A prescription for when there's nothing scarier than hope.
|Dust from Brannon's footfalls rose toward the green sky of Larrikesh.
Clear skies meant only that Brannon could not yet see Scarlett or the Beautiful Stranger on the horizon, though with each hour Brannon wasted, they drew nearer, eager to decide the fate of this helpless colony. Brannon considered the view of himself, the only living thing in the valley between cold cement buildings, a tiny pawn looking lost and alone scanning the skies. He found that a suitable disguise for this hopeless mission. A disabled implant buzzed within his wrist, nagging him to let it soothe his raging hormones and bend his will for the glory of the empire. He shook his head and reached for the raw skin, careful not to reactivate it as he scratched.
Boots thundered behind Brannon. In the rearview of his goggles, a massive silver robot kicked up a cloud of dust. Gleaming green in the Larrikesh sunlight, she brandished a ship's cannon like a rifle and followed a bored-eyed young man in a silver-gray uniform.
The Eradis bot could only fire on command, so Brannon squinted at the man in charge of her. A caption popped up in his video feed: "Varkon, human, Indur, Vereg syndicate." Brannon left the report on Varkon's equipment unopened. For the moment, Varkon looked at Brannon with the nonchalant expression appropriate to any insane Brannonite protester. Brannon shrugged and turned away.
A woman ran behind Varkon. Her costume mirrored Brannon's. Save for the laser burns on her scalp, her head shone bald as Brannon's. Her silver glasses hugged her cheeks like his solid steel goggles and her black jacket displayed the same brassy, imperial markings. Beneath her, the caption read: "Talesh, human, Obsolete. No family." No other comment, and no technical report.
Her quick, noble stride belied a thready heartbeat and bony build--normal for a woman born and raised in war. Her glasses had no technical enhancements, unlike his goggles; her jacket would provide no protection from a weapon pulse. The clothes served no purpose other than social, to say something about Brannon, at least the Brannon her people imagined, in line with the inexplicable brannonite fad. On another level, this woman showed him something almost holy, the shadow of his ancient emperor, Sinead I. In spite of himself, he smiled.
Talesh grabbed Varkon's shoulder. "I have your ident, you pig-faced...."
The cannon in the Eradis' hand clunked and whirred as she aimed it at Talesh, blotting out Talesh's speech and blowing about Varkon's hair. The scent of hot wires filled the spiced air as she held this ship-destroying weapon inches from the woman's bare head.
Brannon shuddered. Dokhezvok! Don't you understand, I didn't destroy their weapons. He never envisioned some helpless obsolete trying to outscream a cannon. None of the textbooks he had memorized, hundreds of pages on campaigns and tactics, made any sense of her plans. As if some new caption might reveal all, he squinted at this woman bent on ending in protest, and whispered, "Oh! Sweet Sinead."
Talesh shook her fist at Varkon. "Do you understand what you've done? Our homes, our families. Even lizards don't do that!"
It wasn't them! The Eradis, exterminators pressed into service as police, deserved the blame. They could no more answer for their crimes than could Varkon. This woman risked their lives provoking a bystander. Brannonites like Talesh answered to their assumed name. "'Brannon!' Stop this, will you?"
Ignoring Brannon, Talesh screamed harder at Varkon, till her voice lost power. "You're not even a man, are you? Just a boy. You want to kill me, don't you?"
Varkon shrugged, shook his head.
Talesh wiped a tear from her eye. "Like the animal you think I am, the monster you want to be. So do it!"
Talesh could not hear reason through the din of such rage, but might absorb it and make it her own. Brannon pointed at the cannon, which would vaporize anybody within fifteen feet of Talesh: all three of them. "She can still destroy."
Varkon's hand hovered over his holster, and he tilted his head away from her, as far away as it could get. "Don't know, lady."
"Now I'm a lady? I thought I was an Obsolete, not even worth owning."
"We're not like that. Not all." The soldier's jaw stuck out, his lips tightened into a frown.
She stared at him.
"Everybody boasted of changing things, of being the real Lar." Varkon waved at Brannon, both of them.
Of course. The most vile gangsters eventually want the killing to stop. Yet nobody, not even Sinead, could tell an Eradis to hold her fire. This had gone on for three hundred years. The Indur that did it would have become legend, a new king for a new age. Finally, Brannon's bots mastered the Eradis and recoded them. Brannon, however, had never thought to put that particular sword in the stone. In apology, Brannon showed his palms, and nodded for Varkon to continue.
Varkon shook his head, kicked at the dirt. "We shoulda known. Our new king is some engineer from the home world."
"Talk big and tough about killing these things now. Right." She looked down, and whimpered, "We know you blame us. For scaring the royals."
