"This isn't really a good time to talk," said Evera to Alif as she nodded her good-byes to the dispersing group of Midlings and Believers. The strategic planning meeting that she held in her cabin had gone better than she'd expected and despite the dire and dangerous task ahead of them, she felt that her people were more united than ever. More than that, Evera was content that she had realized Airun's dream, to unite the Midlings and Believers under a single purpose. Freedom.
"But it's important, Evera." Alif’s voice jarred Evera from her thoughts, annoyance creeping up on her like a shadow, but still, she showed no sign that she'd even heard. Instead, Evera focused her attention on the last person to leave the meeting, a Believer woman she'd just met that day. "Thank you for coming. Be sure to remain close to your Midling guide until you reach the forest borders. He will ensure you have a safe trip back to Soroton.”
The woman, tall and slight with platinum hair nodded. “Until tomorrow. Until victory." They shook hands and the woman passed out of the cabin into the night.
Evera closed the door and bolted it, passed Alif as if he wasn't even in the room, and began clearing away the cups and glasses. The gathering had included no less than fifty people, strong brave men and women willing to fight for the right of freedom.
Simple freedom, and Airun had made a sacrifice greater than she could ever imagine. Evera heaved a great shuddering breath in an effort to push back the tears that suddenly filled her eyes and threatened to spill out. She looked up to see Airun move forward, arms outstretched but she turned away and swallowed the turmoil of emotions that swam in her gut.
Evera collected the half full mugs left by those who’d attended the meeting and then stacked them into the corner kitchen’s corrugated tin sink, while Alif waited. She spoke first. "Power and position are but a corruption for the weak.” She sat down and waited for Alif.
Alif sat across from Evera. "No one knows that better than me." He continued when Evera didn’t respond.
"When you announced that you had chosen me to lead one of the teams that would go into Sinistral to rescue Airun, I was desperate to believe that you had finally managed to trust me again."
Evera spoke without meeting Alif's gaze. "If I can’t trust you to do the right thing for your own brother, then who can I trust?"
"That's just it. That's the point,” said Alif, who pounded his chest for emphasis. You didn't pick me to lead a team because you trust me. You chose me because we would be rescuing Airun. Had this been any other mission, you would not have called on me to serve."
This time Evera did meet Alif's gaze, and he felt a chill settle over him like an unwelcome frost.
"That's why I refused to lead a team on this mission." Alif shook his head, his whitish locks swaying against his shoulders. "I won't even go on this mission as a subordinate."
Evera chuffed, her eyes narrowed. "What kind of man would refuse to lead a team whose purpose was to save his own brother?"
"The kind who honestly wants to make amends. I'll stay behind. And when you return with my brother, I will submit myself to his judgment about how I treated his wife, our fairly chosen leader, in his absence."
Alif stood to leave. Just as he unlatched the door he heard Evera say, "That's not good enough. When I command you to take a post, you take it and you take it without question whatever my reasons, real or otherwise. I am the leader of the Midlings, and as long as I am, I expect my commands to be heeded." Airun turned to face Evera. "Despite everything that has passed between you and me, there are few others that I would trust.” Her tight tired face relaxed into a wan smile. “I am asking you as a sister to help with this.”
Alif smiled back. He wanted to be part of the operation to retrieve his brother. In doing so, he could prove his worth not only to Evera and the rest of the Midlings, but to himself. He knew that he could only do this though, if the mistrust and tension between he and Evera was sufficiently quelled. Alif squared his shoulders in resolve and nodded his ascent, but was unable to say anything else before the explosion.
Truth answered Malak without hesitation. "I want to find Honor."
Malak nodded and pulled Truth's hand through the loop of his arm so that he could lead him. They were now only four blocks away from the Garden and Malak felt the sudden urge to get moving. They'd been out in the open too long. Airun would kill him if it turned out that he'd been negligent enough to lose Truth so close to their destination. Malak would never be able to forgive himself either.
"Don't get me wrong. I am willing to fight for the cause of the Believers, but not for the same reason as you. I will fight because I have no choice. I am an outlaw by mere chance of birth. It isn't my fault, but I concede that it is my problem."
Malak glanced back. A cold crawling sensation traveled up his spine, but he didn't see anything to explain what he was feeling so he tried to behave naturally. "You'll change your way of thinking when you learn more," said Malak with a certainty that annoyed Truth.
