Moment of Truth
Begun by Shadar, reimagined by Brantley
Naomi Kim’Vallara had heard of the man who wanted to meet with her – indeed, she knew a lot more about him than she really wanted to. But that Peter Durgin should come to Bering’s World – that was a complete surprise and hardly a welcome one.
There had been too many surprises in her life already, most painful the defection of Alisa and then Nikki – she’d never seen that one coming, and neither had Sara. Yet perhaps they both should have; Nikki had never seemed to be one to settle down as an M-class Velorian, even if she’d had a promising career in video production.
At least her one-time minder Ben Shaffer had gotten word to her about taking Nikki to a planet called Sanctuary. Korn’Ellis had kept her informed about Alisa. She didn’t know all the details; Kelsor 7 was keeping a tight lid on what had happened on a disastrous mission Durgin had commanded.
But she knew more than her visitor would know that she knew – and she also knew more about him. Including the fact that he’d done Alisa wrong – first pursuing his advances, even after she had made it clear that she no longer welcomed them; and then bringing her into public discredit in the official report on that ill-fated mission to a mysterious wormhole.
It had also come out that he was no longer strictly Kelsorian. Although that wasn’t mentioned in the official report, it had been obvious to all who had known him before the mission. Just how he had become enhanced was a mystery – could that really have been Alisa’s doing?
His career had actually suffered, she’d heard; he was no longer a captain with the Survey Service; just a junior officer on Trade Service ships making runs to deliver QEDs to worlds that were already customers – rather than finding new markets to bolster his planet’s fortunes and, incidentally, his own.
* * *
She was dressed casually. Her hair was gloriously blonde and her eyes shining like blue diamonds. But that was true of any Velorian, as her visitor from Kelsor 7 surely knew.
"Captain Peter Durgin, Kelsorian Survey Service,” he announced.
A lie. There were doubtless more to come.
"I'm Naomi Kim'Vallara. I'm afraid I only have a few minutes. My assistant squeezed you in between two trade delegations that are visiting today."
"Thank you for agreeing to see me on short notice, Madam Ambassador. But it's rare that our people get to stop at an Enlightenment world. Even rarer that I would have the fortune to meet someone as illustrious as you."
"Hardly illustrious. I was sacked from my last ambassadorship – a family problem I'm afraid – and had to hold things together by doing some teaching. But now they’ve assigned me to this pleasant world. I’m a pretty ordinary Velorian.”
Bering's World was indeed pleasant. It was also off the beaten path; but it was hardly the backwater Durgin might imagine.
"I beg your pardon, Madam Ambassador, but a Velorian living on a gold-free world can hardly be ordinary."
"And what do you know of Velorians, Captain? You Kelsorians normally avoid Enlightenment worlds. Except for making sales, of course."
"Many things. But most of all at this moment, I'm reminded that you one of the most beautiful women in the universe, despite the passing of years."
"No credit to me, Captain. I was born with good genes."
"Undoubtedly the greatest understatement in the galaxy," Durgin grinned.
"Like a very special Velorian who once served on my ship, you wear your beauty casually. Unimpressed by it, even though everyone who meets you here must be stunned."
Naomi smiled softly. "I leave arrogance and vanity for our Protectors. They live warriors’ lives. Violent and often short. My life isn't glamorous or exciting, I'm afraid. I'm just a mother and a diplomat."
"Yes, I read your bio. Your children's names are James, Sarah, and Nikki." He paused as she nodded, wondering if this was the moment to tip his hand. It was unlikely he'd find a better moment. "And also, Alisa'zar," he spoke softly.
Naomi's let her eyes open wider, her blue irises glowing. "You didn't just get that name from my bio, Captain. There is no mention of Alisa in any Velorian official record."
"I know. She told me of her choices and its consequences. How her name was stricken from the records. How she could never return to an Enlightenment world."
"You know my daughter, then?" Naomi's voice remained as cool, smooth, and sophisticated as a diplomat’s must be – and especially knowing what she knew. She let her eyes to the talking. They were fairly glowing.
"You don't seem as surprised by that as I'd expected."
"I had suspected as much when you asked to meet me. I know she served on a Kelsorian research vessel. So it was yours?"
Peter nodded as he took a sip of his beer. "The Anders Flame. She served with me for more than a year."
"Where is she now?"
