Alliance ch 9: Dumbest Mission Ever
Dumbest. Mission. Ever.
Lorm Spycykle dropped another shovelful of soil into a sample tube. Excitement and adventure waited out there, along with someone strong and clever enough to kill the highest-ranking Aylata, and he was stuck out on desolate Magni looking at dirt.
They told him what he was doing was important. He was supposed to be looking for any sign of life that might have survived Magni’s untimely end or a microbe that would explain why Magni genetics made a body produce Talent-evoking chemicals, but he couldn’t even see that stuff. He had to look in a microscope, and that was beyond boring.
At least everyone else banished here had enthusiasm for their project, and they were thrilled to have an Aylata Defender helping them. He couldn’t believe most of them had volunteered to be here.
“This one will be the one!” the prime example of such a volunteer announced as he put a seal on a sample tube, voice distorted by the mic in his hazardous environment suit. “We’ll find what we’re looking for in this hunk of dirt. I can feel it!”
Skepticism sparked in Spycykle’s gut. Did this random guy have Kinetic Talents? Could he actually feel living things in that dirt? He highly doubted it, unless something weird had happened to these guys here on Magni.
That thought just made him want to get out of there even more.
Definitely the dumbest mission ever. There has got to be some way off this dirt ball.
Shaking powdered grime from his feet, he trudged toward the research compound, a squat web of domes against a backdrop of craggy mountains and a too-brilliant horizon. The colors here were supposed to be spectacular. Too bad he only saw it as a smear of grays. Color was evil anyway.
Just inside the airlock, a Messenger waited.
Spycykle caught the tossed datapad, hoping this wasn’t some malicious joke and it didn’t have a bomb in it. His personal datapad had been confiscated. For six months, he had been stuck here with these microbe huggers without the ability to call anybody or surf the dataseas. “What’s this for?”
“You’re supposed to call Emperor K’alaqk.” The Messenger picked a piece of lint from his dark scarf and dropped it on the floor. Spycykle’s eyes tracked it. One of the microbe huggers was going to have a conniption.
“I could just knock you out, take your Oha, and run.”
“Wouldn’t work. My Oha won’t accept commands without my fingerprints.”
Spycykle shrugged. “I could steal your fingers, too.”
“You’d use your Kinetics to tweak the computer’s reading the exact way I do?” Another fuzzy bead released into the wild. The dude wasn’t even looking at him. An attack would be easy, but he had a point. Spycykle didn’t have Kinetic Talents. Supposedly, he had no Talents whatsoever.
With another shrug, he looked at the datapad. “K’alaqk’s address programmed into this thing?”
“It’s programmed to do nothing other than call him, so I’d assume so.” The Messenger accepted a warm cup of SuperCaff off a tray presented to him. “There’s only one button on the screen. Just press it.”
He did, and after the third beep, Revel K’alaqk answered. “Some suspected you would attempt to run before you actually called.”
“Maybe I missed you.” He allowed his eyes to roll. K’alaqk couldn’t see him through the audio-only call, and the Messenger’s opinion didn’t matter.
“Set creepiness aside, Spycykle. I have news.”
“Regarding a more dazzling mission than sifting dirt?”
“Regarding evidence that Ject Sirvette lives.”
“Does that mean I get to go home?” If the answer was no, he didn’t want to hear it. “Where’s he been?”
“Hiding from us.”
“It’s not hard to hide from me, stuck on this hunk of rock.”
K’alaqk sighed. “That ‘us’ does not include you, Spycykle. I do, however, have a task for you. It will take you to Tsira.”
Excitement fluttered in his chest. It was a trip to Tsira that had gotten him in trouble in the first place. Though the charges included other things like stealing morphometal for his own use instead of bringing it straight to the capital, his greatest mistake had been allowing Ject Sirvette to die, Tsira’s precious fluke. Now, apparently, he wasn’t dead.
Land-wise, Tsira was the largest of the five Napix territories, encompassing nearly all of the planet Zalerit. Chances weren’t high that this mission had anything to do with Sirvette or Xlack Ekymé, Tsira’s other treasured heir, but he hoped it did.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Bring Ject Sirvette’s younger sister, Aalee, to Reiceilako District, unofficially.”
