“This isn’t what we discussed.” Shawn waved his hands at the massive alien destroyer that hung in the air in the distance. “We were supposed to take over this part of the job.”
Aradia followed his gaze. “Contingencies required us to have a more exhaustive presence, Shawn. Steven did not inherit all the golems like we initially thought. We must be certain all golems are accounted for, and there were many more than we estimated.”
“That’s what we’ve trained for.” Shawn scowled.
“No. You trained to fight us. Keratians.” Aradia regarded Shawn coolly. “We have been hunting and killing golems for thousands of years. I beg that you rest on our experience and tolerate our presence for just a little while more.”
“Sure. Be sarcastic. Like you need my patience.” Shawn turned and walked back into the compound. “We’re part of this. You brought us in.”
“Yeah. The Crow kid brought us in. Well, you completed the job and here we are. All armed up and no one to shoot at. We need to be given the opportunity to finish our job here.”
“You are involved in your continued work to rehabilitate the rest of your organization. Their cooperation could prove beneficial.”
Shawn looked at her for a moment. “Just how long do you think this will take?”
Aradia frowned. “It took the better part of a century to clear the Cooperative core worlds.” She glanced at Shawn. “After Rholling, of course.”
“We’re not going there. Rholling will not happen here.” Shawn said resolutely. “But a hundred years?”
Aradia nodded. “We do have the benefit of Steven’s network of golems here. They have proven helpful in tracking down those not on his network. For as long as he can maintain control of them, anyway.”
“You think he’ll lose control? There are thousands of them.” Shawn fidgeted, looking back at a figure that stood silent and still in a corner of the room. One of Steven’s golems, now parked. He looked like a young adult, but stood unreactive and unblinking.
Aradia followed his gaze. “That is an area with which we simply do not have experience. Steven has so far not suffered any undue stress from his network. But we must be prepared for contingencies.”
“You’re going to kill them when you are done, aren’t you?” Shawn walked over to the golem and squinted at it. “Steven could be listening, you know.”
“He most certainly is. And he is aware of the endgame for this mission.” Aradia nodded.
He poked the golem. Warm. Soft even. But he knew better. They could not be destroyed by Terran weapons, and when they desired, they were as hard as steel, and as fast as a Keratian soldier. “I still can’t comprehend how he does it. How he controls these…things.”
“Do you control every aspect of taking a drink of water?” the golem asked, making Shawn jump back.
The golem smiled and looked at Aradia. “We have a problem. A big problem.”
Aradia cocked her head as she regarded the golem. “Worse than…?”
“Much worse. Deviant worse.”
Aradia gaped. “Gate me to you.”
Shawn and Aradia spun around.
Steven was sitting on Shawn’s desk, looking somber. “This involves him too.”
“You’re not supposed to be here, Steven. Nate…”
“Admiral Nate can stuff it.” Steven scowled. He looked at the golem and sighed.
The golem walked over to the window and looked out at the massive Cooperative warship hovering in the distance. “I often wondered what it was like for them. To have their unified awareness.”
Aradia looked at the golem curiously.
Steven looked down. “One of them visited me. Usually, there’s about a dozen all talking the same sentence. I almost missed that.”
“Who?” Aradia turned to face Steven.
“The Nistar,” the golem answered.
“Stop that,” Shawn said. “It’s freaky.”
“Exactly.” Steven grinned sadly. “They did that to me all the time.”
“A sentence would often be split up among three or four of them. To talk to one is to talk to all of them.” The golem turned to face them. It returned to the corner and quite abruptly became inanimate.
Shawn rubbed his eyes, shaking his head. “That’s just wrong.”
“We have yet to find any here,” Aradia said carefully.
“You think I’m lying?” Steven scowled. He leaned forward. “You’ve seen the Archives. My memories are there. All of them.”
“Perhaps that is what Aliya wanted you to know.”
Steven nodded, looking at the golem thoughtfully. “Oh, I don’t doubt that.” He walked over and looked at it nose to nose. “This whole thing was a setup from the beginning.” He took in a breath and looked down, then turned to face them. “The Malakim were involved. They are why Asherah and I met in the first place.”
“How could you know?” Steven threw his hands out. “Something dark is happening, Aradia. Very dark. I don’t think it’s about any sort of land-grab. Aliya doesn’t want the Coopera…” He glanced at the golem. “I don’t think Aliya has any interest in the Cooperative.” He looked sadly at Aradia. “Orin might have been right all along.”
“Then what is she planning?” Aradia said.
Steven shrugged. “That is… a good question.” He crossed his arms.
“Um, the topic?” Shawn said.
Steven looked at him blankly.
“You said something about deviant?”
Steven nodded. “Oh, I’m still on topic.” He looked at Aradia. “Do you know why Aliya was so interested in the Nistar?”
Aradia didn’t answer. Steven was certain she had exhaustively perused his deposit into the Archive, however. The total quantity of his memories was now backed up for anyone to experience. “They know, they can sense when a deviant is feeding.”
“They perished on Rholling…” Aradia started.
