| They stopped when they reached the peak of the volcanic ridge, but the torrents of black smoke did not. The two paused for a few moments, resting their backs on the ridge and staring up at the molten sky so they could avoid the blank gazes of so many faces. He spoke first.
“Should we look, Kaishé?”
She lowered her eyes to the invisible horizon, as if she could discern something significant in the blackness. Without answering, she spun around to face the rock, scrabbled up a few more feet, and propped herself on her wrists. Her bodyguard followed her lead, and for a minute the noise of the battlefield died away as they stared intently into the deep basin.
The two of them provided the only color variety in the scene. They wore the distinctive scarlet armor reserved for the Kaishés and their personal detachments, based on that sect’s collective genetic desirability. For the moment, the duo was no longer hunted, but they would have been easy prey against the charcoal landscape and sky of Brugge.
Finally, the Kaishé grew impatient and began to climb over the line of the ridge. Her escort immediately gripped her shoulder.
“Wait!” he whispered, more from awe than caution.
“What is it?!” Her irritation was evident as she hissed back at him.
“Well…” Embarrassment played across his face, but he voiced his fear anyway. “What about the… the rumors… about the Sound-Hunters?”
The Kaishé knew that her loyal guard would not understand the scientific nature of the Brugge facility’s security system, so she simply assuaged him by assuring him that she possessed the equipment necessary to avoid the threat. As he watched, unconvinced, she sat on the jagged stone and lifted one boot. She showed him the activation switch for her sonic dampeners as she continued to address his superstitions.
“Watch, Alex,” she said, flipping the switch. He was unimpressed until she took a few steps along the ridge without a single audible sound. No crunching of pebbles or scraping of volcanic rock. Nothing.
“Amazing, Lady, your wonders never cease!” Suddenly cognizant of the doubt he had displayed, he lowered his eyes. “I am sorry to have questioned your wisdom…”
She waved off his contrition, already making her way down into the basin. “Stay here; I’ll be right back.” She only completed one more step before she was halted again.
“Kaishé? Must we do this?”
“It’s the only way I know.”
“How many are there?”
“If the information I’ve been given is correct, about twenty-five.” He clearly wanted to delay her again, but he either lacked the spirit or a reason to put into words, so he simply watched intently as she descended silently from their position. Lifting his gaze slightly, he examined her destination with equal focus.
The building first looked like a giant cubic mirror, but further inspection revealed it to be composed of hundreds of reflective windows. The facility’s artistic conception seemed wasted and out of place on a smoky, hellish world like Brugge, but Alex imagined it sitting along the Neary River in early summer and suddenly felt very homesick. His sentimentality contrasted sharply with the logical thoughts that possessed the Kaishé just a hundred yards away.
It took very little time or trouble to reach the basin, and once she did, she approached the scientific facility by the quickest navigable path. She took no pains to conceal herself, knowing that the battle was distracting any who might interfere with her. In spite of everything, though, she was still a human being, and irrational thoughts about the volume of her breathing haunted her. No one knew for certain how many decibels were needed to trigger the grid…
However, her fears were unwarranted. A short time later, Alex saw the Kaishé walk from behind the cubic structure, having planted the last metamite charge just as her Tactical Advisor had shown her before they left Arene. He watched her stride purposefully, but not too quickly, toward him. He thought only of her safe extraction after the successful detonation of the charges, while she ruminated on what she had just seen through the windows of the clandestine facility. She considered what she would never, could never explain to anyone else in her lifetime. Long ago, there were some who could have sympathized, but no longer.
As one approached the structure, the building’s windows became transparent, revealing their contents without bias or judgment. Even though the Kaishé had mentally prepared for the vision she knew would be there, she still choked back a gasp when actually presented with over one hundred exact copies of herself. They were arranged on three floors, each living in her own clear chamber, involuntarily standing. They were conscious, staring out at her, incapable of speech, but… all too real. Despite her resolve, it took a great deal of willpower to turn silently on her heels and leave them behind.
As their transport rose from the planet, Alex continued to mull the craggy mystery of Brugge through his only continued connection to it. His eyes searched the wispy yet opaque clouds that concealed events he was not privy to, facts too important for the Kaishé to reveal to him. He shifted his gaze down to her cot and watched her sleep. His naiveté and wonder generated a deceptively comforting shell around the horrific dreams in her unwilling unconsciousness.
She bore no external signs of her anguish, but inside her head, one hundred screams condemned themselves. One hundred facets of the same gem reconnected themselves in a sustained screech that maintained a blindingly high pitch. One hundred aspects of a human personality fed on each other, opposing forces hunting themselves in a quest to compose a single mind. A soul torn in one hundred pieces sought to quilt itself back together in a new and unprecedented form. Its immortality was certain, but its eventual loss of cohesion seemed equally unstoppable.