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  • Curtis Wray Carter

PREVIEW OF CONFESSIONS OF SHINES AND SHADES II: RETURN OF THE EXILES

Updated: Mar 12

CHAPTER 1

--NAHUM—

SECUNDAN 4, 402 N.E.


The two men were belly-down on the dam as they looked down on the tent city in the valley below. They didn’t need night-sights with the light pumping out of the camp. Tiny green men bustled back and forth, much more activity than they’d seen in the two days before.

“How many you reckon’s down there?” said Turk twirling one end of his mustache between his fingers while one eye peered down the cylinder of his rifle scope.

“Two legions,” said Nahum. “Plus another three Amazonian corps.”

“Sonsabitches,” muttered Turk, gritting his teeth. “Enemy of my enemy my ass…”

Nahum belly-crawled to the south face of the dam and flipped open the saddle box on the side of his parked clipper. He pulled out a frayed leather satchel and opened the flap, checking its contents for the umpteenth time. Reaching back into the saddle box he fished out a scepter made of what looked like braided volcanic glass. He gave Turk a nod as he tucked the scepter down the back of his pants and rolled onto his feet. He slung the satchel over his shoulder and crouched down as he trotted to the near end of the dam.

The rusted-orange railing squawked as Nahum grabbed hold of it. He gave it a good shake but it didn’t give. Unhooking the coiled black rope from his hip he wrapped one end around the railing several times before tying it into a knot and tugging it tight. The other end he threaded through the harness of his belt and locked into place. Nahum gave the railing one more hard shake before he threw one leg over, and then the other. Standing on the other side, he eased back, the rail creaking against his weight as a bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. He stepped back, planting one foot, then the other, on the face of the dam as he leaned back more. Breathing out, he bent his knees and pushed out with his legs, pressing the harness’s release at the same time, repelling Nahum down the dam. Every time his momentum carried him back into the rock face, he caught himself with his legs and pushed away again, continuing his carom downward.

Nahum touched down on the concrete catwalk at the foot of the dam. He detached the rope from his harness and left it hanging. Walking over toward the middle of the face and the main flood gates, he hopped over another railing and crouched down low, glancing in both directions. Grabbing the cross bars in front of him, Nahum dangled his legs over the side. He then lowered himself down and swung his legs back and forth, letting go as he swung forward, landing on the ledge of concrete that partitioned the first flood gate from the second. His eyes adjusted by the time he had his balance back. He kept close to the wall, the leather bag tucked under his arm as he crept inside the gate.

Nahum opened his hand, a ball of blue-white light blossoming over his palm and hanging there. With his other hand, Nahum reached under the flap of his satchel and pulled out one of the chrome-covered spheres inside, each about the size of an apple. He set one in each of the gate’s four back corners, the shiny outer shell sticking to the steel of the gate door. He clicked the little red button in the center, a ring of red light popping on around it. He did the same at the other gates.

There was a collection of clod-hopping as Nahum pulled himself over the rail and crouched down next to the dam’s face. He checked the hand-held strapped to his forearm. This patrol wasn’t supposed to be there for another six minutes. He reached behind his back, his fingers forming around the scepter. He slowed his breathing, his body still like stone as he prayed the darkness would conceal him from their sight. For their sakes.

There were six of them. Not special recon, just some K.R.A. regulars. The way the soles of their boots scuffed the ground told him they weren’t green, but they’d been in just long enough to get careless. Draftees probably. Nahum shook his head.

The point man was talking about a local girl from the night before, what a fighter she’d been. The others laughed in that way that comes from shared experience. Nahum tightened his grip around the scepter and pulled it from his belt. He stepped into the open as his moon-sword flared out in a flash of blue flames. His next movement went unseen, detected only when the point man flopped to the ground, a growing pool of black sprouting from where his head used to be.

Nahum had cued up his blue-fire before any of the others could reach for a weapon. His fireball smashed through one soldier’s face, his head exploding in a cloud of white ash. Sensing another charging from behind, Nahum kicked back, his boot bouncing his attacker over the railing and into the waters below. The fourth man managed to get his pistol up and even squeeze off a shot, but Nahum batted it right back with the blade of his moon-sword, the ricochet burning a hole through his chest the size of the human heart. Nahum turned to take the last man standing but he was just swaying with the night breeze, a fountain of blood spurting from the top of his head as he crumbled to the ground. Looking back up at the top of the dam, he could make out another two-finger salute from Turk. Nahum let out a deep breath, returning the gesture.

A klaxon alarm echoed up from Jinja, the city lying just north of the enemy encampment. Nahum ran for the rope he’d left hanging at the other end. Not bothering to thread his harness, he took the rope and scampered hand over hand up the dam face. Checking over his shoulder as he climbed up and over the railing, he could see Republic regulars were forming up on the road. Flaring out his moon-sword again, Nahum batted away several more lase-blasts. Turk was able to take out more than a few from his sniper’s nest before Amazonians started giving him fire from the opposite side. Nahum had to dive behind the legs of a metal superstructure that looked as likely to collapse on him as it would give cover. Leaning against one of the corroded support beams, he scanned around for Turk. He was out of his nest now and heading Nahum’s way, his sniper rifle slung over his shoulder as he peppered them with pistol fire from both hands. One by one they fell with still more creeping closer.

