Chapter 43: A Promise
You don't need to do this Illien might have told him, should have told him. There's another way, there has to be. Maybe there was, maybe there wasn't. None of it mattered now. The explosion, muffled dull through the metal door, still hummed through his ears. Yet the warmth of Erik's strong grip still lingered on his own, a bit life not entirely faded. And all he'd said was 'goodbye'…
"Can you walk faster?" Rene asked, her gaze dropping for a moment to Illien's left hand.
Illien brushed over the missing ring and pinky fingers on his left hand, cut off half way down at the proximal phalanx.
"I know," Illien said "and yes I can walk. Fine."
Illien surprised even himself by the resolve he'd so far held on to. With two fingers and one friend taken away, just like that, he knew the grim state of denial he was still in would only last for so long. To him, Erik wasn't gone, just…away. You didn't just let go of people like that, not of family.
"Then keep up." Rene said simply.
She guided him through the labyrinth of leaking pipes and hoses.
After a silent few minutes, Rene swore and shook her head. For a half second, Rene's face changed, the ice breaking. The cold, expressionless mercenary became a warm, freshly wronged child. What gave it all away were her eyes, which began to melt away memories kept in stills. Rene walked onwards robotically, eyes staring blankly ahead, seeing into some part of her history only known to her. Mid-stride she wiped the wetness from her eyes.
"Bastard." She said simply.
Illien wondered who she meant by that, probably both the monster and the warrior. What he did wasn't for nothing. Illien opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't find any words. None seemed appropriate. He took up Rene's example and instead kept his worries to himself. You knew it'd be dangerous. He thought to himself, which was true, but danger had always meant last-minute escapes, laughter in the galley over near misses. It seemed their luck had finally begun to give way.
"Here." Rene said, slamming her body soundlessly agains the side of a metal door.
She tossed him one of her secondary sidearms, which Illien caught clumsily in eight fingers. Searing pain flashed through him like a lightning strike, and he had to pinch himself to stop his left hand from shaking.
"Petra's in there?" Illien asked, struggling to undo the safety on Rene's pistol.
She nodded, "Ready?"
Illien heard a satisfying click.
"Yes." He said spitefully, knuckles whitening. "I'll go first."
Rene pressed the opening button on the wall, splitting the metal barrier in two. Illien rushed in, weapon raised. It shook a little in his hands as his feet tromped loudly on the metal grating. In front of him, he saw Petra facing away from him, leaning on one of two other prisoners flanking her. She turned as Illien's careless footsteps grew louder.
"Petra?" Illien called out.
Her face was deathly pale, the once olive complexion mixing with light grey to form an entirely new color. Densely bloodshot eyes met his own, and flashed a warning.
Turn back, they said.
A dozen more armed men emerged from behind the terminals of the octangular room, grey trench coats and blue scarves taking the place of mean pirate faces. It's all the same thing. Illien heaved a breath through his teeth, throwing his weapon and a curse towards his new captors.
The two other prisoners turned and revealed themselves to Illien. Instantly, his narrowed eyes evened out and his fists unclenched a little. There stood Carl and Emily, very much alive. Ignoring the myriad of weapon points trained on his every move, Illien made his brisk way towards them.
"Don't shoot! He's a friend!" Emily's voice squeaked.
The soldiers gathered around her surprisingly listened to her plea, lowering the sights on their rifles slightly.
"Found them." Petra said, when Illien was a few meters away, her voice hoarse and weak.
"And they've found us." Illien added.
He'd kept his promise, he'd come back for her. Time had not been as kind for the Admiral as it had been to Emily though. Probably because your already thousand years old… she added. We'll be back for you, Emily, he'd said. It wasn't her real name, only a placeholder, a name given to her before she knew she had one. But it wasn't a number either, wasn't the name for that snobby teenage girl who'd spat at weeping outcasts a millennia ago. And the more she thought about Rakova, the more she grew to resent that terrible girl, a part of her she cringed at once being.
