When the situation finally reveled itself to the rest of the unsuspecting citizens of Lorraine it was with a sudden clash of violence. Of course, I was in the dark then, not knowing what was truly going on despite having access to the "inside track" so to speak.
Looking back now I can't believe I was so stupid, so blind to what was right in front of me. I could have helped, I could have gotten involved and maybe prevented some of what was to come. I didn't. I allowed those in power to pull the wool over my eyes, to misdirect me and lie to me.
I'm plagued by what-ifs and could-have-beens to this day. It is my biggest regret, my most profound source of shame, that with stay with me until the very day that I die.
But I digress.
Immediately after that first spectacular confrontation the Councilmen started weaving their tales and molding the situation into what they wanted it to be. We believed them. Of course we did. There was never any doubt. What reason did we have to mistrust them? What other explanation was offered?
At that time, none.
It still surprises me how swiftly the inhabitants of Lorraine - educated people, civilized people - could be transformed into a raging pack of animals out for blood. The mob mentality they call it.
That's what happened.
I can't say why the Councilmen decided that this was the right course of action. Perhaps it was something of a scapegoat; it gave us something to focus on instead of the real problems which were abundant.
Of course, I didn't know about those problems back then. I was young and uninterested in the inner workings of our beloved colony.
And yet, I feel I should have known better. We all should have. How could we have turned on one individual so fiercely? I still can't make any sense of it.
"I don't know, I think he's kinda cute," Sonya said as she tilted her head at the TV screen.
Robert snorted from his place above his two friends, stretched out on his stomach on the bed, "Cute? He's a computer generated character!"
Sonya turned, her gaze more than slightly accusatory, "If you can find children's cartoons hot, why can't I think he's cute? Not the kind of cute I'd apply to you. The "oh, look at the baby duck, isn't it cute" kind of cute."
Robert grinned fully, his dimples making an appearance, "You think I'm cute, huh?"
Sonya's eyes grew comically wide, "Did I say that out loud? I don't think so. You must be having auditory hallucinations, Robert. Like John Nash."
"Who?" That was Robert and JP, in unison, befuddled looks on their faces.
Sonya rolled her eyes and waved her hand at her friends, "Never mind."
They turned back to the TV and sat in silence for a moment. "What the hell kind of name is Jar Jar Binks, though?"
"Exactly!" Robert threw his hands up in agreement as they watched the critter scamper across the screen.
"Well," Sonya scratched her nose and sniffled, "he might ask what kind of name is JP."
JP turned and stuck her tongue out at her friend. "Well I-" Her sentence was cut off by the sudden blaring of the alert klaxon which was a feature of all cities but was hardly used. They shared a brief look before they bolted from the room and down the stairs to stand on Robert's front porch.
Visible even from this distance were large red and orange flames which licked the sky and threatened the stars. JP felt her eyes widen and her throat dry as her stomach clenched. "Oh. My. God." She turned to look at Robert who was standing rock still with his mouth open just a bit.
Robert finally tore his eyes from the horizon and looked at JP, "Shit." JP nodded and then the two of them leaped off the porch and ran towards the edge of town where the citizens of Lorraine were already gathering.
The trio pulled up just in time to see Councilman John Meelak standing up on a rock and raising his hands to ask for silence. He looked over the crowd and JP felt a shiver chase down her spine as his dark black eyes came her direction. "Everyone, listen up please. I'd like you all to go back to your houses and stay inside. We'll issue a formal statement in the morning regarding the fire. Know that until further notice the areas outside Lorraine and especially in the basin are off limits to all people. This if for your own safety. Thank-you." Meelak stepped down then and Robert watched as he bent his head together with four of the other eight councilors.
A tug on his arm captured his attention and he allowed JP to lead him away from the crowd. Sonya was too busy speaking to her parents to notice. "Robert!" The low hiss captured his attention and he turned to his friend.
"I know JP."
"For our safety my ass! Someone found out about Ay'nin."
"Which means they probably know about us, too."
JP nodded and edged closer to Robert as some people passed, "But who?"
Robert rubbed his face, "I don't know. Either we weren't as careful as we thought or..."
He didn't continue and JP knew what he was thinking. They had been extremely carefully. They had been downright paranoid and unless someone had expressly set out to eavesdrop on their conversations and follow them around, there was no one they had accidentally let the cat out of the bag. That only left Robert's parents. "So now what?"
