A New Story
Copyright (C) 2020 Ashlyn Nafina
Summary: This is the final installment of the Agent / Lost Tribe trio, written for this compilation. The first story really focused on Relia, while the second focused on the Ba’hari. This last one introduces the Carads in a real way.
Timeline note: This story was actually written around 2018 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.
Multimedia fun: There is also now a nice Darkwave/Vaporwave song about Jadze here, if you’re interested: The Synth Proclamation
I swirled my drink around lazily, watching the ice make little circles around the bottom of the cup, then looked back up at the stage. Jazeh looked like a young, vulnerable girl, standing up there, singing her soul out to the crowd. Her brown hair fell in artful waves around a dark face, and her silver dress dazzled the audience with its reflections of the stage lights. Her voice’s pixelated harmonics ran all over the place, building into inspirational chord progressions over the beat and the scratchy guitars. I had to admit, it was pretty catchy. The crowd was eating it up. Few would care who or what she was in this place as long as she could sing.
What she was to me, was our ticket to finally taking down HQ.
This night, I was a redheaded girl in a snug top that shone a metallic red, jeans, and sneakers. It was what passed for casual among the hacker set in Rajma, the capital city of Carad. And rumors had it, Jazeh was actually dating a hacker girl. It stood to reason. The two of them must’ve made quite a pair. But I had no interest in getting between them. Strictly there on business, but I figured it’d make her more comfortable with me if I looked the part.
Jazeh was good, but she was no famous performer; no one mobbed her after her show, though a few showed up to get an autograph. I walked surreptitiously up to the stage, blending in with the autograph seekers. Dutifully, I handed her a tablet, which she squiggled her finger across. Her personal cryptographic key would sign the document, showing that it was a real original.
“Great show tonight,” I said to her honestly. “I’ve got something of a gig for you, if you’re interested.”
I could tell that she was mulling it over, wondering what this random stranger would have to say, but also perhaps feeling a bit tired from the show and looking for some alone time. I had to chuckle a little inside about that; Agent training let us read even androids like a book.
“Hang out for a bit,” she said back to me, intrigue clearly winning out. “I’ll find you.”
Her speaking voice was cute, and somehow overly musical, even for the tonal Carad language. I could see the attraction of it.
I nodded and walked back to sit at an open table. A little while later, after another act had started, Jazeh made her way to my table and sat down.
“My name is Keia,” I said, proffering a hand.
“Nice to meet you,” she said noncommittally.
“I’ve actually got a very complex koan that I need someone to sing for me,” I started carefully.
“A koan…? Why me?” she asked sensibly. “I’m just a musician, not a Singer.”
“Well, about that… your voice has the right harmonics for this koan, which is rare. The koan is very old.”
“Oh? What does it do?”
“It unlocks ancient secrets,” I replied conspiratorially. “And not only am I willing to pay you in Tear Stones, I think you might find something in the koan to inspire some new songs. I’m no musician, but it looked pretty interesting.”
Her eyebrow lifted slightly. The hook was set.
“Can I see it?” she asked.
“Best you come over to take a look. It’s not something we should sing in public right now. Competitors, you know?”
Jazeh nodded. She seemed apprehensive, though. It was sad, if sensible, given the prejudice many had against androids.
“Do you mind if I bring Ray-ah?” she asked finally. “She’s my girlfriend, and a hacker. I know she’d get a kick out of it, and she might have something useful to tell you, too.”
“Sounds like fun!”
We’d agreed to meet in two days.
I strolled out of the bar and looked up. In the night, the multi-colored suns of Casilan’s sky were absent, replaced by the light of its moons. There was too much light pollution in Rajma to see the stars, but somewhere up there, I knew there was a sun from which humanity had originally come. The rest of the story was lost to antiquity, but we hoped to change that soon. Jazeh was the key.
I looked back down at the street that curved lazily into the distance. Glowing holograms hung in the air, marking this or that business, showing ads. Tall buildings rose all around me with random patterns of lights showing from windows.
Carad cities were really something after spending so long in Relia. And this one was special beyond being Carad’s capital city.
It held a dirty secret.
This was where HQ was hidden.
As Agents, we’d always been teleported in and out of HQ using the Gates. But with enough information and a few defections, we’d finally figured out where it actually was. I flexed my fist, thinking about it. Now we had a Song Cube that, with luck, told us what we needed to know, the final puzzle piece.
And Jazeh was the key.
I strolled into the chō kyài restaurant casually, looking around at everything, taking in my surroundings. It’s a habit I never quite lost after my Agent years, and it’s kept me alive more than once.
Chō kyài is a Carad specialty. It’s never really caught on anywhere else, and to be honest, it’s not very popular even outside Rajma. A layer of dough is laid down, and various fillings are laid on top, depending on the recipe: meat, vegetables, even sweets in some cases. It’s covered with another layer of dough and then baked at high heat, leaving a crunchy outside and soft inside.
This particular chō kyài restaurant was definitely on the grunge chic side. Hip, though. Work from indie artists was hung around the walls, with little price tags. The tables and chairs looked like they’d been gathered from twenty salvage sales. A musical track played loudly over the speakers, consisting of a traditional Relian song laid over with drum tracks and a spoken word rap. The lighting was floor lamps with the occasional black light facing the ceiling. Half the patrons had out tablets and other expensive-looking tech that they fiddled with while they ate.
I spotted my target, then. She was working behind the counter, taking orders and exchanging them for a swipe of each person’s credit chip. Ray-ah had a look common to Carads, but the lighting somehow highlighted her features. Pale skin tinted magenta by the lights, shiny, jet black hair with a few colored streaks hanging down beside her ears in braids, a knitted cap pulled over her head. She wore a black t-shirt and black overalls, which just brought the rest of her into even stronger focus. Ray-ah was small, too. The overall effect was like a punk pixie.
As I neared the counter, I could make out her eyes: a shrewd gaze from dark purple irises that reminded one of amethysts.
“What’s up?” she asked me as if she knew me for years. “What can I get you?”
“Whole pie or just a quarter?”
“A quarter would be fine.”
She tapped the tablet on the counter. It was translucent, as if it and its digital contents hung in the air in front of her.
“That’ll be five twenty-five,” she pronounced.
I handed her a credit chip, one of about fifty belonging to the Rahim, to keep us less traceable.
“It’ll be up in about five minutes,” she pronounced, handing me back my credit chip.
I nodded and walked over to a table where I had a view of her.
If Ray-ah was the kind of hacker that rumor had her being, it was curious that she’d work at a chō kyài restaurant. I chuckled. Chō kyài was popular with hackers; maybe she just wanted a way to get a discount. But looking around the place, my instincts told me it was more than that. There were too many devices out, too many serious faces, for this to be just a chō kyài parlor. This was a hacker hangout.
I’d chosen my old Relian form for this outing, as I didn’t want Ray-ah to recognize me later when we all met. A Relian wasn’t exactly out of place in Chō Kyài Sen Zù, but I started to wonder if I should’ve gone with Carad. I felt a little conspicuous.
A few minutes later, she brought my food over and then walked over to one of the groups of people. Within a few moments, she was chatting animatedly with them about some topic or other. Curious, I carefully shifted my inner ear to be more sensitive.
“…Tweak the third bit at address five six zed three four, and it has a really interesting effect,” one of them said.
“Isn’t that sort of dangerous, though?” Ray-ah asked him. “Leaving the register high for too long might overheat the chip.”
“Maybe,” he said with a grin on his face, “but it has an interesting side effect. The gā dzé register is right next to it, and of course we usually can’t change it. But the brief overheat makes it possible.”
An “ohhh” of surprise lit up Ray-ah’s face.
“So we could open up the hypervisor,” she shot back.
I knew just enough about Carad electronics to know that they were talking sense, but not enough to try to join their conversation. I’d determined what I’d come for anyway. Ray-ah was for real.
I finished my food and made a quiet exit.
The auto-taxi’s hum raised half an octave as it sped onto the A-4 Expressway, heading southeast. The road curved around gently, as almost all roads in Rajma did, due to the city’s design. Rumor had it, Rajma used to be all lines and boxes, and then a great earthquake happened. When they had to rebuild, they had better aesthetic sense and worked at it more organically. I chuckled inside at the idea. If that had really happened, it was a long time before I was around, and that would make it a very long time ago. There was no arguing about it being an attractive place by Carad standards, though.
The taxi dropped me off a few blocks from where I was actually going, and then I took a twisty path to get there, even so. It was hard to be too careful in the belly of the beast.
Walking inside the building, I took an elevator upstairs, exiting into a hallway with a blue, lightly glowing floor. I held a little tile up to a panel on a door, and it slid aside silently. No one else had come back for the night yet.
I relaxed my body all over, both the muscles, and in some other way I couldn’t describe to anyone who’s not Ba’hari. Then everything flowed and shifted, and I looked like myself again, the self I’d finally started piecing back together: light brown skin, black hair, green eyes. I kept the clothes, though. I’d learned the ability to change them, too, but it was still good to make at least a passing effort at looking native.
I ran through it in my head, not dismissing or skipping over any of it; it’s all part of me and who I am. My life began over a thousand years ago as Palta, a child of a tribe of shape shifters called the Ba’hari. We were taken captive by the Relians, magic users; and the Carads, technologists and scientists. They dropped us into a secret program of control and brainwashing that we knew only as “HQ”. There we were taught to be numbered Agents, to shape shift on behalf of the state, to be good little assassins and political lever-pullers, to refresh our cells and live forever.
But one of us got too good at her hacking, and she uncovered the secret history of HQ. She broke free and took on a new name, Astra el Rahim, vowing to free the rest of the Agents from their slavery. Astra convinced a Relian, Tasha Emerald River, of the truth of her story, and in Tasha she gained a powerful new ally. Tasha developed a way to use Tear Stones to free Agents from HQ’s control, and the two set about on a guerrilla effort to take down HQ.
The Rahim deliberately baited HQ to send me out to find them, and instead, Astra and Tasha freed me. There I met Nilo and the others, and I helped them in their fight for a while, until my path took me on a quest to find the Ba’hari homeland, to see if anyone had survived. I journeyed through the ocean, finding the island where I’d once lived. A talking monkey named Globo joined me on my journey as we passed through a teleporter Gate in a ruin, explored an abandoned city under the ocean, and found our way to the Ash’hari, descendants of the Ba’hari who had managed to escape.
I’d had a lot of hope for them, but they mostly turned out to be absorbed in their own lives and in avoiding the same fate as the rest of us. I guess I can’t blame them, but I can blame them for trying to maroon me on their island. Luckily, it didn’t work; not only did we find another Gate back to the mainland, I brought some of them with me who were interested in fighting, including the wise one in training, Mian’no.