Fear jolted Brannon. Abandoned by their leaders, the Indur had gone feral. To many of them, the Obsolete were so much worse than litter, worse than a swarm of throwaways. As Talesh reminded Varkon, the Obsolete could easily be blamed for the death of their homeland, for the rogue Eradis that plagued the palace killing all who entered, even centuries later. Though it might be too late, Brannon reached for Talesh.
Varkon shook his head, slow and subtle. "You want me to shoot? The others don't like cowards. They see this...."
That hung over their head with the menace of an Eradis cannon. Brannon pulled on Talesh's arm. "Stop right there, 'Brannon.'"
She turned and punched him.
The cannon clicked again, turbines moving ever faster.
The blood on Brannon's lip didn't bother him, and he smirked at the eager pitch of the cannon's whir. He had hacked the Eradis, turned them into snipers rather than exterminators. The people, however, would resist; outside the empire, humans always did. He put his gaze on them, squared off with Talesh.
"How dare you! You got a soft spot for these monsters?" Talesh pushed Brannon against the cement, then leaned forward and scoffed. "Wait, you're the real Brannon? But, this is why you did it—I can make him see."
That hit Brannon where he needed: Talesh's mission here had never been protest, never been about the Indur or what they would do. She wanted one man to see, even if it meant him killing her. Brannon wanted Varkon to feel safe, to see Talesh--if at all--from a distance. Like a parent on a playground, Brannon grabbed Talesh's arm and dragged her farther away, addressing the soldier. "Do you know why this woman still lives? Not because of the bot. Not because there's anything wrong with you."
Varkon laughed. "No?"
"That's goodness; that's honor; that's leadership."
Varkon scratched under his nose while Talesh squirmed in Brannon's grip. "Used to call us the Leadership."
A flash of relief welled up. In the man's own words, Varkon admitted that protecting Talesh was part of what it means to be Indur--maybe, even the real meaning. To drive the point home, Brannon continued."The Indur stood for something, once. For this."
Varkon looked down, frowned.
Talesh shook Brannon off. "Don't tell me you see something good in—in this, this—" Sobs choked, and tears blinded, this full-grown daughter of war.
Brannon fought off the urge to hug away her tears, and whispered in her ear. "Don't you? The man let you spit on him."
She sobbed and hit Brannon in the shoulders with her forearms. "Don't you get it? I never slept a night in my life. The dumbots would blast me before I woke." She kicked dust at the bot and resumed smacking Brannon.
Brannon swatted away the dust she kicked up, then grabbed her wrists, glancing up at the skies.
"You think it's easy for us." The soldier pulled at the collar of his dull, silver-gray uniform, and shook his head at the Eradis. His tired voice growled, low. "Looking over our shoulders, for that greedy soldier or vindictive boss. At least, if you obeyed the laws—"
Brannon tried not to think of what would happen to the two when his own boss arrived. "Things have only begun to change." Brannon shook her and glared at the man.
Talesh kicked him as Varkon stared.
"You're going to face a new enemy, and soon." He glanced at the skies between blows. "It can be together, or..."
Her hands quaked; she did not react to Brannon tugging them. Her flooded eyes stared down. "Don't care. It's finally over. I can go now." She jerked away and grabbed Varkon's pistol and backed out of reach, wiping her tears on her sleeve.
Varkon groaned and looked to the side.
She pointed it first at Varkon, then flashed it toward Brannon before returning to the soldier. "You've got your reason. Give the order! You hear me? Give the damned order."
Talesh's brandishing made Brannon's wrist buzz in tune with the cannon.
"I will do it!"
"Please?" Brannon put up his hands. The thought of Sinead's execution blotted everything out, all but stopped him even noticing Varkon's calm stance. "Sweet Sinead, not this one too."
Varkon watched, impassive; his heart rate lowered one beat per minute.
"What's wrong with you—don't you even want to live?" She pointed the gun at her chin. "If you won't do it, I will."
"No, 'Brannon,' please. Not this time. Talesh?" Brannon grabbed his pills: liperium d. If the medicine could derealize his strongest convictions like a fading dream, they could wall off her anxiety--and prevent this dokhezvok. He almost dropped the bottle from the buzz in his wrist. A dose would stifle that implant, too; he pulled two pills.
Varkon glared and fingered a button on his holster. "I should let you do it, you know. You deserve peace."
Her shoulders softened; her hands steadied.
The soldier grabbed the pistol by the barrel and pulled it from her fingers. "Knew I'd be glad I invested in that trigger lock." Varkon put the weapon back, blinked back a tear, and put his hand on her shoulder for an instant.
Not entirely induratized, I see. Brannon nodded at that and stepped back. "You two have a lot to talk about."
Varkon smiled down at her. "Let me get you something decent to eat. Can I do that, Brannon?"
"I..." She choked, looked down, then nodded. "Call me Talesh."
"Name's Varkon." The soldier led her by the shoulder, toward a shaded end of the alley. "What was that about? You gonna try that again?"
