Fire and Abyss
Ries’ boots clanged against the catwalk as sea water spilled through the steel lattice formations. The first sun, Dinah, beat relentless upon his neck as he peered over the side. Fish teemed below the surface. Tuna surged up and out of the water like slithering, frantic creatures, slopping and slurping the water. Among them, at least two dozen fish floated, lifeless, bumped around by their ignorant and hungry brethren.
“Come on, fellas, you know the drill. It’s not feeding time yet.” Ries gave a slight apologetic shrug as he pulled a long, cylindrical container from his vest pocket. “Just need a sample of what you’re living in..” Gripping the safety railing, he leaned forward, dipping the tube into the water. The fish swarmed to his hand, hungry and nibbling, but he quickly retracted it, screwed on the lid and stood.
Glancing across the floating fishery, he twirled a finger in the air at a coworker. The fish wrangler nodded and let a large net down into the water, scooping up the floating bodies of dead tuna from the pen. Beyond him, lay a large expanse of the ocean broken in view by the gray massive seawall.
Ries turned his head sharply to toss his long, wavy hair out of his face and looked down at his charges. The clear blue water, now a slush of movement, still reflected his features: deeply tanned skin, slightly curved eyes, that smile he never could seem to lose. His worry was masked well.
He held up the water sample. “Hang in there, boys, we’ll figure out what’s wrong with you.”
The fish continued to swarm expectantly, just less excitedly now. He really should have brought something. Heading to the fishery without food was like visiting a friend’s home without bringing a dish. Rude and inconsiderate. Ries bowed apologetically to the fish, turned and climbed the ladder to the upper deck.
One slip and he’d tumble into the great blue of their world. Hand over hand, Ries pulled himself up to the observation level and the staff quarters. As his sight cleared the concrete wall, he grinned.
Viera stood with her arms crossed, one foot stuck out of her white lab coat, tapping, as she feigned impatience. her eyes lit up as Ries hopped over the side and crossed the walkway to her. His heart thumped a little faster as their hands touched, just for a bare moment, over the cylinder.
“High thanks,” he said, gazing into those beautiful eyes of hers. “We all greatly appreciate this.”
“And by ‘we’ you mean Bracks and you?”
“And the fish,” Ries said, smirked. “They’re a little worried.”
She glanced over the railing into the pen with the mature adults tuna. Specimens which should be ready for the anniversary feast next week—if they hadn’t all been dying by the dozens daily and inexplicably. “Do they even feel fear? They seem fairly happy to me.”
Somehow, the way she said it, with those beautiful lips, the curves, the slanted eyes and sandy golden hair pulled back…maybe dinner. There was always a possibility for dinner, especially with partnering laws easing up…
“I guess they just like me,” Ries said. Mentally, he slapped himself. They just… Really? That’s the best line you can think of? He needed lessons or something. Refinement. Finesse. Charm. Oh, abyss.
Viera’s lips curved into that gorgeous smile as she knelt to place the vial in an indented, cushioned slot within a cooler. “You think it’s in the water?”
“I’ve got two dozen dead fish in the same pen that two dozen died in yesterday, the day before, and for the last seven days.”
She hesitated, snapping the container shut. “Since the start of the outbreak?”
“Day before you told me the first symptoms were reported.”
Viera nodded. “I’ll take it back to the lab, have them run a diagnostic. Have your fish had any of the symptoms?”
Ries swallowed hard. “Discoloration in the scales. Popped blood vessels. Lethargic movement. Difficulty breathing even while trying to swim. The others avoid the sick ones until they’ve died, but they won’t eat them. When we cut them open there’s lesions, bloodied organs.”
Viera stood, glancing out at the water, eyes widening. Her voice suddenly hit that oddly attractive shrill note of exasperation. “And you just handed me the vial without a glove? Without protection?”
“They’re fish,” Ries said. His scalp itched. He raised his hand to scratch—
“Don’t!” Viera said, lunging forward.
Ries hesitated, hand in the air.
She handed him a pair of gloves then snapped on a set of her own. “Your shower. Go. Sanitize. Wash everything and disinfect your clothes.” Viera grabbed the container. “Have Bracks do the same. Don’t let the water get in your eyes, mouth…or…” She paused as her eyes suddenly sweeped up him and widened.
Ries tried not to grin. Or blush. He really did. “I got it.”
Viera was beet red from her neck up. She had actually examined him! “Great. Good. I…um… I’ll be at the lab if you need me.” She turned, crossing the platform to the small dock.
“What! Yes?” She forced a smile but blushed harder.
“Dinner?” He mumbled. “Sometime?”
She swallowed, straightened her back, and nodded curtly. “Of course. We’ll go over the results.”
He started to escort her to the dock, but she pointed to the quarters building. “Shower. Disinfect. Don’t touch anything. Now. And Ries, I like sea roses.”
He nodded then nearly stumbled over his feet, grinning wider. “Sail safe.”
He started over to the low building. He paused looking back. He watched her untie her sailboat from the moorings and hop in. Satisfied he’d been at least that courteous, he put the gloves on and entered his compartment.
Command had initiated protocols for every citizen when it came to preventing the spread of the disease. Viera was right. I was stupid, he thought as scalding hot water cascaded down his back. A brush made from seal hair scratched his skin raw.. Now if we can just fix the fish… He threw his clothes into a solution the Lasnairs distributed. They said the concoction was blessed by Paoli. That probably meant some of the ingredients came from the volcano itself. Ries stared as he carefully laid his clothes in the solution contained in a metallic pan. It boiled, then suddenly the clothes burned. They dissolved with in seconds, ashes drifting in a red-orange liquid. Perhaps the volcano goddess could explain why his clothes dissolved only to suddenly reappear moments later, all sign of the liquid vanished—soaked or evaporated. The metallic pain still steamed, but his clothes had reappeared, like sand gathering in a shallow pool. Whatever had broken them down had also repaired them, cleaner than before. Hopefully, Paoli won’t be slighted if I wear something else. As he changed, Ries glanced out the plate glass window facing the seawall. Even from here, it was hard to see the vast ocean. Ries tied a bone knife into his sash belt—never knew what you’d experience out on the sea, even in the harbor. He slowed for a moment to breathe on his dwarf banana tree. Sighing, he reached out and touched the rough trunk, felt the dirt its roots had settled in.
Their world was changing. He was okay with the way he’d blended in, but the land and sea always dueled within his heart. Now both may be dying. Who would listen to the worries of a fish wrangler?
Leaving the metallic pan with his old pair of clothes on the kitchen counter, Ries crossed his studio quarters for the door. A kiss and touch of three fingers to the hanging ta leaves on the doorpost—a blessing to Paoli—and Ries was out on deck.
He passed Bracks climbing up the ladder. “Twenty-seven today boss. Same pen.”
Wash it! Kaoni bless them! “The adolescents?”
“Okay, thanks, Lal-ah.” Even using the casual term for a sea-dwelling friend felt awkward, with his fingers still caked in dirt. “Viera says to shower and disinfect, just in case.”
Bracks nodded. “She believes us?”
Ries gestured towards the seawall and beyond, a world of nothing but shimmering blue waves. “Where else is it coming from? This isn’t the home planet. There aren’t any animals on land. Even Lalians like us understand there’s only one other place it could.”
Bracks rolled his eyes. “Someday you’re going to admit where you belong, Ain-ah. I see those ta leaves.”
Ries gave him a flat stare. I made a choice. “Not a Kanir.”
Bracks smirked. “Not a Lalian.”
They jested. It stun less when Bracks made the wise cracks about where Ries belonged.
“The fish love me.”
“So does my mada, but you don’t stay at her house. Ain-ah, ever wonder why we aren’t we seeing more dead fish?”
“Yeah… Go get cleaned up. Can you feed them today?”
“Got somewhere special to be?”
Ries didn’t answer, gazing out at the southern tip of the seament. The channel gates had opened and a large, multi-level white cruiser pulled through the breach into port. Captain Marhmecs’ Blazer had returned. It’d been four months.
“I’m going to follow a hunch.”
Bracks threw his head back and laughed. “Playing detective?” He headed towards the quarters, calling back over his massive shoulders, “Someone’s been spending too much time at the library.”
Ries rolled his eyes. “Least I read! I’ll tell you what I find out. Maybe!”
He stepped down to the low floating dock. His sunsfish sailboat sat low in the water but was nearly ready to sail. There’d been rumors of the Blazer’s return. He wanted to be ready.
Ries loosened the main sail and attached the rigging. He put his face to the wind, feeling the rush directly upon his face. Coming from the south; a nice change. Ries ran his fingers over the rudder. A thin sheet of grey came off, smelling of sulfur. Paoli had been acting up again. As long as the wind blew away from them, towards the single island on this ocean world rather than from it, the vog would be blown in the opposite direction.
Pushing away from the moorings, Ries tacked the bow into the wind. He ducked underneath the sail as it passed overhead. Soon, the sunsfish was sailing downwind, toward the city harbor and the Blazer. It was only a matter of minutes.
Ries turned his face to the sun, feeling its warmth. Barely midday, and Deanna was rising in the east, following her sister. The two suns split the shadows of the city upon the water. Buildings were on large hexagonal platforms, latched together by heavy bindings. Glass shimmered in the suns, reflected on the blue ocean surface. Nearly every building was about three stories tall, except for the towers that took up almost two whole platforms. One was Command, the other the dwelling of Lasnairs, mages who made this world possible. This was humanity’s little island, a mimic of their treasured island in the north—the only land on the whole planet—. What they couldn’t afford to use, humanity recreated. Ries would be lying if he denied the call of the land, especially when the cloned seagulls flew across the Rift and circled overhead. He couldn’t deny wanting to feel the sand between his toes, the brush of native palms and ferns on his hands. To lounge by a large fire listening to grandmada tell her stories of surviving the crash from the stars, the hard choice to split the survivor population into the land (Ainur) and sea-dwellers (Lalian), never again to mix once in adulthood. It had been her duty, though, to stay with the wounded.
