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Bilbo67
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Joined: Fri Oct 27th, 2006
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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:47 am

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 ***I initially posted this story on the SciFi bboard about two and a half years ago, which some of you may have read.  What follows is a revised version that is, imo, vastly superior to the original posted version (which itself was little more than a first draft)***



(Insert Valdron's handy disclaimer here: ___________________)







PROTOBLOOD BROTHERS


 

Here follows the tale of Tharin, grandfather of Thodin, forebear of the Ostral-B Heretics.

This narrative is an unauthorized excerpt from the epic pamphlet The Complete Mouth-Breathing Dullard’s Guide to the History of the Light Universe (Abridged Version 3.4), the only known copy of which was sealed and buried for all time on the desolate, lifeless moon of an insignificant little blue planet in the heart of the Dark Zone.








 







******************************


 






 PROLOGUE

I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see.
I sought my God, but my God eluded me.
I sought my brother and I found all three.
-Unknown







 


It was quite possibly the most awesome spectacle in the Two Universes. A dim, swath of refracted azure, no more at first than a pinprick on the horizon, slinking over the eastern shores of Ostral-B and feasting on the purple night sky, heralding the coming of the shallow white sun as it consumed and shone through the pulsating glow of the defensive perimeter. To the casual off-world observer it might have inspired…what? Chills? Tears? A marrow-warming smile? That was for each to discover for himself, as was the answer to the traditional follow-up query: "What do you see?"

"A great battle"

"A dance"

"Death…and rebirth…"

"The very meaning of existence"

How the locals did scoff at such twaddle! One could just as soon divine the meaning of existence watching flies fornicate in a giggle-heavy fit of unwashed inebriation, as opposed to idly watching the sky phase (as the changing-of-the-colors was so called).

The spectacle that so enthralled the handful of outsiders privileged enough to gain safe passage was lost on the Ostral-B natives. Had been lost for generations, its day-to-day significance haphazardly shelved somewhere between remembering to chew before swallowing and remembering to properly defrock prior to relieving one’s self.

Simply put, the phase meant that another day had come. For the simple, agrarian people of this innocuous little planet, that was all it ever meant. No reason to assign it any unjustified significance; no use dwelling on the "whys"…there was work to be done.

Reclining on a natural pocket of smooth, flat rocks beside a sparkling pond, ever mindful of what the phase meant, both to the locals and to himself, Tharin cast his line for the dozenth time. He smiled as the weighted hook hit with a plop, content in the knowledge that he would likely live to see another day.

Likely
. It was always likely, never certainly. Certainty was a crock. He had known since boyhood that there was no such thing. Not in the real world. One of his earliest teachings, a notion that rang all the truer as he matured, both in years and experience, was that "The only sure thing is that nothing is for sure."

Likely was as much as he could hope for. Likely was as good as it got. Likely suited Tharin just fine because he had long since outgrown the ubiquitous fear that came standard with his way of life. Death could come at any time. Hardly anything worth obsessing over…just another fact of life…

…One that he could experience firsthand at almost any given moment. As an elite operative for the militant branch of the Reform Movement that had been waging a lopsided war on the Divine Order since the time of the Great Schism, Tharin had garnered an unsolicited celebrity status throughout much of the Light Universe. His exploits, celebrated by some while utterly damned by others, had already passed into legend, and were well on the way to attaining mythic status in his lifetime. It wasn’t that he was just a great fighter, a great killer. All seasoned Reform regulars were renowned in battle. Tharin was dangerous. Far beyond a mere nuisance, as his comrades were viewed in the eyes of the Order; Tharin of Ostral-B was a name to be feared by those loyal to His Shadow. Even the high ranking clerics who professed to know all (and thought themselves something more than renewable meat puppets) viewed him as a serious threat, as he had caused them all manner of trouble in his long, bloody career.

Like all of the best Reform foot soldiers, he had wreaked immeasurable havoc on both man and machine more times than he cared to remember. But it was not the untold lifeless carcasses, human or otherwise, left in his wake that had solidified Tharin’s reputation. On the contrary, it was but one. Preposterous as it sounded, both to the Order and those in the Movement who had served with Tharin since boyhood, he had once disabled a Divine Assassin in single combat and walked away unscathed. It was rare for a regular to even see one of the undead brutes, rarer still (but not entirely unheard of) to elude one. But what Tharin had done…unfathomable didn’t even begin to describe it. Such was the reputation with which Tharin was burdened to live, fight, and, someday die. Some day.

Having lately returned from a necessary but nonetheless ill-fated covert operation from which he was one of only three survivors, Tharin had decided to take some much needed time off to unwind.

Leaving the base was always an ordeal. Between the Order’s centuries-old siege of the Reform Sector’s defensive perimeters, and the ever shifty Sub-Nebulae mercenaries whose utter lack of allegiances made them at least as dangerous, if not more so, a Reform regular was as likely to be killed on furlough as he was in battle. With a little luck (and a generous bribe), Tharin had secured passage on an unlicensed freighter (one of about a hundred that comprised the underground mass transit system that sold—

some said whored out—its services to the Movement). Two days of hunkering down in a locker clutching a wavecaster later, he unshipped at the infamous Celes Pleasure Transport where, after politely (at first) refusing any number of licentious advances, he was able to deadhead on a commercial frigate. Another thirty or so hours of sharing a tight, confined space with his own odor, and at long last he was home.

Ostral-B, sister planet of his long destroyed home world. For the next two weeks he would try (in vain, as always) to take his mind off work while spending some quality time with his twin brother Thorin.

Twins though they were, the brothers bore remarkably little resemblance to one another beyond their shared physicality. On the surface they were nearly identical, having been gifted with "hard good looks," a phrase that translated, as Thorin was always quick to remind his brother, as "genetic sad bastard." Both were tall, of medium build, and sported a full head of wild, shoulder length brown hair; both spoke with a low, sincere rasp that could be both inviting and unnerving at the same time; and both were given, when amused, to sporting an irregularly shaped half smirk that seemed to suggest (to those who didn’t know better) that when it came to intelligence, perhaps some unseen triplet had received far more than his share.

But upon closer inspection, it was clear to anyone with an elementary eye for detail that the two men had lived lives marred by markedly contrasting experiences. Simply put, Tharin looked older. Many years older. Wrinkles, streaks of gray hair, deep clefts around his eyes…all signs pointed to a rough, weary existence. And then there were his scars…

"So what happened to the shuttle crew?" Thorin asked as he reeled in his line and chewed on a sliver of gongsplangar root (just enough to take his mind off his faltering crop and the inexplicable itch that had been plaguing his nether-regions for the last few days).

Tharin reeled in his line for the twelfth time, having long abandoned all hope of landing a big one. "The cleric dispensed with the formalities, pronounced them guilty on the spot, and had them buried up to their ankles in molten sand."

"Well that doesn’t sound so bad," Thorin said. Brushing his gangly hair back from a brow whose thin lines directly contradicted his brother’s, he bit off a tiny piece of his root and baited his hook ("Kisma-fish love a good burn…guaranteed every time," as their uncle had once told them).

Tharin smiled. "Head first."

"Oh." Thorin froze, mentally backpedaling as he searched for a pithy response. Finding none that could adequately sum up his assessment of his brother’s story, he lazily blinked a dozen times in rapid succession.

"Yup." Tharin nodded. "Chock up four more for the Glorious Cause. What a waste."

"At least you got the information."

Tharin popped his neck, running his finger over a small scar below his left ear that was perhaps a centimeter from having been fatal. Luckily for him he had been a hair quicker than the Assassin pursuing him. Had that been two years ago? Three? Who’s to say, as the years have a funny way of blending together when one lives life a moment at a time in the service of a hopeless cause.

"Big deal. So we secured the programming codes. The yo-yos in the Council will sit on them, like always, let ‘em collect dust until the regulars start bitching about a lack of results and they finally decide to pool together the one set of balls they have between the lot of ‘em. By then they’ll be useless."

"So why even steal them at all?"

Tharin splashed some water on his face. "Because if it seems like a good idea at the time, they’ll go with it. This movement’s been fighting a losing battle for so damned long that they’ve lost the ability to see the big picture. They’re not fighting to win anymore…they’re fighting not to lose. To break even. Meanwhile people are dying left and right. And not just soldiers. Regular people…families…whole worlds are being obliterated while they prattle on about what is and isn’t practical. Sometimes I think the folks spearheading the Reformation are content to just lay back and say ‘give it to me harder, big boy.’"

Thorin laughed long and hard at his brother’s half-hearted attempt at bawdiness.

Never one to acknowledge his own jokes, Tharin went on. "Honestly I think we’ve reached the point where we have to abandon strategy in favor of blatant stupidity. Strap a hundred blister bombs to a hundred willing lunatics, stuff them in hyperspace capsules, and fire ‘em right at The Cluster. Boom! Everybody sleeps in the next day."

Tharin skipped several rocks across the water, producing some mild irritation in Thorin, who was convinced that the catch of the day had just been scared off. "If only it were that simple. Then people like me would be out of work. Wouldn’t that be great…"

"Maybe it’s all for the best." Thorin looked his brother square in the eyes, his carefree smile nowhere to be seen. "You’d make a shitty farmer."

Tharin threw his head back and laughed out loud. Though hardly out of the ordinary when he was Thorin, such an outburst would have utterly floored the heretics with whom he’d spent most of his life. The Tharin they knew was barely human. A stone-faced stoic who was half a step above a Divine Assassin in the personality department. While their assessment may have been unfair, they certainly weren’t unfounded, and Tharin, for his part, did nothing to dispel them.

Tharin saw nothing wrong with having walls. With wanting to be alone whenever possible. Isolation was a reality of his profession…a way of dealing with the inevitabilities of war. Watching comrades die on a regular basis can play hell on even the most hardened of hearts. One surefire way to stave off the pain is to avoid committing one’s self to friendship. The weaker the ties, the less it hurts to sever them.

His walls had served him well over the years. Family aside, virtually none of Tharin’s interpersonal relationships transcended association. No need to get to know an associate on an intimate level. Tharin never put forth any effort, and after a while his comrades stopped trying to warm up to him and wrote him off as being as cold as a dead star.

How their jaws would drop if they could see the Reform Sector’s most feared warrior (and most celebrated tight-ass) enjoying himself!

Thorin smiled and nodded. It did his heart well to see his brother at peace. Watching a grin that verged on ludicrous contort his face or listening to him tell one of his hackneyed jokes was more affirming than a dozen of his war stories. Anything that temporarily distanced Tharin from the grim reality of the universe in which he lived was the best thing for him. Thorin prided himself on his ability to afford his brother the release he so needed…it was his little contribution to the Glorious Cause.

"So what became of old what’s-her-name?" Tharin asked.

"Zika?"

Tharin nodded.

"Let’s just say we decided it would be best if we spent some time apart."

Tharin took a nip of plumb wine from a small flask. "Ah…irreconcilable differences. Let me guess, she talked until your ears bled, or constantly asked you if she was getting fat…"

Thorin shook his head. "No. No, it wasn’t that. She, uhh…" he made a gesture with his head, motioning below the equator, "…she’s a biter."

Tharin shuddered. "Ugh! Give me a pissed off Cluster Lizard any day."

Before Thorin could laugh he nearly inhaled a mouthful of hair as a powerful gust of wind broadsided him and the pulsing thrum of an engine drowned out his voice.

Glancing skyward, the brothers caught sight of a small shuttlecraft. They recognized it at once as belonging to the Divine Reckoning, a splinter faction of heretics known for their erratic, quick-as-a-whip kamikaze attacks that were both utterly thoughtless and brutally efficient. From Tharin’s stories Thorin recognized the ship’s unique tri-foil wing structure, its one-of-a-kind tribal markings, and its dorsal exhaust port were, all dead giveaways. Unbeknownst to Thorin, however, his brother recognized this particular shuttle because it had been downed, and its crew killed, a month earlier.

Tharin sprang to his feet. "We have to go."

"What? Why?"

"Just run! Run!"

Thorin abandoned his rod and sat up as Tharin surveyed the terrain. Something in his gut told him that but for the pilot, the shuttle was unmanned. If his suspicions proved true, then merely running away wouldn’t be enough. They had to hide. Moreover, Thorin had to hide. Tharin had enough tricks in his lethal repertoire to give even the most seasoned Assassin a headache, but his brother, who knew little of combat aside from the occasional pub brawl, stood no chance.

The brothers took off, sprinting deep into the forest as the shuttle touched down a quarter of a kilometer behind them.

"Get to the caves!" Tharin shouted over the crunch of the thick underbrush. Peering over his shoulder as he yanked a small splinter-cam out of his breast pocket, Tharin formulated a strategy on the fly. He would stash his brother in the caves (where no two Assassins could find him in a week’s time), then force his pursuer into combat. Disabling it fully with so limited an arsenal as he had on hand was out of the question, but, knowing what he did about the standard Divine Assassin’s weaponry, he rationalized that if he could disable his pursuer’s brace, he and his brother should have little trouble evading him. The Divine Order was notoriously cocky when it came to their beloved Assassins, and rarely dispatched them with any kind of secondary ordnance.

Tharin activated the splinter-cam as they neared a steep drop-off overlooking a raging waterfall. Adjacent to the dense foliage that clung to the edge of the cliff was a labyrinth of interconnected caves, many of which Thorin knew to be upwards of twenty kilometers in depth.

"You get in there and stay put!" Tharin ordered him.

"What about you?"

"Don’t worry about me, just get in there, now! I’ll take care of this freeze dried freak."

Thorin made a break for the caves while Tharin scouted out a good hiding place, opting to conceal himself in one of the larger trees that dangled over the drop-off. He shimmied up the thick trunk and found his footing on a sturdy branch some ten meters from the ground. Then he waited…

Ten seconds.

Two minutes.

Eventually Tharin stopped keeping track of the time. Perspiration began to bead up on his forehead, chin, and fingertips as he clutched the splinter-cam in one hand and his lifelong weapon of choice, a diamond tempered backfist knife, in the other. He had one shot at this.

A twig snapped…

It came out of nowhere: pale, black clad, and as graceful as it unquestionably was deadly. The Assassin’s face, situated beneath a teetering coif of lofty, raven-black hair, was cool, hollow, and as blank as fresh canvas. And yet there was something about the eyes that Tharin found himself drawn to. Couldn’t help but admire. Some depth to those black beads that His Shadow’s hatchet men hadn’t been able to extract. Tharin knew the look, the depth, well. He had seen it countless times throughout his life…every time he happened by a reflective surface.

Who was this man? Who had he been before the Power of Order ravaged his body, mind, and soul, condemning him to a fate against which death seemed like a hot oil massage? Someone special, Tharin thought to himself. This man was someone special.

Special or not, he had to be dealt with. Tharin activated the splinter-cam. He peered around the trunk as a three-dimensional holographic image of himself materialized in the forest and swiftly darted in front of the Assassin. He raised his right arm, just as Tharin knew he would, only to lower it just as quickly as his prey disappeared into the forest. The Assassin turned to give chase, stopping dead in his tracks as a second Tharin leapt across the clearing behind him. Then another. And another. Dozens of Tharins zipped back and forth, the Assassin’s head bobbing from side to side with almost ludicrous speed in an attempt to track them, the brace dangling at his side all the while.

"Come on," Tharin muttered, "what are you waiting for?"

Tharin adjusted the splinter-cam, slowing his cavalcade of clones to a brisk jog. The Assassin slowed in turn. Still he locked onto the holograms with his eyes but took no aim with his brace. This did not sit well with Tharin, as he couldn’t very well disable the brace until it was fired.

This is taking too long, he thought to himself. It was time to try something drastic. Tharin slowed one of his replicas to a walk, bringing it to a halt directly in front of the Assassin.

"Come on, shoot," Tharin whispered. "Come on, I’m right there, blow my friggin’ chest open."

The Assassin remained statuesque, staring the Tharin replica down but in no way poised to attack. He couldn’t know it was a fake. That was impossible. Combat grade splinter-cams were foolproof,

(certainty?)

and had been used to confuse and deceive Assassins for years. Perhaps he was malfunctioning. It wasn’t entirely unheard of. After all, Divine Assassins were, at their most rudimentary level, machines. Perhaps his fuel (about which Tharin had only a vague understanding) was running low.

Perhaps a lot of things. If the Assassin wasn’t going to fire his brace, then Tharin would have to resort to the as of yet non-existent Plan-B. As he once again strategized on the fly, the Assassin inexplicably opened his mouth and spoke. It was inaudible, but it seized Tharin’s attention nonetheless. The Assassin seemed to mutter two brief statements, then thrust his left arm forward, slicing through the artificial Tharin with his hand. The hologram winked out of existence.

The Assassin’s eyes immediately perked up and canvassed the forest.

Tharin lunged behind the bulk of the trunk, the splinter-cam sliding through his fingers. The tiny blue cube shattered on the ground and the Assassin keyed in on the tree at once. His quarry (if that was his quarry—he would soon find out) was quick, but he was quicker. A flash of a black boot was all the confirmation he needed. The Assassin raised his arm.

Tharin saw the Assassin take aim a split-second before the silence was lacerated by an unmistakable screeching hiss—like the victory cry of some unimaginable bird of prey. It was now or never.

Tharin’s reflexes, touted as rivaling any Assassin in the Order, took over. Clinging to a smaller, overhead branch, he threw his body to his left. An ultra-violent gust of wind blustered his right side, severing a lock of hair. The chitin brace—this one in the form of a pincer—sailed by, and Tharin was surprised to discover that the fleshy retractable tendril so often used for repelling and retrieval was still attached to it. Taking a chance, he grasped the cord and raised his diamond knife, intent on slicing the business end of the weapon off and (after rendering himself temporarily invisible) chopping his adversary to bits with it.

The Assassin caught wind of what Tharin’s intentions the instant he drew back his blade. He tensed his forearm for a fraction of a second, just blow the wrist, and the brace began to retract.

The tendril slipped out of Tharin’s hand, flaying his already callused palm as the brace sailed back to its master. The weight of his hand, coupled with the Assassin’s forceful reaction, had caused the weapon to drop. If Tharin didn’t move at once he would lose both legs. He leapt backwards, began to plummet, and caught himself on the thick branch that had served as his footing, nearly dislocating his left shoulder. The brace sailed by, missing its intended target a second time…at the price of the branch itself. The limb’s integrity winked out of existence and Tharin’s eyes widened as gravity took over. He fell for what couldn’t have been more than two seconds and hit hard on his side. Momentum took hold of him straightaway and sent him toppling over the cliffside. It was sheer, mindless luck that guided his hand to a secure rock.

Tharin dangled over the roaring maw of the waterfall as the Assassin looked on. Then he heard a voice; absolutely the last voice in the Two Universes he wanted to hear at this point.

"Tharin, no!" Thorin sprinted from the cave as his brother’s grip began to falter. He had watched the confrontation unfold from what he judged was a safe distance, and while he was content to stand by and let Tharin do all the fighting, he was not about to abandon him to death without having his say.

"Thorin what are you doing? Get out of here!"

"Grab my hand!" Thorin offered his grip as the Assassin advanced on them.

"Thorin get out of here, it’s me he wants! Run!"

"I’m not leaving you, gimme your damn hand!"

Thorin latched on to his brother’s arm and began to reel him in. Though gangly in stature, years of physical labor had made him stronger than any man he knew, and he dragged his brother up the side of the drop-off with relative ease. Tharin lashed all ten fingers around Thorin’s forearm, nearly knocking him off balance. Thorin reset himself, readied for another heave, when all at once a tingling sensation shot through the right side of his body. It was brief—almost instantaneous—supplanted by white-hot pain as the Assassin’s pointed brace tore into his right forearm.

"No!"

The pain won out and Thorin lost all feeling in his right arm. He locked eyes with his brother one last time before he plunged into the raging water. The Assassin retracted his brace, dragging Thorin face first across the ground.






#


Tharin hit the water hard and lost his breath, but managed to catch himself on a protruding rock before he could be swept away. He did his damnedest to hold on, but was quickly fading out of consciousness. As his fingers yielded and the current overtook him he attempted to mutter his brother’s name, his voice drowned out by the thundering falls.






#



The Assassin released Thorin, who, acting on pure instinctive rage, picked up a large rock and smashed his attacker across the face. A hollow thud resonated off his unfazed skull. It was like punching the side of a mountain.

"You are the arch-heretic Tharin of Ostral-B."

The voice was authoritative, but devoid of feeling. The statement seemed to come across as more of a question than a declaration.

"Fuck yourself!"

Thorin swung wildly at the Assassin with his left fist. The Assassin snatched his arm out of the air, snapping both bones with a flick of his wrist. Thorin dropped to his knees, spitting at his assailant as he bit back the pain.

"I have killed mothers with their babies. I have killed proud young warriors and revolutionaries…"

"Shove it up your dead ass, you bint! Fuck you, and fuck His Shadow in his divine fucking ass! You think you can take me you bastard? Come on then, kill me! Kill me!"

Unmoved by Thorin’s spiteful fusillade, the Assassin removed a drawstring pouch from his belt and produced a small black gemstone.

"I have not come here to kill you."

The gemstone pulsed, came alive, seemed to double in size.

A black flash, and all was Shadow.

 




© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 07:14 am by Bilbo67



____________________
If you're normal, the crowd will accept you. But if you're deranged, the crowd will make you their leader.
— Christopher Titus
Bilbo67
Heretic


Joined: Fri Oct 27th, 2006
Location: The Daisy Hill Cluster Lizard Farm
Posts: 475
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Mana: 
 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:48 am

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CHAPTER ONE

He must be wicked to deserve such pain
-Robert Browning




Flying...no, falling...no…not that either.

Moving. Yes, moving. Definitely moving. Without a doubt…moving. Moving on air…so it would seem. So it would seem…

…kind of hard to assess a situation when one has lost the ability to feel anything…but what the hell…moving nonetheless…so it would—

Ok, here goes…

Arms…useless.

Legs… ditto.

Neck… non-responsive.

(fuckyourself)

Non-responsive…that’s a tidy little euphemism. They’re not responding ‘cause they’re GONE! They aren’t there. Oh, they’re still attached (no doubt about that, they’re attached), but they’re GONE! ALL GONE!

Eyes…this one’s fixing to be a toughie.

Darkness

Ok…closed?…open?…do you HAVE eyes? (who’s you? who’s talking?)

Darkness.

No…no. "Darkness" isn’t entirely accurate…

(mothers with their babies…I have killed…)

"Darkness" is just a word. A word we all associate, be it consciously or unconsciously, with color.

(Shadow)

This is beyond color…outside color. Beyond darkness.

Nothing…nothingness.

And yet…no…

But wait!

Something lingers. Some vague trace of…being? Something.

But beyond that…nothingness…seems we’ve come full circle here, haven’t we?

(what the hell are you babbling about?)

Is this what it’s like to be dead? Is the essence, the soul, the creamy filling, or whatever the hell it is those high holy hucksters drone on about sent packing to some sort of colorless, tasteless, ultra-boring limbo? Gods beneath, if so, then they overshot the mark by a parsec (a lifetime pissed away on senseless worry), as their so-called "blissful empyrean" (their own words) is nowhere to be found.

Dead…? Impossible!

The Black wouldn’t lie! Couldn’t lie! Missed out on that essential developmental component so it did.

No…not dead. The Black made a promise. The Black kept promises. The Black’s word was law.

The Black will keep its word because it is The Black.

The Black.

Only The Black.



Names...faces...memories...mere wisps of fog in the corner of the mind’s eye (put ‘er there brother)…all consumed by The Black.

The Black…

The Black...everything and nothing…beginning and end. Terrifying…enthralling. He (who’s he? is he me? is you me?) wished nothing more than to purge it from his being...and yet it called for him...beckoned to him...cried out for his embrace like an overanxious lover.

A jolt. The Black. Fading…



#


The Root! he thought to himself as consciousness hit him like a wet boot to the face. That damn gongsplangar root! I overdid it again. I must be burned out of my fuckin’ gourd! Morg and Pluklyl are probably using me as a footstool right now! Yeah, that’s just like them…just the sort of prank they would…

They...they...they?

They were on the tip of his tongue (if he still had one), but were little more than notions.

Ha! he thought, his interior monologue seemingly intact. It’s no wonder the Elders are looking to outlaw this stuff (in other words, to hoard it for their own personal use, just like the bi-monthly convoys of love slaves that they conveniently "rerouted" for extradition)...anything that puts you this far over the edge has to be bad for you...even if biting into a sliver of purified root is equivalent to a dozen simultaneous orgasms.

Oh how they would laugh at...

...

Another jolt…and all was nothingness again.



#


Thirsty...so very thirsty.

Never before had he felt (is this what it is to feel?) such an overpowering desire for hydration. He had routinely toiled for days on end in the fields, buckin the need for water except when it was absolutely critical, but never had he felt such deprivation.

(ihavekilledfuckyouiamnotheretokillyouiworshiphis)

He attempted to well up a scream and failed.

Panic overtook him. A panic that transcended his preexisting understanding of terror.

Mercifully, The Black washed over him.



#


Not alone.

You never see them, and you only think you hear them. But you feel them. Feel their eyes looking you over…looking you through...violating you.

Who or what are they?

Like it even matters...at this point you can only vaguely remember what YOU are. Why you matter.

The voices…yeah, they’re voices, seep through in traces. Voices from deep down inside…from the dank corner of the psyche that normally lays dormant, that normally houses the most twisted, surreal, erotic, nightmarish…no! They are real! All of them! They are from outside. They are faint, and leave only a fleeting impression, but they are definitely from out there.

"…glorious trophy"...

You can sense them...many of them...hovering over whatever it is of YOU that remains.

"Hmm..."

A lone voice (this one is definitely real) shines through…slices through all the others

(screeching hiss)

…seems to address you personally.

"...clad as the Ostral-A...I thought their kind had all been expunged…how peculiar..."



#


Moving again. On the move. Move ‘em out now. Get a move on. Move it or lose it.

Cold, confined, naked as the first day…the first light…the first breath.

Dark. Darkness beyond color…beyond Black. But light! Warm, infusing, invigorating, stimulating, arousing LIGHT!

Immobile. Not bound, not gagged, not drugged, not dead, not asleep…just immobile.



Such is the world as I know it. Such is life, and it is good. Damn good. Could it be better?

Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

Such is the world. Nothing has there been before, and nothing will there be hereafter. Whoever or whatever I am, this is my reality, this is my sphere of existence, and these few moments of awkward semi-consciousness are the lifetime I have been allotted. Such is life.



And it is good. It is as it was meant to be. It could be no other way.



The end is coming. Slipping…fading away…

And it is good.

It is good...



#


How long has it been? I have no way of knowing. There is no time…no now, no then. There is only...only...

Only.



What was that? It is something…new. Something different. Something from Otherwhere.

I don’t know that I like it…but I dimly perceive that I don’t ever want it to stop.

It is cold…The Feeling I know well.

It is cold and it is unfaltering. And it is not alone…

It has awakened some…YES! MORE!

Some notion...some trace (memory?) of warmth. Of belonging. Of a sensation that cannot be named, or even fully perceived.

But it is good. Very good. And I want more. Need more. Would do anything for MORE!

All the world…fixed on one notion, one escalating sensation...MORE…MORE…



And in a flash, all is laid to waste as metal and flesh meet…penetrate…separate…

All the world is pain.



#


Blank. Nothing at all...

Save a lone, lingering notion...

This is wrong.

Time and space…lost…

And yet something was there. Something new. Something from Otherwhere. Something that did not belong…and yet, felt so natural…

I Worshi…

Something that felt wrong.



#


No...

No...


...

...

No more

No more!

Make it stop! MAKE IT STOP!

NO! MAKE IT GO AWAY!

NO!

NO!!!!

no...

Silence. All is calm...all is quiet...all is cold—and yet warm.

Warm...safe...love...belonging...

"Be at peace..."

Soothing
.

"Peace...yield. Submit to the Power of Order. The Power of Order embraces you...my child."

"My child."



#



I Worship His Shadow

 


© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)




Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 02:23 am by Bilbo67



____________________
If you're normal, the crowd will accept you. But if you're deranged, the crowd will make you their leader.
— Christopher Titus
Bilbo67
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Joined: Fri Oct 27th, 2006
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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:49 am

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 CHAPTER TWO

The wheel, it turns, it comes around. It makes an ancient rumbling sound.
-Brunnen-G Nursery Rhyme



 


His Shadow could not have been happier.

It had recently come to the attention of the self-appointed ruler of the Light Universe (his title a contradiction wrapped around a misnomer—the majority of the Light Universe’s inhabitants were scarcely aware of the Divine Order’s existence, let alone their supposed subjugation) that he had made a tactical error some years earlier. That he was capable a mistake in judgment was a notion punishable by pain that the rational mortal mind could not begin to comprehend; but His Shadow knew better. He had never, not even in the early days, been naïve enough to believe that he was infallible. Accidents happened, and like any mess, this one had to be cleaned up.

Apparently, a case of mistaken identity on a good many parts (his own included, as none but he alone had pointed out) had enabled one of the most sought after heretics in the universe to slip away unnoticed, while good Protoblood was squandered on a piece of common gutter sludge (a moot point in and of itself…despite the countless hundreds of Divine Assassins he had at his immediate beck and call, His Shadow never regularly deployed more than a dozen of his favorites…anything more just wasn’t practical).

It was an embarrassing, stupid mistake that should never have been allowed to happen. But nonetheless, His Shadow was as happy as he had been in some time (which is to say, as happy as he could remember being without having to consult his Predecessors). True, he had still ordered the bearer of the bad news killed on the spot, but that was a mere formality—an act that had long since passed into the realm of the "customary" (though it still made an adequate impact on the masses…no sense discontinuing a tried and proven practice). No, he wasn’t angry. Far from it. As soon as he realized what had happened, and what would have to happen as a result, the ruler of the League of 20,000 Planets cracked a maddening smile.

Humor had been lost on His Shadow for some time (perhaps his Predecessors could pinpoint how long). But he understood irony. Loved it in fact.

How ironic this will be, he thought to himself as one of a thousand identical holding chambers slid open for the first time.

The low rasp that emanated from within was as the others were…as they always were. Cold, toneless, and without any discernable trace of humanity.

"Who would you like me to kill?"


#



Tharin threw his head back, splashing a cool, clear liquid all over the front of his tunic. He let out a great sigh of relief and shivered slightly as a gust of wind caught his newly moistened skin. Best feeling in the Two Universes as far as he was concerned.

He licked his lips like a child as he reclined against a stone well and raised his oversized wineskin to his lips. He had passed on midday’s rest in order to ensure that the intake bilge was operational by sundown, so this reward was a long time in coming. He drank deeply, what didn’t go into his mouth glistening in the dying blue sunlight as it clung to his beard.

It looked like water, felt like water, even tasted like water; but water never perked him up like this. Water never gave him what felt like the strength of ten men, or vigor enough to roll through an entire harem of love slaves. What the hell was in this stuff? He had no idea…only the fairly secure notion that he would go to his grave with at least one question on his lips—there was just no way that Breel would ever cough up his secret recipe. He—they—had been taught better than that

Tharin drained the skin, gargling with the last of the draught before spitting it into a clump of weeds. It was getting late. The compound had been on lockdown for two hours already, guards armed and in place. The grounds were all but deserted, which was exactly how Tharin liked it. It did his heart well to know that everyone was back in the Citadel making the most of the annoyingly brief night; falling into an impregnably deep sleep or lying with someone special behind closed doors. They’d earned it. They were hard workers, all of them.

So passed another day on the Stygiak outpost. Just as it had been the day before, and just as it hopefully would the day after. Day by routinized day, just as Tharin had always taken it.

It was going on eight years since Tharin’s Exodus, as some in the compound still called it. Eight years since the Reform Sector’s most decorated and dedicated fighter decided that the Glorious Cause could push on without him. He had no idea if it could. In truth he didn’t care. He had stopped caring the day Thorin died.

He had been a cynic at best throughout most of his tenure in the Movement. But it was only after his brother’s death at the hand of a Divine Assassin that Tharin finally decided it was hopeless. It sickened him to think about it: his brother, a man who wanted nothing more than to till the soil and live in peace, whose boundless love for his friends and family were as legendary as the epic battles he delighted in hearing about, cut down in a flash for no reason other than his accidental relation to a "murderous zealot" (as Tharin had been so called before mercifully dispatching a disemboweled cleric). Slaughtered from afar by a tin god who hadn’t backbone enough even to confront a small-time farmer…the coward hid, as he always did, behind his undead automatons.

Thorin…instead of Tharin.

It was he and he alone whom the Assassin had been dispatched to kill, of this Tharin had no doubt. That he would eventually have been tracked down was inevitable, and had been from the time His Shadow’s ancient, blasphemous mind conjured the notion of his demise—a rare real-world application of certainty. He just happened to have been with Thorin when the killer caught up with him.

Thorin…his twin brother. Physical resemblance aside, they were as different as two people could possibly be. Tharin was stronger, faster, brighter…in every way superior to his brother. And yet, what he wouldn’t have given to have been just like him! Though he never once conveyed it verbally, all his life Tharin desired nothing more than for Thorin to live out his days in peace, and clung to the faint hope that he too might some day enjoy such a luxury. The unspoken dream was fresh in his mind every time he boarded a ship in the name of the Cause; and every bomb he dropped, every trigger he pulled, every throat he cut and neck he broke wrenched that dream further and further from his grasp. Though he would never openly concede to such a notion, he always knew that his dream would remain just that—an intangible ideal. Wonderful to ponder, but ultimately beyond one such as he. And yet he would gladly, gladly have laid down his own life so that Thorin could farm, fish, fuck, and drink himself to sleep in peace for the rest of his natural days.

But he had failed.

After that it just seemed pointless to fight anymore. Why push on when there was nothing worth fighting for? He saw his retirement as no big loss to the Movement. In the end, he told himself, he was only one man. Since when had the Reform Sector ever been shaken up by the loss of one man?

Besides, the Tharin they had known and counted on was dead. He died when he fell over that waterfall. The man who emerged fifteen kilometers downstream, beaten and half drowned but otherwise alive, was but a shell of his former self. Thorin’s death had wrenched what little native humanity he had from his being, leaving in its wake a titanic emptiness.

He had tried to fill the void in any way that he could; through work, through self-reflection…he even went so far as to take a bride. Not for any particular reason. Certainly not because he wanted to feel loved. Those days were behind him.

His mate Coitilia, a slender, soot-haired sprite nearly half his age, was a graduate of the Wife Bank, (one of a handful of the Order’s more "sound" institutions that the Reform Sector had adopted as its own) thus she loved him unconditionally and devoted the whole of herself to tending to Tharin’s every need, of which he had few. Tharin had been self-sufficient all his life, and was all but indifferent to the appetites of the flesh. Like all young men who trained with the Movement from childhood, he had remained a virgin all his life ("Easier to stay focused when you’re only takin’ orders from the head atop yer shoulders," as so many of his monastic instructors had taught him). Coitilia quickly sought to remedy his "disorder" (as the Matron had pejoratively referred to celibacy), and although she was capable of pleasuring him for hours in unimaginable ways, Tharin had little impulse to engage in such activities. Nevertheless, Coitilia did her job with gusto when the situation demanded it, fulfilling her preordained role as both lover and mother. Three years after relocating to Stygiak she bore Tharin a son, Thadin. A daughter, Thindolin, followed two years later.

Relocating. They still talked about it as though it had just happened. These people sorely needed to get some new stories.

The relocation was hardly impulsive. For months Tharin had quietly nursed a desire to leave Ostral-B. He kept his intentions from everyone he knew, with but one exception; Breel of B3K, a fellow heretic five years his junior with whom he had served for decades. They were close (as close as Tharin would allow an associate to get), and had taken numerous turns saving each other’s lives. He couldn’t simply walk out on the only man he had ever openly called "friend." Not without saying goodbye. Breel deserved that much at least.

As it turned out, no goodbyes were in order. Almost without thinking, Breel had vowed to accompany Tharin and his wife "wherever you may drift, in this universe or any other."

They resolved to leave in secret, but somehow word seeped out to the surrounding community (where Tharin’s legend had grown to ridiculous proportions, and would go on to inspire three diametrically conflicting upstart religions), and by the time Breel secured a shuttle, forty small families had sworn to accompany Tharin. He voiced his objections, but vowed he would do nothing to stop them, and it was with that that Tharin’s Exodus took leave of Ostral-B.

They drifted for months, as inconspicuous as an unmarked civilian convoy could hope to stay, before happening upon Stygiak, an anonymous planetoid orbiting a dim blue sun that couldn’t have had more than a thousand or so years left in it. Though technically ensconced within the dominion of the League of the 20,000, it was virtually unheard of and wholly inconsequential to His Shadow’s affairs. The indigenous peoples had been wiped out centuries earlier during the Second Isotope War, but left behind a good many intact dwellings, and much of their technology was familiar. If a more ideal destination existed this side of the frontier, they didn’t waste time looking for it.

Upon issuing an "all clear," Breel and Tharin set about refitting a massive temple that could easily have accommodated twice the number of settlers they had in tow. The industrious pilgrims wasted no time in fortifying the building with a triple-thick layer of armor and constructing a barrier around the courtyard by cannibalizing the available ruins and sacrificing a number of their own shuttles. Thus the Citadel was born, and life on Stygiak settled into a routine.

Enormous tracts of farmland were raised up, all of it owned and tilled by the community. Tharin, a self-professed shitty farmer, took it upon himself to see that the water and power systems always ran smoothly. For the next eight years he spent almost every day greasing pump jacks, performing maintenance on generators, and generally working up a good sweat. It was brutally hard work, even for someone with his physique and stamina, and he loved every minute of it…wouldn’t have traded it for the universe.

Life was good. As good as it could get for a man who, by rights, should have turned to dust by now.

Tharin tossed the skin aside and glanced at his window near the top of the Citadel. The light was off. Coitilia was probably asleep, which was fine by him. Were she to greet him at the door, she would instantly fall into her habit of pestering him about every little thing she could do for him, taking his standard reply of "I’m fine" as an indication that she had failed to please him in some way and therefore had to redouble her efforts. Cold as Tharin was, he loved his wife too much to continually subject her to the instincts that the Wife Bank had instilled in her. Best to let her rest.

Best to let them all rest, he thought, popping his neck and heading up the road toward the Citadel.



© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 01:51 am by Bilbo67



____________________
If you're normal, the crowd will accept you. But if you're deranged, the crowd will make you their leader.
— Christopher Titus
Bilbo67
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Joined: Fri Oct 27th, 2006
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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:50 am

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CHAPTER THREE

Life sucks, get a fuckin’ helmet.
-Denis Leary






 


Jaskel put his feet up, scraping his sludge-encrusted old boots against the side of the parapet as he settled back in his chair and swished a jigger of Breel’s mystery concoction around in his mouth. Pick-Me-Up, as some in the compound called it (though Jaskel preferred the more colloquial Get-Me-Up and Keep-Me-Up…depending on the nature and willingness of his company) was one of only two things that made overnight watch bearable. The other was mapping out the constellations. This he did twice a week, when it was his turn to serve as point man from sundown to sunup. It was by no means a scientific process (though he claimed to have developed a formula so intricate that none but a mind such as his could even contemplate it, lest they should go mad). He simply picked out a cluster of stars at random and went about piecing them together. His "findings" were never documented, and with names like The Open Minded Twins and The Areolus Nebula, it was probably for the better.


His boots adequately de-crudded, Jaskel whistled an improvised, off key tune as his eyes took stock of the sky. Tomorrow, he thought to himself. Tomorrow’s the day.

It had been weighing on his mind for some time: the desire to go off-world. Although enough shuttles remained to relocate the entirety of the outpost’s populace, no one had dared suggest, or for that matter even considered leaving since the day Tharin had declared his intentions to make Stygiak his home. And for good reason. Aside from the fact that the planet offered the settlers everything they needed, there remained the ever-prevalent threat of detection. They had been fortunate thus far—none of their activities had attracted any unwanted attention. As far as the Divine Order was concerned, this misbegotten world was worthless…of no significance to the League of the 20,000…best to keep it that way.

Still, Jaskel thought, one tiny shuttle couldn’t hurt. Asking Tharin was out of the question, but Breel might concede. Heck, Breel might even go with him. He had, after all, been the first to lead an expedition beyond the Red Ridge. And he was youthful beyond his years…still given to questioning that which so many in the Citadel took for granted. Surely such an intrusive mind as his would want to know what else was out there.

Yep…tomorrow’s the day.

Jaskel downed another hit of Pick-Me-Up as the air around him was lacerated by a high-pitched screech. He muttered a low dismissive—hmmf—and his neck twitched slightly as the warm draught seeped out of his throat and onto the front of his tunic.


#


Coitilia was indeed asleep, as Tharin had surmised. He crept into their flat near the apex of the Citadel as stealthily as possible, nearly meeting his end when his foot came down on one of Thindolin’s blocks and biting his lip to suppress the profanity when his head collided with a hanging flower pot. Tharin chuckled as he kicked his boots into the corner. How could someone who once laid in wait for three days, forsaking food, water, and sleep in order to capitalize on the five second window of opportunity afforded to assassinate a high ranking cleric make so much racket walking through his own home?

"Starting to slip in your old age," he said to himself.

"Father?"

Thadin’s voice was barely above a whisper. He had apparently been lying on the floor beside the couch since long before Tharin had come in. Once upon a time, Tharin would have detected the boy’s presence before taking his first step over the threshold. Slippage is worse than I thought, he mused to himself as he took a seat.

"Thadin? Thadin what are you doing up?"

The five-year-old boy, clad in a gray tunic and slippers woven from the cotton crop, took a seat next to his father. As was his custom, he kept his distance. Not because he was afraid…he loved his father more than anything in the world, and the notion of Tharin instilling even the tiniest shred of fear in him was as alien to the boy’s mind as his body was to the deep recesses of The Cluster where his father accumulated so many of the scars that had always fascinated him. He simply didn’t like being too near his father, and made it a priority to keep some space between them whenever possible.

Tharin had noticed this quirk all the boy’s life, and couldn’t help letting traces of a combination sigh/chuckle slip out. In this subtle idiosyncrasy he saw himself. In this child who was so unlike him, with his tuft of dirty brown hair free of the premature streaks of gray that Tharin had begun noticing in his early twenties; his unblemished, unmolested skin that knew neither the cruel sting of the blade or the searing, hateful bite of the fire rod; and most importantly, his mind and soul free of the burdens that had drained all but the last drop of humanity from his father, he saw himself as he had been…and as he still was. Isolated…alone…living in self-imposed exile. This he saw every time his son distanced himself from him, and yet Tharin did nothing to stifle his behavior, because he knew that it was for he alone that the boy’s embryonic wall was reserved.

Walls.

In any other setting, Thadin was a normal, outgoing five-year-old. This pleased Tharin, and laid low whatever secret fears he may have harbored about the kind of man his son would grow up to be. This boy would never have to know what it was to take a life; to repeat the process so many times that it became as involuntary and as insignificant as blinking every few seconds. He would never have to smell his own flesh cook from inside a torture box, or hear his comrades wail in agony and cry out to whatever god they swore by for a quick death as their skin was slowly peeled off. Most of all, Tzybi willing, he wouldn’t have—wouldn’t need—any walls. He wouldn’t shut out the world around him and the people who wanted to love him as a preemptive strike against the pain of loss. Thadin would be his own man; Tharin’s legacy would be buried with Tharin’s bones…in a perfect world.

(Wouldn’t that be great…)

"I couldn’t sleep," the boy said.

"Why? What’s wrong?"

Thadin stared at the floor, twiddling his thumbs and humming under his breath, stopping only to blow a lock of hair out of his face.

"Thadin…just tell me. You can tell me, what’s wrong?"

"Jumey said you’re a bad man."

Tharin cracked a relieved half smile and rolled his eyes. He should have suspected Jumey, the portly, knavish, eight year old know-it-all who had seeded his son’s head with more than a few confusing ideas. He wasn’t a bad boy…just a first class pain in the ass. It seemed that Jumey was the driving force behind just about every childish prank that had been pulled in the last two years, and yet, though he knew everyone in the Citadel by heart, Tharin couldn’t say with any certainty who the boy’s parents were, nor did anyone seem anxious to claim him as their own.

"Is that what Jumey says? That I’m a bad man?"

Thadin nodded. "He says everybody’s afraid of you because you hurt people."


#


As Tharin tried valiantly to adlib a fatherly lecture, Cormai, captain of the watch, was roused from his state of semi-alertness at the base of the Citadel by a proximity beacon.


#


Tharin took a deep breath, muttering the name of Tzybi, she of the thousand wanton daughters. He held to no particular god, but had found throughout his life that ruminating on the deity of his ancestors stilled his mind.

Where was he supposed to start? How did one explain the Divine Order to a child? How was a father supposed to adequately clarify the difference between good and evil when the two were nearly indistinguishable? And how in the world did one justify murder, torture, and destruction in the name of one cause, while damning the murder, torture, and destruction that was carried out in the name of another cause? Tharin hated dispensing paternal wisdom…because he flat out sucked at it. But he would not wake Coitilia, so he steeled himself. Here went nothing.

"Jumey’s right for once. There are bad people out there. Bad people who take things that don’t belong to them…and bad people who hurt people like you, or your mother, or your sister."

"Why?"

"I…I don’t know." It was the stone cold truth. "I don’t know why they want to hurt people, but sometimes they do. And sometimes…"

Tharin’s mind drifted back to a hundred battles…the gleam of his remorseless blade, the hot splash of blood, the innumerable death rattles of those who would just as soon have loosed a volley of Cluster Lizards on Thadin and his playmates…it was as fresh as it had ever been.

"…sometimes, you have to hurt them back. Not because you want to, but because you don’t have a choice. You have to hurt them so that they won’t hurt you. You don’t want your mother or your sister to get hurt, do you?"

Thadin was horrified at the mere thought of any harm befalling Coitilia or Thindolin.

"No father."

"Nor do I. And I would do whatever it takes to keep them, or you, from getting hurt. Even if it means hurting the bad people. Do you understand?"

Thadin nodded. Tharin knew straightaway that the boy didn’t understand…couldn’t possibly understand at his age. Not without having seen the horrors of war that served to blur the lines between how "good" and "bad" people conducted themselves.

Tharin chuckled to himself. For whatever reason, he had always been downright lousy when it came to heart-to-heart talks. How, he thought to himself, am I ever going to be able to explain sex to this boy?

"You should get some sleep."

Thadin started toward his room, but stopped short before rounding the corner, his face just as inquisitive as it had been before his father’s impromptu lecture.

"Father?"

"What is it?"

"Are there any bad people here?"

Tharin forced a smile. "Of course not."


#


Cormai switched off the proximity beacon. Who could possibly be up and moving at this hour? He wondered at first if it might be the five-person survey team that had set out for the river a week earlier to scout out locations for a new hydroelectric generator. But the beacon only registered a single figure, apparently on foot, heading for the Citadel.

"Jaskel, you ass," Cormai muttered under his breath. "What did you forget now?"

He sprang to his feet, unclipping a small communicator from his belt. He would only be leaving his post for a few minutes, but he wasn’t about to suffer another tongue lashing from Breel and Tharin, so he gave in to protocol. Why me, he thought. Of all nights, why my watch?

"Tharin…Tharin, it’s Cormai."

Across the courtyard, in his flat atop the Citadel, Tharin, who had fallen into a light sleep on the couch following his talk with Thadin, sat up and switched on his communicator.

"I copy. What’s going on?"

"I’m heading out to the courtyard. That idiot Jaskel left his post."

"Where did he go?"

Cormai peered into the darkness. He could vaguely make out a hazy silhouette approaching the Citadel at a brisk walk.

"He’s coming my way. I don’t know what he’s doing…moron."

"Hang on."

Tharin stood up, rummaged through a long-neglected shelf, and retrieved a long-range tracker. He went to the window and held the high-powered lens to his eyes. He thoroughly scanned the courtyard, finding it as deserted and lifeless as it had been just an hour before.

"Where is he?" Tharin asked. "I’m not seeing anything down there."

"He’s coming up fast," Cormai said. "I don’t know what’s going on."

Tharin switched to night vision, easily zeroing in on the figure of Cormai. Then he saw it...not thirty meters from where the watch captain was standing. A lone figure; black clad, its head concealed by a hood, and moving with a purpose. A singular purpose. Jaskel didn’t move like that. No living thing moved like that.

Tharin’s blood became as ice. His lip quivered as the tracker slid from his grip. The tinkling sound of the lens shattering against the windowsill jolted him back to life and he made a frantic break for his children’s room.

"Cormai run! Get out of there now!"

Cormai hailed the figure as it approached him.

"Tharin, what’s wrong? Thar…"

Cormai lost his words as the figure finally came into view—seemed to materialize from the nothingness of the night. Its face was shrouded by a thick black veil affixed to a tunic that fluttered in the wind like a pair of nightmarish wings.

It raised its right arm and a horrific shriek bored through Cormai’s ears. For a split second his eyes caught a glimpse of a three-pointed blade. He felt a rush of frigid wind against his skin for an instant before the blade passed through his chest cavity, pulverizing his heart and severing his spine. Cormai twitched, his face frozen in terror and surprise as he went numb. The blade returned to its master as Cormai collapsed.


#


Tharin had already rousted his children. Coitilia sprang to her feet as he sifted through an old trunk under their bed.

"My love, what’s wrong?"

"Get the kids! Hurry!"

Tharin dumped the contents of the trunk on the floor. Coitilia was immediately taken aback at the sight of the mess.

"Let me clean that up for you…"

Tharin found what he sought: a splinter-cam, three bug-bombs, and his diamond knife; memoirs of his old life that he had held on to "just in case." His wife hovered over him, more than a little perturbed by the clutter strewn about the floor. Tharin grasped her by the shoulders.

"Coitilia, listen to me. Look at me! We have to go. Now! Grab the kids and get to the shuttle bay. I’ll be right behind you."

"But…"

"Go! Now!"

Frightened and confused by her husband’s outbursts, Coitilia complied immediately. He was displeased, and taking the children to the shuttle bay was the only thing that would satisfy him. As far as Tharin was concerned, that was all she knew and all she needed to know.

"Tzybi look well upon us," Tharin said as he removed a false stone from the wall and triggered the alarm.

A deafening klaxon resonated throughout the Citadel, rousing some from sleep while others leapt to their feet mid-coitus to see what was the matter. The alarm had never before sounded, but Tharin had made its purpose clear long ago: evacuation.

Tharin charged down the hallway amidst a confused, frightened tumult.

"Tharin!" Boyish, thickly muscled, and one of only five dark skinned men Tharin had ever known, Breel of B3K shoved his way through the crowd, armed with a Black Pack and a chitin battleaxe. "What the hell’s going on?"

"We’re under attack, we have to get everybody out of here."

He nodded, charging up his Black Pack. Whatever questions plagued him would have to wait, he had a job to do now. "Okay, you direct traffic, I’ll hold them off."

"No, you can’t. It’s not that kind of attack."

"What?" Breel’s confusion was short lived; he saw in Tharin’s eyes all the answers he needed. "No. No it can’t be."

"It is."

"Oh no…oh no, Tharin I already dispatched the guards, we have to help them."

Tharin shook his head. "They’re already dead."


#


The Assassin let fly with its brace, dropping a pair of guards in less than the time it took to blink. A third charged it, swinging a staff at full force. It caught the staff in midair with one bone-white hand and snapped it in two with a flick of its wrist, bringing his end down on his attacker’s temple and caving in his skull.

The Assassin strode up the main stairway and attempted to pry the door off the front of the Citadel, but the reinforced steel would not budge. Readying its brace, it set its sights on the lowest window. The brace discharged, a plump, organic cable trailing behind it. The triangular blade plunged into the metal overhang and held fast. An errant guard, spying an opportunity, leapt onto the Assassin’s back and slit its throat from ear to ear, cursing it wildly as decarbonized flesh parted like moistened peat, the wound fusing as quickly as it was inflicted. The Assassin grasped the back of his attacker’s neck and squeezed. The guard cursed it again, his vituperations giving way to wails as fingers tore through skin, muscle, and nerves. The shrieking promptly halted when a section of his spinal column crunched as it was torn away from the whole.

The guard fell limp as the Assassin retracted its brace, propelling itself through the window.