Naomi already knew, but Peter wouldn’t be aware of that. So she had put a tone of appeal in her voice. Peter took it as such, but didn't answer directly.
"We have to talk, Madam Ambassador, but I'd prefer to do it somewhere less formal. May I invite you to dinner? Some place we can talk without being disturbed. There are so many things I'd like to share with you."
"Certainly," she said as she rose to hold out her hand. "And my friends call me Naomi."
"Naomi it is then. I'm just Peter."
"I know just the place. Now I just have to figure out how to get through the rest of my day."
She winked, as if in invitation.
* * *
The Elven Waterfall was in the middle of the capital’s botanical park. A hundred hectares of beautiful landscaping and innumerable flowers and plants. The seating was on rustic but padded couches, outdoors under the branches of a large tree.
The sun was still high when Naomi arrived, two hours short of sunset, one of her favorite times of the day in one of her favorite places. A warm, fragrant breeze blew across the expanse of grass, carrying with it the scent of flowers. It was so idyllic that she imagined ethereal music sounding from the forest.
Naomi was right on time, but saw that Peter was already there. She turned and walked toward him. Dressed in heels and wearing a white crocheted dress, she knew she was by far the tallest woman in the restaurant, knew that her hair glowed like spun gold in the sun, her blue eyes were sparkling. She was out to make an impression, but not on the regular patrons – they were already used to her.
Durgin rose from his chair as she approached, she could tell that he was trying to be sophisticated, but that he was still awkward staring at her tanned skin that glowed beneath the open weave of the fabric.
"So, we meet again. I hope you approve of my choice of restaurants. This is my favorite on Bering's World."
"I was just thinking that it was the perfect place to meet a Velorian. Warm breezes, fragrant with flowers, those huge trees having roots that I might imagine are connected to the ultimate power of the universe."
She smiled warmly. "And you are quite a charmer. But then, most ship's captains are. And occupational requirement, for science or trade or both."
"My lady, you mock me," Peter said with a wink. "Let's just say that I'm a man who appreciates the way the greatest beauty and strength in the universe can combine, never diminishing the other."
“Enough of that,” Naomi said. “Let us pay heed to our stomachs as well as our eyes.”
"Point taken. What's good here?"
"Ah, he asks for advice in eating from someone who could eat everything on the menu and still not be full. A dangerous question indeed."
"I've been on ship's rations all the way from Kelsor to here."
"Well, we'll have to fix that. Let me see. The lamb is fantastic. Marinated and roasted for hours over real wood charcoal. And the beef. Raised right here on Bering's World; so tender you could..."
She kept at it enthusiastically, pointing out half a dozen good dishes. And she noticed that Durgin wasn’t the least mystified that people of her world could enjoy such pleasures. It was a matter of how their senses had been engineered by the Galen to allow for appreciation of food and drink (among other things), yet be immune to severe pain and injury.
They ended up ordering the lamb, but that was only the beginning of their conversation.
"This is not your first dinner date with a Velorian, now is it?" Naomi smiled. She kicked off her shoes to settle comfortably in her chair, propping her foot up to lean her elbow on her bent knee. She rested her cheek against her hand as she looked into his eyes. "I like a man with some experience."
"But you aren't used to it."
She ignored that, looking up as the waiter handed her a glass of white wine. She took a slow sip, closing her eyes to savor the taste. "A newly released vintage. You should try some."
"I prefer to acclimatize myself by drinking the local beer.”
She set her wine down to look back across the table at him. "As to your question, no, Captain, I'm not used to it."
"Please, call me Peter."
"Well, Peter, it’s true that I often perplex ordinary men. They have trouble reconciling what I look like with what I can do."
"That's because they don't understand what it’s like to be Velorian.”
She sipped her wine but said nothing, letting him go on.
"And then when they do, they find that you are a woman who can bend of steel, who has lethal heat vision, who can fly, soaring even through the corona of stars."
"None of which intimidates you, I suppose."
"I wouldn't say that. But I wouldn’t challenge you to arm wrestling, if that's what you mean."
Naomi forced a laugh. "No, I rather think that would be a waste of time."
"You were born M-class. Is that right?"
"I see you’ve certainly done your homework."
"Alisa spoke of you a lot. How she missed you. How disappointed she was that Velor could not understand that even a P1 like her wanted to be something other than a Protector."
Naomi set her wine down. "She told you she was P1?"
