Exhausted from the convoluted path they took to their destination, Saf and Rose sat in a clearing to rest. They had killed four stealth troops without being noticed on their way; it would have taken only one of them reporting to give away their position. Above all things, this rendezvous point had to remain secret if he ever hoped to see his friends again.
Saf looked around the clearing and the beauty of the scene struck him. The rain had stopped less than half an hour ago, but the sun was already shining through the clouds. The leaves at the edge of the grassy patch where they stood dripped with tiny crystals of rainwater and faint rainbows danced in the mists.
He thought to himself how long it had been since he felt so peaceful. When he realized that all of this unrest had occurred in the frame of 24 hours, he felt heavier. He thought about Neza and the things they spoke about the day before this mission started. He realized that he was considering Neza as a memory even now, as if his friend were already dead. Saf snapped himself from that line of thinking and fought his mind to keep faith.
As he glanced up, the peace of the moment fell away from him as if he’d awaken from a dream. Rose was licking blood from her front paws and chewing on tiny pieces of human flesh that she found under her claws. She was an exceptional fighter that Saf was glad to have on his side. Despite being quite large and muscular, she could move silent and unseen with what seemed like little effort. On occasion, before an attack Saf could see her mouth move as she chanted inaudibly as if channeling some invisible power.
Montir sat perfectly still a few feet away from Rose. He was awake now, but didn’t move or speak at all. He cooperated when they told him to do something and seemed to hope that they’d forget he was there. Saf couldn’t help but entertain it as a possibility. It was hard to keep his mind on any one thing during the chaos.
Saf heard the message in his mind. He recognized the signature. Regan was communicating with him directly through the Datastream. He replied:
Saf: I’m here.
Regan: I know you’re there. I’m looking at you. Who’s the Canis?
Saf: An unlikely ally it seems.
Saf glanced over to her, careful not to move his lips when he spoke to Regan through his mind. It was a habit that many BiOS users had developed while using this communication method, but the skilled could do it without any external signs of connection.
Saf: The enemy of her enemy and all that…
Regan: Fine. That’s fine. She’s not going to try to kill me if I walk over there is she?
Saf: I think she’s full on human right now.
Saf cringed as he watched her use her claw to pick at her blood-hued teeth.
There was no further reply. Saf sensed something strange about Regan’s tone. He was normally informal with him. They normally joked around even in the most dire situations. This time, he was brief and mechanical in his speech. He had an undertone that something was wrong. Saf hoped he wasn’t injured.
Saf addressed Rose finally, “The Commander is coming now. He’s human, but don’t attack him.”
She nodded and stopped her fidgeting. She may not respect human military officials, but these guys were the only people who could help her fight against the greater threat. Her exile from Canis culture for bringing Martine to Gro-Tasim four years earlier severed every tie she had. She knew it was in her best interest not to seem like a threat to this particular human.
A tree at the edge of the clearing shook slightly as Regan dropped from a low branch into the grass below. He was sweating and his eyes darted around him. “Where’s Neza?” he asked Saf.
“We got separated. He’ll be here.” Saf tried to sound more optimistic than he felt.
“We can’t wait here for long. They’re scouring the area for us.” Regan checked his firearms and made sure they were fully loaded. He continued to glance all around them as he spoke.
“Where is the Major? Did you find her?” Saf’s made a habit of using official ranks when speaking around strangers.
Regan didn’t answer him, but the look on his face made Saf certain that he heard the question.
Rose sniffed the air and lowered her body into the grass. Something was nearby. Saf scanned around him with his nanomachines, but found nothing. Rose broke off running away from the group and disappeared into the trees. Saf and Regan exchanged puzzled looks and adopted defensive stances.
A few moments later, a scuffle could be heard. Then, in a burst of violent energy, Neza flew forward into the clearing with his hands around Rose’s throat. They crashed to the ground and continued fighting until Saf pulled them apart.
“Who the hell is this?!” Neza screamed, pointing at Rose.
Saf hugged him. Neza’s arms stayed at his sides, and his eyes widened.
After a moment, Saf quickly backed away and grabbed Neza’s paw into a hearty handshake. Neza looked at him with exhausted confusion. Saf broke his own tension “This is Rose. She’s helping us.”
“I’m guessing she didn’t know I was part of ‘us’?” Neza spat the words out as he wiped some blood from his brow.
Rose interjected, “Sorry. I didn’t get you too badly there, did I?”
“No, this isn’t from you.” Neza had little patience for the conversation. “Regan, what now? Mission accomplished?”
Regan looked at the distraught and heavily injured Felni and words escaped him. “We.. Now we…”
Neza looked over at Montir, who caught his eye but immediately averted the gaze in fear. “Let’s start with fat-ass. Why did we grab him?”
Regan cleared his throat and spoke quietly, “There’s a change of plans. We have to kill him.”
