Copyright (C) 2018 Ashlyn Nafina
Summary: An elite, shape-shifting agent takes on a mission that has even the big brass scared. A series of surprises leads to a change of perspective for the agent, and the beginning of a revolution for the world.
Notes: The amusing back-story of this story: Me and a group of friends were planning to release an RPG (video game) and spent a while coming up with a world and characters for it. We never did get our act together to build the game, and I was a little lukewarm on where the story was going anyway. Later on this emerged based roughly on the world, so I guess you say that it’s fan-fiction for a game that never was. It takes place a thousand years after the RPG would have.
Timeline note: This story was actually written around 2006 or so, but it’s never actually seen the light of day. So I’m going to go ahead and leave the date for this post as today, to avoid confusion about what’s new on the site.
Five minutes, thirty-six seconds. It’s all the time I’ve got to make a decision which could be the most important decision I’ve ever made in my long, long life. Could be the most important decision that any of us has ever made. It shouldn’t be me making it. But here we are, and here I am.
At long last, she’s sitting across from me, in a dark, smoky room lit by a single overhead light. Black hair, brilliant green eyes, young. Just a little girl. Way too young for the knowing look in those eyes. The light squeaks slightly on its mounting in the ceiling as it slowly moves back and forth, casting animatronic shadows on the crates in the warehouse. Never thought she would be the one. She looks me straight in the eye, calm, accepting of her fate. A ship’s foghorn sounds as a bell dings, out in the harbor.
The cold steel of the silenced .45 in my hand provides no comfort tonight. She draws a quiet puff from an expensive cigarette, taps the ashes, and looks me in the eye still. Perhaps a twinge of pity, and a little bit of hope. I feel a drop of sweat make its way down my back, and I am still no closer to the damnable decision.
“So,” she says. “What’s it gonna be… Keia el Rahim?” A mild smirk. Cold, cold sweat down my shivering spine, between my breasts.
Five minutes, fourteen seconds. How did it come to this? What’s happened to me?
Let us start at the beginning of this mess, I suppose. Maybe a pattern will emerge from the chaos, and my decision will be made.
I woke on that fateful day at HQ confused. Often happens right after an assignment. I laid there staring up at the ceiling above the bunk, trying to orient myself. I centered myself mentally, taking deep, even breaths. A great spinning sensation surrounded me, the mental remains of the last assignment falling away. I felt the prized detachment at last, the complete lack of an identity wrapped around my ego.
You see, I’m an elite Ba’hari agent for the Casilian governments. Always been one, for as long as I can remember, which is a very long time. I could have been friends with your great, great grandmother, and that would be recently.
You don’t know what a Ba’hari agent is? Or just Agent for short. Well, I guess I can forgive you that — we have been long forgotten by most of the people of Casilan. We had even forgotten ourselves, which is why we made some damned fine agents. Besides, of course, the fact that we are shape-shifters — which has to do with the predicament I’m in right now. But I get ahead of myself.
I can’t remember who I was born as, my childhood; too far back into the faded winds of time. Too many places, too many shapes and forms, too many lives, each lived for a fleeting moment. I don’t even remember becoming an Agent, really, though all of us know the story. Thought we knew the story.
We were the elite, soldiers like no others ever born or created. We were the creme de la creme, the result of a supremely successful experiment conducted between the Carads and the Relians. The Carads, of course, contributed their technological and genetic screening capabilities, to find those candidates most likely to succeed; who knew what dark powers the Relians contributed, but the rumors are more effective than any truth would be. Granted our special powers, and, of course, immortal life by our BPG, we were able to become anyone, almost anything. Our missions: to infiltrate, gain trust, and push buttons. Flip switches. Cull when necessary. Become lovers, colleagues, wives, husbands, enemies, even pets, just long enough to complete the mission. Then… to disappear, never to be heard from again.
(Four minutes, thirty-two seconds. My finger knows its task — to squeeze the trigger after taking careful aim, and Complete the Mission. Identity-free ego, swept away to the next mission, the next life, by the power of the BPG. My power, I think gratingly. Yet my finger won’t respond. My arm shakes visibly and she smiles a tiny smile at me, knowingly. She’s seen it before.)
There were many routine missions — some as simple as playing bodyguard for someone, in a position to guard them where no one could see a guard. Some as complex as modifying the right plans on the right schematic, to cause a failure or a success where none was present before. And of course, many assassinations. You would never expect a spouse of five years, ten years, twenty years, to be an Agent. But then, none but the cognoscenti knew what an Agent was at all, and then only as rumors. Hard and hardened SOBs is what we are — hardly human — to pull a stunt like that and come back for more.
Sometimes, you knew what your fellow Agents’ missions were. They’d go one morning and be back the next. Occasionally you’d be taken aside and given special, secret directions. Those were always the most important missions. They never told us what exactly was riding on their success, but you could tell. Somethin’ big. And they were always assassinations. Dangerous, insidious, terrifying elements of society that must be stopped at all costs. Always.
“Five-two-three, I have a mission for you,” Jens started off as he walked into my office that day. As I said, we had no identity of our own any more, none that we could remember. Part of our training — an identity of our own would interfere with our camouflage. So we were simply referred to by our ID number. “A very, very important mission.”
I gestured expansively toward the chair on the other side of my desk and took a seat myself, transforming my hands into various shapes for practice. Useful practice, and sometimes it put men like Jens, Carads through and though, just enough off balance to get a few extra bits of information to stay alive in the field. They were never forthcoming on their own. We always had plenty of power to make the magic of the BPG work at will inside the office, they had always said, but only in the office. Of course. Jens glanced queasily at my exercises.
“As I’m sure you’re aware, we have been following a particular terrorist group for quite some time,” he babbled nervously. “We are close now, very close, to finishing them off. It has been the work of decades, but it’s finally paying off. As we speak, other agents are closing on their targets already. Bastards don’t die easy, but with enough effort we can root ’em out. This leaves only one individual that we know of — very high up in the ranks. The highest, maybe.”
Jens slid a folder across to me. I picked it up with hands once again human and leafed though the pages. There wasn’t much to go on; just a few names (pseudonyms, obviously), some vague descriptions, and a place — a town on the outskirts of Relia. Jens glanced around the room nervously, as if looking for spies. Spies, in HQ!