#


Tharin and Breel ushered the last of their panic stricken companions down the stairwell. The shuttle bay, a domed structure adjacent to the Citadel, was only accessible via an underground warren.

"Is that the last of them?" Breel asked.

"I think so," Tharin said. "Get to the bay, I want you with my family."

"What about you?"

"I’ll keep him busy, you make sure everybody boards."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, now go!"

Breel nodded, tossing Tharin another knife. Tharin could take care of himself; he knew that better than anyone. "Good luck."


#


Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends and strangers; all of them huddled together as the long-idled shuttles powered up around them. A few pushed and shoved, insisting that their shuttle would be ready first, but most remained silent and motionless.

What was going on? What was going to happen to them? What was out there? Whatever it was, Tharin was afraid of it. That was all they knew, and all they needed to know.


#



The Assassin peered out of a window from one of the uppermost flats. It had thoroughly ransacked the Citadel, finding it devoid of human life, and now fixed its eyes across the courtyard on a bulbous stone structure and, more specifically, two dark figures huddled at its base.

The two guards who thought themselves so clever locked and loaded a shoulder fired plasma bomb.

"Tharin," one of them whispered into his communicator, "Tharin we’ve got him dead to rights."

Tharin emerged from the base of the Citadel just as he received their transmission.

"No!"

Adrenaline won out over Tharin’s screams. The guard pulled the trigger, discharging the rocket.

The Assassin’s arm moved with immeasurable swiftness, its brace whizzing through the air with pinpoint accuracy. The tip of the blade struck the rocket as it emerged from the barrel, instantly eviscerating both guards in a rush of gelatinous fire as a localized shock wave tore into the shuttle bay. Tharin was thrown from his feet and hit hard on a stone stairway.

Panic became chaos as the shuttle bay’s wall collapsed on flesh and metal alike. Breel ushered as many people into the remaining shuttles as he could, sidestepping bodies as chunks of stone rained down upon him.

The Assassin loosed its brace, the tendril trailing behind as the blade dug into the weakened stone. The swath of black took to the air, retracted the brace, and landed on its feet just outside the smoking rupture.

Shuttle thrusters fired up as Breel frantically waved them off. A dozen tiny crafts took to the air as survivors scrambled to board what functioning ships remained. The Assassin fired its brace and two heads flew from their shoulders. Two more bodies hit the floor as the blade sliced through their torsos en route back to its master’s wrist.

Two guards armed with Black Packs unleashed a volley of energy bursts on the cloaked attacker, but to no avail. Both were cut down where they stood as the Assassin drew nearer the last idling shuttle, from which Thindolin’s wails projected themselves above the carnage. It raised the brace.

"No!"

Breel and another guard charged from either side. The Assassin caught the guard by his neck, simultaneously dropping Breel with a kick to the face. It lifted the guard off his feet and ran its brace diagonally across the man’s torso. The guard’s face went white from shock as his entrails spilled forth. He hit the ground convulsing, making a futile grab for his soft organs as death mercifully took him. The Assassin once again eyed the shuttle.

"Hey asshole!"

A revived Tharin stepped forward brandishing a pair of blades. The Assassin raised its brace.

"You are the arch-heretic Tharin of Ostral-B." Its voice was muffled, barely a whisper above the roar of Breel’s engine. "I kill you in the name of His Shadow."

The brace shrieked. Tharin stood fast as it closed in. The three-sided blade passed through Tharin’s chest just as easily as it had Cormai’s, but not a drop of blood spewed forth. Tharin’s face betrayed the slightest hint of fear, shock, or even pain.

Before the Assassin could register confusion a diamond tipped blade tore through its forearm. The holographic Tharin vanished as his flesh and blood counterpart hewed the Assassin’s arm from his body. As the lifeless hand hit the ground Tharin let out a guttural war cry and slammed a section of charred pipe into his would-be killer’s face. The blow caught the Assassin off guard; its head whipped backwards, shucking off the black hood as Tharin drew his knife back again.

The Assassin steadied itself as Tharin gritted his teeth for another blow. The lifeless attacker met eyes with his quarry from beneath a mop of gangly brown hair.

Tharin froze.

His drive, his intensity, his newfound killer instinct…all ceased to be. His eyes widened as he reeled from shock. His whole body trembled. The pipe fell from his grasp, and his knife suddenly began to weigh down his arm.

A gust of wind blew back the Assassin’s hair, and Tharin found himself looking into a mirror. He saw in the undead brute…himself. Now as he was, or even as he had been. In this unblemished, colorless face he saw himself as he might have been.

(put ‘er there, brother)

Tharin gasped for living breath as he struggled to speak. "Th…Thorin?" The name was but a whisper.

The Assassin didn’t bother acknowledging. He simply thrust his remaining hand at Tharin’s throat. Tharin didn’t move, didn’t even realize what was happening.

"Tharin!"

The icy hand was inches from Tharin’s throat when all at once Breel’s axe tore through the Assassin’s neck, ripping his head clean off his shoulders.

"Tharin get in the shuttle! Get in the shuttle, now!"

Tharin remained frozen. Breel kicked the Assassin’s head away and buried the axe in his chest, dropping the decapitated torso to the ground.

"Come on!"

Breel grabbed Tharin by the scruff of his tunic, hustling him into the shuttle. Coitilia threw her arms around her husband as Breel sealed the hatch and fired up the thrusters.

"Hang on!"

The thrusters roared to life. Thadin and Thindolin were jarred from their feet as the ship lurched forward. The craft cleared the hangar, sailed over the courtyard, and was in the outer atmosphere in less than ten seconds.

"It’s okay." Coitilia cradled Thindolin, who was terrified, confused, and nursing a scraped knee. "It’s okay."

The shuttle came out of its climb and steadied itself. Tharin, who had remained on his feet throughout the takeoff, kept his gaze fixed on the hatch, his eyes unblinking and his breathing slowed to practically nothing.

"Father?"

Thadin broke away from his mother and sister. He approached Tharin, keeping his distance as always.

"Father?"

Tharin said nothing. Did nothing.

"Father…that was a bad man."

Tharin exhaled as a single tear dripped into his beard.


© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 01:53 am by Bilbo67



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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:50 am

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CHAPTER FOUR

In silence ever shalt thou lye.
Adieu, Adieu; All’s vanity.
-Anne Bradstreet


 

Coitilia ran her fingers through Thindolin’s hair, combing out dust and small, bloody particles of stone as she nursed her daughter’s wounds. This she did entirely without thought, the individual actions executed with an inhuman, near mechanical precision. First aid training was an integral part of her curriculum during the long, miserably repetitive years in the Wife Bank; and she was just as skilled in the discipline of on-the-spot medicine as she was at cooking, cleaning, and copulating. The end result was an immaculate field dressing that would have made her husband’s long forgotten compatriots proud.

Thindolin winced ever so slightly as her mother tied off the last of her bandages, determined to bite back the natural inclination to make her discomfort known. Her more or less apathetic approach to pain was due in part to shock; she was still clearly reeling from her ordeal, and had involuntarily suppressed superficial notions such as mild physical discomfort in the wake of overwhelming fear and confusion; and in part to the stock from which she came.

One more way in which Tharin saw himself in his children.

Both Thindolin and her big brother had grown up in respectful, inquisitive awe of their father; as though they possessed some innate ability to peer through the mask Tharin had been wearing for the better part of a decade and see him for the man he once was. The man he briefly become again in the midst of the carnage that had just befallen the outpost. Though Coitilia had taken the vast majority of the child rearing upon herself (with no objections from her ill-prepared mate), it was clear to anyone who knew Tharin that his children had inherited a number of his traits.

His mannerisms…his habits…his subtle inclinations. The children had quite obviously studied their father from afar and begun to incorporate aspects of who he was into who they were. Foremost among such qualities was Tharin’s work ethic, for like their father, neither of the children would complain in the least when a task presented itself, and would habitually give it their all until the job was done. They also inherited his attitude toward pain, which bordered on indifference.

Discomfort, apparently, was alien to their father. They had seen him bleed, seen him come home from a hard day’s work with fresh welts about his arms and shoulders, and the coarse, callused skin on the palms of his hands nearly flayed off. Even at their respective ages they were never naïve enough to believe that their father wasn’t hurting. But he never winced…never cried out…never acknowledged what was ailing him.

Over time the came to rationalize that if a bump on the head or a skinned elbow didn’t hurt their father, then it shouldn’t hurt them. To cry out, they convinced themselves, would be to fail to live up to his expectations. Like their mother, the children sought to please their father at all times and in all things—to fall short of his approval was unacceptable.

Little did either of them know, a bump on the head or a skinned elbow did hurt Tharin. It hurt him just as much as it hurt them. Their father wasn’t immune to pain. He simply brushed it off because he was able to put it into a perspective that few could understand.

Here was a man who had been stabbed, shot, beaten nearly to death, and tortured more times than he could remember; a man whose sensory deprivation training had included being scalded on the bottoms of his feet with hot irons when he was scarcely twice his son’s age; a man who had once been given a blood transfusion by Sub-N mercenaries so they could continue pummeling him without losing him to death! And the list went on and on…

What were a few minor cuts and bruises in the great scheme of things, when such inestimable pain could be doled out and, moreover, weathered? Such a perspective was lost on Thadin and Thindolin. While they prided themselves on their ability to ignore sporadic aches and pains, they also failed to understand that when stacked up against the torment that both man and nature were capable of inflicting, the pain they were accustomed to disregarding was nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Her bandages secured, Thindolin eyed her mother.

"What happened?" she asked, her customary wide-eyed innocence poking out from under a pale, confounded visage. Her mother, whom she had always known to be quick with an answer, sat silently, staring past her daughter, her face awash with the same perplexed terror.

"I…I don’t know."

Coitilia continued to stroke Thindolin’s hair as she eyed Thadin, who kept an unwavering vigil over his seemingly catatonic father. As was customary, she assumed at first that whatever was wrong with Tharin was her fault. That she had once again failed to please him in some way. But that wasn’t it…that couldn’t be it. She had done just as her husband had instructed—brought the children to the shuttle bay. In fact, they had been the first ones there. She stood fast, hand in hand with the children amidst all the confusion, boarding the shuttle only after being assured by Breel that he was relaying her husband’s wishes. No…whatever displeased him, it wasn’t anything she had failed to do.

It must have been the…other thing…that was bothering him. Whatever had just gone on at the compound must have struck such a nerve with Tharin as to render him all but lifeless. It already appeared as but a flicker in Coitilia’s mind ("As well it should," according to the Matron, "for your husband is the center of your universe, against whom all things fall short and are at best trivial"). The only lasting images she could not shake were the noise, the confusion, and the other thing…the people…the people dying.

Death. She had only the vaguest of understanding.

Of course she had known from childhood that everyone eventually dies. Moreover, she knew that her husband would eventually die. Among the earliest of her teachings in the Wife Bank was the notion that regardless of who she mated with, it wouldn’t last forever. Sooner or later death would drive a predestined cleft in even the most blissful of unions. She had known this all her life, the notion having been reinforced so thoroughly that as soon as she entered into her partnership with Tharin she had already begun mourning his inevitable passing.

Of course, (as she had also been taught all her life) she knew exactly what to do when Tharin’s time came. What she was expected to do. She had known since she was barely Thindolin’s age that within an hour of her husband’s passing she was to follow him. From the time she was old enough to grasp a hilt she had been tutored in how to open up the arteries along her wrists. Before coming to know her own hair or eye color she understood that there would be a sharp pinching sensation, followed by a rush of warmth, followed by lightheadedness, followed by nothing. So skilled did she become with her blunted practice daggers that she could have lacerated both forearms from the wrist to the elbow joint before the first drop of bright arterial crimson hit the ground. (Though she was almost totally unaware of his past, Coitilia’s speed with a dagger may well have equaled, if not surpassed Tharin’s).

Such was death, as Coitilia knew it. Death, as it was throughout the universe for all she was conditioned to know. No "how’s" or "why’s," no notion of an afterlife, no humble, mystified reverence for the one great intangible constant of reality. Husbands died, wives took their own lives. That was all she knew, and all a good wife needed to know as far as the Matron was concerned.

And now this.

That any one man would, or for that matter could take the life of another…it was incomprehensible. She knew, knew that people just didn’t kill each other. It was as inconceivable as squeezing water from a stone. But now…now she didn’t know what to believe about anything—life, death, human nature, her husband’s love…anything. She didn’t know what she knew.

"I don’t know," Coitilia whispered as Thindolin nodded off.


#


Breel killed the orbital thrusters and pushed away from the flight panel. Best to let the autopilot take it from here, he thought. Exhaling deeply he shed his tunic and peeled off the top half of a thoroughly saturated body glove. He patted the undergarment across his forehead, soaking up what remnants of sweat his thick, close-cropped hair was unable to absorb. He wanted desperately to shower. As he dried off he balled up his fist, slowly, biting his lip as a throbbing sensation shot through his hand and forearm. Two of his fingers were broken.

He chuckled to himself as he paused in front of a climate control duct, emitting a gratified sigh as cool wisps of air glided across his bare chest like dozens of silky, undulating hands.

"Two broken fingers," he muttered. "You got off lucky."

Extremely lucky. All things considered, Breel could have lost the two digits and still counted himself among the dozen or so luckiest men in the Two Universes. That was a Divine Assassin! Just the name—Divine Assassin—was enough to raise his skin and pucker every part of him that could be puckered. He had never been that close before, and for that matter, had only previously seen one in the flesh on one occasion. It had been almost twelve years to the day, but Breel remembered every minute detail as if they had been carved into his brain…

…smoke…the carnage…the vain screams of countless hundreds of men—some only just approaching manhood—as waves of fire lapped them up like the untold billions who fell prey to the Insect swarms of old. Faces he had known from boyhood withering and crumbling in a flash as plasma met flesh. But above all that, there was Tharin. His Ostral-A war garb stained deep red—almost black—with the spent blood of innumerable Divine Blitzers and Shriekers (and a dozen or so clerics…when it came time to kill, Tharin did so indiscriminately), his shimmering blades perpetually sweating bright crimson as they thirsted insatiably for more, and his eyes…his eyes spewing concentrated hatred. He had looked less a man that day than an offspring of His Shadow’s very thought. It was Tharin who had ordered the retreat; Tharin who heard the piercing shriek a half second before the cursed octagonal blade eviscerated two of his comrades. He shouted fervently for everyone to evacuate, standing his own ground as all others fled. Breel had, of course, obeyed his orders without question…at first. He was halfway to the rendezvous point when curiosity overwhelmed his instinctual impulse to look out for number one. He had to see. Tharin would never throw his life away so recklessly. He had to know what ruse he had laying in wait. And if by chance his comrade fell, then…well, then the Assassin would have at least one more life to take afterwards…

Five minutes later, he and Tharin casually walked back to the rendezvous point.

Breel tore a small section of his tunic away and bound his broken fingers. He made up his mind that after twelve years it was time to reevaluate his understanding of the phrase "close call."

He shook his head in disbelief. A combination of instinct and outright insanity had moved him to act. Tharin’s life was in danger…that was all he knew, and all he needed to know. He hadn’t even felt his arms take back the axe…didn’t mentally process what he was doing until after he and Tharin boarded the shuttle. It was only after takeoff that the pain set in. Pain laced with trace amounts of pride. Hewing that brute’s neck had been like felling a tree in one blow. What a feat of strength! And yet, Breel knew straightaway that it was a feat he would never be able to duplicate. That kind of adrenaline rush was a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly. His life had been spared by fate…providence…dumb luck…this time. He had never been that close before, and he would never get that close again.

"We’re clear," he said, emerging from the flight deck and descending into the main cargo bay. He wanted to say more (starting with some variation of "Now what?"), but quickly grasped that his passengers weren’t in the mood to acknowledge him.

Coitilia cradled a sleeping Thindolin, while in the far corner Tharin stood deathly still as Thadin inched closer to him. The boy moved slowly, his confused, cautious countenance conveying, at least to Breel, the impression that he was afraid his father might lose his balance and fall on him. Tharin did nothing of the sort. He remained as still and as devoid of life as those who had been left to rot on Stygiak.

The boy slid even closer; now within arm’s reach. He fixed his gaze on the thick scar that ran across Tharin’s right deltoid. His deep, golden tan did nothing to mask the discoloration; if anything, it called attention to it. Thadin marveled at the asymmetrical ugliness of the wound…the deep, hollow trench of puffy, off-colored flesh that bore more resemblance to a strip of uncooked meat than it did to human skin. Even at his age Thadin understood that this had been no mere incision. This flesh had been ripped open. As he extended a damp but unflinching index finger the boy couldn’t help but wonder if his father had cried out when this wound befell him.

"AAAAHHHH!"

Tharin recoiled, leaping back several feet and poising himself to strike. Thadin lost his balance and fell to the ground, hurriedly distancing himself from his father.

"Get away from me!"

Thindolin awoke screaming as Breel rushed to put himself between Tharin and the children.

"Get away from me, I’ll kill you!’

"Tharin, it’s okay, it’s me, Breel!"

"I said get back!" Tharin threw a sloppy right hook that Breel was easily able to avoid.

"Tharin, look at me! It’s Breel!"

Tharin backed into the corner, groping at his belt for a diamond knife that wasn’t there.

"Tharin, calm down, it’s us!"

Abandoning Thindolin, whose wails only grew louder, Coitilia threw her arms around her husband as tears flowed freely down her cheeks.

"I’m sorry my love. I’m so sorry. Why don’t we get naked and play repairman? That will cheer you—"

"GET AWAY FROM ME!"

Tharin took his bride by the scruff of her neck and flung her to the ground. She hit hard on her right elbow, her gaze never leaving her husband, even as her face contorted in response to the pain. Coitilia sat in staggered silence, her lower lip quivering as the children wailed on. Their eyes met, and all at once it seemed as though Tharin’s act of unprovoked brutality had depleted the last of his strength. His knees gave way and he sank into the corner, sobbing uncontrollably.

"Come on," Breel helped Coitilia to her feet, little surprised that she barely acknowledged him. "Come on," he whispered, "let’s leave him alone."


#



Tharin sensed Breel’s presence before he saw or heard him. Eight years removed from combat or not, the training never went away. His neck was stiff, and tightened up further as he raised his head. His legs, still drawn tightly against his chest, felt like dead weight welded to his torso.

He had slipped into a state of semi-consciousness, never quite asleep or awake, and although he had lost track of time, his mind did not wander. And why should it? It had nowhere to go…it was fixed, and remained fixed, on one image.

"Breel," he whispered.

Breel nodded and smiled. "Drink some of this," he said, offering a flask of his mystery solution.

Tharin waved it off, pulling himself to his feet.

"My ship, my rules," Breel said. "You need this, now drink."

Tharin took a reluctant sip of the Pick-Me-Up as the tingling sensation brought about by an influx of much needed blood cascaded down his legs.

"Thanks." Tharin popped his neck and surveyed the bay. "Where are they? Coitilia, and Thadin, and Thindi?"

Breel motioned toward the adjacent corner with his head. "On the cots. I gave them a mild sedative to help them sleep. They need their rest."

Tharin slowly made his way across the bay on rubbery legs to a hollowed out section of the secondary interior hull, into which two makeshift cots, not unlike countless hundreds of others he had slept on, were situated. Thadin and Thindolin lay huddled together on one, while Coitilia slept soundly on the other. Tharin glanced at her elbow, already a sick shade of purple, and sighed.

"Did everybody make it out?"

Breel nodded. "Everyone who could."

Tharin took a seat on the edge of Coitilia’s, caressed her soft cheek and ran his fingers through her short black hair as Breel knelt beside him.

"They know about the fallback spot," Tharin whispered.

From its inception, Tharin had known that the possibility of a full-scale evacuation of the Stygiak outpost was a reality (imminent, some had said). Early in its development he, Breel, and a dozen others had taken a shuttle and scouted out locations in the planet’s frigid northern hemisphere. After settling on a naturally fortified fallback spot, some crude but effective shelters were erected. Here the people of the outpost were instructed to flee if they ever came under attack.

Breel nodded again. "You know not everyone will head there. Some of them will make a break for it."

"That’s their choice."

Tharin looked over his wife’s wounded elbow. He had seen enough blunt force injuries in his time to know that nothing was broken, but she was certainly in no small amount of pain.

"I’ll never forgive myself," Tharin whispered as he continued to caress Coitilia’s hair.

"She’s all right," Breel said. "You know how tough she is."

"I’m not talking about her arm. I’m talking about up here," Tharin tapped the side of his head. "She’ll wake up thinking I’m dissatisfied with her. Thinking that she failed to live up to whatever that…that fucking box told her she has to be. She’ll only push herself harder…

"She’s gonna work herself to death…to please me. And she’s gonna do it with a smile on her face..."

Breel kept silent for a good thirty seconds. He considered letting Tharin have some time alone with his family, but overruled himself in the end. Their situation had to be dealt with immediately. Beyond that, he was intrigued by what he saw and heard. Never before had Tharin opened up to anyone in such a manner. This was a part of his friend with which he was totally unfamiliar; a part he wished to get better acquainted with.

Tharin had said all he cared to say on the matter. In the end Breel decided to break the silence as bluntly as possible. "It won’t take that Assassin long to find the fallback spot."

"He won’t find it. He’s not going there."

"How do you know that?"

"Because he…" Tharin paused. For the first time in the course of the conversation he took his eyes off Coitilia. "Because he came for me."

"You’re sure?"

Tharin nodded.

"Yeah, that figures. But how? We covered our tracks, we didn’t tell anybody where we were going. We haven’t received one errant transmission in the last eight years. How could he possibly have tracked us down?"

Tharin exhaled his words, his voice barely above a whisper. "Because he knew where to start looking." He choked back a sob. "Those…bastards! Those heartless fucking bastards! …he didn’t deserve this…"

"He? Who?"

Tharin took a deep breath, held it for several seconds. "Thorin."

Confusion washed over Breel…Tharin had to have misspoken. "What?"

Tharin said nothing, opting to let his unblinking eyes do the talking for him.

"Th…Thorin? Your brother?"

"…my brother."

"Tharin, your brother is dead. You told me yourself he was killed eight, hell almost nine years ago."

"It was him," he whispered. "It was Thorin."

"But…are you sure? It was dark, and there was all that commotion, and—"

"Did you see his face?"

"What?"

Tharin stood up. "Did you see his face?"

"No."

"Well I did. I saw his face, I touched his hand, he spoke to me! It was Thorin. It was my brother…my brother."

Breel scoured his mind for a reply, but he didn’t have the words. He didn’t even have the thoughts.

"They took him," Tharin painfully continued. "They took him like a common ravager and forced themselves on him…and I let it happen."

"Tharin, you know that’s not true. You did everything humanly possible to save him." Before he was even finished Breel regretted his words.

"Don’t you get it?" Tharin exploded. "They didn’t want him; they didn’t give a shit about him! They came for me. That vile pus coursing through his veins was meant for me…"

Breel, acting on the same instinct that had saved both their lives, enfolded Tharin in his arms as he would a wounded comrade. Tharin did nothing to stave him off. He accepted Breel’s embrace, then sank to the floor and reclined against Coitilia’s cot. Breel took a seat beside him.

"When I…" Tharin started before choking back his words.

"Go on."

Tharin eyed the ceiling, brushing the hair from his eyes. "When I was fourteen," he started, "no, fifteen…I was on furlough, and I came home to Ostral-B. When I arrived at the homestead the first thing I saw was Thorin…just as drunk as any one boy could possibly hope to get. Do you remember what our instructors taught us about the drink?"

Breel nodded slowly as he recalled an unbroken blur of harsh words and heavy lashes. "Let he who lives for pleasure die by it, for who is he that should breath air that has been paid for in blood? Or something like that."

Tharin mouthed the words along with Breel. "When I saw him, I lost it. Something came over me and I just…pounced on him. I beat my brother within an inch of his life before he so much as had a chance to get a word in. Afterward I spit on him, washed his blood from my hands. Then I just left…didn’t see him again for another three years. In that time I mulled over what I had done, and had what you might call an epiphany. You know what I discovered?"

"What’s that?"

"That he was happy. He may not have adhered to the Principles of Perfection, but Thorin was happy."

"He was," Breel said, smiling as he recalled Thorin’s antics. "He most certainly was a happy man."

"I never did apologize for what I did to him. And I don’t think he ever faulted me for it. He loved me…he was the only person I ever knew who loved me."

"How can you say that?" Breel interjected, motioning toward Coitilia. "There’s somebody lying in that bed right there who loves you unconditionally."

Tharin shook his head.

"She loves me because she’s been told to. It wouldn’t matter who I was, what kind of person I was, or how I treated her. I…I love her. But I also pity her. Because at the end of the day she’s little more than a machine obeying its programming. Thorin saw me…knew me for what I really was. He was a better man than me in every conceivable way, and yet he loved me for who I was. He doesn’t deserve this. If I could trade places with him…even now…I’d do it in a heartbeat."

"I know you would."

"Of all the countless avenues of death and suffering in the universe…I would have willingly subjected my brother to any one of them before this."

"I know," Breel said. "But you have to understand now…that thing isn’t your brother anymore. It’s a machine, like you said, obeying its programming. And you know as well as anybody that it won’t rest until you are dead."

Tharin’s eyes made known his concurrence. "Were it anyone else, I’d have thrown down my blades and given him a clean shot, so that the others could be spared. But I can’t yield now. I can’t go to my grave knowing that my brother lingers on in undead torment. I have to find a way…find a way to release him. I have to kill him."

"That’s impossible," Breel said. "You know as well as anyone that Assassins can’t be killed."

"We don’t know that," Tharin said. "Not for certain. We just know that what’s been tried in the past doesn’t work. We haven’t explored every option. They said the same thing about the Insects; that they couldn’t be stopped. They killed unchecked for who knows how long before the Brunnen-G developed unconventional ways to combat them. They triggered supernovas to wipe out individual colonies…on at least one occasion they imploded an entire galactic core. It was madness…but it worked."

Breel chuckled, recalling the hazy accounts of the Insect Wars he had studied as a child.

"Well, before we go blowing up any stars, let’s start with what works. You’re the authority; how do you normally disable an Assassin?"

"Easy," Tharin said. "Dismember the body, scatter the limbs to the four corners of the universe, and hope that they don’t find each other again."

