The Spoofer Revolution

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Chapter 7 - The Hall of Records

303 gave me a modified earpiece to keep in my possession at all times. It had a small round metallic bulb at one end and a tiny hook at the other. It fit comfortably within my middle ear and could not be seen from the outside. It was not a communications device but rather a memory storage device. It acted like an interface that possessed an algorithmic “image” of 303’s memories specific to the Dactilate and dealings with the Rheans.

The device would allow me to speak fluently with people I hadn’t met before because it would prompt me with what to say according to 303’s past interactions. For example, if an imperial senator were to tell me at the soiree - “Hey there 303. Remember the time we knocked back a few carafes of wine and partook in sin with those hookers?” I would be able to respond, “Of course I remember, I wound up paying for them - how could I forget? Worst waste of dinars I ever spent!” Or something like that.

Donning his finest red robe, I was off to Rangor in the Elder’s stand-up hover-flash, spoofing his mental signature and appearing as a yellow dot to anyone who might be scanning the horizon for whatever reason. I drove right through the large tunnel into the city and followed my flash’s navigation through the winding streets into the very heart of downtown. I had never been in this area before and certainly not at night. There were few if any Dactilons living in the center of Rangor. Most were either in Orong or on the outskirts in sparse tent villages. The few that did live close were treated to a curfew far earlier than most of us would go to sleep.

I parked my government vehicle in a tow-away zone with gusto and marched straight towards the tremendous Arena. It was among the largest single structures in the entire city. I saw it prominently from my mathematics class in lyceum, the nearly perfect ellipse surrounded by smaller circular stadiums meant for small-animal racing. From right at the gates it was obviously massive, a large testament to the glory of engineering; although whether we had built it or they, I was not sure. There were many things illegal to teach us at school and history was one of them.

“303, you old Nebil cow-dog! How are you? Come to watch tonight’s games are you? It’s going to be a packed house tonight, even more than last night.” It was vice governor Almoor. Instantly my ear bulb began to work. Words came out of my mouth faster than I could register them.

“Almoor, yes. I’m going to be joining some colleagues in the Dactilate in a private booth.”

The vice governor wore an unassuming silvery white toga clipped with a golden clasp over his right shoulder. “Nonsense,” he beamed. “You’ll be seated with me in the Administrator’s booth and we shall drink wine and eat fine chocolate from the mother planet.”

I bowed slightly as our kind always showed deference to their. “That is very nice of you Director, but they are expecting to dine with me and I have to admit I’m a bit hungry.” Though I’d just filled up on luminescent lichens.

“Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense! My booth has, of all things, barbecued Nebil beast, dripping smoked Helibor trout, as well as Gargantuan Squid calamari. But you know we’re both early. Let’s grab some appetizers at the Colored Ceiling down the street. We can have some nachos and an experience before the show.”

The bulb began relaying information directly into my brain. The Colored Ceiling was a type of drug den for the rich and for corrupt politicians. Apparently 303 and Almoor had hung out together there twice. The Elder only attended because part of vying for Prime Dactilon was courting the oppressors for their endorsements. The representatives of the military wing, called the SPQR Legion which included the governors and their staffs each had a single vote. There was no maximum number of Legionnaires that could vote for the Prime but the minimum was three. Then the entire body of Elders together shared a single vote. In case of a tie the governor or a proxy or a member of the Rhean Senate was the decisive decision.

“Hmm, it is very tempting. Do you think General Rovis would want to join us?” I had been told Rovis would not be there but it was good to let it be known that I was thinking about him.

“No, it’s confirmed, he will not be able to make it tonight. He’s going to be quite busy preparing for security surrounding Ramstaad.”

I nodded and moved my hand palm-up towards the establishment. “Then let’s be off. Just a question about what you said - why is security so tight around our yearly alignment festival? We have never, to my knowledge mounted any semblance of a disturbance. We are a peace-loving, Rhea-loving people.”

Almoor clapped his hand on my back. “If there’s one thing I know about your people, it’s that you love little. But you also hate little, and I know you are not a threat. It’s simply a tradition to manage large gatherings in an orderly fashion, that’s all. Besides, that’s not the only thing weighing on Rovis’ mind.”

“Oh?” I asked. We were about two city blocks away. His face was so close to mine that I could smell his strong alcoholic breath. He wasn’t wearing a helmet but he felt no need to protect himself from any mental intrusion. Upper level officers were typically trained to detect telepathic probing, even if it was subtle. I could likely get away with it, but I decided not to. Also, as it turned out, I didn’t need to since black bramble wine seemed to be enough of a prompt to loosen this man’s tongue. He put his arm in mine in what was a friendly gesture for his people. For mine, it was a strict violation of personal space. He leaned into my ear.

“I could get into a lot of trouble for telling you this, but right after your feast, we’re mounting a surprise attack on Lila, in the Virgo cluster. So it’s all hands on deck for the planning. I’ll be staying here as the head of government.” He winked. “So I get the feeling you might be a shoo-in for Prime Elder over 37.”

That last part was a lie. 37 had cultivated far more good will to her cause than 303 did. Way more Legionnaires were on her side and ready to cast their ballots. She also had nearly the full support of the Dactilate, and the Legion often voted along with the high council. It was a way to show solidarity and a lack of friction. But I nodded in appreciation anyway at the drunken fib.

We arrived at the front of the den. It was like a bar or a pub. A tremendous amount of mainland Rheans, not military or government, liked to hang out in the heart of Rangor. There and Ventrello were the only touristy places to go anywhere on-planet. The rest as I’ve said, is a dump.

Lights and sounds blared odd, complementary patterns out at us. A large gaggle of sentinel bouncers manned the door and a full line of strangely dressed guests lined up to the left behind a velvet rope. Each waited impatiently, and dressed very out of the ordinary. I had never seen the occupiers in anything other than official, leisure or ritual dress. Their “party clothes” looked odd to me. There were purplish spots and multi-colored splotches on striped togas, and some wore pink or green visors. They had all been drinking profusely and so had very much resembled my host, who tapped a bouncer on the shoulder.

The giant turned with a scowl but upon seeing the stately government leader he bowed with his head held low. “My lord, I did not know you would be joining us this evening. We would have set aside a special table in advance.” He turned to a colleague, “Glaxon, clear our finest table and send over a few dancers and wine.” Almoor tried to demur, but the giant insisted. My host shrugged and I smiled politely. We waited a short time and then were invited inside.