Peeking inside his bag, Nahum found he had two pulse-grenades left. He took out the first and clicked the red button twice. Darting out from cover, Nahum sprinted towards Turk, hurling the hand grenade behind him. The blast threw him forward, but he kept his feet just long enough. Stumbling past Turk, he fell forward, flinging his last grenade ahead. He felt the heat of the bomb’s shockwave wash over his back as he covered his head with his hands. A few seconds later he was being jerked up.

“Time to get outta Dodge, friend,” said Turk, dusting off Nahum’s shoulders. Nahum nodded.

Nahum glanced ahead and behind as they hopped on their clippers. Several bodies, several more parts of bodies, blackened and burning were littered all over what was left of this road. It was a smell he could never get used to.

He powered up, the hum of the clippers two rear engines boosting the vehicle off the ground. He was able to throw the throttle lever ahead full when he looked back at Turk. Cochran’s brow was furrowed as he flipped through every switch on the clipper’s instrument panel forwards and backwards. Giving it a once over Nahum couldn’t see any reason the clipper wouldn’t start. It hadn’t taken any more hits than his, but then Nahum spotted it. The core relay that came out from under the pilot’s seat was shot clean through.

“Turk!” said Nahum pointing and waving him over. “Get on!”

“I’ll get her, just hang on—“

“We don’t have time!”

Turk shook his head, slamming his fist into the clipper’s console. He threw his leg over the seat and grabbing his gear from his saddle box. “Move on back,” he said securing his long rifle to the clipper’s hull.

“What?” said Nahum.

“Scoot your boots, friend,” said Turk, waving him to the back of the clipper’s single seat. “I’m flyin’.”

“Jesus Christ, Turk, I’m already here.”

“Well then, I guess I’m walkin’,” said Turk, folding his arms. Nahum sighed and shook his head as he slid back on the seat. Turk threw one leg over and grabbed hold of the clipper’s control arms. Nahum wrapped his arms around Turk and pulled his body tight against Turk’s back. “What the hell--?”

“You wanted to fly,” smiled Nahum. “So fly.”

Turk rammed the throttle level forward and pulled back on the control arms. The clipper shot out, pulling up at a steep angle, the dam shrinking under them. Nahum reached in the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out the long silver cylinder with the red button on one end. He pressed the button with his hand and held it. There was a rumble like thunder that roared up into a tooth-jarring boom as mushrooms of fire sprouted forth from the floodgates. Huge fissures cracked the length of the dam’s face, the spouts of water rushing between growing wider. In seconds, giant chucks of concrete and steel were rolling down the valley, riding on a wall of water. The whole lake was poured out over the valley, over the Amazonian corps and the Republic legions, over the people who had refused to evacuate. The words of an ancient tome Hister Skell had given him echoed in his mind. “The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh…” he whispered to himself, “not one of them remained.”


CHAPTER 2

--NAOMI—

SECUNDAN 5, 402 N.E.


Staring at the holographic image phasing in and out over the holo-table wouldn’t change what it was telling them. They would have to cut the power soon, conserve what battery power they had remaining. The sun-globes were all spent. Flames were flickering from wooden torches that had been jammed into nooks in the cave wall. Soon those would burn out too.

Bones were piled along the walls. Naomi and the others weren’t the first to take refuge here. The ribs of these beasts were longer than she was. She saw the creature’s huge tusks and the scars in the walls of what would become their tomb. For all these great animals had been, the bones were all that was left now.

Next to the holographic map was a data-stream of their latest losses. Jedidiah, leader of the Free Soilers, and his chief lieutenant, Thaddeus Olim, were huddled across from her, the elder whispering to the younger who just stared at the floor. She doubted Thad would come to her tonight. He had come less and less and even then, he would just slide in bed behind her, holding her, not saying a single word. Not that she wanted him to. She looked over at Levi but he was too busy with whatever he was scrolling through on his tablet.

Shemi stormed in with Helena Thornwell and Rus Apraxin hobbling in behind her, a grimace on the latter’s dust-covered face. Apraxin had lost a leg below the knee six months before and the prosthetic was an ill fit. Helena’s hair had all gone to gray.

Jed looked up, Naomi could tell he was holding his breath. Helena dropped her head. Naomi had never seen her cry before. She didn’t think it was even possible, but Thornwell’s shoulders were shaking as she buried her face in both hands. Apraxin draped an arm over her shoulders.

“They’re gone,” Helena bellowed, throwing up her hands. “Their helos just…” Apraxin tried to catch her but on one good leg he just collapsed on top of her. Thad rushed over to help Thornwell while Shemi went to Apraxin’s aid. Apraxin shooed her away and Shemi shook her head, walking over and slumping into a seat next to Naomi.

