Earth-Bound Angels volume 1 - The Destruction

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Story 03: Memories of Yesterday Part 1 – The Woman Who Might Be A Human…

4 June 2062

11 months and 12 days since the Destruction

A group of horsemen galloped down the jungle path, guns of all sizes and shapes strapped to their waists and saddles. They were bandits and marauders, faces cracked into murderous smiles, arrogant fire burning in their eyes. The one in the lead was a buff man with tattoos of birds up and down his bare arms. The people surrounding him was a wiry kid with a shock of blonde hair, a black man in green combat armour, and a bald man with a ginger beard on his chin and a flamethrower on his back. Drunken ballads were screamed at the top of their lungs.

To this group was also a woman in their middle. She did not wear the battle gear of the men, nor any of their smiles. Her only clothes were a knee-length purple dress, hanging loosely on her bony body. It might have been all that she owned, judging from holes and stains. Her pale hands rested on an old submachine gun in her lap.

The wind that blew her filthy hair, coloured not unlike her dress, also rustled the trees growing large and intertwined over the path. Little sunlight was allowed through the crowns, just enough to cast small specks of light on the dirt path. Enormous insects flittered into the skies, and small mammalians scampered through the undergrowth.

The loud gang crossed a sharp bend and rode through a wooden enclosure. They had come to a clearing. Their leader laughed like a jackhammer. People emerged from clay houses to see what the commotion was all about. He leered at them and leant forward in his saddle. His birds seemed alive with the bulge of his muscles.

“Listen up, everyone, I come to you today as a representative of our overlord. Thorne!” The villagers looked back up at him, not with the fear he had expected but with blank curiosity. The smile waned from his face.

The kid leaned closer. “Boss, I don’t like this place,” he said, more afraid than any of the people they were supposed to scare. “Let’s just torch this place and get back.”

“Nonsense.” The bald man stroked his beard as he went in front. He cleared his throat and allowed his impressive voice to boom out. “All right, you maggots, you have a couple of choices here. We can raze your quaint little village down to the ground and kill everyone here. It will not be pretty. You can also surrender to us, and we will convert the best suited of you to android warriors. The rabble will still get killed, of course, but it’s better than nothing. If none of this appeals to you, we do also accept bribes.” He looked out at the villagers with chin up and chest out.

One of them stood before him. Having not seen the person approach, the bald bandit ticced ever so slightly, a muscle jittering by his eye. “You will find that this town has no earthly riches,” the villager said, his genderless voice indeterminably European. A placid look was painted on his foreign face. Long, blond hair flowed down strong cheeks over small shoulders. The eyes were blue, and the sandals, silk trousers and sleeveless shirt were all black.

The black guy roared with laughter. “Earthly riches? Maybe you isolated hicks haven’t noticed it, but the world has kind of ended. No shops… or whorehouses,” he said and licked his lips.

The other bandits joined him in laughing. Only the bearded one remained quiet. He was the oldest and the leader. “Food and weapons are the currency of the wastes,” he said calmly, keeping his eyes locked on the strange villager. “Though we will also accept a lay with your best-looking girls. So what will it be?”

The villager did not smile either, remaining as neutral as the spectators, though sharing none of their tenseness. “We have earned what we have and we share only with those that contribute,” the villager said. “Get off your horses and grab a hoe. Eden has room for all.”

“Perhaps you’re not familiar with bandits this deep in the jungle.” The bald man leant further out over his saddle. “Allow me to explain in term you can understand. The only work we do is for Thorne: we take things and kill people. Complying with us nice and easily will minimise the bloodshed. We could have a whole platoon of IMs so far up your ass you will be spitting bolts for weeks. Do you understand?”

“How could I understand,” the villager replied, “when all I hear is gibberish? You want something for nothing? That’s not how this world works.”

The bald man snorted. “Buddy, there are two kinds of people: the weak and the strong. We are strong, so we take from you, the weak. Serena, a demonstration, if you would please. I tire of looking at this strange mug.”

The group parted, and their lone female came from their midst. Her eyes were stolid and she raised her heavy submachine gun with no second thought. A palpable aura of bloodlust surrounded her. The other bandits shied away, no grins on their faces remaining. Yet the villager stood calmly with an at-peace expression. The barrel pointed first between the legs, moving slowly up the chest.

A French horn appeared in the villager’s hand that was promptly put to miniscule lips. A single tone issued, so deep as to be almost imperceptible. The horses neighed uncomfortably. The marauders clutched their bellies or their ears.

The bald man gritted his teeth. “H-hey! Knock it off! Serena, do something.”

The villager simply blew the horn deeper and deeper. Serena tried, but could not get a proper aim. Her horse squirmed and writhed under her. She pressed her finger against the trigger just as the horse had enough. It bucked wildly, and the bullets sprayed everywhere. The short burst died when Serena slipped from her saddle and the gun fell next to her.

Several guards poured out from the surrounding wilderness and the village itself. They were equipped with steel swords and wooden shields, and on their bodies they wore metal plating painted in red. Archers popped up on the flat roofs, and more rustled from the trees.

“Oh, so you want to play?” The black guy laughed maniacally and took a fully automatic rifle in each hand. “Sure! Let’s play!”

The soldiers barred the bandits from the village with a firm wall of flesh and metal. Archers drew their bowstrings. The bandit leader stroked his well-groomed beard, the kid swallowed a lump, the black man could hardly contain his amusement, the tattooed one looked nervously around, and Serena lay unmoving on the ground.

The latter of the men spat at the grass. “Dammit all,” he muttered, his birds flapping their wings as he flexed. “We are part of Thorne’s proud half-human battalion. Challenging us is equivalent to dying. You fools brought this on yourselves.”

He took a gun from his belt with inhuman speed and fired. Though aimed at the skull, he hit only the grass behind the strange villager. His look of surprise was cemented on his face as an arrow pierced his throat. He toppled from the horse, dead.

