Isaac Acosta

Uprising 29-03

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“What do you mean, what are we gonna do about it?” Isaac demanded fifteen minutes later, once he and the others had caught up and we’d had a chance to explain the situation. Looking around at all of us, the boy added, “I mean, hey, don’t get me wrong. Sucks for them. But there aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how much this isn’t our problem.”

Sands gave him a thoroughly disgusted look at that. “Oh, right, real empathetic there, Isaac.”

“It’s not about being empathetic,” the boy shot back. “It’s about being realistic. Look, the only reason those Seosten freaks haven’t dropped an entire army on top of us already is that they don’t know we’re here, right? We’re alive and free because they have no idea where we are. We try to get involved in this and how do you think it’ll go? Cuz I can tell you. The skies will open up and they will drop a veritable shit-ton of troops down on our heads. And they won’t stop coming after us until we’re either dead, or their obedient little puppet-slaves. I told you, I feel for the guy. But if we get involved, we won’t be helping anyone. We’ll just be a bunch of meatsuit puppets.”

Sighing under my breath, I looked over to where the chameleon-guy was. He’d pushed his back up against the nearby tree, and his eyes were darting around fearfully as he watched our every move. So far, he hadn’t reacted to anything we said, so I was pretty sure he didn’t understand English. Which was just going to end up making this even more complicated than it already was.

Roxa spoke up, having moved away to transform back into her human self. “So we just, what, ignore the guy? Walk away from him and pretend we never saw him? Is that what you suggest?”  

“Well, we can’t exactly do that either, can we?” Isaac pointed out then. “He runs out of here, and you really think he won’t sell us out to the first Seosten guard he sees to save his own skin?”

Roxa’s retort was sharp as her eyes blazed at that. “So what, you wanna take him prisoner? Or did you want to do something else, Isaac, something a little more permanent than that, maybe?”

“Look, you can take him prisoner if you want,” the boy quickly replied while shaking his head. “I’m not some bloodthirsty monster, I’m being pragmatic. If we get involved, we are all going to die or be enslaved. If we let him go and he tells them where we’re hiding, we are all going to die or be enslaved. Do you want that to happen? Because I don’t. I like myself in charge of myself.”

Roxa gave him a dirty look. “But you’re fine with just leaving a bunch of innocent people out there to be enslaved and experimented on, as long as it’s not you? That’s just fucking swell?”

“I never said it was swell!” he retorted. “I said we couldn’t do anything about it. I told you, if we get involved, we’ll save maybe a few of them, and then the Seosten will drop down on us with the fury of a thousand suns. Everyone we saved will be dead or enslaved again, and so will we. You really wanna risk your life just to get these people a few fucking minutes of freedom?”

Taking a step that way, Roxa spoke in a low, yet powerful voice as she met the boy’s gaze. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear to you. I would risk my life to give one person one minute of freedom. And then I’d do it again for another minute. And again for another minute. I would put my life on the line every second, every minute, every hour of every single goddamn day if it gave one of these innocent people the freedom that they deserve for as long as I managed to survive. So, you wanna know if I’d really risk my life to save them right now? Fuck yes.”

Isaac started to say something then, but was interrupted as Jazz moved past him. She was stepping over by the terrified Alter. Seeing her moving that way, I almost moved to intercept her.

Wait, don’t. Tabbris’s voice in my head cut in. She sounded hesitant. I don’t think she’s um… y-you know, I don’t think she’s gonna do anything bad. We should give her a chance.

I wasn’t sure about that, but I listened to my partner. Still, I kept a close, wary eye on the girl. From the corner of my eye, I saw Roxa doing the same. She looked tense, squinting that way.

By that point, Jazz had taken a knee in front of the man. He was busy trying to push himself back even further into the tree. I was pretty sure he would’ve phased through it if he could have. As it was, he stared at the girl in front of him as if she was a snake that had coiled up and started hissing. The poor guy wasn’t just afraid of us, he was pretty much completely petrified.

“He could be lying.” Jazz’s voice was soft, hesitant. She sounded like she knew this wasn’t going to go over well at all, but still had to say it. “It could be a trap, you know? What if they sent a bunch of these… people out to all these different areas with some sob story to trick us into going where they can grab us, just because they know that you guys think they’re innocent?”

I could see Roxa gearing up again, but before she could launch into another tirade, I stepped that way to put a hand on her arm. “Wait,” I muttered before looking to Jazz. “Just go with me on this. For right now, pretend he’s telling the truth. Just pretend you believe him, hypothetically. If he was telling the truth, and this isn’t some kind of trap, then what do you think we should do?”

Jazz’s mouth opened and shut. I saw the conflict in her eyes before her head shook. “If it wasn’t a trap? I mean, if it’s not a trap? That’s not–I mean… I mean there isn’t any way to know if it’s–”

“Hypothetically, Jazz,” I cut in. “You can do that much, can’t you? If there was a way to be absolutely certain that this isn’t a trap, then what would you choose? Isaac says it’s too dangerous. Roxa says she wants to go in and try anyway. But I wanna know what you say.”

Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, and she made a noise in the back of her throat. Her eyes darted to the man, back to me, then to the man again while she swallowed. “I… I don’t… I don’t know,” she finally managed while shaking her head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I just–I just don’t know, okay? I…He’s not, he’s not what I…” Turning back to him, she stared openly while he cringed and whimpered, clearly having absolutely no idea what we were talking about. Hell, he probably thought we were discussing which one of us would get to kill him. Or worse.

After staring at that whimpering, terrified figure for a few long seconds, Jazz finally spoke again.  Her soft, weak voice was barely audible, even as close as I was. “He’s not what I expected.”

Sands spoke before Roxa or I could. “You expected a monster.” Stepping over, she gave the Alter a brief look before focusing on the girl herself. “Because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We’re supposed to slay monsters and demons. That’s what we grew up learning about. That’s what they told us, that we were the last line of defense against some unrelenting horde of evil creatures, that we were going to save the innocents. We were supposed to be heroes.”

She took a step back, giving a slightly bitter smile as her head shook slowly. “Well, you know what? I’m pretty sure that being a hero is about doing the right thing.” Her eyes flicked toward Isaac. “No matter how dangerous it is.” Then she looked to Jazz. “No matter how hard it is.”

I nodded, biting my lip before the words came, almost of their own volition. “Maybe fuck Crossroads,” I announced, drawing everyone’s attention. “Maybe fuck our teachers. Maybe fuck everyone who ever said how this was supposed to go. Maybe right now, right here is where we decide what we’re going to do. Maybe right now is when we decide who we are. Maybe right now is when we decide what the right thing is for us. No teachers. No rules. No training wheels or safety lines. Nobody’s looking over our shoulders and nobody’s going to tell you what to do. I’m certainly not. It’s your choice. You decide. There’s a bunch of people out there who are being tortured, enslaved, worked to death or experimented on until they just wish they were dead.

“But Isaac’s right,” I continued slowly, purposefully. “If we let them know that we’re still around, things are gonna get bad. They will come after us and it will not be fun. We might lose. We might die. We might end up in just as bad a situation as the people that we’re trying to help are in. Maybe even worse. So you guys tell me, what is the right thing to do in that situation? We can keep hiding, and let these people suffer. Or we can step out and do something about it.”    

Roxa was the first one to speak after I had finished, her voice firm. “Do something about it.”

Sands was already nodding, fists clenched tightly as she agreed, “Do something about it.”

Jazz let out a long, low sigh then. She was still looking at the ground, fists pressed against the dirt as she hung her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know how I feel about… about any of this. I want to–I…” Her head shook, and she repeated, “I don’t know. But I…” Finally, she lifted her head to look at at Roxa. “I do know that I’m not going to let you go into something dangerous like that without me. I don’t know how I feel about it, but if you’re going, I’m going.”

“Well shit.” Isaac mumbled under his breath. He lifted his gaze to the sky while muttering something inaudible, then heaved a long, heavy sigh. “What the hell. You all wanna be suicidal, I guess I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? I’m screwed if I just stay out here on my own, and there’s no way dear old roomie’s gonna leave you all flapping in the breeze.” He was obviously trying to sound light, but I could see that the boy wasn’t happy about this whole thing.

Smiling faintly then, Roxa looked over at me. “I guess, aside from Gordon, that just leaves you, technically.” Her chin lifted a little as she gave me a significant look before slowly asking, “What do you say?”  

Except she wasn’t just talking to me, I realized. Roxa knew that there were technically two votes right here. That’s why she was making a point of the question. How about it, partner? I asked inwardly. This puts you in danger too. Maybe more than us. If they figure out that you’re here…

In Tabbris’s case, there was no hesitation at all. They’re all in trouble. We can help them.

“I guess that settles it then,” I announced out loud, trying to smile encouragingly even as my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest at the very idea of what we were about to attempt.

“Unless Gordon has some really convincing argument, we’re doing this.”

“Yeah, you know what?” Isaac announced then. “Call me crazy, but something tells me that Captain Logical isn’t gonna be so logical when it comes to this. It’s just a feeling.”

I didn’t know if he was right or not. Gordon did tend to be logical about everything. But then again, he’d been acting a little differently now and then, whenever the subject of the Seosten conspiracy about Alters came up. Maybe he was like Sands, pissed off that he’d been lied to for so long. Or maybe it was something more than that. I just didn’t know.

But something told me, whatever his deal was, it would come up before this field trip was over.

******

It took some convincing to get our new chameleon-like friend to come with us. We had to convince him that we weren’t just marching him back to Radueriel. Or rather, Tabbris did. She used my voice, carefully telling the man that we weren’t possessed, and we weren’t part of Seosten military. She/I told him we were going to help, but he had to get back to our camp.

So we stopped by to grab the two pantlers that we’d managed to kill, and Roxa and I each dragged one while the others kept their eyes open for anything bad.

Gordon was already standing at the base of the tree when we arrived. Clearly he’d seen us coming and climbed down to meet us. As we approached, the dark-skinned boy stepped out, keeping his voice low and even as he looked straight at our companion. “Who’s this?”

“It’s–” I paused, squinting before looking toward the man. His eyes were darting around constantly, watching for any kind of attack. Any time one of us spoke, he flinched noticeably like he expected to be hit. Or worse. The poor guy was still completely pants-wettingly terrified of us.  

Could you ask him what his name is? I sent inwardly. Anything we’re supposed to call him.

My mouth moved then, as Tabbris spoke through me. Just like when we had been speaking in front of the others aside from Roxa, she spoke slowly and hesitantly, taking a few seconds now and then as if thinking about the right word. She didn’t have to, obviously. But it would be more convincing that it was actually me talking if I wasn’t rattling it off like it was my first language.

Still, after only about a sentence or so into it, Isaac interrupted. “Hey, how do you even know how to speak this gibberish anyway? That something you learned from that Prosser guy too?”

Before I could reply, Gordon actually spoke up. “It’s just Latin,” he announced flatly. “She’s better at it than me, but I can follow some of it, enough words here and there to get the basic gist.”

“Why do they speak La–” Jazz started, then stopped herself. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know.”

Biting my lip, I turned my attention back to the Alter, urging Tabbris to go on. She did, apparently asking the man what his name was as gently as possible, trying not to scare him even more.

His eyes darted back and forth between us. I could tell that he was trying to decide whether giving us that much information was a good idea or not. Finally, he either realized that we weren’t going to do anything bad with it, or figured that we’d hurt him more if he didn’t talk. He started to hesitantly speak, his voice so quiet that I had to lean in closer to hear him better. Which, of course, made him stutter more, head ducking as if I was about to literally eat him.

Jokai, Tabbris announced. He says his name is Jokai. But I think he’s afraid that we’re gonna… um, take his name and use it to find everyone he cares about and… you know, make an example out of them. I tried to tell him that it’s safe, but he’s–um. They’ve been tricked before. That’s kind of the whole Seosten thing. I could hear the disgust in her voice. That’s how they um, how they stop rebellions before they get off the ground. They possess people and infiltrate the slave camps, find out who’s talking about rebelling and… and make examples out of them.

Okay, I was wrong. Apparently I could feel worse about this whole situation. Biting my lip and trying not to sigh too much, I looked back to the others. “His name is Jokai.” For Gordon, I went on to tell him the rest of it, that Jokai came from a slave labor camp, that he had run away and we’d… found him. Then I told him about the conversation we’d had before coming back here.

“So uh, that’s what we’re up to,” I finally finished with a little shrug. “That leaves it up to you. I mean, I’m sure Isaac would stay with you if you guys wanna sit this out. He didn’t want to be by himself, but if you…” Biting my lip, I trailed off and just looked to him. “It’s up to you. In or out?”

Gordon wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were on the trembling Alter, something utterly unreadable on his face. He stayed like that for a few seconds before lifting his chin and exhaling. When he finally spoke, it was obviously through a thick lump in his throat. “In.”

“That’s all of us.” Taking a breath, I turned to look at the Alter, Jokai. Tell him we’re gonna help get his people out of the prison camp. Or try to, at least.

Once more, my lips moved as the Seosten girl took over briefly. There was a short back and forth between ‘me’ and Jokai, and the more ‘I’ said, the more confused he looked. He kept repeating a phrase that I took to essentially mean, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’

Finally, however, he reached out to clutch my arm, all four of his eyes widening as he blurted a single word: sacramentum. His voice was a shaky, desperate plea, as if he was both afraid and ashamed that he was actually starting to believe any of this, but couldn’t help himself.

He’s asking if you promise, Tabbris informed me quietly. Actually, it’s more like he’s asking if you swear that you’re telling the truth, that you’re going to try. It’s an oath.

I relayed that to the others. While Isaac rolled his eyes and Jazz looked uncertain, Gordon was already nodding. “Vero,” he announced after considering his words briefly. “Sacramentum.”

After watching the others briefly, I nodded to our new friend. “Sacramentum. We’ll help your people, Jokai.

“I swear.”  

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Uprising 29-02

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Harper Hayes posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Isaac, left, left, go left!” Jazz blurted loudly while throwing herself straight at Roxa. With a snarling cry, she swung that falchion of hers. The blade carried a wide, roaring wave of fire with it as it cut through the air. Metal and flame alike swept toward the blonde werewolf girl.

Meanwhile, Isaac was going for Roxa’s left side, swinging his three-headed flail at the space that the girl would have to dodge into in order to avoid the flames that were headed for her.

At the exact same time, Gordon was standing about half a dozen yards away. He had his weapon up in tommy gun form, taking aim carefully before he let loose with a barrage of shots.

Roxa was… not in even the slightest bit of trouble. She stepped forward, letting the flames engulf her to seemingly no effect. While Jazz was still realizing that, the other girl ripped the sword out of her hands by the blade before pivoting to kick her ex-roommate’s legs out from under her. As Jazz was dumped onto her backside, Roxa flipped the sword up and around. She used the blade to catch one of the chains of Isaac’s flail, and a quick yank tore it from his hands.

In the same motion, she kept turning on one foot, releasing the tangled sword and flail into a throw. They flew through the air, separating in time for the chains of the flail to wrap around Gordon’s legs, just before the hilt of the sword smacked him in the center of his forehead.

“And if you had really been attacking me,” Roxa announced, standing with one foot on Jazz’s chest and her hand against Isaac’s throat, “you would’ve been hit by the blade, not the hilt.”

Stepping forward then, I bobbed my head up and down quickly. “There, see, guys? You’re totally getting better. You lasted four whole seconds that time.” Moving to where Gordon had fallen, I held a hand out to help him up. “That’s twice as long as you lasted the first time we did this.”

It had been almost a week since we ended up on this planet. And yeah, we were training. I figured that even if we were stuck out here literally in the middle of nowhere on this alien world until someone rescued us, we could at least keep training. Partly because we all desperately needed it if we were going to survive anything the Seosten managed to throw at us. And partly because if Avalon found out that I’d been shirking training, I was pretty sure she’d kill me.

At least with Roxa around I had a really good opponent to spar with. After killing Lemuel and whatever else she’d done while with her pack, the werewolf girl probably could’ve given Valley herself a run for her money. It meant that both of us could help each other actually get better.

Gordon lay there, watching my hand for a moment like I was trying to offer him a snake. Just as I was about to step away so that he wouldn’t feel forced into anything, the boy reached up to take my hand. It was tentative, and he released me as soon as I’d pulled him to his feet. For good measure, he took a couple steps away. If it was anyone else, I might’ve felt insulted. But I knew by that point that that was just how Gordon was. He really did not like to be touched.

Jazz was shaking her head as Roxa helped her up as well. “Four seconds? That means she could still murder us fifteen times inside of a minute if she wanted to.” Pausing, she glanced to the other girl, hesitating just a little before adding, “Are werewolves really that badass?”  

Roxa lifted her chin, squinting briefly. “Werewolves can rip you apart, yes. But it’s not just that. Like I said before, I killed the leader of that evil pack. That… that gave me a big boost. Plus there’s everything else. I’m a werewolf, but I’m also a Heretic. So everything I kill keeps making me stronger. Hell, when I was still at Crossroads and we killed those Jekern, I ended up with the redundant organ powers. So between werewolf regeneration, the regen we all got from those peridles at the start of the year, and the redundant organs, I’m a gigantic pain in the ass to kill.”  

“That’s good, right?” Isaac put in while dusting himself off. He gave Roxa an easy smile. “I mean, good because you’re on our side. We wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

In the days since we had upended these guys’ entire belief system, they had gradually started to come to terms with it. Gordon had never really seemed that against it, and Isaac just kind of went with the flow. Part of that was his personality and part was obviously because he had grown up as a Bystander. Jazz had been the hardest hit by the whole thing, but she was coming around. Hell, sometimes she could even get through a whole conversation with Roxa without looking like someone had just kicked her puppy. She was adapting. And the more that Jazz interacted with the other girl without anything bad happening, the better she was becoming.

Even then, however, Jazz had made it clear that she wasn’t sure what she believed. Even if Roxa wasn’t evil, she wasn’t quite willing to believe that that extended to all Alters. The day before, the girl had extended the thought that because Roxa had been a Heretic first, it ‘saved’ her, that somehow being a Heretic had stopped the evil of the werewolf from taking over.

Yeah, Jazz still didn’t understand why the other girl had stormed off after that and refused to speak to her for the rest of the day. The point was, tensions were not quite all the way calm. We’d gotten it through their heads that Roxa wasn’t a threat. Now we just had to make them believe the rest of it. I just wasn’t sure how we were supposed to go about doing that.

“Hey, it’s someone else’s turn to come up here!” That was Sands, calling from her position up in the top of the nearby tree where she was playing lookout. “I wanna get some training in.”

The Seosten had basically stopped sending out ships out to scan for us after those first couple days (probably because they had no way of knowing where we were, or even if we were still on this planet), but we were still keeping an eye out for them just in case they were trying to lull us into some kind of  false sense of security. So we each took turns watching the sky for any ships whenever we were out of the cave. So far, everything had been pretty quiet. But I knew that couldn’t last forever. Radueriel wouldn’t have given up on finding us that easily after everything the Seosten went through to get us out here in the first place. It was just a matter of time.

The real question was, would Gaia manage to find a way to pull us back to Earth before the Seosten tracked us down? We were stuck here, waiting to see who won that particular race.

“I’ll go,” Gordon announced as he looked up to the tree. Which wasn’t really much of a surprise. The dark-skinned boy spent about half the time that he wasn’t training up there. He obviously liked the solitude, the chance to be by himself away from everyone else, just watching the sky.

Do you think he’s okay? I thought inwardly, biting my lip as I briefly wondered what could’ve happened in Gordon’s past to make him so withdrawn and against the idea of being touched.  

The answer from Tabbris was tentative. I… I dunno. Jazz, I know why she acts the way she does. But Gordon and Isaac are weird. Especially Isaac. Sometimes it seems like he’s trying really hard to seem sensitive and open, but um, other times, it’s like he says something just to… you know, just to get a reaction. It’s like he forgets to be nice, and has to remind himself.

Speaking of which, the boy himself was busy waving at Gordon. “Knock yourself out, dude. It’s so goddamn boring up there. Are you sure you weren’t a bird in a previous life or something?”

Sands had dropped down by that point, using the wooden stakes that we had fashioned and driven into the tree as a ladder. Hopping to the ground, she interrupted before Gordon had to respond to his roommate. “We need to get some food, guys. And I don’t mean fish or those berries. If I have another fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I swear I’m gonna throw up.”

“What else are we supposed to do?” Isaac asked, shrugging his shoulders. “I mean, I’m with you, babe. But unless you know a pizza place with an incredible delivery range, we’re screwed.” Pausing then, he grumbled, “Shouldn’t’ve said that. Now I really want some pizza.”

While I shook my head and sighed, Roxa spoke up. “It’s not pizza, but I’ve seen some animals out on my runs. They look like a cross between deer and pigs.” She shrugged then. “Might taste pretty good, if we could take one down and get it back here. Mateo taught me how to get meat off an animal like that. And yes,” she added, “before any of you say anything, we did cook it.”

I hesitated a little. But honestly, I was sick of fish too. And it had been days since the last ship flew overhead. “Okay,” I finally agreed, asking, “do you think you can track them in wolf form?”

She gave me a sly smirk in response. “I’m seriously sick of fish too. Trust me, I can track them.”

Nodding, I reached into my pocket to take out Gus and Jaq. “Okay, let’s do this. Gordon, can you take one of my buddies here and hold onto him? If you see anything, he’ll send a warning to his brother.” I shrugged then. “It’s kinda the best we can do without any radios or anything.”

