The second part of the Vanguard story ‘Rebirth’ ends here!
Like a bullet the pint-sized ship shot through space. Its pointed nose swerved between stray meteors, ducked beneath asteroid belts, whizzed like a hungry hawk on the prowl, tapered wings slicing a path through the clotted void. A silver streak across the blackness, so swift an observer would wonder if it was a mirage. The planets it passed looked up, held their breath, and whispered hidden wishes to the arching shooting-star as it blasted overhead.
Inside it was roomier than the exterior suggested. The cockpit operated on an automated system; a complex and busy dashboard brimming with flashing lights and diodes, flaring screens and a buffet of switches. Nobody in the ship dared to touch it, though a few were staring fixatedly as the light-show wheeled like a carousel, round and round, with aimless direction and propulsion.
The ship was solid and structurally sound, but as it rocketed across the depths of space the interior trembled like jelly on a trampoline, and its precious cargo jolted around, gripped on tight to their harness buckles. Paltry orange light trickled sluggishly downwards, and in the feeble light the cargo’s faces twisted and turned, cheeks sucked in and lips shut.
Mevoine held back his vomit as the ship flipped and twirled. His stomach roiled, his head spun and ached. On his right Durane clutched his seat, knuckles whitened; Lyrik and Syna held each other’s hand, clasped together like they were lost at sea. Mev was squished into the ship’s end, as Durane argued he was the smallest and could easily fit into the smaller space. He felt the engines’ deep rumble in his chest.
Opposite him sat Aila, Berrel, Monsoon, and grinning Lee. Aila’s wings were drawn in as far as she could manage, Monsoon had to scrunch his body up to preserve some limited space, Berrel sucked in his elbows to his sides, while Lee sat wide-legged enjoying his abundant leg-space.
Silence ruled for a time. No-one had spoken since entering the erratic craft. Mev assumed everyone was too afraid to open the floor to ridicule. Admitting fear would highlight a chink in their cherished psychological armour.
But as Aila’s discomfort grew, so did her overwhelming detestation for silence.
‘So, this is fun!’ she said, unconvincingly.
The ship shuddered and jerked, Mev’s head banged off the interior wall. His stomach was amidst a full panic – if it were a ship, the sailors would be bailing water off the deck in rusty metal buckets. He swallowed down hard and stared at his feet.
‘This is not safe!’ Lyrik cried as her harness jerked.
‘It’s perfectly safe,’ said Syna, soothing. ‘They wouldn’t put us in something that wasn’t safe.’
‘And these costumes! Why couldn’t they come in black? I wanted mine in black!’
Syna tightened her grip on Lyrik’s fingers, worry written across her features. Lee chortled and relaxed his back, tipping his hat over his face like this was an every-day commute.
‘How can you relax at a time like this?’ Aila shouted. ‘This is a nightmare!’
‘It’s nothin’,’ said Lee calmly.
‘There’s something wrong with you!’
‘I’m here, ain’t I?’
Durane hunched over like he’d been punched in the stomach. Syna smirked. On their way to the ship, after their Socils had alerted them of their impending mission, Durane had relentlessly mocked Mevoine and Lyrik for their nervousness and timidity, claiming they wouldn’t stand a chance out on the battlefield, which had sparked a flame in Syna’s formidable fighting spirit.
‘Can’t take the heat?’ she taunted. ‘You poor thing. You want a little dummy to suck on? A diaper?’
‘Shut up,’ he rasped.
‘Maybe the other guy in your head can handle this better. Get him out.’
‘I don’t… I don’t have another guy in my head!’ Durane stamped the metal grating. ‘I told you to shut up!’
Syna chuckled dryly. Anyone else she would have been nice to, convivial at a stretch, but Durane’s constant mockery and sarcastic bite made him a target she was willing to hit with a verbal mallet like a carnival game. Mevoine hid a smile, then bit his lip as the ship shuddered and upturned again.
‘When’s it going to be over, Syn?’ Lyrik groaned, and rested her head on Syna’s shoulder. ‘I can’t die in a glorified bucket! Not in this outfit!’
The Vanguard had given them uniforms; blue plated-metal contrivances that would look better as a trophy hanging on someone’s wall, or in a glass box in a collector’s pantry. The spiked shoulder pads poked at the neckline like the wearer’s head was caught in a bear-trap, the light-weight chest-piece hung off the torso, and the leg-plates cupped the knee-caps like sucker-pads, and the deep colours seemed always to shift, never settling on one definitive hue. Despite its clunky and awkward appearance, the armour boasted superior fluidity and increased mobility, allowing the wearer to both survive and dodge a nuclear bomb; provided they’re suitably prepared for the fallout. And the explosion radius. And a second bomb.
Underneath the armour the Vanguard liaisons’ officer had provided them with a secondary line of defence; a pasty white, skin-tight suit that stretched as the wearer moved, similar in style to lycra, and magnificently tailored to the individual body as if consciously deciding its appearance.
Mevoine echoed Lyrik’s thoughts on the uniform. He felt dressed up like a store mannequin, uncomfortable in soldier’s garb. He wasn’t a soldier, not yet. It was wrong to wear it like a badge of honour when he hadn’t yet proven himself in combat.
There was the gun, too; the long-barrelled, confusing contraption holstered to the wall above him. The red-laser sight strained his eyes, the bulky grip was too big for his hands, and the flashing modules dotted along the body bent the mind like a surrealistic painting.
All things considered, he felt like a two-year old in their fifteen-year old cousin’s hand-me-downs.
He continued to stare at his feet. It was his opinion that if he was meant to fly in space, he’d have grown a spaceship.
‘What’s this planet like, Monsoon?’ Ailandra asked, trying to lighten the mood.
‘It’s a water-based planet,’ the old dragon answered. ‘The land is tough and untamed but the waters are calm, and the fish are in high supply. I visited Redmax about one-hundred years ago; the locals live on massive ships and fishing boats, sail the planet like nomads. Governmental authority was abolished some five-hundreds years before. They live peacefully and equally, providing for each other as needed. They were a very loving and welcoming people. I was hailed respectfully during my visit.’
‘What would the Pantheon want with them?’
‘That’s impossible to say. Perhaps there’s something on the planet attracting their attention, something hidden. I suspected nothing unusual while I was there, but then, I wasn’t looking for it. The universe’s greatest secrets are hidden in perfectly ordinary places.’
‘Oh, you’re a Pantheon expert,’ Lee spit. ‘How lucky for us.’
‘You’re a barrel of fun.’ Aila braced as the ship swerved. ‘Just like this death-trap. A barrel might have more space, mind you.’
There was an uneasy silence as the ship tumbled and flipped, like a roller-coaster the thrill was in the fear.
‘What happens when you die?’
Aila’s question was met immediately with gasps and disappointed groans.
‘Why would you ask that?’ Durane moaned.
‘Not very appropriate,’ mumbled Lyrik.
‘You can’t blame me for asking!’ Aila shouted. ‘There’s a good chance we’re about to find out the answer anyway!’
Lee chuckled to himself and shook his head, unimpressed. Berrel shifted weight uneasily, and a quick glance suggested to Mev his eyes were watering. He aligned this with the journey, the cramped space, and the looming threat of violent crashing, but a small part of him rejected this tentative premise, though he couldn’t figure out why.
‘If there’s a god,’ said Monsoon thoughtfully, ‘then heaven must exist, too. And hell.’
‘That’s comforting,’ Durane wheezed.
‘I was taught we greet death like an old friend,’ said Aila. ‘He takes our hand and leads us into the shadows. Maybe he’ll have tea.’
‘When we die,’ said Berrel, ‘our energy returns to the universe, like rain into the ocean. It’s a cycle; we are born from the universe, and that energy keeps us going until we’ve ran our time, then the universe takes us back.’
‘But what about heaven? Or hell?’
‘Heaven’s what we make of this place, like a state of mind. Hell’s the same. Look for the worst in the universe and that’s what you’ll find.’
Aila considered this, as did Mev. Hell as a mental inhibition was intriguing, that one’s personal prison would be self-constructed, and heaven as individual bliss and self-subsisting ecstasy. Jenhanian belief was depressingly simple: you die, you’re buried, you rot, and that’s death. Its simplicity was superseded only by its sense of futility.
‘That’s nice,’ said Lyrik, smiling for the first time since entering the ship. ‘It’s better than nothing.’
‘I always thought hell was a place,’ said Monsoon. ‘There has to be karmic balance; rewards for doing good deeds, and punishment for indulging evil. Balance is how the universe works.’
‘Is that what Lilith is?’ Syna inquired quietly. ‘She’s the Ogrohad’s balance, and the Pantheon are our balance, our opposites.’
‘She ain’t balance,’ Lee snarled, his perpetual grin substituted with a vicious sneer. ‘She ain’t the devil, Pantheon ain’t Her lackey demons, She’s an imbalance. The reason everythin’s wrong, the reason the Vanguard are needed, is She’s messing creation up; destroying and consumin’ like a disease. Balance is what’s known as the natural order, the Causal Nexus. That there is what we’re protectin’.’
Aila’s nose scrunched. ‘Where’d she come from? Like… what does she want? Why is she doing this? Something must’ve set Her off. You don’t wake up one day and think “Hey, creation kinda sucks, time to burn the whole thing down!” – and have the strength to make it happen. Like, how could She possibly become a threat?’
‘This war’s been goin’ a long time, darlin’. We’re talkin’ years in the millions. She’s dragging creation down in the flames. As for where She calls home, that’s up for debate. Lilith’s what they call a singularity: there’s only one of her. Whereas we belong to infinite universes, you know, there’s an infinite amount of me, you, four-arms over there, there ain’t another Lilith. And that’s how come she’s a threat, She ain’t never been part of the so-called natural order, everything She touches is disconnected from the Nexus, and it’s like a virus: She breaks someone out the natural order, then everything they touch is taken out.’
