"Why can't we just finish this now?"
Tamara nodded her head, even though Robert couldn't see it, "I understand where you're coming from, Robert, but we have to do this right."
"Right?! How could we do this wrong?" Robert shifted and lowered his voice as he peered through the bushes toward the first buildings of Lorraine. Something was up. Activity had increased, Enforcers were swarming the streets.
"It needs to be official Robert. It needs to be fully sanctioned by IGNA for people to take it seriously. That takes time. And there's the matter of you and JP. Even once this goes public you're both still in danger."
"We can take care of ourselves."
Tamara closed her eyes and punched the button for the elevator, "Robert-"
"What aren't you telling me?"
Tamara bit her lip and stepped into the elevator car, "It's quite possible that they'll try to get rid of you both even once this gets out. You're the only witnesses."
"That video is iron clad!"
"I know. But remember who we're dealing with. They could do some fancy talking and cast doubt on the whole thing."
Tamara looked up at the floor indicators and tapped her foot impatiently, "Robert?" A chime sounded and the reporter exited, striding purposefully down the hall. "Robert!?"
Sudden shouting and pounding footsteps reached her ears. "Shit! I have to go. Get that video out there, Faal. It's the only thing that'll get them off our backs."
"Wait, Robe-" A click answered her. Robert had hung up. She growled and stiff-armed the door to her boss's office open.
His secretary half-stood and raised her arm, "Tamara, you can't go..." She watched as the woman stepped into the inner office, "...in there."
Kyle Hoggard looked up and smiled, "Tamara, how nice to see you again." He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap.
Tamara threw the folder she had been carrying onto his desk, the minidisk with the vid file on it sliding out. "I need authorization to go public with a story. Right now."
Kyle barely glanced at the file, "Tamara..."
"No! I'm serious. Look at this." She stepped forward and held up the disk. "Just look at it and then tell me what you think."
He sighed and popped it into his computer. Silence reigned in the office as the video played. "Where did you get this?"
"A video recorder that was found on Lorraine."
Kyle's head snapped up at the name of the colony. She could read his thoughts in his eyes and started shaking her head before he could say a word, "Don't even think it, Kyle. This is genuine. This isn't me going off on some vendetta. If you don't do this-"
Kyle held up his hands and started nodding, "Okay, okay. Tamara, just calm down for a minute and tell me how you got this information."
"We don't have time-"
"NO! You will explain yourself to me before I take any kind of action. I won't have this turn out like the last time."
Tamara squeezed her lips together and sat in the chair across from his desk. The faster she spoke the sooner he would agree.
John Meelak stormed into his office and slapped the speed dial on his phone, almost knocking the device off his desk.
"Bruce, get up here."
There was a slight pause and Meelak could hear the large man standing, "Coming."
Meelak turned on his heel and took short, stiff steps around his office while contemplating throwing something. His pencil caddy, maybe. He eyed it until his door opened and closed again and Bruce's voice broke the silence, "You wanted to see me?"
"I said arrest them. JP Tupo, Robert Burke, and that fucking hybrid."
Bruce shifted and stuck his hands into his pockets, "On what, um, charges, sir?"
Meelak swirled, his eyes flashing as he yelled, "I don't care what charges. Aiding and abetting, public mischief, it doesn't God damn matter! Just have them all arrested by the end of the day!"
"And what about authorization-"
"I'm giving you all the 'authorization' that you need Bruce. Ask another question and I'll see you in jail."
Bruce hesitated, not sure what to do. Meelak was a powerful council member, but he couldn't just go around ordering people brought into custody for no reason. Meelak turned back to his desk, apparently thinking Bruce had left. He hit some buttons on his phone and waiting, drumming his fingers, for it to be picked up.
"You have a go."
Bruce could almost hear the smile ooze through the phone as Commander Ryan smiled, "Excellent."
Meelak turned again and glared at Bruce. "I gave you orders."
Meelak's fingers curled into a fist and his expression stilled. His voice, when it came, was a low, sibilant sound, "Get moving."
Bruce nodded dumbly and backed away from his superior, fumbled with the doorknob, and then gratefully left the office. He keyed his radio and waited until the commander of the local Lorraine Enforcers answered, "Yes sir."
"We have orders from Councilman Meelak. JP Tupo, Robert Burke, and the hybrid fugitive are all to be arrested by the end of the day."
Bruce scowled as he stepped outside, "Is that understood?"
