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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Slight Delay

Posted: August 25, 2013 by Kella in Uncategorized

War is hell. 

Work is war.

So is a preschooler.

Chapter Eight is forthcoming, but will be slightly delayed.

Thank you for your patience.

 

~Management 

 

First Chaos – Seventh Chapter – Kymele

Posted: August 18, 2013 by Eden in Chaos #1
Previous: Chapter Six by Elise || Next: Chapter Eight by Kella

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Today the corridors seemed endless.  The same doors, the same white paint with blue trim for what seemed to be klicks… 4.3 klicks exactly according to her measurements.

That wouldn’t have bothered Huntwoda if it hadn’t been the seemingly endless procession of the same faces too.  Or rather, the same face…

Hers.

She tried to look directly ahead of her and walk as if she caught up in her own thoughts.  Most everyone else was doing the same, of course.  Her thoughts were no different from anyone else’s, or rarely were.  Like all her siblings, she was careful not to attract Mother’s attention in her non-working periods.

At last, she reached the door she needed.  Pressing her hand to the sensor at the side, she waiting as the lock analyzed her id and compared her presence to the schedule on the main system.

The screen turned a soft yellow. |Reader Huntwoda, not on schedule| the ubiquitous electronic voice that droned on in the lifts, the terminals, even her medicine cabinet, said.

She had expected this, of course.  “I know that.  I asked for extra allowance to study an anomalous reading I received yesterday.”

|Reader Huntwoda, not on schedule| the voice said again; its androgynous tone more annoying for the repetition.

The screen turned blank grey.

Huntwoda pressed her hand against the screen again.  Mother Herself had always told them to pursue anomalies to the fullest.  She was only doing what was required.

Again the yellow screen, the electronic drone… not on schedule.  Huntwoda did this twice more before the screen turned not yellow, but red.  Instead of the electronic drone, a voice, a real voice came over the speaker.  |Huntwoda, what are you doing?  You are not scheduled for Ember Reading for two lossbreaks.  Go to the GreenHalls and rest or get some food from the commissary.|

She had been expecting the shift supervisor to answer her this way, but the voice sounded more like her enclave aide, Milund.  She felt her resolve quaver a bit.  Then giving herself a small shake, she placed her hand back to the sensor.  If her aide had gone to the supervisor’s office, then the supervisor already knew the anomaly existed.

Even if Milund considered her a bit obsessive about her work, the man couldn’t dispute that her job was to follow all anomalous readings to their logical end.  The project was too important to ignore the possible presence of the stochastic.

A stray thought brushed through her head.  Random happenings were what this whole project revolved around—the constant study of ergodic states.  Readings were merely to record the random happenings so that the statisticians could later analyze the data and devise adjustments to the habitat and terrain that would decrease the number of anomalous records.

It had worked.  The project had not experienced an anomaly in almost ten years.

That had been when Huntwoda herself had first been brought onto the project as a Reader.  She’d only left her training cell for less than a week at the time, not even long enough for her skills to be considered and directed.  Nevertheless, she still remembered the rules she’d been taught in those first days when the anomalies had overwhelmed the Reading Enclaves.  The anomalies–the deaths, she reminded herself, drawing up once more Mother’s lessons about the care and consideration all Readers must exercise in their duties…  Essential parts of the project or not, objects of study or not, the ember readings meant that a life had been ended, that one of the aboriginals on one of the study worlds—in this case VX376—had died.

She didn’t even know the planet’s name, only that the anomalies from yesterday and ten years ago both came from VX376, and that she was sure the incidents were related.

Huntwoda almost let her hand slip from the sensor in her distraction.  Though no one had yet opened the door, she was sure that someone would soon, if only to get her to stop making the alarm ring in the supervisor’s office.

As if in answer to her thoughts, the door slid open.  Standing before her, preventing her from walking in, were both the supervisor and Milund.  Both were frowning.

Huntwoda smiled to herself.  She had always liked the way she looked when she frowned, so serious and thoughtful.  Though the expression didn’t work as well on masculine features as feminine ones, she decided, having both to look at now.

Jaw is too heavy…  Huntwoda stopped the idle thoughts as best she could.  Time to deal with the matter at hand.  Ignoring her aide, she directed her attention to the supervisor, Fortanine.  Though a younger clone than she was, Huntwoda couldn’t deny that Fortanine had a talent for working with people and keeping her office running at peak efficiency.

“Supervisor Fortanine,” she said, making a point to show the woman proper respect with the bow of her head.  She may have annoyed the woman for the last several moments with the door alarm, but she had not done it to cause problems, but rather to prevent them.

“Reader Huntwoda,” the supervisor said with an extra soft tone.  “You should not be here.”

“I requested the extra time to study an anomaly, Supervisor.  Surely you were given my request by your assistant.”  Normally she wouldn’t have been so blunt about the possibility of failure on the part of the woman’s aide, but with her own standing behind the supervisor with a self-righteous expression, she knew she needed to make a point.  She looked back up to meet the woman’s gaze.

Supervisor Fortanine nodded.  “I was given the request.  That is why I asked your aide to show me your records of the Readings from yesterday, Huntwoda.  I saw no anomaly in the Reading.”

Though she knew she should stay calm, Huntwoda felt her muscles contracting with anger.  Until she had finished the recording and had the time to store the ember-soul safely, no one should have touched her work.  The risk of contamination alone was unacceptably high.  The risk of lost information was even higher.

“Perhaps you wouldn’t have missed the anomaly if my aide had not taken it upon himself to analyze the incomplete Reading for presentation,” she said, knowing her tone was sharper than it should be, but feeling unable to help herself.

The supervisor’s brow rose slightly. “The record is incomplete?  According to the timestamps you started work on this…”  The woman glanced back to Milund.

“Geneth, Supervisor Fortanine.  The reading is of a male aboriginal of the name Geneth.”

The supervisor nodded again then turned back to face Huntwoda.  “This Geneth’s ember reading came in at the beginning of your shift.”

Huntwoda nodded slightly.  “Yes, Supervisor, it did.”

“One Reading on one young male took your whole shift, and you still have an incomplete record, Reader Huntwoda?”

She’d expected this question.  Fortanine had asked it earlier in the interview than Huntwoda had expected, but at least she’d considered her answer well.  It still might sound obsessive, but being obsessive about doing one’s work well could not be a bad thing.  Could it?  “Yes, Supervisor.  There were outside elements in the ember reading.  Other presences, as if the death was one of many, but the only one recorded.  I spent my shift trying to filter the extra elements.  The record I had prepared so far was clean, but it was only part of the original ember transmission.  Would you like to see a copy of the original Reading for comparison?”

Supervisor Fortanine’s brow furrowed.  The woman’s gaze focused straight ahead of her suddenly, a sign that she was communing with Mother Rell.

