Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hurt

The Sword of the Morning Light - Alex did not know it’s name in Tsla - seemed like a ghost town. Tashen had spent the last forty minutes leading Alex around and they’d seen all of three other people. Alex assumed the presence of a human to be a bit unusual from the stares he was getting. Mostly just surprise, so far.

“So, this happens a lot.” Alex stayed about two steps behind Tashen. He had a longer stride than the Tsalo, but Tashen moved quickly. It evened out as long as they were going in a straight line, which wasn’t very often.

“Yes. Of late it has gotten worse, it has not always been so bad between them.” Tashen turned down another side corridor without warning. He seemed to be ignoring Alex, never looking back, never even tilting his head towards him when he spoke. He still answered without fail.

Alex wasn’t sure why that was. Might be some cultural thing, might be that Tashen just didn’t like him or know what to do with him. “Really? You’ve been working with them for awhile now?”

“Twenty three years and sixteen weeks.” He stopped suddenly, fingers tracing down the side of a wall panel before popping it open and sticking his head inside for a moment. He sniffed the air and grimmaced, closing it with a solid thump and contining down the corridor. “When Princess Tshalan was younger, they were quite close.”

“No kidding. Couldn’t tell that from what I just saw.” Alex slowed to watch the corridor markers long enough to get a translation out of his amp. They were on deck six, forward section two, port passageway two. He was just starting to get a feel for the carrier’s layout. Fairly simple, but he’d still like a map.

“Indeed, there is nothing to joke about.” Tashen took a left suddenly, towards port passageway three.

“So what happened?”

“The Empress did have to explain how her life would be at some time. She was, perhaps...” Tashen trailed off and turned towards the bow on the passageway, not finishing his sentence.

“She was, perhaps?” Alex prompted him, curious as to what Tashen was going to say.

He looked over his shoulder, eyes narrowing as he checked the corridor beyond Alex. “She was harsh, too harsh for a young girl she had doted on before. The Empress, I believe, intentionally drove a wedge between them and now regrets it.”

Alex had gotten the impression that Eleya at least wanted Carbon to be happy, it was no stretch of his imagination to think she’d actually want a good relationship with her as well. “I’d agree with you. I think that’s the only reason I’m here.”

“There are many reasons you are here.”

That piqued his interest. “Such as?”

“You are to keep Princess Tshalan happy.”

“I got that one, not doing too well at it right now. What else?”

Tashen seemed to pick his words carefully when he spoke. “Your new status does not defend just you.”

“Which means?”

“A married couple is given preference when choosing who will next ascend to the throne.” Tashen stopped and tapped a code into a keypad next to a set of blast doors. They slid out of the way with a reluctant thrum, revealing forward launch bays. Rows of fighters and bombers sat in rigging, waiting for pilots and crews.

Alex took it in, not following Tashen as closely as he should have and jogging to catch up at the elevator. “So Carbon and I are next in line to be leaders of the empire? You’re not shi- uh, you’re not joking here, right? That is what you’re getting at?”

“That is exactly what I mean.”

Alex pondered that for a moment, stepping into the lift after Tashen. “So that would protect Eleya. As long as there’s not enough popular support for the rebellion to overthrow the monarchy, assassinating her would just install a human at the head of the empire. I can imagine that would probably not sit well with a lot of people.”

He shook his head as they rose towards the top floor of the hanger. “It would not.”

“But just having me around is going to be tolerable?”

“Both the Princess and the Empress have linked with you, have seen you. They will be taken at their word about your character.”

“Just because someone vouches for my character doesn’t mean anything. There’s no proof there. I can have the best intentions, but there’s nothing that indicates I will do the right thing, particularly by the sensibilities of an alien race.”

Tashen glanced at him as the lift stopped, eyebrows raised a little. “Have you had access to our historical documents?”

“Not really, why?” Alex followed him out onto a wide ledge behind a row of small spacecraft.

He waved a hand and walked down a gangway between two bombers. “What you said reminded me of a first age Emperor.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“Opinion on homeworld is mixed about humans. Your race has often been seen as brash, as un-Tslao. Yet you came to our aid and you continue to help us. Many appreciate that, but are unsure what to make of it. As long as you comport yourself in a fitting manner, you may well sway them.”

“Good?”

“Yes.” Tashen stopped at the end of the gangway and pointed up into the equipment in the ceiling.