“Yeah,” Sands agreed. “Not like our phones are getting any signal out here. And I don’t know about you guys, but mine ran out of power days ago anyway.”

“I turned mine off as soon as we got here,” Gordon replied. “Conserving power. Just in case.”

I shrugged. “Charmeine kinda destroyed mine. Good idea about saving phone battery though.”

“So if we’re going hunting,” Isaac started, “does that mean we have to be vewwy vewwy quiet?”

Jazz gave an emphatic nod. “Yes, that’s exactly what it means. We all have to be vewwy quiet.

“Especially you.”

******

It wasn’t actually that hard to track down the pig-deer (they really needed a better name). About twenty minutes later, the five of us were crouched by some trees, watching a small herd of them nosing around in the clearing ahead of us. Just like Roxa had described, they looked like fuzzy warthogs that were about as tall as a small deer, with both long tusks as well as full antlers, and even long, bushy tails like a really big squirrel.

“Oh man,” Isaac whispered under his breath, just loud enough for us to hear, “I see bacon and a nice venison burger from the same damn animal. Maybe this planet isn’t so bad after all.”

Roxa, who was still in her wolf form, put a paw on his arm before shaking her head for him to be quiet. Then she looked over to me and nodded her head one way, toward the bushes on the other side of the clearing before pantomiming barking and howling. Finally, she nodded in the opposite direction, reaching up with a paw to bump against the staff in my hand.

I thought for a second, looking that way before realizing. Keeping my voice so low it was barely audible at all, I whispered, “You go that way, scare them into taking off in that direction, right where I’ll have planted some mines for them to run into. Then we pick off whatever we need to?”

When the wolf-girl gave a short nod, I smiled a little. “Sounds good to me. Hold on. I’ll be back.”

Carefully and slowly, I crawled back the way we’d come, looping around a ways until I came to the spot that Roxa had indicated. Then I paused to make sure the hog-deer… deer-pigs…

Digs? Tabbris offered helpfully. You know, like deer-pigs. Or sweer, for swine-deer. Or doar, for deer-boar.  Or pantlers, for pigs with antlers. There’s hantlers too, for hogs, but I like pantlers.  

Pantlers is kind of cute, I agreed while charging my staff. Carefully, I started to lay out concussive mines along the path that the animals would most likely run through once Roxa startled them. Maybe we can let everyone take a vote on which one they like best.

I’m pretty sure, she replied confidently, that what they really wanna call them is dinner.

Smiling at that, I started to crawl back to where the others were. You’re probably right.

When I got back there, only Sands and Jazz were waiting. Through gestures and whispers, they let me know that Roxa and gone around to the back of the clearing and was waiting to scare the pantlers (that was definitely my favorite one). Isaac, meanwhile, had gone down and around to the opposite side from where we were so that he could block them if they ended up retreating that way. Basically, between all of us we would herd them into the mines that I had laid down.

Biting my lip, I looked back out at where the animals were calmly eating. A few of them had started to look around cautiously, but mostly they were content to munch their food.

Then I had an even better idea. Whispering for the others to hang on, I reached out a hand to touch the tree in front of me. With a thought, I used the Relekun’s power to shove myself into the wood, ‘swimming’ up the tree to the nearest large branch. Emerging, I crouched there, basically directly over the antlered warthogs below. Still, the herd hadn’t really moved much.

Sands was looking up at me, and I gave her a thumbs up while transforming my staff into its bow form and charging up an arrow. Once she saw that I was ready, Sands turned to mouth something at Jazz. In turn, the other girl put a hand to her lips before pretty accurately imitating one of the birds that we had seen all around this place over the past week. I had no idea if that was some kind of mimicry power, or just a completely natural skill. Either way, it was really good.

The pantlers below were warily looking around at the sound of the bird call. That wariness exploded into full out panic, however, as Roxa abruptly leapt into the clearing with a loud snarl. She gave a violent series of barks while lunging toward the quite thoroughly startled animals.

And that was the point where the pantlers decided they’d had quite enough of this shit. The entire herd panicked, spinning around to scatter in various directions. Unfortunately for them, we were ready for that. The few that ran toward where Sands and Jazz waited were met with both girls lunging out to shout at them, weapons swinging. Jazz even brought up a brief wave of fire.

Meanwhile, the ones that went toward Isaac were sent back the way we wanted them to go by his three drones, which flew out of the bushes and sent several shots toward the poor animals.

All of that together meant that the creatures that were about to be our dinner were herded right where we wanted them to go. As I watched from my perch in the tree, the first couple reached the mines, and were instantly blown off their feet by the concussive explosion. One flew backwards into a full somersault (which looked weird coming from an animal like that), smacking against a tree. Another was caught just a little less, and went tumbling sideways into a bush.

The rest of the herd kept running, hit less by the mines. But that was more than alright. Two of the things would definitely be enough for awhile. We just had to make sure they didn’t get away.

To that end, I took aim at the furthest pantler, the one that had just been tossed into the bush. My energy-arrow shot that way, catching the thing just as it was getting up. That time, the thing stayed down. And I was just about to take aim at the second one when a wave of pleasure washed over me. It wasn’t anything close to the bigger rushes I’d gotten from deaths like Charmeine or the Amarok. In contrast, this was more like a brief pleasurable feeling. But it did take me a little by surprise, to the point that I had to quickly reach out and catch myself against the tree. I’d kind of forgotten that these things would actually trigger the whole Heretic-kill thing.

As I caught myself against the tree, however, something else caught my eye. Off on the other side of the clearing, half-hidden in bushes… was a humanoid figure. I couldn’t tell much about it from where I was, except that it looked pretty close to human save for yellow-red skin that made it blend into the surrounding bushes pretty well. It was watching the others, but a second later it looked up, clearly catching sight of me looking at it. Instantly, the thing pivoted to run.

“Roxa!” I shouted. As the wolf spun to look my way, I pointed off the way the thing was going. “Company!”

Then I leapt, transitioning my weapon back into its staff form before using a blast of energy to send myself flying that way. The brief flight before I came down cut into the spy’s lead, and I hit the ground running. I was fast, but Roxa was faster. She tore past me, all four legs turning her into a furry rocket that vanished into the bushes ahead.

A second later, my staff was charged enough to launch myself upward once more. I flew up and forward, landing on an outstretched branch to run along it for a few steps. Ahead, I caught the briefest glimpse of the figure running, with Roxa right behind him.

It was cutting to the right, so I did too, launching myself from the end of the branch with another burst from my staff. The propulsion sent me over the figure’s head, and I came down almost directly in front of it, spinning with my weapon up.

It was a male figure. I recognized that now. He pivoted at the sight of me, trying to escape back the way he’d come. But an instant later, Roxa came leaping out of the bushes. She collided with the man, knocking him to the ground with a loud, violent growl.

Now I had a better look at the guy. The most immediate feature I noticed was that he had four eyes. Two were in the normal locations, while the other two were set just a little above them. So two on each side of his face. He also wasn’t wearing much, just a sort of brown loincloth. And his skin wasn’t really reddish-orange anymore. In the few seconds since he had hit the ground, it had turned brownish to match the dirt. Whatever this guy was, he had some kind of chameleon power. He was still visible, but his skin changed colors to match his surroundings.

He was also crying. Sobbing, really. Rolling on his side, he babbled something in some language I didn’t understand.

Old Seosten, Tabbris quickly put in. Basically Latin. I understand him. He… he’s begging you to kill him.

Kill him? I blinked. Why would he ask us to kill him?

He keeps saying, please kill me, please don’t send me to the butcher… doctor… something like that.

I frowned for a second. Then I got it. Radueriel. He’s afraid we’re working for Radueriel. Ask him where he came from. I mean, use me to ask him.

There was a momentary hesitation, then my mouth moved, and my voice spat out some words quickly. The sobbing figure stopped, blinking tear-filled eyes up at me before stammering a hesitant, fearful response.

Um, it’s um, he came from a labor camp. He says he escaped and ran for two days before he got here. He was just hungry. He saw the pantlers too. But when he saw you–I mean us, he thought you were part of the search team sent to bring him back. Now he’s afraid you’re gonna send him to Radueriel.

Well, that was one thing we definitely wouldn’t be doing. But this did mean one very important thing. We weren’t exactly alone on this planet after all. No, apparently there was a slave labor camp a couple days run away from here, a place full of terrified, broken, hopeless people like this guy, working themselves to the bone until they either died or were sent to be experiments for that fucking psycho Seosten cyborg.

The question was, what were we going to do about it?

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Uprising 29-01

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“A rebellion.” Isaac was staring at me as if I’d grown two additional heads and started yodeling as I finished telling them the truth about all that. “Like, an actual rebellion, and your mother was Princess Leia. Or Luke Skywalker. Wait, are either of those sexist? I can never keep track.”

There was a brief pause, where I was pretty sure that he was waiting for Jazz to tell him to shut up. But she didn’t. The other girl was too busy staring at me open-mouthed. She didn’t actually say anything at all. She just kept staring. Every once in awhile, her lips moved as if she was trying to find something to say, but she always stopped herself and just went back to staring.

While telling the story about the rebellion and my mother’s role in it, I’d finished up the spell that Tabbris had been walking me through. Now the cave was safe from any scans from the ships that occasionally passed by overhead. I didn’t really understand much of what I’d done for the spell, but I figured that Tabbris could talk me through the specifics later. In this case, I’d just been essentially letting her move my hands to draw everything. So it was safe enough, for the moment, for the others to focus solely on what I had told them. And focus they did.   

Roxa was the first to find her voice. “You… you know, that makes a lot of other things make a lot more sense. Your mom was the leader of some anti-establishment rebellion, it…” She shook her head slowly, clearly in awe. “That’s… awesome. I mean, not the rest of it, not what ended up happening or what they did to her. But your mom’s a hero. She’s like… a legend. Or she would be, if they hadn’t used magic to erase everyone’s memory. Your mom sounds fucking amazing.”

Despite myself, I smiled a little at that thought. “She is. Even after they erased her memory and made her a ‘normal’ human. She was the town sheriff. I… I guess even Seosten magic couldn’t completely erase everything that made mom want to protect people and stop bad guys.”

Roxa was grinning, showing her teeth a little bit. “Like I said, a lot of stuff makes a lot more sense now. Gotta admit, I was pretty confused before. Now I get it. No wonder you’re always getting in trouble. I mean, you’re the daughter of the woman who almost destroyed Crossroads, and your roommate slash one of your girlfriends is the descendant of the man who created it.”

The words made me flush, shaking my head while muttering, “When you put it that way…” I swallowed hard. “Seriously though, Mom is amazing. That’s why Fossor took her. It’s…” Biting my lip, I trailed off, looking away for a moment. I really didn’t want to dwell on that at the moment. We had enough problems to deal with, without me getting distracted by all that.

Gordon took a step forward then. As my eyes moved to him, the boy stood there, staring at me. There was something in his expression. I almost had the really weird feeling that he wanted to hug me. Which would have been odd coming from anyone. But coming from Gordon, it was utterly absurd to the point that I figured I absolutely had to be misreading his expression.

Nope, Tabbris quickly put in, he really looks like he wants to hug you. Sorta. For him.

By that point, the moment had passed, and Gordon turned to look at Jazz. His voice was as even and flat as it ever was. “It makes sense that they would do that.”

“Makes sense?” That was Sands, her voice raised almost to the point of hysteria as she demanded pointedly, “How exactly does erasing everyone’s memory of literally decades worth of time and a whole war, rewriting their entire history, actually make sense? You can’t possibly-”

“I don’t agree with it,” Gordon interrupted. “I never said I did. And I didn’t say it was the right thing to do. I said that it makes sense that they would do it. They were facing the end of their control. From what you guys said, the rebellion wasn’t ending. More and more Heretics were changing sides. And the establishment was in a race against time to begin with. The more that Heretics who were on the fence saw Alters working alongside rebel Heretics, the easier it would be to convince them that it was possible for Alters to not be evil. They had to do something very drastic to not just end the war, but also to stop people who witnessed all of that from starting it up again. So yes, their actions are evil and wrong. But they also make logical sense.”

I saw Jazz watching Roxa. It looked like the girl wanted to step closer. She had a longing look on her face, as if she… well, as if she wanted to talk to her old roommate, as if she wanted things to go back to the way they were. But her own doubts and fears were stopping her from taking that leap. In the end, she just swallowed hard before turning a bit to reply to Gordon, her tone more curious than accusatory. “You really think that kind of rebellion would’ve succeeded?”

“Without the kind of memory magic they used,” he replied easily, “and in the long run? Yes. That kind of truth would be an avalanche. Like I said, the more people who were on the fence witnessed Heretics and Alters fighting side by side, the more likely they were to slide off that fence to the right side. And the more of them that went, the more of their friends and family they would pull with them. Again, it’s an avalanche. Even if the Establishment succeeded at stamping out the current rebellion, it would stick in people’s memories. Brushfires would come up now and then, and before they knew it, there would be a whole rebellion all over again. In other words, erasing the entire event from everyone’s memory, while utterly repugnant, is logically sound.

“Before we keep arguing about this,” Roxa announced from near the cave entrance, “we should really check to make sure the coast is clear and then go get some food and water. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving.” She paused briefly then before pointedly adding, “And no, before you say anything, I’m not about to eat any of you. I’m a werewolf, not a cannibal.”

“Werewolves do eat people though,” Jazz pointed out before flushing. “I mean–” She sighed. “I’m not saying you are, just that werewolves have eaten people. You know they have.”

“Yeah,” Roxa replied flatly, “and so have people. There are bad werewolves, yes. No one’s saying there’s not. But there’s also good-you know what? Food. We all need to get food.”

Quickly, before anyone else could start in, I nodded. “Right, food and water. Hang on.” Pausing, I focused on Marian once more, sending her cautiously out into the ditch. Slowly, I made the little fox look around, clambering up the incline once more before eventually searching the sky from the tree. It took about ten minutes to assure myself that the coast was clear. Finally, however, I was fairly confident that it was as safe as it was going to be. There were no ships in immediate sight, and I was pretty sure we could get back to cover before any got near enough to find us. “Okay,” I announced, “Let’s get out there. But uh, be careful. We don’t know what kind of things might be dangerous here besides the Seosten. So let’s go slow and stay together.”

We did just that. Slowly, carefully, the six of us (plus Gidget) crept out of the cave. I looked to the sky, seeing it with my own eyes since I had closed my fox’s to make things less distracting and confusing. By mutual, silent agreement, no one said anything as we moved to half-climb and half-crawl up the embankment until we reached the top. Then I led the others to the river that I had seen. We remained quiet right up until we reached the river itself. Then, once we had cupped our hands in the water and slaked our thirst enough, the talking finally started again.

“I hate to be that guy,” Isaac started, “but what are we gonna do about food? Water’s great and all, but we’ve gotta eat too if we’re gonna survive. And I don’t think there’s a BK anywhere nearby.”

“Fish,” I replied while pointing into the water where several were swimming around. “I mean, it’s a whole different world, but fish is fish, I… think?” Frowning then, I muttered, “Unless they’re poisonous somehow. Hey, does anyone have a poison detecting power?”

“Gidget can handle it,” Roxa assured me. “Anything we want to eat, we stick it in her mouth and she can tell us if there’s anything in it that we shouldn’t have. Actually, Vulcan should be able to do the same thing, so I’m surprised Sean hasn’t mentioned that. It’s kind of one of their main features for Heretics that are… not at home.”

“Man, Gidget,” I remarked with a glance to the metal cougar, “you’re getting more useful by the second. Pretty soon, you’re gonna be more important to this whole situation than I am.”

While Gidget preened, Gordon looked at the water while pointing out, “Now we just need to actually catch the fish.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I replied while moving down the river a little ways from the wide area where most of the visible fish were swimming. “You guys stay here. And be ready, okay?”

While they asked what they were supposed to be ready for, I moved down to find a narrow spot with some rocks that I could easily hop across without getting too wet. Then I made my way back, while tugging my staff from the container on my hip.

“Ready?” I asked, hitting the charge button. “You might wanna move out of the way.”

Realizing what I was about to do, the others all scattered to either side, then watched as I stuck the end of my staff down into the water. Waiting for a moment until the largest group of fish had gathered nearby, I finally hit the trigger. The kinetic blast sent water spraying up like a geyser. And it also sent a handful of decent sized fish rocketing up onto the other side of the river.

The others moved quickly, grabbing the fish before they could flip themselves back into the water. Two more times like that, and we had plenty, much faster than regular fishing would have taken (if we’d even had a fishing pole).

“Right, fish.” Jazz was nodding at the pile of dead fish that we had a couple minutes later. “Fish and water. Too bad we can’t carry the water down with us. But I didn’t bring any bottles or anything.”

Roxa was shaking her head, kneeling next to Gidget as she muttered, “You see, guys? This is why you need a wildlife survival course at Crossroads or something. Open up, girl.” As Gidget obligingly opened her mouth, the girl reached deep inside, feeling around a little bit. It looked kinda funny, seeing Roxa shoulder-deep in her cougar’s mouth. Finally, she came out with a canteen, holding it up. “We can share it, and take turns coming back out to fill it up again.”

She started to turn, only to stop and look over at Jazz, who was staring at her. As I watched, Roxa paused before asking flatly, “What?”

Noticeably flinching, Jazz took a step back before stopping herself. “I–” she started before shaking her head. “Nothing. I just–I was just going to–” She stopped again, and I saw tears flood her eyes for a brief moment before the girl blinked rapidly. “I was just gonna make a joke, and–and then I thought about what you might’ve said if you weren’t a–I mean–”

Roxa sighed, looking at the girl intently. “Jazz, I told you, I’m still me. Same personality. Same sense of humor. It’s me.”

“I wanna believe you,” Jazz all-but whimpered, staring at her old roommate and friend before slumping a little bit. “I do. I just…” She sighed, turning to pick up the fish that she had gathered. Without another word, the girl started back toward the cave.

In the silence that followed, I announced, “We need wood too, guys. We have no idea how cold it gets down here. Plus, we’ve gotta cook our dinner, unless you’re super-into strange sushi or something. So let’s get the stuff we need to make a fire.

“And start hoping that we don’t run into a Fish and Game Warden out here, because I don’t think any of us have a license for this stuff.”

******

“Are you sure it’s safe to be out of the cave right now?” Jazz whispered cautiously. She was crouching just inside entrance, peering through the bush at me as I knelt a few feet outside.

It was late, and the night sky was full of stars. The others were asleep, or at least lying down. We’d had a short discussion about posting people to keep watch. Isaac had suggested that we each take a turn and have one person up in case anything happened. Which was a decent idea, but I vetoed the whole ‘one person’ thing. It was too easy for one person to fall asleep, or get taken by surprise somehow. So we’d ended up agreeing to work in pairs. To make it all fair, we had drawn names for our partners. I had gotten Jazz as mine. In about four hours (which Jaq and Gus were helpfully timing for me), we would wake up Roxa and Isaac so that we could sleep. Four hours after that, they would wake up Gordon and Sands for the final shift.

I nodded to Jazz’s question. “There’s no ships overhead, and they just went by for a scan about ten minutes ago. We should be good for now. It’s enough time to head down to get some more water.” I held up the canteen that Roxa had pulled out of Gidget and gave it a little wave. “Getting kinda low.”  Pausing then, I added with a little gesture, “You wanna come with?”

What do you think, partner? I asked inwardly. Is she the one most freaked by what I told them?

There was no answer for a moment, before Tabbris gave a sudden start of realization. Oh, me! Oh, um, sorry. I guess I’m still not used to you talking to me. Or anyone talking to me. She paused, then agreed. Uh huh. I don’t think Gordon was surprised at all. And Isaac is weird.

In the meantime, Jazz had said something that I missed. Uh, oops. I really needed to get better at dividing my attention. Or just stop trying to talk to Tabbris when I was already talking to someone else. Uh, I don’t suppose you caught what she said? And they’re both pretty weird.

Thankfully, Tabbris answered immediately. She asked if you really wanted her to come.

It must have looked like I had to stop and think about it, because Jazz was already starting to say that she’d just stay in the cave, and was pulling back out of the little entrance area.

Hurriedly, I shook my head, whispering, “No, come on, it’s okay. I should probably have someone watching my back. Here.” Reaching into my pocket, I carefully took out Jaq. The little metal mouse blinked at me as I set him near the bush. “Hey, little guy. I know you and your brother are connected. So if you see anything up here, let him know so he can get my attention.”

Both mice gave little squeaks of acknowledgment. Jaq straightened up and started to move from one side of the cave entrance to the other, occasionally making a soft squeak sound. After a moment, I realized that he was marching. The sound he was making was the military ‘hup’.

“Okay,” Jazz announced with a raised eyebrow, “I’m just gonna say it, that’s pretty adorable.”

I smiled just a little, watching the mouse for a moment. “Yeah, I can’t figure out how these guys ended up with Doxer of all people. He wasn’t…” I paused, considering for a moment. “… He wasn’t the first guy you’d think of who would have cute little things like them, let’s just say.”

Glancing back over her shoulder at the others deeper in the cave briefly, Jazz finally crawled out into the ravine with me. Her voice was low. “Doxer, that’s the Eden’s Garden guy that you, uh-”

“Killed,” I finished for her. “Yeah, it was him or me. They were trying to kill Avalon again, and um, well, I couldn’t let that happen.” As I spoke, I was already moving to the spot where we had all climbed up earlier.

After a momentary hesitation, Jazz trailed after me. Her voice was quiet. “So, um… you’ve had a busy year.”

