When she suddenly stopped walking at the base of the dropship’s gangplank, Silphy enDiabel’s entourage halted abruptly and turned to see if something was wrong. They waited patiently on the tarmac under the blazing Intaki sun for several moments as she stood absolutely motionless, staring at the ground.
"Miss enDiabel?" The only decorated Space Police officer in the bunch stepped forward, reaching out for her arm.
She waved dismissively at him and knelt slowly, pulling her long braid of synthetic blond hair behind her shoulder as she ran her hand across the concrete landing platform, tilting her head to examine her palm when it came back covered in a thin layer of dust and small pebbles. Smiling, she stood up and rubbed her hands together, nodding for the entourage to continue on their way to the cathedral’s spaceport terminal a short distance away. Despite the glaring sunlight reflecting off the glass paneled surface, she could see several figures anticipating her arrival near the main entrance.
As she led the group to the terminal, the last two armed escorts established positions near the ship, one of them leaning in closer to the other and whispering, "What was that all about?"
Not taking his gaze off of his responsibility, he whispered back, "It’s been a while for her."
Making his way through the murmuring crowd of worshipers as delicately as possible, the courier approached the hooded woman from behind and coughed subtly, standing with his gaze averted. When she casually turned around to meet his gaze, he seemed on the verge of choking, but managed to stutter, "I have a message for you from Internal Security, Reverend Mother."
"Go on," she breathed, downplaying the conversation so as not to attract the attention of anyone else in the chamber, a sprawling temple just as impressive for its size and grandeur as it was for the haste in which it was constructed. Despite the fact that her official title was Chief Executive Officer, she had to admit to herself that she secretly enjoyed being called Reverend Mother by the frightful, superstitious locals on many of the worlds her organization aided.
All the Sisters of EVE ever asked for in return for their humanitarian assistance was permission to construct cathedrals dedicated to their faith, and over the years they had perfected the science and art of completing such structures in a matter of mere hours. The one in which they stood had a ceiling over thirty meters high and could seat twenty-thousand worshipers during its daily services, one of which had just ended.
"A ship has arrived," he began, glancing in each direction to make sure no one else was within earshot before continuing. "A Syndicate ship."
The woman pulled the hood back over her shoulders, revealing a tight bun of thick brown hair held in place with an ornate ivory clip. She folded her hands into the sleeves of her robe before chiding the messenger. "I believe this is a matter the local authorities can handle, my child. The Syndicate knows their place, so if they…"
Interrupting her and immediately regretting it, the boy clenched his eyes shut, expecting to be harshly reprimanded, but spoke his peace anyway. "Not they, Reverend Mother: her."
"Her?" She inhaled as if to say something else, then stopped abruptly and looked around the room. When she finally did finish her thought, she spoke a little too loudly, prompting more than a few bystanders to take notice. "Silphy is here?"
"Yes, Reverend Mother. She waits for you in the rectory." Instantly understanding that he had overstayed his welcome, the messenger bowed his head respectfully and dashed off through the crowd of dispersing worshipers.
Santimona Sarpati met the lingering stares of several onlookers before replacing her hood and gliding off toward the arched corridor.
Silphy was standing with her back to the door when Santimona entered the meeting room, an oddly shaped octagonal chamber with smooth metal walls that curved inward near the ceiling to create a geometric pattern of etched reliefs. Directly opposite the door was a wide, double-paned window looking out on Intaki V’s capital city, Lenoika, its flat-roofed buildings boiling in the red afternoon sun. She didn’t move at all in response to the Reverend Mother’s arrival.
"I was told there would be rain today or tomorrow," she said to the window.
Santimona loosened the silk rope that kept her formal robe closed and moved to a seat at the low, square table in the very center of the room, which had but two chairs. When she was certain that the elegant garment had fallen properly over her crossed legs and was free of any wrinkles, she replied, "We’ve found meteorological reports rather inaccurate on this planet, considering the late sequence of this system’s star." Conjuring up a hollow smile, she offered, "Stay a few days and you’ll see rain, I promise. You’ll have to find accommodations in the city, though; only Sisters are allocated living quarters on the premises. You understand."