Huntwoda held her breath.  Sure as she was about her actions, she still found the idea of drawing Mother’s attention to her choice uncomfortable.  She watched for the supervisor’s expression to change, wondering if Mother would wish to speak to her directly to see her memories of the Reading.  Would she have to clear her mind for the examination?  She’d never had to submit to a testing before, though she’d known others in the RELL who had.  They’d survived and stayed on the project by luck and Mother’s mercy, or so they’d claimed.

Before she fully registered Supervisor Fortanine’s focus on her, the other woman’s eyes changed color as the visualization chips in the woman’s corneas came online.  Huntwoda tried not to flinch under the silver gaze.  “Mother Rell,” she said, again bowing her head with respect.

Despite the stories, she felt no invasive presence within her head.  She felt nothing, save the discomfort of knowing that Mother Rell had been disturbed from Her work to attend to a scheduling issue.  But Huntwoda had done her job according to the regulations.  She’d been careful to ensure an accurate recording.  She’d asked for extra time with the proper forms.  She’d even….

Suddenly it occurred to her to wonder why Milund was there getting extra time on the schedule and not her.  Had he requested time too?  What project was he working that she didn’t know of?

The supervisor’s gaze turned toward Huntwoda’s assistant as Mother Rell assessed the situation through her.  Milund’s expression shifted from unconcerned to uncertain.  An expression close to sickness took over his features.  He swallowed and looked away.

Huntwoda watched, wondering what it meant.  She was left to wonder as the supervisor gave a slight shake and Fortanine’s connection to Mother ended.  All that Fortanine did was wave her into the Reading Enclaves room.  “Your extra time, Reader Huntwoda, has been granted for the remainder of the cycle.   Friend Milund, you will wait in my office until the Guardians come to retrieve you.”

After giving the supervisor another quick bow, Huntwoda hurried in to her assigned enclave, not even willing to think about what she’d just heard.  She busied herself gathering measurements of the data stream, offering a sample of her blood and attaching the testing electrode to the sensor by her temple so that her biorhythms could be read.  When she realized she had spent several moments comparing her biorhythms with those from yesterday as opposed to actually starting work, she sat down at the edge of her reading chair.  She didn’t lean back, not ready yet, despite her earlier urgency to start work as soon as she’d rested and eaten.

Now, she admitted, she needed to process all that had happened at the door.  Mother Rell had given her extra time for some reason.  A lot of extra time…  The cycle had just begun two rest periods ago.  In all her experience as a Reader, she’d never heard of a single Reading being assigned that much attention.  Moreover, Mother had demoted her assistant from an Aide to a Friend—a Friend who was being taking into custody by the Guardians.

What she found?

What did this Geneth have to tell them about the status of the project that her Aide hadn’t wanted them to know?

Huntwoda settled herself as best she could.  Before leaning back to allow the Readings to come to her, she glanced up, as was proper, to the placard over her seat.  The sign of the great stones, the ring of eyes… the dream of place that it meant for all the RELL.  She saw it every day.  Every day she received the chance to work with the bringer of a Reading, she looked at it and hoped.  Would this Reading be the one that would end the project?  The one that would let them know they had been successful?

She closed her eyes, the image emblazoned in her head.

“May you help us find our new home, Geneth,” she murmured.

Something akin to laughter filled her head.  Stunned, she fell back into her chair, helpless as the remotes took over and attached themselves, pressing into her head, filling her with the life of dead Geneth from VX376.

***

Altair had originally intended to have Jenng and his men handle interrogations in the ruins of the village.  When the men had finished the survey and come back with only a child and a withered specimen of a native who had been hiding in the brush near the clearing, he’d already changed his mind.

He felt especially glad he’d reconsidered, given how his Eltari prisoner responded to the presence of their new captives.

The woman looked first at the child.  She said nothing.  The old one she spit at before looking back to the child again.  “You shame yourself, child.  The fire is there.  Run to it.  Let it take you to Rell’s embrace and cleanse your soul of his touch.”

The old geezer in Jenng’s grip said nothing.  He made no attempt to wipe the spittle from his face, letting it dangle off as he looked at his feet.  The child looked at him, and though one of Jenng’s men held him solidly, the child drew back from the Eltari ancient as if suddenly repulsed.

Thing of it was…  Altair recognized the man.  Ten years had done the man no favors, but then, they hadn’t done him any favors either…

But if Tris’ great-grandfather was still alive, then perhaps things hadn’t been as bad as he feared.  Granted, the man was no more popular with the villagers than he’d been then, but they hadn’t killed him, as the man had feared would happen back then.  And Tris had proven to him for years enough now that these people were not simple barbarians.  Bad feelings or not, if they could talk, they could find peace.

If this self-righteous witch would let him talk without resorting to insults and personal attacks

Instead of dwelling on his female prisoner’s behavior, Altair motioned for Jenng to bring the old Eltari to him.  “Hadfar?” he asked.  He was pretty sure it was the man, but just in case…

The man blinked slowly, looking up from where he had been shuffling weakly beside the corporal.  “You know me?”  Rheumy eyes took their time focusing on him, then widened in surprise.  “Captain Altair!”  He gasped.  A look of horror filled the man’s weathered face.  “You came back?  You cannot come back!  You must leave here.  It will be the end of all of us if you stay.  Leave now, before it’s too late!”

“Humph!” grunted his female prisoner.  “Why does it not surprise me that you two monsters know each other?”

Hadfar looked back over to the woman, his expression turning pleading.  “Misa, child… You…”

The witch spit in their direction again, pulling fiercely at the bindings that held her.  Despite her clear age, her struggles were making headway.  “Quiet, Monster!  You have no right to speak my name as kin may!”

Altair felt his brow rise.  Even as he considered the name, things became clearer….  Tris had once spoken of her sister, Misa—more than once, really—and how much she missed the woman.  He motioned for Jenng to let go of the feeble Hadfar.  “Make sure her bindings are tightened, corporal.  Be as gentle as you can about it, but don’t let yourself get hurt.”

The corporal nodded and stepped off to do as he’d been told.  No salute again…

Altair sighed.  There was trouble coming from that man.  In Al-Terne’s name, he prayed it would wait until they were safe on the ship.  The last time Hadfar had warned him of trouble, he had ignored the old man, thinking him too old and weak-minded to know what he was talking about.

He was not about to make the same mistake again.  He reached out gently to clasp the old man’s arm.  “Come with Hadfar.  I want to know what is happening.”

