They ran full tilt. Bex’s lungs were burning, nearly to bursting. Sumida’s stamina secretly floored her. The girl darted ahead like a light-footed and flightless bird, neither faltering nor betraying any sign of tiring. Hadn’t she been raised a delicate flower?
The muck on the ground was ankle-deep. The passageway they were in must have been a waterway once. Either 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 stopped suddenly to peer at a section of the wall 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. 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 ordered once she could stand up straight again. “We really shouldn’t be stopping.” She shook her head when Sumida veered toward the corridor leading deeper into the heart of Hegira. “No!” Bex spat. “This way.”
Sumida seemed uneasy. She stopped but didn’t go as far as doing what Bex said.
“What did I say about doing as you’re told?”
“We shouldn’t go that way,” Sumida answered, anxiety palpable as she pointed to the way the mercenary led.
Bex scowled, “if we go any deeper into this maze, we’ll get so lost we’ll never find our way out. You, of all people, should know this.”
Sumida shook her head stubbornly. “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’re not just some half-assed clone of a Starchaser, are you?” Bex breathed. “You’re the real thing.”
A hair’s breadth ahead of the predatory sensors of their mechanized pursuers, the duo emerged from the stink into the blue village of the Forii. The thorny creatures, shy of the surface light, had been weaving their webbed dwellings into the grooves above Hegira’s remote waterways for centuries. Spindle-legged juveniles drooped down, with a chorus of shrill greetings for the newcomers. They were shooed back into hiding by fretful adults.
A bold watchman-type sidled up next to Sumida chittering anxiously in the Forii tongue. Bex watched the way his countless little legs glided along the ground, the way his horned back scrunched and surged as he moved in the way of a worm. He was talking too fast. Bex couldn’t make out a word of what he was saying. Sumida answered in kind, though, gesturing emphatically.
“What did he say?” Bex watched the creature hurry away.
“Something big is coming. It’s coming for us.”
“We already know that,” Bex huffed as they exited the Forii’s territory and entered a shaft with rungs that seemed to go up forever and ever.
“What did you tell him?”
Sumida’s arms were trembling as she grabbed hold of one rung after another and hauled herself up. To have come this far before showing signs of exhaustion was incredible enough, but Bex was beginning to suspect that Sumida was the sort who’d obstinately keep going until she crashed without warning. If that was the case, she’d need to be ready to catch the idiot.
Sumida glanced down sheepishly. “I told him that when the soldiers come, the Forii should remain in hiding and let them pass. I told them not to offer up any resistance.”
“What!?” Bex’s enraged shout reverberated through the tunnels.
“The Forii are really fierce fighters. Did it not cross your mind that they could actually be of help to us?”
“Hmm,” Sumida admitted. “That’s why I asked them not to.”
The young starchaser disappeared into the opening to the next horizontal level. Bex caught up and sat beside her charge, chest heaving. Sumida inclined her heard toward the direction from which they’d come.
“It should nearly be time for the Forii’s harvest season, but the moss fields are empty. There are still signs of damage from when Ocean Twelve broke containment, last rotation. Their crops must have been destroyed by the flood back then. They’re all starving,” she said earnestly. “They’re too proud to admit it but too many Forii would needlessly die if they had to fight in their present state.”
Bex sat there seething but was too drained to slap Sumida silly. This kind of attitude was exactly why she hated the upper crust. “Of all the high-handed and idiotic—you do understand the situation we’re in, right? Sure, let’s just give a fighting chance because the Forii are hungry.” She bit back a bitter curse. “What the hell do you think Winny gave up her life for?
Bex was suddenly and unbelievably angry. At Winny, for being gone so suddenly. At Sumida, for being here. For being the one Bex now had to risk her life to protect. For taking Laila’s place, while being the one who’d chased her away.
“Unbelievable,” Bex spat. “Laila’s a far better candidate for Hegira’s pilot than you.”
“She is that,” Sumida shocked Bex, answering quietly. “A far better candidate. Laila is so much cleverer than I am, stronger too, and brave. Even so, it’s mine.” She leaned forward slightly. “My birthright.” Her tear-filled eyes glittered fiercely. “Mine.”
Image Credits: Atelier Sommerland