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It could be Rora. Against all the odds. After all the nights she'd stared out into the Deep, bargaining with the abyss and begging God and the devil both to bring Rora back, it could be her. With a thought, Brenn called up the single video Helena had been able to capture of the woman they were supposed to rescue.

A small holographic image of her appeared on Brenn's station in the Hestia's cockpit. The woman sat at a piano, clothed in a flowing green dress. Diaphanous long sleeves hid the skin of her arms. Long auburn hair fell down her back in loose spirals much longer than Rora had worn on Earth, obscuring her face. The color was right, though. Strands that looked like they'd captured the sunset, as if the God or the faeries had decided she shouldn't walk through life without constant daylight to guide her.

It was her hands that drew Brenn's eye, though—pale as could be and covered in freckles. So familiar, they danced across the keys playing 'The Fields of Athenry." A bold song choice. Exactly the kind Rora would make. Brenn could almost hear her voice during the chorus, trained to be sweet in the Aesir schools where non-Aesir children with unusually high intelligence and aptitude were forced to attend.

"Low lie, The Fields of Athenry

Where once we watched the small free birds fly

Our love was on the wing

We had dreams and songs to sing,

It's so lonely round the Fields of Athenry."

But in the hologram, she didn't sing. Hers was a secret subversion and not an outward rebellion, so she remained Shrodinger's Rora, both alive and dead until Brenn's physical senses could observe her in person. The song ended, and so too did the hologram. It faded to black.

"Brenn..." Tara's voice was soft but no less insistent for it. A sealed mug appeared on the console in front of her and Brenn looked up to her friend whose face seemed to have gotten stuck on the 'worried' setting.

"I know," Brenn said for a lack of anything else to say. She couldn't really defend herself. How many times had she watched the holo since she'd woken from her nap to a new mission and a hasty, uncomfortable explanation from Tara? Must have been at least a dozen by now.

The easy answer would be to flip on her Interface and watch it where Tara couldn't see or judge, but while four hours of sleep had made her feel human again, her brain remained stuffed with cotton and it'd be better to save the Interface for the surface.

"I'm going to hop into the last corridor. We'll be there in ten. I really need you to focus because it's only the two of us right now and I have serious reservations about doing this at all."

"We have to." The words spilled out of her mouth before she could think in the way a child's words did when they thought their plans were going to be thwarted. Only these were desperate and pleading words. The 'worried' setting clicked over to 'very worried'.

"Orla Kelly might not be Rora."

No. She might not be. The odds she was were so infinitesimally small. But if she were...If it were her and they held off until it was safer and got there too late? It'd destroy Brenn inside.

"Your mom said she was a performer at the Bicentennial Celebration in Galway when she met her the night of the Uprising. How many ginger, half-Cousin fiddlers do you think were invited to play specifically for the most important Aesir dignitaries?" She'd raised her voice when she hadn't meant to.

"Mom also said there were over a hundred thousand registered Cousins in Ireland at the time and the performers and servers came from across the island. Some were even brought in from the surrounding nations. I'm sure the surrounding area boasts a few pale, red-headed fiddle players who are at least half a Cousin species."

A knot formed in the back of Brenn's throat and she swallowed it down. Not now. She'd had a good cry this morning and it'd have to be enough. Now wasn't the time.

"Why the hell didn't she take a look at Rora's picture in that fecking extensive and detailed Aesir database they brag about so much and save us the trouble of standing around here guessing?"

Tara sighed and rubbed her face, ever the picture of saintly patience.

Dammit.

Sure, that was how she got her way, by stomping about and raising her voice.

'When has that ever worked out for you?' Rora would have asked.

If she kept carrying on, Tara was going to decide she wasn't fit for duty, stop the Hestia right here, and wait for backup from the Org. It wouldn't matter how urgent Helena thought the situation. Logically, even Brenn had to admit it was what she should do. But, like tears, this wasn't the time for logic.

"I'm sorry," Brenn muttered.

Tara sighed again. Today was shaping up to be a day of a thousand sighs.

"I can't pretend to understand what you're feeling, but I do know how I would feel if Mom had told me it could be dad down there, abandoned and in danger." Tara tapped a few commands into the pilot's console. The corridor opened against the darkness of space in a burst of bright blue and white swirls and Brenn's heart popped up into her throat as it had done the first time she'd seen the phenomenon. It'd probably keep on doing it every time she saw one in the future too. A mixture of awe and fear.