Just like the last time that 303 was here, this time was a trip and a half. Funky music was blaring from above and smoke rose periodically from below. Pulses of laser lights oscillated randomly throughout the cave-like main area. Tables were arranged to optimize the space between them. There was a small stage on top of which were dancers showing off their nether regions. To the left side of the stage there was the kitchen area and to the right there was a bar. Three bouncers protected the bar with one tender manning it.

Behind the bartender were hundreds of different color vials that were shaped like test tubes, all the way up to the ceiling. Underneath the vials and within crouching range there looked to be carafes and liquor bottles for alcohol. Apparently they were bottom shelf. But at the top...the colored vials were breathtaking to look at. I was fascinated and I didn’t know what they were for.

I began to ask about them when my ear bulb immediately changed my words to, “I always wanted to try a primer. Maybe when the election is over, we can celebrate with a good storyboard.” I had no idea what the hell I was talking about but the algorithm inside this damn aural software did.

Almoor nodded in agreement as a dancer walked over to him and began to wiggle his hips in a courtship ritual I didn’t understand, but the governor seemed to enjoy. He smiled at me. “Care for a dance?”

“No thank you.”

The gyrating table-worker whispered something in his ear, to which he giggled. “Excuse me. We’ll be going to the back for more privacy.” I told them to take their time. I was profoundly curious about the bar. Why did they need three more gargantuan galoots to watch over it? It didn’t look like alcohol and I had only a small idea of what “drugs” even were. My kind didn’t partake in such things; it was unappealing to think of scrambling our brains simply to alter our mental status. When I’d learned about first aid, I knew about different kind of altered mental states having to do with things like diabetes, injury such as a knock to the skull, or psychosis. Who wanted any of that, voluntarily? And for the love of Rano, why?

A waitress came by to ask what I wanted to order. I wondered if there were any...juice or something with sustenance. She said there was. Then I pointed up to the glass vials. “I’m sorry ma’am, can you remind me, what are those? Are those d-drugs?”

She laughed. “Those, no, Elder. Well, kind of but not really. Those are called primers. They’re liquid emotion, concentrated by our top scientists. They cost a fortune.” I didn’t understand and I looked it.

“You know, emotions? You can have your pick of any or mix them up if you’re that rich. Happy, angry, jealous, excited, nervous, disappointed, elated, calm, joyful, surprised, ecstatic, whatever.”

“And you...drink them?”

“Yes. You can consume them two ways: solo or storyboarded. If you want it solo, you buy whatever you want, go into a room in the back and sit down. Then they have music, lighting, smells and video that go along with the emotions you picked. If you want a storyboard that takes a lot longer and you need an appointment. They write a computer program for you to experience the emotion enhanced through a virtual reality interface.”

“Wow,” I said. Emotions in general were somewhat foreign to me. I was warmer than most here, as were everyone in the Spoofer crew. I certainly felt things but I wondered what it would be like to feel them to the extent that the friendly waitress oppressor described. But there must have been some things I still couldn’t conceptualize.

“Why would anyone choose the negative ones? Like loss or disappointment or anything like that?”

“The Recurve. The bounce back you get when you realize that real life isn’t as bad as what you just experienced in a safe environment. It usually leaves people feeling happier. But the ones who normally ‘hit the ceiling’ with the preferred emotions - a lot of them kill themselves. Once you’ve gotten that high, where else could you go? Although it could just mean that they’ve lost all their money and can’t live without it. I’ll be right back with your juice.”

I very much wanted to try it and I was surprised with how much willpower it took me to say “no.” I had a very important mission to complete, to bring us another step closer to evicting these people. But even so, I began to understand the partial appeal of these strange aliens. I wondered whether it was their feelings that caused them to be so impassioned and selfish. Although my people were on the cold side, we were not psychotic. Our culture was naturally interested in the greater good, even if dispassionately.

More down to business, I wondered whether it were possible that any underground tunnels running from the arena might be below this very establishment. If that were true then this could be an access or exit point if ever I needed one. Since my host was still out gallivanting, I decided to snoop around in the guise of needing a washroom.

As I began to walk down the hallway, I passed several rooms and saw people experiencing many things. Some seemed to live out childhood dreams and others nightmares and yet others, obviously, sexual fantasies. Towards the end of the hall, there was a corner and behind that corner it looked like a stairwell to a boiler room or a systems maintenance area. I marked the numbering on the door. It said Section B. 117. The underground layout of the city was in a massive grid pattern so I was certain that through some figuring, and assuming that no tunnels were barricaded, there must be a way from the gladiator’s quarters to here. It was good to know in case it became risky to go out the way I came. I just had to get there from A. 110.

Going back to the table I found Almoor seated with another young gentleman. Before I could introduce myself, my earbud caused me to yelp out, “Lord Mennicose, it’s been many a Reddan moon cycle since we’ve seen one another. How have you been?” I proceeded to move my arms awkwardly and we slapped each other’s hands and elbows before returning to an imperial forearm handshake.

“I’ve been well, thank you. Sit, sit. The one day future governor and I have been talking about the election. We both favor you very much, 303. Although we may be in the minority right now, that could very well change depending on certain platforms you adopt. You could become very popular if you espouse progressive, out of the box beliefs.” He turned to Almoor and shrugged while shaking his head. “Although to be honest we would rarely vote against the Dactilate body itself. Those are the ones you really need to convince.”

“Why don’t you override their vote? They just have one.”

“Eh, as a policy it’s bad form. It stokes resentment and we on the imperial side need to be sensitive to the will of the people. Or else we’d be putting down rebellions all day long, and not get to party like this,” said my host.

The Reddan, wearing silver garments and a half ring of leaves from his left ear to his left brow, looked around cautiously and then whispered. “On my planet, our Council of Juniors has put forth a memorandum stating that they would like to invite Dactil and her people to join the SPQR Commonwealth. It’s a league of colonies with the emperor at its head, who enjoy special status among the empire. It comes with across-the-board tax relief, access to better technologies and healthcare and an overall buoyed economy. And best of all, well for world leaders such as yourself anyway, increased amount of self-direction with greater freedom. We would work to ensure the Prime’s responsibilities overshadow the governor’s while still remaining notionally inferior.”

My ear bulb did not kick in. Seconds passed. It was not programmed to react on the fly to new propositions. Or so I thought. “Yes,” I said, unexpectedly. Whether that was me or the program or even whether it was me being deceitful for the sake of the greater good, I didn’t know.

“Thank you,” I continued, trying to sound appreciative.

“Usually we don’t offer membership to a planet below a Level 1 but your typically good behavior, lack of rebellion and the general intelligence of your people suggest we can be getting substantially more out of one another. Oh, look at the time, the first few fights must be starting at the stadium. Let’s head out, we can always come back here later.”