“They came out of nowhere,” said Apraxin, gritting his teeth as he white-knuckled the edge of the holo-table and pulled himself up. “Cut us to pieces. The infantry came in to mop up what was left.”

“How many made it out?” asked Jed.

“A few hundred,” shrugged Apraxin. “Maybe.”

“Goddamit!” said Jed, slamming his fist into the holo-table. Everyone jumped except Helena, still sitting without being there at all.

Thad’s fingers tapped across the black glass of the holo-table. The map zoomed out and shifted to the south. “That leaves no Coalition forces between the Alliance advance and Nairobi.” He was saying what they all knew without having to look at a fucking map.

“All we have left is who’s here,” said Jed, leaning on the table.

“Not even two-thousand,” said Thad, scrolling the map again. “The Alliance forces at Jinja alone number at least 50,000 troops.”

“Correction,” said Turk Cochran, swaggering in with his customary smirk, a half-smoked stub crammed in the corner of his mouth. Her twin brother, Nahum, was just behind him. “There was an army at Jinja.”

“What are you talking about?” said Thad scrolling through the map, zooming in and out. “Where the hell are they?”

“Prolly halfway to sea by now,” said Turk with a whistle, moving his arm like an ocean wave, “fast as they was washing out.”

“Here he goes again…” sighed Shemi. And he did. Turk went on with his usual long-wined way, waxing poetic about how he and Nahum had gone against orders, once again, and blown up the Nalubaale Dam and wiped out two Republic legions and three Amazonian corps in the process. As usual, Jed and the others lapped up every exaggerated detail. As usual, it made Naomi’s blood boil.

“And while it was my brilliant plan,” said Turk as he slapped Nahum on the back. “I can’t take all the credit.” From what Naomi had heard, even with all his gross embellishments and outright lies regarding his contributions, she couldn’t see how Turk could claim any credit for their so-called success. Her brother had done anything and everything of consequence to the outcome, as usual.

This was the just latest and greatest in a series of events that proved that the rules, the chain of command, these things didn’t apply to Nahum and Turk. Those two could do whatever the hell they wanted, whenever the hell it suited them. Screw strategy. Fuck tactics. Why bother with any of that when there’s Turk Cochran and his hair-brained, half-baked ideas? And Nahum? He might as well be God the way everybody talked about him and his abilities.

But she was the only person in this cave who had been in this fight from the start. She’d delivered the goddamn declaration of war and had taken many more victories than she’d been dealt defeat. And now she was watching these Johnny-come-lately’s laugh and pat each other on the back like they’d just won the whole damn war.

Naomi thought back to the night she was reunited with Nahum in the dungeon. There was a time when she would’ve given anything to have him back in her life. But the man she met in the cave wasn’t the boy that had left her on Luna years before. She wouldn’t have remembered what he looked like except for those eyes, the eyes they shared with their father. She couldn’t remember his face either. She never could.

She should’ve been happier having her brother back from the dead. She should’ve been elated. That’s what people kept saying to her. “Aren’t you so happy?” “Aren’t you elated?” She knew what she had to say, even if she didn’t feel the same. Something was wrong with her. Obviously. Nahum wasn’t just her brother, he was her twin. There should have been something there, something more than what was, not that she was sure she ever had whatever that was at all. Maybe she just needed more time. Maybe she just needed to get used to feeling whole again. Whatever that meant.

It had been two years. Instead of familiarity there was this awkwardness neither one of them was willing to acknowledge. The result was a growing distance too far beyond the point they could return to. He might as well have stayed dead, or at least just leave, like he did before. And take Turk Cochran with him for fuck’s sake.

“I hate to break up this little celebration here,” said Naomi. “But we do have an army marching on Nairobi—“

“Hell’s bells lil’ darlin’, didn’t you hear?” said Turk, hooking one thumb around the belt loop of his pants and throwing his other arm around Nahum. “Me and your bro-ham here just took out an army of them bastards all by our lonesome.”

“Congratulations. You wiped out an army of draftees, a bunch of boys and old men, decoys, throwaways,” said Naomi rising to her feet. Her fingers poked at the holo-table and the holographic map rolled and scrolled south and east. “They were not Amazonian shock troops. These animals don’t fuck around. And now there’s nothing between them and Nairobi.”

Jed told Nahum and Turk how the remaining Free Soiler forces under Thornwell and Apraxin had been all but annihilated. There were no longer any Coalition forces occupying lands within the expanded Republic. And they would keep coming. The chancellor of the Republic had declared the Alliance would pursue their enemies to the ends of the Earth, etc., etc.

“So what do we do?” asked Nahum. It was the first time he’d spoken since they’d arrived.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out,” said Naomi. She knew what Jed would say next, and to whom.

“What do you think?” said Jed looking to Nahum. Naomi was tired of being right every time.