"Have you heard anything that I've been saying?" said Truth pulling back until Malak was forced to stop. "I could care less about belief and I don't care about Believer position!"
"Sshhhh." Malak restrained the urge to clamp his hand over Truth's mouth.
"The only thing that I care about, the only thing that motivates me at this moment is getting to Honor. She is most important. She is my motivator. Nothing else. Nothing."
Malak grabbed Truth's fallen hand and pulled him forward. He heard sounds, slow yet thick footfalls, that seemed to be getting closer. Malak kept alert. "Come Truth. We will discuss this when we get to the Gardens. Right now, we need to get off the street."
Truth didn't budge. His eyes narrowed. "You're orange now, you know? You weren't this lit up even as we were escaping from McKinley."
Malak gritted his teeth. Could Truth really be this ignorant, this much without an instinct for danger? “That would be because---“ Malak noticed the tall figure of a drone step out of the shadow of a dumpster on the opposite side of the street. It moved thickly and from this, Malak determined with relief that it must have been an older model. Older model drones were certainly slower, but they did not lack in strength. Malak pulled Truth along, refusing to submit to the boy’s stubborn resistance. “We need to move quickly,” hissed Malak, in an effort to convey the obvious urgency.
They moved swiftly closing the distance between them and the gates of the Garden which like the rest of the old structure appeared derelict and forgotten. Malak knew that it was anything but, as hidden from sight, just beyond the gate, well trained Believer sentinels kept post. This would be of little consequence though, if they were unable to make it to the gates. They were still so far away.
Malak glanced back again to determine if the drone had managed to gain on them and it seemed to have. Now, there was a second drone, a newer faster model made of a lightweight polymer and no metal parts.
“Hurry.” Malak drew on his reserves for more speed and his anger for strength. “There are two of them now.” Malak directed his attention forward, fear and adrenaline pressing his steps harder and faster, but doing nothing for the sense of foreboding that gripped his stomach. The faster he moved toward the gate, the farther away it seemed. He hoped desperately, that even from this distance some keen Garden sentinel could see him and would do something to help, to stop the drones. Unable stop himself, Malak glanced back again. The fast drone was now only two arms length away from Truth. Its dark synthetic hair flowed behind him as he moved impossibly fast. A human would be breathing hard, grimacing with effort, breaking a sweat, but not the drone. It maintained an infuriatingly pleasant smile on its face.
Malak raged inside. Where were the sentinels? Where was the support? Why wasn’t someone helping them?
Truths hand was snatched from Malak’s grip. He spun around to face the drone, who was busily securing Truths arms behind his back. It didn’t spare a single glance for him, after all, he wasn’t the prize. Truth didn’t struggle. Truth too had adopted a smile, but unlike the drone’s plastered on plastic smile, his wasn’t pleasant.
“Every since I can remember,” said Truth, his voice a cold monotone, “other people have been telling me what to do, where to be, how to be, when and where to use this cursed gift.”
The drone looked up briefly but continued to busy himself with securing Truth. The drone removed a set of plasticuffs from a hip pocket and proceeded to secure them onto Truth’s wrists.
“I’m done,” said Truth flatly. “Cooked.” His smile broadened and Malak’s instinct took over. He backed away. “I’m burnt.” Malak’s heart started an uneven gallop and he had to drag deeply to catch his breath. When he exhaled, he saw steam. The sweat on his brow suddenly turned to ice. He fell to his knees in an uncontrolled shiver.
Truth met Malak’s frightened gaze, the silver discs of his eyes glistening like crystal in the yellow glow of the street lamp. His smile softened a bit, “Don’t be scared Malak. It will be over soon.”
Truth’s face twisted, a mix of agony and rapture, and then with a grunt, his entire body arched impossibly backward. A jet of blue flames, like dragon tongues, erupted from his mouth. The source of the fire, like a glowing ember, lit up his entire chest. In turn, each drone was struck down by the flame, as forceful as the wind of a hurricane, lifting it from the ground and then flinging it in a crumpled ball of fiery ruin. Malak’s gaze followed the trajectory of each drone as it was destroyed and lit on fire. When he looked back to the place where Truth had been standing, he was gone. The last thing that Malak heard before darkness rushed up to meet him was, “My sister, Honor. That is what I want.”
Chapter 21 - Convergence / Chapter 23