The bearded bandit sighed as the firefight started. He unhooked a nozzle from his shoulder. Immediately a soldier was upon him. The tip of the flamethrower fell into the grass. Gas seeped harmlessly from the stump. The bald man’s face flushed. His fist clenched around the hose. “That… was my most… prized possession,” he said, the words struggling to escape him. Instead he roared, took the tank off his back and flung it at the soldier.

A stray bullet caught him in the back before he could get far. He too fell from his mount, utterly still.

“Screw this,” the kid said and wheeled his protesting horse around. “This is not what I signed up for.”

The wiry young man fled from the battle, escaping only as far as an arrow could catch him. Right in the left shoulder blade. His horse carried on without him.

“Don’t get cocky!” The black man smacked his lips. He threw the emptied guns away and leapt from his saddle. He swung an automated shotgun around from his back. “The others were amateurs. A bunch of cowards and losers. All that they cared about was security and the women. Not me. I am here for the thrill and the rush of the kill.” He giggled insanely as he trained the shotgun at the strange villager.

The guards withdrew, giving the archers the space they needed. Arrows rained over the black man. He pushed the side of his helmet and a dark visor surrounded his face. The wood splintered uselessly on his body. “Give it a rest already! My combat suit is the latest technology of integrated polymers and ceramics. So, I think I’ll just kill you all and use this place as my base. There’ll be plenty of hooch and cooch and–”

The word flow stopped when a gleaming sword protruded from his chest. It was his blood that dripped from the tip. He dropped the shotgun as he clawed at the blade. His struggle lasted only seconds. He slid off the sword and fell into the grass. His helmet tumbled off. His lips still formed the word ‘Impossible’.

The soldier behind him was a well-figured matron of a woman. Blonde hair escaped her conical helmet. “How many times do I have to tell you never to engage Eden’s enemies on your own?” she asked angrily, stomping towards the strange villager.

“My apologies, Lexine,” he said, though there was little repentance to his voice. He knelt down by Serena.

She had a troubled expression on her sweat-drenched face. “Spare this one for me, would you?”

Lexine shook her head in resignation. Discussing it would be impossible.

A heavy shadow fell on her. A pair of evil eyes popped open. The bearded bandit’s lumberjack shirt was stained red from a single hole in his abdomen, but sheer willpower forced him to rise. The guards called out in warning, but they would be too late. A knife gleamed in the hand of the bandit. It was aimed for the small slit between armour and helmet at Lexine’s back.

She made a sour expression as she grabbed the hilt of her sheathed sword. The bandit stopped in mid-strike. The knife fell out of his hand. His throat opened in a shower of blood. His dying scream disappeared in a gurgle.

“Whose fault was this?” Lexine asked before the bandit could hit the ground. The shocked faces of the guards turned to shame. They looked away with burning cheeks. “Never assume your enemy is dead. Make sure he is. And will someone take this woman away?”

Several flustered soldiers rushed to pick up Serena. Others stabbed the bodies of the bandits or wrangled in the horses or gathered up dropped equipment.

Lexine took a cig from inside her armour and put it to her mouth. “Why the interest in that girl?” she asked and lit a match on her breastplate. “She’s just a bandit.”

The strange villager squatted down next to the gun she had left in the grass. “I think she must have an exciting story to tell.”

The cigarette hung loosely on her lower lip as she studied the strange villager. “Whatever.” She held the cigarette between her fingers and exhaled a cloud of grey smoke. “I just wonder what she’s dreaming about to give her such a troubled expression.”

“That was the last foster family that wanted to take you in! Do you understand that? Everyone is so nice to you because your parents died tragically, but you’re just a nasty little girl that no one could ever love.”

“How is she, Ani?” The strange villager stood in the doorway to a small room. The flickering torchlight from the outside corridor was the only light source. A squat, brown-skinned man hovered over a cot in the corner.

“Hard to say without being able to ask her. My opinion? She’s damn lucky to be alive. She got more drugs in her body than blood.”

“So this is just withdrawal?” the villager asked.

The man rubbed his hands on a white rag. “It accounts for a lot, but keep in mind she also fell from a horse. She could be brain-dead for all I know.” He packed up his little bag and turned to the entrance. The light fell on his wrinkles and grey hair. “I wouldn’t go that far, though. The bandits were tough on her, and she did not have an easy life before the Destruction either. She’s most likely just exhausted.”

The strange villager watched Serena with a vague sense of curiosity. “Will she be a danger when she wakes up?”

“I doubt it.” The brown-skinned man smiled as he waddled past. “Probably just a little delirious.”

“You’re all here because no one else can control you. You’ve been abandoned by your parents and the system because you are a violent, incorrigible, nasty bunch of misfits. That’s where the LHD youth programme comes in. Here you will be toughened into well-respected citizens and you – will – learn – how to behave!”

The theatre was bustling with people coming to express their opinions or just listen to the council discussing the proposed changes to Eden. Even the children took an interest in their democratic freedom. A little girl with pigtails whispered excitedly to her friends. “I heard the town was swarmed by hundreds of robots, but Vigiften took them all out singlehandedly.”

“If anyone did any fighting, it must have been the guards. And the attackers were humans,” her grandmother said and patted her head with a withered hand. “Over twenty bandits! Taller than trees, they were.” She waved her arms to signify the height.

The children on the floor gasped. “No way!” they said in unison. One of them, a sharp-faced boy in overalls, added: “I want to be a soldier when I take the test.”

The curtains drew apart and the buzz died down. Everyone sat in their seats and silently waited as six people entered the stage, three from each side, men and women, young and old. Two were dressed in red metal plates and conical helmets with sword by the hip or bow slung over the shoulder. Two others were dressed in green overalls and yellow flannel shirts, and the last two wore sturdy blue pants and black vests.

One from each uniform sat down in each of two rows of chairs leading up to three seats facing the audience. There sat the leaders of each outfit with their unique take on the uniform: Lexine with a yellow waistband, Ani with a red bandanna, and an old lady with curly hair and green scarf. Behind them sat a Native American man as old as time on an elevated dais. He drooped even in his chair and supported himself with a thick wooden stick. His green robe covered his entire body, leaving only hands and head visible. His mummified face cracked to speak.