More out of one another? What in the fiery pits of Hano did the bloke mean by that? And who were they to meddle in our affairs at all? Although improving our lot as a people would certainly be an admirable thing, I reactively didn’t want incremental improvements. I wanted a recognition of our planet as free and belonging to its native sons and daughters. I wanted, needed a revolution. Not a handout. Not a compromise.

I had never questioned my visions before since they had appeared to be bad dreams. But the latest one had the stink of truth in it, so the others were probably true as well. And if they were, then it meant that we once had thriving societies with great diversity of life and brilliant technology. Our culture was robust, as was our economy. Sure, we looked a little bit different then. I didn’t know what that was about.

Mennicose arose after looking towards his right uppermost field of vision. Many leaders possessed embedded chips and other technologies such as eye-lens computers and direct brain-stem interfaces. But I had no idea that they were so abundant or available to leaders of oppressed planets as well. It would be untrue of me to say that I wasn’t at least somewhat tempted by the offer of being elevated to the Commonwealth. However, in truth I was not 303 and the decision to take that stance or not rested squarely on his shoulders. I wouldn’t assume he’d be keen to adopting that position however, given his current status as de facto leader of a rag-tag rebellion of five. It would need to be a frank discussion once I got back and I fully resolved to have it with everyone. Linna, probably, would be all for an elevation of our current position especially if it was to be guaranteed by doctrine. I wasn’t sure I could trust anyone, and it was certainly not a foregone conclusion that either the Imperator, Imperatrix or the rest of the Commonwealth of planets would vote us in. In our current state, one thing we could not count on with any certainty was hope.

Mennicose blinked once or twice and informed us again that the gladiatorial games were already underway. We hoofed it back to the stadium and found that the first fight of the night was a Reddan warrior on a horse fighting a swamp creature from Rhea with a long snout who stood on its hind legs. It snapped its teeth at the Reddan and nearly clipped the horse, which threw the rider off its back and ran off. It was collected by the event’s ushers and guided out presumably back to the stables. The swamp monster appeared to have great intelligence, so out of curiosity I probed its mind to test out its level of sentience. To be honest, I didn’t know why it mattered or why I let my curiosity get the best of me.

I was interrupted in my probe by members from the Dactilate sitting across in the next booth. There was Elder 12, and 303’s rival 37, Elder 354, and surprisingly, the current Prime Dactilon, Elder 1. With the group there was seated General Moira, who I understood had just come to Rangor this evening. My group of three cordially shook hands with our counterparts and dabbled in a bit of small talk, aided of course by the apparatus stuck in my ear. It was odd to converse with fellow Dactilons outside of the Spoofers and not belonging to the plebian class that I was from in Orong City. The Elders, like 303 had passions, hobbies, thirst for knowledge, love for our people and exceedingly good eyesight.

We settled back into our seats to enjoy the show. The animal from Rhea appeared to be winning as it had just broken the shield wielded by its opponent. The thought still itched me about whether it possessed the same level of consciousness as the Reddan appeared to have. I simply wondered whether these bouts were typically stacked against snarling beasts, since they would not stand as great a chance against much smarter opponents with greater weaponry. However, the tenacity of a hungry Ang Ang was something that natives on this planet knew very well.

So, I cast my thoughts onto the creature. The thing was on its own, claws and teeth the only offensive tools against a particularly sniveling Reddan who was lying on his back and sticking out a hooked sword at the beast. Whether the posture was deferential or defensive, courageous or cowardly depended on the warrior’s frame of mind.

As the creature stalked closer to its intended prey, it immediately stood back upright and threw three fingers into the air towards our booth. “My lord!” it bellowed. “Someone here be scouring me mind, I can feel it. It’s against them rules we got. I beg yer majesty tell ’em to stop! It hurts, it hurts! Tell ’em to stop fer good measure!” Well, that answered any questions about intelligence I might have had. I certainly wasn’t as slick as I thought, and that fact arose primarily from my underestimating other beings. I had let my guard down and was lazy about what I was doing. There were other ways to probe that would not have been as obvious. Again, I had to think fast. So using more clever methods to get what I wanted, I directed some buzzing insects into and out of the obviously sentient crocodilian’s ears.

“Oi,” he said and swatted them away. “Sorry me lord, the buzzin’ musta been these dang muncher flies. It’s…yeah the irritation is very sim’lar. I’m sorry for the interruption. Let us pro-ceed.” Almoor didn’t appear to be amused in response. Although in my vision I had seen him be very indecisive, now I could tell that he was seething with anger. The momentum of the night had stopped and our lieutenant-governor was not happy. The crocodilian had called a time-out because of me. The vice governor stood up slowly and pointed to the creature. Then he methodically turned his wrist so that his thumb pointed down.

“What?” it screamed. “No! No, I coulda swore it was an intrusion, it’s an honest mistake. Lotsa noise in my head and even a tinglin’ sensation! I was winnin’ the fight, I was! I ain’t got no reason to make things up. I made a mistaaake!”

The Reddan was badly hurt and struggled to get up. The beast that I had unfortunately sentenced to an untimely death, sought to win over the crowd by playing along as the heel. He grabbed his opponent with his mighty snapping jaws and shook his head violently. After a few death thrashes, the enemy became prey. The creature began to devour the gladiator. Some in the crowd booed but many cheered on the gore. I personally didn’t like it but I understood the excitement. I absorbed some of the sentiment from the audience as a being of heightened empathy. This was sport, pure and simple and the players were all expendable. Mostly.

As pandemonium began to ensue, Almoor turned to me and Mennicose and said, “Now this is what I call entertainment. See? The guards don’t know what to do - some of them are trying to honor my dictum by pursuing the Flehmert. Others are looking back at the audience and trying to find me to see what I think about this whole mess.”

I pointed down to the arena. “The Flehmert is tossing your guards around like toy rocks. Don’t you want to put a stop to that by issuing another ruling?”

“No,” he said. “The stadium rarely gets this loud. People are enjoying themselves. It’s the guards’ own fault for not being able to read the will of the masses.”

I wanted to explain that he needed to maintain order or risk appearing weak himself, but I didn’t say it. That part was none of my business. And I had no desire to save Legionnaire lives, some of which were ending before my eyes. Ultimately the walking crocodile was subdued by the elite Governor’s Guard and put into a tungsten cage, out of which it could not escape. It was not killed, at least not publicly so as to assuage the sports fans most of whom were settling down yet booing that the fun was over.

