By Story Ninjas
Copyright © 2017 by Story Ninjas
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Aria often sat in the plaza, resting her mind while she stared up at the black velvet canopy of stars above her. She had her back against a maple tree, listening to the sound of the wind brushing up against the trees while she counted the stars. There were vengeful goddesses, mischievous gods and modern nobles, all arranged in a random pattern.
They reminded her that even though the entire universe could be represented mathematically, chaos was the only constant. Math could only describe the universe. It couldn’t explain it. It was so confounding that it allowed her to enter a sort of Zen state, where she could quiet her mind and allow it to rest.
She needed moments like this. Her life was hectic, filled with a constant array of numbers and patterns, all mysteries to be solved. Her work was taxing and she rarely got a chance to rest. She lay back in the grass with her black hair flaring out behind her, her milky skin reflecting the light of the hidden moon.
She tried to imagine that instead of laying in a circular courtyard, flanked by black carbon walls, she was in a vast field with grass swaying in the breeze and insects jumping from one flower to the other.
The plaza was the only refuge in the Temple of the Unwanted. The rest was a maze of plain black corridors and meeting rooms with cells for the Unwanted to sleep. This wasn’t her home. It was a place to work and perform her duty.
The bracelet on her wrist vibrated and she sat up, still frazzled from the events of the night before. A screen projected itself on her arm, showing the wizened face of her commander Mathers.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Briefing in room 13. Are you in the plaza? Get out of there. We can’t have you falling asleep right now.”
“I wasn’t sleeping.” She countered defensively.
“Uh-huh,” his sardonic tone was grating on her. “Get going.” He hung up.
Mathers might have been old, but he was not sweet. The man had the same belligerence Aria had seen in ex-soldiers and washed up drunks. It was maddening but he was like a father to them, and had taught her everything she knew, so she gave him his liberties and tried her best not to bicker with him.
In truth, a little rest would’ve been nice. She could go without sleep for days, running on nothing but boosters and nutrition bars, but there was nothing that could replace a good night’s sleep and she needed it badly.
Instead, she took a booster from the machine at the door and rushed down to the conference room where Mathers was waiting. Symon had his pale form hunched over the table, staring mindlessly over a map. He looked like a tree branch ready to fall away from the trunk.
“Now I don’t know if you understand the magnitude of this or not,” Mathers said to him, “but 300 hundred souls were killed in a bio-engineering plant and the murderer is still running around on the streets.” He turned to Aria. “You get that woman in here tonight. I don’t want any more casualties.”
Aria leaned against the wall and rolled her eyes. “Shouldn’t this go to justice?”
“No. This woman slipped away with no trace. They don’t have the capability to handle that.”
“And we need this handled quietly.”
“He won’t say why.” Symon muttered with a tinge of defiance creeping out in his voice.
“Not if we’re going to handle this investigation. We need every bit of information we can get. I won’t go in there blind.” It was a threat Aria couldn’t follow through on. She’d go in there whether she wanted to or not. That’s what she did.
“It’s bloody. That’s why, and I don’t want you two getting squeamish.”
“Please,” Symon snorted. Aria flashed him a quick grin hoping Mathers wouldn’t notice.
“Out.” Mathers pointed towards the door and they made their way towards the armory.
Symon’s ridiculous mech suit barely managed to make it through the gate on their airboat. Aria had to cover her face just to avoid getting blasted by the scorching hot steam pouring out the back. “How can you stand that thing?”
“It’s better than a hand cannon, more accurate, and may I remind you that you’ve been chastised about your lack of armor in the past.”
“Mathers can say what he wants.” Aria stared out at the white city towers set against the morning light. “It slows me down.”
“You could at least try a vest.”
“What good would that do me? A good sight scope would do the job, and I hear their selling quite well in the black market.”
“The arms trade is sporadic. You never know what you’re going to come up against.”
She sighed. “He’s hiding something.”
“Mathers? Of course he is, but it’s not our job to question him.”
“You’re still curious,” she said.
He turned away. “I just want to do the right thing. You’re the one chasing the thrill.”
“I want the same thing.” She let the wind pull her in, throwing strands of rippling black hair behind her while they navigated through the clouds, shielded by a soft energetic shell that kept away most of the cold.
The bio-engineering plant was a simple square building, set back in the hills where it dwarfed the minarets and domed halls of the clerical shrines. “Every day they put up these garish things. I miss the way it used to be—art and fashion, ornate architecture.” Symon turned to Aria who was still staring off in the distance.
“What’s wrong?” She felt the steam hit her neck when he moved behind her.
She couldn’t argue with that, but her determination is what earned her standing with the Unwanted. Her entire life she’d worked to carry the burden of her duty. If it weren’t for the Unwanted, she’d be just another street urchin abandoned by an unfit mother.
Symon was the same way. Neither of them could remember anything else aside from the charity of the temple. They were fed, clothed and given a place to stay. It only made sense that they should do their part in return.
“You need rest is all.” Symon reassured her and handed her another booster. She drank the tiny vial quick and waited while the boat docked at the main terminal. While the main structure had maintained minor damage aside from smoke stains, they were told that the inner portion of the structure was in ruins.
Aria hopped off the boat into the wreckage while Symon floated on a cloud of condensed steam towards the main entrance.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get through this place,” Aria said, staring at the insurmountable pile of rubble that had built up over the platform.
“We’ll have to move cautiously. The blast was last night, which means the building may not have had time to settle yet. There’s a chance we could come up against a cave in.”
“We’ll chance it.” Aria stepped forward, feeling the ground out before taking each step. The platform seemed stable enough, though the railing had been blasted away leaving nothing between them and the steep drop to the hills below. It made Aria queasy.
The front wall had collapsed over the main entrance. “I don’t want to chance using a charge. It could bring down the whole building.”
“Then how do you expect to get through this? That’s probably six feet of reinforced carbon we’re looking at.”
