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The hollow beneath the bandage radiates more questions than pain. I depress the empty socket in effort to see something I missed on the surface of Sizlack Prime. The revelation is there somewhere, even if my eye’s gone.
A proximity alarm buzzes.
I pound the release for manual navigation. Nothing happens. A quick reference to my skin temperature, -54 degrees celsius, reveals my grag-level mistake. Too much belly-button gazing.
The proximity alarm intensifies. I close my good eye, engage sub-thermal survival protocols, and spin them up all the way. As the frost covering the backs of my hands sublimates, I slam my burning hot palms onto the frozen controls.
The proximity alarm counts down the distance until collision with what appears to be a significant scrap of debris—2500 meters, 1400 meters, 300 meters. A slight tremor throughout the vessel reveals manual controls are active before the OnBoard Artificial Intelligence announces the fact—thanks for nothing, Pearl. I flick a booster in time to narrowly avoid a breach in the stasis ring I’m relying on to return me and my dead partner to Core Space. The last thing I need right now is another hole to patch.
I deactivate my sub-therm and chew out Pearl. “At this rate, we won’t even reach the Torriad Medical Ring, much less return Ranger 799’s body to Al-Aqsa. When were you gonna help? After my frozen body floated out the viewfinder?” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Pearl?”
“Awaiting your most precious instructions.”
“How about, don’t let us die out here.”
“Am I correct in assuming you desire to authorize proactive engagement protocols on the behalf of your OnBoard Artificial Intelligence unit?”
“Oh for the love, I said I was sorry. How many times do I have to explain it? It’s standard protocol to leave one OBAI in charge of a ring vessel in absence of a Templar. Ranger 799 had seniority. I deferred, for Yuan’s sake.”
The thought of my terminated Templar partner tempts me toward a fresh cycle of naval gazing. I busy myself by manually computing and setting a new course for the Torriad Medical Ring, named after the Mid-Hibernal doctor who first discovered how to diversify an entire slave population from the genetic material of a single ancestral human.
I spin my chair to face aft and throw of my harness. “Forget it. I’m going for a walk.” I manually climb up through the docking shaft and into the ring.
Ironically, I suppose I owe Doc Torriad a debt of gratitude. His technique was the basis for the creation of myself and all my Templar kin. Unfortunately, the renegade Technocrat Riarin manipulated the same technology to infest the universe with his Chromiums. Heterochromia iridum—one green eye and one brown eye—has become the calling sign for chaos and insurrection throughout all of the Hiberverse.
But without Chromes there would be no Templar. And for twenty years, I’ve found what I suppose primitive humanity would have called satisfaction in killing Chromes.
Not that the killing itself is satisfying, although I suppose it could be for some. I find satisfaction in being effective at my designed purpose—highly effective. Even with ninety-three weeks of STL travel interspersed throughout my span as Templar, I’ve logged 6,322 kills.
Each of them individually, by hand. No cowardly orbital attacks, no collateral damage. Not a single innocent killed. Never a Chrome surviver, until Sizlack Prime.
My perfect record destroyed. I search my catalogue of primitive human languages until arriving at French—my favorite for expressing melancholy. C’est la vie. The French must have been an interesting people.
The immortal words of my combat instructor interrupt my introspection. No matter the circumstance, he had the same three words—shake it off. A poked out eyeball? Shake it off. I dead partner? Shake it off. No problem. I can shake all that off and more. But my gnarled thought process, that’s another matter entirely.
With arms stretched overhead, I drag my knuckles along the smooth membrane of the ring as I walk. The hibernaculated steel of the ring is only three millimeters thick and yet strong enough to repel most advanced ballistic weaponry.
Now a slag humper, as old-school and nasty as they are, no hiber-steel barrier will protect against one of those. And of course no amount of armor will defend against a black hole. The downside of detonating black holes is of course the inquiries and reports—that is, unless you’re a pirate.
Ah, fringe space. Allez savoir pourquoi.
Slag humpers, pirates, and black holes are all part of the change of pace made possible by jaunty rambles into fringe space. I enjoy all those things, truly. It’s the days and months of introspection that weigh down a man’s soul—if he has a soul to start with.
I’ll leave the debate over the metaphysical and spiritual status of the Templar up to the Technocracy. Those sorts of academic debates have little value when making split second, life or death decisions. Besides, during the 450 years since the conception of the Templar Cloning Program no definitive answer has been provided. And I doubt an answer’s coming during my fifty.
A full diagnostic on the ring shows no further degradation. Operational efficiency remains at 82.6%—a surprisingly high number considering the three months of STL travel. I optimize climate controls for mechanical systems and high step back to my Razor-class vessel. “Pearl, synthesize and replay all visual feedback from the mission on Sizlack Prime.”
“I’m gonna need a little more relevant information, slick, unless you want me to begin with your space dive?”
“35%. A full 36% higher than yours.”
“Hilarious. Start sixty seconds before engaging the zealots.”
“There isn’t much to look at. Your left eye was responsible for visual recording.”
“It hadn’t dumped the footage into my brain?”
“Defaults are set to dump every twenty minutes. First dump came eighteen seconds into your engagement with the zealots, and your eye was damaged before the next one.”
“Peaceful fifty.” I press the heels of my hands into my eyes. Green streaks of lightning radiate across the blackness of my closed right eye. Nothing but frustration radiates from the empty socket on the left. I find it intolerable that my long-anticipated trip to Sizlack Prime ended in chaos and failure. “Display the eighteen seconds you’ve got.”
“Will do, boss. Starting sixty seconds before engagement.”
I settle into the command chair to relive the 3D projection within the cramped space of my Razor. The visual of the water-slicked stone courtyard of the temple is immediately accompanied by the humidity against my skin and the ever-present scent of blossoming mosses and flowering vines—decay balanced with cimarron honey.
The grounds are too quiet. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. Ranger 799 pushes the brim of his hat further over his eyes. From across the courtyard, he nods at my silent inquiry. He feels it too. The temple grounds are pregnant with conflict before the engagement has begun.
