Chapter 5 - Second Summer
Tess watched through the ash-stained windows of a skimmer as mountains of smoke continued to rise from the east. Soon they would blot out the sky as the firestorm made its seasonal march from east to west across the Imperium. She was faintly aware of the conversation taking place around her though only the black truly held her attention.
“…What do you think about it, Tess?” Demetrius asked from the seat behind her.
“I’m sorry, what?” Tess asked, still only half listening.
Brian butted in, “Demetrius thinks that students shouldn’t be allowed to have implants or splicing modifications. Which is crazy. What if you had those for the trial? You’d be saving lives.”
“That’s not what I said. You’re taking it out of context. All I was trying to say is that splicing and implants are permanent decisions. I don’t think people should be messing with their body’s anyway. Take malravians for example. Look what happened to them.”
“That’s stupid. You don’t honestly believe that people created malravians from failed splicing experiments? That story about scientists cooking them up in a lab, it’s just propaganda from people who want to see bio-engineering shut down.”
“No, it’s not. Isn’t that right Tess?”
Tess shrugged, “I don’t know. I always thought it would be cool to have some splicing done. As for malravians…” She shrugged again, and cupped her chin in her hand before continuing to look out the window. Behind her, the argument began again in earnest. She didn’t care one way or the other what others thought about splicing or implants. Malravians though, she could not imagine they had been created in a lab. With how little the scientific community knew about them, not a chance.
From the corner of her eye, Tess could see the long rows of socketed houses that made up the middle-caste sector. Tess wondered how much smaller the apartments where Samuel lived would be. To think someone as highly ranked as Samuel lived there. If not for being a Halsinion it would be unthinkable.
“Do you think once we all graduate that Samuel will be promoted?” Tess asked, interrupting the boy’s debate. They both looked at her with thoughtful expressions. A momentary truce in their argument.
“I don’t see why not. Though, I guess it would depend on how strong his crystal is,” Demetrius said.
“Are you kidding me? He is a Hali… Halsinion. No way they would promote him, ever,” Brian said.
“But why not?” Demetrius asked.
“Didn’t you pay any attention in history?”
“That’s not exactly his strong suit,” Tess added.
“Like I was saying. History man, the Imperium-Halsinion war.”
“What about it?” Demetrius asked.
“You know they won right? Destroyed our military, took our land, leaving us with just this crater. So they can keep an eye on us. If he was not our age, I would say he’s a spy. He still might be.”
“Are you serious right now?” Tess said with a laugh, “You really think he could be a spy?”
“Think about it. How does a low caster get such high test scores? How is it that he knows so much? Hell, he knows most of the material before Parkson tells us anything; and even before we started physical training the guy was already a machine. If you think about it, wouldn’t that be the ideal spy? No one would suspect him because he is just a kid, he could grow up here and see everything. No way they promote him.”
Brian had a point. Even though the three of them had gotten over their prejudice of Halsinions it didn’t mean others had or would. There was no way in hell Samuel was some spy though. Such an absurd notion was something only Brian could engineer. Even so, she doubted he actually believed it.
Just as the boys bickering was ramping back up the lines of socketed houses gave way to a swath of large black solar absorption plates.
“Wait, Sector Two is a solar farm? I thought it was the lower-caste residential sector,” Brian said.
“It is. Underneath each of those panels are the apartments,” Tess said.
For several minutes they passed nothing but row upon row of heat disbursement tiles and solar absorption plates. Each stretched out in a large rectangle with a narrow road in-between. At the head of each row was a stairway and a small docking pad.
The skimmer slowed and came to a stop landing on its stability struts. A moment later the docking pad began to descend. Once below the surface heat shielded doors slammed into place. For the next few moments, everything was complete darkness save the lights in the skimmer cabin. Descending one level the lift rotated until the exit hatch on the back of the skimmer could link with the apartment entrance. The two linked with a groaning noise that made even Tess uneasy. How old are these apartments again?
“Looks like we don’t have any service down here,” Brian said as he turned his phone over in his hands. “Anyone remember the apartment number?”
“I am pretty sure it was 304 or something like that,” Demetrius said.