Pausing, I lowered my head, chuckling a little bit despite myself. “Yeah,” I replied, “I guess you could say that. And it hasn’t even been a year yet. I’m kinda terrified to think of where I’ll be when it has been a year.”

“Hopefully not still out here in the middle of this… Seosten space,” the other girl put in.

Wincing at the thought, I nodded. “Yeah, hopefully.” Shaking my head then, I reached back for her while tugging my staff out. “Come on, it’s faster this way.”

She did so, and I held onto her while using the staff to boost us out of the ravine. From there, it was a short jog to reach the river so we could drink and fill up the canteen.

Afterward, Jazz straightened from the water and wiped her mouth off with her arm before looking to me. The moon and starlight cast shadows over her face. “This rebellion you were talking about, if there was a war like that, I… I wonder where the Torchbearers would have landed on the whole thing.”

“Torchbearers?” I asked, tilting my head.

So she told me about the group that she had come from, about how six Heretic families during the American revolution (and the big war between Crossroads and Eden’s Garden) had told both sides to go fuck themselves while they set up their own little group. Over the years, they generally bolstered their ranks by turning people into Natural Heretics. But once every roughly half a decade, they also sent representatives to Crossroads and Eden’s Garden to become students.

Jazz was the latest Torchbearer representative for Crossroads. Not that she’d meant to be one. She’d only become the default choice once the other ones, the ones who had actually trained for the job, had all been wiped out by a group of evil Alters who managed to ambush their training facility.

“Oh God, Jazz,” I managed, choking a little bit as I stared at her. “No wonder you don’t want to believe what–I… I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about what happened.”

“Yeah.” She was clearly speaking through a lump in her throat, turning away for a moment to look at the nearby river before muttering, “Like I said, I wonder where they fell in the whole rebellion thing. I wonder what my parents thought about it. If they… did anything.”

If they had fought, I knew was what she was wondering. And what side they had been on. Or if they had even both been on the same side.

For a moment, we just looked at each other, both knowing what we were thinking. Finally, Jazz muttered, “When this gets out, it’s gonna tear Crossroads apart.”

“When?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. That was interesting. She hadn’t said ‘if’, she said when.

She nodded. “Well yeah. I mean, sure it sucks. But they erased people’s memory. They erased people’s choices. I don’t know how I feel about everything else yet, but that was wrong. That was fucking evil. And if you take people’s choices away, if you just erase their memories until they’re the people you want them to be, then they’re just… slaves.”

As I nodded in agreement, she went on. “What I really wanna know is, when did those things take Paul? When did they–” Choking on her words a little bit, Jazz blanched and looked away with a grimace. “When did they… replace him?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I wish I did. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about… about how all of this went down.”

Her head shook violently at that. “It’s not your fault. I mean, this whole crisis of faith thing that’s going around, yeah that part kind of is. But–no, just…” She sighed. “Never mind. It’s not your fault. I just…” Trailing off, Jazz looked down to the ground, mumbling, “This was so much easier when we thought you were an Eden’s Garden spy.”

We each took another drink from the river, made sure the canteen was full, and then decided to get back to the cave. As we turned that way, I muttered, “I still can’t believe you people thought I was the bad guy.”

Beside me, Jazz blanched a little before considering. “Err, in our defense, as far as Crossroads is concerned…

“You kind of are.”

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Field Trip 28-07

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Davis posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, let me get this straight,” Isaac spoke about an hour later. “You’re seeing us through your eyes and through that thing’s eyes?” With one hand, he was pointing at me. And with the other, he was pointing at my newly-created fox as she perched on a rock in the corner of the cave.

From where she was standing, Jazz shook her head and muttered, “I can’t believe you know how to cast the theriangelos spell. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to use that? I never really wanted to be a Heretic, but one thing I did want was magic. Especially that spell.”

Sands was nodding (which, considering she was a little bit behind me, I could see through the eyes of my fox, but not my own eyes). “Tell me about it. Scout and me, we used to talk about what kind of animal we thought we could get once we learned the spell. She um.” Sands swallowed hard. “When we were little, Scout really wanted to get a penguin.” A slightly choked laugh escaped the girl then, and my fox could see the dampness in her eyes. “I tried to tell her that wouldn’t be a cool animal for spying or fighting, but she didn’t care. She just likes penguins.”

“I’ll teach it to you guys,” I promised. “It’ll just take a few days. But yeah, you should learn it.” Biting my lip then, I turned to look over my shoulder at the other girl. “And you’ll see her again, Sands. We’re going to survive this long enough for Gaia and the others to find a way to pull us back.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. Instead, the girl just looked back at me in silence that dragged on almost uncomfortably before glancing away with a muttered, “Yeah. So let’s survive.”

I don’t think she believes you, Tabbris whispered in my head, confirming what I already knew.

Yeah, I thought back to her, so we’ll just have to prove her wrong. Aloud, I cleared my throat while looking to Isaac. “Anyway, yeah, it’s a little weird, seeing through two different sets of eyes at once. It, uh, takes some getting used to. And it can give you a nasty headache if you do it for too long. I made myself throw up once. So, mostly I like to close my eyes and just see through hers when I’m using her.” To demonstrate, I did just that, letting my eyes close and focusing on the fox. At a thought, she hopped down from the rock and moved to sniff a bit at Isaac’s shoes.

The boy looked a little uncomfortable for some reason as he took a step back while clearing his throat. “Uh, so you use that fox to scout out the area around here, huh? What are we supposed to do in the meantime? You know, besides become world champion thumb twiddlers?”

“There’s a lot more we need to know,” Jazz pointed out, looking at the fox. “You want us to believe all the stuff you’re talking about with these Seosten and all that, we need more details.”

I nodded once without opening my eyes. The fox’s head did the same, and I saw the others give a brief double-take between both of us. “You’ll get them. Trust me. But right now, we need to know what’s around us. We’re gonna need water and food. And we need to know if this area’s safe enough, because Radueriel and his people are definitely going to be searching for us.”

“Come on,” Sands gestured for the others to go with her to the other side of the cave. “Roxa and me can tell you about most of it while Flick scouts things out. Then she can fill in the blanks.”

Gordon straightened a little, giving my fox a brief glance. I saw the boy open his mouth before hesitating. It looked like he was about to say something, but stopped himself. It was one of the first times I could ever remember him actually looking hesitant or unsure. Whatever he had been about to say, it seemed like it was something important. In the end, however, he just followed the others to the other side of the cave while giving me a brief glance on his way.

Um. Do you think he’s okay? Tabbris sounded worried, and I wondered how much of my noticing Gordon’s look was myself and how much was the Seosten girl. He, um, he looked like-

Like he wanted to say something, I agreed. I dunno. He’s been taking in a lot. They all have, but the others seem more… shaken by it? Isaac’s just making jokes like he usually does, but I can tell there’s something off about him too. And Jazz is really freaking out. But Gordon… it’s almost like this isn’t that much of a surprise to him. But I can’t tell how much of that is just Gordon being Gordon, and how much of it is him knowing more than we thought he knew. He’s hard to read.

Either way, I was gonna have to worry about it later. For the moment, everything I’d already said was true. We really did need to have food and water, and we did need to find if there were any Seosten search teams anywhere nearby. Everything else was going to have to wait for, for now.

So I focused on my fox. Seeing through her eyes, I sent the little magically conjured animal out of the cave. She easily slipped through the bush covering the opening, back out into the narrow, foliage-covered canyon. There, I made her sit and simply listen for a few long seconds. Animals. I could hear what I thought were animals, and smell them. But other than that, there was silence. If there was a Seosten search team nearby, they weren’t making a lot of noise.

I had to get out of the canyon, to where I could actually see better and get the lay of the land. To that end, I made the fox start looking around, hunting for a quick way to climb up. Meanwhile, I silently asked, I’ve gotta ask you something, Tabbris. You said you’ve been getting rid of any spells that Fossor has been trying to put on me. You did the same thing with the Seosten, right? They weren’t just trying to figure out why I was immune to possession, they also wanted to know why none of their spells were working. That was you. It was all you, the whole time.

I felt her embarrassment, and uncertainty. Um. Uh… uh huh. I was trying to be subtle about it at first, like… make it look like they just messed up the spell or something. But they kept trying, so I thought if I just undid all the spells, they might think someone like Gaia or Mr. Prosser was doing it. Except, uh, I guess Charmiene figured out that there weren’t any Heretics going near you before the spells were broken. So she must’ve decided you were doing it somehow.

Or that it was happening automatically, I agreed, smiling a little to myself. That must’ve confused the hell out of them. But, I added pointedly, how did you do it? You’re… well, you’re awesome. That’s for sure. But how could you possibly just erase the spells that a three thousand year old Seosten and an ancient necromancer put on me like that? It seems really impressive.

Now I really felt her embarrassment. Oh. Um. It’s.. uh, easier to break things than to make them. It’s like how… how it can take a long time and a lot of skill to make a vase, but you can break it really easily? It’s a little tricky to do it to a spell without setting it off, but um, it’s easier to break them than to make them. Mama showed me some tricks, cuz she knew they’d come after you.

Still smiling, I replied, Downplay it all you want, I still get the feeling that you and Wyatt would be an amazing team. You’ve been working with magic and spell-countering since you were tiny. If you two worked together, you could probably figure out a spell to do anything.

There was silence from the other girl for a few long seconds before she tentatively asked, You really think we’ll get back to Earth? The banishment orbs are really powerful. Remember the problems the Meregan had with Tristan? And they’re not even behind the same magic wall that S-Seosten space is. Remember, Uncle Haiden and Aunt Larissa have been out here for years.

We’ll make it back, I promised her. Just like we’re gonna find your mom, and the others. The biggest advantage the Seosten have is people not knowing about them, Tabbris. That’s something else you have in common with your people. Secrecy, that’s their biggest thing. It’s how they’ve gotten away with so much. We’ve got Gaia, Wyatt, Gabriel, and probably a lot more working to get us out of here. Trust them. All we have to do is stay alive and free long enough.

By that point, my fox had found a narrow path against the wall of the canyon to climb up and out. As she clambered onto solid ground, I made her look around slowly, taking everything in.

The forest didn’t look that different than one that we could’ve found back on Earth. The trees were a bit bigger (but not as big as the ones at Eden’s Garden), and the leaves were more of a blueish-purple color while the bark itself was closer to red. And I saw a bunch of roughly waist-high bushes with a mixture of orange, yellow, and red leaves. But overall, it looked like a normal forest. In the distance, I saw an animal standing between two trees, munching on a few of those leaves. It looked kind of like a zebra, except it had a really long neck like a giraffe and it was red and a dull orange instead of black and white, to better blend into the trees and bushes.

There were also a couple birds flying overhead. As I turned the fox’s head to look up, I saw them passing by. They looked like oversized parrots. Seriously, the brightly colored birds were as big as vultures. As I watched, one dove to grab something out of a tree. I couldn’t see what it was, but the thing struggled for a few seconds before going still in the giant parrot’s talons as it was crushed to death. Apparently these things ate a lot more than just nuts, fruit, and insects.

Right, focus, Flick. Pausing then, I thought, Hey, was that me thinking that, or you telling me?

You, Tabbris quickly answered. It was you. Um, and maybe just a little me. I mean, you thought it too. I was mostly thinking about how I hope Marian doesn’t have to fight one of those things.

Marian? I echoed before realizing what she was talking about. Oh, the fox. Why Marian?

Again, I felt her embarrassment. You know, like Maid Marian. In the Disney cartoon Robin Hood.

I barely resisted a chuckle at that. I knew I loved that movie a little too much for just one person. Dad used to say I was almost obsessed with watching it. That was you too, wasn’t it?

That time, her embarrassment turned to what felt more like… almost shame. I’m sorry, she hurriedly apologized. I’m sorry, I was little and I was scared. I was… I w-was still new to everything after I woke up, and when you watched that movie, I felt… a little better. But I–

Tabbris, I interrupted, It’s okay. I get it, trust me. You were a kid, you’re still a kid. But back then, you were barely more than a toddler. You were scared and alone, and the movie made you feel better. You wanted to see it so much that it rubbed off and made me want to see it too.

There was silence for a few seconds then before she replied, Mostly it was after… after Aunt Larissa didn’t show up. Mama’s message said that she’d… she’d visit me once I woke up, that she’d help teach me some things so I wouldn’t… so I wouldn’t be alone all of the time. But…

I winced. But she never showed up. She never showed, and you didn’t know why until we found Scout and Sands. Did you know who they were, who their mother was, when we first met them?

Uh huh, Tabbris answered quickly. Some of the messages Mama left were about Aunt Larissa and her family. I… I didn’t know what happened to her until they told us. Until they told you.

Oh God. So she had been left for years without anyone to talk to, without anyone who even knew that she existed. With Larissa gone and no way to contact, or be contacted by, her mother, Tabbris had had absolutely no one. And she spent years like that, hiding inside me, trying not to control me to the point that she felt guilty because her desire to watch a kid’s movie might’ve influenced me to watch it. Where did we even start with making her feel better about any of it?

Well, first thing’s first. You didn’t do anything wrong, I insisted. It’s okay if you wanted to watch a silly movie. I’m pretty sure little sisters have done a lot more than you did when it comes to forcing people to watch the movie they want to watch, okay? I’m not mad, Tabbris. It’s okay.

I had to keep exploring. We still needed food and water, and everything else. Sending the fox–Marian to the nearest tree, I tilted her head to look up. As far as I knew, foxes didn’t generally climb trees. But this was a special case, and I was particularly motivated.

After judging where the branches were, I turned Marian around and had her run back a few yards before crouching like a runner at a starting gate. Hearing the imaginary pistol, I made her dart forward. I ran straight at the tree, leaping from a few feet out. Crashing against the tree partway up, I dug in with the fox’s hindlegs, scrambling to push off while using the claws in her forepaws to hold on and pull up toward the lowest branch that looked like it could hold her.

It probably looked really awkward for more than one reason, not the least of which was the fact that it was my brain directing the fox. But she made it up, then I had her jump from branch to branch in order to get higher. The whole time, I tried not to think about those big parrot things. If one of them came screeching down out of the sky to grab my fox-self, I might need new pants. And I was pretty sure there wasn’t a mall anywhere nearby to take care of that little problem.

Actually, I realized then, that reminds me of another question. When you popped out of me, you were wearing a blue… what was that, a bodysuit? Where’d that come from? I mean, I kinda doubt you just had it on when you, um, arrived back when you were that little.

To my surprise, Tabbris corrected, Actually, I did. It’s Seosten clothing. It um, it grows with you. It was really little when I was, and when I got bigger… it did too. It’s self-cleaning, and I think it’s supposed to be bulletproof, fireproof, and… some other things. At least, that’s what Mama said.

Oh. I paused then, considering that for a second. That’s really cool. I could use something like that. But I do think we need to get you some other clothes when we get a chance.

I felt the Seosten girl’s curiosity then. She hesitated before slowly asking, Other clothes?

Sure, I confirmed slyly before adding, After all, I’m pretty sure it’d be easy to find a couple of those Robin Hood shirts in the Disney store. And you’d look really snazzy in them.

I felt the girl’s delight at the thought, even as I made myself focus on what Marian was seeing now that the little fox had reached the top of the tree. Peering out, I took in the sight.

The forest stretched on for miles in every direction. I saw a river not too far away, with what looked like fish jumping in it. That solved our water and food problem, for the moment at least.  It was like this whole area, or maybe the planet itself, was some kind of nature preserve. Which might make sense. If it was meant to provide water, even air and other resources for space stations, they might deliberately keep it as undeveloped and natural as possible.

One thing that definitely wasn’t natural, however, was the thing flying over the top of the forest way off in the distance. It was far enough away that I could barely make it out, but it looked like a spaceship of some kind. The thing looked like it was about the size of a C-130 jet, and it was flying very slowly a few hundred feet above the treetops. As I watched through Marian’s eyes, it flew steadily along a straight path for awhile before moving out of sight. A minute or two later, it came back from the other direction and just a little bit closer.

They’re scanning, I realized. That’s why they didn’t send search teams to scour the woods. They’re using that ship to slowly scan the whole area for us. Actually, they’re probably using more than one of the things. They’ll find us that way.

No, they won’t, Tabbris corrected. I know a spell you can put on the cave to hide from their scanners. I can um, I can teach you, and you can just say that Gaia taught it to you?

I found myself nodding a little bit, both my own head and the fox’s. Good idea. Let me bring her in and we’ll get started before that thing gets any closer.

Bringing Marian back into the cave, I opened my eyes to find the others watching. Sands spoke up. “Did you find anything?”

“Food and water,” I replied. “And the ship that’s flying over the forest scanning for us.”

That definitely got everyone’s attention. Eyes widening, Jazz demanded, “A ship that’s scanning for us? What are we supposed to do, keep running? There’s probably more than one.”

I nodded. “That’s what–” I stopped myself from saying we at the last second. “–I thought. But don’t worry, Gaia taught me some other spells, like how to hide from scans like that. I need to put a spell on the cave, so we’ll have to stay inside while they’re going overhead. Once they move on, we’ll deal with the food situation.”

“It’s pretty lucky that Gaia taught you all this,” Gordon observed. “Is she the one who taught you the spell you used to get rid of that cyborg and all his troops?”

“Or was it Gabriel?” Roxa quickly put in with a brief glance toward me. Clearly, she was giving me an out so I didn’t have to reveal Tabbris.  

Her former teammates all looked at her then, Jazz blurted, “Gabriel?”

I nodded. “Gabriel Prosser. And let’s just say that thing we used against Radueriel won’t work a second time. It was a one-shot deal, for emergencies.”

There. I didn’t actually say that Gabriel had been the one to teach me the word. I just confirmed his name and then told the truth about the thing being one-time use. So it wasn’t… technically lying. But I also wasn’t going to tell them about Tabbris. There was way too much that could go wrong if they knew about her.

“Prosser.” Jazz’s voice was awed. “You’ve met Gabriel Prosser? How? Why?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before moving over to the nearby cave wall while reaching for the field-engraver in my pocket. “Let me get this spell started so we’re safe,” I replied. “Then… we’re on another planet.”

“Uh, yeah? What’s your point?” Isaac asked.

“My point,” I replied easily, “is that we’re not within range of the Seosten’s memory spell. Which means I can tell you about my mother. And about the rebellion.”

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Field Trip 28-06

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For a few long, agonizingly slow seconds, no one said or did anything. Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon were all utterly motionless. They stood there, staring open-mouthed at Roxa while the other girl held the choker in one hand and stared right back at them. It wasn’t quite a threatening expression, but it was one that basically seemed to say, ‘yeah, this is me, you got a problem?’

Clearly, the months that Roxa had spent with her pack had basically erased any and all guilt she felt about what she had become. The other wolves had really done wonders for her confidence.

“Oh… oh my God.” That was Jazz, the black girl was the first to find her voice, strangled as it sounded. “You–you’re… you’re…” Standing there, she lifted a hand to point, shaky as it was. “How… what… you’re–Does that mean that you’re–you’re really a–” She stopped, cringing.

“Werewolf?” Roxa finished for her. “Yeah, turns out some of them get a kick out of turning Heretics. That’s what really happened over Thanksgiving, when I disappeared.” Spreading her arms out, she gestured before turning in a circle. “This is me. Roxa the Heretic Werewolf.”

I actually saw tears in Jazz’s eyes. She was acting like Roxa had suddenly revealed a terminal disease or something. Which, I supposed actually made sense considering what the other girl had been raised to believe. Her hand rose as if she was trying to reach out toward Roxa before catching herself. “Roxa,” she lamented. “Roxa, but that means, but that means… that you’re–”

“Evil?” Roxa finished for her, folding her arms with a raised eyebrow. “You mean when I ‘evilly’ helped you guys deal with that Seosten bitch who took over Columbus, or when I ‘evilly’ helped get you out of that space station? Or do you mean when I ‘evilly’ revealed that I’m really a werewolf when I had absolutely no reason to do that other than to back up what Flick said?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated, glancing to the others before speaking up. “Roxa, you didn’t have to–”

“Yeah,” she interrupted without looking away from her former teammates, “I did. I’m not gonna spend this entire trip, or the rest of my damn life, hiding what I am from the people who should trust me. So yeah, I’m a werewolf. If that bothers you people, you’re welcome to go find a non-werewolf person to survive on this alien world with. Or,” she added while narrowing her eyes, “you could try to do something about it. But I’m telling you now, that won’t go well for you.”

I saw the way Jazz flinched. She looked torn up inside, with eyes that were still openly wet. “But… but R-Roxa,” she stammered, clearly grasping for anything, “I don’t… don’t understand.”

Finally, Sands had clearly had enough. “You wanna understand?” she blurted abruptly. “Here’s what you need to understand. Our entire civilization is a fucking lie, alright? Everything they teach us about how everything that isn’t human is evil, that’s straight up bullshit. Those Seosten like the bitch in the hotel and cyborg man, yeah, that whole race of evil cocksuckers created Crossroads and now they teach us to kill everything that’s not human so they can use us as their soldiers, or guard dogs, or whatever. That’s what you need to understand.” To finish, Sands spoke slowly and deliberately. “A lot of those Strangers we kill, they’re not the monsters.

“We are.”  

It was the most emotion I’d seen Sands express about finding out that Strangers weren’t all evil since she’d accepted it. Clearly, she wasn’t happy about the ‘Crossroads entire reason for existing was to act as boogeymen for anyone the Seosten didn’t like’ thing. Hell, from the look on the other girl’s face, there was a lot more that she wanted to say about it. But she cut herself off and settled on simply scowling at the floor with her arms folded tightly, trembling with anger.

