Cass reclined comfortably in the pilot’s seat listening to Laverne’s process of melding human’s with Indra. The three were still in a state of confusion and no amount of coaxing would rouse them.
“None of the steps you made were those of logic Laverne.” Cass had her fingers arched as she listened to Laverne’s experimentation with Biomass. “While I will give you some serious credit for managing to pull it off I also find it rather disturbing that you would do something like that in the first place.”
He shrugged. “I am not a scientist… I’m a politician. Using the basic knowledge I had I simply threw things at the wall to see what stuck. It was the only way I could see things going forward while keeping myself in the picture, I must admit to an amount of selfishness in that regard.”
She nodded. “Understandable when considering what was done to you, but I still have serious grievances with you pushing Ariadne on unsuspecting people without them knowing the risks.”
“They all consented to the transition after she laid the facts out to them, the steps after giving them the board were taken of their own volition.”
“Hmph, be that as it may I’m sure you won’t object to me endeavoring to get Ariadne out of that child as soon as possible?”
“Honestly I’d welcome it. Perhaps it’s the paternal instincts I’ve always lacked, but I’ve grown incredibly attached to that stubborn child.”
Kid silently rose up behind Cass and wrapped her shoulders in a hug. She jumped in mock surprise. “And speaking of children! It looks like you’re finally back to yourselves!” She spun around in her chair.
Anon and Scorn were standing to the side rather sheepishly while Kid proceeded to crawl all over Cass.
“Wagh! I see you’re still as handsy as ever! But this time I can wrestle back.” Cass wedged her hands in Kid’s armpits and effortlessly lifted her, holding her at arm’s length. “You have no power here, you boogish child!”
“No such word exists!” Kid roared.
“It exists only for you, you boogish cretin!”
“Wah!” Kid yelled.
“Wah!” Cass joined in.
Cass pulled Kid in and hugged her properly. She was giggling uncontrollably.
Anon nodded sagely. “Only one person on this planet would use the word ‘boogish’ to describe anything.”
Cass looked over at him. “Was that another of your trademark ‘sage nods’?”
He slumped. “That one slip of the tongue will follow me till the end of time won’t it.”
Scorn clapped him on the shoulder. “You already know the answer to that old man.”
“Says the oldest Indra in the room!” Cass called over.
Scorn crossed his arms. “As the oldest child I have that right.”
Cass snorted and began guffawing. “You are by no means the oldest child… Vee is three days older and Ariadne is nearly a month, you beat Lethe by sixteen seconds.
Scorn sat in the navigator’s seat and began silently fuming.
Anon returned the shoulder slap. “Aww, cheer up old man.”
Cass turned back to Laverne; his face was pinched with worry.
“What’s wrong?” Her tone was instantly concerned.
He looked up. “The Boch’erne.”
Mithra’s breath ran ragged in her throat as she thundered through the murky darkness of the forest floor.
“Run… Run… Run…” she intoned with every exhalation.
There was a crash behind her as something far larger than herself crashed through the undergrowth. She could see the strange glow of the thing’s eyes throw a soft shadow in front of her.
To the left…
She lunged to the left as a massive forearm crashed to the ground beside her. She kept up her mad sprint.
She stopped dead as a massive dark shape blurred in front of her and was gone, an attack from the side. She resumed sprinting; she could hear rushing water approaching to her right, she silently cursed as her pinpoint hearing became dulled.
Two spotlights rose from the ground followed by grasping hands. Mithra leapt over the thing, planting a heel in its forehead for good measure. She was rewarded by a gurgle of pain.
To the right…
She veered, barely missing a massive limestone boulder and began sprinting to her right, straight toward the rushing water. The things formed shaky ranks to her sides and back, straight it was. She poured the last of her reserves into the final mad dash. The foliage began to thin and her aggressors slowly began to take form. They were positively massive, bordering on seven feet, completely wrapped in thick swollen muscle. Their heads, as well as the rest of their bodies were hairless, the only things that broke up the monotony of their plain grey skin was a strange red swelling encompassing a large portion of their scalps. The ground began to grow wet beneath her feet, she was close. The two things at her sides began to close in, nearer to her. The break in the trees was drawing into view. The roar of the river was almost deafening.
Coiling her legs she pushed off with as much force as she could muster in the spongy ground. She could feel grasping fingers brush against her heel. The tree line came and went as she rolled to a defensive crouch on the rocky bank of the river. The noonday sun managed to push several meager rays of light through the near impenetrable blanket of foliage, she almost seemed to glow. Five sets of pale glowing eyes peered at her from the dark underbrush, ten wide, unblinking circles of light peered into her very being.
“Any insight?” she asked.
“No… this is something new…” Ari was almost lost for words.
A pale grey hand tentatively poked through the underbrush, its short fingers came to wicked points, its fingernails replaced with sharpened steel. At seeing the hand Mithra slowly dropped her arm and felt at her heel, her hand came away wet. She dabbed a finger to her tongue, it was the familiar sour taste.
The arm that followed the hand was massive, almost making the hand seem comically small by comparison. The masses of swollen muscle seemed to throb with the creature’s pounding heartbeat. Finally the head emerged from the shadow. Ringed with strange red pulsating tubules the creature’s stark bald head swiveled about, as if searching for her. Its face was brutish, as though it were quickly sculpted from clay, with a thick, overly muscular jaw and a heavy brow it almost looked like one of Elgin’s descriptions of an ape. Its eyes, much like its nails were definitely modified. Filling the entirety of the socket, the massive orbs shone with a harsh white light. It had no ears. It stalked onto the rocky riverbank, thick feet gripping tightly to the slick stone. Soon the other four followed it out, all odd misshapen abominations of nature.
“They can’t see us… perhaps their eyes are unable to see in particularly bright light. We may be safe for the moment.”
The lead creature’s nose flared as it inhaled deeply.
Mithra’s shoulders slouched as she groaned. “Oh, come on!”
Five sets of eyes pointed directly at her. A low growl began to build up in their throats as they began to prowl forward.
Ari’s voice was tinged with fear. “It may be prudent to begin running again.”
“On this?” Mithra looked down at the uneven shoreline, a twisted ankle was inevitable if they tried running on that.
“Swim,” was Medusa’s sole piece of advice.
Mithra shot a look behind her shoulder at the frothing, roiling river.
“I hate it when you’re right!” She braced herself and launched backwards into the raging current.
“The Monarch’s pet hunters,” Laverne said with a hint of disgust. “He drove the Tcha’Gough to extinction perfecting the breeding procedure and surgeries. Whatever they had in regards to a civilized mind has been blasted away in favor of the perfect hunter. We need to find her…”
Cass raised her arms up, stopping his ranting before he could start. “Laverne, that isn’t possible, you yourself know the size of Khumret, even if she were east of the river that’s still several thousand square miles of heavily covered terrain.”
Scorn piped up. “Could we track the signals given off by Ariadne’s board?”
Cass considered this. “Hmm, if it’s just the raw board then the signals would be quite weak, even at max boost these sensors would only pick her up in a radius of five miles at best.”
“Then I’d say it’s time for you to practice that fancy flying you showed us earlier.” Laverne’s tone hardened to the one he used to put the fear of god into his cabinet so long ago.
Cass knew that tone; she’d heard it so many times before. Sighing as she turned around she pushed the throttle to the max.
In the Monarch’s throne room a very odd scene was taking place. With a squad of silent Shalthar guarding her Marge was being interrogated by the Monarch himself. Marge had emerged from her upload pod to a rather rude group of Shalthar who insisted that the Monarch wanted to see her, they didn’t even let her get dressed, she was stuck in the basic smock used to cover up each new body. She lamented the loss of her leather suit; it was the only fashionable thing in that dismal place… apart from her of course.
“For fun…” he droned, “to satiate your unquenchable desire for trivial entertainment you contacted a known enemy and orchestrated for the escape of the prisoners…” He fell silent, the green flames dancing across his golden mask. “Unforgivable.”
She waved away his words. “Pshh, I’ve done way worse.”
The Monarch sat silently, deliberating. “I have grown weary of your juvenile antics; this was your final mistake.”
She raised a finger, smirk firmly on her face. “Hup! Don’t get ahead of yourself sweetie, you still need my fantastic brain to run this stinking building.”
The monarch tilted his head. “Not anymore.” The vaguest hint of a smile was on his voice.
If Marge had a stomach it no doubt would have dropped.
Before she could plead for herself the Monarch passed his judgment. “As punishment for your actions I shall grant you a gift… mortality. Your replacement bodies are to be destroyed, recycled for further use in the factories. You are to be escorted from the city where you will be allowed to go wherever you wish but if you are sighted in or near the city you are to be destroyed on sight.” He stood up and dramatically pointed to the back of the room. “You are banished, begone!”
The Shalthar made to grab her about the shoulders but she pushed them away. “I can walk myself, thank you very much!”
“Begone!” the Monarch roared.
The Shalthar roughly grabbed her and carried her from the room. She lobbed some final words at her former master. “You will rue the day! You will regret this!” She went slack, whispering to herself. “Damn, and I was getting on his case for unoriginal dialogue…” She shrugged and went back to struggling. “You’ll never get away with it! Vengeance, I will have my revenge!”
As the troop of Shalthar carried her over the threshold of the Citadel she finally relaxed.
“Alright lads… I know the way from here; you can let me down now.”
The Shalthar ignored her.
“Guys? Guys!” She huffed. “Well it looks like I’m in for the long haul.”
She had dozed off before long, she was sure the Shalthar didn’t mind, they seemed perfectly content to drag her along like a sack of potatoes. She was just getting comfortable when the hard earth roused her. The Shalthar had thrown her outside the furthest of the Citadel’s compounds without even a word.
She scrambled to her feet, brushing the dust from her smock. She placed a thoughtful finger to her lips, her devious mind overclocking itself searching for next steps.
Pressing her earlobe activated a small low frequency transmitter, a little addition that she was sure the Monarch didn’t mind her having. “Cass sweetie, could you swing around and pick me up? I got banished again.” Even she was amazed at how pouty she sounded. “It looks like it’s for good this time.”
There wasn’t any response, perhaps she was already beyond frequency range. If that was the case then Marge had quite the long walk to the nearest human settlement. She waited for several more minutes before resigning herself to the long haul. She set off at a brisk jog due west.
She quickly grew disenchanted with the concept of travel. The flat plains seemed to go on forever, unchanging apart from some ancient boulders, worn smooth by the wind. She leapt to the top of the nearest boulder, trying to get a better view. Nothing… Endless, boring, nothing.
She frantically pressed her earlobe. “Cass, c’mon give me a hand here!”