When I returned to the Rahim, Tasha was practically on fire after hearing about Attarmansi, the city under the ocean; and for her, being a high level Initiate of the Flame, “practically on fire” is not much of a metaphor. Tasha had heard the city’s name hinted at; it was a center of study on Tear Stones. She and Astra were both excited about what might be found there in the way of Tear Stone technology and history, and how it might help in our mission. Tasha was close to a breakthrough in her studies, and that meant we were close to striking at the core of HQ’s technology.
We had no idea where to start looking, and no submarine plane anymore, anyway. So the only real way forward in trying to get back there was to try to find a teleporter Gate and a Gate setting that would take us there. All of the Rahim had searched for weeks for the clue that might get us back to Attarmansi, and now we had it. We just needed someone to unlock it.
And then we needed a whole lot of luck that we could find something we could use.
I stared at my reflection in the mirror, feeling at home with what I saw, and yet wondering who I was. Even after all this time away from HQ, that uneasy feeling never completely left me.
Merin, who had spent most of his time as an Agent in Rajma, had found our apartment for us to use as a base; and he’d also found us a hotel room suitably far away from that apartment, to meet with Jazeh. On the day, we were there with the Song Cube, waiting for her to arrive, anticipation hanging in the air. I’d taken the form I’d had in the bar, and Tasha had even dressed down for the occasion, foregoing her normal Initiate outfit and jewelry.
“You think she’ll be able to do it?” Astra asked Tasha questioningly.
Tasha shrugged and shook her head as if to say, Who knows?
The moments were dragging by, and in spite of the extra people hidden nearby, I was more and more nervous about inviting someone to a meeting with so many of the brains of the Rahim in one place.
The sudden knock at the door caused even me to jump a little. I wouldn’t have done it in my Agent days, but I was a little less human back then.
I walked over and opened it, and there they were: Jazeh and Ray-ah. Ray-ah nodded at me curtly, not recognizing me from earlier, of course.
“Come in, come in,” I said, gesturing into the room.
Ray-ah looked around the room, taking everything in at a glance.
“A few people who hold themselves with a sense of command, at least one of them a Relian Initiate, no doubt other people hiding in waiting. A room rented not long ago. Mysterious Song Cubes. Just what kind of contraband we lookin’ at here?”
Her face had not shifted from its impassive look in the slightest.
Ray-ah’s insight and her bluntness were both startling, and for someone as smart as she probably was, it was no doubt calculated to put us on notice.
Astra raised her eyebrow a fraction and then spoke with a little smile.
“We were hoping you could tell us that.”
If Ray-ah was surprised by one of those people with a “sense of command” being what appeared to be a young girl, she didn’t show it.
Tasha brought forward the Cube and placed it on a little table. It was perhaps 6 centis on a side, the faces carved in intricate designs of metalwork, wood, and other stranger materials. Spirals wound within spirals, fractal patterns swirling around each other, until you felt dizzy trying to follow it down.
Ray-ah whistled appreciatively. “Now that’s a specimen.”
She and Jazeh walked around the table, studying the cube. Jazeh stopped and looked up at me.
“You said something about a koan?” she asked in her musical voice.
I nodded and handed over a paper, which she scanned for several moments before shaking her head slightly. “This is very complicated. But I can give it a try.”
“Buuuuut before that,” Ray-ah interrupted, “there was some mention of Tear Stone?”
Tasha turned and brought out a small box. Opening the top, a number of rounded gems shaped like a teardrop were visible inside. She handed one to Ray-ah, who pulled a small eyeglass from a pocket and examined it. She nodded and handed it back to Tasha.
Jazeh had been studying the paper, and then sitting still, staring straight ahead as if very deep in thought. A moment later, she seemed to come back from whatever place she had been.
“I am ready.”
Astra nodded, and we all held our breaths as Jazeh let out hers.
It started out as a sleepy and sweet aria, something not entirely abnormal for human ears. I recognized the words as ancient Carad, something about oceans and sunlight, glass and steel, birds and wind, fire and ashes. It alternated like that, pleasant and airy, deep and serious. Then it sounded like there were two Jazehs, then three, then four. The song took on a strange melodic scale, interweaving in a dizzyingly complex way, becoming a canon, different parts of the words aligning like pins in a safe lock…
Suddenly, the singing finished as the Cube on the table exploded in light. Lines and curves and circles spiraled out through the air and floated around us. In the sudden silence, we could hear something like a tinkling aftermath of the song hanging in the air still.
Ray-ah’s eyes were already darting here and there, taking in the patterns, reading them and making sense of what she could. Of course all of us were doing the same thing, especially Astra, who’d had the most hacking experience.
“Incredible…” Astra breathed. “A complete list of all of Casilan’s major cities from before the cataclysm. Names, some kind of coordinates, and…” she breathed out a sigh of relief and happiness. “Gate designations.”
She and Ray-ah were already jotting down notes on some tablets that we had ready for the occasion. As fellow hackers often do, they each fell into a natural cooperation of writing down various separate parts. Tasha and I were using Carad cameras to take pictures and videos of everything.
Then, a sudden whooshing sound; the room was back to normal, and the Cube was simply a curiously designed box sitting on the table. Their lists were no doubt incomplete, but they’d written a considerable amount, and our pictures would reveal more.
“I’ve never actually seen one,” Ray-ah mused. “Part Relian magic, part Carad technology. Interesting.”
She stared at Astra impassively, perhaps a slight challenge in her eyes.
“So what’s all this to you?” Ray-ah asked finally, after a moment.
“About that,” Astra started. She looked over at Tasha, who nodded. “I’d wanted to get Jazeh’s help opening the box, and your help deciphering it. But events have inspired me. I want you both to join us.”
“Whoa!” both Ray-ah and I said at once, both holding our hands up comically. We looked at each other, and then she nodded at me.
“We hardly know these guys,” I said. “No offense, Jazeh, Ray-ah. But really.”
“We hardly know any of you,” Ray-ah said, echoing my sentiment. “And I’ve gathered enough to know that it’d probably be best for the two of us to take our Tear Stones and bow out before we get into any more trouble.”
Astra smiled a little in that infuriating way that meant that she was going to get her way, and already knew it.
“This is just a taste,” she said, pointing to the list she’d written out. “How would you like to go digging through ancient cities, uncovering all kinds of lost technology and information? More to the point, Ray-ah, how would you like to knock a direct blow to the Sāi Shá?”
Ray-ah actually recoiled a little at that. “What would you know about the Sāi Shá?”
“I know the dominant and paranoid political party of Carad have not done you any favors,” Astra shot back, unflapped.
Ray-ah suddenly took Jazeh’s hand and started backing toward the door.
“I have a good lead on where they took your brother.” Astra tossed it out there with more than a hint of compassion. “I know about losing and finding family.” She glanced over at me, then back at Ray-ah.
Ray-ah looked down as if admitting defeat, shoulder slumping. “You hold all the cards here,” she said. “Do what you like with me, just let Jazeh go. Please.”
Astra walked over and lifted Ray-ah’s chin with a finger.
“What we’d like is for you to join us.” Astra smiled again lightly. “And we would very much like Jazeh’s company as well. But for tonight, I would really like some help figuring out what we wrote down.”
“Let me take Jazeh home and then we can start.”
Back at the apartment again that night, I could dress down again. Astra, Ray-ah, and a few others of the Rahim were back at the hotel room where we’d met, studying everything that had been written down and captured in pictures and videos from when the Cube opened. Apparently, though we wanted Ray-ah in our group, Astra didn’t quite trust her as much as she’d implied just yet.
Nilo had come back with me, and for once, we were the only people in the apartment. I stood in front of the window in just underwear, staring out at the city lights. They cast the room in a sort of blue-green glow with hints of yellow. Right outside the window, a hologram hanging in the air was lighting up one pictogram at a time: TAN ZÙ ‘RÉI. Carad slang for a video game arcade.
I jumped a little when Nilo suddenly put his arms around me.
“Tense, much?” he asked gently.
“Aren’t you? We’re going up against the boogeyman here, and this one isn’t imaginary. I’ve been inside it and know just how real and scary it is. They could be anywhere, anyone. It’s hard to trust anything. You just feel like you’re alone in the desert with nothing but your own intuition…”
“Shh, shh…” He kissed my head lightly. “I know it’s hard, but what else can we do? This particular boogeyman isn’t going to leave you alone until we put it down for good. And we finally have a lead on how.”
I nodded slowly. “I wouldn’t admit it to many people, but I’m scared. HQ needs to go down, but what will happen when it does? Can we save all those people? What happens if they catch us?”
He just stood there nuzzling my hair and hugging me, and it reminded me all the more how in love I was with him, a luxury I could allow myself now that there was a me to love.
I drew him over to the bed we shared and laid down. He laid down next to me, and, sensing my mood again, we cuddled for comfort.
It felt like the calm before the storm.
The next morning, I woke when the door chime sounded. My first instinct was to jump up, grab a weapon, and hide, which I guess says a lot about my condition. But I quickly realized it was just the people returning from the hotel and turned the motion into a bounce out of bed, to put on some clothes. The suns were already up and shining through the window, so the group must’ve stayed at the hotel working all night.
I nearly did a double-take when I saw that Ray-ah was with them as well. Astra read the look on my face well.
“She’s going to come with us where we’re going. There’s no point in trying to hide the basis of our group anymore. Ray-ah, meet Keia.”
Ray-ah did a double-take of her own when Astra named me, but then she shook her head with a rueful grin and pointed at me.
“Yeah, you got me. Okay, so, you have two people named Keia? Or what? You told me stories about shape shifters, but I…”
She was cut-off mid-sentence as I started flowing into the redhead that she’d met the night before. I walked over and closed her mouth for her, shifting back to my own form.
“We’re Ba’hari,” I said quietly. “My people are enslaved by yours and Tasha’s, and we intend to free them. A powerful cross-government organization is going to try to stop us, perhaps is already trying to stop us. I’d say you should back out while you still can, but we passed that point last night, really. Astra’s right.”
She opened and closed her mouth a few times before she regained her cool facade.
“I’m in, of course. I am worried about getting Jazeh involved in this, though.”
“Unfortunately, Jazeh is already involved for the same reason you are,” Astra replied. “Our people who were taking her home warned her to pack some things and come with them somewhere safe. She’ll be joining us later today.”
As if on cue to some grand script, the door chimed, and in came Jazeh and her guards.
“Right,” Astra announced. “Everyone pack up and get ready. We have coordinates and a candidate source Gate in the Sen Tāi Jì ‘Réi that, by all accounts, no one pays any attention to. It’s considered an historical relic. This afternoon, we will be in Attarmansi.”
