Alliance ch 2: Impossible for One Alone
The news lodged in Calu Mova’s heart like a blade, and excitement frothed on her tongue with a metallic flavor. She clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from squealing.
She sat on a cushion, legs stretched under a low table and a wide smile tugging at her lips. She had been with the Adjuvants for as long as she could remember, never lacking food, clothing, or shelter. They were like family.
Yet, they weren’t family. None of them shared her periwinkle skin, feathery hair, and thick physique. How often had she wondered if her mother had these same hips with a knack for knocking things from their pedestals? What did her father look like? Did she have siblings? Were her people as meticulous and picky as she strove—and failed—not to be?
No one knew the answers to those questions. According to official Alliance records, the planet called Annashu was a myth, but then, so was the planet Magni, and plenty of Magni hybrids lurked in the shadows, claimed by either Adjuvant or Aberrant.
She winked, and the page rendered by the sys clipped to her ear flipped. She couldn’t read this article fast enough, heart hammering. Was this the clue she needed to tie all her research together?
The sys beeped, and she nearly fell off her round cushion. With a hand over her heart, she released a heavy breath and blinked hard to take the call.
“This is Mova,” she whispered as her gaze raked the eight sleeping children in her charge. None of them flinched, sprawled over the suite’s couches. Dawn’s light peeked through thin curtains covering two of the room’s three walls.
“I trust you found your accommodations satisfactory.”
Mova’s breath hitched, but she forced her face to remain straight.
Calm down. So what if his voice is as smooth as butter? You can’t tell him that!
“This hotel is lovely. Thank you, Karlyn.” Good. She managed to sound normal.
“I wondered if you would meet me in the lobby and we could breakfast together.”
Mova barely managed to stop another squeal.
It’s not a date. This is official business, and he’s a Knalcal from an extremely prestigious family. Romance with me wouldn’t even cross his mind.
But he wants equality, her heart argued. He asked Izeko to introduce someone so noticeably different, exactly like me.
Logic countered, To use me in his campaigns. Just because he wants to see us as equal doesn’t mean he could ever see me as desirable.
Mova shook her head. “Let me wake the children, and we’ll be right down.”
“Don’t bother them. I’ll send up a guard to watch over the little ones, and it can be just the two of us.”
Mova’s heart exploded. Frozen fractals appeared beneath her fingers on the tabletop, but the only sound to escape was a strangled, “Yes.”
He chuckled. “Perfect. And if I may, one more favor? Would you bring the karkaek the hotel provided? They’re my favorite.”
Mova’s eyes cut to the lumpy, pink fruit sitting in a basket on the middle of the table. People ate karkaek? She thought they were only used as potpourri.
“I’ll bring them as long as you promise they won’t be the only item on the menu.”
“Don’t worry.” He laughed. “I have something special planned for you.”
The sys beeped to signal the call ended, but Mova barely registered it as the words “something special” echoed in her mind. Her gut tingled, and any thought of moving sent those inner specters on a frenzy.
But I have to hurry. I can’t keep someone so noble waiting.
As she pulled her legs in and smoothed nonexistent wrinkles from her dark Adapt suit, she again looked over the children.
They shouldn’t be such heavy sleepers. The world is too cruel to allow one so deep a trip into the land of dreams.
With a hand raised to gesture the door aside, she glanced back. Was it a good idea to leave eight Magni hybrid children in the care of purebred Knalcal guards?
Mova loved them all as if they were her own. The two Zalerits slept back to back, as of yet unable to glow. A tiny Knalcal curled on a throw pillow, three fingers eternally in her mouth. Alongside her, her amaraq drooled, jaw slack, having fallen into slumber mid-argument. Beyond him lay a dark-haired girl with brilliant silver birthmarks and a talent for breaking things. A little boy who always tried to make everyone happy pressed his spine to her feet, wrapped around a baby Tala whose scream of frustration could pierce one’s soul.
They were little monsters sometimes. Could a mere guard handle their innate chaos?
On the flip side, the Alliance government officially ignored and denied the existence of Magni, but they had been known to use or torture those they captured.
Mova shook the thoughts aside. Karlyn was Izeko’s friend, a politician, yes, but one who wanted to make things better. Progress required trust.
She opened the door and nodded to the guard outside.
The wicker floor groaned beneath her boots, and Mova tried to lighten her tread. How embarrassing it would be if she fell between the levels of this basket-like building. What a strange city this was near the southern pole of Cinos, riding on the backs of roaming giant quadrupeds. The structure swayed with the creatures’ long strides, and fear strove to stiffen her joints. Had any of the buildings ever fallen?
Had they ever hosted an ungainly, heavy-footed Annashal?
She soaked in the movement of everything around her and matched her gait to the myriad of rhythms. The dark wood of the stair rail paled at her touch. Conforming to the beat, it slowed and cooled. The spacious lobby beyond it was devoid of people, the ever-popular bar in one corner lacking even a tender.
She stilled, hand flying to the pouch on her belt and gripping two throwing discs within.