Gordon was the one who spoke next, his tone almost as calm as ever, though I could detect a little bit of emotion underlying it. “You… the choker.” His eyes had centered on the thing, which had turned visible once Roxa took it off. “That’s the choker that we heard Flick talking about.”

Jazz gave a start then, as if she’d completely forgotten it until that moment. “The choker,” she echoed, looking at the thing, then looking to me. “You knew–you’ve been helping her… but…”

“It’s like they said,” I confirmed, moving my gaze from her to Isaac and then to Gordon, “Strangers aren’t all evil. No more than all humans are evil. And if we’re gonna have a chance at surviving out here, that’s something you’re all going to have to try to accept. Because we need Roxa. I’m sticking with her. I trust her more than I trust any of you. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.”

Sands gave a little nod at that. “She’s right. I’m sticking with Roxa and Flick. You guys have a problem with that…” She shrugged. “Like the girl said, just go find another cave to hide out in.”

Isaac was the next to speak, raising his hands placatingly. “Hey now, let’s not all get drastic or anything. Let’s just talk about this. You’re right, Roxa, you’ve been doing a lot of not-evil stuff, stuff you didn’t have to do. But some of it could’ve been self-preservation. I mean, getting out of the space station would’ve been harder if you were alone. And you could’ve shown up to fight that, uh, Seosten back there at the hotel even if we weren’t there. It could’ve been personal.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed, her voice shaking as she spoke. “He… he’s right, you’ve helped a lot, but… but it still could’ve been just for show. I mean–except… except showing yourself now, unless you were trying to trick us, or…” Her head shook, and the girl closed her eyes tightly like she just wanted the whole thing to go away. “Damn it,” she muttered before repeating it several times, each one a little louder as she tightened her fists. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Turning, Jazz put her fist against the wall of the cave, then repeated the action twice before whirling back to us. “You guys are crazy! You’re talking complete nonsense! Crossroads was made by evil Strangers so that we’d go kill all the people they didn’t like? What the fuck?! You’re just–just-”

“Lying?” Roxa finished for her. “Trying to trick you? Crazy? Are we crazy? Or is killing every intelligent species on the planet just because they’re not completely human the crazy thing? I’m still me, Jazz. Still Roxa. Same girl, just with new abilities. It’s not that different from becoming a Heretic, is it? You start out as completely human, then something happens to change what-”

“Stop!” Jazz blurted then, head shaking violently. “Just stop, stop it! Stop trying to compare it. It’s not the same, okay? It’s not the same! Strangers are evil! We’re not the monsters, we help people, we have to save humanity. If we weren’t there, the Strangers would, they’d kill everyone. We’ve seen them! We’ve seen Strangers killing humans, torturing humans, eating humans!”

“You’re right,” I agreed, nodding as Jazz’s attention whipped over to me. “There are evil Alt–Strangers, just like there are evil humans. But not all of them. Look at all the monsters in human history. You think having a Hitler or a Jeffrey Dahmer means all other humans are irredeemably evil? I, for one, wouldn’t wanna be judged by the worst examples of humanity.”

“But… but…” Jazz looked like she wanted to flail. Her eyes kept darting back and forth as her fists repeatedly tightened and loosened. She looked even more lost and confused at the idea than the fact that we were all stranded on the far end of space on an alien planet surrounded by monsters. The mere suggestion that being a werewolf didn’t automatically make Roxa evil was pretty much making the other girl lose her mind. “But that can’t… I mean, it’s not the same.”

Gordon, raising his chin curiously, announced, “Maybe we should take this one step at a time. We’re all stuck here together, whether we like it or not. None of us wants to be taken by those.. Seosten. If nothing else, Roxa’s proved that much. So for now, we’re on the same side.”

“It’s not that simple,” Jazz insisted. “You know it’s not that simple. You–” She took a breath, glancing toward Sands for a second as if desperate for someone to back her up. “You should understand. Maybe not Flick, but you know what…” Shuddering, she continued, speaking quickly. “Everything they tell us, everything they teach us, it’s that that,” her hand gestured to the girl in question, “isn’t Roxa anymore! It’s a monster that’s wearing her face, a monster that took her over and is… is… wearing her just like those Seosten you keep talking about. When a human being turns into a Stranger, the human part dies and the monster completely takes over.

“So you’re saying, ‘let’s just work with them for now’? What if you’re wrong. What if you’re all wrong, and that isn’t Roxa anymore?” Jazz was staring at the girl, hands tightened into fists once more. “What if Roxa’s dead and gone and we’re just working with the monster that killed her? What if, instead of getting justice for Roxa like we should be doing, we’re working with the thing that slithered into her body and destroyed her? What if it’s laughing at us because we’re falling for its lies?!” Her voice was rising with each word, until she sounded almost hysterical.

Slowly, Jazz took a step toward the other girl with her hands held low and out, apparently so that we wouldn’t think that she was attacking or something. Her voice cracked as she continued. “You… you think I don’t want you to be Roxa? You think I don’t want our entire society to be wrong so that you can still be Roxa? You were my friend, my–we were supposed to be partners. I’ve been trying to find you for months, months! I want you to be Roxa so, so fucking bad. I want these guys to be right. I never wanted this, I never wanted to even be a Heretic! I didn’t want it! I want you to be you. But… but what if you’re not? What if you’re really a monster, squatting in Roxa’s body and laughing at how naive and stupid we are? What if we’re letting this thing get away with killing Roxa, just because we want her to still be herself? What if it’s using us?”

By that point, Jazz was directly in front of Roxa, the two of them mere inches apart. For her part, the werewolf girl simply stood still, meeting Jazz’s gaze evenly as she listened to her words until the girl was finally finished. Then she slowly lifted her chin, considering for a couple long seconds before speaking as plainly as possible. “If you don’t use what someone does to determine if they’re good or evil…” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “Then what do you use?”

While Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, Roxa continued flatly. “I’m not evil. I’m not a monster. I can’t say it any more plainly than that. And I’m not going to apologize for what– who I am. I’m done feeling embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I’m a werewolf, and I’m a Heretic. You can either judge me by what I do, or by what some evil, manipulative bastards tell you to judge me by. That’s your business. Either way, I’m not changing a goddamn thing about myself. You got a problem, deal with it.”

W-wow, Tabbris ‘whispered’ in my head, sounding like she was in awe. She’s really brave.

I think she’s also sick of being afraid of how people will react to her, I pointed out while watching to see what the others would do. I guess after spending a few months with other wolves, she’s done worrying about it. She’s sort of… ripping off the bandaid and then telling it to piss off.

Jazz, meanwhile, had closed her eyes. Her fists were held tightly against her side, and the black girl was openly shuddering. Her mouth moved a little, but I couldn’t tell what she was whispering at first. Then I got it, she was repeatedly muttering, “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” while tears feel freely down her face. Opening her eyes, she stared at Roxa. “I want it,” she blurted. “I want you to be you. I do. I swear I do, but… but… if we’re wrong, if they’re wrong, and you’re really a monster, then I’m letting you get away with killing my friend! Everyone who teaches us, all the adults, they all say you’re evil! How can we just ignore that? They all say you’re a monster.”

Roxa’s mouth opened, but it was Gordon who actually spoke. “Do they?” he asked simply, drawing everyone’s attention that way. The dark-skinned boy gave a little shrug. “I mean, I know what they say, but… what about what you overheard at Flick’s house, with the headmistress?”

Okay, that got my attention. I’d been trying to stay out of the conversation, but that one I had to jump in on. “I’m sorry, what?” I blurted, staring at the boy. “Who overheard what at my house?” Pausing, I added, “Actually, come to think of it, what the hell were you talking about when you said you heard me talking about the choker? I never talked about it without… safety measures.”

Gordon took a step my way, explaining simply, “We knew that you had something to do with Roxa disappearing, that you knew more about it than anyone else was saying. Douglas’s power, it… allows him to ask a question and get an answer, or directions to an answer, once per day. And every time he asked it anything about why Roxa disappeared, it always directed us to you.”

Well, that explained why they had been so obsessed with me. As I nodded slowly in realization, the boy continued. “We went looking for answers in your dorm room awhile back. You came in while we were there, but Jasmine used her power to turn us all invisible. While you were there, you mentioned the choker. You said that all you had to do was ‘get that choker on Roxa’ and then she could come back to the school. You were on the phone with someone named Asenath, and you said–” Pausing then, he looked like something suddenly made sense, nodding thoughtfully. “Oh. You asked her if werewolves and vampires really have some kind of rivalry.”

That… didn’t sound familiar at all. Especially the part about the choker. Why would I have phrased it like that? ‘Get the choker on Roxa?’ What the hell? But still, maybe–oh. Tabbris? I prompted, realizing that I didn’t have to rely on my own memory. Did that ever happen?

The answer came immediately and emphatically. No! No, you never had that conversation, and you never did… any of that. Not like that. I swear, they’re wrong. It never, ever happened.  

I nodded slowly before meeting Gordon’s gaze. “I hate to tell you guys this, but that never happened.” As all three of their mouths opened, I held a hand up. “Okay, let me rephrase. I didn’t say that. I wasn’t there, and I never had that conversation that you overheard. I’m not saying you didn’t overhear it, I’m saying it wasn’t me. Whoever you saw, it was someone else posing as me.”

And wasn’t that a massive punch in the gut? Someone, the Seosten obviously, had been posing as me just to manipulate these guys. It was probably an attempt to get them to report us to the Committee in a way that Gaia couldn’t cover up.

“Posing as you?” Jazz echoed, her eyes wide as she shook her head quickly at my words. “What the hell does that mean? Why would someone pose as you?”

“We do know that they have a way of posing as other people,” Gordon pointed out mildly. “The shapeshifter that took Paul’s place.”

Biting her lip, Jazz looked sick at the reminder before swallowing hard. “Y-yeah, but… but she did have someone named Asenath living at her house. I saw her. I saw her, and she’s a… a Stranger too.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed, seeing no need to try to lie about that much. “Asenath is a vampire. She’s also my friend. She saved my life, she saved my father’s life, and she’s done nothing but help me since I met her. So yes, she was living at my house. She’s been protecting my father. But we never had that conversation, and I never would’ve phrased it like that. We were trying to get the choker so that Roxa could come back. The choker hides Alters from the Heretic-Sense.”

“Alter,” Jazz repeated, squinting. “You said Alter again. What does that even mean?”

Sands answered for me. “It’s their word for what they are. Non-Humans, I mean. We call them Strangers. They call themselves Alters. As in ‘Alternative to human’.”

“But that’s not–” Jazz started to object before stopping herself. Taking a long, visible breath, the girl considered her words for a moment. Her eyes glanced briefly toward Roxa before she started once more. “They call themselves… Alters?”

As I nodded, Gordon spoke up again. “The point is, Jasmine said that all our teachers say that Strangers… Alters are evil. But she heard Headmistress Sinclaire talking to the vampire when we went to spy on your house.”

Spying on my house. They had been spying on my house. I felt indignant, even if part of me understood. Would I really have done anything different in their situation?

Isaac gave a quick nod. “Hey, yeah. So why would the headmistress be all for teaching about how evil Strangers are if she’s into this hippy ‘everyone just love one another’ shit?”

“It’s complicated,” I replied. “If she started changing what the school taught, the Committee would get rid of her.”

Making a noise that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger, Jazz put both hands over her face. “Just–just stop. Everyone just stop for a minute. Stop it.” She stood there like that, hands covering her face for a long moment. “Isaac,” she started finally, “You said your Edge vision was all about this Asenath chick killing your ancestor and all his people.”

“Uh, yeah.” The other boy gave a little shrug, looking self-conscious. “That’s what I saw.”

When Jazz looked back to me, I replied, “He’s probably missing context. That’s not the point. The point is, we’re all here. So you’ve got a choice, just like Roxa said. You can stay here and work with us so that we can keep everyone alive until we find a way home. Or you can go off on your own. But get this straight. If you can’t work with Roxa, then you might as well leave right now.”

“I didn’t say I–” Jazz stopped herself, biting her lip as she looked over to the girl in question. Her voice was timid. “I don’t want you to be evil. But I can’t just–I… you want us to believe that the headmistress of the school is letting them teach us all about evil Strangers, when it’s not true? You want us to believe that our entire society, that it’s all wrong? How do I–how do we–I…” She sighed. “Can you just give us some time? Let me… think about all this. I can’t just–I can’t just….”  She gave up on trying to explain it, lowering her head and heaving a long sigh.

It wasn’t surprising. Even in this situation, it was going to take time for Jazz, for any of them, to accept what we were saying. We were actually pretty lucky that the three of them had stood there and listened to us for as long as they had. Sure, this was kind of a… unique situation. But still. The fact that they were even entertaining the idea said a lot. I couldn’t help but wonder how much spending the past who knew how long wondering why Gaia had been talking to Asenath had actually helped. It had to have chipped away at their beliefs, at least enough for them to listen now.

I nodded. “Sure. We need to figure out where we are, how safe this place is, and everything else.”

“How are we gonna do that?” Isaac asked, gesturing back out of the cave. “I’m pretty sure we can’t just go blundering around out there without half the Seosten within a thousand miles figuring out where we are. We don’t know where anything is, and–oh yeah, we’re stuck on another fucking planet.”

“Can you tell us more about these Seosten?” Gordon asked. “How did we get here? How did they… as you said, ‘create Crossroads’? What do they want? Let’s say you’re right, just for now. What else can you tell us about everything, because we’re lost.”

Jazz abruptly lifted her head, nodding. “And Paul. Tell us what happened to Paul, what that thing was that took him over. What happened? How could he just–”

I held up my hands to hold off more questions. “We’ll get to all that, I promise. Right now, Isaac’s right. We need to figure out where we are, what’s around us, how far civilization is,  and all the rest of that stuff without blundering around. So I need a piece of wood. Shouldn’t be too hard to find one out there.”

“A piece of wood?” Gordon echoed, head tilting. “Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “It’s a spell. I… guess I could teach it to you. If you guys think you can work with me for long enough.”

Isaac spoke up then, his own smile wide and open. “Learning a spell sounds cool. And I guess we might as well try to get along, for now anyway.

“After all, we’re all friends here.”

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Field Trip 28-05

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F-Flick? What should I do? 

For a second, I froze. I didn’t know. Roxa seemed… under control at least. She hadn’t instantly outed Tabbris. Instead, she’d waited until we had some privacy. She’d noticed the help that the littlest angel had given, yet she still wanted answers. And she was making sure that those answers came from me by ordering my stowaway to get out. I had no doubt that, even though the help that Tabbris had been thus far was stopping Roxa from outright exposing her in front of the others, she wouldn’t hesitate to change her mind if the Seosten didn’t show herself and let me explain things.

Eject, I finally answered, while watching Roxa’s expression harden slightly at my hesitation. It’s okay. She’s seen what you’ve done so far. Or some of it anyway. She kept quiet this long. Go ahead. Just stay out of sight of that opening so no one else sees you. 

I could feel the young Seosten’s hesitation and trepidation. Which meant that she was feeling a lot of it. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her for that. As far as I knew, she’d only shown herself to one person in the past seven years: me. She didn’t know how Roxa was going to react. But the fact was, we didn’t have any other choices. If she didn’t see the figure that was possessing me get out within the next couple of seconds, Roxa was going to do something a lot more rash.

Tabbris, I thought to the other girl gently. It’s okay. Trust me. I won’t let her hurt you. I promise. 

After another half second of hesitation, I felt her brief agreement. Then she was pulling herself out of me, a white, translucent figure that quickly solidified into the now-familiar little girl.

Roxa was pulling back from me, her attention flicking up toward the girl reflexively. Gidget did the same, turning to focus that way. As they both started to move, I quickly sat up to put myself between them and Tabbris. Moving to one knee, I held both hands up. “Roxa, Roxa, it’s okay!” I hissed the words reflexively, despite the other girl’s words about her cone of silence. “It’s alright, I promise. I’m fine.” Even as I spoke, I felt Tabbris put herself directly behind me. She was half-cowering, hiding there while peeking out.

“Flick?” Roxa hissed, eyes darting from the Seosten girl to me and back again. “You wanna tell me what the hell is going on?” After a pause, she added, “And you should probably do it fast.”

Right, if this took too long, the others would wonder what was going on. They didn’t know how long it would take us to change back, but still. They might get curious. And I really didn’t want to have to go through this with Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon. Time to give her the short version.

“Roxa,” I started quickly, “This is Tabbris. We don’t have time to get into it, but I swear she’s on our side. She was–her mom is Vanessa and Tristan’s mom. She sent Tabbris to me so that I’d be immune to other Seosten possessing me, because of who my mother is. I didn’t know she existed until Charmeine captured me. She had to reveal herself to get me out of there. She’s been protecting and helping me this whole time, I just didn’t know about it until a few hours ago.”

A few hours. Had it really only been that long? It felt like a lifetime. How had so much happened in such a short time? Honestly, even I was getting tired at this point, after all the fighting and running that we had been going through. The others must be almost dead on their feet.

“Tabbris?” Roxa echoed the name, squinting briefly. “I know she was helping. That’s why I didn’t say anything until now. I just didn’t know if she was being helpful to get close to us or something. But…” She looked back to me, frowning before reaching out to put her hand on my shoulder. Obviously, she was checking to see if I was still possessed. “And you’re sure you’re okay?”

I nodded quickly. “Like I said, she saved me. She saved all of us. Without her, we’d all be captured. She was the one who came up with that trick to get rid of Radueriel. Right, Tabbris?”

Behind me, pressed close up against my back, the Seosten girl gave a quick nod. Her voice was quiet. “I w-was trying to help. I just… I just wanted to help. Mama said I should be quiet, hide. But I had to help. I promise, I wasn’t trying to hurt anything. I just… I had to help.” She repeated her words softly, and I could feel her trembling a bit. Tabbris was even more afraid of explaining things to Roxa than she had been of explaining them to me. Which made sense. She knew me and how I would react a hell of a lot better than either of us knew about Roxa and her reaction.

For a couple of seconds, Roxa was silent. She bit her lip, clearly feeling indecisive before she finally reached out an open hand. “Hey,” the girl murmured. “Tabbris, was it?” When the other girl hesitantly nodded while staring fearfully at the hand, Roxa managed a slight smile. “Hi, Tabbris. I guess you saved us back there. You saved Flick, and then you saved us… a couple times, I think.” She paused, then extended her hand a little further. “C’mere a sec, would you?”

The younger girl looked to me first, and I gave her an encouraging nod, whispering, “It’s okay.”

Still, she hesitated before very slowly stepping out from behind me. Her small hand hesitantly reached up, stalling in the air as she looked at Roxa for a few seconds. Then she reached the rest of the way to tentatively put her hand against the other girl’s. I could see her trepidation.

Once the little girl’s hand was gently, nervously brushing against her own, Roxa reached out a little bit further. She took Tabbris’s hand and gave her a slight tug before going down on one knee. I heard the Seosten girl give a soft gasp of surprise then, just as Roxa embraced her.

“Thanks, kid,” Roxa murmured as she hugged Tabbris. “I’m sorry I scared you. I had to make sure Flick was really okay. You seemed like you were helping, but I couldn’t take the chance.”

Tabbris seemed completely taken aback by the gesture. She made a noise of confusion, remaining stiff as she was embraced. It was obvious that the girl had absolutely no idea of how to react, either to the hug or what Roxa was actually saying. She just stood there, motionless.

“Hey!” A voice calling from the other cave made all three of us jump. It was Jazz. Thankfully, she wasn’t actually looking in, but was just shouting from where they were. “You guys changed yet?”

Coughing, I called back, “Working on it! We’ll be right out, just… hold on, we’re not decent.”

Right. Not decent. The reminder that neither Roxa or I had any clothes on made me blush deeply. We’d been thoroughly distracted, but still… I averted my eyes, moving to grab my clothes from where Gidget had helpfully dropped them. In the middle of the pile, Jaq and Gus were huddled next to my weapon canister. Yeah, as it turned out, I couldn’t send the two back into my staff. The portals on my staff, the ones that connected to the box back in my room that my little mice lived in, weren’t working. Which made sense, considering everything we knew. Still, it had been a bit of a disappointment when I’d thought of the portal and tried to activate it, only for nothing to happen. So, Jaq and Gus were stuck out here with us. They’d spent the whole time that I’d been a lion riding inside of Gidget with all our clothes and equipment.

“Hey guys,” I murmured, putting my hands down for them to climb in. “You good?” They nuzzled me a little bit, and I smiled before setting them on my shoulder so I could grab my clothes.

I started to pull them on, then paused as I remembered what my tiny, helpful Seosten bodyguard had said. Curious, I touched my underwear and bra and sort of… thought about them being on me. It took a couple seconds of holding my hand in place, but then they were both… wrapped around my arms.

Clearly, I needed to be more specific. Rolling my eyes, I focused once more, picturing myself actually wearing them the right way.

It worked, and a few seconds later, my pants and shirt joined them. Well, this was going to make getting dressed in the mornings a hell of a lot easier, that was for sure.