"We act normal," he looked down at his friend and cupped the side of her face, "we keep an eye out for anything strange. Right now it's all we really can do. We'll talk tomorrow after the announcement. And don't worry about Ay'nin. She can take care of herself."
JP nodded and the tears that had been building in her eyes spilled onto her cheeks. Robert smiled softly and gently wiped them away. They shared a brief hug before parting, their forms dissolving into the fire tinged darkness.
Ay'nin groaned as she opened her eyes to be greeted by sunlight and birds. Sleeping in a tree wasn't a good idea. She wasn't even sure that she had actually slept, too afraid of forgetting where she was and rolling off the branch to her death.
She stretched carefully and rolled her neck until she heard it crack a few times. It took several minutes before she thought she'd be able to move and when she could Ay'nin inched along the branch to peer out toward her cabin. The flames were gone but smoke still curled lazily up into the air. She could smell it, too.
Sighing, she sat back and considered her options. Just as Cerina and Balwin had said she couldn't go back there. Not now, probably not ever. She was certain they had left someone behind in the hopes that she would return and as she was now, with no weapons and no information, she didn't feel confident enough to knowingly walk into a trap.
What she needed was information. She supposed she could try and gather some herself but until she secured her video recorder and found some way to tell JP and Robert about it she wasn't fond of putting herself in any form of danger. If Cerina and Balwin were around they could help her out but...
Ay'nin sighed and rubbed her eyes. She couldn't stay out here indefinitely and she couldn't try and get into town even if she wanted to. She needed to get somewhere safe to wait these people out for a while.
After a moments speculation Ay'nin decided and carefully started down the tree.
John Meelak stood at the podium at the front of the council chamber, the entire population of Lorraine crammed inside so there was barely room to move, "Citizens of Lorraine, by now you are all aware of the disturbance last night. After great debate the Council has decided to be straightforward and brutally honest with you about its cause."
Robert snorted at his words and muttered, "This should be good." JP elbowed him and glared.
Meelak continued, "It came to our attention yesterday evening that a fugitive has been living in the valley basin. All our information indicates that this person is extremely dangerous and we, of course, took swift action. The Council will not have someone who can do serious harm to our children living illegally outside the city.
"The fire was an unfortunate result of our efforts to bring this fugitive into custody. It is fully contained and poses no threat to the city. The fugitive, however, is still at large which is why no one is to step foot into the basin."
One man's head popped up above the crowd as he yelled out, "How long has this been going on?"
Meelak turned toward the man, "About nine years."
The man, obviously elected spokesperson, continued, "And why is this person a fugitive?"
Meelak paused then, and JP could tell that he was pretending to gather himself to reveal some hard to handle truth. Watching the man who was so obviously perpetrating a fallacy that would endanger Ay'nin's life made her blood boil. She gripped Robert's hand and squeezed to keep herself from yelling in outrage. "According to our records, she is wanted on Earth for the murder of a young girl."
Robert clenched his jaw as he felt the palpable reaction in the crowd. Fear, anger, anxiety. He squeezed JP's hand so tightly he thought he might break her fingers.
A woman's voice rose out of the crowd, tinged with more than a touch of hysteria, "What are we supposed to do now? Just wait around for this person to kill someone else?"
Meelak raised his arms in an attempt to quell the nervous mutterings that had started, "Listen, please! We are taking care of this problem. Rest assured that every measure is being taken to see this through. What you all can do to help is stay calm, abide by the rules we set, and remain vigilante. This woman will likely try to access the city to escape. Security around the spaceport is being tripled. If you do see her alert us immediately. Under no circumstances are you to approach her in any manner."
"How will we know her?"
Meelak tried very hard to keep his grin from forming on his face. That was exactly the question he was waiting for; it was the perfect opening. "She is a Human-Rotorri hybrid. Orange eyes, brown hair, about this tall," he raised his hand to a height just shy of his own. "That is all. Thank you for your cooperation."
JP changed her death grip to Robert's elbow as they slowly made their way out of the council chamber. When they had reached a side street she managed to pry her fingers off his arm and leaned wearily against the wall. "What a load of bull!"
"Why didn't they show a picture or something?"
"Ay'nin might still be recognized as a member of the Founder's Group and then their little story goes down the drain. This way, everyone's ready to turn in anyone who isn't fully human."
JP sighed, slid down the wall and wrapped her arms around her knees. "So what now?"
