Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Keyla Damaer – Keyla is an Italian author who has enjoyed writing since she was a child. She travelled a lot, especially throughout the United States, where part of her family lives, and that gave her the opportunity to deepen her knowledge of the English language, which she had cherished since she was a child. She was born and raised in Rome, where she still lives with her husband and her turtle. By day she’s a part-time accountant, but by night she’s an imagination engineer with a way with words. The Parallels is the first book of The Sehnsucht Series and her first novel published as an independent author.
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Thanks so much, Keyla, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Keyla Damaer: Just the other day, I found an old manuscript of mine on my bookshelf. It’s dated 1987. I was a young teen then. Let’s say that I’ve been writing all my life. Of course, at the time I was writing in Italian, and the quality of my stories, in terms of content, wasn’t really exciting.
To be honest, I’ve never thought I was good at writing, but it has been a vent valve for a long time. Around 2010, I started to write in English and shifted my interest in science fiction, or perhaps I should say science fantasy. A few years later, my mentor and current cover artist, Jeffrey Kosh, told me I was good at it, that I should publish a story. He did this after reading what became the prologue of my first novel. Other people said the same. So, here I am, years later, a self-published author.
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
KD: My first work is The Parallels, book 1 of the Sehnsucht Series. It’s a grimdark, soft sci-fi, thriller. The main character is Halazar Meviz, an alien military officer. Her story begins with the murder of her commanding officer. She’s ordered to find out the causes and the culprits of his death and is saddled up with a spy to help her. However, the spy reveals to be of no help. Quite the contrary, he puts everyone’s life at risk. Halazar comes to a point where she has to choose between duty and justice.
Her story is indirectly linked with the other characters of the book: the mentioned spy, a human scientist, a human girl, and an alien enemy. Each one of these characters has its own arc and some of them never meet, but their stories are all politically intertwined. Like parallel lines, they go on to the infinite but never meet.
This is the only work published so far, aside from a short story I give for free to the subscribers of my newsletter.
JSC: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?
KD: In my series, I write about spies, political intrigues, treason, torture, and war in the background of all these themes. So, like most authors, my google search is filled with weird stuff. Some examples:
- how to break someone’s bones in the most painful way but without killing them?
- what does a baby feel while the mother is giving birth to them?
- how to trigger a bomb?
- how can a soldier suffering from PTSD snap out a traumatic memory?
The one about the baby was rather weird and, since no baby can give an answer because we don’t remember, I only found suppositions. But they made sense. And you can find the answer in The Parallels.
JSC: Do your books spring to life from a character first or an idea?
KD: My stories are definitely character-driven. The character enters my mind tiptoeing or striding, depending on their nature. The first thing I notice is gender and physical features. From there, the character whispers to me their background or part of it. As time goes by, more aspects of the background become clear, giving depth to the character inside my head and on paper as well. Or so I hope.
JSC: How long does it take you to write the first draft?
KD: That’s usually fast, relatively to the self-editing. It can take me a month or two, depending on the length of the story. But it can take years to fix what doesn’t work. I’m really slow, even if I write full-time most of the year.
JSC: What is the most heartfelt thing a reader has said to you?
KD: This is an extract of what a reader told me in a private conversation. It almost made me cry. I quote:
‘I read your book. I liked it very much. I couldn’t put it down, I finished it in a day. You did a very good job writing it. It was so exciting. I liked Eleanor and Halazar the best. So much bad stuff happened that Christmas. I wasn’t in a good place at that time. It was nice reading your book and get my thoughts on something else. It did make me happier. It did make me interested in reading books again. After reading your book I started reading the Harry Potter books.’
My book is nothing like the HP books, but the sentiment this reader expressed gave me motivation and so much joy.
JSC: What secondary character would you like to explore more? Tell me about them.
KD: Rotima Kosset. She’s mentioned in book 2 of the Sehnsucht Series (not published yet). She’s the late wife of Draken Kosset, the main character of that book. Her ghost will accompany the main character for most of the series. It’s not a paranormal ghost. She was a teacher and her story with Draken is troubled.
