Kristine Smith » Endgame: Chapter 1

Endgame: Chapter 1

The altar room in the Haárin transept of Elyas Station proved much more suitable than Imea nìaRauta Rilas had feared, warm and quiet as any in Rauta Shèràa. A place of clean, white stone, dark woods and polished silver metal. A place of preparation, and acceptance of the will of the gods.

She had spent half the station-morning in prayer, as was proper for a godly bornsect. She had stood with her back straight, arms raised above her head, and intoned supplications to her favored goddess until the dry air rasped her throat and she grew lightheaded from having stood so still for so long. Now, she lowered her arms in a smooth downward sweep, the cramps in her muscles and pain in her joints blending to form yet another prayer.

As her hands fell to her sides, Rilas felt the cuffs of her shirt tumble over her wrists. How she hated this shirt, its blue as blinding as that of an alarm illumin. How she hated her trousers, as purple as her shirt was blue. She thought of her usual clothing, her flowing trousers and overrobe in subtle shades of sand and stone. Her soft tan boots, so much more appropriate than the stiff black things she wore now. She imagined her hair as it should have been, arranged in the braided fringe of a breeder instead of as it was now, loose as a mane, its only binding a leather coil. A horsetail. Such was what the Haárin called the style, in imitation of the humanish.

Anathema.

Rilas turned and walked to the narrow bench next to the entry, where she had set her slingbag. She hoisted it to her shoulder, felt its comforting heft bump her hip. So many things did it contain. And still a few more did she need to add. Such I must do, and quickly. Before it came time for her to board her shuttle to the city of Karistos.

Yet as much as she wished to depart, still she hesitated. She felt agitated, angered, as she had so often over the course of her journey from her blessed homeworld of Shèrá to this most ungodly of destinations. So much planning and preparation. And now I am here. At that point where planning and preparation transmuted into action and realization. Completion. Triumph.

And yet…

Rilas let the bag slide down her shoulder onto the top of the bench. She opened the flap and hunted, through the clothes and the tile samples and all those other objects of no importance. Once she reached the bottom support panel, she touched first one corner, then the one diagonally opposite. The panel separated from the bag frame with a soft click–she pushed it to one side and reached into the shielded compartment beneath, felt the tension leave her as soon as she put her hand on the shooter.

She lifted the weapon from its hiding place, confirmed its standby setting by pure reflex, then turned to a bare wall and sighted down. The case fit the curve of her hand, the weight filled an emptiness she had not realized she felt until now. Yet she should not have felt surprise, for such was as it had always been. She possessed metal in her soul, nìRau Cèel had once told her, and as always he spoke truth.

Rilas bared her teeth. Such is as I am. Joy filled her as the air she breathed. Even her godless apparel no longer angered her. She always felt most as herself when she held a weapon in her hand.

She stood for some moments, arm extended, imagining targets past, targets yet to come. Then she lowered her arm, this time more slowly. Turned back to her slingbag, and returned the shooter to its hiding place. Refastened the bag, raised it again to her shoulder, and departed.

###

The Elyas Station passenger concourse battered Rilas to the pit of her soul. Voices, humanish and Haárin, combined to cacophony that pierced the brain. Corridors as long tunnels, walls colored red and blue and purple, lined with darkened rooms the interiors of which she could not see, marked by signs she did not understand. Smells, ungodly and sickening, a mingling of hot foods and brewed drinks and bodies that had not entered a laving room for days. Tension, as those stenches enveloped her and those bodies passed close enough to touch.

She glanced at an idomeni timeform that hung from a purple-tinged wall, and her step slowed. Her shuttle had not yet arrived at its dock. Once more, she had miscalculated, rushed when she did not need to do so. Once more, she had time.

More time than I need. Her usual problem, and also, she knew, the cause of her anger. For that time needed to be spent somewhere, and as she traveled on public spacecraft, that meant she spent it in places such as these. Mongrel places, tainted by humanish, and by Haárin who had lost their Way. She watched them walk with one another, converse with one another, these misbegottens. Humanish, their hair arranged in breeders’ fringes whether they had bred or not, their clothes the flowing overrobes of the most strict bornsect. Haárin, hair clipped skull-close or left unbound, the females in wraps of cloth that clasped their forms or fluttered about them as though torn by winds, the females and males both in blinding patterns and colors avoided by even the most unruly outcast.