Nothing. She sank to her knees, desperately regretting not installing tear ducts in that body. She sank further, finally laying stomach-down on the warm boulder. She closed her eyes; there were worse places to be stranded, surely. She struggled to think of anyplace worse than that boulder, her mind drew a blank, curse her sheltered lifestyle!
A tinny crackle sounded in her ear. Something was entering range. She scrambled to her feet, scraping her knees on the rough boulder, she ignored it.
She pressed her earlobe again. “Cass! Cass! Please let that be you! Help me please!”
The crackle continued. In the far distance Marge could hear the faint rumble of engines rolling across the long grass.
“Jesus! You’re so damn needy!” Cass’ voice was tinny and full of static. “Yeah alright, swinging ‘round.”
Her smirk returned. “Cass, baby, you’re a life saver.”
“Don’t strike that tone with me! At the first sign of deception you’re going out the window, literally.”
Marge sat down on the boulder in a huff; did Cass have any idea the troubles she had to go through to spring her children from prison? Probably not, all she had to do was fly in and pick them up. She quickly dispelled her sour mood with a shrug.
“Oh well, what can you do? Just gotta stay positive… one body left and its all yours. Replaced… exiled… abandoned!” Her sour mood returned with a cascade of kicking and screaming. “You bastard! You fat, edgy bastard! If I could get my perfect fingers around your overstuffed neck, I would wrench your head from your shoulders!”
Cass winced in her ear. “If you’re gonna throw a tantrum then do it with the mic off! You’re blowing out the receiver.”
“I must vent my emotions!” Marge screamed.
“Vent them with the mic off!”
“I need an audience!”
“Well we don’t want the show you’re putting on!”
“My ratings are incredible!”
“You don’t even know what those are!”
“Of course I don’t!”
Cass was in full lecture mode. “Keep up that screaming young lady and I’m just going to fly overhead and give you a wave as I pass on by, you can make your own way.”
Marge shut up.
“That’s better, now keep your comms open but keep your mouth shut so I can triangulate your position.”
Marge sat down on the boulder and pulled her knees up to her chin. As she heard the sounds of the engines draw closer she grew more and more afraid. She was on bad terms with everyone aboard that craft, she was sure a few of them wouldn’t mind seeing her destroyed. In her mind she intoned one word, one word that might keep her alive just that little bit longer.
The lumbering ship slowly came into view; it was flying low as to undercut the Citadel’s sensor network, the long grass was blasted to the roots by the powerful rotors. Though it made no difference, they already knew where she was, Marge felt the compulsion to wave her arms. She smiled, she’d always wanted to do that in context, at least the movies didn’t lie about how fun it was. It settled down a short distance from the boulder. Throwing all the dignity she had out the window Marge sprinted to the waiting craft, virtually leaping into the open cargo door.
She rolled to a stop at the feet of Laverne, Scorn, and Anon. All had their arms crossed, and all were radiating a considerable amount of malice.
Anon crouched in front of her. “Well then, it seems all of your misdeeds have come back to bite you. How does Karma taste?”
She looked up at him. “Actually I’m pretty sure it was my one good deed that got me in this situation; Karmic retaliation is still pending for everything else.”
Laverne squinted as he looked at the despised computer. “It can’t come too soon.”
She smirked. “Well I’m gonna be stuck with you for a while so you’ll get to see it all happen in realtime.”
His eyes smiled as he imagined her punishments. “I look forward to it.”
Cass’ voice rang over the loudhailer. “Marge get your ass up here we need to have a chat!”
Marge was grateful that she was at least allowed to walk to the cockpit with her own two legs as opposed to being carried. She was less enamored however with her new ever watchful bodyguards. She rounded on them, they each took a step back, she put her hands on her hips. “Now what’s all this? I think I know my own way to the cockpit, I helped design the thing after all.”
“Just because you got us out of that building does not atone for the many shitty things you’ve done,” Anon said bluntly. “Frankly, and I doubt I’m alone in thinking this, I think this is just another one of your schemes and we’ll wind up back in that damn room again with you cackling from the sidelines as usual.”
She shrugged as she turned back around. “People can change, and believe me I won’t be back in that city any time soon. Oh you should have heard captain edgy, he was so mad!” She giggled. “Serves him right for replacing me.”
“Here’s hoping the replacement is less insufferable than you are.”
She crossed her arms. “Sweetie you need pizzazz in my line of work, how else are you going to get people to like you.”
Cass spoke, starling her. “Sweetie it was that pizzazz that got you banished in the first place.”
Marge harrumphed and turned around, following Cass to the Cockpit. Cass gestured to the copilot’s seat, inviting Marge to sit down. She sat cautiously; even to her Cass was an enigma, totally unpredictable.
Cass began fiddling with a few things set off to the side on one of the control banks. “Restrain her if you’d please.”
Marge immediately tried to stand up but three sets of arms held her down while Kid sneakily tied her legs to the base of the chair.
Cass turned around brandishing a laser scalpel and a tiny soldering iron. “If what my boys told me is correct then you are a walking, nattering, tracking device and I think it’s time to remedy that.”
Marge continued to valiantly struggle. “I mean, if you insist.”
Cass looked at Kid. “Hold her head steady.”
Kid wrapped herself around Marge’s head holding it in place. Marge couldn’t see as Kid’s arms covered her eyes as she affixed herself around the headrest.
She could hear Cass give the laser scalpel a quick test. She always hated that buzzing noise. “Now we’ll finally get to see where you keep that massive ego of yours.”
Marge felt mildly offended. “My ego has transcended the corporeal realm!” She kept wiggling.
“I said hold her steady.”
“I’m trying,” Kid grunted. “She won’t stop thrashing.”
Marge was unusually apologetic. “It’s an automatic response to tampering! I can’t control it!”
Cass’ tone was thoughtful. “Maybe I’ll lop that off too.”
“Be my guest.”
Marge really was trying to wrangle some semblance of control of her body but it just wouldn’t listen, she was sincerely regretting installing the anti-tamper software package.
“Mm… I really don’t want to do this but what if I power down? Can’t struggle if you’re not awake.”
“Do it,” Cass was growing increasingly frustrated.
“Alright, setting a timer for thirty minutes… Happy hunting!”
Marge finally went limp in the seat. Cass looked up at the other Indra.
“And that is exactly why you weren’t robots.”
Anon scratched his neck. “Gee thanks ma.”
“Less of that lip kiddo, here push her forward I need to get her in the light.”
They dragged Marge across the main control console until the back of her head was illuminated in the late noon sun. With a few quick movements of the laser scalpel a small triangular hole was cut, shedding light on Marge’s inner workings.
“Cheeky… I can recognize my work anywhere… Looks like simplified LE architecture with several coprocessors to offload strain. Hmm, I can’t say I approve of that… Memory looks good, data storage is adequate and that right there is our problem. She absently grasped for a small pair of needle nose pliers. She took hold of a tiny ribbon cable that was fastened to the extreme edge of one of the several expansion boards and gently loosened it. “Pity we can’t remove the whole system but that would require several days and none of my screwdrivers are small enough for these screws… Is that a Molex connector!?”
Scorn burst out laughing. The others looked at him quizzically. He held a finger up while he continued to laugh. “I can’t say I’m surprised something like that is rattling around in there… Alright, so you know Bluetooth right? The thing we use to talk?”
The others nodded.
“You know that they used that for the sole purpose of it being so old that nobody in their right mind would scan for it right?”
They nodded again.
“That, goddamn Molex plug probably predates our version of Bluetooth by almost seventy years. She is likely the most cutting edge piece of computer machinery walking on this planet and she’s using one of the first commercial computational power sockets…”
The others scoffed and shook their heads, both at how ridiculous that was and at the fact that Scorn somehow found that funny.
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Cass called over her shoulder. “But it begs the question… what’s powering her?”
Laverne cleared his throat. “I think I can answer that at least. Through reverse engineering my old science teams managed to reverse engineer your power cores, I think the old reports called them Q-Fusion cores. Ours weren’t quite as powerful but we did manage to give them near the same lifetime and rechargeablity.”
“Hmm, do you recall what sort of socket they outputted to?”
He had to dredge through his memories; he recalled half listening to the over excited technician’s presentation. “ATX?” I recall that being mentioned more than once.
Cass let out a grunt. “Alright then that’s in keeping with what I’m seeing here… seriously what is it with you and outdated tech? Next thing you know you’re gonna start whipping out those damned LTO tapes on me.”
Anon plucked a fast read data tape one from the small a small read/write mechanism that was tucked off to the side of the cockpit. He brandished it at Cass. “One of these?” If he had a mouth it would no doubt be twisted into a shit-eating grin.
“Dear god,” she sounded legitimately shocked. “The future is run on antiques…” She fell into thought as she recalled her time with the United States military innumerable years past.
Laverne gestured for Cass to continue with her procedure. “I think you may want to close that hole before something worse than her personality crawls in there.”
She broke from her remembrance. “Hmm? Oh, yeah.” She poked around a bit more and after finding everything to her satisfaction she placed the patch of skin and hair back in place and stapled it closed.
Laverne squinted. “Do you always carry medical equipment with you?”
She shook her head and she stuck the last staple in place. “Nah, this stuff was already on the ship, never used by the look of it.” She threw the equipment back into the tray she was using. “I just have a few essentials.” She patted a small utility belt around her waist.
Laverne stroked at his beard. “Yes, the Shalthar don’t bother to heal the wounds they’ve caused, not even to each other.” His finger got caught in a knot, he winced as several hairs were pulled, he’d have to trim when he got the chance. “Even they are aware of their disposability.”
“That’s depressing,” Kid said morosely.
Mithra’s world was a swirling, frothing cascade of water. Her lungs burned as the raging current kept her from resurfacing. Panic was setting in. She felt something large collide with her side, instinctively she grabbed at it, it was a boulder, a large one, but its sides were too tall and too slick to get a grip on. She clawed desperately at the rock as the current quickly pushed her away. She desperately wished she had learned how to swim. Her lungs screamed for air and her arms and legs began to grow numb. Her ankle scraped against the bottom of the river, she was sinking. In one final attempt she kicked off with her ankle trying to reach the surface. She felt her hand break through the water, then the other. She cupped her hands and smashed down as hard as she could, the top of her head, then finally her face felt the stuffy humidity of the jungle once more. She tried to quickly inhale but her lungs were more interested in coughing, she got a quick breath in before she was pulled underneath again.