“Let me level with you, five-two-three. Five agents have already been sent after this individual. None have returned. Well, except for the one that was shipped back in the shape of a chair, completely inanimate and comatose.” I grunted. Favorite way to suicide among Agents. But away from HQ?
“This bitch,” he said, stabbing the open folder for savage emphasis, “knows something. Big brass upstairs know something too, but they’re not telling us. If she gets away again, she’ll recruit, and we’ll be starting all the way at the beginning again. You’re the best agent we’ve got, and the only one I trust to see this all the way through.” He glanced around once more. “And that stays in this room! Am I clear?”
“Yes sir,” I replied with a pleasant baritone voice left over from my last borrowed ego, more serious now. Of course as soon as he left the room I’d be rubbing my hands in glee. A real challenge for once!
An undercover Relian did the honors of transportation for me, since they have access to all of the ancient teleportals. Within an hour of my meeting with Jens, I was strolling along the outskirts of Asterbré. Not much was left of the great conservative city after it had lost its long economic and social battle against the free-spirited Relia, hundreds of years in the past. There were not quite cows roaming the streets, but it wasn’t too far from it.
“I must leave you here, Keia,” the Relian said, making a particular two-handed greeting gesture for “good luck and safe journeys” over a bow from the waist. “It has been an honor to serve.” His emphasis on my new avatar’s name did not go unnoticed.
“My thanks to you for the speedy transportation,” I said, repeating the hand greeting and the bow. Relians were a polite people, if nothing else.”Of course they will be notified when my mission is complete. I will meet you here again at that time.”
He bowed again and then walked back toward the portal.
“Avatar” is perhaps the best possible word for the disguises we take on. We become that persona, to the outward world. We live those lives vicariously, but we always remember that there is a core of us that is Agent. That the avatar will eventually disappear, and I will become five-two-three again.
As I alluded to earlier, the BPG is powerless to change an Agent’s form once they leave HQ, so I had to choose carefully, as always. The psych profiles on my target said that she’d be more likely to relate to another woman, so I had chosen an average female form — 167cm tall, medium build, fast fighting reflexes. Standard Relian type, well-adjusted for the brutal desert that contained that nation: dark tan, hair somewhere between turquoise and sky blue, with strains of each, dark red eyes. Exotic by Carad standards, but several thousand years of high-RAD radioactive exposure (as the rumors go) can do that to you, I guess. Flowing white desert tunic, pants and belt, plain hide boots of the uninitiated. A Tear Stone pendant set in a curiously curving design completed the disguise. A few enjoyable moments alone in my office, flowing and becoming, both mentally and physically, and I had emerged as Keia, ready for the mission.
Not for the first time, I wondered if our fair Casilan had ever been more hospitable. A low haze of dust was kicked up near the ground by the throngs of people in the city’s central market square, warped periodically by visible waves of heat rising from the pavement. The Two Suns blazed down mercilessly, creating multi-colored shadows here and there that were one of the endearing features of the planet. I walked among the stalls, some with blessed shade, listening for rumors of my target, dropping a hint here and there to the right ears that I might be available for mercenary work. Putting my proverbial finger on the pulse of the city.
“No, I can’t channel much Mana. They said I had no talent for it.”
“Yes, I have good fighting reflexes. I am a ninth level Ka Te.”
“Sure, I’ll be around town in case you hear of a job.”
After a few hours I parked myself at a small cafe and sipped at a cold punch of locally native fruits. I was starting to wonder if I had done something wrong, my reflexes had failed me, and I would be spending that ice cold night under a thorny hedge somewhere. But shortly thereafter I saw a Relian heading toward me, unobtrusively pushing her way through the crowd. Or perhaps, the crowd unobtrusively pushed itself out of her way. Dark and radiant turquoise hair marked her an initiate if her outfit didn’t. I groaned inwardly, hoping this visit was for business and not pleasure.
Only the truly proud of the initiates wore their full uniform, unless they were fresh out of the academies, but she didn’t look young enough for that. Her hair was cut in straight lines, even with her jaw and framing her face, with one tail jutting out in the back from underneath. Two curiously glowing pendants in the shape of flames or perhaps comets, sky blue, floated above her ears without support. A large but simple gold necklace circled her neck like a collar. A dark red, sleeveless shirt with a diagonal seam across the chest covered her and outlined her to her hips, then narrowed to two strips of cloth that ran nearly to the ground. From her belt of woven gold hung a single ruby-hilted dagger with a crystal blade. Tight black shorts covered what was visible of her hips and legs to a little above her knees. Two gold bracelets on each arm and fine hide boots with turned tops completed the ensemble. As she drew closer I could make out the glint of her golden eyes.
Some of it purposeful, some simply due to the way Mana changed you subtly with prolonged use, her appearance was still readable like an open book: female third-degree initiate of the Flame, with a secondary in Wind. Oh yes, this one was going to be a handful. I was definitely hoping for business and not pleasure, for the prudes among the initiates, of which this was certainly a fine specimen, made great sport of harassing those without Mana abilities.
“Oh great initiate of the arcane,” I said as she approached, rising and making the hand greeting for “I am humbly honored by your presence” over a bow, “please grace us with your presence.” It was the appropriate greeting in our situation, but her response was definitely not the normal one.
“You are Keia?” she asked in a clear, melodic voice. I nodded. “You would offer your services as a body guard?” Again I nodded, thinking I knew what was going on again. I was wrong. “Then I challenge you to a duel. Senshen Market Square, two blocks west, five minutes from now. You win, I hire you. You lose…” She chuckled delightedly, turned on her heel, and walked west.
So. Business and pleasure. I sipped on my fruit punch while I wondered how I was going to get out of this one.
Five minutes later, I walked into Senshen Square. A square area about 8 meters on a side was sunken within the yellow pavement stones to about 10cm below the street level. A great face, half sun and half moon, was engraved into the center. Two and three story buildings loomed up around our ad-hoc arena. A small crowd had surrounded the square, but I noticed that they were all carefully, and intelligently, staying out of the square itself. The muted hum of conversation, bartering, and music could be heard still in the background.
The initiate was there, flowing from one stance to another, spinning, stopping, stomping a foot down, fist punched out, spinning again, as if performing a kind of dance.
“Are you ready?” she asked me during a momentary pause.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied, smiling a little. She smiled back mildly and flowed into a defensive stance, meeting my eyes as I did the same. Not the forward stance with outstretched arms that would signify that a demonstration of Mana channeling was imminent, but a hand-to-hand fighting stance.