While checking to make sure my clothes were on the right way, I glanced over to where Tabbris was finally returning Roxa’s hug. The little girl was still clearly hesitant about the whole thing, but had latched onto Roxa as if she was a life preserver in the middle of a dark ocean. It made me think about how lost, scared, and alone she must’ve been through the years. Hell, she’d gone as far as going to my father in the middle of the night while he was delirious from sleep, just to get a tiny bit of affection, even if it wasn’t meant for her. This, a hug coming from someone she barely knew, who was fully aware of what she was? It had to be completely overwhelming. And I really, really hated to interrupt it, no matter how necessary it was. Given the choice, I would’ve let them keep hugging for hours. Hell, given the choice, I would’ve made sure everyone else in our little group knew who she was and just how much she had done to make sure that we got out of there with our lives intact. But I didn’t have that luxury. There was already too much to explain, and I still didn’t know how much we could trust the other three. Not to mention how dangerous it would be in general if any of the Seosten found out about her. No, for the time being, we had to keep Tabbris a secret from everyone else.

Stepping that way, I put a hand on the Seosten girl’s shoulder. “Hey,” I whispered. As she turned from Roxa, I took my own chance for a hug, embracing my little stowaway tightly. “Thank you, for everything. Seriously, without you, we’d all be dead, or enslaved. You saved us, partner.”

I knew there wasn’t time to waste. I knew that. But I also knew that Tabbris really needed to hear it. After everything she’d done, after the years she had spent hiding and secretly trying to help… hell, over the past year, she’d spent a good portion of it hearing about how evil and terrible pretty much her entire species was. All the thoughts that I’d had about how much I hated the Seosten and everything else… yeah, the least I could do was give her an actual hug right then.

Roxa quickly got herself dressed while I was embracing Tabbris. Sliding her shirt on, the girl gave me a brief look before murmuring, “We’ve gotta talk more about this later, you know.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Later. But the others need to get the Cliff’s Notes about everything else first.” Turning my attention down to the younger girl, I gave her a little smile. “Ready to jump back in?”

She nodded, putting her hand on mine. A second later, she was back inside me. I felt her presence once more, settling in like a… like a favorite blanket. I couldn’t really describe it better than that. It felt right when she was there. Even though I’d only been consciously aware of her for such a short time, having her out of me was still almost like a part of me was missing. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, I didn’t know. What I did know was that I felt more me with her.

Roxa was watching that happen as she buttoned up her pants. “That still looks freaky,” she pointed out before pausing. “Wait a second…” she murmured with a frown as she stared at me.

Feeling self-conscious (which was probably partly me and partly Tabbris), I shook my head. “What? What’s wrong?” Was she changing her mind about this? Was she about to call for help?

Instead, the other girl just blurted, “Why didn’t Pace say anything? Lies, I mean.” As I stared at her in confusion, she explained, “She touched you. She touched you, right? With this on.” Gesturing to the invisible choker around her neck, Roxa shook her head. “So she should’ve known you were possessed. Why didn’t she say anything about it? Because she obviously hasn’t, since Charmeine apparently had no idea. Why? Why didn’t she tell anyone?”

For a couple seconds after that question landed, all I could do was stare back at Roxa, open-mouthed. “Uhh…” I made a dull, confused sound while my mind raced wildly.

Why didn’t she say anything? I quickly asked Tabbris. She definitely touched me. And her eyes were open. Is it possible that she just didn’t notice you or something? I mean, we were fighting at the time and all that, so… Even as I asked, my head was already shaking. I didn’t believe it.

I don’t think so, the other girl confirmed my own doubts, sounding as confused as I felt. I think she noticed, but I… don’t know why she didn’t say anything. Unless she’s saving it, maybe? 

“Saving it?” I muttered out loud, looking back to Roxa. “Tabbris thinks maybe she’s saving it.”

The blonde girl squinted at me. “Oh, fantastic. You mean she’s saving it to pull out later. So we basically have no idea how long it’ll be before all the Seosten know about your little friend in there. Lies could blurt it out at any time. Hell, come to think of it, she’ll probably use it to try to get something out of you later. And what are you gonna do when she does? What are you going to do when she says, ‘do X for me, or everyone finds out that you’ve got a hitchhiker in there’?”

I shook my head at that, answering honestly, “I dunno. Right now, I’m more worried about how we’re going to explain everything else that’s been going on to your old teammates in there.”

Roxa gave a slow nod, sighing as she looked over her shoulder to the opening into the cave where the others were waiting for us. “Yeah, I guess they’re kind of getting dropped into the deep end, huh? But then again,” she added thoughtfully while shrugging, “So was I, kind of.”

“Good point,” I agreed. “But this is still gonna be a bit much for them to actually take in.” Taking a breath, I looked to her. “Thanks, for keeping quiet about Tabbris until you had a chance to find out exactly what was going on. Seriously, I don’t know if very many people would’ve had that kind of control. Most probably would’ve blurted it out as soon as they saw her. Or pretty soon.”

“Hey,” Roxa replied with a little shrug, “I’ve had to keep secrets. I know what it’s like. And you had kind of just killed Charmeine when I saw her. I figured if nothing else, that much meant I owed the kid the benefit of the doubt for as long as it took to get you alone. But like I said, we-”

“–Still need to have a conversation about it,” I interrupted, nodding. “We will. Soon. But now, we’ve got another audience to deal with.” Clearing my throat, I nodded to the opening while reaching up to take Jaq and Gus, slipping them into one of my pockets. “Ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she replied, putting her hand down to rest on Gidget’s head. “Let’s go.”

Together, the two of us… three counting Gidget and four counting my passenger, moved into the other cave. Sands, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon were all standing on the other side, talking in hushed voices. When we emerged, every eye moved to us, and they abruptly stopped talking.

Jazz was the first to clamber to her feet. “Okay, Sands said we had to wait for you. Now you’re here, you’re changed, and no one is currently, actively trying to kill us. We’ve waited long enough. What the hell is going on?! Who was that woman back there, who was the guy that was impersonating P-Paul–” Her voice caught briefly there before she pressed on, “who are all these people, where are we, how did we get here, why–just… just… all of it. Every question possible. All of them. Every question in the world, pretend I said them, okay? What the fuck?”

I coughed at that, giving a little nod. “Right, you guys deserve a pretty big explanation. And trust me, it’s a doozy. So, just… go with me a little bit.” Glancing toward Sands briefly, I continued. “First of all, like I said before, that woman back there and the guy with the cyborg limbs, they’re both called Seosten. Seosten. That’s where we are, in their space. They’re sort of a… an intergalactic empire of super-advanced aliens who look pretty much exactly like us.” Now really wasn’t the time to get into exactly why humans and Seosten looked alike. These guys already had enough to take in as it was without me talking about the Fomorians and everything else.

“They don’t set off the Heretic-sight,” Gordon observed quietly from where he was standing.

“Right,” I nodded. “There’s kind of a long story behind that. But right now, I…” Biting my lip, I tried to figure out how to explain as much as I needed to get them to understand. “Okay, so, long story short, the Seosten are the bad guys. Their big thing is that they can possess people. You saw what she did with Columbus. And what I could do after I killed her. They possess you, which means they control everything you say and do, all of that. It’s…” I sighed. “It’s slavery. They enslave you and control you. They use it to infiltrate places. And… we’ve been trying to figure out who they are, because they’ve been trying to kill Avalon all year long. Hell, even longer than that. That whole thing back at the hotel was them trying to kill or capture the rest of us so that they could blame Avalon for what happened and isolate her from everyone else. They want to kill her because her ancestor was Hieronymus Bosch. Well, specifically his daughter. And-”

“Wait, wait,” Jazz interrupted. “Hold on a second. What? Are you serious?” Her eyes were wide. “Avalon, that Avalon, is Bosch’s descendant? Really?”

I squinted at her, trying not to be offended on Avalon’s behalf. “Yeah, really. Why?”

She flushed a little. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just… it’s surprising, that’s all. I would’ve said the same thing if you said anyone was Bosch’s descendant. It’s like saying, ‘hey, that guy’s great-uncle is Santa Claus’ or something. I dunno. Just… wait, why do they want to kill her?”

“Because she can open the blood vault that leads to something they really want to get for themselves,” I replied, “the one that belonged to Liesje Aken.”

Isaac spoke up then. “What’s… what’s in there that’s so important?”

Glancing to the boy briefly, I echoed, “What’s so important? Apparently Liesje came up with a way to make people immune to Seosten possession. That’s why Avalon’s immune. Liesje used it on her bloodline. Then it got locked away in that vault. The Seosten want to get in there and get rid of it before it spreads and ruins their whole plot.”

“Ruins what, exactly?” Gordon’s voice was quiet, his tone making me think that he already had some idea.

Right. This was the big one. This was the one that was going to go too far for them. “… Heretics,” I replied, “Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, all of it.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jazz demanded, staring openly at me. “What do the Seosten have to do with Crossroads?”

“Everything,” I replied flatly. “They have everything to do with it. They created it.”

The denials came so fast and furious that for a moment I thought Vin Diesel was behind me. Mostly they came from Jazz and Isaac, both of whom demanded to know what the hell I was talking about, just how insane I was, if I’d hit my head too hard, and so on and so forth.

“Guys–guys!” Roxa stepped in. “Just listen to her, okay?”

“Seriously?” Jazz demanded, “you’re totally serious right now? What the fuck? These Seosten created Crossroads? Do you know how fucking insane you sound?”

“I’ve got some idea,” I confirmed dryly. “Just listen. The Seosten created Crossroads and the Bystander Effect to–”

“Oh, now they created the Bystander Effect too?” Isaac retorted sarcastically. “These are some pretty powerful magic boogeymen.”

I sighed. “Listen, I know how it sounds. I do. But like I said, just go with me a little bit, okay? Yes, it sounds fucking insane. Trust me, I get that. The Seosten created the Bystander Effect in order to control humanity, in order to control Heretics. They wanted us to think that all Alters are evil, beca–”

That was as far as I got before Jazz abruptly cut in once more. “What?” Her voice was even more incredulous. “What did you say? They want us to think that all what are evil?”

“Alters,” I replied, sighing. “I mean Strangers, sorry. They want us to think that–”

“They are,” the other girl stated flatly. “What the hell do you mean, they want us to think that Strangers are evil? The hell–”

“Would you just shut the fuck up?” That was Sands, who finally couldn’t contain herself. “You keep interrupting every two seconds. Shut up and let her talk for the love of gods.”

“But she’s talking about Strangers like they’re… like they’re n-not evil,” Jazz pointed out, stammering a little bit. “How can you–”

That time, it was her turn to be interrupted as Roxa spoke up. “Flick’s right. Strangers, Alters, whatever, they’re not all evil. And you wanna know how I know?”

As everyone’s eyes turned that way, mine included, the blonde girl reached up to her neck. She unfastened the invisible choker there, pulling it away.

“Because I am one.”

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Field Trip 28-04

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Please note, there was a mini-interlude focusing on Geta, from the Crossroads Committee, posted a couple days ago. If you have not seen that yet, you might want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

In all those shows and movies about people breaking out of prison, it almost always showed a quick-cut montage of them running. The scene would keep jumping back and forth between alarms blaring, cops loading their guns and waving flashlights around, and the feet of the prisoners as they pounded across the ground, leaping over fallen trees, splashing into puddles, or crashing through small piles of leaves. And breathing. If the sound wasn’t taken over by the sound of alarms and sirens, it would be the escaping prisoners panting breaths as they fled.

We had none of that. No sound of feet pounding, no panting, nothing. Our escape from that portal was relatively, and kind of disturbingly, quiet compared to those movies.

But then again, the people in them didn’t tend to have the ability to shapeshift into a lion or a wolf that both instinctively knew how to run through the forest at top speed while remaining almost silent. Nor did they have a mechanical cougar that could transform into a hoverboard and fly in some kind of stealth mode just above the ground without the slightest noise.

But I had to say, any prison escape movie that did have something like that would be amazing.

I had no idea how long we ran like that, again with Sands and Jazz on my back while the boys rode Gidget. There was no way to keep track of the time. All I knew was that we had to keep going. Radueriel wasn’t just gonna give up on finding us because we happened to get through the portal. He was gonna send an army out after us. And not just a small one like he’d had back on the station. They were going to be tearing everything apart looking for us. We needed distance. We needed to get as far from that place as we could before going to ground.

Luckily, we had a good way of doing that. And in this case, I was part of the transportation instead of a passenger. Lions were fast, of course, but usually only in short bursts. Like most big cats (as far as I knew), they were ambush predators. Which meant that they were really quick for brief periods. But I wasn’t just a normal lion. I still had my incredible stamina. So I got the speed of the lion (somewhere around fifty miles an hour), with the actual stamina to keep going at that top speed for a lot longer than normal lions could. I could haul ass, for long stretches.

Gidget could also obviously carry her passengers for a long time, and I was pretty sure that Roxa must have some kind of stamina boost too, because she was keeping up just fine. Then again, wolves were a lot better suited for long-distance running than the lion was.

As we ran, I let the lion instincts mostly take over, simply ‘steering’ to keep heading away from where we had been, away from signs of pursuit or civilization. And while the lion kept running, I focused my own thoughts inward, toward a conversation that had been a long time coming. This just happened to be the perfect time for it, since I couldn’t exactly talk to anyone else anyway.

So let me make sure I’ve got this right. Your mother is also Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. She had you after she was banished from Earth. Somehow, she was… friends with Sands’ and Scout’s mother, and she was able to visit her even after being banished. Good so far?

The answer came immediately. Yes. They were–uh, well, um, Mama was sort of… possessing Aunt Larissa when she was a little kid. Bu-but she didn’t control her or anything, except when she had to, I mean. She was sort of, um, just… hiding, kind of like me. She was waiting for Aunt Larissa to be taken to Crossroads so that she could find out what, um, what Gaia was up to and how much she was helping the rebellion. You know, sort of like a, um, like a mole, kind of.

I paused (Well, mentally at least. Physically, I was still racing through this alien forest), thinking about that for a moment. But she stopped doing that, and went to have a family with a Heretic?

Uncle Haiden was part of the Eden’s Garden group, came the response. He found Mama after she and Aunt Larissa had a, um, after they saw these bad guys and they had a fight.

Then she told me what had happened back then, that the young Larissa had accidentally stumbled across those men just as they had executed that guy, and how they had tried to kill Larissa to silence her. Sariel had revealed herself and taken care of the men, but not before one of the men had managed to critically injure Larissa. While Sariel had been trying to get her to a hospital, Haiden had shown up and tried to stop her. Somehow, she had convinced him that she was trying to save the little girl. They dropped Larissa off, warned the Heretics to stop the Seosten from risking possessing her again, and then the two of them had just… left. They abandoned Heretics and Seosten alike and tried to live real, normal lives of their own.

They’d managed it, even having twin children, Vanessa and Tristan. But then Sariel’s old boss, Puriel, had shown up. During the altercation, the banishment orb was broken and all of them except for Vanessa were thrown to various ends of the universe.

Sariel had ended up in some kind of bondage, her only escape being the ability to project herself to her most recent host. And since she had completely stopped possessing people for years, that host was Larissa. So she projected herself to the now-adult Heretic, convinced her that she wasn’t a threat, and the two of them had been trying to find both a way to bring Sariel back for good, and for her lost family. Specifically, Vanessa. Except Sariel couldn’t remember them. Her memory had been wiped of all the specific details, just like Tristan’s had been.

Wait, I asked then as something occurred to me. If Sariel can’t remember who her husband and kids are, why can you remember it? I–oh. Then I had it. You figured it out as we’ve been going through this, didn’t you? Your memory wasn’t specifically erased, so you could piece it together.

Again, I had the impression of a nod or general agreement. Uh huh. I wish I could tell Mama everything. But… I don’t even know where she is, or if she’s okay, or… She trailed off, and I sensed a sudden sharp rise in worry and fear as the girl started contemplating the worst.

Hey, hey, it’s okay. We’ll find your mom, I promise. You, Vanessa, Tristan, you’re all getting your mom back. I needed to change the subject so that she didn’t start dwelling too much. How does your mother and Larissa meeting again and trying to find a way to bring her back end up with you secretly possessing me for… for… years, right? How long have you been with me?

A little over seven years, was the response. I was re-really, really little before. Mama and Aunt Larissa put um, safety things, safety spells on me so that I wouldn’t talk or accidentally pop out of you until I… until I knew what was going on, until I, um, understood. It was kind of like sleeping for awhile. Or, um, virtual reality, sort of? It was like living another life. I was dreaming about Mama and all the stories she told me, until I was old enough to… control myself.

I thought about that, dodging around a large tree abruptly enough that Sands had to grab tight onto my fur to avoid being thrown off. How long has it been since you were… awake, as you put it? How long have you been in full control, paying attention to what’s going on with me?

Again, there a slight hesitation before she answered. Um, about five years? I’ve been t-trying to give you privacy whenever it was, um, you know, something really, really private? Like I said, I can stop paying attention and go to sleep whenever I want to. B-but not all the time. I needed to watch and see wh-what was happening in case the bad Seosten did anything, or, or–

It’s okay, I interrupted. Trust me, I get it. You say you stopped watching when it was something private, and I believe you. I don’t hate you, Tabbris. You’re the only reason I’m not a Seosten slave. How could I possibly hate you after that? Let alone everything you’ve done since you showed yourself. The others are alive because of you. I’m not being dissected by Radueriel right now because of you. The Seosten plan to frame Avalon for all that stuff failed because of you.

Now I sensed embarrassment. And something that felt like fidgeting. I was just trying to help.

You did, I assured her. You still are. Hell, we would’ve been captured again if it wasn’t for you coming up with that word to get rid of Radueriel, even if it was temporary. You’re basically our MVP right now, even if nobody else knows about you. I can’t even start to thank you for everything you’ve done, Tabbris.

If I could see her right then, I had a feeling that the girl’s face would be burning pink. Then she gave a little gasp. Oh! Oh, I can help with something. I can.

You’ve helped with a lot already, I pointed out, but what now?

That time, I actually felt excitement from the girl, as if she was delighted that she didn’t have to hold back for once. Back there in the water plant thingy, when you killed that um, that guy. I can tell you what you got from killing him!

What? My reflexive wince at the thought that this little girl had seen me smash that guy’s head into paste vanished at her words. What do you–wait, you know already? Seosten know what–

Uh huh, she interrupted excitedly. It’s neat too! Okay, her excitement was rubbing off on me. You can take any non-living material that’s touching one part of your body and move it to anywhere else instantly.

Okay, that was gonna take me a second to understand. I… what?

The Seosten girl explained hurriedly, clearly beside herself that she actually could. Like, say you’re holding a hat in your hand. You can make it move to your head. Or you touch a pair of pants and make them appear on you the way they should be. Or instantly move your staff from one hand to the other hand.

Or move a pair of handcuffs from my wrist to… next to my chest or something, I finished. Yup, her excitement was definitely contagious.

Yup! The girl chirped the agreement happily. See? It’s really, really, um… cool?

Cool, I agreed. See? You’re even more helpful than I thought. 

Again, I sensed a sudden realization from the girl as she blurted, Oh! I f-forgot, there’s something else. The Satyr!

Confused, I echoed, Satyr?

Uh huh! Remember when you and Shiori fought Nicholas Petan’s guys with the Meregan? You killed a Satyr, and you never found out what you got from it.

It took me a second, but then I remembered. Oh. Oh, wait, yeah, I remember. There was so much going on, I didn’t even think about it. What was–

Dexterity boost, she explained. That’s why you got better with your staff right after that. You got a dexterity boost.

I smiled to myself, which might have looked odd on the lion’s face. Thanks, partner. You’re pretty amazing. I don’t know what I’d do without you, at this point. But, I paused, then asked, what I really wanna know is, why me? Why would Sariel and Larissa send you to protect me, when I didn’t even know them? Was it all because of who my mother is, and what she’s done?

Uh huh. They knew that the Seosten would come after you because of who your mom was, because she hurt them so much. Because people like Gabriel Prosser and the ones who follow him, they’d come for you. They’d try to help you, because of who your mother was. Mama knew that the Seosten would try to possess you, turn you against what your mother stood for.

I was silent for a minute after that, running through the forest with the other two girls perched atop me. I could hear them murmuring, having some kind of discussion, but I didn’t know about what. I couldn’t actually focus on it. All I could think about was how different things would have been if Sariel hadn’t sent Tabbris to protect me. Hell, for that matter, I had to think about how different things would have been if Sariel hadn’t turned against the other Seosten in the first place. If she had followed through on her mission to infiltrate Gaia’s trust by staying with Larissa throughout her childhood and into adulthood, how different would things be right now?

For one thing, the Seosten probably would’ve had what they needed to get Gaia kicked out of her position. They would’ve installed their own puppet. Hell, everything would have been different. The world itself was different because one Seosten switched sides. Wow. Just… wow.

Finally, I made myself focus, asking, So for the past five years, I mean, since you had control, you’ve just been hiding inside me? You seemed to be okay at walking around and stuff when I saw you at Gabriel’s camp on the lake. I–wait, why didn’t he or any of those kids notice that you didn’t belong there? That place is small, they should’ve noticed that they didn’t recognize you.

They didn’t see me, Tabbris answered simply. Only you saw me. I, um, I wanted to meet you, even if you couldn’t know who I was yet. So I, um, after I gave you the urge to go to the bathroom so I could, y-you know… hide, I projected an image of myself to you. Just to you.

I thought about that for a second. Now that she mentioned it, I didn’t recall her actually interacting with any of those kids. She had been standing there (or at least, I had thought that she was standing there), but nobody else had ever actually acknowledged her presence.

For a couple minutes, I just let the lion run. I was half-paying attention to where we were going, just enough to keep us away from any pursuit. Then I asked, This year, since all this stuff started going on, have you–I mean, what kind of stuff have you done? I… I just assume you’ve helped. I was trying to carefully phrase it in a way that she wouldn’t think was an accusation.

