“. . . so we suspect that our pal Mandras hid a bunch of documents in a number of places . . . most of the sets we’ve found so far turned out to be backup plans in case things went horribly wrong, which they did, but not in the way anyone had expected . . . but what we have found points to other documents that might contain different stuff.”
“Like what?” Kara asked, absently kicking at a stone, taking note of where it landed so she could nail it again. Three more times and she’d beat her old record. “I mean, they weren’t really his plans were they. Those glowing kite-things, they came up with it, right?”
“Yeah, but Mandras might have been planning for the aftermath of all this. I’m not really sure how much of the `Child of Destiny’ garbage he bought . . .” Brown brushed some of the road-dust that had accumulated on his jacket, although the particles just seemed to immediately resettle on his clothes no matter how hard he tried.
“He seemed sincere to me . . .” Kara shivered, trying to push the memory of the man out of her mind. Some nights she still woke up thinking she could hear his sibilant, piercing voice, telling her how she was going to rule the Universe. Almost physically shaking the thought away, she asked, “So you think he was going to . . . betray them?”
Brown shrugged. “I doubt he was that stupid. You generally don’t go messing with things that commit genocide on a semi-regular basis.” He grinned down at Kara while noting despairingly that she was dust-free. Figures the one trick Ranos does teach her can’t help me. “Think of it like walking up to one of the Agents and punching them in the face . . . it’s nice to fantasize about, but it’s not something all that conducive to continued existence. There was absolutely nothing Mandras could do to them that would bother them in the tiniest bit.” He slid his hands into his pockets, squinting up ahead as he did so. It looked like the village was getting closer. If those squat, small houses weren’t just some sort of weird mirage. “No, Mandras was probably thinking about how he could maximize his status with the new order and all of that, while still remaining gloriously alive.” He shrugged again, then shielded the sun from his eyes and tried to get a better picture of how far they were from the village. “Mind you, this is all just idle speculation, for all we know it could be his diary or recipes or whatever. But if they do contain something important, we want to see it and more importantly, we don’t want anyone getting their hands on it. What the Norditions nearly pulled off on a large scale would work just fine on a small scale.”
“So you think there’s some hidden here,” Kara stated, not looking at Brown, her concentration elsewhere. She’d lost track of the other soldiers a while ago, although occasionally she thought she glimpsed one moving through the trees, but it could have just as well been a shadow caught by the wind. Yet for some time now there was this subtle buzzing in the back of her head, soft at first but having gradually grown louder for a while. “But don’t you think it might be guarded?” She had no idea what made her ask that. Either the humming or the dust was beginning to give her a headache, she couldn’t tell which for sure.
“Good point,” Brown acknowledged, “but none of the others have been so far. Mandras wasn’t all that keen on sharing, so there may have never been anybody posted at these places. However it’s also highly likely they were all recalled when they captured you, to help maintain the block.”
“Then . . . they’re probably all dead,” Kara said soberly.
“Probably,” Brown agreed, and didn’t say anything else.
They continued to walk in silence for a while. Brown hadn’t exactly told Kara what he wanted her to do when they got to the village, it wasn’t like she had some kind of “find document” ability that might make this go faster. At the very least she might be able to distract people while Brown searched around, which, while not a huge contribution, would be enough to make her feel like she wasn’t wasting Brown’s time.
Glancing down, she realized she was walking past the rock she had been kicking. Trying not to break her stride she kicked out at it, but her attempt came a second too late. Dammit! she thought, striking out instinctively and throwing the rock forward. Sometimes her abilities felt like an extra sense, sometimes like an additional limb. This time was one of the latter. A moment later the rock skidded past, trailing a cloud of dust behind like a drag racer, and leaving a small furrow in the road. Oops. Kara bit her lip, stealing a small glance at Brown to see if he had noticed. If he had, he didn’t bother giving any indication.
The buzzing in the back of her head, which had become almost a sort of background noise, without warning increased sharply, causing her to wince and nearly stop walking. The intensity was severe enough that it felt like it was radiating down to her shoulders, like insects all trying to find a spot to burrow into her skin. Ack . . . now what the heck is this supposed to mean? Suppressing the desire to scratch, she tried to figure out if it meant anything, or if she was just going nuts. Ranos would’ve known what it meant. But he wasn’t here.
Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly and tried to concentrate. As she started to focus, Kara began to notice that the buzzing wasn’t pervasive but seemed to be pointing in a certain direction.
Pointing toward the forest.
Curious, she tried to pick apart the buzzing. Kara pictured it as a series of delicately entwined strands vibrating rapidly and did her best to slow them down to the point where it could be taken apart. She didn’t need to. The strings abruptly fell out of vibration, coalescing into a single, frayed cord.