“For what reason does this council convene?”

Lexine stood up, back to him and facing the audience. “To discuss the matter of yesterday’s attack and the lone bandit survivor, honoured elder Sover.”

The elder, Sover, deliberated with a low hum. “Is it not customary that we spare no one who comes to our village with deadly intent?” he asked. His eyes, shut from age, knitted in annoyance.

The gathering mumbled their agreement. “Yes, and such was my intent, but I spared her at the behest of Vigiften.”

“Then what do we know about her?” the elder asked.

“She is unconscious for the moment,” Ani explained, standing up as Lexine sat down. “I cannot elucidate on her state before she wakes up, but I concur with Vigiften’s decision. It is highly likely that this woman was coerced with drugs and beatings.” He pulled a handkerchief from his overall to wipe his meaty brow. The elder was silent for a long while; his hand on the slit in his face where yellowed teeth sat.

“You are asking a difficult thing of me, children. By all rights, this woman should have been killed during the attack. To do so now, when she is in our care and partaking of our medicine, would be tantamount to striking down one of our own. Yet we risk her cooperation with Thorne and the machines by keeping her. I cannot make this decision on my own. Representatives, convene with your people and–” The elder looked up from his speech as a blonde villager entered the theatre.

Vigiften strode confidently through the aisles of seat and stopped by the foot of the stage, every head turning to the strange appearance.

“Serena will not be a threat to Eden.” The voice was not only marred by a strange accent, but also resided in the grey zone between male and female. Whispers erupted among the people and the delegates.

Elder Sover slammed his cane into the wooden stage. The echoes rang out through the hall and snuffed out all excitement. “Explain yourself!” the elder shouted as loudly as his tired voice permitted him.

“Lady Serena is just a victim of circumstances,” Vigiften replied. “We all have our pasts. Some of us even came here running from the law. But Eden prides itself with having no pasts. If she is willing to take the test, then she can become one of us.” The mysterious villager turned to the audience, and they all grumbled their admittance.

All except a raven-haired woman wearing the black vest. “Oh, another of Vigiften’s famous gut feelings, because we all know how well they turn out. Here’s some news for you: she had a gun. That she fired at you. So excuse me for being sceptical.” She crossed her arms and looked smugly out at the spectators. A unanimous cry bellowed from their mouths.

Vigiften shrugged. “I always enjoy hearing the mind of the elder’s granddaughter. The rashness with which your opinions are formed, and the confounding stupidity that they are uttered with, do so neatly contrast with my own statements. Please, if you do not mind me saying so, but I hope for someone with intelligence and kindness to succeed our beloved founder.”

Riotous laughter broke out among the assembled villagers. The woman curled up her fists, and her face burned with indignation. “At least I hold the welfare of Eden close to me. You are as much a menace to our society as those bandits,” she yelled, pointing so quickly to the doors that several villagers jerked their head in fear. “When it comes time to elect a new leader, the people of Eden will choose with their hearts and brains. Not with their guts. In sparing this woman, Vigiften, you have crossed a line that I will not stand for any longer. I vote that we expel not only this Serena, but you as well.”

Vigiften snorted. “You have the voice of an angel and the tongue of a serpent, Mistress Sover. You have lived your whole life in Eden, yet I know newcomers who incorporate the spirit better than you. Is it any wonder that your guild passed you for representative twice now?” Vigiften looked up, first at the stage and then at the villagers. “Make no decisions based on temerity. Give Serena a chance, like Eden did with you all.”

The elder’s granddaughter sat down with crossed arms and refused to look at anyone. The elder himself coughed to get the attention again. “In light of Vigiften’s defence, the decision regarding the surviving bandit’s stay will be postponed until her awakened state can be evaluated. Meeting adjourned.”

The elder got up from his seat with some difficulty and went down the stairs for the exit on the right. The various delegates exited after him to both sides, and the audience too thinned out.

“All right, men, we need to take down this nationalist cell once and for all. Serena, you go in from the front, the rest of you cover the exits. And Pulm, that includes windows. We do not want another lengthy car chase through downtown L.A.”

A loud roar, like from a fireball of monstrous proportions, yowled through Serena’s ears. She threw her eyes open and scrambled out of her cot. Sweat dripped from her brow and wetted her purple hair. It took her a long moment to realise it was just in her head. Slowly she put down her sheets, though she remained in the corner of her cell.

Serena tried to recall where she was and how she had gotten there, but voices had taken over from the noise. Clutching her hands over her ears did not work. They were inside her mind. She yelped as she staggered to her feet.

The guard on duty looked up briefly from his notepad. Serena darted past him, but he simply returned to the blank pages bidding his pencil.

She ran the length of the corridor, past the cell doors, with eyes fixed on the guard and so nearly missed her exit. The farthest opening of the building led outside. Panting and wheezing she stumbled out. A villager stood before her, and she fell on the ground.

“Ah, splendid. You are awake,” the androgynous villager said. “Tell me, where are you off to in such a hurry?” Vigiften offered her no hand, but Serena was quickly up again regardless.

“Who are you? And where have you taken me?”

“I have taken you no places, though you will probably find it hard to believe. You’re still recovering from nasty drugs. As for my name, people just call me Vigiften.”

“I’m still dreaming, aren’t I?”

Vigiften moved around Serena, watching her in details. “You don’t like my name? I’ll admit, it’s nothing like Serena, but this would be a boring world if everyone was called the same.”

She furrowed her brow in annoyance, twisting to follow the strange villager around her. “If I’m not dreaming, then how do you know my name?” Vigiften came back to her front but made another round. Serena stomped her feet. “Will you stop that already?”

