Chapter 6 - The Fire-Heart
We are fire-hearts, you and I.
Ignited and spent, then we die.
Emblazoned passion is life;
In brilliant fashion,
Consumption, proliferation join tumult and strife.
Such is the ongoing state of affairs,
Chaos ensues and provokes all cares.
A wreath of flames grows in the belly of the forges,
Feeding on emotion, the warrior gorges.
The giver is separate from the act of giving,
Only as the kindling burns can we keep on living.
Flames cannot exist without an ever diminishing source
Finite power, finite force.
But we’re different, you and I.
Though made of fire we do not die.
Never spent, never diminished,
The work of ages is never finished.
Our source is eternal, woven with the world,
Which takes an infinity to be unfurled.
Though the stars might flicker, flounder and tire,
Forever will burn our sleepless fire.
I was received with as much of a hero’s welcome as possible, considering that it was only a party of five, myself included. I hugged Linna first, then Margol and Targen. When I got to 303 he withheld a smile, but still gave me a hug.
“The recon mission almost failed, Grady,” he said solemnly. “We had to sacrifice a kalachi and a war helmet that is very difficult to construct. Not to mention that you directly interacted with your targets, which is the opposite of what reconnaissance is. You could have been outed, Manorong. And that would have been death for all of us, you first. But...you did find out what you needed to. I’m going to remind you to be careful next time.”
Considering his admonishment for my playing fast and loose, I didn’t think there would be a next time. I wondered aloud when that would possibly be.
“Fill yourself up on lichens and head back out tonight,” was the shocking answer. I didn’t know that we’d be moving that fast.
“Tonight is a soiree` for the leadership in Rangor, to take place at the stadium right above where the governor said the Hall of Records was located. A small contingent of Elders will be there, including myself and my political rival, Elder 37. My clearance level allows me to go anywhere in the building. You will go as me, shifted into my shape and spoofing my mental signature. You’ll head down to the basement and pretend to observe the gladiators, but what I need you to do once you’re down there is to find a way to dig deeper. Look for any hidden tunnels that might lead to the Hall; you may need to scan a guard or two for information. We require access to those old weapons caches. If you get in there, take pictures of the layout and collect any blueprints, carry away whatever file storage devices you might find.”
I told him I understood. I needed to refuel both my hover-flash and myself and then I would be on my way. This was what I dreamed of - being part of something bigger. Being part of the justice that was coming for my people. I was getting to really enjoy the taste of lichen, and it was a complete nutritional food, having everything my body needed including Vitamin Blorg.
Linna held my hand and squeezed it gently. I squeezed back, making sure I wasn’t being rough. I had been on an adrenaline rush since leaving for Ventrello. “I’m proud of you,” she whispered. Then she looked dour. I could sense her emotions and those were getting dour too. “But I’m so worried. At Rangor you’ll be around telepathic masters with good vision. You’ll have to fool everyone, and spoof 303 exactly. One slip…” Her voice sputtered.
My parents cared for me and had a vested interest in my well-being. They gave me Nutriment and books, and for my sake sent me on my way. The emotion coming from Linna was similar, but distinct. She loved me. And in a moment of complete surprise I found that I felt the exact same way about her. Being powerful telepaths, we both knew how the other felt and yet I was too afraid to say it. Love brought fear along with it, and I did not want anything bad to happen to her, either. She was just as big a part of the upcoming revolution as I was, and now just as big a target.
We ate in silence, mostly because feeding on color-changing lichens was a messy affair. 303 gave me any and all information I would need when arriving at the Rangor arena. He told me PIN codes for the doors, the locations of the honored guests, and the likeliest places to find an entry into the Hall. He told me who I’d be interacting with, like Elder 138 and Lieutenant-Governor Almoor. There was even a handshake to follow, should I happen to bump into a Lord Mennicose of a planet I never heard of named Redda.
He suggested I take a few relays with me so I could maintain contact with him and the group by placing them in strategic locations. They would act as amplifiers for our telepathic messaging but the risk for eavesdropping was real. I decided against it, much to Linna’s approval. We didn’t want to fail so soon into our mission. Or ever.
