Previously in Only Slightly
Following the death of Linda and the arrival of The Geraldine, Anneka returned to her hotel on Gir-Aris to discover everyone else had already departed, fearing a mysterious disease which had struck down several guests already, and which The Geraldine was immediately interested in.
Halfway across the inhabited galaxy, Bill had a vision of Linda's death and The Geraldine's arrival, and Elizabeth immediate set a course for the closer of the two planets Bill's vision suggested were the location for these events.
Fridgara's voice in Bidet's ear sounded cool, confident, as it always did before she embarked on a spell. They'd done a lot of construction work together in the last two weeks and, although this was far more complicated, she still exuded the same aura of calm competance. Bidet nodded to himself inside his helmet, drew in a breath, and established the connection between them that would let Fridgara use his strength for her spell. Moments later, he felt her drawing energy from him, a rush of power almost as great as he could handle... and more, and more, and more...
'It's working!' he cried suddenly, seeing the telltale magical signs of an opening spatial tear.
'Yes! But it doesn't quite -' Fridgara was cut off by a roar of sound so loud Bidet wondered if he'd actually heard it, or merely imagined it. Surely human ears weren't capable of responding to such volume. Light flared as well, so bright that even through closed eyelids it was almost unbearable. He felt himself flung backwards, tumbling over and over, and then he hit a stone wall.
Gradually, he realised it was dark behind his eyelids, so he opened them, blinking away the afterglow of the intense flash the spell had generated. It took a few moments to register where he was; it looked like a mediaeval European dining hall. Stone walls, vaulted ceiling, straw on the floor and torches flickering on the walls. Instead of a dining table, though, there was the bottom half of a very large barrel, filled with what appeared to be water.
He checked the readout on his suit, saw the air was breathable, and took off his helmet. Fridgara was sprawled against the wall a few metres away, also removing her helmet and looking around.
'This is not what I expected,' she said when she saw him.
'Is this where The Geraldine went?' Bidet wondered.
There was movement in one of the shadowed corners, and a middle-aged man walked out into the light. Bidet started to scramble to his feet, but felt an invisible force take hold of him and slam him against the wall, significantly above floor level. He couldn't move a muscle - not his head, or arms, or even his eyes. Or his diaphragm. Black spots started to swim before his eyes. The man studied them both for a few moments, then jerked his head, and Bidet flew away from the wall to float upside-down over the barrel of water.
'Where is she?' he demanded. Bidet blinked.
'The one you call The Geraldine. Where is she?'
'I don't know. I thought maybe she was here. That's why we came -'
'Idiot. You came because I brought you here. You would never have come here by re-opening that tear. It didn't even lead to this planet.'
'Where are we?'
'Where is The Geraldine? You're sure you don't know?'
'She is gone! But the First One must be here.'
Abruptly, Bidet found his head was underwater. He tried to twist out of the invisible grip that held him, but again he couldn't move a muscle - except for his diaphragm, which now seemed determined to make him inhale water. He reached for a spell but his power was gone; there was only an empty space where it had resided. Panic swept over him in a wave, and the fight to not breathe became harder than ever. Spots swam before his eyes again.
Don't breathe... don't breathe...
The water was gone, and he gasped in deep breaths of sweet air, welcoming even the scent of the torches as a reminder he wasn't about to drown. He still hung upside-down over the water, but that was an infinitely preferable situation. The man was staring at him.
'She doesn't come,' he said. 'Perhaps if we try again...'
'Hold,' another voice said. 'I am here.'
The Geraldine was emerging from the water, as if she was made of water herself, rising from the surface and solidifying into a human once more. Another figure rose beside her, holding her hand - Anneka, Bidet thought. The new Sitter on the Chair of Mina. She was wearing a black leather catsuit decorated with stainless steel spikes, and carried a whip in one hand like she meant to use it on someone, and soon.
'I came back.'
The Geraldine and the mysterious man stared at each other for several long minutes. Bidet could do nothing but watch and marvel that the air between the two didn't ignite from the intensity with which they scrutinised each other. Eventually, the antagonism faded somewhat, as if something had passed between them. The man looked like he understood something he hadn't before.
'So that is why,' he said. 'And how. It wouldn't have been possible without them, you know.'
'I know,' The Geraldine said. 'I know a few other things as well, and we must discuss them, but first...' she gestured to Bidet and Fridgara. The man nodded, and they abruptly found themselves freed and floating gently to the floor. Bidet landed next to Anneka, who smiled at him.
'Hello Bidet,' she said. 'I've heard a lot about you.'
'Sitter,' Bidet replied. Anneka laughed at him.
'Call me Anneka,' she said. 'I get the feeling we'll be spending quite a lot of time together for a while.'
'What is going on here?' Fridgara asked, having removed her gloves and boots, and starting to wriggle out of her suit, which was completely unnecessary in the quite pleasant conditions in this mysteriously-located room.
'That is something that I am going to have to explain,' the man said. 'By my original plan, this is far too soon for you to be involved, but not all things are within my control, as The Geraldine has just reminded me. I am Yarek, last of the Chosen of the Ikhshiid, and what I will impart to you in this place will be the salvation of the human race from the threat which wiped out my masters.'
Elizabeth's ship slid into orbit of Arelon, and Bill teleported them both down to the surface to avoid paying the exorbitant landing fee at the main spaceport. They arrived outside the tourist registration office, having deemed it a suitable place to start the search for Linda, and were halfway up the steps to the door before Bill noticed how quiet it was.
'Something isn't right here,' he said. Elizabeth looked around, noting the stillness for herself, and nodded.
'Doesn't look like the capital city of a tourist planet, does it?'
'I wouldn't expect it to be this quiet,' Bill agreed. They proceeded up the steps, and pushed the doors. They were locked.
'Odd,' Elizabeth said. There was a sign on the door in several languages, none of which Bill could read. Elizabeth read it, gasped, and translated. 'Closed by order of the Central Council of Arelon, under the emergency powers of the current crisis,' she read. 'What crisis?'
'Something that keeps people indoors,' Bill suggested, looking around again. 'Let's go and have a look around.'
He took Elizabeth's hand, and teleported them to the spaceport. There they found activity - but not of the sort they had been expecting at all. The first departure lounge they encountered had been stripped of its seating, and fitted out with row upon row of beds. In almost every bed lay a person with IV lines and monitors hooked up. People dressed in green - standard medical garb on these worlds, Bill had read - walked between beds, checking monitors, speaking briefly with the occupants.
Pulling sheets up over dead faces.
Elizabeth's voice was very quiet when she replied.
'Plague,' she said.
Is this plague the same illness which Linda and Anneka observed on Gir-Aris? Does it have something to do with the mysterious figures who killed Linda, and does it have anything to do with the threat which wiped out Yarek's mysterious masters, whoever they were? The only way to find out is to read the next edition of Only Slightly - the only story which is the sequel to Future Prefect.