Nahum looked up at the map projection, his eyes squinting over it like he’d never seen such a thing before. Naomi wanted to leap across the table and grab him by the throat.

“We need more volunteers,” said Nahum nodding to Naomi.

“Like we haven’t tried that,” said Naomi. “None of the tribal militias that are left want anything to do with us. Not now. Not when they think it’s over.”

“We won’t find what we need in the Faranland,” said Nahum looking back up at the map. “We won’t find that on this world at all.”

If that was the kind of insight his so-called gift gave him, he could keep it. “Is there some solution hidden in that observation of the obvious?”

“Luna,” said Nahum, smiling back at her.

“Luna?” she said. Looking at the faces around the room, she saw no one else got it either. Another part of this game. Say something cryptic so that when he explained it everyone would be blown away. And she’d set him up perfectly.

Goddamit.

“Turk and I used to sit in on Jabal Khan’s security briefings,” said Nahum. Of course he had, being one of his “special protectors”. No one had batted an eye at that either. Open arms from the beginning.

“The war minister,” Nahum went on, “Viktor Ibadan, mentioned the governor on Luna had been requesting more soldiers, special services even. I did some looking into it and found out there has been an uprising there. It’s been going on for some time now,” he said, his eyes locking with Naomi’s. He didn’t have to tell her how long “some time” had been.

“I don’t see what this has to do with anything,” said Thad, shaking his head, his arms folded in front.

“We’ll find all the volunteers we need and more on Luna,” said Nahum like they all should’ve seen it by now. “A hundred thousand exiles, maybe more, all with experience fighting against Republic soldiers.”

“But that information is years old now,” said Jed. “Even if this uprising was still going on, what could we do? How could we even get there? And, more importantly, how do we get 100,000 people back here?” “My ole pappy’s fleet,” said Turk like the idea just came to him, another trademark of their two-man act. The fact that it involved Finnegan Robi made it turn her stomach even more than usual. She hadn’t forgotten what she owed that son of a bitch.

Patience. Always patience…

Turk took over the talking for a while, and there was a lot of talking, his hands waving around like a wild man of the woods. Jed and Thad nodded along like they always did. Nahum stepped in at the end, pushing away the map of the eastern provinces for the green and gray globe of Luna. He zoomed in on one of the settlement grids.

As much as she hated to admit it, she liked the plan. Not that they had much choice at this point. Still, it was bold and they needed to be bold. It just might work too. If she had known what Nahum had, she would’ve proposed something similar. Not that Jed would’ve listened to her. Not that he ever listened to her. She let her fingernails dig into her palms until she felt the skin break.

My time will come. My time will come. Let it be so…


CHAPTER 3

--JERUSHA—

SECUNDAN 5, 402 N.E.


Standing on the edge she looked down into the giant bowl in the earth, remembering what he’d told her. “Be as the mountain.”

That was it.

But this wasn’t a mountain, not anymore. Not for millions and millions of years. Now it was just one great big hole in the ground, a few wisps of steam rising from its center, the end result of a violence that was beyond her comprehending.

She shook her head. Be as the mountain…Be as the mountain…

He’d had that little half-grin on his face that dared her to ask what he’d meant, not that he would’ve told her anyway. It was another one of those figure-it-out-for-yourself moments. She hated those. It would have saved her so much time if he would just tell her what the hell she was supposed to be doing up here. But all she had to guide her was those same four words she’d been repeating to herself for hours now.

Be as the mountain.

She had thought after The Trauma that the rest would be easy by comparison. She soon learned it didn’t work that way. Either that or she wasn’t very good at it. It had taken her months to muddle through skills her half-brother had mastered in a fraction of the time under Nahum’s tutelage. But that’s why she and Nahum had been taking this slow.

So he said.

Jerusha took a deep breath and pushed it out slowly. “Be as the mountain,” she said as she exhaled. It could mean any number of things really. The mountain was unmoving, stationary. Did that mean she was supposed to be still, learn to let things come to her? Or did it mean she had to be more grounded and less a slave to the extreme volatilities of emotion? Did she really have to hike all the way up here just to learn that?

Patience. Always patience. One of his watch words. One of her watch words now.

To be the mountain was to be all that the mountain was and what it pointed to. It was unmoving, yes. Solid? Sure. But also broken. “No,” she mumbled, nodding to herself as she stared down into the abyss.

“Shall I go then?”

She turned and saw Nahum standing just behind her, the half-grin in full effect.

“Please don’t,” she sighed, reaching and pulling him towards her before pressing her lips to his, throwing her arms around his neck. “Thank god you’re safe.”

“How long have you been up here?” he asked, taking her hands in his.

“Not long,” she smiled, knowing it was pointless to fib.

“And?” he asked, smiling back.

She turned so that she was facing the caldera. “I’m not my brother,” she said.

“I know that,” said Nahum as he rested his hands on the back of her shoulders.

“You can show me more,” she said turning, folding her arms. “I can handle it.”