Symon stepped up with a hiss of hydraulics and bent down so he could use his massive arms to begin pulling chunks away from the wall. There was a crash, and a chunk of the roof above tore away, lodging itself in the cliffs at the edge of the building, spraying out clouds of dust and sand. Aria covered her face. “Symon!” Her vision was cut off from the cloud. “Symon?” He wasn’t answering.
She stepped forward and almost ran into a chunk of carbon he was carrying. “I’m OK.” He dropped the block over the edge.
“I do not want that to happen again.” The dust was starting to clear.
“It’s fine.” He pointed towards a mech sized portal he’d managed to tear away. “Bet you’re glad I brought the suit, aren’t you?”
“It just means you need a bigger hole.” She strode through.
“Just admit it. It’s useful.”
She stiffened at the sound of his mech feet crashing into the floor. “I will not.” She pulled up a map of the structure on her wrist console. “The surveillance room is located at the base of the structure.”
“That’s six floors down, and they haven’t been able to receive a signal from it.”
“Some of the data might still be intact.”
“It could just be old video from fifteen years ago. We should try the main console. Mathers said the signal was incoherent, but at least it’s there.”
Aria thought for a moment. The data in the security console could still be intact even if they weren’t receiving a signal. It would have the most pertinent information if anything recent managed to make it through the blast, but she didn’t want to risk a cave in by bringing the mech through the entire complex. “It’s safer to try the main console, but if there’s nothing there I’m going off on my own to the surveillance room.”
“No. You won’t get through.”
“You don’t know that.” She waded through the dust and debris towards the stairwell entrance across the hall. With a little work they managed to get through safely. “Do you know anything about the woman?” Aria asked, taking the steps two at a time.
Symon stopped and pulled up his visor console. “Her name is Nora Fergus.”
“Is that it? They didn’t give us anything else?”
“A picture.” He sent it to her wrist console. The woman was in her mid-forties, early fifties with a tight salt and pepper bun and sharp eyes.
“She doesn’t look like the type. Did they say what she does here?” Aria asked.
“Front end reception. Her last known address is in the south end.”
“Maybe she just wanted to make some extra money. There are plenty of Purists who’d kill to get into this place.”
“A woman like that wouldn’t work with those brutes.” Aria turned her attention to the door leading into the birthing chamber. The console to the right of it had been smashed and tiny shards of crystal were scattered all over the floor. The data would be completely irretrievable. “Guess we’ll have to pry this open.
Symon stepped up and used his mech’s massive hands to slide the door open. A burst of air rushed out and he ran into the corner heaving. The smell of death was pungent. “I can’t…” He was hunched over.
Aria could barely stand the overpowering stench herself, but if she was going to get anywhere she was going to have to deal with it. She covered her mouth and held her stomach back so she could step inside. A pool of coagulated embryonic fluid had spread over the tile floor and mixed with the blood of the souls, catching the light of the flickering overheads. The blast had destroyed most of the remains.
She’d seen them plenty of times before with their bodies floating in the birthing chambers and their eyes closed as if they were sleeping. Souls were completely indistinguishable from humans, but they couldn’t be any more different. She walked cautiously through towards the center of the room where a black, cubical console had been built into the floor. The outer shell had been torn away in the blast, but when she reached her hand in she felt something smooth.
She grabbed onto it and pulled out a crystal the size of her hand. She ran her fingers over it, instinctively testing each facet. It was a fractal, blocks stacked upon blocks, each one a command. There were scratches covering the surface. It was heavily damaged, but she might be able to gather some data from it back in the lab.
She put it in her pocket and started walking back towards the door. The ground shook and she braced herself against the wall. “What is going on out there?”
“Sorry.” Symon called back.
When she walked out, he was holding a strip of carbon the size of an airboat over his head. He knelt it against the wall. “What are you doing?”
“I thought I’d clear a space so we could get down the stairs.” He motioned towards the pile of rubble blocking their way down.
“You’re gonna bring this place down on top of us.” The ceiling had been badly cracked and tiny patches of light were streaking through. The walls had been torn away and they were the only thing holding the ceiling up.
“Well what do we do?”
“Follow me.” Aria turned around and started walking back towards the birthing chamber.
“In there?” He didn’t budge.
“Yes, Symon.” He sighed, but he managed to make it in the room OK. Aria suspected his aversion was mostly psychosomatic. At the far end of the room there was an elevator. The door had been dented in and it didn’t appear to have any power. “This runs through the center of the building. The main console is only one floor down.”
He pried the door open, revealing an empty shaft with the cable in the center. “I can’t operate it manually, and my mech won’t be able to withstand the drop.”
“Fine.” She stepped up and looked down into the chamber. There was a ladder that led down to the base of the building. She reached her foot down to test the first rung and it seemed to hold her weight. “I think it’ll be fine.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed and…”
Aria was already climbing down into the darkness towards the third level. The rungs were small, barely big enough to fit her tiny feet, and there was a thin layer of carbon dust that made the bars slippery. She had to swipe each rung off before she went down to avoid falling.
After what seemed like an eternity, she reached the floor below and found herself staring at a pile of rubble and a cracked roof. If she tried to make her way through there, the ceiling would collapse. She wasn’t going to be able to access it to the main console so she kept going, down past the fourth and fifth floor towards the sixth where she found solid ground and a tiny opening in the elevator doors big enough to climb through.
Symon would be worried, but this was exactly what she needed. The data crystal in the main console would be rich with information, but it would be large and it would take her far too long to sift through everything, not to mention the layers of corporate grade encryption she’d have to break. They didn’t have that kind of time. This woman needed to be captured as soon as possible, or somebody else could die.
The surveillance room was located behind a series of sliding doors at the end of the hall. Normally, she would’ve had to hack through their consoles to get inside, but the blast had transformed them into warped metal and carbon dust, so all she had to do was walk inside where she found a wrecked console with its transmitter hanging by a thread of wire off the top.