Two years ago, when I started writing book 2 of the Sehnsucht Series (no title yet), I was sidetracked by this minor character. I knew she needed more spotlight, but being dead she couldn’t. So I wrote two short stories about her. And after writing them I felt sorry for her. I killed her without even giving her a chance to exist. I can’t deny that I’d love to write a story with her as the main character. A novella maybe, but right now I need to finish editing book 2 and the short stories I already have in draft, waiting to be edited by my wonderful editor Eanna Webb. I can’t let Rotima distract me.
JSC: Let’s talk to your characters for a minute – what’s it like to work for such a demanding writer?
KD: I’m Draken Kosset, the alien main character of book 2 of the Sehnsucht Series. My people, the Manderians, aren’t what you humans would consider a friendly species. We don’t express our emotions. Well, most of us do. My wife Rotima and my child Milvar are two exceptions. This Keyla Damaer is getting under my scales (yes, I’m a reptilian). She’s always digging inside me, trying to find out how I feel. She’s a weak human, can’t blame her for her flaws, but rest assured if she doesn’t stop bothering me I’ll wrap my hands around her white, delicate throat and squeeze it like a lemon. And don’t tell me I would regret it. I never regret a kill. I am a soldier and was born to kill.
I’m Halazar Meviz. I’m the main character of book one. Cooperating with this author wasn’t that hard. In some ways, we are so much alike, even if she’s not Manderian. For some of my people, it’s hard to work with aliens, but I never had problems. However, I must admit this woman puts me through hell. It’s like she enjoys torturing my soul. And by reading what happens to the other characters in The Parallels, it looks like she loves to make us all miserable. Perhaps she despises us but being human, I can’t blame her.
JSC: What pets are currently on your keyboard, and what are their names? Pictures?
KD: Eva, my late turtle. Her drawing, something I recently made, hangs above my desk. She was a nasty piece of beast. For thirteen years she was with us until she got sick during last year’s lockdown. She had an infection that we tried to cure with meds. It didn’t work, and the surgery she needed was too expensive when none of us was working. She’s not physically with us, but in spirit, she’ll always be.
My bio still says I live with her and my other half because I don’t have the heart to change it yet.
She used to love to walk under our feet, especially hubby’s, and used to crawl all over him. But she always hissed at me. Nasty thing she was, but adorable at the same time.
JSC: What are you working on now?
KD: I’ve been working on book 2 of the Sehnsucht Series for a long time. I was sidetracked twice. Once, when I realised the first edition of The Parallels needed a revision. It took me a year or so to rewrite book 1 and fix what didn’t work. The version published now is the second edition.
The second time was when I decided to write short stories about some secondary characters (and not only those) of the saga. Stories that take place many years before book 1. They give an insight into the history of my aliens, the Manderians, and give more depth to my characters.
So, after rewriting book 1 and writing the short stories, I rewrote book 2—this happened last year during Italy’s lockdown. Since then, I’ve spent some time at the hospital and sick at home (not for COVID19) and my daily schedule to write slowed down even more. I’m slow. My readers should be aware of that. Even if I write full-time most of the year (I work for four months in an office), it still takes me time to write. I have second thoughts about my ideas many times, and then add layers of details over layers. It’s like working with a Photoshop project, or even a real painting.
Becoming a good writer requires time and exercise. Since I made the mistake to publish something in a rush, I don’t intend to make that same mistake again. So, know that more stories will come out, but they will only when they’re ready. Book 2 and my short stories of the Sehnsucht Series aren’t ready yet.
And now for Keyla’s latest book: The Parallels:
A militia officer on the hunt for a murderer. A scientist with the key to humanity’s future. A girl in a glass tank with no memory. One seeking justice. One seeking fame. One seeking answers. With the galaxy on the brink of war, time is not on their side.