Mev wanted to ask how Lee knew this. It wasn’t covered by his recruitment officer, who had discussed at length precisely what his role should be in the Vanguard, but was rather quiet on the question of Lilith. She was the enemy, the virtually omnipotent malicious god with psychopathic tendencies and an anarchic opposition to the Creator, and that was as much as Mev knew.
‘And how do you know this?’ said Syna, owl-eyes wide and focused.
‘Talk to the right people,’ Lee replied curtly.
‘Who’s the right people?’
‘No-one you know.’
Syna gripped Lyrik’s hand tight as the ship twirled and shuddered; Durane howled, closed his eyes, and dropped his head to his knees. As he squirmed anxiously, his eyes darted around his skull, desperate for something to thaw his fear. They settled on the one thing in the ship that refused to conform to the grey, washed-out leitmotif permeating the surroundings.
He glanced sideways at Berrel’s shoes.
‘Berrel,’ he said and pointed. ‘What are those?’
The old man lifted his feet, displaying a pair of painfully vivid orange shoes that looked like mini-canoes slotted onto his heels, a thick rim of blue metal circled the mouths, and blunt spikes protruded from the backs. To say they were ugly would be an injustice to the word ‘ugly’.
‘They’re my shoes,’ Berrel explained flatly. ‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘It’s like someone got drunk, had a nightmare about the worst possible design for a shoe, then woke up the next day covered in their own vomit and decided that would be the perfect material to make it.’
‘I’d be offended,’ said Berrel levelly, ‘if you didn’t look like someone stitched together two idiots in a poor attempt to make one normal person… and failed.’
Lee delighted in the general discomfort, smirking as the two exchanged their meaningless insults, and then turned his goggled attention to Mev; who was squishing himself into the wall as his stomach leaped with anxious butterflies.
‘You, Jenhanian,’ he said, ‘what made you stop bangin’ rocks together and join the war?’
Mev’s bottom lip quivered. ‘N-n-nothing.’
‘You ain’t the type I want in the fight. You’d be better off somewhere you can’t do damage, like a painter or decorator. Suits you better, what with the four arms and all.’
‘You leave him alone!’ Ailandra shouted.
‘You’ll agree with me eventually. He ain’t a soldier any more than I’m a dandelion; he’s a liability, a coward. I know ‘em when I see ‘em. You stay away from me when the fightin’ starts, Jenhanian, and we ain’t got a problem.’
Mev considered arguing, then relented. Lee was right, unfortunately. Cowardice sunk in his chest easy as breathing.
The dashboard erupted in wild screeches and flaring lights, the screens flashed numbers and indiscernible letters, as if the entire board were seconds away from exploding. Between the frantic dashboard and the tumbling, swerving and diving ship, Mev’s heart could barely handle the strain.
‘Looks like we’re coming in for a landing,’ Monsoon guessed. ‘I imagine it won’t be -’
Chaos dropped like a bomb.
Mev’s harness slammed against his shoulders, yanked all four arms backwards, and smashed him into the wall. His head spun, stomach lurched sideways, and his ankle, caught in a strap, violently disconnected itself from the upstairs neighbour. He cried out in pain, grunted as he was thrown from the harness, and scrambled on the cluttered floor for bearing and safety, hands searching for something to grab. He was tumbling in emptiness, senses scattered, grasping for help. A clammy hand wrapped around his and held him still, while screams and horrified gasps overran his hearing. The ship boiled with pandemonium; Mev had no idea what was happening: screaming and shouting, strobing lights and urgent beeping, the tumble and crash as the ship came to an abrupt landing.
Somebody hoisted him up like a child and dragged him into streaming bright light that clawed and snapped at his eyelids, whilst the overwhelming din around him began to subside. It seemed the initial panic was dying down, and what was left rallied its courage to face the confusion.
‘Everyone alive?’ came Monsoon’s voice in the sharp blindness.
A chorus of jilted moans and scared croons answered; Mev managed a throaty grunt and waved a hand. He was dropped to the ground almost instantly. Somebody – Lyrik he guessed – crouched beside him, shaking and face clouded by tears. Another figure he guessed to be Syna dropped to her level and rested a hand on her back, coddling and soothing softly.
His vision gradually returned, piece by piece, left him with a clear tunnel of unhindered vision and a kaleidoscopic blind-spot, which seemed alive with all its vibrant and loud colours melting into each other.
The sky was a blood-red sea, along which sailed frail, wispy black clouds as distant survivors, drifting without purpose, brushed into abstract lines and bizarre patterns that strained the eyes to look at, and meandered at daunting speeds, so that the sky was perpetually in motion, like a swirling red-black highway. The sun shattered the tattered black banners, a burning yellow halo scorched into the red sea, gazing down with heated contempt at the desolate planet below. Its hazy warmth split into trickling fiery beams, spreading out across the ravaged land.
The planet’s surface was a stalagmite maze, a land of ebony spikes spearing above the surface, pointed lances beseeching the sky, covering the rocky and mountainous landscape like stone phalanxes. Empty pits pocked the surface, shrouded in darkness where even the light dared not tread, crooked rock-limbs sliced and pierced like claws breaching from the deep abyss, bent and entrenching into the planet’s corpse like vultures’ beaks. On the scorched black ground nothing grew, and nothing could, and nothing had for centuries. The warped land dipped and wrapped around itself, black coils winding and unravelling like an avalanche of serpents. Clusters of deformed rock clung to the horizon, and spattered rubble skirted the stone-hedged fringes. The stench of decay and destitution was absolute; a ravaged and tortured savagery in every breath and sight.
The ship had cratered in a desolate pitch, and around that the group congregated, most out of breath and panicking, and all terrified senseless. Other than Mevoine and Lyrik gulping down galleons of air, silence had overtaken them.
Monsoon was the first to speak.
‘This isn’t Redmax,’ he gasped, breathless. ‘Redmax… it was water – the entire planet!’
Lee spat. His usual cool and detached demeanour had cracked to reveal a flustered centre. His hat sat halfway down his forehead, and straggles of grey hair matted to his cheeks.
‘Vanguards lied to us, then,’ he said, with a calm aloofness. ‘If this ain’t Redmax, where are we? Did we land on the wrong planet?’
‘Is nobody going to mention,’ said Ailandra between heavy gasps, ‘that the damn ship crashed?! Why’d it crash?! Why did they put is in that – in that – piece of shit!?’
‘Logistics,’ Lee replied. ‘They wanted to send us somewhere, and it ain’t like we’re important ‘nough for first-class travel.’
‘We won’t be much help if we crash into the side of a planet!’
Aila was torn between lividness and terror. Propped up against Monsoon, she panted and wiped her clammy brow. Stress had deprived her logic, starved her resolve, and it infected the rest of the group. To see Ailandra breaking down, her debonair grace suddenly forfeit, shocked the severity of the situation into them.
Mev’s ears were still screaming as the wind-swept figure approached over the rumpled crags, a small company following close behind.
The large man bracing himself against the arid air as it dusted acidic heat across the barren landscape impressed strength and power with every heavy step. He was a walking monolith, in more ways than one. His skin was like graphite; grey, ridged, hard as stone; his face was like a road-map, cracks and lines covering his bald head, dark eyes settled deep in the rock like caves, thin and cracked black lips, and two narrow holes substituted a nose. It would be impossible to say he was muscly, for his stone skin defied the usual bodily configurations that regulated muscles and the like, but for what it was worth, he was the humanoid equivalent of an erupting volcano. Tattoos ensnared his stubby boulder-like hands and spread over his shoulders and exposed chest, various depictions in intricate and circular patterns, some of which Mev recognised; a sun eclipsing a planet for his position as commander, a flock of crows for his service to Nelia, and a complex and nebulous web across his chest for his commitment to the Optivarr. They weren’t so much tattoos as they were blue rivers etched into his body. It struck Mevoine that the tattoos on this man, Morombe and others, weren’t truly tattoos at all.
His battle-worn armour, scarred, dented and stained, glinted in the dazzling sunlight.
‘Who the hell are you?’ Aila demanded as he approached.
The man towered over her like an armoured mountain. Anger and stress rooted her solid; she wouldn’t walk away from this one, no matter how the man imposed.
‘Your commander,’ he snarled. This close, Mev noted his eye-sockets were entirely empty; black pits swirling into nothing.
‘Oh…’ Aila withdrew from his eyeless stare. ‘Well, maybe you can tell us why we were put in a flying pot! And why aren’t we on Redmax?!’
The commander’s pitiless stone glare demanded silence. From the way he stood, the confidence and excessive power, he exuded authority, strength, and undeniable supremacy; and his impressive size dwarfed even Monsoon.
Ailandra seemed to shrink, retreating to the group’s safety. It was the first time she had ever shown fear, and Mev found it difficult to admit it was a colour that didn’t suit her.
‘I will make this clear,’ the commander boomed, ‘the Vanguard mandate is to be respected at all times. If you do not follow my orders, you will be killed. Simple as that. May I suggest not wearing my patience thin? It would be in your best interests.’
He turned to his entourage; the two Vanguard soldiers, also garbed in dented, shabby armour.
‘You know the mission. Locate and collect the device. Nelia has ordered that the device be delivered to Veritas after collection. I’ll leave that task to you. Our last correspondence here outlined a possible Pantheon incursion. Be on your guard.’
Monsoon stepped forward. ‘Would you mind-’
‘Greatly.’ The commander waved dismissively. ‘Retrieve your weapons. We move out in five.’
