Author's note: This is a revised version of my fan fic. Several errors were corrected, and some changes were also made to the storyline -- as much as I hated to do it. Unfortunately, some of the more subtle meanings and references were lost during this revision, but hopefully the story is just as good as the original, and not worse. I had my own personal reasons for doing this, so if you have any major questions or complaints, e-mail me. Don't freak out about "plot holes" people -- this is a series, not a single fan fic, even if it is standing on it's own. All mysteries will be solved in other installments. The rest of this series can be seen exclusively at Guardian Angels, http://nisan.leamonde.net/guardian.
Also, a warning -- this fic is full of spoilers, so read at your own risk. Reya was used with permission from my co-writer in this series, Calis Cheah. Last note - in the Japanese version of Xenogears, the Jugend academy was called "Eugent". If you look up "Eugenics", you'll see why it fits so much better......
"The Beginning...... or the End?"
"...... I only wish your brothers were here for this." She sighed. "Those three......"
"It is okay, Mother. I do not think they would have enjoyed this in any case." Hyuga embraced his mother, kissing her lightly on the cheek. "And they are...... too ...... loud."
"They still miss you son, even if you are......"
He shifted. The uniform suddenly seemed more confining under his mother's disapproving gaze. Eugent's emblem was inscribed on a green crystal just below his collar. It caught the light, shining like a tiny, pale green mirror. She stared at it sourly. "They do not want to see me," he replied softly, covering the crystal with his hands. "They see Gebler when they see this, and nothing more."
"I was told you have been upgraded to Second Class," he continued, running over what she had been about to say. "And I came to see if you needed my help. The move is...... hard, I hear."
She smiled, shaking her head. "Don't worry about us. I want you to concentrate on your training! You're...... rising higher than any of us could hope for ourselves..... I just want you to be happy." She turned him around and pushed him toward the door. "Go. We'll be fine. I'll call you when we reach our new dwelling."
"You must go now. Please, Hyuga."
"What......?" He tried to push her hands away, alarmed by the sudden change in her demeanor. "Why are you.....?"
"Please? You...... shouldn't be here now. Please go. I'll meet you later -- I promise. But please leave now."
"A-all right. I will go." He depressed the switch, opening the door. "Mother...... is something wrong?"
"Nothing, dear." She bit her lip. The lie was plain in her voice. "The patrols will be by soon. You won't want to be seen here."
He nodded. "Then good bye, Mother." He stepped onto the floating platform. Behind him, his mother watched apprehensively until the portal slid closed and shut her out of his sight. The platform started down with a lurch, and he grabbed the rail, hardly noticing the other honeycomb-shaped dwellings passing before his eyes.
Why? The question ran through his mind unrelentingly. One moment she was trying to comfort him, the next pushing him out the door with barely an explanation. There were no signs of danger that he could see...... Well, no more than usual. The civilian blocks that contained the Lambs were never quite safe.
Lambs. What right did he have to call them that? His birth in Solaris did not make him any different from the others; he was descended from Lambs, from a family of third class slave workers in the C Block. Before attending Eugent he had lived in the same dwellings, followed the same rules...... Were Solarian...... tendencies...... permissible?
The platform slowed to a stop a foot above the ground, and he jumped off. As he did, he looked around cautiously. Not many people were walking about. The silence, the absences, seemed strange to him. Things should not be so still. Where were the guards, and the monitors? He passed two men huddled in a space between the structures that housed the workers of C Block, shrouded in rough robes reminiscent of the surface styles. Both stared back with hate-filled eyes.
No -- they stared at the uniform. They flinched away from his eyes, whispering to each other. Hyuga quickened his steps to a fast walk, kept his eyes focused on the elevator that would take him out of the Third Class Level and back to Solaris proper. He clutched the sword sheathed at his side almost unconsciously. Tension gnawed at him. What if the rumors were true? Something was not right. Something......
"Hyuga!" The hoarse whisper brought him up short. He spun around. "Get the hell out of here, little brother!" A shadow detached itself from the darkened corner near the dust chute and ran towards him. "What are you doing here? Leave!"
"It is nice to see you too, Seiran." Hyuga said sarcastically.
Seiran glanced around restlessly. "That uniform won't help you if you get caught up in this. Even if Shigre says you're turning into one of them...... Just get out of here. They'll kill you if you don't."
"So they really are......" he breathed, eyes darting around. The rumors were true -- someone in C Block was planning a rebellion. "Do not do this! They will --!"
"Since when do you care? Just get out!" Seiran shoved him toward the lift. Off balance, Hyuga went sprawling. "Go back to your Solarian friends!"
"Seiran!!" Hyuga scrambled to his feet, but his brother was already out of sight among the shadows. Such a melodramatic scene -- so like him.
Hyuga's cynicism didn't last long. The air of waiting pressed down on him, and fear of a bullet in his back spurred him on. He slipped into the elevator without a backward glance and punched in the code that would get him back to the main city garrison, just above.
Go back to your Solarian friends! Hyuga's jaw clenched. How fitting! His teachers at Eugent encouraged him to break ties with the Lambs -- which he did not want to do -- but his family ended up doing it for him. Or rather, his brothers did. He didn't think his mother would ever desert one of her sons. Ha! Not even if I decide to desert her!
She had to have known of this. She had to know that if they failed, she would be...... recycled along with the rest. If the guards and monitors had been taken care of while he was with her, then it wouldn't be long before someone noticed. How anyone could miss something so obvious was...... beyond him. Just being Solarian did not excuse one for being a fool.
The elevator stopped, and informed him that he was on the third level. How can they be so stupid? Do they want to prove their 'masters' right? The doors did not open. Eyes narrowing, he pressed the door release button. Nothing happened. Surely they did not have the resources to tap into the main system...... He pressed another button. "Manual override."
MANUAL OVERRIDE CONFIRMED. LEVEL ONE SECURITY ALERT ACTIVATED. PLEASE PROCEED TO THE NEAREST CHECKPOINT.
"Checkpoint?" He smirked. There were no checkpoints on Level Three. Only blocks M through P of the Third Class habitats were accessible from his location. If a checkpoint had indeed been set up........
Hyuga pried the manual release panel off and turned the knob. The door slid open just enough to provide a sliver of light, and room for his fingers. Sighing, he slipped his hands as far though the crack as he could squeeze them, gripped the edge of the door and pulled back. It slid back smoothly, if slowly, and red emergency lights -- probably triggered by the security alert -- flooded through.
Once the door was open enough for him to squeeze through, he released it and slumped against the wall. Are there any monitoring facilities nearby? he wondered, searching his memory. If he remembered his location correctly...... A P2 monitoring facility was supposed to be stationed in the N Block of the Third Level. It would be his only route back to Eugent since the elevator apparently wasn't working correctly, and he needed to send guards down to C Block before his brothers decided to do anything stupid. For Mother, at least......
"Oh my," came a voice on the other side of the door. "I don't suppose you pried the door open simply to amuse yourself? No......"
Hand instantly on the hilt of his sword, Hyuga peered out into the lurid red light of the corridor. A tall, seemingly frail young woman stood a few feet from the door, arms crossed and a thoughtful expression on her face. A woman draped in the robes of the Gazel.
"......Even a Lamb would not do something as stupid as that," she continued, shaking her head. "Well? Are you going to come out?"
"It is no use," he replied, squeezing through the narrow opening. "The system has completely shut down. I am surprised the manual override worked."
"It seems they have decided to take their chances. Fools," she whispered, biting her lip. She glanced at him, then took a second look. "Eugent? You're an Element? What are you doing down here?"
"I am a student." So she knew of the rebellion, if that was what it was. Dozens of questions popped into his head. "You knew about this. So...... Have you alerted the garrison yet?" A citizen of the highest echelons of Solaris...... In the blocks housing the Lambs? How curious.
It certainly wouldn't be the strangest thing to happen.
"Garrison? N-no...... They can't be foolish enough to do this to themselves!" She sighed. "I wish they had listened......"
"Then you have already tried to talk with them?" She nodded, and Hyuga strode past her, pausing at a turn in the corridor. The next section was as empty as their own. "If you want to get out, we should try to reach the monitoring facility in the N Block."
"You think they've tapped into the main system? Lambs don't have that kind of equipment."
"Think about it. Do you think they would even risk this so-called rebellion without help from someone higher up? Not 'Gebler' or Eugent, but someone with access to a P2 terminal at the very least. A second-class citizen, I should say, or someone with a pass, and more intelligence than your kind gives them credit for." She compressed her lips for a moment.
"You've made a very good assessment of the situation. Now, shall we go?"
After a silent moment he nodded and took the lead, moving cautiously while she followed just behind him. "Do you have any combat training?" he inquired after a time.
"Enough, but I am unarmed. I won't be much good for anything but Ether support in a real fight."
He nodded. It seemed logical, given her physical appearance. But somehow he had known already. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. The way she walked, even spoke, reminded him of Kahr. Her eyes were Kahr's eyes, too.
The compound was empty. No guards, no monitors, no security checkpoints...... After the third such corridor, he quickened their pace, following the route he remembered reviewing before his first time out of the Third Class Sector.
It was too quiet. Even in the midst of a rebellion, life would have been visible. There would be sounds of combat, and death, and alerts throughout Lower Etrenank. And even if the rebels did have access to a P2 terminal, or even the help of a First Class citizen, no one outside of the military hierarchy could possibly shut down an entire level of the work Blocks.
No Solarian would aid this effort. Nobody was crazy enough. It would never succeed --
not without divine help from god. Even Erich Van Houten could not pull off such a feat without the previous consent of the Emperor or the Ministry.
Something was most assuredly wrong.
"Something is wrong here." The woman halted him with a touch. "We're almost to the N Block. There should be someone here. Even if the rebellion has already begun......" She withdrew, backing up a few steps. "It just seems an amazing coincidence. The blast doors locking and cutting off my route, your lift stopping just as I......" She took another step back.
"Who are you?"
"I could ask you the same." He removed his glasses, wiping the lenses clean with the edge of his sleeve. "Why would any respectable Gazel citizen lower herself enough to enter the presence of Lambs?"
"How dare you? You have no right to say such things to me. What's your number? Who is your commanding officer?"
"I apologize for my words. But we must both be on our guard, do you not agree?" He moved toward her, and she stumbled back into the wall. "Please?"
"I don't even know you!" The air tingled, and a luminous azure glow sprang up around her. Her sky blue eyes fairly glowed as they fastened on him. "If you're one of them --"
Hyuga stared back, thoughts racing with lightning speed. Her Ether control.....! He narrowed his eyes. Her Ether value was almost certainly over three hundred, possibly four, the way her aura continued to grow. "Enough!" The rebels were still a danger. "We must -- !"
A shot rang out, and the woman screamed. Red blossomed on her left shoulder, spattering the wall behind her. She grasped the wound convulsively. Another shot rang from behind and left a smoking hole in the wall just behind her ear. She jerked out of the way and fell to her knees with a cry.
In an instant Hyuga had his sword unsheathed, and he spun around to meet the shooter head on. A dirty youth stood three paces away gripping a revolver with shaking hands and a wide eyed expression. Before those child-like eyes could focus on him, Hyuga leapt forward, slicing the rebel across belly, wrist, and throat in rapid succession.
Three thumps punctuated the rebel's fall. Hyuga shook blood out of his hair and wiped it out of his eyes. Amazing. He shivered and turned away, feeling bile rise in his throat, only to completely forget the spectacle when his eyes rested on his reluctant companion. "Are you all right?" He hurried over, kneeling by her side.
"Oh, I've never felt better." Her attempt to smile belied her sarcasm. Her eyes darted to the remains of her assailant and jerked away quickly, her face paling. "Th-thank you for...... helping me. I shouldn't have......" She squeezed her eyes shut and a weak whimper escaped her lips.
"Can you stand?" Hyuga asked. She nodded, and he carefully helped her to her feet. "The bleeding appears to be subsiding. I cannot do anything for you here, but if you think you can make it to the checkpoint, we should be safe." For the moment. There was no need to say it -- she understood.
"Then lead on."
Hyuga slipped a supporting arm around her waist and led her again through the corridors, pausing at every intersection to make sure there were no signs of life before moving on. In minutes they reached the honeycomb-shaped dwellings of the N Block workers, and they moved from shadow to shadow across the wide open work-space toward their goal: a small white building between the elevator and the dust chute. Silence weighed down on them.
Finally, they reached the structure that supposedly housed the Third Level checkpoint. Hyuga's companion slumped against the side of the building while he examined the door panel. "I was right. A P2 security level clearance is required to enter. Do you know it?"
She shook her head. "No, but I can override it." She turned, still leaning against the wall, and tapped in a long sequence of codes. The panel blinked green, and the door whirred open. Automatic lights flickered on inside. She took his arm and pulled him inside, letting the door slide shut and lock them away from the rest of the Block.
The chamber was empty except for a computer console and a set of table and chairs. After helping the woman into one of the available seats, Hyuga searched the other rooms of the office for signs of life or violence, but found nothing. Everything had simply been deserted.
"Did you find anything?" she asked when he returned to the main room.
"Nothing," he muttered incredulously, walking over to the computer console and flipping the power switch on.
"Contact Eugent, Department Three. I wish to speak with the Lieutenant Commander of that division."
UNABLE TO COMPLY. ACCESS DENIED. SECURITY CLEARANCE REQUIRED BY SECTION 9883A, BY THE LOCAL PRECINCT'S ORDERS.
"Clearance for that?!" Hyuga glanced toward the her. "I seem to require your assistance -- again."
She sighed. "Try 32, by 93, by 27, then type SOL 9000, OMEGA. That should break into anything short of the Ministry's memory banks. For now, that is."
At least she's useful. Hyuga typed the command. "Follow previous request."
UNABLE TO COMPLY DUE TO INTERFERENCE. REROUTE TO ANOTHER CHANNEL?
Interference. The situation nearly shouted governmental intervention. But he could think of no logical reason for the government to be involved. "Try Eugent, residential block, Jessiah Blanche. Encryption three, urgent."
ONE MOMENT, PLEASE....... CONTACT IS ABSENT. WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEAVE A MESSAGE?
He gripped his sword, almost as if ready to attack the computer. Of course Jessiah would be gone. Everything else about his day was going to hell. "Tell him he must come to N Block as soon as possible. The revolt will start any time now."
He turned the computer off again, perhaps with more force than was strictly necessary, and joined the woman at the table, grounding his sword point into the concrete floor.
"You should really clean that, you know," she commented. "The blood might etch the steel."
"I doubt tha --"
Hyuga's words were interrupted by an explosion, followed by a distant crash, that shook the chamber and threw him onto his back. The lamp sparked and fell with a crash and the shattering of glass, and his katana clattered to the floor.
Immediately, his combat reflexes kicked in and he was on his feet. A few emergency lights illuminated the room, dim to his eyes. His companion was hoisting herself up by gripping the side of the overturned table, shaken but unharmed.
"It appears the rebellion has started," he stated unnecessarily, "or at least reached our location." He grabbed his sword. "Stay here. This is probably the safest place for you right now. Do not leave!" She nodded, and he ran out the door.
Chaos had erupted into N Block. Even as he shook his head at the impossibility of it all, he raced into the smoke, sword bared. Gun shots and yells echoed from a distant part of the chamber, but the space around him seemed fairly quiet. He was striding through what appeared to be the fringe of the true battle, possibly their goal, if they were taking the trouble to use explosives. N Block was the center of Security and other official activities on the Third Level.
....... If N Block was indeed their goal...... Then they would immediately try to take the Security office.
He skidded to a stop. Of course! How could he have been so stupid as to miss that? The checkpoint would be their first target after securing the Block! And the woman he had helped was waiting there, injured......
He couldn't just leave her there, to them! He turned around and took off at a dead run heading for what he hoped was the security office. The smoke showed no signs of dissipating, but he ran without hesitation, trusting his other senses to aid him in reaching his goal. His body trembled at the edge of exhaustion after the day's treatment, but he pushed on. Even if she was Gazel...... He had to...... protect her. Protect the defenseless.
But why? She is nothing to me. Why do I feel so protective toward her? Strange that he should feel kinship to a person who stood for everything he hated. But then again, she was so much like Kahr, somehow...... and Kahr was his closest friend......
The door of the office gaped open. He dashed in without a second thought, surveying the scene in seconds.
His companion was huddled in the far corner, blazing with Ether power, and two human forms were sprawled with their limbs at unnatural angles not far from the door. Only one still stood, his gun aimed at her. She raised her hand --
Hyuga's sword moved as if with a will of its own, carving through the Lamb with the same technique he had used earlier. He dodged the blood and watched expressionlessly as the remains fell to the floor. Killing seemed to grow easier, the more he did it. Hyuga swallowed convulsively, and shook his head with a wry smile. Almost.
"Not bad, little brother," came a voice behind him.
Hyuga stiffened, unable to turn his head. "Shigre.....?"
"I'm disappointed, you know, Hyuga? I didn't expect you to side with...... them!"
"Save it!" his brother yelled, cutting him off. "I knew I was right about you the first time! You're just like the Solarian scum that enslaved us!" The voice lowered. "Seiran should have killed you when he had the chance!"
Hyuga whirled to face him. "Do you want a fight, brother?" He raised his sword, still dripping with his enemy's blood. He had hoped to make peace, but his brother's words were...... unforgivable. Make them pay......
"You can't talk your way out of it this time, little brother." Shigre held forth a shiny cylindrical handle and fell into the first battling position. "I'll kill you!" His arm whipped forward, and bright green energy struck, snaking from the generator disc on the handle.
Hyuga reeled back, dodging a second blow, almost dropping his sword. An energy whip! He had definitely underestimated his brother. "Whose corpse did you steal that from? You surely do not have the skill to earn one yourself!" He dove away from the flail, through the inner doorway, and rolled to his feet in the far corner. His brother ran in after him and slapped the panel that closed the door.
"Have they turned you into a coward, little brother? Afraid of violence?"
Coward?! Hyuga's mouth turned up in a mocking smile. The room was small, probably used as a private office by whoever was unlucky enough to be posted at the checkpoint. Spacious enough for a sword, but very inconvenient for Shigre's choice of weapon. He inched forward. He had always been smarter than his brother; more intelligent, creative, skilled...... Shigre always fought reality -- but he had just proven how stupid he was.
"It was very bold to start this rebellion, brother. But how do you expect to finish it? Do you truly think you can leave Solaris?" Shigre's face altered, just a fraction, but he held his ground. "Yes, I thought that was what you had planned. Think! It is simply a useless dream. If it were possible for Lambs to escape Solaris without the Emperor's consent, do you not think there would be more escape attempts? Heavier security?
"Why waste your effort? For Mother?" He watched his brother's face carefully, gauging his reactions. "You are, even now, signing the death warrant of every citizen in C Block, and most of the others. They will not let you get away with this. They will set an example," He was almost within range. He locked eyes with his older brother. "And they will kill every soul. After all," he said quietly, forcing himself to hold his derisive smile, "You Lambs are easy to replace." The words tasted bitter in his mouth.
Shigre's eyes nearly popped. "You --!!" He powered his weapon and struck.
Hyuga deflected the attack effortlessly and met it with a forward slash that struck and parted his brother's flesh with ease. Shigre flew back into the wall, the bottom half of his jacket already soaked in blood. "Do you still want to finish this, Shigre?" Please, back down. Please...... His anger was slowly waning. For once in your life, Shigre...... just...... "Just give it up, brother."
"If you don't kill me, I'll kill you, scum! Mother should have let them strangle you when you were born instead of hiding you!"
Hyuga's face went cold. "If that is what you wish." He brought his sword up again. The blade shook. Make him pay! Shigre tried to leap away from the wall, but Hyuga knocked him back with a kick to the abdomen, aligning his blade with his target.
"Damn you!" Shigre shouted, hands pressed against his wound. "You'll --"
Hyuga plunged his sword through his brother's eye, silencing him. His victim flailed once, then slumped against the wall. Hyuga pulled the blade out, and his brother's lifeless body fell to the floor. He gazed at it expressionlessly. "Shigre......" he started.
"You...... killed him?" Hyuga looked behind him. The woman sagged against the doorjamb, still clutching her shoulder. Jessiah was with her, shotgun propped on his shoulder. He took one look at the scene and shook his head with a sigh.
"This is exactly what they wanted, you know," Jessiah said, strolling across the room.
"I know," he replied, turning his back on Shigre's corpse. His anger was finally drained, and his arms hung like rubber at his sides. Break ties with the Lambs, they had said. You are no longer one of them. You are one of us. "Why didn't you warn me, commander? If I had known......" He let the sword hilt slide out of his fingers. "If I had just......"
"It's okay, Hyuga." Jessiah gripped his shoulder reassuringly. "Come on, pull yourself together," he said gently. "Don't let them see you cry like a baby."
He glared through his tears, but there was no real heat in it. He dashed them away and retrieved his weapon, sheathing it without bothering to wipe the blade, and followed Jessiah out of the building. Soldiers were everywhere, but no rebels could be seen. Dropped down the shaft already? Eugent's symbol was prominent; he saw some of his unit members among the groups clearing the dwellings of people. But suddenly he realized that the woman he had saved was gone. He had forgotten all about her.
"What happened to that woman, Commander?" he inquired when they reached the elevator.
"Who? Oh, her." Jessiah cast him a sidelong look. "She was recalled and taken to the Palace for treatment."
"Palace?! Why there? What was she doing down here in the first place?"
"Didn't she tell you? No, I suppose she wouldn't." They stepped into the elevator. "She was Krelian's mediator. Down here to convince the rebels not to revolt, or so I was told. You know the boys upstairs hate replacing their slave labor."