I would not be dying today after all!
At first we merely circled around each other for a few moments, looking for any weakness. Her eyes sparkled with challenge. I have seen Relians fight, and I know their fighting style inside and out. I saw no weakness in her movements. She apparently had seen enough herself, and lunged in. I automatically flowed to the side to avoid the hit, and we were fully engaged.
Instinct took over and I rode out the battle, neither taking hits nor giving them. Round and round we went, blood pounding in my ears, nothing existing outside of the dance. I had begun to tire and to wonder what would end the fight when a chance opening left me with my stiff hand pointed her trachea, a killing pose. She stared at me along my arm with hard eyes, shaking slightly and taking ragged breaths, then lowered her hands calmly. Sweat dripped from my face. Only then did I realize that she had had me in the same check. Applause rose up in the crowd around the square as it started to disperse.
“You fight well, Keia. I will hire you,” she said as she nodded to herself. “My name is Tasha Emerald River,” she continued, making the hand greeting for “I have wronged you, and ask forgiveness” over a slight bow and a lopsided grin. “Mana is good, but it won’t stop a well-placed dagger before it’s too late. Please join my group at the North Gate before tomorrow morning. We will leave at first light for Belio.”
“I would be honored,” I responded, bowing.
Belio had been listed in Jens’ report as an area of suspected activity for the terrorist group. I felt in my guts that something smelled wrong about this whole thing, just too easy. But it was the best lead I had, so I took it.
Only then did I notice the dark haired, mocha-skinned girl on the side of the square slip away, long after most had already gone back to their business. Dark hair was unusual in this part of the world in a non-initiate, but I thought nothing more of it at that time, filed away for later inspection by my Agent-trained intuition.
As it happened, Tasha Emerald River had gathered quite a merry band of body guards. Tear Stones, the basis of many interesting Mana artifacts and quite priceless in this quantity, were her cargo. We were to accompany Tasha with a caravan across the empty, treacherous deserts, to the city of Belio, a port town on an inlet from the vast oceans of Casilan.
A rowdy assortment of vagabonds and other characters of questionable-looking dependability set forth with us the next day at first light. Tasha took a position on her sand beast, riding comfortably among its two humps, near the front of the caravan; the strange dark-haired girl from the square rode beside her, the two of them in subdued conversation. Behind those two rode the precious cargo, and ringed around all of that, myself and my fellow guards. Two scouts ranged ahead to look for trouble up there, and two more trailed behind to make sure no trouble was following us.
One could never be too careful with Tear Stones.
“Not too bad of a day, huh?”
I looked over toward the voice and found one of my fellow guards. Behind him stretched the endless dunes of outback Relia, and beyond that, so hazy in the distance as to be almost indistinguishable, a towering mountain range. Their tops must have touched the stratosphere. Here and there a sand beast bawled for some water, gladly given since we had brought so much.
“I’m Nilo,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m actually from Belio, which is probably why I got invited along on this trip,” he continued with a smile. “How about you?”
“Name’s Keia,” I replied. “Just a hired hand she picked up in Asterbré. I’m from here and there, all over,” I said guardedly. “I don’t remember much of my childhood, so I try to just live in the present.” Always a good, safe story, since coming up with a new story as often as we Agents would need to do would just cause unneeded complications. He was not put off by my tone.
“I see. Good philosophy, living in the present! You ever been to Belio before?”
“No,” I replied truthfully. “Haven’t seen much of the oceans, actually. How is it?”
“How is it! Why, it’s one of the most interesting places on Casilan,” he said animatedly, launching into a lengthy exposition about his home town. I carefully absorbed all he had to tell me.
Agent rule number A-1: Always know your territory.
Finally, some time later, he was interrupted by a bellow from Gesh, the commander of the guard.
“Well, I’ll see you around, Keia. Good to meet you.”
“Yes, good to meet you as well, Nilo.” I gave him a parting smile. Good indeed, to have a friend in this group who I could question later about the band’s previous activities. Good to have a thin wedge into the rest of the group, in case there was some relation to the terrorist organization. Always nice, too, to have a friend looking to steal a few kisses for a momentary distraction from the seriousness of my task, which, my body informed me subtly, Nilo would definitely be interested in doing. In such a lonely life as mine, you take what pleasures you can, when you can.
As the time passed, Nilo and I became better and better friends, against my Agent judgment, but it was hard to resist the temptation to have a close friend, if only for a short time.
After several uneventful days, the caravan pulled up next to a small oasis in the middle of the rolling sand dunes, still stretching as far as the eye could see. A large pond of crystal blue water glinted under the harsh suns, which cast multi-colored shadows on the ground behind the large milk fruit trees.
“We stop here tonight,” Gesh bellowed out to us, relaying the command ostensibly from the Relian initiate. “Set up a perimeter. Two-man watch all night tonight up there,” he said, pointing to a hill formed of a large rock behind the pool, “switching off every two hours!” We had had no problems so far, but apparently there were to be no chances taken with our precious cargo, especially at a point many travelers would aim for on their trek. From the top of the hill, anyone moving in the bright moonlight would be visible for kilometers away.
As it happened, I drew lots with Nilo for the third watch, a few hours after dark.
“Oh sands,” I said facetiously to him, smiling. “See you then?”
“Of course,” he replied, also smiling.
I was dozing at the base of the big hill when Nilo came to wake me a few hours later. The rock and the sand were still warm against my body, but the air had definitely taken a chilly turn. Hundreds of stars were easily visible in the sky. Great flows of sand moved with the wind in the distance, making a sound suspiciously like ocean waves.
“Ready for the watch?” he asked.
“Sure, I’ll be up in a jiffy, soon as I grab my jacket.” He laughed and headed up the small path around the hill, toward the top.
I stalked back toward my tent, padding silently on the sand. As I came near the cook fire that was burning down to embers, I heard two voices speaking quietly. Two voices with refined accents and a good command of vocabulary. Since most in the camp would be asleep by now, I wondered what might be going on. Hoping for an interesting eavesdrop to help my case, I crept closer and hunkered down. I was shivering from the cold by now, but the conversation made it worthwhile.
“…think they’re getting close now,” the first speaker said. I recognized it as Tasha’s voice. She laughed a little. “We shall have the last laugh, however!” A globe of Mana-generated light hung in the tent, distinctive by its unnatural bluish glow.
