Purpose

“Do you resent your purpose?” Zorina asked, tugging one of their discarded gloves over her left hand. She flexed her fingers experimentally, watching as the black organics molded to her skin. The faceted ley lines in the smart fabric remained dark.

“No more than you resent yours, I imagine,” Aeron replied. They touched Zorina’s wrist, and the ley lines glowed white, electrifying the skin beneath the glove with a delicious shiver. When they slowly drew away, the thrill of energy receded with the dying light. Zorina shucked the glove one finger at a time and dropped it into Aeron’s lap.

“But no one’s forcing me to do what I do.”

“We all function within parameters, little Infiltrator,” Aeron said, giving a hank of Zorina’s damp red hair a yank. “You, me, we’re both programmed. That I’m a fragment of a quantum algorithm is inconsequential. When I split from the cluster, a wave function collapsed—all other universes were instantaneously closed to me. Though I’m coded for the resurrection imperative, I also am solely the product of my collected experiences.”

“Then why—”

“Your insecurity bores me. I know what I like, same as you. In fact, I’d say I know your body better than you do. I can feel the quiver of blood in your heart, see the silver stretch of tissue that protects it. I can visualize the precise angles at which you’ll break and map the interstitial matrices of desire.” The soul healer’s inky pupils met her mismatched eyes.

Zorina sneered and kicked a mirrored helmet into the corner.

“Show me,” she demanded.

 

Light as a

She stared cross-eyed at the duratyne feather her claws held aloft. It was short for a secondary, but long enough that she could lay it across her armored forearm and link her elbow and wrist. The tip was broad, the body wide—these were the pinions that locked tightly during flight, formed the airfoil and generated lift. Zorina rotated the feather, peering at the leading edge. A very close observation revealed minute serrations that muffled the rush of air through each barb and vane.

Similar feathers were folded into a neat interlocking mesh against her back, miraculously preserved after so many hundreds of years. A curious and elegant affectation, one that favored internal batteries and personal resources for the long haul. A long-term investment, so to speak.

She remembered the mapping process when they’d been installed, the excruciating uplink as each nerve cluster grew into the organic metal. The spinal fusion, skeletal injections, muscle stims that engorged and lengthened her muscle fibers—a new and elaborate internal scaffolding.

And pain. Always pain.

She turned the metallic plumage over and over, recording the minute details between her fingers.

“Whatcha got there?” called one of her charges, swiping a dirty claw at the pristine treasure, jerking her back to reality.

The Maw had been stealing children from the local settlements—for what purpose, she didn’t know. Part of her wondered if they’d be rifted ring-wise to Ryjel for some nefarious scheme, an experiment, a brainwashing campaign, but the rational part of her knew the Maw hated her golden counterparts and their apparent good fortune as much as anyone. Plagued by their own low post-Beam birthrates and an inability to reliably map their neural networks, it was possible they simply wanted young minds to mold. Carriers of ancient cultures and tradition. Still. The sleek-furred Maw had always been secretive, but nabbing children felt strange, a step too far.

But the Coalition wasn’t paying her to speculate, just deliver. After she’d glitched into the Maw’s hanging village and whisked the children through the canopy, the questions from the brats had been ceaseless until they’d fallen asleep.

Zorina flicked the feather to her other hand, watching it gently seesaw through the warm air before plucking it back. A familiar face briefly appeared in her mind’s eye and then ghosted into memory.

“A trophy,” she lied, holding the quill between her first and second claws. She dangled it in front of the youngster’s face. “Sawed it off the first Ryjellian I killed just before he drew his last breath.” She forced a grin, baring a mouthful of teeth for feral effect.

The apparent drama wasn’t lost on the little one, her lips forming a distinct ‘o’ of interest.

“You should tie it to your sword,” she offered, gesturing to one of the blades strapped to Zorina’s waist. “That would look really neat. Can I touch it?”

An ancient patience managed to keep her from flinching away from the grabby claws, but a guilty dread shivered her featherlights beneath the distant twin dawn. Another tight smile.

“You’ll get your own someday. Go wake the others,” Zorina ordered, nodding to the sleeping bundles arranged around a smoldering fire. “It’s about time we break camp and head home. You’ve got folks interested in seeing you.”

Charged with this new task, the girl scampered back over the loose rock to the fire circle. Zorina sighed, starting to carefully tuck the feather back into her pack when she noticed a dark red spot by the root of the quill. Blood? Without thinking, she brought the feather to her lips and touched the cold, hollow point to her tongue.

Tried to remember how he tasted.

A Rendezvous With Death

She exploded into consciousness the way a fish flees a predator—leaping, terrified, gasping in the alien air.

