First Chaos – Eighth Chapter – Kella

Posted: August 27, 2013 by Kella in Chaos #1

Author’s Note:  Please forgive the lateness!

Previous: Chapter Seven by Kymele || Next: Chapter Nine by Christina & Kella

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Tris stopped to fill her water pouch from the stream, shielding it from reflecting the dusk’s glow with her free hand. If Altair was still Altair, she could reason with him. But if he wasn’t… there was no sense in giving Jenng and his men clues for their hunt. She closed her eyes for a moment and prayed to a god in which she had lost faith years ago.

Let him come to his senses…

Even as she whispered her hope to the forest, she wasn’t sure what it would mean if he had. The screams and fire flooded her memory, and Misa’s deadened eyes set Tris’ fingers trembling so that it took three tries to screw the cap back onto her canteen. Ten years. Ten years since she had seen that kind of violence, that cavalier assignment of death.

If Altair was truly lost to her, she needed to know. Needed to plan. The cargo left behind on his ship was too precious, too crucial to the future of the Eltari. If Altair was capable of such atrocity, had she and her great-grandfather entrusted their fate to the wrong man? Granted, they hadn’t exactly been flush with choice, but had she truly been so blinded by love for all these years that she had willingly tied her own fate, and that of her people, to a monster? In the wrong hands, those eggs in Altair’s cargo hold could spell the very end of Eltar.

She was so engrossed in her fear that it took a moment to realize she hadn’t heard the night birds calling for some time. Holding her breath, she scurried into the underbrush as the faint crush of twigs and desiccated leaves under military boots drew nearer.

“They can’t have gone far,” Altair’s voice rumbled from behind her. Splashes punctuated his words as his men crossed to the opposite bank. Tris peered through the brush, biting her lip to keep from crying out in relieved protest as Misa’s robes fluttered past; her sister was alive, but captive.

One of Jenng’s men carried a small child in his arms and, behind him, another soldier forcibly supported an elderly man by his withered upper arm. The old man slipped at the edge of the small river, crying out in pain as the soldier’s surer footing kept the prisoner’s arm from following him to his knees. He half-dangled as the soldier tried to wrangle him back onto his feet.

Tris stifled a gasp as the old man’s profile stood out in the rising light of the triple moons. Hadfar. He was still alive? That he had survived the destruction surrounding Tris’ initial departure was shock enough, but she hadn’t seen any indication of his presence in the village. There had been no sigils marking him as a reigning elder, and that was a lifetime appointment. It would be sacrilege for him to give up a position of such honor.

Then again, given where Tris had been for the last ten years, sacrilege would appear to be a hereditary inclination.

“I’ve got him.” Altair’s commanding tone halted the brief flailing as the captain rushed forward to lift Hadfar with surprising care. “Catch up with the others, Wilcox. Keep scanning for human life. We’ll be along shortly.”

The younger man nodded and splashed off.

“Altair,” Hadfar gasped, clinging to the captain’s uniform sleeve. “Altair, I am too old. I cannot continue.”

“Nonsense,” Altair said as he attempted to sling the old man’s arm across his own shoulders. “I have seen you perform incredible feats, old friend. This is nothing.”

“Old friend.” Hadfar’s tone was bitter. “You destroyed my village and killed one of my kin.” His feet didn’t move when Altair’s did, tugging his benevolent captor back as if by a short lead. The two men stared at each other, Hadfar’s gaze glittering, Altair’s face hidden from Tris’ view by the angle at which they stood. “Why do you do these things, Altair? We made a vow…”

“I have not broken mine.” Altair’s back stiffened as Hadfar barked a disdainful, humorless laugh. “What I do, I do for the protection of Eltar, this world. I did not mean for… I cannot make amends, and I will not promise any. But if that scout makes it to Stonehaven…”

“Will you destroy the Eltari to see them saved, then? How much more blood will you spill for the sake of one man?”

Altair’s sudden growl of frustration startled Hadfar, who wobbled on his feet. With a sigh, Altair eased the man to the large rock nearby.

“I should not have been so hasty in my orders,” Altair admitted in a low voice. Tris tensed, straining to hear the words but desperate not to disturb the tiny branches poking into her face and hands. Now that Altair had turned, Tris could see the lines of guilt in the pale shadows across his face. “I merely wanted to prevent further contamination. I mean,” he raked fingers through his hair, greying streaks shimmering in the moonlight, “haven’t we done enough to this world and its people?”

“Not by half, it would seem.” Her great-grandfather’s voice was colder than Tris could remember it ever being. “If this scout makes it to Stonehaven, what do you fear? That one man with a short-range comm unit and a medbag will undo decades of preparation? You and your men trampling unchecked through Eltar will do far more damage.”