“Yes indeed,” the second speaker responded. A voice I didn’t know, a young woman. Interesting. The black-haired girl? “Their greatest asset, hoodwinked right out from under their noses. Our greatest achievement since the first.”
“But do you think she’ll really go for it?” Tasha replied. “Old habits die hard.”
The other sighed feelingly. “Don’t I know it.” The silence stretched on for several moments. “But there can be no other way forward for us,” she said at last. “Not just for my people, but for all of Casilan.”
“That my ancestors would do such a thing, even conceive of such a thing!” Tasha replied, with a real edge of anger in her voice now. A woman of quicksilver passions, this Tasha! But then initiates of the Flame were often like that. I could see a silhouette of a knife by the Mana light, her crystal belt knife thrust into the air by a fist. “We have fallen far, but I will bring honor once again among the initiates of the secrets of Relia!”
“Patience, Tasha of the ancient Emerald River clan,” the other replied calmly. “HQ is starting to get desperate, as you well know,” she said. “The big brass know about the ABPG by this point. And so, I have heard, they send out the big guns.” Amusement colored her voice. “But we have moved in time.”
I barely kept myself from swearing. They could not possibly be saying what I thought they were saying! But then, Jens had warned me nervously that someone knew more than they ought to know. Just how much did they know? Was this the same HQ they were talking about? And what was an ABPG, anyway?
I quickly and quietly crept away from the tent to get my jacket from my own tent before my chattering teeth gave me away to the two in the tent. I would definitely have to be most careful from now on!
“What kept you so long?” Nilo asked, with a smile to take the sting from his words.
“Just had some trouble finding my jacket,” I replied as I pecked his cheek and sat down for my two-hour watch.
We were sitting back-to-back on the top of the rock, leaning against each other. As is often the case during long watches that must not be slept through, a conversation started about a random topic.
“So,” Nilo started tentatively. “If you don’t know other parts of your past, tell me how you became a ninth level Ka Te. ‘Cause that’s what they’re saying you claim.”
“It’s true,” I replied confidently.
“I believe it! Beat the Tasha Emerald River in a match, I’ve heard! Not an easy thing to do!”
I laughed quietly at his comment.
“Nilo, a girl’s got to have a couple of secrets,” I said, and winked.
“Your whole life is a secret, though.”
“I meant honest secrets that I actually know the answer to,” I replied, surprising myself with a touch of genuine sadness in the words.
After a while, our conversation died down, and we were once again left staring out at the endless sand dunes. Nilo slowly turned around with a conspiratorial look on his face.
“You know, Keia, I don’t think anyone from the camp can see the top of the rock we’re sitting on,” he said. I arched an eyebrow back at him.
“Are you trying to imply that we should do something with that privacy?” I replied teasingly. He took my hand gently and I could feel a sudden, unexpected rush of heat run through me.
He didn’t wait any longer, but kissed me passionately, at length. It took me a moment before I could breathe properly again. Nilo had the grace to look embarrassed at what he’d done until he realized that I did not disapprove.
“Well, well,” I said.
All of my vaunted Agent detachment disappeared at that point. I sank deeply into the reality of Keia, my avatar, feeling her very real flesh all around me. Far more gone than an Agent on a mission should ever be. It was at that moment that I realized I was truly falling in love with him, a feeling so old and rusted that I hardly recognized it. Ah well, having had experience from both sides of this dance was not something to be wasted!
Later, when the next pair of guards came up to replace us, we both headed toward my tent. Even if the new guards smiled, they said nothing.
Things were fairly uninteresting for the next few days of the trip. We rose early, packed all the tents and cooking implements, and rode until lunch time. Stopped for a minute for a quick bite to eat from trail rations, and trudged onward. A halt for dinner, and a quiet watch in the night. Then another day of the sun beating down upon us mercilessly. Only Tasha seemed unaffected by the intense heat, a common physiological side effect of extensive work with Mana of the Flame.
One afternoon after that, though, we finally had the trouble we had been brought along for. The caravan was traveling through a narrow gorge with steep, rocky walls on either side. Rock protrusions and spires dotted the top of the gorge, providing natural hiding places. An absolutely perfect place for an ambush. But there was no way around this pass, over the imposing Rengai Mountains.
We puzzled out in retrospect that the raiders had seen us coming and circled around on both the entrance and exit of the gorge. Then their comrades had swooped down along the steep sides.
Our group was badly outnumbered, perhaps two to one. I took the whole scene in a flash, shaking my head at the bad odds. Yells of defiance could be heard echoing all along the gorge, along with the clanging of swords. I saw Nilo fighting a group near the front of the train and admired his precise sword work. But I didn’t have long to ruminate because a large contingent of the raiders focused in on me and began their attack. I had no time for anything at that point except exercising my Ka Te to the ninth level, dual blades flashing.
I was becoming tired, going through the forms and defeating one enemy after another. Due to my position in the rear guard, the raiders had managed to get me off a little way away from the rest of the group, who were still oblivious to my peril farther up the gorge.
Still the raiders kept coming. Somehow I realized that the situation was becoming dire, and without thinking of what I was doing, I switched to another fighting style particular to the Agents, taught only to us by HQ. Confused by the strange techniques, the battle finally turned against the raiders.
When the last one went down, I looked around, panting and holding my bleeding arm, and realized that by then I had a small audience. Including, I noticed with consternation, Tasha and the black-haired girl. Who had seen me fighting with the strange Agent style? I cursed my sloppiness and chalked it up to losing my detachment for the past couple of days. Bad habits breed bad habits! I vowed to get back on the straight and narrow with my real job after that.
“Are you ok?” Nilo asked me, concerned. I nodded.
Tasha looked very tired, the kind of tired one can only achieve by a constant channeling of Mana. The dark-haired girl just looked thoughtfully at me in a most disconcerting way.
That night as we all sat around the cook fire, I was given a visit by the dark-haired, dark-skinned girl, and learned her name at last.
“Keia?” she said to me. “I am Astra. I’m pleased to meet you, and glad to know that we and our cargo are in such capable hands,” she said eloquently. As was expected of me as a Relian, I stood and made the hand sign for “I am honored” under a bow.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Astra.” She led me aside a little way and gestured for us both to sit down facing the fire, lighting a cigarette she seemed too young for.