Everyone packed quickly, then, and we filed out of the apartment in ones or twos, as surreptitiously as we could. We all walked a circuitous, random path on our way to a couple of ground cars that were waiting for us. As we got in, the cars drove us by different paths to the Sen Tāi Jì ‘Réi, the District of Blooming Flowers, dropping us off in different places. We then made our various ways to the Gate that Astra and Ray-ah had located.
Suddenly, it seemed, we were all standing in front of it. It was sitting on top of a stone plinth or base, with a couple of short steps up to the Gate itself, which was a large ring standing on its edge. Two similar rings were laid around the first one on diagonals, sloping from the base, and then back up the other direction to near the first ring’s top. Astra and Tasha had already located the control panel and opened it. Tasha was fiddling with a Tear Stone, and Astra was flipping switches and dials.
“Everyone be ready to jump through as soon as it opens,” Astra said. “We don’t know what kind of a racket it’s going to make. Jen-ah and Tanelo will stay behind to randomize the controls and cover our tracks as well as they can. If we don’t return within a week, they will open the Gate again from this side so we can try to return.”
“Wait a sec,” I said. “I saw no Gate in Attarmansi. And HQ might be crawling all over this place by then. There’s no food in Attarmansi. There might not even be drinkable water. Is this our plan?”
“Do you have a better one?”
Astra and I held gazes until she suddenly turned back to her dial shifting. I sighed heavily.
“I hear you two are sisters,” Ray-ah said to me.
“Does it show that much?”
The Gate must’ve been in pretty good shape, because the rings flickered and shimmered, and then a familiar swirling glow filled them.
Maybe her crazy plan would work after all, if no one noticed the light show.
Each person walked into the main ring, meeting their reflection briefly before disappearing. I did likewise, the scene around me suddenly going blank.
When I emerged, I knew we’d reached the right place. It was the same sort of half-intact grandeur: great marble columns and vaulted ceilings in perfect condition, while other parts of the building were falling to pieces. I saw the same signs that Globo had translated for me. Globo…
It all gave me a strong shiver of memory and premonition, almost deja vu.
The last person came through, and the Gate closed with a fwoop sound, leaving no trace. We were marooned.
Everyone looked up when we emerged from the Gate station, quick breaths of awe taken in. There above us, arching over where a sky should’ve been, were Casilan’s oceans. The suns were just coming up here, being quite a bit west of Rajma, so the light was still dim; but the water’s movement was clearly visible.
“Viria, Jon-tah, Tilo, Taia,” Astra called out, all crisp command now. “You four set up here and keep watch. Take turns by twos and search the area for a source of water. Whatever you do, do not leave anyone alone. That goes for everyone. Make sure you are never alone here.”
We all agreed that the science museum sounded like the most promising place to start, so the group walked until we found one of the trains that could traverse the city on its rails, and piled in. I played train operator by using the controls the way we’d discovered on the last trip. Everyone stared out at the city, and I saw more than a few nervous glances up at its ocean-covered dome.
“Old Casilian!” Tasha exclaimed, listening to the announcements. She seemed to me like a kid in a candy store, beyond any caring about danger. “The science center will be coming up in two stops,” she called out to me. I nodded.
I brought the train to a gentle stop in front of the science center, and we all walked inside.
“Tasha, Keia, Ray-ah, Nilo, Mian’no, come with me to look for the Tear Stone info,” Astra said. “Everyone else, spread out and look for anything that might be interesting or useful here. And remember, do not go alone!”
“I’m not leaving Jazeh’s side,” Ray-ah said stubbornly.
“Fine, that’s fine. She can come, too. But let’s go.”
On our way, we passed the screen that seemed to show a live view of Casilan from space. Last time, the suns had basically been in alignment, so it just looked like a blanket of white thrown over a blue ball. Today, I could actually see some tinges of yellow and red on the edges of the white. Everyone stood staring at it in awe for a few moments, and then we passed on.
“You look deep in thought,” I said to Nilo, and he looked over at me with a strange, unreadable look.
“It’s just weird to see from all the way up there,” he said. “It makes you think, the arguments going on down here are small, aren’t they?”
Finally, we found our way to the Tear Stone room. Tasha exclaimed like a little girl, and she, Astra, and Ray-ah went at their information gathering with gusto. It was slow going, since only Tasha knew old Casilian to any degree, but the other two were able to interpret technical diagrams.
It was only perhaps half an hour in when Tasha stopped dead and just stared at the screen she was scrolling through.
“Gods,” she breathed.
“What? What is it?” Astra asked her suddenly.
“It all make sense now… they didn’t know… we didn’t know… but now… it makes sense now…”
“Make some sense soon yourself, woman,” Astra said, but not unkindly. “What did you find out?”
“It’s alive,” Tasha said quietly. “Tear Stone. It’s alive. It was here before we were. It’s Casilan’s native life form. And that’s how…”
“That’s how…?” Astra prompted.
“The BPG parasite. It’s a perverted form of the life force from the Tear Stone itself. And that’s how I can use Tear Stone to cancel it out… releasing the life force to act on the BPG like an antibody. Our racial mutations, caused by the Tear Stone… using it for magic…”
Tasha was clearly still lost in a cascade of epiphanies, and everyone was paying attention to her. So no one noticed what was happening at the periphery of the room.
“I was really hoping you wouldn’t have figured it out,” Nilo said. Everyone turned to look at him suddenly, and he had a Tear Stone pistol out and pointed at Tasha. The same pistol I’d gotten from this very museum, even.
Everything moved in slow motion, then. I couldn’t believe my ears. Nilo had betrayed me not once, but twice. All this time…
Suddenly, I came to, and things had happened while I was away.
Astra had shoved Tasha to the side as if expecting this outcome.
Ray-ah had ducked under a console, pulling Jazeh with her.
Nilo had a strangled look on his face, and his pistol was missing.
And Mian’no… was standing behind Nilo, a strangely circular arm wrapped around Nilo’s neck, and a pendant in the other hand.
And as quick as that, everything was still and quiet again.
Astra stood up from where she was on the floor with a disappointed look on her face, brushing her hands off together, and then sighing heavily.
“Sometimes I really hate being right.”
She walked over and looked up at Nilo, somehow seeming the taller of the two.
“So, Nilo, why don’t you tell us who you really are?”
“Go to hell,” he said through his teeth.
“We’re in hell, in spite of how pretty it looks,” Astra continued mercilessly. “We can just leave you here. Even you can’t survive off nothing. Plus, in… what is it now, still seven days? You’ll be Nilo forever, anyway. You might as well unburden your mind.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Nilo? My boyfriend? An Agent? Surely, this must be a mistake. Surely, he just accidentally fired.
“Six-seven-nine,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Oh ho,” Astra retorted. “An expert on Relia. No wonder you passed undetected for so long. But why did they send Keia when they already had you in place?”
He looked at me then, and I could detect some hint of sadness in his expression. I could feel the tears coming from my eyes.
“This isn’t a new thing, you know,” he said to me. “I’ve loved you for a long time, five-two-three. I couldn’t believe it when you loved me back.”
I could feel my face hardening, and I spat to the side. It was the most articulate response I could make at the time. I figured, deal with the crisis first, understand later.
He seemed to deflate the rest of the way at my response.
“I was part of a higher level action,” he said dejectedly. “I was the Agent actually sent to infiltrate and take down the Rahim. I was to listen for any hints that you were all developing an understanding of how it worked, how HQ worked, anything about HQ. Five-two-three was just sent in as a test. To help me slip in. To see how insidiously your process worked. Five-two-three was nothing but a decoy, just cannon fodder.”
“I have a name!” I yelled at him, surprising everyone. “Say it!”
“You’re five-two-three,” he retorted, looking at me. “That’s who you really are, and who you will always really be.”
Suddenly I was at his neck with a Ka-Te killing blow a centi or two away from his throat.
“Say my name, asshole,” I said through clenched teeth.
I felt a sudden slump of my own.
“We can save him,” I said.
Astra nodded. “I agree. Give me his BPG to hold on to for now, and find something to make some handcuffs, Mian’no.”
Nilo moaned lightly. He knew what was coming.
“Hey everyone, this is pretty cool,” Jazeh said incongruously.
No one had paid much attention to what was going on with Jazeh and Ray-ah. I felt a little guilty about it then, but we were busy with our own drama.
“What is it?” Tasha asked her.
“I can interface with this,” Jazeh replied. “It’s got some really old protocols, but I can make it out with some effort. What are you looking for?”
“Well, then,” Tasha said with a speculative look in her eye. She didn’t look completely on-balance again just yet, but the idea of more research was clearly grounding. “I think the day just got better.”
“Thanks to Jazeh,” Tasha said, nodding at the android girl, “we’ve learned so much about Casilan’s history in the past few hours.”
We’d found a cafeteria in the science museum, and owing to the strange staying power of the electrical equipment in the place, we had something to cook the food supplies we’d brought with us. The group, minus the ones left at the Gate building, were sitting at museum cafeteria tables together.
It was clear by the silence that everyone wanted to hear what Tasha had to say.
“What we’ve been able to piece together,” she continued, “is that our forebears came to this planet about three thousand years ago. They came from another place called Earth, about thirty light-years away. Light-years are a measurement of distance that I can’t really understand, but needless to say, it was a very long trip. For all we know, there are still humans living in that place, but no communication has been had with them for a very long time, since the time of the Troubles.
“Casilan had been terraformed for them, which is a way of changing the whole make-up of the planet to be friendly to human habitation. They wielded unbelievable powers in their heyday, and that was just one. Incredible cities were built, of which Attarmansi was one.
“At one time, this place was above the water. There was a lot less water on Casilan back then. But then the time of Troubles began.
“Inexplicably, the temperature of the planet began to rise. The ice that apparently resides at the poles of the planet began to melt. The oceans began to rise. Great domes were built over many cities, like this one. The oceans rose and rose, and finally just a few major land masses remained. Almost the entirety of human civilization as we know it, Carads and Relians, moved to one of those land masses.
“It seems that these great cities under the water were occupied as recently as a thousand years ago. The records chronicle a growing mutation among the remaining human population, which led to the divergent races: Carad, Relian, and Ba’hari. The people remaining in these underground cities were fearful of the mutations, and they became very isolated. They stayed under the water and watched using their technology.
“And then, a thousand or so years ago, the records simply stop. We have no idea what happened to them. All that’s left is all this technology around us that, surprisingly, still works.”
Everyone looked around uneasily at the abandoned building, feeling a little wisp of fear, of the unknown.
“I’ve pieced together a little more of what happened next,” Tasha said into the silence. “The Tear Stone is alive. It was here before humans terraformed Casilan, and it is of a totally different nature of life. But it is definitely living. I think that it was responsible for the oceans rising, as well as the mutations. Not radiation, as many Carads believe. Tear Stone is in everything; we have been consuming it for thousands of years by eating, drinking, breathing, and it has changed us.