I happened to glance over to the next door box seats and found the Prime Dactilon squinting his eyes in my general direction. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he could hear my thoughts. He must have known my mistake, my lapse of curiosity. And he was furious. Even though I’d let my guard down, my actions should have been impossible to trace. I have regularly underestimated my own kind, however. And I have found myself to have a knack for messing things up that were otherwise just fine as they were.

I began to get very nervous that the Prime would be angry with me. I was sure that he knew I wasn’t 303, but I didn’t know what he was capable of. Would he “out” me right there and then? His gaze moved on but his thoughts didn’t. I could feel him probing and found myself contending with an extremely powerful telepath in that moment. As the night’s entertainment wore on, roided up Ang Angs fought valiantly as did Kniderian Dragons, along with many other creatures among the empire including Commonwealth planets that were not spared from gladiatorial duty. The entire night rolled on as I worked harder than I ever had before to keep out Elder 1. All the while drunken ravings from my hosts engaged my ear piece, which might have been my only salvation. I conversed and laughed right on cue but inside me there was a dust squall.

At one point I asked where I could find the nearest restroom. As Dactilon excretory systems were very different from those of the common creatures of the empire, I was told I would need to walk very far. Two halls, hang a left, down some stairs, down another hall and to the right. I decided to go there even though I didn’t need a bathroom. I had gotten tired from staving off the Prime’s mental attack. Walking through the many halls I realized that nobody at all was around. Everyone was at the arena; there were no attendants or food or ware peddlers selling anything. You either had to get there early or stay way past the last match if you wanted to buy something.

In many ways it was a step up for a plebian like me. Going to school in Rangor day in and out I saw the colossal coliseum jutting above even some skyscrapers and wondered what it was like to be there when it was packed. I thought that world would be closed to me and I would remain a poor, captive bloke forever. Now I was an Elder, I laughed to myself as I ran my hands along the metallic square tiles of the cold wall.

“Except that you’re not an Elder,” a voice said behind me. It was dulcet in tone, very soothing and not nearly as ancient as I expected its speaker to be. He had followed me and went into stealth mode so I could not see him in my mind map. “You are not 303,” he prodded. “Who are you?”

As my ear bulb tried to kick in with an answer, it immediately short circuited. Then it got hot. Very hot. I pulled it out faster than it was meant to be ejected and smashed it to the floor. “Shit,” I said. The Prime might have been more powerful than I was, or more practiced. Either way it didn’t matter. I was being outclassed. With just a bit more time, he would find out who I was and what my purpose was in faking Elder status. Moreover he would know about the Spoofers and our plans to subvert the authority of Rhea. This...was not good.

The Prime was not scheduled to be here tonight, so I couldn’t exactly be faulted. But perhaps his curiosity wouldn’t have ignited had I not directly caused the deaths of a few guards at the hands of a gladiator from Flehmeh. That part would be left out of my post-mission report. If I would even get a chance to write it.

The Prime, eyes ablaze in what I perceived to be rage, motioned me to the Dactilon bathroom and put his finger to his mouth. There was no one in the vicinity and no electronic surveillance within three hundred yards. He closed the door behind him and locked it shut. The bathroom was surprisingly clean. There was a janitor’s closet next to the sinks adjacent to the stalls. This was a much nicer lavatory than any in the lyceum or in my hometown. The best Orong could hope for was the transient facilities at the rock quarry.

The quarry...my thoughts hadn’t gone to my parents in a long time. I had kept them from my mind, afraid that I’d miss them too much. I remembered when I was a child and…

And this train of thought down Memory Lane was being directed by the Prime Dactilon to elicit information. I could feel my mind being guided to Orong, to my childhood, and he could see it all. I immediately put up my shields and began striving against him once more.

“I’m not probing to hurt you, Grady.” He knew my name. “I want to make sure that I am protecting our people, that no small group of well-meaning but wrong-minded folks do anything to jeopardize our continued participation on this planet.”

“Participation?” I asked, perhaps louder than I should have. “We don’t participate, we don’t guide our own paths. We’re subjects of the crown, part of a wide collection of toys belonging to the empire.”

“We’re toys that the empire has chosen not to discard. Look at me. Do you understand how powerful I am? With practice you can reach where I am now. I can read them with their helmets on without them knowing. I possess the tact that you don’t and it came with decades of study. I know the Rheans. They would have tossed us in the trash years ago; we are a small outpost populated by highly disposable natives in their eyes. We’re boring and stupid, providing little utility but for our strong backs. And yet there has not been an incident of mass murder in at least fifty years.”

“Because of our subservience.”

“If not for that we’d be dead. All of us.”

“Not if we banded together! We could, at the very least push back hard enough to negotiate better terms to live by.”

Elder 1 sighed deeply. “No we couldn’t. There is so much that you and 303 and anyone else on-planet doesn’t know. But I do. The best of us tried. And failed. Were wiped out completely, as utterly destroyed and withdrawn from history as possible. The harder we fought the more absolute the counter.”

“How do you know that for sure? I choose to believe in hope.”

“Then you believe in lies. I saw your mind, I could see flashes of your memories. The ghosts of long ago are calling out to you. Some memories continue to float around the ancient relays from one storage unit to another. I’ve seen them all. This was our past, when we tried to fight. If we tried to do that again they would rather leave this planet barren, desolate and uninhabited than leave as the losers of a war. What you hope about and dream for could never happen. Only compromise will lift our people now.”

I looked around, searched his dark eyes for any deception. But I found none. The fact that he spoke a measure of truth didn’t matter to me in that moment, however. The conviction I held for my entire life was not something I was willing to let go easily. I was willing to die for it, and he knew that.

“But are you willing to kill your own people for it?” he asked me.

“Our people are not living!” I shouted, definitely louder than I should have. But my voice was drowned out in the distance by fickle, alternating cheering and booing crowds. I knew I wasn’t exactly right even as the words were coming out of my mouth. They were living, but not to the potential or the standards they should be. And in a strange way they exuded contentedness. Resignation. Ignorance. One could call it whatever they wanted but they could see what it wasn’t - resentment. The bare minimum of care that the Rheans took of us was something they were willing to rely upon, to the point that it was conceivable to thank our overlords in some sense.

“Now is not then,” I explained in hushed tones. I sought to utilize reason, if he would not be persuaded by raw emotion. I told him that there was such a bare contingent of Legionnaires on-planet that a straight fight would not be a conclusive win on their side. And they would be hard pressed to call up reserve fighters since they intended to attack Lila right after Ramstaad. That was too far away to summon soldiers quickly. Plus, they needed to maintain order within their empire, especially the jewels in their crown - the Commonwealth. There would be a reluctance to shift resources for fear of revolutions in more important territories. And besides, it was foretold that long lost weapons of immense power would reside below the Rangorian Hall of Records - right below our very feet. I would be there tonight, going through sector A. 110. Would it not be wise to at least plan the greatest revolt we could and then debate whether it was viable?