Yet I appear as one with them. Rilas pressed a hand to her stomach, and felt her soul rumble. Elyas is a godless place, Cèel had warned her, more so than any of the others you have visited. There, you will witness such as you never imagined possible. She remembered the weariness in his posture as he spoke, the anger in his bowed shoulders and the turn of his head.

“Soon, nìRau,” Rilas whispered to herself. “Soon it will be as it was.” As the gods meant it to be, before all had been sundered and defiled. Before the ungodly had put it wrong. “I shall put it most right, and truly.” She lowered her hand from her stomach, and clenched it. “Soon.”

She stood in place and uttered another prayer to her favored goddess, and felt herself calm. So often had she called upon Caith in her times of uncertainty, and just as often had Caith heard her pleas and brought her peace. In your blessed chaos, goddess, allow me to find my Way. She kept her head bowed as she prayed, and pretended to read the covers of an array of newssheets displayed in a shop window. In a godly place, she would stand most straight, as she had in the altar room. Then she would raise her hands above her head, and plead to Caith in the keening voice of an abject suborn. But such would call attention, and I am about on secret business. Business such as that which she had performed on Amsun, and before that, on Padishah and so many other humanish places. She bared her teeth for a moment only, savoring the pleasure of her task. I perform as I must in the midst of my enemies, and it is their methods that I use. From her names, to her clothes, to the information in the documents she carried, she was as a liar, and when she lied, she became as one with her goddess. I am of Caith now. She raised her head to stare at her blurred reflection in the glass, and the warmth of peace filled her. I am as chaos–

She sensed a shape out of the corner of her eye, a shadow she had not detected before. Her heart slowed, its beat strengthening. She turned, her hands raised to chest level. Made ready to strike, as she had so many times before–

–but saw no enemy, only a misshapen thing perched atop a pedestal, grey as old stone, tongue lolling and teeth bared. She stepped closer and examined a face as long as a beast’s. Then she moved on to its clawed hands, reaching out and touching the cold, smooth surface.

“It’s called a gargoyle.”

Rilas turned to find a humanish standing at her shoulder. A male, dark-skinned as a Pathen. He wore his black hair clipped short, as was proper for his kind. But he dressed in a most outrageous Haárin style, his shirt and trousers assaulting the eye in clashing shades of green and orange. He looked her in the eye as he spoke, as was the humanish way. A most unseemly familiarity.

“They’re the guardians of this place. They watch over the pilots, the mechanics.” He edged closer to Rilas, until his shoulder grazed hers. “We’ve never had an accident with fatalities at this port. We’re the only station in the Commonwealth that can make that claim.”

Rilas took a full step back, as she had been taught. You must be most direct and obvious when you repel humanish males, one instructor had told her most long ago, otherwise they do not understand. Many found the long limbs and gold-toned skins of idomeni females attractive, and the efforts of some of them to convince the idomeni females of such had led to unseemly incidents. I can allow no unseemly incidents now. Thus would her trained hands remain at her sides, and her yen for the shedding of blood remain unsatisfied.

“I have never seen one of these gargoyles before.” Rilas kept all inflection from her voice, and did not look the male in the face. His sort found idomeni eyes most attractive as well, a fact beyond understanding. Cat eyes, they called them. Fool, Rilas thought, and blind besides. She had studied many images of cats, and none of their eyes appeared as hers. Her pupils were as round, not slitted, her iris and sclera dark and pale gold, not a single color. Not as a cat’s at all.

“You’ve never visited our famous station before?” The male bared his teeth. “The architect wanted to construct a Gothic cathedral in the outer reaches of the Commonwealth. There were plenty who said we should have stopped her, but scratch an Elyan and you’ll find two things, a unique sense of humor and bred-in-the-bone pissiness about being told what to do.” He pointed toward the wall at the far end of the tunnel-like concourse. “We’re particularly proud of our Rose Window.”

Rilas looked to the immense circle of glass that filled the space, whorls of blue and yellow separated by translucent red. Blessed red. The holiest of colors. The privilege of priests, used to tint an artificial window that spread artificial light over this most blasted and soulless of places. “A godless thing, and truly,” she said, turning away from the sight that even her love of chaos could not make as right.