Robert sighed and settled beside her, "I don't know JP, I really don't. I can say that this is going to get ugly. Fast." He drew a few idle designs in the dirt as he thought.
The only up side so far was that Ay'nin had gotten away and now they were aware of at least one person in Lorraine who was involved. How could Meelak not be? He was orchestrating this entire thing. But that didn't really help them. They weren't any closer to having hard proof of the massacre and now they were cut off from their single source of information.
"We need to get the word out."
Robert turned to get a better look at JP's face, "Huh?"
JP swiveled so they were sitting knee to knee, "WE can't trust anyone on Lorraine so we need to get the word out to someone outside of Lorraine."
"What word? All we have are some baseless accusations, bones, and our own testimony which isn't worth much."
JP leaned forward and wrapped her hands around Robert's, her face earnest, "I know. But why did this happen in the first place? The Chochasi. Why were they eliminated?"
"Because no one stopped the people who did it."
"And why didn't anyone stop it?"
Robert sighed, "Probably because no one else knew about it."
"If we can at least tell someone about what we suspect and what's happening here right now..."
Robert finally caught a clue, "Then if something happens to us or Ay'nin someone will have a reason to investigate."
"So who do we tell?"
Robert looked skeptical.
"Seriously, a reporter on Earth. There's that news program, the one that only covers intergalactic stories? We tell someone there. It's perfect. These people are used to getting bizarre stories with no basis in truth. They wont think we're telling the truth but that'll be normal so they won't kick up a fuss about it and we'll be safe. But if something does happen there'll be a record. And if this reporter is worth his press badge once he sees something happened he'll pull out the story thinking there was truth to it and investigate on his own."
"I don't know JP."
"What have we got to lose? We have to do something and if you've got any better ideas I'd love to hear them!"
Robert stared intently at the soles of his shoes and then nodded, "We better find a damn good reporter and show up at least somewhat organized. We don't want them to just throw it all out."
JP smiled, "Deal. We'll go this weekend. That gives us plenty of time to sort things out and get ready."
Their plan made, Robert and JP parted ways.
The cave was, of course, the logical choice even though Ay'nin supposed they might look for her there. Obviously, someone knew that she knew. She couldn't imagine how that had happened and hoped that JP and Robert were safe. After carefully checking the cave Ay'nin took it upon herself to conceal the entrance with vegetation and rocks. She hoped that no one had marked down the exact location when they had dumped the bones inside so long ago and, if they did decide to seek it out, they would overlook it.
Ay'nin carefully stored her bag inside the rock compartment which held a myriad of other artifacts of the Chochasi people. She then settled on the ground to wait. She hoped Cerina or Balwin would return soon so that she could ask them to do a little scouting for her. If she wanted to move around with any degree of safety she needed to know what was going on in Lorraine and where her attackers were stationed in the basin.
She wasn't sure but they had looked like regular Enforcers from the city. The thought that whoever was pulling the strings in this whole mess was using Lorraine's law enforcement to achieve its own ends spelled nothing but disaster to Ay'nin.
It looked like she truly had only two allies in JP and Robert.
JP tucked the last sheaf of papers into her bag and paused as she stared out the window. It was Thursday night. She and Robert would leave tomorrow right after school and, as far as she was concerned, it wasn't soon enough.
Things in Lorraine were already getting more than a little scary. It was impossible to step outside without seeing at least a half a dozen Enforcers patrolling the streets. They were posted on every street corner and lounged outside most public buildings. Every time she walked down the street she felt like they were watching her. It was extremely unnerving.
A knock on her door brought JP out of her musing. She turned and sat on her bed, "Come in."
Her mother pushed the door open and smiled as she approached and settled beside her daughter. Kristine Tupo looked a lot like her daughter. Blonde hair, small ears, and petite nose. JP was taller though, and wore her hair short, and had inherited her father's greenish eyes.
"Honey," Kristine started gently and JP's heart started to pound, "I know something's going on with you and Robert." JP opened her mouth but Kristine covered it with her hand. "Let me finish. I know something's going on and that it has been for awhile now. I also know that it must be important to consume so much of your time. I just want you to know that you can talk to your father and I about it if you want to. We won't get involved if you don't want us to."
JP swallowed as her mother finished speaking. It was so tempting to open up and spill her guts. This was her mother and she still had that innate desire to be comforted and cared for by this woman who offered her unconditional love.
But they'd told Robert's parents and look what had happened right after. Her loyalty to Robert and Ay'nin wouldn't allow her to say anything no matter how much she wanted.