Taken to heart was the order; immediately their weapons were salvaged from the wrecked ship and out into the stone graveyard they ventured, panicked, confused and lost. Everything was moving so fast Mev struggled to keep up. One moment they were flying through space, then they were crashing onto what they believed was the wrong planet, then their commander confirmed they were in the correct place and their mission was laid out like a muddled prophecy, and now across the back of that ruptured planet they travelled with an apparent destination in mind; Mev couldn’t figure it out, and he was still groggy and dazed from the crash, and ultimately decided the best course of action was to rely on his safety net: follow instructions to the letter and blindly obey authority. At least the top authoritative echelon overruled the group’s limited understanding; someone who knew what to do, someone with full confidence in their abilities and knowledge.
The planet’s sharpened ridges provided little challenge for the Vanguard. They skimmed over and under the arching and writhing spikes, clambered up and down, tolerating the heat and the whipping dust. Within minutes Mev’s face showed thin scars and deep slices – he had left his helmet in the ship.
He stuck with Syna, who helped him and Lyrik climb the perilous edges, while Ailandra kept quiet conversation with Lee and Monsoon at the convoy’s front. They were discussing the company’s flank – their commander, now identified as Samir, and Veritas’ Vanguard host – and were failing to keep their offense hidden. It seemed they were discussing why they had been told Redmax when this wasn’t the truth. Mev’s opinion offered one solution: paranoia.
‘Why’ve they got us at the front?’ Lyrik whispered. ‘We don’t know where we’re going, what we’re doing, we haven’t been in a fight yet; we’re walking targets!’
‘Armour’s only useful when it’s being worn,’ explained Syna. ‘We’re expendable, Lyrik. They don’t care if we die, as long as they survive.’
‘Don’t talk to me about armour.’ Lyrik glanced down disdainfully. ‘Look at it! It wouldn’t be so bad if it was in black. D’you think they stock paint on the ship?’
‘We can look around.’ Syna peered down the gun’s sight, dutifully checking the glowing horizon and enclosing spikes. ‘You remember…’
‘Baljhal! This planet reminds me of Baljhal!’
‘This place is like the double of Baljhal. Almost makes me feel like we’re at home.’
‘Not our home anymore,’ said Lyrik. ‘But at least we’re in a nice place. If it wasn’t for the sun it would be perfect.’
Her tone suggested sincerity.
Aila’s pace softened and she dropped back, instantly making acquaintances with Veritas’ Vanguards behind. She had the ability to make friends anywhere with anyone she wanted. It was an admirable skill, and one Mev discovered he sincerely envied. Speaking to his own family was like putting his hand in fire, speaking to strangers was like jumping into one covered in gasoline.
Monsoon and Lee slowed to a crawl, purposefully taking their time with an easy climb to re-join the others.
‘We believe,’ Monsoon whispered, ‘the Vanguard’s paranoia has won them over. They told us Redmax was our destination because they don’t trust us. They’ll monitor Redmax for increased activity; and should there be any, we will be blamed. I would recommend doing exactly as we’re told for the time-being. Even small arguments will draw unwanted attention and suspicion.’
‘Like dogs,’ said recovered Durane. ‘Do their bidding, make their tea, bring their coffee, tie their shoes, make sure the whip doesn’t break when it cuts into our back.’
‘Dogs must be extremely talented on your planet,’ Monsoon snarled.
‘We must act as our commander orders,’ said Lee. ‘The chain of command can’t be broken. We refuse or argue, Samir shoots us on the spot. I ain’t looking to die to Vanguard hands.’
A wing gently nudged Mev to the side. Ailandra, flustered and exhausted, snuck into the gap.
‘They’re not very talkative,’ she said quietly. ‘And Samir shut me down whenever I got close to an answer. Nelia wants something on this planet delivered to Veritas for safe-keeping. And if you hadn’t already guessed, Durane, Veritas is another Nephilim. It’s a Nephilim device they left behind on this planet. I don’t know why -’
Samir barked an order over the scathing winds for the group to head west, where a crude path ploughed through the knotted and curling stalagmites, which suggested civilisation in some form to Mevoine, for to craft a path in a place like that would demand higher technology and profuse determination. What had happened to said civilisation was questionable.
As they followed their order silently, and Lyrik and Syna dwelled in nostalgia, the path opened and twisted erratically, but somehow maintained its unnerving emptiness like someone had bulldozed the violent spikes and rocky thorns. Mevoine felt like he was walking through the ruptured ribcage of some ancient, giant creature, long-dead and rotted. He hoped and prayed his imagination would stay in imagination.
‘Company halt!’ Samir shouted suddenly, and sprinted to the company’s head.
While the group stopped awkwardly, pointing their guns down at the ground and pretending to know what was happening, Samir and Veritas’ Vanguards spread across a clearing, fenced in by a thorny stalagmite circle. They seemed to be searching for something in the ground, kicking away the congealed dust, wiping with their hands like archaeologists on a crucial dig.
Samir crouched over on bended knee, digging into the stubborn ground like it was water, searching with urgency and purpose. A satisfied gasp escaped him as his fingers snagged on something underground. Straightening his legs, he made a complicated gesture in the air, hands dancing and ducking. Mev felt the same formless and nameless energy he had sensed in Morombe’s presence, only with slight differences; this time it had a direction, velocity, a sense of purpose and shape. The amorphous cloud morphed into a tendril, reaching deep beneath the surface like a probe, and connected with an invisible receptacle. At once the ground split at its request, as if the planet was Samir’s personal playground, and painfully the surface opened into a black abyss. Centuries of dust and trapped air rushed out the new opening like a tsunami.
Mev stared down into the blackness, where spiralled a crude and dilapidated stone staircase, and suddenly felt very small and very young. It was like a tomb; an ancient mausoleum housing secrets and ancient dead, submerged in a graveyard planet. What it might hold, what it might reveal, would excite anticipation, stir hope and curiosity, if only the platform wasn’t so foreboding and ominous.
‘Jenhanian,’ Samir barked, ‘you go first.’ He turned to Veritas’ troops. ‘Take the east-most pathway. You’ll know once you’ve discovered the device, it’s hard to miss. Should you uncover it before I do, contact me immediately. The longer we stay down there, the more danger we’re in. Are we clear?’
The troops bobbed their heads.
Lyrik’s eyes sparkled as she peered into the dark, like a child finding a secret horde of sweets. The mesmeric dark called to her, for the culmination of long-hidden secrets and the exploration of a dingy, untouched tomb.
‘Can I go first?’ she said, dancing excitedly on the spot.
‘No,’ said Samir flatly. ‘We’re splitting into two teams; you’re with me. The second team will explore the farthest western flank. Stop dancing.’
‘We haven’t been properly trained!’ Ailandra groused. ‘What are we supposed to do when we’re down there? And what are we looking for?!’
Samir’s empty sockets pierced her like drills, savage power and laughter twinkling in the blank pits.
‘Point and shoot. Don’t get shot. Training over.’ He waved his hand and the Vanguards dispersed, shoving Mev toward the staircase. ‘Failure will result in death. I suggest if you fail, you fail miserably, because we’re coming out of here with the artefact or not at all.’
‘Oh,’ he added, without humour or laughter. ‘Welcome to the Vanguard. Try to not get killed.’
Thick fungus coated the dank and warped dirt walls like cobwebs, dangled from the drooping, caved-in ceiling. The intricately decorated stonework depicted battles and scripts in languages unknown to Mevoine. It was cramped, barely more than a shoulder-span apart, and the huddled group travelled through in single-file, tracking on each other’s heels.
Dim orange light emanated from a floating orb behind them, throwing flickering and mutated shadows over the fungi-covered canvas. It had been brought into existence by one of the two Vanguards at the company’s flank, suddenly spawned from his palm as they had gradually descended the staircase. Mev had struggled to maintain a cool indifference as the spawned orb appeared as if by magic. He decided it a positive additive to his sanity to not dwell on this esoteric display.
Mev’s nostrils burned at the overwhelming stench, like dead meat, which he attributed to the overgrown fungi that infested every inch of the ghastly corridors and halls.
The tomb, as Mev believed it was indeed a tomb, snaked underground in a whirlwind of narrow hallways and dark atriums, a confined warren of ante-rooms and crumbling, aeons-old panoramas. In the bowels of this cold, dark tomb, life had long evacuated. Each breath Mev took chilled his lungs as if he was inhaling ice, the shadowed corners were pregnant with evil and malice, the drooping ceiling and dangling fungus were like suspended corpses, their icy dead hands reaching down like carcasses in a psychotic butcher’s storage room. The tomb was its own city, with its personal ecosystem; a winding necropolis doomed to the underground catacombs. Its deathlike and empty pathways hadn’t been explored in centuries. Not by anything living, anyway.
The only sound was the crunch of boots on fungus and stone.
‘Why did he tell you to go to the front?’ said Durane, directly behind him. His voice wobbled with fear.
Mev shrugged, as minutely as he could. He didn’t want to speak or move unnecessarily. Something about the tomb sent his heart racing, his legs trembling, and sweat pouring. He didn’t feel like they were alone.
‘Shouldn’t the experienced people go first?’ Durane continued. ‘They’re the ones who know what they’re doing and what they’re looking for. How is four-arms going to fight Pantheon? Paw at their ankles? Stutter at them until they’re too uncomfortable to stick around?’
Berrel shoved into his back. ‘Shut up!’
‘I’m just saying – don’t touch me, old man! – the people experienced with fighting and killing should be the ones doing it!’
Mev thought the reason was obvious: the weak, the feeble, they go first; as distractions and bullet-sponges. Experience is valuable, and the valuable must be protected. Just as Syna said, he was expendable. His death would make no more mark than a mite’s.