“That was a most peculiar fighting style you were displaying back there,” she said without emotion. “Most peculiar. I admit I have never seen the like.” My heart tried to beat a little quicker as I thought about my responses, quick as lightning.
“It’s a style passed down among my family,” I said. The best lie is obviously the truth, of course. “As I was telling Nilo, I don’t know much about my family or my childhood, but I was taught that much by them. It’s considered a family secret, so I would just as soon it’s forgotten.”
She looked at me then, a piercing sort of look which said that she had measured you enough to fit a tailor and knew the state of cleanliness of your underwear.
“Of course. How is your arm?” she asked as she touched the bandage lightly.
At that moment I felt a strange sensation which I believe I had never felt before in all of my experience as an Agent. At least, the experiences as far back as I could remember. It was like losing the signal on your Carad video set, but on reality. Almost like a resonance of the feeling an Agent feels using their BPG. It took all of my skill and mental control to avoid falling over, even sitting down. When it stopped, short as it had lasted, my head was still spinning wildly.
I should have known, then, that it was time to bail on this assignment and start again when things had cooled down, but at the time I chalked it up to being too tired from my fighting exertions.
“Are you well?” she asked with a concerned smile.
“Yes, perhaps a bit tired.”
“Then I shall leave you to your sleep. We have a long trek ahead of us tomorrow into Belio.”
And with that, she walked away.
The next afternoon, the caravan finally rolled into the port city of Belio. Long before we reached the town itself, the evidence of the sea was everywhere: rolling sand dunes were replaced by carved cliffs full of bright green trees and vegetation, an occasional waterfall; the temperature dropped considerably, even during mid-day; vast clouds filled the sky, and the air carried a wet tang peculiar to coastal areas. Sand tracks gave way to muddy roads of dark soil, which gave way to cobbled roads. At last we crested a hill and the vast expanse of Casilan’s Western Ocean spread out before us.
The city of Belio itself lay along a narrow inlet from the ocean, surrounded by stout walls. We were spotted fairly early by the guard mounting the walls, and greeted before them by a ubiquitous border bureaucrat. Sensing where the leadership in the caravan rested, he headed for Tasha.
“Initiate of the dark arts,” he said respectfully, bowing over a practiced “I am honored” on his hands, “I am charged to examine all caravans entering and exiting the township of Belio. May I have your statement of intent, and declaration of cargo?”
“I am Tasha Emerald River,” she said, stepping down to the pavement to meet the man. He nodded respectfully. “I travel with my lady’s maid and a contingent of mercenary guards to make a delivery at the Xien wharf. We carry assorted Tear Stone tools to be shipped around the continent.”
After all I had seen so far, the small lie didn’t really surprise me any more. The bureaucrat shook his head almost imperceptibly and spoke in a quieter voice.
“We have had disturbing reports from the capital regarding a, ah, potential plot in Belio involving quantities of Tear Stone. We have, ah, been instructed to check all cargo entering and leaving the, ah, city.” He seemed apologetic, but Tasha’s eyes sparkled dangerously, the gold of her irises catching the sun.
“Do I look like a criminal to you?” she responded coolly. “I have contacts in the capital as well and I wouldn’t want them to hear that their tools were delayed for ghosts of plots.”
“No, Initiate of the Flame, no, you don’t, and you wouldn’t,” he responded nervously, apparently considering his job. “Very well.” He bowed again over “good luck and safe journeys” and then gestured us through the gate.
But I saw her let out a tense breath once we had passed into the city.
Belio, being a port town, was verdant beyond the belief of many of the mercenaries who had spent most of their lives inland. Clean cobbles and pavement replaced dirty and dusty streets. Thinly walled buildings, often made of wood, and with many windows and breeze-ways, replaced thick adobe and stone. Vines and flowers were abundant throughout the city. Wide boulevards lined with trees meandered through the hilly terrain. Fountains gushed continuously with a display of water wealth that bordered on the obscene.
We finally stopped at a small inn called The Dancing Mage, a little way into Belio.
“All right, you lot,” Tasha said with a characteristic lopsided smile, her voice amplified by Wind Mana. “We make the delivery this afternoon, 16th hour, sharp! We stay here for a week, then we head back inland. Anyone wants to stay on with me, meet here then!” This small speech was followed by a few hearty cheers as the mercenaries began walking into town with their pay. Tasha and Astra walked over to where Nilo and myself were standing, looking around at Belio.
“Nilo, Keia, I want your assistance today while making the delivery. Meet Astra and myself back here at the inn around 16th. We’ll proceed at that time to the wharf.” Nilo and I both bowed, and headed off to see a bit of the town in the hours until the delivery.
I wondered, idly, if this wharf we were delivering to was involved in the terrorist group HQ was tracking. The one I was apparently in the midst of now. I would find the answer to that idle question and much more, to my chagrin.
I walked around the central market area with Nilo, looking at various shops. He regaled me with tales of what had changed since he grew up there, and I enjoyed looking over the foreign merchandise.
“Wait here, and I’ll go get us something to drink,” he said, striding off toward a nearby booth.
Only a few seconds later, I felt a small hand tugging at mine, and looked down to see a boy, about four years old, with no parents to watch him.
“Hey there, little man,” I said with a smile.
“No time for that, five-two-three,” he replied in a serious voice. It was then that I noticed his BPG, similar to mine, yet subtly different. “Got some intel you’ll want.” I looked around quickly, but Nilo was nowhere in sight. “Four-nine-six”, he said apologetically.
“Four-nine-six? Is that you?” I chuckled at my fellow Agent’s appearance. “Well, make it quick! I’ve got company.”
“Then listen, and listen fast. That train you came in with? Three of the mercenaries we saw there were definitely involved in this. Good job on the sniffing. Nine-six-one has tracked down another of these guys, and he spilled some of his guts. Figuratively, and unfortunately, later on, literally. He didn’t know a whole lot, but we got a hint of some internal corruption. Inside job. Someone who has connections, selling Agents and HQ info out. Watch your ass, K.”
“Thanks for the…” I started, but when I looked down, he was gone.
“Street urchins bothering you?” Nilo asked with a smile as he handed me a drink.
As a clock struck 16th, we met again at the inn. Tasha and Astra were waiting for us.
“Thanks for coming with us,” Tasha said. Astra nodded.
“As always, we are concerned about the safety of our cargo,” she said.
Nilo and I bowed, and waited for Tasha to channel Mana to levitate the crate of Tear Stones. We stood along either side of it and pushed it along with us as they led the way down to the waterfront.
