dictating the price of rights. Muggers and mercenaries killing for credits. And emotionally detached leaders, doing nothing but applying fresh coats of beautiful paint and pretending to be alright.
I was supposed to be a hero. I could risk my life for others. I could battle the valicorr and the Brotherhood. And people revered me as a hero, painting the world in white and black, putting me firmly on the good side and my enemies on the bad. But what good did that do? I was the hero I always wanted to be, but all that meant was becoming a corporate sellout and having people too busy admiring my image to notice my pain. But who was I to complain? I was ashamed to seek comfort. I could see others struggling and suffering, despite all my efforts to save them, to protect the galaxy. Their pain must be greater than mine. Even after everything my friends and I had fought for, there was so much pain in the world. So much wrong with it. So much I could never fix. So why bother? I had risked everything I had and barely survived, but for what? The galaxy would always been in danger. And we would all lose everything eventually.
I felt like I needed someone to talk to. I opened my holo-gauntlet and scanned my contacts. There was only one I thought might pick up.
I called Fiona. I took a few deep breaths, listening to the dial tone.
“I’m not available to take your call right now.”
I shut my eyes, and dug my hands into the railing.
Her voice continued. “But considering that you’re calling my personal communicator, and not my work, that means you’re probably a friend or family member, in which case feel free to leave a message and I will return your call as soon as I can. Or of course, you might be a robo-caller, in which case… Hello! Now you know how it feels to talk to a pre-recorded message. Except probably not, because you’re a robot, and robots don’t feel anything. Actually, I beg to differ… my prosthetics can feel things. But I digress. Uh, I’ve never been good at recording these answering machine things. This is probably going on too long. So anyway, if you’re a friend or family member, feel free to leave a message after the beep. If you are in fact Reinhardt Taylor, then feel free not to leave a message. I told you not to call me. Thank you!” A few seconds after she stopped talking, I heard a faint mumble, which was cut off by a beep.
“Uh-” I began. “Hi, Fiona. It’s me. Talcorosax.” I trailed off. “I… wasn’t really calling for any particular reason. Just, dealing with some weird stuff. I thought it might be nice to chat. But you’re clearly busy. You’ve been busy a lot these days. I understand, I’ve been pretty busy too. We both have, I guess. A- Anyway, I… I just wanted to talk, that’s all. Nothing urgent. Call me back if you feel like it. Goodbye.”
I hung up, and put my head in my hands.
A good while later, we were seated again, her with a coffee mug and I with a glass of soda. I was annoyed at the interruption, apparently more annoyed than I thought I would have been. I was eager to get back to the story, but I was genuinely angry with the investigator. I tried to relax, but it was challenging.
“No more interruptions,” I stated. “No more accusations. If you want the story, then you have to cooperate.”
She shot me a glance, severely annoyed. “I have only the utmost respect for you, King Talcorosax. But you’re treating me very poorly.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “You must be more self aware than that. Each time we speak our interactions become more uncomfortable. And I’m going to wager that I’m not entirely to blame for that.”
“But you are partially to blame,” she said. Her lips twitched into a wicked smile. “Fine. I won’t interrupt. And you won’t lie. That seems fair, right?”
I sighed. The way she was staring at me was incredibly uncomfortable. But even so… my plan was working. The further along I got into the story, and the more impatient I became, so too did she become impatient. And her impatience revealed more cracks in her mask. She was not my ally, that much I was certain of now. But I would only know exactly how and why she wasn’t if I finished the story, and got to the details she was looking for. I would have to watch her with extreme scrutiny to figure her out. The only trouble is, her plan was working too. Whatever she wanted to do with this knowledge, she wanted me to keep talking. Our eyes met, and we both knew. Someone was going to spring a trap, before the end. How, when, and what kind of trap, I didn’t know. But a fire burned in my eyes. Maybe the world was a mess. Maybe it was futile to try to help it. But all that mattered to me now was solving this last puzzle. The puzzle of the investigator. I had given up on finding happiness; despair was more comfortable. But this challenge, this dark deceit, made me feel alive. And I was going to hold onto that, even if everything else had slipped from my grasp.
Her mask was cracking. I was determined to see what it revealed.
I lifted my ears in a feigned smile. “That seems fair.”