She cursed and began digging through the wreckage. The system was complex with multiple crystals feeding data to one larger crystal drive. The drive was torn in half, but with some effort she might be able to extract some data from it. She put it in her pack and walked back into the corridor.
It was too quiet. She didn’t want to be alone with her thoughts. She wanted distraction, something to keep her from thinking about the souls on the upper levels. It was said that they weren’t human, just artificial beasts, capable of nothing more than base instincts. Their lives revolved around the tasks that they performed and simple desires for things like food and rest. Aria had seen them lumbering through the halls of the temple with a peaceful, dull look in their eyes. They didn’t have the same spark she saw when she looked at real people, or even the recognition she saw in the eyes of beasts.
She always hated them, and had long considered them to be unnatural, though she kept her opinions to herself. Were they dead? Were they ever really alive? Perhaps their inability to think critically was a sign of their lack of true consciousness. Still, it was hard for her to see them as anything other than human. This was slaughter.
“What did you find?” Symon asked when she got back to the birthing chamber.
“A fractured security crystal. The mainframe isn’t an option.”
“If that’s all, we’re leaving.” He was pale.
They took an airboat back to the temple.
Mathers was waiting at the dock, clearly impatient and red in the face from what must’ve been a petty screaming match with some of the other Unwanted. “What’d you find?” He asked as soon as they walked through the boat’s gate.
Symon stepped back. He was too frazzled to deal with Mathers, so Aria jumped in. “The mainframe was blocked by rubble, but I managed to recover a fractured crystal from the security system.”
“Then why are you waiting? I want that crystal analyzed immediately.”
“And if we can’t get anything out of it?” Aria countered.
“You go back. No cold cases.” That was his motto. No case went unsolved, regardless of the effort it took to solve it. Aria never really argued with him on that, but it was taxing, and all she wanted to do at that moment was go into a coma.
She left Symon to recover and walked back to her room. It was sparse with nothing more than a simple mat in the corner and a console in the center. She had no need for possessions. The temple provided her with clothing, food and the tools she needed to perform her work. She appreciated the simplicity. It made it easier for her to focus when she needed to.
Aria sat down in front of her console and closed her eyes, allowing herself to slip into a meditative state. She imagined her feet to be roots reaching down into the earth. She was grounded, fully present and mindful of the moment. She would need a clear head if she was going to access the crystal, so she took her time, focusing on her breath, letting the tension slip away as she relaxed her muscles.
The exercise wasn’t very effective. The smell of death was still plaguing her, but at least she wasn’t thinking of Mathers and his beet red face. She took out the security crystal and looked it over.
She immediately recognized the pattern. It was built like a tree with branches spread out and a trunk that’d been split in half. Each branch was a channel leading to the crystals that collected the camera’s information and streamed it back into the main data crystal.
Aria carefully placed both shards of her crystal onto the black surface of her console. “Analyze.” The crystal sunk into the liquid metal surface and a screen popped displaying an incoherent series of numbers as well as a detailed analysis of the crystal’s structure. The main data core had cracked when it split in half. Most of the code was a patchy series of basic commands, useless for her purposes.
She scrolled past it towards the inner core where the data was being held. It was mostly blank, just another series of commands. They were written in numerical code, difficult to understand, but she knew the language well, and once she’d figured out the code’s structure she was able to ascertain the reason why the data was blank.
A kill switch was set to delete the data if something happened to the system. Aria stood up, took the crystals out of her console and went to go find Symon. He was in his room, resting on his mat when she walked in. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
He rolled over to face her, still pale and sweating. She considered him to be a member of her family. They’d been working together their whole lives, so she looked out for him. He was fragile and needed tending to.
“I don’t know, Aria.” He sat up. “I keep thinking about the souls. Why would somebody attack them? They’re like children, you know They didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I don’t think it’s the souls they blame. That wouldn’t make any sense. The surveillance system was a wreck. They obviously blew the place up to get rid of any evidence of what happened.”
“Did they succeed?”
“Almost entirely. If there is anything left it would be nothing more than a few seconds, and like we talked about before they’ve been running the security system for years.”
“So, we have nothing,” Symon sighed and sat back against the wall.
“Nora didn’t work alone. She couldn’t have. This was a woman that looked like she spent her time knitting and cooking. There’s absolutely no way she could’ve possibly known how to carry out a job like this.”
“She might not have done it at all.”
“I think we should look into the Purists. They’re the only people that would have the capability and the motive to do something like this.”
“I’m not going out there.” Symon was referring to the wild lands beyond the city.
“Well I’m not going alone. It’s too dangerous.”
“I don’t have a choice, do I?”
Mathers’ shoot first, no questions style had left Aria with little to no information about the case. She avoided him as best as she could that afternoon and retreated to her dorm with the case file loaded on her wrist console.
Aria kept coming back to Nora’s picture. She was well groomed, no hair astray on her bun with a matter of fact look about her. This woman was not flighty or stupid. Aria could believe that she was involved in the explosion.
Nora was the only employee, aside from security left in the facility during the explosion, which occurred around 10 pm the night before. Her time logs showed that she never clocked out, which might’ve meant that she was working late, but it didn’t make sense for her to stay five hours after her shift.
Still, the woman couldn’t have been the only one responsible and rather than using bio-charges, which were standard for demolitionists, the culprits used chemical bombs, a sure sign that the Purists were involved.
Their doctrine was based on the idea that life was sacred and that man was not meant to tamper with it. They rejected all bio-engineering, even the simplest alterations to plants and bacteria. Instead, they relied on old world technology. This wouldn’t have been a problem if it weren’t for the fact that they were bent on destroying anything that didn’t fit their worldview.
They were resourceful. More than once Aria had come across their technology and it was astounding what they could do. She was worried that if she went out into the desert she might come across things she couldn’t handle.