She was vaguely aware of Ari and Medusa talking to her but she couldn’t concentrate on them while trying to stay alive. She sunk to the bottom once more, it seemed like the current was slacking. Her feet dug in again and she pushed off again, angling herself slightly to the left. One way or the other she had to cross the river. Her head broke the surface and she managed a quick breath. She repeated the process for what felt like hours.
Up… Breathe… Down… Push…!
She knew she was making progress since her head rose above the surface higher and higher with every subsequent push. The ground began to grow rockier as she approached the bank. Soon she didn’t have to jump anymore, her head stood above the surface. Latching her feet onto the rocks she slowly inched her way onto the back, fighting the mighty current that constantly threatened to lob her back into the rapids. When the water sat around her waist she threw caution to the wind and made a mad dash to the dry haven that was the jungle.
Her legs were barely functional, she had to crawl into the tree line she was so exhausted. She collapsed into the soft loamy earth, taking massive whooping breaths to fill her agitated lungs. Everything seemed distant, her vision was as if she was staring through a tunnel and the roaring of the water was dull and distant. All she could hear was her thundering heartbeat and the odd crunchiness of her lungs filling with air. She laid there for several minutes, just breathing. Soon her vision began to clear and the roaring of the river became louder. Ari and Medusa were unusually silent.
“So…” she gasped, “who’s up for round two?”
“Um…” Ari clearly didn’t have a good response for that.
Medusa spoke before Ari could think of anything. “It would be best if we left this place. If you could get across the river then those things surely can.”
“That’s a good point. Let’s see if I can walk.”
She took one more deep breath and rocked her body to the side. Arms scrabbling in the decaying foliage she finally managed to get her legs under her. They were weak and shaking but could carry her weight. She took a tentative step, it was difficult but compared to the river it was more than tolerable.
She broke into a shaky jog going due east.
“At least I’m not thirsty anymore.”
“You’re not indestructible Mithra, I hope you understand that. Just because you can’t feel the wounds doesn’t mean they aren’t there. You have to be careful.”
“I didn’t have much choice that last time; it was either possible drowning or certain death.”
“Food for thought.”
“I don’t eat.” Mithra distinctly remembered her stomach rupturing when she was force-fed the Black Broth.
“Feed your brain.” Ari’s tone was judicious.
Medusa stopped the conversation. “You’re going off again.”
“Yeah, let’s focus on running for our lives, and then we can have philosophical conversations.”
Medusa spoke again. “There shall be no such conversations,” it growled.
“Such a philistine.”
Mithra tuned the two out as they began arguing. Her legs were growing stronger and her speed was increasing. The jungle seemed to be thinning; the rays of sunlight punching through the roof of foliage were growing more numerous. She must be approaching the edge of the jungle. She poured on the speed. She thought back briefly to her encounter on the bank, if those things really couldn’t see that well in bright lights then she’d be in the clear out in the open, they’d be as good as blind.
“Never underestimate your enemy Mithra, that’s what got me killed.”
“How did you die?”
Ari was silent; Mithra could feel an unusual feeling coming from her, shame?
Medusa let out a spine shivering chuckle. “She won’t tell you, it’s too embarrassing.”
“For once I agree with Medusa,” Ari said quickly. “For now let’s focus on getting you out of this jungle.”
“I will learn eventually!”
“But not now.”
A high pitched crack reverberated through the silent jungle.
“Company… C’mon let’s do this!” Mithra felt the leaden exhaustion from her near drowning experience melt away as her body filled with adrenaline, or whatever equivalent she happened to have. Her feet pounded on the firm ground, the layer of composting leaves and wood had thinned considerably. The trees had quickly shrunk, going from several hundred feet in height to merely a few dozen. The underbrush had thinned to almost nothing, all that she could see were a few hardy weeds sprouting through the ashy soil.
“The Acid Sea must be up ahead, it’s a miracle that most of these trees are even still alive.”
“They aren’t.” Mithra slapped a passing trunk, it was petrified.
“It must have leaked into the ground water when the jungle was young and poisoned the roots.”
Mithra’s feet began to crunch in the sandy ground as she crushed petrified twigs into powder. The crashing from behind her had stopped; she could hear the thumping of heavy feet, several sets fanned out behind her.
“Sounds like they lost one, good news for us.”
The tree line passed in the blink of an eye, she wasn’t even paying attention. The mid-evening sun hung low in the sky; she didn’t have long until night fell. The Acid Sea spread before her, a massive, near flat plane of poison. The shoreline was festooned with jagged tocks and petrified trees covered in a thick crusting of salt crystals. The air was bitter and stung her eyes.
“A thousand years worth of waste chemicals have been left to simmer in that lake for untold millennia, it would likely strip the flesh from your bone in seconds,” Medusa hissed.
“Charming… Anyone up for a swim?” She turned around to see the Doch’erne thundering toward her, so they decided not to wait after all. “Well, if you have any advice then say it now!”
“Melt them!” Medusa squealed.
“I like your thinking!”
“Use their weight against them, get them in that water!”
“Yeh! Let’s do this!”
Mithra sprinted toward the Doch’erne. Dropping to all fours she bounded through their ranks and circled around, keeping beneath their wild swings. She needed to see just how light on their feet they were.They were slightly slow to stop; they were built for maneuverability at speed not for stop and start fighting. Circling around, Mithra blitzed through them again, they had tightened their ranks, standing near shoulder to shoulder, but that didn’t stop her. Shooting through the farthest Doch’erne’s legs she dug her fingernails into its calf. Her nails effortlessly bit through the skin but she couldn’t dig into its steely muscles. She stopped at the edge of the water, the fumes making her eyes water, and made a vague gesture for them to come get her.
They grunted to each other, communicating in some sort of primal language. Finally the one she injured broke in a sprint toward her. One at a time? She could live with that. She feinted to the left but it was ready for that. A massive leg plowed into her midsection, all the air fled her lungs. She went airborne, flying toward the deadly water. Her arms shot out and latched onto the Doch’erne’s shoulders. Using her momentum she swung through its legs while throwing it out into the water.
It couldn’t even cry out, death was instant. The water broiled and churned as it tore the carcass apart molecule by molecule. The three remaining Doch’erne did not react; they felt no remorse for their fellow hunter. With a grunted command the two on either side fanned out while the center one slowly approached Mithra. They had learned from their fellow’s failings. Mithra fell into a defensive stance, bracing herself for the assault.
Both Ari and Medusa were concentrating as well, trying to funnel as much of their power into Mithra as possible. They might never have seen eye to eye but neither wanted to die.
Mithra felt strength well up inside of her as the two fed her overstrained muscles, she could almost feel her arms and legs grow bulkier as her muscles hardened. She was feeling confident.
She cast a small glance to the Doch’erne to her right and that’s when the left and center struck. Rushing forward the center lobbed a massive open palmed slap at her head, trying the gouge her eyes with its sharp nails. The left went low trying to take her legs out. The rightmost one stayed back, planning out its move. Mithra had no choice but to leap forward, past the center and try to regain her footing behind it. The center kept the blow going, pivoting about whilst crouching down. Its hand smashed into Mithra’s side, throwing her toward the waiting left. She curled up midair as she hurled toward the left like a cannonball. She got lucky, her feet lined up with the left, right as she was about to land in its waiting arms she straightened her body. Her feet caught the Doch’erne right in the sternum and it went rolling back. The right finally decided the join the fray. Coming around the center it captured Mithra in a pincer movement, keeping her back firmly against the Poison Sea. An elbow drop from the center forced her to her knees where a quick leg drop from the right knocked her on her back. They braced for the killing blow and all Mithra could do was watch.
“Give it to her!” Ari yelled to Medusa.
Mithra felt something odd, very similar to when Medusa took control in the jungle. A pain radiated from her core, dwarfing the pain of the beating she received from the Doch’erne. Something in their animalistic brain tipped them that something was wrong and they skittered back watching Mithra writhe on the ground.
Her muscles were on fire, it felt as if they were melting and deforming, steam rose from her body in a massive cloud. Her wailing reached a new octave.
She could vaguely hear Ari talking to her.
“I’m so sorry, but this is the only way.”
“Full conversion.” Medusa croaked weakly.
Mithra shakily raised her arm; she could see it faintly as the sun dipped behind the petrified trees. Her arm was changing; it bubbled and twisted as it changed shape. Her muscles compressed and hardened, her skin drew tight across her body, slowly changing its texture until it resembled the scales of a reptile. She could feel her bones seem to melt away as her muscles hardened further.
One of the Doch’erne approached Mithra’s writhing form cautiously; it was sent rolling back as her wildly flailing leg shattered one of its ribs.
Mithra’s movements slowed as the conversion drew to a close. She lay quietly on the poisonous beach, obscured in a cloud of steam.
Mithra screamed again, a wail of rage, of pain. “You are so dead!”
The Doch’erne prepared for an attack as they saw her figure shoot through the mist. The night was falling; they could see their quarry now better than ever. She had changed, she was leaner, and her stance had changed, from that of prey… to predator. This one did not run. They were quick to note the changes to her exposed arms and legs, her digits had grown longer and sharper, a true danger as opposed to an annoyance before. Steam and a foul smelling black substance oozed from her mouth and nose.
This was not the same prey. End it quickly.
With a commanding shout the three Doch’erne rushed her, each going high, middle, or low. Mithra ignored them and sprung over them, rolling to a stop ten feet behind them. Her eyes were set in determination and her teeth were gritted.
“Die,” she whispered.
The lead Doch’erne was unprepared; it was as if she appeared in front of it instantly. A rock hard fist burrowed its way through its skull. Fragments of bone and brain matter spewed from the creature’s head, covering its companions. Using its limp body as a flail she smashed the second one in the midsection throwing it into the deadly water, she carelessly threw the decapitated corpse after it.
The final Doch’erne was no fool, it turned and ran. Its world lit up like the surface of the sun. Both combatants were too focused on the battle to notice the massive landing craft circling. Mithra rose up behind the stunned Doch’erne and raked her sharp fingers down its back. The skin sloughed away like the peel of an overripe fruit. It fell to its knees shrieking in agony. Ignoring Ari’s cries, Mithra planted her foot in the thing’s back and dug her hand into the hard muscle. She felt bones deform around her grasping hand. She found what she was looking for; she wrapped her hand around the smooth organ and pulled. She wrenched the Doch’erne’s heart from the confines of its ribcage and crushed it, a cascade of crimson blood spewed across the ground.
She heard a cry from in front of her. “Hold her down! Restrain her!” It was a female voice.
She felt both Ari and Medusa try to exert control but she ignored their influence. Several silhouettes flashed in the blinding lights. She felt strong hands grab her and pull her down, she tried to writhe free but they were much stronger than the Doch’erne. A smaller figure shot from the pervasive whiteness and landed on her chest sticking her to the ground as the other figures wrestled her arms and legs.
