Garran wished he could pace. He could think better when moving. Damn. He pushed back from the table and balanced on his rear wheels. The forward and backward motion necessary to keep his balance was helping—somewhat.
Everyone around the table was looking at him expectantly; Aurra, Doc, Jason and DF were waiting for him to answer the question that had been posed: Where are they?
Jason had already confirmed that the transmission had come from a satellite orbiting Horlus I, but he hadn’t been able to narrow down the source of the message to an originating server. The source address had obviously been spoofed, meaning it had existed only for the duration of the transmission, and no trace-route would be able to point back to its origin.
Garran assumed this was deliberate. Though it made it harder for them to find Soul, it also made it harder for others to do the same thing. Garran was certain that Soul knew he was alive and that the message had been meant for him. Soul obviously also knew that he was in transit and consequently rescue would be at least a week away; if not considerably more. All of this together—Garran was certain—meant that Soul expected him to be able to determine Soul’s location by the wording of the message alone—Garran and nobody else. 2 CR was easy. Code Red—two people to extract.
Garran turned his wheelchair and looked at the large monitor on the far wall, reading the message that was displayed in bold letters for the thousand’s time:
Taku Skan-Taku Skan-Taku Skan.
4 flights from the top of HI.
Four flights from the top of Horlus One. Or was HI an abbreviation for something else? It was clearly the location of where Soul expected Garran to find him, but how? Garran brought his wheels back down and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, closed his eyes and massaged his temples, as if the pressure could magically make the answer appear in his mind. However no memory or spark of inspiration was forthcoming. His chest tightened at the thought that Soul could be in similarly bad or even worse shape than he was and relying on him not only to figure out this riddle, but to get him out of there as well. In the past Garran would have thrived under the pressure, but now he felt nothing but uncertain. By Horlus what he wouldn’t give for a pair of working legs right now.
He heard the scrape of a chair and sat up again, watching DF get up and disappear into the galley. Aurra got up too and stepped behind Garran, putting her hands on his shoulders where she started to knead his traps. “You are trying too hard—relax. Maybe it’s actually not some hidden message only you can figure out. Maybe the meaning is literal.”
Aurra had put her entire, if limited resources at his disposal. Her trust in his abilities made him feel even more annoyed with himself about how petulant he had acted over the last few days. Garran released a breath he hadn’t even realized he had been holding. “Maybe you are right. But I’m still at a loss what it means.”
“Let’s look at this logically.” Doc chimed in. “4 could be the number four or the preposition for. Flights could be related to planes or space crafts. What else flies?”
“It could mean hops, as in touch downs on a standard route to somewhere.” Aurra volunteered.
“So the Top of H one could mean the highest port on Horlus I.” Garran added.
DF returned with a tray full of coffee mugs he handed out to everyone before resuming his seat at the table.
Garran felt the tightness across his chest ease back a bit. He put a hand on Aurra’s who was still busy giving him a massage, twisted in his chair and smiled up at her. “Thanks, much better. I think we might be getting somewhere now.” He pulled her sideways back to her chair next to his. “Jason, check the elevations of all the ports, in fact, find the highest natural elevation, too. Maybe that will point us in the right direction.”
“Way ahead of you.” Jason shot back with a grin as several topographic maps appeared on the large screen.
An hour later they had checked out every significant elevation all over Horlus I and all locations that were obviously within a distance of four something from there, but still nothing made sense.
“Well,” Doc mused, “maybe it’s not flights as in flying, but as in fleeing.”
“Possible.” Garran rotated his head, feeling the tension creep up his neck again. “But then how does that relate to the Top of H one?”
“Or H I if we want to consider that option.” Aurra added.
Doc shrugged. “Don’t know—have to think about it some more.”
The group sank back into silence.
“Maybe it’s stairs.” DF offered his input for the first time.
Garran looked at him, prompting him with a hand gesture to carry on.
“I … I mean … maybe it’s flights of stairs.” Redness was creeping up his cheeks.
Aurra’s eyes lit up. “Yes, that could translate into floors or levels.”
“Floors in a building—the highest building on Horlus I.” Garran’s grin nearly split his face. “DF you’re a genius!”
At the compliment DF blushed even more.
A list of buildings and their specifications was already appearing on the monitor as Jason typed furiously on his console. A moment later the highest building had been identified as Fano Tower in Fanowar, Horlus I’s capital city.
“So who or what is on the fourth floor from the top?” Garran asked into the round.
After a while Jason brought up a list of purchase registrations for the various levels from the property registrar’s office. “It looks like they only sectioned the property by whole floors,” he commented. “The top 45th floor penthouse is owned by a Flavia van der Riijn. All the other floors are owned by companies. The 41st floor belongs to the Folkvangar Trading Company – Imports and Exports Limited.”
“Do you think this company might be directly involved? Or do you think someone is just using the location to hide them?” Aurra asked.
“Jason, can you figure out what they are trading in?”
“According to their web site they trade in exotic furs, fabrics and animal skins.” Jason responded, pulling up the home page.”
“No.” Everybody’s attention shifted to DF. “They don’t.” In stark contrast, all the earlier color had disappeared from DF’s face. “If they trade anything at all it’s slaves. The 41st floor is where Flavia van der Riijn keeps her personal slaves.”
Garran’s throat had gone dry in the same moment as he felt triumphant elation at this sheer stroke of dumb luck. He cleared his throat and then he said more than a statement than a question. “You have been there before.”
DF only nodded.
Aurra had excused herself and returned to the cockpit while Garran and Doc grilled DF on every possible detail he could remember about the illustrious socialite Flavia van der Riijn and her residence while Jason was assisting them with additional online research.
All of a sudden the likelihood of success of a rescue mission had swung from improbable to highly likely. At the same time Aurra felt both a sense of trepidation and guilt. Trepidation about what might happen to Garran when he put himself in the firing line again; because paralyzed or not, she was certain he wouldn’t stay behind and let others do the extraction. And guilt about wanting Garran for herself, about not wanting him to risk his life for these other men, even if one of them was his best and oldest friend.
She had never been a jealous person, but suddenly she found herself afraid of being relegated to distant second best behind Soul Whitefeather. If the rescue was successful would Garran even waste another thought about her? Remember their fragile but explosive relationship? Would he instead fall back into old habits and on old comforts? Would Garran, Soul and the third man stick together and rebuild their lives on Horlus III while she carried on traversing the emptiness of space? Never long enough in the same place to form meaningful connections?
Cold sweat broke out across Aurra’s brows. Since the age of sixteen, when she had run away from the government orphanage where she’d grown up and literally straight into the arms of Bryn MacCowan, she had lived this nomadic life. Bryn had been her senior by just about ten years and had been mature enough to provide stability to the frightened teenager she had been so many years ago. After Bryn’s death she had been too numb, she had been unable to do anything other than put one foot in front of the other and carry on with her daily routines.
But now, now she wanted to live again. She had made a new beginning and she wanted a happy ending and she had fallen in love with the stubborn, one-legged, paralyzed, incredibly sexy and fabulously handsome Garran Raulsten. In his moment of weakness he had accepted her words that he was enough of a man for her, but now, now that the balance had shifted, would she be enough of a woman for him?