I rose to my feet, keeping the gun trained on the floor and my eyes locked on Vine’s. Without the water to get in the way, my scanners went down the list of information they got off the pair’s bodies. Both were malnourished, and Vine’s system showed all kinds of issues from living in unhealthy conditions for some time, minor infections, and a compromised immune system resultant from a raw seafood diet. I tried very hard not to think about detailed information of the sexual assaults both had endured, as if the visible bruises weren’t evidence enough
With this new revelation, Shannon’s actions now had a context. I still didn’t know what I thought of Doctor Patil’s multiple-personality theory, but I now understood the slaughter below. If this happened to one of my squad-mates, I’d have left a trail of bodies behind me as well.
I took a breath of air, the first in half an hour or so, and regretted it immediately. The air here was rancid, worse than the sewer for the addition of blood and other forms of decay. “I’m here to get you to safety.”
<I’ve found the source of the replicants. They have a Thassan female who they’re using as a… incubator. The process appears to be some method of accelerated pregnancy.> A sanitized version of my conclusions, for Phoebe’s sake if nothing else. “Vine, right? Your powers create something to let us get you to the surface?”
Vine looked down at the girl. “I… my powers won’t work while she’s still…” Vine trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence. Vine didn’t blame the child, supporting my assumption that both were victims of same kidnappers.
“That makes this complicated, but we were prepared for that.” What we weren’t prepared for is evacuating a second captive. <According to Vine, a replicated Imbued loses power while a replicant exists. Even a nascent one.>
<That seems logical,> Phoebe said. <It prevents the duplicated Imbued from escaping, and explains why they needed to kidnap someone rather than just making clones of their own Imbued. I hope there are more limitations than just those, for such an incredible ability.>
What she means is, the girl has suffered enough. If her power is as unlimited as it sounds, then even this trauma may not be enough to compensate.
Vine’s eyes widened, a response to the Thassan who brought his head out of the water behind me. I glanced back, just to confirm it was ‘ol one-leg as my sensors believed, rather than some lucky survivor of Lynx’s wrath. “Don’t worry, he’s a friendly. Well, he’s not our enemy at any rate.” Even as I offered that comfort to Vine, I slid my finger back to position near my gun’s trigger, on the off chance I was mistaken.
He climbed on shore, leaving his spear on the ground as he stood as straight as he could given his injuries. His clicked his teeth together while gesturing with his hands to the girl. Makes sense, clicking noises carry further in water than most sounds. His arms crossed his chest, so that his fingertips were roughly even with the opposite shoulder, then he bowed forward.
The Thassan girl pulled herself out of Vine’s arms to rush toward the warrior, weeping as she wrapped her arms around him. He grimaced in understandable pain, but made no effort to chastise the girl, instead placing a hand on the back of her head. The girl said something between sobs that I doubt were coherent words even to someone who understood their language, but anguish and relief sounded the same in any language.
His eyes met mine, and he brought up his left hand so that his palm faced upward. With his right hand, he pointed at Vine, then made a gesture toward me with his upward facing palm, as if I was meant to take something from his hand. A moment later, he made a similar gesture toward himself while pointing at the Thassan girl.
Trade language, huh? I assumed that, were we able to communicate with one another properly, it would have looked like we just succeeded at our missions rather than divided the spoils of war.
<Situation’s changed. It appears the dolphin riding Thassans were here to rescue the girl who creates the replicants. She seems to know the survivor of their group, and is eager to go with him. Given the alternative is kidnapping a traumatized child and getting even more entangled in an international conflict, I suggest we allow her to go with her own people.>
It may have been unprofessional, but I nodded my agreement to the warrior’s request before command responded.
<Thassan tribes tend to treat their Imbued as royalty, or even gods,> Abernathy said. <If the girl was a captive, then it stands to reason it was an act of war between two tribes. It’s not our place to get involved as long as they keep their conflict away from the surface. Although I would prefer if she got treatment from our technology rather than theirs.>
I looked at the girl again. It’s not her physical health that’s the biggest concern. <Orders understood. Don’t think there’s further risk of us getting dragged into their hostilities.> That requires survivors. <Can you guys teleport down something to give a grown woman some modesty? A bathrobe, perhaps?>
I took a couple steps that put me closer to Vine, careful to keep my movements slow and as nonthreatening as possible. Vine seemed to be holding up for now, but I knew from experience that breakdowns after trauma were anything but predictable. “I can get you out of here, when you’re ready.”
She covered her breasts with an arm and gave me a look, perhaps wondering how I could help anyone in my condition. “Thank you. Give me a moment.” She stepped toward the Thassans. “T’K’T.”
The girl turned her head from the warrior to look back at Vine, then let him go to go back to her. Like the other Thassans I’d met, there was no attempt at modesty from the girl, she just walked closer to Vine and gave her a hug. The girl then started speaking to Vine in her language.
Not taking his eye off the girl, the warrior reached a hand up behind his head, unbraiding a bit of his hair, then removed a bone roughly the length of my hand which he offered to me. The computer analysis identified it as ivory from a blue whale; the art on it was exquisite, depicting the dolphins and their riders on the hunt.
I was no expert on art, or Thassan culture, but I understood the significance of the offering. He lost his team, his steed, and a limb, yet still has the strength of character to offer a gift of gratitude. I reached for the compartment of my armor, withdrawing a blue steel hunting knife as I accessed my computer to confirm I had a recording of the early part of the battle with Skeletor.