“I’m trying to save this world! That one man is Council. You may not remember them, but once they get the scent of profitability… They’re like roaches. One means thousands to follow.” Altair hunched his shoulders and crouched to meet Hadfar eye-to-eye. “You were the one who warned me about what could happen… if they think the project is at risk… It’s why we’ve been standing guard for ten goddamned years!”

“And if we’re all dead before the RELL can decide our fate on its own?”

“We’ve each had to make difficult decisions to keep this planet viable.” Altair held his hands palms up, pleading. “Help me, Hadfar. You have the means.”

“I have already given you the greatest treasure this planet has to offer, and Tris to go with it.” Hadfar shifted on his rock and kneaded a stitch in his side. “Has she made any progress in all this time?”

“Some. We were getting close, I think, when… But even if I find her now…” Altair rubbed his face and shook his head, lifting it so that the glow of the moons caressed his tired features as they crested over the treeline.

Hadfar was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, Tris nearly missed the words beneath the sound of the burbling stream. “How long has it been since you and your team landed?”

“Midday, at least.”

“You must be gone by tomorrow’s nightfall, or history will repeat.”

“I can’t leave without containing that scout—“

“Altair…”

“—And I won’t leave without Tris.”

“It is not she who is at risk for staying. This world was built for our kind, not yours. I would think your memory better than that.”

Altair grunted and stood, throwing a hand skyward in exasperation. “How can I remember consequences never explained to me? You never told me what caused that mess in the first place!”

“Because it was out of your control. As it is now.” Hadfar shook his head, a tremulous, jerky motion that threatened to tilt him off his perch. “If you wish to fulfill your vow, Altair, you must do so from orbit. You and your crew hold our fate in your hands, as you have since you first came here. Without those eggs…”

“You’ll get your damned eggs,” Altair snapped, his eyes sparking for a second as the light in them shifted. His chin jerked down and he flexed his hands at his sides. “I will complete my mission. My captain will not have died in vain. And I will honor my vow; I will not leave you defenseless.”

“If you stay past tomorrow, you will not remember these promises,” Hadfar insisted. “You felt it when you landed. It is why you have been acting so rashly.” He coughed, the force of it shaking his brittle frame, and leaned forward, a dark silhouette against the moons. “It is why you and your well-armed men will kill us all.”

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“Get up.”

Ike blinked groggily as Tris kicked him once more in the leg. “Wha…?” The knife pointed inches from his nose rendered him instantly alert. “Whoa! What’s going on?”

Kyri shifted in the crook of his arm, moaning at some retreating nightmare. She’d spent their brief respite in Tris’ absence kicking and flailing. Anod and Ike had taken her comfort in shifts, assuring her safety and soothing her back to slow, even breathing each time. Ike could only hope that when she woke this time, she’d be assuring his safety.

“Get. Up.” Tris repeated, taking a cautious step backward to bump against the confines of their hiding place. Ike carefully withdrew his arm from beneath Kyri’s head, holding his hand up in surrender. He darted a glance around the cramped confines. Anod was sitting on the other side of Kyri, observing this development with a neutral expression. The wounded Eltari met Ike’s eyes with a steady gaze and said nothing.

“Outside.” The knifepoint flicked toward the door and withdrew another couple of inches so that Ike could comply. “Leave the comm.”

The canopy of the giant tree obscured most of the moons’ light, the tiny flashes through the leaves sparking Tris’ eyes like fire. Her knife glinted in the shifting dark, and Ike had a wild half-lucid second to wonder why she carried such a primitive weapon. She dressed like she’d just touched down from space. Still, the damned thing looked pretty sharp.

“Are you going to kill me now?” Good. His voice didn’t shake. Maybe he could die with a shred of dignity.

“That depends on your answers.”

“You haven’t asked any questions.” Ike swallowed as the flickering moonlight danced along the blade and decided maybe bravado had its place. “What do you want to know?”

Tris didn’t respond right away. Her breath was heavy, like she’d run several miles over mountainous terrain, but her shadow stood tall and strong. “Why did you come here?”

Ike sighed. “I was just doing my job, lady. A few scans from orbit, a report, then on to the next system. Wouldn’t even be on this rock if that privateer ship hadn’t shot me down. I’d have happily been on my way.” He rubbed his naked wrist.

Tris’ gaze flicked down to observe his movements. “Altair and his men want to kill you. They will be within scanning range within moments. Convince me why I should not simply deliver you to them.”

Ike’s eyes widened and he spread his hands in his best non-threatening gesture, hoping that its impact wasn’t lost in the darkness. “I’ve done nothing but help you and your family since I got here!” Catching himself, he lowered his voice. “I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here, and I want to die even less. I can be useful. Or, if you don’t want me around, let me go and I’ll hide out somewhere until I can find a way home.”

Tris snorted. “I should leave you to the lema cats.”

A wave of anger rose up inside him and he lashed out before he could stop himself. “I didn’t ask for any of this! You and this Altair guy want to kill each other, fine by me, sister. Only leave me out of it. But if you’re gonna kill me, you’ve got one shot with that knife, so you’d better make it count.”

