Slumfairy – Part 1
Severed heads weren’t commonplace, even in one of the crime-ridden shantytowns that sprawled along the rims of Hegira’s surface canals. Winny frowned, her gut churning when Bex plunked the dripping bagged thing down on her counter. Just as Winny got to wondering whether her human foster-sister had finally gone far enough ’round the bend to forget that a headhunter’s job wasn’t supposed to be taken quite so literally, there was a choked oomph, which suggested that something was, impossibly, still alive in there.
Since Bex’s Lloran sibling was clearly the only living being who’d dare threaten and, in fact, could slap her silly, Winny didn’t hesitate to make her displeasure with the grisly gift known.
“Got a death wish, do you?”
Bex was hardly intimidated. She was blue, not a natural blue. Her skin had been dyed in a pattern of planet-side ocean waves decades ago when skin re-pigmentation was all the rage among Llorans who fostered human children. She was rough and wiry, armed to the teeth. The red fur collar and tail of her jacket didn’t do much to soften that sharp countenance.
Her voice was gravely, a souvenir from when a Merchant guild metal-head had tried to crush her windpipe when she was twelve.
“There’s a bleeding head leaking into my breakfast.” Winny’s charcoal palm came slamming down, the embedded blue-gold intricate pattern adorning her skin glinted. “Yes, there’s a fraggin’ problem! Plus, you boarded the Koros tower to catch a bounty?”
“In the middle of a hostile takeover.”
“Attempted hostile take-over,” Bex qualified “I had to shoot a few Guild metal-heads too, so it’s not like I was taking sides.”
Winny palmed her face in dismay as Bex recounted her shenanigans. “You were party to a trans-provincial incident?”
“I was not!” The hunter spluttered. “Not really.”
A beady-eyed monstrosity wriggled partially out of the opening in the sack Bex had dropped onto the table. Its visage was dark-green like the moss from the Molokai woods and mottled with yellow and orange spots.
“Oh yeah-yeah she was!” It chortled maliciously. “I know,” it added gleefully. I was there.”
“Shut your trap, Mizer!” Bex growled.
“Look what you did to me,” it whined yet gain. “Didja really have to do this? It’ll take me ages to regenerate!”
“Why’d you run then?” The hunter asked. “I told you not to.”
Winny sighed. “Do you really have to go all out on the small fry too?”
“What are you grumbling about?” Agitated, Bex yanked her side arms out of their holsters and handed them over to her foster-sister, who swapped them out for a fresh pair. “We have to eat one way or another don’t we?”
“Maybe so but-“
A horrified shriek came from across the room. “Wh-wha-what is this horrible thing?”
Bex turned to glare at Sumida, the other bone of contention between her and Winny. Hegira’s two most violent factions were on the verge of starting a war, due to her disappearance from the Merchant Guild’s sanctuary. Bex didn’t even want to begin to imagine what would happen if they learned that their missing ward was just slumming it with the locals.
As if tolerating the mere presence of her ilk were not enough, Bex had been cajoled into ignoring the massive price on her head and instead, providing protection and shelter. In short, Bex was harboring a fugitive, a fugitive who had both Koros and the Merchant Guild frothing at the bit to take possession. Playing breadwinner and maidservant to a runaway brat wasn’t exactly a headhunter’s secret for success, was it now?
The fact that Sumida regarded her with a wide-eyed kind of anxiety and skirted carefully around her only served to irritate her more. What was there to be so bashful about anyway? It wasn’t as if Bex was completely uncivilized.
The girl was carrying a watering pot nearly half her size. Bex wondered why someone who couldn’t possibly be accustomed to physical labor seemed to be doing something like that so effortlessly.
Mizer shot Sumida a hideous facsimile of a one-eyed wink. A forked tongue flicked out of what was supposedly his mouth. “Mmmm’hey. You look kinda tasty.”
“Shut up!” Sumida spat. “You disgust me.” Water sloshed over the top of the pot as she scuttled away.
Sumida possessed an unusual kind of beauty. You could hardly call her human. She was pale, and wraith-like. Bex figured she’d even glow in the dark. Sumida’s kind, the starchasers, had once been human but no more. After sailing across oceans of stars for thousands of years, they’d done so much and changed in so many ways that they’d become too different to be considered human. They were old, a very old and nearly dead species.
“Put that down, Sumida.” Winny called over. “Come and eat.”
Sumida had a dazzling smile for Winny, which made something inside Bex boil.