Our mission dossier lists one Chrome, a zealot assassin, dwelling at this location. Known combat training: Krazlin martial arts culminating with mastery of the water dagger. I struggle to subdue my excitement over finally deploying the most brutally graceful weapon in all the Hiberverse in hand to hand combat with the most mysterious and long-standing sect in any hibernaculated culture.
Krazlin zealots had not been scripted in the original architecture of the HC. Their sudden appearance early in the development of Sizlack Prime had never been explained. And until now, never have the Templar been deployed to the remote HC. Never has a Ranger fought a Krazlin zealot. For thirty years, I’ve longed to be the first.
I glance at the charged water dagger in my hand. I flex my fingers on the hilt. As a result, the blade of water widens into a razor sharp fan. With a subtle adjustment and a mild movement of my wrist, the blade returns to a blunt dagger designed to impact on the downstroke and tear with the up. When it comes to blade fighting, I like my opponent to know they’ve been cut.
I reach a small channel in the stone floor of the temple courtyard. Crystal-clear water accelerates through the channel until it reaches the edge of the continent-sized hibernaculum—an invisible barrier less than a meter to my right. For the cloned human chattel that dwell within Sizlack Prime, all of existence and knowledge ends at the edge of their hibernaculated culture. Nothing exists beyond the invisible barrier except forbidden ocean.
The barrier itself, in this particular instance, is visible only by the uprising curtain of water. Despite my water dagger being fully charged, I run it and my hand through the tiny river curtain. The uprising water glimmers with replete designer biomimetic dark matter—the sole purpose for this continent-sized charade. The DBDM swims and eddies around my flesh, repelled by Templar design.
A very different strain of designer biomimetic dark matter powers over one hundred hibernaculated augmentations to my human body. Contamination between the two could not only kill me, but destroy decades of fine-tuning for Sizlack Prime.
I leap the channel. As my boots touch down, the silent glint of water daggers from across the courtyard indicate my partner and I have stumbled into a choreographed assault from zealots capable of curtain swimming.
I flare my fingers on the hilt of my dagger. With a flick of my wrist, I lash out with the weapon more as a razor-sharp tendril than a blade. My whip slashes through the uprising water as I take a knee to avoid the incoming assault.
A boot collides with my back and sends me head over heals. I squeeze the hilt of my weapon to project the water of my blade into a long sword. The moment I spin to face my attackers, the blade unfurls, giving me four feet of reach.
Even that length isn’t enough to engage the three zealots that have danced into a cautious semi-circle while backing me against the invisible hibernaculum barrier. Bred to believe in the taboo of the barrier, they can’t understand that it means nothing to a Templar from outside their pathetic world. Still, plunging into the ocean would provide little to no strategical advantage.
I focus all sensory perception on identifying the Chrome from among the attackers. Radical BDM swarms the temple grounds preventing an accurate scan, and the zealots’ hoods shield their eyes. The window to determine innocents from targets closes as a zealot clothed in a red robe fans his dagger into a sail and leaps overhead.
Brown Robe lunges forward. Morphing his weapon from short sword to trident, he jabs directly at my face. I slice through the prongs of the trident with my sword, dispelling a fair portion of his water. Dipping to one knee, I spin toward the only zealot in black.
Black Robe repels my strike by bounding his forearm off the broad side of my blade. The brazen counter catches me off guard. More importantly, his tactic leaves his dagger free to attack.
I release my index finger and squeeze my pinkie on the hilt of my weapon. While reversing the momentum of my swing, the water blade coils around my arm just in time to block a strike that would have cut my in twain.
A fluttering overhead reminds me of Red Robe. I tap my fingers on the hilt in succession and slam a javelin of razor sharp water upward. Slicing flesh and bone the same as air, a scream is the only indication that my water weapon has hit home.
Brown Robe attacks with a new level of vigor, perhaps acknowledging his dying comrade. Black Robe positions himself to block my easiest retreat. Dead or alive, Red is a split second from falling on top of me.
The projection blanks.
“The end, slick. The rest is nothing but thermal imaging recorded by your intact eyeball.”
“Peaceful fifty! I didn’t even record a single face?”
“You didn’t die either. Small victories, or so they say.”
“Who says that? Under multiple circumstances, survival doesn’t even constitute as victory. I can’t even—”
“It’s an expression, you twit.”
“Scale back hostility parameters 15%.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
I lace my fingers behind my head and rack my brain. “Show me the view.”
“One-hundred and eighty degree external view, coming up.”
The top and front portion of my ship disappear suddenly, leaving nothing but the expanse of space. The experience catches my stomach in my throat, even after all these years. I feel the captain’s chair beneath me. I know the ship’s hull still cocoons me. But my heart thrills for just a moment at something fleeting. Before I can identify the sensation, it’s gone. Full awareness of my confounding situation returns.
Nothing about my encounter on Sizlack Prime makes sense. Then again, the whole process had been muddled from the moment the report reached Templar Central on Al-Aqsa.
Within seconds of noticing the report, I had logged my interest. Minutes after that, the report from Sizlack Prime had been flagged as potentially erroneous. Even when reinstated, the priority had been lowered. As a low priority, fringe space assignment, the report languished for months.
During the wait I redoubled my regular sparring routines with the water dagger. I reread the entire file on Krazlin zealots. I appealed my higher-priority assignments a dozen times, until forcing the matter before Lord Porcilous himself. Three months ago, I’d been ushered into his chambers for a rare face-to-face.
“I’m fully aware of your private obsession with Sizlack Prime, Ranger 878.”
As an Apex Lord of the Remembrance Faction, Porcilous’ physical appearance, as well as his chambers, reflects his belief in mind over matter. Though I know his habit of maintaining one physical artifact on or near his person, his abilities are too flawless for me to identify the real from projection. I stop within three paces of his desk, not daring to draw nearer.
“While your behavior thus far has been deemed negligible divergence, I find the regularity of your appeals over these last few months highly disturbing.”
“I’m by far the most qualified for a mission that has been inexplicably marginalized for over six months.”
“Sizlack Prime is on a fringe world three months removed from the nearest jump gate. Do you challenge my strategic leadership of the Templar?”
“Never, my Lord. You know such a thing is an impossibility for me.”