As if I hadn’t known that from Korn’Ellis. And a lot more about this man – little of it to his credit.
"Which I found intriguing. We rarely encounter Protectors, and only hear about them by way of news or stories."
“So how did you meet Alisa?”
"She attended the Institute of AstroScience. Graduated with high honors and took an advanced degree in Exploratory Astrophysics – with a specialty in wormhole anomalies. Her passion was exploring wormholes, which is what puts us ahead of everyone else in science and commerce. She knew about my career in the Survey Service, so she welcomed the opportunity to serve on the Flame.”
Pretty much what Korn’Ellis had told her. Sara’s Messenger husband had some sort of pipeline to Dr. Ramasekhar at the Institute, and had been relaying as much as he could when his duties allowed him to stop at Bering’s World. That wasn’t often, but when he did come, he had a lot to say. About a year ago, it had been really a lot.
Durgin kept singing Alisa’s praises, as if she had been the only tech on the Flame pulling her weight. He hadn’t known at first that she was Velorian, found out only by accident and…
The lamb arrived, and was every bit as good as she had billed it; Durgin sang the praises of her good taste as well as her beauty. But before long, he was full of himself as well as the lamb, singing his own praises.
Time to lay the trap…
“So how did you achieve your eminence?”
“Slowly and with great determination. I started with another ship which had discovered a really anomalous wormhole but… hadn’t followed up. Once I got my own command, I worked for the Trade Service at first, which contributed directly to the income of Industrial Affairs. But I wanted to do more than that, to find new wormholes and, especially to solve the mystery of – the one I told you about. But that took years.”
He’s so self-absorbed that he doesn’t realize—”
“Married along the way, had two children – both boys; one’s Alisa’s age; the other four years older. But they’ve never met Alisa. Their mother and I went through a rather messy divorce. She thought I was too obsessed with my work.”
Now to spring the trap…
“You seen awfully young to have grown children. And we Velorians have our ways of telling…”
Durgin’s jaw dropped. He was silent for a whole minute, When he finally spoke again, it was in a grave tone.
“I’m not supposed to talk about that. It happened during our mission to that wormhole. It was necessary to save my life; I can tell you that much. And it was Alisa who enhanced me. We had been lovers as well as colleagues, after all.”
“So what happened?”
“They broke up our team. She returned to the Institute to teach, and was later assigned to another ship.”
From what Korn’Ellis had told her, that much was the truth. But there had been a lot more to it, and Durgin had borne a lot more responsibility. It wasn’t so much that his team had been broken up as that most of his men didn’t want to have anything to do with him – there had been a number of casualties during the mission, according to the official report issued by the Secretariat, and they had been blamed on the natural hazards of the wormhole, or carelessness, or both.
One of them had been blamed on Alisa, and Korn’Ellis had heard that had been Durgin’s doing. it was still talked about at the Institute, and was said to have been payback for her daughter having dumped Durgin for another man, the very man whose death had been laid at her door.
For now, Naomi felt obliged to seem to be taking Durgin’s account at face value – to give him enough rope to hang himself. They were finishing up the lamb and soon it would be time to order dessert.
"Well, Alisa would survive most of the catastrophes that could befall any of you in a wormhole," Naomi said softly. “What she did for you I’m sure she’d do for any captain under the same circumstances.”
Durgin didn’t seem comfortable with that, and didn’t respond to it; instead, he returned to his reminiscences of Alisa.
" She was always careful in guiding us. One of the most promising science officers to come along in a long time. Brilliant and driven. She worked in the Tank, day and night."
"Our data processing center. All the sensors feed into the neural net there."
"She had an advantage there; she wouldn't need much sleep."
"Yet she tried to live on the same schedule as everyone else. She was so desperate at first to keep the secret of her origin. To be treated like any other other Kelsorian."
"Except with you. A ship's captain would have to know everything about the background of his crew members."
"Just me and our ship's physician," Durgin nodded.
“Now they know about you. And I know about that. In fact, I know quite a bit about you. Starting with the fact that you’re no longer with the Survey Service, let alone commanding a ship. Alisa’s well shut of you; I know that, too. So what brings you here? What do you want of me?”
She could see the shock on Durgin’s face as he realized that his lies had caught up with him.
And then his shock turned to tears. He was an abject figure, there at there at the Elven Waterfall, and drawing unwelcome attention from other diners. What Naomi had hoped to be a moment of triumph was turning instead into a moment of embarrassment. Their server came by to find out what the problem was.
