The eastern horizon bled the color of garnet, quickening a new morning and the possibility of survival. Once the air temperature rose to somewhere near four degrees C, Tatiana could shed her alien enhancements and revert to humanoid form. She had survived the night crossing of the Gael badlands and once she made it to the northern shore of the Lilthe Sea, Daron would pick her up.
She was beginning to nurture the small bud of hope that was sprouting within her breast when her comm channel crackled to life. There was no doubt that it was Balin and he had been tracking her.
“You really did think you were going to get away with it, didn’t you?”
Tatiana toyed with the idea of remaining silent and pretending he wasn’t sure of her location, but it was pointless. If he was close enough to reach her on her private channel, she had as much chance of escape as a duck in a fox den. “Up until this moment, yes.”
“Wait for me. If we can conclude this quickly, I may yet be able to stop the Dissolution.”
She kept walking across the last vestige of the frozen tundra. “Dissolution was inevitable the moment I took the Eshana.”
“It belongs to me as the Arabika’s representative.”
“You’re far too possessive, Balin. I suggest you decathect from the Arabika. Even if you retrieve the Eshana, the Arabika is doomed.”
“Then so are you.” His displeasure was almost tangible, as if he could reach through the comm link and administer objurgation as physical blows.
The air was warming and the terrain had become more rocky, but she decided to remain in her current form. It was better armored and slightly faster than the humanoid Tatiana, and she could perhaps delay her unpleasant encounter with Balin for another half-hour.
“I’m curious. Was your only goal the dissolution of the Arabika, or were you and Daron planning to use the Eshana to form your own government?”
“Have I ever impressed you as someone who wanted to be governed?”
“No, but you might be tempted to rule.”
“That would require that I cooperate with the others and the Eshana. I thought you understood me better.”
“It no longer matters what I understand.”
The explosion six meters behind and to her right punctuated Balin’s statement. He was in line-of-sight of her now and nearly within weapons range. Tatiana hated the feeling of panic gripping her heart and forced herself not to run.
“I would prefer that you hand over the Eshana peacefully rather than me having to search through your smoking entrails for it.”
“I would prefer not to hand it over at all, but I can see our game is about to end.” She stopped and gazed longingly at the horizon before her. The seashore was still four hours away, even if she could run the entire distance. Balin was mere minutes behind.
She turned. He was in a full-body survival exosuit with built-in short and long-range firearms. Her armor might be able to withstand one shot, but it would leave her crippled and helpless. If he got close enough and dropped his guard, even for a moment, she had a slim chance. No, she didn’t. He wasn’t stupid enough to trust her, at least not now.
He stopped when they were three meters apart. “Place the Eshana on the ground and then step backwards.”
“Suppose I make you search my smoking entrails for it.”
“You are going to die either way, so it matters little, except for the extra work I’ll have to go through stirring through your smoldering remains.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I would rather my entrails remain intact for as long as possible.” She expanded the spacing between her ventral plates and inserted a clawed forefinger and thumb. The Eshana was the size of an egg and appeared to be made of ivory, though given its nature and power, Tatiana knew this planet’s indigenous lifeform was composed of materials far more exotic.
“To think that such a small and simple object could hold such power. What will you do when you get it back?”
“Take it home, of course.”
“You know you won’t have a home left by the time you get there.”
“I will have fulfilled my duty. Perhaps if they haven’t all exterminated each other, it will form a new Arabika. The Vasishka city-state may yet be salvaged.”
“More than likely, if there are any survivors, they will kill you the minute you step through the airlock’s inner door, assuming the pressure dome hasn’t already been breached.”
“Then you’ll proceed me in death by little more than a day. Please place it on the ground and then step backward so that we maintain the same amount of distance between us when I retrieve it.”
“I suggest you kill me before you retrieve it. I could take advantage of the moment you have to bend over when picking it up.”
“That was my intention. You are too formidable in this shape, and even as your native humanoid, you are a challenging opponent.”
Tatiana squatted down and released the Eshana and then stood but did not move as ordered. “Such a complement from a soldier of your stature. I’m honored.”
“If only you hadn’t made my taking up arms necessary. We were at peace. We were a people.”
“You were an abomination.” It was the first time she allowed herself to reveal even a hint of anger or any other emotion.
“The Eshana melded our disparate races into a unified nation.”
“It forced blood enemies from half a dozen worlds to nest together as enthralled drones governed by the Arabika which only did the bidding of the parasitic Eshana. You asked if I wanted to form my own government? I’d be disgusted to let that thing inside of my mind.”
“That only happens when it comes into contact with a compatible quorum. The Arabika gathered together willingly and for the sake of peace. The survivors of the war could no longer sustain interstellar conflict. With our spacecraft wrecked and our star drive gone, this was the only way we could preserve a remnant on this world.”