“I know, my son. I shouldn’t speak such words.” Porcilous turns away from me. “You know how stretched the Templar have been these last months. With the rise of the Immunity and Chaos Factions, we must play our cards even more cautiously, lest they remove unanimous Council support of the Templar and our efforts.”
“No High Race would dare. The Hiberverse would bleed green within a dozen years without the Templar.”
“You and I know this to be true. The newer Apex Lords take our work for granted. They’ve not been exposed to the Chromium plagues, nor grappled face to face with the warrior infested.”
I step closer to Lord Porcilous, risking his ire. From this close, his two-and-a-half-meter projected frame towers over me. “You and I both know the immense value of Sizlack Prime. During the centuries that the Templar have eradicated Chromes, never has there been a report involving Sizlack’s first and most prized hibernaculated culture. For these past six months, we’ve risked corruption there. What do you think the Fortitude would do if Sizlack Prime were to erode beyond viable parameters?”
Porcilous bends down and leans forward until our foreheads nearly touch. “There would be war among the seven.” He blinks, turns away, and exhales. “Very well, your request is granted. But you must take another Ranger of Grand Master status and a ring ship.”
“Thank you, my Lord.” I retreat toward the door.
“Ranger 878.” Porcilous hails me.
“Do not let your enthusiasm for the culture of Sizlack Prime fog your judgment.”
“Wise words, my Lord. I will act by them.”
I let the stars blur out of focus in an attempt to regain the sensation of floating. “Pearl?”
“Is it possible the zealots could have known we were coming?”
“After three months of floating out here, they probably could have smelled you.”
“Dial back sarcasm by—”
“No offense, boss, but there are multiple ways they could have known you were coming. The one with the highest probability of 1.8% presumes you unknowingly triggered a perimeter alarm.”
“That’s not what I mean.” I thump my fist against my forehead. My empty eye socket pulses with each pounding. “I’ve studied everything known about Krazlin zealots. Unannounced strangers should be openly challenged, not attacked without warning. The one thing I respect the most about Krazlin zealots is their adherence to protocol and discipline—just like the Templar.”
“Um, would you like to provide a more detailed inquiry?”
“Pardonne moi, I don’t mean to be rude.”
“I find it one of your most endearing qualities.”
“Pearl, don’t make me alter your—”
“Your inquiry, boss?”
I stare intently at a shimmering blue star in a part of the sky I’m familiar with. It’s Arcturus, the closest sun to Al-Aqsa, the moon-base of the Templar. When all the distance in the universe can be spanned instantaneously, home never seems like much of a concept. Certainly not to a Ranger. But this far from the nearest jump gate, I feel the unfamiliar ache for a more familiar space.
“What is the probability that the zealots knew we were Templar?”
“Answer the question, you confounding knot of circuits.”
“Analyzing all known data on said inquiry.” The span of a few seconds pass. “0.0023%.”
“So it’s possible?”
“All things are possible, boss. This one is highly improbable. I see no evidence from any other recorded behavior on Sizlack Prime that anyone within any of the mainstream societies has deciphered the reality behind their enslavement.”
“Pirates are rampant in this quadrant. You’re telling me you actually believe they haven’t compromised Sizlack Prime?”
“Thus the 0.0023% chance. Boss, pirates are notoriously cautious about tipping their hand by compromising hibernaculated cultures. As dumb as they might be, they’re smart enough to know any hint of their presence will bring down the full thunderous arm of the High Council.”
“The only contamination the Council are concerned over is that of their precious DBDM. Cultural knowledge of smugglers, or Templars for that matter, beyond Sizlack’s dyson sphere wouldn’t disrupt the DBDM strain in the slightest.”
“Boss, are you suggesting that the zealots where fully aware of the timing and nature of your mission?”
“I don’t know. If I were?”
“The probability of such a thing is significantly lower than the percentage I gave you before.”
Brown Robe attacks with a new level of vigor, perhaps acknowledging his dying comrade. Black Robe positions himself to block my easiest retreat. Dead or alive, Red is a split second from falling on top of me. A grunt from Ranger 799 ratchets my urgency higher. Red’s weapon will only retain its charge for a heartbeat once he releases it. But if I can reach it in time…
A pulse rushes outward from the palm star BDM fission reactor in my chest as I steal seconds of my future for my present. Call it a hack if you must, I call it survival. Templar Central has labeled it negligible divergence.
Before Brown Robe’s attack can reach home, I reshape my weapon into a squat dagger, thrust it into his stomach and release its full charge at a speed faster than his eyes can transfer signals to his mind. Before he’s aware of his death, the rising water released into his stomach rips his body upward with no more sound than the fluttering of his robes.
As sure as Brown Robe rises, Red Robe falls.
Weaponless, I’ve got two options: go for Red’s or recharge my own. I decide to attempt both. The moment I reach upward I feel the wash of time retaking me—my cheat having run its course. Slogging back into realtime is always hell. But doing so in the midst of such a delicate procedure…
My hand slams into Red’s just as it releases the hilt of his water dagger. A quarter of the water discharges before I manage a full grip. Simultaneously, I stab my fully discharged hilt into the nearby river curtain and shed Red’s limp body off my back.
Black Robe seizes the opportunity. I barely fend off his driving downstroke by forming Red’s dagger into a round shield. My own weapon needs another second to charge from the rising water.
Black Robe’s Katana lurches to life and wraps around my round shield in a manner I’ve never witnessed—as if it were sentient rather than an extension of the zealot’s own movements. With a tug, the water serpent wrests Red’s weapon from my grip. The hilt clacks to the stone pavement as its water whisks skyward. Twice, Black Robe’s water serpent lunges for my eyes.
Fully charged or not, I jerk my dagger from the curtain and unleash a sail in time to lift me over Black Robe’s furious attack. The wind from his assault chases me as I flick my sail to sword and hit the pavement running. My attention now shifts from Black Robe to my Ranger partner.
In the nearly thirty seconds we’ve engaged the enemy he’s felled only one of his three attackers. The two remaining are both robed in brown and are simultaneously attacking from forward and rear.
“Ranger.” I hail him on the run.
“I made a mistake.”
“We both did.” Catching the rear attacker off balance with a bull rush, I knock him from his feet and slide to a stop with my knee in his chest, his weapon in my grip, and my water dagger in his throat. His hood falls open to reveal one green eye, one brown—the Chromium.
