The Fringes of the Universe Prequel Chapter Six

Several years later…

Floating in the regeneration tank Jutel made her decision. No more. She was done. She wouldn’t allow the UUAC to put Mal or herself in danger anymore. She’d given up so much, had multiple limbs re-attached, regrown, and just completely replaced. She felt as though she were no longer Nian.

She’d lost herself.

Mal stared at her through the cloudy liquid. His eyes were tired but she could still see a sliver of hope there. He still believed that they could accomplish their goal. Even after all he’d been through, all the times she’d been unable to keep him from harm, he’d never doubted that they’d accomplish what they’d sat out too. If she let him he’d die trying to reach what she now knew was an unreachable goal. He’d yet to see the truth.

The UUAC was using them to complete their dirty work. They were from an ancient species that had more legend than fact spread across the universe about them. They were being sent into impossible situations on supposed missions of peace and negotiation only to have them all blow up in their faces and end in massive loss of life.

The faces of the people she had killed haunted Jutel. She’d become something that no one on Nian could comprehend. The things she’d done—no one on her planet would ever understand.

Mal understood, in his own way. He tried to help her cope but he was a constant reminder of everything horrible. He was also her only friend.

Why had she let things come to this?

Movement behind Mal caught her eye and she saw the current Duke assigned to them. The person responsible for their latest fiasco, which had resulted in her almost dying, again, and Mal the only other person alive.

Mal turned and greeted him perfectly. Jutel couldn’t hear the words being said, their tanks weren’t nearly as good as Nian ones, but she didn’t need to hear the words to understand the exchange. They were being given another assignment.

Jerking against her restraints, she tried to escape from the only thing keeping her alive. Alarms sounded and hospital staff came running. She felt something come loose and pain flooded her body. Darkness pulled her under shortly after.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been out, but when she woke she was no longer in the tank. She was fully healed and resting on a hospital bed. Reaching up she barely resisted the urge to tug on her ear and activate her bio-implants to check the status of her body. Instead, she began slowly working on a manual check.

Sitting up she swung her legs out and tentatively stood up. Everything seemed to be fine. Oddly enough Mal wasn’t anywhere that she could see. He was always there when she woke up, even when he’d been injured himself. They never left each other alone in a UUAC facility, it never felt safe. Uneasy she tried to convince herself that it was nothing, that he’d just gone to the bathroom and that any minute he’d walk through the door. After years of the same routine, it was easy to convince herself that was the case.

Searching around for her gear, more than ready to get out of there and get back to Nian for good, Jutel found it hanging in a small closet beside the bed. Pulling everything out she frowned, nothing had been repaired. Mal always saw to her equipment repairs while she was healing. At this point, he knew as much about her armor as she did, maybe more.

The feeling of unease that she’d managed to tamp down came flooding back. Slowly slipping on the armor that had been cleaned of her blood and other contaminants, but was still filled with blaster holes, she tried to come up with a likely explanation. Mostly dressed and out of the hospital issue cover she stood there waiting. Any minute Mal would come down the hallway and he’d have an explanation. Maybe he’d linked with a Nian relay and received an update of Earth soap operas. That was probably it. The man could lose himself for days watching those things.

Straining her ears to hear his approach she absentmindedly tugged on her ear engaging her implants. A mountain of data began streaming across her field of vision. Updates on her health, eighty-nine percent efficiency, dimensions of the room she was in, medicines still in her system, and a stream of other useful data that didn’t tell her where Mal was.

Pacing to one side of the room she bounced on the balls of her feet before turning and doing the same on the other side. The longer she waited the worse she began to feel. Taking a chance she used her implants to send a message to Mal’s personal communication device. In all their time on the planet she’d never done that, too afraid that the UUAC’s tech could pick it up and learn about her implants. The one thing they’d never talked about and she was pretty sure if the UUAC knew about them their whole ordeal would be finished, but Nians didn’t share technology that could be used as a weapon and whether she liked it or not her implants definitely made her a better weapon.