“I like your dress, Serena, it’s very airy for a warm summer, but we will need to put some better clothes on you. This thing is just, uh… skitten. Not clean. Frayed.” Vigiften put a hand on his chin. Before Serena could even open her mouth, Vigiften was off in a stride. “Come along, come along. It’s getting late but we’ll need to feed you first before I can show you to your quarters, and tomorrow I’ll have some clothes for you.”

Serena hastily ran after him to keep up. “Wait, hold on, what is this place? And how long was I out?” The setting sun came into her eyes over the towering jungle. She had to put a hand over her face. A gentle breeze caressed the exposed skin of her limbs, and goosebumps erupted on her left arm.

Vigiften seemed almost transparent in the strong sunlight, despite the black clothes. “You’re in Eden, love. You came here yesterday morning, so, it must be nearly two days since you arrived.” Vigiften did not stop despite Serena pausing with eyes nearly bulging out. “The kitchen crew have their families to go home to, you know. It would be rude of you to keep them in the mess hall for much longer.”

Serena shook her head. “N-no, I can’t stay here, not if it’s been nearly two days. I’m really sorry, and I thank you for the hospitality, but–” Though she ran away from Vigiften, towards the low fence marking the boundary of Eden, the strange villager merely stood before her.

“Come, come, you can’t leave at this hour. And when was the last time you ate your fill?” Vigiften waved a hand over Serena’s lanky body. Right on her cue, her stomach rumbled. “There you are. We’ll fill you up nice and easy, and then tomorrow, if you must leave, you may. Until then, right this way.”

“I must still be dreaming.” She put a hand on her head, looking back at where she had left Vigiften. Could anyone have covered that distance in the blink of an eye? Her growling belly made her questions irrelevant. “It’s a nice place you’ve got here.”

Eden was a simple collection of round huts made of either sandstone or mud bricks, all with flat roofs. Paths were trampled in the grass and connected the homes. The few people outside were all dressed in one of three outfits. Most of them smiled and nodded at Vigiften as he sailed past them, winking or waving back at the villagers.

“Yeah, it’s not a bad place. Used to be Indian land, but you know how those things went when the white man came. They got it back again some fifty years ago, a day late and a dollar short. All from the tribe were already dead except for the elder and his brothers, and they were all busy with some casino. So, do you find me frightening, Serena?”

The sudden turn of Vigiften’s head made Serena pause again. An eerie smile crept over the shallow face. “No, to be perfectly honest, you look quite harmless. I could probably snap you like a twig,” she replied, a little put off by the sudden inquiry.

Vigiften laughed for exactly one second. “I like you, Serena. I don’t think I will regret defending you.” They stood by a structure twice the size of the others, but with the same mud-plastered brick walls. “You would be surprised, though. Besides, you are much more of a twig than me at the moment. Perhaps you would like a go?”

Though putting up two gangly arms, Serena simply gave Vigiften a raised eyebrow. Again the strange villager laughed for a second. “You mentioned food?” she asked. “We’ll see about having a go once we’ve eaten.”

“That’s all right, love, I’m not much of a challenge anyway. But if there is one thing that I insist on, it’s winning, and that’s why I rarely lose. I’ve decided to make you a member of Eden. By tomorrow, I will have persuaded you to stay. That’s my guarantee.”

Vigiften slipped in before her and strolled through the room. Four long tables with accompanying benches filled up most of the vast space, though the fourth was only half the length of the others. That’s where Vigiften guided her. She took her seat by the end and Vigiften looked around questioningly. “Dear me, don’t tell me the crew has already gone for the day?” Vigiften set course for the end of the room where a long counter was set into the wall. “I’ll just be a minute. Don’t go anywhere.”

Serena’s stomach made too many complaints for her to disobey it. It was the first time since she had awoken up that she was properly alone. The voices were gone, and the patrons by the other tables bothered her none. It was also the first time in a long while that her mind had made sense to her. Slowly Serena rose from a haze of abuse and abusing, like a parent returning to their home and seeing the mess their children had made.

“Now, you just eat, dear, don’t worry about anything. If Vigiften says you’re all right, then you’re all right in my book. I’ve never seen anyone who could predict a calving like this fellow. Right on the money, every time!”

A portly woman with corn-blond pigtails put down a tray. Serena woke up all the more at the smell and sight of meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables and a large glass of milk. Her mouth watered, and she was digging in before she consciously thought about doing so. Vigiften sat down opposite her and watched patiently. There was food for two but Serena made room for everything, though the last couple of bites took longer than the first. At last she put down her cutlery and took a deep breath.

“Eden’s food is healthy and nutritional and, above all, delicious.” Vigiften leant closer over the table. “Not to mention filling. If you stay, you can have as much as you want every day.”

“I told you, I’m not staying,” Serena replied, though she couldn’t move either. “Thanks for the grub and all, but I have to go back.” She wiped her mouth with a provided handkerchief and laboriously rotated her body off the bench.

“If you don’t want to stay, of course, that’s your decision, but where do you want to go?” Vigiften rose from the bench with her. “Do you have a future waiting for you out there?”

“No, but there is no place for me in Eden either.” She looked up surprised at the sudden harshness in the other’s words. “You can’t keep me here.”

“I couldn’t force you if I wanted to, but it’s getting dark. I’ll show you to your lodgings.”

Vigiften flew past her, ignoring her protests completely, and walked north to a grid of residences with small smokestacks. She followed in her own pace as the strange villager inspected each house in turn. She took the time to better take in Eden. A building on its lonesome caught her eye.

It was large, and stood off the path to the right, at the edge of the village. It was completely without windows, and the wooden door was reinforced with steel bands and several locks.

“What’s in there?” Serena enquired with her arm stretched out. “It can’t be the jail. That was on the other end of town.” She signified the direction with her other arm.

“You’re absolutely right. That there is the Forbidden Building where we store confiscated contrabands like firearms and electronics. And, rumour has it, Eden’s greatest treasure that to this day keeps all technology at bay.”

She gave the building a second look in the new light. “So what do you do with the contrabands? Just sit on them forever?” she asked with an edge of scorn.