“Well let’s go find him,” Tess said eyeing her phone with annoyance.
Samuel ducked away from yet another poorly thrown punch. Rex was big, but he was also stupid. Samuel's attackers had cut him off from the stairwell and his only means of escape. Yet Rex and all his bulk made it impossible for the others to surround him.
Rex threw a wild punch which Samuel batted away with ease before jabbing Rex in the side of the head with his left fist. It was like punching a wall and it only seemed to piss him off.
Rex rushed forward shoulder first clearly meaning to crush Samuel against the wall. Bracing himself Samuel kicked hard, catching him in his over-sized gut. The obese monstrosity staggered back gasping for air. After that, a solid fist to the throat was enough to cause Rex to collapse. Instead of immediately attacking the others looked on seemingly stunned by Samuel's victory.
Samuel yelled a battle cry and charged the other three. With all his might he threw himself over the collapsed bully and right into Seth. The two of them toppled to the ground. Samuel rolled out of the tangle of arms and legs and got to his feet in one fluid motion. Just in time to have Tori’s fist slammed into the left side of his face. Samuel still had too much momentum and not enough balance. In a moment he was on the floor, blood oozing from a cut above his left eye.
“You’re going to get it now freak!” Tori said as the three remaining bullies stood over Samuel.
“Hay! Back off him!” A familiar voice shouted from the other end of the hall.
Samuel craned his neck to see Brian, Tess, and Demetrius. Tess wore an expression so fierce Samuel felt himself flinch. Before he knew what was happening, Tess had sprinted down the hall and gave a flying kick that caught Tori just below the breast bone. Tori tumbled backward in a heap his body only just hitting the floor as Tess slammed a fist into Seth’s gut. Seth didn’t even have a moment to gasp for air before Tess followed up with an uppercut and a right hook that connected so loud it was clear she had either broken Seth's jaw or her fist. The fight was over in an instant leaving Tess hovering over Ryan who cowered on the floor with his hands over his head.
“Please don’t hit me, I didn’t do anything I swear,” Ryan pleaded.
Samuel could see Tess had no intention of just leaving him alone.
“Stop!” Samuel heard himself yell. As much as he hated them, this wasn’t a fight it was a massacre. Tess let out a feral growl but relented.
“Alright, you punks listen up! Samuel here has a kind heart, and that’s the only reason you’re not leaving with broken bones today. But I swear if any of you lay a hand on Samuel again, I won’t be so gentle. So, I don’t want there to be a next time, and I can promise you, you don’t want there to be one either,” Tess said slamming her fist into the palm of her hand.
“Damn, Tess you are a beast. Remind me to stay on your good side,” Brian said as the bullies’ stumbled past and disappeared down the stairwell.
“I need to wash this off,” Samuel said wiping blood from his face. “Why don’t you guys come in? it’s just right here.” He said placing his non-bloodied hand to a nearby door scanner.
“No one is here right now so just make yourselves at home,” Samuel said waving them inside.
Tess looked around the cramped apartment. Maybe it was big by low caste standards, but it sure seemed small to her. The entryway, or rather lack thereof, opened directly into a living room which was actually more of an extension of the kitchen. Directly back from the entrance was a narrow hall capped with three doors at the end. Tess could see Samuel washing his hands and attempting to stop the bleeding directly ahead. So the other two would have to be bedrooms or was one just a closet. No storage room, no real sitting room or anything.
“Sheesh, I never realized how dinky these apartments were,” Brian said plopping down on a worn couch.
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” Tess said.
Taking a seat beside Brian and something hard pressed against her ribs. Reaching down she retrieved a small book from between the ragged cushions. The book was old with bits of the binding starting to flake away. She rubbed her fingers over an embossed title. She couldn’t read it. Just a subtle reminder that Samuel was not like them.
“Sorry about the wait,” Samuel said dabbing at a layer of paste above his eye.
“Don’t worry about it. I am just glad we got here when we did,” Demetrius said.
“For real. Now this way we don’t have to walk you home,” Brian added.
Samuel rolled his eyes, “Right whatever.”
