Born in war, can Talesh survive the aftermath?
| In his battle-worn, Holy-Terran pilot's jacket and solid-steel welder's goggles, Brannon the harbinger looked out-of-place amid nameless industrial buildings. As he scanned the emerald sky for signs of the enemy, the Holy Terran Armada, dust rose from his heavy footfalls.
Stomping up behind him, came seven feet of chrome and tech, an Eradis robot and her Indur handler. Brannon turned to sneer at the gleaming, mechanical devil-knight in the green Larrikesh sunlight as it lurched past him, at the head of a cloud of tan dust in the unpaved alleyway. A few steps ahead of the robot, a uniformed thug in shiny gray led the bot down the alley. The bored eyes of the Indur soldier assured Brannon that despite being public enemy number one, and dressing the part, he had been mistaken for one of his fans. Brannon sized them up and turned away.
A woman ran up behind them, her costume a mirror of Brannon's own. Save for the laser burns, her head shone bald as Brannon's. Her silver glasses hugged her cheeks like his goggles. Her black jacket displayed the same brassy flourishes. When Brannon squinted at her, captions appeared in the video feed. The name 'Talesh' flashed beneath her, and 'human.' No other comment: her glasses had no technical enhancements, no video or blinding attack lights; a weapon pulse would burn through her jacket more easily than flesh. They served no purpose other than to show her support for Brannon, or rather, the Brannon that her people imagined. A thousand men dressed like Brannon, along with perhaps two hundred women, as if this somehow might calm the rages of the Indur. The surviving Brannonites, despite their own mood, posed little threat to anybody. Brannon watched.
Her quick, noble stride belied a thready heartbeat and bony build—normal for a woman born of war. Seeing a shadow of his beloved, long-dead Emperor Sinead in Talesh, Brannon smiled and nodded.
Talesh raced toward Varkon, the Indur soldier. She stopped in the shadow of the Eradis bot and jabbed the shoulder of Varkon's uniform. "I got your number, you pig-faced lout!"
Varkon turned, slack-jawed. The massive cannon whirred to life. It could crush a person under its weight or blast a battleship from the sky, yet its nozzle hovered inches above the young woman's skull.
Her fists shook as she screamed in Varkon's face. "Oh, got all these weapons, you think you're so tough you can just up and kill anything you want! Not so tough are you, now!"
Don't you understand, I didn't damage their weapons—they can still kill on command! The bots would wait for the order to kill, per Brannon's meddling, but Brannon had never envisioned Talesh or her actions. What were they, outburst or demonstration? Either way, he did not want this woman's blood on his hands. He bit his lips and considered.
She spat on Varkon. Her arms and legs shook with the rage of
generations of terror. "Do you people understand what you've done to us? Burned our homes, killed our families. Even animals don't do that!"
It wasn't them, you fool, Brannon thought. Eradis robots, built to exterminate, could do nothing else. For centuries, local Eradis had murdered everything judged not perfectly lawful. Human violence and mercy had been irrelevant until Brannon put the people back in charge. That had been mere days ago. Now, Brannon wondered if he should instead have set the Eradis to kill the soldiers. Probably, but he could still help Talesh. "Brannon! Stop it, will you?"
Talesh never looked away from Varkon. "You're not even a man, are you? Just a boy. You want to kill me, don't you? Like the animal you think I am, the monster you want to be. So do it!"
She thinks I've stopped them altogether. Brannon searched his mind for a purpose behind Talesh's outburst, some reason for this risk. His own training should catch anything an amateur might try, but he came up with nothing. He pointed to the Eradis. "Don't you understand? This isn't safe. She can still kill you."
In fact, Varkon's hand rested on his gun as he pulled his head back and sideways. "I don't know, lady."
"Oh, now I am a 'lady?' I thought I was an obsolete, not even worth owning."
With the coming of cheap, cheerful bot labor, the slaves became a burden. With those bots and machines already abandoned, Talesh's people, 'the obsolete,' represent the remainder of that wreck, a caste of people with no rights and nobody to care about them.
"We're not all like that." The soldier's squint, jutting jaw, and pinched lips protested her accusation. "Everybody wanted to change things. The guy who stopped these bots was going to be the real Lar, the greatest warrior-king ever. Should have known it would be some engineer from the home world."
He indicated Brannon.
"Oh, yeah. Talk big and tough 'bout killing these things now. Right." Her rage spent, she kicked at the street and whined at the dust. "We know you blame us for scaring the Royals away."
When the Eradis took over the streets, the royalty abandoned the planet, leaving slave and soldier alike to fend for themselves. Some of the Indur soldiers, Varkon's ancestors, had blamed rebel slaves for the bot rampages. That had been centuries ago. No living person had a fingerprint on those crimes.
"Don't know." He shook his head, slow and subtle. "You want me to shoot ya. The others, they don't like cowards. They see this...."
Brannon grabbed Talesh by the shoulder. "Stop right there, Brannon."
She turned and punched Brannon in the nose.
The Eradis bot twitched, but never pulled the trigger.
Fortunately, the Eradis had to wait for the command; Brannon's viral hack ensured that. Yet, she existed only to exterminate. These machines, from the garbage of Brannon's own people, cut a swath through the history and soul of Larrikesh. As the cannon whirred and blood ran down his lip, Brannon focused his attention on the young woman.
"How dare you. You got a soft spot for these monsters?" Talesh pushed Brannon back, then looked closer and scoffed. "Wait, don't tell me. You're the real Lar Brannon? Isn't this why you did it?—so that we can show them what for."