Years earlier, she’d waded past the foaming green breakers between two sand bars, her pockets filled with stones. The rip had quickly dragged her out to sea. She relinquished control to the fetal embrace of water, floating in the womblike troughs between waves. Eventually, the face of a massive roller towered before her, plunging her into a buffeting surge of water as the wave crested and broke over her head. For a moment, there was nothing but cold water, weightless oblivion, and a muted roar filling her ears.

It wasn’t a peaceful drift like she’d hoped. Zorina tried to force her body to relax, plumb oxygen from a new medium. Her coat, laden with jetty rocks, tugged her head below the surface but wasn’t heavy enough to sink her to the ocean floor. The tightness in her chest corkscrewed into an exquisite need, and she inhaled deeply, bright spots dancing behind her burning eyelids. When she choked down her first mouthful of brackish water, her traitorous body bucked the mental imperative to calm, legs frantically trying to brace against a sandy bottom that wasn’t there.

It felt a little like that now: drowning in reverse.

“She’s alive,” a voice called. A gloved hand clapped her shoulder, electrifying her skin with rush of warm energy and making her teeth chatter. Zorina blinked against the terrific brightness of the afternoon. The smell of acrid smoke stung her nostrils and tickled her sinuses, and she bristled, fighting off a sneeze. Alive! She resisted the mighty urge to claw at her throat, trace the line of her sternum, and examine the phantom wound. She swam in an overload of confusing sensory input.

“I hear the first death is always the worst,” the same voice quipped, coughing out an obligatory chuckle. Zorina’s eyes finally focused, zeroing on the source: a figure in a dark bodysuit, faceted gloves, mirrored mask. A soul healer.

“It was nothing,” she rasped. And yet she felt trapped in the clutches of some somnolent ghost, mind separated from body, observing herself at a distance. She recalled a moment of agony as hot metal sheared through her organics. The taste of blood filling her mouth. Could see, but couldn’t feel, her body crumpling into the dirt after the weapon sheared through her spinal column. A curtain of darkness as a man hoarsely shouted her name.

Someone cleared their throat, snapping the eidetic string of memory.

The soul healer was offering her a hand up, their gloves crackling with energy. Zorina ignored the proffered palm, wary of another teeth-clenching jolt, and forced herself to her feet. She tried not to sway. The burning smell—something like an ozone-fired barbecue—lingered in her sinuses. The soul healer dropped their hand and placed it on their own waist instead, head tilting as though surveying Zorina critically. Their mask remained blank.

“Slow down, glitch. Outpost is a solid day’s march.” One gloved finger rose in warning, preempting a protest. “Rapid transit’s offline, and you’re in no shape to fly.” The soul healer’s voice filtered through the mask with a robotic twang.

The feeling of helplessness multiplied. Zorina stretched, chest out, shoulders down, and wings erupted from her back, snapping to their full span—twice as long as she was tall. The duratyne featherlights fused to her spine shivered before collapsing and folding flat again. She’d almost forgotten they were there. Just the thought of pumping them made her bones weary. She nodded slowly to the faceless soul healer. “Where’s—”

“I’m here.” A blood-smeared face wearing a hesitant grin appeared over the soul healer’s shoulder. Zorina fought to keep her face neutral as panicked relief flooded her system. “You totally breached protocol with that save, you know,” he said.

“Not you. Where’s the legion.”

“I am the legion,” he deadpanned, balancing his halberd over his shoulders like a vicious yoke.  

Something sounding suspiciously like a snort emitted from the soul healer’s mask as they shook their head and tapped the flimpad on their forearm. “You seem adequately functional,” they observed, and engaged their optical camouflage. “Duty calls.” With an audible pop, the disembodied voice phase shifted away.

Zorina sighed, waiting for her legs to firm before attempting to walk. Her first step nearly tripped her over a blackened pair of lightblades, and she automatically bent to retrieve them. Hers? She squinted at the serials on the grips, but the numbers eluded her. The blades were still hot to the touch. Where were her gloves? Zorina hoped the post-resurrection fog would lift soon.

“I knew I’d come back, Marcus. It was nothing,” she repeated firmly, and switched tacks. “You must have missed rendezvous. Did you—”

“Ride the slip? No. Still in one piece. I waited for the soul healer to initiate backup protocols.” For me, she thought unhappily. He didn’t clue into her expression or else did a fine job ignoring it. “I figured I’d look like a real hero bringing back the Red Fox.”

“Don’t call me that,” she snapped, slamming the daggers into the scabbards at her hips. Marcus held up his hands in a placating gesture.

“Glitches are valuable resources. Famous ones, especially.”

“Infiltrators,” she insisted, stressing the military designation, and drew beside him.

He might have rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean. The remnants fell back to bunker six-zero-four after detonation. A bit of a draw, if you ask me.”

“A draw.”

“Relatively speaking, of course. The Skrit pulled out.” He winked, but she caught the vague note of concern in his voice, the tightness of his jaw. “How’d you know?”