“Aren’t you even curious how me, Daron and the others live on the other side of the Lilthe Sea without this damn thing?”
“Step backward, Tatiana.”
“We do it by cooperation and we don’t live together in a single community.”
“Because you’d murder each other if you did, just as no doubt the population of Vasishka has already done.”
“Exactly. We retain our individuality, our cultures, our societies. We trade out of mutual self-interest, and those races who cannot abide one another, avoid each other.”
“You didn’t have to destroy us by taking the Eshana.”
“Did you think the Eshana was content with ruling only your mewing little community?”
“What do you mean?”
“You wouldn’t have felt the effects, of course. You were already controlled, but we could feel its mind reaching across the distance, testing its power. It wanted us, too, all of us, the entire planet of war refugees.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It was going to reproduce. You would have been compelled to pick up arms and it wouldn’t have been my doing. You would have brought its offspring across the sea and let it turn us into you.”
“Even if what you say is true, the Eshana requires a willing quorum to form an Arabika. If you all resisted…”
“There are always the weak in every society, even among us. It would have found enough minds to join with it and enslave the rest of us.”
“How could you know all this?”
“Some of us are paratelepathic. When exposed to a psychic force, we can read it. The Eshana’s intent was clear. I took it not to destroy Vasishka, but to save us.”
“If this is true, why not just tell me?”
“Would you have believed me while under its influence?”
“Then why tell me now?”
“Look around you. It’s just you and me. There is no quorum of willing minds and no population of unwilling ones.” She lowered her voice for her next pronouncement. “You’re free, Balin.”
She couldn’t see his face behind the visor, so she imagined what she would look like if as a prisoner, her cage evaporated around her and drifted toward the clouds.
“You came to us, said you were a defector, asked for asylum.”
“I stayed just long enough to gain your trust, take you in as a confidant and a lover so I could learn how to bypass the security system and steal the Eshana, but not long enough to come under control.”
“What were you going to do with it?”
“Drop it into the deepest part of the sea. In the frigid darkness eight kilometers below the surface, it would finally die.”
“Without the Eshana, our peoples would have exterminated each other long ago, consumed by the racial hatred we had for each other. You deliberately consigned us all to that bloody legacy.”
“Come with me.” Once, the mere thought of making that offer would have been a desperate and futile gamble, but she sensed now things had sufficiently changed. Even if not, the worst he would do was kill her, and that had been his intention from the start.
“Where can I go?”
“You have no home left by now. That’s a certainty without the Eshana and the Arabika.”
“Thanks to you.”
“The fact that they’re dead isn’t my fault or responsibility. They killed themselves because they refused to find a way to live with each other like we have.”
“My world is gone. I will die alone in the wilderness.”
“You don’t have to. You’re free because of me, and although you’ve had the opportunity to do so for the past twenty minutes, you haven’t murdered me yet. If the others had been more like you, there would have been no need for the Eshana.”
Balin stepped forward but his weapons systems weren’t locked onto her torso. Tatiana took only three steps backward, just enough to avoid his bulky exosuit when he reached the Eshana at her feet. Servos whined as he lowered himself downward and then grasped the milky-white ovoid in his glove. Standing, he regarded it as a curiosity or a found treasure.
“If I accompanied you, how do I know I would be accepted?”
“Because you are accepted by me.”
“What of Daron?”
“I’ve been ready to take on a second husband for a season now. I’m sure he’ll welcome you into our family.”
“Less than four hours from now. The submarine will wait exactly sixty minutes and then leave. If we hurry, we can just make it.”
Balin extended his armored hand palm up. “You take it. The honor of its final disposition should be yours.”
“When the time comes, Daron and I will let you drop it into the sea. It’s consumed too much of you already.”
She accepted the egg and returned it to the waiting cavity under her chest plates, then they both walked together toward the waiting ocean and liberty.
I wrote this for the Wordle #200 writing challenge hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use at least ten of the twelve words posted in a poem, short story, or other creative work. I used all twelve and bolded them so the reader could pick them out more easily.
The list is:
- Garnet – (n) a precious stone consisting of a deep red vitreous silicate mineral.
- Dissolution – (n) the closing down or dismissal of an assembly, partnership, or official body.
- Objurgate – (v) rebuke severely; scold.
- Quickening – (v) make or become faster or quicker; spring to life; become animated.
- Decathect – (v) to withdraw one’s feelings of attachment from (a person, idea, or object), as in anticipation of a future loss.
All I started out with was a woman being pursued over very hostile countryside by a relentless pursuer. I made her a shape shifter, which made her an alien, and then kept creating her world as I was writing. I wasn’t sure how I’d resolve everything and so kept them talking until an ending presented itself.