It was healthy to fear space. Like the ocean, if one feared and respected her she'd treat them well and offer them many gifts, but if one turned their back on her and took her for granted, she'd take their lives in return.

They entered the corridor and gravity tugged at her middle before the Hestia's artificial gravity field caught up and leveled things out. Tara stood from the pilot's chair and turned, hands on her hips. Her owlish gaze was less curious and more stern than normal. The viewport was an oil and water swirl of electric blue behind her.

"Your feelings don't change the risk we're taking. If you can't find the level-headedness that's gotten us out of tighter scrapes, all of us are in danger. You, me, the woman who might be Rora, and her baby."

Jesus, the baby. The woman down there had a newborn babe. The fucking traffickers had taken money and promised they'd deliver an extremely pregnant woman on a three-day walk through a jungle to Helena's waiting people and when she'd gone into premature labor, they'd left her there. Alone.

Brenn swallowed hard. Rora or not, if she was still alive and un-captured, the woman couldn't afford any delays . "I'll keep it together."

Maybe next time she could put a little more gusto into it. A little more confidence. Tara's third sigh held the exact opposite of conviction, but the shift to sympathetic frown indicated she was willing to let off a bit for now.

"Mom tried to find Rora in the database years ago when she wanted to learn more about you. Her files were missing from the database. Her brothers and sisters were missing, too. I even had Mom check her uncle's file and his brother isn't listed as having any children at all. Even more interesting, video of the performance that night is also gone. Wiped completely from the official database. You never asked me to look into the database, so it never seemed like the right time to tell you."

"That doesn't make any sense."

Why would records of Rora's family's existence be missing? Who had that kind of power? Brenn didn't know a single resistance who'd have the power to pull off a job that large. The Aesir kept records and backup records on everything and they were well guarded. If it was Rora down there, the resistance she'd fallen in with had lost her undercover for two years and botched her retrieval by sending in trafficking scum. Their actions certainly weren't a glowing endorsement of their skill and organization. Did they have a super hacker on the team?

Or Orla was a completely different person, Rora was long dead, and something else was going on.

"It's a mystery for another day. They tucked our friend down there into an overgrown settlement of some sort and I'm going to bet she isn't in any condition to go hiking through the jungle. I need you to cross reference the hand drawn maps Mom's contacts gave her and find us a place to land." Tara settled into her pilot's chair again. "I hate how you can't just scan this damn jungle."

It was, in fact, why the smugglers used it. Saskaris belonged to four species. Two Cousin species, the Tarttear and Xkia, each held an outpost on the world's two smaller continents. Humans and Aesir kept colonies on opposite ends of the largest continent, separated by a 120 kilometer deep and 600 kilometer wide jungle. The plants and minerals in the soil made it difficult to see anything with great detail through traditional scanners, even with an active neural interface and ship's sensors on the ground. It was perfect for smuggling both material goods and people.

The Org regularly sent the Hestia to Saskaris to drop off supplies at the refugee settlement for humans who managed to leave Aesir controlled territory and survive the jungle, and every once in a while, they had to go in. Like today.

"They know we're coming?"

"Yeah, Mom personally called this one in to the director of the Org. Told him she couldn't give any information for security reasons, but we needed to go in under Org protection."

"I'm sure that went over well. He likes to know what he's sending his people into, especially..." she trailed off. The head on her today. The last thing either of them needed to think about was what happened the last time they took on one of Helena's missions.

"He's not pleased, but I told him I wanted to do it. Saskaris has us under the trafficking protocol. Uncle Sig will have to be visually scanning ships coming into the human quadrant to know it's us with our identification masked and all records showing our ship bringing in a modest shipment of exotic spirits from Kelso IV."

Exotic spirits sounded good right about now, and she didn't even drink. With one hand, she used her console's touch controls to pull up a 3D map of Saskaris' jungle. With the other, she depressed the button on top of her mug and the aroma of strong coffee punched her senses. There were mornings meant for lingering around the table and sipping tea. This wasn't one of them. This was a coffee-as-dark-as-a-black-hole kind of morning, and Tara had delivered. The bitterness and heat of it seared and thinned some of the cotton in her head.