“Your brother said the same thing,” said Nahum shaking his head.

“We don’t have time to wait anymore, Nahum. My brother’s knights—“

“You know that’s just rumor—“

“You know that it’s not,” she said, planting her fists on her hips. “Nahum, please—“

“Fine, fine,” he said dropping his head, holding a hand up.

Nahum was behind her as they hiked down through the scrubby, green brush that covered the mountain. There were a couple of Apo’Stai ahead of them on the trail. They had been up there all day, on Naomi’s orders she was sure. She hadn’t bothered to tell Nahum. She didn’t need to tell him anything. She veered down the path to the left, Nahum chuckling behind her. The path was narrow and steep and the terrain was rough. She could hear the couple behind them cursing as they tried to keep up.

She and Nahum were arm in arm by the time they were in sight of the cave. He hadn’t asked her about her trek up the mountain or what she’d learned there. He hadn’t said anything at all the entire way down.

Coming into the camp, there were soldiers running back and forth. Human assembly lines handed battered cargo boxes from one to another, loading them onto the few transports they had left. Glancing around she couldn’t see how it would be enough to arm and feed even these ranks.

“What’s going on?” she asked as they passed through.

“We’re heading south,” said Nahum, looking at the ground.

“Nairobi?” she asked.

Nahum nodded. “We’ll pass through?”

It was worse than she thought. “Pass through? Nahum, tell me what’s happening.”

Nahum looked at what was going on around them like he was just now aware of it all. He told her about Thornwell and Apraxin. He told her even though he and Turk had been successful on their mission, there was another Amazonian army coming to finish them off.

“And you’re all going to go off to fight them?” she said pulling away, staggering backward. “Are you mad?”

“No, no,” said Nahum going after her, taking her hands in his again. “We’re leaving. We’re leaving all of this behind. For a while anyway.”

“And go where?” asked Jerusha. “Where can we go that Kemal won’t track us down?” She looked away, feeling that sting in her nose that was always prelude to the tears. He’d seen it too many times from her and she wanted to be more for him now.

“I’m taking you home,” he said pulling her closer him, their foreheads touching. “We’re going to Luna. And there we will make ready.” Nahum opened his hand, his blue-fire booming in the space between them. Jerusha stuck out her palm and he pass the light over to her. “Endurance,” he said.

“Perseverance,” she replied, the light flickering.

“Patience,” he said.

“Always patience,” she said, taking a breath, the light growing brighter.

“These are our watch words,” he said.

“These words are hope and life,” she replied.

“Our time will come.”

“Our time will come.”

The last line they said together, as it was in the way of two or more, “Let it be—“

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Naomi was standing not even five meters away, her fists clenched at her sides. Jerusha wondered how she could’ve gotten so close to them without Nahum knowing. His teaching her had not been a secret, but they hadn’t gone around announcing it either. Not that it was anyone’s business. Still, Jerusha could understand how it might look to Nahum’s twin sister.

“So, you’re teaching her?” started to pace from side to side.

“Yes,” said Nahum like it was nothing at all. Like the word didn’t slap her in the face. Jerusha could see the physiological changes in Naomi, the quickening pulse, her blood rising as this bright reddish Meta flared and swirled within the core of her being.

“And not me?” said Naomi, tacking closer as she went back and forth.

“No,” said Nahum putting himself between Jerusha and Naomi. “Not you.”

“Why not?” she asked, her voice cracking, her eyes brimming.

“You know why,” said Nahum putting his hands behind him.

“No,” said Naomi through gritted teeth, “I don’t. How about you explain it to me?”

“This gift is not for everyone,” said Nahum. Jerusha could see his fists clench.

“How nice for you to decide who is worthy of it,” said Naomi with a half-bow. “Go fuck yourself, Nahum!” She stomped off in the opposite direction, her boots kicking up the dirt behind her. He waited until his sister was out of sight before he made one move or said one word.

Nahum exhaled, shaking his head. “That was—“

“Awful, just awful,” said Jerusha, running her hands through her hair. “How could you not have told her?”

Nahum shook his head. “That was just a slight variation on a conversation I’m tired of having with her.” When he reached for her hand, Jerusha wanted to pull away but she didn’t. The way it felt when his fingers slid between hers was something she couldn’t deny herself. He led her down to the lake the locals called “Sacred”, though she wasn’t familiar the story of why this was so.

As soon as their toes touched the sand, they shed their shoes, their bare feet tracing the water’s edge. As the cool waters washed over their feet, Nahum told her again about how he and Naomi had once been. She would never have believed it given what she’d seen the last two years.

“In those days we were more like fire and ice,” said Nahum looking out over the lake. “But we balanced each other out. Now, we’re more like oil and water.”

“You just don’t mix,” said Jerusha, Nahum nodding along. “So why don’t you teach her? Maybe it will bring you closer, bring back that balance between you.”