“Why is it so important to you that they be extinct?” Steven snapped. He walked over to face her. “Their survival does not make your mother’s death any less tragic.”
“Lo’rel saved them,” Steven said quietly. “I don’t know the specifics or the reasons. But from what I’ve heard, the Younger was involved. Perhaps even the Malakim. That’s why I…”
“Your obsession with legends is unsettling you, Steven.” Aradia interrupted him. “You need rest.”
“You doubt the Younger?” Steven cocked his head. “Maran has met her. She has shown herself to a number of us.”
Aradia pursed her lips.
“Whatever is happening, it’s bigger than anything we have thought of,” Steven continued. He leaned close to Aradia who nervously held her ground. “They are feeding a deviant, Aradia. Here. On Terra. A deviant. Maybe more than one even.”
“That’s impossible, Steven,” Aradia said quietly.
Steven reached out and grabbed her by the face and lifted her off her feet. “My memories. See it for yourself.”
Aradia didn’t try to resist him, and just hung there as she saw for herself the Nistar, and the memory shared with him. Steven nodded. “It’s awful, what they have to endure. They feel the feeding very… deeply.”
Shawn spun around at the new voice. An Elf woman stood beside the golem.
“Put her down.”
Steven glanced at the Elf. “I don’t have time for skepticism, Lorei. Asherah is…”
“We’ll find her. Together.”
Steven sighed and set Aradia back on her feet.
Aradia rubbed her jaw. “The impossible I was referring to was the feeding, Steven.”
Steven squinted at her, confused.
“Golems feed on Gatekeepers. Terra has none.”
Steven looked out the window. “We have latents here.”
“Latents must survive Awakening in order to be… consumed. Terrans do not have the ability to survive a proper Awakening, much less one from a deviant.” Aradia said.
Steven took in a breath. “The Nistar…I trust them, Aradia. There’s a deviant here, and it’s being fed.”
“Um…” Shawn interjected. “That means what?”
Steven looked at Shawn sadly. “That means the stray golems and a Terran Rholling are the least of your worries.”
~ ~ ~
The guards escorted him into a mine chamber off the main corridor. He rubbed his pants as he nodded to them. They curtly turned on their heels and left the room, closing the heavy door behind them.
Branson turned around and watched as an agent stepped out of the shadows of the room and stopped beside a metal chair.
“My name is Jorgis. I’ll be conducting your culling today.”
“Nice to meet you.” Branson grinned. “That’s where I sit?”
“Yes.” Jorgis glanced up at him. “Put your arms in the… yeah. There.”
Branson sighed and looked at the ceiling as Jorgis placed sensors on his forehead. “How long will this take?”
“I’m between seizures. But one may come soon.” Branson looked at Jorgis. “It’s brutal.”
“I’m aware of your condition. Hopefully, you will not have to endure another seizure.”
Branson nodded. “Good. Is it by injection?”
Jorgis tapped on a needle he had inserted into Branson’s arm. Blood started filling a tube. “We collect samples during the process to help us identify what went wrong.”
“Of course.” Branson nodded again. “I was half expecting a bullet.”
“We have only resorted to that sort of culling in the field.” Jorgis injected Branson’s other arm with a syringe and emptied its contents.
“Will it hurt?”
“There is no such thing as a painless death,” Jorgis said casually. “The trick is duration of consciousness and awareness of the pain.”
Branson pursed his lips. “I knew that.”
“Small talk, then?”
“Yeah. Something like that.” Branson looked at the ceiling. “I think a seizure is imminent.”
“That may be the drugs,” Jorgis said as he pulled the syringe out of his arm. He looked at a tablet and nodded. “The culling process has begun. I need to go to the observation room.”
“We die alone?” Branson looked at Jorgis, surprised.
“You’ll never be alone, Branson. Never again.” Jorgis smiled and patted his arm.
Branson relaxed. “Thanks. Hope you get this flaw figured out. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this.”
Jorgis looked at him for a moment, then left the room.
“Um,” Branson blinked and shuddered. “I think a seizure is coming on. Is there a way you can just…knock me out?”
Branson grimaced as a wave of pain washed over him. He closed his eyes, but even that could not quell the blinding brightness that filled his vision. It was all in his head, he had been told. But it didn’t matter to him. He tried to calm his breathing and relax, but his muscles kept cramping.
Then he felt the most terrifying part of the experience. The paralysis. His body stiffened and his breath was reduced to little gasps. The pain seemed to ramp up, but he was losing his ability to even squirm in anguish.
Darkness filled his vision again and he opened his eyes. What he saw didn’t change, however. Stars and planets seemed to fly past him, as he rode the bazaar river of his hallucination. He felt like he could see the entire universe around him, and experienced it trying to press in on him.
Amidst the visions his seizure was feeding him, Branson heard a grunting and huffing sound. He quelled his gasps, thinking it was him, but the sound didn’t change. Blinking hard, he attempted to return his attention to the room.
