(I'm Back!)

Chapter 48: The Last Shijiman

"What's happening?" Carl whispered.

"We're their prisoners now." Rene answered, nails digging into her palms.

"I know that, I know that." Carl strained.

His eyes scanned down the line of prisoners on either side of them, the very marines who'd scarcely an hour ago been holding them captive.

Looks who's in chains now. He thought, exchanging a glance with a marine who's eyes dodged his own. Then again, so am I

I am so messed up right now...

Petra's lifeless eyes were like a parasite, digging into his spine and biting down, hard. It felt like reaching desperately for something that's just out of reach, but never ever being able to grasp the thing that is always just a half-finger length away. No more music, no more incense, no one to keep him and Illien in line anymore.

He remembered the first meeting, seeing Petra when she was his age, smiling before the universe collapsed in on itself, before...before.

He pushed all thoughts of home away.

It's no good! Focus! You came here for Emily. No one else has to die today!

He distracted himself by analyzing their surroundings. It was the strangest sight, seeing plant life sprout from such a world like this. He knew it was a habitat of some sorts, and that the grass growing was nothing more than a strange space breed-of which he'd had to scrape off the engine on more than one occasion...

Keep looking!

The shield generator! It was two way, a strange design. Nothing could get in, or out; both a sanctuary and a prison, or may be just one. He noticed the other flora beginning to take root in the habitat, the strange trees, now being burned. The smoke coalesced at the top of the shield generator's barrier. Not even gas could escape. He refocused his gaze on the shield generator. Something caught his eye. Wait.

Are those...!

Something else caught his eye, something far, far more interesting.

Emily! He nearly screamed his lungs out. There she was, dark hair in knots, almost covering her eyes. Eyes that...that tried desperately to grab on, to hold tight, to never ever let go. The kind of gaze that wishes so earnestly for everything else in the universe to disappear between them. The kind of look that at the very same time both kills you yet keeps you so very, very alive.

A thousand words bottled themselves up in his throat, a traffic jam in his vocal chords. He would've said everything, he would have said just a sentence. Someone spoke for him, but the words failed to reach him.

Carl felt the hum of an energy weapon thrum behind his head. Emily was screaming, her eyes torn from his, focused on something directly behind him. The dark soldier that held her in her grip hauled her away, out of sight. He forced his eyes to the left, but Rene's eyes were shut tight. She was whispering something, in her native tongue.

Carl didn't need to ask Rene to realize what was happening now. The hum of energy grew louder.

"You are sentenced to death for reason of high treason against the Ninth Order."

It was all too real. No! the Carl trapped inside screamed, kicking and screaming to be let out. This is not how it ends! He clenched his teeth, and felt his legs begin to shake as he heard a chorus of weapons being arrayed behind him. We're not part of the Rebellion! It's all so wrong! A dire sense of claustrophobia set in, as rapidly closing invisible walls made it impossible to breathe properly.

"Ready, fire!"

Carl heaved in a final breath, wondering if he'd ever take another.

II

Saito advanced across the strange grey field, passing through red smoke coalescing about her. Behind her, the remains of a Ninth Order rearguard lay crumpled around the grand entrance doorway. She was a shadow, vengeful and deadly, and she was not alone.

Ninth Order armor may have been impenetrable to bullets, even sizable energy weapons, but to Shijiman steel, there was no equal. She had cut through them like wet clay, staining her blade red with half the rearguard's blood.

She knew many more would need to die before the night's end. Things were beyond her control now. She felt her body move of its own accord, cutting, slicing, advancing by a hand that didn't seem entirely her own. Not that she cared. There was no beauty in this artificial landscape, and she was blind to differ. All that mattered was that a girl had stirred up such a commotion from the Ninth Order that clearly they desperately wanted to get their hands on her.

I hope they need her badly. The more they need her, the greater their suffering will be when I take her away from them.

The thought sent a strange sensation radiating through her, the thought of slicing through another faceless Ninth Order pawn nearly forced a smile upon her face. She shrugged it off as an effect of the strange static grass.

"We're right behind you!" Gasha's voice assured.

Saito didn't bat an eye, tunnel visioning in on the parting red smoke.

They'd reached the border of their cover. First Saito then the rest of the battered company emerging in a line at the cusp of the red smoke's edge. Their first glimpses of the habitat met their eyes, revealing clusters of smoking pyres surrounding a column of Ninth Order soldiers they all had their rifles raised, but in the wrong direction.

"Hey thats-" One of the rebels began.

"A rebel company." Gasha finished.

Saito nodded slowly. She was suddenly hyper aware of each finger tightly wrapped around the grip of her sword.