And yet, she felt like she owed some kind of explanation to her parents who had always been so supportive and willing to let JP find her own way in life no matter how bizarre they thought their daughter was.
"It's... Complicated, Mom."
Kristine smiled, "I wouldn't expect anything less from you JP."
JP shifted her eyes towards the window and stared out as she started to speak, carefully choosing her words, "There are things going on here Mom. Big things. And it's scaring me so much. Just look outside; it's like martial law and it happened so fast. I can't tell you what I've been doing because if I do," JP shook her head and closed her eyes in an effort to combat the tears. "People could die. They might anyway. Robert and I are trying to make this better the only way we know how but I can't ask you to get involved. I won't let you get involved."
They shared a moment of silent contemplation then, the kind that only mothers and daughters can achieve, and then Kristine stood, leaned over, and planted a lingering kiss on JP's head. "Follow your heart JP, it won't lead you astray."
JP nodded as her mother closed the door gently behind her.
Follow my heart.
Easier said than done.
Councilman Meelak leaned back in his chair as four other Council members filed into his office and sat before his desk. He wasn't a happy man today and he could tell, by the looks on his compatriot's faces, that they knew that. "Gentlemen, ladies, this isn't performance."
Liam Parker leaned forward and met Meelak's eyes, "We're doing everything we can, John, but we're at a disadvantage. We don't know the basin, Ay'nin does."
Meelak slammed his fist down on the desk, "I don't want excuses! I want results! The longer that woman is running around free the longer we are all in danger! Do you want that?"
Heads shook all around the room.
Meelak rubbed the bridge of his nose, "Has there been any word?"
Pauline Badeau shook her head, "None. No news and no sightings since we burned down her house. She can't stay out there forever, though, not as long as we maintain a strong presence. Eventually, someone will see her or she'll run out of places to hide or find food."
"The problem is that we don't have enough manpower to do this indefinitely."
Parker chewed on his lip and then shrugged, "Request more from Central. You know they'll send it when you tell them the situation. This is their fuck-up anyway. Ay'nin was supposed to be dead."
Angela Judd spoke up next, "Do you suppose we're going about this the right way?" When only silence met her question, she continued, "I mean, chasing her around the forest hardly seems like it's working. So why don't we try a different tactic."
"What do you suggest?"
Judd crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her head at Meelak, "What made her run off in the first place? Certainly not the hostility she was personally a victim of. We know that she's been working with those kids. She obviously thinks of them as friends. Go after them and I'm sure Ay'nin will resurface."
Meelak paused as he considered the idea. Maybe. He'd have to be careful though, very careful. That was dangerous territory. "I'll think about it." He scribbled something down on a piece of paper and then looked back up, "Regardless, I want this finished in the next week. In custody, dead, it doesn't matter to me. Now get going." As they started from the room Meelak called one person back, "Wesley, stay."
The short man resettled himself in his chair and tugged at his collar. He knew what this was about and swallowed nervously.
Meelak finished whatever he was doing and threw down his pen. "How are things?"
Wesley Cho gulped and shifted, "Still no results, sir. The results remain unchanged."
Meelak sighed and stared speculatively at the man before him. Cho was smart and innovative which was why Meelak had entrusted this project to him. But that obviously wasn't enough to get results. If there was one thing Meelak needed right now it was results. The people at Central were getting annoyed with him which meant nothing good for his future. Hopefully, this crisis with Ay'nin would divert some of the pressure he was feeling. "Need I remind you, Wesley, that your position within this organization depends solely on my opinion?"
"Then I suggest you get creative or I'll find someone else who can do what you obviously can't."
Meelak resumed scribbling on a document and said, without looking up, "You can go now."
Cho nodded, even though Meelak couldn't see it, and was out of the room and down the hall before the office door had closed.
The spaceport featured shuttles to Earth that left every quarter of an hour since many people often vacationed on the colonies and there always seemed to be a constant flow of people to and fro. The trip itself was just over two hours and JP and Robert both breathed an audible sigh of relief once the shuttle had lifted off.
It had been an unspoken concern of both of theirs that someone would stop them at the spaceport, or worse, take them into custody. Now that they were moving away from Lorraine and the Lorrainian Enforcers had no jurisdiction beyond the colony it was marginally safer.
They spoke sparingly and of inconsequential things during the trip, still unable to shake off the suspicion which had been so prevalent in their lives for the last two weeks. When the shuttle finally docked and they emerged into the concrete jungle and hoards of swarming people they gained another measure of comfort.