A strange thing, remembering. It was like a thousand words on the tip of her mind's tongue, had all sprung forth and leapt right off of it. She could name the faces of every old friend, every childhood street, every major city on old earth, now lost, she supposed. Yet the girl she had once been seemed less a past version of herself than a hated, evil twin. Everything she hated about Rakova was strikingly well, Emily. It was almost as if she'd been reincarnated into a new person, yet remember all her past lives. It was present Emily though, who she considered among all the others to be herself.
An alarm had began to bellow, and Emily noticed the admiral quicken his pace as he lead them to a split metal door, like an elevator entryway. though it was well-concealed, Emily recognized the quick, minute jerks of the Admiral's head, just like she'd seen him do decades ago, in these very same hallways. He'd kept his promise all right, though what invisible strings had been attached to his offer.
"Uhh, What was that?" Carl asked.
"Level two breach alarm, they must know your missing." Admiral Szu replied.
"Angry sounding alarm for that." Carl said.
Emily whizzed through memories of earth, still like freshly opened parcels within her brain: eager to be held and turned over again. Before drifting into cryo-sleep, the world had almost succumbed to centuries of plague and disaster. The final plague had wiped out nearly everyone in her home country, yet a great number of ships had been sent off into the cosmos reaching for a second chance. There had to be millions who'd escaped, the things she'd seen had proven that. Yet that still didn't explain, why she was here again, or why everyone in the galaxy seemed to want her. Even remembering everything, there were-to Emily's great contempt-still questions to answer.
"It's still ringing." Carl said "and prison break alarms don't sound like air-raid sirens."
"How would you know." The Admiral said back, without turning.
"You're lying." Carl stated. "What do you have to-"
"That's quite enough!" The Admiral said sternly, stopping mid step and raising his pistol once more.
"Hikari, what are you doing!" Emily asked.
"What's right." He replied.
"And whats that?" Emily prodded.
"No more questions." The Admiral said "Do I need to point this pistol at you too?"
His voice was stressed and anxious, as if pressed between two ever contracting forces. Point a pistol at me? Emily scoffed. Where was that hopeful young freedom fighter who'd tried to save her so many years ago? Perhaps people didn't need to have their minds wiped to change into something completely unrecognizable.
"In." The Admiral said, pressing a button as the elevator-doors swished open.
Two rows of flashing computer terminals formed a hallway which ended around some holographic projector gadget, circled by three more futuristic looking technology stations, from which sprang several more hallways. The terminals were like the ones on the Crimson Wolf's bridge, but looked far more state-of-the-art. Waded on by the tip of the Admirals' gun, Emily felt a shiver run through her arms and legs.
Gathered around the projector, stood several armed soldiers, all standing to attention at the Admiral's entrance.
"At ease." The Admiral said, a smile on his face "We have her."
Exchanged grins and nods flew through their ranks, as their serious demeanor relapsed. It was then that Emily noticed someone lying against one of the main technology stations. Petra's face, tired and pale looked up. She was sweating and shivering, looking like a dug-up corpse. Is that blood on her lip?
"Found her here." One of the soldiers said, motioning his weapon at Petra.
"Petra!" Carl yelled, as soon as he'd recognized her.
He sprinted over, grabbing her hand and heaving it over her shoulder. Wincing, Petra leaned into Carl as she struggled to stand up. After she was on her feet she immediately convulsed into a volley of coughing. Emily stood firm, watching as Carl exchanged hush words with Petra. Rakova might have shaken her head, scoffed at their weakness. How could she now? For all she knew, Rakova died the day she went to sleep.
"Now, what do we have here?" The Admiral asked, in that grandfather tone.
"Think very carefully about what you're doing." Petra strained, gazing as if upon the devil at Admiral Szu.
Her gaze was reflected off of Szu's indifferent tight-smile; ignored entirely.
"Believe me, I have." The Admiral simply replied.
Emily stood confused, to the point of anger. The Admiral was old, but Emily was older, probably the oldest person in the entire galaxy. It was no secret they were somehow talking about her. Why then, even with all her knowledge, did she still have no idea what either of them were talking about?