Aboard Hydra Station, Halazar vows to uncover the truth behind the murder of a friend and fellow officer. Saddled with an ambitious agent with authority over the investigation, she must choose between duty and justice.
Lanees, a human scientist, identifies a group of cells that may change the future of humanity. Her dream of fame seems to be coming true. However, her discovery draws the kind of attention that turns her life into a nightmare.
Meanwhile, in a secret lab on Rigel Prime, a human girl wakes up in a glass tank. With no idea of who or where she is, she struggles to understand her legacy in this strange, morose world.
Join them in their battle for survival.
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Air. It saturated her lungs, choking her.
It hurt at first, but the longer she tried, the better she could inhale and exhale.
Her slow awakening made it hard to focus on her blurry surroundings: a curved glass-wall confined her, and something kept her suspended in mid-air inside a massive, cylindrical jar. She tried to move her arms, but a wave of horror overcame her when she found electrodes attached to her naked body. They pierced her skin. How deep did they go and what was their purpose?
At least breathing caused no additional pain after a while.
A moving shadow.
What is that?
And then another one.
The electrodes limited the movements of her head while shadows kept moving within her peripheral view. One of them fell on her. It belonged to a woman in a white coat wearing round spectacles, her soft blonde curls framing her face. The woman examined something to the left of the tank, took notes on a tablet, and left, never resting her eyes on her, as if she weren’t even there. Perhaps, she was a doctor. She did behave like one.
Only when she tried to speak did she pay attention to the oxygen mask over her mouth.
Of course, that’s how they’re supplying oxygen to me. But I have no memory of breathing before.
If she had to be honest to herself, she had no memories at all before now. She was conscious of being a female and could name everything she had experienced: she could feel, see, and hear. But that was it; she didn’t even remember her name.
More confusion hit her when she gazed down at her naked body. Her breasts were those of a teenager; two peaches ready to drag attention to them.
How can I remember all this but not my own name?
She placed her palms on the glass of the tank. The surface felt smooth and cold to the touch, as expected. She knocked, hoping to get the doctor’s attention. Or someone else’s. No one showed up, though. She tried over and over again, but nothing happened. No one came to check on her.
Maybe they’re in another room. She would wait. Sooner or later, someone would tell her something.
Somehow, she knew she had time. She could wait.
And so she did.
Time went by. She fell asleep and woke up again, but no one wandered about anymore. No more shadows moved around, no white coats, no blonde scientist.
Where’s everyone gone? Have they abandoned me here?
Panic gripped her.
What if they’re all dead and I’m alone? What if someone attacked me and I’m surrounded by enemies?
She screamed inside the mask. Her fists pummelled the glass cage. Her heartbeat accelerated; it looked like her organ would explode inside her chest at any moment.
A weird taste assaulted her mouth. When she tried to spit it out, she couldn’t. Fear rose as a wave of dizziness overcame her. Her struggle increased until her muscles refused to work and the need for sleep intensified.
She flinched when she came around. The bulbs—the only source of illumination inside her tube—disturbed her vision, causing great discomfort to her eyes.
Oh yes. She remembered now. She panicked when the thought of being left alone—or worse, imprisoned by enemies—occurred to her. And the machine responsible for the oxygen inside the tube had reacted to her erratic heart-rate with an automated safety procedure, sedating her. This was a self-sustaining lab.
But how do I know all these things? Am I alone? She had so many questions, but no one there to answer them.
Her heart missed a beat.
A woman’s voice. Where is it coming from?
Someone spoke to her. Maybe the blonde doctor she saw before? There could be a hidden communication device inside the tank. She wanted to talk back, but she couldn’t speak with the respirator over her mouth.
‘Don’t be stupid, Eleanor! You remember how to talk to me,’ the voice said.
No, I don’t. She couldn’t talk. How could she with a mask over her mouth?
Whose voice was that? And how could she hear it in the first place?