The male tilted his head, and tried to draw her gaze. “I admit this place isn’t to everyone’s taste.” He waited, as though expecting Rilas to respond. When she did not do so, he backed away from her. “There is an area in the east corridor set aside for the more orthodox idomeni.” He jerked his head downward, a rough humanish bow. “My apologies for bothering you.”

Rilas watched him go, remaining still until his garish form disappeared among the crowd and she felt sure that he would not return. Only then did she walk across the concourse and enter the locker area where Haárin passengers stored their belongings between flights. She encountered several as she made her way down the narrow corridor, and noted that she appeared most as they did. She looked as her name now, ná Nahin Sela, the oddity with which niRau Cèel has christened her before she left behind the warmth of her native Rauta Shèràa and departed her blessed homeworld of Shèrá. Her dominant had never before chosen the name under which she would perform her assigned tasks, but in this instance they had both felt it appropriate. Most seemly, and truly.

“Nahin.” She walked the narrow aisles separating the rows of lockers, repeating her name as some did their gate numbers and departure times. When she came to her locker, she acted the tired traveler in case she encountered any other Haárin, fumbling with the touchlock and struggling to remove the bags as she had seen others do. This was not difficult, as the handle of one bag was not long enough to loop over her shoulder and the other felt as though it had been filled with bricks.

Fools! When next she spoke with those who had rented this locker and left the bags for her, she would berate them. Her travel documents listed her vocation as “tile broker”. Did those who assembled that which she needed think she meant to carry tiles on her person! She hefted her clumsy burden of purchases and baggage and hunted for a laving room.

By the time Rilas found an empty laving cubicle, the first call for her shuttle sounded throughout the locker area. She opened the cubicle door with a vend token and edged inside, the weighty bags banging against her shins. She hefted them atop the narrow counter, then began her preparations.

First, she removed cleansing materials and washed her face and hands, tucking strands of hair behind her ears and studying herself in the small mirror. Most as humanish, and truly. She wrote a symbol in the air as a gesture against demons, then resumed her search through the smaller of her bags, rooting past shoes and a tightly-folded weatherall until she came to the thing which she sought.

The small case looked as something that would hold earrings or hair ornaments. Indeed, when she opened it, such was what she found. She fingered past the fine gold loops and tangles of braided cord and beads until she found that for which she searched. A ring, alternating bands of gold and silver set with a scattering of small stones.

Using her thumbnail, Rilas worked one of the stones loose from its setting. The colorless disc appeared smooth and featureless to her eye. She held it to the cubicle light and tilted it back and forth, in search if any scratch or crack. Satisfied that none existed, she held the disc under the faucet and rinsed it under a stream of warm water, working it between her fingers as she did. Just as it flexed and began to soften, she positioned it on the tip of her index finger. Then she bent low over the sink, using the thumb and index finger of her free hand to hold open her right eye.

Rilas flinched as she touched the warmed plastic to her eye’s surface. The disc adhered and spread, squeezing her cornea–tears dripped into the sink as she fought the urge to sneeze, forced herself still, and quiet. She had performed the same action on Amsun, on Padishah, and numerous other places, yet every time it felt as a surprise. She blinked once, slowly, and felt the lens settle into place. Blinked again. Then she raised her head and looked into the mirror.

Her right eye looked much as it always did. Shinier due to the tears, but not injured. She leaned toward the mirror and looked more closely, until she was satisfied that the edges of the lens were as invisible. She waited, until it absorbed its weight in water and the squeezing feeling subsided. Then she picked up the small case once more, and resumed her exploration.

The second thing for which she searched, she found stuck to the end of a hair clasp. She pried this clear disc from its setting as she had the lens, then warmed it under running water, massaging it until it, too, softened. Then she held it to the opening of her right ear, shivering as she felt it adhere and spread. “Fourteen,” she whispered, knowing from experience that the sensor that had attached itself within her ear canal would replay her voice as though she spoke aloud. “Fourteen times have I performed these acts as my dominant has bidden me.” She would speak her thoughts aloud from now on, and use exact numbers, dates, hours. The time had come to be precise in all things.

“I am Imea nìaRauta Rilas, and this is my book.” She spoke to the mirror, and imagined the lens recording her reflection, her expression, as she knew it did. “I speak from laving cubicle number ten, locker area seven-oh-four, level fourteen, east transept, Elyas Station.” She paused, then uttered the date, the time. “My purpose in coming here is to kill ní Tsecha Egri, at the bidding of my most godly dominant, Morden nìRau Cèel.”