Amidst the gear and scaffolding Alex could just barely make out a patch of vibrant blue jacket on top of a bridge crane. He wasn’t sure how she had gotten there, there wasn’t an obvious path to her location. “Carbon? Are you there?”

A moment of silence, then a terse reply. “Go away.”

That wasn’t what he was expecting. “Uh... do you want to talk?”

Silence.

Tashen leaned over and spoke quietly. “It takes her some time to calm down, but she does not usually move once she has found somewhere to sulk. I suggest we give her some space and try again an hour, she is usually more willing at that time.”

Alex nodded. He didn’t like the idea of just leaving her there and the fact she had become this withdrawn bothered him deeply, but Tashen apparently had experience with this. “Carbon? If you’re going to do something stupid, let me know first. Okay?”

“Okay.” Her voice was quiet now, sad.

Alex watched the blue spot for a few moments before he turned and walked back down the gangway. “Is she going to be safe up there?”

“The crane is quite wide and this area is equipped with a fall suppression system.”

“That’s something. Look, I don’t want to go too far, can we just wait in here?”

“We will wait for her at the maintenance hatch she used to get to the crane. From the tone of her voice, I do not think it will be very long before she is finished.” Tashen gestured towards another heavy door down the ledge, outlined in blue and marked with a symbol that looked quite a bit like a wrench and screwdriver.

“That’s good. I don’t like seeing her like this.”

Tashen just nodded and they walked in silence through the doors. The maintenance corridor beyond was just like every other part of the carrier Alex had seen. The same paint and lighting, uniformly clean.

He had barely registered the sound of an extra set of footsteps when someone ran into him from behind. Not hard enough to knock him down, just shoving him forward with a weird tug in his chest.

“Filthy thief.” His assailant hissed into his ear as the tug he couldn’t identify blossomed into a ball of pain in his ribcage that sent him to his knees. Alex looked over his shoulder at one of the soldiers that had been on the transport that had brought him here, his face contorted in hate.

He looked away from Alex, unsuccessfully trying again to pull his weapon from Alex’s ribcage with another blinding shock of pain. The ship’s alarm started to go off. He dimly recognized that Tashen was a few meters away, looking shocked but still composed enough to call for help.

Alex looked down at a finger-sized bit of blade sticking out of his chest. He grabbed at the translucent red blade, intent on removing it before he noticed the red stain on his shirt that extended down to his pants and began to pool on the floor the moment before he lost consciousness.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Clarification

Eleya regarded Carbon for several seconds before she responded. "I have taken care of the problem, dear niece. What else would I have done?"

Carbon bristled at that, hands clenched into fists and eyes burning. "How did you do it?"

"I have married you." Eleya was remarkably nonchalant, given Carbon’s reaction to her knowing about their relationship before.

Alex was a quarter of a second behind the conversation because of his translator. It wasn’t much but it only giving him enough time to make a sort of surprised guttural noise before Carbon exploded. "That is not what we discussed! That is illegal!"

Eleya turned back to her cabinet and topped off her drink. "I was so moved after the young pilot confessed his... enduring love for you that I made it legal and oversaw the ceremony myself. That is the official story. It is much more elegant than what we discussed and I believe it will be taken well enough back home."

Carbon had begun to shake as Eleya spoke. Alex had never seen her this upset before. “Why did you do this?”

She turned and leaned back against the cabinet with cool eyes, all traces of the humor that had been there before gone. “He needs protection. Our people need to have some scrap of confirmation that we are not just being held at arms length as we are drained of our technology. Marrying one into the family worked with the western tribes, it will work here.”

“The western tribes!? That was three hundred years ago and this is hardly the same! They- they were Tslao!”

“They were, but it has always been the place of the royals to lead the way. I do not expect that we will embrace humans the same way the tribes were, but I do expect that the rebellion’s legs will be snapped by this. I told you long ago, dear niece, that your life is mine. That if you were lucky, you would be my sword and shield rather than a payment to keep someone in line. I think it appears that you are very lucky.”

Carbon seethed in silence with her eyes locked on Eleya, hate etched on her face and teeth bared. Her words came slowly, each one loaded with venom. “May I be dismissed?”

Eleya sighed quietly and waved a hand towards the door. “Yes. Go.”