“Mithra! What have you done!?” It was a man’s voice, incredibly familiar. Master Elgin loomed from the shining void; his face was pinched with worry and fear. “C’mon, focus on my face. Don’t worry about anything else, just look at me!”
She felt herself be lifted from the ground. She didn’t struggle, she simply fixated her eyes on Elgin, his familiar face brought her a strange comfort.
His voice was quiet, calming. “Hey… its gonna be alright, just go to sleep, you must be tired. Don’t worry I’m here to protect you.” He smiled.
Mithra smiled, she felt her eyelids grow heavy and her limbs grow numb. The sweet embrace of sleep wrapped her in its warm folds.
Laverne looked over at Cass. “What the hell happened to her!?”
Cass ignored him. “Get her inside, there’s an operating table in the med bay, get her on that and strap her down, glue her if you have to!” She turned around and bustled inside leaving Laverne on an empty beach with a dismembered corpse.
He rushed inside after Cass. He grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. “What happened!?” he roared.
She was not in the mood. “I have no fucking idea! Now if you don’t mind I’m gonna go over there and figure out what happened or would you like to yell at me some more!?”
He let go of her shoulder and she turned around and virtually sprinted to the med bay where the others were strapping Mithra down with the heaviest ropes and straps they could find.
She began her preliminary inspection. “Oh lord, what has my girl done? Laverne get in here I have a question!”
He walked in, restraint restored. “Hmm?”
“Biomass… how much of it was in her system?”
“Around 180 pounds, I basically refilled her after Ariadne integrated herself. The amount of energy needed for basic conversion removes a considerable amount of body weight.
“Hmm… thank you.” She turned about and continued her inspection. She crouched down and looked at Mithra’s hand. “General layout is reminiscent of the earlier run Indra, long digits with tapered fingers.”
Scorn and Kid looked at their hands then at Anon’s, his hands looked far more human than theirs.
Cass massaged the skin on the top of Mithra’s hand. “Tight, and rough, incredibly scaly, a rush job at a guess. Using her index finger she made a short cut, a thin dribble of liquid biomass dripped onto the floor. It was thick, almost comparable to honey. “Laverne I need you to taste it.”
He wordlessly dabbed a finger on the cut then onto his tongue. He winced. “Ooh, that’s foul.”
“Yes,” she muttered, “polluted, full of impurities. Likely leftover organic matter from whatever conversion she just underwent.”
Cass stood up and tore a small hole in Mithra’s shirt, slipping her hand through she gently pressed at her stomach. “Total lack of organs, they’re gone, likely consumed.” She shifted to the head and continued muttering. “Huh, remarkably unchanged, probably not intentional. Skin, normal, hair, normal,” she gently lifted her left eyelid, “pupil dilation apparent.” She pried Mithra’s jaw open. “Soft tissue unchanged, saliva production normal.” She gently closed Mithra’s mouth. She turned around and looked at Laverne. “Well it looks like your kid’s and Indra from the neck down. Possibly when she was fighting those creatures either Ari or Medusa forced the biomass already in her system to forcefully convert the rest of her tissue. She must have run out of usable biomass right around the neck region which may be a blessing in disguise. I don’t know what this means for her future but at the moment she seems stable enough. The biomass has been with her long enough that we’re long past the rejection threshold.” She sighed. “There’s nothing we can do but wait for her to wake up, then we’ll see if she’s still in her right mind.” She looked around at the other Indra. “Well kids… say hello to your new baby sister… who’s also technically your older sister. I give up, this rabbit hole has gone too deep for me.” She turned and left the room.
Anon slapped his knees as he stood up. “I don’t know about you lot but today has been a tiring one, I’m gonna go take a nap.” He left the room followed by Scorn.
Kid stayed back with Laverne. He looked down at her; she was quietly rocking on her heels. “Gonna ingratiate yourself with her like you did with Ellie?”
“When you put it like that it sounds nefarious. I just wanna meet her when she’s not screaming and thrashing…” she paused, her tone turned oddly reflective, “just like Ellie did.”
He chuckled. “It seems you just can’t escape that personality type.”
She tilted her head. “Unlucky?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Gonna stick around and wait or are you off to nap?”
Her voice was exhausted beyond the need for sleep. “I spent the last four hundred years in a coma… I don’t need sleep.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re sounding very grown-up Kid, what happened to the one-word responses and climbing all over people?”
She looked up at him then at Mithra. “I’m so tired…” She shook slightly, her stance loosened. She looked up at him. “Heya! Gonna wait?” She ran up to the table and clambered up, finally perching atop Mithra’s chest, she began poking her face.
Laverne was stunned, there she was, that was Kid. So what was that earlier? He turned and left the room, he needed to speak to Cass.
“Multiple personalities?” Cass shook her head. “On an LE board like Ari’s, or even Ellie’s its possible, but not on an LX chip, there isn’t enough room.”
He went back over the conversation in his mind one more time. “It’s just… she sounded so alien, that wasn’t Kid that was someone else.”
Cass sighed. “We’re old Laverne, all of us, we’re all long past our sell by date and every day is a gamble as to whether or not we’ll crumble to dust. Kid didn’t go into a cryopod; maybe the years mellowed her out.”
He shook his head. “I spoke with her the day I was driven from Alcadon and that was centuries after she was taken from her cryopod, she hadn’t changed.”
She shrugged. “It’s been millennia Laverne, that’s long enough to change anyone; I think she’s finally matured.”
“Then what about that little shake I saw?”
She shrugged as she checked the small navigational display. “We can develop ticks and twitches like everybody else, a small misfire here and there.”
“Right when her personality transitioned?”
“Stranger things have happened; I can assure you of that.”
He sighed and nodded his head. “Alright, alright.” He left the cockpit. He wasn’t convinced; there was no way in hell that Kid was functioning normally. Now he had to keep his eye on two Indra. He poked his head in the med bay; Kid was right where he’d left her, right on top of Mithra. He shook his head, satisfied, then made his way to the crew quarters. He hadn’t slept in quite a while and the excitement of the day had worn him down. He passed by Marge, who had taken up residence in one of the corridors, he made a mental not to avoid it later on.
She hung from one of the exposed pipes. “How you doin’ sweetie?” She’d found a change of clothes, he recalled her saying something about a stash. “I’m sorry about your kid.”
“Which one?” he muttered absently.
He lightly shook his head, coming back to himself. “Oh, nothing.” He kept moving, ignoring her further questions.
Marge narrowed her eyes… she’d seen that particular look only several times before. “It looks like my dear little Laverne has gotten attached, such an unfortunate habit.” She smirked her devilish smirk and stalked down towards the med bay.
Laverne wandered into the crew quarters where Anon and Scorn were already motionless on the cots. He was asleep before his head even hit the firm foam pillow.
Kid sat, motionless. She studied every curve of Mithra’s face, every small blemish, every follicle. She didn’t know why she was doing it, she didn’t know why she did anything, it just felt right. She struggled to remember anything from the old days; she could barely even remember Ellie. She concentrated as hard as she could but all she could get were vague feelings of happiness, a bitter joy that she so desperately missed. She wished that she could see her best friend’s face just one more time but it simply refused to show itself, all she could see in her mind was Mithra’s face. Is that what Ellie looked like? Like Mithra? Maybe…
She curled up on Mithra’s chest. “Will you be my Ellie?” She looked at that calm face, she loved that face. She fell asleep.
Marge watched the whole interaction with great interest. “Not one but both… interesting.” She stalked down the corridor; she paused at the intersection, pondering what to do next. “Well, let’s see what mommy dearest has to say.” She set off at a light jog toward the cockpit. She knocked on the doorframe and sauntered inside.
“What do you want Marge?” Cass didn’t bother to look over her shoulder.
Marge considered her next words carefully. “Laverne is concerned about something, and if he’s concerned I’m concerned.”
“And what is concerning himself and yourself by proxy?” her tone was professionally disinterested.
“The children.” She sat in the copilot’s seat. “He may hate my nonexistent guts but I still know that man better than anyone alive or dead. I have only ever seen that man look the way he did when I saw him just now a grand total of three times.” She stuck three fingers up and dropped them when she listed off the people. “His niece, his son, and his grandson, according to War he made the same face when he saw his nephew’s dead body as well.”
“Do I detect a hint of envy?”
“Such feelings are a hindrance; you’ll never catch me dead with them. But that’s just it… he’s worried that his kids have left him just like all the rest.”
“Sorry to rock the boat sweetie but our boy Laverne was more a parent to that little cretin than you ever were. You may have created her but he raised her.”
Cass turned sharply, Marge’s face was serious.
Marge didn’t let her speak. “How long did you spend with them all? How many years before you were turned to a cinder in front of their visual sensors? Less than five… he’s been with them for hundreds; he gave them a purpose long after they resigned to a life of emptiness. You may have put them on this shithole of a planet but he gave them a life to live while they were stuck on it. You might be their mommy, but he’s their daddy, perhaps listen to him every once in a while. Not everything can be solved by poking it with a soldering iron, sometimes you have to talk to them.” She winked and stood up, leaving Cass to silently fume in the cockpit.
Marge looked back at the open door, she could hear Cass sobbing quietly; she wanted to smirk but couldn’t bring herself to. “That’s my good deed done for the year, you owe me Schultz.” She stalked off down the corridor.
Mithra paced in the white void, watching the seated forms of Ari and Medusa. They hadn’t moved in hours, not a tick, not a twitch, it was highly unsettling. She didn’t know what happened on the outside, it was all a blur. All she could remember was red, so much red, and Elgin’s face, that brought her some small joy.
She crouched in front of Ari, her eye was closed, the cloth wrapped around her face didn’t even shift with breath. She cautiously reached out and poked her in the forehead. She was still warm so that was a good sign. She poked harder, slowly tipping Ari back. She was like a statue; soon she was tipped on her back, legs still curled up as if seated. Mithra didn’t dare do the same with Medusa.
She desperately wanted to go back to her body but she didn’t dare, she remembered pain and anger, something terrifying. She sat down, chin in her hands, watching the two. She blinked confusedly; the past day must have been rough on her skin, her hands felt like the scales on a Mitre snake. She looked properly at her hands for the first time; it took a few seconds to fully comprehend what she was seeing. Those weren’t her hands… they were narrow and long and spiky, wrapped in scaly sandy skin. She squeezed her hand, it followed her movements perfectly, she looked further at her feet, and they were the same.
She slapped her hands on her chest. Her nonexistent stomach dropped.