Ten minutes with no response from Mal and she knew something was wrong. No matter what planet you were from people carried their personal comms with them everywhere and Mal was definitely no exception. With her, in the hospital, he wouldn’t have put it down at any point. The only explanation she could live with was that he was off planet. Technically not in this solar system since their tech’s range was that good.

Alert: Heart rate is accelerated, at current levels of health recommended course of action: begin meditative breathing and find a calm place.

Ignoring the text scrolling across her vision, she yanked the hospital door open and began walking at a brisk pace to the elevator and her exit. First, she would check their usual resting place while at the UUAC capital. Hopefully, Mal had left her a note. Hopefully, he was there waiting for her. If he wasn’t, well, she had options but they got progressively more violent and if she wanted to return to Nian it would be in everyone’s best interest if she didn’t pursue those options.

Halfway down the hallway, she was stopped by a non-offensive looking android. The UUAC hadn’t quite reached the skill level to make their androids look real and instead they came off a bit creepy. She’d decided it was the breathing or lack thereof, it took you a minute staring at them to realize what was missing, but when you did you realized what was in front of you wasn’t human. If you missed that their eyes blinked in odd patterns as well. Thankfully, they weren’t implanted in too many places, but hospitals were one of them.

“Get out of my way.”

“I’m sorry Jutel of Nian but you have not been discharged. Please return to your room and wait for your paperwork. Once everything has been properly filed you will be released.”

Barely suppressing the desire to scream Jutel knew that if she was facing off against a sentient life form they would have backed down. She knew without seeing a mirror that the face she wore was the one right before a battle. She needed to leave this place, she needed to find Mal.

Signaling the closest Nian ship for a potential pickup, she saw that there was one within an hour’s distance and they’d already signaled their intent to swing by which made things simpler.

She had means to get her and Mal off this horrible planet, now she just needed to find him and the android across from her was all that stood in her way.

Not bothering to change the tone of her voice since it wouldn’t matter to the machine Jutel ground out past pursed lips, “Listen, my friend is the one that fills out the paperwork. He’s got all the information you’ll need memorized, if you’ll just let me go find him or tell me where he is, we’ll get this all settled. I’m sure he’s close by he’s always with me when I’m healing, he probably went to the bathroom or to get something to eat.”

“I am sorry Jutel of Nian but you must fill out the proper paperwork before being discharged.”

There was a momentary pause as the android appeared to be accessing information before it continued, “You have had no visitors during your current stay with us.  As you say Malikina of Nian is your usual companion and does normally completely your paperwork, against suggested guidelines, but he has not made an appearance during your most recent stay. I suggest you return to your room and await the proper forms. If you do not comply security will be alerted.”

At least that was a bit of useful information, though not at all comforting. If Mal hadn’t been with her where was he? She needed to leave now more than ever, she pushed past the android eliciting a gasp from a patient who’d been ease dropping and began to make her way to the signs indicating available porters.

The hallway was long and the entire place reeked of antiseptic, she’d only taken a few steps when a low alarm was sounded. Doors down the corridor swung shut locking patients inside, while hospital androids and staff fled to designated areas. Any minute she knew that security would arrive but she wasn’t concerned. She may not have her cannon, the most beautiful weapon she’d ever seen created and her almost constant companion, but she didn’t doubt she could take down anything the hospital had available.

She wasn’t counting on trained UUAC personnel fully equipped in tactical gear porting down in front and behind her in the hallway. Turning to the side instinctively she knew it wouldn’t help her in this situation. There were too many and she was horribly outgunned.

Glaring at the captain of the guard who stepped forward, his weapon never dropping as he approached, Jutel waited for him to get close enough and then her lack of a weapon would be a moot point, but he stopped just out of the ideal zone.

“Jutel of Nian Duke Lhuprough requests your presence.”