“Nothing to do with the food or the service,” she assured him. “A personal matter. We have to leave now; never mind dessert.”
After settling the bill, she left with Durgin, guided him to a seat in the park, far enough away from the crowd to afford privacy.
“I can’t believe what I’ve been saying,” he confessed. “I should have seen that you didn’t believe it. But I was desperate. My life had come apart; I’d been a somebody, and suddenly I was a nobody – it wasn’t that people didn’t know who I was; they just didn’t want to. And I couldn’t even get laid. I couldn’t have gone back to Rachel, even if she’d have had me.”
That was the least of what turned into a confession.
“You see, I wanted to go down in history,” he said. “I’d served on the ship that first discovered that wormhole the wormhole. The Dauntless Explorer, only name turned into a joke, because the captain was afraid to explore it. Michael Ziranak, his name was. I got into an argument with him, and he put me on report. A lot on my record, and I was new to the Service.
“But I vowed that one day, I would return to that wormhole, and claim it for my own. It took me a decade to work my way up to captain and get a ship of my own to command, and I compiled a good record after that – a dozen penetrations – but only one of them were of significant value – we found a seeded world called Saraksh that even the Scalantrans didn’t know about. How that happened is still a mystery, The other penetrations led to stars without any habitable worlds, let alone habitants we could do business with. Some were dead systems, the kind novas leave behind.
“Along the way, I did get married and had children, but that’s another story. I was a rising star in the Survey Service, and because that Service works with three of the Secretariat’s divisions, I had an in with the key policymakers when it came to planning expeditions. So 20 years after Ziranak blew his chance, I got my own chance.”
Durgin paused for a moment.
“And it all went wrong. I can’t say it was entirely my fault – a lot of it was plain bad luck. There are some terrible things there, enough to scare you – they certainly scared the Secretariat. But I altered the draft of our cover story to put it on Alisa, on account of her testimony, and for rebuffing me, and the rest of my crew wouldn’t have anything to do with me after that, and I came here out of desperation, hoping…”
“Would you believe I hoped you might replace Alisa in my life?”
“You were that delusional?”
“Well, there’s no place for you here.”
“No place for me anywhere, I suppose. I can’t go back to Kelsor 7, and I wouldn’t find a welcome on Enlightenment worlds – at least, not in the arms of any Velorians there. I don’t think I could sink so low as to defect to the Empire – not if the Aureans are anything like the ones I met on – damn it, I can’t say the name, though I suppose it will come out eventually. Somebody else will find the place.”
Naomi had set up their encounter here just to humiliate Durgin, and yet for some reason she suddenly felt pity for him. It occurred to her, too, that if he were out of sight and out of mind to Alisa and the others back on Kelsor 7, it might do them some good.
“There might be a place for you, after all,” she ventured.
“How could there be?”
“Do you know anything about mining?”
“There’s time to learn. You have a long life ahead of you.”
“There’s a planet called Delphi in the Reigel system. It used to be a penal colony, but after the war on Reigel Five, the new regime there saw fit to eliminate slavery. Mining on Delphi is still hard and dangerous work – for ordinary humans. But there are expatriate Velorians, and even Aureans, who find it appealing – also very profitable – and likewise find each other appealing. They don’t ask any questions about each other’s pasts – they just get along with their lives, and loves.”
Durgin thought about it for a moment.
“What have I got to lose?”
“Nothing, that I can see – for an enhancee. You might strike it rich. You’ll get all the sex you could ask for, maybe even marry again and raise a family of super children.”
“And I’ll be out of your life. And everyone else’s back on Kelsor 7...”
“That too,” Naomi admitted. “I can make the travel arrangements for you. Being an ambassador has its privileges.”
And so it was. It was a relief to Naomi to see Durgin go, but also a relief to have done the right thing by him, as best she could, as she had for that other unfortunate... They might become better men for it, but she would undoubtedly be a better woman for it. She had been sorely tempted to be as petty and cruel as Peter had seemed, but she had overcome that temptation,
And it wasn’t as if she had a spotless past. She had done things on Reigel Five that she’d had to answer for – things that might have led Alisa and then Nikki to break with her and her world. And there was that other matter that she had never shared with the family... a matter that had also involved Delphi. But now her conscience was clear.
She could find happiness in her work here, and in people watching. It sufficed.