She had started to turn before Eleya had even finished her first word, Alex rising to follow as soon as he realized what had just been said, still shocked at what had just transpired.

Eleya stepped into his path and grabbed his wrist, twisting his arm till his elbow locked. In one smooth motion she pivoted her shoulder into his upper arm and forced him back, the edge of the bed knocking his knees out from under him and planting him where he had just been. “I did not dismiss you, young prince.”

It took Alex a few moments to pick a question out of the possibilities that were roiling in him. His first instinct was to go to Carbon, but Eleya’s statement and the knowledge there was at least one cloaked guard made that seem unwise, for the time being. “Why did you do this?”

She took a drink - he just now noticed she hadn’t set it down when she had stopped him - and gave the room a sidelong glance. “All of you, out.” She paused and shook her head. “He will be fine, Captain.”

The door appeared to open by itself and perhaps three or four indistinct shapes wavered out. Eleya watched them go and seemed to relax as the door closed. She dragged a chair over to the bed and sank into it, gesturing out past the door with her drink. “They sometimes think I am a frail old woman.”

“What the hell?” He was starting to get sorted out. Carbon was upset and he was feeling more and more violated. Erring towards anger felt pretty right.

“You must understand, this is how most of our conversations end. Carbon will hate me for a few hours - perhaps a few days this time - and then go back to just not liking me. I like seeing your concern for her, Alex. It makes me feel much more confident in this decision.” She stretched her legs out and set her feet on the bed next to him.

He felt strangely good when she said that, the fire in him cooling slightly. “Why did you marry us? What does that do other than upset her?” Alex still felt distant from that, the fact of what Eleya had done hadn’t sunk in yet. Mentally, he was still back where he hadn’t even told his parents that he was involved with an alien.

“A bouquet of reasons, the most important being Carbon. As Empress, it is my right to use my family as I see fit. Aside from her odd name, Carbon has always been a tremendous asset. Smart, capable and quite pretty.” She studied her glass before taking a long drink. A sad smile crossed her face as she looked back up. “Long ago, her mother made me promise that I wouldn’t use her as currency. That I would do my best to keep her happy.”

Alex was surprised to hear this coming from Eleya. “You don’t seem to be doing very well at that.”

She laughed. “No. The girl never trusted me and I can’t blame her. I pushed her hard when she was young so that she would be all that she could. As she has grown, she has pushed herself harder than I would have. I have spent the last twelve years trying to make her take even a week of vacation. I gave her houses and ships, offered her everything I could, consulted the best psychologists to find some angle to make her stop for a day. I think she believed that she could outrun me somehow if she did not yield.”

“She is driven, but I don’t see what this has to do with us.”

Eleya’s smile changed, delight in her eyes. “You are blind in the most pleasant way. I wield all the power of the Tslao empire and could not make my niece take lunch early. You flash a smile and the galaxy stops. She loves you more than anything. I linked with you as I did to ensure that you reciprocated that strongly enough. Everything else this might accomplish is just convenient, so long as she is happy.”

Alex was rendered speechless. He almost didn’t believe that Eleya just wanted Carbon to be happy, though he did suppose that Carbon’s memories could be biased. Eleya at least seemed to be honest about this. “I... Uh, I’m glad.”

She stood and pushed the chair back to where it had been. “You should be. Now, go find her. Take Tashen with you. He knows her hiding places and is getting very nervous with my guards out there.”

“Thank you.” He was up and headed for the door in a heartbeat. He needed to talk to Carbon, get everything sorted out and make some sense of what just transpired.

“One thing, before you go.” Eleya stopped him before he opened the door, taking his arm gently and pulling him down to eye level. Her voice was low and her gaze deadly serious. “I do not care about you, Alex. I care about how you make her feel. Do not disappoint me.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Welcome Home

As Alex drifted back into consciousness he felt weak and nauseous, but at least he was laid out on something soft. Then he became aware of the vast and impressive tableau of discomfort that was his body. Pain radiated from his neck in all directions, head to abdomen, fallout from being stunned. This was overshadowed by someone who had their knee jammed into his groin in a most uncomfortable way.

He assumed it was the same someone who was now rifling through his memories. The other presence was familiar and strange at the same time. The family resemblance was still strong. Eleya felt a little bit like Carbon in his mind and they both liked to ransack his brain while he was unconscious. At least Carbon had done it because she wanted to know if he was still alive. This felt like the violation that Carbon had been concerned about.