Yes, he missed the land but his naming day had come near the graduation of the third generation of Kanir. He hadn’t a choice. Not really. Kanir never left the floating metropolis or traveled beyond the seawall. Not even as children. They just weren’t bred for that.
Not all of them kept to their programming. He sighed as his boat sailed into the busy dock just ahead of the Blazer. He could feel the stares of a couple of the crew as he pulled tight along their starboard and across the bow. Just for fun. Maybe that was a stupid move if he wanted information…
Water slapped the hull as he cut between two fishing vessels. Lalians shouted at him in protest.
He grinned and shouted back. “What? Missed your lines!”
An old man, wrinkled and tanned, shook his fist in response as his boat rocked with the waves.
Ries navigated the sunsfish into a small space and quickly tied off, then secured his mast and locked it tight. Jogging down the dock, boots clanking on the steel, he climbed a few stairs and smiled at the Kanir harbor master. The balding man, first generation clearly, frowned at him with all the lack of personality a Kanir could muster.
Market stalls lined the perimeter of the platform with vendors calling out their wares to pedestrians. Everything was on sale, from whale candles to shell jewelry and tattoos from the ink of native squid. Food sellers boasted snacks of every kind: seaweed wrapped spice rice, imported sugar cane sticks and bananas. Even shark-on-a-stick, a rare treat indeed. In between stands, a hologram platform showed a beautiful Lalian woman holding up a bottle.
“Remember to sanitize,” she announced with a broad grin, looking at no one and yet everyone at the same time. “Get your free sanitization solution from your platform attendant today.”
The hologram suddenly switched to a person wearing a colorful, skull-tight cap upon their head, flowers adorning their brow. A male voice proclaimed: “Join us for this years’ Kanir fifth generation graduation this Talao…” The image shifted to show two proud parents walking on either side of an adolescent. “…followed by our children’s special naming day celebration and city feast on Walao before we cheer in the new year! All parents are to…”
Ries quickly passed the hologram. Its broadcasts grew dimmer as he moved amongst the crowd. He rushed through the travelers and shoppers, narrowly avoiding women bearing large weed baskets filled with produce on their heads, sashaying in colorful skirts and billowy blouses. He spun out of the way of fast-paced men wearing vests over white shirts and tight waisted, balloon-legged pants. He nodded to an engineer wearing a snapped-leather jacket, tattoos emblazoned across his chest.
Suddenly, a woman in a bright vest with embroidered flowers over a wrinkled green dress stepped in front of him. One hand on her hip, she raised the other defiantly, palm out. “Mr. Ries, my tuna’s late.”
Ries skidded to a halt, a bare breath away from her. “Ninau, peace and ease!” He offered a smile, praying that traditional greeting would defuse the coming onslaught.
He was wrong.
Ninau’s fat lower lip jutted out and she frowned deeper, if it was possible. “I will be out of stock tomorrow! Tomorrow! I ordered it a week ago!”
“Yeah…we’re having some delays at the pens.”
Her chin lowered and dark, piercing eyes glared at him. “I have a net. Shall I go fetch my own fish, wrangler?”
Over her shoulder, a crowd gathered at the edge of the dock, waving as the Blazer pulled into port. Lines were tossed over to porters. He needed to get there. Quickly. As soon as they learned about the disease, Captain Marhmec’s crew would push out to sea again. Perhaps finally never to return.
Ries smiled broader, trying to disarm Ninau. “That’s why you have me. I’ll personally look into your order when I get back—” He tried to step beyond her.
She stepped to the side, blocking him. Then, in a whisper, she said: “Is it true? Did that…that disease come from the fish? I watched two Kanir carried from their quarters this morning. They were dead and covered in blood. Is it coming from the tuna?”
Ries’ eyes darted off to the Blazer as crew members lowered the plank. “I hear the cows had more calves this year. Give your customers some variety until next week, okay? I’ll look into your order.”
“What?” Ninau snapped as Ries ran by her. A customer called her over to the chilled case of fish under her awning, so she spared Ries only a last glare before turning her frown into the most ambitious smile possible.
Quickly, Ries waded into the crowd, excusing himself with every bump and prod for someone to move out of his way. Flat-faced Kanirs glared at him. The Lalians protested loudly.
Finally, Ries pressed through to the front where Marhmec stood tall and proud atop the plank, glaring down at the harbor master. Marhmec wore a white, billowy shirt and pants tucked into turned down black boots. His goatee framed a frown, and his dark eyes shot daggers at the harbor master.
“I’ve got three catches of shark and one whale in my hold, Master Dallons, and I have no interest in letting it rot there along with my crew’s blood, sweat, and time. We’re here to sell, and sell we will. You’ll let us disembark—”
Ries stood, waiting, at the edge of the crowd until Marhmec’s eyes swung his direction. “Bloody frenzy, look what the line hauled in.” Those eyes swung back to Dallon. “Surely you’d let this young wrangler step as far as you without boarding. Not much of a problem, that would be, eh, Master Dallons?”
“It’s Mr. Ries…” the harbor master stuttered.
Marhmec’s voice dropped low. His hand dropped to finger the hilt of a bone knife in his sash belt. “Aye, it’s Mr. Ries.”
Well, what did he expect? A hug?
“Come on then, wrangler!” Dallons waved him over.
Ries broke from the crowd and passed between two muscled Kanir, stone-faced and glaring. He passed Master Dallons—not an easy task on such a thin walkway. The man smelled of musk and sweat. Such was life at the harbor.
“Hail, Captain Marhmec,” Ries said. “Blessings of Kaoni upon you and your crew and welcome.”
Better not to say welcome home, Ries knew.
“Hail yourself, half-minded boy of a man. Come to buy fish for your pens? Mine are all dead. Or did you forget we were in the business of fishing?”
That’s not all they were in the ‘business’ of. Another thing better left unsaid. Ries kept smiling and tried his best to shrug off the insults. They were well deserved. “I have a question about your travels.”
Marhmec laughed. “Haven’t I heard you say that before? Damn my tide if I thought I could find a better sailor at this harbor. I saw your stunt. Still in the mood for adventure? Lost a man to a shark pack last month. Could use the extra hands.”
Ries held his breath, didn’t allow the tremor of excitement to his voice. He was all too aware of the crowd at his back.
“Let me think of it one night longer, if you’ll stay in harbor.”
Marhmec crossed his arms. Behind him, his boswain, a beautiful black-haired woman, stepped to the rails. Her glare was as intense as the captain’s.
“What have you got up your sleeves, Mr. Ries?” Marhmec asked, voice lower.
“See anything bizarre on your travels? Maybe, dead fish floating at the surface?”
Ries heard footsteps and glanced to the side. The harbor master was walking back towards them. He needed more time!
“Floating? You of all people should know fish won’t float long. There’s plenty of scavengers in these waters that’ll find a feast of even the smallest creature and the largest sink where Kaoni dwells. What the abyss is going on here? Why aren’t we allowed to disembark?” That last wasn’t directed at the harbor master, but Ries.
“Stay here one evening, and I’ll speak with you in the morning.” A thought dawned on him like the second sun. “Or come to the pens and meet with me there.” Ries turned swiftly towards the harbor master. “That’s permitted, isn’t it, sir?”
“Docking at the fishery? You’ll claim leave for these folks. No Kanirs over there, right?”
“None, sir.” Not now, anyway.
Marhmec bellowed a laugh and nodded towards the guardsmen. “I doubt a Kanir would ever go farther than that, indeed. Alright, Mr. Ries. I’ll play your game. One night. Then you help me sell my bloody fish or I take them to the island and see if any of those Ainur are hungry. I’d shake on it but for fear of Master Dallons’ lash.” The captain sneered at the harbor master to show how afraid he truly was.
“Indeed, thank you,” Ries said. “I have some errands to see to here then I’ll be back at the pens by this evening.”
The captain shrugged. “I’ll await you there. This is the last game I play with you, Mr. Ries.”
His boswain nodded ascent, her hair falling across her shoulders. That was when Ries noticed the bone javelin point, held in a sling on her back. She had two daggers in her belt. Those eyes felt a lot colder. What was he thinking?
After a quick casual parting, Ries headed back through the crowd, ignoring questions as he pushed through them. The hologram changed, showing a man in a loose suit and tie, again grinning at no one and everyone. “Lalians, today’s the day to be in the suns! I know children with breathing dysfunctions will be happy to hear we have a south to northern wind and vog-free for the rest of the day. Just remember, if the wind does change, always have your goggles and oxygen ready. Nothing says trip to the physician like a cough and burning eyes. So enjoy those suns, citizens!”
Once through the thick of people and clear of the market, he let out a long sigh. Things were falling into place, but he was playing a dangerous game. Too dangerous if he was right.
Ries cut across the agricultural square platform, jumping over the fence and running between bleating goats and foul smelling cows. His nearly stripped off his boots just to feel the grass underneath him—forget about the dung! Just the idea, just feeling like there was dirt rather than steel or cement underneath his feet was enough to make him want to sing. But the grass was brown, wilted. It crunched beneath his feet. Paoli’s vog spared nothing green and good in this world. He had a hunch not even the tuna could live against it. If the fish near the surface couldn’t survive her feisty outbursts, how would humanity?
His arms pumped behind him. His stride was long, his pace fast. A goat ran aside him, bleating. Ries laughed but knew better than to touch the creature. He’d been bashed before.