“Know what?” She stumbled slightly as she fell into a slow march, an unpleasant reminder her neurons were still regrowing. He swiveled to regard her, narrowly avoiding braining her with the shaft of his halberd. “And for fuck’s sake—watch where you’re swinging. I’ve already died once today.”

He tipped the weapon to oblige her, and tried again. “How’d you know most of the infantry were out of kisk range?”

“I didn’t,” she admitted. But she’d suspected. How did one defeat an immortal enemy? Separate it from its regeneration technology.  Successful resuscitation required a local, personal kisk and a soul healer to guide the process. It was theoretically possible to come back without one, but not both. Not safely.  

The latest rash of concentrated Skrit invasions had pulled their response teams into increasingly remote locations, daring the legion to abandon their kisks or permanently risk losing settlements, resources, civilians before they could relocate backups. It’s what she would have done, after all.

A chill swept through her body, and for the first time since she’d resurrected, she surveyed the smoldering earth. Coniferous trees popped and sizzled. She recognized the obliteration of pulse weapons in the wrack of smashed corpses dotting the crater. The harvesting station was gone. At the edge of the new clearing, her soul healer sat on their haunches, mask catching the glare of the setting suns. They struggled to will life into a charred body, white lightning briefly illuminating both healer and patient. And though the corpse’s dark skin obliged, stretching to cover burned meat and smoking bones, the fresh muscle only twitched once before stilling. Out of range.

Zorina drew a small circle over her chest with one finger. She’d been lucky, then.

“If you hadn’t stepped between us…” He trailed off, mouth compressing into a grim line. His gaze drifted toward the narrow, wooded path that would eventually lead them to 604’s bunker.

She followed his stare, a memory unspooling. The siren’s call of conflict had been unmistakable. She’d felt it reverberate through her bones, stir the featherlights at her back, and snake its way inside her skull just before her comm thrummed with warning: Unexpected casualties. Repeat. Unexpected—the fwoop-boom of a pulse blast cut the message short. Heavy reptilian bodies swarmed the station below her, their figures shimmering with scattershield glare. A lone trio of legionnaires defended the gates: two on the ground, one with his back pinned to the force wall. Marcus. She ducked formation, wings tucked tightly against her sides, and fell like an invisible meteor into the fray.

Zorina blinked back to the present. She watched Marcus unseat his weapon from where it rested on his shoulders and collapse the shaft, making it manageable to sling across his back as he marched onward. Dried blood filled the lines of his face, and one of his hands trembled. He was exhausted, she realized.

No. Terrified.

“You finished it though,” she offered, almost afraid to hear his reply. “You saved the research team.”

He nodded, left corner of his lip curling. “In a way.”

The crater yawned behind them.

Reunion

She leaned back on her elbows, kicking a branch into the fire with the heel of her boot. The flames protested briefly, coughing and sputtering on the damp wood, but slowly licked their way back into a crackling cone. The damp hadn’t quite crept through the thick cloak she’d laid out onto the packed snow, and her carefully tended fire kept her organics warm and supple. She kept her blades close to her body, discouraging the formation of frost that could jam the daggers in their scabbards in a time of desperate need.

A hook-beaked bird, perched on the buckle of her haversack, cocked his head to one side and keened quietly. The assassin stirred, shuffling a tattered scrap of blue cloth from her knees. “Bad hunting today, Marcus,” she agreed, brushing the small raptor from her pack. She unthreaded the buckle and produced a worn parcel of waxed paper containing a few dismal scraps of dried fish. The bird hesitated for a moment, yellow eyes glittering in the firelight, and then tore into the flaking meat.

“It wasn’t always this way,” she lamented to the treetops blackening the night sky. Just beyond the grasping branches, Ryjel gleamed bigger and brighter than the surrounding stars. The bird listened, scattering morsels from his curved beak. “There was—”

Even after 500 years she plainly remembered his skin, like the creamy underside of a pre-beam flower petal, and the gold freckles speckling the bridge of his nose, tips of his ears, his shoulders. He practically glowed beneath the sun, radiant in its presence, a testament to a life full of verdant pleasures and warm afternoons. Free from endless night, the klaxon of radiation alarms.

She tracked him through the fungal forest, her figure a flickering green shadow darting between the stalks.  He made steady progress, stopping occasionally for a cube or fluids. She noted the halberd lashed to his back, calculated its potential reach and how quickly he could draw and swing 180 degrees. (Assuming, of course, that it was an unmodified blade.) She counted the number of steps he walked between each break. Though he was wearing what looked like a full suit of duratyne armor, it didn’t seem to slow him down. What was his purpose? What sort of sun-sucking Ryjellian planned a camping trip to the Frill? He was an enigma brazenly striding through the wilds.