“It’s alright, I’ll finish watering the plants and the chokobi’s water has to be changed before mid-morning, else…” Her nose scrunched thoughtfully. “Its growth will be stunted, right?”
“You remembered.” Winny nodded approvingly. “Good child.”
Bex’s gut twisted. Why was Winny indulging Sumida so much? Wasn’t the little twit responsible for the exile of Laila, Winny’s own adoptee?
Bex simply couldn’t abide it.
“Is this really all it takes for you?” She grumbled at Winny. “As long as she has the right kind of blood running through her veins and looks like a Starchaser. That’s enough, is it?”
“You think I’m betraying Laila by helping Sumida?” Winny fixed Bex with a confounded look. “Laila’s the one who–“
“Starchaser, you say?” Mizer’s words made all three women’s heads turn.
“Hell to pay when the Guild gets wind of this.” He eyed Bex with malevolence. “I told you that you’d regret being so nasty to me.”
What was left of him rolled until he tumbled right off the counter and onto the floor with a sickening splat! The quivering eye started to glitter in a most unnerving way. The beastly head started emitting a high-pitched wail.
“Oh no,” Bex breathed, realizing the mess they were in. “Oh, hell.”
“Ohohoh!” Mizer sang. “Too late.”
“You stinking little turd!” Bex yanked out one of her side arms and shot the cackling head. “You absolute, fraggin’ lowlife!”
“Ow!” He hooted, too elated by the prospect of Bex getting what was coming to her to give a rat’s ass about his own pain anymore. “You should really do something about that itchy trigger finger there.” He taunted.
Bex emptied both of her guns into him. It wasn’t enough. She caught the fuel cells that Winny threw at her and reloaded in a blink. She shot a few more times, gooey bits and pieces scattering everywhere. She paused. Had she heard something?
“Bex!” Winny growled, when the hunter aimed at Mizer again. “Stop wasting time. Grab Sumida and run!”
Sumida was plastered against the wall, valiantly battling the urge to hurl the contents of her stomach.
“Run?” Her head reared up. “Right now?”
There was a rumble like thunder. It grew louder and louder. Winny hurriedly strapped on a couple of holsters, her ready-made versions of a weapon heavy survival kit. Her frantic hands froze at the sound of a heavy mechanical roar.
“Is that a juggernaut?!”
“Who cares?” Bex snarled. “Just get ready!”
Something came crashing through the wall directly behind Winny. A ragged spike poked out of her gut, staking her to the cruel machinery. Sumida started screaming. : Showered with blood and guts, Bex could only stand there, rooted to the spot. The chunks of flesh and blood still warm on her skin. Going cold, too quickly.
That was the curious thing about Llorans. They looked like humans. They bled like humans. They died like humans.
“Well, not quite…” Winny croaked, reading Bex’s mind. “…still conscious, aren’t I?”
“Why… just standing there?” Winny coughed up more crimson. “Help me dow-” She managed, struggling to breathe.
The walls shook, clogging the air with dust and debris. Bex leaped forward, grabbed Winny’s shoulders and pulled her from the spike. Her Lloran sister’s screech was deafening. They toppled over, Bex slammed to the ground. She rolled upright to straddle her wounded sibling.
“That hurts!” Winny railed. “Fraggin’ stars, that hurt.”
“Sumida!” That harsh sob from Bex silenced the screaming girl. “I can’t think with you shrieking like that!”
There was too much-too much blood streaming out, everywhere. Winny’s eyes slowly shut. There was a gurgling moan.
“Winny!” Bex shook her, hard. Vision blurring. “Open your eyes. Please!”
Her eyes stung and, for the first time in her whole life, Bex Atria didn’t know what to do. She was already lost. Already lost without her compass: without Winny, without her sister.
“Stupid child!” Winny spat hoarsely. Her eyes were already hard and clouded, she was blind. “Why come undone when you must not?”
Bex wiped uselessly at her runny nose with her bloody hand. “You’re right,” she swallowed jerkily. “Right. We need…we need to–“
She fumbled in her pouch for anesthetic. She pressed the tip of the injection device against Winny’s carotid and administered two full doses of anesthetic. It started working immediately, dulling the Lloran’s pain.
The flesh-covered battering ram clattered to the ground as the outer barrier to the dwelling activated, hopefully destroying the Mecha outside. That bought them time but not much of it. It wouldn’t be long until the gun’s companions forced their way in.
“Thank the stars you made me shell out the cash for that shield.” Bex whispered.
“Wake Tirr. I need him.” Winny grimaced. “Sumida,” her voice was barely audible. “On the console behind you, turn the knob.”