She began to enter the perimeters based on the 'map', which was nothing more than a third-hand account of where two men may have abandoned a woman in crisis. What kind of punishment was fit for people like them? Stumbling out an airlock into the vacuum of space was too kind a death. If there were any justice in the Universe they wouldn't be able to take a shit or look longingly into their lover's eyes without seeing the woman's face. Hopefully it haunted them to the end of a very long life.

Okay, focus. That train of thought only led to a worse mood and an even larger headache, which wouldn't help down there. If it wasn't too late already.

Please don't let it be too late.

If the God her mother believed so much in existed, he would make sure both the woman on the surface and her babe were alive, because what kind of loving deity could stand in the face of injustice and do absolutely nothing?

"What do you think of God?" she'd once asked Rora as they'd lain on the deck of the Queen's Arse staring up into the Milky Way. The waves had rocked their nest of thick-woolen blankets and lumpy pillows, lulling them into a relaxed and contemplative state. Their relationship had been new, then. Full of explorations.

"I don't think it's something any of us mere mortals can ever understand. I know the Universe is infinite. Maybe God is just a person who has more power than we can understand." She'd snuggled closer as the cold, ocean wind ruffled their hair. "I wonder if anyone ever asked God if they wanted the responsibility of minding all these humans."

The computer pinged that it'd come up with a few options. The Hestia was smart and her algorithms were set up to pick the most optimal locations based on a set of perimeters, but sometimes what the Hestia thought was optimal didn't agree with what humans thought was optimal—like the time Hestia had set them down in a field of gorgeous flowers. What human eyes could see that computer scanners didn't pick up on were the spiky leaves right at arse level. So, Brenn made it a point to visually inspect each option from now on.

Those leaves had been huge, and itchy, and they'd had no respect for thick denim.

She took another sip of her coffee and called up all four images juxtaposed then, next to it, she brought up the transcript of Helena's people's findings. It wasn't much to go off of. The four governments—if one could really call them that—maintained their peace by leaving each other well enough alone. As far as the authorities were concerned, it wasn't worth their time to look into the disappearance of a woman stolen from the Aesir as long as she wasn't one of their citizens. It went against their conventions, sure, but wasn't worth the trouble.

Seemed like it never was in the Free Territories. Wasn't that why they called the humans trapped behind Aesir borders the Forgotten?

The standoffishness, in this case, also worked in their favor. Borders were heavily guarded and the same laws that banned communities from living in the jungle gave humans a greater right to patrol them. So, while Sig would have, no doubt, sent people into the jungle to retrieve his property—the same teams the smugglers were afraid of running into after their charge could no longer keep up—they'd be small groups ignorant of human smuggler routes. In a game that pitted the uninformed against the uninformed, the Aesir had slightly less information.

The ship rocked as it dropped out of the corridor and Brenn braced herself on the console. Before them, a green ball of a world glowed. The oceans were green blue, the land was green, and even the clouds had a greenish tinge. It was smaller than Earth, and only the large continent was visible from their angle. Tara tapped a few things into her side console.

"Weather looks good."

Brenn checked her own. "Yeah, if you call 37 degrees good."

"Hey, there are no massive storms and while it looks like there's going to be a drizzle tonight, it's not going to be a downpour. That's good enough in my books."

Brenn eliminated one of the options right away because there wasn't enough room to land without risking a few trees and the vegetation was so thick they'd have to hack through it. It was a bit further from the ocean than she wanted it to be, too. The notes said the smuggler's road they liked to use was about two clicks in from the beach through dense forest. The second she eliminated was actually Hestia's first pick, but it didn't feel right. Normally, she required a bit more from herself than blind intuition, and with her headache steadily getting worse and her stomach starting to come along for the ride, she really should apply a more rigorous criteria, but she let the decision stand. Maybe it was the way it'd provide so little cover if Sig wanted to pull satellite imagery. Maybe.

The planet loomed larger on the view screen. She sighed and rubbed her temples. Coffee might not have been the best idea, even if she'd only had a little bit. Rescues like this were complicated enough under the best of circumstances and she sure was bringing her best, wasn't she? Still, it beat moping around in her cabin.

"Have you found us a place to land yet? They're asking me to log a flight path soon so they can start to redirect traffic."

At least the moldy cabbages in charge out here didn't mess around when the Org came to sniff out trafficking victims. Probably for the same reason none of the four factions antagonized each other too often. No one wanted the kind of oversight in the outer worlds that'd make it difficult to act in morally dubious ways.