The security chief looked up to see black suited Enforcers already pounding on doors and accosting citizens in the street, demanding to know the whereabouts of their prey. He blinked as his eyebrows rose. His people weren't that efficient. Bruce descended the stairs of the Council hall and studied the Enforcers, noting an emblem on their collars that he didn't recognize. These must be the people who worked for Commander Ryan, whoever he was.
The emblem appeared to be a stylized capital C, forged in some type of sparkling silver coloured metal.
A scream tore his attention away from the Enforcers and down the street to where a young woman was cowering in abject terror.
He was moving before he had even consciously made the decision.
This wasn't right.
Why did one town have to be torn apart in the search for three individuals?
He knew one, the hybrid, was a fugitive wanted for murder. Councilman Meelak had said as much when this had all started.
But what had the other two done? Not much, according to his surveillance. Certainly nothing illegal. It appeared to him that they were simply trying to clear their friend of any charges.
He could understand that.
He couldn't understand this.
Bruce was, in fact, starting to doubt the validity of everything he had been told by John Meelak. There was definitely something else going on here.
"Christ!" JP jumped back from the cave wall as it suddenly erupted into a medley of bright lights and colours. She approached and carefully touched the wall, surprised to note a faint warmth that hadn't been there before. "Ay'nin."
"The cave just..." She tilted her head, unsure of how to describe it. Ay'nin would probably think she was nuts.
She leaned forward, slowly, painfully, and looked towards JP. "The walls are warmer. Light's coming off them?"
"Yeah. How did you..." She stopped when she saw the smile spread across Ay'nin's face. "What?"
"Robert did it."
JP kneeled before her friend and grasped either side of her face, "Did what?"
"Cerina and Balwin told me that this would happen when the essential steps necessary to free the Chochasi had been taken."
"And now I have to," Ay'nin hesitated, well aware that JP wouldn't like what she was about to say.
*"Jp! Ay'nin!"* Balwin zoomed through the wall of the cave and stopped just before them, his face tense.
*"Lorraine, its..." He shook his head and tried again, "Someone has given orders for all three of you to be brought in today. The city is in chaos. Enforcers are knocking down doors and attacking people on the streets. Citizens are fighting too. They don't what's going on, they're scared, so they're just attacking everyone in sight." He stopped then, and focused on the walls, a large grin quickly blossoming on his face. "You've done it. This is... Fantastic."*
Ay'nin nodded, "JP, you should go."
"You can't help me now. I have to do this on my own."
"Do what Ay'nin? I don't," she sniffled and fought back tears, "I don't understand."
Ay'nin smiled gently and grabbed JP's hand, "I have to take the final step to free them. They've been here so long they require someone from the corporeal realm to send them to the other side."
"But you can't even-"
"Balwin will help me. Go, JP. That's your home in danger, your family and friends. You have your fight and I have mine."
JP lost her battle with her tears and felt them roll down her cheeks. She nodded and stood, got two steps before Ay'nin's voice stopped her.
"It was great knowing you. Tell Robert that... I'm proud of who he is."
JP stopped, frozen in her tracks, "Wh-" She turned, looked at Ay'nin's blank face and then up to Balwin. She read the truth in his eyes and it was enough to send JP to her knees before her friend. "What are you saying?" JP stared, not willing to believe it. "Ay'nin!" She grabbed the hybrid's face and forced those eyes up to her own, even though Ay'nin couldn't see her. "You are not going to die."
"Maybe, if I wasn't hurt..."
JP shook her head, her expression earnest, "Then I'll do it. Just tell me, Ay'nin. Just tell me what I have to do." Fingers on her lips stopped her rambling speech and Ay'nin shook her head.
"I don't have time to explain it to you, JP. Just trust me. This is the best way. I probably would have died anyway."
JP shook her head, her heart protesting as her rational mind insisted that, with the infection and the cough and whatever else might present itself, that Ay'nin had very little chance of surviving. Especially if the rock dust made all those miners sick and if it was, in fact, what was affecting Ay'nin.
In one of the most impulsive moves of her life JP leaned forward and kissed the woman sitting so calmly before her, speaking of her own death. Ay'nin was surprised at suddenly feeling lips on her own but not at the sentiment behind the move. Lig-Jan had shared with Ay'nin the just blossoming emotions of this student and it had been enough to spur Ay'nin on and to keep living. She responded before she pulled away and grabbed JP's shoulders.
"No! I am not going to just leave you here to die. You deserve to live the rest of your life and I... I want to know you, Ay'nin."