"Easy…right. That’s not a bad plan…but it isn’t very practical. We need something a little more on the safe side."

Tharin pushed himself to his feet as Coitilia stirred. "His fuel."

"What?"

"You said it yourself, Assassins are like machines. I don’t know much about them, but I do know that they run on some sort of depletable fuel. Thorin’s probably half a day behind us. If we can make him chase us long enough he’ll eventually wear down."

"He’ll still catch us…"

"I know. In fact I expect him to. By the time he runs us down he’ll be weakened to the point where I can pick him apart."

Breel hesitantly nodded his acquiescence. "It’s as good a plan as any. But what about patrol probes and mercs…they won’t just give us a free pass."

"I know," Tharin said. "That’s why we need to go someplace safe. We need to jump the gap."

Breel’s blood froze, his lips drew tight. Though he knew it to be almost impossible, he thought his comrade must surely have been joking.

"The Dark Zone? Tharin that’s a death sentence."

"So is staying here. He’ll have a tougher time tracking us on the other side. It should buy us a few more days."

Breel rubbed his temples as he made a mad dash to come up with some kind of argument rational enough to counter Tharin’s. As was so often the case throughout their association, he had no such luck.

"Fine," Breel sighed. "But the closest known Fractal Core is at least ninety parsecs from here, and I don’t know how you plan on getting past security."

Tharin cast a final glance at Coitilia before starting toward the flight deck.

"What kind of ordnance does this shuttle have?"

"Enough disrupter shot to blow a hole in The Cluster…not that that would do us any good against an entire patrol wave."

"We’re not going to the Core."


© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 01:55 am by Bilbo67



____________________
If you're normal, the crowd will accept you. But if you're deranged, the crowd will make you their leader.
— Christopher Titus
Bilbo67
Heretic


Joined: Fri Oct 27th, 2006
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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:51 am

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 CHAPTER FIVE

The last time we were together
I grabbed his hand and I pledged
‘If I ever draw my sword on you
May the Good Lord strike me dead’
-Iced Earth






 

The Assassin, Thorin of Ostral-B that was, recoiled ever so slightly as his shuttle’s tertiary propulsion system roared to life, wrenching his craft—a shuttle sporting tri-foil wings and adorned with faded tribal markings—free of Stygiak’s pull. Out of the corner of his black, sunken left eye he spied half a dozen errant shuttles lingering in the planet’s upper atmosphere. He cocked his head, acknowledging them. They scattered at once like terrified insects, as though they could feel his gaze peering through them and sought to conceal themselves somewhere, anywhere beyond his line of sight.

Thorin set about scanning for vapor trails, utterly disregarding the ships. It mattered little where they fled, as he could easily have zeroed in on any one of them and hunted them down. Those who opted to flee the planet, as two from this group did, left themselves open to any manner of long-range weapons (Thorin’s shuttle was equipped with an arsenal that rivaled an entire fleet of Reform fighters), while those who were apparently returning to the planet’s surface could be tracked with no significant output of effort. Were he to turn back now, Thorin could expect to be standing atop a mound of lifeless husks by the time Stygiak’s pale blue sun reached its zenith…but that was a moot point.

Beyond moot, in fact, as the possibility of engaging any but the one craft he sought was beyond Thorin’s ability to comprehend. His was to do the bidding of His Shadow, and His Shadow cared nothing for the people in those shuttles. Thus, Thorin cared nothing for them. They no longer impeded his progress, leaving him no further reason to take up arms against them. No, Thorin had already keyed in on the exhaust trail he sought, and as he set his meager conveyance on a pursuit course, His Shadow’s instructions, the only words that meant anything to him, repeated themselves in an otherwise empty head.

"…you will kill the arch-heretic Tharin of Ostral-B. As he breathes his last you are to kiss his forehead, meet his eyes with your own, and say ‘The Power of Order embraces you, brother.’ Assassin, you will kill the arch-heretic Tharin of Ostral-B…"

Tharin…the arch-heretic Tharin. Thorin’s task was to kill this man. To kill him because His Shadow desired it. That was all he knew, and all he needed to know.


#


The thrusters dimmed from a pulsating white to a hazy blue, traversing the spectrum as they cooled. The normally roaring exhaust ports coughed the last of their life away as the craft lurched forward, gradually accelerating. Thrusters were of no use now…the shuttle was firmly within the grasp of a neutron star.

Heretics and mercenaries had been jumping the gap this way for centuries. It was a well-known trade secret, likely discovered on accident by some drifter who flew too near a neutron star’s gravwash. How surprised he must have been, when his screaming finally relented, to find himself in one piece, squeezed through a dimensional viaduct and spit out on the other side of reality instead of crushed to a quark by the gravitational hellstorm. Star-jumping was hardly foolproof—practically impossible for larger vessels—but the staggering failure rate did little to dissuade those who were truly desperate and/or foolish enough to charge headlong into the white roar.

Tharin gave a steady nod to Breel, who dutifully readied the shuttle’s casters. On Tharin’s order he would simultaneously loose every joule of disrupter shot in the craft’s payload on a fixed point of the star’s surface no bigger than a human thumbnail. If his aim was true, and luck was on their side, and a hundred other things went exactly right, the resulting localized gravitational anomaly would tear open a temporary conduit between the Two Universes. They would jump, and Thorin would follow. If something went wrong…they would probably never know. But Thorin would know. And he would not follow.

Tharin gave the order. Breel locked on and fired without thinking.


#


The destabilizing gravwash tugged at the ship’s bow as the pulsing mass of hyper-dense, dying particles cast a pitiful light on the outer hull. Once, long ago, eons before the very notion of a Divine Order had been infused with a catalytic spark…before even the onset of the millennia of chaos and suffering known as the Age of the Insects, a magnificent red supergiant had occupied this now misbegotten corner of the universe. A laughably miniscule fraction of its tremendous output had breathed life into two worlds, both long vanished, their existence unbeknownst to even the most versed of historians in both the Order and the Sector. One was an inhospitable, hellish rock marked by an unstable atmosphere and upwards of thirty thousand volcanic eruptions per day. The other was a thickly forested planetoid. The former had no interaction whatsoever with humanity. The latter should, by all rights, have remained similarly obscure—and would have, but for happy chance.

For it was here that the Brunnen-G, romantic dreamers and reluctant messiahs, stopped to rest and refuel following mankind’s first successful expedition into the Light Universe. Champions that they were of all things aesthetic, they were instantly mesmerized by the planet’s sprawling, unmolested natural beauty. It was in every way a diametric contrast to their tech-ravaged home world; its natural aesthetics smothered by the iron hands of industry and progress long before any of the trans-dimensional trailblazers’ great-grandparents filled their virgin lungs with processed air.

Why they chose not to settle down on what came to be known as Shebarset, The Place of Resting, was swept away by the entropy of time. It would be for some other, lesser human civilization to defile this untarnished new universe with a permanent outpost. But the Brunnen-G retained a special reverence for Shebarset nonetheless. As new generations came to pass the planet came to embody the very ideals upon which their culture was built…romantic idealism, boundless optimism…in short, dreams…possibilities. Mass trans-universal pilgrimages to Shebarset’s lush northern hemisphere became a regular part of growing up for young Brunnen-G, who were expected to breathe its air, touch its soil, and bathe in its pristine waters at least once before reaching adulthood.

It was a sacred place, though not necessarily a holy place, as the Brunnen-G had no orthodox religious beliefs. Rather, they clung to a loose-knit pantheon of "understandings." They understood that the cycles of time had been woven and set into perpetual motion by some intangible "other" power…they understood that theirs was the seventh incarnation of the People of Brunnis, who had existed in one form or another since the primordial Ur-Time, when the dulcet glow of Blue Star guided their Proto-Brunnen forbearers out of the mists of the Dream Zone…and they understood that the lush wilds of Shebarset were capable of inducing tears of joy. They understood it…they just couldn’t explain it.

Shebarset…The Place of Resting. A name and location absent even from Tharin’s vast litany of knowledge. And for good reason. As far as any halfway learned person was concerned, this region of the universe was utterly inconsequential. As far as they knew.

How astounded the pompous clerics and heretical philosopher kings would be to learn that this region, this star, this long vanished, "inconsequential" world was the lynchpin around which the history of their species was woven. It was here that a slumbering giant was awakened, without whose succor the light of humanity would surely have been extinguished for all time.

The Insects, who for centuries had scoured the Dark Zone killing with impunity, burst through the Fractal Core and descended without warning on Shebarset, reducing its verdant forests and serene waters to a boundless, blasted heath with all the mechanical efficiency the frightened masses of humanity had come to expect from their would-be annihilators. Not a living thing—be it flora, fauna, or the seven thousand young Brunnen-G partaking of pilgrimage—was spared.

The Brunnen-G, who had always professed to possess a deeper range and understanding of human feeling, now had a new emotion to get acquainted with—unabashed hatred. All talk of non-interference ceased, and the longstanding vow never to take up arms against a sentient race was quickly washed away by a worldwide blood oath. On the lives of the seven thousand lost pilgrims, and the memory of The Place of Resting, the Brunnen-G swore to eradicate the Insects from the four corners of the universe, regardless of the cost. In a symbolic declaration of war—a war of attrition that would span untold generations—the scourged remains of Shebarset were ritually detonated to the tune of the Brunnen-G battle hymn that would come to be known and feared by Insect and human alike.

Regardless of the cost. Regardless.

Human history as Tharin understood began here. Had he the slightest notion of how significant this faded shell of a star was, perhaps he would have looked upon it with something a little more substantial than the boiling contempt that consumed him. Contempt for those who had stripped his brother of his very being, but moreover, contempt for himself. Contempt for his actions. Eight years removed from combat or not, he was still one of the elite. Still a soldier. And soldiers did not run. Soldiers the likes of which Tharin had been groomed from childhood to be did not believe in living to fight another day. He who lives on the run will die short of breath. The words were as fresh now as they had been the first time they spewed forth from the overgrown, hyper-aggressive Sub-Master’s mouth.

And so, it was with a deep, regretful sigh (though not a trace of the nagging fear that gripped Breel) that Tharin closed his eyes as time and space began to bend and a white light engulfed everything around him. He detested compromise, had loathed it since childhood. It was a bitter feeling. One he could only liken to the handful of defeats he had suffered in his time.

Tzybi’s thousand wanton daughters willing, he thought to himself as he ceased to feel, it will serve as a means to an end.


#


Hot…cold…light…dark…pain…fear…uncertainty…but a few of the myriad of sensations that flooded Thorin for, as far as he was concerned, the first time in his existence.

As time and space creased and came to a head; as his dense, decarbonized molecules disjoined and became one with the subatomic effluvium, he knew for a fleeting second what it was to feel again. To be again. His avatar stripped away like slag from so much ore, the real Thorin, the intangible whose locus was rooted too deeply even for His Shadow to fully purge, awoke, as though startled by a nightmare.

No longer confined to a mindless mockery of a human body, he began to wander, to think, to remember.

He remembered blackness…he remembered unrelenting agony…he remembered what it was to run. To run in slow motion, as if weighed down by some unseen force while darkness descended on him. Horrific, blasphemous, maddening darkness.

And yet, in the midst of panic there existed a counter-force. Of a splendor that shamefully dwarfed the awful majesty of the creeping darkness. It beckoned to him, touched him…touched him in a way that the darkness, for all of its menacing grandeur, could scarcely aspire to.

As quickly as it had come, the darkness ceased to be. All traces of fear and doubt were rent asunder by a voice he only vaguely recognized as his own.

"Put ‘er there, brother…"

"Put ‘er there, brother…"

"…brother…"



Five seconds later reality reset itself and the Assassin began scanning for exhaust trails as a single notion strummed about his mind: kill the arch-heretic Tharin.


#


Don’t visualize. Just act. If you have to stop and think about what you’re doing, you’re already dead.

One, three, seven, pivot. Two, four, eight, pivot. Thrust, reset.

Tharin snapped his head back, flipping the hair out of his eyes as his body, acting more so of its own accord than as a functionary of his mind, performed the standardized katas with which it had been familiarized since before it was even a third of the way through its developmental cycle.

One…punctured trachea, three…lacerated carotid artery, seven…pierced liver. Three kills in three seconds. Two, four, eight. Three more mortal wounds (with options for up to six more depending on the nature and number of attackers).

Tharin sheathed his knife, popping his neck as he clipped the sheath to his tunic. An hour or so of rest and reflection, he thought to himself. No more than an hour and a half. Then he would go through his routine again. Footwork, plyometric exercises, reflex training, shadow sparring. He had to be tight, hard, focused. He couldn’t afford to lose his edge. Couldn’t afford to allow the sluggishness that so often accompanied prolonged space travel to get the better of him.

He sipped at a jug of Pick-Me-Up, appreciating its effects immensely amidst wondering where in the hell Breel had stowed such vast quantities of it. Aside from shaving his beard and taking an errant moment to check in on his children, he had been in continual practice, on an unrelenting state of high alert, for the entirety of the two days that had elapsed following their emergence in the Dark Zone.

The Dark Zone…the universe of chaos, evil, and depravity. Truly a misnomer if ever there was one. How much worse could the Dark Zone possibly be? Who in their right mind could justifiably demonize a place that was ignorant of the Divine Order’s influence? Did the empty-headed clerics who grinned from ear to ear while demanding the populace give thanks to His Shadow for his divine guidance and protection truly believe that a regime built on a solid foundation of fear, oppression, torture, and murder had any business arbitrarily assigning such a slanderous subtitle to a region where their tin god had no dominion? It was laughable!

And yet…laughable as it was, Tharin understood enough about human nature to know that the moniker "universe of chaos and evil" carried with it more than a smattering of truth. Human nature was depraved and chaotic. There were no "good people." Good individuals, yes. But people were, by and large, cruel, manipulative, and hurtful. It was in their nature—they didn’t know any better. Were the clerics and the attack waves and for that matter The Cluster itself obliterated tomorrow, Tharin was fairly certain that squabbles would ensue the day after. Squabbles that would give way to violence, and violence that would give way to retaliation. Within the span of a week, scarcely enough time for the celebratory bonfires to cease smoldering, full-scale interplanetary war would break out, pitting those who had stood united for millennia against one another as they lapsed into the very cruelty that the Power of Order represented.

It’s inevitable, Tharin always thought with a twinge of remorse. To that end, we’ve already lost. To that end, the Glorious Cause truly is hopeless. Still, at least it will be on humanity’s terms. Maybe that’s all we’re really fighting for…the freedom to damn ourselves.

"Tharin."

Tharin’s internal world shattered. He quickly shook himself back to his senses, reminding himself where he was and what he was doing. So focused had he been over the last two days that he had all but forgotten about Breel.

"How long have you been standing there?"

Breel cracked a smug smile, tossing Tharin another flask of Pick-Me-Up. He accepted it graciously, having ceded to the notion that a polite refusal was quite out of the question on Breel’s ship.

"Long enough to have put up a fight," Breel playfully threw a flurry of openhanded punches at Tharin, each of them, if delivered with optimum force, capable of crippling or killing a man twice his size. "For about two seconds anyway."

Tharin smiled, the grimace highlighting the normally concealed wrinkles on his newly shorn face.

"Don’t sell yourself short."

"I didn’t think I was," Breel said.

Tharin nodded. Though he would never admit it, he concurred wholeheartedly with his friend’s sentiment. Two seconds…maybe five if he got lucky.

Tharin couldn’t help but make comparisons. Couldn’t help but assess everyone. Just to be on the safe side. Just to be sure he had a thorough plan for all possible contingencies—however unlikely so very many of them may have seemed. In a universe where uncertainty was the norm, "just in case" was a way of life.

In this case, there was no comparison.

Yes, Breel was a magnificent warrior, his body as lethal an instrument as one could hope to forge out of flesh, blood, and bone. Yes, in the whole of the Sector, Tharin could scarcely think of another man with whom he would rather face death. And yet for all his prowess in battle, Breel fell far short of Tharin. Laughably short. For reasons Breel could never fully understand, Tharin’s inhuman killer instinct exponentially eclipsed the decades of intense training and thousands of hours of combat experience he had under his belt.

Though they had never spoken of it, both men understood that if they ever engaged in mortal combat it would be a matter of seconds before one fell and one stood. And there was no question as to who would be left standing. This was all they knew, and all they needed to know.

Tharin internally admonished his friend’s smile. Perhaps Breel could joke about something like that, but there was nothing funny about it as far as he was concerned. Taking back his blade against Breel was as inconceivable as the prospect of doing so to his brother had been eight years prior.

Still, Tharin thought to himself, in light of the last few days…hell, maybe anything is possible.

"You should eat something," Breel said.

"I’m not hungry."

"Come on, you have to. You haven’t eaten since before we took off. You need your strength."

"I’m fine. Really."

Breel wasn’t about to budge. Not when he knew he was in the right. "Tharin come on. Coitilia dipped into my rations; used ‘em to whip up some kind of stew…"

"How is she?" Tharin abruptly cut Breel off.

"Fine. She and the kids slept right through the jump, just like you said they would."

"No…I mean her arm. How is she?"

"Hasn’t said a word about it. Hasn’t said much of anything. She’s just been…waiting."

Tharin nodded, sighing deeply. She had bent to the will of her conditioning…the will of that fucking box…just like he knew she would.

"I’ll go," he said, bracing for the sting of another compromise.

Breel smiled and turned to leave.

"Breel?"

Breel paused.

"How’s the shuttle holding up?"

He sighed. "We’ve got maybe a week’s worth of drifting left in us. After that he’ll either run us down or watch from a distance while we choke on our own dead air."

Tharin unsheathed his knife, running the flat of the blade up and down his left forearm as he listened.

"How’s our course look?"

"Not so hot. We’re about a day out from the nearest system, but the pickings are pretty slim. Bunch of rocks and an…ugh…underdeveloped Type 13."

Tharin sheathed his knife. "That will do."

"Tharin, did you hear me? Type 13. Disaster planet. We’re talking about a first rate shithole here."

"It’ll do. Plot a course."

Breel offered no further argument. He recognized Tharin’s tone. He was giving him an order.


#


The stew was surprisingly good, considering its primary ingredients were Pick-Me-Up and a normally putrid algae-based meat substitute. Tharin devoured three bowls and was tempted by fourth, but held his appetite in check. He had eaten more than enough already—the last thing he needed now was an overburdened stomach or overworked bowels. He spoke little, but made certain to cast an approving smile at Coitilia, who beamed at her husband’s regard. And with that minor gesture the slate was wiped clean. As far as Coitilia was concerned, she was back in her lover’s good graces.

When Tharin had eaten his fill Coitilia went to work clearing the table, caressing his stringy hair as she deposited their few dishes on the washrack. Tharin reclined in his seat and cracked a genuine smile as he watched Thadin and Thindolin drink heartily from wineskins filled with berry juice (another delicacy Breel kept tucked away). This was what he was preparing to fight for. In all likelihood, to die for…his family, his loved ones. And, despite his repeated attempts to skirt the issue over the years, they did love him. His wife, his children, even Breel. They loved and revered him just as Thorin had. It would be their love that drove him as his diamond knife tore into the cold, dead shell that had been his own flesh; spilled the unholy mucus that had been his own blood.

"Come on," Thadin said to Thindolin as he pushed away from the table, "I’ll show you my hiding place."

"Ok," Thindi pushed away from the table, mimicking her brother.

"Thadin," his father beckoned as the boy turned to leave.

"Yes father?"

"Come here for a moment."

"You go on," Thadin waved his sister off. She hobbled out of sight as he turned to join his father. He pulled a chair up to the table, making certain to adequately distance himself.

"Thadin…"

"Yes father?"

Tharin hesitated. He knew what he had to say to his son, but did not know how to say it. Oftentimes he could simply trust the words to find themselves, but this time he wasn’t so sure. Once again, here went nothing.

"Thadin…I might have to go away soon."

"Where?"

"Far. Far away."

"Why do you go?"

"Because…because I have to. I know you don’t understand. Just…just…if I…if I do I want you to take care of your sister. And your mother too."

"But you’ll come back."

Tharin couldn’t tell if the boy’s words were a question or a declaration. He decided it was the latter, the more logical of the two in the black-and-white mind of a child.

"I’ll try. I swear on the memory of Ostral-A I’ll try. But if I don’t, you remember what I told you. And you mind your Uncle Breel."

"I will."

"Okay, you can go."

Thadin ran off to join his sister. His father’s words had little to no effect on him, and would soon be forgotten, likely in mere minutes. Like his stripped down lecture on the dichotomy of good and evil, Tharin knew that his words couldn’t possibly exert their full force on the boy. The words were as much, perhaps more so, for Tharin himself. As his son vanished around the corner he breathed a sigh of relief. An enormous weight had just been removed from around his neck. It wouldn’t make dying any easier, but the peace of mind his words furnished would take the strain off of living the next few hours.


#


"Vaiyo A-O…

Vaiyo A-O

A Home Va Ya Ray

Vaiyo A-Rah

Jerhume Brunnen-G
."

Tharin didn’t know what this chant meant. But he understood why he was singing it. He had learned it as a child from the war historians who lectured with authority on the times before the Order. It was a battle hymn in the ancestral tongue of the Brunnen-G. Tradition held that they sang it aloud as they charged into combat. Combat from which they did not expect to return.

As far as Tharin was concerned, the words needed no translation. He understood what they meant. Profound sadness, ethereal joy, and pride. The apotheosis of human pride. For what, in the whole of the Two Universes, was more honorable than risking one’s life…than laying down one’s life for a loved one?

"Vaiyo A-O…

Vaiyo A-O

A Home Va Ya Ray

Vaiyo A-Rah

Jerhume Brunnen-G
."


#


Breel hated interrupting Tharin’s meditation, but time was of the essence.

"We’re in range," he said as they approached the flight panel. "That’s our target."

The Type 13 materialized on the screen. It was small, blue, and generally unremarkable in every way as far as planets went. And yet, at first glance Tharin couldn’t help but think back to Ostral-B…home…the bright blue waters, the sparkling beaches, and (eyesore though it may have been) the spectral defensive shield, none of which he would ever see again. He cracked a bittersweet smile. There were far worse places to die.

"Put it down someplace secluded."

Another order. Breel nodded.

"But first I want you to unload me out in the open. If you don’t hear back from me in eight hours, leave. Take my family as far from this place as you can, and don’t ever come back."

"But…"

"Breel. I mean it."

"Yes sir. Eight hours."

It had been five years since Breel had broken the habit of addressing Tharin as his superior. How effortless it had been to pick up where he left off.

"That’s not a lot of gear you’re taking."

"It’s everything I’ll need."

Both men exchanged knowing nods, which gave way to another in their series of awkward silences. Breel yearned to break it, lest his mind should start to wander. Thankfully, Tharin broke it for him.

"Promise me something, Breel."

"You name it."

"Thadin…if I don’t come back, promise me that…when he’s old enough to understand, you’ll explain my scars to him."

"I swear," Breel started. "I swear it on the…"

"…memory of Ostral-A," Tharin completed Breel’s thought.

"Well if it means anything, I don’t think it will come to that."

Tharin thumbed his knife, digesting Breel’s statement a piece at a time.

"It’s funny," he started. "I’ve never been afraid of dying. It happens to all of us sooner or later, and there’s fuck-all you can do about it when your time comes. I was born ready to die. But now…this…Thorin…

"I’ve had a lot of time to think this over Breel, and I’m terrified. I’m afraid I’ll die before the job’s finished. That I’ll get that split-second release while Thorin lives under that daemon’s thumb for all time. Like I said before, I can’t bear the thought of crossing over to the next world without setting my brother free."

Breel took Tharin’s hand. "I wouldn’t sweat it. If there’s one thing you were never any good at, it’s failing."


#


Thorin’s breaking thrusters fired as his heat shield powered up. As he made his descent toward the surface of the little blue planet the lower third of his craft disengaged from the whole. The secondary shuttle, normally idle, would remain in low orbit in the event the landing craft sustained damage. Predictable though they may have been, the Divine Order believed in relentless preparation.

The planet was grossly underdeveloped; it would be at least two thousand years before the scattered pockets of seeded humanity became industrialized. This was significant to Thorin only inasmuch as it made his quarry’s vapor trail extremely easy to pin down. He had apparently made his descent over the central region of one of the northern landmasses.

Thorin descended to cruising altitude, preparing to scan for processed alloys. As it was, no scan was necessary. He quickly made visual contact with Tharin’s shuttle, the only standout in what was an otherwise endless expanse of wild grass.

Thorin dropped his landing gear and set down a quarter of a kilometer from Tharin’s craft. He readied his brace and stepped down the ramp into the open.

His quarry’s shuttle appeared, based on the exterior, to have sat unmolested for several hours. A single plasma beam would be more than enough to obliterate it…but Thorin had his instructions, and was incapable of deviating from them. He would sweep the shuttle first, then, if need be, scour the prairie for his prey…

"Thorin!"

Cancel the sweep.

The voice echoed across the plains, but Thorin could tell right away that its source was directly behind him. Slowly he turned.

"You are the arch-heretic Tharin of Ostral-B."

Tharin stood aloof in the grass, sweat glistening on his forehead as he clutched his diamond knife.

"I’m through running from you Thorin! If I die, I die on my terms! Not His Shadow’s!"

Unmoved by his brother’s words, Thorin raised his brace.

"I kill you in the name of His Shadow."

The triangular blade shrieked as it took to the air, instantly zeroing in on Tharin’s sternum. Tharin broke hard to his left as the brace whizzed by, narrowly missing his torso. He advanced, still brandishing his blade as Thorin’s weapon reset itself.

"Come on, give me your best shot!"

Thorin let fly with his brace a second time, and for the second time Tharin narrowly averted being cut down where he stood.

"I said best shot!"

Thorin fired his brace again, and once again the shrieking chitin disk hit nothing but air. Tharin was little more than a blur, his agility nearly defying his humanity. With each successive failed shot he inched closer and closer to Thorin.

"Come on!" he taunted his attacker. "Is that all you’ve got? Is that all your rotting god could give you? Come on!"

Thorin momentarily lowered his arm, cocking his head as though contemplating his next move. Tharin advanced another step and his brother quickly discharged his brace again. This time, however, the tendril remained fixed to the primary weapon. The blade once again sailed past Tharin’s nimble head. Tharin readied himself to attack. As he took back his blade Thorin grasped the tendril with his left hand and violently retracted his arm. The brace broke from its intended trajectory and swung in an arc around Tharin’s body.