Nahum scanned the horizon like the answer was out there in the bans of red and orange. “That’s what worries me…”


CHAPTER 4

--KEMAL—

SECUNDAN 5, 402 N.E.


One wall was one holographic display after another, showing nothing but success on every battlefront. On the other wall were feeds from every state and independent media source, foreign and domestic, all reporting the same story. For all intents and purposes, the war was over. And yet…

The young chancellor slumped in his chair, his chin resting on his fist which was propped up on the arm of his high, wing-backed chair. He couldn’t take his eyes off the projection on the bottom row, in the corner closest to him. It was the third or maybe the forth story of the broadcast. It was being reported as a structural failure, but a catastrophic one to be certain. Pulse grenades will have that effect. They would left that out of the report of course. Just decades of neglect, nothing more. And there would be no mention of the fifty-thousand souls wiped clean from the Earth. And yet…

He should’ve killed Nahum Elko when he had the chance. If only for Leah. If he had, maybe half of Zahrapolis wouldn’t be a coral reef right now. If he had, maybe an entire army of soldiers wouldn’t be lying drowned in some valley way off in the eastern provinces. But Leah…Leah would still be dead.

Kemal had squandered his only opportunity. He could admit that now. Not that his former mentor had been any match for him. Kemal’s mistake was that he’d been so full of himself, he’d been blinded to Jerusha’s betrayal. What else could he call being literally shot in the back? Had it not been for Vean Zane, the young Shieldman, Kemal would’ve been buried under that mountain, entombed in that newborn lake with the rest of the capital’s dead.

Not that Zahrapolis was really the capital anymore. Half of the city being swallowed up by a lake will have that effect. Kemal was not as fond of Kaduna, but it was the logical next choice being the closest provincial capital. It made it easier, easy as it is to move a working government from one major city to another in the middle of a civil war. That, and they had a pretty good jugludo team. They weren’t really a contender so much as a perennial playoff presence.

But if they had Kano playing the wing…

The old man was still talking. That was one thing Vincent Avalon could do, suck out every last bit of breath from a room of any size and spew it back out as bullshit. He had been this way since Kemal could remember, but having an ocean between them had limited his exposure until now. The last two years had been…necessary.

Patience. Always patience…One of the few teachings of his old mentor worth learning.

Avalon was at the far end of the table, standing in front of the seat where Kemal had taken these meetings. He’d learned to be seen and not heard then. Watching from what was his father’s seat, Kemal smiled, grateful for these two lessons.

Avalon was pointing out something on one of the holographic projections hovering over the holo-table, switching and swapping data streams in and out. “With major combat operations at an end,” said Avalon, wiping the glean from his ever-growing forehead with a bright green handkerchief he plucked from his suit-jacket pocket, “we must bear in mind that the most important work remains.” He liked to raise a shaking index finger whenever he believed himself to be making an important point and didn’t miss the opportunity here.

“We must begin the transition towards peace and reconstruction. I am pleased to inform you,” said Avalon, budding a toothy smile that made Kemal’s stomach turn, “that the Amazonian Prime Secretary has authorized the redeployment of our forces—“

“Excuse me, Mr. Secretary,” said Cierra Calaban, the Republic’s foreign minister and Avalon’s counterpart. The forty-something senator had made a name for herself two years ago during the Senate hearings surrounding the New Year’s Day attack. Titus Balthazar had been so moved, that he’d taken the first-term senator under his wing, others whispering even more. Be it truth or rumor, Kemal didn’t care. After her predecessor’s sudden death, Kemal put her in charge of the foreign office.

“We are extremely grateful to your nation for all of its assistance,” said Calaban glancing around the table, “but we can all agree that the Republic can take it from here. Besides,” she smiled, crossing her legs as she shifted in her seat, “I’m sure your troops are eager to return home.”

“Madam Secretary,” smiled Avalon, nodding as he clasped his hands down in front of him, “that will soon be one and the same.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Calaban, holding up her hands as she looked around a table full of shaking heads. All but one.

“Lord Chancellor,” said Avalon, beckoning down the table, “would you like to make the announcement or shall I?”

“I see no reason to break up your momentum, Grandfather,” said Kemal with a grinning nod.

“Thank you, Grandson,” said Avalon through gritted teeth. “I am honored to report that your Lord Chancellor and members of our Cabinet will be entering talks to make our alliance a little bit more, formal.” He even did the little measuring thing with his fingers.

“And by ‘more formal’ you mean make permanent,” said Calaban.

Avalon took a deep breath and leaned forward, his fingertips perched on the holo-table. “I think we can all agree these Free Soilers and Apo’Stai whatever are a menace, not just to your Republic, but to our Amazonian Commonwealth. While we may have defeated these terrorists today, who can say what will come with the morrow? The only way we will survive this threat is through strength,” he said pounding his fist on the table, “together!”

“Indeed, Grandfather, indeed,” said Kemal, taking a deep breath. “I look forward to the process,” he smiled. “I’m sure you’ll understand if I take time to consult with my advisors now. This being this is the first time they’ve heard the news, they may not yet fully appreciate your, I mean our, vision.”