Eyebrows tense, she sat down, shrugged, and squinted at Brannon. "Probably."
Sure that his welcome had expired, he nodded. "Ah, s'okay. I have business."
"No, Brannon, wait. Where is she?" Talesh shaded her eyes.
The ragged edges of Talesh's costume, the odd tattoos on her neck, the graceful tilt of her head: it all reminded him of Scarlett. How could he answer, when he could not put it into words? Scarlett healed him, deep down. With her at hand, everything made sense. Trouble was, she wasn't the first person to completely reset his bearings. The beautiful stranger had done the same, so powerfully he had had to erase half his mind to get away. That meant he had to get away from them both. So, he had locked Scarlett away on his ship. She deserved better, and he would see to that once he could trust his own mind. He scanned the alleyway for an escape and shook his head. Wire-barred windows and walls without doors forced him to face his accuser. He tried to swallow.
"My Scarlett's gone." Near to crying for an instant, Talesh looked far off into the distance. "You were there, Brannon. He saw you, I think--before."
Talesh cared nothing for his own sins, meant to describe her own partner, no doubt dead from an Eradis strike. Had she been an early adopter? Brannon slowed his breathing.
"We know why you're here. A few of us." She let that sink in. "You're not the first rogue, Terran agent cutting a swath of destruction through the wild black."
Disinformation.The lives had not been destroyed, at least, not the bodies, though that might have been better. The good news didn't always travel well. He nodded.
"You don't see it, do you? Being the good guy?" She frowned, gave her head a slow shake. "Doesn't make you a good guy. If it did, Scarlett's sisterhood would never have chosen you."
Varkon rubbed his nose. "What?"
"The red-haired mindwitch. Scarlett, right? Calls herself 'Scarlett.'" Talesh laughed, and pointed to Brannon. "She's like you, I guess: drawn to the stink of evil."
Varkon and Brannon waited.
"You'd finally come. 'The Harbinger.'" She leaned back, rolled her eyes up. "I thought this world done for."
Varkon coughed his laugh. "You thought we were done for. The Indur."
Talesh shrugged, not arguing. "Then Scarlett chose him. Nothing scarier than hope in the face of apocalypse." She pulled out a box and bit down on it. Smoke came out of her nose, and a hint of burned rubber. Her lips blushed a shade before she coughed and tossed the empty box.
"Not sure what I'm hearing." Brannon rubbed at the implant on his wrist.
"I'm a monster, Brannon. You stopped the Zahiti making weapons, and they say you should have left it that. But no. I would have done like you did. Every last one of them would have died, not just a few."
Lies! Brannon couldn't soften his glare, hard as he tried. He gripped the pills in his hand, and considered taking one right there. He remembered the Zahitti, speaking to their weapon-making bots, but had erased the memory of the end game. Of course they had kidnapped those people before the weapons went off, so that the Armada could rush in. He knew he would never have hurt so many people. The thought of the beautiful stranger at the head of the Armada brought the first warning pulse of the headache to his temples, and he brushed the thought away with a wave of his hand.
"That is, until you saved the dumbot's souls." Talesh's lips quivered.
Varkon's eyes opened at that.
"Can't give them a soul, give them a friend. That boy-Scarlett was mine. Without him, I'm a terrorist from a doomsday cult. I have to go."
Brannon tried desperately not to think of Sinead's own terrible protest: firing squad, by her own command. He put his hand on his mouth.
Varkon coughed and scratched behind his ear. "You know, more than one person has a good head on his shoulders."
Talesh stared through the wall, into the distance. "I don't know, Varkon. I just ... don't know."
"Me either." Varkon reached out his hand to Talesh. "That's a start. Don't sound like a terrorist at all."
Talesh sighed and took his hand, let him help her up. Her blue eyes stared up at the man. "I could wait till after you feed me."
Varkon pulled her to her feet and slapped her on the back. "That's thinking like a soldier. Plenty of time to die tomorrow."
Tomorrow she would die, probably. For all the hope that moment ignited, Talesh had won nothing, not yet. She had barely begun to fight, and Brannon held all she would ever need. Liperium could shelter her, give her life and health everlasting. With the recipe for these pills, Brannon could decide her fate, the way that he wished someone had done for Sinead. Did anybody have that right, though? Imperial citizens did not have the choice Talesh had, the choice Sinead had died to give them. He returned one pill to the bottle.
Varkon led Talesh away, his hand on her shoulder.
Varkon looked like the big brother Talesh never had. In that moment, for a hand that could guide him through, he would eagerly turn his back on the colony worlds. Scarlett offered that to him, then and now, but he needed to clear his mind, not let himself be seduced. In the markings on that pill, he imagined, the imperial authority had printed the answer. Liperium would take the edge off reality. Once derealization set in, he could see the field of play, identify pieces moving about him, and within him. He had to use it against them, sacrifice his heart for clarity. He frowned and swallowed.