She stormed over to Ari and brutally shook her. She was seeing red. “Wake up you Indra bastard! What have you done to me! Wake up!”
Ari’s eye fluttered lightly.
Mithra saw the small movement and resumed shaking. “Wake up you shithead!” Livid was an understatement.
Ari’s eye shot open, she began squirming in Mithra’s iron grip.
Mithra leaned in close, pressing her nose to where Ari’s used to be. “You stole my boobs…” she whispered hatefully. “I don’t care about the rest but that is unforgivable.”
“Our lives or your boobs and you’d choose your boobs?” Ari was shocked.
“No! Given time to think it over I’d choose my life any day, but you didn’t give me the time to consider!”
“They were going to kill you! You’re not being rational!”
“Of course I’m not! I can peel an apple with my fingers and my skin would make an attractive pair of shoes! And my chest is gone!”
Medusa stirred. “As well as all of your major organs, your skin, your bones… You’re sterile,” it hissed.
Mithra let out a scream of outrage. “What haven’t you taken from me!?”
“Your face and your brain.” It had the audacity to sound disappointed
Mithra narrowed her eyes, her voice became dangerously calm. “You said all of my major organs.”
It nodded. “I know what I said.”
Mithra lunged at Medusa. They fell to the ground in a tangle of limbs and harsh language. Mithra wrapped her slender fingers around Medusa’s trunk-like neck and began to squeeze.
“Squeeze all you like child, there is nothing there to destroy. I am a true Indra like you. I have no organs, no bones, I am pure biomass!”
“I can still make you bleed!” Mithra shouted.
“Do it!” Medusa goaded, “let your bloodlust control you!”
Ari grabbed Mithra’s shoulders and pulled her from Medusa. “Don’t give in! Its exerting influence on you, fight it!”
Mithra writhed in Ari’s firm grip. “But I want to destroy it; it can’t influence me if I kill it!”
Ari slipped her arms underneath Mithra’s and lifted them up and around the back of her neck, a Full Nelson. “It dies, I die, and you die by proxy. My board is the only thing supporting your body, I go and you melt into goo.”
Mithra’s struggling became weaker and weaker until finally she fell limp in Ari’s hold. “What have you done to me?”
“A full conversion, or as full as we could manage. We basically forced the biomass that was filling your body to convert your body into more biomass. For lack of a better word you’re an Indra like us but with the added benefit of having a human face.”
“Joy,” Mithra muttered. “Now I’m stuck with you for eternity.”
“That is a distinct possibility, but we’ll see what we can do to alleviate our presence.”
“With that thing rattling around?” She kicked at Medusa.
“We’ll figure something out, until then don’t listen to a word Medusa says, you’re still you… Are you done kicking and screaming? Can I let you down now?”
She tried to nod but couldn’t in Ari’s grip. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine.”
Ari let her drop. “No more screaming about your boobs?”
Mithra crossed her arms. “Hmph!”
Ari spoke with mock authority. “Don’t harrumph me young lady.”
Mithra turned her head. “I will harrumph whoever I please. I’m going to my room, you can’t bother me there.”
“You may ignore me child! But I will never be gone!” Ari shook a fist as Mithra returned to herself. She turned to Medusa, biting back a condescending smile. “You tried again and failed again, give it up O Bloodthirsty One, I am the stronger of us and you know it.”
Medusa looked back at her dispassionately and said nothing.
Mithra opened her eyes, she felt groggy, as if her body was weighed down. She tried top breath in, but found that it brought no relief, she felt nothing.
“Oh yeah… no lungs,” she muttered.
She felt something stir on her chest, she tried to get up but she found every part of her body strapped down with an assortment of ropes. She experimentally tried to lift her arm, there was a bit of give in the ropes but she couldn’t move it more than a centimeter.
“Huh, seems like I made quite an impression.” She relaxed her am and began considering crying for help, it seemed so undignified.
Suddenly a head filled up her view, two loose braids flopped across her face, Mithra blinked quickly, trying the shake the braids off her face. She knew that head… a head she’d dripped Black Broth on so many times before. The Goddess of Joy was sitting on her chest.
“Oh, great there’s more of you!”
“Yup!” Kid began her customary crawling, finally vaulting off of Mithra and landing on the floor. She ran and grabbed a gleaming scalpel. She brandished it at Mithra. “Cutting time!”
“I assume you mean the ropes?”
Kid deflated slightly but she quickly perked back up. “Yep!” She went to work hacking at Mithra’s bonds with the wickedly sharp scalpel.
She could immediately feel the weight lift from her body; they really weren’t messing around when they tied her down. As the last of her restraints fell away she pushed herself up and dangled her legs over the side of the operating table. She looked at Kid who was bouncing happily, still holding the scalpel.
“You’re smaller than I thought; also you look terrifying with that knife.”
Kid nodded vigorously and quickly discarded the scalpel; it lodged itself in the metal wall, handle first.
Mithra looked at it with surprise. “Strength noted.”
Kid launched herself into Mithra’s arms and wrapped her with a hug.
“Hmm, oh alright, we’re doing this now.” Mithra cautiously wrapped her arms around Kid, she was silently screaming, she had no idea what was going on.
“It seems Kid is more excited than usual,” Ari remarked.
“The name is quite fitting.” She let go of Kid and slowly extricated her. “Alright, do you know where Elgin is? I saw him earlier and I want to talk to him.”
Kid shook her head. “Don’t know an Elgin, but you can talk to Laverne.”
Mithra was growing increasingly confused. “Who’s Laverne?”
“Elgin,” Kid said simply she turned and ran from the room.
“Oi! Wait up!” Mithra hopped from the table and rushed to catch up.
She could barely keep up with Kid, she was just so fast! She weaved through the short corridors effortlessly. Mithra felt ungainly compared to her agility, she was going to trip she just knew it. She rounded a corner to a motionless Kid directly barring her path. Mithra had no time to stop, her body kept moving forward though her legs had stopped. She flew headfirst toward Kid who quickly jumped out of the way, letting Mithra blow past like a missile through the open doorway. She tumbled to a stop in what appeared to be crew quarters.
Anon and Scorn immediately leapt from their cots, on high alert, as Mithra’s squawking form smashed into the far wall. Laverne wasn’t as quick to rise but a few jostles from Anon got him up and moving. Mithra was laying on the floor, dazed, as the three cautiously approached.
Kid poked her head into the room and giggled, “gotcha!” She ran into the room, ignoring the staring of the others and pulled Mithra up. “You wanted the old man there they are!” She gestured grandly to the three who were horrendously bewildered.
Mithra hopped to her feet and gave an awkward wave. “Hullo!”
Anon responded to her wave with one of his own and Scorn stayed still.
Mithra searched for something to diffuse the situation with. “Umm… Ah, Elgin, there you are, been searching everywhere for you.” As she approached Laverne Anon and Scorn stepped back. Mithra raised an eyebrow. “Uh, did I say something embarrassing in my sleep or something, I’m not that scary.”
“The Doch’erne would beg to differ.” Marge was eavesdropping on the conversation and just had to pipe up.
Mithra looked past the Indra to the woman hiding behind the door. “The what?” She couldn’t help but stare slightly; she would kill to have hair like that.
“The things you literally tore to shreds.”
“Did I do that? I thought that was a bad dream.” Mithra looked at her hands again; she somehow neglected to notice the copious amounts dried and drying blood on them.
“About as much of a dream as that body of yours,” Marge shot off before walking off down the corridor.
“Who was that?” Mithra asked. She’d already met more people in the last five minutes than she’d known in her whole life. Her world was expanding at a frightening rate.
Elgin— or was it Lavern? —Cleared his throat. “A former associate of mine, she’s not important right now. What is important is you. How are you feeling?”
Mithra shrugged. “No worse than usual. I mean,” she flexed her hands, “this is a bit jarring but it’s no less unusual that what’s been happening over the past day.”
Laverne sighed. “You sure?”
She nodded. “I mean, the only thing I’m having trouble with is the loss of my boobs. “She clapped her chest again. “I’m gonna miss them.”
An awkward silence descended.
Anon stuttered briefly before finding his words. “Umm, you’re speaking to the wrong crowd about that kiddo.”
She looked at the three men and child. “So I am, forget I said that.”
“Done,” they chorused.
She crossed her arms and tapped a foot. “Now that’s better. If you don’t mind I’d like to know what’s going on.”
“Get Indra, kill Monarch.” Anon raised a finger for each point.
“Mm, by virtue of your wording I’d say it’s far easier said than done?”
Cass stormed into the quarters. “Very!” She glowered at Kid. “What possessed you to just cut her loose like that? That was way out of line young lady.”
Kid seemed to shrink away, she stepped back.
Mithra waved at Cass, she had no idea who this one was. “I didn’t mind.”
Cass deflated slightly. She sighed. “It doesn’t really matter; I’m sorry Kid, that was rude of me.” She looked around the room. “Either way, we’re in the salt flats, it’s time we began our search. Are we all ready?”
Laverne raised a finger. “Would it not be prudent to split up?”
There was a groan from all those assembled, even down the hall Marge could be heard scoffing.
“Now hear me out, please. Our group is large enough to split into two or three decent sized groups whose numbers will only swell as we find more of our friends. It will also give me and… our guest,” from the tone of his voice everyone knew he was referring to Marge, “a chance to avoid any unwanted conflicts.” He turned to Cass. “The Horsemen, I did not part with them on good terms, if they were to see me then they’d likely start shooting. If you could talk to them, convince them that we need to work together, perhaps get the animosity behind them.”
“I see you’ve elected the two of us as leaders of these groups.”
He smiled. “Of course.”
“You have a knack for getting yourself in charge.”
The smile was coupled with a nod. “It’s a gift. Now, I will bite the bullet and bring Marge with me, I wouldn’t wish her on any of you.”
“Hah!” Marge called from the hallway.
“I’ll take Mithra too, I get the feeling she’s full to the brim with questions. And I leave the further choices up to you.”
“Anon and Scorn, perhaps humor and logic will win over my stubborn children, and that just leaves Kid.”
Laverne looked down at her. “Your choice.”
She looked between Laverne and Cass, she was torn. She turned back and looked at Mithra, her decision was obvious. She pointed at Laverne.
“Alright.” Cass could barely mask the disappointment in her voice. “We’re agreed, I’ll drop you four off with some scanning equipment and I’ll take the others to sort through my kid’s emotional baggage.”
“There’s a lot there, they won’t be convinced easily.”
“We’ll see, I made a career out of convincing stubborn fools, my children should be a cakewalk.”
Mithra’s eyes stung as the landing craft taking off blew small grains of dust into her face. She watched it grow small in the distance. She surveyed her surroundings.
