Alliance ch 1: Believe in Us
“We all believe in us, and we’re stronger for it.”
Twi’s voice often reminded Xlack of a river, the way her words flowed from one to the next, pausing on sharp t’s and bubbling over hollow l’s. This morning, it barely rose above the clack of the tram’s wheels, and as she slid into the seat next to him, his heart jumped. After six months of physical therapy, her falls were rare, but he was ready to catch her nonetheless. It was an excuse to touch her.
Her gaze alighted on his wrist. “Do you remember when I told you that?”
“Five months ago.”
Tracking her sightline, he looked at the bracelet she had given him on the same occasion. A chrome corner of the seven-sided, fish-shaped charm peeked out from his sleeve. An Adjuvant emblem. It unlocked doors and proclaimed to all that he belonged here, that he was part of this team.
He peeled his focus from it and sought any other target for his stare. Without his acute eyesight and extra senses, he doubted he would have been able to see anything, not the very tall Rifo leaning against a pole across from him, Lanox beneath her mess of curls sleeping in the back row, or Stevalok and Entrycii in the front corner, probably conspiring. Light came in brief flickers through the narrow windows, and the hard, plastic seats that lined either wall reflected none of it.
“Breathe, Xlack Ekymé,” Twi said, shoulder near his but not quite touching him. “Relax. No one expects us to win this.”
He met her gaze, surfing the chrysolite lightning that hovered over her silver irises. That chrysolite revealed she was part Magni, a world lost long ago, its strength bequeathed to its scattered, mongrel descendants.
Xlack was part Magni, too. In the Napix Empire where he was from, it was something to be proud of. Whereas here in Alliance Space, anything of Magni was to be denied or hidden, and he still had a hard time grasping that concept. Magni heritage made one strong, capable of the uncanny. Why not show off?
His eyes slid back to his hands fisted in his lap. “You want us to win.”
Thanks to his Mind Talents, he felt that. Her longing for victory, for validation, buzzed against his skin. It tasted of metal and something not quite sweet. More lurked in its undulating depths, old and bitter, like a dead worm hiding in polished fruit.
Should I call it out?
She laughed, a delicate, throaty sound he wished he heard more often.
“I didn’t say we shouldn’t try to win the reorder. One should always try, but if you pass out, you won’t be any help to anyone.”
He grinned at the jab and rolled his eyes. Xlack was used to pressure. His entire life, everyone—family, teachers, random strangers who knew his name but had never met him—expected him to be perfect, a future legend. The past six months with this team of Adjuvants had been a respite from that, hard in its own way, but a refreshing look at the universe from a different point of view.
Here, he could choose what he wanted to be, and that didn’t have to match what everyone expected. They expected very little, actually. In the public eye, Adjuvants—Magni hybrids who used their Talents to protect the weak—did not exist.
He snorted. “As if I’d pass out.”
“It’s okay to treat it like a big deal,” Twi whispered, and he wasn’t sure if she meant the words for his benefit or her own. “This contest is one chance every fifty years to prove ourselves. We are low-rankers and young.”
Young enough that this would be their first reorder. On this team, Alez Rifo, at twenty-two, claimed the title of oldest. Xlack wasn’t far behind him. Navaria Twi, the leader, was almost twenty, and the rest were all younger.
Elbows resting on his knees, he leaned forward. “I know what this means to you, Twi. To all of you. It’s not that different from a contest I would have been a part of back…back in my old life.”
Her brows rose, but before she could question him, something crashed against his chest. As his spine hit the backrest, he scrambled not to let whatever it was fall on the tram floor. His arms curled around bony shoulders and knobby knees.
“This is my stop,” Stevalok explained, a half-grin revealing the tips of his sharp teeth.
Xlack glanced between him and the smaller version cradled in his lap. In better lighting, they didn’t look that much alike, though the pair were of the same world.
“What does that have to do with you dumping Naday on me?”
“You expect her to sleep on the floor?”
No, he expected Naday to stay awake like everyone else, but Stevalok didn’t wait for an answer. With a backward step and a two-fingered wave, he left the tram.
My stop’s next. What am I supposed to do with her then?
The numbing aroma of cold, processed air filled each breath. Between it, the darkness, the steady click of the tracks as the tram reaccelerated, and the gentle movement, Xlack could have fallen asleep himself.
I would have woken up if someone dropped me like that, though.
He would have feared the gangly preteen was dead had her life-signature not pulsed so strongly against his Kinetic senses. It performed a graceful, light-footed beat with an undertone of speed—another common thread between all those with Magni heritage.
“You can put her next to Lanox.” Twi gestured with an open hand at the back-corner seat where piled, platinum curls seemed to glow. Their owner sat sideways with her knees cuddled against her chest, one arm hanging, eyes closed, and mouth open.
