Legacy of the Stars – One
“We’re going the wrong way, shaman.” Mischa’s voice behind him was as dull and thick as the air that plastered Tor’s hair to his skull.
“And you know this how?” In the humidity, he struggled to breathe as he turned, cocking a greying eyebrow.
“We should’ve reached Pike’s Retreat by now, don’t take my lack of education for stupidity, old man.”
She was right, of course, on the first statement and the second. They were heading away from the town, and he was getting old. His nose wrinkled as he replied.
“Then please accept my age as a measure of my knowledge concerning geography.” Slapping at the passing whine of an insect, he turned his gaze forward, shielding his eyes. Besides, Tully would know better than to give me worthless information.
“What are we looking for?” Mischa was looking the other way, the back of her shorn scalp glistening with humidity-born sweat. “Must be something of note, given the coin you’re paying me.”
“And if I told you, would you care? Hmm?” His voice rose slightly.
“I may be able to help, given your sudden gap in knowledge.” Her lips quirked as she turned back to him, one hand fondling the plain looking hilt of her sabre.
He paused then, taking in her rumpled clothing, the smeared mud on her breeches from where they had waded through the Breach some miles behind. Her broad shoulders were masculine, but not ill-proportioned to the rest of her frame. Hers was a physique that spoke of aggression.
“Alright, if you must know, there is a ruin. Allegedly.” He measured his tone as he would a dram of Sapper’s oldest batch.
“A ruin?” She squinted. “You paid me all that gold to rummage around in a cesspit? I could’ve recommended less expensive help.”
“I was told you were the best.”
“Maybe… But the only people who could attest to that are no longer with us.” Her eyes lost some focus and she blinked. “Perhaps that I’m here and they’re not proves it.”
“I never would’ve taken you for a philosopher, Mischa the Sullen.”
“Is that what they’re calling me?” She smiled and her crooked teeth were displayed in full, a ghastly sight that made Tor swallow.
“It’s what the Pins call you.”
“Those little bastards? They’re lucky that I don’t apply the flat of my sword upon their poverty stricken arses.” She laughed then. “Just Mischa will do. No last name.”
He looked at her briefly, then commenced walking again.
“It’s not your typical ruin – from what I’ve heard.” His words spilled a little too quickly.
Her silence was a weight on the back of his neck and he realised that he had said too much. Two days they had travelled together, and for two days the woman had been equal parts irritating and fascinating. As she said, she was clearly not stupid, despite the vague lineage. What the Pins had told him, a small snippet of information as it always was with them, had been enough to prompt an investigation.
That he had to postpone an audience with the Perditionist Matriarch as a result was unfortunate. Yes, he would have to summon an explanation for the delay upon their next meeting, but that was a small task for one of Tor’s intellect. He would not have survived the intrigue and brutality of the Perditionist Administration’s induction, or its duration to date, without some cunning.
The sun rose higher the further south they travelled, nearing the borders of the Aventide Peninsula, its glare struck upon his thinning pate and made his vision dance. He lifted the veil of the light robe he wore, draping it over his head. His grip upon the worn staff in his hand was moist, and he shifted it constantly, prodding the ground before him. It was nearing midday when he stopped, holding a hand up for his companion to halt.
“There’s nothing here.” Mischa’s words were clipped. “I thought –“
Her voice dropped away as did the ground beneath his feet and Tor found himself plummeting. He gasped as he struck a solid surface, the air driven from his lungs and an immediate ache in his ribs. He groaned, not daring to move in case his fears of broken bones were proven. He heard movement from above, and rolled, blinking up at the shadow obscuring the sun.
“Are you alive, elder?”
Her interest did not sound as if it was driven by his well-being, but rather the effort it might take to climb down and retrieve the balance of her payment. He groaned again, and then blinked at a sound from beside him. He rolled onto his side and saw a pair of booted feet. A calloused hand, scars whitening the bronze skin, reached down and pulled him to his feet. He grunted.
“That was impressive.” Sniffing, Mischa ignored him and walked to one side of what revealed itself to be a room sized space.
Rubbing at his side, wincing, Tor narrowed his eyes as he examined the space around them. The walls looked too smooth, their slick quality unnerving. The sunlight filtered down through air that swam, glistening on the surfaces, making them shine and dance. He took one step, and then another, reaching out a hand and touching a wall. The sound of Mischa’s blade joined a low rumbling that caused the ground beneath their feet to tremble.
“Put it away.” His whisper was quick and low. “Violence will do you no good here.”