How would anyone listen? He was just “the wrangler”. He bred, fed, and cared for the fish that made up the majority of the seament’s culinary meals. Even now Command had ordered a third pen built to expand production for the Kanir’s fifth generation. What if they were making a mistake?
He ran past the aquaponics greenhouses. Inside, the plants flourished. Everything accessible by the vog was dying. Slowly, but it was dying. Grandmada would know why. The Professor would know why. He just needed Viera to help Command understand but first he needed to convince her.
Sweat dripped from his brow, salty and sweat. He turned a corner, hopping over metallic bindings, held firm by Lasnair magic. Grandmada could reason with them, if Marhmec would be willing…
He ran between the narrow spaces of glass buildings, aware he passed quarters of people who were likely sick or would be getting sick. Command had kept the calm now. Everything in the harbor and market had reeked of normalcy, but for how long? If the rate of death among his fish was any indication and Ninau’s hushed worries a sign, chaos wasn’t long away.
But how to get people to listen to a fish wrangler? It was his own fault. He could have been anything he wanted at naming day, but he chose this life. It was his own fault but at least there was a chance with Viera.
He crossed another platform and ran along the firm walkway to the university gates. A couple of young students glanced at him then veered away. There wasn’t enough time to care.
The university was a large square building that took up most of the space on the hexagonal platform. Crossing underneath the balcony of the gateway, Ries entered what had once been a green courtyard with wooden benches and flowering plants and banana and coconut trees. Now, everything looked dry, brown. This wasn’t how land should look. This wasn’t how life should be.
Ries took the large, wide steps at the entrance two at a time. Students milled around him, chatting in groups, sitting on the steps enjoying a vog-less afternoon in the sun. He pulled open the glass doors and walked into the chilled building from his younger years. Pausing to enjoy the smell of the rose fern garden near the entrance, he climbed a circular staircase and headed across the covered balcony. He passed a few professors, who frowned upon seeing such a sweaty, grown graduate. Some students laughed. Some smiled.
Ahead, students filed out of a classroom with tablets and books in their arms. Ries smiled. There was only one professor who insisted his pupils still use books. Ries waited for the group to disperse before entering the classroom, shivering slightly from the cold temperature and his own sweat.
The last student stepped down from the raised lecture area, leaving the room empty except for Ries and one other, stacking papers and closing a text book.
“Professor Agallo,” he said, placing his hands together and bowing. A tear actually came to Ries’ eye. He was as good as home.
Agallo set down the papers and glanced up. A large grin split the smooth, plastic face as those colored electronic eyes took in his old charge. Agallo’s voice boomed from the Avatar as his arms flew wide.
“Ries, my son, come and give your professor a greeting!”
Grinning, Ries gave the Avatar a brief hug. He knew Agallo could feel every touch through the sensors. Though his aging body reclined in comfort far away, Agallo could do all the things he still loved via his electronic Avatar.
“You’re back!” He said, gesturing towards a chair. “Out for a run?”
“Crossed half the city to get here?”
“Any reason you didn’t just sail to the nearest dock?”
“Would you believe me if I said I wanted exercise?”
Both men sat. Even dressed in a white shirt and billowy black pants, the Avatar’s black joints were visible. Agallo groaned then looked sheepishly up at Ries. “Sixteen years using this Avatar, and I still can’t keep settled even at home. I have to stand some while teaching. Helps me really feel it.”
“Has Command stopped trying to requisition it?”
Agallo laughed and shook his head. “Not on your life! They say I should enjoy retirement and luxuries of having served the community this long and let someone else have a go with this Avatar while it’s still useful. Trouble is, I’m an elder. There are some things I can still pull rank on.”
“Good for you.”
Agallo let out another hearty chuckle. “I’m sure Command views me as a thorn in their side. My pleasure to oblige. So tell me, Ries. Why are you here?”
“Are you healthy?”
The Avatar looked away, its plastic fingers drumming on a table. “Other than all the signs of old age and vog? Yes. I haven’t caught the disease.”
“My fish are dying, Professor. Two dozen at a time. All have the same symptoms as the disease.”
“When am I not?”
“Did you just run with goats again? See my point. Okay. What has Command done?”
“Shut down distribution while we test. I asked Dr. Viera to help.”
“Viera, hmm?” He gave a knowing wink.
“Professor,” Ries groaned.
“You should be testing those fish yourself. You’re smart enough and skilled enough.”
“I haven’t looked at a lab diagnosis in four years. I might not even remember how to read one.”
“I doubt that,” Agallo said. Those blue Avatar eyes locked onto Ries’. They saw everything.
Ries felt a burden lift off his shoulders. He felt warmer inside, comforted even, like the warm sea.
“Besides, Viera’s the best we have.”
Agallo grunted. “Second best. Let’s follow your logic. Say the disease is coming from the tuna. What is it? Virus? Bacterium? Clearly it’s not native to the home world and our records detail all the biological weapons the Ink unleashed before the Exodus. So, it’s something from this world. Something we haven’t seen before.”
Ries nodded. “Lesions are forming internally, around organs and in the brain, especially. Capillaries are splitting. Hours before death the fish are lethargic and try to avoid the others—or the healthy fish avoid them until after they’ve died. From what I’m hearing, it’s the same behavior with the Kanir.”
“Right now,” Agallo said, jumping in. “All we know is it’s affecting the Kanir. Eating sha-ainu is popular this time of year. Has that changed?”
During the new year celebrations, slightly cooked fish was popular. “Not as far as I know.”
“Then it’s only affecting the artificially grown humans. Why is it affecting the fish?” The Avatar stood and began pacing. “So, if anyone has eaten sha-ainu—virtually raw fish—but only the Kanir are getting sick, whatever is affecting them is responding to…to…”
Ries closed his eyes tightly and dropped his head. “Lowered immune systems from lack of natural antibodies. Lack of being grown in a woman’s womb because of cloning.”
“By the abyss, I think you’ve nailed it. All Kanir and our animals have had the same problem. We’ve been trying to solve it for decades. Have you told Dr. Viera your suspicions?”
“That’s not something you need to wait on.”
“While we’re on the topic of her—” The Avatar’s hand went up quickly, stalling Ries. “Just listen quickly. You need to stop waiting in general. You gave up your life for her.”
“She earned it.”
“She deserves to know how you feel.”
Ries felt heat rising up his neck. “I thought I was obvious? I’m not that great of a liar.”
“You’re better at it than you believe. You have the whole world viewing you as nothing more than a fish wrangler, all so she could get the position opening you treasured. How you found out both of you were in the running, given the separation, is beyond me. When are you going to tell? What system did you hack?”
“I didn’t hack anything!”
The Avatar raised a fake eyebrow.
Ries shrugged. “I climbed a tree and listened into a window.”
Agallo chortled. “More your style. As your elder and professor, I still choose to believe you could have hacked their system.”
Ries leaned forward, elbows on his knees, chin in his palms. “Believing in me. You’re the only one who does.”
Agallo shook his head and started counting fingers. “Bracks. Elder Bestella. Viera. I count at least four, my dear lad. Most aren’t half as lucky. Now close the door.”
Ries felt his nose shrivel, he leaned backward.
“Go on. We have more to discuss.”
Ries stood, bowed and acquiesced, walking over and shutting the heavy door. “Like?”
“The vog. It’s on both of our minds. You have to ask yourself why the bacterium is attacking now? The volcano—”
“Paoli,” Ries corrected.
“There’s no deity in molten lava, lad. For all of your intelligence, one day you’ll understand.”
Ries smirked. As usual, they’d agree to disagree.
“The volcano Paoli…” The Avatar gave the barest hint of a smile. “Began activity over a year ago—for the first time since the crash. Our population has never been exposed to so many harmful chemicals, I fear for the very feasibility of life on the seament, let alone for the Ainur on the island itself. With our silly rules, we have no communication with them.”
“Outside of the Lasnairs.”
The Avatar barely moved. “Good lad. I had a hunch you’d be coming to see me so I brought something. Glance in my bag.”
“You had a hunch?”
“The disease, vog, Lasnairs.” Agallo counted on his Avatar fingers, “And I heard the Blazer was due back in port. All strong reasons for you to come when you began putting the pieces together. I’m guessing you’ve a plan to bribe Captain Marhmec to take you to check on your grandmada?”
“How did you—”
“I raised you like my own. Besides, Elder Bestella and I snuck letters back to one another in your travel bag. Don’t give me that look. Even the oldest of us are allowed a bit of love. We’re so focused on convenience and procreation we’ve forgotten why we partner in the first place. Anyway, that time in our lives is almost over. You most certainly need to see her.”
“She’s all the family I have left. I need to know if the Ainur have developed the plague, too, or if it’s just us.”
“You mean, the Kanir.”
Ries was riffling around the professors bag. He found a small, rectangular steel object. “Yeah.”
Agallo sighed then offered a tablet as Ries looked at the ancient memory storage device.
“A memory drive? I didn’t know they still exist.” Ries took the tablet and plugged in the stick.
“Only with the right connections. After the survivors of the crash split up—coincidentally one hundred years ago next week—Command decided to control information. That meant I was limited in what I could teach. When I refused, they stole some of my textbooks and burned them to keep us warm through a random winter. What they did not know—and what I conveniently left off the ship’s manifest—was that I stored much of our history I assumed would later be taken to task on that drive. I wish I made copies. It hasn’t been safe to do so since then.”
Ries stared as the tablet offered to let him view the files in a new window.
“Ries, no one has seen what I’m about to show you in nearly fifty years. I’m afraid, if you look and tell anyone about this, your life may be in danger. There are some people in Command to this day who wish for this information to remain buried.”