Silphy didn’t take the bait, just stared out the window. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Miss Sarpati."
"I’m not quite certain why you wished to speak to me, actually." Resting one of her pale arms on the table, she drummed her fingers. "Is your station experiencing another food shortage?"
Silphy turned at last to look her in the eye, but still refrained from reacting to Santimona’s repeated jabs at their tumultuous history. Instead, she copied her smile and played along. "No, but you have the Syndicate’s continued thanks for the Sisters’ assistance in that matter."
Santimona nodded appreciatively, but only for appearance’s sake. She continued counting quietly to herself. Twenty-eight, twenty-seven, twenty-six…
"How are your efforts proceeding here on Intaki V?" Silphy reached the table in three steps, but didn’t sit, instead leaning on it just enough for her shadow to pass over the other woman. "Will you be here much longer?"
"As I’m sure you remember," Santimona replied, "the cathedral is always our last item of business for any project." She motioned for her guest to take a seat, but Silphy straightened back up instead. "I’m sorry," Santimona amended, "but I’m not exactly certain what your title is these days. How should I address you?"
"Syndicate titles are purely for internal use, so you needn’t worry about them. I have, however, returned to using my family name." Silphy paused for a few moments, looking at Santimona inquisitively. "Do you know what enDiabel translates to, roughly, in the original Intaki dialect?" As she spoke, Silphy strolled around the conference table with the practiced ease of a seasoned politician circling her audience.
Knowing that she wasn’t really expected to answer the rhetorical question, Santimona simply raised her eyebrows and waited for Silphy to continue her train of thought.
"Good," she said with a smirk. "How much longer?"
Two, one "Now." Santimona lunged forward on the table as Silphy hurriedly took the opposite seat and closed in as well. When next she spoke, the Sister had an urgent, hushed tone. "It was a little more difficult to time the punctuated recordings in this facility since it’s so new. When the sensors realign during this log, everything between now and the point when it resumes will look like a momentary glitch, which the operator will probably chalk up to sunspot activity. We might only have a few minutes.
"That’s all we’ll need if everything is in place. If that crusty old merc refuses to talk to me directly, you need to convince him that including us is going to be much easier than locking us out." Silphy slammed her hand down on the table to conclude the statement. Her eyes shimmered in the crimson-tinted light that streamed into the room.
"And if he refuses?" All traces of ire had evaporated from Santimona’s voice.
Silphy turned her head and clenched her jaw tightly before answering. "Tell that traitorous son of a bitch that the Syndicate isn’t going to sit idly by as another government ignores us. And if Mens thinks those pedantic mercenaries are going to hinder our business one bit, he is sorely mistaken." Leaning forward and composing herself, she spoke calmly, "What I mean is that we have something to offer both entities if we’re brought in on the deal." During her brief, emotional response, a lock of hair had escaped the lengthy braid running down her back.
Reaching out across the table, Santimona gently pushed the loose hairs back behind Silphy’s ear and smiled. "Yes, that’s more like it. Flies with honey, my dear."
Silphy almost reached up towards her hand, but stopped herself short. "What do you think he’ll say, Mona?"
"That depends," she said, her attention seemingly elsewhere for a few seconds, then reasserted herself suddenly, "on what you’re offering him. Remember that you have two flanks to address, and in my experience, Muryia can be very difficult."
Silphy leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, taking the time to choose her next words carefully. "Tell him that the Federation hasn’t controlled trade in this system for decades, and that if he wants that blood money from Mens to keep appearing in his bank account, he’ll learn to respect the local culture."
"Ahh, now that’s going to be the hard sell. He’s not at all happy about your little stunt with the Zephyr shuttles. Everyone who produces shuttles took a noticeable hit when you did that. If you offer the right commodity, I’m sure he’ll reciprocate."