Shaggy hair looking even more like a mop than usual, Teree crawled across the floor toward her. Was that normal behavior for a twelve-year-old here? Just in front of Lanox, he rose into a crouch and tapped at the device on his ear.
Willowy as a sapling, Rifo nudged him with a foot. “Teree, if ya take a picture of her like that, I’ll take an embarrassing shot of ya and share it with all of yer friends.”
Teree’s hand touched the floor to keep him from falling, then returned to his ear. “What friends? After this competition, we won’t ever go home again.”
“We’ll go home, just home will have switched locations.” Face turned toward the back window, Rifo didn’t move. “Plus, we’ll still have each other.”
“Fake family is not the same as friends.”
“Ouch.” Despite Rifo’s usual lilt, the word fell flat. “Should we have left ya in the nursery with the other kids then? Ya and Naday aren’t going to compete today.”
Teree wrapped his arms around his shins. “Because we’re sutae. We’ll just be future teachers, not heroes. We’re not real members of the team.”
“Teree.” Twi’s rebuke resembled a droplet landing in an empty, metal bucket, both sharp and soft like everything else about her. She rose, one hand suspended over the sleeping Naday’s shoulder. “Tell me why you came today.”
Letting his fingers fall from the device on his ear, the boy hid his chin in his knees, and his voice barely had the strength to escape that terrain. “I wanted to watch.”
Twi traversed the few steps between them, every movement a calculation. Pain flared with each footfall, like raindrops between thunderclaps, and Xlack winced. Surely Rifo and Teree felt it, too. They were both Tala. Both possessed Mind Talents. But neither moved.
As if a flower bowing before the storm, Twi slumped, and Xlack was halfway on his feet before he realized she purposely knelt in front of her youngest teammate. “If we mean as little to you as fake family, wouldn’t watching highlight reels with everyone else be good enough?”
The tram slowed, and the steadying light caught the excess shine in Teree’s dark eyes.
Twi beckoned him closer. “This is Rifo’s and Ekymé’s stop. Lanox’s and mine will be next. We’ll need you to look after Naday until we get back, alright?”
As the tram halted and the doors folded open with a hiss, Lanox rolled over with a loud snore. Her curls covered her face, and Xlack hoped she wouldn’t suffocate. Shaking his head, he knelt alongside Twi and set Naday down with her back leaning against Teree.
The boy glanced at her. “This is Mumir, the main Adjuvant base, and we’re not competing. We won’t be in any danger.”
Twi nodded. “Even so, give me a proper answer.”
As Xlack stood to follow Rifo out, the otherness in Twi’s excitement nudged him like a ball of screws tumbling down his spine, and his stride hitched. Real fear hid in the shadows of the motherly expression she wore, and he had a bad feeling that Teree was wrong. There would be danger, Adjuvant stronghold or not.
The worry was a foam churning in his core, tiny bubbles popping against his insides but never ending. He had once looked after an entire city as its Protector. Now, he protected the members of this team. His hrausq. He couldn’t lose them. They were all he had.
Teree’s face scrunched. “I’ll look after her, but don’t expect me to wake her up.”
“The first is all I ask.” Though wan, Twi’s smile was contagious.
Alongside Rifo on the brushed metal platform beyond the tram doors, Xlack turned back and forced a grin of his own. “Root for us.”
Teree’s only response was a frown, but at least it was an acknowledgement.
As the car sealed and roared away, Rifo shook his head. “I’m going to say this again in case ya didn’t understand it the first time: The chances of us winning are very slim.”
Xlack’s grin deflated, and he turned the full weight of his gaze on his assigned partner, his amaraq. “We’re all in this together, right? Teree, Naday, Zeln and Aarex, Stevalok and Entrycii, you and me, Twi and Lanox. We’ll watch each other’s backs. That’s all that matters.”
“Each member of a hrausq believes in every member.” The mantra oft repeated by his team’s leader was now Zeln’s answer to the lanky, middle-aged man who stood back to back with him making no attempt to save himself. “We all believe in us, and we’re stronger for it.”
As if to challenge this brave claim, the round corridor shook, stone grinding against stone as the room rolled. And arrows still shot out of the walls.
Despite the darkness, Aarex was quick to find the pattern. Constant clacks sounded as she flipped and bounced, sweeping down projectiles with a pair of pointy sticks. One had been issued to her. The other was supposed to be Zeln’s, but he let her handle that part.
He towed their living baton back, gaze darting to every notion of movement in the dimness. Silhouettes flickered over white-washed rock lined with a dizzying array of blue and green swirls. Dust clogged the air, sticking in the oily sheen on his skin as if trying to hide the flames that danced beneath—luminous tongues coiled under a thin, translucent layer of dark flesh.