Tharin barely had time to register surprise before the blade cut through cloth, skin, sinew, and bone. The weapon blew through the front of his torso as though he weren’t even there.

Thorin reset his weapon as his brother clutched his chest and collapsed in a heap on the ground. His lower lip quivered as the pigment vanished from his face. His breathing became increasingly erratic as he slipped into shock.

The Assassin approached his mortally wounded quarry. He had fulfilled his primary objective: the arch-heretic Tharin had been dealt the deathblow. All that remained was the second set of instructions His Shadow had given him. Thorin knelt before his brother, his black, beady gaze looking right through Tharin’s sunken, frightened eyes as they rolled back in his head.

"The Power of Order embraces you—"

"Brother!"

All traces of pain and shock vanished from Tharin’s face. Thorin betrayed confusion as his brother continued to speak to him.

"Die free, Thorin of Ostral-B."

Thorin’s right forearm went limp and separated from the whole as the holographic Tharin vanished. A free-floating diamond knife tore into his throat, splattering Protoblood all over his invisible attacker.

Tharin, undetectable and driven by pure adrenaline, wrenched the brace free of the severed arm and ran it across Thorin’s midsection, simultaneously burying his knife in the Assassin’s neck. Thorin removed the blade, effortlessly snapping it in two with his thumb. Tharin let out a howl of fury as he drove his left fist into the Assassin’s jaw, utterly oblivious to the sensation of his knuckles crunching as he brought the brace down with his other hand, separating the remainder of Thorin’s right arm from his torso.

Thorin staggered, disoriented, as his invisible attacker took a swipe at one of his legs. In an utterly inhuman display of quickness he caught the blade mid-swing with his left hand and drove it back in the vicinity of his unseen foe.

Tharin hit the ground as his right leg ceased to feel. The brace bore straight through his calf to the bone, cutting through skin, muscle, and tendons like a hand through water. The pain was unparalleled and Tharin cried out, biting through his lip to keep from losing consciousness.

As Tharin struggled to stand the sheer-smoke clinging to his skin began to dissipate and Thorin caught sight of him for the first time. He instinctively cast off his blood soaked tunic and made a break for the shuttle, hobbling like a wounded animal on two arms and one good leg.

Thorin gave chase, walking briskly as his quarry stumbled toward the shuttle. He watched Tharin vanish into the ship, leaving a sticky trail of dark red blood in his wake.

Thorin approached the shuttle. It appeared reinforced, but by no means impenetrable. Clutching his blade in his left hand he took a swipe and the hull and immediately lost his footing as his arm passed through the metal.

The holographic shuttle vanished, along with a large section of ground, revealing a manmade pit. Thirteen titanium pikes, hand sharpened to a point, glistened like monstrous teeth as the sun cast its first light on them. Thorin attempted to regain his balance, but was driven over the edge by a violent blow to the lower back. He tumbled end over end and hit hard on three of the pikes, their ravenous tips tearing through his dead flesh like a pack of starving Cluster Lizards. He was impaled. Impaled and immobile.

Tharin slid into the pit, tears streaming down his face as he winced and hobbled on his good leg. He wrenched one of the pikes from the ground and drove it with all of his might into Thorin’s head. Without faltering he drew back the pike and hit him a second time. And a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Tharin repeated the action a dozen times, the pike seemingly becoming lighter with each successive blow.

"LET…" WHAM "MY…" WHAM "BROTHER…" WHAM "DIE!"

He lost count of how many times he stuck what was no longer Thorin, but a manifestation of all of the suffering, all of the misery, all of the pain in the universe that befell those who had done nothing to deserve it, regardless of whether the Power of Order had a hand in it or not. He had transcended mere rage…mere intensity. He had tapped into a long-dormant part of his psyche that defied human interpretation. A state of ultra-violent euphoria that, had he been versed in the history and importance of Shebarset, he may well have likened to the unplumbed rage that collectively gripped the Brunnen-G at the onset of the Insect Wars.

"LET MY BROTHER DIE!"





When Tharin regained his composure he found that he had hewed Thorin’s remaining limbs from his body and driven nine pikes through his torso. The disembodied Assassin still peered at his would-be quarry with the same hollow, disinterested eyes. As far as he was concerned, this changed nothing. The arch-heretic Tharin had to die. The arch-heretic Tharin would die.

Tharin radioed for Breel, then quickly went to work setting fire to Thorin’s shuttle and burying his limbs. The task completed, he tore a strip of cloth from his discarded tunic and fashioned himself a makeshift tourniquet. As Breel’s engines droned on in the distance Tharin glanced into the pit. Into those vacant, lifeless eyes that so resembled his own.

He permitted himself a tear.

"I’m going to leave you here now Thorin. It’s over. You’re not an Assassin anymore. "

Tharin applied pressure to his wounded calf, drenching his hands in blood. He balled up his fists and held them over Thorin’s face, watched the blood trickle from his hands onto his brother’s cheek.

"Die free, Thorin of Ostral-B."


#



The shuttle hovered over the pit and Breel pulled his wounded comrade into the hatch.

"You’re hurt."

"I’ll be okay. Let’s just get out of here."

"And go where?"

Tharin cast a final glance at the face in the pit…at the starkly contrasting pale white flesh and dark red blood.

"Somewhere…anywhere."


© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 01:56 am by Bilbo67



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— Christopher Titus
Bilbo67
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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:52 am

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 CHAPTER SIX

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
-Dylan Thomas



 


Had Tharin known about Thorin’s reserve Protoblood, perhaps his story would have ended differently.


#


Sun up…sun down…

Sun up…sun down…

Sun up…sun down…

Every day…without fail. Every 86,164.091 seconds the pale, unremarkable yellow star crept into Thorin’s field of vision. Every day—without fail—he tracked it with mechanical indifference for approximately three and one quarter hours. Then it was back to varying degrees of darkness for 20.72 hours.

Thorin kept track of every hour, every minute, every second of every day. Not because he had to, and certainly not because he wanted to. He just did. He had been conditioned…programmed to make such off-the-cuff calculations as quickly and as methodically as he had to dispatch those who stood between his brace and whomever His Shadow deemed his quarry. It was just one of a plethora of abilities with which he was gifted. Blessed, some would say.

Thorin could do so much more than just wield a brace. He was capable of deducing engine speeds seconds after calculating a ship’s exhaust ratio. He was a compendium of knowledge concerning barometric pressure, wind speed, and gravitational pulls…all of which lent him the ability to pick off a stationary target (a moving target, provided his line of sight was unobstructed) with his brace from up to four kilometers away. He was even capable of calculating human longevity (though unaware of this ability, as he had never been prompted to make use of it). Were he privy to his quarry’s age and a few pieces of data about his lifestyle, he could have determined, with near pinpoint accuracy, how much longer the arch-heretic Tharin’s natural lifespan might play out (barring personal injury and free will, which could themselves be factored in at any point in the equation).

Such a skill seemed, to those in the Order who truly understood the inner-workings of Divine Assassins (and truly believed their opinions mattered), impractical…downright unnecessary. Even top-level bio-scholars had, at one time, decried this aspect of the rewiring as a waste of both time and programming space. What does it matter, they so often wondered, if an Assassin knows how much longer a target has to live? Theirs is to kill, not to think.

A few worked up the nerve to question His Shadow directly, erroneously assuming that unlike so many previous dissenters, they would not be brutally chastised. To his credit His Shadow listened intently, but kept his answers to himself, opting to let the Protein Bank do the talking for him. As quickly as they arose, the questions subsided. His Shadow wanted his Assassins to be able to calculate longevity…the bio-engineers would make it so. That was all they knew, and all they needed to know.

In truth, His Shadow’s staunch support of the longevity programming was rooted in his understanding of the inherent imperfections in the Divine Assassins’ design. He knew that despite their ruthless tactics and inhuman efficiency, Assassins could be eluded. Through the correct combination of cunning and fortune, a mark could elude his would-be killer for an indefinite period of time. It was an unpleasant reality His Shadow and his Predecessors had come to accept millennia before, when it was determined that Assassins would function in a more efficient manner if stripped of their three-dimensional reasoning abilities.

Under the original auspices of the programming, an Assassin would, if left to its own devices, track its prey until the end of time (theirs being after all, according to some of the late bio-scholars, to kill and not to think). With little thought as to how much Protoblood remained in their systems, they would comb the universe until long after their quarry had succumbed to the inevitable ravages of age.

It only makes sense, the bio-engineers had collectively decreed after a third of their numbers spontaneously "volunteered" to be triple-organ-donors, that an Assassin should be able to deduce its quarry’s longevity. After all, for an Assassin to spend countless months, or even years chasing after a dead man was the very definition of counterproductivity.

Logical as their conclusion was, it never once crossed His Shadow’s mind. He cared little for his Assassins or what became of them. They cost practically nothing to replace. Just a human life…one more raw material that the Order had in surplus.

In truth, the decision was rooted in selfishness. It was His Shadow’s ego, glutted by a thousand stagnant generations of unchecked, godlike power, which was responsible for Thorin’s untapped faculty. Rooted in selfishness and echoed countless thousands of times throughout the Light Zone…echoed every time an Assassin took up its brace against a condemned target. "I kill you in the name of His Shadow."

Though the notion of owning up to any of his actions was ludicrous to His Shadow, nothing he did was without purpose. Upon a solid foundation of reason were all his thoughts and actions built. A foundation that extended beyond his physical dominion to actions carried out by proxy. From regional clerics increasing quarterly temple dues seemingly on a whim to the Megashadow eviscerating scores of heavily populated worlds; nothing of substance was carried out unless, in His Shadow’s eyes, it served a purpose. Thus, whenever an Assassin cut down a target, be it a battle-hardened heretic or a mewling infant, it did so for a reason.

And whatever individual reasons may have been, it remained static in the collective mind of the Assassins…because His Shadow desired it. That was all they knew, and all they needed to know.

The same could be said for those who came under the brace. Hence the words…and the longevity programming. Though the Assassins did the work, the mantra was His Shadow’s way of acting—again by proxy—as executioner; his way of saying "I and I alone have decided that your life will end now." It was his way of ensuring that every target died with that notion in mind. That everyone he deemed unfit to live for any reason went to their grave under the understanding that it was not sickness or old age that brought about their demise, but the will of His Shadow. Put simply, His Shadow wanted his Assassins to work against a timetable so that none of his victims had the option of dying before he could kill them.

Thorin’s eyelid fluttered as a large scavenger bird chipped its beak on his thick, decarbonized hide. The bird squawked and took to the air, vanishing into the otherwise still darkness. Thorin shadowed it with its eyes until it became one with the night sky.

6.2 hours until sunup. Wholly detached from its surroundings, Thorin’s mind continued to reprise the only notion to which he was capable of applying substance…kill the arch-heretic Tharin.


#


Sunup on the twelfth day. For the first time since being forcibly separated from the body and mind that commanded it and interred in a cold, shallow grave, Thorin’s right hand was warmed by sunlight.

The consensus among the scavenger birds that Thorin’s body, prone as it was and ripe for the ravaging, made for a less than appealing hunk of carrion did not extend to the birds’ chief rival, a lone wild dog. Exiled from his pack two years earlier after losing his left eye in a failed attempt to usurp authority from the alpha-male, the beast thereafter adopted the prairie as his home. His first few months alone were rough. Having only known life in a pack, self-reliance was an altogether new sensation for the dog. One that narrowly saved his life during a particularly harsh winter.

It was by virtue of chance, the very intangible that decreed that it would be Thorin, not Tharin, whose physical being would serve as a vehicle through which His Shadow would convey his will, that this emaciated mongrel, frostbitten and half dead from starvation, happened upon a pair of nearly preserved buffalo carcasses. After justifiably glutting itself, the dog’s primitive better judgment took over, and for the remainder of the season meals were conservative and routinely paced. As it slowly regained its strength, the dog took to foraging; honing what skills it had acquired inherently—its hearing in particular—as a biological means of compensating for a lack of depth perception. By the time the seasons had run their course and winter came round again, the dog was capable of securing sustenance in all but the harshest of conditions. The beast had a knack, almost a sixth sense, for knowing when food or water was concealed just a few inches below ground. When in doubt, he dug, and almost always turned up something that would suffice as a meal.

It was this knack, instinctive as Thorin’s mathematical savvy, which led to the dog’s unearthing of the limb. The arm, still clad in a partially torn sleeve from the black bodysuit Thorin wore under his tunic, was a sickly shade of white, offset by ashen gray at the site of amputation. Sinew, bone, tendons…all the no-color hue of rain.

The dog inspected the arm, nudging it with his nose. He recognized it as a possible source of nourishment, but something about the way it smelled—or for that matter, did not smell—stayed his ever-ready jowls.

He nudged the arm again. It didn’t smell like meat…didn’t smell like something that had been alive. Quite the contrary…it didn’t smell at all.

With a judicious amount of hesitation the dog leaned forward and sank its canines into a hunk of forearm.

The arm twitched and the dog recoiled sharply. He howled through clenched teeth as his ears were inundated with the most horrific of sounds—the likes of which he had never known existed. The howl was quickly cut off by a yelp of pain as something flew overhead and severed the tip of his ear. He took off at a full gallop as the triangular blade arced and returned to Thorin’s forearm.


#


Five minutes later the dog returned, winded, bleeding, and confused. It cast a single disparaging glance at Thorin’s arm, growled, and took off. This particular beast, this one-eyed mongrel outcast, always a survivor, would go on to live a full life…unnaturally long for a wild animal in his condition. But never, for the remainder of his days, would he ever set foot in this place again.


#


It was day twenty-two…2.4 hours before sunup, when Thorin had his first lapse.

It was day twenty-nine…an hour after sunup, when Thorin had his first Protoblood failure and lost track of time.

It was day forty (day thirty-four by Thorin’s recollection)…two hours after sundown when Thorin’s world ceased to be.


#









#


Pulsing…heaving…almost lifelike in its slow, deliberate movements. The shadow crept lazily across the prairie, swallowing up vast expanses of wild grass, darkening as it devoured the light, expanding exponentially with every passing second.

It was midday. The adequate yellow sun would reach its zenith within the hour and yet the countryside was shrouded in a dusky gray, the byproduct of what little light was able to bore its way through the colossal thunderhead.

Several hours earlier a column of warm, northbound air had collided with a column of cooler air as they converged on the middlemost region of the continent. In a few moments their combined forces would be at odds, culminating in an act of fury rivaled only by the destructive propensities of man.

The supercell rumbled as it began to fold inward. Brilliant flashes of lightning lapped at the ground, vaporizing patches of sod and announcing to remaining wildlife that it was in their best interest to vacate. Slowly the clouds began to rotate. As the massive cyclonic vortex picked up momentum it loosed a barrage of thick hailstones. Millions of icy missiles hit with a chorus of soft thuds on the lowland surface. In his makeshift open grave, Thorin’s remains were subjected to the same abuse as a pile of white stones accumulated on and around his body.

For a time the hail intensified; so much so that within moments the countryside appeared to have been overrun by a layer of sudden onset permafrost. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the hail subsided. For a time, the world stood still; uproariously silent as the tail end of the putrid green mesocyclone began to turn. Slowly at first. The funnel seemed to hesitate, lingering for a time before vanishing back into the belly of the storm.



THUD

Hailstones scattered as the funnel dropped, tearing into the grass and stripping away the topsoil. The cyclone swelled as it fed, swelling in girth and ferocity to well over a kilometer in diameter.

Thorin’s gravesite began to tremble. A violent gust of air ripped one of the pikes in half, followed not a second later by another gust that dislodged two more. Thorin’s partially freed-up torso fluttered like a banner as the remaining pikes swayed. His cloak, a grim mockery of his Ostral-B tunic, was ripped from his body and vanished.

Like a predator enticed by some new prey the cyclone abruptly changed its course. It accelerated, as though drawn by the promise of fresh blood, as it bore down on Thorin’s tomb.

Though partially free from the pikes that held him in place, Thorin was far enough below the surface to be afforded some degree of protection. His ship, however, now only a burned out husk of twisted metal, was a prime target for the approaching squall. The carcass was uprooted, pieces of the titanium exoskeleton scattering like matchsticks, only to be consumed by the oncoming column of thick, greenish-black clouds. The primary fuselage, fused intact by more than a day’s worth of roaring flames, lurched forward. It rose gradually, no more than a centimeter or two, and slowly rocked in midair…half a meter one way, half a meter the other, as though the twister was in the midst of deciding what to do with its latest catch…consume it, as it had everything else in its path, or discard it.

The fuselage passed over Thorin’s grave as it inched toward the cyclone. It hung in the air for several seconds until at last the laws of gravity won over the pull of the twister. The metal shell dropped, snapping the pikes with casual indifference and pinning Thorin’s body to the ground as it rolled to a halt. Within seconds another updraft grabbed hold of it. The fuselage rotated in midair before dropping a second time. Two shards of metal tore through Thorin’s decarbonized flesh as the craft hit with a thud. The first struck his face just below the cheekbone. The leathery skin resisted as best it could, but promptly gave in to the pressure. The shard slid to a halt as the lower two thirds of Thorin’s face were peeled from the bone. The second shard, what little remained of one of the landing gears, bore down on his chest, the dull titanium point shattering against his sternum. Thorin’s flesh would offer up little in the way of resistance to such power, but penetrating decarbonized bone was out of the question for metal so blunted, regardless of the force applied.

The fuselage teetered, the whole of its weight balancing on Thorin’s chest as the cyclone’s onslaught intensified. The landing gear, weakened beyond its breaking point, folded inward and gave way. The fuselage collapsed, burying Thorin entirely. Something pierced the soft tissue of his abdomen, tearing through his hollowed out midsection and rupturing a small metal vial as it shot out between the back of his ribs. The vial’s contents clung to Thorin’s skin, seeping through the epidermal membrane and quickly pouring into his veins.

Thorin’s eyes flew open.

"Who would you like me to kill?"

The words were involuntary, just as before. Thorin mouthed them, producing little audible sound. His senses were overwhelmed: his touch detected the colossal weight of the fuselage, his eyes beheld little more than darkness, and his ears were inundated with an unnatural roar the likes of which he had never known in either of his lives.

As the guttural rumbling proceeded to engulf the outer-world as Thorin knew it, the one-and-only concrete notion that occupied his inner-world swirled throughout his mind…his was to kill the arch-heretic Tharin.

The storm grew angrier. Thorin could feel the very ground to which he was pinned tremble. The great weight that bore down on every inch of his body seemed to lessen, sufficient so that he was able to turn his head, allowing the loose flap of meat to fuse with the whole of his face.

Then as suddenly as it had lessened, the pressure doubled! Thorin felt his soft tissue throb as slabs of unseen metal ground his skull into the rock-hard clay. His fresh supply of Protoblood trickled out from his abdominal wound as it slowly expanded, threatening to hew him in half at the middle.

And then it was gone. Without warning the pressure dissipated and was no more. Thorin’s flesh contracted, his wound closing up almost instantly as the fuselage shot skyward and vanished. Two seconds…no more than two seconds and it too was gone.

Thorin’s hair whipped furiously as his eyes beheld the great shaggy mouth of the funnel hanging no more than two meters overhead. As always, he was indifferent to his surroundings, as they bore no relevance as far as his master’s instructions were concerned. But indifference didn’t stop him from taking it all in.

Everything was still (still as death, Thorin might say, if he were consciously familiar with clichés); the kind of stillness that Thorin unconsciously associated with the presence of His Shadow…with the few seconds of nothingness that comprised the void between his awakening and His Shadow’s words. He detected a strong, gassy odor (such as he would long since have come to associate with death and decay were this not his first assassination) complemented by a near-total lack of oxygen. Still…still as death…

All at once the roar was gone, drowned out by an animalistic screaming/hissing sound emanating directly from the funnel. It pierced Thorin’s eardrums, pushing all but the voice of His Shadow from his mental reservoir. The noise prompted him to look up, right into the heart of the cyclone. Thorin’s eyes darted back and forth in a futile effort not to miss anything. A circular opening, some fifty meters in diameter at best judgment, highlighted the center of the funnel, which extended upward for what he calculated to be well over two kilometers.

Thin streaks of lightning crisscrossed throughout the funnel, illuminating its interior and revealing the walls of rotating clouds that hung overhead.

The hissing intensified as smaller cyclones formed and broke away from the lower rim of the vortex. They materialized, writhed around the end of the funnel, and quickly fizzled out, only to be replaced by another. The miniscule twisters fingered the ground where Thorin lay, kicking up dirt and rocks, and dragging the dismembered trunk closer to the lip of the pit.

Thorin’s gaze remained fixed on the belly of the cyclone, which the consistent flashes of lightning showed to be almost completely hollow, save something he could not quite place.

It is likely, he thought to himself, a detached wind cloud of some sort. This seemed to Thorin to be a fair assumption, as he had no way of truly knowing what the thing traveling up and down the opening of the funnel was.

The hissing intensified further…nearly inaudible…the world once again went black as the funnel dropped…Thorin was weightless.


#


Thorin’s eyes were useless throughout his ordeal; fused shut by the wind’s onslaught as he was violently flung about the inner walls of the cyclone. Shards of dust…tiny rocks…chunks of metal…thousands of makeshift projectiles, propelled at a lethal velocity, sliced through his flesh, stripping nearly all of his remaining clothing from his body as his wounds scrambled to heal themselves.


#


All at once the wind subsided. Thorin fell for what he judged to be a kilometer, only to be wrenched back into the cyclone’s maw by an updraft. Something thick struck him just below the throat, lodging itself in his chest cavity in lieu of passing through his body as so many hundreds of pieces of debris already had. It was cold and smooth, unlike the rough stones and granules that continued to pulverize him. He recognized it at once as his brace, to which his lifeless right arm (its upper and lower segments reunited thanks to the dog) was still attached. Fresh Protoblood spewed forth from the wound, splattering across both blade and limb. The arm twitched and came to life, its fingers instinctively clinging to what remained of Thorin’s bodysuit.

A thick finger of lightning licked Thorin’s right side, singeing a tuft of his hair and wrenching the limb from his chest. His mind once again in control of his primary ordnance, he loosed the brace at his own head, catching the blade between his teeth. The tendril retracted. Thorin mustered what strength the wind would allot him and threw his body to the right. The ball and socket touched and immediately fused.

His right arm reattached, Thorin wasted no time in loosing his brace again. He did not aim at anything specific; he simply did his best to fix the blade on the ground and fired. The relentless wind severely lessened the brace’s velocity, but after several seconds it finally hit something solid. Thorin retracted, plummeting from the cyclone’s grasp as it wrenched in vain, voicing its objections in one last rasping growl.

Thorin hit the ground face first and immediately fired his brace again, burying the blade deep in the solid clay. The wind momentarily intensified, tearing at his hair and skin one last time as the cyclone passed overhead. Thorin’s body hung in midair, the tendril pulled taut between his wrist and the blade, buried more than twenty meters below ground.

The worst was over…of that there was no doubt. Thorin was in no danger of being pried from the ground. He knew better than to doubt the integrity of his weapon.

The thunderous growl faded to a dull roar…the roar to a low rumble…the rumble slowly gave way to stillness. Soon after, Thorin heard the chirping of birds.


#



The sun rose and fell twice before Thorin found his other arm...another ten times before he located his legs. Fourteen days after his revival he tapped a small beacon on his belt, indicating to his secondary shuttle that he was ready to be picked up.


© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 01:58 am by Bilbo67



____________________
If you're normal, the crowd will accept you. But if you're deranged, the crowd will make you their leader.
— Christopher Titus
Bilbo67
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Joined: Fri Oct 27th, 2006
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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:55 am

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CHAPTER SEVEN

The worst is over now and we can breathe again
I wanna hold you high, you steal my pain away
There's so much left to learn, and no one left to fight
I wanna hold you high you steal my pain
-Seether


 

"When I found out I couldn’t move I was terrified. By Tzybi I…I tried to ball up my fist, tilt my head, even speak…nothing. It was like living a nightmare. But when I felt that hose against my skin…when I heard those worms, thousands of them chirping away…only then did I…that’s when I lost it. I couldn’t do anything to resist them, but inside—in my head—I was blubbering like a child. Begging them to stop. Pleading with them to spare me the nerve bore treatment and just kill me outright. I did all I could to try to cry out to them, ‘Blow my brains out, cut my throat, do whatever you want…anything but that.’

"You know most of my life people in the Movement accused me of being fearless. So much so that some from my recruiting class came to resent me; called me a braggart, even though I’ve never gloated in my life. But they didn’t understand…I’m not fearless. A man without fear is a man without wits. I’m far from fearless. But I am a realist. Always have been. I’ve always been one to prepare for the worst. You’d be amazed at how clear your head becomes when you understand and accept the worst possible outcome to a given situation. That’s all bravery really is. Clarity.

"So that’s what I kept telling myself when they laid me out on that table. ‘I’ve prepared for this, I’ve prepared for this, I’ve prepared for this’…and then I heard them say it—nerve bore treatment—and it all came unraveled. All of it. The countless hours of preparation, the sensory deprivation, the hypnosis…all my training ceased to be, like it never happened. All I could think about were those worms. Those dreadful, chirping worms.

"I’d heard stories about the treatment before. One told of a man writhing in such pain that he broke free of his shackles—titanium shackles—and ripped his own throat out to still the agony. I’d even heard veterans speak of people dying of shock the instant the tube touched their skin. If that’s true it’s likely I’d be counted among their numbers if it weren’t for the sedatives. All I wanted was for it to be over. All I wanted was to die."

"Well what happened?" Coitilia huddled closer to Tharin, clutching a cup of herbal tea that had been cold for the better part of half an hour.

"Breel. He came out of nowhere—I mean literally nowhere. The clerics didn’t know what hit them. He dealt all four of them a deathblow before the first one hit the ground. I had never seen such ferocity in a rookie."

Tharin sipped his plumb wine, chuckling to himself. "It was only his third run; his first solo mission if I recall correctly. I’ll never get over the way he mouthed the instructions as he hacked through those men. He may as well have been in the exercise yard, performing Dargoncon Kata Number Five for the hundredth time."

"He saved your life," Coitilia restated the obvious. Tharin nodded.