Krelian's mediator? Krelian, trying to convince the Lambs not to fight? At least now he knew why a Gazel citizen had been down there with him. It explained her suspicions. "What is her name?"
* * *
"To Learn the Pleasures of Blood......"
Unfathomable darkness made the small chamber holding the Ministry seem endless. A woman stood at the edge of a circle of light, swathed in the room's shadows. Above her loomed the spherical computer housing the Elders, and small orbs -- one for each Elder -- rotated the floating database like planets in orbit, its unmistakable humming filling her ears.
"Are you happy now? You've just destroyed what light there was left in him!" she said, glaring at the Ministry.
"What should that matter to you, 'salvation'? His education is not your business." The Elder rotated out of view, replaced by two others.
"You will be the one to pick up the pieces of his heart," came a soft voice. Krelian materialized on a nearby platform. "And forge them into what we need."
"You've returned, Krelian?" The SOL 9000 rotated, bringing a different Elder into view.
"What of Miang? She has been gone longer than usual."
Krelian ignored the Ministry, blue eyes fixed on his target. "You are alive because of us, 'salvation'. You pledged to do as I told you to do. Or would you prefer the alternative?"
"N-no!" she said, backing away.
"Then follow my instructions. We need another guardian, and the Ministry has determined that he is the best choice. He is 'Animus'."
"What? Then why --" she began.
"Do as you're told! Report back to Solaris." Krelian watched her go, disappearing into the shadows that shrouded the shrine of the SOL 9000. Every line of her body spelled out anger and indignation.
"Do you think she will cooperate, Krelian? We don't have much time."
"We cannot risk letting her go," another Elder stated, also rotating into view. "We cannot be sure when 'salvation' will be born again in this world."
"You worry too much. I thought you had disposed of such weaknesses." Krelian ascended the platform, meeting them eye to eye. "She is mine. And if necessary, I will administer the treatment." The Ministry went silent. "Now, about the Key......"
* * *
"...... Hence the break in the double helix." Professor Nomoe struck the screen with his pointer. "Now, who can tell me which acid would be applied to restore this DNA fragment?"
Hyuga bit back a yawn. Xirogenic acid would repair the helix. Or applied nanomachines -- it all depended on what was available. He glanced over the class. Nobody was answering, and several were flipping frantically through their research notes. The fools probably had not studied the night before. And the Professor would have to go over the formulas yet again......
Would the class never end?
As predicted, Professor Nomoe launched into one of his famous lectures on applied DNA technology, and as expected, half the class was staring with glazed eyes and blank expressions. The rotting outer layer, Shesmal called it, and it certainly appeared to be so. By the end of the quarter only a third of his class would be left, the rest probably expelled from Eugent, or assigned to lower-level jobs. It was all done very efficiently.
An hour later he was making his way through crowded halls to the shokudo, the lunch area. When he arrived, Jessiah and Sigurd were already seated in their usual spot, directly across from the entrance under a synthetic tree. Kahr's sword was propped up against the table, but the man himself was not there.
"It's about time, Hyuga!" Sigurd waved him over. "I thought you would be here before Kahr!"
"Not so," he replied dryly, sliding onto the bench. "Professor Nomoe got a bit carried away on today's lecture --"
"As usual," Sigurd cut in. "Why do you bother? You don't need the class when you're working with Krelian personally!"
"Looking for an easy 'A', huh?"
"Shut up..... Sir," Hyuga said, and Jessiah grinned. "The class is required."
"Yeah," Sigurd said. "You would choose Water instead of something more interesting. How much fun can there be in crawling through sewer ducts and dissecting animals for your training? You should focus on those sword skills of yours --"
"No!" The others blinked in surprise. They didn't understand. He could not let himself repeat the incident in Lower Etrenank. "Genetics and nanotechnology are far more interesting," he said, changing the subject.
"Yeah," Jessiah growled. "If you like dissecting Lambs."
Hyuga blinked, surprised. "What does it matter, really?" He had not reached that level of his training yet. But today......
Sigurd shook his head disgustedly. "I'll never understand this fixation of yours, Hyuga." Then he grinned, an expression so similar to Jessiah's that Hyuga almost leaned away. "Just how do you expect to get a date with a job like that?"
"Date? Do not be ridiculous." What time did he have for that? He was not interested in any of the women attending Eugent. "How many do you have scheduled for tonight, Sigurd? Three? Four?"
"Hey, I don't ......" His smile changed, became more secretive. "Just one."
"But does she know about it yet? That should be the question to ask, Hyuga." Kahr said, taking a seat beside Jessiah.
"Where were you?"
"Mi -- ah...... I was kept after class to go over my techniques. Shesmal agreed to help me develop a new gear stance."
"A new stance?" Hyuga picked at his food, making an effort to hide his amusement. The others were grinning openly. "I thought you received a perfect score on your Conceptual Tactics exam."
"I just felt I should put more effort into it. Once we graduate, we won't have the luxury of study aids or tutors, or......" As he trailed off, he snatched his spoon from the table and began stirring his tea vigorously.
"...... Or Miang," Hyuga finished for him, grinning with the others. No matter how hard Kahr tried to hide it, they all knew something was going on between the two. "Give it up, Kahr. We all know. Relax."
"That's impossible." Sigurd shook his head. "I haven't had any sleep since I passed my exams, and you know how Kahr is. He won't unwind until after the graduation ceremony."
"So you're all going to be Elements." Jessiah snorted. "It's a damn waste if you ask me. They never call on us."
"We've been assigned together, if that helps." Kahr finally stopped stirring his tea and took a sip. "Or, so Jessiah says. Maybe it isn't a coincidence that, together, we represent the four elements?"
"Yes......" Hyuga adjusted his glasses, studying his three companions. "He is probably right; we have been guided." Only a quarter -- three months -- since the incident with his brother. Where had that guided him? Solaris Command thought it was the right direction for him, or he would not be where he was, but......
"I wouldn't put it past them," Sigurd replied sourly. "Bastards."
"Careful......" Kahr cautioned.
Was there truly a reason? Or were their lives just a game in the eyes of those in charge? For that matter, who was in charge, really? Who was the driving force behind Solaris? What could their intentions be?
An intriguing question. One that Hyuga did not believe he would ever receive an answer to, short of divine inspiration. But with his new resources...... he could try.
"Are you feeling okay, Hyuga?" Sigurd asked.
"What?" Hyuga snapped back into reality.
"Are you okay?" Sigurd repeated. "What's wrong with you? You've been like this since that --"
"Shut up, Sig." Jessiah snapped.
"But Jessiah --"
"I said shut up. Can't you take an order?" Sigurd lapsed into a sullen silence under his glare. Jessiah turned back to Hyuga. "Don't you have to be at the Lab?"
"Lab?" Hyuga cleared his throat and tugged at the ends of his hair. "Yes, that is right. Krelian wanted me there...... early today."
Kahr leaned forward. "It's amazing, how much interest he is showing in your skills. I'm surprised he's taken such a personal interest in you. Isn't he supervising most of your scientific labs himself? And your research training?"
"Yes...... Yes, he is." He cleared his throat again. "He wants me to work in his Research Facility after graduation. I've already been given access to his system. Even if I refuse, I can still......"
"That's a P4 access, Hyuga," Jessiah pointed out. "He's putting an awful lot of trust in you......"
Jessiah's words hit home, but he didn't see why he should refuse; it would not interfere with his duties as an Element. In fact, it might help him. Working for Intelligence required many skills, and what better place could there be to acquire those skills?
But why would Krelian put so much faith in him? There had to be some other reason for it. There always was. That man...... He was not a Solarian...... As much as he hated his heritage, he trusted his own kind more than an apparent outsider. Then again, everyone knew Krelian was the real ruler in Solaris.
"I must be going," Hyuga said, standing up. "I will not be done in time for our usual get-together, so do not wait for me."
He said his good-byes and left the shokudo before Sigurd could twist the conversation back to the beginning of the quarter. Don't think about it! Why did the man always ask him about what happened? He did not want to remember at all! So far he had succeeded in keeping it locked up at the back of his mind, but nightmares still plagued his sleep.
Shigre had deserved to die. But it was not his death that horrified Hyuga -- it was the feeling it had inspired. And their mother...... She wouldn't even speak with him anymore. She would simply stare through him whenever he tried to capture her attention......
No! Don't think about that! He swallowed a lump in his throat, walking more slowly. It wasn't my fault! If those Lambs had only waited, it wouldn't have happened. The blame should be laid at their feet!
"You ready to go to the Lab now, Hyuga?" a familiar voice asked.
Hyuga looked up and saw Erim. "Yes."
"Then get in, don't take your sweet time!" Erim grinned and waved him into the car, walking around to the driver's seat. "You're late again, you know."
"Don't worry about it." Hyuga folded himself into the back passenger seat and waited, turning away from the sympathy in her eyes. The vehicle whirred to life, and the streets were soon spinning by in a blur. He ignored everything until they reached the Lab, and then he only focused enough to get out of the car and into the building before he lapsed into his silence again.
Sigurd's question would not go away. What happened?
What happened? He had no clue. He could only remember events in a haze. Blood, and his brother's eyes at the moment of death......
"You've passed the lab, you know," a voice interrupted his thoughts.
"What......?" His eyes focused on reality again and on the person that had halted him in his tracks. A pair of shining blue eyes stared up at him. Familiar eyes. "W-why are you here?" Composure. He must be calm, and cool. If he could not keep his composure now, he would fail miserably as an intelligence agent.
Her stare softened. "Didn't Krelian tell you he was assigning me as your partner?" She offered her hand. "Igraine Yurikudo."
"He did, but......?" He took her hand. "Hyuga Ricdeau." She smiled -- a soft smile. He held onto her hand, and felt himself smiling back.
"Were you planning to report to Krelian today, Hyuga Ricdeau?" Her lilting tone brought a rueful shake of his head.
"Ah...... I am sorry. Shall we?" He felt his face grow hot as he turned around and followed her to the security door leading to the main Lab. Was she laughing at him? He could not blame her -- what a fool he was, grinning like an idiot when he was supposed to be doing his job! Just because she was pretty did not mean he should lose his wits over it.
"It's about time." Krelian's mild voice broke through his thoughts. "Luckily for you, the subject has not arrived yet." Igraine opened her mouth to retort, but he silenced her with a look. "Go prepare yourselves for surgery. I want you to be ready."
"Yes, Commander," Hyuga said respectfully. Igraine sniffed and led him to the clean-up room, pulling a pair of gray gowns from a hook on the back of the door. He took one from her and shed his coat.
"I hope you're prepared for this," she said.
"What?" He pulled the gown over his head and began searching his pockets for a ribbon to tie back his hair. It was only shoulder-length, but it always managed to get in his way during his work.
"Today's...... task," Igraine muttered, shooting a quick glance at Krelian. The gown was too large for her -- it hung about her in folds, and the high neck of her uniform rose above its collar. She looked at it and smiled wryly. "You know, I might not be much help if I have to work in this. At least the sleeves fit."
He grinned. "A test? Nothing to worry about, I am sure."
"He will be teaching us something new, but......" Igraine scowled at Krelian's back. "Maybe he means to test your trust. Or your dedication."
"Are you trying to warn me of something?" Hyuga asked.
Igraine's scowl faded. "Not me. I would not give away one of his precious secrets! But just do as I say. Be prepared."
Hyuga shrugged. "If you say so." He pulled his gloves off and tied his hair back with a black ribbon, doubling the knot to make sure it would not come loose. "Everything should be ready now. Shall we go?"
The examination module was dark. He and Igraine crowded behind Krelian in the clean room just outside, peering into the blackness through the glass. The edges of the specimen pod glinted, but only faint outlines marked the presence of the rest of the furniture in the room.
"Good, you are here." Krelian entered his security code and the glass doors slid open. He was not garbed for surgery as they were -- it appeared he was simply accompanying them to observe. "The subject has been prepared and is ready. Come along." He walked into the module.
Bright lights flicked on as they entered. Despite the walls of glass, the room was still very claustrophobic and suffocating, and one third of the available space was taken by the shiny metallic examination table. And on that table......
"What?!" Igraine exclaimed, halting. "I can't --! You can't expect me to......!"
Air left Hyuga's body in a rush, and he could not breathe. "Not......" He stared and the body stretched out on the table, swathed in a thin white gown. A human. A Lamb. Krelian watched expectantly. "This is...... I......"
"One of the rebels from C Block," his teacher replied calmly. "After several tests and the application of Drive, we have determined that his Ether potential is great enough to warrant this treatment. He is one of the few survivors lucky enough to be granted parole. The rest have already been sent to the Soylent facility."
"But......" His eyes were fastened to the body on the table. "Seiran......"
Igraine seemed to recognize him as well. "This is cruel, Krelian! How can you call yourself human? How could you.....?"
Krelian's eyes narrowed. "I deemed it necessary. Now...... Hyuga?"
Hyuga tore his eyes away from his brother and looked at Krelian. The other waited impassively, arms crossed over his chest. "I......" Hyuga started.
"Don't do this. You don't have to do this......" she whispered.
He turned his gaze to Igraine's worried face, then quickly back to Krelian. He gave no sign of having heard her whisper. So, she is...... worried for me? Why......? "Thank you. But......" He turned back to his teacher. "What is the procedure?"
Krelian smiled, but it never touched his eyes. "We are here to adjust his basic Limiter......"
* * *
Damned. I am...... damned......
"Why did you do that to yourself? You just followed him like...... like...... a lamb! What about your brother?" Igraine pushed him into an armchair and glared at him, but her voice was gentle. "What about you?"
Hyuga avoided her eyes, paying the comfortable surroundings of her home only half a mind. What could he say to that? There was no excuse for...... for what he had just done. He shied away from it as he shied away from his memories of Shigre. Damned. He was staining his own soul with the blood of his family. "I......" He cleared his throat. "Does it really matter anymore? At least he was not sent to the Factory."
"Is that all you can say? Are you going to let them do this to you? Will you just follow where they lead without a thought for yourself?"
"Who are 'they'? And why do you care? It is not any of your business!"
She turned her back to him. "I felt a connection when we met, Hyuga Ricdeau. I know you don't have the soul of one of those monsters in the Soylent Facility. Why do you follow their path? Did you enjoy dissecting your own brother?"
His breath caught in his throat. "It was a ...... fascinating experience." he replied weakly.
What of his malicious feeling of...... satisfaction? That feeling scared him more than he wanted to admit. And every time he came under Krelian's influence...... it seemed easier simply to follow. All through the procedure, he had told himself that Seiran deserved what he got. He betrayed me!
His contempt of Shigre as he plunged his sword through his brain......
"Fascinating? You call it...... fascinating?"
He closed his eyes, hands balled into fists. Now why had he said that?
"Maybe I was wrong about you. I'm not a psychic, after all." She kept her back to him, suddenly distant. "Would you like some tea? You might as well relax while you're here."
"Tea? Yes, please." She disappeared in a door to his left, and he finally lifted his head. Simple furnishings surrounded him. The walls were lined with books and papers and folders, all neatly arranged. A small cross and set of candelabra were all that told him her dwelling was located on the Church grounds instead of Eugent. Everything spoke of wealth.
"Here." She handed him a porcelain teacup and sat in another armchair, beside him.
"What do you want to talk about?" She had approached him after their lesson -- where Krelian could not hear them -- and asked him to accompany her to her home so they might talk. So far, he could see no indication of her motives.
Silence. Then, "The checkpoint at N Block."
"There is nothing to talk about." Hyuga said and quickly sipped his tea, eyes on the amber liquid.
"So you kill one brother, dissect the other, and none of this bothers you?" Igraine demanded. He stared at her. She had the grace to blush, but she glared at him stubbornly. "Your friends are concerned for you. Or haven't you noticed? Kahr asked me to talk with you, or I wouldn't have invited you here after...... that."
"Kahr told you?" Some of his earlier conversations with the others came back to him. "I would have thought...... Sigurd......"
"The one from Elru? I don't know him."
"But you know Kahr?" he asked, and she broke eye contact. He leaned forward a bit. "It does not matter, I suppose. So you want to talk about my brothers?" He forced his hands to unclench. "There is nothing to say. They disowned me and called me a traitor. Why should I concern myself with their fate?"
"I'm not concerned about their fate. I'm concerned about your soul." Her eyes softened. "You can't continue blaming those misguided rebels for what you did, and you can't continue to bottle up your feelings! Just...... just talk to me."
"Why? Why are you interested? This does not concern you." Could this be another one of Krelian's little tests? Why else would she pry? She had no right to ask him such questions. And he certainly did not want her pity. Why am I even here? I should leave.
"I could say that it's simply my nature," she replied. "But that wouldn't be true, in this case. And no, Krelian didn't set this up. I know that's what you were thinking."
"It does concern me. I was there." She fiddled with the hem of her uniform distractedly, looking uncertain. "I...... I think I was partially responsible for what happened with your brother. That is not to say that the fight wouldn't have occurred without my presence...... But I certainly didn't help, did I?"
He didn't answer. How unusual. She is taking responsibility...... even when it is not hers to take. This was no normal Gazel woman. "I ask again: why?"
"...... I don't know."
I felt a connection when we met, Hyuga Ricdeau. He sighed. I know you don't have the soul of one of those monsters...... No, of course not. Not yet. He sighed again and shook his head at the thought. She watched him silently, hopefully.
Yes. He felt a connection with Igraine -- a very deep one, now that he bothered to think about it, to feel it. Was it just another trick? "It does not matter, does it?"
She seemed to know exactly what he was thinking. "It's a small price to pay for a true friend." Her eyes seemed ready to swallow him.
"Can I trust you?" he asked bluntly, watching her eyes.
"Always." Still, he hesitated, and she sighed. "Do you want to know a little about me? There isn't much. Only what that man has told me."
Hyuga smiled briefly, noting her obvious dislike of their 'mentor'. He wasn't sure what to think about it -- or her -- himself, but he was always willing to learn something new. Perhaps it would help him put things in perspective. He was not having much luck by himself.
"I wasn't born in Solaris." She gave him a sidelong look. He raised his eyebrows. "Apparently, my mother was a native of Shevat." His jaw dropped. "I do not know the details, but that man told me my mother was injured on the surface during a roundup in Bledavik by Gebler."
"This would have been before the takeover, correct?" He sat forward, no longer paying any mind to his tea. "When Fatima was still in power? I understand Shakhan was still cementing his connections with us at that time."
"Yes. She was taken along with the rest of the Lambs and confined in the castle with the rest of the supposed 'traitors'. She was pregnant at the time, and I suppose her condition came to the attention of the officer there." Igraine shrugged, leaning back. "They could not condone such treatment, not to one in her condition. So she was brought here."
"That seems very unlikely," Hyuga commented. "I cannot see a Solarian officer going through any trouble for one he perceives as a Lamb."
"That's what I told him," she said with a small smile. "Anyway...... When they brought her in, the bio-scans indicated the absence of a physical Limiter, so naturally they brought her here, to this research facility. After numerous experiments and examinations, someone interceded, and Krelian released her from the facility. But as far as I know she was kept here in Solaris, and that man will not tell me anything else."
"So he has stood in place of your...... father?" Yes, very unusual...... The story was considerably less detailed near the end. Either she didn't know, as she said, or she just wasn't telling.
She made a face. "Yes."
"Such enthusiasm." Hyuga said. Igraine smiled at him again, but it faded quickly. He leaned back into his chair, continuing to watch her.
Shevat. A tainted, evil city -- or so he had been taught. He had always known there was more to the story, but like the Ministry, it was shrouded in mystery. The idea that she was a native of that city -- or her mother was -- and posing as a Solarian citizen with the blessing of the ruling circles was ludicrous...... But that much of the tale, at least, was true as far as he could tell.
"I think I understand you a bit better...... Igraine. But I must say, I am surprised that you revealed so much to a man you hardly know."
"I think we know each other better than you'd like to admit." He was silent. "You seek their blood, don't you? You don't care that they are not to blame for your deeds. That is why you hold your feelings back."
"Blood? I do not want their......." He trailed off. Shigre. Seiran. He managed to hold them back, push them away -- but he held onto her tightly, half afraid he would crush her slender hand. "There is no turning back, is there?" he mumbled.
"N-no...... Not now......"
No turning back......
* * *
"Walking the Path of the Damned......"
"Well, you're in it now," Jessiah said with a crooked smile. "No turning back."
Hyuga shivered at the near echo of his words from what seemed so long ago. But it was only a month. Just a month. "In what?"
"You're part of the 'Element' class now." Jessiah smirked. "Even Sig looks respectable in that get-up." Sigurd gave him an indignant look.
"For now," Hyuga said, throwing an amused glance at Sigurd. The two grinned at each other like children up to no good. Even in uniform, Sigurd managed an air of indifference and...... Sensuality? Hyuga shook his head, cutting off that line of thought before it could remind him of Sigurd's..... reputation. "I suppose we are to remain here? We were instructed to bring our belongings."
"Yeah. You each get your own quarters on the third floor. Kahr has already chosen his -- he left in a hurry to go find someone."
"Miang?" Sigurd asked, grinning.
"No, actually." Jessiah jerked his thumb in the general direction of their new quarters. "She's up there unpacking her own stuff." He shook his head. "I think he went to get her roommate."
"Roommate?" Hyuga exchanged looks with Sigurd. Miang, sharing her privacy? The thought was almost laughable. "She has agreed to that?"
"It's only temporary, I guess. The Tri-Elements are housed on the fourth floor, but it's still under renovation. Lack of workers, I suppose. The woman joining her is also a Tri-Element." Jessiah's gaze settled on Hyuga. "She holds command over the Water and Fire divisions, so you two will be working together on most missions."