‘Yes, you do. You’re talking to me right now. I can hear you the same way you do with me,’ the woman’s voice said. ‘You don’t remember my name … or yours. You are such a disappointment, Eleanor! TALK TO ME!’
The pain inside her head became excruciating. Soon, darkness and silence engulfed her once more.
When she woke up again, nothing had changed inside the room. With all the lights out but for the ones inside her tube, she couldn’t see anything but herself, the electrodes, the bulbs, and the tank. Without the pain inside her head, she rejoiced at being alone.
The voice has gone. Did I imagine it?
She must have because the doctor never spoke out loud. Despite her conclusion, her mind kept wondering and wondering.
Who’s Eleanor? Where’s everyone? Am I crazy?
She concluded that she must leave the tank and find out who she was and what was going on before going bonkers, especially if enemies surrounded her. When she moved her hands to remove the electrodes hindering her head’s movements, however, more doubts beset her.
Where does the feeling of being surrounded by enemies come from?
‘A good question, Eleanor. Why do you think you are surrounded by enemies?’
That voice again.
Wait a moment!
All this time, she had been thinking. How could the voice know what she was thinking?
‘Are you reading my mind?’ That truth struck her as something familiar. Were they telepaths?
‘No, I am sending smoke signals,’ the woman replied with sarcasm. ‘I refuse to work with you. You’re not worth my time,’ the voice concluded.
‘Who are you? Who am I? I have so many questions. I thought I was alone. Where are you? I want to—’
‘Will you stop it? This is not an interrogation. I have been trying to talk to you for hours. Your mind is useless!’ Eleanor could see the woman’s face inside her own head now as a projection from her own mind.
‘Jorelle. That’s your name’
And they were telepaths.
Eleanor’s lips curved up. She remembered something.
‘Yes, I’m Jorelle and you’re Eleanor. Now, stop prying inside my head or I’ll hurt you,’ she spat. ‘A little bit of pain can’t be too bad for you, can it?’
The discomfort at the back of Eleanor’s head exploded once again. Her smile died on her lips, turning into a grimace.
The pain increased, and visions of a burning city flashed into her mind, then faded into blackness. Darkness moulded into shapes. A face looking like Jorelle, but somehow different—perhaps a sibling—familiar visages, places, and unknown faces appeared and disappeared in her dreamlike visions. Then nothing.
Mutya 10, 2493
The news of the explosion that caused the death of Plinn Corbol and his squad of twelve soldiers woke Halazar from an already restless sleep. According to the report she received, the commanding officer of Hydra Station, a tal of the Manderian militia, had gone down in a blaze of glory.
Halazar had served with him for only a few months, but she considered him a friend, even though he was her superior officer.
She threw away the bedsheets in a gesture of anger and frustration, but the mess of her room only added to her temper as her forty-five years of training forced her to leave her area clean and tidy. She gathered the blankets, made the bed, and took a quick hydrosonic shower.
Ten minutes later, she sat at the tactical console in operations—Ops—receiving a more detailed report from young Goa Norfit and thinking about what messages to send to the families of the victims.
Halazar glimpsed the curvy, grey-haired junior officer and couldn’t help comparing herself with the lower-ranked officer every time she saw her. She always coiffed her long hair in dainty braided styles, and her Manderian scales resembled alabaster. The cranial eyeridge above her red eyes highlighted her oval-shaped face. Goa represented everything Halazar had never been: in her standard dark-charcoal uniform—a straight-cut jacket with stand-up collar embroidered with gold buttons, tight blue trousers, grey metal toe cap hobnail boots, and her ripper gun—she was stunning.
The three silver pins designating her military rank of centur shone bright on her collar.
Halazar shook her head to focus on the woman’s report.
‘When Tal Corbol’s vehicle exploded, he was on his way to the space-port to return here after the conclusion of his planet-bound mission. The first report from the surface mentions a quick inspection of the wreckage and doesn’t exclude any possibilities. According to this,’ Goa sneered, ‘anything might have happened, a mechanical malfunction, sabotage, or a full-blown terrorist attack. The list of suspects is long, but merely circumstantial, in my opinion.’ The younger woman handed her a tablet containing the whole report.