Setting the book down gently Tess followed the boys as they headed back to the skimmer. She smiled watching the way Demetrius and Brian interacted with Samuel. He was one of them now, despite Brian’s Hali phobic conspiracy theories.
“Thanks for waiting,” Demetrius said to the driver as they piled in.
To which Brian rolled his eyes, “You know he gets paid whether he is driving us or just sitting here right.”
“I know, but it’s polite.”
“Samuel, have you seen the firestorm yet?” Tess asked attempting to derail an argument before it started.
Samuel shook his head, “I heard it had started but I haven’t been outside in the past few days. By the way, where is it you all are taking me again?”
“Lee Chi’s,” Tess said.
“It’s a surprise,” Demetrius said at the same time.
Demetrius looked annoyed, but really it didn’t matter. Lee Chi’s restaurant was something Samuel would need to experience to understand.
A minute later the skimmer was decoupled and the hatch above them slid open unveiling the blackness of the firestorm once more.
Tess jumped when Brian touched her shoulder. “Pretty cloud’s I know, but it’s time to eat. So how about we get off and let this good man get back to it?”
The skimmer had docked at the main entrance of Lee Chi’s with both Demetrius and Samuel waiting in the entryway, sweat already beading on their faces. Stepping from the skimmer to the entry room at Lee Chi’s was like walking into a broiler. Instantly sweat leapt out across her entire body as the hot air assaulted her.
It took only a moment and Tess saw Lee Chi’s daughter Ju running too great them. “Welcome back, who’s this?” She asked nodding in Samuel’s direction.
“This is Samuel, picked him up at the Jr. Academy,” Tess said.
“Well it’s nice to meet you, but let’s go to the lower level. It’s way too hot up here to sit around and chat,” Ju said leading them to a hatch down to a much cooler sublevel.
“Unfortunately, our upper floor is only partially shielded, so it still gets pretty hot,” Ju said in an apologetic tone.
“Pretty hot is an understatement,” Brian grumbled.
“So, Pops has you on runner duty today?” Tess asked.
Ju wiped her forehead, “More like every day. I do envy you guys getting to go off to that nice academy and train instead of being stuck here all the time.”
“You aren’t enrolled in the academy?” Samuel asked clearly surprised.
“It goes against their culture or religion or some such thing,” Brian said.
“So, your father would damn you to being an un-ascended crystal-less because of his cultural beliefs?” Samuel asked indignantly.
“You’re one to talk about cultural beliefs Halsinion,” Ju said. She nearly spat the word.
“Wow, ok break it up!” Tess said jumping in between them. Tess gave Brian a nasty glare and slugged him in the shoulder for good measure.
“What did I do?” Brian asked massaging his shoulder.
“How about you let her decide if she wants to share why she is not enrolled in the academy.”
To which Brian just walked away towards the restroom and threw up his hands.
Looking embarrassed Ju quickly found her guests a booth before scurrying off to help another table.
“Sorry about that,” Samuel said, “I didn’t mean to cause a scene with your friend over there. I am sure she is… nice.”
“You know it’s really not me you should be apologizing to,” Tess said.
Samuel smoldered a bit and shook his head. Too much Halsinion pride. Tess doubted he would actually apologize.
“So tell me, I don’t see people who look like… well like her around Central, where is she from?” Samuel asked.
“She is from beyond the rift, it’s called Ama-Rabbe-” Tess began.
“It means the mountain of light,” Demetrius said, “She is a Shinko.”
“Shinko, I have never heard of them before. Why do they live here? Instead of this mountain of light place.”
Tess felt her insides go cold and her face hardened, “She lives here because… Her father Lee Chi, he was not always a restaurant owner. He used to be a trader. He traversed the Great Rift to trade with the Imperium. On one of their trips this side of the rift, Ju’s mother got very sick. Lee was forced to sell his transport to pay for housing and all the medical expenses-”
“That’s right,” Ju said as she began setting water’s down on the table, “When my father realized that my mother, rest her soul, would need long-term medical care. He sold his trade ship and used what he had left to open this restaurant as a way to pay for the ever-increasing medical expenses. Even now there is no way in his lifetime he could pay them all, let alone save enough to restart his life as a trader. I was very young when my mother passed on from this life. Central has been the only place I have ever really known, but one day I hope I can travel beyond the waters of the rift to Ama-Rabbe. Even If just to see my birth home.”