He crept forward, boots crunching fungus underfoot, and took the next left under the Vanguard’s commands. They crossed a crumbling, half-rotted bridge, crossing a bottomless chasm. Mev swore he could hear whispers and snippets of distantly sung songs, ethereal voices rising from the endless darkness like a ghostly chorus line. But this was imagined, he told himself. Sensory deprivation in the near silence and blindness colliding like a mosaic, delivering wild fantasies in place of true experience.
The bridge ended and into a small chamber they entered apprehensively, Mev spearheading the squad, gun raised weakly, finger teasing the trigger. The warm cosy chamber was lined with a garland of gloopy fungus that ran along the roof like intestines, and knotted nests festered in the corners. The walls were solid gold and winked in the orange orb’s light. Mev crouched, for the chamber was three quarters his height, though wide enough to hold the company in length.
A rickety wooden pedestal, appended to the wall and engulfed in a heavy sheath of fungus, holed and partly eaten, held on its dilapidated easel a stone orb, the size of a baby’s fist, varnished in a thick coat of dust, cracked and time-worn. With pride of place it looked like an antique, an old and forgotten curio lost to time. It was held in place by a bony claw snatch.
Mev felt a shove to his left, and he was launched suddenly sideways. The Vanguard pair, whom he had named Lumpy and Grumpy, darted toward the orb, wide eyes greedy with excitement.
Lumpy, the fat green humanoid with a beard, waved his podgy hand over the orb, face scrunched up in intense focus.
‘Is that it?’ said the aptly named Grumpy, an insectoid with six arms, pincers and antenna.
Lumpy’s hand dropped. ‘I’m not sure. Samir said we’d know if this was it.’
He took pause, looking over the stone orb in fascination.
‘What would the Optivarr want with -’
He stopped abruptly, rubbed his bruised neck, where Grumpy had suddenly jabbed a spiny pincer.
For once, Mev’s usual indifference and go-with-the-flow attitude retreated, and curiosity swarmed over the top; an answer had been given. This was an Optivarr sanctioned mission. For some reason they had sought out this Nephilim device, though the reasoning remained clouded. Why would they need this – whatever it was? And why not seek it out themselves? Delegation works only when there is a lacking in management skills – the little information offered on the Optivarr was crucially clear on one point: capability, independence, and god-like abilities that made the Nephilim look like monkeys with sticks. Sending Vanguard when they could do the job better themselves seemed counter-intuitive.
‘It’s a dud,’ said Grumpy flatly, rolling the orb in his palm. ‘This isn’t it. Nothing to it. Might as well be a rock. Should we contact Samir?’
‘Not yet,’ said Lumpy anxiously. ‘Look around first. There has to be something around here.’
Mev glanced over his shoulder, peering into the darkness and the crooked bridge behind. Was that singing?
‘Nothing,’ Grumpy grunted, tearing the tunnels of fungus and inspecting the ground beneath. ‘If it was here we’d know it.’
‘Keep looking! Veritas needs this.’
Durane followed Mev’s gaze into the dark, head cocked sideways, listening to the ubiquitous emptiness. Voices…
‘It’s not here! Contact Samir, see if he’s found anything. We can’t just wait around.’
The pedestal was ripped from its cocoon, Lumpy stomped through the chamber, knocking fungus and congealed dust aside in desperate search for something important. He couldn’t admit defeat, not with so much at stake. In matters such as this, the Vanguard are dogged hounds, unwilling to concede to external powers when their Nephilim, their honoured gods, were pulling the strings. It was a heightened loyalty Mev was yet to understand – and had no reason to.
‘Uh, sirs?’ Berrel ventured shyly. ‘Someone’s singing. We’re not alone down here.’
Grumpy waved down his concerns. ‘You’re imagining things; sensory deprivation. It’s nothing.’
‘I hear it too,’ said Durane. ‘There’s definitely singing, it’s coming from the bridge – bloody terrible singing too!’
Lumpy turned on his heels, bloated jowls flapping in the motion. He pointed at Mev, beady eyes narrowed.
‘You hear it?’
Mev nodded, jerked a finger at the bridge. ‘There.’
Lumpy strained his ears, then sent out his orb to the bridge, spilling forth orange light that cascaded over the bridge like molten gold waterfalls. Then he was silent.
‘Sounds like voices,’ he said, unsure. ‘It can’t be Samir, he should be further west. Fingers on triggers.’
At once all weapons raised, fixed on the bridge. Mev’s trembled, hands slipping down the handles. His body was a planet and the tectonic plates were shifting; terror-tremors splitting and fissuring and pulling him apart. It was surreal: he never thought he’d get this far, to be staring down the barrel, facing an enemy. And as the moment dawned, he wished he’d never bothered to answer the Vanguard call.
‘Jenhanian,’ said Grumpy. ‘Go.’
‘The bridge. Now.’
He stepped forward, creeping, terrified, gun pointed at the glowing bridge. Walking was a struggle, legs like jelly. Not an inch of his being wanted to keep walking, to uncover the singing’s source. Anything that could survive down here amongst the pervasive fungus, the chilling stagnant air, wasn’t something he was eager to meet.
At the bridge’s dip, where it met the chamber, Mev shuffled to the edge and carefully peered over, breath caught in his chest. In the darkness nothing stirred, not a speck of dust or drifting fungus, but the singing was there, crooned gently on the wind’s wave.
‘Anything there?’ shouted Lumpy.
Mev shook his head, fixed on the bottomless chasm. He could hear the singing, the gentle melody floating in the air, almost tangible. The darkness was an ocean however; absolute, endless, and terrifying. Anything could be hiding in the shadow-mantled depths.
‘Mev,’ said Berrel. ‘Don’t get too close to the edge. We don’t want you going over.’
‘You don’t call the orders here!’ shouted Grumpy.
‘Do you want him to fall off the bridge?’
‘I don’t care if he does!’ He snapped his fingers. ‘Lower the orb into the pit, find out where those voices are coming from, Jenhanian.’
Before the orb plummeted into the black and ignited the pit, Mev caught a vague purple flash stirring in the deep, a wavy half-mirage he almost missed, like a shark dwelling on the sea’s floor.
He gasped, entranced, as out the deep dark, swimming through the blackness, dancing and twirling in the air, dainty and unbearably graceful, came a womanly figure, naked, beautiful, enchanting.
Her purple skin glowed, cast out the darkness and the shadows. Toward the bridge she floated, delicately, soft as a feather, twirling and swaying, arms opened invitingly, seducing Mev to her tender embrace, into her adoring hold where he would be safe and happy and protected, forever entwined. That soft ethereal song soared to him, echoed in his soul, the melody pampering like a duvet, each elegant note oozing with warmth and generous compassion, calming and soothing his aches and worries and pains. The voice was like laudanum, the anaesthesia to his life’s problems. Never had he experienced such bliss and joy, jolts of relief and ecstasy electrifying his body, quashing his agony, exploding his heart in a million tiny and overjoyed pieces. He was an addict and she was the precious dose he needed to calm his jittery weakness. He’d never felt such love and warmness. His hand was reaching out to hers, and hers to his, bridging the gap between their fresh-faced love, finger’s length away from consummation, where he would be coddled, where he would be loved and adored, where he would worship her like a god, loyal and obedient and eternally happy, and no-one could fight them, no-one could stop them, no-one would get in the way. Just the two of them, forever and always.
Happiness was but a step away, and he could touch it, taste it, feel it in every heartbeat. The voice whispered to him in silky cadences, guided him to step off the bridge, to fall helplessly into her arms.
Somebody was screaming; he didn’t care. Nothing else mattered. In the darkness it was him and her. White eyes bade him forward. One step away… happiness eternal…
What happened next he could never be truly sure. The next thing he remembered was the sound of his armour screeching across the bridge, and the sudden breaking of the groggy enchantment draining from his conscious mind. Melting synapses panicked, retaining very little of the last few minutes, and threw together a cluttered panorama they hoped was close to the reality.
Then he was lifted to his feet, someone had their arms under his shoulders, dragging him aside, shouting in his dull ears. Everything was muffled and colourless, a cluster headache blistered, and his dead limbs refused to respond to his desperate pleas for movement.
The shouting cut through the hazy grogginess. They were in the chilling corridors, sprinting in abject terror. Mev didn’t have a clue what was happening; he could hear screaming and shouting, the fast patter of feet on stone, and something crashing through the walls, sending battered detritus in wide arcs. A flash of fangs, scales, and a serpentine tail the size of a boat imbedded themselves in Mev’s panicking mind. Something was chasing them, hunting them like rabbits, ravenous and pervading.
‘Mev!’ Berrel’s voice. ‘Move your legs! I can’t carry you!’
His legs finally obliged to his pleas, catching the floor as it swept beneath him, and out of Berrel’s tough grip he escaped. Half-stumbling, half-running, he charged down the corridors after Berrel and Durane; Lumpy and Grumpy were nowhere to be seen. Behind him chaos chased, snapping at their ankles. He could feel damp heat on the back of his neck; the moist breath of something close enough to kiss. His pace quickened.
He ducked as severed blocks flew into his head, staggered his gait. Berrel grabbed him by the hand and yanked him forward.
‘Leave him!’ Durane screamed over his shoulder.
Berrel dodged left, Mev followed his footsteps, trusting in his direction. Stone and torn fungus whizzed by his ear. Whatever was trailing at his ankles snarled and growled and roared, all the might and fury of a supernova, something with massive size and dominance, slithering, destructive, all-consuming. Something that would eat small pseudo-soldiers without breaking stride.
The corridor turned sharply left. Mev stumbled into the corner, grazing his armour, and pulled himself along the wall, hands gripped on thick damp fungus – which didn’t last two seconds as the monstrous hunter smashed through it like wet paper. He ducked again, sucked his arms to his sides, as a shower of fungus and rubble rained down.