That was not what she’d expected. Dropping out of her attack stance she tried to give off the air of someone unsurprised and sure of herself, but deception had never been her strong suit, and when the men behind the captain took a step forward as one she knew she’d failed at appearing non-threatening.

“I’m afraid the duke will have to wait. Apparently, I’ve got paperwork to fill out and my friend Mal is missing. If you’d be so kind as to send my regards I’d appreciate it.”

She ended what she thought was a perfectly pleasant exchange with a smile and the guards took another step this time their weapons glowing red a sign that they were all primed and ready.

Either not afraid of her or confident in his abilities the captain of the guard raised an arm to keep the soldiers back and dropped his weapon down to his side. Flipping up his face shield the pale skin and black eyes of a humanoid greeted her.

“Jutel of Nian I request that you come with me now.”

She could tell that he was trying to tell her more with his eyes, she just couldn’t figure out what. Nonverbal communication was another of her failings unless she was identifying a threat, and a UUAC soldier was difficult to view as anything but.

Slowly lifting her shoulder she started to shift her stance back toward a defensive one.

“The duke has information on Malikina.”

The words were barely whispered but Jutel heard and stopped her attack plans. Raising her hands up in a universal sign of submission she didn’t try to smile again but said, “Lead the way captain.”

An audible sigh came from behind her and the soldiers behind the captain visibly relaxed. She had to stop herself from rolling her eyes. These soldiers were young and untested, clearly, she could have very easily been lying. They knew enough to be afraid of her they should know enough to not trust her. Today, she would do her best not to teach them a new lesson, she may need that advantage in the future.

Lowering his visor the captain issued a series of commands before turning and leading Jutel to the bank of porters, exactly where she’d been heading in the first place. Five minutes later she was being escorted to the office of their latest duke and the man she wanted to kill more than anything.

Following her into the office the captain closed the door and stood silently in front of it, he didn’t even spare a glance at the look of annoyance the duke sent his way.

“Jutel of Nian, I’m glad to finally see you up and around. Your last mission was a rousing success and the United Universe Aid Coalition is very happy with your results. A few more like that and you and your planet will be back in good standing in no time.”

The office wasn’t very large, but it was large enough for the duke’s massive wood desk, a small chair across from it, and some minor decorations. Taking the seat Jutel twirled it around in a quick moment before sitting down. It was easily the most disrespectful thing she’d ever done on this horrible planet in this forsaken building.

Grinning, making sure to widen her eyes, and show a lot of teeth, Jutel didn’t respond and the stupid man across from her didn’t realize that she would gladly kill him. After years of carrying out their dirty work you’d think they’d realize just what kind of threat she was, but either they didn’t read the full reports or they didn’t think she’d ever attack them, either way, if he didn’t tell her where Mal was there was going to be blood.

“Now, your next mission is just a–.”

“Where’s Mal?” Her voice was calm and didn’t betray any emotion, but she’d interrupted the duke and that was just not done.

Blinking at her in confusion, a moment of comprehension dawned and his lips curled up and he leaned back in his chair. The tone of his voice when he answered clearly let her know that he was remembering she wasn’t the one that usually conducted these talks, that she was just a warrior and obviously stupid.

“Malikina of Nian was sent on a mission to the planet designated N34X78. It is one week past his first check in and with no response the mission has been deemed a failure. Now, as I was saying—”

Her grip tightened around the top of the chair and the wood groaned under her grip. Her internal HUD had completed a search of the UUAC database and returned the mission that Mal had more than likely been sent on. Like all UUAC mission data, it was scarce, but she was experienced enough to know what wasn’t being said. The aliens on the planet were hostile but a small faction wanted to join, because of a rare element on the planet it was deemed a possible prospect. Most of their missions were like that and most ended in lots of death. If Mal had been sent on his own the likelihood that he was still alive was next to nothing. All this flashed through her mind within a matter of seconds.

Slowly standing, once again interrupting the duke, she said, “Was a rescue attempt made?”