Vigiften moved up to a house enshrouded in darkness. A woman came to the window, and Vigiften shrunk back again. “Well, technology is never so bad that it isn’t good for something. The metals can be used for armour and weapons and the like. Everything else is just kept under lock and key where none of the villagers can get to it. We used to trade for more useful things, but… understandably; no traders have come by for a while.” Undaunted, Vigiften marched through Eden to find an empty house. Serena kept behind, instinctively clutching her right arm.

“Vigiften! Over here, you old spook, you’re frightening half the town!” A woman in a black vest waved at them towards her. The house was in the north-west, clustered among other building just like those around it.

The woman grinned as Vigiften led Serena inside. There was only a single room. A neat bed was made on the left, and by the far wall stood a stove. The rest of the space was occupied with other necessary furniture.

“It’s… nice, in a rustic sort of fashion.”

“I hope you’ll like it.” Vigiften was one big, proud grin. “This will be all yours if you stay. We can’t avoid getting some vacancies from time to time, though I am happy to announce we also get plenty of additions.” Vigiften was gone before she knew it. The door was closed behind her though the voice lingered for a moment longer. She couldn’t help but feel a cold chill creeping over her.

“Maybe there isn’t a future for me outside Eden, but that doesn’t mean there is one for me inside.”

Serena collapsed straight on her bed. She was not just drowsy from food, but tired to the bone. Eden, despite its weird occupants, had an air of safety around it. Stress and weariness lifted from her shoulders. She was snoring moments after her head hit the pillow.

I must warn you, I have only performed this surgery on my computer models, so the actual results are not guaranteed. But it’s not likely that she will live anyway. Regardless, you are certain her teammates or anyone else doesn’t know she didn’t die in that explosion?

Serena fell out of her bed and struggled with her sheets until she realised where she was. Heavy beads of sweat covered her face. The cool night air made her shiver. “No, there is no place for me here in Eden. I was a fool for hoping that even for a second.”

Calming down, she was able to get the sheets off her. She hurled the white cloth across the room and stepped into her sandals. She hadn’t even bothered undressing before going to bed and hastily made her way into the cold night. A dark shroud covered the village. All light had been extinguished from the houses. No fires burned, not even a small candle. Serena could barely see in front of her and stumbled along the dirt paths.

She looked up into the sky but the Moon had retreated behind a cover of clouds. Cursing her luck, she pressed on in the direction she believed to be leading her out of the village. The homes thinned and the fencing disappeared. Long blades of grass caressed her ankles as the road sloped up. The memory of her entrance was too fuzzy to alert her. Large walls of rock appeared on both sides of her as the path bent.

The incline increased, and it was a winded Serena that finally reached what felt like the top. She looked around her, unable to recognise the landscape she could see. There were no trees; just more grass as far as she could feel. It was with unease and caution that she moved forward. She gasped. Her toes felt no ground. Serena waved her arms in panic, teetering on the edge of an abyss.

“Outlook Rock is a beautiful place at day, but it can be dangerous for newcomers at night. What would you be doing here?”

Though carrying no light, Vigiften came with illumination. Serena was finally able to see that she had strayed to a cliff top. The stranger villager was no help. She pushed herself back and landed on her bottom. Loose rock splashed into a lake far below. “You asshole! You knew I was headed directly for a plunge and you didn’t warn me?”

“My apologies, I was sleeping until just now.” Vigiften made a sincere bow. “But then I noticed you were here and came as quickly as possible. Are you all right?” There was genuine concern in Vigiften’s voice.

Serena blushed and looked away. “I’m all right. How did you notice me?” she asked.

Vigiften moved past her, not disturbing the long grass. “We’ve been meaning to put up a fence here, but everyone knows better than to wander around.” The strange villager crouched by the edge and gazed into the darkness. “Why do you insist on leaving?”

She crossed her arms as she got up on her feet again. “A fence would be nice, or some warning like, don’t go to Outlook Rock.” She could only stare at the back of Vigiften’s neck. “And why do you do deflect my question?”

“You feel unworthy of salvation,” Vigiften said, head spun around quickly enough to see her stunned face. “That’s it, isn’t it? But let me tell you, there is none more worthy of salvation than he, or she, who feels unworthy.”

“How does that make sense?” she grumbled and turned away from the strange villager.

Vigiften stood right next to her. “Let me ask you something then, and I do apologise if it gets too deep for you. Just remember that there are no right or wrong answers.” She gave the strange villager a sidelong glance, reluctantly bidding him to go on. “Who is most without sin? The man who does good only to make up for bad, or the man who admits his mistakes without excuses?”

“Does it matter?” she snapped. “In the end, only actions count. A starving child can’t be fed on intentions alone.”

“So you don’t think it’s important whether a person gives to charity to earn respect in the eyes of others? Or as penance for a wrong? Or if you genuinely pity the poor?” Vigiften continued.

“No! What do you want me to say? That we should not count money that was given in dishonesty or for selfish reasons? There is no such thing as unselfishness. Even the noblest of acts have some unconscious, ulterior motive about feeling good. Point is, money has been donated. Who cares about the equation when the end result is good?” She crossed her arms and looked irritably at the strange villager.

Vigiften smiled brightly. “Intentions are motivations,” the strange villager said, striding past her. “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to respect his surroundings, and he might be more helpful.”

“Sure, and money grows on trees. People need a reason to do anything. With humans, there are no acts of randomness. You can say the serial killer only murdered random passers-by, but to him, there could be some mad reason. Paranoia. Or maybe he doesn’t like red-heads. Who knows? Just because we can’t know the reasons won’t mean they don’t exist.”

“Hm-hm! I will enjoy having discussions with you, Serena. Ani never wants to talk philosophy with me anymore, and old Henry was deaf on both ears long before he passed away. You go back to sleep now, Serena, I got a surprise for you in the morning. Just show me the good person you can be. For you alone, I will judge you on your actions and not your intentions.”