An intersection emerged at the corridor’s end.
‘Which way?!’ Durane shouted, leading the escape.
‘Right!’ Berrel screamed.
They lunged into the right turn, barely avoiding violent dismemberment. Mev’s legs ached from the constant running, his heart thumped from the constant fear; peril and death snapping inches from his neck.
Terror crackled like fire, roaring and burning in his chest. He couldn’t go for much longer. Death tracked his footsteps, ready to let loose the scythe and cut life’s thread short.
Durane roared and pointed to a streaming beam of orange light pouring in from the tomb’s entrance. They had somehow managed to find their way out of the labyrinth, against all odds. Now the only thing that remained was to make it out with all limbs intact.
Durane disappeared into the light, clambering up the staircase on all fours like a child. Berrel gripped Mev’s arm and pulled him up, screaming from the effort and strain, dragging him across the staircase’s sharpened edges. He let it happen; every fibre of his body throbbed in pain, and what little energy he had left was dedicated to staying conscious.
Sunlight spilled over him. Along the barren ground he crawled like it was broken glass; feeble, exhausted, utterly done. He fell on his back, hungrily gulped down arid air.
Before he had a chance to fully recover, the ground exploded in a tornado of harsh rubble. He covered his eyes to protect them from a torrent of hard debris, trusting his armour would negate the damage to his exposed torso.
Brushing off the debris-coffin enclosing him, he rolled awkwardly onto his feet and limped toward the horizon, turning his back on the ravenous and monstrous hunter intent on claiming him as a trophy. The time had come for his immediate and inevitable retreat, for cowardice to once more win over hope.
Aila’s voice behind him, barely audible amidst the roaring and the rupturing ground. He ignored it, hobbled toward the wilderness. He didn’t know where he was heading, all he knew was he couldn’t stay there. Terror drove him forward.
He glanced back, and truly wished he hadn’t.
From the mouth of the tomb ascended like a tower a scaly, sickly-green tail, thick as ten tree-trunks, writhing in agonising and tortuous revolutions, spinning upwards, shreds of fungus clinging to its nauseating body. Its segregated skin impressed abhorrence and sickness. He stepped back, looked high into the sky, where its toothy head flapped like rubber, and from which dangled on dripping sinew the wraithlike purple siren, now cold and lifeless; vibrant and intoxicating aura annulled. Her former beauty was tragic; nothing but an illusion to lure the senseless and the weak willed, a mindless puppet on a monstrous string.
Its fanged maw reached to the clouds, breaching like a whale rising from the ocean, and tremored the ground with a gut-wrenching roar.
Figures surrounded the bottom, enclosed like a fence, and a sudden volley of blue shots sliced through the air like fireworks, impacting the slithery green body, igniting the scales in a swirling and chaotic inferno.
In response, the great snake – or worm, whatever it was – screeched, steaming bile pouring from its snapping jaws. And there was something else coming out the mouth, climbing between the serrated fangs, crawling down its body like a brood of spiders, a black mass swarming toward the ground, gibbering and tittering and cackling, until the air buzzed and hissed with their mad chorus.
Aila circled the mouth, strong wings flapping madly, and shouted hoarsely. She unleashed a barrage of inaccurate shots, most grazing harmlessly off the sickening creature’s thick hide. The monstrous snake rushed suddenly forward, snapped at her wings. Unperturbed, she pushed against the air and thrusted upwards above the helpless beast and sprayed relentlessly into the hungry, spewing creature.
While Aila kept it busy, dodging and swerving with lissom aviary elegance, Samir and the others blasted its robust hide with flaming barrages; scales ignited in a fluttering blue blaze. They were uncoordinated, however, amateur and juvenile, and despite Samir’s frantically barked orders and directions they fired in random bursts, focused in entirely the wrong places, practically falling over each other in the chaos, missing their shots entirely. Blind luck carries incompetence only so far, and at that point experience dominates.
The company split into two halves; Samir, Aila, Lyrik and Syna continued a fiery assault on the worm’s slimy hide, Durane, Berrel and Monsoon fought the worm’s spidery litter. They were overrun, fighting a losing battle. Monsoon roared and swung his gangly arms, bit at his clingy attackers. Durane hid behind the dragon, using him as a fleshy, improvised shield.
Berrel retreated quickly as if to withdraw from the fight entirely, wrestled free from the hording arachnid creatures, and suddenly clicked his heels together, a rather peculiar act amidst the chaotic battle. At first nothing happened, and it seemed whatever the action had attempted to conjure had failed to manifest, then at once his quixotic shoes enflamed in orange explosions, erupting into shattered prisms, a trail of fitful fire sliding behind him, and across the desolate ground he glided like an ice-skater, carving unhindered through the stubborn dirt like an insectoid pond-skater across water, moving with incredible speed and agility. The planet’s surface was as malleable to him as ice. As a ghost slicing through the air, untouched by air-resistance, he skated alongside the fight, firing random shots into the chaotic battle. His graceful speed was such that his arachnid pursuers bundled in a limby mess chasing after him, black claws grazing the fiery emptiness.
He skated to the side of the snake’s massive writhing body as it twisted out of the tomb’s forcefully constructed exit, leaving a rail of flame in his wake. The hounding arachnids blindly pursued, foolishly incinerating like straw as soon as they touched the lingering fire. The ensnaring flames cocooned them, enveloped them like dancing webs, until all that remained were squealing plumes of thick black smoke.
As Berrel lithely navigated the chaos, skittering along the ground with dancer grace, he adopted the role of beacon, attracting the spider-like assailants into his fiery trail, circling the black mass in a ring of rising fire. Trapped, with the fire encroaching, their desperate screeches filled the air, ascending above the roar of the hissing fire. Monsoon, also inside the burning circle alongside Durane, was the first to take advantage of their panic, grabbed one by the arms, twirled on the spot, and lobbed it like a discus into the mercy of the flame’s heated coddle.
Durane, too, was panicking in the commotion. Plumes of smoke snaked into the sky, clouds of fire rumbled and fizzled and spit, the horrid death-rattles of the black spawn jeered and goaded as their dark silhouettes crumbled to ash in the corrosion. The ring began to contract, tongues of fire lashing out at the retreating Vanguards like flashes of lightning – quick and brimming with potent lethality.
And the fires raged on as Berrel threaded dauntingly between the fighters, dodging the shots, forging crackling inferno-pathed tracks.
But Durane and Monsoon were trapped inside the smouldering circle. Smoke and fire swarmed around them, swirling in the air, a thrashing ocean of murky black and phosphorous orange. Monsoon growled, fanged jaws biting at the flaying flames. Durane, agitated by his companion’s feral response, shouted for assistance, and waved back the advancing wall. In his determination to eradicate the spider-spawn, Berrel had inadvertently doomed his fellow soldiers. His short-sighted anger would cost them their lives. Sometimes it is better not to act. Rage and hate will breed only more of the same. Those that are slaves to the leash of intolerance, act in the emotions of a moment, will condemn those around them to hollow oblivion.
The ravenous flames advanced. The circle contracted. Monsoon and Durane had moments left. Thick smoke matted and slithered and undulated; a thriving cloud smothering the bounded space.
Mev realised this would be the first death he’d witness. Two people he scarcely knew were about to melt in front of his very eyes, reduced to smouldering puddles. The arachnids, in his frantic mind, didn’t really count; dumb feral beasts driven to kill on instinct, lured into a trailing inferno like idiots to a racist march. These were people he knew. And they were about to die. It would be a lie to say he truly cared, but shimmers of regret bubbled in his scrawny chest as he stared on, helpless and afraid.
And the fear in their faces, mirrored flames dancing in their rheumy eyes, so carnal and innocent and pure. The true fear of men facing the tangible heat of their own mortality as it coiled around their fearful hearts, ready to constrict and squeeze free the last drop of life.
As hard as he tried, Mev couldn’t turn away. Morbid fascination enraptured him.
The smoke weighed down heavily. The fires screamed.
Cutting through the dense blackness like a knife, Ailandra’s wings flapped away the smoke, and into the chaotic swirls of fire and smog she dived, swallowed by the wispy dark blanket.
The climbing fire separated like a curtain, and from the chaos emerged a smog and dirt-coated Ailandra, unravelling the spitting fires and suffocating smoke with her wings, and two blackened figures gripped tight in her grasp. She cleared the fire, setting her sights on an empty clearing, but Monsoon and Durane’s admirable weight dragged her down, and she struggled to keep her wings going. With a pained scream her arms gave way, her wings folded; her paralyzed passengers tumbled in the air and crashed helplessly into the ground. Caught in a plume of momentum, a loosed arrow whizzing to its target, into a curling stalagmite she crashed desperately, cracking her skull, a flash of deep red striking sharply across her forehead. In a limp, sad pile, Aila collapsed unconscious, beads of blood oozing from an ugly wide cut. She had gone unnaturally pale – paler even than Lyrik and Syna – and he worried that death had snuck surreptitiously through the calamitous flames to claim her.
Mev braced himself; the great worm, sensing its vile brood eradicated, shook the planet with a squealing, violent roar, strong enough to tremble the ground beneath his feet.
A whizzing projectile perforated the worm’s flapping mouth, grazing its thick hide, leaving behind a notched wound. Lee’s sniper-like aim made quick work of the worm’s resolve; its sickly body trembled as the shot penetrated its flaccid skin, steaming bile gushed from its mouth in a greenish-white sludge, the shrivelled puppet waggled like a broken arm.
Like a grotesque wilted flower the virulent snake dropped its massive head, twisted itself free. There was a sensation similar to witnessing a skyscraper collapsing; the expectation, the fear as it hovers above at the precipice of calamity, the knowledge that at any moment the concrete leviathan could topple and everything caught in its colossal shadow reduced to dust.