Symon was predictable. He was terrified, but he would always rise to the challenge. She would be glad to have him by her side. At least then she wouldn’t be the only pair of eyes. The real problem was Mathers. Aria didn’t want to go out there on no sleep, with nothing but boosters in her system, but she knew that this wasn’t a normal mission, and there was no way Mathers was going to allow her enough time to get some rest.
Aria thought of using Symon as an excuse, but it would just end up in an argument. Still, she couldn’t go into the desert at night. There would be no visibility, and more than likely the Purists were expecting a raid after what happened. Mathers would have to be consulted on the matter.
Aria mindlessly took another booster and walked out of her room towards Mathers office. When she knocked on the door he shouted, “Go away! I’m busy.”
Aria walked in to see him lounging back on his chair wearing an eye mask. “You weren’t busy. You were sleeping.”
“I was busy.” He huffed.
“Well if you get to sleep, I get to sleep.”
“No.” He stamped his hand on the desk. “You still haven’t found that woman.”
“Have you seen her? She didn’t do this alone, Mathers. The Purists must’ve helped her, and if that’s the case she’s probably hiding with them.” Aria honestly had no idea where she was, but she knew if she could convince Mathers that she was with them she might be able to get him to agree.
“Go tonight. There’s no reason for you to wait.”
“I won’t be able to see anything in the dark. Besides, they probably don’t go out in the dunes during the day. It’s too hot. It’ll give us an advantage if we wait.”
He pressed his lips into a straight line. The old man hated it when she proved him wrong, but he couldn’t argue with her. Her logic was sound. Finally, after taking a moment to think about it he said, “I want you out there first thing in the morning, no waiting. We need this woman found, and if she is working with the Purists then that’s all the more reason to get this done fast. We don’t need another terrorist attack in the city.”
“Yeah?” he seemed to soften up.
“Don’t get hurt out there. Wear some armor.”
“I think I will. Thank you.”
“You know, he’s got a lot of nerve trying to get us to go out here at night.” Symon was rested and a little cocky that morning, though he probably would’ve shrank back at the sight of the old man.
Aria started searching through the racks in the armory for the perfect suit. “He seemed a little concerned, honestly.”
“Concerned?” He gave her a funny, almost startled look.
“I just don’t believe you.” He laughed.
“You’re leaving the mech at home. We’re going to have to take cyclos.”
“Those overgrown cats are so creepy.” He climbed down reluctantly. “The way they know just what you want them to do. It’s like they’re listening to everything you’re saying.”
Aria couldn’t argue with that, but as she walked through the rows of stables at the edge of the city, she was reminded at just how big the cats were, larger than an airboat and fierce too. A single command and they’d rip a man’s throat out like it was a blade of grass.
The city gates were mostly empty. Nobody left, not unless they had to and when they did it was via airship. The desert was too dangerous, too many things that could go wrong, so they stuck to the cities and avoided the wild as best they could.
Aria couldn’t blame them. The moment the cat’s feet hit the sand she felt the heat reflecting off the dunes. The wind didn’t help any either tiny grains of dust flew into her mouth as they ran, and it was so dry she felt like every drop of moisture was being sucked out of her body.
Symon didn’t like it either. It took him a while to get used to his mount. The cyclo kept bucking and running off in the wrong direction. Aria had to ride up close and slow him down. “Look,” she said, “just stroke its neck like this.” She ran her hand through the cat’s black hair. “You’ve got to soothe it.”
“Why doesn’t it just listen. They were built for transport, weren’t they?” His cat turned around and gave him a mean glare. He jolted back. “Sorry. Sorry.” Then he turned to Aria. “That’s what I mean.”
“You’re just not used to them is all. Would you be happy with something trying to ride on your back?”
“They might be bio-engineered, but they are still living creatures. The only difference between them and wild cyclos is their ability to understand what we’re saying.” She smiled down at her cyclo and scratched him behind the ears. He purred softly and his eyes started to droop. “See, it’s easy.”
Symon was still miffed, and could barely muster more than a quick swipe of his hand, but once they started doing again the cyclo seemed to calm down and follow his commands.
They stuck to the foot of the dunes, hoping to keep out of sight as they traveled steadily south towards the Purist village. They settled there twenty years ago when souls started becoming available to the public. It was a violent time filled with protests and brawls in the streets.
Eventually protests turned into terrorist attacks and bloody shoot outs. Mathers told them that it took them more than a year to root the Purists out and begin rounding them up but by that time they’d already retreated to the desert.
“We’re going to have to get in there and get out as fast as we possibly can.” Symon said when they rounded a bend. The Purists were well known for their ability to protect their land. When the village was first built, the people of the city sent out hordes of justice workers to bring them in. The result was a vicious massacre, almost legendary in nature. Since then, anyone stupid enough to travel out into the desert gave the village a wide berth.
Symon and Aria stopped halfway there at the foot of a dune so they could rest in the shade and take a drink of much needed water. “Tell me you downloaded the map onto your wrist console.” Symon said.
“Of course I did. You didn’t?”
“Well, no. I… I was tired. I just rushed out and left as soon as I woke up.”
“You didn’t think we were wandering around, aimlessly did you?”
“No. It’s just this sun. My head hurts, my body is aching. I can barely get around on this thing.” The creature gave him a look of disdain. “Well you could be nicer about it instead of bucking up and down like that.” He told it. The cyclo turned around and ignored him.
“I need you to be prepared.” Aria said. “This is not a petty residential operation. We’re going up against trained fighters, and if your head isn’t right we’re going to get killed.”
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and sat up straight. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK.” Aria mounted her cyclo and motioned for Symon to do the same. They were in a patch of desert where the wind had carved mountainous dunes into the land. Some were more than a hundred feet high and easily a mile around. Aria didn’t mind it. So long as they stuck to the low ground they didn’t have to come into contact with the sun.