The river of the universe seemed to split and he could just make out his surroundings. A lone, young figure was staring at him. Branson grunted as he tried to come out of his seizure. He felt like he was drowning, like the surface of the river was just an arm’s length away, but he was stuck.
He thrashed as he tried to break the seizure’s hold on him. But his arms and legs only barely responded. He blinked and looked at the room again. The child was suddenly only inches away. Branson flinched, surprised, but was unable to do anything about it.
The child grabbed his face and suddenly the torrent turned into turbulent rapids. He saw the universe again, but unfettered from the river that seemed to wash around him. He saw every detail, every speck of dust, every rock and planet, every star.
Then he saw people. Some he recognized. He thought they had been culled too. But there they were, in his raging universe. He saw their memories and experiences and reached out, trying to connect with them.
Someone was screaming and Branson tried to look around, seeking to figure out who it was.
Then silence. And utter blackness.
~ ~ ~
Jorgis dabbed a moist cloth on the child’s face. “How do you get so messy so fast?”
The child did not respond to or even acknowledge him. Jorgis smiled and stood up. He adjusted a metallic mesh that encapsulated the child’s head, then grabbed his hand. “We’re going back to the pod now. But you are getting so big, so fast. I’m very proud of you.”
The child numbly followed behind as Jorgis led him out of the culling chamber through a hidden door. He glanced back at the smoking remains of Branson and nodded. “He was a good candidate. I hope the others prove as good. Don’t you?”
No response. But Jorgis didn’t expect any. He carefully lifted the child and placed him in a gel-filled pod. Metallic tentacles whipped around him and embedded themselves into receptacles placed in the child’s chest. The child went limp and Jorgis carefully lowered his head down and caressed his hair that poked out through the mesh. “Now you rest and grow. You’ll need your strength soon.”
He looked over his shoulder. “They’re looking for you. Twenty of our bases have been raided.”
Katy sauntered over to him and put her hand on the child. “Yes. They are persistent.”
“Are you going back into circulation?”
“The risk is high. But so is the reward.” Katy smiled at Jorgis.
Jorgis nodded. “This one is almost ready.”
“You have performed admirably, Jorgis. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten.”
Jorgis looked at his hands. So soft and pink. “Thank you. The risk was high.” He glanced at Katy, smiling. “But so is the reward.”
Katy grinned. “The rest of my children?”
“Being deployed as we speak.”
~ ~ ~
“He visited Earth again, sir.”
Nate looked up from his tablet and sat back in his chair. “Where?”
“Shawn’s,” the lieutenant looked at his notes, “AG93 base?”
“Are you asking me?” Nate folded his hands on the desk.
“Sir, their naming convention makes no sense. The Dallas base.”
“I told them under no circumstances was he allowed back here.” Nate rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Who saw him?”
“Jessica. She was the viewer on duty.” The lieutenant flipped a page in his notebook.
“Why don’t you use the tablet you were issued?”
“I keep breaking them, sir.”
“Figures. Procure one with a case, then.” Nate shook his head. “I think it’s time we set up a meeting with Mr. Crow personally.”
“Are you sure that is wise?”
Nate looked at his tablet. “He is not an antagonistic threat. Just an existential one.”
The lieutenant nodded. “I’ll place a request through Ambassador Ashley.”
“We’re still limiting travel to Endard until this occupation is sorted out.” Nate looked up from his tablet. He could tell the lieutenant was disappointed. “Remotely.”
“I need you to compile a list of viewers. We may have to assign a liaison to him.” Nate leaned back in his hair.
“There are a few telepaths I’ve been training, sir. I’ll choose one of them.”
Nate sighed. “Someone not too intimidating. A wallflower.”
The Lieutenant grinned. “All my trainees have been heavily schooled on espionage, sir. He’ll think our candidate is his new best friend.”
“He’s an Elf. He’ll know the instant he touches her.” Nate frowned. “Transparency would be best. But he does need to feel like your candidate is his friend.”
“I don’t like putting another of ours at risk again. Melissa, Roland, and Lynda were nearly killed under his watch.”
“Sir. Speaking of them…they returned amped up. We’re told it’s the alien acclimatization treatment.”
“I’ve already got samples of that sent to research.” Nate nodded.
“Have we developed something ready for general deployment yet?”
“You want to get amped up?” Nate smirked. He shook his head. “We need original material. Not what we can glean from blood samples. That…will take some convincing.”
“Make it a job requirement.”
Nate gave the lieutenant a look. The officer held his hands out. “Our liaison can hardly do her job without it. Especially if you clear her to travel abroad.” He looked down and nodded. “I have the perfect candidate. She’s super-sensitive already.”
“They’ll administer it to her directly. We need our own deployables.” Nate looked thoughtful. “It would crack the ice.” He grinned. “Maybe Steven will be useful after all.”
“Would love to see you burn stuff from a distance. Like Steven did.” The lieutenant smirked.
Nate shook his head. “We need to tread carefully. More power isn’t necessarily a good thing.” He looked sideways at the lieutenant. “After all, we’re already having to buy more tablets for you. What if you break bigger stuff?”