Chapter Two: Medan, Microsha
Joseph was screaming as his mother put him on the patient-bed, his nine-year-old lungs on the verge of bursting. Vega couldn't move, stuck there as if it wasn't yet time for her to do anything but stare. Her little brother's intestines were spilling out of the diagonal cut on his stomach, and his right arm was marred by several scratches.
'I remember this,' Vega thought, though she heard herself say it aloud.
"Vega!" her mother screamed. It was only then Vega realized there had been orders barked at her. The woman grabbed handfuls of innards, thick blood slipping through her fingers, and tried to get all of Joseph on the bed. "Get the surgery kit! Now!"
Vega's feet were stuck to the floor. She wanted to run, but couldn't remember how.
Shaking in panic, the young girl fell over and slid into some of the pools of red. She screamed, and struggled to pull herself up to run. The surgery kit wasn't far.
'Get the kit. Omda needs the kit. Get the kit.'
"Vega! Wake up!" Someone was shaking her. "You're dreaming, wake up!"
Vega didn't jump awake from the nightmare as she had expected. Though her heart still pounded, it was not the first time she had relived that particular memory. The scene often came to her when she worried. Lately, it was nearly every night.
She searched in the darkness for the person who woke her and stared into a pair of double-ringed irises that marked all Microshans. Relieved, Vega found that it was their neighbor, Tani, bathed in shadows and faint, baby-blue light. The black-haired woman smiled down at Vega and helped her to sit. "Are you all right?"
"I think so," Vega replied. "Thank you."
Tani sat down beside her and took her hand. "Was it Joseph again?"
Vega squeezed Tani's hand. "I'm fine, I promise." Though it didn't seem to convince Tani, Vega continued, "You're here rather early."
"Khan sent me to get you at breakfast, but I heard you screaming from downstairs."
Vega turned to her small bed table. The time on the red, electric clock read eight-seventeen. "He's already up?"
"The mercenaries just got here, and he needs help getting them sorted." Tani gave Vega a sad smile. "He says to hurry."
"I don't see why," Vega replied, then sighed. "I'll get dressed and be there as I can."
"Still, I'd get there soon. Khan says one of them arrived from the Deep Dark." She waved her hand as she spoke, "I think it's a lie, but the man claims he went further than any of the gwata'an can scavenge."
"Let's hope he's not lying. I'd hate Hanei to be the butt of a joke."
Tani shook her head, her blue-brown eyes downward. "Vega, I know you've already made up your mind, but is there anything I could do to convince you to stay?"
Vega didn't have Look at Tani's Colour to know what she was feeling. Lately, everyone who spoke to Vega wore an aura of the darkest blue, the Colour of deep sadness. With a smile, Vega took Tani's hand and pushed a warm, comforting energy in her, hoping to change her friend's mood. Then, she whispered, "The reasons to go outweigh the reasons to stay."
"But what about Alud? Your mother?" Tani shook her head, her blue-brown eyes sad. "I saw her just now. She's. . . e'hasi, you know?"
Vega wrinkled her brows. Distraught was not a word she'd ever use to describe her mother. J'han was a strong Fuhal, and, while she tended well to the emotions of her town, the woman rarely showed any herself. Throughout the month of expedition preparations, J'han had showed no signs of having "the torments". Gently, Vega continued, "We are all equipped to handle loss, and they will press on if we do not return. If we do come back, our knowledge could save thousands of lives."
Tani pulled back her hand. "If."
Vega blinked and allowed her eyes to adjust to see Colours, checking Tani's true emotions. Tani's body bloomed darkly at her core, and as it radiated out the Colour faded to red: sadness beneath the anger. Some of the villagers had come by the house with the same Colours, begging Khan to stop his venture and scolding Vega for encouraging him. Tani was one of the few who had refrained from talking about it, though it didn't surprise Vega that she wasn't supportive. No one was, and she couldn't blame them. This "adventure" was the most dangerous, stupid idea Khan ever had.
"Thank you for coming to tell me," Vega said. "I'll hurry and see Khan soon."