When Symon walked over to his cyclo to mount it, the creature ran halfway up the dune and stared at him, daring him to come closer. “Oh, come on!” He called up. “I’m sorry, OK. You’re a good cyclo.” It simply turned its head away and sniffed at the ground. “I’ll give you a treat.” He pulled out a strip of dried meat from his pack.
All of a sudden, the cyclo ran down the hill straight at him, nearly knocking him over and disappeared at the top of the dune on the other side. “We can’t go anywhere without that thing.” Aria said.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“You climb up there and talk to it.” Aria snapped. “I’m tired of this. Get it done, Symon.”
“Fine.” His over-sized boots sank into the sand, so deep that he had to keep moving so he didn’t sink in. Aria watched impatiently while she took sips of water from the bladder. The boy was going to take him time and she simply didn’t have the patience for it. She was starting to think that it would’ve been better for her to go alone.
She started debating whether or not she should follow him when he rounded the top. It was probably better for him to do it himself, though. He needed to learn how to manage the thing if he was going to make it through the desert.
But he was taking so long. “Symon.” She called out, struggling to have her voice heard over the wind. He didn’t answer. “Symon!”
Aria felt a sharp jolt right in the chest and was suddenly confronted by an image of the boy lying on the ground bloody with a bullet through his chest. She urged her cyclo on as fast as she could up the dune until it was breathless and refused to move any faster than a trotting. “Go,” she told it. It looked back at her and she swore it was raising its eyebrow. “He’s my friend.”
It turned back and started running, faster than before. When she reached the top, she couldn’t find him, but there were tracks, both his and the cyclos leading down onto the front end of the dune. The cyclo probably ran away as soon as it saw him. Aria laughed. He must’ve been chasing it down.
She followed his footsteps over to the other end of the dune and looked down. A sharp jolt to her system and she was running back in the other direction. He had been laying on the ground, tied up with two men holding pistols to his head.
The second she started running away something slammed into her back and she felt the cold press of metal wrapping around her body. She passed out almost immediately.
The dripping sound was incessant, like a drill boring into her skull. What was dripping? Wasn’t she in the desert? If it didn’t stop…Aria tried reaching up to rub her temple, then panicked. Her hands were bound. Her whole body was bound, and she could hear the sound of footsteps walking her way.
She opened her eyes, and was stricken with the sudden urge to scream, to call out to somebody, anybody to help her, but nobody was going to come. She had been captured by the Purists. She opened her eyes to look around. She was tied to a stake, sitting in sand, but she couldn’t tell anything else because it was pitch black.
The sound of somebody walking through the sand became more distinct and she was suddenly aware of somebody standing in front of her. “I can give you information. Anything you want to know, I promise. I’ll tell you.” There was no answer. “Please, you’re men of principle. Don’t you believe that life is sacred? What about mine?” No answer. “I can get you into the temple’s database.” Their feet crunched in the sand behind her and she felt the stake being raised up out of the ground. “No, please. I can help you.”
The rope around her shifted and she began rising off the ground. Somebody was carrying her. There were countless ways that she could bargain with them, but whoever was carrying her didn’t want to listen.
They were going to kill her and roast her on a spit—the barbarians. All of the stories she’d heard, how they wore the skulls of their kills and slaughtered their own children. It all came back in one overwhelming rush and erupted outwards in a blood curdling scream. “HELP! HELP ME! HELP!”
“Shut up,” a gruff voice answered.
“They’re going to come for me, don’t you doubt it, and when they do…” Her head slammed against the ground and a wave of rancid breath slammed into her face. “Keep talking. Please do, just give me one reason.”
She shut her mouth and waited for him to move her. The stake was driving her head into the ground, and her neck was twisted forward. She didn’t think she could stand it, but there was nothing she could do. Regardless of how much it hurt she had to wait. The creature holding her captive wasn’t going to make it any easier on her.
It took some time, but after a while he did eventually let her up, laughing softly to himself. He knew what he was doing. They walked through what seemed like an endless series of tunnels, all shrouded into darkness.
He must’ve memorized the way, because she could hear his footsteps echoing in the other direction when the path forked. They stopped after an eternity and he set her against a wall. Once he was gone, she started feeling the situation out, checking her hands and legs to for any weakness in her binding. The rope was made of out of thick strands of steel. There was no way getting through it.
A blaze of light hit the sand and she shrank back, staring at the leather boots making her way towards her. The glare of the light cut off her view of everything else. “I’m an insider. I know the temple’s systems.”
“Shut up.” The man backhanded her and dragged her into a small square room. She lost all sense of composure the second she saw the knives. They were sitting on the table, all in a row. “N-no. N-no.”
Another sharp blow to the head and she was laying sideways on the ground. “Get her throat.”
“No. No. NO. NO!” The man who’d been waiting for her grabbed a knife while the other stamped her face into the ground.
“Don’t let her move.” The man with the knife ordered as he ducked down.
“I can give you the access codes to the justice mainframe.”
“No, you can’t,” he said.
She’d never felt the presence of death before, or the shiver passing down her body in a slow trickle as the realization came to her. She was going to die. It was over, and nothing, not even an entire army could stop it from happening.
In and out, she took her final breaths, then screamed when the knife pierced her throat less than an inch away from her jugular. The man holding her dipped down and took out a black rag from his pocket. He held it up to her mouth and her vision went black.
She awoke to the sound of a fire blazing. She was still bound, but her legs were free and a blanket had been thrown over her. She tried to sit up, but a wave of nausea hit her. A pressed down on her chest. “Just rest.”
Aria opened her eyes. An elderly woman was sitting next to her stirring a pot on the hearth. “Here,” she spooned a dark liquid into a cup. “Drink this.” She offered it to Aria who stared at her with a ferocious look in her eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“Just drink. It’ll be OK.” Her look was warm and her voice was soothing. “I promise.” She pressed the cup to Aria’s lips. Aria looked at it suspiciously, unsure of what this woman was trying to do.
“No, it’s not.”