Sig certainly didn't.

He was in for a surprise later today when Helena sent in the cavalry to destroy his illegal facility and tie him up in inquiries for the next few months. He'd slither out of trouble like the snake he was, but at least it'd give Rora—Orla—time to get settled elsewhere.

Whatever that meant for Brenn. Something to consider later. Not now.

"I might've. One moment." She narrowed her eyes at Hestia's third pick.

It wasn't the clearing that called to her, but something about a kilometer south of it in what the Hestia labeled a moderate density jungle. She wasn't an expert at aerial reconnaissance by any definition, but in her three-and-a-half years of intergalactic experience she'd seen that grid patterns were common enough in Aesir and Human settlements. Sometimes they were squared grids. Sometimes round. Sometimes a series of grids stacked on top of each other to create mazes only locals could navigate effectively, but grids none-the-less.

A stretch of her fingers, and the image zoomed in. There it was, like an indent in the trees or the remnants of words written in the sand after the waves pulled out, a grid. Nature had reclaimed the land as she was wont to do when people turned their backs to her, but the scars of their presence remained barely visible. A hidden settlement one or two centuries old, abandoned for some reason and forgotten by most as civilization moved on. A perfect place for smugglers of all types, especially those looking to stash away a woman who'd inconveniently gone into labor and not feel like total bastards about it.

Brenn could almost hear them arguing in hushed voices. Lots of humans passed through on a regular basis. The Aesir didn't know where it was. They just didn't want to get caught and who knew when she'd be able to move again. They didn't know anything about taking care of newborns or delivering babies. Someone would be along when she could walk again and they probably wouldn't turn her into the Aesir, right? She'd be fine, right? Women gave birth all the time without dying. Yeah. Right. Everything would be fine.

Her stomach churned loud enough to hear. Humans could find a million ways to fuck each other over without the help of any other species. Hell, the Aesir themselves were proof enough of that. Who else, but other humans, could decide to invent their own worst enemy?

"This is it. Fits every requirement. About a day's walk from where she was supposed to meet with Helena's people, two clicks in from the beach, there's what looks like a settlement there." She threw a larger version up on the platform in front of the view port and highlighted their landing place and the settlement. "I'm going to guess after we hack through, we'll find whatever trail they used. It's a little over a click into the settlement as the crow flies, but it's rarely that easy."

"I'll send it in. I wish there was something a little closer."

Because you're pale and looking a little poorly was what she didn't say, but Brenn could tell she wanted to. She wasn't wrong. It'd been fine a few minutes ago, but it was getting worse. Maybe all the thinking had strained things.

"I know you're worried, I'll be fine. I'll take a stim if I need to and the stretcher will bear most of the weight for us if it's needed."

Tara gave a slow nod. Acceptance, but not enthusiastic acceptance.

"We're cleared for landing. I'm going to take us in. Take five, get yourself together, and get back here."

"Aye."

Before she moved, she took one last look down to the planet below. She closed her eyes and searched for the place where Rora's mind used to nestle within hers. As Rora had taught her all those years ago, she reached out.

'Please, answer me. Please be there,' she begged. "Let me know you're here and you're alive."

But Rora didn't answer. Just the buzz of silence. Just a brain full of cotton. Because Rora was dead, and had been for three-and-a-half years.

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A note from OwlishIntergalactic

We're starting to get to some of my favorite scenes now. If you're still with me and still enjoying, please drop me a line and leave this chapter a rating. Every little bit helps others see and enjoy my story as well.

Thanks again everyone!


About the author

OwlishIntergalactic

  • United States
  • Owlish Intergalactic

Bio: 23 years ago an awkward 13-year-old with thick frames perched on her nose sat down at her brand new Tandy computer and wrote her first fanfiction; a Paris/Torres ship fic for Star Trek: Voyager. It was gloriously terrible and the start of an amazing journey.

Today I still tell human stories set against the backdrop of space--love, hurt, comfort, and all of the wonderful messiness between. The ways we stick together, and the things that tear us apart. How the stars, in their infinite vastness, give us the freedom to be who we are. And I tell some of the stories we don't see enough of, the stories where characters like me-a disabled, gay, mother over the age of thirty-get to be the heroes.

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