“There are roving Rhean colonies on unpopulated moons and asteroids in our solar system, Grady,” he growled at me, displaying emotions of his own. “They mine metals and gases and maintain a standing force right nearby in case they need to suppress a rebellion. Those units will not go to Lila since during a war, mining efforts will need to increase. There are ships in our orbit that are fully operational with minimal manpower and can rain down terror from the skies indiscriminately. How dare you toy with our future like this?”

Again, he was right. But so was I. There were too many differences between their initial attack and today. Then a completely extinct species of sentient Dactilon, the Knath if a tattoo is to be believed, fought in a surprise war without any preparation. Today that would be flipped. And besides, I wouldn’t back a plan that was too risky. No one in their right mind would. But you can’t nix an idea you haven’t had yet - that was why I was even at the Arena, after all.

“Your ragtag team of noble-minded disruptors have done enough damage. In my capacity as Prime I order you to disband. In my capacity as a more-powerful creature I absolutely command it. You will stand down or I will make you.”

My blood began to sublimate. I did not appreciate his direct challenge and I was not going to change my intended course. If he wanted to move me, he would have to do it himself. To that effect, I decided to suit up. I arranged my cells to harden and prepared for a show of strength over him. I didn’t want a fight, I simply wanted to let the Prime know that I meant business and I would not take his threat lying down. 303 taught me the subtle affinities afforded by my natural gift. Few had the telepathic range that I possessed. I had practiced and learned well. But my training took a year; 1’s took...who knows? He definitely looked pretty old. In my protected state, I was practically immune to mental assault.

To my utter surprise, he fancied a fistfight. It was a surprise for several reasons, not least of which was his advanced age and the fact that he did not seem to be able to shape-shift like I could. And yet he lay into me with all that he had.

He threw closed fists at me and then began to claw away, trying to see if there were any weak points, any chinks in my armor. There were none. I let him have at it since I could not be hurt by the onslaught and his every effort in that moment was useless. It would have been different if he had the physical ability to morph like I could; then I would likely suffer at his hands. But as it stood, this effort was not helpful.

“Prime Elder, please let’s discuss this.”

And yet I knew we could not. He couldn’t let me go continue my mission, since he felt it was an existential threat to him and the planet. He could not alert the Rhean authorities either, because that would presumably be suicide ahead of a top-secret planned war. I frustrated perhaps the most powerful member of my species and was now facing his impotent wrath.

After some time, his anger and subsequent thrashing abated. He tired and relented. Then after catching his breath, he took out a Rhean sloughing dagger, which was able to slice atoms off of any material, including my skin. The sloughing daggers, which I had learned about in school, were protonified and could be used for practically any cutting purpose, be it surgery or murder. As he began to swing at me with the hot knife, glowing pink, I let my guard down. I would be much quicker with softer skin since it didn’t matter anyway. I ramped up a psychic attack against him, not knowing whether I could be successful. But my life was now in danger and I had to give it my best shot. I held nothing back, seeking to wipe his mind as I had done to the Legionnaires that attacked my village over a year ago.

It seemed to be working. I didn’t sense a counter from him. He must have lacked the energy at that point to mount a good defense. Maybe I could succeed in this and cover my tracks, albeit at the expense of the Prime’s health and political position. If I incapacitated the Prime, it could have dire consequences, I thought. It might hasten the election to select his successor and could keep the Rheans on-planet. That ran counter to what any of us wanted. And yet - what could I do?

Then the most unexpected thing I could think of happened - he began to seize. The effort was too great for him and caused an epileptic fit. His eyes rolled back and his extremities flexed, contracting uncontrollably. I could tell what was happening in his mind now. He was having a stroke and there was nothing I could do. It was massive. And it was my fault.

“Prime,” I whispered. “I need to take you to a hospital, now,” I told him, scooping him up in my arms.

“N-no,” he weakly replied. “They can’t know about this. I’m dying, I can feel it. I have a brain bleed. Keep me out of sight. They will not look for me, they never have. I keep my own…time…” In a strange change of attitude, he held my hand. “Do not pursue your dream of freedom as it is, Grady,” he said. “Pursue what freedom means for you now. It is smaller than your dream but greater than your hope.”

In my species, a seizure did not cause syncope, but in a Rhean it often did. 1 would be dead soon, I knew it. And he would be lucid right until the end. I needed to at least try. So I ran down the hall with him looking for - I had no idea. This was a sports stadium with no hospital or facility for our kind because the whole thing was built for them. We were none of their concern.

“What are you doing?” he asked, almost laughing at me. “It may be undignified, but you know what you have to do. You need to get rid of me. Stuff me somewhere. And for the love of Hano and our people, you need to do the right thing. The right thing might feel bad, and the wrong thing can be bliss in your wrongminded anticipation for it. But you would quickly realize your mistake. Be a real hero. Don’t be a hero…”

He faded away, with dark cerebrospinal fluid tinged with blood coming out of his ears, eyes and mouth. There was little fanfare as he crossed the threshold between life and death.

Shit, I thought to myself. This was terrible. It didn’t do me any favors for him to be dead. Around the corner from where we were out in the open, I sensed a lone gray dot wandering the halls. His name was Brend Tuk, a janitor.

Shit.

Brend hadn’t noticed me on his mind map yet. I didn’t know when there would be a break and a rush of patrons would be flooding the concessions stands, so I had to get back into the shadows quick. I went the only place I could think to go - back to the pristine Dactilon bathroom. Locking the door behind me, I searched for a hollow space behind a wall or...something. I checked to see if there was enough of a space in the ventilation unit above the ceiling, but it was all solid. If I were to knock down walls or ceilings, I would not have been able to put them back together again.

The last place I checked was the janitor’s closet. There was a small door at the very back of the closet. I yanked it open and bingo. It led to a rather large garbage chute that ended up in the city’s incinerator. There was a flame within a circle next to a garbage bag drawn upon the door. It was disgusting, undignified and morally reprehensible, but I had to shove the newly dead body of the Prime Dactilon down there for all our sakes. I grabbed the thick black garbage bag from the sink area and found that two bags completely covered him. With a third bag, I tied both tightly together.