“Mova, are you here?” called that smooth voice, and she could barely keep her knees from melting as Rraklu Karlyn appeared through an arch beneath the stairway. He was young, tall, and strong featured, aquamarine eyes bright with amusement, maroon hair—the rarest color for a Knalcal—raked into loose twists hanging no lower than his ears.
“Above you,” Mova announced with more of a sigh than she intended.
He looked up, and his metallic birthmarks flashed in the angled light. “What’s wrong?”
Wrong? How does he know something’s wrong? Oh wait, the discs.
Mova lowered her hand.
“Did the delegation section off the hotel?” She tried to imbue her voice with authority, to not step back or shrink against the wall. “The Cinosals don’t want segregation. They’re tired of the Knalcals’ air of superiority. That’s why you brought me here, right?”
The sharp discs peeked between her fingers as she curled her hand into a fist to hide her tremors. She was decently covered, pants tucked into boots, sleeves meeting her wrists, and jacket zipped to her jaw, but she still felt exposed. Normally, she didn’t let any of her blue skin show.
What did Karlyn think of it? Why did he stare at her in such shocked terror?
“Why did we bring you here, out in the hallway?” a new voice mused.
Mova swiveled to face the top step, discs brought to chin level.
“So we didn’t unnecessarily disturb the children, of course,” the newcomer continued as he descended one stair. He wore a mottled gray jumpsuit, and unknown weapons lined the crisscrossing belts around his prodigious girth. “About the people, the delegation, and the whole integration thing, the negotiations fell through.” He stepped closer. “You scared them away.”
“How? Why would—”
His heel scraped the riser as he stopped only two stairs higher than her, their eyes level. “Because you died.”
Mova hadn’t heard it, hadn’t even felt it at first, but air refused to squeeze through her throat. Her lips moved without sound, widening in what should have been a scream. She flung the discs, but they bounced off a ’netic shield, useless as she clawed at her neck. Constricting wire shimmied into her skin, and sticky, magenta blood dripped down her hands.
Pain dug its claws in her, calling to chaos, and she fought it. She tried to still it, to freeze everything. A glimmer of fog wafted from her, but pain only laughed at her efforts. It ripped into her thoughts and severed all control.
She fell back and tumbled down the curved staircase. Every impact tried to beat out the useless air trapped in her lungs. The spilled karkaek sounded like a drumroll.
The woven wood of the lobby’s floor was as embers against her bruises, but Mova’s limbs no longer responded to her commands. Darkness crept from the edges of her vision, and golden sparkles blotted out portions of Karlyn’s face as he leaned over her, calling her name. His fingers against her neck felt like blow torches.
“If you manage to get that off, her head will no longer be connected to her body.” A long scarf waved in her attacker’s wake as he halted behind the Knalcal politician.
Karlyn whirled. A small, L-shaped shooter slid from his jerkin as he stood, but the gray man caught his hand and wrenched the weapon away.
Run, Karlyn! Get to safety!
But he stood there, gaping. “Why did you call me here? What do you want?”
The man smirked. “Answering all your questions sounds like a lot of work. You two, secure shiny-scale-boy.”
Two others dressed in gray jumpsuits appeared and grabbed Karlyn’s arms. He struggled until one held a large shooter to the side of his head.
Are they really monochrome, or is that just my fading vision?
Skin, hair, eyes, clothes—nothing about these invaders claimed any drop of color.
“Where do you want us to take him, Master Vlokem?”
“Back to the ship.” Vlokem knelt and loaded his pockets with the spilled karkaek. Orange welts mottled the pink fruits’ soft skin, and their syrupy scent filled the air. “The rest of you, get the kids.”
Mova screamed for her legs to listen, to curl in and launch her at this incarnation of evil, but there was only her heartbeat, loud as an avalanche and weaker with each thump. Her hands twitched, frost spreading beneath them. The glittery rime slithered toward the man’s feet.
“Too bad you missed breakfast,” Vlokem lamented as he raised a karkaek to his mouth. “These really are my favorite.”
He angled Karlyn’s tiny shooter toward her heart and toggled the trigger.
The pounding of his heart was the only thing Zeln could hear. One of the cubes hung just below his feet, and a long spike cut notches in the sides of his soles. Pain gushed through his chest, but he couldn’t make a sound. He couldn’t wrench command of his face away from the collection of o’s shock held it in.
His gaze slid up the shaft to where it pierced between the lower ribs on his right side.
It burned—not like his sore muscles or his flame punches or even his mother’s hug when he returned from a mission. This was a monster made of fire, clawing its way through him and demanding to be let out upon the world.
It was either let the pain or the heat take over, and Zeln chose heat. Flames peeked and slithered out of his skin, fighting the poor air. Oscillating light spilled into the void. In response, the spear glowed, matching the color of his blood just before the shaft snapped and he dropped.
Surprise made the flames retreat and pushed a scream from his lungs. Fingers curled into the back of his star-speckled hoodie as feet brushed his back. Boots reignited and rocketed them toward the waiting official.