"You can't always save everyone. Sometimes..." Ay'nin grimaced and shifted, "sometimes you can't even save yourself. You're going to have to learn that if you're going to survive this, JP. People will die and be hurt, that's happening in Lorraine right now. I just happen to be one of those people."
JP sniffed, "I don't want you to be."
Ay'nin smiled softly and leaned her head against the cave wall, groaning as she shifted her leg. "We hardly ever get what we want. What we need, sure. Getting what we want is a... Dangerous luxury. You need to go now." Ay'nin closed her eyes and heard JP's feet scuff the ground as Balwin quietly encouraged her.
"Ay'nin." She felt a hand on her arm and opened her eyes, even though she could only see white light.
"Get up." He pulled her to her feet and hooked her arm over her shoulder as they limped to the back of the cave.
"Isn't this going to... Mess things up for you?"
"I'm still dead, Ay'nin. Just corporeal."
Ay'nin rolled her eyes as her head started pounding again with their movement. Thankfully, they stopped and Balwin set her down before his footsteps receded for a minute. He wrapped her hand around the hilt of the sword, the Chochasi's ceremonial icon.
"You remember what to do?"
"Sure. Put it into the rock thing..."
"It's a rock. And that'll release your spiritual, ancestral energy or whatever and free you from this plane of existence."
Balwin nodded and grasped Ay'nin's hand, "The outpouring of energy will be extreme. Once it happens, it will be very difficult for you to move." Ay'nin nodded. "The cave will likely collapse."
"I know all this already."
Balwin studied the sword and closed his eyes, "You're sure about this?"
Ay'nin felt her mouth drop open in mild shock at the question. Balwin had been the toughest task master, insisting that she never let up on her assigned quest and always try harder to find some degree of proof. He had resorted to physical violence on many occasions and now, right before it would all be over, he was getting cold feet? "Are you serious?"
Balwin was silent for so long Ay'nin thought maybe he had left. Then she felt a rough hand on her cheek, so different from JP's, and knew he was looking for words. "You did...you did really well, Ay'nin. I couldn't have asked for a better person to help us move on."
Ay'nin grasped his hand with her own as a few tears fell from her eyes and she smiled, "Apology accepted."
He laughed a little and stepped back. "Don't miss."
Ay'nin nodded, envisioning the rock alter in her mind. She raised the sword carefully, imagining the middle, the sweet spot, so that the alter would split down the center. "I won't."
Bruce yelled as he approached the Enforcers, most of them scattering upon recognizing their superior officer. The few that didn't left after seeing that the woman they had accosted was not JP Tupo.
He bent down and grasped her arm, pulling her gently to her feet. Bruce squinted a little as he got a good look at her face and tried to place it, "Sonya, right?"
"Y-yeah, how did you..."
"I've been watching JP and Robert. You're their friend." Bruce pulled her aside to a quieter street.
Sonya nodded, eyes wide, "Yes but they... I don't know where they are. I don't know... They've been acting a little weird but nothing that warrants this," she gestured at the Enforcers, the screaming citizens as they were pulled from their homes, and the down and dirty fist fights that were breaking out everywhere.
Bruce nodded, he had figured as much. "So you have no idea what they've been doing."
"No. Whatever it is, though, it must be worth it. They wouldn't do it otherwise." She looked up at him, sudden suspicion flaring in her eyes. "Why? What are you going to do?"
Bruce raised his hands in a placating gesture, "I want to help. There's no way that one man should be able to order all this," he waved at the city, "when we live in a democracy. I don't care if he is the Council head. He still has to answer to the others." He paused and considered his options, "Do you have any idea where Robert might be hiding?"
Sonya shook her head and shrugged, "Yes. No...maybe."
Bruce ducked his head and forced eye contact, "I want to help him. Do you believe me?"
She stared up at him, the Security Chief, the man who had admittedly been keeping tabs on her two friends, and nodded.
Robert cursed under his breath and ducked behind a building. He couldn't get very far into town, nor could he go around the perimeter. He was basically stuck here until some of this calmed down.
He scowled and rubbed his nose then glanced down at the laptop. Robert smirked and backtracked a little to a tall fir tree with thick branches and plenty of needles. He climbed it slowly and carefully, not wanting to jab his hands with any of the sharp little green needles.
When Robert reached a height that allowed him to see over the first row of buildings and into the town he swung his bag over a branch and tugged out the laptop. It had a built-in camera and a detachable piece which would allow him to film wherever he wanted without having to move the entire laptop.