"Wait -- don't we all work together?" Sigurd asked. "The four?"
"Only on special assignments, Sig. The Ministry doesn't like to waste its resources. Heh." Jessiah clapped Sigurd on the shoulder. "You'll get your turn. Just like I promised."
"If you will excuse me......" Hyuga backed away. "I am going to unpack. I will see you both at Command." He hardly saw their confirming nods, lapsing back into thought as he entered the elevator and typed his access code.
Another Tri-Element, working with Miang...... He had no doubt it was her. She had told him as much during his last visit. I represent opposites. Apparently Krelian thought this, as well as my Ether value, strong enough to place me at a higher command level. We may see each other often, after we graduate from Eugent. Not a straight answer, perhaps, but Igraine never said anything clearly. Another habit, she had said to him yesterday, blushing.
Kahr. Igraine. What did the two have in common? Kahr spent at least as much time with Igraine as he did with Miang, and Hyuga knew Kahr wasn't in love with her, so what did that leave? Simple friendship? They were much closer -- a blind idiot would realize that. The question was...... why? They were complete opposites. Kahr was so obstinate and aggressive; Igraine was deeply religious and withdrawn. What draws them together? A common enemy? A shared pain?
Yes! That must be it. The elevator doors opened, admitting him into the main corridor of the third floor. They do share something. They both shared an unfathomable bond with Krelian. Both spoke of him in whispers, fearful whispers. And both shut themselves away every time he sought to make sense of their connections to the man.
It always came to Krelian. Always. He could follow most of his own problems back to that man. Krelian seemed to hold a grudge against most of the human race.
A door to his right stood open, and light flooded out into the hallway. "Miang?" he called, peering through the opening.
"Nice to see you, Hyuga." She smiled, strands of deep indigo hair framing her face. "Have you chosen your quarters yet? There are only three others, so you had better hurry if the answer is no!"
"I will." He stepped into the room, leaning against the wall near the door. "Why do you unpack? Jessiah told me you will be moving up a level soon." He shifted awkwardly. She was nice enough, and very kind to people, but she always made him feel slightly uncomfortable, even when she smiled.
"How can I find anything if it's all packed away?" Miang said. "Most of it is still in storage anyway. Has Kahr come back yet?"
"No......" Hyuga said slowly. She rolled her eyes and turned around to dig through a plastic box. "I heard he went to find your...... roommate. Igraine. Am I correct?"
"Yes," Miang replied after a short pause. She continued rummaging through the box, but seemed to have lost whatever she was looking for. Finally, she stopped altogether, and smiled over her shoulder. "It'll only be a week. We'll both be moved up a floor to our permanent quarters soon enough. Why?"
"Bigger rooms, hmm?" Hyuga said, avoiding her question. "You are command level now, are you not?" He offered her a small grin to show he was not jealous. "Who sits above you? Jessiah?"
"No, he decided to stay down here with you." She made a face, turning back to her box. "Some guy named Stein is already up there. A rival of Jessiah's, I believe. Living between those two will be interesting, to say the least."
"I do not envy you!" Hyuga said. "It will be bad enough if they decide to confront each other every time Stein comes down to leave the building. I do not know how we will manage that."
"Always the peacemaker, Hyuga!" Miang laughed softly. "If you see Kahr before I do, will you please tell him I would like to talk? There is something I want to tell him."
"Yes, of course." He turned to leave, but stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Perhaps you could say the same to Igraine?"
She grinned knowingly. "Not a problem. Thank you."
* * *
"Luxury would not exactly describe this," Hyuga said softly to himself, hardly aware that he was speaking aloud. "But it is much better than what I am used to......"
His rooms -- a bedroom and a front room -- were plain but well furnished, and rather empty, impersonal. Everything was the same unrelieved white and gray one could find all through Solaris, but despite that, it was more comfortable than anything he had lived in before. Compared to the dwellings in Lower Etrenank and the bunk rooms at Eugent, it was spacious and lush, and private.
He smiled. Finally, he had his own personal living space. Assuming things didn't speed up, or matters worsen on the surface, he would finally have some time of his own.
Fabric rustled behind him. "Privacy is a wonderful thing, I agree. It's such a shame that I have to forgo my own for the time being. That is why I am so late." Igraine joined him at his vantage point near the door, idly twirling her pendant. "But I hope that you have some time to enjoy this. Things aren't looking very promising on the surface, at this point."
"Elru, again?" Hyuga asked, leading her to a chair.
Igraine nodded, taking the seat. "I think Shevat has promised them some sort of aid. I cannot say for sure at the moment. And the renegades at Nisan might get involved as well."
"Wonderful," Hyuga muttered under his breath, sitting beside her. Why could the Lambs not just submit, instead of trying to make things harder for everybody? Was stupidity bred into their bloodlines?
"I wish they wouldn't do this," Igraine said, staring at her hands. "So many of them get hurt in these suppressions. Don't they understand that we're just trying to help them?"
"I doubt they perceive it as help, Igraine. And Lambs are notoriously ungrateful. Just look at them......" He tried to smile for her, but she just shrugged and slumped in her chair, letting her hair fall forward. He sighed and let the smile fade. Such words did not work for her; he found that they only made him feel worse as well. He did not truly feel that way, but what else could he say? The truth would make her feel no better. "I am sorry."
"For what? You have done nothing. You're just... trying to make me feel better. You are being a friend. Don't be sorry for that."
"Will you stay, then? I know you do not want to return to Miang so soon." Hyuga took Igraine's hand in both of his, trying to lend his support. It was so fragile and soft, so like her personality. He was continually wondering how she managed to live in places like Eugent, and Krelian's home, without losing the light in her soul. "Besides," he continued with a genuine grin, "We never finished our debate."
Igraine did look up then, with a fiery glint in her eyes. "One more word.......! Besides, you know I'm right!" She pushed her hair back with her other hand and pointed her finger at him, almost poking his eye out in the process. He jerked his face back. "You know you can't win against me! I always know your next move."
"Is that because you have Kahr spy on me?" Hyuga said, grabbing her other hand.
"What --!" Igraine's silvery laughter finally broke through her dark mood. "He can't lie worth --! He would not make a good spy! He's too sweet."
"Well, I would not say 'sweet'," Hyuga said. He wished he had Kahr's way with women. The man charmed them better than even Sigurd could manage! Keeping Igraine -- not to mention Miang -- docile and happy was more than anyone else could manage. "What is your relation to Kahr?" he blurted out. "You spend so much time together......"
"You want to know?" Igraine asked, and he immediately turned red, thinking about how the question must have sounded. She freed one of her hands and tucked a stray tendril of hair behind her ear. "We're...... like siblings. You know? We adopted each other when we were small. I found him...... a-and I took him home. Krelian almost made me take him back, but I think he felt sorry for Kahr, and let him stay with us. So I call him my 'little brother'. Do you see, now?"
Interesting. Kahr appeared to be older than she obviously was. "I have never heard you use that term. I suppose it is reserved for your time together?" She started to withdraw her other hand, but he gripped it harder, and she relaxed.
"We hardly ever use it now. I think it is best that we don't remind Krelian of...... that. He wasn't very happy with me. I suppose you could say it holds some bad memories for us, now."
"So will you stay?" Hyuga repeated.
"Yes, of course." Igraine glanced at him coyly. "May I have my hand back?"
"Ah --!" Hyuga released her hand, flushing. "Sorry......" He bolted out of his chair before he could embarrass himself further, and turned toward the food storage unit. "Would you like some tea?"
"Not now, thanks. I had three cups with Kahr!"
Hyuga went to prepare a cup for himself, careful to keep his back turned to her. It was not strictly polite, but he didn't want her to see him blushing. And he wanted to think about what she had said without being distracted by her eyes, or her voice. He couldn't bear that gaze sometimes...... It seemed as if she saw what he felt, all of his feelings for her......He shook those thoughts off. She wasn't a telepath.
So she had found him somewhere as a child, had she? Kahr had never mentioned that. In fact, now that he thought about it, she looked a bit like her 'brother'. It could be coincidence.
Her obvious resemblance to Krelian was no coincidence, however. And if he could ever be sure she wouldn't rip his heart out for mentioning it, he thought he would ask her about it. That man, as she called him, did not strike him as a very good 'father figure', and certainly not as a man who might take a lover. The implications behind that were almost tempting enough to make him risk her wrath.
But not quite. Angering her was the last thing he wanted to do.
Someone knocked softly, and the door opened. "Hyuga?" Miang's head appeared in the door, her eyes flickering back and forth between them. "Good, you're both here. May I come in?"
"Of course." He gestured to a chair across from Igraine.
"There's a problem down in Lower Etrenank," Miang said. "We've been called upon to take care of it for them." She looked at Igraine. "You're supposed to take Hyuga and Kahr down to the Second Level and split up. The 'problem' was determined to be in either Block F, G, or H. Whoever finds it should call the rest of us and wait for reinforcements."
"That quickly?" Igraine asked, lounging in her chair. "Well, I suppose we should carry out our orders......" She straightened out of the chair and smiled at Miang. Igraine was several inches taller, and she seemed to take advantage of every one of those inches. "Is it the old Eugent crew?"
"Some of them. Mostly upgraded citizens and the low born." Miang's eyes slid to Hyuga for a millisecond before boring into Igraine again.
Hyuga frowned slightly. Was she pointing out his heritage, or was she trying to tell him something? Perhaps one of his other brothers was involved...... again? Two others had entered Eugent recently. And neither of them would even speak to him.
"And you, Miang? What is your part in this mission?" Igraine asked.
"I marshal the reinforcements." Miang offered him a parting smile. "Take care of Kahr for me."
As soon as the door closed behind her, Igraine's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I know she is up to something...... She should be taking you down there -- I don't work in combat situations." She glared at the door as if her eyes could part the molecules and bore into Miang's back. "Hmph. Another setup, just like N Block!"
"What?" Hyuga asked in surprise. Were his suspicions actually true?
Igraine's glare slipped away. "Nothing. That is not important right now." She clasped her hands behind her back and walked toward the door. "You should get into uniform. I'm sure they want us down there as soon as possible."
Yes, they will...... he thought, watching her depart. So it really had been a setup? Why did that thought surprise him? He wouldn't put it past Krelian to do so, or any Solarian for that matter. I've killed two brothers, now. Were any more involved? Would he confront them this time?
Did it really matter? What could two more do to my soul......?
* * *
Harsh white and yellow lights illuminated the halls of Level Two in Lower Etrenank. Hyuga's glasses, or rather the glare on the lenses, obscured his sight a bit as he trudged after Igraine and Kahr. It wasn't much of a handicap, as anyone foolish enough to attack him would realize. The glare did nothing to dim his other senses.
"Here." Igraine stopped them at a three-way branch in the corridor, and turned to face them. "I'll take Block H," she said, gesturing to the left branch. "I want you, Kahr, to take the center branch, and Hyuga to take the right branch. If you run into anything, or find something unusual, contact me immediately. Understood?"
Hyuga nodded along with Kahr, and started down his designated path. Igraine opened her mouth as if to say something as he passed, but when he slowed she shook her head and waved him on, smiling uneasily.
Everything was deathly silent. Occasionally he passed a power door, or an elevator shaft that lead down to the block below, but he ignored all of these. They were locked and secured, sealed by Solaris Command before they had come down here. Sounds of life reached his ears as he passed the entrances, faint and ghostly, but he didn't see another human or demi-human being anywhere.
Once again, his uniform began to feel to confining. He shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. Wearing the uniform of an Element was as good as wearing a target on his back in a firing range. Most lower class citizens would not even dare approach him, but with the recent revolts here in the lower levels, he wasn't sure just how protective his uniform was. He didn't want to end up as anyone's prey.
The others were in just as much danger. Worry for Kahr, and especially for Igraine, began to monopolize Hyuga's thoughts the farther he went. Would he return to headquarters, only to find both his closest friend and the woman he...... cared for, dead?
God help me......
Voices penetrated the deafening silence. Hyuga halted, listening carefully for the slightest clue as to the source of the voices. The halls were quiet a few more moments, but then he heard the voices again, this time louder, as if both were raised in an argument. He inched forward, tracking the sound as he moved, careful not to make any noise himself. Soon he was able to make out parts of the conversation.
"...... Told you they might...... if one of them actually finds us......"
"...... kill the prisoners! Are you......"
He halted again. Prisoners? He focused on the speakers again. By their accents, they were land dwellers, and not part of Solaris, other than manual labor. Upon entering the schools of Solaris, every student from below was put through stringent language courses to correct their mode of speech and bring them up to standard. These two were definitely Lambs. And that meant the prisoners they were speaking of were hostages.
Miang, and Igraine had conveniently forgotten to mention that. Or perhaps they had not known either. He moved down the corridor again, following the murmur of conversation absently. It could also be a trap. These two had obviously detected his presence, or that of the others, on the level. But could he take that chance?
He immediately discarded the idea of contacting the others. Any break in communication silence would alert the rebels to their presence for sure. And he could not just walk blindly into whatever situation was waiting for him ahead. The voices had stopped, but he was almost certain of their location now. Random noises reaching his ears told him they were still located in the same place. It had to be near, now......
Sure enough, a doorway appeared around the next corner, and it appeared to be damaged somehow. Perhaps the owners of those voices had pried it open? Another almost inaudible conversation drifted out. The door was open a crack, and dim light glowed inside, though the corridor lights drowned out most of it.
"Do you think they've found us yet?"
"No." Hyuga was startled to hear the voice, and its perfect Solarian dialect. Erim. She was involved as well? "Our scanners would have picked any communication up. They won't risk a confrontation without reinforcements, so don't worry about it!"
"You said that about N Block too, and look what happened! We were nearly wiped out!"
"Didn't I tell you to shut up? Do you want to bring them down on us? Besides, I know one of the units on the team they sent down here. He won't hurt us." Erim was behind the riot in N Block? Why? He had been sure it was his brothers. "Anyway, Krelian will have to keep his promise now. He wouldn't want to lose this girl here."
"You're a fool!" Reya. Hyuga sighed. If she was their prisoner...... "Krelian won't waste his time with this! He'd rather lose me than sabotage everything we've worked for. You might as well just give up now!"
There had to be another way into the room. If he remembered the format of the guard houses correctly, there should be a maintenance hatch in the ceiling, above the beams and hidden in shadow. And if they had been smart enough to seal that...... There was always the ventilation system.
"Krelian might not come," Erim snapped, her voice fading as Hyuga moved away. "But that Gazel woman won't want to let you die! And when......"
Had Erim already contacted Igraine? He knew she wouldn't let Reya remain in danger for long. Igraine was too smart to simply rush in, but he was willing to bet she wouldn't think of bringing Kahr or the rest of their unit, trusting in Erim's honesty.
He stayed close to the wall, searching for a hatch or a ladder that would lead him to the work shafts. He ended up opposite to the room in which Reya was held before he found an entrance, bolted into the bottom corner of a wall plate, with an access pad next to it. He tried three security codes before he got it right, and he crawled into the shaft, pulling the door closed to conceal his presence.
Now came the hard part: retracing his footsteps. Soon after he started the tunnel expanded, allowing him to stand almost upright, and it followed a straight path, parallel to the corridor. Thankfully he was still in the same block of rooms, so he did not have to worry about crossing the halls.
Only minutes passed, but they seemed like hours. He climbed and crawled and squeezed through the shafts until he was sure he was at the right location, above the room holding Reya. Then he searched for another hatch, straining to be as quiet as possible so as not to alert Erim and her fellows. He found the one he was looking for, and silently exulted. The number matched the one he had seen on the door before leaving.
There was another access panel. He typed in the same code, and the hatch slid open a few centimeters with a hiss of pressurized air. He winced at the sound.
"What was that?" he heard Erim's voice demand. "Did you hear something?"
"Nah, it's just the mechanics of this place. I've heard it a thousand times."
"No, I don't think so......"
Hyuga slid the door open as quietly as he could, careful to keep to the shadows. Several large beams obscured his view of the room, but they also concealed him quite well. He could see the edge of Erim's uniform, but she was facing the wrong way. He slipped out of the tunnel and balanced on the nearest beam, walking carefully across until he came to the center of the room. Reya was sitting in a normal office chair, hands and legs cuffed with standard restraints. The edges were bloody, as if she had put up a violent fight.
"I don't hear it anymore Erim. It was probably nothing." The speaker was a young man in a student's uniform. The cuff designs and the emblem at his throat named him a new attendee at Eugent. His accent was harsh to Hyuga's ears.
"When there are Elements around, it's never nothing. I know them too well." She turned around slowly, surveying every inch of the room she could lay eyes on. "There!" She pointed her gun at the open hatch. Hyuga cursed himself for a fool. "What the hell is that doing open?! Someone's in here!"
Damn! He didn't want to fight Erim, and he certainly didn't want to slaughter the others in front of Reya. He started to draw his sword, but stopped when Erim came into his line of vision again. She's a traitor. She orchestrated the battle that forced me to kill my brother. He gripped his sword until his knuckles cracked. Still, he would try to avoid killing.
"It is me, Erim." He released his sword with some difficulty and jumped from the beam, landing on his feet at the center of the room. Erim drew her gun and pointed it at him.
"I should have known. Only you would go through so much trouble to avoid being noticed." She smiled, but her gun was still pointed at his chest. "What do you want Hyuga? We're trying to conduct business here."
"I came to stop that. And to release her," he said, pointing to Reya.
Erim barked a short laugh. "You're still alive because we're old friends, Hyuga, but if you think I'm going to let you take her out of here before we have the other one, you're crazy."
"Igraine? I will not let you have her, either. Not even if I have to fight an old friend." Traitor. That's all she is. Good for nothing trash. He wasn't going to let her lay a finger on his Igraine.
"Oh, come on Hyuga! We have three guns trained on you! Even you aren't fast enough to dodge three. Just give it up, and we'll let you walk out of here. For old time's sake."
He glanced at Reya. She nodded to her wrists, and wriggled her hands to draw his attention. The restraints were free. He blinked in return. Then he turned his gaze back to Erim.
"Why are you doing this?"
"Krelian made a promise he didn't keep. We just want him to fulfill his end of the bargain. She's just as valuable to Krelian as your girlfriend is, and with both of them......"
"What did he promise you?" Hyuga asserted. "Maybe I can --"
"Departure from Solaris for me and my friends here." Erim smirked. "Can you help us with that, Hyuga? No? I didn't think so. We'll take our chances with Krelian's troops. Maybe I'll get to pay him back for what he did to me!"
"The prisoner is loose!" someone shouted. Reya suddenly appeared behind Erim and clubbed her with the broken restraints. She fell without a sound.
Hyuga turned around, drawing his sword. Reya came up beside him and assumed her battle stance. "Do you know where they put your weapon?" he asked her, watching the three rebels closely.
"No! They caught me somewhere on the Third Level, and I think it's still there. Damn! Here they come!"
The rebels advanced.
* * *
Igraine glowered at the viewscreen projecting the Elders. They weren't nearly as intimidating on a screen as they were 'in person'.
"He did well."
"It is not a surprise. We knew he would react in this fashion."
"And what of you, 'salvation'? Do you think he will betray us?"
Their words infuriated her. "You know he won't! He'll probably just kill them. That's what you want, isn't it?" She looked to Krelian. "This is what you want your 'guardian angel' to be?"
"Consider it another test. If he cannot control his anger, what good will he be on the surface? He still needs to learn control over his feelings. I thought you would teach him that......?" Krelian switched the screen off, coming face to face with Igraine. "Or are your feelings interfering with that?"
"I'm not like you Krelian! I won't lose myself in my feelings, or cause the one I love to destroy himself! Who did you blame for her death? Lacan?"
Krelian slapped her, hard enough to cause her to take a step back. His expression never changed. "You should not speak that way to your father."
"You're not my father." Igraine looked again at the blank screen, then back to Krelian. "He's still human. I'm going to make sure he stays that way."
* * *
"What now?" Reya asked, breathing heavily.
Hyuga slashed another rebel and jumped back, dodging three bullets. "There is nothing else we can do. I have already called Igraine and Miang." He looked over to her. She was close to exhaustion; she was swaying, and the cuts on her arms and legs were bleeding again. "Get back! You are going to do their job for them if you keep fighting!"
"I can handle it! Do you really think you can take them on by yourself?" Reya threw herself to the ground to avoid another bullet. Hyuga rushed forward and slashed the shooter. "Heh. I thought Igraine hated arrogant men!"
Reya grinned. "You -- Hey, watch out!"
Hyuga threw himself to the side before she finished her warning, but he was too slow. He felt a shattering pain in his right arm, and he rolled back to his feet, gripping it and watching blood well out of the wound. He jerked his eyes back to the rebels just before they shot again, and he jumped forward, stabbing the shooter before he could squeeze the trigger. Only one more...... "Reya!" His sword dropped from nerveless fingers. He grabbed it with his left hand, ignoring the pain in his other arm.
"No problem!" Reya grabbed a gun from one of the corpses, and three quick shots took care of their last opponent. "Are you alright? You don't look so good."
"I think the bullet hit a nerve." Hyuga gritted his teeth. "Nothing that cannot be taken care of."
"You men." Igraine seemed to materialize by his side, shaking her head. "You always think you can tough things out for our sake, even when you can't." She pried the sword out of his hand and sheathed it at his side. "It's what makes you so charming sometimes."
"A-are you serious?" Hyuga managed to get out. Igraine's hands, light and gentle, pulled his sleeve back to reveal the wound. She looked at it and winced, but he couldn't take his eyes off of her face. He didn't even notice the pain anymore. "Where .......is Kahr?"
"He is meeting Miang at the junction. They should be here soon." She slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him, squeezing tightly. He embraced her, hesitant and eager at once. "You fool! Why didn't you just call me for help? We could have avoided this, together!"