Tani leaned in to kiss Vega's cheek, then left. The faint glow of five, fist-sized spheres in the corner – plastic aquariums filled with bioluminescent algae – flickered brighter, reacting to the movement. They cast a blue hue across the small attic room just as they had since Vega's childhood, nearly three hundred years past. With Tani gone, the comforting room suddenly felt empty.
She laid back in bed, curled beneath her thick blanket, and stared at the glowing orbs. Soon, there would be no chance to enjoy the little luxuries like warm blankets and algae aquariums. Even light itself would be a luxury out in the Deep Dark. Khan's great scientific expedition would leave the following morning to find creatures and beasts that lived in that endless abyss beyond their town. As far as Vega and the rest of Microsha was concerned, everyone involved in the journey would be dead the moment they stepped foot outside of the Light and Colour.
Something crunched beneath Vega's bent knee. She pulled up the thick manila folder from beneath her bedding and opened it up again. The edges were soft and bent, and the proposal papers inside had been crumpled and smoothed out several times. Taped to the inside of the folder were a few photographs: the only items that remained in tact. Vega sighed as she stared at the pictures. She was sure that the College needed Khan's carefully written proposal and explanation, but to her it was useless. The research pitch was nothing to her beside the graphic proof: human survivors existed in the Deep, however changed.
She ran her milky fingers over the face of Exhibit 3, Emma Nask'an: her aunt who had been missing for a several decades. Yet, this was not the Aunt Emma that Vega remembered. While her face was clearly recognizable, the rest of Emma's body was obscured by dozens of thin, dry roots. Many were growing out of her head, reaching up and behind her. Others – the ones that sprouted at her collar bone and shoulder blades – grew down around her like a cocoon. The roots were thorny, but did not seem to have caused any damage to her. Even at the base where they grew, there was no trace of blood on the skin. It was as if they had been part of her, meant to be her new, awful, unique design.
Emma looked like the hellish creatures that plagued Microsha, killing everything in their path.
It struck Vega as odd that Emma did not appear to be in pain. Her expression was just blank, green-brown eyes open and dull, with a small tug upward on one side of her face. Perhaps she had suffered a stroke before she died? Did it have something to do with her unexplainable, radical transformation? Something had done that to her. The picture had convinced Vega that – at the very least – what they knew about the Deep Dark was next to nothing. Still, unlike what Khan believed, that missing knowledge wasn't worth dying for.
A strained cry interrupted, "Vega!"
She shot out of bed, distressed by the tone. Her mother only used that cry when someone had come and needed immediate surgery. Not bothering to change clothes, Vega ran down the worn wood ramp to the ground floor, tying her dark hair back and rolling up her long sleeves in preparation. Maybe she could help save one more life before she left.
When Vega arrived, the only person standing at the back door was her mother, arms crossed and eyes bloodshot. Her whole appearance made Vega jump. The woman's hair was frayed, still in a braid from the evening before, her clothes were rumpled, and her eyes were dark and sunken. For the first time in a month, Vega could see how much this was all effecting her.
"Omda," Vega cooed as she crossed the room. "How are you feeling?"
Her mother flinched at any attempt to touch. Vega recalled her hands and lowered her eyes, waiting patiently for J'han to begin in her own time. After a moment, the Fuhal sighed, "I want to go pray. Come with me."
Following closely behind, Vega followed her mother out the back door and across the large herb garden to the Black Oak. At the moment the translucent leaves were a deep navy blue, so dark that it could be mistaken for black, and the cracks in the bark were a radiant white. As a Fuhal, Vega would have said that it was a sign. The blue leaves were the color of her mother's sadness, but that sadness would pass because leaves fall and fade quickly. The core light remained hopeful, as white light contains endless possibilities. Vega never found comfort in scrying. A tree could not know sorrow, or happiness, or tell the future. It was not a conduit to the spirits or the gods. It was just a tree.
Yet, she and her mother kneeled before the massive Black Oak. The soft moss-like grass that carpeted the yard had a few missing patches where people often came to pray. Feet and knees tucked neatly beneath them, the two women gazed up at the tree.
"The Black Tree, which grew in spite of the light, watch over us as we pray," J'han said, her voice dry. J'han brought her hands up, together, above her head before spreading them. They circled around once as she leaned forward to bow low to the ground, her hands finally resting on the small root above her head. Vega copied the motion, holding on to a different root. J'han swallowed. "I don't want my idiot son to leave. I don't want my loyal, brave daughter to die. The Deep has already taken so many of my children. I cannot bear to lose any more."