Agallo’s Avatar leaned back in the chair. “Survival. We had to survive, somehow. We didn’t have a choice. Every survivor needed to use their gifts to rebuild civilization. Besides, our parting with the Alliance meant no one was coming after the communication array was crushed beyond repair. We were scared. Three hundred sixty-two people died in that crash, including my wife and children.”
“Yes,” Agallo said gravely. “Less than ninety of us remained. We had to find a way to rebuild. We needed the Kanir embryos and they had to have a home.”
Ries shivered. He’d never heard Agallo this way, like the old man was scared. “What did you do?”
“Watch the first video. It’s by a former colleague who stayed with the Alliance. Professor Gorgon Miahl. I doubt Command would have allowed him on the ship if he had wanted to come.”
Ries gripped the tablet and touched the screen to access the first file. As it opened, Agallo said. “Remember, this wasn’t the first world anyone from the Alliance tried to colonize. It had been done before.”
“Before the Ink,” Ries whispered.
There was no time for a reply.
On the screen, an old, grizzly face appeared. Behind him was a white board. The camera zoomed out briefly, showing a platform with five blue stars engraved on a black and white round shield. No, not just stars. Constellations.
“My old friend,” Agallo said, his voice trembled with regret. “I filmed this. It was a lecture on the ethics of colonization. It gained him many enemies.”
The sound suddenly turned on. Professor Gorgon waited for his audience to quiet from whatever he had said before. His eyes were deep blue, his beard thick and curly. When he spoke, his voice boomed without need of a microphone.
“Ecology is fragile, friends. You take one of our springer fish and introduce a pregnant female into the rivers of our new world, within a decade, springers will force out natural species and become dominant. We saw the same result on Murielle when strictors were introduced alongside snappers. Soon, these apex predators had nothing to feed on but themselves and the largest of prey. They literally pushed out an entire human city due to the threat. These were mistakes.”
Gorgon’s eyes swept over the audience. “Human mistakes. We introduced one foreign species that utterly changed the new ecology beyond repair. Our mistake as sentient beings is to expect nature to be controlled, but you cannot control nature. One quake is all that is needed to launch a wave high enough to drown out the tallest of domes. Yet, what if we finally admit that there is a difference between us and Lasnairs?”
The audience suddenly gasped and let out exasperated remarks. Gorgon waved them down. “Their magic is something that most worlds are not accustomed to. The very idea that we would include Lasnairs into our explorations, our colonization of new planets, is to introduce a new species into an ecology in which they have no place. If we are not careful, they will utterly destroy the base ecology. Or even worse, nature itself will lash back.”
By that point, the audience was on their feet, shouting over Gorgon. The camera suddenly turned off. Ries stared at the blank screen before glancing up at the Avatar. Agallo had been watching him closely.
“Professor Agallo, what does this mean? What are you trying to tell me?”
The Avatar blinked, part of the neural connection with Agallo at his quarters. “When we crashed into the reef, we relied on the magic of Lasnairs to salvage lives and what we could of our ship.” His voice cracked. “We were on an island, Ries. Our scans had shown this entire planet to be nothing but water.”
“Marhmec is convinced he’ll find land someday.”
“There is no more land to find, son. The specialists warned us before we departed. We didn’t listen. There wasn’t a return. The low fly-by of the island and the sudden eruption was enough to bring us down and make our lives a living abyss for two years.”
“Then the others died.”
“Estella and I, the few other Elders, Command, we all had to decide how to survive. We needed help from the Lasnairs as your beloved Paoli burned our world down. Outside of the ship—which is now mostly part of the command towers and Marhmec’s vessel—there was nothing left. They had to make a new world for us from nothing but water.”
“The Lasnairs built this place?”
“With our lone surviving engineer and a lot of back pain and blood from the rest of us. We made a new home. Now, with the fifth generation of Kanir about to graduate…”
“…The new home is overcrowded.”
“Command fears the land, but old traditions, rules, and genetics insist on ‘naming days’. We give people the choice where they want to live.”
“But not the Kanir.”
“Not the Kanir. On the opposite side of the island, where we can’t see, Lasnairs are building new platforms for the fifth and sixth generations. They’ll expand the seawall.”
“How? With what?”
“Water and molten rock. Lasnair magic morphs the two together, blending them into a floating substance they make anything out of. Then we used the cloning banks to seed animals and vegetation. We’ve simulated the old world here.”
Ries shook his head, his long hair shaking in front of his eyes. “What does this mean?”
“It means this world was never meant to simulate the old. It means we finally unleashed something we have no idea of how to stop it.”
“The gods are angry,” Ries whispered.
“No, Ries. Nature’s angry.” Agallo paused, letting the idea sink in. “Think of it, Ries. They’ve been planning the expansion for years. When did the volcano become active again?”
“About a year ago.”
“How often do they allow people on the other side of the island?”
“Only the Blazer.”
“Captain Marhmec is full of information, isn’t he?” Agallo stuffed the papers and textbook into his satchel. “The Lasnairs initiated the volcano’s activity to fuel their new designs. They’re using old lava flow tunnels to channel what they need to the sea, where they perform their magic. Unfortunately, there are costs. There’s only so much water and molten rock in the world.”
“But the vog is killing plants, poisoning people and animals. If they’re causing it—”
“They believe they can end it.”
Agallo shook his head. “I don’t know. If they can’t, we’ll have to leave the island or be destroyed, which means our ability to be self-sustaining is dramatically reduced. The life expectancy on our new world is over, but Command won’t slow the cloning process. Within a few more years, another two thousand people will be introduced into our world and naming days might cease—because the Ainur will be dead.”
Ries felt the cold keenly. He leapt to his feet. “Grandmada! The others!”
“That is, if this disease doesn’t kill us all first.”
“You have to talk to Command. Get them to stop the Lasnairs.”
“I have. The current Commander is son to a Lasnair. They control the future now. They offered me a pleasant, early death in bed.”
“What do we do?” Ries asked. His heart thumped quickly.
“You need a Lasnair who disagrees with the process. We need someone who can stop them. Then we need to find a way to leave. Find the origin world. The home of Doors.”
“No one knows where that is.”
“The Ink do, Ries. If anyone is going to survive, we’ll have to accept the risk.”
“I don’t remember the Ink. You never taught us much about them.”
“Per Command. Everything you need is on that drive. It’s yours now. Take it and show Bestella. She and the other ‘rebellious’ Lasnairs can help save us. When we first landed, some of the survivors saw a man with a staff climbing the volcano, feeding a variety of fruits into it. Only when they see him, does your volcano calm.”
“The consort of Paoli. I’ve heard of him.”
“I used to dismiss the ideas as the hallucinations of starving and thirsty individuals. If he still is alive, if he still exists, he may be our only hope. That’s why Bestella and I separated in the end. She believed in him, claimed to have seen him.”
Agallo grabbed his satchel and stood. “We’re going to find her and ask her to find him while the trustworthy Lasnairs work.”
Ries cocked his head. “We?”
“Look at me, son. I’ve got two good legs, working arms.” The Avatar waved both. “I’m overdue for an Elder vacation. I’m at the edge of platform twenty three in my wheelchair. My Avatar will bring me home and then go with you. Be prepared. My Avatar can withstand the vog, but your lungs can’t. Nor can Viera’s or the Blazer crew. Tell Viera I’ll—this—will meet her at her sailboat.”
Ries headed to the door then stopped, turned. “Thank you, Agallo. For trusting me.”
The Avatar’s eyes had widened, as if in surprise. Maybe it was just him and the sense of urgency he felt. Maybe…but Agallo said, “Be safe, son.”
Ries nodded. “See you soon.” Then he rushed out the door.
Agallo smiled and watched Ries leave. “I love you, my boy.”
If the Avatar could weep, it would. Tear ducts were never built into the systems, but it saw with Agallo’s eyes just as Agallo saw through it.
“I’m trying to help you,” the Avatar whispered, mouth frowning, head cocked to the side. “I know you heard everything I said.”
There was silence for a moment. “We can change things. We can stop what they’re doing. There’s no need for…wait… He will change things. He’s as good as my son.”
Silence again, followed by a shrill: “Wait! Listen!”
Suddenly the Avatar shook madly. The satchel slipped off its shoulder, hitting the ground with a plop. The Avatar lurched forward, gasping for air, feeling everything Professor Agallo felt. Its hands reached for his tubular throat, squeezing, gasping. “You are no god,” the Avatar whispered. Its legs spasmed frantically, then stilled.
The technological creature lay upon the floor of the lecture hall. Those eyes had darkened. There was nothing. No transmission. No signal. The satchel lay half opened. Water trickled from a crack in the glass window, a tiny stream that pooled beneath the Avatar. The pool reached up, touching the Avatar. A minute later, the stream was gone, the pool had disappeared, and all signs of a wet carpet had faded.
The Avatar’s eyes glowed blue.
It took some Kanir wrangling to enter the lobby and wait for Viera. Ries kept mulling over everything Agallo had said. The true history of their little world and what likely was causing the problems they faced. All he needed to do now was convince Viera to join him and then complete the bribe with Marhmec. Then, of course, he had to smuggle all four of them out of seament and beyond the seawall to the island. Oh, and find a mythological deity he was never taught how to contact. Even grandmada had been quiet on that front—but Agallo said she knew the consort. Ries’ mind was spinning.
The doors to the lobby opened swiftly, and a harried Viera stood in the doorway. “Ries, come with me.”
Too soon to hope for dinner?
Ries rose and followed her. He’d forgotten sea roses. He sighed in frustration.
Viera was silent as she lead him through the sterile facility’s almost oppressive corridors. They passed several identical doors then stopped at one with a key code. She quickly typed it in, then held the door open for him.
“Where are we going?”
“Where we can talk. Privately.”