Cremation was not a normal custom for my kind. Only the rich and ironically the Elders, could afford being burned on a pyre. Most of us buried our dead feet first vertically several feet below ground. Some buried their family members with fungal spores and lichens of the same kind that were ingredients in Nutriment. Then after several years they would have a steady source of food that would be in addition to the government rations. Trying my best not to think about what I was doing, I launched his corpse down the chute and closed the janitor’s door back up.

I took a breath. Was there anything that went right in my efforts thus far? I reconfigured my skin so I once again looked like 303 and then I opened the bathroom door. Shaking somewhat, I walked all the way back to the box seats, passing the Prime’s former entourage and avoiding eye contact.

37 reached out to me. “303!”

“Y-yes?”

“The Prime wanted me to tell you he had to leave early; he left while you were in the restroom.”

Yeah he did.

“Th-thank you, 37. I’m sorry to have missed him. Did I miss anything else?”

Mennicose threw his hands towards the grounds. “Bah. A Lamprian versus a Colokney. I wish I had been in the bathroom instead of enduring that nonsense fight. But that was just a warm-up for the main event!”

“Oh?” I asked, trying to sound sincere. After my earpiece broke, I couldn’t tell whether I was appropriately in character or not. However, I had already put the main, living people within these booths at ease. I had made my first impression, so there was more leeway to be myself now.

“What’s the main event?” I asked.

“A Knathian female, reigning champion and gladiatress-in-chief, will make a selection for her next challenger. She can choose anybody from among the captive warriors or even someone in the stands. The anticipation of her challenge is usually a big show. Typically there would be a sparring session between the champion and challenger to prove the worthiness of the opponent. Then a match would be scheduled for Champion’s Day, within the next few months.”

“Who do you think she’ll choose?” Almoor asked his Reddan compatriot. His white toga had gotten stained with wine, meat juices and sweat.

“Oh, she’s the queen of dramatic flair. It’ll probably be a very difficult challenger, someone quite powerful. She likes choosing large monstrous creatures with muscle and heft over someone smaller. It’s the optics that makes it enjoyable.”

“Can she really choose anyone at all?” I asked. “And are they obligated to fight?”

Almoor and Mennicose laughed together, followed very tentatively by 37 across the way. “Whatsa matter? Afraid she’ll pick you?” I shrugged my shoulders in response and added my own voice to the laugh track. But the truth was that this very warrior had chosen to bind with me and channel a message straight to my brain. Perhaps she would try to ‘help’ get me to A. 110 by selecting me as her opponent. It wasn’t impossible to imagine.

The ring announcer stepped into the center of the oval after attendants cleared the arena of blood, teeth and weapons from the night’s previous bouts. Other workers began to spread new dirt and sand all around for better traction in the main event. How odd that the most important portion of this night’s sport was simply a warm-up for a future one, I thought. But then again, though I found Rheans, Reddans and other Commonwealthers strange, they were also shockingly similar...to me. Not other Dactilons. I did not possess the usual dispassionate quietude of the majority, and neither did anyone else in attendance at Rangor Arena. They were loud, but more importantly - they were bold.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Rheans and other species, it is my honor and privilege to announce tonight’s main attraction: the selection for Challenger on Champion’s Day. Coming in from the stadium’s northern entrance the enchantress, the warrior, the interminable, Knath 10639!”

The gladiatress’ name was such a ball-deadener for me. My name was Grady. It wasn’t special but it was mine. She was one of many gladiators who breathed and labored at the behest of the emperor. A classification followed by a number. Yet this crowd began to go wild, chanting and hooting in praise of their heroine. In return she played along, putting her hand to her ear as if she could not hear their shouts. This of course increased the volume of the entire arena, including in my booth, where the giddy imperial officials went along with the energy of Rangor. I sat there quietly as she danced around throttling everyone up into a frenzy. As it happened, my subdued demeanor was probably the right approach to take, since 37 also sat stone-faced and watching. We were of a different kind, one not taken to being swept into an emotional tornado. Yet I could not resist the infectious feeling that was bubbling around the place. I understood reflexively why people liked it.

After playing up to the crowd, Knath 10639 put her finger to her lips very theatrically, and immediately everyone shushed up. She closed her eyes and began drifting around the arena. Would she pick someone from the green section? No, not there. Would she choose someone from the blue, way on the other side? She ran towards the blue section and stopped, eyes still closed. She shook her head, still keeping her hands out and trying to sense her way to the right direction.

Dreadfully for me, she slowly walked towards the emperor’s booth and stopped directly in front of us. She began to cast her arm out and the entire arena held their breaths audibly. My heart began to race in anticipation. She had chosen me before; she had wanted me to be here and now I was present. Why wouldn’t she choose me? After some seconds of deliberation, she ran down the track and off site. For all intents and purposes, she was gone. Where was she headed? Was this some weird attempt at escape? Was that her plan all along? Everyone looked over at each other and allowed themselves to murmur in confusion.

Then just when Almoor himself began to look annoyed, she burst back into sight, pushing an enormous cage carrying a large white beast inside of it. It was snarling and drooling, with a long snout and big teeth. Overall it was probably three to four times bigger than she was, and this animal was certainly not intelligent. Although everyone finally cheered in a burst of glory, I didn’t understand - how do you “spar” with a hungry, cornered animal?

“I choose this Cerberillian Canid, my lord. It is one of the rarest creatures in the imperial menagerie and perhaps the most fearsome. Considering the grave danger for the crowd, I humbly suggest that we forgo any sparring session tonight. Let us strive in carnal contention on Champions Day!”

The crowd was extremely volatile and set to explode at any and every turn of events. They cheered the Knath’s suggestion. But then I turned over to look at Almoor. And he was not happy at all. I could guess why - the creature was one of his prized possessions. I’d read about the Canids, who were from a planet mined for its mineral resources. They were at the top of the food chain when they lived, but the planet was unofficially dead from a runaway greenhouse effect two hundred Dactilon years ago. I knew more about former imperial settlements than the history of my own planet. Because the Rheans, of which Almoor was currently the highest ranking in the globe, saw fit to prioritize us that way.

I didn’t need to be a mind reader to know that this choice of opponent would not fly with the lead oppressor. The crowd might have been fine with it, but Canids did not breed any longer. This one currently getting stressed out in front of an audience was one of the last that there would ever be. And yet its owner could not refuse the challenge by the gladiatress. He was bound both by tradition and the will of the mob. All optics and sense of continuity dictated that the young vice-ruler could not be aggressive-aggressive in this moment of anger. But, his station allowed him more than ample wiggle room to be passive-aggressive. So long as he placated the bloodthirsty attendees of the bloody event.

“You two will spar. NOW. Guards, open the cage doors!”