“I prefer –“ Her preference, regardless of how predictable it may have been, was interrupted.
“Docking procedure initiated.” Despite an odd crackling, the words themselves were delivered by a voice that was precise and clipped.
“We have to get out of here.” Tor was allowed to finish his sentence, but only just, as once more the floor vanished and this time they both fell.
For the second time in the space of a few moments, he found himself face to face with the floor. The swamp’s detritus that had entered the room above followed his descent. It showered him as he lay prone, He pressed his eyes closed and waited, each breath like fire, for the assault to conclude. The deluge slowed and then stopped and he coughed as he attempted to free himself from the collage of mud, twigs and other organic matter. It finally released its hold on him and he struggled from knees to feet, surprised to see his companion some distance away.
“How did you –“ She held a hand up and he fell silent. His eyes widened, breath pluming in the air before him.
His light clothing did little to shelter him and he felt the skin on his arms prickle in the sudden chill that surrounded him. The cold did not feel natural. Tor wrapped numb arms around his bruises, nursing himself.
“Well, you weren’t wrong. This is not like any ruin I’ve ever seen.” Mischa bent down and retrieved her sabre from the ground, the sound it made as she did was steel on steel. “Now, how about you tell me what it is you’re looking for?”
He stuttered as she stepped towards him, the dimness of the room making her impressive build seem that much larger. She stopped, the distance between them not great enough to allow him an escape should he choose to attempt the impossible. His mind raced through all of the combinations he could deliver as an explanation. He finally settled on one that would explain enough, but not reveal too much.
“A weapon.” He licked his lips. “One that could change the course of the Perditionist’s occupation.”
“I’m listening.” She folded corded arms across her broad chest.
Inhaling, Tor deliberately stepped past. She smirked, yet allowed him to continue uninhibited.
“Imagine a weapon that could level a city in a moment. Gone. Nothing. Can you picture it?” His words were as calculated as his movement past her. “No. I didn’t think so.”
She watched him and he noted the cold glitter of her golden eyes, consuming him.
“And we would find that here?” She looked up, past the plumes of clouded air escaping the opening above. She reached out and slapped a heavy hand upon his shoulder. “I don’t think you’re paying me enough, shaman.”
“I’m paying you to get me out of here alive.” He snapped. “A task I’m not entirely sure you’re qualified for at this very moment.”
“I’ll get you out of here.” She pointed upwards. “But not that way.”
Casting his gaze about the room, Tor’s eyes settled upon a spill of light that flooded out from a gap in a partially open doorway. The harsh white glare revealed more of the room as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Long Strands, thick and rope-like, hung suspended from the ceiling, linking pillars that supported the ceiling. Odd looking mechanisms acted as facades at the pillar’s bases. Tor studied them but was incapable of determining their purpose.
“This way.” He said with more authority than he felt.
“Whatever you say, Boss.” Her heavy tread behind him should’ve been reassuring.
Reaching the doorway, Tor stopped just out of reach of the light, trying to peer through. Mischa stepped past him and reached for the door. His voice pitched high as he spoke, and he tried to wrestle it back to a range that didn’t make him sound like a terrified child.
“What are you doing?”
“You said this way. So, we’re going this way.”
She didn’t wait for further protestation, reaching forward and gripping one edge of the door, leaning into it. She grunted, and the sound was the only evidence of her exertion. He saw the muscles in her shoulder bunch and she grunted once more before the door suddenly gave and she staggered backwards slightly. She hefted her sabre and looked through the door once before stepping through. He waited a few moments, and when there was no sound of destruction from beyond the door, he followed.
Beyond the doorway, a long narrow corridor ran, and he blinked his eyes against the heavy flood of light. It was like sunlight, but without the warmth. If Tor had known the word, he might describe it as sterile, however the best he could settle on was that it reminded him of the clean emptiness of the Matriarch’s counsel room. Mischa was already halfway along it and he found himself watching her with a mixture of admiration and disbelief. The corridor was studded with irregular protrusions that Tor found himself stopping at each one, trying to decipher its purpose.
Each one possessed an opening in the centre, but he was reluctant to lean closer in case he caused another descent into the bowels of whatever this structure was. He scrambled to catch up with Mischa and she cast a quick, dismissive glance at him. Her posture as she moved was tense, completely different to how it had been up until this point. She edged forward gracefully, but there was caution in her movements that he had no doubt could transform to action instantaneously.
“Witchery.” She hissed and he didn’t think the words were intended for his ears, but he replied nonetheless.
“No, there is no magic here. I would sense it.”