A nervous nod and the girl scrambled to obey. A column shot up out of the ground. Coming up to waist height, there was a liquid containment field. There was a creature inside that had an elongated body, two triangular protrusions at its sides: Wings perhaps, or maybe fins? Its eyes were black and shiny. It quivered madly, like something scared. On its back was the same metal-accented pattern that was tattooed all over its keeper’s skin.
“Teruun,” Sumida’s sniveling stopped. “Why is there a Teruun here?”
Winny motioned Sumida over, and grabbed the pale little chickie by the scruff of her neck when she knelt dragging her down close to her mouth.
“Don’t waste this,” she ordered. “Do you hear me?”
Sumida’s eyes widened as the import of Winny’s words drove home. Stricken, she made a weird noise in her throat, eyes already wet and red. A flood of tears soaked her cheeks. Bex lifted Winny and carried her over to the console before putting her down. She stepped aside at a nod from Winny, who clung to the cylinder as she spoke to the one inside.
“Tirr, so sorry I made you wait all this time.”
The Teruun emitted a wordless tone. The cylinder brightened. Its supple body became suffused with light. Both Bex and Sumida simply stared, slack-jawed.
“What are you waiting for?” Winny snapped, eyes unfocused. She couldn’t see them but she knew they were still there. “Leave or you’ll both die long before those guns get here.”
Particles of light spilled out from the cylinder, filling the whole room. It bit into their skin. If they stayed it would slowly shear their cells apart. The sound that came from the Teruun was like music: beautiful but terrible at the same time. Spurred into action, Bex opened the trap door in the floor behind the chokobi tanks, ushering Sumida downward.
“Run blind,” she ordered. “Do everything exactly as I say.”
A shaky nod, Sumida jumped down and bolted ahead. The walls of the domicile were already bursting apart. Bex jumped down after Sumida. The trap door slammed shut above her. She plunged into the darkness of the dank corridor. There was a boom behind them, tremors endlessly reverberating. Bex heard a mechanical wail. It sounded too much like a human in agony for comfort.
Could a Teruun’s final scream really rip a mechanized juggernaut to shreds?
They ran at full tilt. Bex’s lungs were burning, nearly to bursting. A part of her was floored by Sumida’s stamina. She darted ahead like a light-footed and flightless bird, neither faltering nor betraying any sign of tiring. Hadn’t she been raised as a delicate flower?
The muck on the ground was ankle-deep. The passageway they were in must have been a waterway once, that or another terminal that had deteriorated and fallen to rot. The sludge sloshed up, splattering Sumida’s shins. Strangely, she didn’t seem bothered by it at all. It really didn’t mesh with Bex’s image of a pampered princess of the Merchant Guild.
Sumida inspected the walls where gray and brown slime oozed from cracks in the metal. Secretly thankful, Bex bent over gasping to catch her breath. She looked on in horror as Sumida daubed her fingers into the stinky mess. She watched the girl rubbed it between the soft pads of her fingers, before she lapped at it with the tip of her tongue. Sumida muttered darkly to herself but Bex couldn’t understand what she was saying.
“Keep going,” Bex straightened at length. “We really shouldn’t be stopping.” She shook her head when Sumida veered left. “No! This way.”
Sumida became uneasy. She stopped but didn’t go as far as doing what Bex said.
“What did I say about doing as you’re told?”
“Not that way,” Sumida insisted, anxiety palpable. “They’re already waiting.”
Bex had already considered that likelihood and had resigned herself to the not very promising prospect of fighting their way out. “I realize that but if we go any deeper, we’ll get so lost we might never find our way out.”
Sumida shook her head. “Every crack and crevice in this vessel–I know them, like I know the palm of my own hand.” Her eyes took on a green glow in the near dark. “It’s impossible for me to become lost within Hegira.”
Bex stared down at Sumida. There was a pang of disconcerting realization, which struck home. Something about the way Sumida carried herself was starting to make her hair stand on end. Why was it that even in the slumping bones of Hegira, Sumida was completely at home?
“You don’t just look like a Starchaser, do you?” She breathed. “You’re the real thing.”
Indifferent to the turmoil raging within, the legendary ship, Hegira, tumbled through the void, a great ghost dreamed up by ancients obsessed with chasing the stars. What remained of their culture was a wonder. She was old and she was dark. She collected intelligent beings like rare jewels and made her bones a haven for endangered creatures and conquerors alike. Yes. Hegira was a wonder, but you couldn’t exactly call her paradise.