Usually a weapons check would be taking place about now, but there was a mad rush to let the Canid out. Four guards took long rods with looped wires attached to one end. They paired up and threw them over the cage until they hooked onto a fastener. Then they pulled. The heavy fencing began to budge very little. Almoor pointed at two more guards to run over there and help the first four. Now there were three pulling on one door and three on the other. Still, the cage budged up and then fell back down. The audience began to laugh, much to the dismay of everyone in my booth. The energy began to sour.

In what I perceived to be an act of downright defiance - and definitely cool - Knath 10639, who had not been given a proper name, ever, took over. She grabbed one rod in one hand, and one in the other. She lifted the doors high enough for the beast to saunter out. As I saw it in motion, I began to understand how regal and majestic it was, mindless rage notwithstanding.

It looked well-fed, which might have been a bad thing. If it just ate, then it would be strong and have good stamina. But on the other hand if it was starving, then it would probably fight like a demon as well. There was probably never a good time to contend with the monster. It looked like this was very bad for the Knath, who was about four or five times smaller than the wretched thing.

It was all very entertaining, and though I remained embarrassed to be on the edge of my seat, I couldn’t help myself. This race of alien exploited whatever they could to get whatever they could get out of it, squeezing things for their consumptive value. The creature wasted no time hunting the Knath. It opened its jaws wide and pounced. In my imagination, the thing would have shrieked and flailed about, but it did not. The creature was more methodical than that. Though it had heft, strength, speed and weaponry in terms of its claws and teeth, it chose to try stealth to win the day.

In what looked like an afterthought, the gladiator searched for her weapon, but she did not have one on her person. It was on the floor, too far away to be useful in this moment. The Canid was not a Scorpion or a Dragon, so a telepathic attack would likely have worked. That however, was against the rules. She would have been dragged in front of a magistrate at the end of the battle, were she to survive. So what she did, was what I do - she hardened her scales and braced for impact, digging in her heels. She barely jumped away from its snapping maw before it snapped again. And again. And again. Finally it swung its clawed paws at her much faster than I would have expected for its size. The sideswipe landed and caused her to fly across the arena, where she landed and splintered the cement that caught her.

From my own experience, I knew that in an armored state she was likely well-cocooned. But that was the hardest whack I’d ever seen up close. Her brains may have gotten scrambled and I wasn’t all that sure that she was still conscious. If she wasn’t, then her reinforced skin will likely have retracted back to its normally much softer phase and she was as good as an entree for the animal. Yet the great beast approached the still body with caution, ears raised. It lowered its profile and stalked towards the limp white champion, making incredibly deep footprints into the sand. Get up, get up, I hoped. I felt kinship with the gladiator and something within the marrow of my bones made me believe that we were truly kin, in some way.

As a mere spectator I stood up to get a closer look over the animal’s right shoulder, but then something happened to me that had never been done before or since - I got overpowered. Some overwhelming force knocked me back into my seat and though I struggled to get back up, I couldn’t even move. I’d become paralyzed in place, unable to flex or contract a muscle. No one noticed my attempts at regaining control of my body because everyone else was only metaphorically glued to the action before them.

The Cerberillian Canid stooped low, close to the Knath but not too close. It began to sniff the air so strongly that the lightest dust arose up off the ground. Then it approached the body with head low. None of the crowd provoked the beast in any way since everyone seemed to coordinate holding in their collective breaths. For me, my breath was the only thing that I had conscious control over. It frightened me in that moment to think how it was possible that I could be stuck, but once the novelty of fear abated, the answer was obvious, and I stopped resisting.

The Canid, in one quick motion, opened its mouth and chomped. What it found however, was that the chomp wouldn’t close. In an even quicker motion, the Knath arose and clasped a bottom canine in one hand and a top canine in the other. A battle of wills ensued to what appeared to be a standstill, until she bent down to pick up her tungsten sword with her left hand and began swinging it in a fast, wide circle. With her right, she maintained the ability to pivot the animal’s head to the side against its will. She was much stronger than even I had thought, and I already had some inkling prior. The Canid fought to pick up its own head but she shoved it to the ground with one hand, contorting the creature’s sizeable neck.

Almost faster than I could register I saw the final blow, with the helicopter-like fanning of her sword cutting up from the bottom and her right hand also moving upward in the same general direction. Along with the other spectators, I began to scream in happiness for our champion. Even Almoor began cheering, hands clapping harder that I’d seen most soft-bodied Rheans clap. And yet I was still stuck, back and tush firmly against the seat. It got me nervous again, especially since I saw that the Canid’s gigantic hundred-pound collar was let loose by the decapitation blow and was flying directly towards me. I looked around but no one tracked it. Yet. Once they saw where it was headed, everyone else jumped out of the way. All except me. And when it landed, I had another first - the first time in my life that I’d ever been squarely knocked out by a blow to the head. Yet, had I not been myself, I’d have been dead.

Although I knew I wasn’t dead when I awoke, there a great many other things that I didn’t know. Like where was I? It was darkly lit and quiet. I was used to that after living in a cave in the desert with Spoofers for a year. But this wasn’t that cave, nor should it have been because I didn’t remember heading over there myself. There was some straw on the floor, rocks strewn about and a flame flickering behind me. My body cast a shadow on a very austere-looking wall. There was a very visible wide bump on the head of the silhouette. I reached my hand up to the bump and it hurt. The memory of what happened before I passed out came back to me clearly.

“Where?” I turned around.

“Here.” Knath 10639 held out a bowl of something she’d been stirring. It was warm, and it smelled good. “Lichen and moss, with Rhean herbs. Packed full of nutrition. Eat up.”

I had many questions but also a gnawing hunger. Without meaning to be a boor, I slurped up every last drop from the deep metallic vessel. I sighed, not having eaten as well as that in a very long time.

“So this is Section A.110.”

“Yes,” she said. “Knocking you out was the only way I could think of to bring you here. Sorry about that, by the way.” This may have been her living quarters but it might as well have been a dungeon or a stable. Thick bars in front of individual rooms including this one were all open, and seemed to be lockable from the inside. I realized that the Section was a lot larger than just the one jail cell we were in, so she was given lots of space.

“I received your message. Earlier, a while before getting here. Telling me to come.” I was sputtering with no clue what to say now that I was here. “So - I have a question. Are you an Elder? Some kind of albino Dactilon? Are we of the same kind?”

