Alliance ch 5: Demise of the Prodigy
Rifo stared agape as his amaraq leapt onto a passing ship and flew off. He blinked a couple times. Technically their part in the relay was over, but he hadn’t thought he would have to explain that jumping onto another team’s ship was not the proper way to exit the scene.
Lanox’s lilt rang across the platform. “Ya said he sounded flustered in his whispers. Maybe the official made him go insane.”
Rifo turned back to her. ‘Lanox, the official is right there and can hear ya.’
‘So, use a broadcast whisper to say things he might find offensive. Twi and I will hear it, but he’s a Lettaplexal, so he can’t.’
‘I don’t need ya explaining the universe to me, Rifo.’
He couldn’t see her. The oha’s canopy had already closed, and the metallic red hull was almost too bright to look at anyway.
The kid they had rescued broke into a run, and Rifo caught his shoulder. “Wait.”
Wincing, the kid jerked away. Rifo captured his arm, this time careful to avoid touching any injury.
“Let go of me!” Tears streamed down the kid’s face, and warmth gathered in Rifo’s own eyes, vision blurring. Sometimes Mind Talents were cumbersome.
He knelt to the kid’s height, granite cool beneath his knees. “We’re going to help yer team, so tell me where they are.”
“Why would you help us?” Sweet confusion flashed through him, overtaking some of the spite in his expression. “You Adjuvants hate us. You make no sense!”
With a sigh, Rifo pulled the kid into a tight embrace. “We don’t hate ya. We think ya are annoying, yes, and ya do things we cannot agree with, but ya are our family. Adjuvants and Aberrant are related.”
The boy squirmed, trying to twist and kick free, but Rifo’s grip was firm. He rose, lifting the child, and ran to Twi’s ship. She waited for him to leap on and brace himself against a raised tail wing before she spiraled higher, following the vehicle that carried Ekymé.
What kind of an impression had the official gotten of their team, Hrausq Seven-One-Nine? What did he really think of Zeln’s flames and shortcut? Stevalok’s sarcasm, Entrycii’s pride, and their throwing him every couple of steps?
Why had he insisted on interviewing Ekymé?
He asked the others about him, too.
Rifo shook his head, and some of his scarlet spikes of hair fell across his vision.
Ekymé has as much patience as an explosion.
“We’re related to Aylata, too,” the Aberrant kid grumbled. He had ceased trying to get away, smart enough to realize he would fall to his death if Rifo let go.
“They’re our more distant cousins, I guess. What do ya know of Aylata?”
The kid’s face scrunched. “My teacher says telling secrets to Adjuvants is like jumping off a cliff.”
Rifo sighed. “Says the boy who just fell out of the sky.”
A Tala child teetered over the edge of one of Mumir’s highest platforms. She screamed, feet stabbing empty air, and her terror sliced at Xlack’s heart. The ship he rode dashed as close as it dared, banking hard to avoid the ravine’s wall. Fighting the wind, he sprinted up a steepening wing and jumped.
“Never expect the sky to catch you,” a teacher had lectured him once. “To the wind, you are an amusing trinket unless you prove yourself its master.”
“With our Kinetics, right?” Xlack had guessed, hand raised but too impatient to wait for permission to speak. “If we use it to control the wind, can we fly?”
The answer to that was no, though the teacher had used bigger words.
Now, his Kinetics yanked at the platform’s stone, and it was a little like flying. He couldn’t have jumped this far without it. He caught the girl, cradling her as they crashed down on dark marble and plowed into a pair of legs.
As he dropped, the owner of those legs fired a dose-dart—a liquid-filled needle meant to inject, not kill. Unlike a darter, its metallic casing bowed to Xlack’s influence. He sent it into the man’s thigh, leapt to his feet, and released the girl. She retreated only a few steps behind him, hands lifted in loose fists and stance solid.
She’s had training, too.
The man already rose, eyes unfocused as he took aim. Light glinted off a pond in the middle of the platform, undulating over the deep gray of his skin and the too-familiar sigils on his Adapt jumpsuit. With a click, his ammunition switched.
Xlack snatched at the weapon, but it refused his Kinetic call.
The soft ping of a released exa-darter rang in his ears, and he dodged left. He stayed low, caught a physical grip on the shooter’s barrel, and yanked. A kick came at his side, but he stepped back and captured the man’s boot. A spin flung his foe at the pond.