Though K’alaqk still couldn’t see him, he saluted, the traditional, finger-splayed gesture spanning from ear to cheek but performed with less snap and more flare than the Unwanted strove for. “Consider it done.”
“The Messenger will arrange your transportation. I hope you were nice to him.”
The Messenger smirked, and Spycykle had a bad feeling he would ride in a cargo hold.
‘If I trip over any part of this outfit, you’re not allowed to laugh at me,’ Xlack whispered.
‘That statement only guarantees my laughter.’
According to Xlack’s Kinetic senses, Rifo leaned against a wall in a narrow, curved hallway, staring in the general direction of one of the many closed doors. Xlack was in the room beyond, ushered through the entrance by their resident fashion expert, Pongoi, a bag of formal attire shoved in his arms. At the same time, Rifo had been tossed a similar bag and directed through the door across the hall.
‘Time ran away, and I think it stole my patience.’
‘Don’t blame me. Blame the myriad of buttons Pongoi put on here,’ Xlack shot back. ‘It’s taking me forever to figure out what goes where!’
‘So, ya don’t have a problem with a myriad of straps, but buttons are yer weakness?’
Xlack opened the door. “Your outfit also looks like a tripping hazard. That makes me feel slightly better.”
Shoving off the wall to stand upright, Rifo grunted. “Ya insult my ability. I am as graceful as a pooff king, a creature who floats without wings, and also, if ya make him late so that there’s no food left when he gets to the party, will eat ya.”
Rifo strode down the hall, ankle-length coat swishing. Straps in sets of three curved around his ribs and shoulders and encircled his belled sleeves at the wrists.
Xlack scrambled to keep up with his long strides. “Please tell me this outfit at least looks cool, because I don’t think I can even reach my nose.”
Giving him barely a glance, Rifo shrugged. Their outfits had similar silhouettes, but Xlack’s coat had two layers, the outer velvet and the inner soft silk. The latter stretched longer, folded back, and buttoned down to form cuffs. A cape of the same materials hung over his left arm, fastened by three cords looped around his right side. It reminded him too much of an Aylata Defender’s mark of rank.
“Pongoi didn’t even tell me what colors it had,” Xlack lamented, inspecting his sleeves.
“The silk is red, and the velvet’s gray.”
“Red? Can you send me a memory flash so I can see it?”
“No.” Rifo shook his head. “Ya are getting addicted to that. If ya like seeing in color all that much, ya should learn to see it for yerself. Or get a Zalerit to teach ya how to feel color.”
Xlack flinched. “I’m not that desperate.”
‘Help!’ Teree cried in a broadcast whisper.
‘What’s wrong?’ Rifo responded in like manner, suspicion throwing his gaze around the hall. Teree was hidden in one of the rooms provided for them to change.
‘Entrycii swiped my fancy pants! They’re not in my bag!’
‘How do ya know it was Entrycii?’
‘He left a note square in the bag with the first clue for a treasure hunt. He probably hid my pants in the cake!’
‘Just wear your normal pants,’ Xlack said.
‘Pongoi would disapprove.’
‘Pongoi doesn’t rule your life.’
Petulance enfolded Teree’s reply. ‘Are ya wearing exactly what Pongoi told ya to?’
Of course, after the enigmatic lecture Mystis had given him concerning hidden messages in fashion and not offending the Knalcal queen. But how could he word that so he wouldn’t sound like a hypocrite?
Zeln sauntered by, Aarex trotting alongside him.
“Zeln,” Rifo called, “give Teree his pants back.”
“How’d you know it was me?” Zeln squealed, defensive stance reminding Xlack of a startled lyoko. Aarex paled, ready to run.
“Ya reek of mischievousness. Now hurry up.”
Zeln crossed his arms. “No. I worked hard on that puzzle, and he has to solve it first.”
Rifo leaned close. “Zeln, I know yer secret.”
Zeln’s dark eyes doubled in size, and he retreated a pace. “You overheard me say that in confidence.”
“Then have confidence that if ya don’t listen to me, I will confidently tell Lanox exactly what yer secret is.”
Zeln’s surprise fell into a glare, as if his thoughts alone were capable of impaling Rifo. “Aarex, you know where we hid the pants. Go get them for Teree. I’ll follow Rifo and make sure he keeps his big Tala mouth shut.”
With a nod, Aarex scampered off, and Rifo resumed his fast pace toward the ballroom.