After dinner was finished, 303 broached another subject with me. Something that I was disinclined to discuss, and yet it was necessary to bring up. The Elder put an arm around my neck and walked me further into the cave, away from where the others were testing equipment in the command post. They would not have contact with me until I returned. It was too risky for me to plant relays anywhere near Rangor City so they would have to get used to my silence. Silence. That was precisely what our dear leader wanted to talk to me about.
“Grady, we couldn’t read you for at least twenty minutes on your way back from Ventrello. It didn’t seem that anything was wrong with the hardware we were using to track you. You went blank on our mind-map interface. It was about five minutes after you’d departed from the resort. You came back online as if nothing had happened. I need to know that you are okay and that you haven’t been compromised in any way.”
I thought about his question and the way he asked it. First, was I okay? Yes. Second, was I compromised? I didn’t know. I actually had been intercepted. But compromised? It was possible. The real answer to 303’s question was: maybe.
“No, not at all. I wasn’t compromised. That leg of the trip was unremarkable at best, same as the rest of it. I think it might have been a defective relay. The wind blowing through the tundra was pretty bad. The hover-flash held up well but you know, ‘a pole in the ground is liable to sway’. That’s an old adage from Orong City. My parents used to say that.”
303 looked at me intently. He knew that he’d trained me well enough that my mind was nigh un-leakable. Mostly. But he wasn’t probing my mind; he was searching any hidden truth in my eyes, the windows and betrayers of the soul.
“As long as you’re okay. I wouldn’t want you to continue the mission if something was amiss. And I certainly wouldn’t want to put the mission in jeopardy either.”
“Because you were about fifteen, twenty minutes late getting here by my calculations. Considering the terrain and the weather and a variety of factors. It could be assumed you’d stopped in place. Lots of things could happen in that short time, particularly given the storm. Well, I’m happy you’re alright.” Apparently frustrated, he walked back to the command post.
So what really happened?
Rushing through the roars, shrieks and screeches that the storm was vocalizing, I began to experience another in the series of visions I’d been having. This was the first one to take place during my waking moments, and it took me by complete surprise. Spires of steep, jagged hill peaks flew past me like pointy blurs.
What I could see in the center of my vision was precipitation, mostly hail and snow but sometimes rain, moving towards me radiating from a single point. All of a sudden, that point got bigger and bigger and no longer was part of the tundra. I took evasive action and landed the craft onto a patch of level rocks as the elements bombarded it from all directions. I engaged the flash’s grappling gear to sink hooks into the rock so I could remain steady. My mind was about to embark on a wild ride even if my body remained still.
I looked down at my body and it wasn’t me. I wasn’t controlling it. I had no access to the thoughts of the person whose physicality I was in. I was just a passenger. This person was a female...Dactilon? No. She was milk-skinned like in my other visions. And also a warrior - she wore armor covering her chest down to her knees and all of her back. She wielded a long staff made out of a type of bamboo that grows on the outskirts of Orong. It was cultivated by Dactilon servants for use by the SPQR Legion, mostly.
But she was not Rhean. She was jumping around and moving so much that it was difficult for me to tell what I was looking at. She was either sparring or...no - it was a full-on fight. She was in a cage built out of tempered titanium and on the opposite end stood her opponent. That other was a towering figure, tall and thin. It had a blackish, thick beak and a single bony spike on its head. I had seen an image of this type of creature before, in one of my books. This was...an Ofwal Kukooz, native to a long-dead planet. The Ofwal were semi-sentient creatures that fed on industrial waste and tended to filter the air for most civilized planets. They were now a thriving invasive species in many places including the home world of Rhea.
The Ofwal was grayish yellow, with long black clawed talons on which it stood. It too wore armor, much lighter than the female, but it possessed a much larger weapon. The Ofwal’s sword had a wide hilt with a very big guard. He clutched it with his spiny fingers. The blade narrowed until it got close to the tip, where it widened once again into the head of an axe, replete with a spiked top and counterweight. The creature, more animal than thinking beast, swung with both hands in wide arcs.