"Energy weapons won't work here." The sole surviving communications specialist said. "The power weeds are sucking away all the power."

That's just fine.

There was a commotion stirring about the Ninth Order column. Saito couldn't quite make out what was happening, but a the low din of a myriad of cries and shouts was now arising. No time to waste.

Saito raised her sword high.

"Down with the Order!" She roared, before turning and charging towards the mass of black.

The rebels behind her echoed her cry, drawing daggers and fixing bayonets as they bolted after their Shijiman leader. Like a seething, furious stampede of wild creatures, they descended upon their foes' ranks like an out of control fire.

A row of Ninth Order soldiers turned to face, their rifles turned to clubs. For a second there was only wind rushing by her face, as Saito and her rebels closed the distance between them. For a second she caught a glimpse of herself in the faceless stygian helm of her Ninth Order foe. What she saw in it scared her volumes more than her dark towering opponent. What she saw was not Saito. Her eyes were vengeful, focused, crazed. For a second the woman who'd seen the madness in trying to end herself regurgitated before her.

But there was no time to reflect, as she barreled into her reflection, deflecting a blow by his rifle and cutting across the soldier's armor, leaving a deep gash. She hammered another blow to the throat, before letting out a cry and turning to face her next challenger. She caught fleeting glimpses of the other rebels, crying out and locking themselves in a deadly melee with the galaxy's largest Empire.

Saito dodged a blow from the back end of a rifle, then landed a ferocious hit on an unsuspecting foe. He went down, and Saito saw Gasha on the other side of the fallen foe, giving her a terse nod before being tackled by another soldier. Another Ninth Order soldier stepped in front of her before she could come to his aid, this time catching Saito off guard. She narrowly parried the blow by his rifle, slicing a bit of it off in the process. As she retreated back to regain her footing, she was pushed to the ground by a marauder, sprinting wildly by, wielding a machete. She rolled to the ground, passing under the heels of the battling Order soldiers.

When she pushed herself back up, she was on the other side of the Order's formation, where the rebel captives were now resisting and fighting fiercely with their marauder guards. Some of them had salvaged weapons and were charging into the backs of the Order soldiers, boxing them in on two fronts.

Everywhere she looked there was a bloodied, screaming face trampling over another bloodied screaming face, expect for the Ninth Order soldiers, who were probably screaming too behind their dehumanizing helms.

She navigated her way through the skirmish, wounding a few marauders along the way. One of the marauder's head's exploded as she passed by. Though her face was splashed in his blood, she passed unfazed to the edge of the struggle. It seemed the more primitive slug thrower weapons were unaffected by the power weeds.

"Saito?" A voice called out, an unmistakable voice.

"Admiral!" Saito shouted back, turning to the origin of the noise.

There stood the Admiral, untouched by the tides of violence. His eyes focused behind her.

"Saito look out!" He warned.

A massive force from nowhere knocked her to the ground, causing her vision to blur. She gasped for breath as she clutched her side, rolling through the grass. She thought she felt a loose rib somewhere. There was no time to recover. The towering figure of nightmares was upon her a second later, bringing his full weight to bear.

An explosion of pain erupted in her chest, as she felt one of the loosened ribs start to stab into her. She grit her teeth, and winced, fighting not to scream. The emaciated face of Drell Hashan smiled down at her, his hands shooting for her throat. Saito tucked her chin in, momentarily preventing him from collapsing her windpipe. At the same time she shoved her fingers into his face, trying to pry out an eye, anything to get him off.

Hashan shook his head violently, tossing her hands off, but she jabbed them back. One of her fingers found their way into his mouth and he bit down hard. She withdrew her fingers with a shriek, a deep gash on the tip of one of her fingers. She cursed, as her lungs felt like they were giving way.

She cursed, and wheezed for more air.

Hashan now had her in a choke, and she tried to pry his big hands off of her. Hassan's strength far exceeded hers however. She felt a cough well up inside her, and she tried one last, desperate defense.

Her entire body shook as she coughed right into Hashan's face, blood splattering right into his face. She spat more into his eyes, causing him to momentarily loose his grip.

A moment was all she needed. Fighting back pain, she drew her dagger, and plunged it straight into his eye. Hashan froze, his one good eye wide with shock. Saito drew in a shallow breath, as Hashan's eye contorted into rage.

Saito dug the blade deeper, pushing it into his skull with all her might as he lay on his back. Soon after Hashan grew still. Saito looked up, blood dripping from the corner of her mouth. She searched for the Admiral, still standing there. He was smiling warmly. She smiled back.

Then the Admiral pressed something in his hand. And the world around her shattered to white.