Stranded - Part 3
They call us “Kilm'ach.” The Lost. We are the demons of their Scriptures.The Beast made real. We scare them, and they hate us for it. Or perhaps we simply remind them too much of the past. Of the heritage they’ve forsaken and the people they betrayed. More likely, though, the Ammatar who live here hate us because we came to take their planet.Read story
Whatever the map says, New Eden ends at the borders of the great empire. Outside of the hisec systems, civilization does not exist. Not the way most people would like to believe anyway. Out here, you see the true face of humanity. And it is the face of madness.
By the time I arrive on Khabi VIII, a fringe planet in a highly contested corridor bordering Ammatar space, I have been in the Valklears for seven years. I’ve paid for my training in scars and nightmares. The past is a glove-skinned awareness, barely felt. Old memories numbed by the fresh pain of new wounds. These days, I find the pain comforting, a convenient distraction. It might not be peace, but it’s a good enough substitute.
We’re moving slowly, stepping across a carpet of bodies. Tanvalin ghosts through my head. This is what you do now? Kill civilians. Through a series of small, interconnected rooms – scattered equipment, more dead scientists – labs by the look of it, and into a long, empty corridor: the perfect place to get shot. I motion for Neera to stay close, and together we crouch-run to the end of the corridor. We’re halfway there when the door at the far end slides open. Neither of us misses a step. There’s nowhere to go but forward, straight into whatever’s waiting for us on the other side.
Inside, the rib-vault is twice as high as it is wide. Dirty light spills in through aging windows, filling the room with a sick, yellow glow. Cracks trace elaborate patterns across filigreed sections of the walls and floor, wrap around a statue, like decrepit fingers searching for something to strangle. Blood-red rust feeds on the faded gold surfaces. There is nothing quite as depressing as Amarrian architecture.
We move forward, glass shards from the shattered work terminals crunch under foot.
“It’s beautiful,” gasps Neera, either ignoring or having not seen the bodies, one of which is slumped at my feet, just inside the door. This must be what triggered it to open. Poor bastard.
“It’s a dead end. We should keep moving.”
But Neera’s not listening. She’s lost in whatever place she goes to. The same empty look on her face from a few nights before as we sat outside enjoying the cool night air.
“What are we doing here?” she asks. A light breeze tugs at her hair, dragging a rebellious strand across her harsh-boned face. Large, gray eyes stare through me, like distant stars shining in an ebony sky.
From my puzzled look, she asks, “Here. On this planet. Why are we fighting?”
I want to tell her that we have no choice, that we’re just following orders. But the truth is that I don’t care why we’re fighting. And I don’t want to stop. Because stopping means having to think. I say nothing.
“Of all people, the Minmatar should understand the importance of freedom. We should know better. But here we are. At the end of the day we’re just like everyone else. We take what we want and damn anyone that stands in our way.”
“I don’t think—“ I start to say.
“No! We’re worse than everyone else!” A flicker in her eyes. Rage maybe, or yearning. It’s all I see in her eyes lately. “At least the Amarr have something to believe in. They work for the future, while the past defines everything we do. We use it to justify our actions. But we’ll never be better than we are now, because we’ll always be chained to what we once were.”
“I want nothing to do with the past,” I say, and mean it. “But what the Republic is doing is important. What we’re doing is important. And as long as we keep doing it, the Republic will be free,” I lie, wanting to make it better, to fix whatever’s broken inside of her, and knowing that whatever I do, whatever I say, it’s not enough.
She looks away from me then. “You’re wrong. We’ll never be free.”
“We’ve got nothing, Sarge.” Squawks my headset, snapping me back to the present and a room full of bodies.
“Alright.” I reply. “We’ll finish up here and meet you in twenty.”
“You’re the boss.”
Shadows pool in the gaps between shafts of light. The darkness shifts, a twitch of alarm and the animal knowledge that something is watching. A wrong thing. Unseen, but felt on the edge of awareness. Watching. Waiting.
“C’mon. We still have two more floors to check out.”
Leaving, we both glance back, each of us looking for something we’ll never find.