Vega's heart was pounding. Of all the things she had expected to come out of J'han's mouth, direct begging was one of the least likely. The Fuhal often weaved scripture and half-truths to the Oak. Puzzles and riddles were their way of making people think, but J'han also believed that it helped the spirit to be reminded of The Verses of Light. Still, Vega kept silent.
J'han sobbed and let her head fall to the dirt. "She's not ready," she whispered.
That hurt, but it was true. Vega, after being an Apprentice for nearly all her two hundred and fifty-two years of life, had yet to become a Fuhal. She had failed the exam because of the most important part: the Sight. It was a myth to most people, but the Fuhal community took it seriously. Vega wasn't sure if she believed it was true, or if it was another "greater lesson" she had yet to master.
A long, bellowing howl sounded in the distance, causing both of them to freeze and look up into the Deep Dark beyond the yard. It was hard with the Oak as bright as it was, but Vega could make out the outlines of seven bodies in the distance. They were devu: smoky blue and grey wolves that towered at least eight feet at the shoulder, with rows of tail-like appendages that wrapped around their bellies. Those tails, once unfurled, would ensnare anything that got in their way. Devu bites were poisonous, and their claws were heavily serrated. Normally, they would never get close to the light. Their faceted eyes were too sensitive. Driven by hunger, they might attack blindly anyway.
The other devu in the group responded with a similar call, each beast's voice a slightly different tone. The sounds layered upon one another until a single, harmonious chord rang through the cavern. Vega was relieved. They were not close because of hunger. The devu were mourning a death, and they were known to bring their dead as close to the light as they dared. There would be a carcass, large enough to feed Medan for months. It was worth it for the gwata'an of the village to risk venturing a little into the Deep – scavenge the meat to feed their people – but it was never without consequence. Vega knew J'han wouldn't be able to handle the funerals, not in the state of mind she was in. Worse, if someone was injured and needed steady hands–
Vega put her head down and shut her eyes tightly. She could do nothing for Medan, not anymore. Under her breath, she recited, "We huddle in darkness to seek the light."
Microsha, not under the direct sway of the sun, did not have seasons or days in the way the surface had them. Days began around nine o'clock with the clacking of beetle wings and the Culling. The glow worms at the cave's ceiling cut their sticky, used lines in the morning before spinning out new ones to catch whatever beasts flew that high. One of Vega's many household duties was to collect the dead things and bury them, enriching the lifeless soil in their yard. That morning, as she left the house to find Khan, she counted nearly a dozen, hollowed-out bodies the size of cats in the front of the house alone. They would need tending once she came back. Vega wondered if she could ask Tani to take care of that from now on. Keeping the house on top of Fuhal work was a tremendous effort, and with J'han distressed Vega wasn't sure if her mother could manage even that. It was imperative that someone help out for the daily things until another Apprentice could be found.
The bulbous street lamps shone brighter as she passed by, as did the rows of yellow and blue lilies planted to separate the cobblestone sidewalk from the dirt roadway. Vega's footfalls were the only ones to be heard, which was unusual considering the time. Most people were outside clearing the culling bodies at least, and the streets were filled with people running errands and heading to work. Vega slowed to look into people's houses, through windows with decorative iron bars and thin, dark curtains. Everyone was still indoors. She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders tightly and crossed her arms. The vulnerable solitude was uncomfortable even with all the lights in the village protecting her.
As she approached the lot full of trailers, Vega finally heard voices chattering over the hum of daytime insects. Most were male voices, mercenary work always having been more attractive to men more than women, but there was one distinct female voice shouting over the crowd. Vega assumed that was the leader of the troupe, the Roy'gal. Vega hadn't expected the Roy'gal, whom she was told was named Emersan, to be a woman. Curious, Vega walked up and stood at the edge of the large gathering to see who was leading. The woman was lean, more skin than muscle, but had a sharp, angular look that made her stand out among the crowd. With her light brown hair, olive-toned skin, and single-colored eyes, she seemed to be from the surface.
