One Step Forward

From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Tears by John Murdock (Monday, April 16, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Doppleganger by Seraphym (Tuesday, April 24, 2007)

(posted Wednesday, April 18, 2007)

Iacta alea est. "The die is cast."

“So,” said the ragged stranger, seated across the tiny fire from Sera and her children, “Tell me why we should trust you. Then tell me how we can help each other. Then, if I like what I hear, I’ll take you to the main man, and you can tell him what you want.”

His camouflaged fatigues had probably been new twenty years ago, and had certainly been Army issue at that time. Now they were patched and threadbare, and there were obvious places where insignia and a nametag had been picked off. He was lean, dirty, his eyes were dark with suspicion, and his hair looked as if he had hacked it off himself with his own knife.

He was dirty, but it was all recent dirt, and unlike many of the people in this shanty-town, he had washed recently. Sera’s sensitive nose picked up no body odor…which actually only made sense. The Fallen were not the only trackers being employed. Whoever was in charge of these rebels was a very intelligent leader. Clean men left fewer scents behind.

Ratt scratched his head. “I c’d tell ya that we bin takin’ care of these folks an’ that’s why, but ya know that,” he said slowly. “An’ I c’d tell ya that two uv us ain’t from around here, but ya know that too.”

The stranger nodded slowly. “You two kids…you can both turn into some kind of monsters.”

< Aliens, > Kyne corrected. < We’re symbiotic aliens. We’re actually energy beings, and we take on the forms of creatures we bonded with in the past when we need to. The flying seafood is one of those, the walking seafood is the other one. >

She managed to get the man to crack a smile, as Astra flushed with embarrassment. “Um, that’s Kyne. She’s kind of the room-mate in my head,” she said awkwardly. “Aedan’s is called K’takei. He doesn’t talk nearly as much.”

< That would not be difficult, > said K’takei dryly.

The man laughed. It had a strange sound to it, as if it was something he had not done in so long he surprised himself with it. And he held up a hand. “Never mind,” he said. “You’ve already convinced me. Our Lords and Masters have no sense of humor.”

Sera sighed. “No,” she said quietly. “They wouldn’t.”

It was not so easy a thing as merely going to see the man in charge, of course. First their interrogator had to get information. Then he had to relay it on. Then permission had to come back. And all by personal messenger, because, of course, there was no reliable way to get such secret messages across distances other than by messenger.

“’Cept for the few Psions,” their guide said at one point. “But we try not t’use ‘em too much. They c’n eavesdrop, if they get a thought-leak.”

They were traveling by night, of course, and out of the city, across countryside that was as hazardous to negotiate as a battle-zone. It was farmland, highly regimented farmland, all of it grain crops. “Gotta feed th’ slaves,” the man said bitterly as they slunk along drainage ditches, watching out for infra-red sensing policing drones that patrolled for anyone out after curfew. “But it don’t haveta be good food. Most folks don’t see anythin’ other than ration-crackers in their whole lives.” He had already warned them that the fields were so heavily poisoned with insecticide, weedkillers and fertilizer that they had better take precautions. Astra periodically radiated healing energies on them all, and the man had promised them a run through a decontamination shower when they got to their destination.

They worked their way out of the farmlands just after midnight, and into land that had been so thoroughly exhausted it could not even grow grain anymore. That was where things got easier…because they were able walk along the river. Dead, polluted water, but nevertheless, it masked their presence with the heat it was giving off itself. That meant they could go faster—

And then, suddenly, Aedan stopped. “Wait,” he said. “You gonna trust us enough to tell me how far ahead we leave the river?”

The man paused a moment. “Maybe,” he said cautiously. “If’n ya tell me why—“

For answer, Aedan walked a little bit ahead, created the sort of space-warp that only Warshades could, and teleported their guide to his side. As the man gasped in astonishment, Aedan shrugged. “If you can gimme a landmark to fly to, I can get on ahead, I can do it stealthy, so they can’t see me, an’ I can bring all of you to me.”

“C’n yer sis do that?” the man asked after a moment.

Astra shook her head. “No. But he can’t heal,” she replied. The man seemed to accept that without question, which was just as well. Sera really did not want to have to try to explain Warshades and Peacebringers and the difference between them.

After that, their journey went exponentially faster. In fact, dawn found them in the hills, threading their way through what had once been suburbs that had been overgrown with rank, mutated vegetation. “This’s why they use so much weedkiller an’ stuff,” their guide explained. “Got bugs in here that c’n damn near eat cyanide f’r breakfast, an’ this stuff takes a flamethrower t’ get it out once’t gets rooted good. Useta be somethin’ called kudzu, they say. Now—“ He shrugged, as well he might. The stems on this mutated stuff were as thick as tree trunks, and it towered over their heads. “Nothin’ lives in here but bugs an’ the kudzu. An’ us.”

There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to how the man was leading them, and no clear path through the kudzu plants, but Sera saw him studying the ground, and soon determined that there were little arrangements of twigs and rocks that he was watching for. Something in the back of her memory that John had told her, or that, perhaps, she still retained from when she was part of the Infinite and had access to all the memories there ever were, reminded her that there were techniques of guiding others that used things like this. It seemed that such methods were very efficacious, for eventually, about mid-morning, they arrived at their goal, which looked like nothing more than another ruined building.

Except that the man whistled something complicated, and was answered from at least five other points. Then, someone that had been nearly invisible for all of the foliage covering him detached himself from the shadows and waved them on. They plunged into the heart of the ruin and came to something that startled Sera.

An armored door. A door that opened with a hiss of compressed air to allow them to pass through; a door that led to what she could only think of as a bunker.

Or rather, it seemed, a complex of bunkers, created by burying a vast assortment of objects. Freight containers. Boxcars. School buses. All of them lit dimly by LED lights, all of them ventilated with air that must have been running through a filter, since it lacked the chemical stink of the outside. The first vehicle had contained a primitive wash-down facility that let them all get rid of whatever poisons were still on them. It must have taken decades to build. Once or twice she passed by a room full of people grimly pumping away at what had once been exercise bicycles, but which were now hooked up to generators. “You name it, we use it for power,” the man said quietly. “Solar, hydro, wind, people…anythin’ but fuel. We don’ have a heat sig They c’n home in on. Tha’s the Sarge’s idea.”

“Smart,” Aedan said with admiration. The man shrugged. “Sarge’s smart. Ain’t no doubt uv that.”

It was clear they were getting close to something like a command center. People kept squeezing past them, carrying messages. Finally they entered what had once been an RV and now actually had a couple of working laptop computers in it, along with a huge map-table and was paneled with whiteboards on which things were scribbled and pinned.

The center of all the activity was a man in the same fatigues and flack-jacket as everyone else. But all it took was a glimpse of his back and the back of his head, unkempt and shaggy as it was, for Sera to go rigid.

It took the children a little longer; they had to hear his voice. “To hell with all of that! This isn't a goddamned game; this is my people! They aren't chess pieces, they're families and children!”

Astra gave a little squeak; Sera halted them with a swift caution on the “family channel.” < No. Remember where you are. Whatever your eyes, your ears tell you, it is not him. Remember that. >

They all stopped dead as the man turned to face them. Sera had steeled herself, nevertheless she felt her heart spasm painfully as she looked into those grey eyes, at that face—

“This’s them, Sarge,” the man who had escorted them was saying. Sera stepped forward, holding out a hand that shook only a little.

“I am Sera,” she said, simply. “These are my children, Aedan, Astra and Ratt; JJ is the injured one. I am pleased to meet you at last, John Murdock.”