Tris opened her mouth, closing it again as they both heard branches breaking less than a klik away. She turned her head to look around the base of the tree for a second, whirling back to face Ike before he could make a play for her weapon.

“You will help us?” she whispered. “Whatever form that takes?”

“Yes, of course,” Ike bit out. “Not like I’m flush with options.”

Another branch snapped, this one closer and accompanied by men’s voices.

Tris appeared to come to a quick decision and lowered the knife. “Back inside.”

Closing the gnarled bark door behind them, Tris grabbed the Cyrex from Anod’s curious fingers. Kyri frowned at Ike as he flopped down next to her.

“What—?”

“Hush,” Tris rasped, fildding with Ike’s bracelet until a tiny port flipped open on the side. She ran her thumb over the tip of her knife and pressed it into the small hole. Lights strobed along the surface, followed by a muffled beep. She tossed the device back to Ike. “Hurry. Put it on.”

Ike did, puzzled until he heard the familiar artificial voice inside his mind.

//Genetic profile uploaded… Extrapolation complete. Engage camouflage mode now?”//

“Yes,” Ike whispered, unsure what he was agreeing to, but certain he wouldn’t like the alternative.

“Yes, what?” Kyri whispered back, then gasped. She scuttled back from Ike as if burned, colliding with an equally shocked Anod.

Ike had never done this before – never knew it could be done, for that matter – and now he knew why. He sucked in air through clenched teeth as his skin lit up in a furious itch. Looking down, he watched his hands darken, the fingers thinning and stretching until they resembled Anod’s. Searing pain shot through the tips of his ears and he bit the inside of his cheek to stifle an unmanly yelp.

Anod’s face was a picture, and Ike might have laughed if Tris hadn’t immediately put a finger to her closed lips. She looked to the door and doused the lamp by her feet, plunging the room into darkness.

The noises outside the tree were much louder now. Voices called to each other, muffled by the thick walls.

“They’re gone, sir! The readings, they’ve just… stopped!”

“Spread out. Look for a body.”

Ike held his breath, his newly-pointed ears pricked to listen as the soldiers shuffled around mere paces from his sanctuary. Kyri inhaled sharply as a dull thud sounded against the door. Ike reached out and threaded his long fingers through hers, squeezing gently. She slowly released her breath and squeezed back.

Every muscle in his body was tensed to flee. Ike tried to ignore the Cyrex chirping its warnings in his brain about his adrenal system and potential for cardiac arrhythmia. The only way to shut it up was to remove it, and that would be an instant death sentence. Just as the damned thing was beginning to make him weigh the risks in earnest, the sounds outside changed.

“Nothing, sir.”

“Impossible. Run the scans again.”

“I have, sir. Twice. No signs of human life within a three-klick radius. Some natives, but no humans, alive or dead.”

“He’s obviously still on the move. Must have gotten transportation somehow. We press on.”

“Should I call for the shuttle, sir?” A different, gruffer voice.

“No, Jenng. Leave it. Can’t risk it panicking the townspeople, touching down so close. We’ll form a strategy on the way. Move out.”

“Sir. You heard the captain!”

Footfalls in the distance, then nothing. Ike slowly released Kyri’s hand, flexing his own to encourage blood flow. He was turning to her to make sure she was okay when the scream from outside stopped him cold.

Tris!” The captain’s voice was flooded with emotion. “Tris, godsdammit!”

Ike’s gaze flew to Tris, or rather the dark corner where she had been sitting. She didn’t move, barely breathed. Long moments ticked by. Finally, muffled cracking and shuffling indicated the captain had left to join his men.

Tris coaxed the tiny lamp to flame again. Her eyes were haunted as they lifted to meet Ike’s. Anod and Kyri stared open-mouthed at her.

“Well, honey,” Ike drawled. “Seems like you’ve got some explaining of your own left to do…”

Tris stiffened and rubbed a hand over her face. “Not now. We need to move.”

“They are heading to Stonehaven!” Kyri hissed. “And their leader calls your name!” She looked at Anod. “We have to warn them!”

“Our plans have changed. We are not going to Stonehaven.”

They all looked at Tris, who was packing her kit.

“Then where…?” Anod began.

Tris ignored him, pinning Ike with a look. “You are still willing to help then?”

Ike lifted his hand along with one eyebrow. “Whatever form that takes, huh?” He sighed.  “I already know I’m going to regret this. Fine. Where are we going?”

“I have to get something important from the ship in orbit.” Tris gave Ike a ghost of a half-smile. “You are a pilot, yes?”

“A pilot without a shuttle,” Ike grumbled.

The smile widened. “Fortunately for us, I know where we can find one.”

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Previous: Chapter Seven by Kymele || Next: Chapter Nine by Christina & Kella
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