Halazar gazed around her. There weren’t a lot of personnel on duty during the night shift, and they both spoke openly to the late tal. However, respecting the chain of command from tal to pal, from pal to centur, from centur to tesser, and all the way down to decur was part of their job as soldiers. Goa should keep opinions to herself, at least in public.
‘Let’s move to Tal Corbol’s office, shall we?’ Halazar led the way to the CO’s room with Goa following her. Once behind closed doors, she stared at her friend’s chair with longing, then turned again towards the centur.
‘Goa, both Plinn and I agreed on certain ideas. Still, speaking like that in front of everyone is not safe. Before the Occupation, the Halden forbade concepts like individuals’ opinions. They imprisoned me for thinking.’
Goa shrugged. ‘I was born during the Five Years’ War, and the Halden was falling by then. I’m not afraid to speak my mind. And neither should you.’
That was not the point. Halazar wasn’t afraid either. That wasn’t a good time to speak her mind. She strode to the desk and took a seat, pointing at the chair across the table.
The junior officer sat down and crossed her legs.
Halazar told herself she shouldn’t forget that younger recruits had no idea what living in the times of the Halden meant.
‘I understand your position, but from now on, I’m asking you to think before you speak. Until someone else arrives to take Tal Corbol’s place, I have to assume command. It’s a responsibility I didn’t ask for but that comes with the job.’ Halazar leant forwards, resting her arms on the desk and crossing her hands. ‘Now, I applaud your honesty, but I want you to keep your personal opinions to yourself when you’re on duty. Unless we’re alone, you’re not supposed to express them. Your professional one will do.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Goa said, uncrossing her legs.
‘We’re alone now. No need to call me ma’am. I want to find out the truth about Plinn’s death. He was … my superior officer, but also—’
‘A friend,’ Goa said, cutting her off. ‘Yes, I miss him too. I served under him longer than you did. He was a kind person. With everyone, even the locals.’ The other woman shifted position again, this time placing her arms on the armrests.
Sadness washed over Halazar, and a bittersweet smile enlightened her face.
She should talk with Marin, the waitress at the Nanhat, and the lover of the late commanding officer. The news would devastate the woman.
Halazar took the tablet from Goa’s hands and read the list of suspects. Marin’s name showed up, of course, like all the people that Corbol had met in the last six months. Goa’s reaction at the report explained itself now.
‘Okay, this list isn’t useless. Let’s make the best of it. We start from here and remove the names that make no sense once we have a report with more details,’ she said.
‘Starting with your name?’
‘I suppose not. It will be the decision of whoever is in charge of the investigation to keep it there or remove it. For the time being, I’m the most suitable person to move on as I studied Crime Law and Deviance back in the day. Not a mandatory subject, but for a time I considered the military police as an option. And my professor was very thorough with his teaching.’ Halazar sighed. ‘Besides, I’m the highest-ranking officer present on the station at the moment.’
Goa nodded, then a chirp of the communication panel interrupted their conversation. A guard warned her that Tal Zamal Dortal from the militia HQ waited on comms to talk to her.
‘I’ll take it from here. Thank you,’ she said.
Goa stood and walked over to the door to leave, but Halazar stopped her. ‘Stay!’ She activated the screen on Plinn’s desk without waiting for the centur to retake her seat.
An auburn-haired woman who looked older than her appeared on the screen, staring at Halazar with inquisitive eyes.
‘This is Tal Dortal speaking. We’ve received the report about the loss of Tal Plinn Corbol. We’re not sending anyone to take his place for the time being. You will do so. You’re also in charge of the investigation, but someone is coming to help with that,’ the woman said.
Someone to help her?
‘Yes, ma’am. I’ll arrange everything. Who’s coming?’
Dortal hesitated. ‘Agent Salin Makbar. He’ll be there in five hours.’