Tess kicked Samuel under the table as Ju set down the last cup. “Samuel wasn’t there something you wanted to say to Ju?”
Samuel scowled at her, before giving a forced smile. “Sorry about the whole crystal-less thing.”
Tess winked at Ju, “Thank you Samuel,” Ju said giving a slight bow.
“So, Ju. Why is it your father won’t allow you to attend the academy?” Samuel asked tempering his tone.
Ju sighed, “It is our belief that when people die their spirits pass on and become the mist, and then they are reborn through the light in the form of a beautiful crystal. Crystals that your culture and Imperium culture use only as tools and weapons. This is not a proper way to honor your ancestors.”
Tess could see that Samuel was tempted to interject but he held his tongue.
“Menus are on the side of the table I will give you a few minutes to decide what you want,” Ju said giving a slight bow before scampering off to the next table. Samuel stared after her and shook his head.
Brian walked back to the booth and elbowed Samuel to scoot over. “I saw you looking,” Brian said smiling and elbowed Samuel again.
Samuel looked truly shocked, “What, no I wasn’t. I didn’t-”
“What, you don’t think she’s cute? Not your type perhaps?” Tess said attempting to make him blush.
“Ah, so, yeah, the soup here is really good,” Demetrius said clearly the only one being made uncomfortable by the direction this conversation was taking. “And the stir-fry too and well, well just about everything really,” He said waving a menu in Samuel’s face.
Samuel snapped up the menu and gave it a quick once over, “I’ll have the soup I guess.”
“Good choice, good Choice,” Demetrius said burying his bright red face in a menu of his own.
“Tell me Samuel,” Brian said lacing his fingers together over his chest and leaning back in his seat, “I’m interested, what’s this about Halsinions and their weird cultural beliefs?”
Samuel glared at Brian for a long moment. “They are not weird cultural beliefs. It’s history, and it’s fact. The only thing she got right was that the mist is made of energy, but people don’t end up as crystals or anything in some afterlife. The crystals are just what she said, tools, nothing more. They just happen to be imbued with special properties.”
Brian scratched his head, “Well that doesn’t sound so weird, I gotta say I’m a bit disappointed.”
“What she was probably referring to is our history. Our culture has been around much longer than yours and probably hers as well,” Samuel said. “Our world was not always like this. Long ago there was a worldwide disaster, causing the great craters like the one Central is built in. Most life died off, but the Halsinion people persisted. Our people found a place they called the cave of origins or life. People fight over the actual translation, but it’s unimportant. Anyway, that was where our race first found our crystals. Gifts given by the elder spirits, to those that survived the great cataclysm, to help rebuild the world. We were not the only people who found crystals, your race the people group now known as the Imperium found them as well but a shadow spirit, a mist wraith; an evil from before the time of the cataclysm drove out your people and they had to take refuge with us. The mist wraith raised the souls of the dead turning them into mist wraiths like itself and attacked our land. Our warriors fought them off, and eventually, fifty of our strongest warriors scoured the land for the remaining wraiths. Finally, they found them deep within The Abaddon. There they did battle, and the ferocity of it set the seven peaks ablaze, resulting in seven volcanoes which never sleep to this day.”
“And that’s what they’re actually teaching in schools?” Brian asked covering a chuckle with his hand.
Tess had to admit it sure sounded fanciful, a lot more so than the history they learned about in primary school. Demetrius, on the other hand, looked to be thoroughly engrossed in Samuel’s tail. A few moments later Ju arrived with their food, everyone except Brian had gotten soup.
Samuel looked surprised, pointing at the steaming bowl “When did I order this?”
“We ordered it for you while you were giving us a history lesson,” Tess said blowing on a steaming spoon.
“More like a mythology lesson,” Brian said.
Samuel glared at Brian for a moment before they all turned their attention to the food. Tess savored the moment, knowing it would likely be the last time they would get to truly relax until after the trial.