"He most certainly did. And it wasn’t the last time he’d do it; Breel’s saved my skin more times than I can count. But I’ll never forget that time. Because from that day on I knew I could rely on him. I knew I’d never have to be that terrified again because I had Breel to watch over me. To pull my ass out of the fire, as the lowborn might put it. I knew that as long as he had breath in his body he wouldn’t stand to see me suffer, even if the only humane option was to kill me himself. It was the least I could do to return the favor, to be there for him when things became grim. But it wasn’t enough. For as many times as I went on to save Breel’s life I knew I could never repay him. Because regardless of how frightened he may have been at times, he was incapable of comprehending the kind of despair…the kind of dread he delivered me from.

"I still hear them at night sometimes, chirping away. I’ve learned to ignore it over the years, but my first two nights back at the base I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes without hearing them call to me. I stopped eating…locked myself in my quad…eventually got sick. The next time my regiment was ordered to move I opted out…"

Tharin paused. He half expected Coitilia to be fighting off sleep, but true to form he found her hanging on his every word, her eyes prodding him to continue.

"I wasn’t as sick as I made out. Certainly not too sick to fly a routine reconnaissance mission. My body was fine…it was my head that was out of order. We all accepted pain and torture as a reality of the job, but after that…after that…I couldn’t do it anymore. I was only twelve runs into my career, but I made up my mind right then and there that I had seen enough. I wanted out."

"Then why didn’t you leave? If you were that miserable…what made you stay?"

"Same answer as before," Tharin said.

"I don’t understand."

"Breel."

"Breel?"

Tharin nodded. "Breel and everyone like him. All those boys—those men—I grew up with, trained with…bled with. They needed me. They knew it, and more importantly, I knew it. You know I’m modest by nature, but ask any one of them and they would have told you I was the finest warrior in the Reform Sector, even then at so young an age. I won’t dispute it. For some damned reason I was imbued with a gift. I owed it to them to use that gift to the best of my ability. To always be there for them the way Breel was there for me. The political aspects of the Cause ceased to matter. The human side…that’s what kept that damn diamond knife in my hand for so long. Besides, as a man much wiser than myself once pointed out, I’d make a shitty farmer."

Coitilia smiled. "They were lucky to have you."

"Something like that," Tharin said, popping his neck and reclining further. He had never told this particular story to anyone, and felt a great swell of relief upon its completion. For so long he had yearned to get it off his chest, and for so long he had tensed up at the very notion of baring his innermost thoughts. Only now was he at ease enough to open up.



#


Two weeks of drifting followed by a chance encounter with a tiny supply frigate had landed Tharin and his family in a small fishing community on the outskirts of a planetoid whose name they had yet to learn. After a brief appearance before something known as the Internal Magistrate’s Demographic Security and Population Dispersal and Relocation Subcommittee (and probably a few other things Tharin didn’t care to remember) they were granted asylum and allowed to take up residence in one of four Expanded Housing Zones (so named for the sole purpose of sounding important—such was the nature of bureaucracy, the stink of which Tharin had been able to detect since boyhood). Tharin opted for the most secluded of the four zones, a lakeside homestead some fifty kilometers from what passed for civilization on this world.

There were enough fish in the lake for half a dozen small families, coupled with ample tracts of would-be farmland (shitty or not, Tharin was determined to try his hand at it). The children, accustomed all their lives to the rigid confines of the courtyard and the cloistered flat atop the Citadel, had near-boundless room to play, explore, get lost…in short, to have a childhood.

Tharin was afforded something far grander. Something few asked for and fewer still could hope to be granted: yet another fresh start. An opportunity to reinvent himself one last time and finally live life on his own terms. No more kowtowing to the chain of command or serving as de facto chieftain to a clan of well-meaning but dependent outcasts. For the first time in his life Tharin served no one but himself. He finally had time to concentrate on the things that truly mattered. Foremost on the list was his newfound determination to be the best damn husband he could possibly be.

It was Breel who had broached the subject in the first place. "Talk to her," he said one evening. "When was the last time you just sat and talked to her?" Good old dependable Breel; wise beyond both his years and his predestined station in life (like Assassins, Reformation foot soldiers were trained to act, not to think); who had vehemently insisted that he remain with the family despite Tharin’s longing to see his friend start a life and a family of his own.

Breel’s words elicited little more than befuddled silence. Tharin had tried to connect with Coitilia on a more personal level numerous times over the course of their eight and a half years together, only to walk away disappointed every time. Whether it was by throwing herself at him, or stoically awaiting her next order (the Sector would have called her a model soldier), Coitilia wouldn’t break from her routine. The Matron’s words kept her humanity in check, leading a frustrated Tharin to abandon his attempts at psychological intimacy and bury himself in his work.

But now…now there was no work. Only time. All the time he could ask for. It was a slow, frustrating process at first. Getting Coitilia to sit still, even for ten minutes, was like trying to get Thindolin out of wet clothes (or, Tharin mused himself on one occasion, like trying to torture information out of a surgically muted cleric). Equally as frustrating was Tharin’s near-complete lack of a frame of reference from which to work. How did one strike up a conversation with someone raised in a box?

Then it dawned on him. How could he have been so dense?

"Coiti," he casually approached her one evening, "what was your life like before we met?"

"Cold."

She said it without hesitating. When Tharin pressed the issue she reverted to her old self (chipper and thoughtless) and offered to "help take your mind off work" (the fact that Tharin wasn’t working at the time was beyond inconsequential as far as her conditioning was concerned).

Tharin held his ground. "Cold…you said cold. What do you mean cold?"

"Are you sure you don’t want me to—"

"I’m sure," Tharin grasped her shoulders. "I don’t want you to do anything except remember for me. You said it was cold."

"I…I…" she hesitated, combing her vast reserve of automated replies for the response that would best suit the Matron.

"What was cold?" Tharin whispered.

Coitilia’s eyes hit the floor, her strength abandoning her as she took half a dozen labored breaths through her mouth. "The night," she mouthed the words.

"The night? Did you say the night?"

Coitilia nodded, embracing her husband to compensate for her lightheadedness. "No sun…no sky. So that’s how I knew it was nighttime. When it was…cold."

As Tharin recalled she broke down crying. He embraced her, assuring her it would be all right.

It will be all right.

He repeated it like a mantra. From here on out it will be all right.



#


The breakthrough was minor, but significant. Coitilia had finally made a connection with her husband; a connection that transcended the superficiality of the Wife Bank. With some gentle, deliberate prodding on Tharin’s part, the connection could, and did, grow stronger.

The tears flowed freely as Coitilia regaled her man with stories of her life prior to their union. If one could call such an existence a life. Caged like an animal…programmed like a computer…ruthlessly chastised by a faceless machine that kept her isolated from even the slightest human contact, yet had the audacity to demand that she display the full range of interpersonal skills. To delight in servitude…in being little more than sensual chattel…that was her world (all she knew and all she needed to know) for the first seventeen years of her life.

And yet, she confided in Tharin some three weeks after their initial breakthrough, something inside her, something the Matron couldn’t reach, even with shock therapy and the ever-ready barbiturate needle, wanted more. Wanted real human contact…real feeling…real love. It never went away. Over the years the yearning had been suppressed, subdued, but never fully purged. Rather, it hid. Remained in hibernation, sleeping soundly throughout the "advanced" training during the last five years of her instruction, and lay dormant during the first eight and a half years of her union with Tharin. Until now. His persistence had awakened it…had reminded her of exactly who she wanted to be and how she wanted to feel, about herself and her lover. Tharin had reeled her in from the brink of inhumanity, and there would be no going back.

Tharin, who at one time would have welcomed the isolation to which Coitilia was forcibly subjected, was moved to tears. He had said it for the better part of nine years, told himself he believed it, but for the first time he truly knew it: he loved this woman. He knew he loved her. Knew it just the same as he knew the sun would come up tomorrow.



#


The revelations continued unabated until one night, when Coitilia casually asked her husband the last question he expected to hear. "What about you?" she asked. "What was your life like before we joined?"

Tharin was taken aback by his wife’s inquiry. More than aback—it hit him like a well-placed fist. She had never once questioned his past, which more than suited Tharin, as he was, by nature, reluctant to discuss it with anyone. He had mentioned once, in passing, that he used to fight, and could tell right away that his words rolled off his wife’s ears, as she lacked even the rudimentary frame of reference needed to truly understand and appreciate his exploits.

"My life?" Tharin said. "My old life."

Coitilia nodded. "All the marks on your body…cuts, burns…you’ve always had them. How did they happen?"

And so it came to pass that Tharin took to staying up late at least two or three times a week telling his story. The story of his scars. Huddled beside her lover atop the lookout post, as still and as quiet as the nighttime air, Coitilia soaked up every word, frame of reference be damned, awaiting the outcome of each tale with a blend of wide-eyed wonder and white-knuckle anticipation. So engrossed did she become in some of his tales that she found herself fearing for Tharin’s life, completely overlooking the fact that he quite obviously survived the ordeal intact, as he was the one telling the story.

Coitilia came to look forward to these late night story sessions as much (perhaps more so) as she did lovemaking (an exercise Tharin approached with a great deal more zest of late). It always began the same way: Coitilia would pick out a scar, and Tharin would relate the circumstances surrounding its infliction. The latest tale, the reality of which Tharin had never shared with anyone, stemmed from her innocent curiosity about a nearly imperceptible discoloration on the back of his neck.

"It’s not important," he was quick to interject.

"It is to me."

"You don’t want to hear about that one. It’s boring. Ask me about another."

"No," she persisted. "I want to know about that one."

Tharin could have summed it up in one statement ("That’s where clerics injected a neuromuscular sedative into my spine") and been done with it. But he was not about to take the coward’s way out. Not after witnessing his wife’s courage over the last month.

Ruminating on her bravado was all the catalyst Tharin needed. From there, the words found themselves.



#



Tharin popped his neck a second time. His foot was asleep, and the makeshift brace strapped to his calf felt like it had tripled in size.

"I think that’s enough for tonight," he grunted.

"Aw," Coitilia moaned coquettishly.

"I’ll tell you more tomorrow. I promise."

Coitilia smiled, running her finger over Tharin’s right cheek. "I know." She singled out a tiny scar on his chin. "Next time I want to hear about that one."

Tharin took her hand in his and kissed it. "I’m afraid there isn’t much of a story behind that one."

"You always say that."

"I mean it this time."

"You always mean it too." She winked. "Come on, just give me a taste…a preview."

"A preview," Tharin grinned. "Well, it’s a real nail biter. It basically involves me, a dark night, and a slippery staircase. You’ll never guess how it ends."

Coitilia laughed, throwing her arm around Tharin’s neck. He had made her laugh more in the last four weeks than in the preceding eight years.

"I’m gonna turn in." Tharin started to his feet, eyeing the ladder.

"I don’t think so." Coitilia cinched up her headlock, throwing her leg backwards and slinging Tharin over her shoulder. He hit with a thud on the wooden floor and she quickly pinned his astonished arms to the ground.

"Where did you learn that?" Tharin asked in staggered amazement.

"You taught me. You and Breel."

"What? When have you ever seen us spar?"

She raised her eyebrows. "Once."

Tharin’s eyes strained as they grew even wider. "Once? That’s impossible, it took me…weeks of practice to perfect a throw like that."

Coitilia eased up on her headlock, releasing one of Tharin’s arms. "I am a lethally quick study. Just ask the Matron."

Tharin grinned, prying his other arm loose. He decided he wasn’t tired after all.



© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 02:00 am by Bilbo67



____________________
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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:56 am

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.
-Isaac Asimov



 


After the first few blows the frigate captain’s vision became blurry; after the next dozen or so his memory began to lapse; within half an hour he had lost most of his blood. What was left looked far from human. A puffy, purple mass of swollen flesh, dangerously close to sloughing off the bone, clung to the front of his skull. His left eye socket, hollow but for some discolored slime and a stringy incised nerve, appeared as little more than a pockmark amid the mound of throbbing sinew. His scalp was gone, as were his cheeks and the flesh around his mandible, exposing a thoroughly battered jawbone and the few teeth that weren’t strewn about the ground.

The captain coughed up a magnum of blood, welling up what breath he could with a lacerated diaphragm and convulsing as he forced a modicum of air into a pair of lungs that had been perforated by a dozen broken ribs. The blood bubbled as it mixed with saliva from a shredded tongue and discolored mucus that dripped from a deep indentation in the middle of his face—all that remained of a nose. The concoction spattered on the floor, becoming one with the heavy stream of blood free flowing from the incision between his legs.

He twitched, attempting to elicit mobility from any of his four shattered limbs. He dimly perceived something moving. His head recoiled as the tip of a boot struck his good eye. There was a pop, and the lights went out as a fresh glob of warm goop seeped down his face.

"The arch-heretic Tharin was here. Where did he go?"

The captain coughed up a fresh wad of phlegm along with what may or may not have qualified as human speech.

"You are of no further use to me." For the first time in half an hour the man in the shredded black bodysuit said something else. From the time he stepped through the docking terminal, corralled the crew and began working them over, first with his fists, then with his blade, he had uttered the same question about the arch-heretic Tharin at least two dozen times. Thus far, their answers had yielded little more than pain, followed by more questions, followed by pain, followed by more questions…

There was a screech, and the captain breathed a sigh of gratitude as his heart burst.

Thorin retracted his brace, splattering another stream of fresh blood across his thoroughly crimsoned face. He grasped a pant leg and casually slung the captain’s carcass in the nearest corner alongside two nearly identical lumps of bloated, pulverized meat. Three down, four to go.

The remaining crewmembers sat hunched against the wall, quivering, bawling, and bleeding profusely from eight mutilated heels…eight severed tendons…a thorough inquisitor’s safeguard against escape attempts. Thorin approached the waning mass of urine reeking horror and confusion for the fourth time.

"The arch-heretic Tharin was here. Where did he go?


#


Tharin awoke stiff as a month old corpse, his right calf throbbing. This is no way to live, he thought to himself as he rolled off the straw mattress and clumsily collected himself. How can she put up with this?

He eyed Coitilia. She hadn’t budged since dropping off five hours prior. She always fell asleep long before he did. Dehumanizing as it was, being reared in the Wife Bank had a handful of upshots, the most practical being learned ability to fall asleep at will…literally on command. Yep, he nodded, ruminating on his previous assessment, definitely a model soldier. Despite having been indoctrinated from an early age with the notion that sleep was a privilege, and every second of allotted sack time should be cherished, it had always taken Tharin half an hour or more to fall asleep, even going on a decade removed from active duty. Even now something about leaving himself that open, that vulnerable, lingered uneasily in the back of his mind, impeding his slumber.

Tharin combed the ground for his boots and something sharp jabbed his lower leg. These straw mattresses have got to go, he thought to himself. As soon as our cotton crop starts yielding I’m setting fire to these fucking things.

Coitilia didn’t stir as Tharin slid his boots over his bare feet. He stood up and started outside, popping his back, knees, neck, and shoulders as he crossed through the den and out the front door.

The nighttime air was cool, a welcome departure from the past week’s heat wave. Coupled with the humidity, the air had become increasingly cumbersome—there were days when it felt thick enough to chew. Tharin stepped onto the porch, drew some water from the spigot, and splashed it on his face.

"Take a lot more than that to make you smell good again."

Tharin chuckled as he eyed Breel, reclining on a makeshift bench puffing a pipe.

"That’s twice I’ve snuck up on you now. So much for aging gracefully."

"You talk big. I knew you were there the whole time," Tharin lied. "And don’t give me that old man shit. I’m in my prime." Another lie. He applied a second coat of water to his face and took a seat beside his friend.

"Here you go," Breel offered Tharin a flask. Where did he keep getting those damn things? Tharin waved it off.

"No thanks. The sun won’t be up for two more hours, I don’t need to feel perky."

"Oh it’s not Pick-Me-Up. No, this is a little something else I’ve been working on. Try it."

"Breel…tsk tsk tsk," Tharin raised his eyebrows, feigning admonishment. "You disappoint me. I thought you were too well trained to imbibe."

Breel slung his feet over the rickety porch fence that Tharin had already resolved to fix at least a hundred times. "Yeah, well the Principles of Perfection are a fine idea." He took a hit from the flask. "In moderation." Tharin couldn’t help but smile as Breel slid him the flask.

"I’ll drink to that." He raised the flask, stopping short before touching it to his lips. "If this makes me go blind, you’ll be throttled in short order."

"I’m shaking."

Tharin tipped his head back, swallowing a jigger of cool, semi-syrupy liquid. It was some sort of sweet mash liquor, like fruit juice crossed with sugar water crossed with the combustible homemade spirits Thorin would always cook up in his basement. He could feel it taking effect immediately.

"Like it?"

"Well I sure don’t hate it," Tharin smiled. From this day forth his customary plumb wine just wasn’t going to cut it. "Where do you keep coming up with this stuff?"

"Ah, ah, ah…my secret."

"Nice night." Tharin took another nip and handed the flask back to Breel. If he wouldn’t cough up his secrets, they may as well change the subject.

Breel nodded. "How’s the leg?"

"Fine…so long as I don’t think about it. We’ll see how that changes when winter rolls around. If they even have winter on this rock."

"Maybe by then we’ll have that generator up and running." Breel motioned toward an oversized cobalt tank adjacent to the barn.

Tharin stood up and hit the spigot, dampening his face a third and fourth time. "Hard to believe they were able to construct a kraalyon generator out here. Our best weapons techies couldn’t even come close."

Breel nodded, relighting his pipe. "Industrious little buggers."


#


Thorin had no way of deciphering the alien runes that adorned so many of the structures in the eastern quadrant of the village (what the sixth terrified frigate operator had referred to as the "business district"). So he relied on aesthetics, deducing that the Magistrate’s chambers must be in the largest, most gaudily adorned building. Drawing on his dim recollection of His Shadow’s temple, he opted to investigate a colossal trapezoidal pyramid.

The structure was black, fashioned perhaps from a single titanic hunk of obsidian that caught the sun’s rays like a mirror. At seven stories it dwarfed the surrounding structures. A sweet, dry odor Thorin failed to recognize as incense wafted from innumerable small clefts along the pyramid’s base, driving back the smell of fish and carbonic exhaust that clung to the rest of the town. There was no entrance, merely a hollowed out wall that gave way to an open-air antechamber.

Thorin passed under a low wooden arch that was shoddily nailed to two vertical wooden beams. A lone sentry, who appeared to be in the midst of a two front battle with drowsiness and boredom, slowly raised his pike, tapping Thorin’s chest.

"An jes where do yeh think year goin’ dressed like that?"

Thorin cast a nonchalant glance at the pike. "I seek an audience with the Housing Magistrate."

The guard lowered his pike, tittering and rolling his eyes as he playfully slapped Thorin on the buttocks. "Well yeh muss be lost," he said between muffled guffaws. "‘Tainno magystate aroun ‘er. Thish ‘er’s the govner’s harem." He grinned, motioning toward an oversized bas relif of a zaftig, big-lipped woman clad, like Thorin, in little more than a few strips of cloth. "Them honches year lookin’ fer are in session. ’s that crapshack down the road yeh want."

"Thank you." Thorin started off.

"Year no’ from aroun’ here," the guard said.

"No."

"‘Sit bedniss ‘er pleasure what bring yeh here?"

"Assassination." Thorin rounded the corner and disappeared.


#


The generator was old, bordering on ancient. It had been easy enough to ignore during the first few weeks of settling in. For all Tharin knew, at first glance, it was nothing more than some rusted out piece of agricultural equipment about which he knew nothing. The family got on fine without it, it contributed nothing of note to their living accommodations…it was a space filler. Nothing more. A visually appalling space filler.

Leave it to Breel—good old dependable-even-when-it-was-uncalled-for-Breel—to go poking around and discover that, junk though it may have been, it was a most intriguing, most unusual piece of junk.

Tharin marveled at the master-panel—what little was left of it. It hardly mattered that most of the runes had worn away, as he had no idea what any of the switches or actuators did. Thin patches of cracked orange rust clung to the cobalt shell, the rest of which had been thoroughly coated with moss decades, perhaps centuries before. Tharin strained as he attempted to scrape it off with a stick. The first two go-arounds were fruitless; on the third try the stick broke.

"Well," Breel said, "what say you?"

"I don’t even know where to start."

"So much for the Dark Zone being uncultured. Guess I’ll have to take back all that stuff I’ve said about them over the years. Well, some of it."

"It’s cold," Tharin put the back of his hand to the metal. "The kraalyon is supercooled, kept in stasis somehow. Can’t say I know much about it, but I remember the engineering geeks talking about how powerful this stuff is. See those main lines?"

Breel observed several easily ignorable tubes running from the generator into the ground.

"Those run all the way back to the city. Two or three of these things could power the whole town. I imagine at one time they did."

"Sounds like a moneymaker," Breel said. "So why the hell is it way out here?"

"Insurance."

"Come again?"

Tharin raised his eyebrows. Breel was going to love this. "Kraalyon is insanely unstable."

Breel froze, agape. "Define ‘insanely.’"

Tharin grinned as he casually rattled off his definition. "Let’s see…heat of a dozen suns, blast wave that could shred a—"

"Woah, woah, woah, you mean this thing could blow? That we’re shacked up next to a damn bomb? Tharin have you lost your—"

"Only if it’s misused." Tharin chuckled as Breel extinguished his pipe. "Don’t worry. You’d have to hit this thing pretty hard to do any real damage."

"We’ll I’ll certainly sleep better knowing that."


#


"State your business."

The doorman at the Magistrate’s chamber fingered his caster as Thorin rounded the corner. Rarely did anyone simply march right up to the door…bad form indeed.

"I seek an audience with the Magistrate."

"Yeah," the guard chortled, "you and every other down-on-his-luck pisshead. Get lo-"

Thorin never broke stride, never even slowed down. He grasped the guard’s lower jaw and snapped his neck with a flick of his wrist, continuing unabated through the wooden double door.

There was little in the way of a hallway. The door simply gave way to a spacious wooden chasm in which two-dozen people, the bulk of them old men, were seated around a mountain of dusty old parchments under which a table may have been buried. Thorin could tell right away that they had been in session for some time…the musky cloud of body odor told that tale. One of the old men sat up briskly, his papers fluttering in every direction.

"This is a closed session," he cast a disparaging finger at Thorin. "Seize him."

Two guards, identical in appearance to the one he’d already dispatched, advanced on Thorin. The first of them reached for his shoulder and Thorin’s right arm became a blur. His blade sliced indifferently through skin and bone, and before the guard could register surprise at the loss of his hand the side of his neck exploded, a bright red geyser spewing its contents about the wall. The second guard reared back and fired a punch at Thorin’s face. Thorin sidestepped the blow and countered with an open-handed chop to the back of his neck. The guard’s spine shattered and he fell, twitching only once.

The councilors, unmoved by Thorin’s display of force, served up the full range of bureaucratic inquiries: Who are you? What do you want? Where did you come from? What is the meaning of this? Do you have an appointment?

Thorin raised his brace. Time was in short supply. "I seek the arch-heretic Tharin." Silence. "He has been here. You will tell me where he is."

A sandy-headed man in an orange smock stepped forward. He looked his would-be attacker over, giving no thought to the brace and even less thought to the two dead guards.

"Say…you look familiar. Have we met before?"

Thorin trained his brace on the man’s chest. "No."

"I could swear I’ve seen you before."

"You have not seen me before," Thorin said. "You will tell me where the arch-heretic Tharin may be located."

"Tharin…Tharin…" The man bit his lip, stroking the dust from his hair. "I’m so bad with names. Could very well have been a dozen Tharin’s came through here in the last month and I’d be hard pressed to remember. But faces…" he took a step forward and inspected Thorin’s features, "well I never forget a face. If you’d be willing to point that gut-cutter in another direction…perhaps we can have a chat."


#


Thorin boarded the midsize transport the Magistrate had furnished him with. He found that his job was much easier when those he encountered cooperated with him.


#


Tharin slept peacefully through a windstorm; six hours of unobstructed slumber following a mind-numbingly slow hour of chewing on his lip to fight back the pain in his lower back brought on by a lump in the ripe-for-the-bonfire straw mattress. As soon as his eyes opened the pain had at him.

He glanced over his shoulder at an unkempt pile of periodically rising and falling bedding. At some point during the night the children had laid their blankets out on the floor and set up camp, undoubtedly seeking solace after being spooked by the wind. He nodded, envying them for the hardwood floor they slept on. They’ve got the right idea, he thought to himself, simultaneously pondering why he hadn’t thought of abandoning the bed in favor of the floor weeks earlier.

Tharin grunted. He wanted to pop his neck, but his right arm was numb. Coitilia had fallen asleep in his embrace. Seven hours down the road and she was still in his arms, her head nestled on his shoulder.

Tharin smiled as he attempted to ball up his right fist. It tingled, but despite his best effort his fingers barely moved. He lay back down, thumping his head against the wall to his own amusement. His thoughts drifted back to trenches, shuttle alcoves, and any of the myriads of cramped, unpleasant spaces he had been forced to bed down in. On more than one occasion he had found it necessary to huddle—practically spoon—with up to half a dozen of his shipmates. Tharin meditated on many a cold, unpleasant night, reasoning that it was a damn good thing he never lovingly cradled any of his comrades, as a non-functioning right arm was a surefire harbinger of disaster in battle.

As Tharin gently struggled to free himself a faint vibration shook the room. The smaller of the two lumps on the floor briefly stirred, never really waking up. Tharin glanced out the window. The sun was only just beginning to creep over a cloudless horizon. The storm had passed.

The vibration intensified, giving way to a faint but steady hum. Coitilia sat up and Tharin gratefully snatched his arm away.

"What’s that noise?"

"Sounds like…" Tharin listened closely as the humming became a low drone, "sounds like an engine. A ship."

"A ship?" She yawned through her words. "Somebody from town maybe?"

"I don’t know. Maybe we’re getting new neighbors." Tharin cracked a half smile. "There go my midnight swims in the nude."

Coitilia playfully slapped Tharin’s chest, kissing a jagged scar on his bestubbled cheek. "I’ll go see who it is." She sat up.

"No, no," Tharin sat up quicker, "I’ll go." He stepped into his boots.

"Are you sure?" Coitilia yawned again.

"I’m already up." He slung a shirt on with his semi-functioning right arm. "Besides, I was planning to repair the porch fence this morning."