“We’ve always known Tear Stone was important to our magic, but we never had a full understanding of why, until now. Tear Stone gave us that magic. It gave the Relians direct magic powers, it gave the Carads super intelligence, and it gave the Ba’hari shape shifting powers. We have been changing, becoming. What, I can’t say. Only that it is definitely still happening.
“And that brings us back to the original point of this trip. Never has it been more important to stop HQ. To enslave the Ba’hari, they had to pervert the life force of Tear Stones, to create a parasite that would control the Ba’hari shape shifting abilities. Everything that one does with Tear Stones causes a resonance, both in other Tear Stones, and in everything affected by them: all of us. Their ongoing perversion of the life force of the Stones is poisoning the planet and everyone on it. And the Stones being alive, it is only a matter of time before the reaction becomes much more pronounced.
“Which leads me to the ultimate goal of the Rahim in this matter. It is clear to me now that HQ has one central Tear Stone that is sustaining all of the parasites. And I have devised a counter-magic.”
Conversation grew in the room at this point until Astra stood up and cleared her throat pointedly.
“Our portal back to Rajma opens in a week. If we can find another Gate to take back before then, we will. But until then, I think it would be wise for us to wander around the city in small groups and learn what we can. We may never get another chance.”
Heads were nodding. The place was spooky, but as she said, it was a chance of a lifetime.
Another throat was cleared shortly thereafter, and everyone quieted down.
“I learned some songs,” Jazeh said quietly. “I’d like to sing a few if you don’t mind. This place feels like it could use some music.”
“That’d be great,” I said, remembering her performance in the bar. “Knock us out!”
The first few notes were wordless, nearly just humming. But it somehow seemed to echo in the room, to reverberate around it in a shivery way. The mode and the scale sounded alien, and yet somehow familiar. I’d never heard anything like it. Then the words began; again, it felt like I could almost understand them, but I couldn’t. It must’ve been Old Casilian. And then there were multiple copies of Jazeh’s voice, each singing a counterpart. The overall effect was eerie and beautiful.
I looked over to see Ray-ah staring at Jazeh. There was no question about the love in her gaze. And when Jazeh turned and sang to her, it was clear that the feeling was mutual. Android/human pairings were not unheard of, but they would not be easy, either. Androids were not very well respected in Carad society to begin with, and many thought of such things as perversions, a human becoming too attached to a simple machine.
Listening to this song, I couldn’t help but think that those people were idiots.
We began exploring Attarmansi a little at a time, meeting back at the Gate station every evening. A makeshift jail cell had been built for Nilo, and he was going through the same withdrawal that I remembered from my own early time with the Rahim. He was showing little sign of being repentant in spite of having heard everything Tasha said about Tear Stones and HQ. Astra glanced at him now and then with concern.
All of us found many wonders in that city under the ocean, including a Gate in another room of the Gate building. It stood to reason, I guess. The controls were alien to us, though. Astra was trying to puzzle them out, but she’d not had much luck thus far.
That feeling of being watched that I’d felt on the first trip was stronger than ever, but no one ever saw anything living besides the others in our group.
It was on our fifth day that we discovered what was, perhaps, the greatest wonder and the greatest horror of that city: an answer to what had happened to all of the people living there.
A group of us were walking down the street when we heard a whooshing sound, almost as if a great fireball were passing somewhere nearby. I looked up and saw a shimmer in the air, a long, sinuous mass flying by.
“Everyone, get down, take cover!” I said as quietly as I could, and we did. Just a few moments later, what seemed to be a great worm of energy rushed by us, the wind whipping our hair and clothes around. It seemed to have a head of some kind, from which piteous bird-like crying noises rang; and a tail that narrowed out until it passed us.
We ran for the next available cover, but it was clear that it was searching for us, sniffing us out. It knew that we were there. We kept that up for a while, but eventually, it did catch us. Or rather, it caught poor Yalo.
She was running from one cover to the next, and then the worm was suddenly there. It rushed through her as she froze in place, and suddenly she screamed. It was as if every particle of her glowed and then burst.
The worm disappeared, then. Perhaps it was sated for the time being.
I had to save my lamentations for later.
“Astra,” I called out as we ran into the Gate building. “Better call everyone back and get that Gate working. We found out what happened to the population of Attarmansi.”
I described what we’d experienced, including the loss of Yalo, and I could feel a quiet panic building in the room.
“From what you said, it sounds like the worm might be sated for now,” Astra said clinically. I could tell that the loss of Yalo had affected her deeply, too, but she was trying to put a calm face on for the sake of everyone left. “We need to get everyone back here, but depending on what that thing is, our magic or tech might both attract its attention. We’ll just have to wait for everyone to check in, in a few hours.
“Let’s get that Gate working, even if we can’t get it pointed at Rajma.”
Several people dropped their packing and preparation to help her try to figure it out.
The other groups did filter in, and everyone made it back alive, though at least one person had reported seeing the worm as well.
And then we heard it outside, the piteous cry. It was impossible to hear without a chill going down your spine.
A determined look appeared on Tasha’s face. She set her feet in a mana battling stance, facing the door. But the worm didn’t come from that direction.
Suddenly, we heard a great crash from above as half of the windows high on the wall shattered and crashed inward. And then the worm was among us. The gold in Tasha’s eyes seemed to glimmer, and the Tear Stones floating above her head glowed an aquamarine. Her hands shot out, and a giant jet of flame flew at the worm.
The worm halted briefly as if confused or stunned, but the respite didn’t last long. It came at Tasha directly this time, and a group of us jumped to defend her with replicas of the Tear Stone pistol I’d found in Attarmansi. I suppose that it must’ve been used to those in the last days of Attarmansi, because it seemed less confused by them. It swooped down so close to me that I felt the wind rush past my face, but it took Jon-tah instead, his face caught in a frozen scream as his form glowed and then burst into particles.
I suppose it might have gone to ground for a while after that, but Tasha was too angry about the loss of life to let it go. She bellowed what one could only call a war cry, and then a thick beam of molten fire shot out of each of her hands, crisscrossing as if to scissor the enemy apart. They went right through it, but they were very effective at tearing out a piece of the wall behind the worm. The piece of wall crashed to the floor with a mighty crack, and pieces flew from it, smaller ones stinging our faces.
The worm must have been hurt after all, and it was the worm’s turn to become enraged. It had clearly picked out Tasha as the most interesting target by then, and it shot right at her. A moment before she would’ve been engulfed by it, her Ka Te reflexes kicked in, and she dove to the side. It wasn’t quite enough. The worm brushed her head, and she lost one of her tear stones and a fair sized chunk of her flame-red hair. She cried out loud, and I saw then that she’d been burned by the worm’s passage. But she was too much in the heat of the battle to pay much attention to it.
Tasha took a deep breath and then blew another stream of flame at the worm, which had retreated near the ceiling. It seemed somehow larger to me, as if it were feeding on her magic.
“We’ve got it!” Astra called out, and we all started backing toward the now-open Gate, Tasha limping badly, watching the worm warily. Mian’no pulled Nilo out of his makeshift jail as well, though Nilo didn’t seem to need much urging this time.
Tasha and I were the last two through. The worm began another charge right as we jumped through.
Thankfully, whatever magic brought us through the Gate did not allow the worm to pass through, to another Gate. Once we were through, the Gate flickered off, and everyone relaxed a hair.
Tasha dropped onto the Gate’s stand then, clearly at a point of exhaustion, both mental and physical. Tears came from her eyes, tears of pain and loss, and they seemed to sizzle and evaporate before they’d left her eyes for long. Then, slowly, the power left her, and she was merely a woman quietly letting go of her grief.
“The worm,” she said doggedly as one of the other Relians tried healing magic on her face, “was one of those Tear Stone aberrations. The whole world will be crawling with them and horrors like them, if we don’t stop HQ.” She momentarily seemed even more defeated. “The world will be like that anyway, if we can’t live in harmony with the Tear Stone. But HQ is our big concern right now. They are doing something really big with their slavery, something abominable, a perversion of the Tear Stone life force.”
“Just rest and try to get better,” I told her firmly. “The world can wait a few days while we rest and get our bearings.”
“We’re in Relia,” Tasha replied. “In the Feather Sands area. We’re maybe two days’ walk to Asterbré.”
I nodded at her.
“Just get some rest.”
The remaining warmth of the day left the desert quickly as night fell, and we all huddled around a fire near the Gate. We might normally have been chatting and telling stories around the fire, and maybe even listening to Jazeh sing, but no one was really feeling it after having lost two friends. Astra had said a few words for them, and a few others stood up and said a word or two of their own, but the mood was definitely somber.
We had to let Nilo out under supervision every so often for him to take care of his personal needs, but at the moment, he was sitting sullenly off to one side in his makeshift handcuffs again.
Not entirely sure why, I sat down near him. I just sat there quietly for a while, trying to process one more thing I’d pushed to the back of my mind. I still felt betrayed, but more than anything, I just wished I could have my boyfriend back. I wanted the Nilo I knew, not this hobgoblin that had taken his place.
“Hey,” I said to him, not really knowing where I would go with it.
“Hey.” Not much enthusiasm in his reply.
“I was just wondering…” I started tentatively.
“I watched the process for too long for it to work on me,” he said drily. “I’m not going to magically decide HQ is evil.”
“Wasn’t what I was going to ask,” I replied, a little piqued. “I was going to ask if there was ever anything really to it, or if what we had was just another part of your scheme.”
“I told you, didn’t I?” He sounded tired. “I wasn’t lying. I was interested when we were still in HQ, and I was overjoyed when it was you they sent after us, and I am still interested now. Though I guess our prospects are looking pretty dim.” He laughed bitterly.
“What’s so good about HQ anyway?” I asked, intrigued in spite of myself. “You’ve heard everything we know about them, and what they did to us. You’re Ba’hari too. Why would you defend them?”
He leaned his head back against the Gate stand and looked up at the bright stars.
“Does it really matter what I say?” he asked.
I just sat quietly and stared at him until he continued.
“Fine. Yes, they did some terrible things to us. And apparently they’re still doing some terrible things that may get us in a lot of trouble. But they’ve done a lot of good in the world, too. They’ve stopped wars, they’ve deposed dictators-to-be. They gave us purpose as a people. I know they did it in the wrong way, but you can’t deny it, can you?”
“There are better ways to get purpose,” I said quietly. “Join us. Join us for real. Help me free our people so they can choose their own purpose in life, so they can remember who they are and be proud of who they are.”
He shook his head. “Once an Agent, always an Agent. You know that, deep inside.”