Again, they wouldn’t make it. Their trajectory was too curved.
Well, I was kind of wondering what was at the bottom of this pit.
He kept his eyes trained downward. What would be revealed when darkness’ cloak was swept aside?
Stone struck his cheek and scrunched his shoulder. All his weight rested on his jacket’s hold on his armpits in a decidedly painful way.
He looked up to find Aarex with a grip on the pillar’s chevron carvings and the official peering over the platform’s edge.
Grab her hand, Zeln begged, words burning in his throat but unable to escape. Pull us up!
The official’s grin showed off his pointed teeth, their glint eerie in the light of Zeln’s dying flames. “He’s heavier than you are. Take too long to decide to drop him, and you’ll both fall.”
Aarex’s only answer was in the clack of her teeth as her jaw set. No, she couldn’t lift him in this position, but she wouldn’t give up on him.
We all believe in us, and we’re stronger for it.
Zeln’s toes scratched at the column, searching for purchase, and his hands followed their lead. His limbs shook, but they were found enough of a grip to relieve Aarex of some of his weight. As her fingers adjusted their grasp, he knew what she planned.
He jumped, and she flowed with that momentum. Throwing him higher, she scurried down, her shoulders beneath his soles as he began to fall. Again, he heeded her silent wish with a leap, and she was right there with him, scrabbling over the side of the round stone.
She rolled to her feet and faced the official. “Wherever there’s one Adjuvant, there’s always another. That’s the mantra, right? How dare you expect me to drop him.”
“The original idea behind amaraqs was that if one fell, the other could still complete the mission.” The official did not look up from his scribbles. “Nowadays, all too often, they both fall because of being too attached to one another to see the practicality of letting go.”
“That’s Aberrant thinking,” Aarex booed. “Vozin Nar invented amaraqs to complement one another. One is strong where the other is weak. We can accomplish what would be impossible for one alone.”
Zeln’s arms shook as he tried to rise. He wanted to lie face-down across the solid surface and just breathe, but the platform wasn’t wide enough for that. Besides, this was supposed to be a race.
A series of booms sounded.
At first, he thought it was his own heart, but the timing was off, spaced too far. He looked up and wished he hadn’t. If he couldn’t move, wasn’t it better not to see the huge, rolling column about to smash him? It skipped across the other platforms, dust flying up from each impact.
He tried to think light thoughts as Aarex’s fingers curled into the back of his jacket again. The column bounced on the edge of the pillar nearest theirs with a crash that ripped at his eardrums, but Zeln didn’t flinch. He trusted his amaraq.
The massive, stone cylinder glided above her beret and impacted again just behind his leg. Aarex was already in motion, towing him along. He followed her lead, knees weak but under him as they leapt.
The next platform slanted dangerously. Another cylinder struck its opposite side, and they flew. Their feet skimmed the top of the rolling column.
Onward, and the dance continued with Zeln obeying every minute tug. As Aarex directed the official with her other hand, Zeln was her stepping stool and anchor. He was barely aware of the movement, exhaustion and heat warring to take over his mind.
He stumbled, a solid foundation finally beneath his knees. The curved walls were wooden this time, twigs woven as if this were a giant basket, and still the cylinders kept coming.
He folded his legs for a leap, but they were too weak to lift his weight.
The official stood on Aarex’s other side. “What if the only way to finish this is to leave him behind?”
They ducked another column, and Zeln pushed against the wooden floor, sliding, trying to keep up, to not be a burden. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear Aarex’s answer. His wound was closed, but it still ached just below his heart. That vital organ beat too fast, pounding into that soreness. This world hated flames, hated him.
“Do you even want to place in this reorder?”
“Yes.” The word him escaped as a hiss.
“Why? No hrausq with a Blamooka member has ever placed.”
“My team will be the first then.”
Did I really say that? I like the sound of it.
Zeln forced himself to stand, muscles tired and screaming. Fire screeched louder within his veins, egging him on to go, fight, win.
“You’re willing to risk your own and your teammates’ lives to make that happen?” the official pressed.
The three of them dove and rolled under another bouncing cylinder.
“If we didn’t want to be here, we’d have opted out with the rest of the cowards and remained low-rankers,” Zeln snapped. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy. Nothing worth it ever is.”
“Yes, but being able to light aflame isn’t a very useful skill.”
Zeln’s eyes narrowed, and his heart felt like it burst as he surged to his feet. Ardor soaked through him, setting his face in a challenging scowl, both hands burning.
The wall’s woven wood crackled at his touch, twigs snapping as he pressed harder. Another cylinder approached, and he sneered at it, fist drawn back and flames flaring. His knuckles knocked against the wall, and it gave. He fell through the hole with a cascade of embers.
The wake of the passing column whipped his back, and its rumble nearly swallowed excited clapping.
Resolute on a narrow ledge that ran alongside the basket tunnel, Zeln turned to his amaraq. “It’s a shortcut.”
Continued in Chapter 3: None the Wiser
Thank you for reading!