They made him different, and that was a bad thing more often than not. Zeln wished they would hide, especially when they made girls scared to touch him. But Aarex wasn’t afraid of his flames. Sometimes Lanox even hugged him.
He liked it when their tall, always-smiling teammate wrapped her arms around him, her cascade of curls tickling his neck. If they won this competition, she would probably hug him again.
Don’t get distracted.
Aarex flew upside-down over his head, wide eyes seas of gold in the light of his latent flames. As she swiped aside another company of projectiles, her vertical-slit pupils narrowed on one that slipped past. It wouldn’t hit Zeln, but the official loitered in its path.
With a shout he wasn’t even sure was a word, Zeln grabbed the man and spun him out of the way, but the arrow was not entirely denied its quarry. Zeln hissed. Radiant, orange blood oozed from the slice across the back of his left hand, but he had no time to address it. His light slinked like sparks across another approaching horde of arrows.
As he inhaled through his nose, he gathered saliva and heat in his cheeks. A stream of fire shot between his lips. In the burning mist, the metal arrows melted. Molten splashes plopped on the floor and on Zeln as the room came to a stop, throwing him a step forward. One knee scraped rough rock, and thunder rattled through his bones.
The fire died quickly. This was the planet Knalz, where the makeup of the atmosphere deterred flame.
Rising, he shook melted metal from his sleeve, hand lifted to his mouth so he could clean and cauterize his wound, but an elbow struck his back and sent him stumbling another step.
“Don’t let this putrescent creature touch me again,” the official shrilled at Aarex as she landed in front of him.
Zeln’s fists clenched, internal flames pacing like a caged feline, but his partner simply tilted her head and gave a closed-eyed smile.
“Any one of us could die in this competition,” she explained, twang thick, “even you, Mr. Official.”
She strode past him and stopped with toes hanging just beyond the edge of the room, where darkness decorated a vast expanse. Before the tunnel had rolled, it had pointed at empty space above a drop with an unseen end. The drop remained, but now Zeln thought he saw faint shapes out there.
Scribbling on a small note square, the official stomped after Aarex. “I asked him what his hrausq thought of having him for a teammate. Do you agree with his response?”
Chin angled over her shoulder as she folded the staves into her pockets, Aarex grinned. Her sharp teeth and overlarge eyes gleamed in the flutters of illumination from her partner’s skin. “Zeln, mind shedding some light on the path ahead?”
“Sure.” He tried to shrug on nonchalance, but her smirk was infectious as he stepped up next to her.
Heat again gathered in his cheeks. It helped to think of delicious food: deep-fried, buttery fish on a stick, cakes iced in soft cream, just about anything laden with cheese. He really liked cheese.
Just when it reached the point that drooling would have become inevitable, he spat. His lips ignited the stream, and it blossomed into a plume of flame. He couldn’t see around it, but hopefully its light showed Aarex what she needed.
With a hand on her crooked beret, she backed away from the edge. “In answer to your question, Mr. Official, I only wish I could breathe fire, but since I can’t, I’m doubly glad Zeln can.”
Her eyes fixed on something out in the darkness, and her subtle smirk cued Zeln to her plan.
As the official scribbled, Aarex charged and leapt, feet level with Zeln’s face. With the faintest manifestation of flame, he brushed the soles of her boots and kindled the trick they had prepared. She shot into the void, smoke rocketing from her shoes.
At a distance six times her length, she grabbed a horizontal rope and swung. A moment later, her feet landed on the taut cable.
“Reckless,” the official denounced, still scribbling. “She could have perished.”
Zeln trained a deep frown on him. “Aarex doesn’t miss what she jumps at.”
“I mean the part where she could have exploded. Those shoes aren’t sanctioned equipment, and this is Knalz. Fire is forbidden. I suggest you start remembering that.”
Small flames coiled along Zeln’s arms and licked at his rolled sleeves. He hated how they revealed his emotions, painting his fear, nervousness, or anger as something visible to all. But he hated more how the superior Knalcals sneered or sniffed at him like he was the universe’s trash because of something beyond his control—where his ancestors had been born.
This official wasn’t Knalcal, not with his overlarge Lettaplexal eyes and grin or his twang so similar to Aarex’s, but like so many others, he agreed with them.
Zeln clenched his fists, false calm dousing his flames. They only wasted his energy. Hadn’t Twi told him that a million times?
Getting angry and punching or combusting people whom you could win to your side is an inefficient use of resources. Show them the witty, genius Zeln I know.
Aarex whistled, and he caught her gaze, then nodded as she gestured her intention.
“This obstacle course is supposed to encourage ingenuity and teamwork, right?” He stretched one hand into the expanse. “That’s exactly what the rocket shoes trick was, and we’ve got plenty more where that came from.”
A rope lashed the air, and Zeln snatched it, one tug testing the cord before he tied it off on a prong of rebar peeking past the ledge.