The female (me) blocked a downswing by forming an X with her reinforced arm guards. We wrestled for control of the half axe, half sword but the skinny opponent was surprisingly powerful. Still, I had more muscle than the Ofwal would have guessed. It may not have been pretty, but I swung the large weapon back in a circle down to the ground, where the blade stuck. The creature jumped back, swifter than it looked, and began to crawl. These things could jump high and far, and this one especially was known to use the mechanics of the cage to its advantage.
I leaped left and spun around, twirling out the staff. It elongated into thinner segments towards the tip. The real me had played with Orongan bamboo once as a child before it was confiscated from me. It had a particularly unique property. When swung quickly it would deform, become more elastic and whip like. Indeed this staff turned dutifully into a whip and when the vision-me jumped in one direction, it hit the beast square in the maw as the thing attempted to track my motion rather than that of my weapon. I swung several more times as it was writhing to keep it cornered so I could get closer to it.
Then I walked right at it and held three fingers up to its face. It wore a dampening helmet, so I couldn’t read the damn thing’s mind, nor could I attack it psychically. That would have ruined all the fun, anyway.
Three fingers meant I had claimed victory in the bout. The default loser was meant to remain in a submissive pose as I looked towards a particular section of the audience. Wearing the regal purple, there was … Lieutenant-Governor Almoor. This was live - it was either happening today or a short time ago, but it was in the arena I was meant to visit. The vice governor took his time in deciding the Ofwal’s fate. Usually a thumbs-up would be given, because gladiators of any pedigree were all a large investment. Its owner would not be pleased at a sentence of death by the Rhean administrator. Nor would mine if it had turned the other way around.
Just as Almoor began to turn his thumb, the Ofwal quickly lunged from lying on its back and successfully yanked the blade from the ground in a two-handed motion. It lunged the spear-like tip straight into my chest, caving in the metal. I flew backwards and fell to the ground, seeing blurriness for a few moments. The real me expected that the show was over, and whoever I was inhabiting was just about ripe for death. Ready for the pole.
In native Dactilon custom, a body was buried horizontally inside of a metal cylindrical casket colloquially called a “pole.” But the vision continued. Female warrior-me looked down and saw the head of the opponent’s weapon crumpled in on itself while the armor had completely torn in the attack. And yet, the skin underneath remained intact. Looking closely, I could see she had heptagonal scales on her skin that she could toughen at will. Just like me! Who in Hades was she? And how did this vision fit into the rest?
Enraged and not even glancing at Almoor to see how he reacted (he didn’t), I kicked the weapon away and it fell limply to the floor, barely clanging at all. Then with all the tenacity of a Cerberillian Canid, I grabbed his throat with one hand and his beak with the other. Then I yanked in opposite directions and he too, fell limply to the ground. There were cheers in the audience as they got their entertainment for the day. All it cost was the life of a gladiator. Almoor shrugged his shoulders to his compatriots and clapped, bearing his teeth in a smile. I walked away, flashing three fingers on each hand and crossing my exposed chest.
I walked down to the hall back towards my living quarters. Marginally bigger than a dungeon cell. I looked at the name for several seconds. It said Section A.110. Then the warrior-me turned over my forearm and looked at that intently as well. There was a dark tattoo that said Knath, 10639. After staring I - she, looked into a dirty mirror and I could see her face. She looked like a native apart from the hue of her skin. Many thoughts ran through my mind. Did she have Elder blood? Was there some other kind of native species besides mine? I saw her lips move and felt a strange resonation, as if I were speaking with my ears clogged.
“Come to the Arena when you can, Grady. Section A.110. I am Knath, 10639. Look for me.” And then she was gone and I was back in the subfreezing chill of the northern tundra. The entire ordeal lasted less than twenty minutes and left me sapped of strength. I put the flash on autopilot and continued my journey.
But I could not tell that story of my vision to 303, who seemed to be satisfied going over hardware components and software tests. As I looked at Linna handing our benefactor a tablet, I waved at her. I sighed. I would not be in her arms tonight but rather I would be seeking out a Knath warrior who just so happened to have gladiatorial living space near to the underground. Near to, hopefully, the ancient Hall of Records.