He entered the dimly lit room. Multiple orange lights glowed on a wall, bathing the room in a tranquil haze. Ries slowly turned, realizing they weren’t lights at all. Lining either side of the two-story room were rows of pods. Approximately four feet in diameter, each translucent mass held a dark center—a curled, round mass. Pulsating tubes exchanged orange and red liquid from the pods. A low, rhythmic hum, like a drum, filled the room. No, not a drum. A heart. Ries mouth dropped open and he stepped towards the closest pod. His shoes sank into a thick carpet. Something within, perhaps something paternal, made him want to reach out and touch the pods. At least five hundred artificial wombs.
“This is a generation chamber.”
“The next generation of Kanir,” Viera whispered. “How did you know the bacterium was in the water?”
“What?” Ries turned, pulling his hand away from a breathing, curled fetus. “It’s a bacterium?”
“Answer my question, Ries.”
He sighed. “The way my fish were acting. Steering away from their fellows, not moving as a swarm. I didn’t know it was a bacterium until after my last shipment when people began getting sick, and then my fish started dying the same day.”
Viera exhaled sharply and came to stand beside him, staring at the artificial womb. “Nothing in our records registered. The analysis was quick, much faster than I anticipated. So I expanded outward and consulted with a marine biologist.”
“The bacterium comes from a native fish, another type of swarmer, like the tuna. The silverfish lays eggs in open water, among a swarm. The eggs and placenta are wrapped in a poisonous repellent for native sea creatures—helps to keep the eggs safe until they hatch. The swarm carries them wherever they swim. The tuna samples you provided had silverfish eggs in their stomachs, along with the bacterium that quickly absorbed throughout their body. People who’ve been eating the fish uncooked—our custom—have been coming down with the same disease. Only the Kinar, though. No one else.”
“How did silverfish eggs get into my pens?”
“That’s what I asked my colleague. He said they jump at dawn, four or five feet above the water. No one knows why.”
“They jumped in? We would have noticed a swarm passing through.”
“We don’t always stare at the ocean, Ries. Not even within the seawall.”
Ries’ jaw tightened and he turned back to the pods. “I should have been more diligent.”
“There was nothing you could do to stop this, Ries,” Viera whispered. “There’s more. You know the symptoms of vog? Burning, dry eyes. Difficulty breathing. Skin lesions.”
Ries felt his muscles tense. Viera had paled. “The vog is exasperating the bacterium in humans and probably your fish, too. It means the vog doubles the bacterium’s effect. Until now, we’ve only seen it in Kinar and fish.”
Ries closed his eyes tightly and rubbed his temples. “Until now?”
“About five minutes ago I was notified the first Lalian was admitted with symptoms. The bacterium has…if this is even possible…evolved to kill all of us.”
Viera took a step forward. “Your old professor, Agallo.”
Ries felt his legs weaken. He dropped to his knees. “No, I was just with his Avatar. He was fine. Healthy.”
“Ries, some neighbors found his body on the dock, soaking wet. It’s like he fell in and managed to climb out.”
“How?” Ries realized his voice cracked. His face was wet. “He’s an old man, Viera. He doesn’t have that strength anymore.”
“How long does he have?”
“Few hours, at best.”
Viera knelt into the carpet with him. “He raised you. You were family.”
“My parents aren’t Lalian,” Ries whispered.
Viera touched his shoulder. “I’ve always wondered why you chose to be. It wasn’t the professor. It wasn’t Bracks.”
Ries raised his head, meeting her eyes. “It was you.”
She bit her lower lip. Tears appeared in her eyes. “You know my chances of becoming infected are…extremely high.”
Ries inhaled, remembering Agallo’s words. He placed a hand over hers. Hers was cool, but electrifying. “Everything I’ve ever done has been for you or Agallo, Viera.”
She nodded, holding his gaze. “That’s why you didn’t become a physician.”
“I knew there was only one other contender for the position.”
“Ries… I’m not like you. I never had a family…except for them.” She gestured towards the pods.
“Kanir or not, I love you, Viera.”
Her jaw dropped and then broke into a smile. “I told you I like roses.”
“Sorry, I was in a—”
Viera grabbed his jacket and pulled him in for a kiss. Now, this was more like it. When they finally broke the embrace, he tenderly touched her cheek. “I think I have a way to save everyone. I need you to back up all the information you have on the bacterium and bring it with you.”
“Bring it with me?”
“Viera, we’ve known each other a long time. You’re not like other Kanir. You can cross the sea.”
She gasped and waved at the pods. “And what about them? A freak accident of the bacterium getting into the nutrient supply and we could lose the whole generation! What about everyone else? And the vog is stronger on land, Ries. I’m not going to live the rest of my life with a mask on my face.”
He nodded. “You’re right. Everything you’re saying is right. Except you’re not going to have to. Let me explain.”
They sat down on the carpet. He talked. She listened. She didn’t protest or argue.
“If Agallo dies in transit, what will you do with his Avatar?”
“I don’t know,” Ries said. “But you’ll stay on the ship with Marhmec.”
Viera laughed. “Marhmec? And his crew? Really?”
Ries grinned. “Just show him you can cross the water. You’ll win their respect.”
“And how are you going to get Command to move this city?”
He opened his mouth to answer, then closed it. “I…haven’t figured that one out, yet.”
“First, we need to try to get the silverfish out of your pen. I’ll get Agallo and we’ll meet you there. Be careful.”
Ries leaned forward, kissing her deeply. He helped her up. “Remember, Marhmec likes stunts on the water.”
Viera planted her fists on her hips. “No. Never have. Never will. I’ll sail there. That’s it.”
Ries started towards the exit then stopped. “I told you how I felt. You never responded.” He felt like he hung off a main mast, suspended over the ocean’s abyss. Waiting.
Viera laughed and walked forward, embracing him. She whispered, “I love you. Satisfied? Now can we go save our world?”
Ries paused one more time to admire the generation pods. He bowed. “Stay safe,” he whispered. Viera and Ries left together.
The second sun crested the sky, blue depths trailing behind it as Ries pulled the sunsfish sailboat back into the fishery dock. It was dwarfed by the massive white Blazer cruiser. Truth be told, even with the world ending Ries felt a little burned that Marhmec had a bigger boat. It also burned knowing that Ries had given up life on that ship—but this life was worth it. Waves, yes, Viera was worth it.
Quickly stowing the mast and tying off the mooring, Ries hopped onto the dock. A couple of Marhmec’s crew glared down at him. He gave a slight wave then headed towards the platform. Bracks stood there, shifting his feet anxiously.
“You invited the Blazer crew?” Bracks practically shouted. “Abyss, Ain-ah! We’ve barely got room for the fish!”
Ries punched his friend’s shoulder. “Stow it, Lal-ah. We’re moving forward with the plans.”
“Agallo? Dr. Viera?”
Bracks shot a look at their quarters. “He’s inside. You’ll do the talking?”
“Yeah. Hey, there’s a lot more you don’t know. We know the source of the disease. Our fish are eating silverfish eggs inside the pen.”
Bracks gave him a dubious look. “That’s impossible.”
“That’s what I said. Can you suit up, water-tight, and see if you can net the silverfish? You’ll need to sanitize immediately after, especially if we hope to salvage the others.”
Bracks nodded. “You figure out how we’re going to get them to move the city, yet?”
“Not yet. Let’s just make sure we have food to eat when we finally do. I’ll be with Marhmec. Be safe, okay?”
Bracks shrugged. “It’s me, Ain-ah! I should be telling you to do that. By the way, did you see the boswain? She’s one hot—”
Ries pointed at the sun. “Lal-ah. Running out of time and light.”
Bracks smirked then ran off for the equipment.
Breathing deep and squaring his shoulders, Ries headed to his apartment to face off with the world’s sole explorer, pirate, and smuggler. He turned the doorknob.
“Bloody frenzy. Took you long enough.”
Marhmec sat in a dining chair with his boots crossed on the table, hands behind his head. A bone cutlass and dagger were very obvious in his sash belt.
“Son,” Marhmec said, giving him a brief nod. “I was glad to see you at the dock. Bloody fools are waving thoughtless. You know about the sickness? It’s not just the Kanir.”
Ries’ mind spun. “What? How did you know?”
Marhmec called over his shoulder: “Come on out.”
Ries heard a stirring inside his room, someone coughing. It was a vog cough, not the death cough of a person with the bacterium. The dark-haired boswain exited the room first, a pail full of water and a cloth in her hands at odds with the massive bone javelin on her back. She shot Ries a sympathetic look. What in the sea? Sympathy? From her? Then came a much younger woman who looked disturbingly like the boswain. She wore a shawl around much of her face but her stare never blinked.
And then the female Avatar followed.
“Grandmada!” Ries charged forward, throwing his arms around the Avatar. He glanced inside the room and saw her frail body on the bed.
“Oh, my grandson.” The Avatar lifted a plastic hand to Ries’ cheek.
“What are you doing here?”
“They’re the only survivors of the Ainur, Ries,” Marhmec said. He lowered his feet to the ground.
Grandmada’s Avatar opened her mouth to speak, but the younger woman stepped forward. There was a fire in her eyes, so much like the boswain. “Between the disease and the marchers, it was a massacre.”
“Wait, they’re all dead? Everyone?” Ries felt weak again. Tired.
“Everyone. The disease spread quickly,” Grandmada said. Her voice was soothing, yet quaked. “We believe it was in the freshwater lake.”
“No, not possible. What we’re seeing is from the silverfish. They spread it to the tuna and then to whomever eats them… Silverfish can’t tolerate freshwater.”
“No,” Grandmada said. “But the river from the lake reversed its flow, flooding the area with saltwater and silverfish.”
“A week,” she said. “Then the marchers increased to every day.”