That’s when I notice that 799 is trailing a crimson thread across the stones. He’s injured.
Recklessly, Black Robe caroms into the fray with too much emotion. I slash the blades of my twin water daggers together, discharging a small amount of water like razor-sharp flak. The spray slashes across Black Robe’s face, knocking his attack off course and momentarily stilling his assault.
“How bad is it?” I ask my partner.
“Bad enough.” 799 coughs and a spurt of blood fans across the pavement at his side. “But I can finish.”
“It’s done.” I move in close until we’re back to back. “I’ve terminated the Chrome.”
“They’re all Chromes.” He growls through clenched teeth. “And I’ll warrant there’s more. We’ve gotta kill ever last one.”
I’m surprised I hadn’t considered the possibility that all the attackers where Chromes, except that we’ve never engaged such a coordinated resistance. And the report mentioned only one. “But in your state.”
“I’m dead meat.” He covers his side before coughing again.
Most likely, it’s true. On the surface of an HC we’re limited to the same healing arts as the slaves we protect. And in his condition, 799 would never survive the elevator back to his orbiting Razor.
“I’ve lived forty-eight of my fifty. All that’s left is to finish.”
I observe the remaining zealots. Black Robe is the more talented assassin, but his movements are tentative in the presence of the remaining brown robe. Brown is in command. Both of them seem to be waiting for 799 to die. I face Brown Robe and mask my voice. “I’ve already terminated three of your assassins, and disfigured your best.”
Black Robe gargles in disgust.
Brown Robe whistles a single tone through his teeth. It’s the Krazlin equivalent of “mind your place.”
I’m proficient enough in the assassin language to whistle my response. “A trade. My man for yours.”
Brown Robe whistles. “One for one?”
“You must die,” I whistle while nodding.
Brown whistles his command to Black. “Flee unashamed.” He follows it up with an imperative and an expletive for good measure.
“What the hell you two going on about?” 799 grunts.
Brown Robe lowers his weapon and steps forward.
“Just kill that one quickly.”
Without hesitation, 799 dispatches Brown Robe with a clean stroke through the midsection, but he’s forced to take a knee in the process.
By the time I turn, Black Robe is gone without a trace.
“Get the last one. I’ll hold on long enough to make sure no one discovers me.” Droplets of blood have formed on his forehead and neck. He’s already begun the process of shutting down his most volatile augmentations before they destabilize. “Go!”
Without a word, I leave my partner slumped against a stone column to pursue the remaining Chrome zealot.
A buzzer cuts through the closeness and intensity of the dream.
Pearl attempts her least abrasive manner. “Dream cycle’s over, boss. You’ve been regenerating for exactly forty-eight hours, just as requested. Nothing out of the ordinary to report during your, uh, absence.”
“It’s called sleep. And just because I don’t need it, doesn’t mean it’s a waste.” I wipe the film from my eyes, confirm the proximity of the medical ring, and initiate the parking process. Gravity reduces to next to nothing. “You recorded everything, right?”
“I suppose redundancy is something I can understand, but boss?”
“Dreams aren’t like visual data, even the dreams of such an astute flesh pot as yourself.”
“Clear to disengage?”
“Disengaging and setting trajectory.” I unlock the clamps on my Razor and thrust clear of the stasis ring. “No, I suppose not. Still, dream data is better than no data at all. Plus, you can compare it to the heat vision recording I got with my right eye.”
“Done and awaiting your oh-so-infallible human evaluation.”
I lock the controls, unlatch my harness and push off into the gravity free environment. “Can you simulate the gravity of the medical ring?” My feet touch down under the EM simulated gravity, and I start my calisthenics. “Now if you can tell me how long until the docking sequence with the Torriad Medical Ring, and without your infernal sarcasm.”
“You know you love it.”
I sigh. Puzzlingly, I do in fact love it.
“What is it this time?”
We’re being pinged again. Text only.”
“Same channel as before?”
“Same exact message: Urgent—return to Al-Aqsa for medical procedure.”
I proceed with my regimen of pull-ups. “An unaddressed message via an unofficial channel. What are the chances it could be someone trying to phish?”
“The likelihood that smugglers intercepted your original transmission and fabricated a response in order to gain your exact location is somewhere between piss poor and crazy like a fox.”
I chuckle despite trying to hide my amusement. “What culture and era does that last bit of color stem from?”
“Twentieth century Earth. You like that one, do you?”
“It’s interesting, considering what I know of the mammal, the most solitary of the Canidae.” I flip upside down and grip the overhead bar with my feet in order to do sit-ups.
“Many earth cultures considered the fox to be cunning, sometimes to the point of complex deception.”
“Employing unorthodoxy to his advantage.” I belch as I adjust my internal pressure to match the gravity on the medical ring. “I like it. Maybe I’m the fox.”
“That’s why you insist on receiving medical attention on Torriad?”
“Receiving medical attention from the nearest Hibernal facility in this quadrant is well within protocol. The six month round trip to Al-Aqsa and back to finish my mission would be impractical, to say the least.”
“You plan to return to Sizlack Prime?”
“I believe you still owe me a count down for the docking procedure.”
“Two minutes, twenty-eight seconds.”
The corridor leading from the docking bay to surgery seems extravagantly oversized. With two transparent walls, it boasts a sweeping view. But I suppose the design is intended to offset the fact there’s no planetarium or herbarium onboard a relatively small yet permanent station.
Upon docking, the registry listed a crew of twenty four souls and an equal number of bots. One doctor, two medical assistants—the rest all support crew—no doubt serving an undesirable stint in a festering backwash of space. Two other patients were listed for procedures ahead of me, but my clearance automatically demoted their status.
The thinking behind small medical stations such as the Torriad is to keep them underwhelming enough to avoid interest from local pirates. Since most pirates operate under varying degrees of permission from at least one of the High Hibernarii Races, any direct attack on a station protected by the Council must involve a valuable prize—one worth dying for.
During my stay, Torriad’s most valuable asset will undoubtedly be the palm star locked in my chest. Twice, pirates have made the mistake of trying to cut it out. I believe the Fortitude Faction is still harvesting the ship graveyard left over from the last attempt. That was three years ago. Pirates.