Unarmed and noncombatant, Talesh and her people had no protection in her world, save those rights perceived by the Indur: men like this weary soldier. In time, the Indur goons might see Talesh as a person. Brannon grabbed Talesh's arm and pulled her farther away, addressing the soldier. "Do you know why this young woman is still alive? It's not because of me, or the bot, and it's not because there's something wrong with you. That's goodness; that's honor; that's what leadership is all about."
She shook Brannon off. "Don't tell me you see something good in—in this, this—"
"Don't you?" Brannon eyed him. "The man let you scream and spit on him. He didn't have to do that."
She sobbed and hit Brannon in the shoulders with her forearms. "Don't you get it? I never slept a night in my life. Always thought the dumbots would kill me before I woke." She kicked at the bot and resumed smacking Brannon.
Brannon took her first five swats, 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 voice growled, low, tired. "Looking over our shoulders, never knowing if some greedy comrade or petulant boss will blow us away. At least, if you obeyed the laws—"
"Things have only begun to change." Brannon shook her and glared at the man, trying to explain the danger their world faced. "You're going to face a new enemy, and soon. It had better be together, as friends, with all your weapons."
Her hands shook so bad, she couldn't feel Brannon tugging at them. Crying so hard she couldn't see, she pulled her hands loose. "Don't care. It's finally over. I can go now." She grabbed Varkon's pistol and backed away.
Varkon groaned and looked away.
She pointed it first at Varkon, then flashed it at Brannon for an instant.
"You've got your reason. Give the order! You hear me? Give the damn order."
The sight of Talesh brandishing the gun made Brannon's wrist itch, as the Holy Terran machines inside him tried to retake control.
"I'll do it!"
"Please?" Brannon put up his hands. "Nobody has to get hurt today."
"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 like that. Talesh?" Brannon reached for his pills: liperium d, so potent the Empire banished anybody who used it, would give her the strength she needed. His own dosage running thin, he considered taking one himself. An agent always needed a little extra willpower.
Varkon glared and fingered a button on his holster. "I should let you do it, you know. You deserve some peace."
Her shoulders softened; her hands steadied.
The soldier grabbed the pistol by the barrel and pulled it from her. "Knew I'd be glad I invested in that trigger lock." The man's weapon knew Talesh had no right to fire it. He put it back, blinking back a tear, then put his hand on her shoulder.
"You two have a lot to talk about." Brannon stepped back.
"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?"
She sat down, shrugged, and squinted at Brannon, eyebrows pulled down. "Probably."
Assuming she meant for him to leave, Brannon stepped back further, put up his hands. "It's okay. I have business."
"No, Brannon. Wait; where is she?" Talesh shaded her eyes.
Brannon's nerves exploded with the desire to run. He had locked Scarlett in the ship, to get away from her and her power over him. She was safe, but he couldn't explain to Talesh, or even to himself, why he had trapped his friend in there. First, he had to find out whether she had filled his mind with lies—or if it had been the empire.
"My Scarlett's gone. A dumbot purge. You were there. He saw you, I think—moments before."
Realizing she cared nothing for his own sins, Brannon slowed his breathing. Scarlett had followed him since she arrived, so sometimes, brannonites traveled in pairs, one of them dressed as Scarlett instead.
Talesh continued. "We know why you're here. Not all of us, just a few. You're not the first rogue, Terran agent cutting a swath of destruction through the wild black."
Brannon nodded. More disinformation. He had been, always, so very careful to preserve lives.
"You don't see it, do you?" She shook her head. "Being the good guy doesn't make you a good guy. If you had been, not one of Scarlett's sisters would ever have chosen you."
Varkon rubbed his nose. "What?"
"The red-haired mindwitch. Scarlett, right? This one calls herself 'Scarlett.'" Talesh laughed, and pointed to Brannon. "Just like him, I guess. Drawn to the stink of evil, driven to put things right. When I saw you'd finally come, I thought this world was done for. The day we'd been waiting for, since before things went bad."
Varkon coughed his laugh. "You thought we were done for. The Indur."
Talesh shrugged, not arguing. "Then I saw Scarlett choose him. Nothing scarier than hope in the face of an apocalypse." She pulled out a box and bit down on it. Smoke came out of her nose, and a hint of the familiar burned rubber, a slight blush on her lips before she tossed the empty box in frustration.
"Not sure what I'm hearing." Brannon scratched at the implant on his wrist as it strained to even out his hormones. He had blocked it from functioning, so it bothered him whenever he got excited.
"I'm a monster, Brannon. They say that you should have stopped the Zahiti making weapons, but I would have done it, too. Turned their weapons against them. Every last one of them would have died, not just a few."
Lies! Brannon couldn't stop his glare, hard as he tried. He had destroyed their weapons, at least, as far as he remembered. The bots did stop making weapons, but only for a few days. When the war machine resumed, massive carnage began. Their bombs turned on them, destroying schools and hospitals. Brannon wanted to scream, to block out the news vids Talesh was sending his mind—was Talesh psychic?—but contented himself with adjusting his goggles. The deaths were faked, of course; imperial victims were not lucky enough to die.
"That is, until you saved the dumbots." Talesh's lips quivered. "If you can't give them a soul, give them a friend, a Scarlett. That boy was mine. Without him, I'm a terrorist from a doomsday cult. I have to go."
Varkon coughed and scratched behind his ear. "You know, there's more than one person has a good head on his shoulders."
Talesh stared through the wall, into the distance, as if she were talking to the Stars. "I don't know, Varkon. I just ... don't know."
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. "I could wait till after you feed me."
He pulled her to her feet and slapped her on the back. "That's thinking like a soldier. Plenty of time to die tomorrow."