 

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Previous: Chapter Six by Elise || Next: Chapter Eight by Kella

 

First Chaos – Sixth Chapter – Elise

Posted: August 11, 2013 by eyeamelise in Chaos #1
Previous: Chapter 5 by Kella || Next: Chapter 7 by Kymele

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The party of Kyri, Ike, Anod, and Tris had made their way deep into the forests.  They had been traveling for a long while, as quickly as they could muster.  The sky was clouding up, and darkness comes more quickly when one is unprepared.  Even though Stonehaven was only a half dozen kliks away, and it still the middle of the afternoon, the extent of the injuries of the party made traveling in the dark slow and unsafe.  As they had traveled through the forests, away from the smell of the smoke and death, memories flowed into Tris.  The decade she had spent off-planet melted away as her memories of each tree and stone lit up brighter in her mind.  The smells of the mosses and soil filled her with feelings of energy and home.  She knew exactly where she was, like she had never left.

Tris was leading the group, and stopped before them.  “We need to stop,” she said.  “To rest.”

Ike looked at her fiercely through a pain-filled wince. “You nuts, lady?  We’re going slow enough as it is – they’ll be on top of us in a hot minute.” Kyri and Anod looked at their mother’s long-lost sister, similarly concerned.

“You could be leading us right to them!  We don’t know you, or what you intend to do here,” Anod hissed.

Tris had anticipated this reaction, which is why she had stopped at the precise point she did.  She turned away from the group, and touched the trunk of a rather large tree next to her.  She slid her hands over the bark, remembering.

“What in the hell are you doing?  We’ve got to go!” Ike snarled.  As he did, though, Tris’ hands had found the catch in the darkness, and a previously invisible door opened in the trunk of the tree.  Kyri’s eyes widened.  Behind the door the tree was carved out, and darkness slipped down inside, roots and dirt hollowed out, creating a room under the forest floor, large enough for the entire party.

“Get in,” Tris said, “We’ll be safe for now.  So we can rest.  We’ll make it to Stonehaven at first light.”  The rest remained skeptical at the notion of stopping, but their injuries became rather evident as they stood there, the pain filling them with exhaustion.

Anod was the first to slip down into the hole in the tree, holding his stubbed arm close to him as he used his one good one to catch himself on the dirt floor of the room.  He scuttled to the edge, to get out of the way of others coming down.

Silently, the rest followed, at a loss for another plan.  Tris was the last, and she heard movement in the forest, and saw a light through the trees.  She quickly closed the door behind her, and the tree was simply a tree once more.

Under the roots, the room was actually quite spacious.  It was quiet, the soil around them absorbed sound.  There was enough height to sit up or crouch without fearing bumping one’s head.  However, it was pitch dark.

Ike turned on the flashlight at his wrist. Tris shot him a look and hissed, “Turn that off!  Using your Cyrex is like a beacon!”  Ike turned off the light, grumbled, but agreed it was probably a fair assessment.

Tris felt around in her bag, and pulled out a small pouch.  She crawled to the center of the room and poured out a small amount of powder onto the dirt floor.  From the bottom of her bag she found some berries she had collected when she first landed hours ago.  She squeezed them over the pile of powder and the powder popped and began to glow from some sort of chemical reaction.  Growing up with Eltari medicine then spending ten years learning science aboard Altair’s ship had definitely combined the best of both worlds.

The pile glowed warmly, and the group got a good look at each other and their injuries.   Now that Tris had some light, she looked through her bag for potential first aid supplies.

Kyri looked around, and her hopes about this place were becoming realized.  The walls of the subterranean room were smooth but for etchings filled with paint.   The drawings were simple.  Children’s drawings.  This is the place Kyri’s mother had told her about when she was a child to help her sleep.  This was the place Misa and Tris played as children.  Kyri had never seen it but in her dreams, after hearing the stories.  This made her suddenly feel safe.  And then, a wave of sorrow overcame her.  Her beloved Geneth, the other half of herself, was gone.  Maybe her mother, too.  Her home was in flames.  She started to cry.

Anod looked at her across the room through the glow.  He had lost so much blood from the loss of his hand that he was barely able to keep his eyes open.  He wanted to go to her, to hold her and console his little sister but he stay slumped against the opposite wall.  Tris began to tend to his wound.

Ike scootched over to the girl.  He heaved a battered arm around her and she instinctively turned into him and began sobbing into his chest. She was too exhausted to care that he was a stranger, the person who brought this whole mess upon her world, and also potentially a demon.

“I know it, kid.  I know,” he said, as he patted her silver hair, glistening in the warm glow from the center of the room.

“This is a safe place, “ Tris said as she worked on Anod.  “They cannot hear us, they cannot see our light.  Breathe deeply and this light will also help with the pain.”  She laid Anod down on his back so he could sleep.  She went over to Ike and went to attend to him and he shooed her.

“Lady, as soon as we can get out of this place I am done with you.  I made a promise to protect this kid.  You brought your buddies here to blow us all up.  I’m only down in this hole because it seemed a hair better than the alternative.  I don’t trust you, and I sure don’t like folks who want to kill me.” He gripped Kyri’s shoulder.  She had stopped crying and looked at Tris.

“I know what this place is,” Kyri’s voice wavered.  “You really are my aunt.”  She looked into Tris’ amber eyes, looking for some kind of answer.  In the face of all the loss of the day, the realization of an additional family member was welcome, despite the harshness with which her mother had regarded the woman.

“I never thought I would be gone this long.  There were so many times I tried to come back.  Wanted to come back.” Tris absentmindedly rubbed her forehead with two fingers where Misa had kissed her.

“I owe you and Anod so much more than this.  Tonight we’ll be safe here, you’ll all heal.  We need to rest to be strong for … whatever Rell brings us tomorrow.”  They sat in silence.  They were too tired for panic, for outrage, for indignation.  Now they all lined the room, lying down around the glow, waiting for sleep to poke through the fading pain.  Tris spoke quietly into the air, telling a story to soothe her companions and herself.

“Long ago, when our people were new, there was a creature called Jymm. Jymm was small and furry but walked and spoke like an Eltari.  His eyes were black and careful.  Jymm was magical and protected the Eltari from the pale ones.

“He lived in a tree and could see for hundreds of kliks away.  All the way to the north, so he could see danger approaching.  He was happy to help the Eltari, but could only climb up.  To warn us he had to fall far down the branches to the ground. We learned how to make medicines to heal him, to repay him for his help.

“These medicines have made us strong and resilient.   Another gift from Rell.

“One day, Jymm fell from the tree to tell us what he had seen.  Far to the north he had seen so many pale demons with red eyes.  He told us they would destroy us all.  We healed Jymm and prayed to Rell to protect us.  Jymm did not climb back up the tree.  He told us if we traveled to the volcano and learned its properties we would be able to make a medicine that would keep him safe so he could fight the pale ones.

“We traveled to the volcano and learned about acidshale.  We learned about sootflowers.  We learned many secrets of the volcano.  We came back and made Jymm a potion that gave him great strength and power.  He had the power of flight!  He flew to the north and was gone.  But the pale ones never came.  We knew we were safe. Rell sent Jymm to protect us, and gave us the gift of learning. Through Rell’s love we are safe.

