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.