‘So, what is this secret?’ Xlack asked.
Rifo looked back at him with a subtle grin. ‘No clue, but I was sure Zeln had one.’
Because we all have secrets, Xlack recalled his Mind Talent mentor saying once, but he didn’t share the sentiment aloud.
Thinking of secrets and unknowns summoned worry for a return visit. Just what had he interrupted on Mumir’s hanging sidewalks?
‘Rifo, do you think Aberrant will show up at tonight’s celebration?’
Rifo quirked an eyebrow. ‘If ya had to boil down what ya have learned of the Aberrant into one sentence, what would ya say?’
‘The Aberrant stick their greedy, sneaky, powerful hands into everything, and they always know the worst time to show up.’
‘Not an eloquent tagline, but accurate,’ Rifo acknowledged. ‘They’ve even slithered their way onto a seat in the Conglomerate and crammed the Alliance government into their strong grip.’
‘But I thought the common people didn’t believe in our existence, that Magni are only legends.’
‘There have always been observant people who know of us, and most of those in high station want to use us or take us apart to find out how we work. But, while I’m sure there are still plenty who would gladly dissect us, the Aberrant have thrown a new card on the pile.’
‘The cards are figurative moves, and the pile represents history as remembered by the public.’
‘Then just say that.’
Rifo sighed. ‘The Aberrant are making it more and more obvious Magni exist, and if they come out of their shell of incongruity, we have to as well or risk making enemies of the government we work in the shadows of. That’s why we’re here at this party.’
Right. Rifo had already told Xlack that the two top-placing teams in the reorder would form a new Unit One and they always had a formal ceremony with the Knalcal queen because of some super-secret pact the Adjuvants had with her. But that would happen later. The queen was this party’s host, but this was all a show for Alliance dignitaries.
‘All this considered, what do ya conclude about the likelihood of Aberrant visitors?’ Rifo quizzed.
‘They’ll hardly accept their lack of formal invitation as meaning they weren’t invited.’
Rifo nodded. ‘Therefore, yer worry has reason. Yet we rarely have no reason for worry, and this is a party. Try to have fun.’
On the highest level of the queen’s Visiting Tower on the cliffs above Mumir, the heavy door to the ballroom cracked and slid aside with the grating hiss of stone on stone. Despite Rifo’s concern, the banquet tables lining the walls were still replete with food, and he wandered off toward one.
Partygoers in all their finery mingled and chatted. Shallow domes graced the ceiling three stories above the polished floor and played with the sound of the crowd, tugging the blend of voices into a wavering buzz. As if playing harmony, chandeliers chimed, swaying in a strong, heavily perfumed breeze.
Regardless of the ample space—thrice as long and wide as it was tall, with arched hallways, alcoves, and balconies extending beyond every wall—there was not a place to stand where one wouldn’t be close to someone else.
As a Refraction Leader’s son and a Ravi, Xlack was accustomed to state gatherings where strangers all pretended to know one another. On those occasions, he had been able to discern the identity of most faces and determine the reason for their attendance. This crowd was a blur of details he didn’t know the meaning of. Did the massive, shredded feather in one woman’s hair have any significance, or was it mere decoration? What about the fuzz pasted beneath a gentleman’s nose?
He didn’t trust any of these strangers, and that put a damper on his party mood.
He searched the crowd for Napix life-signatures, finding none.
The word “Congratulations!” soon rang in his head.
“We’re keeping score,” Stevalok told him. He and Entrycii were also dressed in long coats, as were most of the men here.
“I’m winning,” Entrycii bragged.
“You cheated!” Stevalok’s punched his amaraq’s arm. “You told those two Tala girls to see which one could say ‘congratulations’ more times in the least amount of time.”
Entrycii smirked. “Don’t be jealous of my cleverness. Come up with something better. If you can.”
Xlack grumbled, “Well, ‘congratulations,’ has been said to me now fifty million times.”
“Dude, you need to hear Rifo’s speech on obvious exaggeration,” Stevalok said with a reproving hand on Xlack’s shoulder.
Lanox pranced by, soaking up attention like a dehydrated sponge, and though Xlack still thought his formal attire was a tripping hazard, he had to admit hers was even more so. Her bell-shaped dress ended at her knees in the front while dragging the ground behind her, platinum linked-circles forming a net over softer, near white fabric. This outer layer chimed with her movements, the perfect sound effect for her beaming smiles.