And the worm hovered…
And like a collapsing tower, down the leviathan came.
Mev turned on his heels, heart caught in his throat. Eyes on the dim glow of the blackened horizon. A perilous and savage maze ahead, a collapsing giant snake behind.
Abandon the rest.
The stench became unbearable as the worm’s putrid white bile baked in the startling heat. Frightened screams polluted the air – and at once were engulfed by explosive, painful ruptures as the ground splintered and fell apart.
The force hit Mev’s back like a train, throwing him forward in freefall – the jagged world spun around in kaleidoscopic chaos. Hands dropped first, then knees; a tumble, exposed skin ripping as he struggled for balance.
On solid ground, finally, he lurched forward, stomach erupting. The ground lunged at him, cracking his forehead. Almost instantly he tasted blood in his mouth, and a quick check with his tongue confirmed several loosened teeth.
He rolled onto his back, groaning, shielding his eyes from the predatory sunlight; ears filled with cacophony. The great snake’s flabby head had disappeared into the ground, its sickening body following it into the depths, stretching the stubborn dirt and stone until it could no longer hold the tension. A tempest of shattered stone evacuated into the air; liberated boulders the size of small mountains raining down in a vicious rocky monsoon.
Mev rolled left to dodge a falling slab, then screamed as over him expanded a dark shadow. His arms raised instinctively to protect his face. The rocks bounced off the armour like pellets and tumbled aside -Mev shrivelled into a ball, prepared for an incoming bombardment. Scatters of stone trickled over him, opening thin ugly lacerations across his face.
He peeked out the corner of his eye: ragged sunlight, shattered stone drifting in the air like snow, frayed black clouds meandering across the ravaged skyline, and the monstrous beast slithering back into its lair, ruthlessly carving a rancorous path into the stone – scales grinding against the rock like rubbery fins.
As he lay motionless upon the fracturing ground the sun’s mocking gaze pierced his skin, and distant terrified screams twirled like pointed blades in the teeming air. Clenched fingers dug into the dirt. Sweat and blood misted his vision. Consciousness began to drain, leaving him barely a shrivelled husk to inhabit.
An uncomfortable sensation crept over him as he dirtied his hands. His tenuous grasp on consciousness slipping away, perhaps, he thought, it was reality’s grip loosening its clutch, but something about the way it washed over him like a familiar fear suggested urgent action – cracking an eyelid open assured him in all the wrong ways.
A fissure had opened up like a river; tectonic forces divorcing over a widening chasm. The split snaked beneath him, zig-zagging between the mouth of the tomb to the outer stalagmite circle, knife-like ridges and furrowed crags jabbed from beneath the surface like crooked tombstones. And the all too familiar feeling continued to fester.
Then he recognised it, as one might an old childhood friend.
His arms straightened immediately, rigid and stalwart, and into the ascending towers of stone enclosing him like a coffin they burrowed – soft hands scarcely breaching the planet’s hardened skin. He dropped further, scraping several feet downwards. Traction slipped a second time, taking him further down into the pit, where below the veil of pitch black came guttural roars, either from splitting stone or tunnelling snake. Into the spiralling darkness he fell, he panicked, he screamed and he cried.
The planet was a fanged beast swallowing him whole; stuck in its monstrous throat he looked up, out of its cragged maw, where a precious halo of muted sunlight retreated into the distance, gradually becoming a further and more desperate hope. The light at the end of the tunnel was there – but it was an uphill climb filled with lurid peril.
Suddenly his arduous descent came to an abrupt stop; his entire body slammed into a jutting outcrop. Since this earthly body adhered to the tight parameters of physics and momentum, this jarring stop held within it the force and control to aggressively re-locate its many internal organs, a painful and forced rearranging; the armour dulled the pain and absorbed the accumulated momentum, as it was designed to do, but also slackened the platform’s structural integrity.
Terrified to move, Mev gingerly extended his arms to either side and gripped tight to the chasm walls, fearful that his lucky platform would collapse under the weight – contributing to this fear was the ever-growing divide as the planet’s solidity weakened under the great snake’s pugnacious assault. Trapped, alone, arms shaking from exertion, he was ready to give up, to let himself fall into the darkness and offer himself as unwilling sacrifice. He truly didn’t want to die – but as happened so often in his short miserable life, the choice had been taken outside his control and all he could do was wait patiently for the rock to collapse and his miserable little life to come to its inevitable end.
Fitful light leaked through the falling debris. It struck Mev that this would be the last sight he would ever see. As many before him facing the same situation he had erroneously believed this final moment would be a blaze of glory; a heroic sacrifice hewing his name on the world’s script, but as the flickering light seemed to dissolve entirely behind a wall of plummeting rock, he realised his death would be a frightened and forgotten whimper in a dissonant hurricane of chaos.
He swung his body to the wall, chest pressed against the rock, rested his throbbing forehead on the cold stone. It wouldn’t be long now; quick as a gasp and just as easy.
He looked up the frayed tunnel. Dirt and stone showered down in a constant stream, disappearing into the black unknown below. Beyond the rocky brook a figure shielded themselves against the hurtling stone spray. Mev focused on the hazy silhouette clinging to the tunnel; and despite the busy air he correctly identified them as a panicked Lyrik, who had somehow fallen over the edge and was desperately clambering toward freedom and safety.
Syna bent over the tunnel’s mouth, crying out for Lyrik, stretching her arm into the crumbling channel as a despairing lifeline. Once or twice she almost fell in, only to be hoisted back by Monsoon and the others.
Lyrik screamed as her grip slipped – dropping further into the rumbling pit, hands scraping along the walls, frantically grabbing at protruding stones. She caught herself opposite Mevoine, a few feet away. Her frazzled hair hung limply, rebellious strands stuck to her sweat-coated forehead and deeply-gouged red cheeks, and her body tremored from exertion and fear.
Mev heard his name screamed from above.
‘Mev! Help her!’
Syna’s trembling voice echoed. Mev clung to the wall, shaking and crying. Lyrik’s staccato sobs radiated exhaustion.
His true cowardly colours had been hoisted on the mast – the ugly truth revealed to all. Perhaps they would have thought of him as a harmless nuisance, likely to be struck down early in his military career, but now his spinelessness had paraded around on fat legs of fear, they would vie for his premature execution. Cowardice, Mev reflected, was just as dangerous as bravery – but not for the coward.
He could help her. One outstretched hand to stop her slipping. One hand to buy her time so the others could effect a rescue. One hand is all it would take. He could save them both.
But he wouldn’t.
Into the harsh stone his fingers dug deep. He closed his eyes; pretended there was nothing behind him. Lyrik wasn’t there. Syna wasn’t screaming. Nobody was dying. Giant snakes didn’t exist. As much as he hated home, it promised safety and comfort, and so he thought of it; the house too large for its own good, the father who despised his every breath, the mother buried in the back garden he never visited, the latticed beams spreading through the gated windows, the dusty corners and haunting paintings covered in ancient cobwebs.
A piercing shriek shattered his self-imposed illusion. Lyrik had slipped to a foot below Mev and had managed to find a platform to hold onto. Her arms shook, knuckles whitened. A matter of time for them both, he thought morbidly.
Lyrik craned to look upwards toward Syna, way above, silhouetted against the crimson sky. The two’s eyes locked and within a single glance they exchanged their fears and hopes, their precious memories and private jokes, the mocking dance of their projected future as the curtain closed around it, and inside those naked truths their untarnished beauty and unbreakable union wove a delicate tapestry; the life they shared together, the gentle love and comfort, and the life they had planned never to be realised. To watch helpless as love descends into blank emptiness is a burden made only less painful by futile surrender.
But Syna wasn’t one to surrender. Conceding to cowardice wasn’t within her personal repertoire – she would fight to the bitter end.
Mev caught something moving at daunting speed through the contracting light; a shadowed figure dropping down into the tunnel without a moment’s pause or thought, an arm thrown into the wall to slow its speed, ripping into the stone like a knife through paper.
It slowed to a stop beside Lyrik, grabbed her by the waist, and swivelled its head towards Mev. He found himself staring into two black pits, shadows dancing in the mesmerising dark. He could feel Samir’s judging glare perforate his soul.
Why didn’t you save her? Why did you do nothing?
Samir lifted Lyrik to his side, thick stone safely sliding off his tough skin. He stared at shaking Mev and sneered; Mev understood. He was to be left in the tunnel as punishment for his cowardice, for his incapability had almost killed Lyrik and broken Syna’s heart, his complacent by-stander attitude during the battle had effectively committed him to suicide, and this was Samir’s way of morally righteous execution. Bereft of arguments, Mev accepted his fate. It would be better for everyone if he wasn’t there, not in the way, not hindering their militant progress.
Mev rooted himself to the wall.
Samir growled, then began to climb, unhindered by the plummeting squall of scabrous stone.
It was all right, he told himself in tears. The way it was meant to be – the best for everybody. Step out of the world in a frightened whimper. Waste to nothing.
Then he felt an arm coil around his own, and something lifting him. The pressure around his shoulder was tight, but soft fingers reassured him. Certainly not the harsh stone fingers of Samir’s boulder-like grip.
Why would anyone save him? Life was a gift he had squandered, in true grace rejected. He wasn’t worth the trouble.
Regardless of his rescue, he let go; giving up on consciousness, waving a tired goodbye to the hazed tunnel of death. His inert body was carried into the light, into the warm glow and sweeping storms of abrasive dust.
The very last sight he remembered: Syna standing over him collecting Lyrik in her arms, shrivelled bands of crimson sunlight flaring between their embracing silhouettes – and the steady, despotic gaze of Samir as his eyelids shut out the screaming world and dragged him into a restless sleep.