The corridor is lined with green runway lights all the way to the preparation chamber. I don’t spot the medical assistant until the last second, a Clarity female. She’s clothed in nothing but ebbing, luminescent gasses. Her projection is some sort of organic spirit I vaguely recognize from Ortlacian lore—more humanoid than necessary, perhaps in anticipation of caring for me as a patient.
“Ranger 878, my name is Clarisandra. I’m here to ensure that every aspect of your medical procedure is flawless and contributes fully to your overall healing experience.” She whisks her arms around me and places them lightly on my back. While her exterior is cold, the touch is warm.
Fully aware of the suggestive intent behind the swirling placement and shifting nature of Clarisandra’s etherial coverings, I keep my good eye squarely locked on her face. “Clarisandra, while I’m grateful that anyone would consider my overall healing experience, I’m here for a new eyeball—a left eyeball to be specific. I assure you, I don’t intend to be rude, but my OBAI insists I can’t help it.” I smile as kindly as I can manage.
Undeterred, Clarisandra dips a shoulder and leads me toward the preparation chamber.
I sigh. I don’t deal with Hibernarii females very often, but when I do, it’s not unusual to fend off sexual curiosities. Ancestral humans are rare outside of Hibernaculated Cultures—the intramural races they’re called. The majority of those you find on the outside are desexed slaves. Since Templar have to blend in on HCs across the Hiberverse, we have all the standard plumbing. The pipes just don’t go anywhere, so to speak.
“Please, for your health we require all clothing and possessions be removed before surgery.”
“I’m sure you do.” I tear the seal at the neck of my bio-mimitating reclamation suit. “Just point me toward the locker.”
“Clarisandra bats what I suppose must be eyelashes, although they look more like electric filaments. “I will personally transfer your possessions to the place of your recovery.”
“Of course.” I roll my remaining eye while tearing off the rest of my suit. I make sure to keep it in one piece, just so she doesn’t lose any of it between here and there. Next to my BDM reactor heart, my BMR suit is the most irreplaceable part of me.
I remove the last section from around my foot and hesitate to hold the suit out to Clarisandra. She probably assumes I’m demonstrating some sort of bashfulness. She has no idea how naked I am without my suit. It’s my ticket into the 561 Hibernaculated Cultures across the Hiberverse. Without it, altering my appearance and coverings to adapt to each one would be virtually impossible.
I can’t afford any misunderstanding. “This suit is worth more to me than all the left eyeballs in the Hiberverse.” I soften the effort. “Value it with your life.”
The color storm of gasses surrounding Clarisandra’s torso shutter and thin nearly to nothing before she regains her composure. “Your life is mine, Mr. Ranger.”
I suppress a chuckle at her throaty melodrama. Naked as the day I sloughed from my birth pod, I slap my thighs and step into the preparation chamber. “See you on the other side, nurse.”
Clarisandra nods slowly and gracefully while floating toward the controls. Her fluid movements resemble willow branches in the wind. “To your healing.”
Finally, the door slides shut. As inert gasses swirl around the chamber, I take the opportunity to scratch in several places. After all, I haven’t taken off my BMR suit in ninety-three days.
The drifting clouds of Clarisandra’s chest make a convenient and effective distraction for my right eye as Doc clamps the empty socket of my left into position for the regenerative surgery. The worst part is always the scaffolding, which is just pretty talk for scraping out the goo in order to find a solid foundation to start the regeneration. But I do my best to never get in a doctor’s way.
Legend has it a squeamish Ranger once influenced a doctor to start the regeneration of his thumb before the doc had removed all the foreign debris. Some of that debris hadn’t been human. Supposedly, as a result, the Ranger grew back half the torso of a field mouse instead of a thumb. They had to cut off his hand and start over—now that’s some serious scaffolding.
“You’re sure you’re okay with my beginning the scaffolding before you’re fully anesthetized?” The Doc’s dubious eye and furrowed brow hovers above me, up side down from my perspective. The Integrity Faction male doctor is clearly hesitant to scrape the eye goo of a conditioned killer under the banner of the Council while said killer is still awake.
Integrity publicly disavows projection, instead stressing the value of the flesh, so the doc is corporeal for the surgery. His frame is older than mine, but that’s not saying much for a Hibernari, especially considering that Templar are programmed with exactly fifty years before our tickers pop. Overall, Doc’s augmentations haven’t altered his humanoid appearance significantly—not nearly as bulky as most Integrity males.
“This isn’t my first rodeo, Doc.” I pause for breath—the drugs already setting in. “Scrape the eye and get on with it.”
Doc looks unamused. The gasses swirling around Clarisandra’s chest pulse between vermilion and purple as she finishes clamping my head in place. Doc retreats to his command console to drive the procedure. I feel the laser grid activate. I try to stiffen, but that’s already been done for me. I focus on the wisps of colored gas twining around Clarisandra’s neck.
When the scaffolding starts in earnest, I’m grateful for the rapidly accelerating effects of the anesthesia.
I’ve left the zealot compound, still hot on the trail of the black robe. I jog across a cobblestone and mud street in front of an oxen drawn cart. The sucking mud would have claimed a boot, had it not been a seamless part of my BMR suit.
I filter the cacophonous racket of the logging and fishing village in order to reduce the possible paths of my Chrome zealot. Out of a mixture of disgust and fear, normal life on Sizlack Prime pauses every time a zealot passes.
There. The fish market—an unnatural wave of silence progressing from the south end of the street toward the north. I tip my hat to an elderly lady on the front porch of the apothecary and use an alley to cut across from Main Street to the Fish Walk. I resist the urge to plug my nose from the reek of the local fish—a brackish breed by the name of Foishtervallgn.
I stride northward along the boardwalk and finger the hilt of my discharged water dagger through the fabric of my duster. Strictly taboo outside the temple compound, I had to dump the rising water. At least I got to use it once outside the training simulator on Al-Aqsa.
A bucket flies out of the shadows. I shatter the wood slats with my forearm, only to be slathered in tepid fish. Through the scales and slime, I spot Black Robe disappear along a narrow boardwalk plunging unsteadily into the heart of a brine forest.