"Ha!" Coitilia grinned. "You’ve been saying that since we got here," she whispered.

Tharin leaned over the bed and kissed her, making certain not to step on the children. "This time I mean it."

"The things I mean to do to you if you’re lying," she said as Tharin started for the door.

Tharin chuckled to himself as he made up his mind to prolong the job another day and face the consequences.


#


The tiny craft was nearly lost in the half-risen red sun. Tharin doused his head in the trough under the spigot, shivering as he thoroughly saturated his hair. Now he was awake. He recognized the craft as a terrestrial jumper the likes of which he had seen in town. The droning subsided as it touched down near the barn.

Tharin hailed the ship. "A fine wakeup call!" No response. "Don’t tell me the committee has more papers for us to sign!" No response.

The engine died and the anterior hatch dropped. Tharin reclined against the increasingly wobbly porch fence, opting to let his company come to him. A lone figure emerged, little more than a shadow backlit by a gleaming red halo. Its stride was steady, deliberate. Tharin’s muscles tensed as an inexplicable uneasiness gripped him. Something inside told him that he should already be running.

A gust of wind hit the silhouette as it stepped off the hatch. A wild tuft of shoulder length hair fluttered every which way as Thorin stepped into the light, a collage of black, white, and purple—his pale skin draped in little more than grungy black rags, his hands…his arms…his entire upper body stained with dried blood. His triangular chitin blade glistened as he advanced.

No.

Tharin froze. He was dreaming. He had to be…this had to be a fucking nightmare. Thorin was dead! Dead for all time and free from bondage. It was over. That part of Tharin’s life was behind him. He had moved on. This wasn’t possible…it wasn’t fair.

"No…" Tharin exhaled as tears welled up in his eyes. He remained hopelessly frozen as Thorin strode toward the house. "No…"

There was a creak, and the porch fence gave way. Tharin hit hard on his backside, the blow knocking him back to reality. He scuttled toward the door on all fours.

"Coitilia!" He didn’t so much yell as vomit out his words. "Coitilia! Breel!" Tharin leapt to his feet and made a break for his bedroom. "Coitilia!" The children were already screaming when he stormed into the room. "Coitilia get the kids!"

Coitilia sprang out of bed. "What is it?"

"Tharin!" Breel charged around the corner, half dressed. "Tharin what’s going on?"

"Grab the kids, get the shuttle!"

"What’s goin-"

"JUST GET TO THE FUCKING SHUTTLE!"

Coitilia didn’t even bother putting her shoes on. She snatched up Thadin as Tharin grasped Thindolin.

"What’s happening?" Thadin shouted.

"We have to leave," Tharin said.

"What?" Breel started.

"Breel we’re leaving! Now! That’s an order!"

Children in tow they made a break for the rear of the house. Tharin kicked the back door off its hinges and the five of them spilled out into the backyard, quickly converging on the belowground hangar in which Breel had stowed his shuttle.

Coitilia twisted her ankle and went down. She hit hard on her side and Thadin screamed. Tharin grasped the both of them in one arm as he eyed Thorin in the distance. He was almost to the house, his stride unwavering.

"Come on!"

They reached the hangar and Tharin sat Thindolin down. He picked up a slip rod and rammed it into the primary lock, throwing the switch. Breel was in the hangar as soon as the overhead hatch began sliding open and had the shuttle powered up by the time the all-clear beacon flashed. He engaged the primary thrusters and the shuttle rose to ground level, its lower hatch already hanging open.

"Get in!" Tharin heaved the children through the hatch. "You too, get in!"

Coitilia grasped the handrail and pulled herself into the underbelly of the shuttle. Tharin glanced back at the house. Something was moving inside.

"Come on my love!" Coitilia screamed over the roar of the engine.

Tharin touched the handrail and froze, knuckles bloodless as he clutched the rod, his face flushed and streaming with tears.

"My love, get in!"

Queasiness overtook him. He broke out in a cold sweat, tasting vomit on the back of his tongue as his body began to tremble, feeling both cold and hot at the same time. Sweat begot blood as a capillary below his eye burst. A single crimson tear trickled down his cheek.

"No…" he mouthed.

"Come on!"

"No." Louder. This time she heard him.

"What? What are you doing love, get in!"

"I have to stay. Go on without me."

Coitilia shook her head in disbelief. "What are you talking about, you have to come with us!"

Tharin could no longer hold back his tears. "I have to stay. You have to go, the children need you!"

"You can’t stay!" She threw herself at him. "I need you…I need you!"

Tharin caressed Coitilia’s hand; his bloodshot stare peering through her confused visage. They embraced. He held her tightly.

"I…I have to stay. If you…" He shivered and nearly fainted. "If you understand love," he whispered, "you’ll understand why I have to stay."

"…love…" she pulled him closer, nearly cutting off his circulation. Love. She swallowed what felt like a lump of iron as she ruminated on the word. Love. In her moment of weakness the Matron resurfaced…

"What is love you may wonder? Love manifests itself in many ways. Silence, obedience, temperance, and in its rawest form, complete detachment from the wanton desires of the self…

"…in short, true love is understanding and accepting your place—"

She gritted her teeth.

"The hell it is," she whispered as another image overwhelmed the face of her artificial mother. The image solidified into a form she knew almost as well as her own…

Breel.

Breel and everyone like him.

Tharin’s words became her world as clarity gripped her like his warm embrace.

Breel…Breel and everyone like him. Everyone he felt he owed. Everyone for whom he risked pain, torture…death (or worse). Everyone…for whom he was willing to sacrifice.

Sacrifice…to put others before yourself…not because you have to…not because you’ve been conditioned to. But because you choose to.

Choice.

Sacrifice.

She nodded. She understood.

Tharin pulled her closer, his fingers numb. "Tell…Thadin…" The words were sporadic, little more than grunts lost amid a storm of sobs and labored breaths. "Promise me you’ll…tell Thadin…about my scars." He released his grip and grasped the back of Coitilia’s head. He touched her forehead to his. "I love you. I have always loved you. And I will always love you." They kissed. Tears flowed forth from two pairs of eyes, seeped down two sets of cheeks, met at two lips, and became one.

Tharin stepped away from the shuttle.

"Now go! Go!"

The hatch closed. Tharin exchanged a knowing look with Breel as he peered through the cockpit glass. There was a roar, a rush of hot air, and the shuttle was gone.

Tharin sobbed as the dust settled. "No…no…there was time…there was time…" He turned as Thorin emerged from the back door, his brace readied. "Damn you Thorin! There was time now! There was time! Damn you, you bastard!"

Thorin loosed his blade. So swift was his quarry’s reaction that he nearly lost sight of him. Tharin broke hard to the right and the brace sailed overhead. He clutched the slip rod and charged, bringing it down across his brother’s face with force sufficient to behead a normal man. There was a hollow thud as the metal vibrated in his hand. Thorin brushed off the blow and returned with one of his own, slamming the middle knuckles of his left hand into Tharin’s cheek.

Tharin hit the ground and the world became cloudy, hazy. Streaks of pink and blue danced across the sky and suddenly there was not one Thorin, but three. He instinctively found his feet and took another potentially fatal swing, hitting nothing but air. Thorin answered again. Every last molecule of air was wrenched from Tharin’s being as he felt his ribs crunch. He hit the ground and coughed up blood.

"There…" he took a strained breath and hacked up another wad of reddened mucus, "was time." He gathered what strength he had left and sprang to his feet one last time. He clutched the rod in both hands and drove for Thorin’s neck. Thorin put a hand up, stopping his momentum cold. He snapped the rod in two and buried the jagged end in Tharin’s abdomen in one deft motion.

Tharin blacked out. It couldn’t have been for more than a second. He came to on his knees, a cold, heavy sensation weighing down his lower body. He grasped the rod, acting once again on instinct, and wrenched it from his gut, splattering a heap of black blood on the ground. The rod had pierced his liver; he would be dead in a matter of minutes. That aside, Tharin was amazed at how little it hurt.

"There…wa…" Tharin coughed up another wad of blood, a fresh stream of black oozing from his ruptured abdomen as the muscles contracted. It was all over. The job was done. In a few seconds he, the arch-heretic Tharin of Ostral-B, would be dead. His task complete, Thorin would start back home.

Home
…The Cluster…that hateful rock where his master, the one, by rights, to whose will Tharin should have been bending, waited with open arms to resume leeching off of his humanity for all time. Thorin would return home to a cold, timeless purgatory, only to be sent forth to cut down other innocents, to destroy other families again and again and again until the end of time. This wasn’t meant for him. Thorin deserved better. Damned if Tharin would cross over before ensuring he got it.

"NO!"

The power came from somewhere outside…somewhere beyond reason. Raw hatred gave it life, but it was nurtured by memories past…fortified by love. Love for a brother whose uncontested zest for life served as a shining, unattainable standard for all those throughout the Two Universes who dared to call themselves free; love for a friend, whose compassion and commitment to his fellow man served as the catalyst for a lifetime of selfless sacrifice; love for a woman, with whom he had shared the wonders of revitalizing a long-suppressed humanity; and love for his children…wide-eyed, innocent, pure…everything worth dying for in this or any other universe.

Love fused his fingers into a fist. Imbued his legs with the strength to stand, and the whole of his being with the power to deliver one final blow…his last statement to the Divine Order.

Tharin’s fist struck Thorin’s forehead. His knuckles exploded, his forearm shattered. Thorin’s head whipped backwards and he went down. His body hit the ground as Tharin took to his feet.

He broke for the barn, hobbling on near useless legs as he gasped for breath that wasn’t there. His right arm hung limp at his side, shards of pulverized bone tearing through the ragged flesh with every step he took. Twenty meters from the barn he collapsed, spewing forth another wad of phlegm and blood. Thorin was in pursuit, brace raised, eyes little more than sunken black pores. It wasn’t over. Not yet!

Tharin took to his feet a second time, consciously unaware of the pumping of his legs, only dimly perceiving the howl of the air as it rushed past him. As he neared the barn he broke off course, acting once again on pure instinct. His eyes, blurred near uselessness, trained themselves on a single, bulbous black figure. Tharin made a break for it and finally collapsed in the shadow of the kraalyon generator.

Thorin strode toward the generator, his blade ever ready. Tharin, clinging to consciousness through no fault of his own, sat slumped against the cool, rusty mass of metal.

"Tha…" he coughed, "that’s it Thorin. I’m through." He willed himself to his feet. "I’m not gonna die running from you. Like I said before…my terms…not His Shadow’s." He propped himself against the tank, locking eyes with Thorin. "I’m ready. Put ‘er there…brother."

There was a familiar screech as Thorin discharged his brace. Tharin collapsed. He felt a rush of wind as the blade sailed overhead. He hit the ground smiling as the glistening triangular disk tore through the cobalt.

…a white light…and all was nothing…

A ferocious shockwave leveled the homestead as the heat of a dozen suns consumed the land.


#









#



It saw. It could not move.

It remembered the light and little else.

Sky clear…cloudless. A cool breeze.





A low rumble… the droning of an engine… a ship
.



Footsteps… approaching.

…shadow…slender…nearly lost in the sun…

"You have outlived your usefulness." Voice…feminine…firm …authoritative…carrying with it a hint of sinister satisfaction.

Something sharp.

For the first time…ever…it came to know Pain.

"I kill you in the name of His Shadow."


© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 02:03 am by Bilbo67



____________________
If you're normal, the crowd will accept you. But if you're deranged, the crowd will make you their leader.
— Christopher Titus
Bilbo67
Heretic


Joined: Fri Oct 27th, 2006
Location: The Daisy Hill Cluster Lizard Farm
Posts: 475
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Mana: 
 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 12:57 am

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EPILOGUE

asato ma sad gamaya tamaso ma jyotir gamaya mrtyor mamrtam gamaya
-Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28




 


Tharin opened his eyes slowly. Opened them on nothing. He felt nothing, save his throbbing temples; throbbing that transcended what any well-rounded person would classify as a "headache"—this was misery the likes of which he was utterly ignorant. Daggers…great fiery daggers sharpened to a precision point threatened to erupt from either side of his skull.


A budding cool sensation on his cheek partially offset the discomfort in his cranium. He was someplace damp—no that wasn’t quite it. Moist. Moist was a better word. Some inordinately hydrated place. He clenched his fists (a feat that required three attempts before he was able to feel his hands) and felt the ground squish between his fingers in great, slimy clumps. Perhaps it had just rained…

…or was raining still. A gust of air caressed his back and he shivered, the sharp, unexpected chill awakening his sense of touch. He was wet—soaked. He attempted to speak, eliciting only a low moan as his vocal cords scrambled to catch up with the rest of his senses.

He blinked once, twice, thrice. Finally, after losing count of how many times he opened and closed his eyes, the darkness began to subside, giving way to a dim white mist that gradually solidified as the shroud was lifted. His olfactory gland perked up, and stale air begot a pungent, salty aroma. Familiar…almost. Next to fall in line with the rest of the whole were his ears. Dread silence gave way to a distant rumble, the rumble an explosion as his body took flight.

Weightless, he found his powers of speech restored. Acting without thought he screamed for help, only to have his words snuffed out in their infancy as his lungs filled with water.

He hit solid ground and retched, heaving a good deal of the fluid up through his trachea as his eyes finally caught up with the rest of his body. He was facedown in some kind of sediment, totally immersed in saltwater. He clawed at the ground, kicking up great clouds of dirt as he thoughtlessly gasped for another non-existent breath. Fear turned to panic, panic to terror, terror to…

…another great rush and at once he could breath again. The water subsided and Tharin found himself as he had been when he awoke: lying prone in some putrid, brackish sludge.

He coughed spastically; hacking up what remnants of the vile goop remained in his lungs. When he could breath again he rolled over on his back, arms akimbo as he gasped and opened his confused-but-too-busy-being-thankful-to-be-alive-to-register-said-confusion eyes on a lush blue sky, not a wisp of clouds to be seen.

He closed his eyes again. The sun, a sun, draped him with a soothing cloak of warmth. Within what couldn’t have been more than five minutes its rays began sapping the moisture that clung to his clothes.



#


Tharin sat up sharply as a wave crashed, the incoming tide drenching his lower legs. How long had he been asleep? Had he been asleep? He couldn’t recall nodding off, but his clothes were dry and his joints stiff. He glanced at his bare arms, finding not a trace of the darkened pigmentation normally associated with sleeping in unfiltered sunlight for the two hours it would take to dry out a double-thick tunic…

…double-thick tunic? Tharin looked down at his chest and beheld an intricate collage of fabulously ancient tribal markings amidst a brilliant kaleidoscope of sea green, lavender, blood red—the formal garb of Ostral-A. Never in his life had he owned such clothing…clothing reserved (tailor made in fact) for minute enclaves of long-forgotten dignitaries.

Hesitant, he dusted the sand from his chest with his hand…his right hand. Tharin froze. He held his right hand in front of his face, wiggled his fingers, extended and contracted his elbow joint—performed the full range of motion one would expect from a healthy limb. Nothing out of the ordinary…so why did it seem so wrong?

He pulled back his tunic and looked his arm over. Milky white, unblemished, hands thinly lined as if fresh from the womb. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t right at all. He had…

He had…

What?

His mind was scrambled; his thoughts a garbled, half-received transmission composed of broken fragments of old and new, true and false, familiar and alien. He sensed something wrong, something deathly unnatural which he was at a loss to so much as categorize, let alone understand.

Another wave crashed, and for the first time since opening his eyes Tharin cast his gaze on the sea that had very nearly been his undoing. Perhaps, he thought to himself, inhaling such a copious quantity of seawater was the catalyst for these sudden onset memory lapses. Certainly the accompanying headache could strengthen such a theory.

Perhaps, he mused further as he traced the faint horizon with his eyes, attempting to pinpoint the astronomically far off location at which two conflicting shades of blue merged, this is what it’s like to be fall-down drunk.

"Rise and shine Tharin."

The voice was coming from behind him. Tharin sprang to his feet without thought, combing the beach with his eyes. Instinct took charge, priming him to fight or flee on command…but something deeper made him hesitate. Something deeper wanted more. Demanded answers.

"Who’s there?" Tharin said, his voice hoarse, his pulse thumping. "Who’s there, answer me."

"Over here."

To his left, where less than a second before his mind had assured him there was nothing but sand, Tharin beheld a man, statuesque, standing aloof with his hands crossed at the waist.

"It’s about time you stopped lounging. I’ve got a full schedule today and I can’t very well waste all of my time on you."

White hair. It was the first thing Tharin noticed: a close-cropped coif of thin white hair. The man to which the hair was affixed was tall, ruggedly handsome, and, top of his head notwithstanding, of an indeterminate age. He wore a half-smirk, projecting what Tharin privately dubbed "cheerful sadism." His eyes were inviting, but shady, betraying an intangible that left Tharin ill at ease when they locked on to his own. A wisp of wind ruffled a knee-length overcoat that complemented his attire; what looked to be some sort of bizarre formal wear: a puffed shirt, double-thick black trousers, and thigh high jackboots. Two pieces of jewelry rounded out the ensemble; a crystal vial dangling at his breast from a gold chain, and a thin metal hoop in his lower lip. It was the kind of getup that a playful chief elder of the Reformation might wear…if such an anomaly actually existed. Whoever he was, he looked important…important enough to constantly remind everyone he met of his importance.

A mockery, Tharin decided. He looks like a sinister mockery.

"Who are you?"

The mockery uncrossed his hands. "Someone who has been expecting you. You know you shouldn’t keep your host waiting like that. Bad form. Not like you at all Tharin."

"How do you know my name?"

"I know because I know. Because it is my job to know. I think you’ll find there’s very little about you that I don’t know."

"What is this place? How did I get here?"

The mockery took a few steps toward Tharin, his coat trailing as it danced in the breeze. "So many questions. So eager to learn and yet so very demanding. That’s not like you either." He took two more steps. Tharin inched away.

"You stay away from me."

He advanced unabated.

"I’m warning you, don’t come any closer." Again acting on impulse, Tharin took a fighting stance.

"Go ahead," the mockery said, sticking out his chin. "Hit me with your best shot."

Tharin locked on to White-Hair’s temple. With customary swiftness—no more than a tenth of a second—his knuckles found…nothing. Gone was the familiar bone-on-bone crunch, its place in the series of events supplanted by a whoosh of air as Tharin’s momentum carried him off his feet and deposited him face first in the sand.

He sat up, fists still clenched, cursing as he spit up sand and attempted to get his bearings.

"Over here Tharin."

He was behind him—but how? Nothing was capable of moving that fast.

"Violent, irrational, quick to anger when things don’t go his way. Now that’s the Tharin we all know and love."

Tharin put his fists down. "How did you do that?"

White-Hair shrugged his shoulders, advancing on Tharin in a markedly less menacing way. "No different from that spit-shined right cross you threw. I learned it. That is to say I must have learned it at some point, although the truth is I don’t know for certain. You see for as much as I know, there are a great many things I do not know."

"Who the hell are you?"

"Who…the hell…" White-Hair cracked a smile as he lingered over the word hell.

"Alright…well do you at least have a name?"

"Indeed I do. More than I’d care to count. I’ve been called many things, by a good many people, but those who know me best call me Prince."

"Prince?"

White-Hair nodded.

"Prince what?"

"Just Prince. Easier to remember that way."

"All right…Prince," Tharin surveyed the surrounding terrain, attempting to locate something other than endless water and boundless sand, "where are we?"

"On a beach," Prince said.

"No shit. I mean what is this place? How the hell did I get here?"

"As I just said," Prince calmly retorted, "this is a beach. And you are here because you have made it possible for yourself to be here."

Another non-answer. Tharin flew into a rage. "Alright, listen…whatever the hell your name is—"

"Prince."

"I don’t give a shit! I want answers and I want them now!"

Prince tittered as he turned his back to Tharin. "I admire your moxie. Rest assured, there will be answers in time. As many or as few as you wish to furnish."

The wind caught Prince’s overcoat again as Tharin gaped in slack-jawed disbelief at this walking repository of nonsense.

"You’re insane."

Prince said nothing.

"Why am I wasting my time talking to a madman?"

"Do you want me to go away?" Prince asked.

"Yes." Tharin said, tempted to add something to the degree of do you even have to ask?

"Well why didn’t you say so? All you have to do is ask. Cheery bye." He winked, held his arms overhead, and in a flash of bright orange, White-Hair was gone.

Tharin’s jaw, belying convention, dropped further, hovering in the vicinity of his chest as his incredulous eyes gawked in awe at the nothingness into which the man who called himself Prince had vanished. He cautiously scanned the beach, just as he had before, moving only his eyes at first, then his neck, and finally his entire body. Same as before; nothing but brown and blue, blue and brown.

This is another one of that madman’s tricks, Tharin declared to himself. Just a trick. Another way of toying with him. It had to be. Any second now Prince would tap on his shoulder and pop off with another eloquently meaningless quip.

"That’s a nice trick!" Tharin shouted. His voice fell flat, no echo. He gazed skyward, finding the heavens as he had before: blue, clear, and serene…and utterly lacking a source of illumination. Where was the sun?

"Prince!" No answer. "Prince!" His voice once again failed to carry.



#


Tharin stumbled, nearly losing himself. His temples pounded as all around him the world seemed to expand and contract, contract and expand. His eyes, softened by countless hours of neglect, during which time he relied solely on the rhythmic crashing of the surf to guide him, pulsated as they absorbed broken flashes of dusky-hued nothingness.

For an hour he had tried, in vain, to get his bearings. Finding his efforts both fruitless and pointless, he had resolved to do some exploring along the coastline. That decision came easy…the decision to go left instead of right, however, required an additional hour of consideration.

Three hours into his trek he had loosened his tunic. After six hours he abandoned it. By hour ten Tharin was down to cropped shorts and boots. It was shortly thereafter that his internal chronometer ceased to function and time became irrelevant. Each step he took produced more sand, wrenching him further and further from one horizon while failing to bring him any closer to the one he sought. He was going nowhere; that was all he knew, and all he needed to know.



#


The concept of time was lost on Tharin. An hour may have been a second, a second may have been a day. Nothing…just words. Words that bore no significance to a mind whose reasoning abilities had been dried up by the omnipresent heat of a phantom sun.

He probed the inside of his mouth with a cracked tongue, tasting something rancid. Had he vomited? Or was he lapping up the tiny traces of seawater still clinging to his palate? He didn’t know, and it didn’t matter.

His head drooped forward, straining a neck that had grown tearfully weary of supporting its weight. His remaining equilibrium shattered, his knees buckled and he hit the sand.

"P…P…ince…" He took a hot, labored breath, squinting as the world went dark. Stayed dark. "Prince…"

Tharin convulsed as a shrieking pain washed over his entire body. It was hot. Hot and heavy.

"Prince." His voice grew louder as the pain intensified. His right arm fell limp. The inside of his skull swelled, the pressure pushing through the backs of his eyes.

Tharin took one last breath, like swallowing hot glass, as the heat brought his insides to a slow boil. Blood poured from his every orifice. His eyes expanded, threatening to burst as the fluid beneath his corneas simmered. His flesh cracked and popped as it sloughed off the bone.

"Prince!"

"I’m right here Tharin."



#


Tharin opened his eyes, relieved at once to be greeted by the familiar rhythm and smell of the surf. The pain was gone; his eyes and flesh intact. He balled up his right fist, once again giving it a meticulous once-over. Milky white, clad in a flowing, multicolored tunic; just as it had been before his ordeal. The tunic, he found, was intact, as though he had never torn a thread from it, let alone abandoned it hours earlier. Tharin swallowed, an exaggerated gulp, and nearly choked from surprise as a magnum of accumulated spittle slid down his throat. He ran a finger over his tongue, probing the inner reaches of his mouth, finding it bereft of cracks and, contrary to the last who-knows-how-many hours, coated with a healthy layer of saliva.

"I’m right here, there’s no need to shout."

Tharin sprang from his knees, whipping to his left to meet the last voice he thought he would ever be happy to hear. "Prince!"

Prince, seated on a small, flat rock with his legs crossed not more than two meters from Tharin, nodded.

"What the…what the hell happened?"

"I went away." He smiled. "Just like you asked. Now I’m back…just like you asked."

Tharin rubbed his eyes, brushing his hair out of a pain-free face. "How? How did you do that?"

Prince stood up. "I’ve a bit of a confession to make Tharin," he said, paying no heed to the question. "I’m not on a very tight schedule. In fact I’m not on a schedule at all. For the nonce you are the only thing that matters to me. You have my undivided attention for as long as you desire."

Tharin ran his hands over his face, arms, and crotch, double and triple checking to make sure his flesh was still where it belonged. "What do I—"

"Anything," Prince cut him off. "As I said, the floor is yours. You may ask whatever you like for as long as you like. Now, just like before, hit me with your best shot."

"Please…tell me. What is this place?" Tharin whispered.

"As I have already told you several times, this is a beach. But more specifically, it is a crossroads."

"What…crossroad?"

"It is the middle ground between two extremes. A last stop, you might say. Where you go from here depends largely on two factors, yourself being one of them."

"Factor? Me?" Tharin said, not following Prince’s words. Prince nodded. "I don’t understand. What are you talking about?"

No reply.

Tharin shook his head, sighed. "All right…so…then what is the other one? The other factor?"

"Me."

"You?"

"Correct. You see it is my job to ensure that justice is doled out to those who find their way here. Before you lay two paths, two extremes, as I said. Bliss and misery."

"What?"

"Just listen."

Tharin was already beyond frustrated with Prince’s answers, but circumstances demanded he give old White-Hair the benefit of the doubt. He eyed Prince and nodded, signaling for him to get on with it.

"In short, the choices we make dictate the lives we lead. Their consequences affect not only us, but those around us as well, thus every action serves to beget a reaction, which itself begets another reaction, and so on and so forth. Ripples on the water, if you please. Now, the results of a given choice may vary greatly—they are, in fact, infinite—however that does not detract from the heart of the matter, that being that a choice, at its most fundamental level, can only be one of two things…one of two extremes. Good or bad."

Good or bad. Prince’s words, like the surf, took on their own rhythm in Tharin’s head. Good or bad. Good or bad…

"This is some sort of trial," Tharin said in a half-declarative, half-inquisitive tone.