“Now it’s our turn, unless you’re too scared.”
Pocketing his note square with a sigh, the official plodded over, gripped the slanted rope, and climbed, motions deliberate and slow. “If you are trying to goad me, young man, consider that fear is born of a desire to live well.”
“Funny, I always thought recklessness came from the same wish,” Zeln muttered, then winced.
Mouth, check with brain before you say too much. This guy’s judging our performance in this contest, and we shouldn’t offend him.
But could the official be any slower? Zeln hung just under him, upward progress gradual as a tree’s growth. The burn in his arms now had nothing to do with his Fire Talent.
Aarex flitted along the tightrope above.
“She moves like a bird.” The official finally reached the horizontal rope, and with his calves wrapped around it, he slid hairsbreadth by hairsbreadth, spine to the dizzying drop.
Zeln did the same, hoping the official would keep a consistent pace so his head wouldn’t crash into any part of the man’s behind.
What if it surprised him, and he fell? He might look funny falling.
He shook the thought away. It wouldn’t be funny if the man died, and death surely awaited anyone who fell here.
A quiet, metallic squeal caught his ears. Aarex leapt to the next rope—not far, only twice her height away this time—but her movement activated a triad of chrome cubes. As they rose to block her flight, an assortment of sharp edges extended from their sides.
With every internal organ in his throat, Zeln watched her twist. One foot swiped a flat smidgen of cube and launched her higher. The obstacles sprung with her. Aarex’s back curved, still-smoking soles a fingerbreadth from her loops of sandy hair. Her arms reached beyond them, toward the lowest floating square.
Zeln scurried faster. If she fell, there wasn’t anything he could do, not like Entrycii, whose ’netics could push or dull the cubes or catch his plummeting amaraq. No, Zeln’s Talent was meant to destroy. He would have to watch helplessly as—
His head hit something hard and rang like a gong.
Wait, does the official have metal underwear?
Aarex’s hands curled around a spear-like protrusion on the bottommost cube, legs straight and together, hips bending to redirect her momentum upward. The obstacle tilted, then rocked as she released it.
Her feet tapped down on the higher rope, and a sigh escaped through Zeln’s grin.
“I thought you believed in her.”
“I do.” He caught the cord she tossed and tied it off between himself and the official. “Aarex always lands where she wants.”
“Ah.” The official released his hold. For a moment, Zeln feared he would dive to his death just to make them lose, but the man’s knees became the fulcrum of his swing as he doubled back and caught the new, vertical rope. “That frown was because she’s getting to have all the fun up front. It stings your pride to let her take the lead.”
“She’s way better at this. Why shouldn’t she go first?” Zeln started the climb after him. “The only reason I’m upset is because I have to stay behind and stare at your butt.”
The official paused, hooked an elbow over the rope, and resumed scrawling.
If Zeln hadn’t been so worried about falling, he would have slapped his own mouth. He waited a moment, but the official said nothing, and yes, that sounded like offended, angry scribbling.
“Did that sound rude?” Zeln squeaked. “Is that what you’re writing? Admit it was less rude than if I’d flame punched you.”
The stylus stopped, and the official’s overlarge, copper eyes rolled to him behind too-small, crooked glasses. “Did you consider flame punching me?”
Something please happen so I don’t have to answer that.
The rope creaked, calling his attention to where it was tied just below his ankles. Spikes grew from the cord and shredded the knot.
He scrambled higher as the explosion of barbs traveled up the cord like a spark on a fuse, but the official was in the way. Pain stabbed the back of his knee, and he bit his lip against a scream. The luminous orange of his blood did little to combat the darkness as it coated the rope’s quills. Steam rose from the spines. They drooped and deformed, upward journey slowed. Even so, they were level with his chest and crawling toward his hands.
The rope swung like a pendulum.
“Let go!” Aarex called, and he obeyed.
His dark hair waved in his face as he searched for her. She held the top of their rope and directed its swing. Zeln followed the line of her focus toward a series of round platforms, each balanced on a slender pillar.
Weightlessness fluttered in his stomach as he sailed toward those platforms, and dread dropped like a pile of bricks. He wouldn’t soar far enough. Neither would the cumbersome, hypercritical VIP who was supposed to be passed along still alive to their teammates for the next segment of the race.
Twisting, he grabbed the official’s arm, yanked him closer, planted his feet between the man’s shoulder blades, and jumped. It gave the official the boost he needed to skid onto the nearest platform. The round, table-like top rocked as he rose, and his knees bent to restore its balance.
The jump launched Zeln in the wrong direction. He flipped and fell, arms waving in a futile attempt to grasp some semblance of control. Upside-down. Right-side up. Face down. A gleam of metal, and everything stopped.
Continued in Chapter 2: Impossible for One Alone
Thank you for reading!