A Chrome will die the same among rotten timber grown from sewage, decay and salt water as he will in the pristine courtyards of the Krazlin zealots. And yet, my disappointment reveals I had been clinging to the hope of a second round with daggers.
Five steps into the forest and a foul humidity creeps into my clothing. Ten steps and the light of the sun flees. I feel for the irregular progress of the boardwalk with my feet. Even less permanent trails finger into the floating wood along every gap or width broad enough for a child to squeeze through sideways. Without the robe, my opponent might very well be slimmer than me—a problem I had not factored.
I stand still and close my eyes. Why had the black robe tarried in the fish market if his plan had been to hide here? Had he merely thought of it last second? Or had he lured me? This latter thought shoots my eyes wide open. How could such a thing be fathomable? Of course he couldn’t know I’d been created for his destruction.
I check the time stamp in my peripheral vision—58 minutes until my elevator window. It’d take twenty-six to scrub the temple courtyard and remove Ranger 799 to the safe zone. And that meant humping it the whole way.
Out of completely irrational frustration, I pursue a gap through the brine forest at random. No more than two steps along the way, I notice a small scrap of black cloth dancing from a sharp snag on a slimy trunk.
Rhythmically the boardwalk rises and falls with the ocean, allowing the forest to expand and contract ever so slightly. Like human lungs, the brine forest breathes. Except with each expansion it sucks my breath involuntarily from within me.
It’s hypnotic. I nearly stumble from the boardwalk at the spot of a fresh tree removal. Shocked fully awake, I check my time stamp. Seven minutes have gone by. I’ve waisted enough—
A misplaced crack draws my eyes downward just as a thrusting shard of boardwalk rises upward. Mired in the humidity and the stench, inexplicably, I see the shank coming and yet fail to respond before it embeds into the socket of my left eye.
Black Robe squeals as I shatter his forearm and heft him upward through the remains of the splintered boardwalk. With my right eye, I stare intently into the spent expression of my attacker. I see her face for the first time—a pale skinned female mottled with pink scars from the spray of my water dagger. A matt of black hair clings diagonally across her face, bisecting her two eyes—one brown, one green.
I wake lying on my back, a star scape unfurled above me. With my right eye, I scan from horizon to horizon. Beneath the bandages, I feel my left eyeball tracking with the right. So far so good. I sit up and slide my legs over the edge of the steri-mold table. Autonomically, I attempt to rub my eyes. I succeed in clubbing myself in the face with a rubber mitt. “What the—”
“Good morning, Brown Eye.” Clarisandra’s disembodied voice projects into the empty space right next to me—close enough for her to lay her hands across my still bare back. “Apologies for the protective measures, but due to your unusual physiology, we couldn’t be sure how long you would remain asleep.”
I stare at the two seamless rubber mitts baked onto my hands. “How long exactly have I been asleep, nurse?”
“Please, call me Clarisandra.”
“Okay, Clarisandra, how long have I been counting sheep?”
“I’m not privy to what you do in your sleep, Ranger, but the duration has been a little over five hours.”
“Seems long enough. I gotta itch I need to scratch. A little help?”
“I’m afraid removal of your bandages would be premature for another thirty-eight minutes.”
I bite into one of the rubber mitts. It’s spongy, but not so much that I can’t get a grip with my teeth. I tear a small chunk off and spit it across the room. “And how long do you think it’ll take me to chew through these mitts and scratch it myself?”
“I see. I suppose less than fifteen minutes. You’re more naughty than I had expected, Ranger.”
A blush runs up my spine at the tone and word choice Clarisandra choses. “Pardon me, Ma’am. But where I’m from, directness and impatience are usually virtues.”
“In that case, I’ll hail the doctor immediately. In the meantime, I highly suggest you refrain from tampering with your bandages. Premature exposure to the air, even sterile air, can result in loss of sight and the deformation of the soft tissue surrounding the regenerated area.”
I remove the mitt from my mouth and swallow. “Ah, gotcha loud and clear, nurse.”
“We can only hope reason is also a virtue on Al-Aqsa.”
“Ouch. You don’t have to get nasty.” I attempt a bit of friendly banter, but I can tell that Clarisandra has already redrawn her presence. Not sure how the human mind learns to detect such a thing, but you figure it out after a while. I attempt to scratch my head and bounce the blasted mitt off my skull. “Of all the confounding… Remove a man’s BMR suit, leave him in a loincloth and take away his only means of satisfaction. This constitutes cruel and unusual if I’ve ever experienced it.”
A flash of a lost thought scurries across the surface of my brain. I clutch at it but miss. I come close enough to remember I’d been dreaming about something before I’d woken up on the steri-mold table. Something to do with my mission on Sizlack Prime.
I can still smell the brine forest, so I must have been dreaming about the black robe. There was something unusual, something new in my dream that I hadn’t registered about her the first—wait. Her? How could I have missed something like that in real time? I catch another glimpse of my resurfacing dream. I’m holding her shattered arm in my right hand. Her face in full focus—pale skin, dark hair, pink scars.
No. I shake off the image. Pearl’s right. Dream imagery can’t be trusted, especially when induced by anesthesia. Clarisandra’s got my brain sexed up to the point where my subconscious would probably project femininity onto anything.
My mind floats back to the image involuntarily. I find more proof that the whole thing is a fabrication—Black Robe’s expression. It doesn’t make sense. If I’d just shattered her arm and removed any defensive posture she had left, why would she be staring at me with anticipation? Victory even? Her eye, her terrible green eye, stares up at me in something akin to mirth. But that’s unreasonable, unnatural. When confronted with death, humans don’t deviate from one of three possible responses: anger, fear or resignation. Even zealots, even Templar, can’t avoid their nature at the very end.
Then again, I hadn’t killed the black robe, had I? Female or not, how could the zealot have foreseen an unforeseeable outcome? From the beginning the zealots had known things they shouldn’t have.
The door whooshes open and the doc strides into my recovery chamber. “Good, I see you’ve abstained from chewing off your protective gloves.”
I growl beneath a half smile, enough to keep the doc on edge. “Just a touch of cabin fever, Doc. That’s all.”