I glanced at the girl, her face still buried in Vine’s chest. Don’t want her to see this if I can help it. I activated the holographic system, showing the first time Skeletor blasted me with his power, and the subsequent injury he received. The warrior tensed for a moment, but relaxed when he realized it was just an illusion. I bet he’s dealt with illusionists and Gadgeteers before, and I know he saw me survive Skeletor’s attacks. Now I was showing him how.
With a slow motion, I passed the blade through the hologram as I deactivated it. To drive the point further home, I tapped the weapon against the chestplate of my armor, which was of the same smokey-blue coloration. I flipped the blade around, holding the hilt out for him to take. With the weapon in his hand, I turned the hologram back on, then drew a line through it with my finger.
He got the message to drag the knife through the image just as I had, and again I dismissed the recording. The look in his eyes was priceless, as he realized the significance of a weapon which cut through powers. Granted, without upkeep, the metal would only retain that ability for a few years or so before it faded to an ordinary gray steel. I resolved to make a return visit long before that with the equipment necessary to communicate with these people.
<The supplies have been delivered,> Abernathy told me.
“Thank you,” Vine said to the girl. I wasn’t certain what their conversation had been about, but it seems they finished only moments after the rest of us had.
The girl went back to her defender, who took her hand and jumped into the water. I had to trust him to take proper care of his own, while I did the same with mine. I knelt to pick up the duffel bag, which was heavier than before. To my surprise, there was an actual bathrobe in the bag, along with what amounted to a metallic sleeping bag, and a few other bits of equipment.
“This is for you,” I said as I pulled out the robe. Gently, and with care not to look at her just in case it upset her somehow, I held it out toward her.
“How did you? It’s dry!” She put the robe on despite her incredulity. “I know there was water in that bag a moment ago.”
Perceptive, especially given the circumstances. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Sorry.” I hit her with the stun weapon hidden in my left hand, then bolted forward to catch her as she fell. More alarms went off telling me my body was FUBAR, as if I wasn’t aware. <Objective secured. I’ll have her to you in under a minute.>
True to my word, I managed to roll out the bag, set her on it, fold it over her, secure the straps, and consult the scanner to confirm it was teleport-safe in roughly thirty nine seconds. <She’s ready.>
Twelve seconds later, Abernathy spoke. <We have her. How are you holding up?>
<Well enough, all considered.> I pulled a couple more devices from the bag. One of which started interfacing with my computers, giving me an idea of what I looked like from the perspective of undamaged equipment. I wasn’t certain what 19% functionality meant, but I understood the flashing red warning light well enough.
<Warren?> Phoebe sounded horrified. <According to this, you’re more dead than alive right now. Why aren’t you using the pain chip?>
<It’s not as bad as it looks,> I said, knowing full well it was a lie nobody believed. Meanwhile, I folded the sleeping bag back up and stuffed it into the duffel bag so it could be sent back where it belonged, along with the stun gun. We need more nonlethal takedown mechanisms. <Please put knockout gas that works underwater on my Christmas list, if at all possible. Skeletor would have been much easier to deal with if he was unconscious. And Phoebe? Don’t apologize, you couldn’t have known the circumstances.> I considered asking her to take care of Vine, but I wasn’t sure I wanted her to witness what the woman had suffered during captivity.
<I’ll see what I can do,> Doctor Patil said. <We’re ready to evacuate you at any moment. You can use the same method as Vine.>
<I think I’ll be here a while longer.> I activated the environmental mode, simply to spare myself the stench as I waited there for Lynx to arrive. It took her several minutes.
“What did you do with Vine?” My motion scanner hadn’t registered her position before she spoke.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you the details, but she’s recieving medical attention.” I turned, for the first time getting a chance to truly watch the shadow bleed through the wall. Slower than usual, I wonder why. “She’s been through an ordeal.”
Shannon’s head manifested out of her shadows. “At this point, you could claim to be the second coming of Jesus and I’d at least hear your case before deciding if I believed you.”
“If I am, then it’s news to me,” I said. “The Thassan child is going back home with one of her tribe. You killed the skeleton guy, I take it?”
“Nope.” One of Shannon’s hands extended from the shadow, holding a jawless skull. “I don’t know how to kill him. Even pulling him into the Nowhere doesn’t work, but he’s out of strength. I only know he’s still alive because the Lynx can smell it.”
Huh. “Mind giving him to me?” I extended my hand for the skull. As expected, the light in his eyes flickered as my battery began to charge. He is still alive in there. Which means either he only had a normal Surge, or there is more to a Class Five Event than we know. Either way, it was clear he wouldn’t survive contact with me for much longer. I tossed him in the corner. “Let’s go.”
Shannon glanced back at the skull, eyes still glowing. “I’ll make you a shortcut out.” Chunks of rock broke from the cave ceiling, landing atop the skull. He survived Lynx trying to murder him, he won’t die from that. More cave collapsed, and with it, a hole was formed to the ocean above. As small as the cave was, the torrent of water never had a chance to pick up threatening amounts of force, and after only a couple minutes I was making my way to the surface.
I looked back down at the small hole in the ocean floor which was already filling with mud and sand. It would only be a matter of days before his grave was covered by the forces of nature and its position lost to all but Artemis’ computers.
If that’s the cost of power, then I don’t want it.