A quarter hour later or so, we walked up to a building with a dilapidated sign reading “Senshen Wharf” in rusty letters. Once again I was unsurprised by the duplicity displayed by this pair, taking their goods to the “wrong” wharf. But who would trouble the comings and goings of a full Relian initiate, the next thing to royalty in that nation?
The pair of women preceded us into the building as we walked along a dim corridor lit by ailing Tear Stone globes. I was tensed to the bursting point, yet holding a very relaxed outward appearance. This large waterfront building was probably a major center of operations in the terrorist group, and very likely Tasha was high in their ranks. Inside job? Phaw! Four-nine-six didn’t know the half of it, nor did HQ. Wishing that I’d had the time to give him a brief synopsis, I hoped fervently that this would be worth a little vacation time for me when I got back. I felt an unprofessional and quickly smothered pang of regret that I wouldn’t be able to spend it with Nilo.
It was during that momentary lapse of attention, that musing, that it all happened at once. Tasha spun around and finished casting Mana on me, to paralyze me. Nilo grabbed me by the hands and pinned them to my back. All three of them looked at me sadly and yet understandingly. I passed out with an image of Astra’s suddenly sad smile in my head.
I woke with a blinding headache. All I could feel for a few moments was the pain in my head, all I could see around me, blackness. Slowly, as I came fully conscious, I wished for the headache and the oblivion again.
I was laying on a small bunk in a dark cell. A candle burned on a table next to the bunk, along with a meal on a tray. Sitting up quickly provided an instant object lesson as I grabbed my head again, trying to will the pain away. Something felt wrong. Something missing.
What had they done to me?
Then I saw it and groaned with the first true understanding of my predicament — my BPG was missing from my wrist.
Four-nine-six’s words came back to me then. “Inside job.” “Watch your ass, K.” Well, now I knew. And unless I missed my mark, I’d have the full story within a week.
You see, we were warned about this very situation during our Agent training, and during each refresher.
“Sooner or later, you are going to come up against a situation where you lose your BPG,” the instructor had said. “Each BPG is different, but that BPG is yours. It is unique, keyed to you only, and can not be replaced. The BPG is high technology, very sensitive, and very classified. Even more classified than the existence of Agents. And as valuable as you are as Agents, the BPG is even more valuable in the wrong hands. So,” he said forcefully, “if your BPG ever leaves your wrist when you are away from HQ, it will go into a self-destruct mode. We–can–not have this technology fall into the wrong hands,” he said, enunciating each syllable and waiting with a dramatic pause to let that sink in fully. “You will have a week to bring yourself to HQ with your BPG to avoid the inevitable loss of your usefulness to us. Fail, and if you make it back to us in one piece, we may be able to find you a government sinecure while you live the rest of your short life. Or we may court martial you. Better yet, do not get into this situation. Is that clear?”
I struggled for the Agent aloofness, the separation from the avatar. But strangely, even though it was all in my imagination, I felt that I was watching a bridge across a great chasm burn. The bridge along the path back the way I came. All I could think of for some time was a glorious night atop a watch hill at an oasis, kind eyes staring deeply into mine. And even more strangely, that path seemed like it led home. I cleared my mind again from such strange thoughts, trying to think of a way out of my predicament.
In the background, I heard the vague noise of a ship’s bell ringing, echoing the pounding in my head.
The next day I received a visit from Astra. Although I should have mentally considered this as an opportunity to try to figure out what was happening, and how I might get myself out of the situation, my first reaction was pure, blind fury. As soon as she stepped into the room, I lunged for her with a Ka Te killing sequence. Or I tried to do so — within about a quarter second of my lunge, I was hanging in the air, frozen. Or perhaps I was simply trying to move through a room full of very solid jelly; it felt much the same.
“Now, now, five-two-three,” she said. “Let’s not have any of that unpleasantness. Tasha has cast a Mana slowness holding on you, to prevent any quick, clever moves. For your own good. Can we agree to be civil?”
I sat down slowly and nodded, not seeing any other way to proceed. It took a moment for me to fully digest what she had just said before I groaned. I glared into those brilliant green eyes, intelligent beyond their years.
“Well, you’ve got all the cards now,” I asked savagely, “don’t you? What’s next? Add another Agent notch to your belts?” Astra shook her head slowly.
“What’s next… well… that is up to you, Keia. You are pretty far from HQ right now. You could be helpful to us. What would it feel like to have an identity of your own? How long has it been for you?” she asked musingly. She had also brought a tray full of lunch and set it on the small table. “I will leave you to your meal. Think on it, Keia.”
Thought about it I did, and I still saw no way out.
Astra visited me several more times over the next couple of days, each time displaying a considerable amount of knowledge about the inner workings of HQ, and surprisingly, of my previous assignments and exploits.
“I knew who you were as soon as I saw the fight in Senshen Square, you know,” she said. “That was the whole point of that fight — to verify that we had an Agent. There are subtle bleed-overs from the Agent style, and Tasha is skilled enough at Ka Te to force it out. I’m really quite flattered that they sent you, of all the candidates.” She paused thoughtfully. “You’ve been many people over the years, but always you’ve fulfilled your missions with flair and bloody brilliance.”
“Your diplomatic work during the Verilan uprising of 2153 was inspired,” she said on another visit. “No one knew the governor had been replaced until he’d delivered a request for a truce, and by then it was too late to recant.”
I just stared back at her. The Verilan uprising had been over two hundred years ago. I had to smile though. It was a fine piece of work.
She rose to open the door, but spun around as if she had an afterthought.
“Oh… how are you feeling lately, Keia? Little interesting, isn’t it, the effect the absence of the BPG has on you?” she said ponderingly, with a finger on her lips.
As she closed the door, I realized for the first time that I had felt no desire to hurt Astra. In fact for some reason, if anything, I felt the sadness that an older sister might at seeing her favorite sibling misguided. My strange and lengthy headache had finally faded. I knew they were softening me up for the final blow, but by then I couldn’t bring myself to care.
A mere two hours before my time was up, I was given another tray of food. About half way through my meal, I heard a strange thumping sound outside the cell. Glancing out through the portcullis, I saw that the guard had simply fallen over. I looked around quickly, but saw no one moving around in the hallway outside. His own tray of food sat about half-eaten on the table in front of him.