He quickly started the camera and propped the detachable eye on the branches to capture a preliminary view of Lorraine. Then he opened his web browser and accessed IGNA's Watchdog site, which allowed normal folks like him to upload anything they thought was news worthy.
It took him a few precious minutes to figure out how to set up a live feed before he set the computer aside and focused on simply capturing the madness in Lorraine. Too bad he was too far away to capture any sound.
Robert scowled as he decided that while spectacular, it only looked like a riot. He needed something better, something...
He jerked the camera back to the Council Hall where Meelak was descending the steps, his mouth obviously moving and his arms flailing. An Enforcer ran up to him to be grabbed by the collar and yelled at before the councilman pushed him away so roughly the Enforcer fell over. Meelak stood still then, hands on hips, observing the situation with a sour look on his face. A pair of Enforcers entered the screen then, dragging a howling woman between them.
Robert's breath caught in his throat. It looked like JP.
The Enforcers dropped her at Meelak's feet. The councilman dropped to his haunches, studied the woman, then stood and yelled at the soldiers.
Robert closed his eyes. It wasn't JP.
One of the Enforcers broke away then, back into the chaos, while the other hit the woman over the head with the butt of his rifle. She collapsed, unconscious. Meelak said a few more things then turned and walked back into the Hall, calm and composed as ever.
Robert stared at the woman who was still and unmoving, a visible splotch of blood on the ground. If the wasn't damning evidence against John Meelak, he didn't know what was.
Crunching footsteps and low voices captured his attention then and Robert almost overbalanced in his quest to see who was coming. His eyes widened at the Security Chief followed by the bitter taste of betrayal when he spotted Sonya a step behind the large man. Robert shifted and carefully descended a few branches to hear what they were saying.
"This is the only place he'd be."
Bruce growled low in his throat and kicked a rock, "They might already have him then."
Sonya gave him a strange look before she said, "Wouldn't you know?"
He shook his head, "There are Enforcers here that don't work for me. It seems they answer directly to Meelak."
Sonya rubbed the back of her neck and closed her eyes, "Do you really think you could have gotten him out of here?"
"No. But I could have kept him safe, kept them from finding him."
A branch broke and fell on Bruce's head. They both looked up into the terrified face of Robert Burke who gave a weak smile and a little laugh.
Sonya gestured and hissed quietly, "Get down here before you fall."
Robert disappeared for a moment, then returned with a bag slung over one shoulder, and carefully descended. He landed on solid ground to have Bruce throw his own large hooded sweatshirt over Robert's head.
"Put that on."
Robert did so, pulling the hood up and after a seconds consideration he slipped his bag under the shirt, tightening the strap until it stayed wrapped about his waist. He looked fat now. Robert looked up and cocked his head, "Whaddya think?"
Bruce's nose crinkled, "It might work. Come on."
Tamara stopped mid-sentence as the inner door to Kyle's office suddenly burst open. It was one of the junior techs whose job it was to monitor all electronic feeds coming into and going out of IGNA.
"Sir, you need to see this," he said as he went around Kyle's desk and rattled the keys of his keyboard for a moment.
Tamara stood and moved to see the screen, noted it was IGNA's sight, and then felt her breath catch at the scene that was playing out. It looked like a riot, far off cries and yells just reaching them. Then the woman was dragged into the picture and she felt the same lurch in her stomach at thinking it was JP. The video continued for another few moments before it looped back to the beginning.
"Where is this from?"
The tech answered promptly, "Lorraine, sir."
"Is it genuine?"
"How long has it been up?"
"Uh," the tech consulted his data pad while Tamara tapped her foot nervously, "about a quarter of an hour, sir."
Kyle looked up at Tamara who rose her eyebrows and widened her eyes a little in a 'told you' sort of expression. He nodded and captured his keyboard. "You have a go, Tamara. Put together whatever you think will work best and we'll broadcast as a breaking exclusive on all bands, to all colonies and Earth."
The reporter grinned and ran out of the room to her computer. She knew exactly what she wanted to broadcast.
JP tripped and felt a branch whip by her face, leaving a long stinging spot of pain. She stood and resumed her run to the city, heart pounding in her ears with no idea what she'd do once she got there.
She could hear screams and shouting, the odd gunshot and the rumble of vehicles. She finally broke out of the forest into the city and stopped, hands on knees, considering. She needed to find Robert, her parents, anyone.