A cord that led directly into the forest.
Right up into the trees . . .
“Oh my God,” she whispered, drawing her up short. Brown noticed the motion and started to turn to her when she threw herself into him, sending them both tumbling to the ground, as dust rose around them like smoke.
“Ah . . . Kara, you . . .” Brown coughed, “you pick weird times to become co-dependent . . .”
“We’re being watched,” she hissed, wrinkling her nose and trying not to sneeze. The whole world was made of grains of dirt, settling around them like dirty snow.
“What do you mean?” Brown asked, his face suddenly serious. She noticed his hand was starting to move toward his belt as he stared past her shoulder. The trees were merely blurs of green through the haze. Kara felt the buzzing twitch and then shift. They suspect, came the cold thought. For a second she wasn’t sure if it was hers. “That woman again?”
“No, no,” she said quickly, “someone . . . more like me.” That was the best way to explain.
Brown’s eyes widened. In a swift motion he shifted her off of him, nearly sending her onto her back, while he touched the device at his belt and barked something indistinct.
The haze was nearly finished settling around them. The clearing of the air revealed two of the soldiers standing close to the road. One was staring at the two of them, another was peering into the forest. As she started to get up, two more soldiers melted out of the trees, green men come to life.
The humming in her head took on a wobbly, jittery quality. She tried to focus on it like before but it was more spread out, a sand sculpture dispersed by a soft wind. It was still coming from the forest though. That much she could tell.
“Sir, is there a problem?” a quiet voice said behind them. Kara nearly lashed out before she realized it was the other soldier. How did he get over there?
“Might be,” Brown said, without turning around. “We’ve got a peeping tom in the trees, it seems.” Nodding to the soldier he said, “Keep her back while we flush him out . . .” Smiling briefly at Kara, he said, “This is where you might come in handy . . . can you pinpoint him?”
“Ah . . . I’m not sure,” Kara replied. The strings were all fuzzy now, almost smothering, a blanket she couldn’t see. It was like trying to force her hand through cellophane. “He’s . . . blurring it up . . .” did that even make any sense? She couldn’t even feel her words. The forest was decked out like Christmas lights every time she closed her eyes. That didn’t make sense.
Brown’s mouth tightened. “Don’t strain yourself, then. We’ll do it the hard way. It’ll take five minutes instead of three.”
Brown stood up and started to walk over to the trees, his hand slowly drawing out the device at his belt. The other soldiers were doing the same thing.
Fingers were massaging her brain. All of a sudden it was terribly, terribly warm out. Gritting her teeth, she swept out, trying to find the source. The humming in her head grew worse, like the air itself was rattling. Which tree are you in?
The soldier put his hand on her shoulders. “Miss Jacart, if you could come with me, let’s get you someplace safe . . .”
Kara barely heard him. Tiny hammers were pounding on cheese graters in her skull. As she tried to stagger to her feet, a small groan emerged from her lips. There was a hole opening in her brain. A hole with vision. Shadows danced on the edges. It was all there to see. Every motive. Every secret. What was going on? Who was doing this?
No . . . you . . . don’t . . .
The hole suddenly snapped shut and she swore something got caught in it with a scream of pain only she heard.
In the same moment all the blurred lines brightened painfully.
Then dropped out completely.
Leaving only one.
“Miss Jacart-“ the soldier said again, trying to lift her up, before falling abruptly silent. Kara spun out of his weak grasp to stare at him, nearly falling backwards, eyes wide. Oh no.
A thin red line appeared on the soldier’s neck and slowly, with a brutal grace, his head simply fell off his shoulders.
She must have screamed, because Brown and the other soldiers spun toward her immediately, with a frightening swiftness. Her throat certainly felt raw. The body, with blood welling around the neck like some kind of obscene fountain, began to fall toward her, all nerves severed, all action gone. He won’t stay dead, the mad thought erupted. It was no comfort.
“He’s over here!” Brown yelled, gesturing for the soldiers to spread out. Kara felt something pulling at her again, a tug beyond the physical, the air itself shimmering around her, picking at her with a million prickly fingers. Above her the air sizzled, ionized as a bright flash engulfed her vision. Still on her back, Kara did her best to scramble to her feet again, trying to keep her head down so the soldiers could fire. But they can’t see him. None of her limbs seemed to be responding. Even the wind had grown calm, if not halting completely.
Brown reached her first. “You okay?” he asked tersely, bending down to help her up. All she could do was nod. The laser in his hand looked like a natural extension of his body. She wondered what it would do to a person. Soldiers were moving past her, cautiously but deliberately, their boots crunching ominously in the dirt. The forest was thinner on this side of the road, but perhaps even more foreboding. She couldn’t take her eyes off the body before her, the blood flow already slowing to a trickle, pooling in a dirty puddle. The head was facing away from her, for which was eternally thankful. The humming was ever-present now, but more like static, with no way to localize it.