I looked at the ground, hating myself for agreeing with him. But we didn’t have to be enslaved Agents.
“I wonder who you were,” I mused. “Before all this started. You are Ba’hari. You must’ve been captured.”
He shrugged. “It’s a long-lost part of a past no longer open to me. It doesn’t matter anymore. I know who and what I am now. HQ is home to us, and Agents are family. Come back with me.”
I turned aside and laughed bitterly. “Yeah, right. You know, I knew you, too. It’s not like we had a huge group there. You looked confused about your priorities more than once, yourself. I know the seed of rebellion is in you. Water it. Join us. Let’s make a new start.”
When he said nothing, I whispered into the night, “I just want my boyfriend back.”
I started crying quietly, then. Nilo just sat there with me in silence.
In the morning, he was gone, and so was his BPG.
“How the hell did he escape?” Astra said rhetorically, anger lighting up her face. It was not the first expletive to come from that young face that morning.
“I don’t think it matters,” Tasha said calmly. Some of the fire in her seemed to have run out, as if it had poured its way out of the wound on her face. Thus far, Relian magic healing had done little for her physical wounds, confounding all expectations. The wound in her spirit seemed even more profound. “What matters, really, is what his motives are now, and what he will do when he returns to HQ. There’s little doubt that’s where he’ll be headed.”
I sighed. “I’m not sure I know Nilo anymore, but I knew six-seven-nine. He was a thinker and a schemer. He had an open mind and he was pondering things constantly. It doesn’t surprise me greatly that he found a way to escape, nor that he did it at the best possible moment.
“My time as Keia affected me a great deal, even before the trial you all set me to. His time as Nilo may have affected him the same way, which may give us an advantage. It’s also possible that he will avoid HQ for a while because of his failure.”
The wind whistled around us as the day began to heat up.
“Damn it,” Astra said finally. “We don’t have much choice but to carry on with the original plan. I sure could’ve done without another wildcard, though.”
Astra and the others reconfigured the Gate that we were camped around, and within half an hour, we were all trouping back through to Rajma.
The scene that greeted us was almost eerie and disquieting, after the dire and surreal experiences of Attarmansi, and after Nilo’s escape. I think we’d half-way expected there to be a capture squad waiting for us, but it wasn’t there. But then, neither were the people who were supposed to wait for us. Something was not right.
“Keia, take Mian’no and go back to the apartment,” Astra said, flicking a finger down one of the streets leading away from the Gate. “Something’s not right here. See if you can see anything wrong there, but for goodness’ sake, be careful. I can’t lose more people right now.
“Ray-ah, please help me try to hunt down some information to see if anything has happened while we were away.” Astra flicked her finger toward the pedestal the Gate was sitting on, and the two of them walked over there, Ray-ah pulling out a small tablet.
The two of us walked out toward a more major street and tried to catch an auto-taxi. Nothing seemed particularly out of place there, and we caught one without incident.
“Dzé Kāi ‘Réi, Fu Tan No Chò,” I said to the auto-taxi, and it took off down the street with a rising hum. The Monastery District’s subway station.
“What do you think we’ll find?” Mian’no asked me with more than a little trepidation in his voice.
“Nothing unusual, I hope.”
The auto-taxi let us out a few blocks from our building, as I’d instructed it to do. I didn’t see anything that looked like a cordon or other activity as we approached the building. Still, I felt apprehensive, and I could tell that he did too. We sat on a park bench nearby and just watched the building for a while. Nothing unusual happened.
“Maybe it’s too dangerous to go in?” he asked me. “I’m not trying to be a coward here, but with Nilo just gone, and our people missing, it seems suspicious.”
“There’s nothing cowardly about caution,” I said with a wry smile. “Something I could’ve taught myself in my Agent days. Still, it wouldn’t be any good to leave the job half-done. Let’s go on up and see if we see anything out of place. I’m guessing we won’t keep our base of operations here anymore, but we do have a few important things to go collect.”
We walked into the building and up the elevator, and then down the hall to the apartment. I pulled the small Tear Stone pistol I’d been hiding. Then I held the key tile near the lock, and the door slid open.
Immediately I pointed the pistol into the apartment, but nothing was there. I stepped inside, quickly scanning back and forth with the weapon held out in front of me. Again, I saw nothing unusual. I gestured with my head for Mian’no to come in, and he closed the door behind him, locking it again.
I repeated the process for each room, still finding nothing out of the ordinary until I reached the room Nilo and I had shared.
Several drawers had clearly been rifled through and mostly emptied. Nilo’s things. A hastily scribbled note on the bed said, simply, “I’m sorry”.
“He’s been here,” I said curtly to Mian’no. “We’d better get out of here.”
It was at that moment that I felt a chill up my spine, and a slight movement in the mirror caught my eye. I whirled around fast, but the pistol was knocked out of my hand by an unseen force.
“That won’t be necessary,” a man said, stepping out of a wavering in the air.
I flashed into a bird, flying past the man, then back into my own form to open the door, but I found myself unable to move.
“Truly, you’re only going to hurt yourself.”
I felt an instinctive panic building in my chest, looking at him. I knew his kind from well before I was forced to be an Agent. If the blue tunic and pants, and Tear Stone earrings wouldn’t have told me, the chill around him that made the air almost seem to turn to fog would have.
“Relian ice mage,” I said slowly around a mouth that didn’t want to move. “How do you people move so fast?”
He chuckled as if I’d told the most jolly joke.
“Where’s… Mian’no…” I gritted through my teeth.
“Oh, your friend? He’s… busy right now.”
A tendril of blue air was wrapped around the corner, and Mian’no came driftly slowly along its path. He, too, seemed to be frozen. Terror filled his wide eyes.
Two other people stepped out of the shadows, then, with needles in their hands.
“No… no…” I could almost shake my head to go with my words.
“There, there,” the ice mage said. “No need to struggle. You’re just coming back home.”
The world went blank.
When I came to, everything was bright red. As my mind slowly came back to me, I realized that it was because my eyes were closed. I opened them slowly and almost regretted it. It took me several slow tries to get them open.
I was in a white room, whiter than white, a bright, open space, perhaps three meters on a side. I was lying on a bed, also white, and on one side of the room, a window let out into another white space.
I knew then where I was, and I groaned.
The interrogation cells at HQ.
Trying to stand caused the room to spin briefly, but I held on to the wall and rode it out. I was rewarded with a view of another white room through the glass, and beyond that, a third white room. Mian’no was standing there, looking around as if trying to find a way to escape. I waved to try to get his attention, but it took a while before he noticed. I could see his shoulders slump in relief.
Don’t be too relieved yet, I thought.
I pointed at my ear, mimed making it really big, and then putting it against the glass. I guess he understood what I was getting at, because his ear suddenly got large and plopped against the glass.
“Can you hear me!” I yelled as loudly as I could. “Mian’no!”
He didn’t seem to react, and then a few moments later, his ear shrunk back down. He shook his head at me in defeat.
“Interesting,” a voice said. I looked around, but I already knew what was going on before I’d finished the motion.
A nearly bald man in a white lab coat walked out into the center room that separated the two of us.
“Neither of you has a BPG,” he said, “and yet you are shifting. So the rumors are true.”
He held a tablet in one hand and tapped at it briefly with the other. A woman walked into the room with him, then.
She was like the yin to Tasha’s yang. Her white hair was cut in straight lines, even with her jaw and framing her face, with two tails jutting out in the back from underneath. Two curiously glowing Tear Stone pendants in the shape of teardrops floated above her ears without support, one clear, one black, catching the light in seemingly unnatural ways. A yellow and white, sleeveless shirt with a diagonal seam across the chest covered her and outlined her to her hips, then narrows to two strips of cloth that ran nearly to the ground. From her belt of white gold hung a crystal dagger. Tight white shorts covered what was visible of her hips and legs to a little above her knees.
An Initiate of Balance.
Her cold, grey eyes stared at Mian’no, then at me. I felt like a fly caught under someone’s microscope until she looked away. I shivered involuntarily. Even other Relian Initiates tended to make a wide path around Initiates of Balance.
“I will be back for them later,” she said to the man. Her voice came over the speaker since he hadn’t turned it off again. “We will find the others and then put an end to this, finally. Six-seven-nine did well with this catch. This might almost make up for its failure.”
She walked away, then, and I could tell that even the man was relieved to see her go.
“Lunch in an hour,” he said to us, and then quickly took his own leave.
Lunch came and went, and still we saw no sign of anyone besides the people who brought the trays. I knew without studying it that the room was sealed beyond anything I could escape. I’d brought too many people here, myself, to think otherwise. The lunch trays themselves were ushered into the room under a sort of automated system that kept the room sealed.
And then, the least expected thing happened: Nilo walked into the shared room outside.
“Asshole,” I said to him when he walked up and looked into my cell.
He shook his head and spoke, his words carrying in over the speakers. “I wouldn’t have gone to this trouble for anyone else,” he said. “I really want you to find your way again.”
I just sat down and looked away from the window, not wanting to hear anything else.
“The covering dawn shifts the dove from its flight,” he said, then.
My eyes narrowed slightly. It was Rahim code for “be watchful at dinner”.
“Kick the bluebird with sunshine, or whatever other garbage you want to say,” I replied, covering what he’d said, to confuse the recordings. “I don’t care.”
When I next stood up and looked, he was gone.
I laid on the bed after dinner, waiting for anything interesting to happen. I waited and waited, and then the lights suddenly went out, and like that, we were in pitch blackness. And then something interesting did happen.
I heard a light chime sound, and then a whoosh of air. Making my way around to it by feeling against the wall, I discovered that a door had opened from the cell.
Was this some kind of trap? Why would Nilo get us caught and then promptly break us out?
Feeling my way around the room, I found that Mian’no’s door was also open. I went inside and said quietly, “Mian’no.”
He must have fallen asleep, because it took a few tries.
“You’re here,” he said quietly.
“We’ve been broken out somehow. Let’s get out of here.”
“Keia,” I heard a voice whisper.
I sat completely still, and put a hand on Mian’no’s shoulder for him to do the same.
“I know you’re in there, Keia,” the voice whispered again. “We’re the ones that broke you out. Please, come talk to me.”
More curious than cautious at this point, I followed the sound of the voice out to the shared center room.
“Who are you?” I whispered back.
“Less important right now than leaving before Saikya comes back for you. Unpleasant, that one. Come on, follow my voice, you two.”
The whisper kept up periodically as we walked out of the central room and into a corridor. Emergency lights stretching into the distance showed that the corridor was lightly curved. The whisper led us down to the right. When we passed one of the emergency lights, I caught sight of a small child. He stopped us suddenly and pushed on a panel seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and a door slid open silently. We were beckoned inside.