"I didn't want that trash using you for target practice......" Hyuga rested his head on hers, wondering why he had said that. He closed his eyes. The pain was gone from his arm. She always managed to take away his pain......
A thump brought him out of his reverie. He opened his eyes and started to turn his head when Igraine was ripped out of his arms. She screamed, and the jolt sent pain shooting through his arm again. Whatever she had done to take the pain away was gone. He staggered for a moment, clutching his arm, but gradually his eyes came back into focus. "Igraine! Reya!"
Reya was sprawled on her back a few feet away, unconscious. Only the rise and fall of her chest told him she was still alive. Erim stood on the other side of Reya's form, with one arm around her Igraine's middle, her other hand slowly tightening a chain around her captive's throat.
"No!" Hyuga started forward, and she tightened it further. Igraine tried to kick and wriggle out of Erim's deadly embrace, but her struggles were losing strength rapidly, and her face was beginning to turn red. "Let her go! Please!"
"Not this time, Hyuga! She won't have you!" Erim yanked Igraine's head back, dragging her a few steps. "Besides, what should this matter to you? If you can't love your brothers enough to spare their lives, how can you possibly love her? How can you expect me to have mercy on her? She is the one who.......She and Krelian......!"
"Leave her alone, damn you!" Igraine's struggles had ceased. "Let her go! She has not done anything to you!" Helpless anger turned into a red film over his vision.
No -- not a red film. Ether. He clenched his teeth and drew it in, focusing all of his rage to a single point in his vision: Erim. "Let her go, Erim." His voice was deathly quiet. "If she dies, so help me......"
Erim snorted. "An Ether aura doesn't scare me! Watch her die, Hyuga! You deserve it, don't you?"
She is right. Pain stabbed at him like a thousand needles. He couldn't hold the power much longer. But Igraine does not deserve this. Igraine! "I will never forgive you for this! Never!" He released the power, envisioning a collar around Erim's throat -- the kind used to restrain Lambs brought up from the surface. While waiting to be registered, any movement aside from breathing would bring a painful jolt.
The ring materialized around her throat, immediately constricting. Erim gasped, staring at him with wide eyes, and he threw all of his mental energy into the collar. It flashed, filling the room like sheet lightning, and she screamed. Her hands jerked free of the chain and Igraine fell to the floor in a heap and lay there, unmoving.
"You are a traitor Erim! You are just trash!" Hyuga kept his voice tight and controlled, but some of his emotion seeped through. He jerked his eyes away from Igraine's unmoving body and increased the energy running through the collar again. Another flash accompanied her agonized scream. Once more. One more jolt would kill her. One more, and...... And what? I will be eternally damned. Everyone he cared about was dying by his hand. Was that right? What would Igraine say?
Igraine! Oh, Igraine...... Was she even alive? It had been just a few seconds, but she had not moved since being released of Erim's hold. Hyuga tore his gaze away from her body, feeling as if his heart had been ripped out. No. His brothers might have been undeserving, but Erim...... Erim deserved death. Solaris Command would kill her anyway. But he wanted to do it himself. He wanted her blood on his hands!
Tears ran from Erim's pleading eyes, glistening on her cheeks. She was several feet off the ground now, held by the energy he was pouring into the Ether Ring. "This is the end, Erim," he grated, making his voice cold. "You made the wrong decision."
Her screams began even before he managed to gather his will and force it through the Ring, pleading, and cursing. One more blinding flash silenced her forever.
* * *
"You know I'm right!" Igraine laughed, kneeling gracefully beside him.
One of her blankets was stretched out under them, in the shade of a willow tree. A real tree, not one of the synthetic pieces that were sprinkled through Solaris. The chapel and the rest of the church grounds stretched out around them, but for today, she said, she was just another citizen, like himself. She was even dressed simply, in white robes and a pair of sandals.
"Prove it and I will believe you!" He grinned and handed her a glass of water, watching her settle down and draw her fingers along the edge of the blanket. She was so graceful...... He averted his eyes, staring at the quilt. She was the reason he came to the church grounds every weekend. Just seeing her, like this...... It almost erased the events of the past several months......
"Oh, what is there to prove? It's like...... trying to prove the existence of god! Impossible, but you know it is there."
"Do we know if god exists?" He sipped at his own water, enjoying the feel of the wind through his hair. It wasn't every day he had the privilege of picnicking on the First Class level. "I have not seen any real sign of him. What if god is just another myth to fool the Lambs?"
"He is real." Igraine's eyes glinted in the dappled sunlight, shining like sapphires. "I feel his presence all the time. There is a place, somewhere...... filled with the love of god. I would love to be there...... basking in his light. Once I complete my task, I will leave this worldly existence and dwell with him, just as Krelian wishes to."
"Krelian?" he asked.
"That's what he wants, over all else. I know it. He buries his feelings and denies his humanity, but I think he loves us more than anyone else, even......" Igraine sighed. "Sometimes I wonder about him."
"I can see why." He set his glass down, mentally gathering his nerve. "Why do you look like him? There is a connection between the two of you. And he calls you 'salvation'."
"I don't know why I look like him. Maybe he is my real father after all. Who knows? He is the only one, and he won't speak of my birth. But I can't imagine him..... well......" She flushed and looked away. "Anyway...... 'Salvation' is my task. I am a 'vessel for the power of god'. Krelian tells me this, and I find that I believe him. Some of my power does not originate from anything on this world."
"The salvation of the world." He removed his glasses, rubbing them clean with a scrap of cloth. He didn't know why he continued to wear them -- the weren't really necessary. "I do not know what he would use you for, but there are legends about 'salvation' being born among the people in a time of need. Perhaps you are the fulfillment of that prophecy."
"Perhaps. I have been protected from death numerous times. Perhaps you are right, Hyuga. And that means......" Igraine rested her head on his shoulder, moving until they sat back to back. "I will reach my place soon......"
The salvation of the world......
"Kahr?" He glanced to the side, searching. "Where are you?"
Igraine is Salvation. Then she cannot......
The memory shattered into a million shards of light.
* * *
Hyuga's eyes flew open. Kahr was leaning over his bed, shaking him. "What......?" It had all been a dream. That wonderful memory......
"It's about time. Are you coming or not? It's not every day I get promoted, you know."
"O-of course." Hyuga raked his fingers through his hair, realizing he was still in his uniform. At least he wouldn't have to change. "I will be with...... Jessiah and Sig. Go on! I am fine."
Kahr spared him one more concerned look before he dashed out the door, trying to pull his coat on while he was running. Sigurd peered in, then entered when he saw Hyuga was awake. "Finally. I thought you were going comatose too."
"How is Reya?" Hyuga asked, pulling a comb through his hair. It caught on a tangle and he ripped it through. He didn't have time to worry about tangles. As it was, he had almost slept through Kahr's promotional ceremony.
"Fine. At least, last time I saw her. She's been spending all of her time in Igraine's room. She won't even leave to eat or sleep."
Hyuga dropped the comb. "Why will she not wake up? There is no reason for her to be sleeping like this! And Krelian will do nothing!" A few days might have been normal. Reya had been sedated when she was taken to Krelian's Lab, and she had only slept for six days. He himself had only been under for three, while they reconstructed the nerve endings in his right arm. But Igraine...... He had lost count of the days. Weeks......
"There is nothing we can do, Hyuga. We just have to wait for her to wake up. If she wants to wake up. I wouldn't want to come back to this hell hole. As soon as she recovers, I'm leaving."
"She must......" Hyuga stopped himself before he said anymore and changed the subject. Sigurd's eyes knew too much -- just like hers...... "Do not be ridiculous. You know they will not let you leave. What makes you think she can help? Why would you want to leave?"
"There's someone waiting for me down on the surface. They need me."
Hyuga turned away again. You are a lucky man, Sigurd. The one I need...... I was not even able to save her from this. And that bastard, Krelian, had known just how to take advantage of his feelings. But I will be with her, this way. He was trapped, but at least he would be with her. His pact with the Emperor and the Ministry did not matter.
"This is Kahr's second promotion," he said, changing the subject before Sigurd could say any more. "He is truly talented, is he not? Our 'star of hope'. If he keeps his word, we will all be better for it."
"That we will. Are you coming, Hyuga?"
"Yes, of course."
* * *
"Sometimes the looks he gives me scare me......" Igraine leaned against the doorframe of her room on the Church grounds and gazed out, at the massive garden that enclosed her small dwelling. "There is something in his eyes when he speaks of god......"
"I would not think Krelian a faithful man. He certainly does not act as one."
"No...... And Kahr...... Kahr seems to be taking after him. He works to eliminate status between the classes, but then he turns around and steals children from their parents for his 'plan'. The best I can say for him is that he saves them from experimentation at the Facility."
Hyuga leaned against the opposite side of the frame. Their legs brushed together, and he shifted his position slightly, though she didn't seem to notice. "I believe he will return to his path. I cannot wholly blame him for what he is doing, after my own work in the labs." A soft breeze blew through the garden, bringing the rare scent of roses to his nostrils. He inhaled deeply, relishing the fresh air, and Igraine's comforting presence beside him.
"We have all sinned, here in Solaris. Most believe that we are the chosen, and will be forgiven for any sin. I don't believe it myself. Why would god allow us to betray his trust?" She sighed, then laughed softly. "I'm sorry, Hyuga. My company must depress you. I cannot seem to speak of anything but these problems."
He opened his eyes and met hers. "You do not depress me. Quite the opposite! These visits are the only light spot in my life." He let his head fall back and rest against the doorframe so he could stare at the sky. It was a clear, vivid blue, but not so crystal clear as her eyes. He couldn't bear to look into those eyes for long...... Not when they smiled, and bared his soul......
"Do you ever wish for a different life? Like...... like those the Lambs lead on the surface?"
"Of course not. They......" He paused. They lived in such ignorance, without the common amenities available to even one of the worker bees in Solaris. Ignorant, blissful lives.
"It must be a kind of heaven, not to know what we know. Not to live every day and know that your life has been gained at the expense of thousands...... They're all so innocent." She sighed again. "Like children...... And I cannot bear to be cruel with them......"
His sight trailed back to her. She fiddled with the edges of her golden brown hair, twisting thick strands around her fingers. She was no longer gazing at him with her knowing eyes, but staring at the floor like a lost child. Her pendant dangled listlessly, glinting with inner light. She looked...... vulnerable. Alone.
"I cannot imagine you showing cruelty to anyone. You treat the test subjects as if they are members of your own family. Even when they die...... They have such peaceful looks on their faces." He reached across the small intervening space and touched her free hand, lacing his fingers with hers. "You nullify the pain. You fill their darkness with light. How many people can say that? You save them...... As you save everyone you touch. Do not berate yourself for another's deeds......"
Her beautiful smile returned. "How do you do that? You always manage to take my doubts and make them disappear like nothing with a few words." She squeezed his hand and caught his gaze with her eyes. He let them pierce his soul. Could she see the feelings he was holding back? "Why couldn't we have met earlier in life......?"
"We are together now. That is all that matters."
"And you will stay with me? You won't leave me?"
He straightened and looked down at her, into her eyes, holding their clasped hands to his heart. His eyes felt hot, as if tears were threatening to fall. What would she do, he wondered, if I kissed her? "I will never leave you. I......" He couldn't bring himself to say it. His throat closed up, and he had to swallow several times until it would loosen up. "I will never leave you." She squeezed his hand again, and gave him that knowing smile......
* * *
"Is she any better?" Hyuga asked, walking quietly into Igraine's quarters. Miang and Reya were sitting at a small little table, Reya with a downcast face as she listlessly stirred her tea. Miang was the only one to look up at his entrance.
"There is nothing wrong with her. We just have to wait for her to decide to come back."
She shook her head, looking toward Igraine's room. "She can't run away forever."
"Have you been here all day? You missed Kahr's promotion." It was unusual for her to show this much concern. As kind as she was to others, it was obvious she and Igraine did not get along well. He wondered how the two had survived their week sharing the same quarters.
"Mostly. I was at the Lab earlier. Krelian wants to see you."
Oh, he does, does he? "Why?" Did Miang know about his deal with the Ministry? Or more importantly, with the Emperor?
"He doesn't tell me everything, Hyuga. Just what he expects me to do." She nudged Reya. "Are you going to eat? You can't watch over her if you kill yourself like this."
"Yeah, sure." Reya picked up a fork and started picking at her food. "Is Sig back yet?"
"Jessiah convinced him to celebrate with Kahr and him. They will probably carry him back dead drunk." He smiled slightly at the sight in his mind. Sigurd simply could not hold his liquor. "He will be here...... whenever he regains consciousness, that is."
Reya actually laughed. "Poor Sig. It wasn't enough that I humiliated him that first time, or that Igraine had him singing to me!"
"Maybe he will be smart enough to avoid drinking tonight. He knows that we need him."
Hyuga walked across the room, pausing at Igraine's door. "I would appreciate it if I could be alone with her for awhile."
"No problem. I'll keep everyone out," Reya said reassuringly.
"Thank you, Reya." Hyuga smiled.
The room was huge, spacious compared to his own quarters downstairs. Reya had turned on every lamp in it and opened the curtains in hopes that the light would wake her up, but Igraine never stirred. She simply slept. Normal sleep -- not the death-like sleep of a coma. But even so, she might as well have been dead. Waiting for her to come back was almost as bad as losing her altogether.
He moved toward the bed, never taking his eyes off of her. The red welt around her throat was almost gone. It had been days before the injury started healing -- he had been afraid it wouldn't heal at all. And every time he saw that livid mark on her skin, he remembered the chain around Igraine's throat, cutting off her air supply, cutting into her flesh......
Hyuga shuddered and looked away. If he had waited one more second...... She would be dead. Anything was better than that, even this unbroken slumber -- or so he told himself. Did killing Erim really compare to that? Being damned was a small price to pay if it saved Igraine; she was just that kind of person.
My fault...... He sat down on the edge of her bed, finally bringing himself to look at her again. I let my guard down, and she paid the price...... Was he cursed? Everyone he loved was falling, dying...... By his hand, or because of his actions. She'll probably forgive me for everything. She would just open those sapphire eyes of hers, smile, and all would be forgiven......
"I do not deserve it......" he whispered. "If god turns his back on me, I cannot say that he will be wrong to do so. But as long as you do not turn away from me...... We will take care of each other."
* * *
"...... Legend says we were chosen, at the beginning of creation, to rule the skies and shepherd those bound to the earth. God granted this right to Cain, and he, in turn, stretched out his hand and cupped the world in his palm......"
Hyuga listened curiously, though he had heard the myth a thousand times. Her telling was different, not overshadowed by zealous faith. She stated her words simply, and underlying those words was...... dissatisfaction? Anger?
"The Lambs under our protection should be led to their destiny as the people of god, to fill the earth upon his return. To fulfill this, the pure humans, the Gazel, were to give them what is necessary to sustain their lives. Their pathetic lives......" Igraine turned to him, bathed in a halo of light from the stained glass window. "Do you believe this, Hyuga? Do you believe that legend is true? Are we better, purer than the Lambs bound to earth?"
"I cannot make such judgements. I myself am descended from Lambs." He had, in fact, been reprogrammed twice along with the rest of his block before his potential had been discovered.
"You're different." She rose from her kneeling position before the altar, fiddling with her pendant. "So you will not answer?"
"Do you believe it, Igraine? You are Gazel."
"I believe nothing that comes from the mouths of the Ministry, or...... that woman." She raised her eyes to the crucifix, hair and robes nearly glowing in the filtered light. She looked like an angel. "What if it is all a fabrication? What if we're wrong in our task?"
"What if we have no 'task'?" he asked, folding his arms over his chest.
"Yes......" She lowered her gaze to stare at the floor. "What if we, in our impudence, have taken god's work upon ourselves......?"
* * *
"Are you alright?"
A soft hand touched his eyelids, and an arm was wrapped around his shoulders. His cheek rested on warm, lavender-scented skin.
"Hyuga......" Her voice.
His eyes flew open. "You're......!" He raised his head a fraction. Her sky blue eyes softened as she smiled. He blew his hair out of his eyes, not even caring how stupid he looked.
Igraine laughed weakly, letting her head fall back to her pillow. "I think I'm in better shape than you are......" Her hand strayed to her throat, and she winced. "It still feels......" She swallowed and jerked it away. "How is Reya? Was she hurt?"
"I am sorry. I......" Hyuga closed his eyes, letting her cradle him against her chest, as she would a child. "If I had not...... If I had called......" He tried to pull away, but he couldn't bring himself to move.
"Don't be stupid, Hyuga. You had no way of knowing what would happen." Igraine drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "You are not to blame." She said it firmly. "For what part you did have in it...... I forgive you. How could I not? But if you seek absolution for your other deeds, I cannot help you."
His body lost some of its tension. Only god could grant him absolution for his deeds. But did he deserve it? Did he even deserve her forgiveness......?
"I know what you're thinking. Stop it." Igraine nudged him with her free hand. "I have my reasons, and you just have to live with that. And...... You are not lost, whatever you think. I promise."
"Igraine......" Why was it so hard to put into words? "Do we...... really....... are we just...... running? I don't want to......"
"How do you feel...... Hyuga?"
"I......" He held onto her tightly. He didn't deserve her, but she was his.
"I've always loved you Hyuga. Didn't you know that? As long as you hold me......" Her voice trailed to a whisper. "I will not let you fall......
* * *
Upon 'Salvation's' awakening, events were set into motion. Krelian, and the woman known as Miang, revealed their hidden power. In a series of several tests the 'Contact' destroyed much of the surface of the continent Kunad, and crippled all military powers sent to destroy him, effectively eliminating one of the three major rebel groups opposing the rule of Solaris. Simarn, located southeast of the Aquavy Islands, also fell to Solaris's new super-weapon. In as little as two years, only Elru still stood, shouting its defiance even as its allies fell one by one to the power of the Contact.
The Ministry could not control its new weapon, however, and demanded that Krelian bring Salvation into play. The four Elements were separated, and the 'Archangel' -- a woman named Igraine Yurikudo -- was chosen to contain the power of the Contact should they lose control of him. Two 'Guardian Angels' were chosen to protect her -- Hyuga Ricdeau, and Kahran Ramsus. Through their perfect synchronization, the Solarian Angels performed their task admirably, and the power of the Contact was temporarily broken and controlled. With that, Solaris turned its attention to their long awaited target: Elru.
"Wrath of the Chosen......"
"It's a beautiful piece of work Hyuga. But why name it Fenril?"
"Surely you remember the old legends of the Aquavy?" Hyuga said. "Before Fenril betrayed her sister gods, it is said she was the holder of knowledge. An appropriate name, is it not?"
Igraine gave him a half smile and fiddled with her pendant, swinging it back and forth with her free hand. "You have quite an opinion of yourself, don't you? Ah, but I suppose it is appropriate, considering the circumstances. It's a shame you started learning so late." She took his arm and pulled him away from Fenril, beginning a circuit around the Omnigear. "How does it handle? I heard it's almost as light as my own gear."
"Almost. It took a bit of getting used to." The deck lurched beneath them. "Have we already reached......? Kahr said it would be almost a full day to reach Aveh."
"We've reached the dimensional shift. From here, I believe it's...... seven hours to Bledavik. The ship has to proceed at half speed while adjusting the gravity level." Igraine shivered and stopped to lean against a support pillar. "I hate the gravitational shift. It always makes me feel sick."
"It makes you sick?" Hyuga asked with some amusement. She gave him a look, and he searched his mind for another topic, stroking her arm. "I have never seen your gear," he said, latching onto the first idea that entered his mind. "Where is it? You said they have finished it."
Igraine gave him a look, but didn't pursue their previous topic. "She's on the ship with Kahr's gear, in the lower docking facility. I suppose they don't want anyone going near her. It's an AR, and if anyone other than myself lays a hand on her, Imarla will take action against them."
"An AR? I thought that was still experimental." Artificial Response....... Supposedly better than the artificial intelligence modules used in most gears, actually consisting of a personality and capable of creative thought. A virtual person, but subject to one being's will. "Can you control it?"
"Of course. Krelian would not put me in a defective machine." Igraine pushed away from the pillar and faced him, almost eye to eye. "Would you like to 'meet' her? I would like to check on her myself." A sudden sense of great weight assaulted him, and Igraine swallowed, squeezing her eyes shut. "I'll do anything to distract myself from this......"
"Gravitational shift?" Hyuga smiled and put his arm around her shoulders to keep her steady, entwining his fingers in her golden hair. "Perhaps you should be resting instead of wandering around the flagship." He searched the area until he saw a lift, positioned just next to Fenril's foot, and began leading her toward it.
"Wait -- I still want to check on Imarla. Then I promise I'll rest." Igraine pressed the arrow on the lift's control board, and it began to rise. "It isn't far from the main entrance to the gear bay, as a matter of fact."
"Stubborn," Hyuga muttered under his breath, allowing her to lead him toward the elevator. "Why do you want to see Imarla so badly? Were you not there when it was created?"
"I want her to have a visual of you in her memory banks." She saw his startled look and giggled. "If I'm injured, and you try to help me, I want you to be able to help me! Imarla will incapacitate anyone not stored in her memory."
"Is that your real reason?" He couldn't help thinking that she was behaving almost like a mischievous child. And a guilty one, at that.
"Of course. I've already put Kahr through this."
"And that comment was supposed to make me feel better?" He grinned at her. "Have you done the same with anyone else?"
"I had Sigurd and Jessiah give me cell samples a while back, before they disappeared. I included those, though I don't think there's any chance they'll be around." She sighed as they stepped into the elevator. "I don't blame them for leaving......"