Aria took a drink of the black sludge and immediately threw her head to the side of the bed where a bucket was waiting. She cried, shaking and convulsing while she filled the bucket and looked back up. “You lied to me.”
“No, I didn’t. We just have to make sure there’s nothing left in your system.”
Aria looked up and saw a machine sitting on the other side of the bed with steam pouring out of it. A bright red cord was attached to it, and it led back to her arm. “What is that?”
“We’re just cleaning your blood out.”
“Why?” she demanded.
The woman stood up with her hands on her hips, “We’re going to keep you safe, but that doesn’t mean you can cause trouble. Just calm down and get some rest.”
Aria leaned back and stared up at the cave ceiling. She was furious, but she was tired. Something must’ve been in that drink, because the second she closed her eyes she fell back into a deep slumber and didn’t wake up until she heard the sound of somebody next to her.
She sat up right away. “Symon?”
“Aria!” He hopped up off a mat by her side. “You’re OK, right? They didn’t do anything to you?”
“They cut my throat, drained my blood and gave me something that emptied the contents of my stomach. Then they drugged me and tied me up here. Obviously, they did something to me. Why am I—Oh…” she sat up and realized that she was unbound.
“I don’t know what’s going on.” He sat down at the foot of the bed. “They won’t tell me anything. They just keep me in this room with you. They did the same thing to me too.” He turned to show her the scar on his neck. She noticed track marks on his elbow too.
“They told me that they had to make sure nothing was in our systems.” The old lady walked in carrying two trays with bowls and cups on them. She set them down on a table next to them while they two watched, wondering whether they should kill her or kiss her feet.
“Here.” She handed trays to both of them and took a seat by the fire. “I suppose we owe you two an explanation.”
“You drained my blood and cut my neck open.” Symon said.
“We think you owe us more than an explanation.”
“Oh, you want an apology,” she laughed and reached into the folds of her canvas robe to pull out a pipe. “You’ll get no such thing.” She stuffed it with smoking leaf and lit the thing on the fire.
“Who are you?” Aria demanded.
“Doesn’t matter who I am. What matters is that your tracking devices are gone.”
“Tracking devices?” Symon and Aria were both puzzled.
“Well they’re not just going to send you out without some sort of insurance. No, they put them in the boosters and there’s one in your neck for good measure. You’ve had little bugs swarming around all inside ya’ and we can’t have those here. It’ll bring justice straight to our door. We’ve got women and children, you know. You can’t just run in shooting everywhere.” She glared at them both and took a long pull from her pipe.
“I guess I… we knew it was a village, but I always thought of the Purists as a sort of fighting group, not a collective of families. I’m sorry.” Aria held her head down.
“You see how we have to live with an army ready to violate our homes at any second. What if you brought charges with you or one of those nasty bugs you city folk like to cook up? You need to understand that we’re not monsters. We do what we have to do to protect ourselves, not to hurt you.”
“And the souls? What about those poor innocent creatures you blew up at the bio-engineering plant.”
“I had nothing to do with it.” She said bitterly.
“Well we’ve been charged with finding the woman responsible for the bombing.” Symon said authoritatively.
The woman laughed with a snort. “You ain’t doing nothing. You’re gonna stay here until we figure out what to do with you.”
“They know where the village is. They’ll come for us,” Aria said. “We’re Unwanted.”
“You’re disposable.” She took one last pull off her pipe and emptied it in the fire. Then she stood up to leave.
When she was gone, Symon asked, “Why did she say that?”
“That we’re disposable.”
“It’s their disdain for the system. They think we have no respect for life.”
“They’re over confident if they really think the temple won’t come for us, and they can’t defend themselves indefinitely.”
“I think they’re crazy.” Aria concluded. “They’ve been isolated and brainwashed for so long they can’t think straight.”
“I think you’re right.”
Later on that evening the old woman came with some food and sat Aria and Symon down. She told them that they couldn’t stay in the room they’d been sleeping in. They’d have to be given quarters. After a heated argument, they managed to separate Aria and Symon. The men that had Aria tied up and held down walked into the room once they’d pried Symon away.
The first man, the one with the knife crouched down a bit and positioned himself in front of her as if he were trying to fight a bull. The other handed him a blanket and together they threw it over her head. A chemical smell made its way through her system, knocking her out immediately.
Aria woke up to the sound of dripping water, each drop one after the other hammering against her skull. It was constant, incessant and if it didn’t stop soon she’d lose her wits. Her cell was pitch black and the air was stale as if she were deep underground.
The dripping didn’t stop. She threw a pillow over her head to drown it out, but that only seemed to magnify the sound. She couldn’t focus on anything else. What was it? An underground well, maybe or a small aqueduct. Maybe the sound was meant to be a form of torture so they could break her and make her more susceptible to questioning.
It was torture. When combined with the silence and isolation, it became a catalyst for maddening visions. She saw writhing organs and masses of flesh beating to the beat of that tiny, lunatic drumming sound.
Her mind cried out for distraction. She needed something, anything to take her mind away from it. She could only withstand it for so long. She was already starting to reach her breaking point. Something had to change. If she didn’t leave soon, she was going to lose all of her faculties. She tried sleeping, but it was too cold and every time she tried drifting off her mind drifted back to that sound. It became her captor, the proverbial enemy, something that had to be conquered, but there was no escape.
Her cell was barred off by a thick carbon door, reinforced, she knew with bars of steel and a lock embedded into the door itself. Even a charge would have trouble breaking through that thing, and all she had was the force of her body, a mat and a bucket.
The only thing she had left was hope. Mathers would come for her. He raised her from a child, and taught her everything she knew. There was no way he’d leave her to die in some Purist torture chamber. That hope became her only companion. It was the only thing keeping her from losing her mind. She clung to it with everything she had, and never once allowed it to leave her mind.