With that news, the weight of the world dropped on her shoulders. Why were they sending an agent of the Draconian Order? What had the secret services got to do with the investigation into the death of a tal of the militia?
‘Understood. I’ll be waiting for him. I’m sure we can cooperate to find out the truth about this unfortunate event.’
Did she actually believe cooperation with the Draconians was possible?
‘What’s going on? Why are the Draconians getting involved?’ Goa blurted out.
Halazar had forgotten about her for a moment.
‘I don’t know, but you’d better keep your mouth shut while Makbar is here. Whatever the reason, he’ll observe everything.’
‘This doesn’t seem very different from what you said about the Halden.’ Goa crossed her arms. ‘Are they listening to us here now?’ Her eyes explored around.
‘That is a possibility. Now, let’s get back to business. We won’t find the truth by staying here arguing about the Draconian Order. Arrange an investigation team. I’ll see you all in meeting room one at 0700 hours,’ she said.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Goa replied, turning her back to her and leaving the office.
Plinn’s chair seemed bigger than ever now that she sat on it. It was only a sensation, but that didn’t change the dreadful response inside her chest.
‘So, based on what we have so far, what are our hypotheses?’ Halazar asked her investigation team. She sat uncomfortably in her chair, arms on the armrests, showing a calm she didn’t feel at all in her new commanding position.
Goa sat to her right. The other three members of the team sat across the oval, metallic table: Rhune Olpren, with the rank of tesser sat at her left. Milfo and Lurin, the two lower-ranking officers, took a seat respectively near Olpren and Goa.
They all wore the standard grey uniforms.
‘The Federal Coalition could have sabotaged Corbol’s transport,’ Lurin speculated, his clenched fists seemingly glued to the table.
Lurin, the youngest member of the team, ranked decur, glared around with his flaming-red eyes. His square jaw and furrowed brow gave him the appearance of a seasoned warrior, but he was far from being one. Still, they needed young and strong recruits to grow up and gain experience.
He was a good addition to the team and Halazar appreciated Goa’s choices.
‘Yes, this could be the first of many attacks from the Federal Coalition, but it seems insignificant if you look at the big picture. If the Coalition wanted to create chaos, they wouldn’t kill just one of our tals and a bunch of soldiers going about Tau. They would aim at something bigger, like the station itself. Our war machine won’t stop because of the loss of a single team of soldiers. That’s not nice to hear, nor to say, but it’s a fact.’ Halazar paused to gaze around her, hiding her pain behind a mask of professionalism. ‘What else?’
‘Taurian terrorists,’ Milfo said, the oldest of the decurs, a twenty-year-old man with an obsession with terrorism. His graduation thesis at the Warfare Institute dealt with its history in the Manderian Directorate.
‘That’s a possibility we can’t exclude, but we haven’t seen a Taurian terrorist attack since the time Tal Kosset was commander of the station. Why would they start again now? Tal Corbol didn’t change Tal Kosset’s politics towards the locals. These people have been living in peace for several years. The newest generation, like our new generations, was born after the end of the chaos that reigned after our invasion. Tau is a peaceful member of the Manderian Directorate. We guarantee peace,’ Halazar responded.
‘But they wanted to be independent,’ Milfo insisted.
‘I’m not saying we can exclude the terrorists from the investigation. I’m just saying it seems improbable that these people would start trouble out of the blue. Maybe the Coalition wants us to believe terrorists are back on track against us. I’m not excluding that possibility either. What else?’ Her eyes turned towards Olpren, a slender twenty-one-year-old male that Corbol had promoted to the rank of tesser just before leaving the station for the last time. They had been teasing him all along for the way he sported his new rank pipes with pride.
‘A system failure on his transport.’ He lowered his eyes from her to the tablet. The fact he had mentioned that option didn’t surprise Halazar. He had lost his mother the same way in an accident.
