by Michael Azzolino
Arven’s tone and demeanor suddenly became solemn. He made eye contact with Fenell, searching carefully for the right words.
“If I speak of the Shadow Company, it will likely get me killed,” Arven said matter-of-factly.
“If you don’t speak of the Shadow Company, it will most certainly get you killed,” Fenell corrected. The broker rose from his throne and moved closer to Arven, maintaining eye contact as he spoke. “I want to be clear, Arven. There is no threat or intimidation here. That’s not my style. I can see that you’re hungry and you’ve collected some powerful enemies while in the pursuit of that meal. What I am offering you is a rare opportunity, Arven.”
Fenell could sense that his close proximity to Arven was making him uncomfortable. Fenell gave him the best used-speeder-salesman smile he could muster and continued with his pitch. “I’m offering you a chance to put your hand directly upon the scales of fate. I’m offering you an introduction to a higher caliber of powerful friends. The kind of friends who will enhance your life and reward your loyalty.”
Fenell spun on his heel with surprising balance and returned with a plop to his seat. He stuck his tongue out at Zebb as he sat, and they both laughed out loud for a brief moment.
Arven didn’t find the current situation, or the subject matter worthy of laughter. Emotions flooded through him. He wanted to stand up and run away. He wished he hadn’t agreed to meet Zebb’s friend. His mouth opened and closed several times without uttering a word. He looked to Zebb to have his back. Feeling little support from his friend’s mirth, he stood up and made his way to the door.
“Screw this, I’ll take my chances out there,” said Arven while pointing at the door for emphasis. Before he could take two steps, Zebb vanished from his spot, crossed the room in a blur of speed, and grabbed Arven’s outstretched wrist. Arven did not resist.
“Calm down Arven,” said Zebb, “before you say the second-stupidest thing of the day and speed up this whole getting-yourself-killed matter. You trust me and I trust Fenell. I have no desire to waste anyone’s time. I also can’t sit by and watch bad people try to do horrible things to you.”
That last part really sent Arven back. He always suspected that Zebb knew more about his business than he let on, and that confirmed it for him.
“Arven, please come back and sit with me,” Fenell requested as he poured synthetic alcohol into three glasses and motioned for them both to return to their seats.
“Zebb mentioned trust and I also hold it in the highest regard,” said Fenell. “I believe that trust is something that is earned, and I would very much like to earn yours, Arven.”
Zebb released him. Arven returned slowly to his seat, clenching his fist open and closed and rubbing his sore wrist. He scooped up the vessel poured for him and emptied it to the back of his throat, without toast or sentiment. Fenell followed his lead, upending his drink and continued speaking. “We all travel a different path in life, Arven. Each of us gains a unique perspective. We all reach our own conclusions, our own truth. That truth can be a valuable commodity.” Fenell paused to let everything he said soak in.
“How do you intend to earn my trust, Fenell?” Arven asked boldly.
The rotund broker made sucking sounds with his teeth and winked at Arven. “As an act of good faith, young man, I’m going to share some truth with you about Ilanna Harris.”
“That’s the reason that I brought you here to meet Fenell,” Zebb said, pouring another round.
“Please don’t say anything terrible about her yet,” Arven requested. “I know she might be up to her neck in all of this. I am a man in love, not one without reason, and I don’t need you to buy my trust, Fenell. I will make the first move.”
Arven inverted the bottle until it was empty. “I am very good at my job, Fenell.” He shot back the last dose without missing a beat. “I am quite thorough with ship procedures, and I pay attention to the smallest details. During our pre-flight for the Harris expedition, I noticed an anomaly in the back-up sensor logs. I didn’t have time to dig in pre-launch, so I decided to come back and look into it once we were enroute.” Arven opened another bottle.
“Captain Harris’ PAL had a voice in the higher pitch and register,” continued Arven. “It reminded me of my mother’s, and I found it comforting to listen to. The PAL was curious and a bit anxious at times. Openly optimistic about the mission toward the general crew, while expressing jealousy and acting hostile behind the scenes. I learned this the hard way when I asked the PAL to assist me with some frequency isolation in the logs. I was told that the task was a waste of valuable time and resources. I told the PAL that I would press on without its assistance. It told me that circumventing its warning would escalate the matter to the captain’s attention.”
“I have never heard of a PAL being independently aggressive like you are describing. I am intrigued, please continue,” Fenell urged him on, lighting the hookah once more.
“Lucky for me, I had already uploaded the files to my personal rig that I keep code-locked from the ship’s network,” Arven said. “I told the PAL I was a team player and not to worry about me, cause the matter was out the vapor-lock. Of course, that just made me want to find the solution even more! After my next shift, I stayed up late into the cycle, crunching algorithms until I had the frequencies. Turns out, Captain Harris was on the Shadow Company’s payroll. He was their inside man and would help them take down the convoy. He had used the long-range transmission band of the ship sensors to skip encrypted messages undetected through nexus portals.”
“I did not realize such a thing was possible,” Fenell said as he casually entered the new information into his data pad with one hand and twirled the smoking stem in the air with the other. “Arven Tuttle, you are a goldmine!”
Arven knew what a goldmine was but failed to understand why Fenell called him that.
“At this point I had no choice but to try to get a message to Ilanna and warn her about the captain’s treachery.”
“No, you didn’t!” Fenell and Zepp spoke in chorus.
“I did,” Arven replied. “But I wasn’t able to establish a connection to her comms, so I recorded a message for her and set it to transmit once it connected.”
“Arven, Ilanna was the mastermind behind the whole thing,” Fenell interrupted. “She doesn’t really care for you. You were just a pawn in her plan.”
“Star-crossed lovers, bud, just like in the storybook.” Zebb’s comment fell on deaf ears.
(To be continued…)