“We have forgotten how to make this potion, but we have not forgotten the sacrifice that Jymm made for us, and that we will be protected.”

The room was quiet.

“That story was ridiculous,” Ike mumbled. “A flying bear?  Magic potion?  You’ve got to be kidding me.”  He had to give it to her, though – the part about Eltari knowing their business when it comes to healing.

Kyri had heard versions of this story before.  It was a common bedtime story and brought her comfort as she faded to sleep.

Tris thought of Altair. She knew that despite the day’s events and her current precarious situation with the people around her, she may be the only one capable of setting things right.  She was beyond enraged, but knew she had to keep her head about her now in order to protect the remaining members of her family as well as the precious cargo up on the ship. She heard Ike’s breathing slow.  They were all three asleep. She quietly climbed up out of the tree.  They were safe for now, and she needed to find Altair.

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Previous: Chapter 5 by Kella || Next: Chapter 7 by Kymele

First Chaos – Fifth Chapter – Kella

Posted: August 5, 2013 by Kella in Chaos #1
Previous: Chapter 4 by Aaron || Next: Chapter 6 by Elise

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“You must get to Stonehaven!” Tris’ voice rose shrilly above the growing panic in the dusty village square. “Grab what you can carry and no more! Men will be here soon!”

Kyri’s world had shrunk to the bleeding stump of Anod’s arm, truncated just above the wrist. Binding it tightly in a torn strip from her own tunic, she forced air painfully in and out of her chest. Her throat tightened and a sudden lump nearly choked her, forcing a hot tear down one cheek; a long tongue scraped in moist sandpaper swipes down its path as Sabra whimpered in her ear, but Kyri couldn’t spare the effort to brush the animal away.

Anod’s remaining hand closed around her wrist. “Kyri,” he choked out, pain distorting his words.

She shook her head, denying him a response even as she struggled to meet his gaze.

“Kyri.” Anod’s eyes hardened like amber as she watched. “We must go.”

“But Gen—”

“Is dead.” The amber melted slightly as she froze in horror, forgetting to breathe. He squeezed her hand with his sole remaining one. “And he would not wish us to join him so soon. Your pet demon was right, and if he continues to be then we must go.”

“He can go hang for the loss of—”

Kyri’s arm was wrenched upward and she followed it with a cry of sharp alarm, reaching for the dagger at her hip. Misa’s eyes, normally placid with Rell’s eternal grace, stormed with a barely-leashed panic as she shook her daughter.

“You heard your brother. Go!” Her mother pointed to the treeline on the outskirts of the village. All around them, neighbors fled like a pack of frightened rabines, scattering as they slipped into foliage with their screams of terror echoing behind them. The Eltari woman in the strange red and silver suit – who claimed to be Kyri’s aunt – stood with her arms pinwheeling in the air as she herded villagers from their fallen loved ones and into the darkened gaps between huts and communal buildings.

Ike was struggling to his feet, blood dripping from his pale face into the dirt; a single thought flitted through the cavernous echo in Kyri’s mind, that at least he bled the right color. He winced as his injured leg gave way beneath him, and he sank to its knee before forcing himself up once more. With a limping shuffle he reached Anod’s side and braced himself against the trunk of the tree her brother rested against.

“Come on.” His gaze remained locked on Anod’s eyes, and not on Geneth’s torn body, lying in blatant accusation less than a quarter-klik away. “There’ll be more, and I’m apparently not the only one who thinks so.” He tossed a wary look at the woman claiming to be Tris, who had stopped directing panicked flights to run over to them.

Tris skidded in the dirt, kicking up a small cloud of dust as she came to a halt behind Kyri. Her boots more like Ike’s than anything Kyri had ever seen in Eltar, with the strange, flexible teeth on the underside and the metal holes that held braided laces lining up her calves. Her silver and red suit clung to her body, making her wild hair appear almost white; her skin was ashen and dewy from the rescue efforts, and she panted as if she’d run several miles.

“What are you still doing here?”

“We cannot leave him,” Kyri protested, wincing as her emphatic gesture to Geneth’s body triggered a wave of pain from her shoulder. Behind her, Anod groaned to his feet with Ike’s assistance, wobbling for a moment before he steadied with a determined shake of his head. “He must be given to Rell!”

Tris shook her head. “There is no time!”

“Then make time!” Kyri hobbled over to her twin’s still form, tears rendering him a hot blur in the morning sun. “I will carry him to wherever you say, and we can send him to Rell when we arrive.” Bending to scoop him up, she cried out sharply as her shoulder and back joined forces to send her to her knees.

Strong hands slipped around her from behind, giving her a firm brace of arms to lean on as Ike raised her from the ground. A grunt rumbled in his throat as he straightened, but he saw her steady before releasing her.

“Help me!” she cried. Clutching his wrist, she searched his eerie blue eyes as he tried to pull away.

“He’s gone, honey.” Ike’s eyes were as ice, and she looked to Anod for support. Her brother refused to meet her gaze.

“As must you be,” Misa said, her voice clear over the few remaining cries and moans in the distance. “I will see Geneth off.”

“Mother, no!”

Ike’s hand slid to grasp Kyri’s wrist as she released his, prepared to fling herself at her mother. Pulling her back against him tightly, he flung an arm around her middle and held her with her arm pinned at her side. She bucked, prepared to smash her head backward into his to force her freedom.

Misa stepped forward and placed a hand on her daughter’s cheek. “This is my home. I am too weary to run, and Geneth must not be left outside of Rell’s paradise. I may yet be able to send whoever comes on a fool’s errand. If we each hurry, we can still do what must be done before it is too late.” Her eyes flicked up to stare over Kyri’s head at Ike. “You will see her safe.”

It wasn’t a question.

“Assuming she’ll let me,” Ike said, his voice tensed. Kyri twisted to see the muscles in his jaw twitching as he nodded to her mother; his expression bore the weight of her sacrifice.

Tris’ gaze was dark. “He should not come with us! Altair and his men are looking for him. He will only place us in more danger. It is because of him our Geneth is dead.”

“I thought you said it was your fault,” Anod snapped.

“And you.” Misa turned to Tris, who was shaking her head in denial. “The answers you owe me I leave to my surviving children. Be well, little sister.” She pulled Tris forward by the back of her neck, made awkward by Tris’ superior height, and planted a firm kiss on her forehead. Tris took a moment to catch her balance as Misa abruptly released her to sweep Kyri and Anod into her embrace. Misa’s eyes were ablaze and her voice iron. “Avenge us.”

Kyri blinked. Instinctively, she knew there was no other path, but to hear her mother say it…  “But Rell—”

“Will understand.” Anod said firmly as he met their mother’s gaze. He awkwardly turned Kyri toward the woods behind their house and gave her a gentle shove. Tris followed, casting distrustful glances at Ike as she helped Anod into the green cover on unsteady legs.