When the door closed behind us, the lights came on slowly. A small group of people waited for us. A few were obviously Agents, complete with BPG. Surprisingly, there was at least one person I recognized as a higher-up in plainclothes. And at the end of the row…
“Welcome to the Resistance,” Nilo said.
I just stared at him for a moment. Was this for real?
“Okay, wait. Here is Mr. HQ-is-Great, part of the Resistance? What are you resisting? Not enough gravy on your steak?”
Nilo shook his head, looking very serious. “You’ve got me all wrong,” he said. “I said, once an Agent, always an Agent. I said, HQ is home and Agents are family. None of that implies that I’m completely content here. This place has serious problems. I just want to fix them rather than tearing it down, which is what the Rahim wants us to do.”
“So all that gar… all that about calling me by a number and blustering about being a traitor, and even trying to shoot Tasha… all of that is because you also want to stop the Rahim? Because you think there’s some value to this… organization?”
Nilo nodded. “I do. I just think it’s going about things the wrong way.”
Everyone in the room nodded with his words.
I shook my head and blinked. “HQ is rotten at its core,” I shot back. “You can’t fix it. It’s based entirely on slavery and exploitation of innocent lives. It deserves to be destroyed.”
“And what will you do with all these people, as you yourself said, when the entire framework of their lives is shattered?” he asked me quietly.
I had no answer. I had to laugh.
“What you’re doing here puts you at odds with both HQ and the Rahim. You’re a triple agent. It’s gutsy, I’ll give you that. Okay, what are you proposing?”
“It’s very simple, really. We want to depose the existing management, so to speak. We want for Agents to have a voice in how the organization is run, and what it does. We want to do away with the BPGs. And for those who want an identity, a life back, we want it to be given to them. Finally, anyone who wants to leave, should be allowed to.
“Aren’t those sane goals?”
“It’s noble, I suppose,” I replied. “I don’t really see it happening, though. Do you see the likes of Saikya and Jens saying, ‘okay, we see the error of our ways, no worries’?”
“Leave that part to us,” Nilo reassured me. “It’s taken care of. What I need is for you to slow down the blazing guns of the Rahim a little bit. I know what their primary goal is, right now — to destroy the BPG system and help people recover their memories. We want that, too, and I’ve realized that we might need their help after all. The compromise we want is for us to try to rebuild HQ into something that works for us and the people, not to tear it down. To become a new rallying point for all of us, and something that supports those of us who wish to stay. In other words, we want to turn it into a real governmental organization that works for the people, all of the people, including us.”
“I have to give it to you,” I mused. “That’s pretty audacious, and I can see the sense in it. I’ll see what I can do. But what can I do? You got me caught.”
“I did it on purpose. You know HQ as well as I do. There’s no way the Rahim could’ve just broken their way in. They need someone inside to let them in. I wanted it to be you so you could talk to them, try to convince them of what I’ve said. That’s all. You know they’ll be coming soon, so help them. Just help us too, okay? Together we can do something amazing.”
“We gotta get goin’,” the little guy who’d brought us there said. I’d started thinking of him in my head as Mouse. “This blackout can’t last much longer without someone getting suspicious. Infrastructure’s old, but not that old.”
“This squirt here has plugged through a terminal to the outside world,” Nilo said, rubbing Mouse’s head. “Contact them. Do what you will, I won’t stop you. But please consider what I said.”
“Hey, I ain’t no squirt,” Mouse replied. “I’m just as old as you.”
They stood up and headed for the door.
“Yeah,” Nilo shot back, “but it sure is fun to rile you up.”
“Well, that was unusual,” I understated.
“Do you believe them?” Mian’no asked me.
“I don’t know. I suppose we don’t have much of a choice right now.”
I picked up a tablet that Nilo had indicated. As I did so, the surface lit up. I picked the comm app and entered an address. It answered, clicked three times, then hung up.
About thirty seconds later, the tablet chimed to show an incoming call. I answered it. Astra’s face showed on the screen.
“Keia, is that really you?”
“It’s really me.”
“None that I’m aware of,” I replied in Ba’hari, or what we’d pieced together of it.
“There’s little time,” Astra said. “We’re coming in to HQ tonight. After you disappeared, we figured there was no time to waste.”
I filled her in on the details of what had happened since we were separated, including Nilo’s revelation.
“Do you trust him?” she asked me.
“Oddly, I do. It had the ring of truth to it. And I can’t see that his goals are really in opposition to ours.”
“Alright,” she sighed. “We’ll do it your way. Just be ready. Ray-ah and I are hacking us in within the hour.”
We talked about what I might do from the inside to ease their way and make it less likely they’d be detected.
“Aye aye, Commander,” I said into the screen, eventually.
Astra just rolled her eyes and cut the connection.
Astra and I had discussed our plans, and there’d be a bit of a wait until anything got rolling on the inside. So Mian’no and I just waited in the room the Resistance had left us in. I idly doodled in a drawing app on the tablet I’d used to call Astra.
“So, what are you going to do once they’re down?” Mian’no asked me suddenly. “Sorry, that was kind of personal, I guess…”
I just gave him a sidelong grin. “Not at all, my wise man in training. You’ve seen my whole life, lived every moment of it. You know as well as I do what I’m going to do after this.”
Mian’no shook his head.
“Exactly,” I replied. “I guess I’ll just take it one day at a time.”
He sniffled a little laugh at me.
“So what are you going to do after this?” I asked him. “The fight will be over. Will you go back to the Ash’hari?”
He shook his head again.
“There’s going to be too much to do here, even if we take down the organization. There will be people to help here, and there will be others who only pretend to go along. This new tribe needs me as a wise one more than the old one, though goodness knows they could use some help too.”
“Maybe you can go back to them some day,” I suggested.
I doodled some more. It was slowly starting to take on the appearance of Mian’no himself. Drawing was one of the many, many skills that I’d picked up in my time as an Agent. Perhaps Nilo was right, that in the end, we couldn’t be anything but what we were, and our thousand-plus years had really shaped what we were. But I didn’t intend to take it laying down under someone else’s boot heel.
“You ever think of starting a family?” I asked him absently. Then I stopped drawing and looked at him. “Sorry, I guess it’s my turn to ask personal questions.” I resumed drawing.
He chuckled. “Yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve thought about. Having a little bear or cat to bounce on my knee, someone I can teach the wise ones’ ways. Of course they could be anything they were drawn to, it just always looked like that in my mind.”
I nodded. “It’s a nice vision.”
The tablet suddenly beeped and my drawing was lost. Answering the incoming call, I saw Astra’s face once again.
“We’ll be there in ten minutes. Get ready to open the door.”
“Why are the lights still out?” I asked rhetorically when we stepped into the hall. “The Resistance may be good, but they aren’t that good. The Administrators should have already taken care of it by now. For that matter, they ought to have raised the alarm over our escape by now.”
“It’s worrisome,” Mian’no replied. “But I guess we just have to go forward with what we know.”
We walked down one hallway, our hands along the walls to feel our way forward. I counted out passages and then we turned left, and the hallway suddenly opened up into a cavernous room. Continuing to follow the wall, we eventually reached a corner.
I found a panel by its dimly glowing red light, backed by its own battery apparently, and pulled one piece of the panel off. I then plugged in a little device Mouse had given me, and switched it on. The display showed a flickering set of numbers as it tried various combinations. A few moments later, it locked onto a combination. I unplugged the device, put the panel back, and typed in the code in question.
The door clicked open, and there was a light whoosh of air as it opened inward.
“Holy mother-lode of Tear Stones,” Tasha breathed, sensing the contents of the boxes in the storage area.
Astra and the others stepped inside after her. I gave Astra a hug; she didn’t seem to be entirely sure what to do with it at first, and then she returned it with a smile.
“Whatever happens, it’s good to finally be here, doing this,” she said. Everyone murmured in agreement.
Astra nodded, and we headed off slowly, back down the wall that I’d come along before.
“Why is it so dark and quiet?” she asked as we walked. “I knew they got the lights switched off, but the Admins should have had it fixed by now.”
“I said the same thing,” I replied. “It worries me. At least the ventilation is still working, or we might be in real trouble.”
I was struck by the thought of being in yet another warehouse full of Tear Stone, doing serious things with Astra and Tasha. The symmetry of it was somehow pleasing.
When we reached the hallway that I’d come in from, we backed off a little way and found a place among the boxes to talk plans quietly.
“It goes something like this,” Tasha started.
A small group of us headed out with Tasha; we would be the ones taking down the BPG system.
You and two volunteers are going to run any interference needed along the way, she had said. *We’ll use all ex-Agents so we know the terrain. I apologize ahead of time; we’ve got fake bracelets for everyone.
I really want to be involved with this, Mian’no had said, a fierce look on his face. I want to free my people from their slavery, and, he added when Tasha looked like she might object, I am still one of the only living people to have seen some of what they did back then to bring this situation about*.
As we walked quietly, I stared in the gloom at the other two people in this group.
Jazeh, Tasha had said, *I’m going to need you to sing again. Here is the koan. I’ll let you know when the time comes.
I’m not going without her*, Ray-ah had said predictably.
I wouldn’t expect you to. You’ll be needed to take care of any technology issues we have along the way.
I was snapped out of my reverie when the lights suddenly flickered back on. While I was half blinded, a group stepped out of side hallways around us. Then, from one of the paths, Saikya the Initiate of Balance strolled out in her measured gait.
“Well… what have we here?”
Suddenly, everyone except Saikya and Tasha were in Ka Te poses, ready for fighting. But no one moved further. The two Relians just stood staring at each other for a few moments.
“Hello again, Tasha Emerald River. Did you really think we didn’t have more Agents than six-seven-nine?” Saikya asked. “Did you really think we’d just let you escape? Do you really think we don’t know all of your plans?”
Tasha let out a little heh, and said, “Saikya Diving Falcon. I always knew you’d come to a bad end. Balance was too much for a lesser mind.”
“Oh ho, taking up with rebels and terrorists, betraying the work of your own people. You’ve obviously come to a much better end. A more final one, in any case.”
Saikya began a channeling pose, but Tasha interrupted her quietly. “I wouldn’t. I have a detonator keyed off mana channeling.”
Saikya scoffed. “Please. As if I’d fall for that.”
“Try it and find out.” Tasha had an iron poker face.
“In any case, we can’t just let you go wandering,” Saikya shot back, slightly cowed, but still playing the upper hand. “Agents, take them to the interrogation chambers.”
An explosion of movement happened around me which I barely noticed, for being a part of it myself. The stances flowed from somewhere deep within me, and out to my limbs. Cat Pounces on the Mouse. Bird Swats With Wing. Dervish Spins a Circle. Deep in that trance, I realized something: Ka Te was no Relian art. To understand the movement of all the animals involved so strongly required first-hand experience. And that would give any Ba’hari who’d spent time as various animals the advantage.