The light surrounding Vigiften faded as the strange personage wandered down the cliff. Serena stood gazing after him. Had she just convinced herself to stay? She mulled it over for a long moment. Finally she decided to sprint down the path. Vigiften was gone.

There was no light to guide her. Fumbling and stumbling she searched for her house. She opened five wrong doors, immediately closing them again upon seeing unknown villagers. Eventually she found an empty abode with a welcoming bed.

Serena, I hate to be the one to tell you, but your teammates are all dead. Only you survived the explosion. You might feel a little strange, but don’t worry. That’s just some side-effects. You had a very extensive operation paid for by the LHD. So please calm down, it’s going to be all right. You still have me left. LHD is all the family you will need.

Serena moaned, trying to fall back to sleep but a ray of sunlight was directly in her face. She opened her eyes slightly. Someone wandered around the room. She bolted up into a sitting position.

“The Hell are you doing in my room, you pervert?” She drew the sheet to her chin, forgetting she was still fully dressed.

“Ah, this is technically my room,” Vigiften said. “You must have taken the wrong one in the darkness, but don’t worry. I should have led you back since you haven’t been here long.” The strange villager paced up and down the floor.

She released her sheet again and looked around the little house. It was identical to her own, even with similar furniture. The only major difference was above the wardrobe opposite, a painting of Eden with the elder as a young man and someone next to him. She squinted her eyes to read the plaque on the wooden frame. “In commemoration of Eden’s founding, Eyen and Vigiften.”

Serena fell back with a hand on her head. Vigiften smiled at her. “You must be hungry again,” the strange villager said, drifting out the door. “The others would have finished by now, but I’m sure the morning crew could heat something up for you.”

“No, goddammit, wait!” she shouted and bolted out of the door. It was morning, and Eden was bustling with life. Many of the villagers greeted her though she barely took notice.

Vigiften smiled and nodded in return, though, going about at a leisurely pace. “I have to explain a few things to you before I take you to the council,” the strange villager said. “They’re expecting us, but there is nothing more important than breakfast. You eat first and then we’ll go.”

She trampled with heavy steps up next to him. “I will hear no explanations until I hear one about yourself and what the hell is going on around here!” She practically screamed at Vigiften. Other villagers merely grinned at her.

No emotions betrayed Vigiften’s beatific face. “The Indian tribe I talked about yesterday did not actually live here. This was their sacred land. Once in a while, they went on a pilgrimage of sorts to shrines that they built here. They believed that they could commune with departed spirits. But a land is only as holy as the people believing in it. Without the tribe, the land was just a stretch of arid desert. No wonder the government gave it back again. But boy, if they could see what would happen after the Destruction. I tell you, this jungle was not here before.”

They came to the mess hall again. Serena’s questions melted away at the smells of breakfast. The purpose of the tables became clearer with the more people sitting at them. A table for each of the uniforms. The smaller table at the end remained unoccupied.

The previous day’s woman served a bowl of thick porridge with milk and sugar. Three times Serena asked for a refill before she could put down her spoon. Though Vigiften insisted that she could have all she wanted, even Serena had her limits and patted her stomach in contentment.

“Well, if you’re sure you don’t want anymore, then I would like to commence with a brief introduction.” Vigiften coughed, just about to commence with commencing, when a raven-haired woman entered.

Her face was elongated, giving her a passing resemblance to a horse. “So here’s the outlander woman that you’re defending.” Her whiny voice only reinforced the likeness. Men stood on either side of her, one with flat forehead and the other with his face obscured behind a mop of golden locks. All three were dressed in blue pants and black vests.

“Still stinks of the outside,” the blond one said and waved a hand across his nose.

The other one giggled. “Don’t they have showers out there?”

Vigiften looked undisturbed and threw out a hand at the small mob. “Serena, may I present to you the granddaughter of our elder, mistress Sageway. If only her parents had known how she would turn out, then they could have given her a less ironic name.” The other villagers in the mess hall snickered.

Sageway crinkled her nose. Vigiften’s remarks still bit at her, so instead she turned to Serena. “Don’t get too comfortable, outsider. You heard this nasty piece of work: I am the elder’s granddaughter, and he will listen to me. Your visit will be a short one,” she said with icy seriousness.

“Sageway, my dear, your hateful outbursts have already landed you in trouble. After all, the assembly is for speaking politely about things we don’t like, not to rebuke them. Perhaps if you learned proper conduct–”

Her eyes shot back to Vigiften. “And you. My father just wanted to know more about you, but we found out the hard way. You are not some quirky caretaker, oh no. You’re a snake, Vigiften, and your poison is coursing through my grandfather’s vein. You had my father expelled for sticking his nose out too far. If I must, then I will cut off your head and then amputate the elder, to save this village.” Her voice was low and on the verge of blowing up.

“I’ll have you know that I fought for your father, Sageway, but I will admit that it was me who reported him. I caught him trespassing in the Forbidden Building.” Her glower was met with Vigiften’s hardening face. “The elder chose to make an example of his own son, for your sake, to put you on a better path. No one before had dared break into the Forbidding Building. He violated the most fundamental of Eden’s laws. Expulsion was the most merciful action he could have been given. Perhaps today, without an outside law to adhere to, he would have been executed.” Vigiften spoke as seriously as Sageway.

She retreated back to her cronies. “My father warned me about you with his last words spoken in Eden. Told me not to trust you.”

“He was not in his right mind, Sageway. The guards nearly killed him trying to subdue him.” No sarcasm remained in Vigiften’s voice. Sageway merely snorted.

“Vai, Dunguaire, we’re leaving now. I find the present company of storytellers and intruders most unpleasant.”

“You don’t belong here!” the blond Vai said to Serena and grinned all over. The stockier Dunguaire added: “Yeah, you… you uh… you don’t belong here!”

“Our elder is the nicest, sweetest, most benevolent man in all of Eden,” the rotund mess hall woman said as she took Serena’s used bowls back. “I have no idea where she or her father went wrong.”