Kyri dug in her heels to catch one last glimpse of her mother. The image of Misa bent over her son’s lifeless body stayed burned into Kyri’s vision even as hands grabbed her once more and the forest swallowed her whole.

***

“Spread out, Corporal,” Altair said, flicking a cautious hand at Jenng as they neared the edge of the village. “I want survivors.”

Jenng looked at him in guarded skepticism but kept his mouth shut. Altair never could figure out if they’d started making marines smarter after he’d left the academy himself, or if Jenng had simply chosen discretion as the better part of his own valor. In the ten years he’d been serving aboard Altair’s ship – and standing planetside, it was especially odd to think of the ship as his, even after the passage of so much time – he’d yet to directly question any of Altair’s orders. At least not publicly.

He should have damned well questioned the last one, audience or no.

Pushing through the fronds that provided a natural barrier, Altair’s boots crunched loudly against the sudden, dry soil of Tris’ village. On first glance, from this angle, it looked like any other rustic encampment. The houses had braided and woven roofs over rough-hewn walls. Vegetable patches gave off fragrant aromas around him, mingled with the foreboding scents of blood and smoke the further Altair ventured.

A cluster of simple huts to his right howled in an eerie chorus as wind whistled through the open doors and windows. Bodies of men and women littered the front gardens, some in pieces, most apparently caught by complete surprise. As his gut clenched, Altair forced himself to rationally analyze the damage; blaster burns carved ragged holes in thatched roofs and wooden walls, with smoldering embers dotting the dirt. A long, ragged slash left one building half-collapsed atop six or seven Eltari.

Behind Altair, one of his marines wretched loudly into a fern. Altair wished he could join him.

Covering his nose and mouth, he continued to assess the aftermath of his impulsive order. This was not his mission. His mission had been to protect the Eltari way of life at all costs… but this? What had gotten into him? Level two protocols, surely, would have been sufficient to contain the Council scout. Had Altair taken a moment to think, he could have come to a more rational decision that would have dispensed with the scout and prevented cultural contamination… The scout wouldn’t be long gone, as he so obviously was now, and Tris wouldn’t be missing.

No, not missing. She left him. After ten years she had left him…

To save her people, a small voice suggested in the back of his mind, almost as if afraid to speak against the roiling tension threatening to spill over. And what of your own actions? Every time you set foot on this planet, someone dies.

Why did it have to be her goddamned village?

Would it really have been a better decision otherwise?

His fingers itched for a face to give the voice, if only so that he could put his fist through it. Balling his fists, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, resisting the impulse to choke on the acrid taste of gore on the air. It clung to his tastebuds and the back of his throat like a fine residue. Confusion and recrimination continued to wage their private war within him as he fought against his gag reflex. Captains did not vomit in ferns alongside their crew.

“Sir!”

Altair turned toward the source of the cry, jogging across the dusty, abandoned square to the opposite edge of town. The smoke was much thicker here, tickling his nose and the corners of his eyes. As he neared the marine, the boy pointed a hesitant finger before cautiously raising his pulse rifle. Ten years ago, the young man had been a fresh-eyed fifteen-year-old, eager to get to the academy on Terne Prime. His mother had been so proud.

Ten years later, the kid had a field promotion for lack of better options, and condemnation to a vessel under a doomed command. Yet another benefit of the last decision Altair had made on this world.

What the hell was it about this planet, he wondered, that upended his life whenever he set foot upon it?

“Hold, son.” Altair placed a hand on the muzzle of the gun, pressing it down toward the dirt. He coughed reflexively, the taste on his tongue changing to accommodate the pungency of burning flesh.

An Eltari woman, wrapped in rose-and-white colored gauze robes, stood before a great pyre with her arms raised to the heavens. Smoke plumed upward from a burning body in thick clouds, iridescent sparks catching in the midday sun. Her chanting alternated between low and high volume, from slow mutterings to outright explosions of wrenching grief, punctuated by ululating cries.

Altair stood in mute, reverent transfixion, his hand frozen on the muzzle of the rifle he’d forced down. After several moments, the woman’s hands and head lowered. Only the crackling and popping from the pyre remained to charge the air.

Slowly gathering herself, the woman brushed dark hands over her clothing before turning to face her observers.

“Thank you.” She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t have to.

Altair nodded, straightening to a neutral posture. He saw Jenng approach from the periphery of his vision, the rifles of his men at a cautious ready; Altair gave a slight shake of his head.

The woman’s eyes, simultaneously calm and haunted, never strayed from Altair. “Are you here to finish what you have begun? I am all that remains.”

“We both know that’s not true,” Altair heard himself saying, then hastily corrected. “What happened here was a gross misunderstanding…”

“Indeed. My son takes your regrets with him to Rell’s side.” Her voice cut through Altair like a psyblade. In the glare of daylight, the lines stood out in stark relief on her face, though she couldn’t have been much older than Tris. She stood as poised as one of the statues in the Hall of Matrons back home, only perhaps with pointier ears than any Matron Altair had ever seen rendered in stone.

Altair’s gaze flicked over to the pyre, and he swallowed. “You have my condolences.”

“I would have your heart on a spit.”

The men near Altair shifted uneasily, some darting glances toward him to see if it was time to aim their guns again.

Altair shook his head at them, inclining his head to the Eltari woman in respect. “Again, my deepest regrets. We’re looking for…”

“I know whom you seek. You will not find him here.”

“Evidently,” Altair replied, his patience gradually seeping into the ether. “But if you could tell us where to find him, we will gladly leave you in peace.”

He felt Jenng’s eyes on him, but ignored the man. Altair wasn’t sure whether he could keep his word as it was, and acknowledging that to Jenng was one more sin on lengthening list… one he wasn’t quite ready to commit. The destruction and murder done at his own command today was an end to itself; there was no way to track every Eltari who had fled. Containment was now moot. The best they could hope for was to find the scout before he made too much noise at a major settlement. Or worse, got the attention of the local Ternian government.

“I doubt that very much,” the woman replied coolly, as if tapping into a hidden telepathic resource Altair didn’t believe Eltari possessed. “And even had I knowledge of your prey’s whereabouts, I would not surrender him to you.”

They stood there, locked in a silent battle of wills. Altair’s irritation crackled along the underside of his skin, the itch to punch something growing with each second that passed. He breathed heavily through his nose, desperate to tamp down the foreign urges. This was not who he was, and hadn’t been for years… Not since Tris.

Clearing his throat to head off the tightening, he shook his head and sighed. “Yes, you will. Jenng, bring her. Send word to have your men meet up with us when they’ve finished clearing the wreckage.”

Pretending interest in a copse of trees a klik away, Altair turned his back on the piercing amber eyes and menacing reserve as Jenng and his squad closed in.

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Previous: Chapter 4 by Aaron || Next: Chapter 6 by Elise

Craziness!