"They were lucky." Lucky to get away before being swept up in the main assault on Elru. Whatever they had hoped Kahr would accomplish, once this was done there would be no question in their minds where Solaris -- and everyone connected to Solaris -- stood. If only Kahr had been different...... But he was not. He had no intentions of making life easier for anyone. He wondered why Kahr had even bothered to change the policies. Perhaps because he was low born as well? It wasn't a very noble reason......
"Here." The doors opened, and Hyuga followed Igraine out and around the perimeter of the gear bay to the far end. They passed Kahr's gear, gold and silent, and the empty space beside it, until Igraine stopped before the last spot.
A slender, winged gear of blue and silver rose before them, glittering in the bay lights. Its form was perfectly seamless, without obvious joints or supports, and its silvery white wings were curved in a shell around itself. It -- she -- slept, looking like a shining silver figurine. He gazed at the masterpiece in wonder. It was like nothing he had ever seen. Just the way it stood at rest struck him as alive, and he had no trouble seeing the link between Igraine and her gear. It was just like her.
"Imarla!" she called.
A moment passed, and then Imarla began to change position. She shifted her wings and moved like a living thing, until her glowing blue eyes were fixed on the two people standing before her paddock. Igraine gestured, and her gear descended to one knee, placing her 'face' at eye level with them.
"This is the last human I want you to place in your memory. Do you have the data on the gear 'Fenril'? It is his."
"The information has been downloaded to my memory."
Hyuga's mouth dropped open, and he snapped it shut again. "How in the......?" He was sure the gear had not truly spoken aloud. Its voice had produced no echo.
"Reya helped Krelian with the research. It didn't use any form of Extra Sensory communication, as she does with gears. It is a vocal level pre-calculated to be sensed only by the select few people in her memory banks. That's why I needed cellular information. Large parts of my DNA are also fused with her structure and systems, so I should be able to reach one hundred percent synchronization with her easily."
"I see......" The possibilities of such a creation were staggering. If Krelian decided to build an entire line of such gears, he was not sure even the Omnigear class would be able to stand up to them. "And there is no Anima relic involved?"
"Yes, there is, actually...... My 'Serabia' has also been aligned with her. But with or without, Imarla will be a force to be reckoned with, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh yes, most definitely." Hyuga's hands itched to touch the wonderful creation before him. "Could we, perhaps......?"
Igraine tried to hide her smile, and failed miserably. "You want to see what's inside? I know that look. Just like a child with a new toy......" She turned her attention back to Imarla. "How long will it take you to process the rest of the information? Is it safe for him to board yet?"
"Compilation will take one standard hour."
"It seems I am out of luck, this time." Hyuga watched the gear rise and enfold herself with her wings in one fluid movement. "This is a beautiful piece of work. I envy you......"
"I promise you'll be able to look her over later. Besides," Igraine said, turning her back to Imarla. "You have your own Omnigear. And Fenril is just as fascinating. He was made to synchronize with Wyvern and Imarla, you know...... And Kahr doesn't have an AR either, so stop pouting."
"I am not......" Hyuga protested. Igraine raised an eyebrow, and he glared at her through his glasses. "Point taken." He glanced at the gear again. "It is time to check on Midori."
Igraine nodded. "I think I'm ready for a rest now. We're finished here anyway." Another invisible weight settled over them, and she paled visibly. "Yes..... let's get back to the cabins...... I'm not...... feeling well."
Later. He could think about it later. The gear's mechanics weren't that important. There would be a battle in another twelve hours, and he could not be distracted by such trivial thoughts. Besides, Igraine needed his support now......
* * *
"Lambs are just barbaric creatures, Hyuga. They live in the illusion of freedom, but they aren't truly capable of thinking for themselves. That's why Cain and the others were created -- to shepherd these weak beings until they fulfill their purpose. Whatever that may be." Miang's dry smile sent a chill down his spine. "You really should break ties with them -- you're much better than they are...... stronger......"
Hyuga broke his defensive position and attacked a nearby gear, slicing it nearly in two with Fenril's sword. His opponent broke and exploded in a bright flash. The enemy gears attacking Solarian forces were weak; salvaged from ruins in Aveh, no doubt, rendered operational with quick repair jobs. He slashed and destroyed another one, smirking. Their performance was a disgrace. Did Elru truly expect to win with that sort of equipment?
"Hyuga!" Kahr's voice jerked him back to the present. "Igraine is returning to the flagship. I want you to go with her instead -- there's something I need to finish down here."
"Are you sure? The Contact doesn't seem to be having a problem cleaning things up!"
That statement was all too true. The red gear -- the Demon, some called him -- was ripping through the rebel ranks as if they were dry paper. Nothing phased the creature. Ether attacks did nothing, and most opponents did not even have the chance to attack before they were ripped to shreds. He was an effective weapon, but...... His careless brutality was beginning to wear on his Solarian 'allies'.
"This is disgraceful!" Kahr exclaimed. "Look at that slaughter! We're supposed to put them down, not annihilate the entire population! If he goes on like this there won't be anything left for us after we reach the capital."
"That is why you want me to go to Igraine, is it not? She could not handle this thing's methods. Am I right?" At least Kahr was bothered by the display the Contact was placing before their eyes. Casual disregard for surface dwellers did not extend to...... this. "We should stop him, Kahr."
"I know. I know......" Kahr's voice faded out for a moment. "We can't do it without her. She's our focus." A small, black gear descended on their position. Kahr moved with lightning speed, leaping into the air and decapitating the enemy machine with one swipe. It fell to the ground nearby as Kahr returned to his position. "Besides we...... Hyuga, we have our orders. We aren't supposed to impede that thing."
"Orders? Kahr, this thing is destroying everything! Even rebels do not deserve this!" Hyuga jabbed at Kahr's gear with his sword. "You have more decency than that! If you won't do it for the rebels, Sigurd --"
"Don't mention that traitor! He left us! He...... he betrayed...... me!" Kahr rounded on him, ignoring the continuing battle around them. "If he wanted to prevent this, he should have stayed instead of running! Krelian gave us his orders, and he -- !"
"Damn Krelian and his orders!" Kahr subsided in shock, and Hyuga swallowed nervously. He hadn't meant to lose control...... "Look at what he has done to us Kahr. Look at us! Look at Igraine! He and Miang are destroying us...... Just like their weapon is destroying Elru."
"Miang has nothing to do with his plans!"
"Are you blind Kahran Ramsus?!" Hyuga shouted over the comm system. "She has been working side by side with him from the beginning. The Contact was her idea. This is simply another one of their experiments!" He glared at the battle, hardly believing his eyes. No wonder they had not been attacked during their conversation -- most of the enemy gear units were already down or losing power. The red demon gear was not visible. "If you will not see that, then think about this: Krelian is pulling our strings. We are puppets, Kahr."
"You and...... and Igraine......" Kahr stammered.
"He wanted another Archangel! Do you think it is coincidence that Midori spends half her time at his lab? Do you think his shouting matches with Igraine are about her choice in clothing?! Think!"
"No!" Kahr shouted. "He wouldn't........ Not to Igraine! He cares about Igraine!"
"He does not. He cares for Salvation! He wants her power! That is all he wants! He is slaughtering millions of innocent people for his experiment."
"No! You're wrong, Hyuga! Elru deserves to be destroyed!"
"Silence! It isn't your place to reprimand me! Go! Get away from me!" Kahr accelerated away, toward the clamor at the tail end of the battle.
"Wait!" Hyuga called, starting after him.
Kahr turned about and struck out, his attack narrowly missing Fenril. Hyuga darted away and took up his second defensive position, ready to dash back at the first sign of attack. But Kahr merely watched silently for a moment, and then turned back to the battle, striding in that direction.
"Did you truly mean that, Kahr......?" Hyuga said softly, watching his friend speed toward the battle. He's left me to take care of the difficult task...... He changed comm frequencies and coded his message for the flagship. "Hyuga Ricdeau, reporting to the Hydara. Are you prepared to receive gears?"
"Affirmative, Ricdeau. Advance to level three elevation and stand by for docking orders."
Hyuga eased Fenril into the air, watching the surface dwindle from his view in seconds. Clouds replaced the scorched ground in his view port. He ceased movement when he estimated he was approaching the correct position, and let the gear's automatic systems carry him to the precise point. The Hydara drifted into view just overhead.
"You are cleared for docking, Hyuga Ricdeau. Fenril is assigned to paddock 448-2."
"Confirmed, Hydara. Beginning approach......" Hyuga maneuvered his gear around the ship, entering the assigned docking entrance and coasting into the paddock. As soon as he touched down, a group of mechanics swarmed around his gear, pulling platforms and repair droids around to service it for the next battle. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, Igraine's gear docked in the row behind his. Imarla appeared undamaged -- apparently he had been right about Kahr's reasons for sending him.
As soon as he disembarked, Hyuga grabbed one of the technicians. "Was the pilot of that gear injured when she came in?"
The tech shook his head. "She just brushed us off and left."
Hyuga released the man's arm and headed for the exit. What was wrong with her? She knew better than to leave the battlefield when the Contact was still out there. Without his Anima Relic, he doubted Kahr would be able to take the demon without her help. Luckily, the battle was almost over, and the capital of Elru was still hours away. If he could convince her to keep her place, maybe he would have a chance of turning Kahr as well.
* * *
The room was dark, nearly black, when he entered. He let the door slide shut and stood at the entrance for a moment, not quite sure what to say. He heard Igraine breathing, and stifling what sounded like sobs, but he did not know what to do about it. It was a shock to hear her crying at all -- he didn't think he had ever seen her cry. She was such a strong person. How could he possibly offer her strength?
"Kahr told me you ran off during the battle," Hyuga said. "Would you like to tell me why? What is wrong?"
"Have you come to reprimand me?" Igraine's voice was thick and husky with tears, but just as strong as ever.
"No." Hyuga groped along the wall for a light switch, and flipped it on. Igraine turned her face away. "I am here to help. Part of a relationship is supporting each other, is it not?" He crossed the small floor of the cabin and sat next to her on the bed. "Tell me, what caused you to leave the battle like that? You know the Contact is too dangerous without all of us on the field."
"I know......" Igraine sighed. "I just couldn't take it anymore. Did you see the slaughter? I don't care if they're Lambs, they're still human beings! Rebellion does not merit such total destruction." She rubbed fresh tears away with the back of her hand. "I just can't do this anymore. Kahr won't listen! He just goes where Krelian tells him to go, and he ignores all the pain and suffering it causes...... Even for me......"
"Kahr has lost his way. Jessiah leaving us was bad enough, but when Sigurd disappeared as well...... I believe he has simply lost faith in himself, and those around him. In time, he will recover, and become his old self again. But we can do nothing, for now."
"I hate seeing him like this! He won't allow me to help him...... And then he goes along with this...... this...... horrible......"
Hyuga gathered her into his arms, pulling her close, and she buried her face into his chest. She was shaking. "This will be over soon, Igraine. It can't last forever. If we can manage to hold that demon back at the capital, perhaps we will be able to save some of Elru."
"I don't want to see......" She held him tightly, shaking her head. "Help me destroy him, Hyuga. Please? We have to -- Krelian won't leave his experiments at this......! If you help me, I know we can overwhelm him. Please......"
"Igraine," he began gently, stroking her hair. "We cannot. You know we cannot do such a thing. It would likely kill all three of us, and take Elru with us. Listen," he said when she tried to pull away. "Ether power or no, we can still constrain him on the battlefield after he completes his task. Then we can decide what to do with him. But rushing in and trying to overwhelm him would be pure stupidity, and you know that."
"Why did you have to come and ruin a perfectly good plan with logic?"
Hyuga smiled, hearing some of her old humor return. "It is simply in my nature. Please forgive that shortcoming......"
The floor panels vibrated beneath his feet, and the light flickered. The military units must be returning. Hyuga glanced at the clock. They had only been in position for five hours, and the local rebel army had already been vanquished. He shook his head in wonder. He could not deny the efficiency of Krelian's weapon. Considering the damage usually caused to their gear units after a battle involving the Contact, he estimated it would be another day, maybe two, before the main strike on Elru's capital.
Two days wasn't long to prepare for what he had suggested. He hoped Igraine and Kahr would recover in time to remove the demon. Elru -- and their own forces -- depended on it.
* * *
"All gear pilots prepare to launch...... Code Epsilon one -- Squadron A, launch."
The first phalanx of Solarian gears shot out of the docking bay, led by the demon gear. Hyuga moved Fenril into position behind Igraine and Kahr, watching the rest of their squad line up behind him. The first set of bay doors closed, and the second opened up before them.
"Second launch, code Omega two, complete preparations...... Squadron B, launch."
The unit accelerated and cleared the Hydara's port, shooting away from the ship and down toward Elru. He and Kahr formed up on either side of Igraine in a defensive formation, speeding up until they found their places just ahead of her, shielding her from harm should they run into a combat situation beforetime. Wisps of clouds sped by as they quickened their descent, and soon the rocky green land that surrounded Elru's capital came into view.
Crystal blue sky met the jagged mountains and thick forests of the Central Valley. Surrounding the city was a blockade of gears and assault ships several rows deep, and generic equipment -- gears mainly -- was sprinkled throughout the valley in the type of formation he had come to expect from surface dwellers.
The lone gear units spread through the valley appeared to be harmless, but they were in fact the army's main force. Logically, the main target would be the city and its inhabitants, so the Elruian general had assumed that was where they would make their first attack. He would then call in his 'rogue units' and close in on the Solarian forces like a vice, effectively trapping them.
Or so he thought.
The Elruian general meant to outflank them, but he obviously was not aware of their true attack power. All gear units, including Hyuga's own, had been ordered to stand in reserve while the Contact exerted his power over the populace. In other words, they were to stand by and watch him annihilate Elru, and render assistance only if his work was hindered in any way.
Perhaps the general did not believe the tales of the 'Demon gear'. Hyuga hardly believed them himself, even with the sights he had witnessed first hand. But that small mistake would cost Elru the lives of every man, woman, and child in the area.
Will we be able to stop this? "Kahr?"
There was a long pause. "What?"
"Are you sure it is prudent to accompany the surface units into Elru yourself? The Contact's presence alone should be enough to convince you it is too dangerous."
"All the more reason for me to go," Kahr said coldly. "They fear that thing. If I let them go down there alone nothing will be done, and that demon might destroy more than we can handle. You and Igraine are not suited for this sort of job, and that leaves me."
"You insist on doing this?" Igraine cut in. Kahr did not answer. "Brother......"
"Enough. I will take care of this!" Kahr raised his sword in the pre-arranged signal and started off. Three personnel carriers roared past in pursuit, all heading toward the capital.
"It won't be long now......" Igraine said softly.
The battle had already started below them. Hyuga had lost sight of Kahr's gear and the carriers once they entered the trees, but he could see shock troops pouring into the outskirts of the city from his position above the center of the valley. One group veered away from the others and continued on a roundabout course that would lead them through the city's maze and to the center of the city, where the Contact would begin his 'task'. He imagined he could see his friend at the head of the column, although it was impossible to tell.
"We should be there with him......" Igraine said suddenly, starting forward in her gear.
Hyuga caught her as she was about to pass him, and blocked her way. "Let it be, Igraine. Our time will come."
"No, he needs us now! Something terrible is going to happen. I know it!" A massive explosion shook the valley below them. Gouts of fire spiraled out of the city, marking the demon's path clearly. "What if that thing vaporizes another part of the city! He won't obey our rules!"
"If he does not report in on time, we will go. We have our orders as well, Igraine."
"Orders......!" She spluttered, but she didn't attempt to pass him again.
An hour passed as they waited for Kahr's transmission. The city fell section by section, the disaster always beginning with a big explosion as the shock troops destroyed the generators, and ending with the demon gear toppling nearly every standing structure and torching the ruins. The few Lambs that managed to escape the fires were shot or incinerated by the Contact. Hyuga averted his eyes after the second such display. Their methods disgusted him; he finally realized why Jessiah and Sigurd had left. Unlike most, they had seen through the beautiful exterior of Solaris to its rotten inner core. And they managed to gain the strength to leave.
Even killing his brothers did not amount to this. Igraine was right -- the people involved in this experiment were no better than demon-spawn.
"That's it Hyuga. He hasn't reported in yet, and it's been an hour! We have to go down there now!" She brushed past him and sped toward the ruins of Elru. After a moment of shocked immobility, he followed her.
Elru's gear units had been decimated. Those that survived fled at their approach, and they rode unhindered in the air above the former capital of the nation. Several sections of the city still stood, but overall the destruction was thorough. Burned swaths of land stretched out into the valley like a spoked wheel, and scattered about were ruins of Solarian gear units as well as rebels.
"Where is he?" Igraine asked nervously, slowing to a stop. "He was supposed to be on this side of the city."
"Perhaps we should be thankful he is not." Hyuga's display flashed. "I think that is our answer." He responded, turning to the south section of the city. "It appears to be another battle. Rebel gears are falling, but my scanners do not indicate another gear. That can only mean one thing."
"He must be there, then." Igraine sped off toward the battle.
"Igraine, wait!" Hyuga cried as she ran past him and vaulted into the air again, spreading Imarla's wings. He cursed and followed her. "Do not rush into it Igraine!" Her premonition of danger for Kahr seemed to be dulling her wits. She was running blindly, or so it seemed to him.
The demon's work was obvious long before they reached the section of the city he had marked. Gears fell and imploded for no apparent reason. Smoke and sparks drifted in the air and skewed his sensors, but when he moved closer to the battle he saw the Contact at work. On foot.
Hyuga watched as Solaris' 'weapon' assaulted another gear, pulling off a series of kicks and ether attacks that staggered his metallic opponent and finally destroyed it. He moved on to another, and another, until all remaining gear units had all been eliminated. Igraine started forward once during the spectacle, when the demon began to attack Solarian gears as well as the rebels, but she stopped before he could caution her, and they maintained their elevation above the battle, out of the demon's sight.
"I think he's returning to his gear," Igraine remarked. "Should we catch him? If we don't do it now......"
"We must wait. We cannot interfere until he has depleted enough of his energy!"
"His Ether has already reached three hundred. Surely we don't have to wait for it to go lower?! I could suppress him by myself at this point......"
Fenril grabbed Imarla's arm. "Do not even think about going down there yet! We agreed to this, remember?" He checked the red gear's readings. "His Ether power is decreasing steadily. Just wait a few more moments -- !"
"Kahr!" Igraine tried to jerk out of his grasp. "Look, he's down there with the shock troops! Kahr!" she shouted, switching to her external comm system.
Kahr ignored her. Either that, or he did not hear her. He gave another signal, and the men arrayed behind him broke formation and attacked the demon gear. They raised their guns and fired, but the gear ignored them all and leapt over them, landing directly in front of Ramsus. He raised his sword, the demon gear lifted its fist...... Igraine ripped out of his grip and dove for the red gear just as its fist came down on Ramsus.
She came down on the demon gear slashing with her swords, screaming at it. It casually fended off her blows and dove away. "Kahr!" She landed in front of his motionless form, blocking the demon's way. "Hyuga, I need you!" She spread Imarla's wings, and her azure Ether aura instantly flared around her, outshining the red glow emanating from the demon in front of her.
The red gear darted in and tried to grab her, but when its hand contacted Imarla, her Ether flared brighter and the demon bounced away, pushed by some invisible force. Igraine stretched her gear's arms out and a globe of pure light shot from her fingers and snared the demon, constricting into a band around its middle not unlike the Ring Hyuga had used to kill Erim.
"I can't...... Hyuga!"
"I am here Igraine." Hyuga touched down beside her and forced his mind to focus inward. His aura sprang up around him, filming his vision red, then white as Igraine absorbed his power and created a link between them. Through that link, he could feel her maintaining the restraint around the red gear, and he could also feel the gear try to squirm out of her grasp.
"Do you think this will hold me?" came the demon's soft voice, hoarse from straining against Igraine. "Is this all you can do without that pathetic 'prince' to help you?"
"Patience, Id," Igraine snapped. "In just a few moments, you will feel god's wrath firsthand......" She paused. "And then we will return you to your father."
"Ha! God's wrath? I was born to destroy god!"
"You were born to die here, now!" Igraine cried, and extended Imarla's right hand.
"Remember Igraine......!" Hyuga said. She gave no sign that she had heard him, drawing her power -- and his -- into her outstretched hand. It shined like the sun, and still she drew more.
"You won't kill me," Id laughed. "You can't kill me!"
Watch me. The thought drifted to him from Igraine's consciousness. She was indeed set to kill him. If she did, it would ruin their plans -- she had to realize that. Hyuga took a deep breath and willed her to stop the killing blow. They would never escape if she killed Id. He was their ticket out of Solaris, to her homeland.
"Remember our agreement, Igraine!" Hyuga repeated, blocking some of the Ether she was drawing through him. She stopped gathering power and stood there silently, waiting. "We will never get away if we fail here. Kahr is alive -- his life signs are weak, but he is not near death. Remember the agreement!"
"That agreement is based on a dream!" Igraine protested. "I -- !"
"You promised!" Even if that was not truly the Emperor, I will still follow through...... it will rid us of this demon at least...... The dream had been too...... real to shrug off. He remembered every detail, every word. Every promise the Emperor had made had been kept -- all that was left was to see Id to Shevat. "I know you will not break your promise Igraine."
"...... This had better work. If he wakes up, I will kill him!"
Hyuga let out a relieved sigh and released his block, allowing her to draw upon his Ether power again. The light contained in her hand washed out all other vision, blinding his eyes and Fenril's sensors alike. The flow of Ether sapped his energy much as it had the first time they had confronted the Contact, but this time Kahr wasn't around to add his energy and share in the aftereffects. He slumped against his restraints, struggling to keep his mind open to the link.