All of this thinking drew her attention. Her presence was smooth and glassy, impenetrable. Not that he had the ability to do anything other than slow her down... but he was getting angry enough to do that.

Alex started thinking about unimportant things. Playing tag as a kid, watching movies he didn’t like, filling out paperwork. A bunch of noise in the signal. It made it more difficult for Eleya to find what she was looking for.

She did not appreciate that. Her presence regarded him for a moment and peeled off a memory, thrusting it down into his mind. The curious sensation of the skin of the eyelids as it gave way under her claws, the sudden heat of blood as her thumbs plunged into the eyes of someone else who had resisted her. The screaming. She didn’t enjoy it as she did it, but it was something that had to be done. His stomach twisted, shocked at the memory as it played out.

The thumbs holding his eyelids closed shifted as sharp claws caressed the delicate skin beneath them. He got the message.

She went back to rummaging, dragging up a few recent memories. Dinner with Ed at Noonan’s, the flight back to the carrier. That was all she needed, apparently, fading away from his mind a moment after the memory was done.

Eleya let his eyes go, blinking in light of her bedroom. He was on her bed - no big surprise, there were not a lot of soft objects large enough for him in there that he had seen. She flipped her antennae back and leaned down, whispering in his ear. “I did not mean to disturb you with that, I am sorry.” She kissed his forehead and sat up, straddling his leg, knee thankfully removed from his junk.

“Bit too late for that.” He rubbed his temples, doing nothing but setting off new bursts of pain in his head.

“You are correct. This was a necessity, if not a distasteful one. You do not yet know our ways and I did not yet know you.” She climbed off his leg and sat next to him on the bed, legs folded under her.

“That’s really stupendous. Maybe you could just try to explain things first next time?” He sat up, face to face with her again.

“There is no need. I have learned what I sought from you.”

“Okay. So do I just leave now? Or is there some other terrible thing you wish to do to me?” As his head cleared, he was becoming more irate and her non-answers did not help.

She smirked at that and turned away, sliding towards the end of the bed. The tips of her antenna glowed, forked beads of metal resting just behind the fluffy part. Must be how she was translating. She set her hand down on his ankle as she stood and may have given it a squeeze. He wasn’t sure exactly how he should feel about that, but it definitely made him feel awkward. Eleya smoothed her jacket and strolled over to a small cabinet and poured herself a drink. “There are many more terrible things in your future, Alex. I intend to do many things to you... and perhaps there are things you will do for me.”

Her phrasing left him uneasy, unsure if that was how she meant it to be or if it was just the translation. “That’s creepy, but I guess I don’t have a lot of options, do I?”

She sipped the amber liquid and shook her head with a smile. “No. Do not worry, Alex. You will not find the tasks I set before you distasteful. You may actually enjoy them.”


He was starting to understand Carbon’s resignation before he came in here. There were a lot of answers coming from her, but they were all empty. “You aren’t used to giving away information, are you?”

“You cannot know how refreshing you are, so free of guile.” She laughed and seemed, if only for a moment, legitimately happy. “A rare quality here, I am afraid. It does make my dear neice’s interest in you much more clear.”

“Thanks.”

She shrugged and set her glass to the side, picking up a tablet. “I am glad that she is not just chasing a nice pair of ankles.” She wrote something on the tablet and tapped a few times. “I did expect someone with a bit more face. Though yours does have good symmetry.”

“Uh, that’s... Good to know.” He wasn’t sure where the hell she was going now.

“Yes, it is.” She continued to write on the tablet.

That conversation seemed to be a dead end. “So, maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what’s going on?”

Eleya didn’t look up from her tablet. “Yes, now is as good a time as any. In the wake of the disaster on Schon, our relationship with Humanity has grown at rate much faster than it has before. Much faster than we would normally be comfortable with.”

Alex nodded and scooted forward to sit on the edge of the bed. This was more like what he was looking for. “Yes, I am aware.”

“Good. This has met with some resistance in certain circles. We have been an isolated people for a very long time and they do not want this to change. When it was just trade treaties, they would grumble and complain. Now that we have given up one of our most advanced technologies on a gamble to find more planets, they do much more.”

“Such as?”