Covering her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle her laughter, Silphy nonetheless refused to look away. When she was able to control her mirth again, she explained, "I think I have just the thing his corporation would appreciate. There’s a funny story behind those shuttles, by the way, but I don’t think we have time for it."
"You’re right," Santimona replied abruptly, standing up and pulling her robe tightly about her. Twelve, eleven, ten…
Mirroring her posture as she stood from her seat, Silphy leaned forward onto the table once again and shot her counterpart a seductive grin. After a few seconds of silence, she asked, "Do you ever miss it?"
"Every day," Santimona replied with a nostalgic sigh. Three, two, one…
Reaching back and putting her shoulder into the effort, Santimona whirled around suddenly, lashing out with one open palm to strike Silphy across the face. The impact’s sharp crack echoed around the room as Silphy tumbled backward over her chair, landing on the floor in a disheveled heap.
Shrieking at the top of her lungs, Santimona stormed around the table, pointing accusingly at her prone target. "Does your arrogance have no bounds?" When Silphy had recovered enough to sit up and wipe the trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth, the Sister continued, "I won’t jeopardize this honorable organization to subsidize your criminal agenda!"
"You’re pathetic," Silphy finally uttered, pulling herself up and immediately assuming a defensive position. Beyond the doors, she could hear her security escort arguing with the Sisters of EVE guards stationed there. "I can see right through you, Sister. You’re insane if you don’t think the Intaki are going to figure out why you’re really here. This was your last chance to get through this with any semblance of your obsolete cult intact."
As the doors burst open and half a dozen armed men encircled each woman, Santimona shrugged off her protectors and released a parting shot. "I should have known you’d never change, Silphy. Get off this planet."
Glaring at the Reverend Mother spitefully, Silphy shook her head and stalked out of the room, her escorts hustling to keep up with her determined pace. They marched through the cathedral without stopping until they reached the gangplank of the dropship, which was casting an elongated shadow over the landing pad, its metal hull sizzling under the unrelenting sun. Silphy turned to face the ornate building, her eyes following the swooping architecture up to the steeple near the top, which was emblazoned with the Sisters of EVE holy crest. "Sadistic witch," she spat.
Not far away, in the cathedral’s security chief’s office, Santimona watched Silphy intently on the holographic display. With her sentries still nearby and the chief respectfully out of the way so the older woman could use his station, she studied Silphy’s every move, frowning as the Syndicate’s unofficial leader spit on the ground in contempt before boarding her ship. "I often wonder which is more perplexing: the fact that she abandoned the Sisterhood or that she was ever allowed to join in the first place."
Reclining in her personal quarters aboard the starship, Silphy took a sip from a glass of ice water and held it to her cheek, wincing reflexively. Chuckling to herself, she tapped her password into the console embedded in herchair’s armrest, prompting a translucent heads-up display to appear in the air half a meter in front of her. Scrolling through several waiting messages, she chose one of the more recent ones and read it quickly.
Silphy tapped the controls that would establish a direct connection to the person who had sent the message. She waited patiently until her screen evaporated, replaced with the three dimensional head of an older man covered in elaborate facial tattoos. "Silphy," he said respectfully.
"Mr. Lecante," she answered, nodding slowly. "Have the other families reached a consensus?"
"Yes." He looked around as though there were other people in the room with him, but none were visible on the holographic display. "They’ve agreed to your plan. So what’s our next move?"
"Consolidate all the data received from the Zephyr program, everything those oblivious capsuleers have given us on wormhole space. Prepare the datacores for immediate transport; a representative from the Sisters of EVE will be arriving shortly to take possession."
Lecante nodded. "I think you’ve really nailed this one, Silphy. That’s precisely the kind of token Ishukone won’t be able to resist."
"I know," she concluded, touching the disconnect button and raising the glass to her cheek again. She spent the remainder of the journey back to Syndicate space staring out the window of her cabin, unable to conceal her nostalgic smile.