The platform boasted little aside from this water feature. Potted plants littered the space, and a thick column in each of the five corners held the ceiling and floor together.
Across the pool, a Knalcal leaned against one of the these. A scarf covered the lower half of his face, and shining birthmarks seemed to drip from the mask burned into the skin around his eyes—a battoo, a mark of adulthood for Aberrant. This one resembled roaring flames, and his wild hair’s asymmetrical slant added to the idea of an explosion.
Azin, the first Aberrant he had met.
The kids must have been with him, but why would they come to the main Adjuvant base? What was he doing here, staring down two men in the mottled gray jumpsuits of Napix troopers?
Xlack started toward them, eyes widening. Those were Napix troopers, down to the sigils identifying their rank and legion. One remained motionless, gaze and aim locked on Azin. The other whirled and fired.
Xlack dove. The pond stilled beneath his step, but ice wasn’t as instant as he hoped. His right leg submerged to his knee before the water solidified in an expanding sheet.
Luminous exa-darters sliced through the ice and exploded some distance below. If only they had stuck with the dose-darts he could control. The laser-shields protecting these faster projectiles were just as beyond his influence as the morphometal was.
Tugging his foot free, he somersaulted. His heels splashed into the pool, and ice locked them in place. He leapt anyway, stretching full-length across the pond’s surface, and it froze under him. Rolling, he grabbed the morphometal shooter from the first man’s sinking hand.
On his feet, he took aim, finger hovering over the trigger. Aylata didn’t shoot troopers. Adjuvants didn’t use shooters.
Aberrant had no qualms about either. Azin wrangled a weapon from his attackers and fired, but the dose-dart had no effect on the trooper. With as impaired as the Aberrant seemed, he wouldn’t figure out how to switch ammunitions.
Dread sunk its molten claws into Xlack’s gut. If the drug didn’t work on the troopers but it did on Azin, he had a horrible suspicion what it was.
His finger curled against the trigger.
A hand clutched his ankle and yanked him backward. As he splashed into the water, burning muscle gripped his wrists and trapped his arms behind him. A kick between his shoulder blades wrung air from his lungs, and his stolen shooter hurried off to find the bottom of the pond.
He returned the kicks, but he wouldn’t allow instinct to match his attacker’s heat. He forced his temperature to lower, to take the energy he sapped from the water and hoard it. It wanted to be chaos. He molded it into a motionless dance.
Questions sought to distract him. The sigils on his opponent’s shoulders touted allegiance to the hundred-and-fifth legion of Yakru, but they said nothing of rank. This man wasn’t a trooper. Though he wore no scarf, cape, or clan embroidery to reveal his caste, his Fire Talent spoke in their stead.
This was an Aylata.
Despite the cold, he held on tight. Myriads of bubbles waltzed through the pond’s slushy state and twirled with their thrashing kicks. Xlack wrenched one wrist free and twisted to face his attacker. In the flickering light from the surface, the dull chrysolite of the Fire Aylata’s eyes effervesced.
Had he known Xlack had Mind Talents, he would not have let their gazes meet, but how could he have guessed? Xlack had already shown his Kinetics and Ice. By the time he noticed the third Talent, he couldn’t look away. His frustration was a simple string wrapping itself around Xlack’s Mental fingers.
Neither of them could breathe here underwater. Silent suggestions were exponentially more difficult and dangerous, but this had to end quickly. Xlack gathered all the strands of their desperation, wound them around the cord, and yanked.
The Fire Aylata’s eyes slid shut.
Xlack towed him to the pond’s edge and left him strung over the side like a discarded fish. Azin lay nearby, a limp arm across his chest. He didn’t appear injured, but if the drug was what Xlack suspected, he wouldn’t.
Except, the drug Xlack knew wouldn’t have killed him, not in such small quantities. He should only have been comatose, but Azin wasn’t breathing, and his life-signature had faded almost beyond detection.
At the edge of the platform, a trooper limped away, and the Tala girl lay slack in his arms. Xlack reached toward them, Kinetics shoving at the trooper’s jumpsuit. As the man backpedaled over empty air, Xlack’s influence found a grip on the girl’s non-Adapt belt and towed her to the safety of his embrace.
A glider’s wings unfolded from the trooper’s pack, and he swooped away. The other snatched the Fire Aylata and did likewise.