But suddenly the dirt near one of the soldiers shivered and leapt up in a swirling tornado, swallowing him whole. The man gave a strangled scream and Kara could vaguely see him flailing inside the murky cloud. Simultaneously a fist sized rock erupted from the ground, sailing almost too fast for the eye to follow right into the center of the dust storm. There was a sound not unlike a pumpkin being struck and the man slammed into the ground, the storm falling apart to reveal his unmoving form. His clothes were torn to pieces and his blood ran like rivulets into the dirt.
I have to do something, Kara thought. But there was nothing to do.
“Dammit, he’s picking us apart,” Brown muttered, leaping to his feet. Another soldier swore as his arm was suddenly wrenched forward by an unseen force, knocking him off balance. He tried to compensate but before he could, the arm reversed itself, jamming the laser in his mouth. The soldier managed a muffle shout before the deadened whine of the laser filled the air. Kara was unable to close her eyes in time. A heavy rain littered the ground. Oh God, so that’s what it does.
“Fall back!” Brown ordered, yanking Kara to her feet by her arm and nearly throwing her down the road, almost sending her back onto the ground. “Blanket the area, see if we can catch him!” The screaming whine of the devices saturated the air as the remaining two soldiers fired methodically, backing up as they did so. Brown kept his laser at the ready, putting his body between Kara and the danger zone. “If Ranos bothered to teach you anything of any use, this would be the time to prove it,” he told her, swearing as the farthest soldier’s laser exploded with a dull boom, taking most of his hand with it. He began to shout before something wrenched his head back. Kara didn’t see what was done but seconds later blood arced from his throat as all the tension left his body.
Brown and the other soldier both fired at the space near the dead man, their beams nearly intersecting. The air stank of blood and sweat, the noises alternately piercing and scratching. What can I do? Kara thought desperately, trying to put her head together enough to concentrate. All she wanted to do was close her eyes, cover her ears and wish she was somewhere else. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if Brown and the last soldier fell. Dammit, think! she screamed at herself, her nails digging into her palms.
The buzzing rose in her head again, or perhaps it had been there all along and her increasing panic was making it more apparent. She tried to focus on it again. Suddenly she began to see a pattern to the noise, lines crisscrossing at odd angles, curves that should have been straight. Curious, she tugged at the lines, and found that they gave ever so slightly. Suddenly she knew what to do. Of course.
In a sudden, sharp motion, Kara yanked the lines.
The air between Brown and the soldier flickered and a man condensed from the dirty vapor. A pale, plainly dressed man, he was in a half-crouch, ready to launch himself at Brown. His eyes were steely and detached, looking absolutely unconcerned by the carnage strewn around his feet.
Both lasers fired.
The beams ricocheted into the atmosphere off an unseen shield. “You bastard . . .” Brown snarled, leaping toward the man, one hand already reaching for something at his belt, perhaps a blade.
The other soldier got off one more useless shot before the man mimed a throw, his arm moving in a lazy fashion. Quicksilver flashed. The soldier spun and coughed weakly, clutching at the knife buried to the hilt in his chest. Brown had crossed three quarters of the distance. Another gesture and the soldier, already in the process of falling, suddenly sported another blade in his throat. Without a sound, he fell to the ground with a delicate spiral.
Brown tackled the other man, sending both of them rolling along the ground, their bodies obscured by the billowing dust, the only sounds their wordless grunts and shouts. Kara saw Brown’s arm go up, and a second later a blade went flying, skittering along the ground, but she wasn’t sure who it belonged to. Brown got to his knees, lifting the other man up by the front of his shirt. The man’s expression never changed. With a rapid twist of his body he flung Brown back to the ground, although Brown recovered, grabbing the man and attempting to pull him down again while simultaneously clawing his way back to his feet. He flung a punch at the man that was easily blocked, although it threw the man off balance, leaving Brown to press the brief advantage.
The man skidded back a step, thrusting out his arms to shove Brown away from him. A second later there was a deafening boom that made Kara wince and Brown went flying, futilely covering his head as he slammed into the ground like a missile gone astray, bouncing and rolling several times in the dirt before coming to a halt face down.
Kara held her breath, waiting for him to get up. Don’t leave me alone! she thought frantically, her heart suddenly pounding so hard she couldn’t breathe.
Brown lay still. She couldn’t even see if he was still breathing.
“And then there was one,” a voice intoned, with lazy calm.
Kara looked up slowly to see the man’s eyes on her.