As the hours wore on, her thoughts moved deeper into the darkness, and doubt began to creep in. What if she’s been move and they couldn’t find her, and worst of all, what if the temple decided they couldn’t spare the manpower to rescue her and Symon? The idea that they might make a conscious decision to allow her to die became an infection taking over her mind.
The temple was everything, her family, her solace. She’d placed her faith in them her entire life, and now that that faith was waning, she felt like some part of her was gone. Her doubt began to wear away at any hope she had of being rescued. It slipped out of her fingers like grains of sand, or the dripping sound of the water. She couldn’t allow herself to think like that, she knew. It was too dangerous, because once doubt took hold then she’d have to accept that she was trapped.
She had no idea how long it’d been since they locked her up. Seconds turned to minutes and hours turned into days. Time was her worst enemy. It slowed to a snail’s pace, fueling her manic state. She became restless and filled with rage, certain that the temple had in fact abandoned her. It must’ve been a few days at least. She had to accept it. If they were going to come for her they would’ve done it by now.
Maybe she was disposable. Mathers always talked about the greater good and the mission of the temple. The service they performed, he’d say, was more important than the people that performed it. They had to give themselves to the temple, give up the ego, and become a part of the machine. Individuals didn’t matter. What mattered was the temple itself.
But she was one of their best agents. Mathers knew that he could rely on her to get the job done. Never once had she failed him, and that had to mean something. Even if Mathers couldn’t allow himself to become sentimental he wouldn’t want to lose his top agent.
Her doubt become a vicious beast, like a shadow sitting in the corner taunting her, slowly wearing away at her sanity. She felt herself becoming more animal than human. It was the only way to cope. She had to let her consciousness take a back seat and live only for her base desires. There was food, a sloppy porridge and scraps of meat at night. She had a place to rest and water slid under the door at intervals. That was all she needed she told herself, but the mind requires sustenance, things to look at and tasks to perform. Without that, the pent-up energy would build and build until she was controlled by her desperate need to escape.
There had to be a way out, she told herself, and like a caged animal began searching even though she knew there was no way she was going to get out of there. She ran her hands along the walls, and searched the floor. She even tried climbing to see if there was a hole in the roof. She kept searching and searching until she sobbing, forced to accept that she was trapped.
Aria ran up to the door and screamed, “Let me out! Let me out of here.” She pounded on the door, then began using the weight of her shoulders to slam into it. She started shrieking and crying until her throat was so raw it felt like it would cave in.
By the time she lost her voice she was laying on the ground helplessly clawing at the rock until her fingernail had chipped and blood started flowing.
Without warning, the door opened and the light streamed in. She looked up to see the small rigid silhouette of an elderly woman. “Aria?” her voice was sharp, almost familiar, like she’d heard it a thousand times. aria could cradle herself in it, because it meant stimulation, maybe even release.
“Yes,” her voice came slowly, just a whisper, but it was audible.
“Come with me.” She turned around and in the waning light Aria caught a glimpse of her salt and pepper hair and her tight bun.
“Nora?” She braced herself to get up and follow the old woman. A wave of nausea hit her and she collapsed again.
The old woman looked back and ran over. She reached down and offered Aria a hand. “Here,” her voice softened.
Just that small act of kindness, the warm touch of her palm—it felt like victory. Aria came to the desert to find Nora. Now that Nora was there, it was like she’d found an oasis springing up out of the sand.
Aria took her in as they walked through the cave. That familiarity followed her. What was it about the woman? The way she walked and talked—it was as though Aria had known her entire life without realizing it. A strange thought entered Aria’s mind, but she stowed it away immediately.
Aria was starting to lose hold on reality. The cave walls seemed as though they were swimming. The ground was moving, and more than once Aria caught herself drifting off. She stopped without even realizing it, and struggled to catch her breath.
“Are you OK?” Nora turned back and placed her arm around Aria’s waist. She let Aria lean on her so they could walk the rest of the way. Nora led her to a small room with a simple table and a hearth, radiating heat and precious light. Aria took a seat and stared at the table, watching the little lines on the wood swing back and forth. “I know that you’ve been through a lot.” Nora’s voice seemed to come far away. “I didn’t want them to lock you up in that cell, but it was the only way to protect the people in the village.”
All at once Aria shot up over the table and reached out for Nora’s throat. When her hands gripped the soft flesh, she stared down at the woman’s eyes. It would’ve been easy to kill her, but something in the woman’s determined look and the way she met Aria’s eyes. Aria couldn’t hurt her. She saw too much of herself in Nora.
So she loosened her grip and shrank back to her chair. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t blame you.” Nora quickly recovered.
“Why am I here?”
“Because you need to know why I did what I did.”
“Because you’re going to have to stay here.” Aria leaned her head back. She couldn’t stay in this prison the rest of her life, but what other choice did she have? What about Symon? He was fragile. He wouldn’t have been able to hold up in a place like this.
“You helped them blow up the plant.”
“I did. See, when I was a young woman, older than you are now, I fell in love with a man. I thought he was the one. He gave me everything I wanted, showered me with gifts and took me out to nice dinners. We’d spend all night talking and ultimately found comfort in one another. It wasn’t long before I got pregnant. I was so happy,” she laughed bitterly, “I thought that he would do the right thing and marry me just like any honorable man would, but when I told him he disappeared and I was left to take care of myself on my own.” Aria felt a sense of compassion welling up inside her. It wouldn’t have been easy for Nora, trying to juggle her child and a job all at once.
Nora went on. “I accepted it and went on with my life. I found a job at the plant. They were kind, and said that they would give me time after the child was born to take care of it. They even offered me health care. I was very grateful, and I have been for years now. Had it not been for their compassion I wouldn’t have made it.”