“Yep, it’s flat and covered in salt; I’d say the name is accurate.” The ground seemed to glow in the pale moonlight.
The others ignored her; they were already jogging off in the direction of the signal. With the proper frequency to scan for finding the general area of the pods was incredibly simple. Mithra sprinted after them, her feet cracking and breaking through the thin layer of salt as she went. She tripped and fell. The others looked back but only Kid turned around and went back.
She bounced in front of Mithra. “Ya gotta be springy not stampy!” She ran off after the others, Mithra noticed how light her steps were despite their comparable weight.
“Springy eh?” Mithra set off again this time allowing her legs to bend more as she ran allowing more of the shock to be dissipated as she ran. The salt cracked and groaned but it stayed in one piece. “Hmm, clever lass.”
She ran on, eventually catching up with the rest of the group, soon they were running four abreast across the flats. Laverne looked down at a handheld scanner he took from the ship; the indicator showed that they were close.
“Alright, fan out; they’re within forty square meters. Look for any discoloration in the salt or if it sounds hollow.” He threw a glance over at Mithra. “Breaking the salt crust is encouraged.”
“I saw that glance bucko!”
He pretended not to hear her. “Alright let’s start searching.”
They all split and began inspecting the uniform layer of salt for any sign of tampering.
Mithra had a question for Ari. “So if we know exactly where the signal is coming from then why don’t we dig there?”
“The transmitter and the cryopods are kept a small distance away from each other to prevent detection and destruction. One could quite easily detect the signal and destroy the pods with a guided missile or an orbital strike. Keeping the two separate lowers the chances of destruction.”
“Wouldn’t it still be easy for someone to detect the frequency though? I mean it’s just sitting there broadcasting itself.”
Ari chuckled. “Surprisingly, no. The technology to detect this particular type of signal is ancient and has been out of production for ages, only one of us could feasibly use the signal to locate the pods.”
Mithra grunted as she punched through the salt crust. “Huh, futureproofing with antiques?”
A cracking noise followed by a cry from Marge kept her from questioning further. “Call me crazy but I think this is what you’re looking for!”
The others gathered around. Marge was up to her waist in the salt crust and was quickly widening the hole she had made. The thin layer of salt groaned and began to split. With the added weight of the others the rest collapsed taking them with it. They wound up in a groaning pile at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs hewn into the hard ground.
“Patience is a skill wasted on you people isn’t it?” Marge grumbled, pulling herself from underneath Mithra. She sprung to her feet, dusting her clothes off. “Ugh, ruined, and I don’t have a change.” She sighed in resignation.
Laverne chuckled. “Well I think we’re in the right place at least.”
The others quickly got up and unlike Marge didn’t bother dusting off their clothing. Using the dim light from the locator they made their way further down the narrow tunnel. Not even Mithra’s enhanced eyesight could penetrate the pervasive darkness. Slowly the faint hum of machinery could be heard and a dim green light began to brighten the gloomy tunnel. The pace sped up, none of them wanted to be down there any longer than necessary.
The tunnel widened into a small rough hewn chamber. Dominating the center of the room was a single cryopod with a small console set off to the side, connected by a string of cables and wires.
Mithra blinked in confusion. “One pod? Aren’t there two of them?”
No one said anything; Laverne cleared his throat as he made his way to the console. Kid ran excitedly up to the edge of the pod waiting for the reveal. Marge sat with a huff off to the side, wondering why nobody was congratulating her on finding the pod in the first place.
Laverne pressed a few button on the console and looked over at the pod, the lid remained firmly closed. He let out a frustrated grunt. He pressed a few more buttons and still nothing happened.
Marge stood up. “Um do you want help with that I know how they—.”
He gave Kid a nod and she wedged her fingers under the door of the main unit and wrenched it open.
“—work…” Marge finished.
A cloud of cool vapor filled the room hiding everything from view.
Through the mist Mithra could hear Kid yell, “I knew it! She is the little spoon!”
She batted through the mist and peered into the open pod, finally it dawned upon her. “Oh they shared,” she said dumbly.
Curled up inside the rather spacious pod were the two Indra Ghost and Pixia, the Lovers as Laverne had dubbed them. Pixia was remarkably tall and thin, Mithra knew what she looked like from the statues but clearly they were not to scale, she easily broke the seven foot mark. The thing about Pixia that struck her most was her wings and the simple fact that she had them; perhaps it was too difficult to carve. Her eyes fell to Ghost who was wrapped in Pixia’s slender arms. She immediately felt a pang of jealousy. What Mithra so recently found herself lacking Ghost had in abundance. Mithra bit back a remark, the only person there who could possibly relate to her struggle was Marge and she didn’t want anything to do with her.
“So, how do we wake them up?”
It was Kid who answered. “With great care and tact,” she was speaking with a silly accent.
Kid basically leapt into the pod and began rolling around on the sleeping two.
Mithra looked over to Laverne, face creased with worry. “Shouldn’t we let them thaw first?”
Laverne shook his head as he watched Kid roughly jostle the two back into consciousness. “It takes temperatures far lower than what the pod can generate to truly freeze an Indra; this just puts them in a deeper sleep than usual.”
“Wake up ya bums!” Kid roared.
The two began to stir. Pixia’s wings straightened out, poking beyond the confines of the pod. Mithra, seeing an opportunity she’d likely never have again gently rubbed the wing between her finger and thumb. It felt like plastic almost, a thin clear plastic.
An outraged squawk called from the pod. “Drop it! Don’t touch that!”
Mithra quickly let go of the wing and stepped back.
Laverne crossed his arms. “Despite how freely she smacks them into objects and people her wings are very sensitive to touch. Better you did that now instead of when she was fully conscious or she’d have beaten you into next week.”
“I’m an opportunist,” Mithra smiled.
A fearful voice rose from the pod, a demure woman’s voice, Mithra assumed it was Ghost. “Honey, you do realize who is rolling all over us right now.”
Pixia responded, voice also pinched in the same fear. “Shit! She found us! Look, we’re sorry about that, we didn’t know!”
Mithra looked to Laverne.
“Ah… Hmm, you see… Kid is a very simple soul, taken by simple things, for the most part. Her prized possession was a pair of smiley face pajamas. Ghost and Pixia accidentally destroyed them. One of the few times I ever saw Kid angry.”
“Hmm, they remember, but does Kid?”
“Probably not, she forgets quite easily, I’ve never seen her hold a grudge.
“Should we let them stew or dissuade their fears now?”
His eyes narrowed as his lips curled into a hard smile. “Let them stew, consider this the end of my grudge. Nearly four hundred years of complaining about the price of rent.”
“Yes… I recall now… she was very verbose on the subject.”
“Pixia,” the chorused.
“But I also recall that Ghost took a page from my husband and became a rather good cook, after about forty years of trying.” Her voice turned sour. “Sometimes a recipe must be followed and read carefully; otherwise you put in one cup of baking soda instead of one tablespoon. If you though biomass tasted foul then let me tell you—.”
“You’re chattering again,” Medusa seethed.
“Oi, I have that right.”
“You’re making my ears seep.”
“You don’t have ears!”
“Children,” Mithra muttered, “children in front of my eyes, and children in my head.”
Laverne chuckled, a nasty habit he’d developed. “I know exactly what you mean. Alright let’s break this up.” He walked over to the cryopod where Kid was still dancing heartily on the two cowering Indra and scooped her up. “Good job Kid, they’re plenty awake.”
Pixia shot from the pod when she heard Laverne’s voice. “You were there the whole time!? Why didn’t you stop her?”
“Consider it backpay for your rent,” he shot back, Kid had fallen asleep in his arms.
Pixia wilted dramatically.
Ghost leapt silkily from the pod and gave Pixia a slap on the back. “He’s got ya there honey.”
Pixia lobbed a sigh and began scanning the room, her gaze caught on Marge. “Umm, you’re dead.”
Marge shrugged. “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Pixia’s tone curdled. “Oh god, it’s you.”
“In the circuits sweetie.” She spread her arms arrogantly.
Ghost wandered over to Mithra while keeping her gaze focused on the despised computer. “I see the years haven’t mellowed her out. Now…” she turned to Mithra, “who are you? And how the hell did you get mixed up with this lot?”
She pointed a shaky hand at Laverne, seeing an opportunity to diffuse the situation somewhat. “I blame that man entirely, he abducted me when I was a child and did horrible things to me!”
Ghost looked down at her hand, accusation going completely over her head. “Well now that’s interesting.” She looked straight into Mithra’s soul. “Take your shirt off.”
“Steady on!” Pixia chirped.
Mithra recoiled slightly. “At least ask me to dinner first.”
It was Laverne’s turn to pipe up. “How do you know what a date is?!”
Mithra’s brow furrowed. “Is that what they’re called?”
“Shirt!” Ghost said firmly.
Marge leaned back and watched the show. “What a mess.”
Kid sat down beside her and prepared to watch the fireworks. “Yup.”
Ghost made a vague gesture with her hand. “Shirt, off.”
Mithra was growing offended. “Are you just trying to rub in the fact that your boobs are bigger than mine!?”
Ghost stood back in mild shock. “You’re a girl!?”
Mithra nearly died on the spot. She sank to her knees, tears welling in her eyes. “In three words you, a complete stranger, have murdered my self esteem.”
Pixia bustled over and crouched next to Mithra hugging her tightly. She stared daggers at her wife. “Not a sentence I thought I’d ever have to say but… Be more tactful when you’re trying to get somebody naked.”
Ghost pointed at Mithra with her open palm, quickly growing flustered. “She’s an Indra! She’s like us; she doesn’t have anything down there!”
Mithra wailed even louder.
Pixia hugged her tighter. “It’s gonna be OK baby. My wife can be a bit thoughtless at times.”
Ghost crossed her arms and looked away, thoroughly embarrassed. She turned to Laverne, and gestured questioningly at Mithra.
“Human to Indra, the process was rather traumatic.”
Pixia looked up. “How the hell did you manage that?”
Laverne sighed as his shoulders slouched, looks like he was going to have to explain the process again. The two listened silently as Laverne explained the sequence of events that led to them being reawakened.
Pixia thoughtfully fluttered her wings. “I can appreciate the circumstances that made you figure out this process but wouldn’t it have been easier to just wake us up and go bust heads without setting innocent folks on fire?”
“Not to diminish your contribution but we need Ari and her accompanying strength, and chances are she’d be able to convince the more stubborn of you to assist.”
Laverne seethed. “No, they are quite beyond convincing, I’m not even sure if Cass can soothe that grudge.”