Suddenly the connection snapped, and he staggered back a few steps in reaction to the release, watching in alarm as Id shattered the restraint around his gear and charged Imarla. "Igraine...!"
The Ether aura lining Imarla almost literally burst into flame, flaring out, and she threw their combined energy at the red gear. Everything flashed white --
-- And then there was only darkness.
* * *
Hyuga knelt beside Igraine and gently brushed her bangs from her eyes, trying hard not to let his own pain show, for her sake. "This is what he wanted. He always said he had someone waiting for him on the surface......" He knew his own words were true, but Sigurd's disappearance still felt like a betrayal. "He hated this place."
"But what about Reya? He just left her! How could he do that?" Igraine bit her lip. "How could he leave us? We're his friends......!"
"I told you of my conversation with him after you woke up. You knew how he felt -- we all did." He tried to meet her eyes but she refused to look up. He sighed and leaned back against her bed, watching her struggle with her thoughts. He wanted so much to help her, but he simply did not know how. "She helped him, you know. She even erased the computer banks in the launching areas and deactivated the defense grid! Can you imagine?"
A small, grudging half smile curved Igraine's lips. "Krelian was livid. I don't think I've ever seen him that angry before." The smile grew a little more. "It was worse than that time he found out you had stayed overnight with me before......" Her little smile grew into a wide grin. "He still doesn't believe that we didn't......" Her cheeks flushed red, and her gaze flickered up to him a moment before fastening to the floor again.
He bit back a laugh. "Now he encourages us...... What a change."
"I can't believe it has been a year since we graduated. Look at us." Her smile faded, and she shifted to put her back to the bed, leaning into the crook of his arm. "Jessiah left us...... Sigurd has left us......" She looked up at him with her shining crystal eyes, pleading. "You won't leave me too...... Please say you won't leave me!"
"Igraine......" He hugged her, kissing the top of her head. He was almost afraid that if he tightened his arms any more he would shatter her slender frame. "I promised you, did I not? I will not leave you Igraine. I will stay by your side as long as I am able...... And I never break my promises." He buried his face in her soft hair, feeling all the emotion he kept pent up in public seeping out. For an entire year he had kept it away...... A year...... A year is long enough. More than long enough.
"Why do you keep it hidden?" she whispered, seeming to pull his thoughts from his mind. "Convention and courtesy are no reason to lock up all of your feelings. All year, I've looked in your eyes and seen...... Is it really that hard to say? Sigurd used to joke about it, but......"
"Yes......" Sigurd had often laughed and told them about his exploits before he committed to Reya. To say the word "love" was forbidden by an unspoken law, and Sigurd dreaded hearing the word...... What he had not mentioned was how hard it was to utter it, to form the words. Feelings were nothing by themselves unless they could be shared with another. And, Sigurd had said one day, it was always a simple matter for a woman to admit her feelings. But for a man, putting them into words was the hardest task he would ever face.
"His...... exploits served him well. The rest of us do not have any clue......" Hyuga trailed off. She no longer looked at him, but he was very aware of her attention. She shifted again, conforming her body to his own position, and he finally let himself relax with her, and accepted her warmth.
"Nobody really knows what to say Hyuga. Don't feel bad." He imagined her smiling, and she tightened her embrace. "It's what you have within you that is important. It is possible to share that without words. Sometimes...... words only get in the way."
He said nothing, instead tilting her chin up with a finger. Her pale sapphire eyes shined with a film of tears, bottomless and open. Her heart was in her eyes -- he could have crushed it with a word. But when she looked at him that way...... he couldn't stop himself.
Their lips met, and his last threads of thought shattered.
* * *
The sound of an approaching gear woke him.
Confused, Hyuga stared up at the viewport of his gear until he regained his sense of location. He was still strapped into Fenril, and from the feel of things, the gear itself was down on its back as if resting. The first stars of evening glinted faintly in the twilight sky above him, almost washed out by the smoke and ash hanging in the air outside. By their positions, he knew he had not been out long -- perhaps two hours -- but he felt like he had been sleeping for days.
This is shameful, he thought, unbuckling the restraints and sitting up. I have left Igraine to do all of the work while I daydream about the past. He pushed his way out of the gear, finding it a little more difficult at such a strange angle, and climbed off of Fenril to the ground.
Imarla was on her knees a few yards away, wings spread like a shield over the two of them. Igraine was running in the other direction, toward the gear that had just landed nearby. Caliginus? What is Reya doing here? Hyuga started over more slowly, still feeling the effects of his bout of unconsciousness.
"You're awake!" Igraine exclaimed when he reached her. Caliginus knelt down and she offered him a small half smile before turning to the gear. "I'm glad you're alright......"
"What is Reya doing here? And where is the Hydara?"
"The Hydara is still stationed up above," Reya called, jumping down from her gear. She held a small bundle in her arms. "They've taken Kahr up already, but I hear Igraine wouldn't let them touch you." She held her arms out and extended the bundle to Igraine, and he saw wisps of golden hair and a little face that he recognized, wrapped up in the white blanket.
"Midori!?" He rushed over to the two just as Igraine took the sleeping child in her arms.
"I asked Reya to bring her down to us after the battle," Igraine explained, smiling down at her daughter's face. "Did you have any trouble getting her away? I can't imagine Krelian being eager to let her go."
"Not from Krelian. He wasn't even around. But that Miang......" Reya's eyes narrowed. "I almost wish she had given me the chance to fight her."
"Oh Reya......." Igraine bit her lip and tried to smile at her again. "I'm sorry...... Maybe if I...."
"No! You two should leave -- this is the only chance you'll get. I'll stay with Krelian and keep him in line. And I'll take care of Kahr for you too." Reya hugged Igraine and kissed little Midori on the forehead. "Are you going to check on him?"
Igraine nodded. "I want to see him before I go. But...... I don't think I'll tell him."
"I think he already knows. He had that look in his eyes......"
Igraine turned back to Hyuga and held Midori out to him. He took the child and held her carefully in his arms, half afraid he would drop her before Igraine let go. "You and she need some bonding time." She smiled, amused. "You have to get used to holding her, Hyuga. I expect you to take your turn when she starts crying at night."
"Oh..... I will......" The child had him entranced. It constantly amazed him that such a tiny life could exist, that he had helped create it. He was so afraid that he would lose her somehow, or fail in his responsibility to protect her...... but he supposed that was a natural feeling all new fathers experienced. He knew he was quite capable of protecting Midori, and her mother...... He raised his eyes to Igraine. "Are you sure about this?" he asked, not quite able to keep a touch of nervousness from his voice. "Will you be able to get back here from the Hydara before it reaches the Gate?"
"Of course she will." Reya grinned with a mischievous glint in her eyes. "I gave the captain a set of orders from Krelian on my way down. They'll be stationed here for another five hours...... But you should be on your way, Hyuga. You need to get that monster to Shevat as soon as possible. Solaris Command might start to wonder why they aren't receiving any reports from your unit."
"Orders from Krelian?" he chuckled, shaking his head. "Tried your hand at forging again, did you? Were the orders authentic this time, at least? Jirea isn't as big a fool as the former Captain of Defense back home."
"Of course!" Reya said, throwing him a mock-offended frown. "This is serious business! Besides...... I heard this is more than just an escape attempt."
"Igraine......" Hyuga tried hard no to laugh at her innocent expression. "You had to tell her?"
"She refused to steal Midori for us unless I told her." Igraine dropped the innocent expression and glanced at Reya. "Besides, we tell each other everything." Reya's expression altered for a moment, becoming more pained, but she changed it so quickly Hyuga wasn't sure he had really seen it.
Steal Midori? He felt a flash of guilt and crushed it mercilessly. Why should he feel guilty for taking his own daughter? Krelian had no right to keep her. Miang had no right to be anywhere near her! "Do not worry about it. I doubt Reya well betray us." She gave him a look that made him glad he had not said something else. "You will not be long, will you? Shevat is a long way from here."
"Don't worry about me Hyuga. Kahr will be the only one that might give me trouble. There are advantages to being called 'Gazel'." Igraine rolled her eyes. "Too bad they're so few and far between."
"You should get going," Reya said to her, touching her shoulder.
"Yes......" Igraine smiled at him. "You'll be alright? I won't be gone long."
Hyuga nodded. "Of course. I will meet you in Shevat." He watched her turn and run back to Imarla. She can take care of herself. Nothing will happen to her. It was true, he knew, but watching her go back to something belonging to Solaris with their impending betrayal hanging over their heads was difficult. And if anyone can convince her not to go, it would be Kahr......
"You seem awfully calm, Hyuga."
"What?" Imarla jumped into the air and disappeared into the sky. He turned to Reya. "What do you mean?"
"Aren't you even a little concerned for her? She'll be in danger until she joins you in Shevat! You two are so casual about......"
"We understand each other. There is no need to display our feelings." He gazed down at Midori's face. "We agreed on that long ago......"
"She told me that she made you promise not to abandon your task if she gets hurt, or worse. Is that true?" Reya didn't wait for him to answer. "You had better take time away from your 'task' if she gets hurt! She's giving up everything for you -- she deserves that much in return!"
"I will not let anything happen to her if I can prevent it. You know that. But that is no reason for emotional displays. The state of our relationship belongs to us, good or bad."
"Your modesty is so charming......." Reya shook her head, and her grin faded. "Will you be going now?"
"Yes." He looked past her, to the bulky shadow that was the Contact's gear. "I must have him in Shevat before he awakens, or we will all be in serious trouble." He turned his gaze back to Midori. "I do not think it would be safe to take her on this mission. Will you give her to Igraine before she leaves?"
"Of course -- I'll be escorting her part of the way anyway."
Hyuga allowed her to take Midori from his arms, and took one last look at his daughter before he turned away and strode toward Fenril. Climbing back into the gear was a bit more complicated than usual, but before long he had picked up the demon gear and started toward Babel Tower.
Emperor Cain had promised Shevat would be waiting...... He held that thought firmly in his mind and continued on. From here, he was a different person...... From here, he and Igraine would be far away from their home. That was for the best...... wasn't it?
* * *
Igraine slipped into the infirmary, gently closing the door behind her. The large room was empty but for one occupied bed, and the lights were dimmed to allow the patient to sleep. She locked the door and started across the room, wincing at the loud clicking sounds her boots made on the metallic floor. She was garbed in her normal attire again, but if anything, it was more constraining than her uniform. When he saw her in her robes......
"Kahr?" she called in a soft whisper, touching his face. He opened his eyes and stared at her without recognition for a moment before he came to himself.
"You're here......" It was more a movement of the lips than anything else, but she understood perfectly. "That thing...... I was afraid...... he had hurt you......" Kahr reached up and took her hand. That action seemed to sap most of his strength.
"Look what he did to you......!" Igraine bent down to hug him, flinging her arms around his neck. "I should have just killed that damn bastard!" She bit her lip and felt tears well up in her eyes. I should watch my language...... The thought was ridiculous compared to everything else going on. "I'm sorry......"
"Don't be sorry Igraine." Kahr's whisper was hoarse, but audible. "It was my choice to be down there. Don't take the responsibility on yourself...... Besides, I haven't had this much attention from you since...... since Sigurd threw that ridiculous party...... for my birthday......"
Igraine squeezed her eyes shut. How can I tell you I am leaving you? How can I not tell you...... She felt hot tears streaming down her face. He wouldn't take the news very well, not after the others. She felt foolish, crying as she was, but Kahr was the only one she had ever been able to trust with her tears. He was just like a brother -- they even looked alike. And they always supported one another...... If Krelian had failed to break them apart, then distance would not do it either.......
...... She hoped.
"You're leaving me...... aren't you?"
She raised her head to meet his pale brown eyes before letting her head fall back to his shoulder. Those eyes had driven a knife right through her heart. He would never understand...... he only saw that she was leaving him like the others. She was leaving him as they had. "Kahr......I......"
"Why? Is Hyuga leaving too? Why?" His voice cracked. "Why are you all betraying me? Why are you leaving me Igraine......? Why........?" He kept whispering the question over and over again in her ear, shaking. "Why...... are you doing this to me?"
"I....... Kahr, I'm not...... I'm not leaving you forever! I would never desert you! Please believe that!" Igraine begged him silently, willing him not to hate her, or think she was betraying him.
"Are you going...... because of him? Did he......?" Kahr seized her shoulders and forced her to look at him. "Both of you!" He shook his head in denial, eyes wet. "Not you! I trusted you! I..... trusted......you......!"
"No! Listen to me Kahr......" Igraine trailed off into tears again, slumping against his hands. He was so torn apart, like a child that had lost everything he loved. He was still a child in some ways. He didn't understand things sometimes......emotionally...... He can't help it...... Krelian...... If Krelian hadn't started things by throwing him away...... If only he had someone...... "Please listen to me......"
"You...... said......" Kahr thrust her away, turning his face toward the wall. "Traitor!" His shoulders shook with silent sobs. "Don't speak to me! You......!"
"Kahr!" She stumbled back a few steps. "Please! Listen!" He refused to turn his head. "I won't be gone forever...... I'll be coming back for you...... I promised you, didn't I? When we were little......" He shifted, but his eyes remained fixed on the wall. She swallowed and rubbed her tears away, but more spilled down onto her cheeks. "Don't you remember......? Go someplace nice....... Where they don't care about fighting...... or where you were born? Remember? Kahr? We used to play all the time......"
She backed further away, dragging her feet, until her back hit the door. He won't listen! She didn't want to leave him like this! This is going to tear him apart. I just know it...... He thinks no one loves him...... "I've always been here for you Kahr......" she whispered, knowing he would hear her. "You're more than just a brother to me....... I promised you......"
She took a deep breath. "I'm not going to stay. I can't bear this any longer! I --" Each word was like ripping a part of her soul away, stained with her life's blood. "I'm going to leave......"
Finally, he turned back to her, and the agonized expression on his face cut right through her words. "Don't leave me Igraine......" Tears rolled down his cheeks as well. "Don't leave me......"
"Go ahead and call that girl." A tall boy, years older than Kahr, backhanded him across the face. He stumbled and fell on his back, holding his cheek and trying not to cry. "Do you think anyone will help trash like you? You're just --"
"Leave him alone Sheral! He didn't do anything to you!" Igraine ran over and stood in front of Kahr, barring the other boy's way. "You didn't have any right to say that! Go away or I'll tell Roya-Sensei on you!"
"Get out of my way!"
"I said move!" Sheral balled up his fist and punched her shoulder as hard as he could.
She screamed and clutched her shoulder, but she held her ground. When he tried to go around her, she moved in front of him again, glaring at him through her tears. Gravel scratched behind her, and she saw Kahr scramble back to his feet. "Go get Roya-Sensei!"
"But......!" Another boy came running up behind him.
"You think that's gonna help you and your fake brother?" Sheral shoved her away and she flew back into the waiting arms of the other boy, then grabbed Kahr's hair and dragged him away from her. "You're just like him! Nobody else would help trash. You deserve to be treated like him too, doesn't she Arin?"
Igraine jerked out of his grasp and rushed Sheral, tackling him on the ground and kicking him. Kahr took off running, but he stopped a short distance away and looked back. "Go get her!" Igraine shouted. Sheral slapped her off of him and kicked her in the stomach.
"Go!" She curled up into a ball. "Go!!"
"How sweet!" Sheral kicked her again, and dragged her to her feet. "Giving yourself up for the little reject!"
"Throw her down the stairs!" Arin grabbed her and threw her toward the rail......
Igraine's hands clenched into fists, and her nails bit right through her palms. "I love you, Kahr. I promise I'll come back......"
Kahr reached through the slats on the bed guard, stretching his hand toward her. "Please...... Don't you leave me too. Don't leave me alone! I can't ......." He shook his head. "I remember...... After all that...... And you're going to leave me? Stay! Please Igraine! Stay with me!" His voice sank to a whisper again. "Don't leave me alone in this place......"
"You...... You don't need me anymore Kahr......" Igraine unlocked the door and groped behind her back for the switch to open it. She found it, but she couldn't...... What about Hyuga? Midori...... My baby...... I can't leave her...... them.......
She pressed the button. The door slid open silently behind her.
His eyes grew more desperate, and he reached for her again, pleading. "Igraine......!"
She turned her back on him. It was the hardest thing she had ever done in her life. I have to. I have to...... They must be stopped...... I promised Hyuga I would be...... She took the first step, and faltered. No! I'll be back! I promised Kahr too...... She took another step. This isn't forever! I'll keep my promise......
"Igraine! Stay with me! Don't leave me......!!!"
* * *
Hyuga watched the night silently. Clouds drifted by the gazebo of Shevat palace on cool, unseen currents, washing out the deep black of the night sky. The glittering stars and the glittering lights in the city below held a fascinating beauty for him. Solaris had no night, or day for that matter, unless one lived on the first class level. And even then, the stars were not visible. The city hung upside-down above the first layer of clouds covering the surface, placing the stars below the feet of the 'Chosen.'
Shevat itself was a mystery to him. The people welcomed him, though he was sure they knew he was Solarian. They shared their homes, offered friendship...... The place where yesterday's worries become tomorrow's hopes...... He did hope that was still true of the place, whatever the old man thought. Aside from his own needs, Igraine would need it more than he did. Despite Shevat being her true home, she did not want to leave Solaris......
"You're worried about her."
Hyuga turned, recognizing the voice muffled behind a smiling mask. Wiseman. "More about her heart than her safety. Unless......?"
"It worked. Fei will no longer be a danger to others, unless danger comes to him. I cannot completely suppress Id, but I managed to seal him away." The cloaked man joined him at the rail, gazing out over the ancient city. "You are to be his guardian?"
"I have my orders. I will watch over him -- we do not want a repeat of the Elru massacre any more than you do."
"'We'?" Wiseman asked. Hyuga remained silent. "It doesn't matter, I suppose. If he emerges again, I will know it, and follow." He turned away from the rail. "I heard they were opening the Gate for someone -- it's probably the woman you were waiting for." Wiseman continued down the stairs without another word.
Hyuga turned back to the rail, but he didn't really notice the view this time. 'Guardian Angel' held a different meaning for him now. What would happen if Id did awaken on his watch? It was bound to happen. What would he do? Would he have to choose between Igraine and the monster he had been sent to watch over? He could not allow her to follow him on such a dangerous mission if 'Fei' changed again. As things were, he didn't like the idea of her on the surface. She belonged with...... With Shevat. Her home. She alone deserved to walk the clouds...... after her life, her trials...... what she was leaving behind for him now......
Soft breathing and the click of footsteps announced Igraine's presence. He looked over his shoulder, and she stopped on the landing, bathed in moonlight. He left the rail and met her there, waiting.
"I shouldn't have gone. You were right." Igraine let her head sink down into her hands. "He thinks I betrayed him. I...... I just...... left him......"
"No, Igraine." Hyuga took her hands and drew them away from her face. "You did not leave him." She shook her head and opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off. "He will understand in time. He --"
"He doesn't see. He thinks I'm deserting him, and...... and that makes it so...... for him." Igraine squeezed her eyes shut. "I left him there......"
"Reya will take care of him. She will help him understand your decision." She shook her head in denial. What more could he say? He didn't know how to ease the pain he saw in her eyes. He couldn't make her forget it. He only hoped that his decision had not broken the bond between Kahr and her. They were closer than he could ever hope to be with her...... The thought didn't bring the old flash of jealousy he had expected. Only regret that she was leaving because of him.
He brought her hands to his mouth and kissed them. "Do you want to go back?" he asked softly, and watched her eyes widen in surprise. "I will not be on the surface forever...... I must still return and make my report to the Emperor before I am truly free. If it will make you happier, return to Solaris." He wiped her tears away with his fingertips, letting them linger on her cheek. "I want you to be happy."
"Sometimes...... you are the sweetest......" Igraine threw herself into his arms, and he held her tightly. "You don't know how much those words meant to me," she whispered.
"Will......" Hyuga cleared his throat, trying to make his voice sound normal. "Will you be returning then? Soon?"
"Returning?" Igraine drew away and looked up at him, expression changing from sadness to gentle amusement. "I want to...... But I don't believe it would be the right choice." He resisted the urge to smile but his relief must have been plain on his face, because her expression did break into a smile. "Come now, Hyuga...... You need someone to take care of you, too. Reya will help Kahr -- you're right."
"Now just a moment --"
Igraine raised her eyebrows and he stopped short, flushing. "I love you Hyuga, but face it -- sometimes you won't even remember to eat on your own. You're always too absorbed in your studies...... or, tinkering with some machine you've found......"
"If you had already made this decision, then why......?"
Igraine's smile slipped away, and she was once again serious, seeming on the verge of tears again. "The right decision...... is usually the most painful." Her voice wavered. "I need something...... reassurance...... I need something to hang on to right now. That's all. Taking care of you is a start."
"As if I need taking care of......" Hyuga muttered under his breath, gathering her into his arms again. But he felt good at heart -- glad that she had not left him. "Have you chosen a name?" he asked after a time, reluctant to get any closer to the subject of their leaving.
"I spoke with Zephyr. She didn't know anything about the story Krelian gave me, but she did tell me one thing......"
"And that is......?"
"She gave me my mother's name...... But I have not decided on my own yet."
"It does not matter. You are not well known -- perhaps you can keep your own name."
"I suppose...... It was all she was able to give me......" Igraine trailed off into her own thoughts for a bit before asking, "What about you? What have you chosen to disguise yourself with?"
Hyuga felt himself grin. "I am going to be the new doctor for the village we find Fei in." He couldn't keep the amusement out of his voice. "Shitan. Shitan Uzuki."