Going back and searching my own tray, I found a key that had been left hidden underneath a bowl. Trying it on the cell door, hardly daring to believe my luck, the lock turned quietly and the door swung open.
I was free! I suspected that my young Agent friend had somehow prized his way in here and freed me. Even now HQ was probably taking over the building, and they’d surely be able to fix my BPG. All would be well now.
Grabbing the guard’s Carad gun (outlawed in Relia, officially), I looked around a bit in a cabinet containing my knives and other possessions and found the BPG itself. Snapping it back on my wrist, I felt an immense sense of security and, well, Agent-ness. I knew then that a part of me would probably always identify itself as Keia, but I was five-two-three once again, back in action. One of the elite. With a little over an hour left to find the others and get the heck back to HQ!
Sneaking through the hallways, I had finally found a map of the building posted on a wall and took a guess at which room would be that of Tasha Emerald River. Even if nothing else came of this assignment, I’d finish it honorably by taking out the leader of the terrorist group, initiate or not. Her face, with that mockingly sad look she had when she’d bound me, still haunted my inner eye whenever I thought of her.
The quickest path took me through a number of twisting passages, so alike that I almost got lost, and finally through what looked to be a large meeting room. On the other side of that, then, my target. I thought it odd that there were so few people around the building who would intercept me, but perhaps they were all in other areas, fighting with the Agents.
As I pushed the doors to the large room open, I realized my mistake. This was not, in fact, a meeting room per se. It was a warehouse full of boxes, ready to be shipped or stored. With my Relian avatar, even with the very tiny ability I possessed to channel Mana, I could feel the resonance of the immense number of Tear Stones in this room. The wealth in that one room could have bought entire small nations.
“Do you want to talk, Keia?” I heard a voice call out from behind a stack of crates. Astra’s voice. I dodged around some crates to where I thought the voice had originated, holding my gun out at the ready, but no one was there.
“You are no longer bound, you know,” she said then, seemingly coming from several different directions at once. I realized then that she was right — I had been able to move at full speed for some time. “It was I who gave you the key, and gave the guard his special treat. Please, say you’ll come talk with me,” she said, almost pleadingly. Despite my best efforts, the part of me that was Keia leaped up inside and calmed the rest, and I felt moved at least to know what was going on.
“Ok,” I said to her. “I am bringing my weapon with me, and I will not promise you anything, but I’ll listen. You’ve only got a few minutes before I do what I came for and kill Tasha. And then… my fellow Agents will have some pointed questions for you, no doubt, when they find out what you know.”
A puzzled silence followed that statement.
“Keia, there are no other Agents in the building. None that will rescue you, anyway. And the incantatrix of clan Emerald River is not your target. Truly, time is short. Let us talk.”
Suddenly Astra was standing at my side, having ducked around one of the stacks of crates, her too-knowing green eyes looking into mine.
“Follow me to an area where we may sit, and I may explain a few things to you.”
When we sat, I cocked my gun and pointed it at her, ready to fire. She didn’t seem nervous at all.
“Let’s make this quick,” I told her. “You had better have a good story for me, and like I said, I made no promises except to hear you out.”
“Yes,” she said, “that was our deal. And now I will get to the point. There is no way to soften this or make it easier to deal with.
“True, my name is Astra, but before that I was known as… six-four-three. Yes, I can see from the surprise on your face that you know of the infamous case of the disappeared Agent. It was perhaps one of the first times an Agent had ever disappeared during a routine assignment.
“I was one of the most gifted Carad machine operators the Agents had ever seen. I could hack into anything, retrieve any information, change any information, with no one the wiser. You’re nodding. I’m still infamous I guess. It was my curiosity one fatal day which prompted me to hack into the files of HQ itself, just to see what was in there. Well, I found some really interesting things — so top secret that I had to spend several weeks on and off decrypting them, bypassing alarm triggers, and all other sorts of nonsense. What I found inside would change my life forever: the true history of the Ba’hari. Let me start at the beginning, though.
“Casilan was colonized at some distant, distant time in the past by humans from another planet. We truly know nothing about this time other than that the planet was called Earth. A catastrophe lost to history was wrought upon the planet. Genetic mutations ran rampant, and the seas rose up, covering much of the land. In the end we were left with the two races we know today, Carads and Relians. And…
“Yes, we Agents were an experiment conducted between the Carads and Relians — but we are neither Carads nor Relians, as we were led to believe.” She paused to give that its full, puzzling effect. “In fact we were a third race living on Casilan, a race with our own strange powers. To change our shape at will.
“Our tribe had been more thoroughly cut off from the rest of the population than anyone else. Back when Carads and the others were first making contact, a young Carad named Quinn, a Relian named Kaio, and a Ba’hari named Taia came together on a mission of some importance. Their quest is, alas, also lost from our history, but it is adamant that this was the first contact the Carads or Relians had had with the Ba’hari.
“When the bureaucrats in both governments learned of this new race, they immediately became paranoid, seeing only themselves and their own plots in the Ba’hari. How could we know who was an agent of the Ba’hari and who was not? How could our people ever be safe? The talk of previously comfortable politicians, the madness of fear for themselves and for their people. It drove them to action, though.
“Ba’hari were captured, and horrible experiments were performed on us. Finally, they were able to create it: the BPG. I can now tell you its full name, stored in the files: the Ba’hari Power Governor. Somehow the Relians were able to channel Mana and use Tear Stones to make a device which would effectively siphon a Ba’hari’s power into itself; and the Carads added circuits to detect its location and limit that power, control it. The details of that power siphoning are too gruesome to tell. But the device on your wrist does not grant special powers to a receptive Carad or Relian — it controls your own power for you like a nanny.
“Finally, a military expedition was sent to Ba’har to bind all of the rest of the Ba’hari. Relian initiates provided paralysis while Carad ground troops moved in and did the deed. The defeated and disheartened Ba’hari people, our people, had no choice but to go with the others to their fate.
“Most of the Ba’hari were at first unwilling, but a couple of weeks spent as a dog or a cat convinced them otherwise. It went against all of our beliefs, our religion. Instead of growing old using our abilities and eventually letting the soil take us, we were forced to live forever. Instead of reproducing naturally to allow future generations of Ba’hari, we were forced to renew our own bodies indefinitely. Unable to take what was happening to ourselves, all of our beliefs violated, and our families sold into this horrible slavery, we eventually gave in. A little creative brainwashing by HQ, and we all believed the story you still believe to this day, our culture brutally crushed.