Xlack watched, gulping air. At least he had managed to save the kids, but as the troopers shrank in the distance, his sightline fell to Azin. Why had any of them been here? Was he a teacher, a sutae charged with raising Magni hybrid children?
“You said you were going to help him!” The Knalcal boy charged across the platform, seeping a noxious combination of frustration and fear. It was a horde of flaming arrows. They shouted his intention before he pulled a silver circle from his pocket and snapped it open.
Xlack couldn’t see the color of the Aqkashi’s searing tendrils. He never could if they were anything other than silver. They were merely a slight distortion of what lay behind them, arranged in the shape of a narrow whisk that extended from either side of the handle, ends broken and pointed. Yet, their heat still bathed his skin, promising to shred it if they came any nearer. They pulsed in tune with what had been Azin’s life-signature.
Holding the girl to his chest, Xlack caught the boy’s hand and stilled the weapon. The child’s wrist fit easily between his fingers, all attempts to yank free inconsequential. A squeal escaped as he met Xlack’s gaze.
The boy collapsed over his teacher.
Rifo knelt alongside Azin, and two fingers pressed against the Aberrant’s neck confirmed what Xlack already knew.
“I’d have rather gotten some answers from him.”
Xlack agreed, questions an avalanche within. He deactivated the Aqkashi and pocketed it. “He’s dead, Rifo. He can’t answer anything.”
“I meant from the kid. We should call an official.” He stood, spikes of hair wild in the breeze as he tapped the sys clipped to his ear.
Xlack’s attention dropped back to Azin, eyes narrowing as if answers were written on the dead man, readable to anyone who bothered to look hard enough. Why had Napix troopers attacked him? What was the drug that killed him?
Call ended, Rifo knelt again. “He looks familiar, but I don’t remember his name.” He gestured at the scar on Azin’s left hand, scaled silver like his Knalcal birthmarks but thicker. A caricature of fire had been carved into him at a young age. “He was true-talent, apparently. To be branded so is considered an honor among Aberrant, though it must hurt like swallowing a pooff whole.”
Xlack didn’t get the analogy. Pooff were creatures that appeared to be about the size of his fist, but seventy-five percent of that mass was fluff. Still, most idioms that included pooff were equated with unpleasant experiences.
“Did ya see who killed him?”
“Yeah.” But Xlack didn’t feel like telling Rifo. Not yet.
“I feel like all this verbiage is a deliberate attempt to avoid telling me something,” the official grumbled, chin in hand.
“I’m simply answering yer question.” Lanox sat at the official’s feet in the back of the oha, cascades of golden-silver curls as radiant as her smile. “Now, where was I? Right, so the basic Adjuvant unit is a dyad, a pair assigned together before age two called amaraqs, usually not of the same race. Four pairs of amaraqs close in age are collected in hrausqs with one member termed hrausq leader.
“Hrausqs also have sutaes who are younger than the rest of the group. They’ll teach future generations. Sutaes don’t have amaraqs, and they don’t compete in the reorder.”
“I asked your opinion of this competition. Telling me things about our organization that a toddler should know doesn’t answer that at all.”
“Hush, I’m getting there.” Lanox wagged a finger. “One of the Adjuvant founders said it was a leader’s duty to bring order to chaos and that he would do so to the advantage the world. So, the reorder competition is a way of organizing chaos. Every fifty years, it shuffles the hierarchy, so ya always know who will be best for what job at what time.”
“Oh good, you paused. Are you through?”
“I just want to say I think it’s wonderful and thank ya so much for this opportunity.” She bowed, folding over her crossed legs. “Ya know we were an incomplete hrausq just a little while ago, and Ekymé’s not the most conventional replacement member, so we almost didn’t get to compete.”
In the pilot’s seat back to back with the official, Twi stiffened. Distorted and backward reflections of her passengers hovered in the windows all around her, and what they failed to reveal, her ’netic senses filled in.
“I see,” the official drawled, twang thick. “Do you want to win, or is simply competing enough?”
I want to win, Twi thought as Mystis’ words rang fresh in her head. My pet hrausq will not fail.
“Ya insult yer competitors if ya don’t try,” Lanox responded. “Simply being there should never be enough.”
Twi tugged the steering staves to the right, and the oha yawed, red flashing on all sides. The sky dazzled with colored rings. Compact, gray spheres invisible against the pre-dawn horizon shot to a programmed height and twirled into widening hoops. Once fully open, they shrunk down again and exploded in one last cascade of color.