Still, she hesitated a little before responding. Sometimes, I… I tried to help sometimes. But I promise, I didn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to do. I mean, except stuff like that bathroom thing when I had to get out. Every decision you made about um, Alters and all that, you made it yourself, I swear. I just… helped. Like, um, like when that swarm of peridles attacked. You were panicking, and I um, I just sort of calmed you down a little bit, so you could focus. Or when the… the Fomorian was there in Koren’s house, I kind of… talked to you.

I felt my own surprise build at that. You talked to me? I–Pausing, I thought about it. When I told myself to stall him by asking questions. That wasn’t me talking to myself, was it? It was you.

Again, there was a feeling of confirmation. Uh huh. I was scared, and I actually talked to you. I was trying to make it sound like your own thoughts and… uh, I guess I did it?

You definitely did, I confirmed, going silent again as I kept running. So many thoughts were running through my head, so many things that I wanted to ask her about and so little time.

Was that the first time you came out? I had to ask. The time at the lake, I mean. Or did you, um, you know, unpossess me before? Because you seemed pretty okay with the whole moving around by yourself thing.

The impression of a head shake reached me. I h-had to come out a few times t-to undo some of the spells that the Seosten or… or Fossor tried to put on you. I couldn’t do all of it from insi–

Wait, I interrupted, my heart leaping into my throat. What do you mean, spells that Fossor tried to put on me?

Oh. I sensed her embarrassment that she’d forgotten I didn’t know about that. Uh, y-yeah, he tried to put spells on you sometimes. M-mostly just tracking and monitoring spells. I got rid of them though, I promise. I tried to make it, um, you know, look like someone powerful was protecting you. I… I thought if he thought that there was some powerful Heretic or something l-looking after you, he’d… um, back off a little bit.

I was stunned, almost stumbling as I ran through the forest in lion-form. I thought that time on my birthday was the first time he came…

Her hesitation to respond to that dragged on for a few seconds before Tabbris slowly, weakly answered, I… um, I could give you a memory, but it’s probably better if I just… um, tell you about it. You won’t like it. One time, he umm… he ummm… he posed as your dentist.

My dentist? I echoed in confusion.

Her revulsion and fear was palpable. Y-yes. I mean, not your dentist, but as your… replacement. Remember when… when those people at your dentist’s office were… were killed?

My throat was dry. I already felt sick. They died a few days after my last appointment with them.

No… her answer came weakly, and I could feel how badly she didn’t want to tell me about it. No, Fossor killed them so he could pose as your, um, as your replacement dentist. He wanted to see you and… and take… um, pictures for your mom. And–

Oh God. I actually did stumble that time, coming to a stop as I stared at the ground. But I wasn’t seeing the ground. I was seeing that old dentist, the one who had pulled my teeth back on that day. I saw his face… and I saw Fossor’s face.

Oh. When he first showed up, back on my birthday… I thought he looked like a dentist. I had thought that he looked like a dentist! It was my brain. It had been my subconscious telling me that I’d seen him before.

Um. My whirlwind of thoughts was interrupted by Tabbris. That was… me, actually. I couldn’t help it. I was thinking about how he posed as a dentist before and you kind of… um, heard it.

I started to respond, only for Sands to lean over from her place on my back. “Flick?” she prompted with a concerned tone. “Hey, are you okay? Do you need to stop?”

Stop? No. No, we couldn’t stop. Even if I did feel like turning back into my human shape so I could throw up a few dozen times and then curl into a ball and shiver for a couple hours.

Instead, I gave my head a sharp shake before bounding off once more to catch up with the others. Okay, probably shouldn’t talk about that anymore. But I do want to hear more later.

That time, I could feel the shame radiating off of the other girl. I’m sorry, F-Flick, she all but whimpered. I wanted to do s-something. I wanted to stop him, but I was… I was… s-scared. 

No, Tabbris, I insisted. You did the right thing. You did the right thing, okay? You absolutely should not have confronted him. I didn’t even want to think about what Fossor would have done to Tabbris several years ago if he’d found out that she was there. The thought itself made me feel sick.

So I changed the subject. I… did you only come out for stuff like that? Tell me you actually came out for yourself sometimes.

I could sense her embarrassment then. F-for myself? I um, I guess so, sometimes. Just when you were sleeping and I kn-knew you were safe. I didn’t go very far, I just… wanted to walk around. I wanted to… to move by myself. I just wanted to be myself, just a little bit. And a couple times, I–

She stopped, going silent. I sensed her total embarrassment as her nerves spiked. Tabbris? I pressed, curious about what could possibly embarrass her so much. What happened?

Her answer came a little reluctantly. Sometimes, just… just a couple times, I… I went in while you were asleep and laid down with um, with your dad. He was mostly asleep, and he just thought that I was you. But he… he put his arm around me and he held me. I… I’m sorry. I–

She was inside my body, incorporeal or whatever. But still, it felt like she was crying, or near to it. And I could picture it. This tiny girl who had been given such a God damn enormous job to do, feeling so incredibly lonely and lost that she indulged just a little bit by curling up with my half-asleep father. She had let herself feel loved and wanted, protected, for just a little while. And now she felt guilty about that ‘indulgence’. She felt like I was going to be angry that she’d, what, tricked my father into hugging her? She thought that I was gonna be mad at her for that?

No. No, I definitely wasn’t angry about it. Not in the least. Honestly, what I wanted to do most right at that moment was give this poor girl as many hugs as she wanted, for as long as she could stand them. God, how was I even supposed to respond to a tearful confession that she had slipped out of my body for just a few minutes so that she could get a tiny bit of affection, even if it wasn’t really directed at her? What could I possibly say to something like that?

Finally, I settled on simply saying, Tabbris, believe me, I don’t blame you for that. And if I know anything about my dad, he won’t either. If he knew you were there and what you were doing, he would’ve treated you like a daughter. He’d– I took a second, collecting my thoughts. He’d protect you, just like you protected me. Just like we protect each other now, right?

Protect each other? Tabbris echoed the words slowly, clearly feeling them out.

Yeah. Now that I know about you, you think I’m gonna let anything happen to you? Fat chance. It’s like I said, we’re partners. You help me, I help you. We’ll get your mom back, we’ll introduce you to your brother and sister, we… we’ll introduce you to my dad. We–hey, that reminds me. You said who your mom is, but… what about your dad? I mean, I’m not positive about exactly how the Seosten reproduce, but I’m fairly sure it’s similar to humans since your mom and Haiden managed to have kids. So the whole plumbing issue and all that has gotta be simil–look, I’m just asking who your dad is. You haven’t mentioned him at all.

For a few seconds, there was nothing but silence. Then her voice came back slowly, and a bit weak. I don’t… really have a father. Not like that anyway.

I was confused. What do you mean, you don’t have a father? I mean, I know I used to say that I didn’t have a mother, because I thought she abandoned me. Is that what you–

No, she interrupted. I don’t–I… Seosten, they… I mean we don’t really have a… it’s hard to, um, have kids.

So she told me about how the Seosten problem, how the vast majority of their pregnancies ended up failing because the still-growing fetus would accidentally ‘possess’ the mother and disappear forever before they were grown enough to have an actual mind or personality. Almost ninety percent of all Seosten pregnancies would eventually fail. That was the whole reason they’d upgraded themselves to live for so long, so that their race wouldn’t completely die out.

Even as much as I hated what the Seosten as a whole had been doing and what they were responsible for, I still recognized the sheer awfulness of that situation. I… but, I don’t understand. What does that have to do with you not having a father?

Again, there was a long moment of silence before Tabbris finally answered. Kushiel. When… when they were on Earth the first time, she was… she was Hera. Now she’s in charge of a new project, about… about solving the child problem.

Why do I get the feeling that I’m not gonna like how she’s going about ‘solving’ it? I asked, already feeling a little queasy.

Tabbris sounded sick herself. Mama, and other prisoners, traitors. Kushiel is um… she’s using the um, um, the stuff from men who have had a successful… who had babies that survived, and she’s uh, putting it, I mean she’s–

Artificially inseminating the mothers? I finished for her, my disgust and horror rapidly rising.

Once more, silence reigned before that soft voice confirmed, Uh huh. But… but it’s more than that. She monitors them, and if the baby is lost, she does it again. And again. And again. Over and over, she keeps doing it until they have a successful pregnancy. Then she takes the baby and does it again.

Okay, everything that I had been expecting fell away then. My revulsion was so complete that I very nearly shifted back into my human shape just so that I could throw up properly. What are you–you–you mean they–she… she breeds them, like animals? She inseminates them, waits for them to have a… a miscarriage, and then does it again? She makes them go through…  a ten percent success rate. That means they go through nine miscarriages for every one successful birth. Average.

Tabbris’s voice was small and alone. Uh huh. That’s what they’re doing to my mama. That’s why I’m here.

Oh Tabby… Tabbris… What could I say to that? What could I say that would make that even the least bit better? Tabbris, you–listen to me, your mother loves you, okay? It doesn’t matter how you came about, she did everything she could to protect you. She sent you here. And we’re going to save her, alright? You, me, your brother, and your sister. We’re gonna get your mom back. We will save her.

There was sadness, but also relief in her voice as she replied, Thank you, Flick.

Like I said, partners. And I was wrong about something before.

She sounded hesitant, confused. You were wrong?

Yeah. I called Vanessa your sister. That was wrong. I should’ve called her your other sister. Before she could question that, I elaborated. You’ve been living with me for seven years, Tabbris. You’ve grown up with me, even if I didn’t know about it. Now I do. So Vanessa isn’t your only sister. You’re my sister too. Partners and sisters. You got it?

You… Flick…you didn’t have to–I mean… The tears in her voice were almost audible despite it all being in my head.

Hey, don’t cry, I tried to sound serious, but I was getting a little choked up too. If you cry, I’m pretty sure I have to tease you. Isn’t that some kind of sibling law?

Before she could respond, Roxa abruptly cut in front of me. We had been running down a narrow canyon with dense foliage overhead. She squeezed through the space between me and the nearby wall and darted right into my path before stopping short. As I skidded to a halt with the girls yelping on my back, Roxa moved to a nearby bush. Sniffing the base of it, she looked back to me, made a noise low in her throat, and then moved through the bush.

A cave. There was a cave on the other side of it. The entrance was just big enough for me to barely squeeze through once Sands and Jazz got off my back. They followed, with Isaac, Gordon, and a transformed Gidget bringing up the rear.

The cave wasn’t huge, but it was just barely tall enough for all of us to stand upright in once we got past the entrance. It was probably about the size of my room back home in Wyoming. Or what had been my home, anyway.

In any case, it was out of sight, the entrance hidden in a very narrow canyon, behind a thick bush. I couldn’t see anyone finding us here very easily. At least not for awhile. We had time to catch our breaths.

“Hey, uh, guys.” Sands was standing over by the back of the cave. “Or, rather, girls. There’s another spot through here. It’s smaller, but you guys can… you know, change. So that you don’t have to change in front of–out here.”

“Aww.” Isaac, of course. “They can change out here if they want to. I won’t complain.”

We chose to change in the other part of the cave. Roxa and I slipped through to the back, with Gidget following so that the cyberform cougar could cough up our clothes and stuff.

Moving to the other side of the much smaller cave (it was basically the size of a walk-in closet rather than a whole room), I focused on shifting back into my much smaller human form. It was kind of a relief, shedding the fur and shrinking back to my regular self. I focused on getting my body back to normal, watching as my paws became hands with nicely wiggling fingers.

Finally, I was changed. Breathing out a sigh of relief, I started to turn to see if I could get my stuff from Gidget. “Ro–”

That was as far as I managed to get, before something hit me hard enough to knock me onto my back. I landed hard, grunting as a figure perched on top of me. Roxa. She was on my stomach, one hand against my throat.

“Don’t move,” the also-naked girl hissed. “Don’t even think about moving. No one can hear us out there, not with the cone of silence I put up. So don’t try to shout and confuse everyone.”

“Roxa, what are you–”

“Gidget,” she interrupted without looking that way.

Hearing her name, the cyberform cougar moved up and squatted next to my head before reaching out to lay her paw against it. She held me down like that.

“Okay.” Roxa focused on me once more. Not that she’d ever really stopped focusing. If anything, her hand on my throat had tightened. “You have one chance. One chance, and that’s it. I’m only giving you that, because I saw how much you helped deal with Charmeine, and how you got us out of all that. I wasn’t going to be stupid and blow everything right in front of everyone. I don’t know what the hell is going on, or why you were helping us. But you need to get the hell out of Flick right now, and let me talk to her without you there.”

“Get out of Fl–” I stopped short. Touching me. She was touching me, and she had the Seosten-detection choker on. I’d completely forgotten about that. Roxa had touched me before, back when she caught me in the air after I killed Charmeine, right before we were transported. She’d touched me. She knew. She knew I was possessed.

She knew about Tabbris.  

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Field Trip 28-03

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I was under absolutely no delusions. We didn’t stand a chance against Radueriel. If he was one of the Seosten who apparently posed as the original Olympian gods, that made him something like over three thousand years old. We didn’t have a prayer. We’d gotten our asses kicked by Charmeine. She would have basically taken us apart completely and for good if she hadn’t purposefully dragged it out so that she could show off. If it hadn’t been for Columbus nailing her with that hit because she’d completely dismissed him and her dragging things out, she would have easily won. And I sincerely doubted that Radueriel was going to make the same mistake.

No, there was no question. He could put us down in seconds. It might have sounded arrogant or unfair, but the simple fact was that if Avalon and Rudolph weren’t enough to help Roxa and me deal with Charmeine, then Jazz, Gordon, Sands, and Isaac weren’t going to be enough to deal with Radueriel. And that was if he’d been by himself, let alone with the rest of his soldiers.

The Seosten spoke, but I didn’t understand the words. It sounded kind of like some of the spells that we’d learned that year, but I didn’t think he was casting anything. When none of us responded, Radueriel paused, then spoke again. That time, he tried English. “Ah, correct, humans don’t speak Old Seosten anymore, do they? This language then? You understand the trade language?” His voice held far more curiosity than anger as his gaze passed over all of us.

Some part of me wondered what the man was thinking as he looked at us. We had to look like a strange group, even to him. We had two human girls; Jazz and Sands; a couple human boys, Gordon and Isaac; a mechanical cougar, Gidget; a werewolf, Roxa; and a werelion; me. I had no idea what exactly this guy had been expecting Charmeine to send to him (besides me in a far more captured state), but this definitely wasn’t it. I wondered how much he knew about what had happened. The Seosten were supposed to be connected to each other ‘if they were on the same mission’, but was Radueriel considered to be on the same mission as Charmeine? Did it even work over that much distance? Or was he completely clueless as to why and how things had gone wrong?

When it became obvious that the man was waiting for an answer (and lacking much in the way of other options), Sands was the one who took a step forward since neither Roxa or I could actually talk in these forms. She had her mace in one hand. “We understand you just fine.”

The man’s eyes lit up, and he smiled. “Ausgezeichnet. Oh, no, that’s still wrong, isn’t it? Fremragende? Excellent? That one then. Excellent. We can have a proper conversation then.”

Did you catch any of that? I asked my ride-along partner.

There was no response. I paused, then thought, Tabbris? Hey, you okay? I know it’s scary, but… Tabbris? Tabby? Still, there was no response. She wasn’t responding. Tabbris wasn’t responding. She wasn’t–where was she? What–that was stupid, she was still in me, right? She was– she had to be. She couldn’t just disappear, she wouldn’t just leave me like this. She–

While I was busy panicking inwardly, the Seosten man continued. “Right. Let’s try these introductions again, shall we? My name is Radueriel, of the Faustian Choir. You are all here because you were selected to be subjects of a series of tests that I am… currently engaged in.

“Of course you’ve caused a bit of a, what was your word for it… ruckus since your arrival, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for such attempts. What was your goal here?” He gestured to the park area behind him with the stream just in sight. “Were you going to sneak through our water portal to escape the station? Clever. And ambitious. Yes, I don’t fault you for that. But you should put those thoughts far from your mind, because it will absolutely not be happening.”

Tabbris! I was all but ignoring Radueriel then, focused totally on the silence within my own head. Still, I got no response, no indication that there was anyone in my thoughts other than myself.

Clearing his throat, the Seosten stepped forward. His mechanical leg whirred audibly with the motion. “No, I don’t blame you for trying to escape. You wouldn’t be very good test subjects if you simply laid down and accepted that fate. But I assure you, your options now are limited. You can either surrender, in which case you will be taken to your assigned quarters to wait until I happen to be ready to work on you. Or you can attempt some kind of resistance. In that case, I’m afraid you’ll be damaged enough that you’ll need to be put back together in our medical facility. It will be an entirely unpleasant experience, I can promise you that. And afterward, once you are pieced together, you will still be taken to your quarters to await your turn in my lab.”

His gaze fell on me then. Even in my lion form, I had the feeling that he knew exactly who I was. Not that it would’ve been hard. Even with no other information, he had a fifty/fifty shot between Roxa and me. His smile grew. “And you, yes, you must be the one who killed the charming Charmeine. Or did you know her as Nemesis? Did you know her at all?” He shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. You stole her possession ability, didn’t you? Yes. But you won’t be using that again. Not here, not now.” As he spoke, Radueriel held his clockwork mechanical arm up. At a touch from his other hand, part of the metal forearm flipped around, revealing a small keyboard. He tapped a few of the buttons, and there was a brief, high-pitched whistle. As it faded, I saw every guard in this enclosed wilderness area abruptly snap to attention, straightening noticeably.

“Every being within this facility has been… upgraded,” the Seosten announced. “You will find them to be much stronger, faster, and more resistant than those outside my control. In addition, they have also been upgraded in other ways, such as their implanted teleportation devices, which allow me to either transport any of them to any of the others, or even transport myself to any of them. Instant transportation to anywhere that any of my people are located. You may start by facing one man, only for that one to become dozens within seconds. That,” he boasted, “is how you find yourself facing this many now, instead of the few that I posted at this entrance upon your initial disappearance. You could have emerged anywhere, and met this same force, including myself. Anywhere you run to, if one of my men finds you, I will be there.”

He was still smiling at his own genius before shaking his head. “But that is not the upgrade that need concern you now. No, you see, when needed, such as now, my people also obey my thoughts. I direct them. And you’ll find that your possession ability is very useless when the mind of your subject has nothing to do with the actions their body performs. After all,” he remarked while tapping the side of his head a couple times, “you never know when you might need to defend against the very gift that defines your entire race. It pays to be prepared. You’ve fought my people once. You did well. I congratulate you on that. But now, you will fight me. All of me.” At his words, the man lifted one arm. Simultaneously, every single one of the guards did the same.

The announcement horrified me. Somehow, Radueriel had implanted devices in all of his people that allowed him to take direct command of them at any point. Not by possessing them, but with a thought. Now he could, what, direct them just by sitting back and watching the fight? That meant… that meant that they’d all fight with his skill, his knowledge. The brief thought passed through my mind that he couldn’t divide his attention that much, but really, he probably could. I sincerely doubted that someone like him would forget something that basic. Honestly, even after all the different things I had seen this year, multitasking like that still seemed like cheating. But yeah, he’d probably managed to upgrade himself that much.

And… and where was Tabbris? Despite only being aware of her presence for… what… how long had it been? Maybe an hour? Less than two. Despite that, I already felt like a huge part of me was missing when she didn’t respond. Her silence was one of the most terrifying things I had ever experienced, and it was all I could do not to physically freak out right in front of everyone.

Tabbris! Tabbris, wake up! What’s wrong with–Tabbris? I was still trying to get her attention. What was going on?

Radueriel paused then, letting that sink in briefly before finishing with a simple, “Any of you who wish to surrender now may do so. You will be allowed to go to your quarters and await your turn in my lab. It will not be a fun time. But I promise, you will enjoy our medical facilities far less.”

“Um. Flick?” Sands’ voice was quiet, her eyes darting to me. “What are we supposed to do? We can’t fight this many guys, not if they’re all like… like…” She stared at the assembled army.

“I’ll tell you one thing.” That was Jazz, the dark-skinned girl standing there between her two teammates with her falchion raised. “We don’t surrender to this assface. He wants us to walk in there willingly, without even a fight? Fuck that. I don’t care if we take out one of his guys or fifty. I don’t care if we cost him an inch or a mile. But we’re gonna cost this son of a bitch something.”

Beside her, Isaac’s mouth opened. “Now, hold on. I think if we–”

Whatever the boy had been about to say, he was interrupted by Radueriel. The Seosten had been patiently waiting there, watching us for a moment. But now, he shook his head (the assembled guards did not do the same. Apparently that was an order he didn’t send them) and lamented, “Well, I did try. Remember that, children, as your limbs are being reattached later.”

Oh! Oh, Flick?

The sudden voice in my head made me jerk. The timing probably made it look like I was recoiling from Radueriel’s words. But I didn’t care. Tabbris?! Are you okay? What happened?! I felt kind of like a mother whose kid had wandered off in the grocery store or something.

U-um, Mama, the reply came quickly. It was another memory, a-and I kind of… got lost. There was a pause, and I could sense her embarrassment at the admission. B-but it’s okay, we’re okay. We can get out of here!

The soldiers were already coming for us, while Sands and the others set themselves to meet them. They were saying something to me, but I didn’t hear it. All I could focus on was the voice in my head. What? Uh, maybe you tuned out for too long, but we’re kind of screwed right now.