Hazy, dreamy light sluggishly clouded the cramped room and distorted the anti-septic white cabinets lining the walls, concealed the hanging screens and gruesome medical instruments in such wild and violent configurations they would make even the most seasoned psychopath blush. Colourful bottles of pills and transparent liquids festooned the available surfaces; a bottomless well of medicinal privileges for the unfortunate to collect as needed. The confined glorified cupboard stunk like a swimming pool, bleach and chlorine musk colouring the stagnant air, combining with the nauseatingly clean and radiant white walls and surfaces to espouse purity and untarnished cleanliness.
Mev sat uncomfortably on the single gurney, chin pinned to his chest, while the pale blue-skinned, white-jacket clad doctor looked over a messy tangle of files. Hospitals were scarce on his home planet, and dangerously underfunded, so most visits to a doctor or nurse involved substandard care and severe discomfort. As such this doctor, as friendly as she was, left him ill at ease. He tried to remind himself that his discomfort was the product of governmental figureheads priding financial gain over basic compassion – a system destined to fail – but his uneasiness remained pitted in the bottom of his queasy stomach.
‘Well, you’re lucky,’ said the doctor, Luna. ‘You had an internal haemorrhage, three broken ribs, and severe concussion. Fortunately, nothing we can’t fix. Your helmet is rather important, Mevoine, I’d suggest you keep it with you. Especially when you’re fighting giant snakes.’
Mev nodded solemnly.
‘I’m surprised you haven’t been briefed on proper protocol,’ she continued thoughtfully. ‘This is basic training. Who’s your commander? I’ll make sure they get a stern talking to.’ She flicked a finger through her files, then burst into manic giggles. ‘Samir! Oh, you poor boy. Likes to flex his authority whenever he can, bit of a drill sergeant. No wonder you didn’t know what you were doing, he’s terrible for neglecting initiates. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.’
Mev remained silently shameful.
‘You can go now, Mevoine. Everything’s healed up nicely. You might experience some latent pain, that’ll be the painkillers wearing off. If it gets worse, come see me.’
Hectic crowds spilled over the main atrium of the ship, streaming in huddled droves, a boisterous balloon of loud voices splatting against the domed ceiling miles above. Mev stepped gingerly into the incoming swarms, side-stepping between the aloof throngs. He peeked over the railing, and immediately retreated. The forty-seventh floor was a terrifying place to stand, especially for someone who had recently been involved in a near-fatal fall into oblivion. He’d had enough of falling to last him a lifetime.
Dwelling on the subject of his rescue guaranteed augmented self-loathing and humiliation. He hadn’t thanked Lyrik for saving him – didn’t have to heart to look her in the eyes. Deflated and defeated, dealing with his numerous issues would have to wait. The ravenous black hole of gloomy introspection would still be there an hour later.
A question continued to nag him, however. A mystery left unsolved. Truthfully he hadn’t given it much thought, all things considered he had mentally chewed over a lot in the last few days that he was struggling to digest and this final problem had dropped off his plate. The device the Optivarr had sought to acquire – why? What was it? Why send lowly Vanguard initiates to retrieve it? Where was the real device? Why had a decoy been left behind? And the Pantheon had predicted their move, making doubly sure that in the event somebody went searching for the device they would find instead the digestive tract of a monstrous snake – how?
He dismissed the thoughts – impure, pointless, detrimental, and no matter how many times the questions ran around the tracks they’d never reach the finish line.
His bed called to him – as did food. Deciding between eating and sleeping was like deciding which bullet he’d rather have lodged in his temple. To sleep he’d have to return to the dorm, where the rest of the team had withdrawn to rest, where his cowardice and incompetence would be the hot subject – blisteringly so. The homebound trip had reeked awkwardness; Syna said nothing, simply glared at Mev with owl-like eyes, Lee’s toothy grin had drooped into a rueful grimace, and the others stared at their feet, faces like masks, not wanting to unintentionally challenge Syna’s radiating fury. Thankfully he was unconscious for most of the flight and only awoke as the ship came into dock, and had then hurried to the doctor’s office under Samir’s disdainfully grunted and begrudgingly offered advice.
To eat, however, he would have to navigate the busy lanes of the main ship, find his way to a dispensary, then perhaps even engage in a horrible conversation or two, and accrue for himself a heightened distress.
Better the devil you know, he decided.
The passageway to the dorm disappeared into the ship’s aft, curling around the back of the main hub, and contained significantly less traffic. Mevoine followed the path, managed to get lost twice, and finally confronted the metal sliding door that concealed the dorm.
The unnaturally clean, pasty-white metal reflected his sullen expression in a desultory visage, the kind he had encountered at carnivals in his youth, where warped mirrors mutated their artistic subjects into derisive paintings of horror, presumably for humorous effect. As Mev stared into the black-ringed, sunken eyes, and the twisted skeletal frame, he could find no humour in its ugly truth.
Trembling, he tentatively waved a hand across the beady sensor, then held his breath as the door slid open and the fauna-reigned dorm appeared.
Everyone was asleep – Durane snored soundly, Berrel tossed and turned as if inflicted by a nightmare from which he couldn’t escape, and Monsoon spilled over his noticeably deficient bunk. He breathed a sigh of relief; Syna wasn’t present and Lyrik seemed almost cataleptic. Lee was also absent, and he knew Aila would be occupied either at one of the medical centres having her wounds treated or exploring the various avenues of conversation and sociability hitherto denied to her.
Mev tip-toed to his bed and made to clamber over the barrier. Maybe he could avoid the barbed insults and demeaning questions for a while longer – sleep through most of the day and thereby evade the barrage of abuse surely already loaded into Durane’s verbal shotgun.
He bit his lip, and turned to face Lyrik sitting upright in her bed, wiping sleep from her eyes. His heart froze over.
She patted the bed.
‘Come and talk. You disappeared earlier, I wanted to talk things over with you.’
Her soothing tone seduced him to sit – he made sure to pick his location cautiously to avoid infringing on her personal space, nominating a spot at the foot of the bed. She smiled weakly in a subdued attempt to put him at ease, highlighting the cuts and bruises spattered on her ghostly-white forehead and cheeks like jet-black spackles of paint. Mev tempered a guilty pang.
‘Don’t worry,’ she assured him, ‘everyone put earplugs in and Monsoon swallowed a bottle of something before he went to bed. They won’t wake up.’ She placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘How are you feeling?’
Guilty. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Depressed.
‘You’re a bad liar. It’s okay to admit you’re not okay.’
I almost got you killed.
Lyrik’s hand slipped limply from his shoulder. ‘I just wanted you to know there’s no bad blood between us. But it might be best to avoid Syna for a while, she’s a bit… temperamental at times. She’ll get over it eventually, she usually does. The others weren’t too happy with you just standing there watching us fight, Monsoon said you might as well not have been there, and Durane had ample horrible things to say on the subject. But they were there, they saw what you were like, all the fear, and it’s not like they’re protective over me like Syna is. They’ll understand in time. I guess the closer you are to someone, the harder it is to see the facts.’
It was all he could manage.
‘You don’t have to apologise, Mev. You looked scared out of your mind. I could have done something, anything, to help you and I didn’t. I’m the one that’s sorry.’
Mev stared at her slack-jawed. Despite her sublime friendliness and conscientious nature, her insistence to apologise when he was the guilty party only contributed further to his self-loathing and disappointment.
‘I mean it,’ she said, noticing his surprise. ‘When we decided to join the Vanguard, Syna taught me how to fight, how to read a battle. She taught me to identify when someone needs help. You needed help and I didn’t do anything – and Syna was too busy worrying about me to worry about you.’
For once, he felt the need to argue. This fresh new experience chilled him.
‘It’s my fault. You almost d-died.’
She managed a thin smile. ‘I’m okay, Mev. One hundred percent alive. Don’t dwell on what you could have done, just be thankful we’re all here and we’re all alive – that’s what’s important. Getting stuck in your own head wondering how you could’ve done something different is a fine way to drive yourself insane. The nightmares we conceive are always far worse than the reality we have to face.’
Lost in thought, Lyrik’s gaze focused in the distance, within it a stream of deep thoughts sparkling like diamonds. It looked to Mev as though memories had taken control of her conscious mind, barricading her entry to any awareness of the present, memories from which sweltered waves of pain. She snapped back to Mev after the thoughts dispelled.
‘And we know what not to do, don’t we? Don’t split up, and don’t stand there gawking at a big-ass snake like an idiot.’
She winked, an act in which Mev discovered almost zero humour.
He cleared his throat, looked nervously at his feet – namely his tattered, dirty boots, soaked in sweat, congealed blood and clinging stone. Lyrik had already cleaned her own.
A curious thought percolated.
‘Syna taught you. To f-f-f-’
‘To fight?’ said Lyrik. ‘She wouldn’t have let us join if I didn’t know how to take care of myself. She’s a very capable person, once you get passed all the weird, intense looks and scary growling. And the little temper tantrums. And keep away from oranges, they set her off in all the wrong ways.’
Mev nodded slowly. ‘Okay. Where is sh-she?’ He anxiously rubbed his forehead. ‘Sorry about the st-stutter.’
‘She said she was going to the gym. She’s pissed-off, stressed and bored, there’s only one place she can satisfy all three at once.’ Lyrik’s head swivelled sideways. ‘Why? What are you thinking?’
He summoned his last bastion of courage – from its hiding place behind his abandoned dignity and neglected self-worth.
‘Where’s the gym?’