“Cabin fever, eh? I suppose that’s how you got a sliver of brackish timber embedded deep enough into your brain to effect your gross motor functions and possibly even a portion of your longterm memory?”
I make a show of twitching my head to the side. “I got a what now embedded in my whozit? Slow down there, Doc.”
Doc grills me with the same dubious eye from earlier. This time he’s right side up so the translation is a bit less comical. “Nothing to be concerned over at this point. It took a bit of extra scaffolding, and I had to widen the laser grid after you were unconscious, but everything should have regenerated nicely.”
The doctor steps forward. A stool materializes and he seats himself in order to scrutinize my good eye. “You aren’t suffering any loss of memory surrounding the moment of the injury are you? Not that you need to recall it for my sake.” He trails off with a mumbling comment about the less he knows the better.
The first thing that comes to mind is the dream. With a second effort, I’m able to pull up the direct memory—or at least portions of it. The more I try to pin down the specifics, the more they blur together with the dream.
Luckily, Clarisandra’s bodily projection enters the room just in time for a splendid distraction. The Doc gestures to the space by his side. Clarisandra fills it while keeping her pouty eyes affixed on my nonbandaged one.
“Sure thing, Doc. I remember it all just fine.” I smile.
His expression doesn’t change.
“Now that you mention the whole gross motor thing, that makes a lot of sense. It took me a whole second longer to respond in the moment than would have been normal.”
“Yes, well.” The doc takes a deep breath. “Muscle memory can be effected temporarily by shocking injuries of this nature. That’s all totally normal.” He checks his time stamp. “Now then, I suppose we’ve waited long enough to take off the bandage. And now that Clarisandra is here to assist.” He starts with the wrap on my head.
“It’s these things that are bothering me the most.” I hold up the mitts. “I got itches all over, Doc. And unless you want Clarisandra here to scratch them.”
“Very well, hold still.” He removes a tiny instrument from his frock and touches it to each glove. They disintegrate immediately, the dust gone before it can hit the sterile, seamless floor.
The first thing I scratch is the back of my head. Then my thigh and that little, hard-to-reach spot in the middle of my back.
All the while, the doc does his best to remove the bandage around my eye without displaying his frustration. Overall, he seems like an overqualified candidate for this far-flung outpost. Perhaps he crossed the wrong Technocrat. He removes the last of the gauze and hands it to Clarisandra. Immediately, he taps the soft tissue of my cheek with his finger and checks the elasticity of my forehead. “Everything’s consolidated perfectly. Now would you mind opening your eye?”
Only then do I realize I’ve been holding it shut. “Sure thing, Doc.” The eyelids are gooped together slightly, but with a little effort I blink them apart. Gloriously, everything seems to work as it should. But my extra sensory perceptions tell me that’s not the case. The balance in the room has shattered. Clarisandra’s exterior is the clearest tell. She loses complete control over her coloration.
The doctor comes to the realization second, perhaps less perceptive than his Clarity Faction nurse. But he sees it now too, and his response is one of horror and self preservation. It’s a response that typically doesn’t bode well in close quarters.
I’m the one currently at the disadvantage. A flick of my restored eyesight discovers the reflective surface of the wall behind the doc. In the time it has taken Clarisandra to drop the gauze in her hand—in the time it has taken Doc’s jaw to gape—I sharpen my mind around the sight that has tipped the moment from jovial to deadly.
Reflecting back at me from across the room, I see my left eye as clearly as I see the doctor’s off-hand gripping the instrument he had used to disintegrate the rubber mitts. As I watch him plunge it upward toward the meat of my thigh, I’ve already determined my immediate course of action—seen it spiderweb to the next and the next. In a fraction of a second, I’ve interpreted all of this through the emerald green iris of my regenerated left eye.
I seize Doc’s wrist and turn his weapon on himself. One stab to the chest and his nervous system crashes. Before his body can topple from the stool, I leap from the examination table and sweep Clarisandra from her feet.
With my mouth pressed to her ear, I delay her impulse to withdraw her projection via emergency severance. “No matter what anyone says,” I press into her, “death is always personal, and you can only do it once. It’s best to make it special.”
She shudders beneath my grip as I twist her neck and drop her bodily projection limply to the floor. Pearl taught me that little trick—when dealing with projections, making it intimate delays the mind’s ability to sever the cascading sensation of physical death. Pull it off perfectly, and the mind crashes before it can convince itself nothing’s happened.
I slide to a stop near the door, scoop up my BMR suit, and slap it on. The nano tendrils activate and pull the skin-tight suit together. The snap at the neck completes the circuit, and I project a fire retardant flight suit. “Pearl.”
“Awaiting your directives.”
“Activate Torriad’s contamination protocols and elevate to critical.”
“No time for explanations. Key on my location and open a path. I’m coming in hot.” The moment I sweep out the door and into the corridor, the lighting shifts to red and a siren blares. Contamination barriers slam shut to my right. I dial my flight response to full and push my at-once-blanched and sweating body full tilt toward the docking bay.
Pearl’s voice is muffled by the blood pounding in my ears. “Destination in T-48 and counting. Forty-six. Forty-four.”
“Enough of the play by play!” I momentarily take a wrong turn and slam into the corridor wall before I can correct. In less than two seconds I’ve returned to my max foot speed—72 km/h. I pass two mechanics before they can ask what’s happening.
I smash a bot around the final turn. The sound distracts the docking attendant who had undoubtedly been trying to figure out why contamination protocols had failed to lock out my ship and my ship only. He looks up the moment my arm strikes his throat, lifts him from the ground and snaps his neck against the corridor wall.
Immediately the barrier between the Torriad docking bay #3 and my ship slams shut behind me. “Disengage! Thrusters 100%!”
“Away from the impending fire ball!” The ship rocks free. I steady myself with a handhold as the thrusters fire.
“Detonation in eighteen.”
“How far do we need to be?” I wrap my legs around my captain’s chair and pull myself into the seat.
“Further than thrusters can take us.”
“Is the stasis ring safe?”
“Unlikely. I wish you would have given me a little more notice—”
“Can it. Heads—shielding. Tails—speed.”
“Shielding or speed? Which is it?”
“Shielding has a higher probability of—”
“Shielding it is. I’m about to phase the hull, you better hide yourself as deep as you can.”