She smiled. I could see the heptagonal scales on her skin just barely visible. “Yes, we are the same. But two separate forms, shall we say. There are animals in ecosystems far away from our planet that can take different shapes. They are one way in one environment, and a different way in another. One that comes to mind is the Salogat Beetle, found on Redda. Normally, they are blue, docile and wingless. But when there is a genetic trigger, tripped from the environment, such as drought or famine, the one creature transforms. It turns black, gains wings and a single horn on its parapet. It’s the same animal, just...activated. I am an activated version if you will, of your kind. I am a Fire Heart.”

It was a good thing I ate, because I probably would have passed out again had I not. “You mean those are real?”

“Oh yeah. Still are. You’re one too - all of Dactil’s native sons and daughters are Fire Hearts. You are all Knath. A long time ago before the takeover, this activated type that differentiates me and you, was the only way we were. It was our default modality. The most ardent among us fought for survival, but the invaders wouldn’t entertain any resistance. So the thought got into the remaining Knath that becoming passive was the key to survival. They were right. All empires need strong backs. Though the individuals might be disposable, the group fits a basic need of the system.”

“You talk as if you were there. How old are you?”

She waved me off. “Bah. Eighty three years. I was born long after the crumbling of the world. But the relays that existed back during the planet’s golden days are mostly still working. They’re attached to storage systems that still transmit information through telepathic wavelengths. You’ve seen the visions too, haven’t you?”

I had. In my dreams and sometimes in my waking moments. I always believed they were signals from the past somehow, though I never imagined how that could be. My ancestors kept records of their history, of their lives and trials. Their deepest thoughts of happiness and fear. Of...the end. Some of what I’d seen was so grotesque that I wished it to be only a nightmare. Nightmares were not false just because they were nightmares. But did that mean that there was no central Hall of Records? 303 was adamant that I should go there to retrieve ancient weaponry, or at least any knowledge of it. For 303, a storage disk was better than a ray gun. Because with the blueprints, you could always make twenty thousand or so.

I realized that there was a slight buzzing alternating with a tapping sound, both in the distance and nearby. I asked 10639 what that was.

“It’s a telepathic dampener. Rheans really perfected anti-telepath technology. It’s so I don’t organize a breakout. Their problem is that it creates a noise that makes it impossible for them to hear or record our voices, which usually fall within a range of frequencies that would be counted as background noise. We can speak freely and not be overheard. So they solved one problem, made up a new one. Ironic, huh?”

I looked around and listened carefully. It wasn’t just my mind that was sharper than the average native; my other senses were good, too. I could hear no one else in the vicinity. Though 10639 was captive, she was also a celebrity and to the extent that the empire treated any subjects well, she was treated well.

“The Rheans are going to attack a small, resource-rich planet named Lila,” I blurted out, still whispering.

“When?” she asked.

“After Ramstaad. The major satellite ships will be diverted and the Legionnaires will be left with only a skeleton crew on-planet.”

She knew where I was going with this but didn’t want to say it. She very much seemed concerned about what my knowledge of that fact suggested.

“Why did we need to talk?” I asked. “How did you know about me, or how to reach me? You seemed very anxious to meet,” I explained.

She sighed. “For you to access the relays means that you are closer to what I am than you are to what they are. The other Dactilons. Elders may wield great personal power, but they have not tapped the archives of our once beautiful world. They’re mostly unaware of the relays. They have not seen what you did. I thought I could speak with you. To commiserate. You are the closest to my kin than anyone else.”

We were already by definition, commiserating. But I also stalked with dark purpose. I meant to plan the expulsion of the enemy. I planned to do something more than just lament.

“What happens right after they quickly beat Lila, which is below Level 1 classification?” she asked. “They’ll be right back here, ten times their full force for our sector. Do you know they have a military base on a large asteroid that orbits the planet? It doesn’t take part in any conquest activity. Its sole purpose is to mine metals and keep the peace below if needed, as a reserve force. You can’t just wing a rebellion and hope it works. You need to plan it all out.”

She was right about not having thought of everything...or even most things. But whatever was in the Hall of Records had the potential to become our secret weapon. It was the hope I hung onto. Because the truth was, it could all wait. Our kind would, on our current trajectory continue to be docile. No pebble in the gears. That gave us, the hapless “Spoofer Revolution” time to plan. Going down one dead end street would hopefully mean that we could continue to explore what tack we were to take. One of the few things I’d learned in school was the history of many civilizations that had fallen to Rhea. Some had been empires in their own right. But regardless, all empires eventually fizzled out. As a generality, they depleted their resources quicker than usual. Without a steady stream of new stuff, their society collapsed.

Another hundred years could see the empire thinning itself out through a spread it could not support. Time could be the path to freedom by waiting for the oppressor’s inevitable downfall. But I would be long dead before I ever got the chance to have it. No - I knew that my path was a selfish one. And thus far, I was okay with that.

“There is something right below us. Thick armor plating with probably the strongest alloys ever smelted in Dactil. I couldn’t pierce it with my mind to find out what’s beyond it but it’s big. I think it’s the Hall of Records. It fits as the right location from contemporaneous information wafting over the relays. I know you’re after it. I know everything about you. You, Grady, are far too easy to read and that makes you extremely vulnerable. If I could see your mind while you sleep, so could lots of people. So could 303. Promise me one thing before you explore the unknown.”

“Yes, anything,” I found myself saying, backed up against a metaphorical wall trying to prove my sincerity.

“Promise me that if you find something you can use against them, that you’ll consider whether you should. That you won’t take a path to destruction just to see where it’ll lead. Promise me that the answer will be important to you and that your mind isn’t all made up.”

“I promise,” I sighed. I meant it. She knew that and she rubbed my back. It was small comfort.

“Do the right thing for us all,” she added. But I wondered about her level of desire for freedom. She was more captive than I was. I could traverse deserts anonymously, head into and out of tent cities with ease. Although it was large, 10639 was confined to a cage. Didn’t she have the slightest tickle in her soul to shed the bars imprisoning her and find her well-deserved liberty? I had to know.

“So, hypothetically, if the right time ever presented itself --” I began to ask, but she cut me off.

“I would join the Spoofers and fight alongside you. I’m a Fire Heart, and so long as I’m living, I’m fighting. The Knath rarely die of disease or old age. We die because our emotions fade and the embers go out. I am nowhere near letting that happen.”

And now the hard part - how could I nudge the conversation towards asking how exactly I was to get into the Hall? But then again, I didn’t need to ask. She went to get a thick-bristled broom and began to sweep a section of her cage in the far corner. She pushed away dust, grime and hay to reveal a metallic hatch leading underground.

She knocked on the floor beside it which made a hard thwacking thud sound. Then she knocked on the hatch itself, which resounded with an echo.

“This is how you get in. Remember your promise,” she said.

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