The red ones marked Twi’s course, matching both her oha’s hull and her outfit.
Sep would have blamed Mystis for setting up that coincidence.
She shook her head, chiding herself for letting her mind stray to their fallen teammate. That distraction would only bring tears and an inability to act as she must.
He was a difficult image to shake, though.
“What are ya writing?” Lanox’s rushed lilt helped ground her in the moment, and the official’s twang contrasted her melody.
“I ask the questions, not you.”
“Why would ya write that?”
“Do not mock me. I did not say that was what I wrote.”
“Then share what ya did write.”
“You are not to give me orders either.”
Lanox bit her lip. “Ya would like to share what ya wrote. Hey, ya just wrote my name!”
Twi banked a sharp right and rolled through a crimson ring as it spun open. The official’s fingernail scratched across the note square and came close to Lanox’s face before he righted himself.
“Can you not fly straighter?”
“Twi doesn’t miss things,” Lanox countered with a challenging grin, “but if ya are a baby who can’t handle the ride, ya should have told us so we could have wrapped ya up tight in the cargo hold.”
‘Twi, ya have to see this look he’s giving me,’ she added, sending a flash with the scene from her eyes. The official’s brows furrowed so far they met, pulsating with every beat of his heart and hovering above his nose like a fuzzy creepy-crawly.
Twi held in a chuckle, lips pressed against one another.
“Pilot,” the official called, and her amusement broke, corners of her mouth sagging, “why did you decide to fly an oha in this competition?”
Great question. The vehicle only had two seats, and sitting at the official’s feet, Lanox hardly won them any favor. Also, oha were an unknown to the public, sure to generate a myriad of rumors since this portion of the relay was on display as an air show sponsored by the Knalcal queen.
Again, she shook her head, this time hard enough that her plethora of dark braids fanned over her shoulder. “I chose what was familiar to me.”
“When Twi flies, the oha is an extension of her,” Lanox praised. “It does exactly what she wants. Ya can write that down.”
“Do you usually choose the familiar, always shying away from the unknown?”
Lanox’s mirth waned, leaving the air a little colder. “Twi doesn’t shy away from anything.”
“You, nosy Tala, may answer when I ask questions about you.”
“Then ask questions about me.”
Twi agreed. Lanox was always ready with a multitude of words, and Twi was busy. Why insist on distracting her with these frivolous queries?
A scarlet flash shot in front of their left wing. Pulling into an upward arc, Twi flipped the oha upside-down to take them through the opening circle. She spun, rolled right-side-up, and dashed through the same hoop from the correct direction as it spiraled closed.
She smiled, scanning the panorama of flashing hues as the official’s question waltzed through the corridors of her mind. Did she shy away from the unknown? Did Lanox?
Lanox appeared to be inquisitive, but her impatience did not usually allow her to dig for deep answers, leading her instead to rash conclusions she held as fact. When such were proven undeniably wrong, she threw them aside easily, but often her staunch belief in her own intuition caused the assumption to become truth.
It was these occasions that made Lanox’s quick acceptance of Sep’s death so disturbing. Just because she believed something didn’t make it true, but it made it more likely—made it possible.
Uncertainty fueled Twi’s nightmares. What if he still waited for her?
“I await your answer, Twi. Do you always shy away from the unknown?”
No trace of her smile remained.
It is easier to look at others than yerself, Master Myr had once warned her, but that is not how the Tala Talents work. Ya must recognize and know how to use yer emotions before ya throw them at others.
She sighed, voice soft. “The unknown remains unknown until sought out and faced by someone.”
“You realize that.” Mockery crept into the official’s tone. “Just, you would rather that someone not be you.”
The edge of Twi’s lips quirked upward. “If I let others take the tasks set before me, then I would not be here now. That is the demise of the prodigy.”
Like dawn, Lanox’s grin returned. “Twi believes she can do anything.”
“Do you share her overconfidence?” The official leaned over her. “Do you also so rashly believe Twi can do anything?”
Lanox hesitated, a finger tapping her lips. “I know Twi can do whatever she believes she can.” She sent a worried glance at the back of her amaraq’s seat. It did not go unnoticed.
The oha dove, spinning through yet another red ring, and the official returned to scribbling.
Continued in Chapter 6: Insanity Thrives
Thank you for reading!