A dozen media men trailed her, having already given up on getting a picture of Twi, who, with a subtle command, melted any recorder that tried. Xlack wondered where she had run off to.
“Congratulations!” a Tala woman giggled, throwing her arms out for a sloppy hug.
He scrambled back, fake smile transforming into a sour frown.
Concern dripping from her bulbous features, the congratulator asked, “What’s the matter, Ekyou?”
Great. Another person who couldn’t correctly remember his name—the most famous name on Napix.
“Yo, manners review!” Rifo dragged Xlack back by his shoulders. He smelled of hot sauce and fruity liquor. As Xlack flailed to keep his balance, Rifo placed himself between his amaraq and the enthusiastic party guest. “Do ya hug Knalcals?”
Her face twisted in a grimace. “No, they go all apocalyptic!”
Rifo grinned and gestured around the room. “Knalcal party.”
The woman made an annoyed noise and stomped away.
“Just keep smiling, buddy. It’s almost over,” Rifo murmured.
Xlack tried, but he was sure his enthusiasm looked less real than the painted-on eyebrows of the older woman flirting with Stevalok. He stood alone in a crowded room, awkward grin shying people away from him, and that thought almost made his smirk genuine.
Such a powerful shield—a fake smile.
Or maybe it was how that grin showcased his scabbed lip. He healed quickly. The wound would be gone in a couple hours, but for now he couldn’t hide where that Zalerit from the winning team had punched him.
Another who didn’t fit drew his gaze. Also Zalerit, according to his life-signature, but the cowl of an ochre cloak shadowed his face. Xlack stepped toward him, smirk gone, but Lanox stopped him with a tug on his arm.
“Yer constant paranoia is freaking me out! Just try to have fun.”
He nodded, pulling away from her and turning back to the suspicious Zalerit, but the cloaked stranger was gone.
From across the room, Terkis stared at Xlack Ekymé, face impassive. Four Adjuvant leaders stood together, three in formal attire. Stella wore her norm. All this pomp and decoration was preposterous.
Qcoice nudged Terkis. “You watched that Napix boy the whole time.”
His eyes flicked to her. “I do not like him being here, and now he’s in Unit One.”
Nodding, Myr, rubbed his gray-bearded chin, voice so soft, Stella had to step closer. “When we accepted him, we thought he would bring us an alliance with the Aylata.”
Terkis snatched a drink from a passing tray and downed it. “Harboring him is worsening their impression of us.”
“You don’t know that,” Stella countered, “and we can’t let him go. He holds information we wouldn’t want the Aberrant to acquire instead.”
Again, Myr nodded. “He is also very protective of Navaria Twi.”
“He’s too attached to her.” Terkis threw down his crystalline cup, but Stella ’nectically caught it and returned it to a tray. “He should not be on her team.”
“No other team would accept him as well,” Qcoice argued.
Stella agreed. “He fills a hole in Hrausq Seven-One-Nine.”
“However, he is not Tyko Sep,” Myr admitted. “Twi needs to understand that. Ya should speak with her, Stella.”
Qcoice grinned, sharp teeth peeking over her lower lip. “Yes, you’ve been avoiding her long enough.”
Stella felt her cheeks flush. “I have not been avoiding her.”
“Discounting your presence at his initial interview, you have not even formally met this Napix teammate of hers.”
Hidden in her sleeves, her fists curled. “Twi is no longer an infant that needs my constant supervision.”
“Yet, she still needs yer guidance.” Myr stepped forward, not quite too close, but standing on the border of Stella’s strict line of personal space. “She needs to understand the distance she must keep from this Aylata.”
Stance too stiff, she folded into a bow. “I shall do as you ask.”
I’ve always done exactly what they asked, and hasn’t it paid off? I’m in Unit One. It’s such an honor, the highest position for any Adjuvant team. So why can’t I smile?
Twi stood on a balcony of the Queen’s Visiting Tower, staring at the starry sky, fists clenched. She wanted to be happy, to celebrate with her team and mentors, but emptiness gnawed at her insides.
Sep should have been here. It wasn’t fair.