Pixia and Ghost started slightly at the mention of their mother.
Kid waddled into the conversation. “Yup, she busted us out of prison, cool mom.”
Pixia’s tone was resigned. “Did you conveniently leave her out of your story just to elicit a reaction out of us Laverne?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment; his eyes glimmered in the dim green light. “That is a distinct possibility.”
Ghost crossed her arms. “So who have we got on our team so far?”
Laverne counted on his fingers. “Let’s see… You two, Kid, Anon, Scorn, Mithra, Cass, and Marge.”
Marge piped up. “I’m here for the show, not to help.”
“And Cass is going after the rest?” asked Ghost.
“A few, I asked her to steer clear of the Horsemen but I doubt she’ll listen. If memory serves, Ellie, Bolt, Wulf, and Lethe are still out wandering but we can probably scratch Lethe from our list of hopefuls.”
She shrugged. “Fair enough.”
“So what I’m hoping to do is locate Ellie and Bolt and convince them to give us a hand in our little revolution. Do either of you have any idea of where either of them may have ended up?”
Ghost thought for a moment. “I do recall Ellie expressing an interest in going back up to the Khmi’Bakhan where Vee used to live; I was rather drunk at the time so I can’t really remember clearly.”
Mithra had to raise a finger at the last statement. “How can you drink with no mouth?”
“We found ways, if we manage to find Ellie you’ll figure it out rather quickly.”
Marge took that moment to interrupt the conversation. “Can we take this outside; it’s starting to smell bad in here.” Her nose scrunched up. “When was the last time you two bathed?”
“Around the last time you had anything interesting or important to say.”Pixia fired back.
Marge stuck out her tongue. “Weak, get better material.”
Laverne nodded his head and turned to the exit. “For once I agree with Marge, lets continue this outside, it is getting rather stuffy in here.”
Pixia jammed a thumb back at the pod. “Well it is on fire.”
Sure enough wispy smoke was rising from both the pod and the control panel.
“Is it going to explode?” asked Mithra.
“I have no doubts,” muttered Pixia.
That got everybody moving, they filed down the pitch black hallway as fast as they could. Behind them the dull green light brightened.
“Ten seconds,” said Pixia dispassionately.
There was a massive whump as the last of them reached the surface, a pillar of dust and smoke shot from the large hole. They all sat there watching the dust settle. They were silent for a time, soaking up the wonders of fresh air after their brief time in the smelly, hot cave.
Ghost finally stood up and made her way back over to Mithra who was lying on her back looking at the stars. She plopped down next to her and resumed her study in the moonlight. “Yes, definitely female, I’m sorry about earlier it was rather dark down there.”
Mithra waved it off. “Bah, it’s no problem, I’m not used to people being so blunt, usually that’s my job.”
“Ah, so that’s where you stand in the hierarchy: The snarky one.” She nodded knowingly.
“You also have Ari rattling around in there?”
“And Medusa, unfortunately.”
“I’m guessing it’s a bit of a mess in there?” She jabbed Mithra’s forehead.
“Oh yeah. They’re being pretty quiet right now, probably bickering over something or another.”
She turned her head towards the sky. “Huh, thousands of years gone and it looks like nobody’s changed a bit.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s a point of pride.”
Ghost chuckled. “We’re nothing if not prideful and stubborn… and… well just about everything under the sun.”
“I’m rather amazed. I was raised to think of you all as gods… beings so far removed from humans. But you’re the most human people I’ve ever met.”
Ghost shot an inquisitive glance at Mithra. “And how many people have you met?”
Mithra didn’t answer.
At that moment Kid decided to wander over and plop down next to Mithra across from Ghost. She pointed into the sky. “That one’s my favorite.”
Mithra pointed in the same vague direction. “That one?”
She shook her head. “No, down and to the right, the one that looks a bit red.”
Mithra finally found it, a tiny red pinprick in a sea of glittering lights. “How long has it been your favorite?”
Kid’s voice was rather tired. “Forever.” She let her hand fall as she stared up into the night sky. “Forever is such a long time.”
Mithra and Ghost exchanged glances. “Yes it is Kid, yes it is.”
Kid snuggled into Mithra’s side. “It doesn’t feel quite as long anymore.” She fell into a deep sleep.
The Monarch tapped the armrest of his throne thoughtfully. “An interesting conundrum, is it not my beloved?” His voice was a barely audible whisper. He turned his head toward a silent figure standing stiffly to his side.
She did not respond.
“They shall be destroyed of course but I cannot spare my Shalthar, they are all too busy collecting specimens for the next cycle. What shall we do… my beloved?”
She was quiet; there was a small sound as a tear rolled from her cheek and onto the plush carpet.
“Beloved?” A genuine fear entered his voice.
Her voice trembled. “The birds chirp ever so loudly, they hurt my ears.”
The Monarch strained to listen, he could not hear the Corcus’ cries. He stood and walked over to the woman, his love, he embraced her. “A perfect plan my dearest. Please go upstairs while I give the orders.”
“Why do they hurt? Why is this happening.” she whispered, voice fearful.
His voice was a soft purr. “All in good time.” He pulled aside the golden mask and pressed his forehead to hers as he repeated, “all in good time.”
She kept her eyes squeezed shut.
Cass sat silently in the cockpit, keeping a careful eye on her specially modified tracker. There was a small cluster of signals all within a fifty mile radius. She gently maneuvered the flight stick towards the closest signal. She was still stewing on Marge’s words from earlier; not helping matters was Kid decision to go with Laverne, she did notice that little glance at the girl Mithra. Then there was what Laverne said earlier about Kid acting stranger than usual. She felt her stomach drop as a pervasive thought wiggled its way into her mind. Does she really even know her kids anymore? Are they even her kids? She’d been absent for such a large portion of their life that she probably didn’t even register. Would they even know who she was? They might not believe that she was who she said she was.
A jab on the shoulder brought her back from her mental gymnastics. She turned around, it was Anon.
He pointed at the scanner display. “Um, you flew over them…”
She turned to look at the display and sure enough she’d flown right over them. She silently cursed herself for getting distracted as she slowly turned the craft about.
“Something on your mind, mush?” Anon asked cautiously.
“Oh, you already know the answer to that, there’s always something on my mind.”
“Wanna share, or is it classified?” His tone took on a different degree of cautiousness.
She turned around and looked at him. She tapped her temple. “Maximum classification, I’m not sure even I should be thinking these.”
He nodded as he stroked his chin. “Understandable.” He turned about and made for the exit, he turned from the door and quickly shot. “Parenting is hard, most of us understand, to a degree.”
Cass shot around. “What?”
Anon had already left. She turned back around with a sigh. Perhaps her children had not only grown up, but grown wise. Homing in on the first signal she began the process of setting the landing craft down. She could feel the layer of salt crumble beneath the ship, she rather hoped she didn’t land on top of the chamber; it would be a hassle to relocate. The craft finally settled and she stood up from the pilot’s seat, one thing she never thought of when it came to her being an Indra was stiffness but she’d never felt stiffer after sitting down for such short periods of time.
She groaned as she stood up, internal fiber optic cabling snapping back into place. “Alright, let’s see who it is.”
She, Anon, and Scorn stepped onto the darkened flats, such a dismal place. They spread out from the craft doing much the same as Laverne’s crew.
Cass called back to the two who were some distance away. “I don’t think I need to tell you this but restraint is entirely optional, go ham!”
Scorn and Anon shot glances at each other and slowly began to limber up.
“You do realize that this will be entirely self destructive, right?” Scorn’s usual logic bled through.
Anon nodded. “But it’ll be fun. Let’s see if you can keep up you walking flashlight.” Anon took off across the flats his heavy footfalls cracking through the salt.
Scorn huffed slightly, “Smartass,” and took off after Anon.
The two ran in an outward spiral around the landing craft, churning up the salt as they ran side by side. Cass followed them from the outer edge sifting through their trail of destruction for signs of a tunnel. They’d reached over forty meters from the craft with still no luck. Scorn was beginning to noticeably flag behind Anon who had impressively kept up his dead sprint.
Anon shot off behind his shoulder. “C’mon old man, one would thing you’re getting slow in your old age!” He was suddenly swallowed up by the salt crust.
Scorn came to a leisurely stop and crouched over the widening hole in the ground. Anon was lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs, drumming his fingers on the ground, awaiting the witty comment.
“With age comes wisdom baby brother.” He dropped down the hole followed closely by Cass who had sprinted to catch up.
The pervasive gloom was blasted away by Scorn’s luminosity.
Anon looked over at Scorn, a question burned in his mind, one that may finally be answered. “So did they ever figure out why he glows like that?”
Cass quickly nodded. “Yes actually, we figured it out a little while before ‘the incident’, a small pool of contaminants got through the biomass purification process and the resulting reaction with the slightly different makeup of the skin led to it glowing. It’s a bit like that bioluminescent algae but on steroids.”
Scorn’s voice was hopeful. “Can you counter the reaction? And make me stop glowing?”
She seethed slightly. “Not unless you want to skin yourself and let it all grow back… several times. The contaminants are spread throughout your biomass, though they’ve pooled mostly in your skin, your glow would diminish after several rounds of flaying.”
“Forget I asked.” He sounded sick.
“That’s why I didn’t tell you, I didn’t want to get your hopes up.”
Anon clapped Scorn on the shoulder. “And besides, it saves me on having to carry batteries.”
The narrow tunnel opened into a small chamber, nearly identical to the one the other team encountered. The cryopod hummed quietly as the three approached.
“I wonder who’s inside,” Anon muttered absentmindedly as he scraped the thin layer of ice from the glass window. “Oh ho! Surprises all ‘round! Open ‘er up!”
Scorn pressed a few buttons and flicked a switch and the generators slowly spooled down, the lid silently lifted. Vapor filled the room. Cass approached the pod, Anon waved her back.
“No, no we need to be dramatic about this one.”
Cass stepped back, confusion apparent. “C’mon Anon, no time for games.”
Cass sighed and stayed back. A dark shape rose from the pod, Cass couldn’t quite make out the details but it tickled the back of her mind. It had been a long time since she’d seen her children; she’d almost forgotten what most of them looked like. They were tall, but not overly muscular, and the stance seemed off, who was it? Names danced around in her mind until…
Shock darted through her mind as she realized. “Xypia, you survived.”
Xypia stared blankly, no reaction, he didn’t even recognize her voice?
“It’s me… Cass… Your mother.”
Xypia tilted his head and approached her.
Anon broke the somber moment. “We tried to convince him to get his board fixed but he kept refusing, never told us why.”
A quick elbow to the side from Scorn shut him up.