“I hate it when you—”
“Go now!” I pause for the count of three seconds just to make sure Pearl has enough time to double and triple firewall herself inside the safest systems of the onboard computer. What I’m about to do is considered borderline behavior for anyone other than a pirate. But phasing partway into extra-dimensional space is the best way I can think of slipping past a catastrophe in the three dimensions we call home.
Unfortunately, it gives you one hell of a headache.
I grip the dash, squeeze my eyes shut, clench my teeth, and pour my thoughts into overload. Phasing is a matter of remembering every nightmare and close call of an entire career’s worth of killing. The trick is to convince yourself that they’re all happing at once, and yet to keep from destroying yourself and everything within a ten meter radius by initiating a black hole.
I just need a black wave.
The attacks come in unthinkable proximity—men, women, children—all of them one eye green, one eye brown. My mind spins down a tangent I can’t control. I see the dead doctor, Clarisandra, Ranger 799, Porcilous, followed by everyone I work closely with. All of them die at my hand.
This isn’t real. It’s not real. None of this has happened.
Technocrats I barely know, Hibernarii I’ve never seen. One after the other, I pile the bodies high. No one can stop me. Not even the Apex Lords. I thunder into the Council.
No. None of this is real. My breathing spikes, I can’t catch my breath. My grip on the dash slips. None of this is possible. As I crush the dust-brittle trachea of an eon’s old Apex Lord, his face disappears—replaced by Black Robe’s. She laughs at me. Her green eye sparkles with laughter.
A shockwave washes over the ship, slamming my forehead into the dash. The cascading thoughts seize and then disappear. I pick myself up, scan the proximity for incoming debris, and quickly pilot into a green zone. I check for visual evidence of the Torriad through the rear viewfinder. It’s gone completely—nothing bigger than my captain’s chair.
“Pearl?” I smear sweat and blood from my brow. I swallow and check to make sure my tongue is where I left it. “Pearl? You can come out now. Looks like we made it. Can you analyze the condition of the stasis ring?”
“There you are.” I breathe a sigh of relief. “You had me worried for a second. I was just wondering if we were stuck out here.”
“You’re eye is green.”
I gaze at my reflection in the polished hiber-steel of the console beside me. I haven’t had time to consider an official explanation. I haven’t an unofficial one either. “My eye is green.” I repeat Pearl’s simple statement of fact in hopes it will trigger the rest of the truth. “And the doc said no one would notice.”
“Should I be concerned?”
“About us being stranded three months STL travel from the nearest jump gate? I would be.”
“I was referring to the fact I just detonated a medical facility under the protection of the High Hibernal Council based on what I can only assume are false pretenses. I found no failure in the Torriad’s contamination protocols.”
The hair on the back of my neck rises. Of all the close shaves I’ve experienced in the last few days, this could be the most precarious. If I lose the trust of Pearl, I’m as good as dead. Not only can she detonate the palm star in my chest with a simple frequency emission, but she’s my lifeline. She’s my protector. She’s my companion.
“About that, sorry I couldn’t bring you in before hand. It appears my pirate theory—”
“Incoming ping, highest priority.”
I catch my breath. “Authentication?”
“Classified, but it’s an official channel.”
“Classified? I’ve got the highest clearance.”
“Would you like the message?”
“Visual.” The projection scrolls past my face as I read: Distress signal received from Torriad Medical Ring—apparent catastrophic loss due to contamination containment failure. Requesting confirmation on eye regeneration procedure… I roll with the unexpected message from Templar Central without hesitation. “Response: Eye regeneration procedure complete.”
Pearl pings central with my response. Moments later we receive the incoming: While total loss of Torriad Medical Ring is deemed unfortunate, the outcome is acceptable considering the station’s duplicity. Proceed with infiltration of pirate operation suspected for illicit transportation of chromiums. Mission: leverage illegal framework to terminate indeterminate population of chromiums dwelling outside of hibernaculated cultures. Activation: Immediately. Closure: open ended…
“Response: Mission accepted, Ranger 878. Pearl, can you authenticate?”
“Authenticating. Mission confirmed.”
I rock back in my captain’s chair and mask my thoughts for Pearl’s sake. Her mollification is still pending. I can feel her tension. But I can hardly stomach the multiple maddening implications of the mission just handed down to me personally—anonymously no less.
“You gotta cut back on the theatrics.”
“Oh? What part didn’t you like.” I feel a plan amorphously coming together.
“You couldn’t simply tell me you had to look like a Chrome to hunt Chromes?”
I shrug and smile.
“And when did all of this come about? I’ve never seen our new mission on the roster, even at low priority.”
I nod my head slowly and scratch the three day’s growth on my chin. “You dismissed it as paranoia, but I didn’t like the unofficial pings we’ve been soliciting since the botched mission on Sizlack Prime.”
“Along with the zealots’ apparent awareness of your identity?” Pearl seems anxious to assist my explanation.
“Exactly. I knew something fishy was going on, so I opened a secure channel from the Torriad and shared my suspicions. Word came back that pirates have been suspected of a massive Chromium smuggling operation in this quarter. But Central needed confirmation. Even the doctor himself had been under suspicion of providing cosmetic eye regeneration for Chromes able to pay, or pirates willing to pay for them.” The ease with which the pieces fall into place rattles me.
“Thus the phony contamination protocol.”
I nod. “I pressed the doc into confirming that a steady stream of Chromes have been pouring through his clinic. I conveyed the information, and Central deemed it important enough to activate us immediately. Lacking a plan to secure the Torriad, I deemed it acceptable to eliminate the station before word of our mission could spook nearby smugglers.”
“And your eye?”
“That was my idea. What? Too much?”
“I suppose it will take some getting used to, slick.”
I breathe deeply. Pearl’s onboard, for now. Hell, I’ve almost convinced myself. It’s all part of the plan. “Right. Down to business then. Status of our stasis ring?”
“Inoperable. Barely better than space junk, I’d dare say.”
“Hmmm. All the more reason we need to find us some pirates, sooner rather than later.”
[purchase_link id=”2513″ style=”button” color=”blue” text=”Ranger’s War, Ep1″]