This guilt hung heavily. It pulled down on her heart and the corners of her lips. Smiling felt wrong. Her eyes fell to the golden glow of Tala on the horizon.
Yet, if Sep were here, a piece of her argued, we would not have Ekymé.
She chided herself for this thought, too.
You cannot love him. You bring danger to those you care about. You can only protect so many.
She assured herself Tyko Sep could not be dead. The thought of him ceasing to exist was too cruel to be reality, but she had replaced him anyway. In so doing, it was as if she, the last one holding onto him, his last lifeline, had let go.
She felt alone, and it was terrifying.
But she was no longer alone on the balcony. Ekymé approached from behind, the heat of his hand close to her shoulder. He was always so warm, even warmer than Tala. The Knalcal part of her cringed. Did he, too, have Fire Talents like those of Zeln?
His hand paused, then pulled back. He knew she knew he was there and she would slide away from his touch. She always did.
“Are you upset we came in second?”
Twi shook her head.
“You’re upset about something.”
She carefully tucked away all thoughts of Sep. “We’re part of Unit One now. Our lives will be different.”
“In a good way.” He said it not quite like a statement, but it wasn’t a question either.
Finally turning, she put on a shallow smile for him. “We’ll be involved in the deepest mysteries of the Alliance. I worry for the safety of my team.”
His brows drew together, nearly concealed in his mess of pale curls. “That’s why we had this reorder contest, right? To see if we’re up to it? We’ll be fine.”
Before she could give in to the impulse to brush those curls out of his face, she looked back to the sky, a hidden laugh turning into a smirk. He looked at things so simply sometimes.
When he swallowed his words, arms hesitantly moving to wrap around her, she let the corners of her lips sink again.
He settled for leaning against the balcony’s rail. “I’ll protect you, Twi. No matter where they send you, I’ll come for you.”
The vow yanked her gaze back to him. For so long, she had childishly viewed her hrausq as invincible. As Mystis’ two agents, she and Sep had been chosen to go to Kelis because they could handle it. When things had gone horribly wrong, she expected to go back for him. Hadn’t she promised as much?
But the leaders had said no. They had abandoned him, these people she had been so sure would always make the right decisions. Now, she took their orders but not with the view that everything would work out just because they said it would.
The Twi of the past had always gone into a mission believing there would be a way out. Now, she did not believe they would do everything possible to ensure she returned home.
She believed in Xlack Ekymé, though. No matter what the leaders said, he would find her. He would drag Rifo and the rest of her team with him. He was a force against order and obedience, and the leaders could not tolerate that for long.
“We must all do as we’re told,” Twi whispered, “even if it means forgetting about someone.”
His face tightened, one eye narrowing more than the other. “Watching that first round of shymgo was torture, not being able to help you. I don’t want to lose you, Twi. You’re precious to me.” His stare had the touch of a million needles.
She shook her head. “Precious and fragile are two separate things. Consider symarr as an example.”
He had been the one to describe these hard, clear rocks to her, these gemstones carved from the hearts of dead stars. Symarr were the most precious jewels on Napix, yet they were harder than nearly all other natural materials.
“Symarr also appear to be clear.” He shifted, his unease like insectile feet scurrying across her shoulders. “But they’re impossible to accurately see through.”
“You’re not so easy to see through either.” She fought the urge to look at him. He wanted to touch her. The desire was a flickering flame in the stroke of his gaze. She couldn’t encourage that behavior. “There are questions you avoid answering, like why you really came here.”
“I came to the Alliance because K’alaqk told me to.” He stayed where he was, but he wanted to step closer.
Twi bit her lip. “You left without doing what he had ordered.”
He shrugged. “I recovered the Isike.”
“And you came back to the Alliance.”
“To bring you home. To save you.” The distance between them shrunk.
“Then you stayed.” She finally looked directly at him. “Why did you stay?”
Why did I stay?
Xlack had saved Twi because he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Saving her was right, though doing so meant he couldn’t go home. But why stay? Why work so hard to be part of an organization that distrusted him for what—not who—he was?
Because Twi needed him. Because after a life of being told he would be something great or accomplish this or that spectacular feat and having all that ripped from his fingertips, he needed someone to know he was still here and worth something. Someone who could and would rely on him, no matter how much she pushed him away.
That last was the challenge of it all, he supposed.