Posted: August 4, 2013 by Kella in Uncategorized

Chapter 5 might be a few hours past deadline, but only because school/work has taken over my life this week. It’s almost finished, I just have to finish a school project too before people kill me in the face…

Stay tuned! 

First Chaos – Fourth Chapter – Aaron

Posted: July 29, 2013 by Aaron Matthew Kaiser in Chaos #1
Previous: Chapter 3 by Christina || Next: Chapter 5 by Kella

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Captain Altair stood by the entry to his shuttle, reviewing information on his data pad. By the ship’s clock it was still the middle of the night, but late morning on this part of the planet. While his marines were busy putting out fires, he wanted to get a jump start on the day’s tasks.

Tris was nearby, collecting whatever berries and nuts she could find. It was a rarity that she was able to go planetside and always wanted to bring back whatever produce she could.

The shuttle had landed a safe distance from the Council ship’s impact zone and the marines wanted to clear the area before he approached. Luckily, the fires were not spreading quickly and they did not anticipate it would take long to extinguish the flames.

Since they were effectively off the grid, there was no official work for Altair and his crew to do, but he still liked to keep an eye on all intercepted communications and review all department reports. His keen oversight had allowed them to profit from a side job more than once.

“Do you see this?” Tris said excitedly to Altair, breaking his focus from the translucent screen. He looked up to see her holding some mangled foliage. “Warek root. Most Eltari mash it, but I enjoy it as part of a stew. Have your marines kill me a wild boar and I will make you a feast tonight.”

Altair’s mouth half-cocked into a smile. “I don’t see how I can turn down your offer.”

“You never can,” she quipped as she gently stroked his face with her hand. “I think you’d give me your ship if I asked you the right way.”

Altair blushed and pulled her hand away, unsure if any of the marines had seen their interaction. “Tris, we have discussed what behavior belongs in my quarters and what does not.”

Before either could continue, Altair caught the movement of an approaching marine in the corner of his eye. He turned to face Corporal Jenng, leader of the company. Jenng was an experienced marine, not much younger than Altair himself.

“Captain,” Jenng said as he removed his helmet. Light ash smudged his face as his salt and pepper hair reflected the amber sunlight that poured into the small clearing. “Most of the fires have been extinguished and we’re ready to approach the crash site.”

“Thank you, Corporal. After you.”

Altair followed Jenng back toward the edge of the tree-line, followed by Tris. Within moments, they were joined by the rest of the marines. There were five marines in all, led by Jenng. The landing team had to be small to accommodate the extra storage of bringing the crashed scout ship back into orbit. That left only eight jump seats for the trip. Those seats accommodated Captain Altair, Tris, Jenng and his men, and C.O.R.M.

C.O.R.M. stood for “Cybernetic-Organic Research Marine” and everyone simply called him Corm. He was a humanoid robot with an organic brain, capable of performing a wide variety of mission types. Equipped with advanced sensors and weapons, he could serve an important role on almost every tactical or scientific mission. Altair had two of them onboard.

“The crash site is only two kliks into the forest,” Jenng reported. “It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to get there.”

“Then let’s hurry up,” responded Altair. “Have your men keep their eyes open and weapons ready.”

“You heard him. Move out. Corm, take the rear.” Jenng made the first steps into the trees as Corm stood at ready and watched the marines pass in front of him. A salute and a hushed beep were the only acknowledgements that Corm made to the order.

As Tris passed by, they caught each other’s gaze. She had always been unsettled by this ‘creature’ that was not a man, yet more than a piece of equipment. The crew treated him almost as one of them, yet did not socialize outside of missions. She could not imagine having such sentience without having a soul, yet that was best how she understood him to be.

Part of Tris’ disconnection with Corm likely also had to do with his face—or lack thereof. Had his creators made him look more human, she surmised, perhaps he would be more accepted. Instead, he had arms and legs—even a head—yet no face. Where one eye would normally be, there was a blue light. The other socket housed some form of sensors or camera, she guessed. And there was no moving mouth, just a disjointed voice for the few times he actually did speak.

“Are you alright?”

“What?” Tris turned to Altair, whose question snapped her out of her bewilderment. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry.”

They had walked farther than Tris had realized. Yet, she suddenly knew where she was. Despite the years of growth and the burn marks from the fires, she knew these trees. She was near home.

“We’re here, Captain.” said Jenng just as the company stopped. Before them lay the burned out wreckage of what remained of the Council scout ship.

“Spread out, gather what you can and confirm the pilot’s fatality.” Altair’s orders were quickly followed as Jenng nodded to his men and they quickly spread out. Corm walked past Tris and toward the main hull. His sensors quickly scanned the remains before he picked the bulk up over his head.

“Dear-heart, I was hoping we could—” Tris began, tugging on his elbow to ask a favor. Before she continued, one of the marines approached Jenng in the near distance.

“Sir, we can’t find the pilot,” came the marine’s report. “There is a small pool of blood half a klik out, but no sign of the body.”

Jenng turned to Altair, who lowered his data pad as he absorbed the information. After watching the scout ship nearly disintegrate in the atmosphere, he did not anticipate actually finding anything except body fragments.

“How the hell did he survive that?” Altair blurted. “Corm, scan the vicinity. Find him.”

Corm immediately lowered the wreckage down to where it lay before. He slowly pivoted around as his sensors adjusted for the new command.

“An operational Cyrex unit has been located twelve kliks Northeast from our present location,” Corm reported. His voice was mostly natural with only a hint of its mechanical synthesis. “It is surrounded by multiple Eltari life signatures, most likely a small town.”

Tris covered her mouth and gasped lightly. Both shock and a sense of horror overcame her. Altair quickly approached the cybernetic officer.

“Corm, I am authorizing containment protocol, level 3. Authorization Altair-seven-seven-one-alpha. Confirm.”

“Authorization confirmed,” replied Corm. “Commencing containment protocol.”

Immediately, Corm turned in the direction of the small town and took a couple of steps away from Altair. Panels along his back opened up to reveal atmospheric thrusters and, within moments, he was sailing across the sky toward his destination.

“Altair,” Tris began. Her voice was nearly trembling as she approached. “What is containment protocol, level 3?”

Altair turned from his gaze into the sky and faced Tris. “I’m sorry, my love.”

“Orders, sir?” Jenng asked, taking a step closer.

“What is containment protocol, level 3?” Tris repeated.

“Let’s gather what we can of this mess,” Altair responded to Jenng, ignoring Tris’ question. “I’ll monitor Corm’s progress—”

“WHAT IS CONTAINMENT PROTOCOL, LEVEL 3?!?” Everyone stopped in their tracks at Tris’ outburst. Altair had only seen her this angry once before and it cost him a broken arm. Still, he could not bring himself to answer or even look at her.

Jenng finally spoke up; the only man brave enough to tell her the truth. “Eradication of the anyone who has come in contact with the target.”