“There have been a few assassinations and they are attempting to foment a rebellion to overthrow the monarchy. This is not in my best interest. It is not in Carbon’s or yours, either. Until now, they have kept their sights set on loyal members of the government, but one of our spies had determined that you are marked now, as well.”

He swallowed. Today was turning out to be a big day, meeting the Tslao Empress and finding out that he was targeted for assassination. “Why do they care about me? I haven’t had anything to do with... anything.”

“You were directly involved with the Kshlavo. They want our alliance broken, and you are one of the few names so intimately tied to this endeavor. I have no doubt they would destroy a space station to get to you. They’ve done it before.”

He sighed slowly. “So, what can I do about this?”

“Not much. You lack the security apparatus necessary. I would prefer you not get your government involved. I do not want your oh en eye crawling around on my flagship for any reason. So, I offer you our protection.”

“Great. Thank you, I appreciate that.”

“As you should.” She looked up from her tablet, addressing the wall again. “Send her in.”

Alex wasn’t sure he would get used to that. He kind of hoped he wouldn’t have to. “I don’t have to do anything? Your people will just take care of it?”

She tapped the tablet a few more times before setting it down as the door opened. She had that smirk on again as she nodded. “No, dear nephew. Our people will take care of it.”

Carbon stopped for a moment, stunned. When she spoke, her voice was laced with murder. “What have you done?”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Grilled

Carbon just looked at Alex for a moment, confusion etched on her face. That gave him a flicker of hope that she hadn't been hiding something like that from him, or perhaps her escort was just being a jerk.

The confusion gave way to understanding as her eyes fell onto his translator. While he had kept the Whisper a secret, he had told her about the Immersion Translator before he got it. He wanted to made sure it wouldn’t bother her and she had told him it wouldn’t. She probably had not foreseen this particular circumstance, though.

Much to his disappointment, she slid right down into guilt. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, almost meek. "Yes?"

Alex was surprised at just how much that hurt. His eyes narrowed as he shook his head. "It’s nothing. I thought I had forgotten my ID, but I've got it." He reached back and patted his wallet.

"Good. We should hurry, the shuttle is waiting." She gave her escort a sidelong glance, neatly avoiding Alex's eyes.

He fought back the urge to say something snide. “Don’t want to keep them waiting.”

They walked in silence the rest of the way to the elevator, were whisked up to the landing bays that comprised the top few floors of the arcology. The Tslao ship was easy to spot, low slung and neatly poised. It looked almost organic, gentle angles swept up into gracefully curved winglets. Thick stripes of reddish-purple paint ran over the dark gray hull from nose to tail, arching back along the sides. The pair of guards standing at the forward hatch didn't hurt, either.

Alex ducked as he entered the craft, suddenly aware of just how short everyone was compared to him. The interior was spartan and empty, purely a military transport. Carbon crossed the wide cargo area before flipping a seat down and buckling herself in. Alex followed her over, wedging himself into the jumpseat next to her and finding that he was too large for the safety harness.

The others had secured the hatch and taken up residence in the seats next to it, the engines warming with a gentle hum moments later as the pilot lifted off. Alex waited, biding his time until blue skies had faded from the tiny window in the hatch. He kept his voice low. “So... you were going to tell me about that, right?”

Carbon didn’t respond immediately, crossing her arms over her chest. When she did speak, it was similarly quiet. “The translation was not accurate.”

“Uh-huh.” He chewed back another petty remark that felt satisfying to think but would have been unproductive if he actually said it. “That’s not what I asked, but okay. I’m still listening.”

“It is more like...” She considered it for a few moments, chewing on her lip. “It is more like your Duchess, I think.”

“That’s not better. I’m not even sure what the hell that is.”

He caught her rolling her eyes. “It is below Empress, but I cannot be considered a Princess because I am not in immediate line for the throne.”

“Well, now that that’s cleared up... You were going to tell me, right?”

“Of course.”

“I can understand you not wanting to tell me when I was just a pilot, but we’ve come a long way since then. It’s not like-”

Carbon cleared her throat quietly, glaring at him and then looking over at the soldiers sitting across the way. “Later.”

Alex looked over just in time to see the one that had escorted them fold his ear back down tight against his head. “Alright.”

It was a mercifully short trip. They were expected and promptly landed in an empty bay. Alex and Carbon disembarked and were met by a short, dark gray male dressed similarly to Carbon, black pants and short brocade jacket with a high collar. Alex was starting to understand why they did their laundry separately.