Unfortunately, we were also fighting Ba’hari, even if they didn’t realize it yet. They, too, were battle-trained in Ka Te, as well as the special Agent style. And yet, they had spent almost all their time in human forms.
“One-nine-six?” I asked the one I was currently in an arm lock with. “Is that you?”
“Heh, five-two-three the traitor, eh?”
“Against this place? Every time a traitor,” I said with a yell, as we unlocked and were fighting again.
I was surprised to see even Jazeh and Ray-ah fighting in fine form. The battle was slowly turning; we were fighting our way out of the enclosure they’d put us in, in the long hallway.
“Go,” one of the Rahim we’d brought with us said. “We’ll keep them occupied a little longer.”
Tasha nodded. “Elements be with you. We will come back for you.”
As we ran down the slightly curved, metallic hallway, I could hear Saikya calling over the din. “This isn’t over, Tasha Emerald River! This isn’t over!”
“I didn’t know you could key a device to explode on mana channeling,” I said to Tasha between panting, surprised.
“And that ninny didn’t know that you can’t,” Tasha replied with a little smile of bravado.
“You know, I’m glad you’re on our side.”
We were getting back into the more populated part of the complex, and we would have to stop and think about our specific plans again.
A Relian Initiate won’t be out of place here, Tasha had said in the original briefing. The rest of you will wear these bracelets to look like Agents. I’m so sorry about doing this, but it’s our only way to get through the more populated part of the building.
Yeah, I’d replied. *But there’s a certain something to being an Agent. The way you hold yourself. Your knowledge. I don’t know that we can all pass, especially if someone starts a conversation about it.
That’s a good point. So only the liberated Agents among us will act as Agents, she’d corrected. Many Agents don’t keep a specific form all the time; that will work to our advantage. The rest of us are going to pass as Relian and Carad researchers. Mian’no, since you’re a shape shifter and not a mage, you’d best change to look more like *this.
Besides our bracelets, Tasha and the others had donned badges designed to look like researcher IDs. She’d handed one to Mian’no, and he had dutifully transformed into a Carad who bore a resemblance to Ray-ah.
Snapping back to the present, I held a hand out and stopped the group.
“When we get in here, just keep walking,” I said. “Agents and researchers don’t typically fraternize, so we can’t stop yet.” The other ex-Agents nodded with me.
HQ was a large place, housing nearly a thousand Agents, plus researchers, plus administrators. The complex came complete with a forest with hiking trails, golf courses, game courts, everything. Even for the non-Agents, it was a lifestyle: you lived, ate, and spent your free time at HQ so that there was little chance of information leakage.
We exited a hallway into a large atrium area: the lunch hall. The walls, arching far overhead, were brownish-gray stone. Plants were stationed around the edges and in built-in planters. Large glass windows set in the ceiling would have let in the sunlight, but instead, the night sky glowed dimly from the lights of Rajma. Tables were placed throughout the room, and a substantial number of people were sitting at them eating and chatting. Most of them had bracelets on their arms, or, as with Nilo, a new kind of necklace BPG. A hum of conversation hung in the room.
“We’re just researchers going about our business,” Tasha said quietly. “Just keep on walking and head to the other side.”
Of course, someone intercepted us, a bald man wearing a lab coat. I didn’t remember them all being bald men. Were they all bald men?
“Are you the group that were supposed to be down in 519? They’re spitting mad looking for you. You’d better hurry.”
“Yes, so sorry,” Tasha stepped in smoothly. “We had a hold-up back in Labs, but we’re on our way there now.”
The man shook his head in disgust. “Labs! When will they get their act together? You’d best hurry, though.”
Tasha nodded, and we all hurried off, looking chastised. It wasn’t until we were well out of the lunch room that we all let out nervous breaths.
The second attack came just as suddenly as the first.
This time, we were only facing Agents. They fought well, but they had the same weaknesses as the last ones, not fully comprehending Ka Te to its fullest.
Suddenly, they dropped to the ground with their hands to their heads. I looked over and noticed Tasha’s hands waving in patterns in front of her.
“Get their BPGs,” Tasha said calmly, though I could tell how much it cost her to do so during this complex casting.
HQ had only sent three Agents against us this time, in their hubris. They should have sent a thousand.
I went for one Agent’s BPG, and even through the din in his head, he drew his hand back to protect it. I grabbed his arm and reached inside, and feeling the muscles and bones, I willed them to change. His hand was suddenly much smaller, and he cried out as his BPG fell straight off his arm. I let his hand go back to its previous shape.
“There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” I asked sarcastically. The group was all very subdued at this point. “So, who do we have here?”
At first, they all just glared at me, and then I held up someone’s BPG as if to crush it.
“Wait! No! … Three-nine-six.”
I shook my head. “I knew all of you. Of course I did. I know the lies they’ve told you. We want to help you.”
“You’re sick,” five-two-four said, “you know that? What was that weird trick you pulled on me, something the Relian did?” He was still rubbing his wrist, as if he could scrub something out of it.
“Unfortunately,” Tasha broke in, “we don’t have time for this right now. You know what’s going to happen to you if we break these, or if you lose them. You can’t run to HQ for help. So you’d best lay low and hope we win, or better yet, help us win. Then I can make it so you never have to use a bracelet again. How does that sound?”
Seven-eight-two scoffed. “As if. The bracelet is what gives us these powers.”
“As I said, we don’t have time for this discussion. But Mian’no, do you want to disprove that theory? We might gain a few allies.”
Mian’no dutifully transformed into his cat form, then back. He held up his wrists as if to say, look, no BPG.
“I’ll be damned,” five-two-four said.
“It’s just some stupid trick,” seven-eight-two said. “I’ve heard about this. His BPG is just inside him.”
“You could say that, yeah,” Mian’no retorted. “I’m not even an Agent.”
“What are you going to do?” five-two-four asked warily.
“We’re trying to save you all,” Tasha said. “And with the help of a resistance movement that’s actually run by Agents, we’re hoping to turn this place into something a little more friendly to you all.”
Five-two-four nodded resignedly. “I will help.”
“But… what!” seven-eight-two retorted. “You can’t be serious. We have to stop them.”
“You will wake up in four hours,” I said to the other two, “and if we have won, you may come find Tasha here and never need your BPG again.”
Reaching out before they knew what was happening, I pinched a nerve in just the right place, and they slumped over. We pulled them into a nearby classroom and left them sleeping.
A little while later, near the research zone, we found a break room to stop in. No one was inside, so we ducked in to do a little more bearings-checking.
“We’re not far, now,” Tasha told us, looking at a small tablet with a map. “Ironically, 519 is not too far from where we’re going. A little farther in, there’s what they call the Reactor Matrix.”
“I’ve heard of it, but I never got to see it,” I interjected. “They wouldn’t have allowed us in there.”
Tasha nodded. “It’s a large room, open. Casilan’s largest refined Tear Stone is housed in there, surrounded by all sorts of Carad equipment, as well as a magic field set up and sustained by Relian Initiates. Rahim Ice and Earth initiates from our original group are on their way in to… replace… those mages. They took a separate route to avoid raising suspicion with a large group.
“We will have to move quickly to shift the harmonics of the magic field surrounding it, which will let us wind down the Carad equipment, and hopefully, we can bring the whole thing down to a stop gracefully. The Carad equipment will be Ray-ah’s task, and Jazeh will help me with her singing.
“Timing is critical… If anything goes wrong, the Reactor Matrix might become unstable. With that much magic potential in one place, anything might happen. The inner room is shielded by exif-glass, but of course we will have the door open. So it is very important that we work together efficiently, and that any interference is dealt with quickly.”
“And how did you find all this out?” I asked jokingly.
“Let’s just say that Ba’hari were not the only defectors.”
We all sat in chairs at the tables and rested for a few minutes. I heard Ray-ah and Jazeh talking quietly off to the side. They were lightly holding hands.
“…your conscience core to a new build,” Ray-ah was saying. “You’ll probably end up that much smarter than me.” She smiled ruefully.
“I have a pretty simple life,” Jazeh responded in her musical voice. “I’m not sure I’ll really need it.”
“You could be a superstar, not just singing in bars,” Ray-ah said. “I know you’d love it.”
“Ah, well, now. I don’t think that’s really true,” Jazeh countered. “You know how it is. I’m an android. I’ll never break into that sort of fame. Think of what they’re teaching the children, idolizing those gā dzé* robots*, you know?” It was the first time I’d heard something approaching bitterness in her voice.
A grimace appeared on Ray-ah’s face. “We’ll show them. Just you wait and see.” Her face softened. “Anyhow, we have each other. I love you.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t be better off with a human?” Jazeh asked vulnerably. It sounded like an old argument.
Ray-ah tightened her grasp. “You are all I need,” she said simply. “There is nothing wrong with what you are, or our relationship.”
“We need to get going,” Tasha said a moment later, and we all headed off again.
Considering that they had to know we were there by then, there was weirdly little resistance. I started becoming nervous again, and I could tell that the others were nervous too.
Only five-two-four seemed at ease. “If we get caught, I’m just going to tell them you forced me to come by stealing my BPG. Whoever wins this battle, I win too.”
“Some ally you are,” I scoffed. “But we’ll pull through. I used to be five-two-three, by the way.” It was hard for me to say it, but it did earn me a smile of recognition.
“Oh ho, I know you! You disappeared a while back. I guess we know why, now.”
I smiled, then held out a hand. “I’m Keia. Nice to meet you again.”
“Keia… You actually chose a name.”
“It’s a bit less of a mouthful,” I quipped.
“Call me Tian,” he said after a short pause.
It was apropos, matching his Carad appearance.
“Okay,” Tasha said to us, suddenly. “We are getting close to the Reactor Matrix, now. Especially with as little resistance as we’ve gotten, we have to be extra careful. Our mages should be in place by now. All we need to do is move in to the room and take it over.”
Tasha opened the door, and we filed inside. There was no one in the room.
“Okay, that’s definitely not right,” she said.
“No, it’s not,” Saikya said, stepping out from behind a cabinet. “Here ends your little rebellion, Tasha. How did I ever look up to you at the university?”
“Saikya. We were best friends, roommates, even. And then you started competing with me. When did I become your hated rival? When did that sweet girl I knew become what you are today, relentlessly pushing everything out of your path to the top?”
“It is sort of poetic, is it not?” Saikya asked her. “I have made it to the top. The head researcher at the ultimate challenge. And at this place, we will have our final showdown.”
“Yes, we will,” Tasha said sadly. “Is there not something in you that I can appeal to, to stop what you’re doing and help us? To put an end to the suffering of these people? I’m sure there’s still plenty to research here. I won’t get in your way.”