“G-get away,” she whispered, scrambling to her feet and backing toward the forest. “I’ll kill you, I swear.” Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He wouldn’t believe her if she kept looking frightened.
“You’re not one of them,” the man said, as if he hadn’t heard what she said. The buzzing was a scratching howl now, fogging her vision, pressing down on her shoulders until her legs felt like lead. Her pulse thundered in her ears. “Which then, of course, begs the question, what exactly are you doing here?”
“Ah . . .” Kara gasped, feeling the gnarled bark of a tree press painfully into the back. She tried to focus on the sensation. The noise filled her head like shrapnel, ripping her brain to pieces, tearing its way to the core, to herself, carving a path that wouldn’t stop until there was nowhere left to journey. “You . . .” Blinking tears from her eyes she concentrated, trying to see the noise as a cascading wind, laden with stinging particles. A simple solution presented itself to her, deliberate in its battered elegance. The air was corroded. So all she had to do was clear it.
With an effort that nearly sent her to the ground, Kara evicted all the air from her mind, feeling it depart with a speed that made her dizzy. Almost as an afterthought she followed it up with a seal, slamming shut every door she could find.
The man, now much closer than before, blinked and staggered back a step. Press the advantage always, said Ranos’ dry voice in her mind. Spying one of the lasers on the ground, she reached out and brought it to her, fumbling with it for a precious second before firing at the man, now nearly recovered.
Her aim was off. The blast winged his shoulder, spinning him around but not knocking him off balance. He stumbled and fell into a tree, his eyes boring into her.
Damn. She fired again.
This one bounced off the same shield as before. Grinning mirthlessly, the man said, “Excellent parry . . .” pushing himself off the tree, his grin only became wider as more lasers refracted harmlessly into the air around him, “but like most people, you know how to fight on only one front . . .”
Kara never saw it coming. Something punched her hard in the shoulder and her suddenly numb hand dropped the laser.
“. . . when you should be using two,” the man finished.
Looking down, she saw a branch sticking out of her body, a flagpole raised for the wrong reasons. Blood was already beginning to well around the wound, oil seeping from violated ground. The pain, stabbing and radiating, hit a second later. The bottom dropped out of her stomach and she felt suddenly sick. Automatically she moved her arm and felt wood scrape against bone. Her scream was cut off as she found it abruptly hard to breathe.
“Ah . . . I . . .” she gagged, sliding around the tree, the ground rising up to meet her. The man was taking several more steps toward her, his face the blandly bored expression from before. The pain was coming in waves, even breathing seemed to exacerbate it, and it was all she could do to not close her eyes and slip away. I won’t . . . I . . .
Footsteps rustled on the grass. A hammer prodded at her mind again.
No . . .
She tasted salt in her mouth. It had a stinging flavor.
A crack appeared in the wall. Somewhere far away she felt someone smile.
The man stopped at the sound of a brutal groaning and cracking. A second later his eyes widened as the tree nearest him broke completely in two in a shower of splinters, falling completely towards him. Instinctively he put his hands up but his form was lost seconds later in a cascade of branches and leaves as the tree crashed to the ground, burying him under it. A fine cloud of road dust sedately settled on the scene.
But Kara didn’t see any of that.
Alternately running and stumbling, she plunged deeper into the forest, barely looking at where she was going, her whole world ringed in pulsing waves of redness and haze, the pain paralyzing her throat, pushing her onward, desperate and frantic, thinking of the man, the soldiers, Brown, all of them behind her and getting further by the second.
Oh God oh God oh God . . .
Uncle Joe, I didn’t mean-
Exhaustion and terror called a halt to her flight as her legs finally gave out, falling to her knees on the forest floor, her eyes closed and her teeth clenched against the pain. The edge of the stick brushed the ground, jolting it, giving rise to a strangled shriek.
Coughing violently, Kara vomited, the acid stench filling her nose, mixing with her tears. “Ah . . . oh God . . . oh God,” she whimpered, coughing again and futilely wiping at her mouth. There was blood all over her shirt now, seeping into the fabric. It felt cool against her fevered skin. “Oh God . . . he . . . I tried . . . I . . .” she gasped, not sure who she was talking to, if anyone at all. “I’m sorry . . .” she whispered, tasting bile and salt.
With a stab of pain almost equal to her wound, she thought of her uncle again and with a strangled snarl fell back against the tree, nearly hitting her head in the process, her body trembling uncontrollably as she sobbed.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, to no one at all. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry . . .” before her words dissolved into something inarticulate, her cries tumbling like leaves onto the forest floor, settling into the soil and the air, breaking and then integrating into the quiet to become part of a patchwork that never was.
But nobody heard, except perhaps for the forest, which as usual gave no sign that it cared, one way or the other.