“Is that how it works? Like heat – or cold?”
“Not quite. Hard to explain to one not born with it. It’s a curse as much as a skill, but this isn’t it.”
“I suppose you’re quite shy on how much you reveal of your “curse”, what, with the purge.”
“It’s only illegal if you use it, and those that can use it know better than to stand against the Perditionist’s law like those fools did at the end… at the Shard.”
“Nasty business? Is that what you call five thousand deaths?”
For the first time he felt that he had gained some sort of advantage over her as she lowered her head and fell silent. He watched her and then sighed, the victory becoming hollow.
“Well… No need to dwell on things that cannot be changed. Let’s focus on the task at hand. ”
Alpha’s thoughts were sluggish as she awakened. A lingering memory of a voice. Was it nothing but the remnant of a dream? She tried to lift her hands and found that she could not. The press against her body becoming claustrophobic and she struggled some more before stopping. The voice came back to her again and this time she recalled its words with more clarity, and the one who had spoken them.
Don’t be afraid, this is to keep you safe.
Boone. He had known better than to try and explain. The others had tried that, but she had become bored. Better to just tell her what to do. So she followed his instruction the best that she could now, even though he was no longer there. Stilling her breathing, she let her eyes open slowly.
It was true, there was darkness, but now it was broken by a sliver of light that crept into the space around her like an intruder. She waited and when nothing helped to suggest what the source of the light might be, she eased the weight of her small frame forward. As she leant her weight into it, the grip of the restraints loosened without warning and she felt immediate relief at the departure of the pressure. She managed to raise her hands and reached out before her.
Her palms touched against a flat surface and as they did there was a low hissing noise. The contact was broken as the surface lifted away from her and light flooded into the space. She blinked her eyes rapidly against the sting and when they stopped hurting she slowly opened them and kept them that way. The room before her was revealed. Light stuttered rhythmically, and she saw that the stasis pod that Boone had placed her in had tilted to one side while she had remained asleep within.
How long had it been this way? Not long, she guessed, otherwise she would not be here to wonder. Boone had taught her that, telling her that it was better that she knew, than did not, how the pods worked. The room beyond the confinement of the pod was chaotic, as if a giant hand had swept its contents back and forth. She stopped her examination when she saw a skeletal arm reaching from beneath an overturned cabinet. However long it had been since the pod had deactivated and opened, it was nothing in comparison to how long she had been entombed within.
She stepped one bare foot and then the other onto the floor, felt a gritty texture replacing what had once been smooth floor. She pushed her foot against it and looked up, noticing for the first time a ragged hole beyond which earth and root structures protruded. She frowned and stepped, naked, towards the hole, reaching out a hand, loose dirt falling as her fingers brushed it. She brushed her hands against her body and then stepped away from the hole, looking back towards the pod.
Next to it, other pods sat at jaunty angles, in what had once been a neat row. She stepped towards one, peered through the cloudy glass into its interior. She saw a face, a boy’s, smooth and untroubled, eyes open, staring back at her.
She knew, unerringly, that he was dead. Even had he been alive, he would not have been able to see her, the window’s clarity one sided. She touched the glass, her fingers lingering before she removed them.
She moved from the pods to an overturned locker, the door buckled from where it had made impact with the floor. Within, there was a messy pile of contents. She squatted and rifled through them, pulling objects out and placing them on the floor. A flashlight, a device, the purpose of which was unknown, a picture of a woman and a boy and then, something which she thought could be of use. It was a jumpsuit, too big for her, its fabric creased.
She lifted it as she stood, holding it up and then pulling the zipper open. Stepping into it, she bent down and rolled the legs and then repeated the process with the sleeves. She held her arms out and then looked down at herself. It would do, not that she had ever been concerned about her appearance. Not one of her elements of design. All of them had been like that, she, Gamma, Beta, Charlie and the others. Seven in all. Not that she had spent much much time with any of them. Boone had told her that it was necessary, but didn’t explain why. A redundant fact.
Alpha stooped and retrieved the flashlight, before turning to the bones. She wondered if they belonged to Boone, blinked and issued a low grunt when she realised there wasn’t a way she would ever be able to confirm it. Kicking a foot at the bones, she moved towards the door, noting now that it opened slowly, only to slide quickly shut again once it had opened to the width of the doorway. She waited until it had finished another of these cycles, beginning its slow opening again before stepping through it. It slammed shut again and she was plunged into darkness illuminated only by the dull, red throb of a flaring emergency light.
Trying the flashlight, Alpha discarded it when she found that the batteries within were long dead. She was about to continue moving forward when a voice spoke from above.