“When it came time to have the child, I was certain that everything would be fine. They brought me to the best hospital in the city and did everything they could to reassure me. They even gave me drugs that dulled the pain. When the child was born and I heard her crying…nothing can describe that feeling. It gave me purpose. They let me hold her and nurse her. Then they took her for a nap and when I woke up,” Nora’s voice broke, “they told me that the child had died.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Well there’s nothing you can do, is there? She’s gone and all I got was that one moment with her. Nothing can change that, and there’s no accepting it. You just have to carry that burden, and it’s been wearing me down all these years. It got easier over time, but I still think about her and the way she’d stare up at me. That girl was innocent, she’d done nothing wrong. She didn’t deserve what they did to her.”
“What do you mean?”
“The past few months, men had been coming to the plant, sometimes they’d act like solicitors or traveling businessmen, but they couldn’t fool me. I knew that they were Purists. One morning I found a crystal on my desk, and I knew it had to be them. I couldn’t watch—I,” it was strange seeing a woman that held herself with such dignity crying. She looked down at the crystal and began rubbing its surface. An image popped up in the space between.
It was a young woman with a sheet over her lower half, her legs spread as her body convulsed. Then a nurse reached under the sheet and pulled out a shrinking child. The young woman’s face went from strained to the unmistakable look of bliss as she watched the nurses cut the umbilical cord and finally got a chance to hold the little girl.
Nora averted her eyes and started sobbing. Aria couldn’t imagine having to watch that after what she’d been through.
They eventually took the child from her and she fell asleep with a smile on her face. The warmth was palpable, as if Aria were living it. Then Aria watched as the screen changed over to a small examination room where they lay the child out on a metal gurney and began taking pieces of her hair, cheek swabs and eventually blood. Then they gave the child an injection, and the child stopped breathing. Nora was shaking now.
“Oh my God,” Aria was trembling.
When the screen faded away, they sat silently for a moment. Aria felt like the ground had been ripped out from under her. How could they do something like that? Why would they kill the child? Her world revolved around this kind of technology. Every day she passed souls in the halls, and watched them move around silently. Was this how they were made?
“To make a soul all you need is a piece of a person, not the whole thing. They can extract the ability to speak, the need for food and survival without actually killing a person. But to replicate a person they have to use the whole body.”
“Because they wanted fighters that could work for the temple.”
“No,” Aria jolted back.
“It’s so strange, looking at you. They showed me charts of your DNA when you got here, you see they…”
“Stop!” Aria slammed her fist on the table.
“It matched up with my daughter’s. She would’ve been the same age you are now.”
“No… I don’t believe you. It’s not true.” But it was and Aria knew it. They couldn’t supply the entire temple with castaways. They needed numbers, and the only way to do that would be to use clones. But what did that mean for her? Was she a real person or just a machine? How could she trust herself, her feelings? Those could be manufactured too.
“The Purists respect life, Aria. They believe that all people, even souls are human beings.” It was as if Nora were responding to her thoughts. “You are a real person, but you’re going to have to accept that you’ve been lied to and decide what you’re going to do about it.”
The rage was overwhelming. She saw herself grabbing a gun and shooting Mathers in the face just so she could watch his guts spilling out on the floor. She wouldn’t have cried or felt guilty. No, she would’ve laughed. His death would mean justice, real justice, not the kind they doled out in the city.
“You have a choice to make. Do you want to live in that cell or do you want to fight?” There was no choice, really. Of course, Aria would fight. Her entire life she thought that her mother never wanted her, that she was just a poor woman who gave Aria up because she couldn’t take care of her. Now that she knew that the woman who shared her DNA wanted nothing more than to have her daughter back, she couldn’t turn away.
They told Symon. Aria knew as soon as she walked into the conference room where he was sitting in the corner rocking back and forth slightly. He didn’t even notice her come in, not until she took a seat next to him and rest her hand on his back. “It doesn’t change anything.” She told him.
But it did. She couldn’t look at herself the same way after knowing what she knew. The temple would no longer be a place of refuge and nourishment. It was a prison where they fed them drugs and forced them work impossible hours. It had to be destroyed, and that’s why they were there.
The man who cut Aria’s throat was named Abel. He was the de facto leader of the Purists, tasked with taking care of the people and defending their refuge. He was a large man, mostly hair and sand, and when he spoke there was an authority about him.
They spent most of the night going over schematics and strategy. Symon was too frazzled to listen much, but Aria knew that he would follow her to ends of the earth and back again. He would be loyal, but she didn’t want to put him in danger, so the next morning she started off on her cyclo alone.
She didn’t arrive back at the city till early on that evening, and she was tired. The first thing she did when she got back to the temple was take a booster and walk straight to Mathers’ office. His eyes widened when she walked in. “What happened?”
Aria waked into the room slowly with her head held low. “I’m sorry. They attacked us and killed Symon. I barely escaped.”
“And the woman?” That confirmed it, everything she’d been told. Aria was disposable and so was Symon. All that mattered was the job.
“I-I don’t know.”
“Then you’re going back out there.”
“But…” she looked up and search Mathers’ eyes for some sign of sentiment, but it wasn’t there. He didn’t care if she got killed or what happened to her. There was no regret about Symon’s death, no condolences. Now she was certain. She reached her hand out into her robe carefully. He couldn’t see what she was doing, she knew, but she had to be careful this man was dangerous.
Inside her robe was a small black sphere with an adhesive on one side. She placed it under Mathers’ desk. “I’ll leave tonight.”
“Good. Now get out.” She didn’t waste any time. She walked through the halls placing charges where she could, careful to avoid the prying eyes of wandering souls and surveillance cameras. Once she was done she made her way back to the dock and took the first airboat that come her way.
At the edge of the city she looked back at the black circular building, set against the oranges and pinks of the waning evening light. It felt unnatural, sitting there amongst the old-world buildings and their colorful mosaics.
She took the detonator out of her pocket and pressed the button. She thought she’d be satisfied when she saw the blast, but she wasn’t, because she knew that justice would come after the Purists and that the people would have to fight.
They would build another temple and another, and everyone that they built would have to be destroyed. Aria would have to fight the rest of her life to make sure that the people were safe, and that they never got away with killing another child again.
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