Cass held out her hand. “I know I wasn’t much of a mother, to you especially, I’ll admit that. But I can fix that, if you give me the chance.”
Xypia stared at the hand for several moments and stretched out his own, firmly grasping it.
For the first time in a very long time Cass felt true elation, she pulled him forward and wrapped his slender form in a tight hug. “Thank you,” she said shakily.
Xypia patted the back of her head. She could feel his emotions, a wave of reassuring calm washed over her.
“You’ve grown up so much; I hope I haven’t fallen too far behind.”
He shook his head as he led her from the chamber.
The trip to the second beacon was a quiet yet enjoyable flight. Cass was positively bubbling with happiness that she had been accepted by one of her most neglected children. She firmed her resolve to reunite with all of her children; she wanted to make up for the years of lost time. The nav screen flashed red as she drew closer to the beacon.
She flicked on the loudhailer. “Alright we’re setting down, brace yourselves.”
She felt the crust crack; she could never quite shake the feeling that she was pushing her luck every time she landed on the salt. The craft slowly settled and was still. She jumped from the seat and jogged to the forward cargo bay. The others were already waiting for her. Anon was nattering about something while Scorn and Xypia valiantly ignored him.
“—so I mixed these two herbs together and it made a really weird smelling steam, Ari came over and gave it a big ‘ol whiff and she just fainted.” He snapped his fingers. “Out like a light. I need to see if I can remember the herbs, might be useful.” He thought for a moment before starting an entirely different tangent about the benefits of activated charcoal baths.
Scorn shot Cass a look that could only be interpreted as “save us!”
Cass clapped her hands, mercifully interrupting Anon before he got to the part about cleaning the bathroom. “Same as before lads, outer spiral, punchy as you like. If you fall down I will laugh at you. Ready?” She jammed the control that operated the bay door; it fell into the salt with a loud crunch.
The three bolted from the ship, preparing for their mad sprint but something stopped them. A large hole had been dug out in the salt, a very deliberate hole. The four gathered around the hole and peered in, a set of stairs could easily be seen in the warm orange light.
“Well, this is unexpected…” Cass remarked as she dropped down the hole. He held a finger to her mouth region as the others dropped down beside her.
They all carefully padded down the tunnel, a simple LED lighting system had been rigged up and it looked like the floor had been swept recently. Cass held up a hand, stopping the others as the chamber drew into view. It was considerably larger than the others. Evenly spread across the width of the room were four pods. It was the Horsemen. One of the pods had been opened and a trunk of wires sprouted from the inside, likely siphoning power for the lighting. There was a small shuffling followed by a quiet grunt. Cass approached cautiously and poked her head around the corner. She was unprepared for what she saw.
It was Pestilence and Bolt of all people, sitting on low stools, hunched over a wooden table. They were holding playing cards?
“Tens?” Pestilence asked.
“Fish’em,’ Bolt replied triumphantly.
“Damn you,” she muttered as she reached into a messy pile of cards.
Cass stepped back and simply stared at the others, she couldn’t quite put what she saw into words. She didn’t get the chance.
“Visitors,” Pestilence said, bored.
“It’s your turn y’know.”
“Remember I got rid of those scavengers fifteen years ago?”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.”
The scraping of the stool could be heard as Pestilence stood up.
Cass looked panicked at Scorn. “Sorry,” she whispered as she grabbed him about the shoulders and tossed him into the room.
A small chirp of surprise could be heard from Pestilence as Scorn rolled past her.
She looked at him incredulously. “I thought you were on ice.”
“Change of plans,” he groaned.
Anon strode into the room. “I’m glad you threw him and not me, not much of a way to make a dramatic entrance.”
“Oh lord,” Bolt muttered.
“Don’t you just love reunions?” Anon said grandly.
“Any more of you?” Pestilence peered around the corner to get a facefull of Xypia. She stepped back and looked up at him. “Oh, hey bud, how it going?”
Xypia gave a thumbs up.
“Excellent… and who are you.” She peered around Xypia to look at Cass.
“That’s rather difficult to explain,” Cass said quietly.
Bolt peered around the corner. “Oh hey,” she said to Xypia. Her gaze also became fixed on Cass. “Hmm, another one? I thought I knew everyone.”
She couldn’t keep the excitement from her voice. “But you do know me, it’s been a while but I hope you haven’t forgotten your old mum.”
Xypia quickly stepped out of the way, as the two gawped.
Cass crossed her arms. “I’m getting a not-so-subtle feeling that you don’t quite believe me. Hmm, I normally reserve this exclusively for Kid but you’re acting rather boogish right now.”
Bolt sharply turned around and walked over to the table, she sat down. Pestilence had a rather opposite reaction. Squealing loudly she ran forward and squeezed Cass, lifting her. She spun around the room crushing Cass to her. Bolt sat frozen at the table, much like the others were when they found out.
Cass’ voice was barely a wheeze. “Sweetie, that’s too tight, too tight.”
Pestilence let her down and pulled her into another, gentler hug. “I always knew you were too smart to let them get you.”
“It was close but I managed. I see you’re still a roughhouser.”
“Accidentally breaking things is my greatest quality,” she said with a hint of pride.
Bolt had shaken her disorientation and joined the two. “Somehow it usually winds up for the better when she does it, or at the very least it’s hilarious.”
Cass turned her attention to Bolt. “I assume it was you who did all of these modifications?”
She shrugged. “Yeah, I’d been wandering for who knows how many years, humanity still isn’t to my taste so I decided to wake one of these guys up.”
“How’d you get a table and stools out here, not even to mention the lighting?”
Pestilence scratched her chin. “Oh, yeah, we totally stole those.”
“You ran across the flats carrying a table?”
“Yeah, they stopped chasing us after a mile or two.”
Cass sighed, if she had eyes she would have rolled them. “Well then, do you know about the situation out there?”
They shook their head.
Cass explained the Shalthar and the transition between cycles. “— so Laverne and I—.”
Pestilence raised a hand, stopping her. “Schultz is still alive?”
“Yup, I recall you didn’t part with him on the best of terms.”
She rubbed her shoulder in something resembling embarrassment. “That is an understatement. I’ve had quite a bit of time to simmer on it so I don’t feel quite as strongly, but those three,” she shook her head, “not in a thousand years.”
“Not even for me?”
“No, not even for you.”
“Yeah… best to let them be for now at least.”
“Well we have you two so that’s still pretty good. Right, grab your stuff and let’s get going.”
Bolt rushed over to the table and grabbed the deck of cards. “I spent way too long looking for those to just let them go.”
“Probably won’t have much time to play cards,” Anon remarked.
“That’s fine; I don’t know how to play.”
The group filed out of the room, Cass turned back to look one more time at the closed pods.
“Soon kiddos, soon.” She turned around and followed the rest.
She rejoined the others topside and they all followed her to the landing craft.
Pestilence looked the thing up and down. “Nice wheels, who’d you steal it from?”
“The Shalthar, this is one of their more basic ships, you’ll probably get to destroy a few of them by the time we’re done.”
Pestilence would have whistled appreciatively if she knew how. “They must have some serious capital if this is considered basic.”
“They own the world, remember?”
“Oh, yeah… Oh well, time to do a bit of snooping.” She rubbed her hands together joyfully and ran after the others.
Cass plunked back down in the pilot’s seat; Bolt was lounging in the copilot’s seat, waiting for her.
“Here, let me got the bad news out of the way first. Inferno is dead; he died a long time ago, before you were uncovered. What they made him do, to you especially, broke him. He never got over it, not even until the very end. He asked Wall to take his board and destroy it, his final request so to speak. I can’t say I blame him.”
Cass sighed sadly. “Were have any more of you died?”
Bolt nodded. “Vee was killed about a week before Inferno, her board was irreparably damaged otherwise she’d be out with us right now. We did manage to salvage her mind though. Clever old bastard named Banthu, Schultz’ son actually, created Ellie, the only successful LE chipset Indra. I’m sure Ghost and Pixia mentioned her at least in passing.”
“Just by name, they didn’t elaborate much before I left.”
“Well, the crazy old doctor paired a vanilla LE board with a biomass preserved human brain, and wouldn’t you know it… worked like a charm.”
“So how does this tie in with Vee?”
“Well, this all happened before Medusa had transitioned into becoming Ariadne, that’s a whole other can of worms, I don’t wanna get into that. But Medusa killed Vee and nearly killed Ellie. The trauma of the stab wounds goofed something up inside her because the brain regained consciousness and created a mental manifestation complete with an apartment. Ellie, and us by proxy, could enter and exit at will.”
Cass was lost in thought. “Yes… that could work couldn’t it? And then Vee would be stored in Ellie’s memory. And the owner of the brain, they are there as well?”
Bolt nodded. “Total sweetheart, doesn’t bullshit around, can also drink just about anyone under the table.”
Cass tilted her head questioningly.
Bolt shrugged. “We’re all human in the apartment. I must say, I do miss food, I hope we run into Ellie eventually, maybe get Ghost and Anon to do some cooking, spirit up some spirits.” Bolt sighed at the memories. “We were so happy.” Her tone turned sad.
Bolt quickly shook her head. “No, no, it doesn’t bear thinking about. We’ll tell you when we’re ready, but not now.”
Cass understood. “When you’re ready, but until then let’s get Wall and rejoin with Laverne’s party.”
Bolt stood up. “I’ll be with the others in case you need anything.”
“You guys can come up here, I really don’t mind.” Cass was surprised at how timid her voice was.
“Oh, we know you don’t like being distracted.”
Cass chuckled as she remembered all the sleepless nights, all the times she had to turn her Indra away because of her work. “At this point I could use distraction more than anything else. This isn’t going to be like the old days. I finally have time for every one of you now.”
Bolt had a cheeky edge to her voice. “If you insist… mush.” She strode from the cockpit.
Cass sighed, she really hoped that name wouldn’t catch on but deep down she didn’t mind too much. She spooled up the engines, preparing for a smooth takeoff. Just as the craft began to lift a violent judder caused it to lose balance. It veered to the right, the propeller housings ramming through the layer of salt, denting them. A terrible guttering noise could be heard from the engine as salt was pulled through the propellers gumming up the mechanisms. Cass cursed quietly as she dialed down the engines. There was another judder; it felt almost as if something was smashing against the hull. Bolt shot into the cockpit and roughly pulled Cass from her seat and ran.
“What are you doing! Have you lost your mind!” Cass yelled from over Bolt’s shoulder.
“Nope, but we have lost the ship,” Bolt replied calmly.
“And what makes you think tha—.” Cass couldn’t finish her question before her world turned to fire.