Petra looked about to turn a another shade darker, when the clanking of feet on the metal walkway echoed behind them. The sudden commotion turned Admiral Szu's soldiers back into stern-faced killers. Petra's head snapped back, and the clank of footsteps slowed. Emily turned her face just in time to see Illien call out Petra's name.
Click, click, click. Rifles trained their sights on him, and Emily saw no mercy in the eyes of Szu's soldiers. They'd kill him without a second thought. Why keep anyone in this room alive but me? Emily thought, a question Admiral Szu was perhaps considering at this very moment. She wouldn't let him decide.
"Dont shoot!" Emily cried, sidestepping into the death zone of the rifle barrels. "He's a friend!"
That last plea seemed desperate, Emily thought, as she finally begun to see through the Admiral's feigned courtesy. The image of scratching through extravagant-seeming wallpaper only to find the wood rotting then came into her mind, along with a thought that was very much Rakova's. It's the nicest people you need to worry about, they treat you in ways you don't deserve, only to come back and collect their pound of flesh.
To her relief, the soldier's lowered their weapons-for the moment. If this new Emily was the real one, then the people at risk were the ones she owed the most. She knew they'd never kill her, she'd already been kept alive for centuries, though for what reason she still had no idea; why had this prophetic status had been bestowed upon her?
"Just how many more of there are you?" Admiral Szu asked.
"Just me." Illien stated coldly, releasing himself from a tight embrace of Carl Emily had been too shocked to realize.
The Admiral let out a dry laugh.
"That's just what she told me." He said, eyes landing on Petra.
Despite her decrepit form, Petra's eyes burned with a lively energy in return. She tried to say something, but found herself coughing instead, her full weight bearing down on Illien and Carl's shoulders. It took her longer to regain her breath this time. Emily stood firm, screening the soldier's aim of her friends.
"Sometimes a little evil is necessary to achieve a greater good." The Admiral said.
"Oh, give it up, the rebellion had its chance." Illien scoffed "You cant win against the Ninth Order. All you have to do is look at Daedalus."
The Admiral's tight grin flickered.
"You'll never understand how significance your actions have been." He said. "Just know, your all heroes to the Rebellion. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten."
With a wave of his hand, a dozen clicks sounded as a squad of soldiers stepped forwards. Their weapons were once again raised, their sights set far past Emily's stretched body.
"What are you doing!" Emily cried out "You can't!"
"Emily…" The Admiral said.
"No! This is wrong!" She strained, her throat getting tight "They never wanted this, never should have wanted this! It's me you want, not them, so take me! Leave these people alone!"
"I'm afraid thats not how this works." The Admiral replied, almost elegiac.
"Hikari!" She screamed.
She felt strong hands pull her away, tug her free from the dream and back into the nightmare. They can't! Emily thought, as Carl's eyes met her own. That boy, face stained with tar and clothes smeared with engine grease, the one who'd shown her more humanity than any of her past selves had shown anyone else, was going to be stripped away. Carl smiled, a melancholy don't worry about me smile. Emily felt her eyes go wet as her vision blurred. If Carl left her, she'd fall right back into this dream on the hinge of a nightmare. But it was so much more than that.
That's why Emily couldn't bring herself to look at him one last time, as Illien mouthed off one last defiant remark, as Petra grasped for air, as Carl searched for her face.
Emily felt the world around her go white, as an impossibly loud noise left a violent ringing in her ears. The once strong hands grasped around her shoulders all but weakened, as Emily wasted no time running in front of the guns, looking for Carl in the haze of black smoke that was beginning to fill the room. Streaks of orange whizzed past, criss-crossing the room for an instant before Admiral Szu's voice commanded it to stop.
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" He hollered "They're coming! Get the girl!"
Who exactly they were or what exactly had just happened failed to form into full thoughtsas Emily's buzzing mind failed to see more than a few inches from her face through the black smoke. Before much more than the fact that she was alive had registered, a breath-masked face appeared through the smog, eyed her up and down, then grabbed her by the collar. Half-stumbling and half dragged, Emily finally shook of the daze of the explosion just as she saw the doors to the computer terminal closed from the outside.
"Time to keep my promise." The Admiral said, as the breath-masked shoulder hauled her away.