“Every day?” Ries’ jaw dropped. Those…beasts…only came out once or twice a year. Horns, howls, and clanging of swords and shields heralded their arrival. Only the foolish ever let a marcher see them.
The young girl nodded. “There was no warning. No parade. They charged out of the forest and just slaughtered everyone they could.”
“How did you escape? Why no others?”
The girl looked to the Avatar.
“No one wanted to follow Paoli’s consort, Ries. He led us away from the village, to the western shore.”
“That’s where we found them,” Marhmec interrupted. “You didn’t think Katai and I would let our family die if we could stop it.”
Ries sighed and grabbed the Avatar’s hand. “Thanks, da.” He made eye contact between the four of them. “The consort, where is he?”
“I saw him,” Marhmec whispered. Suddenly, the pirate’s demeanor changed. “Bloody frenzy, lad. The last few weeks have been insane. I’d not even believed mada if I hadn’t seen boats swarmed by shark packs. They even attacked the Blazer, dragging a man down with them. They’re more ferocious, more violent than we’ve ever seen them.”
“The same goes for the marchers,” Grandmada said. “The consort said a war is coming between Paoli and Kaoni. They’ll rip each other to pieces with us in-between.”
“Wait, if marchers are breaking ranks and slaughtering on land and pack attacks are increasing on boats…”
“We’re bloody frenzied food for both sides,” Marhmec said. “Figured you’d guess that by now.”
“I’ve been focused on—” Ries froze. “If they swim under the seawall, like the silverfish…”
The boswain wringed out the cloth in the sink and said, “Those sharks can breathe air for four or five minutes at most. That’s a whole lot of blood in the water if they reach the seament.”
Ries looked directly at the Avatar. “Agallo’s Avatar is coming. He’s sick with the disease.”
Inside the bedroom, the woman trembled and groaned. The Avatar clutched its abdomen.
“Grandmada, he told me about the Lasnairs. Are they using lava and water to build a new city north of the island?”
“Northwest,” Marhmec said, pulling out his dagger and a stone to sharpen it. “It’s only a matter of time until they come after us, too.”
“Why?” Ries demanded. “What did you do?”
“They rescued me,” the girl said.
“My daughter,” said the boswain. “Ezra.”
Ries realized she was wearing gloves and a shawl. Ezra pushed back the shawl, revealing pointed ears, the red creases of thorns along her cheekbones and over her ear. He hadn’t seen her blink until now—with a thin membrane as a third eyelid sliding closed horizontally. The nictitating membrane made her seem almost reptilian or fish-like. She pulled off her gloves, exposing claws instead of nails. A flame appeared above her palm, flickering out as quickly as it appeared. Ezra had her mother’s features, up to a point. Quite literally.
Grandmada’s Avatar grinned. “We Ainur believe in the power of choice, even for a Lasnair child. Lasnairs are forbidden naming days and assigned immediately to the order. Ezra desired something else, like her mother, Katai.”
“Okay. Wow. Um…” Ries stared at Ezra then bowed apologetically. “I am sorry, Lasnair. I should not stare.”
“I’m not a waving Lasnair,” Ezra cussed. “I’m Ainur. Or whatever that means now.”
“Could you stop a Lasnair from doing magic?”
Ezra’s eyes widened. The spikes around her jaw flared out, as did her pointed ears. “It depends. Why?”
“I think I know why Paoli and Kaoni are fighting,” he mused. “I think I understand why they’re killing us, too.”
Grandmada exhaled sharply. “Agallo. That wonderful man. He could never stop teaching.”
“Grandmada, I need to meet the consort.”
“He comes and goes of his own accord.” She said, her dark electronic eyes studied, as if she saw him in a new light.
“Hold on!” Marhmec snapped. “You want to go back to the island? Shark packs between us and it! Marchers ready to spear you through! Oh, right, and the Lasnairs, too. Apologies, Ezra. Are you mad?”
“We can stop this war,” Ries began but a scream outside cut him off.
“Oh, carcass it!” Marhmec and Katai both drew their weapons. “Ezra, stay with Grandmada.” Ries and Ezra both consciously stepped closer to the room. They exchanged hard looks.
“I’ve got her,” Ezra said, yellow eyes flashing. That was actually cool.
Marhmec ignored them. “Katai, Ries, with me.”
Ries drew his knife from its sheath. Pitifully small compared to Marhmec’s. He crossed the room in a couple bounds, then threw open the door.
Outside, something growled.
“Bloody frenzy,” Marhmec muttered, then exited. Ries and Katai hurried after him. Ries almost kissed the ta leaves. Almost.
Outside, the suns were setting, bathing the sky in red and oranges that reflected off the water and steel. In the waning light, it took Ries a couple seconds to recognize severed limbs, blood sprayed across the platform. A quick shadow, grey with brown streaks darted between the equipment shed and some barrels.
Ries spun, searching for the direction of the voice. “Viera? Viera!” There she was, pulling herself and a body out of the water. She held the body up to Agallo’s Avatar, who gripped Bracks under the arms and hoisted.
Bracks’ legs were missing, everything below his abdomen ended in blood and torn flesh. The water had turned red, circling Viera’s drifting sailboat.
Then it dawned on Ries. Viera had been in the water. Infected water.
“Get away from the pens! Get out of the water!” He shouted, gesturing wildly. “Agallo, get her out of the water!”
Viera swung her legs up as the Avatar stripped off his shirt and handed it to her. She pressed it against Bracks, and it immediately turned red.
Ries’ sprinted across the platform. He slid down the ladder and clanged against the steel walkway. The tuna’s pen was bloodied, the fish were dashing back and forth as brown streaked fins broke the surface, then dove again. Ocean side, three fins broke the surface, slicing through the water with incredible speed.
Ries dropped to his knees next to Viera, with Agallo standing over them. Tears streamed from his eyes as he met Bracks. Terror radiated from him. He was unnaturally pale.
“I can’t stop the bleeding,” Viera murmured. Her arms were red all the way up to her shoulders.
The fins were closer. Water splashed away from them as tails swished back and forth.
“Get out of here,” Bracks groaned, swatting at Ries. “They were waiting. Inside the tank.” Blood spurt out of his mouth, forming a trickle down his chin.
“Lal-ah, Lal-ah,” Ries moaned, gripping his friend’s hand.
Suddenly, Bracks met Ries’ eyes. He screamed,“Run! Ah! Run…”
The fins in the tank circled again, gaining speed for a jump. Those ocean side were moving faster.
Bracks pulled his hand free, swatting at Ries again. Fear and a deep loss accompanied the horrific truth: Ries could do nothing for his friend. Ries stumbled to his feet, dragged Viera up. “We have to go!” he shouted in her. “Agallo!”
The Avatar cocked his head at them. “You were never meant to leave,” a feminine voice said.
Both Viera and Ries froze, gazing at the Avatar in shock as its blue eyes considered them.
It was a horrific moment of clarity. Agallo’s dead. Just like Bracks. Just like them.
The voice spoke again, “You were never meant to be here in the first place. This is my domain.”
And the Avatar lunged forward, sideswiping Ries and Viera into the tuna pen.
Bloody, murky water smashed into him. He could feel Viera’s arms flail against him as panicky tuna slammed. Murky, bloody waters obscured sight.
In the bacterium-infested waters.
A powerful tail slammed him into the pen fence. Air rushed from his lungs and he gripped the steel cage. The water swirled on the other side, forming a feminine face.
“I warned them,” he heard in the water, a muffled echo. “You can never go back if you do not obey me.”
Tuna swam away from him, the water churned. Ries threw himself through the water as a grey-brown blur slammed into the metal cage, stunning itself. Clawed fins slashed at Rie’s side.
Ries kicked upwards and suddenly broke the surface. Gasping, he shouted: “Viera!”
“Ries!” she screamed in reply.
The large creature beneath him recovered from its momentary shock. Ries kicked repeatedly with his reinforced boots, landing blows on its head, slicked ears, and eyes. The beast rolled away from him, clawed fins lashing out in desperation. Ries kicked again, driving the lower jaw thick teeth into the upper maw. Ries screamed in fury and fear.
Spinning the chum, Ries saw Viera swimming towards the edge, not far away.
The Avatar stalked her, patrolling the walkway with its chin lowered.
“Kaoni save us!” Ries shouted and then flinched as the Avatar turned, glaring at him with cold blue eyes.
“Why should I?” Kaoni’s voice spoke through the creature. “Agallo tried reasoning with me. His reason was misinformed.”
Ries stared at the Avatar.
Outside the pen, a huge splash heralded a massive wolf-shark breaching the surface. Long claws at the edge of its twisted fins gripped the lattice-framework of the walkway. Its lips peeled back to show rows of jagged teeth, feline eyes scanning the surroundings. It snorted through dog-like nostrils, while its tail flicked the ocean water and gills inhaled air. Brown stripes covered its gray, leathery body. Those yellow eyes with black crescent pupils locked onto Ries. It reared back on its fins, preparing to leap. Then, abruptly, it looked at the Avatar as a hound looks at its master.
All the fins slowed, circling but not advancing.
The Avatar smiled cruelly as Viera grasped the inside cage, trying to pull herself up, pushed back by frantic tuna. It continued its slow stalk until it stood over her. “I warned your elders. They decided to use me. They allowed my realm to be raped for their goals.” The Avatar’s head cocked to the other side. “You are unruly, unpredictable. Not even your shells of humans can be controlled unlike this marvel. Unlike my subjects.”
A few shark tails beat the water anxiously.
“Finally, you tried to control my one objective, the land that is rightfully mine. Therefore, you become mine. Goodbye.”