“Probably lies in the family, from what I have heard of the elder’s brothers.” Vigiften was already half across the room, never a moment to spare. Serena looked longingly for the kitchen but decided to follow the strange villager. “So did you see the uniform Sageway wore? That means she’s a member of the Miscellaneous Guild. They take care of all the smaller jobs around Eden, from the theatre to schools and maintenance. Everyone in Eden is a member of a guild, and the other two are the Guards, who also do the hunting, and the Farmers, who run a bar and this mess hall.”

She nodded, not even realising herself that she had become more convinced on staying. “All right, I can see that. Got to keep the community flowing and all that.” She looked Vigiften up and down with his airy, black clothes. “So what Guild are you in? I don’t see any uniforms like yours.”

“Oh, I’m not really part of any guild. I just do a bit of counselling here and there,” Vigiften replied and quickly went on. “Children of age, and all newcomers like you, must take the test to join one of our guilds. Only the sick and elderly can request exemption.”

“And they get banished for failing the test? Like that woman’s father?”

“I truly don’t know what he wanted in the Forbidding Building. We do not keep a record of the inventory.” A pang of regret entered Vigiften’s voice, though it was quickly gone again. “But don’t you worry, it’s a simple test of suitability. Each guild will present you with a few minor tasks, and you will then be evaluated for your performance. You can start with any guild, and you will not have to take more tests than a simple acceptance.” It sounded so easy, and Serena nodded, forgetting her previous reluctance. Sageway could not have known, but she had done the exact thing that could provoke Serena into staying.

They went south in the village, with Serena hanging on to every word. “You mentioned a surprise last night. Care to elaborate?” she asked.

A smug smile spread over Vigiften’s thin lips. “Wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you, now would it? But I am so confident that you will like it that I am willing to give up on persuading you to stay if you don’t like it.” Vigiften tapped his nose in a mysterious gesture. “So do you know, from my short description, which guild you would like to join?”

Finally she herself realised how close she had come to accepting the offer. She was quiet for a while as a river popped out of the horizon. “How many times must I tell you? I’m not staying here.” She crossed her arms, but the seeds of doubt had been sown. Whatever reasons she had for fleeing had to fight her reasons for staying.

The lower part of Eden was separated from the river by a large grassy area. The houses were mostly made of baked bricks, while others were no more than tents. Vigiften explained that the people living there had waited on getting proper housing, but found the tents just as enjoyable.

The theatre was the largest building in all of Eden, and could easily house every resident within with room to spare. An awning of red cloth cast the front entrance in shadow. People were already crammed inside the theatre. They wanted to meet the new woman and see Vigiften speaking her case.

They strode down the widened centre aisle of bolted seats. People craned their necks. She flustered her eyebrows, feeling like a circus specimen, yet she couldn’t help but appreciate the understanding smiles from most of the villagers. Chatter grew in her wake. Sageway and her cronies were up front, casting nasty glances at Serena. She ignored them and turned to Vigiften, only to find the strange villager gone.

The chatter died down. Serena looked up at the stage to find the burgundy curtain rising. The representatives came from the sides in the usual proceedings, ending with the old man sitting atop of the raised dais.

“It has been Vigiften’s job to prepare you for this moment. I hope that you are ready and understand what will happen here.” She made no signs of confirmation or denial, staring transfixed at the spectacle before her, like something out of a movie. There was no turning back. Guards were posted by the doors. “Start by telling us your name,” the elder commanded, both hands of his slouched body on a cane. She took a deep breath.

“I am Serena. Serena Gearalt. I was a–”

“I knew it was you all along, Serena!”

The old woman next to Ani rose from her seat and bounced past the representatives. Joyful tears streamed down her cheeks. She threw her small arms around Serena, barely reaching her chin. Serena stared down in puzzlement at the old lady in black vest and red scarf.

“I’m sorry, but who are you?” Serena asked. The old lady was quickly joined by Ani, the rotund black man in green overall that had cared for Serena. A reluctant Lexine kept to the background. “Wait…” Realisation dawned on Serena. Her face paled.

The brown-skinned man nodded. “That’s right, you must recognise us, even though it’s been so long. I’m Ani and this is Pulm,” he said. The old woman wiped her eyes on her arm.

Serena pulled away from them. The voices started in her head again. Or perhaps it was just the villagers questioning what was going on. Images flashed before Serena’s mind. The great fireball returned as a reoccurring comet. She screamed, and fell to her knees.

Of course we knew about the chance of memory loss, but that’s just because of the potency. We’re working on improving the drug as we speak. Look, I’m sorry, I should have been clear about the risks from the start, but would you rather have your body rejecting your–

She became vaguely aware of pudgy hands shaking her. Ani’s shape swam back into her focus, though his voice sounded a million miles away. “Serena? Serena?” She blinked at the bright light of the room. Her brow was sticky with sweat and her long purple hair clung to her face. Though her throat was raspy, she had to ask. She had to know.

“They told me you had died in that explosion. I never questioned it. And then I forgot about you from medicine I was taking. Tell me, how… how did you survive?”

Ani’s meaty hand pulled Serena up into a sitting position. It was just them, alone in the theatre. The other villagers, the council and even the elder; all were just backdrops to some absurd flick starring Serena and a couple of ghosts. “They told us the same thing about you,” Pulm said, unable to contain her excitement, shaking up and down. Ani scratched his hairy upper lip.

“None of us were actually inside the warehouse. We were just establishing the perimeter when the bomb went off. The hospital discharged us quickly, and then our superiors showed us a blood pool. That that was all that was left of you. Why shouldn’t we believe it? There was no reason not to.” The large man shivered, and his eyes glistened.

Pulm clapped his shoulder. She was a small, frail woman with energy for two. “I still hear the explosion sometimes. To see you in the flesh again… Ani told me it was you, but I couldn’t believe him. How could you have survived?”

Serena nervously rubbed her right arm. “I really would have died without the combat suit, but I was not right again for a long time. I’m still not sure I am.”