‘Sure, and in that case, we want to find out what piece malfunctioned and where it came from, who managed maintenance, and so on. We don’t have the luxury to lose good soldiers this way.’
‘What about the Righteous?’ Olpren’s opal eyes shifted back to Halazar’s face. The gentle grey scales covering his visage hardened at the mention of the illegal political movement.
Halazar forced herself to smile at the suggestion. The Rightful Movement—and its followers, called the Righteous—was a hot subject, mostly a taboo.
‘Come on, Olpren! Director Cressel disbanded the Rightful Movement soon after taking power and ordered the execution of all its known members. They’re a figment of your imagination,’ said Milfo, saving her from replying.
‘Milfo, the director disbanded the Rightful Movement indeed. That doesn’t mean there aren’t sympathisers. But what reasons would the Righteous have to kill Corbol? Besides, we still don’t know if it was an act of sabotage, but putting all these ideas on the table is a good start. They might be handy later on,’ Halazar intervened.
‘Or it could be something completely different we’re not yet aware of. Let’s not forget an agent of the Draconian Order is on his way here for an official mission. If they have another agent here, they didn’t want to blow his cover for a simple murder,’ Goa said, touching her chin with her left hand.
Halazar sighed, asking herself if putting Goa in charge of this investigation had been a good idea after all. The woman had a rebel nature, and putting her in direct contact with an agent of the Draconian Order might be a mistake. But she had a point there.
‘Okay, of course, there could be something the Draconians didn’t tell us. Still, let’s not waste time with conjectures. I want facts.’
‘What about a personal vendetta?’ Olpren leant on the table, hands crossed in front of him.
‘I’m not aware of any specific enemy Tal Corbol might have had, but we can’t exclude that possibility either.’ Halazar thought again about Marin, and then forced herself to focus on the meeting. ‘Is there anything else?’
‘Would his wife have had any reason to kill him?’ Goa said.
Halazar stiffened. ‘I’ll take care of his family and friends. We can’t exclude anyone, of course. Is there anything else?’ she replied, ignoring her mother’s voice telling her she was making a mistake.
No one answered.
‘Goa, you’re going to Tau with Milfo and Lurin. Take with you all the engineers and the personnel you need. Examine the wreckage and talk with the locals, the people who saw Corbol during his last mission, then send me a detailed report.
‘Olpren, you’ll stay here with me and make enquiries with the residents of the station and the personnel. I want to find out the truth. We owe it to Tal Corbol and his family. You’re dismissed.’
Everyone left, but Halazar stayed a little longer in the room, pondering about Marin’s secret. Something that could not be filed into an official report, not with a Draconian agent on his way there. Not until she talked to Marin. But first, she had to send messages to the families of the victims, including Corbol’s widow.
Mutya 11, 2493
‘Greetings, acting Tal Meviz.’ Agent Salin Makbar arrived in the middle of the night without being announced. The olive scales of his face exposed to the artificial lights of her office highlighted his cocky expression. Aside from his head, his body was clad in black. He also wore the usual black gloves of the Draconians’ uniform. Even his eyes and hair were black.
He examined the office as if he could scan beyond the average capacity of Manderian vision.
Only then did he take a seat across from her desk; again, without asking permission.
He arrived sooner than expected and behaves as if he owns this station already. Technically, he outranks me if he plays the security card[ Also pulls that card].
‘Greetings to you, Agent Makbar. I hope your trip to Hydra was pleasant enough, despite the grim reasons that bring you here,’ she greeted him back, smiling.
Makbar would be like a korilis’s thorn during the investigation: he was there to spy, not to help. However, she kept hoping for his collaboration. Innocent Manderians had died, and it was their duty to find out why and to punish the people responsible for their deaths.
‘Not quite. I get space-sick when travelling at warp speed,’ Makbar confessed, grinning.
‘I am sorry. If there is anything I can do to make you feel better, just let me know.’
She didn’t believe a word of what Makbar had said but kept smiling nonetheless. An agent of the Draconian Order never told the truth; had he actually been space-sick, he would never have admitted it. Not with her.
