2950-08-23 – Tales from the Inbox: A Partnership Sundered

“I don’t understand, Ramie.” Livia, apparently cold even while wearing a smartfabric coat, hugged her arms close to her torso and leaned against the ship’s forward landing strut. “We’re still leaving him here, right?”

Ramiro nodded, grimacing. He couldn’t tell Livia about Mr. A.’s rotund friend. “I think things went the way he was hoping, more or less.”

“Then why do you want us to chase after him?” Livia frowned. “He paid you, didn’t he?”

Ramiro brightened. He wondered if Livia knew what he was doing, and had offered this lifeline to him. He hated everything about the situation, but he hated more what it would take to solve it. “He would, ah… not pay it to me. You’d better come and talk to him.”

“One of these days, we’re going to have to teach you to squeeze people properly.” Livia rolled her eyes. “Fine. Where’s he setting up camp?”

Ramiro pointed inland. “He’s in there.” Realizing the finality of that path, however, he dropped his arm. “But there’s no rush. Not like he’s going anywhere.”

Livia smirked and nodded, turning to look out over the ocean. As she did, a gust of wind swirled up from the water, carrying the strange yet eerily familiar scents of an alien ocean. Ramiro breathed deep, squared his shoulders, and stepped up beside her.

“You’re terrible at this game, Ramie dear.” Livia pointed along the coast to a shallow cove in the island shore not far away. “Come on. Let’s go have a look.”

Ramiro followed Livia silently as she picked her way down the crevasse-lined side of the rock formation on which his ship stood. As she stopped to look for a convenient way past a steep drop, he turned around to look back at Jen Daley. The ship’s high prow broadening to a squat, boxy hull stood out starkly against the reddish-brown hemisphere of Cinder filling the southern quarter of the sky, and another moon’s sharp crescent framed the ship’s main comms antenna array, which stuck up straight into the blue-green sky.

Livia nudged Ramiro, drawing his attention back down. “Just like you.” She raised one eyebrow. “Surrounded by paradise, but you can’t keep your mind off the ship and the sky.”

Ramiro shrugged as Livia slid down the rocks between a boulder and the main slope. “They say Madurai is the most beautiful planet humans ever found. I grew up hearing that, anyway. It was a relief to leave.” Taking advantage of his larger frame, Ramiro hopped down behind Livia, steadying himself with one hand on the lichen-crusted stone. “And it might be. But I always knew I’d leave.”

“A place can be paradise, but if it’s not your paradise, you’re not home.” Livia pointed to the pebbly strand below, where a flock of skittering creatures combed the surf. As Ramiro watched, the animals darted away from the human visitors, staying well out of reach. “This place is nice to look at, but it knows we don’t belong. It won’t remember us.”

“Then why do you want to come down here?” Ramiro offered a hand to help Livia hop across a crevasse.

“Just exploring.” With that, she stepped off the last shoulder of the towering rock formation and onto the pebbles of the beach. “Maybe there’s something here worth taking with us.”

Ramiro chuckled. “I hardly think this is a good place to dig for buried treasure.”

Livia stopped mid-stride, and Ramiro knew even though he couldn’t see that she was rolling her eyes. “That’s why you need me, Ramie. You’re positively blind to the economics of things.” Stooping, she picked up what Ramiro first thought was simply a stone, but when she held it up, he saw that it was a shell – or at least a shell-analogue – with three curving rays of sparkling pearly material projecting outward from a domed indigo central disk and spiraling around each other. “Pick up a hundred of these, and you could sell them back at Maribel for twenty credits each. Two hundred each if you lied about what planet they were from.”

Ramiro stepped forward and took the shell, turning it over in his hands. He’d certainly seen lesser curios sold for greater prices in spaceport oddity-shops. “I’m fairly certain collecting that many would break some law.”

Livia clapped a hand to her forehead. “See, that’s what I mean! Why would anyone know? Whose business is it unless you tell them?” Livia reached out and closed Ramiro’s fingers over the shell in his palm. “If you looked at things that way even a little bit, you’d have never needed my help.”

“And maybe if you’d looked at things like that less, you would have never needed mine.” Ramiro placed his other hand over Livia’s. She looked up at him curiously, her dark eyes steady. “Maybe it’s better things worked out the way they did.”

Livia nodded and flashed a lopsided grin. “Certainly keeps life interesting, anyway.” With that, she spun away and marched down the beach, her long hair flying crossways under the influence of the offshore wind.

Ramiro looked down at the shell one more time, tracing one of its curving rays with his thumb. “Livia, wait, there’s something-”

“Woah!” Livia’s startled shout drew Ramiro’s attention. He found her backing away from a short, portly figure who’d appeared in the underbrush above the beach. The little man’s genial smile did nothing to assuage her alarm. “Where in all hells did you come from?”

The little man pointed behind him. “About there.” He shrugged. “I did not mean to alarm or hurry you, but time has become… somewhat short. Unexpectedly so. Do conclude your goodbyes.”

“Goodbyes?” Livia turned to Ramiro. “You want us to leave? Fine. We’re leaving. Too cold here anyway.”

Ramiro shook his head. “Livia, you need to stay with him.” He fought a catch in his throat. “It’s the only way.”

“What do you mean?” Livia turned toward the little man. “Who is this guy anyway?”

“A friend.” The little man bowed smartly. “A friend who unfortunately has very little time.”

Ramiro stepped up to Livia’s side. “Do you trust me, Liv?”

“I…” Livia looked away. “You’ve never let me down. Not once.”

“I know what this is about, and I say, go with him.” Ramiro put his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward himself. “I won’t make you.”

Livia glanced over at the still-smiling figure, then back to Ramiro. “You’ll miss me, Ramie.”

Ramiro nodded. “Only until you come back. I’ll keep your things and berth ready for you on Jen Daley.”

Livia pulled Ramiro into a tight hug. “I’ll hold you to that.”

When Livia broke contact, she flashed Ramiro a smile, squared her shoulders, and turned back to the chubby man. “Hopefully you’ve got somewhere warm nearby.”

“Yes, yes.” The man bounded forward and held up a clear polymer card in front of Ramiro. “Take this.”

Frowning, Ramiro reached out and took the card. It looked like an ident-badge, but bore no markings around the sprawling gold chip embedded in its center, and the space left for an image of the identified person was printed was empty. “What is it?”

“Secure communications.” The little man gestured to Livia, marching a few steps back the way he’d come. “Do hurry, we should not be late.”

Livia turned back to Ramiro. From the subtle arch of her eyebrow, he knew she’d guessed what was happening. How much she could think about it before the circuitry took over, Ramiro didn’t want to speculate. “I’ll send messages if he lets me.”

“He’d better let you.” Ramiro glanced sidelong at the little man. He hadn’t forgotten what the man was, or what he was capable of. “Otherwise, there will be trouble.”

Livia nodded and turned to follow the little man. Just before she vanished under the shadows of the stooping trees, she glanced over her shoulder one last time. When she did, Ramiro thought he saw a tear glittering in the corner of her eye. Wincing, and wondering if he’d ever see Livia Farran again, he turned away and stared out over the crashing waves.

This concludes the account left for me by Ramiro, or at least by someone claiming to be him. I will not offer any interpretations beyond that this is, if true, the first confirmation of rumors that the Incarnation can corrupt the minds and bodies of people who fall into its orbit in very difficult to detect ways. That some arm of the Confederated military or intelligence apparatus has a program to undo this damage, even in part, is a heartening idea.

Naval Intelligence cleared this to be released, but would not comment on the veracity of the story, nor confirm to me whether such programs exist.