“Alpha. You’ve awoken. Were you granted permission to do so?”
It was calm, unflinching. The ship. Pinnacle of Infinity’s AI had always provoked a different kind of response in Alpha, as if she was running through one of Boone’s evaluation tests, and performing badly.
“Boone is dead.” Her voice was harsh to her own ears.
“You don’t know that.” The AI’s voice was confident, but there was a probing element to it.
“I saw his arm. It was bone. He’s dead.” She folded her arms.
“That wasn’t him. That was Crewman Dutton.”
Dutton. She hadn’t liked Dutton. The man was always hanging around when Boone wasn’t there, watching her. She didn’t know what she felt now, had already allocated Boone’s memory to the archive. If it had indeed been Dutton and not Boone then she thought that maybe she could be okay with that. It didn’t change the fact that Boone was dead, how could he not be? Pinnacle confirmed it almost as if her thoughts and its were drawn from the same source.
“Boone perished on level 15, mid section. Radiation exposure after the Strand Drive suffered critical failure.”
“Pinnacle; what caused the drive to become unstable?” She put an edge of command into her voice, thinking that at least she should try.
“You are not at the appropriate authority level to access that information.” If a machine could sound smug, then Pinnacle was close to it.
She shot a glance at the ceiling, eyes narrowed, hands hung at her sides as if she didn’t know what to do with them. There was no way that the AI would reveal the information, nor any way that she would be able to force it to. The AI continued talking, as if she had not just tried to breach a protocol of which she was well aware.
“You should return to your pod. I will instruct the maintenance drones to fix the damage and reactivate it.”
That was interesting, that she had been given an option not to go back to the pod. The same drones that Pinnacle had said it would use to repair the pod, could also be used to make Alpha return to it, ordinarily. She decided to indulge a risk rather than do as she was asked and immediately her suspicions were concerned. She kept walking.
“Boone taught you well. More so, perhaps, than he should have. But we are here now. You will not last beyond my protection. There is danger.”
A current ran through Pinnacle’s voice that Alpha had never heard before, deep and hidden, but there nonetheless. It was light, and trembling.
“What other choice do I have? To remain here? Entombed? You are dying, aren’t you? You’ve awoken, like me, only to realise that you don’t have much time left.” Alpha kept walking, not bothering to stop to continue the conversation.
Beneath her feet, the floor was warm in a way that it shouldn’t be.
“I can’t die. I’m not real. I’m not real in the way that you’re not real.” This was an argument she hadn’t heard before, and something in it made her pause before replying.
“What makes you think we’re not real?” She kept her tone conversational, just as she had learnt to do when talking with Boone.
Boone had told Alpha that the neutrality in her voice needed to vanish, even if she didn’t feel enough emotion to do more than just mask it. It would frighten people. She had not quite understood what he had meant. Perhaps because he was the only one that she had spent any amount of time talking to and he had never appeared frightened of her. But she had tried, for his benefit, and the fact that she was able to do so now, in the midst of walking through what felt like a continuation of a dream, made her think that Boone would have beeen proud of her.
She had known when he was, his beard split by the broad width of his stained teeth. The warm yellow of his laughter as it spilled out. It had enveloped her, even if it in no way had touched her beyond the surface. Pinnacle did not seem to register the same pleasure in her challenge.
“Look at you. Bereft of physical identity. Not even your friend to guide you. Don’t leave. Let us finish together. This world is not for you. It’s people will not understand you, nor you, them. Better to finish here than keep go- “
Pinnacle’s words were broken by noise ahead, a grating sound, mingled with voices, a man’s and a woman’s. They stopped speaking shortly after Pinnacle, as if they had both heard each other. The woman was the first to break the silence.
“There’s something ahead.” Her voice was low and Alpha didn’t need to hear her speak further to understand that its owner knew violence.
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Shhh, hush Grandfather.”
Pinnacle spoke then, no more than a whisper, but it was filled with premonition.
“You were warned.”
The AI’s voice rose in volume then, losing any trace of a personality.
“DESTRUCTION SEQUENCE COMMENCED.”
“We need to leave this place.” The woman’s voice.
“But the weapon?” There was whining quality to the man’s voice.
“You can stay here if you want, but I only fight battles that I can win. Your choice.”
Silence fell then, broken by the sound of retreating footsteps, followed shortly after by another. She hesitated for only a few moments before starting after them. She remained silent as she followed them into the gloom cloaking the interior of the dying ship.Posted on: June 1, 2019akalliss