Rilas tensed as the second call for her shuttle echoed. Outside her cubicle door, up and down the aisle, voices rose. Doors clicked open. Footsteps sounded. She closed the jewelry case, returned it to the small bag, and resumed her search. If I miss this shuttle, I will forfeit my billet. Purchasing another would be simple enough, but it would be best, she decided, if she left this mongrel place as quickly as she could. Too many dangers awaited out in the concourse. Too many friendly humanish males. Too many chances to be remembered.

She paused, and willed herself calm. There was still one more thing she needed to find, and if she could not do so, there would be no point in continuing. She set aside the small bag and opened the larger one. The things she had thought felt like bricks proved to be embossed metal cases of the type that opened to form displays. “Displays for ná Nahin, a broker in tile.” She opened one case, then another, feeling her calm ebb as the seconds passed and she flipped open cases then slammed them shut as prayers turned to curses and her temper rose–

In the last case, on the bottom of the bag, as was usual. A flat container the size of her hand, greyed blue in color and cold to the touch. She scraped a fingernail over the surface, and watched as a thin layer of frost curled, then evaporated. She held the container gingerly, using her fingertips only so as not to warm it too much, and opened the lid.

The cold that emerged caused condensate to form in the air above–Rilas waved it away with one hand to prevent the moisture from settling on the most special objects within. Her prizes, so carefully designed and produced.

The projectiles filled both sides of the container, arranged lengthwise and nestled in molded depressions in the inner liner. Three on each side for a total of six–two less than she had wanted, but those who had made them had told her that she was lucky to get as many as this. So they said. So they claimed. She never knew when to believe scientists. They shied away from her, and avoided telling her all they knew unless ordered by nìRau Cèel. And even then…. She wondered about them, even as she knew that they had no choice but to aid her.

She lifted one of the projectiles from its niche and held it up as she had the lens. Muted silver, as long as her small finger, tapered at one end and flattened on the other, the small missile caught the cubicle light and split it as a prism would, sending a shard of rainbow shimmering across the ceiling. Rilas tilted it one way, then the other, looking for seaming or an opening, an inner darkness or shape that revealed that which it contained. Then she returned it to its place and closed the case. Tucked the case back in the bag and closed that as well. Tossed shop wrappings in the trash bin and gathered her baggage. She had all she needed now. It was well and truly time to leave.

The rasp of her boot soles against the bare floor filled the cubicle area. She met no one until she made her way through the narrow, winding aisles and reentered the concourse. The racket of voices battered her for an instant only, receding to nothing as the calm overtook her. Such was a familiar sensation, one she esteemed as she did her dominant and her goddess. She and her task had become one, and would remain as such until she discharged it.

As Rilas approached her gate, she passed a news kiosk. It was a humanish-looking thing, rounded as a hive, covered from floor to top with signs advertising concourse shops and bright images from the covers of magazines. She quickened her step as she approached the garish thing–such subject matter held no interest for her.

Then one image among the many caught her eye. Her step slowed, then stopped. She approached the kiosk and with a cautious hand, removed the latest copy of an Elyan publication from its rack.

The face that stared back at her, she had seen too many times before. In reports from her dominant, compiled by his spies who labored throughout the humanish Commonwealth. In holoVee displays, when important events of the past months replayed. In her mind’s eye, as she considered her task and all that might prevent its completion. The face, brown-gold as some Pathen. The eyes, green as Sìah. The hair, black and clipped as short as that of the most ungodly Haárin.

Kilian. The name choked Rilas. Jani Kilian. The Kièrshia. The Toxin. The bringer of pain and change. Rilas felt her calm depart as she thought of her, living a damned life in a damned place on the world around which Elyas Station orbited. Once she had worn the uniform of her soldierly Service, and committed crimes that it pained any godly idomeni to recall. Now, twenty humanish years later, she served as a priest at the bidding of godless Tsecha, a mockery of all in which any godly idomeni believed. Ruled over a mongrel enclave that had no right to exist, a place of infamy and broken faith, of false teachers and the lies they spread to promote their own power.

“Toxin.” Rilas touched a finger to the middle of Jani Kilian’s forehead and traced a small circle, once, then again. As the final call for her shuttle sounded, she paid for the magazine with a vend token. Then she rolled it so as to hide Kilian’s face and hurried to her gate.