Never trust a spy!
‘Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to get back to business. I read the first report about the explosion, and the body of evidence is insufficient at the moment. A squad of engineers, scientists, and technicians is recovering the wreckage and what remains of the corpses. I’m eager to do anything in my power to guarantee the punishment of the people involved in this tragedy, whether they are Coalition collaborators or just distracted workers who did not do their job. I believe cooperation would guarantee the success of our mission,’ she said.
The Agent never took his eyes off her while she spoke, as if he were evaluating her. In all probability, he had read a copy of her personal file and was now comparing the information found there with what he saw.
‘Cooperation. Of course! So you have already restricted the possibilities to treason or technical mistake,’ Makbar said matter-of-factly.
She leant forwards. ‘Well, no. We’re also considering a terrorist attack. And there’s the possibility of a personal vendetta, but I’m not aware of any enemies Tal Corbol could have had. I’m not excluding any possibilities until I have something solid in my hands. If you would like to share whatever data you might have so far, I would appreciate it,’ she added while Makbar kept studying her.
‘Oh, I’m prepared to share all the data I have with you, acting Tal Meviz.’ The agent paused and leaned forwards, placing his elbows on the desk. ‘And I expect you to do the same.’
She observed his black gloves, betting with herself his moves were intended to make her feel uncomfortable. Some people said spies wore gloves to not leave fingerprints anywhere, others said the agents did not want to touch anyone without protecting their scales. Halazar suspected that most of them would be supporters of the Rightful Movement if the director hadn’t disbanded it.
‘By all means. Unless it’s classified data, I will share everything I have with you,’ she said while the agent leant back on his chair, his gloved hands on the armrests.
‘I am not sure that would be enough, acting Tal.’
Halazar didn’t like the way he stressed the word acting. His words implied a hidden threat. She had hoped to work with him, but it was unlikely she’ll get any cooperation from the Draconians.
‘If you’re asking me to spy on the militia for you, I’m afraid that isn’t possible. If a file is classified and you don’t have clearance to access it, then there’s a reason for that. Same as there’re reasons I don’t have clearance to access certain files of yours. It’s called the chain of command.’ Halazar wanted to make a point of the reasons behind her behaviour. ‘All I want is to arrest the culprits of this massacre and prevent them from causing further damage to our people.’ She handed the data strip with the reports to the agent.
‘Oh, but we will stop them and you might take all the credit for it … Or not. It all depends on you, acting Tal Meviz.’ Makbar took the data strip from her.
‘I do not care about getting credit, Agent. I want to save Manderian lives,’ she blurted back.
‘That is very thoughtful of you, but you must understand there are lives that are … expendable.’
Halazar couldn’t believe her ears. Had he come to Hydra to tell her the obvious?
She shook her head. Justice was all that mattered to her. She had fought for it all her life and didn’t intend to stop now. ‘So, you would let other Manderians die because I won’t spy for you?’
‘Halazar,’ he said in an uncharacteristic way to address a stranger, ‘let’s face it. We are effective with our methods, which is why you’re asking for our help. I’ll give it gladly, in exchange for simple information. It is not a big deal, Tal Meviz.’
Was he trying to bribe her by offering her a promotion?
‘It sounds good, doesn’t it? You can’t stay acting tal forever. A promotion—’ Makbar left the sentence unfinished.
No way she would accept that.
‘I do not need a promotion. I’ll have one when and if I deserve it,’ she said, feeling outraged by the thought someone might believe such an offer could tempt her.
Makbar stood. ‘It is commendable how much you believe in the system, although you know very well why you have been denied a promotion until a certain family fell in disgrace. Have a good day, acting Tal Meviz!’ The agent left the office, letting her taste the bitter flavour of her own bile.
She reminded herself that the Directorate was not the Halden. Things had changed. Still, she had no doubts now: Agent Makbar had read her file and about her ordeals with the rich Partaks.