“Listen, Tris—” Altair began, attempting to dissuade her outrage.

“What have you done, Altair? I have never seen this side of you before.”

“I know how you feel. Eltari are going to die, but—”

“Not just any Eltari,” Tris exclaimed. “My Eltari. My town. My family. Do you not recognize these woods? Do you not remember that this is where we met all those years ago before you took me into the stars?”

“I’m sorry, but there is no other way.”

“Call him back.”

“I can’t.”

“Call back your machine-man. I will find your pilot and resolve this without bloodshed.”

“I am sorry, Tris. I can’t.” Altair remained calm, hoping that she would pick up on this and relax her anger as well. “This is how it needs to be.”

Tris stepped even closer to him, their noses nearly touching. Her skin seemed to darken as her amber eyes sparked into a golden glow. Her face distorted with rage and hatred for the man that she loved. Suddenly, she erupted into a scream like that of a banshee. All of Jenng’s men covered their ears and buckled to their knees in pain. Altair stood there, taking the full brunt of the sound. His ears began to ring and he closed his eyes as Tris turned around and ran into the forest faster than he had ever seen her move before.

* * *

“Why are you just standing around like a herd of guffaloo?” Ike nearly screamed as he swung his legs off the cot and onto the floor. He grimaced in pain as the hind muscles flexed across the arrow’s wound. “I told you to go. Now.”

“And what of you?” Kyri asked before her mother continued the thought.

“You will not get far in your wounded condition.”

“I’m not getting far at all,” he said, moving closer to them. “I’m as good as dead. That doesn’t mean that I have to take you down to hell with me. I’ll make my stand. Here. And you can get away.”

“I should never have brought him to you,” resolved Kyri to her mother. “I should have left him to die in the forest.”

Kyri’s mother grasped her by the shoulders and stared her in the eyes. “You brought him here because that is who you are. Adventurous, caring, and very foolish. What has come to pass is meant to be. And if not…” she paused a moment to glare at Ike. “We can kill him later.”

“You are still not leaving,” Ike pleaded. “Am I speaking an alien language? Maybe my Cyrex isn’t working. Tap tap, nope, it’s fine. You can understand me. Help me find me red bag, then get out of town before it’s too late.”

Both Kyri and her mother stood still, perplexed by Ike’s sudden sarcastic tirade.

“Or just stay here with me and die.” he continued. “Either way works for me.”

Before anyone could react further, a commotion was heard outside the room. The door burst open and Sabra ran in, making a circle around Kyri before jumping on the cot and lying down. Moments later, both Anod and Geneth appeared in the doorway.

“There you are!” exclaimed Geneth. “Did you find your dragon?”

Anod continued, “When you didn’t return to camp last night, we decided to—”

The room suddenly grew silent as Anod’s eyes fixated on the stranger with the pinkish skin across the room. Picking up on her master’s emotions, Sabra stood up and began to make what sounded like growling sounds toward Ike.

Instantly, Anod and Geneth stepped into the room and readied their weapons. Geneth held his spear out while Anod brandished a hunting knife in each hand with the blades pointed back at his elbows.

“What is this demon?” Anod asked. Kyri rolled her eyes, forgetting that she had gone through the same misperception herself.

“Why do all of your people think I’m a demon?” Ike uttered to Kyri as he backed against the far wall.

“Put your weapons down,” their mother said, stepping in their way. She paused as she tried to determine the best way to alleviate her boys’ fear. Perhaps Ike’s original story, the lie, would be the best. “This creature is… a messenger.”

Anod, not backing down or lowering his knives, kept his eyes trained on Ike. All he needed were three seconds and the pink demon would be disemboweled. “What message does he bring?”

“To leave. Now. Or die a horrible death.” Ike responded, hoping that these new visitors would heed his warning. “And help me find my red bag. I really need that.”

Suddenly, Geneth’s spear begin to quiver in air. “What… the dresh… is that?!”

Geneth’s eyes were fixated on the window overlooking the street leading into town. The rest of the group turned their gaze as well just in time to see an object fly quickly through the sky and land in the dirt. A cloud of dust erupted around it and swirled, slowly settling to reveal Corm in his landing position.

“Not good, this is not good!” Ike exclaimed, tapping his Cyrex as Kyri’s family surrounded him at the window. “New plan. I can mask my life signature, but only for a few moments. I’ll distract ugly over there and you leave out the back. I assume you have a back way out of this little town?”

“Yes,” Kyri acknowledged. “We have a way to escape.”

“Good, but I still need my red bag.”

Kyri’s mother walked across the room toward a small cabinet near the cot. Opening the door, she pulled out the red bag and threw it to Ike. “Take your bag. May Rell watch over you always.”

Ike nodded at the sentiment. He watched as the mother turned and walked out of the door. Geneth and Anod followed, the latter not taking his eyes off of Ike. Once Sabra jumped down from the cot and left, only Kyri was left with him.

“Go,” he said, looking into her eyes. “Get your family as far away from here as possible.”

“Farewell, Isaac Gibson.”

“Ike.”

“Farewell, Ike. May you have the strength of Rell in your battle.”

Ike waited until Kyri was finally out of the room, then unzipped the bottom section of his red bag.

* * *

Outside, several Eltari gathered around the dust cloud to investigate. Some adults held their children back from getting too close, but no one spoke. Finally, Corm stood erect and began scanning for his target.

“Unable to locate life signature. Beginning containment procedure, level 3.” Corm stated to himself. The unusual voice caused the onlooking Eltari to stir.

Corm raised his right arm into the air. The robotic hand folded back, revealing the soft blue glow of a plasma cannon. The light enchanted the natives as it glowed brighter. They did not know to take this as a warning to run, but it was now too late.

A single plasma blast discharged out of Corm’s arm, cutting through half a dozen Eltari and obliterating the side of a home. Dark grey body parts flew about the air, landing all across the road. The remaining souls erupted into chaos, screaming and crying as they ran into various directions.

Corm aimed his cannon at another building and repeated the process. Much of the same carnage followed as Eltari fell dead and fires began to burn across rooftops.

Amidst the screams and the chaos, Kyri picked up on one in particular and paused from her family’s exodus out of town. The sound beckoned her attention and forced her to look.

In the middle of the road, Kyri saw an Eltari toddler sitting by her deceased mother. The wailing cries had also caught the attention of Corm, who trained his weapon directly at her. As the glow built up, Kyri rushed over to the child and scooped her up into her chest and knelt down, waiting for the demon fire to consume both of them.

“It’s okay,” Kyri whispered with only seconds left to live. “I will walk with you into Rell’s paradise.”

Both girls clenched their eyes as the high pitched tone of the cannon indicated that it was just about to fire. It was moments that seemed as if an eternity before she finally heard the shot fire, followed by another one. Suddenly, the building not far beside them exploded and sent shrapnel all around them.