No! She blurted. We’re not screwed, I p-promise. We can get out. We really can. You just have to say, ‘Sevesensiel’. Out–umm, outloud, I mean. And then make everyone run. I’ll explain later, I promise. You’ve just gotta say it!

The fight was already happening. Though it wasn’t much of a fight. With every one of the guards following Radueriel’s mental direction, it was basically turning into a slaughter. The ‘fight’, such as it was, would be over in a few more seconds, if it even lasted that long.  

Sands shouted something at me, clearly wondering why I wasn’t helping, why I was just standing there completely frozen. Still, I hesitated. I can’t change right now. You know how fast those guys would be on top of me? Even as I spoke, my point was proven as three of the soldiers bypassed the others to come right for me. I bounded forward, lunging up and over them to land near the others.

I couldn’t take the time to shift, and I couldn’t talk in this form. One word (at least I assumed it was one word) and I couldn’t say it. I was a fucking lion. What was I supposed to do, roar?

F-Flick! Tabbris’s voice was panicked, and I felt her take control for a moment, making me lunge sideways away from the guard who had been coming after me during my brief moment of distraction. If you can’t talk, possess someone who c-can! You can possess one of the others!

Oh. Right. Maybe I should have hesitated. Maybe I should’ve found a way to ask permission. But there wasn’t time. At this point, as the unified, Radueriel-controlled soldiers easily swatted aside any defense that the others tried to put up as if we were all children, seconds counted. Milliseconds counted. There was no time for anything except the only action that I had left.

Spinning on my paws, I lunged directly toward Sands. While leaping, I blurted, Do the thing!

The brunette barely had time to glance my way, seeing my positively massive lion-form coming at her, before I was there. And to my immense relief, Tabbris interpreted what ‘do the thing’ meant. It probably helped that she was in my head. Either way, as we leapt that way, rather than colliding with Sands, I was suddenly seeing through the other girl’s eyes. I felt her panic as she jerked backward from what had been a gigantic lion leaping straight at her, stumbling and barely stopping herself from landing on her backside.

Sands! I sent as ‘loudly’ as I could, basically screaming in my own head while trying to direct it at the other girl. I didn’t want to take her over. I refused to take her over, even right now. I wouldn’t do that, unless I had to. Sands, say Sevesensiel! Say Sevesensiel right now! Say it!

“Sevesensiel!” Sands abruptly blurted, clearly having no idea what she was saying or why.

On the heels of that word, there was a flash of light that seemed to come from the Seosten in the back. And just like that… the wilderness around us was empty. All of the soldiers were gone. Radueriel was gone. We were all alone.

What the fuck was that?!” The demand came from Sands, Isaac, and myself all at once.

“Flick, Flick, are you in my head?!” Sands demanded out loud. “What are–”

Run! Tabbris interrupted her, though it was obvious that only I could hear her. Make them run, he’ll be back! Go, go, now, now, you only have about ninety seconds! Hurry, go!

Jazz and Isaac were both demanding to know what the hell was going on. Roxa was growling from where she stood in her wolf-form, clearly not sure if she should change back. And Sands was still asking me if I was in her, if I could read her mind, and so on.

Run! That time, it was me shouting it. Ninety seconds, they’ll be back in ninety seconds! Go! Get to the portal, we’ll figure it out from there. Just go, damn it, go! Run, run, run!

I was about to ask Tabbris to get us out of her, but she was already one step ahead of me. I was suddenly back in my own (well, my lion) body, stumbling a little. My gaze snapped across the room, and I focused on the stream ahead. Then I ran toward it, making a noise that was something like a half-roar to get everyone’s attention.

To her credit, Sands didn’t wait around questioning what I’d said. “Go!” she shouted to the others. “They’ll be back in a minute, just go! Questions later, running now!” Even as she spoke, the other girl was already running after me. And the others, thankfully, were right behind her as we hit the stream and turned to follow it to the portal.

Sixty seconds. Tabbris’s voice was nervous. I couldn’t blame her. Hurry, Flick. Hurry.

She didn’t have to tell me twice. Err, three times. I saw the portal up ahead and kept running, pushing myself hard while the others scrambled to keep up. The portal glimmered a little as we approached, and I splashed my way through the water before going right through. There was a sudden tingling, disorienting sensation as the world went weird around me (they apparently didn’t build safeties into portals that were just meant to carry water).

Then I was through, emerging into some kind of metal building with the river running through the middle of it. There were consoles and several technicians standing around, along with a few more armed guards. This place was clearly some kind of filtration plant or something. And from the look of things, there were several more separated streams of water running through it to different portals. Probably all running to more space stations.

Leaping out of the ditch, I crashed into the nearest armed guard. He was shouting something, but I didn’t care. His hand was grabbing for the pistol on his belt as my frying pan-sized paw slammed into his head so hard it left pretty much nothing but mush behind.

A brief rush of pleasure rushed through me, my aura flaring up even as the others spread out through the rest of the room. The technicians were making a break for it, and there were only a few guards for Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Isaac, Gordon, and Gidget to make short work of.

Tabbris, I managed, using the moment of kill-pleasure as cover to stay still for a second. What was that? What the hell was that word?

The console, over there to the right! She urged me that way. Destroy it, so the portal shuts down before Radueriel recovers!

As I moved that way, bounding up a short flight of stairs that led to an overlook area where the console in question was, she hurriedly explained. Mama’s old partner, Apollo. He quit the Seosten a long time ago and um, he disappeared. Like, a really long time ago. But he and Mama were friends. He told her a… about something he set up the last time he had, um, the last time he had to deal with Radueriel. It was supposed to be a get-out-of-jail free card in case he ever got caught, and he told Mama so she could escape if she needed to, if she ever changed her mind about leaving. Because he trusted her. She didn’t report it back then because it would’ve… umm, given them a big excuse to come after Apollo a lot more than they were. He quit, and that was bad enough. But if they knew he had ways to stop or, um, or stall them, they would’ve sent a lot more people after him.

That word thing? I guessed, using my lion paws to utterly demolish the console. As I did, the portals shut down, winking out of existence so that the water in the little metal gutters throughout the room just started quickly filling it up. It was time to leave. And wait, that makes Apollo almost like your uncle if they were… partners, wait a second, does that mean your mother was–

Uh huh, she confirmed. Mama was Artemis. And it was a, um, a magic hack thing that Apollo installed into R-Radueriel’s equipment. When it was triggered, it took over all his stuff and transported him and everyone he was controlling to a random location, then shut down all his upgrades and other stuff he installed in himself for ninety seconds.

I absorbed that for a second while the others shouted at me to hurry up. They were already by the nearest doors. So I’m guessing that won’t work again. One shot thing, teleports him and everything he’s controlling somewhere else and EMP’s his stuff, then it’s gone?

Um. Y-yes, just that one time. Which… I guess we’re lucky no one else ever used it, huh?

Really lucky, I agreed. But wouldn’t he have upgraded his equipment at some point in all this time and noticed it?

It wasn’t just scribbled on his mechanical arm or anything, Tabbris explained. Apollo put it on one of the bits of equipment that was going inside Radueriel, part of his reinforced metal skeleton. It makes him a lot tougher than normal Seosten, and there’s no reason for him to take it out. Weapons and stuff, yeah. But the reinforced skeleton, that’s kind of permanent, you know? Like… like putting a spell on the foundation of a house instead of on the furniture. Furniture gets moved around and changed. Foundation stays the same. That’s why Apollo chose that one, cuz he knew it’d be a long time before someone used it. Then Radueriel got transferred out here instead of spending his time on Earth, so… I guess Apollo never ran into him again.  

I nodded a little at that, thinking about how much I really wanted to hug this Apollo guy while leaping off the raised platform to land by the others. They’d gotten the door open by that point, revealing a forest beyond that didn’t look too different from the artificial one we had just left. But this one was at least on a planet instead of an enclosed station.

There was a lot more I wanted to ask Tabbris. There was even more that the others probably wanted to ask me. There was a lot to talk about in general. But right now, only one thing mattered. Only one thing was going to keep us away from Radueriel and the other Seosten long enough to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do now.

And only one thing was going to spare me from thinking about what everyone back on Earth was doing right now.

We had to keep running.

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Field Trip 28-02

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Two of the soldiers with the blank faceplates stood guard in front of a door. Ahead of them and opposite the door was a blank wall, while the corridor continued on in both directions to the left and right. Both held their weapons at loose readiness, clearly on alert and ready for anything.

Anything, that was, except for a small, shimmering liquid-like spot to appear on that wall directly across from them. For a second, both of the guards simply leaning forward slightly as though squinting at it. Then they turned to look at each other, each about to say something.

Whatever they had been about to say was interrupted as an energy-arrow shot through that small liquid-like spot on the wall that they had been staring at. It hit the floor between the guards before exploding into a burst of concussive force that knocked them both to the floor.

“They’re down, let’s go!” I called while lowering my staff in its bow form. Turning away from where I had been looking between Gordon’s raised hands in order to see through the wall, I looked toward Jazz. The other girl was already moving up to the wall to run her hands along it. Like with the floor in the room where we had arrived, everywhere she touched, the wall turned that liquidy-shape. In this case, whatever material the wall was made out of must’ve been less dense than the room where we had first shown up, because it turned a lot faster than that floor had.

Within a few seconds, she’d made it just large enough to dive through. I did so, throwing myself through the almost-hole before rolling to my feet on the other side. The first of the two guards was starting to pick himself up, until my weapon, collapsed back into its staff form, collided solidly with the back of his helmet. He dropped once more, hitting the floor with a dazed grunt.

By that point, the second guard was up to my right. Before he could do anything, Roxa was suddenly there. She caught hold of the man’s arm with one hand and his neck with the other, before bodily heaving him hard into the opposite wall. He slammed into it like Wile E. Coyote running smack into a painted-on tunnel, rebounding off it before collapsing to the floor.

Gidget, who had come through with Roxa, padded over and leaned down to sniff at the second guard. When he stayed unmoving on the floor, she made a happy purring sound before plopping down right there with one big metal paw resting on his back, just waiting like that. The guy was gonna have a pretty bad day if he woke up and tried to move at all.

The others joined us a moment later, moving through the opening that Jazz had created. Finally, all six of us were standing there in front of the door. We had been running for the past fifteen minutes. Most of the others were winded. Roxa and I were the only ones that weren’t panting. Hence why we had been elected to go through and deal with the soldiers that were in our way.

Looking up and down the corridor for a moment, Sands asked, “Okay, so now what? We have no idea where we are, where we’re going, which way is safe, if safe even exists anymore, and everyone around here wants to kill or capture us. Oh and, by the way, apparently ‘capture’ is the worst of the two options, considering the reason they want to catch us is so that they can let one of those wannabe angel fuck take over our bodies and turn us into their personal meat-suits.”

“Um, I’m sorry, wannabe angel?” Isaac raised a hand. “As in big glowy wings and halos?”

Sands shook her head at him. “It’s an unbelievably long story. Seriously, you have no idea. Just wait until we can actually talk.” She gestured to me then, repeating, “What do we do?”

“We keep going,” I replied. “We’ll find an exit, get out of this building, and regroup from there. And–” I added while looking to Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon. “I know you guys have questions. We’ll answer them. But first, we have to get the hell out of this place. Then you’ll get your answers.”

The three of them looked between Roxa and me, and it was clear that they still at least kind of wanted to push the issue. But they stopped themselves. Gordon was the one who spoke up, taking the pragmatic approach. “How do we find the exit when we have no idea where we are?”

It was a good question. Our initial flight from the room we had arrived in had just been a result of ‘let’s get as far away from this particular location as we can, as fast as possible’. But now, we’d been running for this long and there was still no sign of an exit. The whole place was a maze, a maze that we would have been lost in for good, and probably even trapped and captured, a lot earlier if it hadn’t been for Gordon’s x-ray vision and Jazz’s ability to let us go through walls.

Pausing for a second, I thought inwardly, I don’t suppose you have any ideas, Tabbris?

There was a slight hesitation before the response came. I… I’m sorry, I don’t know. This wasn’t part of the memories that Mama left me, I don’t think. Um. Maybe it was built after she left, or she was never here, or… I had the feeling of a shrug. I’m r-really sorry, I wish I knew more.

It’s okay, I thought back to her. You don’t have to have all the answers. Just speak up if you think of something. Or if one of those extra memories your mom left happens to kick in.

Focusing on the others once more, I shook my head. “Sorry, guys. I wish I had a better answer than just ‘keep looking’. Eventually, we’re either gonna find our way out, or those guys are gonna find us. Let’s hope for the former. Because seriously, you don’t wanna let them take you.”

Roxa squinted at me for a second before turning back to look at the guards on the floor. “Too bad we can’t just ask these guys,” she started before her head tilted. “Unless we can.” Slowly, she looked to me. “You killed Charmeine. And back there, in that room, I swear I saw you…”

I nodded. “Right. I possessed the guy. But these ones are unconscious. As we saw back in the hotel with Charmeine, there’s not much an unconscious body can do, even if it is possessed.”

Jazz’s mouth opened at that, but I saw her hesitate before stopping herself. It was obvious that she had a ton of questions. Which I didn’t blame her for. But she kept quiet. Clearly, the other girl was smart enough to realize that every second we took dealing with their questions was another second that we weren’t escaping. And another second for the bad guys to find us.

Roxa just raised an eyebrow at me, asking dryly, “Does he have to be conscious to read his mind?” After a brief pause, she amended, “That sounded really snarky, but I’m seriously asking.”

“Oh…” I felt like slapping my own forehead, but now that there were two of us in here, it felt wrong. “Right, I guess I could give that a shot.” I took a step that way, while thinking, Little more help? I’m still not sure I understand exactly what you did before. Could you show me again?

Oh, oh, um, yes. I felt Tabbris’s own embarrassment, like she was ashamed that she hadn’t thought of this solution herself. She hesitated again before asking, Can I, um, does that mean–

Go ahead, I replied while moving to kneel next to one of the fallen guards. Do what you need to.

Once again, I didn’t actually feel control of my own body slip away. My hand simply moved by its own, reaching out to touch the fallen guard on the arm. Just as before, it felt disorienting.

The next thing I knew, there was… darkness. Right, he was unconscious, so his eyes were closed. And, as far as I could tell, he wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. Or dreaming, if his race dreamed. I assumed they did. But in this case, there was just… nothing.

How do I, uh, get what I need? I was trying hard not to think about how weird it was to possess anyone, let alone someone that was unconscious. There was a part of me that thought I should have been cheering about the fact that I could now use the Seosten’s own trick against them. But mostly I just felt really awkward about invading someone’s privacy like this. Taking over his body, even if he was an enemy, felt really… icky. There was no other way for me to describe it.

Still, I forced myself past that. I was going to have to use every trick there was to make sure we all got out of this alive and unpossessed. Or, at least, unpossessed by bad guys. And now, I wasn’t just fighting to keep myself and my classmates safe. I had to worry about Tabbris too. She’d been hiding inside me this whole time, obviously secretly helping where she could. I owed her as much as I’d ever owed anyone. She saved me from enslavement. I wouldn’t forget that.

Shaking off those thoughts (which I was pretty sure she could hear), I focused on what was going on. Okay, so how do I–uh, you know, read the thoughts of someone who’s asleep?

The um, the same way you did b-before, the answer came. Just um, you know, uh, focus on what you wanna know. Think about it really hard, and it’ll move his thoughts that way.

So I did. Sitting there in the darkness and relative quiet (I could kind of hear the others whispering in the background, but it sounded like it was coming from a long way off for some reason), I focused on thinking about the layout of this base, or building, or whatever it was.

It was that thought that dragged up the single word answer to that particular question from the man’s mind. An answer that almost made me bail out reflexively as I blurted that single word.

Space station?! We’re on a fucking space station?!

That was the first thought that I’d pulled out of the man’s mind. As soon as I’d wondered about where we actually were, his slumbering brain had offered up the image of a massive complex floating somewhere in the middle of space. According to his memory, the place was fucking huge. The place looked like an enormous, roughly pill-shaped oval with two giant pyramids attached to it at their bases. The pyramids each constantly revolved around the main pill shape of the structure, moving very slowly so that, over the span of what I was guessing was their equivalent of a day, each pyramid would face the nearby star for their daytime, then rotate away from it and behind the main structure for their night, then back again for the next day.

The top half of the pyramids themselves were clear, with parks and trees and farms and stuff inside, and places where they were raising animals. There were even a couple streams and waterfalls in there. Water itself was brought through a couple portals at the head each stream from some other planet, which then terminated at the end of the stream in a few hidden reservoir-like tanks to store more water. When those tanks happened to be full, extra portals sent the water back where it came from. In the meantime, the water that flowed through the streams could be used by the animals that they had wandering through their artificial wilderness.

They weren’t just small wildernesses either. At its base, each of the pyramids’ upper halves, which contained the farms, ranches, forests, streams, and more (even some low hills), were about eighty miles across from one side to the other, and about half that tall to get to the top.

The lower half of the pyramids, meanwhile, were where all the housing and other more private things were. And the big oval-shaped base in the middle that each pyramid revolved around, that’s where we were. And it was where all the military stuff happened, where the science labs (like the room we appeared in), the docking bay, and the bridge were.

Okay, uh, hey, partner, I thought toward my companion, I’m gonna need your help again. You’ve got that perfect memory. Can you, like, pull up every memory about this whole place that we can manage and just remember all of it? I don’t know how it works, but if we can just grab every bit of information possible out of this guy’s head before we go, I’m pretty sure we’ll need it eventually.

I had the impression of the girl nodding. O-oh, yes! Just… umm, just a second. It’s like… um, flipping through a book. Speed reading. It’s like speed reading.

Over the next brief minute, dozens of images zipped through my mind. It was like watching a movie on extreme fast forward, all I could focus on were the occasional high points. The man had the equivalent of what we would call a husband, his mother had passed away a few years earlier, he really wanted to be a pilot but didn’t have the test scores necessary for it… and more and more facts just careened through my thoughts too quickly to keep track of.

Finally, just as I was starting to get a headache, Tabbris was done. She had everything she could get in the brief window that we had. Neither of us dared take any longer.

That time, the moment I had the urge to escape the man’s body, I could suddenly see again. I was back in my own body, blinking at the bright lights. To my right, I caught a glimpse of Sands jumping a bit as I abruptly appeared out of nowhere.

“Well?” Isaac prompted, standing beside his two teammates. “Did you, uh, get what we need?”

“Jesus, Isaac,” Jazz chastised, “give the girl a second, would you?” She seemed to remember only belatedly that they weren’t sure they could even trust me, and flushed a little bit before muttering under her breath, “It’s a new power and she just possessed someone. Ease up.”

“Hey, sure, no problem,” the boy retorted sarcastically. “Not like we’re in a hurry or anything. Should I get the picnic basket and a few lawn chairs so we can spread out right here and have a nice, relaxing meal while we wait for all the bad guys to dogpile us?”

“Enough.” That was Gordon, the somber boy speaking that single word without taking his eyes off of me. He watched silently after that, clearly waiting for me to explain what I’d found out.

Still, I hesitated briefly before turning. “I’ll explain on the way, we need to keep moving. Isaac’s right, if we stay here much longer, they’ll be right on top of us. Trust me, we don’t want that.”

So we kept running. And as we ran, I quickly explained what I had found out from the guard.

“Wait, wait.” Jazz slowed, looking over at me with wide eyes. “We’re on a space station?! As in, there’s nowhere to escape to? It’s either stay here until they find us, or go die in the vacuum?”

Before I could answer, Sands spoke up. “No, there is a way off, remember? She said there was a docking bay. That means there’s spaceships, right?”

“Do you know how to fly a spaceship?” Isaac demanded. “Cuz I can’t even drive a stick shift. Plus, I seem to have left my ‘Piloting A Sowstin Spaceship For Dummies’ book in my other pants.” The boy was lagging back a little, running behind us. He sounded a bit out of breath.

“First of all,”  I interrupted before the two could argue any more,  “it’s Seosten.” I carefully sounded it out a second time. “Say-oh-stun. And secondly, we’re not going to the hangar bay. We might be able to work out the whole ship thing, but honestly, there’s a better way. The portals in the pyramids, the ones that bring in the water from that planet. They’re guarded, but we can deal with that. We go through the portals, deal with anything on the other side, and get out onto the planet. Then we’ll go from there.”

Roxa, jogging by her cougar, asked, “So we just break into their little park thing and head straight for the river?”

While I nodded, Gordon spoke up, his voice as calm as ever. “How far do we need to go? You said the station was almost a hundred miles across. So how far are we from getting into this park area? And how do we know that we’re not about to run straight into a guard barracks or something like that?”

“Yeah,” Isaac chipped in. “Can we take an elevator or something to get there? They’ve gotta have quicker ways to get around than just walking everywhere, don’t they? In all those space shows, they’ve always got elevators or teleportation systems or something like that.”

“Yes,” I replied to the second boy first, “they’ve got elevators. But we can’t use them. These back tunnels aren’t under constant observation, but the elevators are. So are the transport portals and every other thing they use to move quickly. Our only chance of getting there without being spotted are these tunnels. They’re basically maintenance shafts. Those guys are gonna be looking for us in them, but there’s hundreds of miles of these corridors wrapping all the way around the station on every level, and they’ve only got so many guards to send. Plus, they don’t want to split up too much, because they know we’ll plow right through any group that’s too small. They’ll stick together in big enough groups to slow us down long enough for the rest to jump in.”

Isaac heaved a long, heavy sigh. “So basically you’re saying we have to walk there.”

“No, idiot,” Jazz retorted, “she’s saying we have to run there. So save your breath and keep moving.”