Prince smiled. Tharin couldn’t decide whether he was genuinely pleased by his pseudo-understanding or mocking him.

"Think of this place as a scale upon which the choices you have made will be weighed and measured. I will posit that you have made innumerable bad decisions throughout the course of your life, and thus deserve to suffer. It will be up to you to convince me otherwise."

"What? Why? Why me?" Tharin asked.

Tharin’s question seemed to blow past Prince’s ears, so he asked again, this time a little more forcefully. Prince hesitated, glancing at the ground in front of him as though he had difficulty fully comprehending Tharin’s words.

"Because that is how it’s done," he whispered. "That is how it’s always been done. And until I declare otherwise, that is how it will always be done. Now, we really should get started. Have you any final questions?"

Tharin glared at Prince, then at his own right arm. He made another fist, nodding approvingly as the muscles in his forearm contracted.

"Something about this isn’t right…something’s different. I remember…I remember something. I can feel it, but I can’t put a name to it."

"What you’re experiencing is perfectly normal. Rest assured it will all come back to you in time. Now come. Walk with me. Talk with me. Tell me a little bit about yourself."

Tharin started after him. "Like what?"

"As I said, we have all the time we could ask for. Start at the beginning."



#


I was born in the Nahmahat Province on Ostral-A. I don’t remember much about it…nothing concrete. But there are a handful of images that I’ve always carried with me…the water…the black sand…the great orange sun…

I scarcely remember my parents…their names, faces, voices…total blanks. I like to think they were good people, but I have no way of knowing anything beyond a fool’s optimism. Whoever they were…whatever kinds of people they were…I don’t envy them. I don’t envy anyone forced to make the decision that was imposed upon them. To have to make a…choice…like that…I can’t even fathom.

You see I was born during a period of martial law…the Fundaf Militia had taken power two decades before, as part of their crusade against what they called "the Overhoard." Their soldiers laid claim to all the fertile land; from there they shook down the populace at will, publicly executing those who spoke out against them and their gods.

It was after a disastrous campaign against the Divine Order that they instituted the Firstborn Tithe. The firstborn of every household, be they male or female, was to be taken, to be raised as Fundaf…to train with them and take up their mantle when they came of age.

How my parents came by their decision…it baffles me. That any parent could be made to…to choose between their children…even with the cold tip of a blade pressed to their necks…what the Fundaf did to them is beyond words. Beneath contemptible.

I won’t lie…there were times, mostly when I was younger, when I wasn’t killing agents of His Shadow. The blood these hands spilled may have splashed across the Divine Iris…but in my mind I was back on Ostral-A…cutting through the Fundaf…punishing them.

And even now, I can’t help but think…how easily…it could have been him instead of me.



#


Liberation came when I was…six? The newly revitalized Reform battalions dealt the Fundaf a string of crippling blows, exiling their remnants. I remember almost nothing of my three years among them.

By that time Ostral-A had been destroyed…scorched to nothingness by the Order, the survivors relocated to our sister world.

And so with nowhere else to turn, the Sector took us in…the male children leastways. The female orphans were shipped off to the Wife Banks; but the boys…they took care of us. Raised us…educated us…trained us. I failed at the time to see how it was any different from what the Fundaf had in mind for us. I was too immersed in hatred. Hatred for the Fundaf…hatred for the Order…hatred for anyone who would arbitrarily deprive others of life. Arbitrarily tear families apart. I didn’t care about ideals, or causes…all I wanted was to lash out.

Six years old…and already I was consumed by bloodlust…



#


"And the training was rigorous," Prince said.

Tharin nodded as they strolled just beyond the tide’s reach. "A living nightmare at times."

"Yet in time you came to appreciate it. To enjoy it."

"That’s right," Tharin said. "It took a few years for me to outgrow my petty revenge fantasies…but eventually I came to see my training for what it-" Tharin cut himself off. He wanted to say he saw the training for what it was…but he knew that wasn’t right. Moreover, he knew that Prince knew it wasn’t right. "I saw it as they wanted me to. As a means of achieving a glorious end. Of ridding the universe of tyranny."

"You embraced the Glorious Cause, such as you came to know it," Prince said.

Tharin nodded.

"You wished to vanquish evil. As you put it, to strike a blow against the kinds of entities that tore your family apart."

"That’s right," Tharin said.

"Then let us revisit this Glorious Cause. Let us see just how one hones his body and mind for such a pious undertaking."

Prince glanced skyward. There was a blinding flash, and at once a pulsating ring of liquid fire hung in the air. The flames cast no shadow as they heaved, writhed…seemed to come alive, flickering and dancing as the ring expanded.

"What the…"

"Just watch."

Tharin fixed his eyes on the luminescent band of flame, watched it expand to three times its original diameter as the red ate away at the clear blue. The sliver of sky the band encompassed was gone, exposing not the familiar nothingness of space, but something less…something far emptier. As Tharin’s gaze settled on the void he ceased to hear the crashing of the waves…ceased to feel the heat of the phantom sun.

And then the nothingness began to change. To take shape…a familiar shape.



#


"Tharin!"

The boy was on his feet before the Sub-Master hit on the second syllable of his name. His response was faster than before…faster than ever before…but still nowhere near what was expected of him. He was close, but close on the battlefield would not stay the blade, just as close for the Sub-Master would not stay the reed.

"Hoi Sub-Master!"

"Take your place."

"Hoi Sub-Master!"

Tharin hopped over the guardrail and proceeded onto the sparring grounds, his every movement scrutinized by eighty-eight anxious eyes.

"Dakipri!"

"Hoi Sub-Master!"

"Take your place."

"Hoi Sub-Master!"

Dakipri skirted the guardrail. He was eleven, one year Tharin’s senior. The two had sparred endlessly throughout the preceding year and a half, feeding off of each other’s tendencies, abilities, and natural shortcomings. They’d demonstrated an inherent camaraderie, both in their leisure time and on the practice floor, where was not uncommon for one to cover for the other that he might spare his friend the Sub-Master’s wrath.

Tharin exchanged a nod with his friend as he slid a pair of double-knit sparring pads over his shins.

"No pads!" the Sub-Master bellowed.

"Sub-Master?" Tharin glanced to his right, his eyes betraying confusion and foreboding.

"No pads!"

"Hoi Sub-Master!" Tharin slid the pads from his shins, Dakipri followed suit.

"To your lines!"

Their apprehension stifled by thousands of hours of repetition, the boys took their respective positions in the center of the sparring circle, looking each other over. Dakipri was a head taller and carried a slight weight advantage. He was stronger but, like the rest of his class, absolutely wanting in quickness and sheer ferocity when stacked up against Tharin.

"Three years of my life," the Sub-Master’s booming voice resonated throughout the arena. "Three years of my life I have dedicated to molding you worms into something better. Something worthy of traversing the trail blazed by your predecessors." He made a sweeping gesture with his left arm, and eighty-six eyes trained themselves on the center circle. "Dakipri and Tharin have excelled beyond even my expectations. Nothing more do I have to teach them. They are ready to face Kuudyni…they are ready to ascend to the next level."

Tharin and Dakipri shared a knowing smile.

"After tonight, one of them will."

Smiles faded. Dakipri looked at the Sub-Master, his eyes rattling off a thousand questions, while Tharin remained motionless, wishing he hadn’t heard the Sub-Master’s words…pretending he didn’t have to do what he knew to be inevitable.



#


"Engage!"

Tharin snapped back to reality a half-second too late, knowing fully that were he in the field he would likely have paid for his gaffe with his life. He recoiled, his neck whipping forward as Dakipri’s foot paintbrushed his right shoulder. The follow-up kick met nothing but air as Tharin hit the ground, driving his lower shin into Dakipri’s calf.

Dakipri hit hard and rebounded, catching Tharin’s fist as he kipped up to his feet, stopping the boy’s attempted uppercut cold. He drove his own fist into Tharin’s chest, dropping to his knee as his friend doubled over. Tharin held his ground as best he could, but could only do so much. His superior balance yielded to Dakipri’s superior strength.

Tharin was airborne. That he would hit hard, possibly breaking a rib, was inevitable. All he could hope to do was equalize the damage.

His equilibrium shifted as Dakipri’s power coupled with gravity. Tharin threw his weight to the right, nearly dislocating his hip as he ensnared Dakipri’s arm with his lower leg. He hit with a thud, locked his legs at the ankles, and drove skyward. Dakipri howled as his elbow joint crunched and the arm went limp, his screams immediately cut off as Tharin’s heel crushed his lower jaw.

Flush-faced and breathing slightly erratically, Tharin found his feet, gazing at the Sub-Master as he stood over his fallen friend. Dakipri writhed, trying in vain to suppress his tears as young blood pooled around his face.

"Hoi Sub-Master." Tharin nodded.

The Sub-Master looked on approvingly. "Finish him."

Tharin’s eyes widened. He glanced at Dakipri, saw his frightened eyes slowly rolling back into his head.

"Tharin!" the Sub-Master barked. "You have been issued an order. Now finish him!"

Dakipri closed his eyes as Tharin dropped to one knee and slowly clenched his fist. He winced only slightly, an instant before Tharin’s knuckles collided with his temple.



#


"Dakipri…" Tharin swallowed. "I’d forgotten his name."

"That was the first life you ever took," Prince said.

Tharin nodded. "I had gone through the motions a thousand times. All that practice and then…when the real thing came…"

"It wasn’t what you expected, was it?" Prince said.

"No," Tharin quickly interjected. "It was. It’s something I never really thought about until many years later. I took a life with my bare hands and it was just like before. No different from the countless hours of practice. Just…going through the motions."

"Do you think Dakipri would have felt the same had he felled you?"

Tharin shook his head. "It doesn’t matter…because he didn’t."

"No. You killed him."

"I…" Tharin’s voice nearly broke. "I didn’t have a choice."

"Of course not. Nor did Dakipri. Nor did your Over-Master, when he executed Dakipri’s family."

"What?"

"Dakipri was not an Ostral-A orphan. He had a family. A mother, and a doting father who loved him more than the air he breathed. Shortly after you ascended to the next level, word got out to them. When Dakipri’s father learned of his son’s fate he was inconsolable. Nearly took his own life in fact. In hindsight that may have been the best thing for him. But no…he demanded answers.

"You would truly admire the determination with which he stormed the gates of the training grounds. For a man with no combat experience he fought like a beast…beat one of the guards nearly to death. He had the…audacity…as your Sub-Master saw it, to demand he look him in the eye and tell him why his son had to die. When the Sub-Master attempted to have him escorted from the compound, Dakipri’s father resisted, began shouting obscenities, blaspheming the Glorious Cause. For his belligerence he was beheaded."

The color faded from Tharin’s face as his eyes fell to the sand.

"He and his wife."

"His family? Oh Tzybi…no…" Tharin weighed Prince’s words. "His family…"

"His family," Prince said. "But as you said, you didn’t have a choice. You were given an order, and the notion of disobedience was incomprehensible to you. You were told to kill, and so you killed. That was all you knew, and all you needed to know. Shall we move on?"

Tharin wanted to pretend he didn’t hear the words, but knew straightaway that Prince would see right through his façade. He sighed, evoking Tzybi’s name a second time, then cast a lingering glance at Dakipri’s image as it faded.



#


Tharin had never bled so much in his life. His palm pressed firmly against the right side of his face did little to hold back the warm, crimson deluge that was already coursing down his sleeve. The gash was deep, nearly to the bone. He couldn’t remember hitting his head, but that scarcely mattered now. He spit, splattering blood and fragments of teeth on the deck. That wound would make for one hell of a scar.

"Tharin?" A red-haired young man named Driss cried out from across the dimly lit shuttle bay. "Tharin?"

"I’m fine. I’m fine…how you holding up?"

"It…it feels cold…oh Tzybi I can smell it."

"Just hold on." Through the haze Tharin could faintly detect wisps of smoke emanating from the sticky red and black morass—all that remained of Driss’ midsection. Wave burns. Bad ones. Had they hit center mass instead of clipping his torso he would be little more than a tuft of hair and a pair of boots lying in a puddle of molten slime. As it was his wounds were critical, though not necessarily fatal—if dealt with immediately.

A thunderous concussion shook the ship, jarring Tharin from his feet. He took flight and heard Driss groan a second before he hit hard against what remained of one of the cots.

"Galek!" Tharin hawked up more blood as he clutched his com-link. "Galek we’re taking a beating up here, where are you?"

Static.

"Galek! Damn."

"Oh Tzybi," Driss moaned. "I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die. I’m gonna fucking die. I’ll never see Ostral-B again. I’m gonna—"

"Driss shut the fuck up!" Tharin shouted. "You’re not gonna die. Just bite your lip and hold on! We’re getting out of here as soon as the others get here. Just hold on!"

Another concussion, this the worst one yet, rocked the shuttle, the hull responding with an aggravated groan as it weakened

"Tharin!" The shuttle pilot—stocky, grizzled, and sporting an eye patch that had seen more combat hours than all five of the regulars he was charged with transporting put together—attempted to project his voice over the symphony of carnage and human suffering. "Tharin we’ve lost the jump thruster and we’re down to three rockets. If I don’t pull out now we’re fucked!"

"Just hold on," Tharin gritted his teeth and dizzily reset himself on his feet. "Just one more minute, they’ll be here, I know it." He squeezed the com-link. "Galek, Mordyne, Jopp, where the hell are you?"

"Thar…" Static. "…came under…" More static. "…inutes…"

"Tharin I can’t wait any longer!"

"Yes you can, keep your hands away from that thruster!"

"They can’t possibly make it in time, that swarm will cut them to meat before they get within fifty meters of this ship!"

A klaxon sounded as the ship rocked yet again.

"Tharin we’re at critical," the pilot shouted. "This is suicide, we have to go!"

"I’m not leaving them!"

"I can’t hold out any longer!"

"Damn you, you fool! I’m wearing the command stripe, I’ll tell you when we’re leaving! Your job is to shut the fuck up and keep us alive!"

All but deaf to Tharin’s words, the pilot loosed a final volley of plasma rockets, reducing the swarm of oncoming attackers by an insignificant two. "That’s it, we’re tapped. In thirty seconds we’ll be fried."

"I am not leaving those three men to die! We’re staying here and that’s an order!"

"Fuck your orders!"

"Sir, you forget yourself—"

The pilot sprang from his chair, grasping the scruff of Tharin’s tunic. "Damn you, you welp! If we stay here we die! Then there’s no one to blow the reactor, and two hundred and ninety million more people will die when that fleet blitzes Ostral-B. Protecting the home world is our primary objective, and I aim to see it through to the end, regardless of the cost! You above all should realize that. Now if you’re gonna wear that command stripe, boy, then stop dicking around and act like you’re in command."

Tharin touched his knife, gripped the hilt. It was all he could do to keep from planting a fist in the old bastard’s mouth.

The ship rocked again. Driss grunted.

"Them or Ostral-B? What’s it going to be…sir?"

Tharin swore, threw his right forearm into the wall, and swore again. "All right. Take off." He turned his back to the cockpit and started back for the bay.

"Finally." The pilot engaged the remaining thrusters.

Tharin didn’t feel the ship lurch forward; he focused instead on the detonator as he unclipped it from his belt. He passed it back and forth, rolling it from right hand to left, as the shuttle broke free of the lower atmosphere. It wouldn’t be long, maybe fifteen seconds, before they were out of range.

"…Tharin…" The transmission was surprisingly clear. "Tharin where are you? Galek’s been wounded, he’s lost a shitload of blood, we have to get him out of here! Tharin where the hell are you? Don’t you leave us here you little bastard. Tharin, answer me!"

Tharin switched off his com-link, tossed it in the corner, and squeezed the detonator.



#


"It’s all coming back now, isn’t it?" Prince said while Tharin watched on with feigned indifference as a flaming gale eviscerated his erstwhile comrades. "You left those men to die. To die by your hand."

"No," Tharin said lightly. "No. I had to. It was them or Ostral-B. We couldn’t hold out any longer."

"Do you know that to be true?"

Tharin retorted with silence.

"Well?"

"Driss was wounded. We had to get him out of there as quickly as possible."

Prince leaned in. "And what became of Driss?"

More silence.

"Since his life apparently meant the most, I’m interested to know…what became of your wounded compatriot, upon whose head you apparently placed such superlative value?"

"What are you asking for?" Tharin snapped. "You already know."

"Quite right. But I want to hear it from you. What…became…of Driss?"

"He…" Tharin bit his lip. "He died. In transit. Slipped into shock and he was just…gone. Like that."

"Such was the life you were willing to wager against three others. The life you were willing to hide behind."

"No!" Tharin took a step forward, stood nearly chest-to-chest with Prince. "It was nothing like that."

"Then by all means, enlighten me."

"I was not yet out of my teens…not yet fit to shoulder the burden of command in hindsight. My pilot was right—damn the man twice over but he was right. We had to pull out, so I gave the order that served the greater good. We did everything physically possible to wait for those men. I’d have gladly offered up my own life if it could have saved them. But it wouldn’t have made any difference. They were good men, and they did not deserve to die. But they were also soldiers. They knew the risks, knew that every operation could be their last. They died…so that millions, hundreds of millions, could live. It was a means to an end, and if faced with the same scenario I would do it again. I don’t regret what I did, and quite frankly, if that constitutes a bad choice in your eyes, then so be it."

Prince smiled, backing off a step. "Actually you’re right, I’m not above saying it. You were, and remain still, in the right. You pursued the most practical course of action given the circumstances. Quite commendable considering man’s proclivities for sentiment. A lesser man would have stayed his hand."

"That means a lot," Tharin said.

"More than you know," Prince said. "Tharin, you have spilled enough blood for a handful of lifetimes; you’ve committed any number of atrocities, as some might be compelled to brand them. Think back on it…all that death, the pleas of mercy from countless tortured souls, the detached, mechanical precision with which you dispensed your wrath. Is that something to be proud of? Ashamed? That’s your business. But there is comfort to be taken in knowing that what you did, you did with the best of intentions. Every life you took—regardless of the banner under which that individual fought, the cause to which they were indentured—was for the betterment of the common good. For that you should hold your head high, secure in the knowledge that no aspect of your career warrants the flames of punishment."

"Then I’m to be rewarded."

"I didn’t say that. I merely said that the choices you made throughout the course of your career with the Movement, however unpleasant they may have been, were bereft of malice. It is left to us then to examine other aspects of your life."

"Such as?" Tharin asked, clearly irritated.

"Do you recall your excursion to the Wife Bank?" Prince glanced skyward.

"Yes," Tharin cut him off. "You’ve no need to show it to me. I remember the trip, and I remember the woman. Linga. She threw herself at me. I was…taken aback by her advances, her lack of inhibition. I had been taught all my life to keep the urges of the flesh…bottled up. To suppress them; channel them toward a more positive, productive endeavor.

"I had never encountered someone so…so casual with her body. So inconsiderate and unappreciative of the good for which her libidinous energy could be harvested. So I chastised her, called her a whore, balled up my fists and told her to get out of my sight."

Tharin shook his head as he revisited that most socially awkward of afternoons. "I suppose you’re going to tell me that my words drove her to take her own life, or that she wound up married to some scoundrel and that I’m to be blamed for her lot in life because of the choice I made, when in actuality I had no say in the matter and no way of knowing what the future held for either of us. If so, then don’t even bother opening your mouth, because while you may have all the time in the world, you’re wasting mine."

Prince chuckled, noting the position of Tharin’s right hand, thumbing a non-existent knife. "I must say you covered all the bases there. Good for you. Until now I wasn’t sure if you were engaged in our little game, and now that I know I can count on you to cooperate, I’ll dispense with the warm-up activities and skip ahead to the most crucial matter…the tipping point upon which your eternity is poised."

Prince looked to the sky, Tharin once again followed suit. A fresh image materialized in the flames. A face…his own…but bereft of the internal and external ravages of time.

"Thorin."

"Thorin…" Prince’s smile became a glower. "It’s all coming back to you now, isn’t it?"

Tharin went numb as the final layer of ignorance was peeled back, ushering forth a torrent of memories that threatened to drown his mind.

…Put ‘er there, brother…



#


"Tharin, this is your brother Thorin."

"You speak nonsense Headmistress. This swine can’t possibly share my blood."



#


"It’s a nerve hold. You just apply pressure like so…"

"Ah…Tharin that hurts. Tharin let me go! Tharin, ah Tzybi you’re hurting me, stop it! Stop it! HELP! THARIN LET ME GO!"



#


"Malingerer!" WHAM "You miserable drunken cunt!" WHAM "You’re a disgrace to my flesh. I’ll kill you!"

"I’LL KILL YOU!"



#


"You are the arch-heretic Tharin of Ostral-B."

"Fuck yourself!"



#


"I worship His Shadow."



#


"Damn you Thorin! Damn you, you bastard!"

"…you bastard!"

"…put ‘er there—"

"YOU BASTARD!"



…put ‘er there, brother!"

"BASTARD…"



#


"NO!"

"Yes." Prince’s playful aura was gone, stripped away like paint from old stone. He cast aside his coat with one hand and clutched Tharin’s tunic with the other, pulling him close…close enough to smell the sulfuric stink of his breath. "A lifetime of resentment; sneering down upon your own flesh and blood with contempt. A lifetime of living a lie, of putting your brother’s face on your struggles, all the while secretly gagging on the paltry stench of his existence!"

"No!" Tharin frothed through gnashed teeth, shaking his head.

"The lie grew in the telling, consuming you until you were all but unconsciously blind to the truth…"

"No…"

"…you hated your brother."

"NO!" Tharin clenched his fists, drawing blood from his palms with the nails.

"He lived a slovenly, shallow existence ruled by base instincts, he defied the Principles of Perfection that you held so dear, and he contributed nothing…nothing at all to the society you risked your life to defend." Prince lowered his eyes to meet Tharin’s, his voice becoming a raspy whisper. "But beyond that…beneath all of that extraneous emotional flotsam…was the choice. They chose Thorin. You said it yourself. Your life was offered up as a sacrifice to the Fundaf while he grew up knowing what it was to be loved. Tharin the abhorred…cast from the filial light in favor of Thorin the beloved…discarded with nary a wink…as though you were never born. That is why you hated your brother. That is why you resented being with him. And that…is why you let him come under His Shadow’s power. Why you refused to lay down your life that he might be spared…and why, when you came to at the bottom of that waterfall, the first thing you did…was breathe a sigh of relief."

"NO!"

Never had Tharin’s body known such stimulation. Never before had his fast twitch fibers been infused with such rage…nor the ensuing momentum approached such an unheralded peak. His eyes, trained to lock on to high velocity plasma beams, lost his fist. Prince’s eyes widened as the knuckles cracked across his jaw, the blow nearly lifting him from his equally surprised feet.

"No!"

Tharin grasped Prince’s neck as he attempted to regain his balance.

"That is not true and you know it! You see the truth! You can peer into my mind, my heart? Then you see the truth you bastard! See it all!"

Prince gasped as Tharin’s fingers tensed.

"Look at me!" Blood-red beads of fire…they were all Prince saw, and all he needed to see. "You see the truth! You hear the truth! I loved Thorin! I envied my brother as no man has ever envied another, in this or any other universe! I did everything my being permitted to make the universe a better place for him! I’d have given my life…" Tharin swallowed a cold, hard lump of reality, "…I gave my life…to bring him peace. Now you see the rest! See the truth! You see it all!"

Prince gagged, his eyelids lolled over as he faded from consciousness…and at once he understood.

A tear…a smile…a flash…

…a smile…a flash…

…a tear…a smile…

…Put ‘er there, brother…

Prince’s eyes opened slowly and met with Tharin’s. Five seconds…then ten. He saw the rage retreat, watched the hollow beads of fire knowingly fade. A smile spread across his ageless lips as Tharin’s grip loosened, his hate-filled grimace dissolving into the confounded wonderment of a child.

He laid a relaxed hand on Tharin’s shoulder and leaned in, nearly pressing his lips to his ear. "That was a good choice."

A gust caught Tharin’s back, ruffling his tunic. The double-thick cloth suddenly felt lighter, like almost nothing. He glanced downward, astounded to find, in place of the formal colors of Ostral-A, a virginal, immaculate, silken white.

When he looked up Prince was gone.

Gone too was the crashing of the surf, the heat of the phantom sun, the ever-shifting sand beneath his inexplicably bare feet.

Coolness permeated his body as all around him the world waned, blending into both everything and nothing. The sky enveloped him, bled its hue into the ground, the soft radiance swelling until it shown through the backs of his eyes into the deep calm…the void.

He drew a breath…held it for a time…breathed his last.

His heart stilled…beat its last.

He closed his eyes…opened them anew…and all was one...

…as the light drew him near

…as the void took him

…as he stepped into the calm, arms out, and embraced his brother

All was one.

 



 



THE END





‘Beauty is truth and truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know…and all ye need to know.’
-John Keats



© 2006 by Billy Duncan
(but feel free to burn off a copy anyway)

Last edited on Wed Nov 8th, 2006 07:06 am by Bilbo67



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If you're normal, the crowd will accept you. But if you're deranged, the crowd will make you their leader.
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 Posted: Wed Nov 8th, 2006 07:50 am

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Amazing and wonderful story so far...Bilbo. Haven´t finished it yet...but have to post...Thanks for sharing!

 

And: Hey:

Beauty is truth and truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know…and all ye need to know.’
-John Keats

Nice to see someone knowing John Keats! I love his poems....first came in contact with him by Dan Simmons fabolous story Hyperion/Endymion!



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What do you see with your heads in their asses?
Keep on railing at what I believe ,
Call me insane and I am proud to be.

And I walk the wicked way!
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 Posted: Thu Nov 9th, 2006 05:20 pm

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Oh, I just discovered it has Prince in it. Thanks, Bilbao, I will download the story this weekend and read it...

Shenandora
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 Posted: Thu Nov 30th, 2006 08:33 pm

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Finally. I finished reading your wonderful story, Bilbo. I really enjoyed it!

Ketana
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 Posted: Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 01:45 am

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Bilbo.

I

just

have

no

words

to

describe.

Nothing but nothing I can say can quite give you the range of emotion that ran through me as I read this quite magnificent story you have created.

I bow my head.

and give you my heartfelt thank you.

 



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 Posted: Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 02:17 pm

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This really is a wonderful story, Bilbo.  One of the best I've ever read.



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