Chapter 1 - As Planned
Outgoing Message: Assassination complete.
Gunfire blasts screeched through the evening and echoed against the metal houses. Blue lightning leapt through the air towards him as Ahlir flew around a corner. A soldier jumped from hovercar onto the roof before him, powergun blazing. Ahlir bent and slid on his knees across the copper tiles of the roof, arching backwards to dodge the shot. He snapped up again and sped forward, his katana severing the human’s life-force with a quick flick of his wrist.
The sensors in his helmet displayed colorful warnings as attacks continued from above and below. His breath grew loud in his ears as more gunfire roared by, this time from both sides. It was more opposition than he’d expected.
'Not taking any chances, are you?'
He leapt onto the roof of another apartment building and withdrew a scrambling bug from his side pouch. Grey with blue stripes, it resembled a curled beetle when inactive. Activated, the resemblance only increased. The bug measured no more than an inch at best, thus fitting through almost anything. Ahlir could, of course, use a disruption spell, but he doubted his energy levels were high enough to take the drain such magic would demand. Magic came at a cost, despite what the humans believed.
He threw the mechanical bug into the air and watched as the gadget popped open as soon as it left his hand, flying off to the east. He whispered a concealment spell under his breath, “Nire lu cithl. (Clothe in darkness)” and felt a small, not much more than a brush, tug on his life-force the instant the last word left his tongue. The guardians of the Fountain didn’t wait long for their payment. Ahlir shook the cost off. A few minutes of life were nothing to an Eltha.
He whirled left, slid down a ladder, and leapt onto a narrow catwalk. Frustrated shouts sounded behind him as the soldiers followed the false trail emitted by the scrambling bug. He chuckled. Ah, humans and their limited capabilities. Continual reliance on tech only led to blindness.
Sirjius, the parasitic creature that acted as his armor, sent a mental plea to him. The Ykok wished to leave the scene via the restaurant below them. The back door would be easy to unlock and they’d be home safe. Ahlir shook his head. 'We’re not done.'
Sirj, as Ahlir affectionately called him, simmered at this and shut off his thoughts to Ahlir. The Ykok didn’t like this plan, hadn’t from the start, but Ahlir maintained that it was the only way for them. They had to know –
Incoming message, Ahlir’s helmet informed him suddenly.
Ahlir leaned against the railing of the ramp, elbows resting on the edge of the thin metal. The dizzying height from the small footbridge didn’t affect him, rather he enjoyed having the high vantage point. Not that there was much to see in the alleyway. Curfew had rung an hour ago. He entertained ignoring the flashing signal in his helmet, then shrugged. Nothing better to do right now. “Accept message.”
Sender: Handler 5. Message: Debriefing at 0900.
'Someone forgot to take their morning pill.' He snorted, a smirk growing. He liked Handler 5. She was easy to rile, though she tried so hard to not let him affect her. He always enjoyed his time with her. She hated him, told him so on many occasions. His smirk grew. “Computer, reply.”
The helmet bleeped, the red ‘recording’ dot flashing. He paused, considering his words. “Always happy to help. Might be a bit late though. Keep dinner hot.”
The message disappeared into the virtual realm and Ahlir snickered, imagining Handler 5’s reaction to the domestic phrase at the end of his message. He loved teasing her. The fluster she exhibited endeared her to him.
'Got to watch out for her.' Her training attempted to drain the woman of any sympathy. Ahlir fought the system at every turn, his fear for the main race’s soul ever present in his mind. He straightened, stretching out muscles and kinks, and cracked his neck. The evening lights melded to the walls shone bright against the dark. Tiny bugs flew to their death against the hot bulbs. His sensors warned him that the humans were close by again.
'Back to the fun!'
He scaled up the ladder and peered over the edge of the wall. A few soldiers stalked on the other side, oblivious to his presence. He ended his concealment spell with a “nui (End)” and shot an electric dart at the back man. The human flinched, managed to give off an interesting half squeak, half yell, and then collapsed to the ground. His comrades surrounded him, backs to the fallen man and guns at the ready. They scanned the rooftop back and forth.
Ahlir sighed. 'Do I have to do everything for you?'