On the fourth day he stopped and made a proper camp on the bank of a fetid stream. She watched him unhook a complicated baldric, lay the massive halberd beside the fire, and remove each piece of armor, the fine plates retracting and collapsing in precise lines. She squinted. Duratyne that expensive could have been equipped with optical camouflage. It took one to know one, after all. Even without the armor, he cast a thick shadow.

When he started humming, she froze, fingers curling around the hilts of her daggers. Something about the melody tweaked an old ghost in her brain. But he kept moving, ducking to pull a handful of bright red fruit and a half-plucked bird from a small sack. He arranged these over a crumpled foil, waited for the flames to settle, and shoved the foil into the glowing orange coals.

Before he could straighten up, she melted out of stalks, disengaging her optical camouflage at the precise moment the tip of her poisoned dagger pressed into the back of his neck. An oily green tattoo wicked into his skin.

“You’re a long way from your kisk, friend.” The second stiletto eased into the flesh above his tailbone. In two neat motions she could sever his spinal cord. He didn’t move, and she leaned in to her blades. “Any final words?”

A beat of silence.

“Why do they call you the red fox?”

By the Ring. She stiffened in alarm, and he moved then, a slight pivot of his shoulders and neck, letting the dagger carve a furrow through his deeply tanned skin. Blood welled over the blade and spilled onto his tunic, beading over the fabric. Beautiful, she realized, with a growing sense of unease. So drenched in melanin he probably could have photosynthesized. Envy briefly tempered her anxiety.

“You were always such a sneaky little thing.” His grin met her mismatched eyes.

“Marcus,” she whispered, snatching her daggers away. She sheathed them at her hips without breaking his stare, wondering at the sharp angles of his face. “How did you—”

Unsteadily, the tranquilizing poison singing through his veins, he rose to his feet and tugged his bloodied tunic straight. “When I heard the name, it tickled my memory,” he began, hazel eyes examining her critically. They’d been darker the last time she’d seen him, just like his hair. He was a gilded, resplendent version of his former self. “Ancient by now, but I placed it eventually. Who else would it be?” And if the name was on the lips of Ryjellians, there’d been inquiries. Again.

“So—”

“Your wings would fetch a fair price on Ryjel, Zorina.”

“You’re here to kill me, then.” Her claws itched toward her hips.

“Maybe.” He paused for a beat. “But I’m not foolish enough to chase bounties.” He laughed. It was a distinctly melodious sound, and nothing like she remembered. What had happened to the rough and tumble young man she’d fought beside so long ago? He was all angles and carefully veiled strength now—a threat, she reminded herself. Ryjellian.

“You’ve managed to gain a modicum of wisdom in the past five hundred thirty years. I never would have imagined,” she joked, swallowing hard. Quantifying the distance between their past and present unwound something hard and cruel beneath her ribs. The feeling blossomed from a seed of bitter regret, digging into her lungs and pushing up the back of her throat.

“You look—I don’t know—different. I mean, have you put on weight or something?”

Zorina choked down a hiccup and threw a shaking, balled fist at his face. Even slowed by the poison, it wasn’t difficult for him to catch her sinewy wrist in one of his large hands. Ah, hands. With fingers that tapered into half-moon, chewed up nails. Her claws suddenly felt monstrous. He brought her up short, peering at her face, and stroked the inside of her wrist with his thumb. “You found me,” he offered, flashing a bright white strip of teeth.

“You’re in the Frill,” she spat. “I didn’t find shit. You were looking.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“Close enough.”

“And yet here you are,” he started, touching the nape of her neck where a scarlet mane tapered down her spine, “the scourge of Forward Command. New enemy, old tricks. Nothing really changes.” He seemed to ignore the talons, the green cast of her skin, the preternaturally sharp teeth. She could get rid of him then and there, she knew. It would be a simple matter to gut him with the concealed knife in her bracer and watch him bleed out as he gazed longingly into her eyes. She clenched her jaw.

“What do you want, Marcus?”

“What the Beam never gave me a chance to finish.”

Later, she’d remember his hands the most, the way they gently stroked her cold skin and left behind heated fingerprints. In those moments, she was sure he’d marked her with an indelible ink crying her betrayal: Lover of Light, Mistress of Ryjel. She remembered how he’d carelessly draped his blue cloak over them both and tucked the edges around her body, how he’d nestled her close to his breast and fallen asleep. He’d been a veritable furnace, a source of warmth she hadn’t felt since she’d had the sun. Just before what counted for dawn, she’d kicked the cloak to one side, craving the crisp air’s relief. An innocuous looking flim pad slid from a concealed pocket, hit a damp rock, and turned on. It had immediately started broadcasting orders. An impossible order.

The red fox never asked any questions.

In the present, Zorina glared at the faint ring arcing across the night sky. “There was a man with the keys to my past, my feathered little friend.” She paused, fingering the tattered cloak. “And I killed him.”