It took her several never-ending seconds to decide to head to her house. That was the best place to start since she had no idea where Robert might be. JP skulked around the edges of town, desperately trying to ignore the chaos around her. These people were suffering because of her and Robert and Ay'nin.
She couldn't let it bother her, though.
When JP finally turned the corner onto her street her feet froze in their tracks and she stared, wide eyed and unbelieving.
Her house sat engulfed in flames, the immediate area surrounding it empty of anything else. The entire street seemed deserted, in fact, and JP took a few numb steps closer to the inferno. She looked around for any sign that her parents hadn't been inside.
Her eyes filled with tears then and her legs started to wobble until they finally gave out and she dropped to her knees, twin rivers of sorrow running down her cheeks.
Robert started and stared at his mother, walking calmly across the town square to the Council Hall. He looked back at Bruce and Sonya, busy trying to find the safest way across town, and slipped away quietly.
He ascended the stairs and randomly chose a hallway, walking until he heard voices. It was the tail end of a heated argument and Robert ducked into another office as a door slammed open and a furious John Meelak stalked by.
Robert peeked back into the hall after the man then turned his head to come face to face with his mother. His head jerked in surprise. "Mom."
Naomi Burke didn't smile, she simply stared at her offspring, a considering look in her eyes, "Robert. What are you doing here?" Her eyes scanned his body as if to ask, 'and why are you dressed like that?'.
He shifted uncomfortably and changed the subject, "Do you know what's going on?"
She nodded, "Of course. They're looked for you, your friend, and that hybrid."
The answer startled him, not because he hadn't known, but because she had. He took one leery step backwards and felt sweat break out on the back of his neck as she advanced, "You mean Ay'nin, right?"
Naomi nodded, "Uh-huh."
Robert took another few steps, his eyes desperately looking for an escape route. It didn't matter that this was his mother anymore. She was the enemy now. His legs hit the edge of the desk and Robert abruptly found himself sitting on its surface as his mother loomed over him. He looked up at her, unable to voice the only thing running though his head.
Naomi laughed and smiled softly, "It's my job, Robert. That's all. And as such, I have to bring you into custody."
"N-no." Robert stretched his arms out looking for something, anything, to defend himself with. He knew enough about these people to know he'd likely spend the rest of his life in some prison somewhere, locked up for discovering their little secret. Provided he got to live out his life at all.
Naomi laughed again and shook her head, "Oh, my boy, what are you going to do about it?"
She reached toward him then with some kind of injector in her hand as his own hand curled around something solid and heavy. He leaned back as she leaned forward and brought his arm around to impact the side of her head.
Robert stayed frozen in that position, his breath rasping in his ears, his mother's body crumpled on the floor, and his weapon of choice in his hand. He looked at it, a stapler, and suddenly dropped it as if he had been burned.
Running footsteps captured his attention then and his whole body jerked as Sonya and Bruce rounded the corner. They stared for a timeless moment, stark sympathy in Sonya's eyes. Robert finally managed to get off the desk and walked over to them, his hands clenched to quell their shaking and his legs wobbling with every step.
Bruce grasped his arm, his grip solid and strangely compassionate. They left the Council Hall slowly, somberly, with Robert feeling like accusing eyes were boring into his back.
He never looked back.
Bruce kept his hand locked around the boy's arm, if for no other reason that it looked like Robert was in his custody. No one would question him, not even the foreign Enforcers. He pulled them through the crowds towards his own house which sat undisturbed and offered a port of safety.
Billowing smoke caught his attention and the trio turned in unison towards the house at the end of the street. He had to make a wild grab for Sonya when she recognized the building and seriously considered knocking them both out when their eyes landed on the figure kneeling in the distance.
Robert made a move yo yell out to JP but the hand on his arm shifted and clamped around his mouth,
"Shh," Bruce hissed and nodded towards a group of Enforcers who were approaching the unaware woman. They watched as JP was tackled, only then putting up a fight. Robert felt his eyes widen as sunlight glinted off a metal object before it was lowered to JP's body. She stilled a minute later.
It must have been an injector like his mother... No, not his mother, Naomi, had tried to use on him. They watched as JP was picked up and carried away.
Bruce was pulling then across the street a moment later, giving him and Sonya no time to mourn their friend.
Robert felt his tears finally break free. His mother had betrayed them all. JP was in custody. Ay'nin was... He didn't even know where she was and it seemed Bruce was their only ally.
Not that he totally trusted the Security Chief.
And where the hell was Tamara?
To be continued...
Return to the Academy