Saf objected, “Why? What does that accomplish?”
“He’s not an asset anymore. We need to get rid of him and keep him from reporting our identities or whereabouts.”
“If I may,” Rose stepped into the conversation, “They already know who each of you are. They’ve been talking about it the whole time I was scouting.”
The air left Regan’s lungs. There went his chance to ever see his family again. This was all supposed to be a secret operation so that he could return after his conscience was clear and retire honorably. He realized now how terribly wrong it had all gone. He killed every single person that saw his face during the mission.
Regan » Neza: Neza, kill Saf.
“What!?” Neza shouted aloud to Regan. Saf, Rose, and Montir stared at him confusedly.
Regan » Neza: Kill Saf. Now. Then, kill the Canis.
Neza’s BiOS barriers began giving him alerts that he was getting hacked by Regan. His heart started beating faster and he felt his adrenaline rise. He recognized this feeling from before. Ever since he found Regan and the headaches stopped, this is how he felt right before he attacked that squad of Arc troops. The barriers that Saf put up weren’t in place the other times, but now it was plain to see what was really causing his body to act this way.
Fighting the urge to follow Regan’s order, Neza initiated a countermeasure, but the system Saf put in place was far more powerful than he had expected.
neza.mod4 » [HOSTILE CONTACT]: yoU’vE beEn Doing tHis the whOlE tIme!?
Saf and Rose stepped back as Neza and Regan locked eyes silently. Regan screamed out as the electrical systems in his brain shorted out and overloaded. The countermeasure seemed to be amplified by Neza’s adrenaline and rage. Blood trickled from Regan’s ear and he fell to his knees. Neza lunged at him and lifted him off the ground by his neck.
“You’ve been fucking around in my brain this entire time!?” he pulled Regan closer so that their eyes met closely at Neza’s height.
Saf cried out, “No! Don’t kill him!” but he didn’t move to stop it. Neza slowly tightened his grip.
“Go ahead. Kill him.” a woman’s voice whispered to him. Or maybe it wasn’t a whisper. Neza’s grip loosened for a moment. His emotions and tampered BiOS were confusing him. He closed his eyes and shook his head, then the message appeared clearly to him.
Colissa » neza.mod4: Kill him before he kills you.
Neza simultaneously blasted into Regan’s mind with a focused brute-force hack attack and squeezed his hand around the stunned Commander’s windpipe. The body felt helpless in Neza’s grasp as it weakly twitched and convulsed. After a few moments of muscle spasms and choking sounds, Neza dropped his deceased mentor’s body to the dirt.
Saf fell to the ground and shook it enough for some birds in a nearby tree to flee into the sky. His mouth agape and his eyes tearing up, he wordlessly whimpered like a child. He didn’t know why he froze. Helpless was a painfully fresh feeling for him.
Neza shouted to Saf, “Did you know about this?!”
Saf stared at Regan’s body silently.
Neza walked toward Saf menacingly, “Saf!”
The distraught Rhin stood. “Know about what?” Saf snarled with tears continuing to form in his eyes and run through the wrinkles in his face. He stepped forward to match Neza. “Why did you do that!?”
Neza calmed for a moment, and tried to gather himself. Saf would never have given him the new BiOS barriers if he knew about Regan. He had killed two people that he cared deeply about today, but this one felt much less painful. He wondered if he was going numb. His heart pounded when he saw Saf still coming toward him.
Saf walked through Neza, bumping him to the side, and kneeled over Regan’s body. The image of the enormous brute whimpering like a child was remarkable. He lifted Regan’s body, and walked with it into the woods. No one followed him.
The sun began setting, and the shadows of the trees surrounding the clearing stretched over Neza. After a long silence, Rose spoke.
Neza flinched at the words. He had forgotten she was there. He examined her for a moment, too exhausted to question her intentions. He wiped a few drops of his blood from his face, “Yea. Much better now, thanks.”
Rose nodded before laying down silently. There really wasn’t much to say, Neza supposed. After looking around for a moment, he realized Montir had disappeared.
That night Neza laid down and tried to imagine a gleeful tomorrow where he woke up and forgot today. His exhaustion took him into sleep before that image could come into view.
When Neza opened his eyes, he saw Saf sitting in front of him. His first thought was that he was about to die. Neza’s eyes glanced around Saf’s shoulder to look for Rose, but she was nowhere to be found. Saf remained still.
“What happened back there?” Saf asked in a surprisingly calm tone.
At first he thought Saf was asking about Regan, but seeing the look on the Rhin’s face led Neza to believe that Saf had pieced that together overnight. He didn’t appear to have slept at all. Finally, Neza answered “She tried to kill me… and I think I should have let her.”
Saf’s reaction was not what Neza had expected. He merely sighed and vacantly looked into the trees. “Is she dead?”