“Totally understandable,” beamed Avalon. “I need to debrief the prime secretary,” he said picking up his two hand-helds and tucking a tablet under his arm.

“Give her my best,” said Kemal, grinning as his grandfather strode by and out of the whisking double doors behind him. He knew who would be the first to speak as soon as the doors closed.

“I beg your pardon, Lord Chancellor—“

“Here it comes…” mumbled Kemal.

“—but surely you can see this alliance of cooperation is turning into an all-out Amazonian occupation,” said Calaban, almost like it was all one word.

Kemal leaned forward, resting his elbows on the edge of the holo-table and interlacing his fingers. “What would you have me do?”

“Rescind the original agreement, Lord Chancellor” said the defense minister, Viktor Ibadan, shooting a sideways glance at Calaban. “Have them expelled before it’s too late.”

“I can’t do that,” said Kemal.

“Why not?” Calaban blurted out before covering her mouth. “Apologies, Lord Chancellor.”

“Because he’s already agreed to it,” said Bamako, the spymaster.

“Their armies outnumber us two to one and already occupy many of our major cities and industrial centers,” said Kemal. “What choice do I have?”

“Please, Lord Chancellor,” said Calaban, “tell me we’re getting something out of this, arrangement,” she said the last word like it was the world’s foulest toilet and she had to sit on it.

“They will make me Praetor of their Senate,” said Kemal slumping back in his chair.

“Praetor?” said the spymaster. “Lord Chancellor, that position is largely ceremonial. You won’t have any real—“

“I know, Bamako. I know,” said Kemal rubbing his temple with two fingers. He heard the double doors whisk open again. He could tell by the slink of the shadow it was the gaunt Vean Zane. Zane walked straight in and leaned down in Kemal’s ear. It was a request he’d heard a thousand times and denied just as many. But today, he found it convenient. He might have even gone so far as to call it a blessing as much as it mattered. He gave Zane a stern face, like this was something that should’ve been brought to his attention hours ago. He didn’t bother to adjourn the meeting. He just got up and left before anyone had the chance to rise and salute.

“I wasn’t going to bother you with it, my lord” said Zane, as Kemal started down the hall for the bank of auto-lifts. It wasn’t the Grand Palace, but the governor’s residence would do until it was rebuilt, somewhere.

“I know how she can be, Zane,” said Kemal as the lift doors opened and they stepped inside. From there it was to the roof where a helo was spinning up for them.

# # #

Even now he wasn’t used to it. He’d meant to change things in Zahrapolis, but not like this. The Old City district of Bida, all the wonders of the New Era that ran along the Guardian’s Way, the rotunda of the Senate, the golden façade of Guardian’s Hall, the Corinthian columns of the Republic’s High Court, the domed bowl of Republic Stadium, the brand new statuary of the new Hall of Heroes, and of course the temple complex, all of it thrown down into the bottom of a bright blue lake he had decided to honor with his father’s name.

After they circled Lake Jabal a few times, they continued on their course south by southeast. He smiled as they started over the Gulf of Haman, their final destination a little mustard seed of an island squirted out off the coast of Gabongum province.

The family retreat looked like it was hovering over the hillside, the suspensor stilts concealed by competing species of vines of varying colors. One of Jezriel’s many touches upon this place. The house itself was nothing but old-fashioned glass windows, neusteel and neucrete. As a boy, Kemal had always imagined it was actually an alien craft and that one day it would magically turn on and return to its home world, taking him with it.

Zane parked the helo on the roof and took the access steps down to an auto-life that took them to the basement level, most of which was embedded in the hill that the house was anchored to. When the lift doors parted, there was a security station with two white-clad enforces, one sitting behind the desk, the other manning the pulse induction device that checked for weapons. Not that it mattered here.

The two men shot to their feet. “Lord Chancellor,” they said, giving a fist to chest salute. Kemal returned the gesture with far less enthusiasm.

“You know where we’re going,” said Kemal. The two enforcers nodded.

Kemal and Zane stepped through the security station, following the two enforcers to the only door, a black iron behemoth that looked like it had been there since The Fall. The taller man fumbled at a large metal ring hooked to his hip armor plating. He pulled out a key that was half as long as his forearm, using it to unlock the top and bottom bolts that took the two of them to move aside so the door would open.

The hinges groaned as the door swung out. There wasn’t much to it. One little sun-globe in the ceiling strained to cast light on four black iron walls that might have been two meters square. There was a bucket to wash with and to well, do whatever one might need to do with a bucket. This particular one seemed to be serving as a colony for a rather large fly and maggot population. There was one little sun-globe planted in the middle of the ceiling, not that Considering the resident, he wasn’t inclined to add any amenities.