“But with all that blood, it must have been a miracle that you survived.” Ani took Serena’s shoulders and held her out at a distance. “And how do you still look so young?” The brown-skinned man looked her up and down, but the elder banged his cane into the platform before Serena could reply.

“That’s enough,” Elder Sover said. “Eden is a place where people come to get a fresh start and forget about their pasts. If you are quite done, then act as leaders of your guilds, and take your seats again.”

Pulm grasped Serena’s hand, her eyes bubbling with mirth though Serena still looked confused. “We shan’t force you, but whatever happened to you, you know you can talk with us anytime you feel up for it.”

They led Serena up on the stage where a chair had been prepared for her, facing the council and the elder who cleared his throat. “It is difficult times outside our boundaries. There are more than the usual rules to consider. However,” and he glanced at the guild leaders, “a recommendation from trusted members of the council cannot be ignored.”

Sageway stood up, a superior expression on her face. “Honourable elder, you are contradicting yourself,” she said. “You tell us we must not judge people from their past, but you are willing to induct this outsider because of former relationship with council members? Does no one else find her apparent age unsettling when compared to her supposed friends?”

“Thank you, Sageway, your comment has been noted,” the Elder said. “Before we vote on Miss Gearalt’s stay, I urge you to bear in mind the uncertain future she will face out there. If you believe that she poses no danger then…” The elder sighed as Sageway coughed.

“Why bother with uncertainties? She could be a spy for Thorne, but we can’t know, and that in itself should be enough. Our Eden is an endless world. While everything crumbles outside our borders, we alone will remain. We don’t need this stranger here.” She shot Serena’s neck a triumphant smirk. Serena trembled. Before any of the council could speak, she was up on her feet and facing Sageway.

“Oh will you shut up if you don’t have anything intelligent to say? A spy? For that fat bastarrd? I was nothing more than a squeeze toy to those filthy beasts he calls lackeys. Whatever you did to the marauders, they deserved worse.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know,” Sageway said, floating above Serena’s remarks. “No technology works in here, so they would have to send in a spy to undermine our way of living. I find the way you ended up here a little too convenient.”

“That’s enough out of you,” the elder said and slammed his cane into his platform. “I have looked through fingers with your paranoid ramblings as you have kept them to yourself. But to disclose them before the council? I have been too lenient with you, no doubt because you are my only living relative.”

“So what are you going to do?” Sageway asked confidently. “Expel me for speaking my mind? Please, grandfather, even you couldn’t.” She sat down again with a vainglorious smile on her lips.

“Indeed, I cannot, and I pray that such a day will never come.” The elder sighed, allowing himself to cool down. “We judge potential members on their future, not on their past. If Miss Gearalt betrays Eden, she will find us hard to destroy. Therefore I will not tolerate your harassment of her. You have been warned, Sageway, and you have ignored those warnings. I have no choice but to take disciplinary measures and put you under a month of house arrest. Anyone opposed?”

No council members objected. The audience erupted into whispers, but no one spoke aloud. The elder nodded, and two guards stirred from the wall that they had been leaning up against. Sageway saw them coming and slapped their hands off her. “You can supress me, grandfather, but you can’t supress my thoughts. We all think it. Allow her to take the test and she will be the end of Eden!”

Sageway turned about and stormed out of the theatre. Elder Sover put a hand to his brow.

“I’m getting too old for this. I trust the council with any further matters.” The elder rose from his seat, his face sagging with tiredness. Lexine got up as well, hands folded in front of her and facing the audience.

“Elder Sover, the inclusion of a new citizen of Eden ultimately falls to you. We cannot induct Serena Gearalt without your permission,” she announced.

“Is that so? Well in that case, all those opposed raise your hands.” One or two hands popped up in addition to those of Sageway’s underlings. Elder Sover nodded approvingly and vanished off the stage.

“Uh, then it is settled by a vote of majority. Serena is included as Eden’s newest member,” Lexine continued, her attention focusing on Serena, sitting back down on her chair. “While here, you will not have to answer any questions about your past. You will additionally have the opportunity to change your name.”

“I’m good,” Serena replied and crossed her legs.

“Then, this meeting is over and all matters put before the council has been resolved. Before you leave, Serena, keep in mind that you are a still a guest among us. Your stay is only guaranteed insofar as you can pass the test. Should you fail to acquire the necessary approval from one of our three Guilds, then you will still be expulsed.” Lexine bowed before sitting down again.

Silence hung over the theatre until Pulm remembered that they were missing their elder. “So, what guild do you want to start off with?” she asked and clapped her hands. Lexine tried her best not to look at Serena, but her face was beet red and her armour clattering from shivering. “There are the Guards, the Farmers and the Miscellaneous.”

Serena looked at the smiling faces of her friends, feeling herself warm up. She had not made the conscious decision to stay yet, but she was too deep for her to break away. “I’ll go with the Farmers Guild,” she said. Lexine jerked up on her feet.

Ani got up and hobbled towards Serena. “Excellent choice, my dear, excellent choice!” he said, and the two farmer representatives smiled. “Starting tomorrow, I will show you the ropes.”

“What’s up with her?” Serena asked as Lexine hastily made her way off-stage. “Did I offend her in any way?”

“She’s just a little disappointed,” Pulm said and patted Serena’s hand. “She heard so much about you from her father, after all. I bet she was expecting you to become a guard.” The two farmer representatives got up as well to join their group. The others slowly filed out.

“You mean she’s..?” Serena tried to get another look at Lexine, but she was gone. “Where is Tony?”

Ani sighed deeply. “Tony died while investigating the jungle that cropped up around Eden. I’m sorry. I know you were close. Come.” He put a hand on Serena’s back and walked her out.

Vigiften crept out from shadows once they were gone. “I told her my surprise would convince her to stay. Once she realises that she has accepted, it will be too late.” The strange villager chuckled.

“I just can’t help but wonder what happened to her. She should be sixty-eight by now,” Pulm replied.

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