“People?” Saikya almost spat. “They’re more like science experiments.”
Tasha suddenly lashed out with a combination of a Ka Te attack and an Initiate fire attack, something I’d seen her experimenting with for some time. It was clear that she’d just been buying time to prepare for it.
Saikya dodged it easily, however. “Hah! I knew that was nonsense about the mana triggered device.”
Saikya waved her arms in a way I’d never seen before, and suddenly something flew across the room directly at Tasha. Tasha reached a fist out, and a jet of flame shoved it aside. She performed another Ka Te attack, and a giant ball of fire shot out at Saikya. Saikya waved her hands once again, and ice appeared in the path of the fireball, canceling it out precisely.
Tasha was suddenly floating upward, gravity canceled out by Saikya’s Balance channeling. But it didn’t seem to faze Tasha, as she continued her Ka Te attacks, seemingly choosing ones that would keep her facing the right way in her sudden free fall.
It was only then that the rest of us noticed more Agents in the room, and suddenly we were all fighting again.
These Agents seemed more determined than the last two groups; I was really having to give it my ninth degree all, and still I was unable to make any headway toward the reactor room itself. I figured maybe if I made it into the reactor room, I could at least smash everything. I remembered Tasha’s warnings clearly, but I’d had a good run. It would be a worthwhile way to go out, saving my people, saving Casilians of all kinds.
Occasionally an explosion reminded us that Tasha and Saikya were still fully engaged. They both had looks of hatred on their faces by that time, years and years of saved grievances coming to the fore. In some ways, considering what Saikya had said, Tasha was fighting against an avatar of the hubris of her people, and perhaps, in a way, she felt that she was directly attacking the things she hated about her heritage.
Overall, though, the battle was not going well. Ray-ah had been injured and was laying off to the side, somehow forgotten by the rest of the group. Jazeh was kneeling next to her, singing quietly. And that’s when we heard it.
A quiet ringing sound, from the reactor room. The Tear Stone itself was responding to Jazeh’s song of comfort and healing.
Ray-ah was suddenly shaking her head, grabbing at Jazeh’s shirt, but the latter stood up and walked into the reactor room, still singing. I saw what she was doing, that she was planning to end this the same way I’d intended, since Tasha’s plan was clearly not going to work. The tide was turning in the room, and it was not in our favor.
I ducked and ran, disengaging myself from the fight as quickly as I could, and sprinted for the reactor room. At the last second, I was suddenly flung to the side, hard. Something had hit me, and I was on the floor. And then the door to the reactor room closed and clicked. When I looked up, I could see Jazeh and Mian’no inside.
First one person, then another, saw what had happened, and the fighting stopped.
“Mian’no! What are you doing in there?” I yelled.
He fumbled with the controls inside and eventually flipped a switch that brought his sound through.
“I’m finishing the job, my friend. You have a long road ahead of you to help the Agents. It’s not something I can do directly, I think. But you can.”
“What the hell! Get out of there! Let me do it.”
“No can do,” he replied. “Even if I wanted to, opening the door now would be an end to it. No one can get inside now. No one can stop us.”
Saikya performed a complex gesture with her hands, but nothing happened.
“It’s exif-glass,” Tasha said with some exasperation. “Don’t you know your own research project?”
We could hear Jazeh’s song, then, haunting, many melodies weaving in and out, together and separate. The reactor core itself began to hum and glow. Mian’no had been manipulating the controls, and the sides of the reactor itself lowered down slowly, until we could see the world’s largest refined Tear Stone. It was a mesmerizing, magnificent sight, sparkling motes swirling around inside, colors from all over the rainbow doing somersaults. How could they bottle up such a thing and use it for such an evil purpose?
Ray-ah was up now, pounding on the door.
“Don’t do this, Jazeh, please! We can find another way!”
Jazeh shook her head. “I’m sorry, my love. Give my best to the chō kyài crowd.”
The magic fields inside the reactor room were sending out uncontrolled waves at that point, the air seeming to warp around those two brave fools. Sirens had begun to blare.
“Everybody out! Out!” Saikya yelled over the din, and everyone ran for the doors.
We could hear the hum of the great Tear Stone chasing us down the hall as we ran as hard as we could. And then the explosion happened.
First, the sound. A great tremor that caused the whole building around us to shake. And then the explosion itself reached us, waves and tendrils of blue magic energy snaking down and around the halls, spreading its wings for the first time in a millennium. The building groaned and creaked around us, but it held as the shockwaves fled outward.
And suddenly, everything was quiet.
We all looked around at each other, and then I ran back toward the reactor room.
The room was a mess. The exif-glass had exploded and sprayed everywhere. The metal and consoles in the room were just melted and blackened heaps of detritus. I ran past them and into the inner reactor room.
There, on the floor, were Mian’no and Jazeh. I ran to Mian’no and touched my finger to his neck. There was no pulse.
Ray-ah was not far behind, picking up Jazeh’s body and cradling it in her lap. She was crying quietly. She looked up at me, then back down at Jazeh.
“We shouldn’t have come,” she said brokenly.
It was only then that I realized there were no Agents there. I walked back outside to see what had happened, and found that they were all laying on the floor or hunched over, holding their heads.
“Gods,” one of them hissed. “It’s all coming back to me. I was Sa’ano, a finch man.” He pulled the bracelet from his arm and transformed into a little bird, then back again, to a different appearance.
The rest seemed to be in a similar state of revelation and pain.
“We’re free, Tasha,” I said to her. “We’re free. But at what cost?”
I stood on a large, grassy hill overlooking Rajma. The city’s great towers and spires glinted in the light of the two suns, casting multi-colored shadows. Clouds passed overhead, dropping those shadows on everything, then moving on. A light breeze ruffled the grass, and then there was quiet.
We had all met in the giant lunch room after the fight. It was only then that we’d heard about Astra’s fight to depose “the brass” and the great bureaucracy that supported HQ, as well as Nilo’s Resistance’s work to both help Agents who wanted to be helped, and to imprison the ones that stubbornly clung to the HQ ways. Much of the bureaucracy were also imprisoned.
“Hello Jens,” I’d said to the man who was my direct commander for many years.
“Who… who are you?”
“I was five-two-three,” I’d replied. “But no more. Never again. I was Palta; and I am Keia el Rahim.”
He’d merely bowed his head into his hands. The world had changed too much, too fast for him. But he would eventually come around. He was a good man at heart.
“Well, we did it,” Astra said to me, bringing me back to the present. “Public knowledge of the Ba’hari and HQ, representation in government. It’s all coming. It’s too bad Mian’no couldn’t be here to see it. In the end, he was one of us to a fault.”
I nodded. “He believed.”
He’d been given a hero’s send-off, as had Jazeh. In the end, they had both risen above themselves to become something greater, and they would be remembered for it.
“I could really use some chō kyài,” I said absently.
“I could too.”
“I know a good place in town,” I replied.
Gā Shài (“lost apology”, aka “post-script”): Ray-ah
Laying on my bed in my tiny apartment, I stared up at the skylight above me, one of its few nice features. One of the moons peeked in, bathing me in its glow.
Things had been lonely since… the incident. I guess we did good for a lot of people, but I can’t help but wonder how things might’ve gone for us if we’d simply refused and backed out at that first meeting. Maybe HQ would’ve come for us after all, or maybe they wouldn’t have. I sure wouldn’t have narced on the Rahim if HQ did come knocking. But in any case, it made me wonder if things would be different.
I looked over at the table, where we often sat, just playing simple card games and making jokes. I could almost hear her musical laughter. Jazeh was never far from her music.
I wiped away the tear that I felt coming to my eye. I just had to remind myself: I have a plan.
I have a plan.
I have a plan.
The little unassuming box sat on the table, burnt but intact.
“Yo, Jay Tee,” I called out to the hacker when I saw him come into Chō Kyài Sen Zù. He nodded his head upward and sauntered over to the register.
“What can I do for you, Ray-ah?”
“I’m looking for an R5T-664 connector. Got any handy?”
“Nope, but I can get one. Gonna cost, though.”
“I’m gonna haggle you down,” I warned.
“You’re right… I might as well save some trouble and give you a discount.” He named a figure.
I winked at him and bowed. “Soon as you can.”
My full-on laptop was stationed on the table next to the little box, along with a soldering iron and other miscellany. I’d built an interface using the connector and plugged it into my laptop. The cursor after the “waiting for connect…” text taunted me with its blinking.
I sighed and reached over, snapping the R5T into the box. I waited, then. And waited.
I’d started to lose hope, when I saw the phrase “connection established”, and then I thought my heart would jump out of my chest.
A sound issued from my laptop that was part static and part coherent noise, and it scissored back and forth until it settled, undeniably, on the sound of speech.
“Where am I?” the voice asked. “What’s happening? Is this the android afterlife?”
I couldn’t help but giggle a little. “No, silly. You’re sitting on my table. Though I guess you might consider that a sort of afterlife of computer equipment…”
“Ray-ah? Is that you? A minute ago, I was singing and then there was an explosion… And now I’m here. What happened?”
“I can’t tell you how good it is to hear your voice, sweetheart,” I said with exuberance. “And have I got a story for you.”
Her conscience core was just the first part. I’d had the Rahim save Jazeh’s body. It was not in very good shape. The organic components of it had not stood up well to the explosion, especially considering that they were largely grown using Tear Stone technology. But the skeleton, and quite a bit more, was still there.
It felt weird, working on your girlfriend’s body while her disembodied voice floated off to the side, making commentary. I’d hooked up a camera for her to see, too.
“That tickles,” she said.
I had to laugh. “How can it tickle? You’re not even connected to it.”
“Habit, I suppose.”
“Okay, here goes nothing. I’m going to have to disconnect you from the laptop, so things will go quiet for a moment.”
“Trèn, dóu, shì,” I counted backward.
I pulled the plug from the conscience core, and the laptop displayed a “connection failed” message. I hooked a second cable from my laptop to a plug on her body, and some diagnostic lights lit up. I then plugged the conscience core back into the body itself.
A flurry of activity flashed on the laptop’s screen, then, and more diagnostic lights lit up.
“Did it work?” Her voice issued from her body, this time. A finger twitched, then her hand.
“Goodness, yes,” I said, excited. “Take your time. It’s going to feel a little funny until we can grow back all of the organic parts, which the Rahim promised me they’d pull strings at The Bureau to do. The Bureau… what a pompous new name for that place.”
I reached out to her hand and squeezed it.
“Ouch,” she said, and I let up the pressure.
“I forgot, your sensors are still not dampened by any flesh right now,” I said contritely.
But the hand, her hand, returned the pressure, gripping mine gently but firmly.
“It’s all going to be all right,” she said.