"Calm down, ass-hats!" the woman yelled. "Registration for security is always a pain and you know it. Things will speed up once the little Fuhal gets here." That earned a roaring laugh from the crowd. "And I'll break the ribs of anyone who complains about the job. It's your own damn fault we're here."
'Interesting. They don't want to be here either,' Vega thought. Before she was noticed, she slipped past them and searched for her brother. She had never seen so many mercenaries in a troupe before, and, considering their type often disliked religious and social counsel, Vega thought best if she avoided them while alone.
Khan was around his trailer, parked in the center of the lot, where he already set up tables, chairs, packets of papers, gemboards, and pens. He was speaking to a gruff, graying man who towered over Khan by nearly a foot. The older man looked to be a mercenary by the scars down his chin, the missing right ear, and the massive sword at his hip. Vega was happy to have someone like him on the voyage ahead, but wondered just how much even he would be able to do against giants like devu.
Khan's face lit up when he spotted her. "Minai!"
"Good morning," she said, remembering to smile. Even after a month of him being back, Vega was still shocked at just how dark Khan's skin was. His century up on the surface had allowed him to tan so much that he no longer looked Microshan. He was that beautiful, desirable brown tone that everyone in Microsha longed to have. Even his hair had been lightened by the sun and was no longer the shiny black waves she had grown up seeing. The only thing they now shared were their green-silver eyes, rare even by Microshan standards. "I hope I'm not tardy."
"Not at all," Khan said as he turned to the mercenary. "Let me introduce you to Emersan, the Roy'gal. And this is my little sister, Vega, who will be our acting Fuhal. You'll be working with each other on the expedition's Council."
The mercenary lifted his open hand and touched the spot between his brows, then let his hand fall to the side in a formal greeting. "Mallen'e, Fuhal," Emersan said, his voice much like distant thunder. His eyes were dark blue-grey, which were comforting in a way. While his gaze was softer than Vega had expected from a Roy'gal, there was still a hardness, like slate, that felt natural and suited him.
"Mallen'e," she replied, mimicking the formal motion. "I must have seen your Roy then, at the gate?"
Emersan nodded. "Yes, Atyr. She's all fire and sharp edges when it comes to the troupe. Don't mind her."
"I don't," she said. "I kind of like her, actually."
Emersan smiled and turned to Khan with a bow. "I shall bring the troupe, then."
"Yes, and thank you again!" Khan said. The young man then turned to Vega. "Did Tani tell you about the man–?"
"Yes, she did," Vega said, taking her brother's arm and walking him to the tables. "Are you sure it's actually true?"
"I saw him myself." There was such excitement in Khan's eyes that Vega couldn't bring herself to argue against him. "He was the only one of the mercenaries to come from the west. I just asked Emersan about it."
"The man's name is Rio, and he's a bit of an enigma. Emersan seems to trust him enough, but doesn't know a lot about him. Not that I blame him." Khan tilted his head to the crowd. "I've never seen a troupe this big! I can't imagine that Emersan knows them all."
Vega shook her head. "Maybe Rio just went out a little ways and walked back to Medan? The gwata'an do all the time."
"Scavengers don't idly go into the Deep."
"A mercenary might."
He didn't look pleased and sighed. "Well, that's what I'd like you to find out. Can you go talk to him?"
Vega shot him a glare. "Why aren't you doing it?" she asked.
"Because I'm going to be accompanying Emersan, Gerda, and Martha all day, and you'll be free?"
Her face fell. "I still have things to do–"
"You've packed your trailer at least three times, Minai."
"It's not the trailer, I promise." He rolled his eyes and scoffed to annoy her, but Vega did not react. "I need to finish my last financial matters. It's got to be done before closing time."
His brows knit together. "Last minute? That's not like you."
"Something came up."
Khan looked over her, not hiding the fact that he was checking her Colour. She knew that she was calm at her core, gentle blues and greens barely moving. She hoped that it would be enough to convince her brother everything was fine.
He put a hand to her shoulder. "If there's anything, you know you can come to me, right?"
"I know." Vega leaned in a kissed his cheek. "It's nothing I can't handle. Now," she said, picking up a gemboard. "There's work to be done."