The words felt like a punch in the throat, but Neza managed to choke out a response through spontaneous sobs, “Y-yes.” Neza’s eyes closed and his head sunk.
Saf’s hand rested on Neza’s shoulder and caused his fur to bristle for a moment in reaction. Neza was still uncertain of Saf’s emotional state, but he was too lost in his own emotions to process it.
“He tried to make me kill you.” Neza spoke in a near-whisper.
Neza hesitated. “You know?”
Saf nodded. “Colissa told me while I was burying him. She said not to blame you.”
Neza’s body relaxed. “She spoke to me too. I didn’t know we could do that.”
“It’s usually a bad idea, since communicating that way into the Datastream is not always secure. Anyone nearby and watching the Datastream closely enough can listen in. It has its uses of course.”
“Where is she?” Neza looked up at Saf again, his tears mostly dried.
Saf took his hand from Neza’s shoulder and leaned back. “I don’t know, but I’m glad she’s alive.”
Neza weakly chuckled, “I thought you were going to kill me.”
“But you didn’t leave.”
“I deserve it.”
“What makes you think that?” Saf was sincerely concerned.
Neza took a deep breath. “I remember everything now.”
“Ah.” Saf made himself comfortable. “Let’s hear it.”
“When the humans arrived, my father led the effort to make peace from the Felni side.”
“The humans had come to trust him and vice versa. He said it would begin a new age of growth for our community. Our people helped the humans build their refinery. The humans helped us tame the woods and find new food sources.
“There were rumors about native children being kidnapped by humans, but father always refuted them. The relationship was still very unstable, so he did everything he could to keep the other Felni calm.
“One night, I was out playing with my sisters when we heard screams and gunfire. We stupidly ran toward the sound, which was near where the human ships landed. When we arrived, there were bodies of dead humans and Felni strewn across the entire runway.
“Turns out that one of my father’s friends had his daughter kidnapped by the humans. When my father asked about it, one of their officers slipped up and said something about how Felni children aren’t as important as humans because we’re born in litters.
“My father returned with around forty other Felni fathers from the town and they ambushed an entire security detail, killing all of them. They continued to kill their way to the human ship until the larger forces that guarded the shipyard gunned them down.”
“We didn’t see my father’s body at the time. We didn’t know he had a part in it until later, when the humans hung his body in front of the refinery as a warning.” Neza stared down at his feet as he spoke the last few sentences.
Saf was aghast. He knew nothing about what happened with the Felni before his family arrived there to work in the Refinery. His parents’ complaints about their working conditions were the first he ever heard of humans. “That wasn’t your fault. Why does that make you feel guilty?” he finally asked.
Neza looked up at him and continued his story, “The next day, while my family was mourning my father, we heard a knock at the door.”
“They spoke to my mother for a few minutes, but we weren’t allowed to listen. She yelled at them at one point, but they spoke a few words that seemed to immediately suppress her fervor. After a few more minutes, she called for me.
“They told me that I was going to be very brave and save my family. They told me that if I went with the humans, my mother and sisters would be safe. They told me I would be a hero.
“I remember going with them and being put into a cell with other young Felni. I remember seeing one of my friends that had gone missing a few weeks earlier in the lab. The first few days were bad, but nothing compared to when they started giving me drugs.
“All the shots they gave you were probably tested on me first.
“They took me out on daily military exercises. My body’s reactions to the stimuli in the field led them to lace my medication with different mixtures each day. I became an optimized weapon they could use in the jungle.
“Regan was the commanding officer in charge of my training. I remember looking forward to going out hunting with him each day. I remember him teaching me how to kill other Felni. How to use a frequency blade. How to hide in the trees. I figured out my speed on my own of course.”
Saf hadn’t moved. “Regan knew about all of that, then.”
Neza nodded. “He was there for most of it. He was my trainer. Regan knew everything that I couldn’t remember and used it to manipulate me.”
Saf began to wonder if Regan had manipulated him too. “I’m not sure how to take all of this. The Commander was always good to me.”
“Eventually, they pumped me full of so many compounds that I still don’t remember how I got out of there. All I know is that they wasted no time in grabbing Bayna to replace me.
“She thought I knowingly abandoned them. She wouldn’t tell me where my mother or other sister are. She was right to hate me.
“Whether I remembered it or not, I abandoned my family. Anything that happened to them because I escaped is my fault. There’s nothing I can do about that now.”
All Saf could muster was “Wow.”
Neza didn’t say another word for a while. He leaned back against the trunk behind him silently.
Saf thought for a long time. He examined each moment of his life since he met Regan carefully. He couldn’t remember the day they had met, but he knew that Regan took him on so that he wouldn’t have to go through the backbreaking labor in the refinery that slowly killed both of his parents. He was about to ask Neza the most personal question he had ever asked anyone, when he heard his friend’s familiar snoring.
“I guess it can wait.”