"You can't be -- !" Igraine burst out laughing. "Shitan? And a doctor, no less! Why in heaven did you name yourself after that...... that ...... He was worse than Sigurd! You......" She lost the rest of the sentence in another fit of laughter.
"I am glad you appreciate my choice," he responded dryly.
Her laughter faded. "How is it that you always manage to bring me out of my darkness?" She sighed, resting against him. "Thank you Hyuga......"
He sighed and rested his head atop hers, just enjoying her presence, and the silence. Shevat was beautiful, peaceful...... And he knew he should enjoy it while he had the chance. Igraine would be with him, but he doubted he would find any other happiness on the surface. He would complete his task, as he had promised after Erim's death so long ago. And then...... what?
Perhaps he would bring his family back to Shevat. It was Igraine's homeland, and he found that he missed "walking the clouds" already. But whatever their choice...... all the choices of the future lay before them.
* * *
Hyuga folded the note carefully between his fingers, mind already working. A location had been set -- he and Igraine would conceal their gears in the mountain range just north of a small border town called Lahan, and make their way into the populated area on foot. They would not be able to carry much in the way of belongings, but it probably would not matter. Towns usually had shops, and all the materials they needed would be found there.
Unfortunately, he still needed a reason to be there...... And he could not very well give the surface dwellers the truth -- he would have to fabricate a plausible story for them.
Hyuga smiled, settling back on the bed he shared with his wife. Igraine will surely come up with something good. She, Kahr, and Reya had developed a habit of regaling him with stories of their childhood, both fun and sad...... And Igraine had always seemed to be the resourceful troublemaker. If anyone could come up with an honest deception, it would be her......
He heard the door to their quarters open and close again, and he could hear Igraine at the other side of the room. Beside him, Midori stirred softly in her sleep, but did not wake up, much to his relief. He did not think he was up to another hour of pacing the room and making feeble attempts to sing. She was growing rather heavy, even for a toddler......
Paper crackled, and he looked up, startled. Igraine hugged a letter to her chest, slowly lowering herself to sit at the edge of the bed. Her honey gold hair hung loosely over her face, casting her stoic expression in shadow.
"Igraine?" He propped himself up on his elbows, studying her face with concern. "Is something wrong?" She didn't say a word. Something is wrong...... "A message from Wiseman arrived today," he said softly, hoping a little talking would draw her out of her silence. "A location has been chosen, and Fei is there, waiting for us."
She was staring at Midori's crib. "Fei...... Fei...... Fei......"
Hyuga levered himself into a sitting position and placed his hands on her shoulders. She flinched, but did not draw away. "Tell me," he whispered, dread suddenly seeping into his thoughts. He gently turned her toward him, brushing her hair away from her face and cupping her chin in his hands.
Tear stains marred her beautiful porcelain features, just as they had the night she had left Kahr. She had the same look in her eyes...... They no longer shined like sapphires...... Dark shadows lurked beneath the surface. "Reya......"
"Reya?" he asked after a pause. "...... What is wrong, Igraine?" A sick feeling was settling at the pit of his stomach. If she looks...... What happened?
Her fists clenched around the letter. "Reya isn't well. She...... He hurt her." Fresh tears ran down her cheeks, and she began to tremble. "I...... I don't know what he did to her, but she sounded so...... so...... S-something terrible is going to happen...... I can't..... I don't know......"
"A ......feeling you have?" Hyuga had to force the words out. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close, feeling as if she was already slipping away. He knew what was coming...... Her feelings were never wrong -- and she could not just ignore it, no matter the cost to herself...... I can hope...... can I not? We are all entitled to a little selfishness in our lives.
"Both...... of them......" she whispered, burying her face in his chest. "Both...... I......"
"No...... No, Igraine......" He let his head rest on her shoulder, breathing in the scent of her hair, and her skin...... "You did not desert them. They understand. You know they do." What could possibly have put her into this state? What was wrong with Reya? Reya protects Kahr...... Who protects Reya?
"That...... that isn't......" She shrugged, coughing. "It's her...... She isn't....... She can't......" She started crying again, sounding almost as their daughter did when she was frustrated or...... hurt. What was hurting her?
The letter. Of course. "Igraine...... What did she say in the letter? Why are you so sure he has...... done something to her?"
"Not him," she said thickly after a moment. "Not...... now. She just...... She found......" Igraine sighed shakily, squeezing him tightly. "I-I'm not sure...... But she said...... she was going to......" She shook her head slowly. "I can't......"
"Going to do what? What, Igraine?" She was hardly making any sense at all. He pulled away to look at her, trying to decipher the feelings he saw in her eyes. "What......?"
She thrust the letter at him wordlessly, shrugging again and looking away, but she grasped his hand tightly. He stared at the folded piece of tear-stained paper a moment before finally opening it, dreading what he would find inside:
...... I had no idea he would go this far. If you were only here, maybe he would listen, but he refuses to even consider either of us. He wants to revive god, and he's going to sacrifice everyone to get what he wants! Even me!
I was his weapon. I am his weapon, the one he will use if he loses control of this god of his. So he says...... But no more. I refuse to do what he wants me to do! I will not be responsible for the death of our world. I know this is the right thing to do. Please understand me Igraine -- this is not your fault. Stay with Hyuga; Kahr can take care of himself. I know he can. But don't let Krelian lay his hands on you again. I'll be gone, and I won't be able to protect you anymore......
Hyuga read on, feeling his stomach turn at Reya's description of the events after Elru. And worse...... He folded the letter again, swallowing the lump in his throat. Destiny had already paved a different road for all of them, it seemed. But I know what to do now......
"Igraine......" He placed the letter on the bedside table and pulled her back into his arms.
"I don't know what to do about this...... Hyuga......" Her voice wavered, and she rested her head on his chest, quiet but for slightly labored breathing.
Damn you, Krelian...... Would he ever stop? That man was the sole cause of the Elru disaster, Kahr's injuries, Igraine's pain, Reya's plans...... Damn you! His arms tightened around Igraine, but she didn't stir. She was hardly breathing...... And her silence scared him. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what to say to her...... First Kahr, now Reya. What more could that man do to her?
Do not say that...... I can't let this destroy her. I cannot...... I cannot watch another loved one....... be destroyed because of me. If he had not brought her here, away from Solaris, it was very likely these things would not be happening. "Krelian won't listen, anymore."
But he would listen to her.
"He will listen to you," Hyuga said, stroking her hair gently. "Reya will not refuse you if you ask her not to do this. If you go to them......"
Igraine gripped him tightly, almost squeezing the air out of his lungs. "No! I...... can't....... I don't want to leave you!"
"I do not want you to leave either. But......" He felt so tired. Igraine was the only thing that kept him going. If she left...... Well, he would have to complete his task. In the beginning, he had planned on leaving her in Solaris, in any case. Id was too dangerous...... "You have to go. I will miss you...... But I will be waiting. And I will go back to you, after this is done."
"No......" she whispered, swallowing another sob. "I don't want --"
"You must." She must...... Or we...... Reya...... If he did not send Igraine back, he knew she would regret it for the rest of her life. He wanted her to be happy. He wanted to be happy. But if she abandoned Reya, she would never be able to forgive herself. And he would never be able to justify keeping her by his side.
We can be happy...... later. Once all ties with Solaris and Krelian were broken.
"We will not be far apart, love," Hyuga said, voice just above a whisper. "We still have the bond linking us. We can dream to each other...... Just as we did during the war. Nothing can separate us." He wished he felt as confident as he sounded. No, distance does not matter. As long as we keep faith in each other, we will be fine.
"Shhh......" He leaned back against the pillows, drawing her with him, stroking her hair. Loathe to release his wife before he absolutely had to, he settled back and rested his head against the wall. Igraine relaxed and curled up against him, her low, steady breathing assuring him she had finally fallen asleep. Hyuga himself began to drift off, lulled by her soft breathing.
As long as we keep faith...... The words repeated in his mind, but he lost his grip on them, slowly watching them fade into a dream.
...... we will be fine.
* * *
Cool, feathery clouds kissed the walkways of Shevat, bringing the early morning chill directly to Hyuga's bare skin. He suppressed a shiver and waited patiently by Aphel Aura's city gate, not eager to take the elevator down to the gear docks. Igraine had asked him to wait there while she brought Midori and the caretaker she had begged him to take with him to the surface, for their daughter's care.
"I don't want you to have to take care of her alone, not when you have to watch the Contact," she had said earlier in the week, once she had agreed to return to Solaris. "She needs a mother, and if I cannot be there, I want her to have someone else to turn to. I know you try, Hyuga, but you become so absorbed in your work sometimes......"
He sighed and passed a weary hand over his eyes, knowing she was right. But it seemed almost wrong to him, to take another to the surface with him while the woman he loved was returning to Krelian's clutches. Yet, he reminded himself, it was better to have Midori nearby, with this caretaker if necessary, than let her be returned to Krelian as well.
What would he tell his daughter when she grew up? Neither he nor Igraine had much in the way of families any longer -- hers consisted of an obsessed microbiologist and two artificial siblings, while his own siblings would not even acknowledge his existence any longer. She will ask about her family someday. She will ask where her mother has gone......
"Hyuga......" Igraine emerged from the mists, parting it like the prophet of legend, followed by a woman in an olive green dress. She looked at him carefully, piercing his thoughts. "I know what you're worried about." She smiled and shrugged. "Midori won't be without me. I'll always be here for her, as I will be for you. More so, in fact......"
He said nothing, simply staring at her, watching her rock their daughter gently and draw a soft, thick blanket more tightly about her small body. Pain stabbed his heart. This was very likely the last chance he would have to gaze on them together for a very, very long time...... His eyes absorbed every detail, trying to burn the sight into his mind.
"This is the caretaker I have chosen." He tore his eyes away from his wife and managed to meet the other woman's gaze. She lowered her eyes shyly. "She has agreed to accompany you to the surface and serve as Midori's...... babysitter...... in my absence." Igraine paused. "Are you sure you're okay with this?" she asked softly, moving forward and pitching her voice so only he would hear. "I know...... an outsider......"
He shook his head and took a deep breath. "I may not be available to watch over Midori at all times." He sighed. "Whether we leave her here or take her to the surface...... She will be in the care of strangers either way. I would prefer she be close to me, if you cannot be there."
Preference. He preferred his wife with him, not a stranger. For all intents and purposes, this caretaker would have to act as his wife in her place, as part of his cover. It wasn't an attractive thought; he had no desire to be close to any other woman aside from the one standing before him now. But he would live with it, because he had no choice. Not for Midori......
"I'm sorry." Igraine swallowed, and her eyes misted. "I'm...... sorry this is happening this way, Hyuga. If there were some way I could --"
"No......" He kissed her and held her close, hoping to stop her tears. A tight, cold knot clenched around his heart, but he was careful not to let it show in his voice. "This is the way things must be for now. We will live -- you said yourself nothing is set in stone. Remember?" He smiled down at her and her lips turned up, just a bit. "I will be waiting, on the surface. If I can stand to live with a stranger while you go back home, I think you can stand a little solitude, don't you?"
She bit her lip, but the mist was gone from her eyes. "You'd better wait. I'll be keeping in touch with the dreaming......" She pressed her lips to his cheek and withdrew, turning back to their silent companion. She cradled Midori gently, but possessively. "This is Yui," she said simply, nodding to the other woman.
Yui bowed, eyes still to the ground. "An honor," she said faintly, cheeks stained pink.
He examined her curiously, a strange feeling distracting him from his parting with Igraine. Something about the hair, the chin...... He glanced back to Igraine sharply.
"Distant cousin," she replied immediately. "So Zephyr says." I felt it would be better to keep this within the family -- such as it is.
He just barely stopped himself from jumping at her mind-touch. Can she not give a warning? he thought peevishly, and he saw her smile faintly. He tried to shrug it off and return his attention to Yui. A cousin, she says. Well, the resemblance was there, and Igraine's mother had been from Shevat; records in Krelian's lab had confirmed that. It just seemed too much to pass off as mere coincidence.
But then, if it wasn't coincidence, what -- or who -- was it?
"I'm sorry this is so rushed......" Igraine seemed to be speaking to both of them, sighing deeply and shaking her head. "But there isn't really any time for us to get to know each other. I...... I've done my best, and now it's up to you two." For the first time, Hyuga saw how uncomfortable she was with the arrangement -- he saw it in her eyes as she looked from him to Yui and back again. Midori still slept peacefully, curtained by her mother's long fall of golden hair.
"It is nothing for you to worry about," he said gently, resting his hand on her shoulder. She bit her lip. "Midori will be safe until you are able to join me in Lahan. I am sure Yui will take good care of us until then."
The other woman nodded and offered Igraine a reassuring smile. "I promise I'll take care of them. I won't neglect my vows to you, itoko-san. I promise."
She seemed to accept the offering; but even he couldn't tell what was hidden behind her eyes now. Outwardly, she radiated serenity and a deep calm. Inwardly, she was probably still berating herself for making all of this necessary. As if she were the cause, and not her...... father -- for lack of a better term.
Yui was beside her now. Igraine cradled their daughter tightly in her arms, leaning over to kiss the tiny forehead one last time, and then she let her 'cousin' take the child from her. Midori stirred as if in protest, but remained asleep, transfixed by her mother's power.
"Time to go......" she whispered, just a touch of anxiety in her voice.
The two of them moved forward together, Yui taking her place behind, and Igraine stopping just before him, golden hair swaying in a gentle breeze.
"You'll be careful." It wasn't a question.
"You know I will." He drew a painful breath. We said our goodbyes yesterday. No turning back. He gathered her into his arms one last time, trying to savor the moment...... But they separated quickly, knowing it would be all the harder, if they clung to each other too long.
He held her eyes a moment longer, then turned without a word and followed Yui to the elevator that would lead to the gear docks. No need to say anything -- they understood each other.
He stepped onto the floating platform. As it began its leisurely descent, he glanced back to the walkway, parting the mists with his senses to gaze again upon his wife. He felt Yui shift next to him, and his daughter whimper, caught in an infant dream.
Igraine stood on the walkway crowned in the silvery fog, watching him go. Just before his eyes passed below the elevator shaft, she met his eyes and whispered the words he had been waiting for, the words that he knew would carry him through his self-imposed exile.
Good luck. I'll be waiting for you.
"...... I know it is hard for you to understand, Hyuga, but I know Krelian will stop himself before he destroys this world, and everything he loves. I still have faith in him! But I know that terrible things will happen...... Something is going to happen to Shevat -- but I will be here when it comes, whatever it is. I cannot save the world, but I can save this city......
"Maybe that has been my task all along. Not the salvation of this world, but the salvation of its people...... And when that is done, I will walk with god."
"Oh my......" Elly folded the paper again neatly and placed it back on Shitan's desk, fingers lingering on the cream-colored parchment. It radiated sorrow. "Oh my......"
* * *
"Five months after the defeat of Deus......"
"You should return to them......" called a voice, penetrating the stillness.
Igraine turned around, wondering how she had gotten there -- wherever it was. Absurd. I've always been here...... haven't I? She couldn't remember anything but the present. Only a dull ache, of sadness and loss, penetrated her mind. Why? What had she lost?
"You sacrificed yourself to save them. You gave up everything......" A hand reached out and brushed her hair, and the rest of the body materialized behind it. "Just like her." Krelian's voice was soft, the softest whisper she had ever heard. He smiled. "You always did remind me of her. The way you spoke, walked...... If I had not had evidence that told me otherwise, I would have assumed you were her reincarnation."
"Krelian......" She couldn't bear the sadness in his eyes. It was not the first time she had seen it, but he wore it openly now, for her to see. Infinite sadness...... the pain of a man who had lost his faith in love.
"You should return to them," he said again, letting his hand fall. "You above all deserve to walk with god, but if you aren't happy...... There is no point to it. This should be a place of happiness......"
'Them'...... Her family? She wanted to return to her family. She wanted to keep her promise to Kahr...... and to Hyuga. That had been one of her last thoughts as Shevat fell. Yes, she remembered ......It all seemed so far away from her. The light of 'judgement' shearing through her homeland, the demon running loose, the crying of the children, Midori......
Midori! "My...... my baby. I have to......"
The room she knelt in was empty save for Midori. The tremors and screams accompanying the attack from Merkava was distant in that room, hardly noticeable at all. Pale azure light washed out the details of the room, blazing around her like Ether. The pain nearly tore her apart, but she drew more, and more, reaching out to save the people of Shevat from certain death. The city would plummet to the earth in a matter of moments......
They had to be saved. Someone had to be saved. Everything else was dying...... Krelian refused to stop his plan to return everything to the beginning. His obsession with returning to god was destroying everything. She could not save the world, but she could save the children. She could save the people. Maybe that is what it had been about all along......
Not the salvation of the world, but the few......
"Mama! Stop, Mama!" Midori reached out to her with a chubby hand, tears streaming down her cheeks. Igraine tried to touch her, and her hand passed right through her daughter's.
"What......?!" She held her hand out. It seemed solid enough. Midori tried to grasp it again, and her expression of pure terror broke Igraine's heart.
"Mama! Don't leave me Mama! Please......!"
"...... Stay with me! Don't leave me!!!"
"I...... I want to be with them. I don't want to leave them......"
Krelian smiled sadly. "You still sleep in Merkava. You never left them. I brought you here......"
"Why? I'm not...... dead...... What did you do to me? Why did you bring me here......?"
"I removed you before you could kill yourself. I could not take you into Deus, as I did with the others, so I put you to sleep in the shelter with Imarla. Do you remember now?"
"No......" There was something different about him. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew something was very different about him. That smile...... Was it his eyes? When he gazed down at her, she felt...... different. She didn't loathe the touch of his eyes as she used to, or shiver at the sound of his voice.
Human. That was it. He was...... human.
"What happened? What did you do?"
He started to shake his head and halted. "That doesn't matter anymore......"
"I want you to go! Your family needs you." He cupped her face in his hands. "Please. You deserve to be happy. I want you to be happy. I'll be waiting here for you, when your time comes......"
"Wait!" She felt as if she were slipping away. "Krelian......!"
* * *
"This is not right," Hyuga whispered, gazing up at the Nisan angels above the altar of the cathedral. Candlelight and refracted sunlight glittered around the two images suspended in the air. "Where ...... are...... you?"
He took no comfort from the church, as his friends did. Even Kahr had found peace along its halls, with Dominia and the other girls that followed her. He found only more questions. Surely defeating Deus made up for his deeds in Solaris, but...... Absolution was not what he sought. He had accepted the darkness within himself long ago, even embraced it to be with the one he loved......
But where was she? He had broken his promise to her, and now she was...... gone. Almost like the others. Did I cause her death too? Does she think I abandoned her? Is she even still alive? She had been gone since the fall of Shevat. He tried to connect it with the events of that time, trying hard to find some other reason for her disappearance. It was a futile effort as he well knew, but still he searched for something, anything that might tell him she was still alive somewhere, waiting for him.
"Are you alright, Shitan?"
Hyuga let his gaze drop, adjusting his glasses when they slipped too far down. "I am fine, Elly. Is there something you need?"
"No......" She came forward, stopping by his side and catching his eyes. "Is there something you need...... Hyuga?" Her use of his true name made him start, and he took a step back. Her eyes held him, though. She regarded him for a long moment, sympathy and frustration clashing in her eyes. "Why won't you talk to us?" she asked softly. "We want to help you Shitan. I know...... I know that you're worried....... about her."
He let his gaze drop again but held his expression firm. "I have nothing to be concerned about. I was simply admiring the artistry of this place." The obvious lie hung in the air between them. She saw through him, into his soul, just as Igraine had. They were alike in some ways......
Too many ways. "Is there something......?"
Elly sighed. "Do you know where the Commander went?"
"Kahr? I had no idea he was even gone. Is there a problem?"
She held her fist out, and opened it. A data crystal rested on her palm, with the unmistakable symbol of Solaris etched into the center. "Dominia said this is what caused him to leave. Kelvena couldn't get through the passwords, so she wanted you to look into it."
"This is it?"
"Yes." Elly turned and started back to the doors, but she paused and turned to look at him over her shoulder. Sympathy still shined in her eyes. "If you want to talk......" She let the offer hang and continued on without another backward glance.
Hyuga studied the crystal on his palm. It seemed normal enough. But if the girl couldn't hack through the passwords...... He slipped it into his pocket and, curiosity piqued, went off in search of a private computer console.
* * *
Hyuga secured the wires and backed out from under the desk in his room, smacking his head on the edge as he got up. He bit back a curse and dug the data crystal out of his pocket. It was a small thing, a minor distraction...... But anything that could take his mind away from his worries about his wife was welcome.
He inserted the data crystal into the converter he had set up, and the console screen came to life, displaying a standard Solarian set up, and a window popped up.
He sat a moment in thought. If this turned out to be what he suspected...... "Urobolus."
The computer processed the word, and he waited.
CONFIRMED. A lucky guess, he thought to himself. I cannot believe Krelian never changed his password. Another display appeared, arranged in a pattern he remembered well from his days in Krelian's lab all those years ago. He pushed the memory away. The screen finished loading, and four names were displayed. He recognized all of them. ORDERS?
These were indeed records copied from Krelian's data banks, as he had suspected. A tiny prick of hope broke through the layers of denial he had built around himself. Arrayed in a straight line across the screen were the names 'Areya,' 'Elhaym,' 'Ramses,' and 'Igraine.' The names of all of his most important projects...... He was tempted to look into the others, but only one name really interested him.
He took a deep breath. "Display the contents of the directory 'Igraine.'"