“Alex, this is Tashen, my attaché.” She didn’t seem particularly pleased to see him.

“Good to meet you.” Alex stuck a hand out, trying to maintain some level of decorum. Tashen wore a personal AI, Alex assumed he would be translating as well.

Tashen looked at Alex’s hand, then up at him and finally over to Carbon as if he was trying to figure out what was appropriate before turning back to Alex and giving a very shallow bow. “It is fine to meet you as well, Pilot Sorenson. Please, we must not keep the Empress waiting.” His lips moved well out of sync, the translated voice stopping a full second after he was done speaking. That was going to take some time to get used to again.

Carbon set her hand on his wrist and gently pushed his arm back down to his side. She seemed oddly resigned. “Just bow. It will be more comfortable for everyone we meet.”

“Yes, she is correct. Please. We will go now.” He gestured for them to follow, turning and striding towards the nearest exit. Carbon followed with a quiet sigh, Alex staying close behind. The corridors were dark grey bulkheads with dusky red support ribs, each intersection neatly marked in Tsla. Right now it was eerily empty as well, something he presumed was because of his presence.

Tashen lead them to a lift and leaned in to the control panel, eye pressed up to a retina scanner. He seemed impatient more than anything as he ushered them in and pressed the top button. Alex was reasonably lost at this point and he was sure he wouldn’t be using the lift without an escort. Not that he had any intentions on leaving suddenly.

The lift pulled up and deposited them a very fancy room. Plush red carpet, tapestries hanging from the walls and finely carved wooden furniture made it feel much less like a carrier than before. This was more what Alex expected for royalty.

“This way. She is expecting you.” Tashen gave him a delicate pull towards the tall doors at the other end of the antechamber.

“Wait, you’re just going to send me in alone?”

Carbon nodded. “Eleya prefers to meet with people alone. Just bow, deeply. You will be fine.”

“Are you sure?” He very clearly remembered how Carbon felt about her, nerves creeping into his voice now.

“You are not family, you will be fine.”

“It is as she says.” Tashen urged him towards the ornate wooden doors.

“Alright.” His heart still pounded in his chest, despite their reassurances. The metal of the door handle was cold under his fingers as he twisted it, the door gliding open silently and closing behind him with a soft thump. The room beyond was swathed in crimson curtains, trimmed in gold. The air was heavy with incense, all traces of the ship erased.

It took a few moments to notice that Eleya, the Empress of the Tsalo was there, seated neatly on the edge of a bed. The next second after that was spent realizing that this was her bedroom. Curious.

“Hi.” He started to wave and then caught himself, bowing as Carbon had indicated.

She seemed to be quite amused by that, standing with grace and closing the distance between them. There was a definite family resemblance, the same blue-black fur and azure eyes with a trio of gold piercings glittering along the top edge of her ears. They dressed similarly as well, though the Empress’ jacket was much more ornate and appeared to be ready to slide off her shoulders. “Your presence is greatly appreciated, Pilot Alex Sorenson.”

“Oh, it’s nothing.”

A coy smiled played over her lips, eyes studying him intently. Her fur was starting to turn silver around her mouth and on the top of her head. A U shaped line of silver fur sat on the front of her right shoulder as well. Eleya stopped in front of him and he could see a matching U on the back of her shoulder... apparently a bite mark. “My niece speaks well of you. She is quite impressed with your intelligence, among other things.”

“I’m glad to hear that. She’s been exceptional at everything I’ve seen her set her mind to.” Alex hesitated, not sure what he should expect. She didn’t seem to be as bad as Carbon had lead him to believe, though. “If you do not mind me asking, Empress, why did you want to see me?”

“Some security issues have come to light in the past few days, some of which may involve you and your well being. Before any moves are made on these, there were some questions I needed answered.”

“Of course. Ask away.” Alex was quite sure that she, of all people, would have high enough clearance for anything that might come up.

“Thank you.” She looked over at the wall and tipped her head at Alex.

As he looked at the heavy curtain he caught a flicker of motion and ozone filled his nose. He had just about enough time to put the two together - telltale signs of someone using cloaked armor - before a stun baton slammed into his neck, seizing the muscles in his upper body and sending him sprawling to the ground, unconscious.