Twi wasn’t bad to look at either, especially when she smiled. She was fancied up like everyone else at this party. Braids and bandanas hung from her twintails, crisscrossing to form seven curved arrowheads pointing at the ground. As if heeding that direction, a soft suede shirt dripped off either shoulder.
He questioned his choice not to embrace her. Rifo’s recent advice on not hugging Knalcals rang fresh in his mind, but Twi was only part Knalcal. She was within arms’ length. All he had to do was reach out.
His hands rose. “I stayed because you asked me to.”
“Greetings, Master Stella,” Twi said quickly, and Xlack froze.
“Greetings,” Stella responded as she joined them on the balcony. “I thought it past time I was properly introduced to your newest hrausq member.”
Turning to face the Adjuvant leader, he extended his hand.
Stella stood motionless. Billowing wraps and scarves concealed every part of her except for the galactic swirl of her eyes. “You have been quite influenced by Tala.”
As part of a low-ranking hrausq, he had mostly been assigned missions within a short distance of his home base near Vlavaran, Tala. Of course he defaulted to the local custom’s handshake greeting.
“Tala is where I live.”
“Where you lived,” Stella corrected.
To Twi, he whispered, ‘Knalcal greeting?’
She sent him a memory flash, first of Sep, then abruptly another of Entrycii. He mimicked their motions, crossing his forearms, then shins to form two X’s and bowing deeply from the waist.
Returning with a curtsy, Stella also formed the two X’s, but hers were crossed the opposite way, with her left arm closest to her instead of her right. Was that a gender thing, or had he just done it wrong?
She straightened. “Know me as Lulii Stella.”
“Master Stella is my sutae,” Twi added. “She taught me nearly everything I know.”
“I’m honored to make your acquaintance,” he recited, glad Twi hadn’t picked up her habit of hiding her form. Beneath all that fabric, was Stella just as beautiful?
“An honor for both of us. You are now members of Unit One. Rruugavoj.”
‘What’s Rruugavoj?’ Xlack questioned.
“Thank you, Master,” Twi responded aloud as she answered Xlack. ‘A word from a language native to Knalz’s southernmost continent, probably.’
‘Do we just assume Rruugavoj means congratulations?’
Her reply had a laugh attached to it. ‘At least she didn’t actually say congratulations. That word is starting to annoy me.’
“How extremely rude,” Stella said, tone sharp.
Twi flinched and hastily apologized. Xlack couldn’t see most of Stella’s expression, but in the shadow of her hood, her eyes glowed in the moonlight, and they looked unfriendly. She was an Adjuvant leader. Had she been the one to order Twi to kill him not long after they first met?
He very much felt that she wracked her brain for an inoffensive way to tell him to scram.
Enter Mystis, oldest of the leaders, rarely with them, and who had the uncanny ability of showing up at the most unexpected but convenient moment. “I’ve been searching for you, Ekymé. Come here.”
He excused himself and did as bade, trailed by curious looks from Stella and Twi.
As soon as Ekymé was out of earshot, the teacher turned on her student. “Alone on the balcony with him? Do you know how that looks?”
Twi’s eyes narrowed. “I dare not guess.”
“Do not let yourself get attached to him.”
“He is a member of my hrausq.”
“And when whether such would be was a heated debate, I pled for your side. Do not make me regret doing so.” Stella stepped closer hands falling on Twi’s crossed arms—an invasion of personal space, a claim on the one touched. By blood, Stella was not Twi’s mother, but in her heart, she was, so Twi didn’t pull away. “He is a Napix Aylata.”
Sažka’s image flashed in Twi’s mind. The Zalerit Knalcal had made her opinion no secret of late. Keeping the Aylata around was treason, and it would be equally treasonous to let him walk away. He should die.
Would Stella now ask that of her again?
She forced herself to stiffen so as not to tremble. “He tries so hard not to be Aylata-like, to fit in here with us.”
“He said Tala is where he lives. He did not call it his home,” Stella noted. “He is still Napix, and put in a setting with them, he might not choose you.”
“He already chose me once.”
“Did he? This could all be an elaborate trap.” Stella’s head tilted as it always did when she didn’t deem Twi analytical enough. “Has he informed you yet of his adventure with Napix visitors during the competition?”
Continued in Chapter 10: The Dead Never Age
Thank you for reading!