* * *
"He's so dispassionate. Sometimes I wonder if he's even human." Elly's shoulders slumped, and she stared across the room at Fei. He kept painting, resting on his knees to reach the bottom of the portrait of Sophia -- of her. When he didn't look up she turned her gaze to the pattern of the Nisan cross on the carpet, projected there by the room's one window. "I know he cares, and I know he's worried, but he won't talk......"
"Doc's always been like that," Fei said absently, squinting at the surface of his painting.
"Give him some time. He'll come out with it eventually."
He seemed to be missing the point. How can I say this without revealing the secret? "Fei...... aren't you worried? His wife has been gone since the fall of Shevat. You didn't used to be so apathetic." She remembered Fei almost yelling at Shitan in the hallway of the Yggdrasil, asking if he even cared about his wife, or if he had just used her as a 'cover' for his task as the Guardian Angel. She couldn't remember that conversation without wincing. "She was so nice......"
"Yeah, I'm worried," he said, letting his paintbrush drop to the floor. "I'm worried about Midori, too. Doc isn't exactly the most attentive guy in the world. But there's nothing I can do about it. I've already tried talking, and he won't listen! He's cold as ice every time."
"Maybe we should look for her," Elly suggested. She had an idea...... If she could only remember what she had seen while merged with Krelian......
"Where? The only place left is the ruin of Merkava, and I just can't see Yui wandering in there! Everything else is gone...... Even the other half of Shevat hasn't been found yet."
"Maybe," Elly said, searching her fading memories of Deus, "We should look in the places least expected." She had only met the woman once, but she could have sworn it wasn't......
Fei barked a laugh. "Dunesman's Isle! That's the last place I'd expect to find her!"
"Fei, be serious! This is a friend we're talking about! Just because Shitan mislead you doesn't mean she had anything to do with it. You should let that go." She softened her voice. "He needs that right now......"
"What am I supposed to say?" Fei asked more quietly, shrugging. "I don't think she's alive. How would that help him? I still can't believe he's so...... easy going about it. When you were gone, I....... I couldn't stop thinking about you. But he doesn't even seem to notice!"
"Maybe there's more to it than that. Did that ever occur to you?" She got up and walked to the center of the room, staring up at the window. "Back in Solaris, things were really very different from here. There are a lot of unspoken rules...... and things that are expected of people. Up there, people weren't supposed to show their feelings, or let things like that interfere with their lives. We were just...... I don't know. It's hard to explain. But Fei, he grew up there, just like I did. Maybe he just doesn't know how to express his feelings. Maybe he buried them away in his books and machines, like I used to do with my duties as an officer. I'm still learning how to let things show, the way you taught me......"
"Talk to him. Just try it. Please? Maybe he'll surprise you."
"I guess I'll try again for you, Elly, but I don't think he'll talk to me. Things just...... they aren't the same between me and him anymore." Fei put the palette down and walked toward the door.
"Don't do it for me, Fei," Elly said, turning her face away from the window to him. "Do it because you're his friend."
* * *
The display finally winked out. Hyuga leaned back into his chair, feeling numb.
Merkava. She is locked in Merkava! I was there, and I did not even realize how close I was to her! He let his head sink into his hands. Most of Merkava had been destroyed in the last battle against Deus. What if the shelter section Igraine was housed in had been destroyed as well? He didn't think he could bear that. It would be a third loved one's death on his hands......
If he had helped cause her death...... helped rob Midori of her mother......
He didn't think he could live with that reality, if it was true.
There is only one way to find out. If Igraine is there, then I will wake her up. And if not...... If not, he didn't think he would survive the day.
A knock startled him out of his contemplations. "Doc?"
"Fei? Come in." Hyuga stood, removing the data crystal and returned it to his pocket. He heard the door open and close, and he gestured to the chair he had been using to view the records. "Have a seat. I have to detach these wires before they start a fire."
"Heh. Nice to see you have some of your sense of humor back, doc." Fei took his seat, and Hyuga got down to his hands and knees, reaching under the table for the connection he had set earlier. "I wanted to talk to you......"
Hyuga snapped the connection and got back to his feet, tossing the wire extension on the table. "What about? It sounds as if something is disturbing you. Is there any way I can help?"
"Yeah......" Fei shifted restlessly in his chair, and finally stood up. "I want to talk about your wife."
Hyuga felt his body go numb again. "What about her?" He managed to keep a tremor out of his voice, but he could not bring himself to meet Fei's eyes. Instead, he fiddled with the connector switch, trying to turn some of his attention toward examining the thing. Yui was the last thing he wanted to talk about with anybody -- they didn't even know what she truly was. She only dredged up memories and guilt over another......
"What's with you, doc? Every time someone mentions her you turn cold. Aren't you even worried about her? She's your wife!"
"Of course I am worried about......!" He snapped his mouth shut, startled at his own unexpected outburst. He tried to moderate his voice, achieve the cool calm he usually managed while talking with his friends. It was more difficult with Fei -- their relationship had been strained since his betrayal in Solaris. "If you came to tell me I should show more emotion about it, you can walk right out the door, Fei," he said evenly.
"I came to talk! Elly's right, but I don't care how you were trained to act. You don't have to hold it all in. I used to do that too. All it does is make things worse."
"You really do not have any idea......" he turned his back on his friend and stared at the table. Couldn't he understand? There was only one person in the world he could truly talk to...... and she was at the bottom of the Merkava ruin. Alive, he fervently hoped. "Igraine and I had an agreement......" He sighed. He might as well give Fei part of the story. He deserved the truth, after all. "She knew about my past, and she knew what my task was here on the surface. But Yui was not......" How much to tell? "She was a good friend. Nothing more."
"You must understand, Fei --"
"Understand? I've been understanding a lot of things lately! You expect me to just accept this? Come on!"
Hyuga sighed, giving Fei a level look. "Did you expect everything to fall into place after my position was revealed? Secrets harbor secrets. I had no reason to reveal this to you until now."
"No reason?" Fei glared at him. "What about Yui?! Isn't she enough of a reason? If she was such a great friend --"
"She made her choice." The cool words cut through Fei's protest, if not his anger.
Didn't he understand? Did he think throwing his secrets to the wind and revealing his deceptions would be painless? The work he had been doing was directly related to his past, and he could not recall such things without first falling to Igraine. And he couldn't think about her without feeling the icy fingers of mourning grip his heart.
Where was she? What had happened to her?
"My...... my...... real wife...... was not able to come here, to the surface with me." Kahr had nearly lost himself again in his guilt, when he had been forced to confess that he did not know what happened to Igraine after Shevat. Three years..... So close. She was so close, and I never knew! I did not know! "I promised her I would go back for her......" Well, part of the truth. Even glossing over the facts was painful. "She understood me, Fei. And I did not leave her defenseless. She is anything but that." But how would she fare, he wondered, without her Ether power? She was so frail, in some ways......
"I have made my efforts to find her," Hyuga continued, cutting Fei off. "And I will continue to do so...... On my own."
"Why the sudden change of heart?" Fei paused. "Do you know where to look now?"
Hyuga set the connector on the table, not quite sure how to answer. Which way would be more profitable? He had no doubt he could trust Fei and the others, but letting his personal matters out into the open did not appeal to him at all. And he had special reason to keep his wife's identity a secret from Jessiah and Sigurd. Once they found out he had been with her all that time, they would most likely be angry at him.
"I need passage to the ruin of Merkava," he said finally, glancing over his shoulder at Fei. "I understand Xenogears is still operational. If you wish to help me, that is where I wish to go." He leaned forward. "And I do not want anyone else to know about this. Not even Elly, if you can manage to divert her."
Fei considered him for a long time, but finally said, "Okay. I'll be in the paddock before five tomorrow morning. Is that all right with you, doc?"
"Yes." There was another long pause. "Thank you, Fei."
* * *
"This looks pretty blasted, doc. Are you sure there's something else here?"
The vast ruin of Merkava and the machine of Deus stretched out around them like a dead battlefield. Rusted metallic plates still surrounded the pit that originally led to the body of Deus, but the hole was sealed somehow, by some unfathomable power. The structure itself was now open to the sky, or they couldn't have reached this point.
"Kahr obviously found the way." Hyuga waved in the general direction of the abandoned gear Vendetta, resting not far from Fei's chosen landing site. "It must be here somewhere -- his tracks lead to this section of the chamber."
"What --?" Fei exclaimed. Hyuga looked up, and Fei motioned him to silence. "Listen......"
Hyuga listened, searching for the sound Fei had noticed. He heard nothing but creaking metal at first, but gradually, a new sound came to his ears. "Gear," he said softly, puzzled. "Who else has a working gear?" Whoever it was, they were nearing the entrance to the ruins. The sound thundered through the walls.
Then it came to him. "Elly......" He shook his head and grabbed Fei's arm to get his attention. "It's Elly!" he yelled above the roar. "Did you not check her before you left?"
"Elly! She was -- !"
A shadow loomed over them, framed by the sun, and as it descended it resolved into the shape of Regrs, just as he had suspected. The gear came to rest just behind the metal plates they stood on, landing lightly and kneeling to eject its pilot.
"She must have followed us," Hyuga said with a sigh. "Fei......"
"I checked! I did exactly as you told me to do, and she was sleeping!"
"Did you think I couldn't tell you were planning something?" Elly called, jumping out of her Omnigear. She hesitated before touching the metal plates and striding up to them. "I knew you would come here -- I didn't need to follow you."
She looked at Hyuga as she spoke, and he raised his eyebrows, offering her a smile. "I misjudged you. I apologize...... But I must say, I did not really have much confidence in my own plan...... I just assumed we would figure something out as we went."
Elly lowered her eyes, taking a deep breath. "I remember the way now. I saw him walk it when I was here...... last."
"What do you mean...... you saw 'him' walk it? Who?"
"Krelian. Before we...... A woman came and tried to talk to him. Later...... after Shevat fell, Krelian left. And when he returned, he was carrying someone." Her voice grew softer, and softer until he could barely hear it over the wind. "When I saw them together like that...... I thought they were related. She looked so much like him. But then I...... knew somehow, that I had seen her before she set foot in Merkava. And when he and I merged......"
"Igraine? Not......" Fei asked, glancing at Hyuga.
Elly nodded. " She looked just like him, and...... She's really your wife, Shitan?"
"Yes," Hyuga replied softly. "Shall we continue? Elly?"
* * *
"This is it...... I think." Elly stopped just before the door, glancing back apologetically. "I was never here myself though. I just saw him walk over here."
"It is okay, Elly -- we will simply have to see for ourselves. If you are wrong......" Hyuga shrugged, trying to appear indifferent. "......Then I will continue searching." He would continue searching as long as it took to find Igraine.
"Can we even fit through this?" Fei asked, looking at the remains of the door and the tunnel behind it. "It doesn't look too good......"
'Not too good' was an understatement. If anything, this new part of the ruin was in even worse shape than the rest of Merkava. Everything appeared to have melted, or congealed, or collapsed altogether. He recognized parts of it from his first journey through, but it seemed impossible until he realized that the familiar areas had probably fallen through the lower levels to reach the point they were at now.
It was amazing that five months had made such a difference. Merkava seemed to be decaying from within. Was it a message? The first form of Deus -- the ones they had accidentally stumbled across when the Eldrige had risen -- had decayed in the same manner, if more quickly. Was it an omen of some sort? Were the two linked?
Hyuga moved forward and pulled at the plate that had once been a door. It bent without much effort on his part, folding nearly double and widening the entrance to the passage. He stepped inside.
A sputtering whirr rose in the background, and a tube light not far away crackled and lit, flickering fitfully. Other lights sprang up in the corridor, scattered down the passage, and all flickered on and off randomly, some losing power again.
"Talk about being made to last," Fei commented, coming up beside him. "I can't believe these things are still working!"
Hyuga smiled slightly and started forward. The floor, at least, was in tact and in relatively good shape. Still, he tested every step carefully, walking lightly to avoid pitfalls and decay, and he made slow but steady progress down the winding tunnel with Fei and Elly close behind. Their path moved continually downward, lit by the fitful light tubes along the ceiling.
As they progressed further and further, the structure became firmer, in better repair. Instead of the haphazard halls of Merkava, he began to see another familiar pattern.
I know this place. It is...... Hyuga smiled inwardly as he remembered the description he had received from the captain of the Thames -- The fish bowl thing. It was what remained of the Ministry's carrier, Ezekiel -- named after the First Minister of the Gazel at the beginning of time. It must have been the center of the Merkava, before Deus had matured.
He slowed to a stop.
"Is there something wrong, Shitan?" Elly asked, concern touching her voice.
"I cannot quite recall......" Hyuga trailed off, staring at the immaculate corridor. Patterns. Everything in Solaris had been built with a certain pattern in mind as the overlying theme...... "He would have taken Igraine to the safest place available. Not at the center of this part of the structure, where the labs are, but......" Somewhere significant. Yes! The place of her birth -- or as close as could be expected. The reports on Kahr's crystal had mentioned her arrival mere days after her birth. He would have kept her there as long as possible. What better place to hide her?
Hyuga walked on, more quickly than before, until the corridor branched into three tunnels. "This one," he said, leading them down to the left. He saw them exchange glances, but they followed without protest.
The pattern didn't fail him. The corridors eventually leveled out and widened, and they even passed a few doors. He silently thanked his teachers at Eugent for their forceful lectures and inflexibility -- they had helped hone his skills. He did not think he would be so sure of his route without their training.
"The corridor is finally ending." Elly's voice seemed unnaturally loud in the lifeless tunnel.
She was right; just ahead of them was a heavy security door -- the type used to protect high security level facilities. Perhaps luckily for them, the door was already halfway open, leaving more than enough room for them to squeeze through into the part of the facility that held Krelian's stasis chambers. They stepped past the secondary door, and walked into a scene from a nightmare.
Crushed glass and the remains of stasis tubes were scattered everywhere in the small facility. Broken light fixtures swung from the ceiling in places, and only the emergency lights illuminated the area, shedding a too soft orange glow. He sighed, and all of his hopes died with that breath.
Slowly, he picked his way into the room among the shattered equipment. Only one thing held his attention now -- a lone figure, slumping on the floor at the center of the disaster. "Kahr?" he called quietly.
The figure shifted. "She isn't here, Hyuga." He slammed his fist into the floor, voice shaking. "We've just wasted our time on false hopes. She's just......" He broke off, clutching his head in his hands.
Hyuga knelt beside him, heedless of the glass shards cutting into his legs. "We tried, Kahr......" He stopped himself. There was nothing he could say that would help his friend. He had no comfort to offer.
"What happened, Hyuga? She was here. She was here! I saw her pendant! Why isn't she here now? What could have happened? Why has she left us?"
"I am sure she did not want to leave us. But she may not have been given a choice." He rested a hand on Kahr's shoulder, and the other man flinched. "She used her power to save the people of Shevat. It was not Ether -- I saw the tapes. I hoped...... But I know it cannot be so." He let his hand drop.
"She walks with god now. That's what you're saying......" Kahr's shoulders shook with silent, mocking laughter. "At least one of us is receiving our father's love. That's what he is, you know." Hyuga frowned, but Kahr didn't notice. "He created me...... Based off of the original Cain, but filled in with Krelian's DNA. He did not put it in the records, but he...... told us."
"Both of you......?"
"Poor Igraine...... You can't imagine how she felt after hearing that she had been his little project since her mother's first stage of pregnancy. I think he would have let her die if...... if Miang...... had not intervened. He saved her...... and he never let her out of his sight......"
"How so?" Hyuga prompted him, feeling a strange mixture of horror and pity. They've known all of this...... They knew what they were..... No wonder they had banded together as children. Who else could they turn to?
"I don't know exactly. There was a problem with Igraine -- bits of her genetic structure had been damaged by the experiments. He would have left it at that, but Miang convinced him to save her." Glass crunched as Fei and Elly moved closer, but Kahr kept talking, never changing expression. "He couldn't completely reconstruct her DNA...... so he injected her with his own. It shows....... She...... always hated to be told how much she resembled her 'father.'" He snorted. "As if he had ever done anything to earn that name."
"Commander......" Elly whispered. Kahr didn't respond to her. "He wasn't like that......"
"No? Can you tell me that he actually cares what happens to us, Elhaym?! All of our lives, we've been his tools! He doesn't give a damn about us! But......" Kahr sprang to his feet. Hyuga grabbed his arm, but he didn't move further. "The least he could have done was let us be together! Now we don't even have that!"
"He does care! I know he does!"
"It doesn't make any difference now, does it?" Hyuga said to no one in particular. The others subsided. "There is no point in remaining here any longer. It will only make leaving more difficult for us. Kahr......"
"I'll come." He glanced around the chamber, then stooped down to pick something up from the floor. He held it out.
* * *
"I'm so sorry......"
"We will be fine, Elly." Hyuga tried to sound reassuring, though he was anything but fine. Kahr shifted next to him. "We will meet you and Fei back in Nisan."
She gazed at him long and hard, eyes stripping away his barriers and delving into his feelings. Her expression only changed slightly, but somehow he knew she had seen...... his intentions, at least. "Remember Shitan...... Midori needs you."
Midori...... He watched Elly return to her gear and disappear inside, while Fei did the same off to the side. How would he be able to look at his daughter's face? She was just like her mother; she even looked at people the same way, like Elly, stripping away the outer layers and masks to see the real person within. How was he going to manage raising her, without feeling tears and loneliness build up inside of him every time she turned his way?
Regrs and Xenogears vaulted into the air and shot out of the ruin. Hyuga lost sight of them almost immediately, but he kept his gaze in the same direction, almost expecting to hear them circle back and wait. He was glad they did not.
"It is almost time for us to depart as well, Kahr." The man was silent.
"Kahr --?" Hyuga turned around to see what the other was staring at, and his jaw dropped. "Krelian......?"
Hyuga couldn't believe his eyes. It was Krelian. He was standing not more than five steps away, Igraine fast asleep in his arms. Her white robes and honey gold hair drifted on some unseen current. She looked so...... peaceful, almost happy, in her father's arms. And Krelian......
...... Krelian's head was bowed over Igraine's body, and his eyes were closed as if he too were asleep. Regret tinged his features, but he held her tenderly against his chest. But it was not the tenderness of a father -- at least, not wholly so. It was an expression Hyuga had seen on Krelian's face many times in the past...... The same look he imagined Elly had received from him when he carried her from the ruins of her Omnigear......
Kahr stared, rooted to his spot. "What happened to you?" he finally asked in a hushed voice.
Krelian finally opened his eyes. "I wanted her to be with you. Both of you. She wouldn't admit it, but she truly wanted to return to this world." He looked up at Kahr, hardly raising his head. "Promises......"
Kahr shook his head. "Why would she come back? Just for that promise......? Not when she could......" he trailed off. Hyuga remained silent, watching.
"She loves you. Both of you," Krelian stated, including Hyuga in his gaze. "What is a chance to walk with god compared to that?" He smiled sadly. "I want her to be happy. That...... is all." He leaned over, and gently kissed Igraine's forehead. Her eyes fluttered open.
"Karu......" Igraine whispered, reaching up to touch his face.
Krelian's smile lightened. "Go to them." He set her on her feet and hugged her tightly, looking as if he never wanted to let go. But he drew away, and the air behind him shimmered. "I'll be waiting for you....." A pair of golden wings coalesced behind him, and he touched Igraine's face one last time. Then he turned around, and vanished.
"Igraine......" Kahr started forward a few steps but halted before he reached her. "Are you......"
"I...... I knew you would both be here." Igraine bowed her head, clasping her hands. "I'm sorry I worried you."
"Sorry?" Kahr raced forward and threw his arms around her, almost sobbing. "You're here...... you're here......" He buried his face in her hair, repeating those two words over and over again. Tears welled out of Igraine's eyes. Hyuga watched the scene silently, unwilling to interrupt their reunion. "Why did you wait? Why did you leave.......?"
Why did you leave me? Hyuga thought, completing what Kahr had left unsaid.
"I had to try......" she whispered. "I had to...... I'm sorry......." She closed her eyes. "He had to be stopped. I had to try to reach him...... He really isn't evil! His heart held so much pain...... I wanted to ease it. I wanted to tell him there was another way...... but I never got the chance."
Elly healed him. She tried too...... In the end, I think Krelian healed himself. Hyuga lowered his eyes. Igraine and Kahr shared so much pain, so many memories...... he couldn't help but feel apart from them. But he knew they, above all, deserved this short time to be with each other. What would it be like, he wondered, to be so close to a brother or sister?
"You reminded him of Elly," Hyuga finally stated. They both looked at him, Kahr quickly rubbing tears from his face. "He used to look at you sometimes in the lab....... Just look at you, watch you comfort a test subject, or lend a hand to one of the aides." He shook his head. "I am surprised he did not listen. The way he looked at you...... Elly was the only other human being I have ever seen bring that look into his eyes."
Igraine left Kahr's arms and walked over to him. Her crystalline eyes opened up for him. "And what do you see, Hyuga? Do you also see Elly?"
He brushed her lips with his fingers. "I see the woman I love." Her mouth curved into a smile, and he finally encircled her in his arms.
POST NOTES: (Xenogears and it's characters are copyrighted by Square, of course, and Igraine is mine, so don't use her without asking me! So is Erim -- and my story ideas!!)
All of the information I used came from the game, with a few exceptions.... such as the names to Shitan's brothers. Hopefully they're accurate, as far as how I used them. (I got them from a caption on Clio Saga's site.... Hope I didn't impinge on any rights there... So please don't get mad at me! Besides, the fic can always be revised... ^^) All of my obscure facts came from the Perfect Works book. And as for the question about the Japanese manga based on the game.... I don't know if it's real or not, and we probably won't find out -- unless someone is willing to help me with some overseas ordering? No, I didn't think anyone would! ^_^