He vaulted up onto the ridge, enjoying the startled cries of the men before him. He’d play with them for a while more before allowing his capture. A shadow withdrew from the inky blackness just as a white stake-like bullet shot towards him. Sirj shifted upward to leave him, probably aiming to crush the bullet. But just as Sirj was about to strike, the bullet broke apart and white light shot out from it.
Ahlir cursed as his muscles seized. Electric charges surged inside him. How’d they know? Sirj could protect him against most anything, except pure electricity. The energy based weapon had no physical components for which Sirj to grab ahold of. The Ykok screamed mentally as the electricity burnt brighter.
Ahlir almost screamed himself as his left lung shriveled and then exploded inside him. His legs crumpled, pain so intense it stole all thought and motion. He couldn’t breathe, could barely see, so strong was the agony. It felt as if someone was twisting a hot knife in him. Something bashed against him and he fell to his side.
The electricity started to fade and, with its departure, he found himself lying on the roof, nerves still humming with invisible fire, arms shaking. Sirj warbled softly to him.
'It’s all right, my friend.' Ahlir comforted. 'You’re not at fault.'
The humans closed in slowly, inching their way towards him. A short armored man to the left lifted a set of twisted rings from his belt. Ahlir recognized the design instantly. A mind scrambler. If that got near him, he’d have little chance of continuing this match. Sirj readied himself to defend his host.
'Not yet!' Ahlir commanded the Ykok. Sirj growled, but complied and used his own strength to help Ahlir get his body up. Black, living flesh tightened around Ahlir as he rose, taking most of the strain of gravity from him. They rushed onto the alcove above where a secret passage to the sewers lay. His right lung struggled to compensate for the damage to his left and his breathe rattled as it escaped his lips. A wet cough followed. Probably collapsed.
Sirj thrummed in worry.
'I’m fine,' Ahlir sent.
Sirj scoffed, but continued to aid his steps. Blue rays shattered the iron gears of a lamp beside them. Metal components hit Sirj and sparks blasted in front of Ahlir’s face, freezing the mechanics of his helmet sensors. His visual display went dark.
He was blind!
Something thin and strong twisted about his arms, pressing them in tight. His feet lifted off the roof and he felt suddenly weightless. He struggled to breathe as the thing around him constricted more. What little air remained in him hissed out as he hit the wall behind him. He rolled uncontrollably and fell off the edge into nothing. Sirj reared to stop his descent. Ahlir could feel him starting to reach out. Probably to a railing or light.
'No! Let it happen!' Ahlir sent.
He crashed onto the street below, back first. Not as hard as he could have without Sirj, but hard enough for his head to smash into the rear of his helmet. These weren’t the cement roads he’d known as a young eltha. Governor Hei’s bill had pushed long and hard for these new metal ones. With the special chemical, PV6, they didn’t require as much maintenance as the cement ones. Also, didn’t break as easily.
A strange whining sound filled his ears. Ahlir blinked, but saw only grey. 'Must’ve hit harder than I thought...or the visuals aren’t up yet.'
He gripped his katana’s braided hilt, relishing in the solid reassurance it gave him. At least it, unlike his plan, hadn’t changed. Slowly, the grey blurred into color and he managed to see some fuzzy, white-armoured soldiers closing in. A trap set, sprung, and closed.
Not that he hadn’t known that from the beginning. Yet to know who’d gone to such elaborate lengths to capture him, to know why, to have the chance to play with this puzzle…it appealed to him in more ways than one.
Fraya would be so disappointed in me. The graceful eltha had always taught him that playing with trouble only led to hurting both himself and others. Trust, she said, was the greatest gift a person could give one another. Toying with them drove them away. Ahlir missed the ameth’s wisdom and support.
Rough hands ripped his katana from his numbed fingers. His Powerpistol disappeared from his hip before he could grab it. The robotic strength of the soldiers’ armour forced his body to the metal street. His chest burned as they pressed his wound against the road and he tasted hot blood. 'I can’t breathe, you fools!'
His body involuntarily started to bulk and seize. Sirj vibrated in anger as the soldiers pushed him further down and his vision whited out. More salty, sweet liquid filled his mouth and wet coughs started to rack his throat. A high-pitched ringing filled his ears. He barely had enough presence of mind to stop Sirj from attacking the humans.