The two enforcers went in first, the shorter one suspending another sun-globe by the door. With it, Kemal could see countless marks scratched into and all over the floors, walls and nearly to the ceiling. Some of it liked like pure gibberish, but he recognized a few phrases, scriptural passages mostly.

She was hunched over in the corner, her back to him with her face hovering just over the floor. There was a scratching sound, but it wasn’t her etching something into the surface. She’d have to have fingernails left to do that. He soon realized the noise was what was left of her voice, a wisp of a whisper now. Still, he could tune his ears to the words.

“Most Holy One, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest…”

But there was more there than the feeble prayers that barely kicked up the dust under her lips. He could still hear that voice boiling over as if she were standing in his face.

Have I not been faithful? Every day I devoted myself to the service of the Most Holy and the Republic. Everything I have done has been for my faith, for my Jabal. Was I not chosen? To aid in his ascension, to continue the glories of the New Era?

So many questions lived where certitude once resided. Kemal couldn’t help smiling.

The show went on. “I am a worm and not human,” she sputtered on,” scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they shake their heads…” Just as he could hear her thoughts, he could see what she’d been through since he’d sent her out here. The only orders he’d given the handful of men guarding her was to keep her alive. Aside from that, he didn’t care what they did with her. And it showed.

“I am poured out like water, and all of my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast, my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws…My hands and feet have shriveled, I can count all my bones…”

Kemal could count all of her bones. And the stink was enough to make his eyes water. Her raven black hair looked like it was hacked off with a dull blade and what remained and turned a dull gray and was falling out in patches. Her face once immune to the sands of time, was cracked and broken and her skin was translucent-looking, sagging off her bones. And all she had to cover herself were the soiled tatters of the red robe she’d been taken in.

Her head perked up and turned, like she just realized other people were around. She started to crawl towards him, reaching for him with a brown-speckled hand. “But you, Oh God, do not be far away. Oh my help, come quickly to my aid. Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!” she said spitting at Zane’s feet. “Save me from the mouth of the lion,” she said turning to Kemal, but keeping her head down, her hands together.

“So I’m the lion now?” said Kemal smiling down on her, starting to walk a circle around her.

“You are your father’s son,” said Rasha Khan.

“My father is dead,” said Kemal.

“And you would have me join him,” she said.

Kemal took a deep breath. “What do you want, woman?”

She raised his eyes to him. “To serve you and the Republic. As I served your father.”

“It looks like your serving the Republic very well, and on a regular basis from what I can tell,” he said, smiling once again.

“Then let me serve The Faith, Your sister could use my wis—“

“Even if Jerusha were the High Priestess,” said Kemal squatting down right in front of her, “you are the last person she would seek out.”

“I don’t under—“

“I see news doesn’t travel very fast here,” he laughed, glancing back at Zane who only allowed himself the hint of a chuckle. “Your granddaughter absconded with the traitor, Nahum Elko.” He felt his face turn to a sneer as the storm raged up and swirled inside him, pulling him to his feet. “She’s with the rebels. What’s left of them.”

“Who serves in my place? Phineas? Jerome?” she asked.

He didn’t realize how much he had looked forward to answering that question until she asked it. “Catherine,” he smiled.

“Catherine?” said Rasha shaking her head. “I don’t know any—you can’t be serious. Your father’s barren widow?” Her body went rigid, a shadow of her old self returning. “She isn’t even a member of the priesthood.”

“But she is a most pious person. Everyone knows that,” he said circling her again. “After your fall from grace, it was agreed that only an outsider could bring the reforms necessary to end the corruption that had become so rampant in our beloved religion.” He had said the same thing countless times over state media after he’d made the appointment. The next part was his favorite. “Catherine felt compelled, called you might say, to lead a revival of this great faith. It’s a touching story really. A woman, though unable to bear children of her own, is now the spiritual mother of our nation.”

“Why don’t you just kill me and get it over with.”

“Because I really want to savor your suffering,” he said crouching down again, squeezing her saggy cheeks in his hand. “And I can only kill you the one time. Maybe. I’ve got someone looking into that.”

Rasha lunged forward, and Kemal jumped back. She staggered forward a few steps, almost falling flat on her face before one of her hands caught the hem of his cassock. “Please,” she said trying to pull herself up. “I’ll do anything,” she said running her hand up the inside of his thigh with the same look in her eyes she would give his father. That was all it took. Something snapped loose inside him, surging down his arm and out the back of his hand as it shot across her face with a loud crack.

Rasha crumbled to the floor. One side of her head was completely stove in and her neck was twisted in a most unnatural manner.

“God! Damn it!,” he shouted, balling his clenched fists in front of his face. He kicked her corpse as hard as he could again and again. He kicked her until he couldn’t hear anymore bones breaking. He kicked her until what was left no longer looked like anything it ever had been before. He shook his head, something like a laugh leaking out from between his lips. He tugged at the front of his cassock and walked out, passing by the two enforcers.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said.


SORRY FOLKS, THAT'S IT UNTIL SHE'S OUT IN FULL...


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