The wolf-shark on the walkway lunged—and a bone javelin cut through the eyes, breaking through on the other side. The beast crashed into the water, thrashing the muck into foam. The other sharks immediately turned upon the dying creature. Ries pulled himself up onto the walkway, suddenly conscious that Bracks’ body was gone, dragged into the sea. Viera climbed but the Avatar shrieked and put its hand on her head and began pushing her downward. Fire fell from the sky, stricking the Avatar in the chest. It stumbled backwards. As the smell of burnt rubber and plastic filled the air.
Kaoni cried out, Avatar hands curled in frustration. A small figure dove into the water. Ries had no time to move before Ezra—clutching Viera—burst out of the pen. Ezra’s arms wrapped around Viera protectively. They spun in the air, shedding water as a rush of hot air seemed to scorch them.
Ries was frozen to his spot, watching the Lasnair fly his love back to the platform.
Ezra dropped a sputtering, shaking Viera onto the platform. She pointed towards the quarters. “Showers, disinfection! Go!” Perhaps “child” was a term not befitting Ezra…
Ries darted towards the ladder, where Katai and Marhmec waited at the top with bone blades drawn. The Avatar, screaming with inhuman rage, charged after him. Its steps pounded the steel walkway like hammerstrokes.
“Ries!” Marhmec shouted, tossing his son a bone knife. “Catch and turn!”
Ries snatched the blade from the air and in one fluid motion, reversed it and sliced behind him. The knife tore into the Avatar’s chest. Blue sparks erupted over the Avatar. Even with half of the Avatar’s face melted off, the cold blue eyes of the sea goddess glared at him. Ries snarled back, and threw his agony and hatred into ripping the blade out and slashing the Avatar’s throat, eviscerating circuits and wires. Salt water gushed out. Not oil. Salt water. For a moment, Ries saw Agallo’s face looking at him, smiling at him. What was left of Agallo—maybe nothing more than a memory—gazed through the burns, the cuts. It focused on him. The eyes were a different sort of blue, just for a moment. Then the Avatar fell backwards into the sea with a splash. It sank rapidly.
“Agallo,” Ries whispered, trembling. He shook off some circuitry caught on the blade. “Agallo.”
Marhmec’s voice cut through the shock. “Son, get the abyss up here, right the waving now!”
A horrendous, bubbling scream burst from the water, the angry tantrum of a god denied. Wolf-sharks launched themselves onto the platform. Dripping wet, jagged bloody flesh in their jaws, they charged him. Ries spun and, placing a booted foot on the ladder’s second rung, launched himself into the air.
His da grabbed his arm and hauled him up with the waist of his trousers as Katai stabbed down. A shark squealed as she yanked out her blade, spilling blood.
“Fall back to the quarters and get disinfected,” Marhmec ordered. One of his crew ran up, forming a line while they retreated.
Once inside his quarters, Grandmada wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. “Strip,” she ordered.
Ries glanced at the kitchen counter, where a carving of a wave offered a small shrine to Kaoni. A gift from Bracks... Too stunned to do anything else, he wrapped himself in the blanket, removed his clothes, and was ushered into the shower. “Scrub.” The water was scalding hot.
Viera was there, with another blanket around her shoulders, scrubbing madly at her face and spitting into the sink. Trembling, Ries disinfected. And wept. He collapsed to the shower floor at some point, and felt Viera clutch his hand through the curtain.
Blazer crew members hunted wolf-sharks throughout the evening. More blood was spilt. Marhmec entered the quarters, his hands, clothes, and blade speckled and soaked with it. “That’s the last.”
Grandmada’s Avatar stood from the sofa, where she had been serving tea to Ries, Viera, and Ezra. She offered Marhmec a towel.
Marhmec’s cold eyes met hers, his jaw tight. “I lost two more men. This wasn’t a single pack. It was three. If they reach the seament…people just don’t know how to deal with them.”
“They’ll reach the seament whether or not we try to warn them,” she whispered. “We have to return to the island.”
Marhmec glanced over her shoulder. “Are they infected?”
“The consort has cured diseases before,” Grandmada whispered. “He may save them.”
Marhmec frowned and looked away. “Mada…you trusted him before.”
“But the goddesses were not involved, son,” she replied. “He protected Ezra before. He may do so again.”
“We can hear you,” Ezra snorted. Her jaw spikes flared out in slight irritation.
Ries hugged Viera closer. “We don’t have much choice, if we’re going to survive.”
“The suns are setting on everyone, son,” Marhmec whispered. “You can’t escape a sea goddess with a grudge on an ocean world.”
“Yes,” Grandmada whispered. “You can. The island, it’s the only place. The consort is the only one who can resolve this.”
There was a harsh, fearful silence broken only by Viera’s chattering teeth and shivering. Ries rubbed her back quickly, still trying to warm her.
Finally, Marhmec broke the hesitation. “Katai said the same thing. She’s readying the ship. I’m not comfortable setting ashore, not with the marchers on the prowl. Give me one waving reason, too.”
Ezra stood, blanket still draped around her shoulders. “You don’t need one. You have a better chance against the wolf-sharks than you do the marchers. I’ve been working on flying groups of people without touching them. I think I can.”
Marhmec’s eyes were hard. “You think? You’re all dead if you can’t.”
Ries shook his head. He wasn’t particularly thrilled about the concept of flying free over shark-infested murderous goddess waters. “But how do we contact the consort? How do we get his attention?”
“You don’t,” Grandmada whispered, offering a sad smile. “He gets yours.”
Marhmec slammed a fist onto the table. “Bloody frenzy, mada, do you know what—”
Suddenly the entire quarters rose. Ries felt like his insides became weightless as he realized he and everyone else were thrown into the air. A cracking splash and hard thumps followed as the entire platform hit the sea again. Books, shrines, and decorations tumbled off the shelves and counters. A lamp shattered on the floor. From the bedroom, Grandmada cried out in pain.
Marhmec cursed and rushed to the door.
“Grandmada!” Ezra shouted.
Ries steadied Viera. “Are you—”
She nodded. “Go!”
Ries ran to the room and saw his grandmada hanging half of the bed, glass from a broken window scattered on the sheets. Ries stripped of the sheets as Viera and Ezra’s lifted the woman back. Marhmec glanced out the window, cursed, then returned to place a tender hand on his mada’s cheek.
“Are you alright?” he whispered.
“No,” she whispered. Her voice sounded so painfully harsh. “I’m dying, son. The planet’s dying. You have to leave.”
“How?” he muttered.
“Your ship,” Ries said. “Agallo said the Blazer was constructed from the original spacecraft that crashed on the planet.”
“Wave it, son. The ship floats, it doesn’t fly. The hull isn’t enclosed.”
“No, he’s right,” Ezra whispered. “Grandmada told me Lasnairs were used for space travel. We heal me…”
“…You hold back the vacuum of space and take us to the Planet of Doors.”
“Does this sound insane to anyone else?” Marhmec nearly shouted but grandmada lashed out, gripping Ries arm and pulling him close.
“You know about the Doors? He told you?”
“Nothing more than that. He said we should find it.”
“Yes,” she wheezed. The Avatar came forward. Grandmada’s voice sounded clearer through it. “Tell the consort we need it as a new home.”
“We can’t just leave everyone here!” Viera snapped, standing quickly. “They’ve already started the birthing process on the next Kanir generation! We can’t leave them!”
The Avatar suddenly grabbed parchment and a pen from the floor, then cleared space on Ries desk to write. “We don’t. The rest of the ship was built into the command tower. There’s plenty of space to transport survivors and the pods! I’ll speak to Command. They remember me.”
The quarters shook again. The walls rattled. Steel groaned. Something glass shattered.
“What’s going on outside?” Ries asked, standing to look out the window. The night sky had lit up in red shrouded with black and grey. Plumes of smoke to the south. “What is that?”
The Avatar stepped forward. “It’s Paoli. The land. She’s expanding.”
“Paoli’s to the north.”
“And she’s expanding south.” Grandmada’s Avatar gave a weary chuckle. “That’s a volcano rising from the ocean. Near the under-water geothermal power plant.”
“We’re bloody stuck in-between,” Marhmec said. “Well, whatever we’re going to do, we need to do now. We’re out of time.”
“Two goddesses at war,” Grandmada whispered. “Agallo was right. We landed on a growing planet. It was never meant to support life like us.”
“But it has,” Viera whispered. “I don’t understand.”
“On any other world, you would.” The platform rattled again. “We need to move.”
They used sheets to carry Elder Bedella’s body to the Blazer. Waves crashed up on the plaform, soaking their feet as everyone moved as one. A couple crew members rushed to help. Lightning pierced ash-cloud sky to the south as thunderclaps boomed. Within a couple minutes, the Blazer rushed away from the fishery. Ries gasped as he saw the pens broken and sinking under the ship’s lights. Their world was ending. Agallo had been right.
As they neared the seament, red fires illuminated the seament in key places. Water streamed into the city where platforms had been forcibly torn apart. Screams of terror and cries for help filled the night.
The Blazer pulled into the harbor, where harbor master Dallons shouted at people to remain calm. He stooped to throw a torn and mutilated corpse into the sea then kick a dead wolf-shark.
“Master Dallons!” Ries shouted. “Dallons!”
The harbor master eyed the Blazer. “Praise Kaoni. Get out here and help! The sharks attacked and then the sea tremors—”
“Shut up, you old, fool!” Marhmec shouted from over the upper deck railing. “A second volcano is going to destroy this city and it’s movement is obviously crippled. Get as many people as you can to the Command tower, the infirmary, or the university. Have the city engineers unbind the platforms and join them, then move them west. We’ll meet you there.”
“Are you insane! Do you know how many people!”