She really was trying to give them an out, if the UUAC told her they’d tried she might forgive them. Might.

“Of course not. Why would we attempt a rescue for one alien who isn’t even a member in good standing of the United Universe Aid Coalition? I’m afraid something like that would never be approved.”

The room was small and the duke had stopped trying to speak and was now eyeing her in confusion and annoyance. It was because of that that she heard the small intake of breath from the captain standing behind her. The duke had no idea how a soldier’s honor worked. He had no idea that his ease at leaving someone behind meant that Jutel now held the upper hand in the room, not that the captain wouldn’t attempt to protect the duke, but his heart wouldn’t be in it.

A cold calm came over her and everything moved into complete focus. She could see all of her options as though they were being mapped in front of her vision. Option one involved her killing the duke with the writing implement sitting on his desk. Option two had her incapacitating the captain and strangling the duke with her bare hands. Option three was non-violent and not appealing, but she decided to go with it and leave the other options open for later.

“Duke whatever the hell your name is, I’m not going to kill you, right now, but when I get to planet N34X78 and if Mal is anything but alive I will be back and you’re not going to like what happens next.”

As threats go she thought it was pretty good, she was giving away the element of surprise, but she hoped that the fear of not knowing when or if she was going to return would make up for that.

“I realize that this isn’t your normal part in the diplomatic dance that has been going on between Nian and the United Universe Aid Coalition, but even you should know that those words could be perceived as a threat. The last thing you want to do right now is threaten a duke within the United Universe Aid Coalition. One would think that after the time you’ve spent working to gain our approval you would not want to take any steps back.”

His sneer and condescending tone were not the route that Jutel would have advised using in her current state. The chair she was gripping splintered under the strength of her bionic arm, still, the duke’s response was not one of fear, but annoyance.

“You have now destroyed the property of an official of the United Universe Aid Coalition. I strongly recommend that you back down and I will be recommending at least a year’s addition to the process of your planet’s initiation. Your superiors should be advised that you are ill equipped to handle diplomatic missions.”

“Sir, I really think that—”

Cutting the captain off Jutel raised her hand and the soldier moved away from the back wall and tried to put himself between her and the duke. The room was small, though, and the best he could do was move beside her which just made things easier for her if she decided to attack.

“After almost a decade working to get my planet back in good standing with the UUAC, I can safely say that you can shove it up your ass. Even if we’d somehow managed to attain that goal, after the way we’ve been treated here I honestly don’t think my planets council would accept.”

Leaning forward across the desk, she could finally see a smidgen of fear in the recesses of his eyes, she said, “You better pray to whatever deity you believe in that Mal is alive or I will relish your demise.”

“How dare you! You have been warned and yet you still threatened a duke within the United Universe Aid Coalition. Your barbaric ways will not be tolerated here. You’ll regret what you’ve done today if I have to see to it myself. Captain Atlas I command you to arrest Jutel of Nian immediately and charge her with indecent behavior unbecoming a member of the United Universe Aid Coalition.”

Jutel’s eyes darted to where the Captain had suddenly leaned back against the wall. His pose couldn’t be described as submissive, nothing about the man said that would ever be a possibility for him, but it did tell her that he wasn’t a threat to her at the moment.

Face expressionless, but voice tinged with the slightest hint of satisfaction, the captain said, “Sir, I apologize but those charges cannot be brought up against a member of an alien race not currently in good standing within the UUAC.”

A short bark of laughter escaped Jutel’s lips and she grinned at the duke now leaning back in his office chair, a look of trepidation on his face. It wasn’t exactly the terror she would have preferred but it was better than nothing. An alert on her internal HUD let her know that the Nian ship in orbit was ready to transport her and when the duke’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to speak, she signaled that she was ready to leave.

The last thing she saw before she dematerialized was the duke’s look of shock as she was ported away from a location that was shielded heavily against that sort of thing.

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