It takes us hours to search the rest of the facility. We scour it room by room, but each one is the same. Dead bodies. No sign of the prototype. Occupation of the planet began months ago, and clearly, the fighting got here long before we did.
I’m almost ready to call it off when the dry cough of gunfire booms through the corridor.
I kick into a sprint, but Lesik is through the door first. There’s another deep cough, and then a spray of gore blows back out into the passageway. Shredded tissue, long, wet strands of it, flies past my face and coats the wall opposite. Lesik, what’s left of him, is dead before he hits the ground. I step over him, weapon tucked into the crook of my arm. And what I see stops me cold.
Neera standing in the middle of the room. Daraket at her feet, wide-eyed, his hands tangled in his own viscera, the red of it gleaming brightly under the artificial lighting.
“I was hoping you’d be first through the door. I thought that if I didn’t see you, I could go through with it.”
Her words flush the adrenaline right out of me. My limbs suddenly feel very heavy. “Drop the gun, Neera.”
“I can make it better! I-I finally know what to do.”
“Drop the gun, Neera. Please.”
“Don’t you want to know why I did it?”
“The ‘why’ doesn’t matter. It’s what you do that matters, whatever the reason. And you just killed two men.”
“I freed them, chintaku.”
“Don’t call me that. Not anymore.”
She stiffens at that. Then drops the gun and spreads her arms at her sides, palms open. To the casual observer it might look like surrender, but I know what the gesture really means. Have seen it a hundred times in the sparring chamber where we practice. It’s a challenge. And I always accept.
Neera is all soft technique, always has been. But she catches me with a backfist strike to the side of the head that seems to surprise her as much as it does me. She smiles then and for a moment she’s the Neera of long ago. I smile back, in spite of myself. This is insane. Then draw my knife and drop into a combat stance. After that, things fall into a familiar rhythm. She moves like a liquid whirlwind. Punches slide off her as she slips in and around everything I throw her way. It looks effortless, but the sheen of fresh sweat betrays the concentration it requires.
The Sikan style she practices is all about redirection. Using the attacker’s force against him. But I’m giving her nothing to work with and the frustration is starting to show. She gets too eager and comes forward when she should be retreating. I catch her with a lateral chop that knocks her back, but even off-balance she falls into a leg sweep that catches me just above the ankle.I’m back on my feet in a single motion, blocking and countering with adrenaline speed. We could go on like this forever, a geometric blur of limbs locked together for the rest of our days. Some part of me wishes that we would. The rest of me wonders how I’m going to live without her. I make my decision and then wait for my chance.
When it comes, I see it in the tilt of her shoulders, the subtle shift of her stance. The memory of it wired into muscles through countless hours of practice. I telegraph the move, knowing she’ll see it and slide right by. Past my outstretched arm, hooking and then snapping my wrist, taking my weapon and then, while I’m off-balance, killing me with it.
The moment spreads out in front of me. I lunge forward.
Except this time she doesn’t move. The knife goes in easily. The cold knowledge of it shatters and pierces my heart. She pulls me close, a gasp escaping her lips as the knife slides deeper. I can feel the life beating out of her, warm and wet. She kisses me and I can taste her blood on my tongue.
“Thank you, chintaku.” My love.
She goes soft then, the weight of her sinking into my arms. I squeeze her tight, hoping that if I can just hold her close enough, that if I wait long enough, she’ll open her eyes again. That everyone will stand up and together we’ll walk outside, laughing and joking and everything will be like it was. As I wait, time falls away and I lose myself in grief.
The faint awareness of movement snaps me awake. Daraket’s corpse stares accusingly at me. You knew what she was. This is your fault. Neera is lying on my chest, her arms around me like so many good mornings before. Suddenly, her grip tightens, and I feel the muscles in her neck stiffen as her head lifts itself and fixes me with gray, dead eyes. And a voice that isn’t Neera’s speaks from a face that is no longer hers.
“Why do you try to forget? Memories, Traveler. They’re what make us who we are.”
The darkness swallows me.