Kyri opened her eyes. She wondered how had the demon missed them at such a close range and glanced around, finally settling her eyes on the entryway to her house. There stood Ike, a small blaster in his hand.

Looking back, Kyri could see Corm’s arm pointed to the side. Apparently, Ike’s well-placed shot made at the right time had saved her life. She also noted the sparks emitting from the creature’s arm.

“Plasma cannon offline,” Corm stated to no one in particular. “Target identified visually. Enabling close combat mode.”

Ike slowly walked into the middle of the street, keeping his blaster trained on Corm’s head. His Cyrex spoke into his head. Item: Unable to sustain life signature cloaking. Disengaging.

His ability to hide had ended, but that didn’t matter any longer. There were only two ways this was going to end: either he would get another lucky shot to take down this bastard, or he would die then and there.

Corm’s stance changed from the rigid machine into something resembling a boxer. Ike knew about the capabilities of these cyborgs, but he’d never seen one up close. Only the larger ships were equipped with them and then it was only one or two. He’d certainly never gotten to see one fight hand-to-hand and he was likely about to die for that pleasure.

A moment later, Corm’s forearm plating opened up and two steel blades slid out, one on each arm. They measured several inches in length and shone brilliantly in the light as they locked into place.

Hurriedly, Kyri carried the orphaned child away from the showdown and handed the girl to her mother.

Corm twitched, calculating his series of moves. It was now or never for Ike and he pulled the blaster’s trigger.

Nothing. A brief flare up, but no pulsating beam of energy. Another pull and still no activity. A quick glance at the battery indicator showed a spent fuel cell. One shot was apparently all that Ike was going to get.

With nothing standing in his way, Corm leapt off his stance and ran toward Ike. The mechanical beast swung his sword-arms around like a character from one of Ike’s old animation shows.

The only move Ike could make was to duck. Narrowly missing decapitation, Ike fell backward onto the dirt road. His red bag sent flew out of reach and he could feel his wounds opening again from the abrupt movement.

Towering over Ike, Corm held both his arms high, ready to strike a devastating final blow. As his arms swung down, they were caught in mid-air and prevented from reaching their destination. Ike looked up to see Anod standing on one side, using his knives to stop the blade. On the other was Geneth, his spear barely holding together under the weight of the steel. Both Eltari men pushed back and sent Corm staggering.

“Are you okay, messenger?” Geneth asked, not taking his eye off the adversary.

“I thought you people were going to leave while you still could?” Ike responded, looking around for the red bag.

“You saved our sister’s life,” responded Anod. “We are repaying the debt.”

Ike could see the momentary confusion in Corm’s programming. Despite combining the strength and agility of a machine with the processing power of a human brain, these units were prone to delays when the parameters of a situation changed—especially the older models.

This could be his only moment to change the tides, so Ike tried to stand, but the pain in his rear caused him to fall back down again. Locating his red bag, Ike could do little more than resort to crawling toward it.

Corm began to move again. This time swifter and more agile than before. He trained a blade on each of his opponents. His arms sliced through the air and each man countered, keeping the machine busy. Anod’s accuracy was amazing as his stone knives were able to counteract each movement with a direct block. Geneth mainly focused on deflection and avoiding the strikes. Neither man knew if the demon could grow weary, but they could certainly keep it busy for a moment.

After several blows, Geneth’s spear gave way and splintered into two. Corm’s left arm sliced down his chest and then across his neck. Geneth dropped to his knees and the distraction caused Anod to lose his concentration for only a moment.

That moment was all that Corm needed to disarm Anod. A simple swipe across and his blade sliced cleanly through Anod’s left wrist. The severed hand dropped to the ground and Anod crouched down in pain.

Anger swelled up inside Kyri at the shedding of her brothers’ blood. She let out a high-pitched scream and rushed Corm as he retracted his blades to survey the scene. Her tackle attempt didn’t even cause Corm to flinch. All he had to do was lift his arm and she was sent flying back to the side of the road.

Corm looked around and spotted Ike only a few meters away, almost to the red bag. He walked over to the wounded human and reached down, turned Ike over, and grabbed by the neck. Corm’s metallic fingers wrapped around Ike’s throat as he lifted him off the dirt. Staring Ike in the face, Corm once again unsheathed the blade on his left arm and held it up to face level, ready to snuff out his existence.

Kyri pulled out her bow and focused on Corm’s head. Despite her horrible aim, she knew that this arrow had to hit its target. Pulling the line taught, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply. The world around her began to slow down, much as Geneth had tried to teach her to do for years. As she opened her eyes, her hands knew an unfamiliar steadiness.

“For my brother,” she said to herself before releasing the string.

The rogue arrow flew through the air with the speed and grace of an eagle. It embedded itself into Corm’s neck, causing him to drop Ike back into the dirt as his systems began to overload.

Ike looked over to see Kyri and then back up at Corm. Glancing to the red bag, he could see that it was now within reach. Grabbing the handle, he pulled it close to him and vehemently rummaged through the bag for a spare battery.

Regaining control, Corm reached up to his neck and pulled the arrow out. He looked down to focus his attention back to Ike just in time to see the new battery slide into place. A low hum sounded as the blaster powered up. Corm raised his arm to make his kill as Ike raised the blaster to Corm’s head.

Kyri’s heart leapt with brief happiness as the demon’s head exploded into pieces. The cyborg’s entire body went stiff for a moment before collapsing into a crumpled heap. Making eye contact with Ike, her brain determined that he was alive, but her thoughts were elsewhere. She turned her attention back to her brothers.

Geneth’s head was in their mother’s lap as she stroked his silver hair. His eyes were wide open, looking into the sky as he gasped for his final breaths. Anod, holding the stump on his left arm, ignored the massive pain as he lay by his dying brother. Kyri came close and touched her forehead to his. Her stomach was turned in knots, twisted beyond recognition.

“Farewell, my brother.” Despite only wanting to cry, she was able to utter the last words Geneth would ever hear. “May you visit me in my dreams.”

As Geneth stopped breathing, their mother pulled her two remaining children closer to her and they wept together.

Afar off, Ike watched the somber moment. This was no time for victory. They had defeated the cyborg, but other privateers would be coming soon. Above all else, Kyri had just lost a family member.

“Misa?” Tris’ voice cut through the crying and startled everyone. In all the commotion, no one had noticed her arrive. “I am too late. I swear to Rell that I did not want this pain to befall our family.”

Kyri’s mother slowly stood and stared at the stranger. After a moment, she turned back to her children without saying a word.

“Misa,” called out Tris, desperation in her voice. Her voice stopped the mother in her tracks. “Do you not recognize me? I know it has been ages, but—”

“My sister is long since dead,” snapped Kyri’s mother, whipping her head around again to the newcomer. “And if she were not, she would need to explain where she has been for ten years and why she claims to be responsible for the death of my son.”

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