Perhaps, Sirj understood the need for this violence. Maybe he wished to show Ahlir how much he needed his aid. Regardless, the Ykok allowed the humans to manhandle him. Suddenly, Ahlir was lifted up and his helmet wrenched off, fresh air chilling his damp face.
His vision cleared and he caught a brief glimpse of white and black lights before his eyes blurred again. He struggled to breathe as his body continued to twitch violently. The tightness in his chest and throat increased with each passing second. The ringing in his ears grew louder and blackness started to creep in from the corner of his eyes. 'I’m dying.'
Sirj panicked, sending multiple bursts of thoughts to him. Ahlir opened his mind to ask the Ykok to help him when someone wrapped their arms around his torso and fists pushed up passed Sirj’s armoured shell into his ribcage. Chest compressions. The mysterious person pushed again, but no air reached him. Ahlir’s head sagged as his trembling stopped. The arms tightened and the pushes became faster and harder.
Then, abruptly, just as Ahlir thought he might pass out, copper tasting liquid rushed up and spurted out of his mouth in a seeming torrent of hot lava. He coughed hard, a mild shivering starting up again over his entire body. Crisp air tore down his throat and into his lungs. A strong scent of onions filled his nose.
Sirj quivered and sent a burst of fear.
'I know, my friend, but I’m not.'
Ahlir gave another wet cough as his left lung fought to function. The pain of the action almost made him pass out again. The muscled arms around him left, replaced by thinner ones. He slumped against them, though Ahlir knew it wouldn’t take long for it to return.
Quick regeneration, a gift his race possessed. Already, his vision was clear. The white and black blurs righted themselves into multiple armored soldiers. Their smooth suits held no dents, having been made from the same chemical, PV6, as the streets. Ahlir glanced at the surrounding buildings, not surprised to find that no one was watching. Few tempted the authorities on the curfew rule, not after the last public demonstration. They valued their hearing.
“Good, he’s back,” a harsh, commanding voice pulsated in Ahlir’s ears. He glanced back towards the sound. An older human male stood just beside him, disdain in his blue eyes. Even his neatly trimmed beard did nothing to hide his hatred.
Ahlir only blinked back.
“Not done with you yet,” the man sneered. “Get another wire around him and hobble his feet.”
Soldiers darted into action at the orders like mice racing to get cheese. He relished the wide eyes and horrified whispers of those near him. 'That’s right, take a good look!'
“Lieutenant Cernin reporting. Subject appertained, Captain. Visual uploading,” the older soldier said, hand on the side of his grey helmet. A little wire on the side beeped out some garbled sounds and angled itself down towards him. A yellow light flared to life on the wire’s tip. Ahlir smirked as thick bracelets were attached to his ankles.
'Greetings, Captain. The pleasure’s all mine.'
The metal grips on Ahlir’s shoulders dug deeper. Ah, a show of strength for their commander. Keep it up. Mustn’t let him think you’re letting the injured captive get away. 'Careful, I might leap up at any moment and grow claws!'
He’d never come to understand these kind of actions in humans. Their leaders already knew their subordinates in and out, why exaggerate? 'And yet, I work for them. What does that say about me?'
Lieutenant Cernin narrowed his eyes. “Understood, sir.”
A snap of his gloved fingers had Ahlir up and slumped into a semi upright position. His injury pulled from the callous treatment and breathing became harder, but not impossible. The guardsmen dragged him to the waiting airmobile, not caring that he stumbled with their fast pace. Ahlir pleaded with Sirj to let them continue their rough treatment. They both needed to find out the truth and capture was the fastest way. 'I’ll call on you soon, my friend.'
Sirj accepted the compromise begrudgingly, a little chirp sounding his compliance. Armoured soldiers startled at the sudden sound and froze. Frightened eyes, half hidden by their misted helmet faceplates, scanned him. Their grips loosened and then squeezed.
“Sir!” one of them stammered, whipping around. “His armor just…chirped.”
Lieutenant Cernin marched up and seized Ahlir’s chin, jerking his face close. “You planning something, boy?”
“Of course not,” Ahlir said, smirking.
His head wrenched left as the man released his chin and backhanded him. Ahlir spun back, fixing his gaze on the human. He might let them think they had control, but he’d never allow them to think him intimidated. The man stiffened, almost seemed about to hit him again, and growled. “Triple the guard and get it off him at the first checkpoint.”