Roxa shook her head. “Too bad you guys don’t all have werewolf powers, that’d help a lot.”

From where she was jogging, Jazz gave the other girl a thumbs. “Oh, right, saw you go all part wolfy back there in the big room. How many of the furry guys did you have to kill to get the full werewolf shifting?”

Somehow containing most of her reaction, Roxa replied flatly, “You’d be surprised.”

“And is that where you’ve been, hunting werewolves?” Jazz pressed. “And what does that have to do with Chambers over there? What–”

“Later,” Roxa managed to interject with a slightly pained expression. I knew she wanted to tell them more, but she simply shook her head. “No time now. I…” For a moment, I thought she was going to say something else about it. In the end, however, the girl just changed the subject. “I wish you could all ride Gidget, but the board’s only so big.”

“Hold on.” I stumbled a bit to a stop. “Roxa, can Gidget carry two people in her board form that aren’t you if you ask her to?”

“Uh.” The girl looked at the cougar, then back to me and shrugged. “Sure, if I ask her to. Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “If you go full wolf, you can run a lot longer and a lot faster. Then two of these guys can ride Gidget.”

“That still leaves three of us,” Gordon pointed out. “You and two more. What are you planning to do about that?”

Slowly, my smile widened.

*******

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Sands cried out.

“Oh my God, we’re gonna die, we are going to die, we are going to diiiiiiieee!” Jazz chimed in.

Big babies. You’d think they’d never ridden bareback on a five foot tall (at the head) lioness that was running about forty miles an hour down an alien corridor before.

It must have made a rather eclectic sight. One massive lioness carrying two teenage girls, one armed with a mace and the other a falchion, a wolf, and a hoverboard with two teenage boys riding it, one of them holding a flail while the other had what looked like a black powder tommy gun. All of which were careening through the corridors, basically running over and through anything that got in the way.

I knew the route from the man’s mind, and going the way that we were, it wasn’t too long before one of the entrances to the ‘park’ (or whatever they called it) loomed ahead of us. From the memories that I had taken from the guard back there, I knew that it was actually a hidden maintenance entrance built behind a large tree, with a boulder blocking the other side from view.

Then we were there. A security panel sat beside the heavy metal door, but it clicked green as we approached, and there was a hiss of escaping air as the hatch began to slide open. That had to be my security-breaking power kicking in. Super useful, that was.

Slowing down as the door opened, I let Jazz and Sands slip off my back. I wanted to take the time to change back, but… we didn’t have it. We had to get the hell out of here. As the boys stepped down off of the hoverboard to let Gidget shift back into her cougar form, we slowly crept forward. I went first, stepping through the doorway.

It was like going outside into an actual park. There was even a slight breeze as we moved out of the maintenance corridor and into the wilderness area. Dirt, grass, trees, rocks, and more surrounded us. We could hear birds chirping. It was a freaking park right in the middle of a space station.

“Okay,” Sands whispered once we were all through the door. “Flick said we just have to follow this treeline about a hundred yards, then take a right to hit the stream. Then we can find the portal and get the hell out of here.”

I was about to make a growl of affirmation, when the door behind us suddenly whooshed shut and gave a definitive click. My head jerked that way, before snapping back to the front at the sound of a lot of energy weapons powering up.

Guards. Soldiers. A lot of them. Too many. Thirty, at least, and that was just at first count. All of them with their weapons raised and pointed at us. And right in the middle of them stood the one figure I really didn’t want to see: Radueriel.

They’d known where we were going. They’d beaten us there. He was ready for us. He had been waiting for us to show up.

We were so fucking dead.

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Field Trip 28-01

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Jazz’s voice was high-pitched, almost shrill. “I don’t understand. What the hell is going on? Where are we? What happened to Paul?! What was that thing that took his place?! And who the fuck was that woman that popped out of Columbus?!” By the end, she was waving her arms wildly while practically hyperventilating.

“And most importantly,” the dark-skinned girl demanded finally while spinning toward Roxa, “are you okay?!” Punctuating the question with a lunge that way, Jazz embraced her old roommate.

While Roxa grunted in surprise at the sudden hug and staggered back a step, Sands suddenly spoke up, interrupting as she raised her hand to point. “Uh, guys? I really hate to interrupt the happy reunion and all the really, really good questions, but we’ve kinda got company.”

She was right, I realized. The enormous, brightly lit room that we were standing in suddenly wasn’t nearly as empty as it had been just a few seconds earlier. There were a dozen figures in there with us. Most of them wore some kind of black body armor with a face-obscuring helmet. They also carried weapons, half of them some kind of electrified pike thing, while the other half carried futuristic rifles that hummed with energy as much as the pikes did.  

The soldiers, or whatever they happened to be, were accompanied by two other figures in what looked a lot like scientist lab coats. They stood a bit behind the others, one of them holding some kind of flat screen computer pad in one hand. All of them stopped short almost as soon as they appeared. Clearly, whatever they had been expecting to see in here, we weren’t it. Most likely because they weren’t expecting us to be upright, conscious, armed, and ready for a fight.

Tabbris, I thought inwardly, we are where I think we are, aren’t we? If there was the slightest chance that I was wrong and we weren’t as completely screwed as I thought we were, I wanted to know about it.  

I th-think so, came the response. I d-don’t know, I’ve never been here before. Or I was too little. Th-those are Seosten people though. I mean, the scientists are. The troops are probably something else. They use, um, other races for their grunt troops. She sounded about as nervous as I felt, probably because she knew that we were both in deep trouble if these guys caught us.

The guns had already snapped up up to point in our direction, while one of the scientist-figures (the one without the computer), called out, “Human-children, put your weapons on the ground and you will not be harmed! Do so immediately, or face the consequences of your disobedience.”

Gordon, who had been silent up until that point, lifted his chin. “I assume,” he started, clearly addressing me even if his attention was on those guys, “that surrendering is a bad idea.”

“Very bad,” I confirmed flatly. “You know that bitch that came out of Columbus? She was possessing him. She’s been puppeting him for months, enslaving him, making him work against us. And that’s what these guys want to do to us. They want to turn us all into their puppets.”

“This is your last warning,” the scientist announced, while the guards that were armed with the pikes raised them threateningly. All ten of the soldiers looked like they were about half a second away from opening up on us right then and there. Clearly, coming in expecting to pick up a bunch of helpless bodies and running into us instead had thrown them off. I had no doubt that they were already calling in for help. It might be just ten now, but it would be a lot more soon.

“Well, I for one,” Isaac put in then, “don’t feel like letting a bunch of weird freaks jam their hands up my ass and wiggle their fingers. Especially when they haven’t even bought me a drink yet.”

“Shut up, Isaac.” Jazz’s retort seemed automatic, like she wasn’t even thinking about it. Then she looked over to me pointedly. “When we get out of this, you owe us answers. A lot of them.”

Before I could do more than give the briefest nod, the soldiers made their move. From each of the five rifles, a wide blue beam emerged, shooting across the room toward us. All five of the beams collided with the stone wall that Sands created with her mace, though they didn’t seem to do any actual damage to it. Probably something meant to knock us out, a stun beam.

The brown-haired girl reinforced the wall quickly, adding an angled roof overhead before her head shook. “It’ll hold against those stun beams, but not against everything they throw at it.”

Holding both of his hands up in front of his eyes like he was looking through invisible binoculars, Gordon took a second before grimacing. “There’s more of them already. They’re coming.”

“And they’re going to keep coming,” I replied. “This is their home turf, we need to go. If we stand here and fight, they’ll take us down eventually. And trust me, we do not want to be taken down.”

The black boy gave a single nod at that before looking down, still keeping his hands cupped around his eyes to use his x-ray vision power. “Jasmine,” he started simply, “it’s clear below us. Can you–”

“Yeah, I can get us out of here!” Jazz snapped while ducking under a shot that was angled up over the wall, “But it’ll take a bit, and I can’t do it if they’re shooting at me! It’s–” She swallowed. “It’s harder under stress. And I don’t know what this floor is made out of, but…” Pointedly, she waved her hand over it, and I saw a little bit start to shimmer before it faded. That continued, the bit of floor going back and forth from normal to shimmery and back again before Jazz muttered with obvious annoyance, “It’s resisting my power. I need a minute.”

“Sands, can you cover Jazz while the rest of us keep these guys busy for as long as it takes?” I asked, even as a wince escaped me at the sound of a lot more feet pounding into the room.

She gave a quick nod. “Yeah, I got it.” Pausing, she looked to me seriously. “Be careful, Flick.”  

“Why would I start now?” I asked with a shrug before turning to the others. “Okay, let them make the exit. The rest of us… these guys are playing for keeps, okay? It’s not a game, and we don’t have Gaia, Professor Dare, or anyone else watching our backs to make sure it’s not too dangerous. This is real. Absolutely, completely real. I know asking if you’re ready is stupid at this point, but…”

Roxa straightened, lifting her chin. “We can do this. Right, Gidget?” As the mechanical cougar gave a growl of agreement, she winked at me. “Just another fun day around Felicity Chambers.”

“You sure?” I pressed, gesturing to her injured arm. “Your…”

“I’m fine,” the other girl insisted, touching the spot where she had torn a bit of her shirt to create a makeshift bandage to tie around the wound. “Heretic regeneration.”

Right, the werewolf healing might not do much to the silver, but that wasn’t the only healing ability that Roxa had. Plus, she had those redundant organs from the Jekern. When it came down to it, Roxa Pittman was now incredibly difficult to kill.

“Little help?” Gordon, who was still using his tommy gun to spray down covering fire over the top of the wall while using his other hand to watch through it, prompted in his simple, unexcited voice. He sprayed again, grimacing. “Too close.”

Roxa gave a quick nod at that. “Right, let’s do this. Remember, what doesn’t kill us… we kill first so we can Highlander its soul.”  

That might as well have been our battle cry, because it was the last thing that any of us said before we were suddenly in the thick of things. I spun around the left side of the wall that Sands had created just in time to practically come face to face with one of the pike-wielding soldiers. His helmet had a flat black visor covering his face that made his expression impossible to read, though from his body language, he seemed surprised to see me. Abruptly, that pike of his snapped up, and I barely had the chance to spin out of the way, letting it jab past me. My arm dropped to hook around the shaft of the weapon, catching it as I continued to pivot. I felt him try to keep his grip on the thing, but I was stronger. The pike was torn from his grip, and I released the thing to let it clatter to the floor. At the same time, I turned my spin into a leap, kicking the man across his helmet in a blow that knocked him stumbling sideways, now weaponless.

There was another guy right behind that one. He had his gun raised, but I took a quick hop step forward while kicking out. My toes barely caught the shaft of the fallen pike, launching the thing up into the man’s helmet just hard enough that he reflexively jerked backward. His stun shot went wide. Then I was there. Pivoting, I caught the rebounding pike with my left hand while turning in a full circle. My own staff, held tight in my right hand, collided with the gunman’s chest before I triggered the kinetic blast that I’d been charging up. He was sent flying across the room.

At the same time, as I pivoted, my other hand reared back and released the pike that I’d caught. The electrified blade part took the first man in the back before he could finish recovering from that kick. There was a sudden crack of energy, and the man screamed before collapsing to the floor like a sack of bricks. Clearly, the pikes could knock us out as easily as those stun lasers, or whatever they were. Either way, we definitely didn’t want to get hit by them. It would be… bad.

Across the way, I could see Gordon. The boy had split his gun apart into its sword and shield mode, catching an incoming pike-swing from one of the soldiers with the blade while simultaneously using the shield to deflect a couple of stun-blasts. A second later, he spun and dropped to one knee while swinging his shield-arm to the left and back, driving the edge of the shield into the stomach of the man whose blade he had deflected. The blow made the soldier double over, and Gordon pirouetted back to his feet while giving a quick slice with his sword that took the man’s head off, sending it bouncing along the floor as the boy’s green aura flared up.

Meanwhile, a little bit past him, Isaac had somehow gotten hold of one of the enemy’s stun rifles and was using it to take potshots at them while the three spiked balls from his flail all hovered around him in their separate, floating drone forms. The drones were taking shots here and there as well, but mostly they acted as shields. Any time a shot came near the boy, one of his drones darted into its path to intercept, creating a shimmering blue forcefield around itself for an instant.

Hey, partner, I thought inwardly while using a short burst from my staff to knock myself away from a couple of stun shots. They were still trying to knock us out, even now. These guys were trying really hard not to kill us. I could only imagine what their Seosten masters would do to them if they ruined a set of perfectly good Heretic bodies that could have been possessed.

As I landed, Tabbris responded, clearly waiting until I had my feet under me and wasn’t under immediate attack. Yes, she answered without wasting the time to make me voice what she already knew I was going to ask by reading my thoughts, I can, um, tell you what you got from killing that stu–um, Charmeine. You can, um possess people. Like Seosten do. Like I do.

Now see? I sent back, even as I darted forward to catch the pike from one of the soldiers and knocked it aside. I knew you’d be really useful to have around, now that you’re talking to me. But– I went silent briefly, focusing on spinning my staff around to parry the next thrust from the man. As his pike was knocked aside once more, I finished, think you can take over for a second and make it happen? I’m not sure what I’m doing.

My eyes were on the quite frankly alarmingly number of soldiers coming through what I could now see was a door at the other end of the room. These guys may not have been expecting us to be ready to fight, but they were adjusting quickly. We’d had a bit of early success at fending them off, but sooner or later, they’d overwhelm us. Unless, of course, we could get out of here before they brought in too many guys for us to deal with. Time was decidedly not on our side.

The surprise in Tabbris’s voice was obvious. Y-you want me to… to control you? But I–I mean, you trust…

I grimaced, taking a quick step back as the man swung that pike at me again. You could have taken over any time you wanted to, I pointed out simply. The fact that you haven’t, and after everything you’ve done… yeah, I’d say I can trust you. C’mon, partner, take this guy over.

By that point, the soldier had gotten tired of me evading all of his attacks. I heard a dark growl of frustration escape him, and he swung the pike up and around violently. I was pretty sure that he didn’t care if he hurt me more than he was supposed to. He wanted me on the ground already.

My instinct was to dodge away from the swing. But abruptly, my body didn’t respond to my thoughts. It was incredibly disorienting. The closest thing I could compare it to was when you’re climbing stairs and you expect there to be one more step than there actually is, so you raise your foot really high and then come awkwardly. It was kind of a mental version of that.

My body wasn’t responding to me, but it was moving. My arm lashed out and down, parrying the pike out of the way with my staff. Then my other hand snapped up while my feet moved to carry me forward. I caught hold of the soldier’s armored faceplate, pressing my fingers against it.

And then… well, then my view suddenly snapped around so that I was looking at the spot where I had just been standing. It was a disorienting vision switch that kind of felt like going around a sharp curve in a roller coaster. My stomach was doing flip flops. Or maybe his stomach was, and I was just feeling it. Or maybe–never mind, it was entirely too complicated by that point.

Not only was I seeing through the man’s eyes, I could also feel his muscles. I could feel his… wow, I could feel his exhaustion and his fear. Not of us, I realized belatedly, but of failing. The man was thinking about what would happen if he failed to contain us, of what the Seosten would do. And–okay, the images that filled his mind would not make it easier for me to sleep at night.

The man’s name, he was… he was called Riolu Ylet. He had been alive for what his planet called fourteen ossils, which I was pretty sure translated to years. And since he’d never been to Earth, there was no way of knowing how long that actually was. My best guess was that he would’ve been considered roughly twenty-eight. A young guy, as far as all that went. And he–

Flick, Tabbris’s voice prompted in my head, you can move him, just like moving yourself.

Oh. Oh. Right, stop reading into the man’s entire life story, Flick. His thoughts, memories, and feelings had just started flooding into my mind as soon as I had the slightest inkling of curiosity. In the background of my mind, I felt him shouting at me, demanding that I leave his body.

Sorry, I thought at him, I just need to borrow this for a second. To be fair, you were gonna help your masters enslave all my friends and play Operation on me. So I think we’re pretty even.

Moving felt awkward. My body was all wrong. Or rather, his was, in relation to what I was accustomed to. He was taller than I was, he moved a little slower than I did, his arms were longer, it was all different. I turned, and as I took in the sight of the rest of the room, something else happened. Wherever the other soldiers and the scientists were, there was a faint green outline. And wherever Roxa and the others were, there was a faint red outline. The helmets had Identify Friend/Foe capability. Probably among other things that I didn’t have time to focus on in that moment.

Instead, I focused on the one thing that I actually did need to know right then, dragging the memory up out of Riolu’s thoughts while he tried to keep it hidden from me. Then I had it.

“Desedene!” I made the man’s lips shout, screaming it as loud as he could while running away from the group. His arms flailed, and I made him shout again, “Desedene!”

Hearing that word, all of the soldiers and the scientists dove to the floor. They covered their heads and hugged the ground.

Bomb. I had taken the word for the most dangerous (yet still believable) bomb that Riolu could think of, the worst bomb that we could possibly have smuggled in on our little trip. It was enough to make them dive for the floor, buying us a little time.

Eject! I blurted inwardly. Tabbris, hit the eject!

My body was back. Or I was back in my body. Whichever, the point was, I was back behind the man that I had taken possession of. And as a bonus, he was already collapsing to the floor. Tabbris had knocked him out rather than give him a chance to say that everything was safe.

Spinning on my heel then, I shouted for the others. “Go, go, go!” All the while, I was already running back toward the wall that Sands had created.

Sliding my way around it, I blurted, “Tell me you’re ready, cuz there are way too many guys out there for us to deal with anymore.” Around me, the others came stumbling into view, most of them looking pretty ragged. It was time to go.

Jazz, kneeling on the floor with Sands standing over her (and a couple downed soldiers littering the floor around them), gave a short nod. “Got it, got it! I don’t know how long it’ll hold, but got it! Go, go, get through right now!” The floor in front of the girl was shimmering like water.

Looking back around the wall, I saw the soldiers just starting to pick themselves up. Since the bomb had never materialized, they were rising once more. Luckily, the fact that we had so much firepower on our side seemed to have given them pause. And I was sure they were confused about the guy who had yelled about the bomb. But still, there was no more time to waste. They were going to get over their hesitation really quick.

“Roxa, go!” I gestured, and the blonde girl hopped through the shimmering part of the floor. She was followed immediately by Isaac. Then Gordon went through. I nodded toward Sands, and she followed after him.

A quick glance around the wall revealed that all of the remaining soldiers were back on their feet by that point. Worse, there was another figure standing in the doorway of the room, just beyond them. He was a short man, standing only slightly taller than I was, with tousled, curly brown hair. He wore a dark green cloak over one shoulder that covered the right half of his body, leaving his right arm hidden. One of his legs was clearly mechanical, a bronze and red metallic limb with what looked like clockwork parts whirring and spinning as he lifted it to take a step.

Radueriel, Tabbris’s voice whispered in my head. When the Seosten were all playing gods on Earth, he was Hephaestus. M-Mama said his experiments are almost as b-brutal as the Fomorians. He’s the one who really made the Heretical Edge.

Okay, there was a lot of information to digest there, especially the part about all the Seosten playing gods and the fact that this guy had made the Heretical Edge, not Bosch. Which probably meant that he had been the one possessing Bosch, though I wasn’t positive on that.

The man stopped when he saw me peeking out at him, and I saw a small smile play over his face. When he lifted the arm that had been hidden beneath the cloak, I saw that it had the same clockwork cybernetics as well. He pointed the arm at us, and I saw the mechanical fingers retract before the hand reshaped itself into a cannon. He smiled again, and I jerked backward behind the wall just in time for a spinning ball of what looked like purple plasma or something go flying past where my head had just been.

Okay, okay, time to go. Past time to go. “Jazz,” I started, but the girl shook her head.

“I go through and it closes. Get through. But hey!” Her hand grabbed my arm, squeezing tight as the girl stared intently at me. “Don’t screw us over, Chambers. Got it?”

There was a lot that I could’ve said to that. But none of it would have been productive. Especially not with the sound of running footsteps approaching. Instead, I just replied, “We’re on the same side.”

Then I dropped through the shimmering part of the floor. It didn’t just look like water, it felt like it for that moment. Well, very thick water. It was like moving through somewhat thin jello.

Once my body was through the floor, I dropped the rest of the way. A couple hands caught me as I fell, steadying me for a moment. Isaac and Sands. The two of them released me once I had my balance.

I stepped quickly out of the way then, just before Jazz dropped through. The floor above returned to the way it had been, and we had a second to look around. We were in what looked like a utility tunnel beneath that room. It was fairly narrow, just wide enough for two of us two walk abreast, with dull gray walls and a single glowing white line along one of the walls that seemed to function as a light. And possibly a guide of some kind, I wasn’t sure.

“We have to move.” That was Gordon. The boy was looking up, cupping his hands to see through the ceiling above us. “They’re right there. They’ll figure out what we did in a minute. They’ll know where we are.”

“Who was that guy?” Jazz demanded. “The one with the steampunk robot limbs. What–”

My head shook. “We don’t have time. We have to get the hell out of here.”

“What do we do now?” Sands blurted. Her head was shaking. “We’re in Seosten space, aren’t we? We’re–they–those banishment things, like–”

“There isn’t time,” I repeated. “We can’t think about that now, we can’t talk about it. We have to get the hell out of here. There’s an entire army above us, and we’re stuck halfway across the universe, behind enemy lines, surrounded by monsters that want to turn us into their personal marionettes. There is no one else that’s gonna help us at the moment. We are on our own. So you wanna know what we do right now?

“We run.”

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