The architects involved in Nephilim constructions are of prominent stature and notorious mental instability – such as should be expected from those tasked with creating war-machines capable of surviving universe-ending explosions. Their wild imaginings brought to life by the hands of their god-like taskmasters, the architects usually disappeared into the noxious wilderness of madness, brought to the brink by the reality of what they had created. Notably, the Nephilim were known to enjoy this detrimental by-product – for if a machine’s creator can’t look into the mechanics of its own creation and maintain their precious sanity, then surely their enemies would follow them into the spiral when confronted with the madness-inducing abomination.
Unfortunately this effect was somewhat lessened due to context. What one man might find ugly, abhorrent, or sanity eroding, another would find perfectly beautiful, enjoyable, or even humorous. One common complaint amongst those exposed to Nephilim constructs, however, was how confusing the knots of winding, dead-end passageways were, the endless staircases, the transporters that sent their passengers hurtling through cold, empty space, only to then whisk them back in a flash and teleport them onto the wrong ship, the curious and impossible geometry, and the often vile and offensive decorations inscribed on various walls that would emerge from the metal at random intervals – apparently left behind as sort of jokes by the ever-maddening architects.
And it was inside one of these twisting hallways Mevoine now walked, neglecting to notice the Nephilim script melting through the floor – not that he would have been able to read it, but it would be worth noting it was a very thinly veiled insult comparing a famously terrible politician to a baboon in heat.
A sharp right took him into one of the many hundred gyms streaked across the ship. Syna had chosen this one, according to Lyrik, for its calm solitude and almost complete seclusion. A choice he both understood and appreciated.
The gym’s enormous expanse opened before him like a rolling white meadow. Flat crash mats were strewn across the floor in seemingly random places, perhaps not returned to their homes after their previous use, weights larger and heavier than Mevoine were clamped securely into vices that ran along the uniform walls like bars, ragged punch-bags hung from the ceiling, apparently attached to some sort of hidden pulley system that allowed would-be-fighters to methodically plan a fight, and various contraptions of excessively alien origins huddled in the corner suggested a whole level of pain, effort, and determination he had never experienced. Forestry had claimed this area as well, curling around the wall-long window pane that commanded a breath-taking panorama of space; all the distant stars glinting like pearls in a black ocean.
Mev tolerated a burst of vertigo to stare out breathlessly into the stunning vista, this small snapshot of infinity, feeling suddenly smaller than ever before; the ability of the depths of space to dwarf oneself was often underestimated. He didn’t hover too long – as the gym was less empty than Lyrik had implied.
He scanned the unmoving throngs for Syna, then fought a surprised chuckle. The people weren’t people at all; they were robotic training dummies sprinkled around the room, intended for programmed sparring. They exuded an admittedly convincing lifelike presence, and if not for the glaring joints connecting each separate piece of their blue, metallic bodies together, Mev would likely have continued erroneously believing them well and truly living.
He heard Syna before he saw her; padded fists pounding an unfortunate dummy; years of punishment having left it without arms and its neck permanently cocked to the left, causing it to look as if eternally impeaching the answer to an important question. It would be lucky to survive Syna’s rather brutal and rage-filled expulsion of fists.
The white under-armour seemed to have been abandoned in favour of a coal-black top and equally dark black shorts, and she had tied her sweat-sheened hair into a tight pink ponytail that stretched her ghostly forehead back to her ears.
He sidled anxiously towards her, hoping she would notice the movement before he got too close.
She thumped the dummy in the chest, and somehow against all known logical and causal laws, her fist pierced the full length and jutted out the dummy’s back.
‘What do you want?’
The loaded question disarmed him – the venomous spike in her tone set about decanting its poison. Syna yanked her hand free and fixed the padding.
‘I-I-’ He cleared his throat, controlled his manic trembling. ‘I’m s-s-s… Sorry.’
The dummy was quickly replaced with another in remarkably better shape; Mev considered the previous may in fact not have been around for years, maybe it had been a recent challenger, fresh-faced and gilded, until Syna got her hands on it. Or through it.
‘That’s all you’ve got to say?’ She grunted. ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’
‘Lyrik s-s-saved me.’
‘I mean you’re lucky I didn’t kick you back into that pit. And you’re lucky you’re not a training dummy. Is that all you came to tell me?’
His idea seemed less like frugal hope and more like a one-way ticket to hell.
‘Lyrik… said you trained her. To fight.’
‘Correct. What about it?’
He stared self-consciously at his feet. Syna shoved the dummy aside, stomping loudly towards him.
‘You want me to teach you how to fight?’ she hissed. ‘Why would I help you? You’re a coward!’
Mev backed off, tottered a few steps backwards.
‘Save it! You don’t deserve help!’ She spit at his feet, then appeared to gain control of her flustering rage; demonstrating the sort of control to which only veteran soldiers could attest. ‘Mev, you almost killed my wife. Don’t expect me to be courteous. Just leave.’
Enduring her gorgon-gaze, Mev ordered his feet to stay absolutely rooted.
Stay strong. For once in your life.
Syna’s lips curled into a sneer; savagery dancing in the whites of her eyes. Edging closer to her engrossed hatred for him was like dressing himself in steak and pirouetting in a lion’s den. But his resolve to be better, to improve, to progress, latched his legs to the ground. The march of progress isn’t always pretty– but it is a necessary ugliness.
Before he could react, Syna’s fingers curled into his under-armour, and her wild eyes thrust inches away from his own. The vicious sparkle swimming in those milky white voids screamed and battered its retinal cage.
Perhaps if he hadn’t earlier that day nearly fallen to his premature death, or stared in awe and wonder and sheer terror as a monstrous snake vomited a vile arachnid litter and split a planet into pieces, he might have run for his life, abandoned the whole ordeal and retreated to the safety of his bed.
‘I w-w-want you… to teach me.’
Bestial eyes fizzled with volcanic rage.
‘Not going to happen,’ she declared as fact. ‘Some people can’t be saved, others don’t deserve to be. You’re both.’
Free from her coiled grasp, Mev broke the constricting stare and breathed deeply. Head bowed, he had exhausted his options, now only the miserable truth would achieve his goal.
‘I need your help,’ he admitted disgracefully. ‘No-one else w-w-would train me. You can.’
‘There’s a reason no one else wants to train you. When you train someone to fight you mould them into a warrior – but the foundations should already be built, there has to be something to mould. Mev, this war isn’t the fight for you. Request a transfer, give up on being a soldier. It’s mad to let your weaknesses hold everyone else back. If I train you and you come along on the next mission thinking you’re untouchable, that you’re even slightly prepared for a battle, I’m willingly throwing Lyrik into the fire. Your incompetence, your cowardice, it isn’t a broken gun; I can’t just fix what’s wrong with you.’
Mev squeezed his hands behind his back, biting down. The words boiled on his tongue.
‘Strength isn’t the absence of w-weakness,’ he said, ‘it’s awareness of one’s true power.’
Syna’s anger fluttered, its structural cohesion crumbling as quickly as it had accrued. The bomb hadn’t quite been defused yet, but its explosive radius had diminished.
‘Lyrik really gave you that line?’ she mumbled, and shook her head. ‘She wants me to train you. Well, of course she does. She sees a wounded puppy, she’ll offer the shirt off her back to keep it warm.’
She looked Mev up and down as if examining an abstract painting, then again shook her head.
‘I can’t train you. I can’t! I mean… just look at you! It’s like looking at a skeleton on a juicing diet! And what am I supposed to do with four arms?’
She wouldn’t do it, Mev thought gloomily. Why would she? Only an idiot would take this gamble. Not worth the trouble. Pointless expenditure of effort.
Accepting defeat and wondering what would become of him, he turned to the doorway and made towards it, a fragile lump in his throat. A train of thought called at every station, then left without a single passenger. He had nothing. Not even Lyrik’s words could soothe the beast. And nothing would ignite his dwindling hope.
And what she must think of him – the snivelling wretch baying for protection and battle-readiness, the pathetic drone responsible for her wife’s near-death experience. Surprise reserved itself for another moment.
‘Mev,’ said Syna apprehensively, gesturing for him to wait. ‘Lyrik thinks training you is beneficial to us all – and if there’s one person I can’t argue with, it’s her. I could… I could train you. For now, I want you to watch how it’s done. Stay out of my way and just watch. You ever shot a gun before?’
With a hogtied mind, he nervously shrugged.
‘I’ll teach you that, too,’ she sighed. ‘Eventually.’
‘Thank you,’ Mev ventured shyly.
‘I’m only agreeing to do this because it’s what Lyrik wants – and we’re going to be spending a lot of time in close-quarters, it makes sense to be… friendly.’ Lips curled as the word breached them. ‘But you have to do something in return. A promise.’
‘This war is brutal, we’ve seen that first-hand, and it won’t let up, not for a second. And since we’re initiates, we’ll be on the frontlines, soaking up the bullets, dodging the bombs, surviving what shouldn’t be survived. That means Lyrik… it means Lyrik’s safety will be compromised – and often. You promise me there won’t be a repeat of today. Promise me you’ll look out for her, that you’ll protect her when I can’t, and we’ve got a deal.’
Imagining what might happen should he refuse, and trusting in his faith in the future Mev, he woefully accepted.
‘Let me be clear,’ she declared, ‘I haven’t forgiven you. It’ll take more than a few words to make up for what you did – or didn’t do. Forgiveness isn’t easy; if it was we’d all be divine.’
She keyed a code into a nearby terminal; an almost transparent screen appended to the head of a rainbow-coloured helical stand, and at once the immobile armada of faceless mannequins jumped into life, heads raised in militaristic union. An irrepressible jolt of fear currented through Mev like electric adrenaline.
‘Remember, just watch.’ Syna cracked her neck and knuckles, tightening the padding around her fists. ‘Maybe you’ll pick something up.’
If Mev didn’t know better, he could have sworn he caught a glance of communal fear pass over the dummies’ blank faces. It almost perfectly matched his own.