The main office for IGNA, the Intergalactic News Agency, was easy to find and easier to gain access to. It thrived on people from colonies supplying the low-down on stories which might otherwise escape the notice of the huge corporation.
JP and Robert had decided to be straightforward and blunt. They would waste no time dancing around the reason for their visit. They had thoroughly researched the employees of IGNA and their big stories before coming and knew precisely who they wanted to speak to. Robert approached the receptionist first and waited to be acknowledged. When the man finally looked up Robert cleared his throat and spoke, "We'd like to speak to Tamara Faal, please."
"What's your business?" The man barely spared them a second glance as he continued typing on his computer.
"We have information about a news story on one of the colonies."
The man snorted, "Yeah? Get in line, kid."
JP felt her lip curl just a bit and leaned over the counter, "Listen," she looked at his name tag, "Henry, my friend and I have spent the last two weeks looking over our shoulders so much I've got a crink in my neck. For the last week we've practically had to live in a state of martial law and we did not travel all the way here from Lorraine just to be given the brush off! Now you either contact Ms. Faal for us or we'll go knocking on doors until we find her ourselves!"
Henry stopped typing and actually looked at them when JP mentioned Lorraine. After JP's spiel he spent a long few minutes just staring at their faces, the ringing phone ignored. They didn't know what he was looking for or what he saw, but it must have been the right thing. He reached for a phone and punched a few buttons. "Tamara? Henry. You're going to want to come down here. There are some people here I think you'll want to see." He listened for a second more, nodded, and hung up the phone. "Wait over there, please. She'll be down in a moment."
JP closed her eyes and nodded, "Thank-you."
Barely five minutes had passed when a willowy woman with a coffee cup in one hand and a pen clipped onto her shirt rounded the corner and paused before walking purposefully towards them. Robert and JP stood up and started to introduce themselves but were stopped when Tamara waved her hand. "Not now, not here. Follow me."
Confused, they did as they were told. The trio emerged from the elevator on the ninth floor and entered a smallish office with a large window, two computers, a desk covered in paper and files and two very uncomfortable looking visitors chairs.
Tamara seated herself behind her desk and took a long swallow of her coffee before she leaned forward and planted her elbows on her desk. "Tell me, this is about the Chochasi, isn't it?"
Ay'nin peered out from between a cluster of leaves at the dozen or so people gathered on the basin floor below her. She could hear their conversation, the soft tones carried up to her by the wind. Unfortunately, these were just grunts complaining about trivial things and the information they imparted was of no use to her.
Balwin had returned to the cave with a detailed accounting of the human's activities and Ay'nin had dispatched Cerina to check out Lorraine itself. Ay'nin had then wasted no time in leaving the cave and traveling to the nearest group.
It was unsettling to have so little information. Ay'nin felt blind to what was happening around her. This seemed a little off to simply be about her and the Chochasi. It wasn't something Ay'nin could verbalize, she just felt in her gut that something else was going on.
It was this instinct that compelled her to follow the ground vehicle when it pulled up and half the group she had been spying on piled inside.
Her two visitors were out of their chairs and across the room with their backs against the wall before Tamara even had time to blink. Their stance communicated absolute suspicion and Tamara almost slapped herself on the forehead for being so stupid. That was not the right way to open conversation with two people who were obviously paranoid.
"How did you know that?" Robert finally got over his shock and asked the question, his wary eyes still locked on Faal.
Tamara held her hands up in a placating gesture and spoke calmly, "If you'll both just sit down I'll explain. Please." She watched as they exchanged a look and then slowly came forward, not sitting but leaning against the backs of the chairs. Tamara tried to consciously relax and took another swallow of coffee. "All right, let's try this again. I'm Tamara Faal, but you already know that."
"Robert." He tossed his head at his companion and said, "JP."
Tamara smiled, "Nice to meet you both. Now, was I correct?"
JP nodded, her eyes squinted together in suspicion. "But how did you know?"
The reporter raised her hands once again and leaned back in her chair. "Okay, I'll go first. You might want to sit down, though, it's something of a long story. I promise you both, you're safe here. I want to help you."
Robert snorted as he moved to sit, "That's what the bad guys always say."
Tamara sighed and resolved to having to win these young people over.
Strange, to think that they had likely arrived thinking they'd have to win me over!
To be continued...
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