“A few of us,” she said, her eyes gleaming with more hate than I would have believed possible, “malcontents and the like, actually helped them capture us and brainwash us. Volunteered for it!
“Yes, you were there. We were all there. Agents are more precious to HQ than they will admit. Did you ever wonder why you never hear of recruiting parties for HQ? And this, Keia, is why your BPG is tied to you, and can not be replaced. It has nothing to do with the reasons they taught us; it contains the key to your abilities. It can also, as you’re probably aware from experience, be used to track an Agent.
“For my next assignment, I had taken a slightly younger version of the form you see in front of you now, similar to the original form of our people. When I had fallen away from the immediate radar of HQ, I destroyed my BPG. You can’t imagine how it feels — and I sincerely hope that you will not have to experience that feeling, but the choice is yours, because in a few short minutes it will take care of that task itself. I felt like I lost control of my body; I was thrown violently to the ground. An immense vise was crushing me down; no, the weight of an entire city. My head pounded with a headache that lasted for days. I felt a part of my soul leave me, as I knew, quite literally. I will probably never transform again. But it had to be done so that I could free my brothers and sisters. Only completely free from HQ would I be able to accomplish my task. They would know of the destruction of my BPG, but my hope was that they’d think it an accident; I went into hiding, taking no chances.
“I had no identity that I remembered, as none of us do. I adopted the name Astra el Rahim, Star of Truth in the old Ba’hari language. Using the files I had gained from HQ, I sought the descendant of the leading Relian involved in the creation of the BPG, Tehara Emerald River. Yes, Tasha is her many times great granddaughter.
“She didn’t believe me at first, but eventually she saw that I spoke truth. For on my last transformation, in addition to changing my metabolism so I could live longer, I had made some subtle internal changes to my body — risky, but absolute proof of what I had told her. When she delved for this to verify it, and she finally believed, she was incensed beyond belief. Tasha is a woman of great passion, quick emotions, and steadfast resolve. Yes, I see from your smile that you see that as well.
“By combining our knowledge, we were able to create the ABPG process — Anti-BPG. It reverses the effects of the initial BPG bonding, freeing a Ba’hari back to their native powers. They could change shapes at will, and were untrackable by HQ. The usage of the ABPG process requires the destruction of a quantity of Tear Stones, as well as the incorporation of some which must be replaced periodically. Tasha has been able to provide these through her connections in Relia. They surround you now. Enough to free many of our people.
“We then captured several more Agents, and giving them the same choice I am now giving you, we were able to free them from their bonds. They chose to add ‘el Rahim’ to their name to honor me, and thus we have become the Rahim, the bearers of truth. Other Agents, unfortunately, simply went mad upon learning the truth. We learned from sad experience that the reversal must be done willingly.” I thought back to the report of previous Agent suicides after being sent after the terrorist; this woman, herself an ex-Agent all along!
“Things are finally coming to a head at HQ, and thus we have brought you here, ironically, with the help of HQ itself. Your assignment was influenced by our agents inside the agency of Agents, undetectable now.
“And now my long winded story comes to an end. You can choose to believe who you will: us or HQ; but my story is true. You must choose of your own free will — that is the beginning of the process, and why you are completely unrestrained. The decision is yours.”
She then leaned back quietly in her makeshift chair and lit a cigarette.
Which brings us, full circle, back to the beginning. Three minutes, thirteen seconds remaining until my BPG self-destructs. I’m sweating the bullets that ought to be issuing forth from my .45, shaking because I hear the truth in what Astra has told me; I know, deep inside, that it is true. Some part of me that was never lost in the Agent brainwashing knows it is true. Who am I, really? Five-two-three still wants to shoot, to stop the vicious lies, and go back to the life I know.
“One more question,” I said to her. “And no evasions. You said you sought me specifically. Why? Sure, I’m good, but there’s a lot of good Agents.” She smiled at me then, a far more warm and personal smile than I had ever seen out of her.
“Why me?” she said. “That’s always the question, isn’t it? You truly are their best, and we need you. It will be a grievous blow to them. But this question, at least, has an even simpler answer. Before we were captured, you were one of my siblings.”
I felt like I was tumbling down a rabbit hole, a deep, deep rabbit hole that lead to somewhere considerably less desirable than Wonderland. All my understandings of the world were crumbling around me, and a new vision of reality was becoming clear.
“Why,” she continued, “do you think you felt that strange sensation during our conversation after the attack? We are attuned to each other. Sister.”
Finally, something clicks in my mind. I feel at peace and know what must be done.
I lowered my .45 and lay it on the ground beside me.
“Ok Astra, you win,” I said. “What now?”
“First, Tasha helps you avoid my fate.”
Tasha Emerald River, the smile of a redeemer on her face, stepped out from behind another crate. Less than a minute remaining, she removed my BPG once again and cast a special Mana holding on it to prevent it from self-destructing, and to silence its homing device. Then, to my complete surprise, she hugged me warmly, as a friend, an experience I had not had in so long that I’d forgotten what it felt like.
“You are now Keia el Rahim, warrior and liberator of the Ba’hari people. I welcome you wholeheartedly to our group. It will take some number of months before we are able to use our ABPG process to fully restore your powers from this thing, but rest easy knowing that it will happen. In the mean time, you can stay and help us with some intelligence reports.”
I received a similar greeting from Astra.
“All that time spent in the cell, that was just to give me time to feel what it’s like to have my own identity again, to be someone, wasn’t it?” I asked. “To give me a foothold on a normal life again.” Astra nodded at my quick understanding.
“I would expect no less of you, my sister,” she said. “We will have to move on,” she continued. “They will know how long you spent in this town before losing the signal on yet another Agent, and they will come, as they always have, to investigate.” Suddenly, my mind grasped on something that had been bothering me for some time during her long speech.
“If we are so closely related, can we fix you using my BPG? I mean, like a blood transfusion…” Astra’s eyes went wide and I realized that she hadn’t thought of this new possibility before. Tasha had a skeptical look on her face but she already seemed to be working her way through the new puzzle.
Surprisingly, my eyes also found Nilo, standing to the side.
“Et tu, Nilo?” I said jokingly as I punched his shoulder, digging up the ancient phrase from somewhere in my vast memory. My memory, waiting to be unlocked at last. And…
My people, waiting to be free at last!