“Wave the numbers, Dallons. We’re all going to die tonight if you don’t shut up and listen. I can see it from here. The seawall’s been breached.” In the firelight, Ries could see Dallons standing there, dumbfounded. “Single file, they’ll fit.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Ries saw a woman, huddled under her shawl, appear in a small crowd of people. “Ninau!” he shouted. “Did you hear all of that?”
“Mr. Ries?” the fishmonger called back. “It’s true?”
“Yes! Get as many people to those platforms as possible. If you need to adding platforms, then do so. We’re out of time!”
Pulling on her shawl, the fishmonger whirled on the crowd. “Go door to door. Get people moving! Well, go on!” She glanced back at Ries before dashing through the market towards the city quarters.
Suddenly the ship came to a full stop. “What?” Ries muttered.
Thudding footsteps were his only warning that his grandmada’s Avatar was running along deck. She sprang upwards, her silhouette ringed by fire, and slammed onto the dock. Dallons gasped, then jumped back.
“Grandmada!” he shouted but the ship’s engines roared to life.
“Harbor Master Dallons, it’s been a long time,” she called out, barely audible over the engines.
The ship passed around the platform, pushing full speed as higher and higher waves battered its starboard hull. An explosion blocked his mother’s Avatar and the bowing Dallons from view. The Blazer pushed forward, cutting through the water. The seament faded behind them as the seawall grew closer. A massive section had been crushed and thrown backward. A platform sunk under its weight.
For the first time in years, Ries passed beyond the seawall, which was now a crumbling disaster.
Viera stood next to him, shivering despite a hot breeze. “I’ve never left the seament.”
Ries drew her closer. “Yes, you have. You went to the pens.”
“I don’t know if my people will follow,” she whispered.
He smiled, embraced her. “They deserve the choice, don’t they?”
To the south, the volcano erupted, spewing forth molten fire high into the sky. Waves suddenly grew higher, angrier, but they didn’t rush the ship. They rose in the distance, fiercely rolling towards the growing mountainous island. Everything he knew of the sea insisted that displaced water rolled away from the displacing object, not towards it.
“Two goddesses at war,” Ries responded, heart aching. “The world we knew is gone. Even Kaoni has shown us her back. We were so blind.”
Marhmec cleared his throat from behind them. “It’s time.”
Viera and Ries broke the embrace and turned to face him. He handed each a breather mask. “The vog is going to be abyss out there. It’s night, too. That means marchers.”
Ezra came up behind him, dressed in a dark tunic and pants. Her yellow eyes glowed in the darkness, reflecting the light of the erupting volcano. “We need to leave now. If this air gets too heavy with ash, I won’t be able to carry us all.”
Marhmec squeezed the girls shoulder, then reached out and shook his son’s hand. “Find that consort. Tell him we bloody well need his help now.” He turned and faced Viera. “You’re the second bravest Kanir I’ve ever met. It’d be a shame if my son let you go.” She blushed, but he continued. “You’ve got his mada’s fire.”
Viera gasped when Marhmec kissed her on the head.
Ries just stared at his da. “Mada was Kanir?”
He grinned. “She never wanted you to know. Everyone gets a choice, after all.” He spun on his heels and scaled stairs to the upper deck, long leather coat flapping in the wind.
Ezra placed a hand on him and Viera. “Masks on.” They complied. He hated the masks but they’d become the reality of vog.
A gush of air encircled them. Clothes flapped hard. Then Ries realized his feet were no longer on the ground. He could barely see the crashing waves, though he heard them. The island ahead blotted out all light, but he heard the rustling of trees, the pains of rock groaning. Wind tossed his hair. He could only imagine what it was like, rushing against his face like on his sunsfish sailboat—the breather was restrictive.
In the distance, Paoli herself rumbled, bellowing out fire and smoke.
Ries felt the sensation of falling. And then his boots landed in sand.
“Oh my gods,” Viera murmured. He could see her figure shifting. She bent over, running a gloved hand across it. “Oh my gods.” Her voice broke. She sniffled, then laid down as if to embrace land.
Ezra placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “We’re here. The beach where he helped us survive.”
“I can’t see anything,” Ries muttered.
“The ash is blocking out starlight,” Ezra said. She held up a clawed hand and gave a little flame.
Ries gasped as white flecks floated down from the sky. “It’s burning.”
“We need to move,” Ezra said. “He has a stone, not far away.”
Silent, Ezra started forward. Brown ferns with gray flecks brushed against Ries’ pants as he brought up the rear of their small party. Large palm trees, wilting and shedding hot flakes, stood like solemn guardians. The land was quiet.
Until howls and drums began.
Ezra paused, holding out a hand and snuffing out the light. After a moment, she whispered: “Marchers. They’re far away. We should hurry.”
“And you preferred this to the sea?” Viera asked, trying to crash through the underbrush.
“It was greener,” Ries said. “Years ago, this place was alive.”
Suddenly, the group broke into a clearing. Dead grass surrounded a massive stone with a trickling stream gushing forth from it.
Viera turned a full circle, then walked to the rock. “This is…not normal.”
“The perch,” Ezra said. “The only source of clean water left on the island.”
A second set of drums pounded. A howl cut through the air. Ash swirled towards them like chilled breath. All three spun in the direction of the sounds. Marchers were coming.
“Where is this god consort?” Viera hissed, stepping closer to the rock. “And what are those?”
“Pray you never have to find out,” Ezra replied, spikes flaring.
“To whom?” Ries whispered. “They’ve abandoned us.”
“Not all of them,” said a male voice. “Not me.”
The group jumped. Viera let out a yelp as they all twirled to face the rock, then looked up towards a faint but white light emanating from the staff of the man upon the boulder. He wore a long tunic with a rope belt, fashioned from vines. His square-cut beard and long mustache boasted three large, red beads. Brown hair was tied back, exposing a dark skinned face, even in the light. He was no Lasnair. A simple animal hide pack hung from his back.
Fear and awe filled Ries. The rumors were true! A third god was revealed. He dared hope against hope.
Ries dropped to his knees and prostrated himself. His mask pressed into ash and dead grass, dry dirt. He felt the ash fall upon his back, heavy and burdensome. “Consort of the goddesses, most honored counselor, save us! We are hunted and crushed between Paoli and Kaoni. Our people are dying!” He couldn’t even raise his face to look at the god, even as the staff’s light grew lighter. “Save us, we beg of you! I do not know what offering I could give, or I would give it. Please save our peoples. Stop the goddesses.”
A soft thud marked the god hopping to the ground. Ries dared glance up and saw the consort’s sandaled feet, his redwood staff firmly planted in the ash.
“Consort?” The god chuckled. “Your grandmother never did listen.”
Calloused and strong hand touched Ries’ face, looped underneath his chin. For a brief second, Ries thought the god would choke him, but he felt flesh.
“I am the guardian of life, Ries. You’ve been in search of life for a long time. Rise. The marchers are nearing and you must be on your way.”
“They’ll kill you,” Ries said, forcing himself up.
“Your concern is touching. They will try. They will fail. Here, drink this.” The guardian reached into the folds of his tunic and brought out three vials. Each of them took one. Viera raised an eyebrow skeptically. “My dear, we don’t have time. I mixed this when Ezra began your flight. Quickly now. The infection or marchers will kill you if you wait.”
With drums gathering volume, Ries took his vial and drank the green, leafy liquid.
“Tastes like grass,” Viera said, gagging.
Ezra smirked. “Lalian.”
The guardian only smiled. “This will hurt.”
“What will—” Viera never finished.
Her mask fell off and the guardian swiftly touched his glowing red staff to her forehead. Immediately Viera spasmed and collapsed to her knees, vomiting. Before Ries could move, his mask tumbled off his face, leather straps trailing it. The guardian moved lightning fast. The staff burned as it touched Ries’ forehead. His body shook uncontrollably, landing him on the ground. His muscles heaved and black liquid gushed forth, splattering the ground. He was dimly aware that Ezra was in the same position.
As the heaving slowed and the howling and drums grew louder, the guardian spoke. “We are low on time. What is leaving your body is the disease you have called bacterium or vog. It is neither but an effect of both. Your ancestors knew it as Ink but other worlds call it by other names. Each formula has its own effects. Some deadly. Some worse. I come to this world to enforce a long standing truce, broken by your magic users uniting Paoli and Kaoni. War is inevitable. It is time for you to leave.”
“And go where?” Ries murmured through the dry heaving. He could barely look up. He wiped vomit with his sleeve.
“Home. Viera, before you is a wax candle. Throw it in a fire to create a dome that will keep your people alive for ten years on land made from sea. After that, its power will fade. Ries, you have exactly that long to find your new home and return for your people. Agallo provided you with information on the Planet of Doors. Ezra, you know what you must do.”
Ries trembled, the reality of it all settling in. He had to leave Viera behind.
He glanced over. She clutched a white candle, weeping, rocking back and forth.
“How can we trust you?” he cried out. “Are you not like Paoli and Kaoni?”
The guardian knelt beside him. “After causing your people to crash and live here, they tried to manipulate you. Then, they broke the greatest law of my people, Ries. They poisoned yours with what was never to be again. I am the enforcer. I am taking away their dominion over men by giving you what you have always longed for. Freedom.”
Ries met the guardian’s hazel eyes as bushes rustled behind them. Howls turned to growls. Stomping hooves beat the ground, breaking twigs. Loud hisses and stench of death filled the clearing. Ezra whimpered.
“Look at me, my friends,” the guardian said. He smiled at each of them and slammed the staff into the ground.
Bright light flashed.
Ries’ vision cleared to see Ezra and Viera faced him, kneeling and speechless. They’d been returned to the Blazer, rocking in the ocean waves.
Viera clutched the candle. Tearful eyes met Ries’.
“I love you.”
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