Mutilated. Left for dead. Enslaved.
When Calver stumbled across the Commander Prime's secret, his life changed forever.
Fourteen years later, he is finally free– and has plans to make his reckoning. But at the precipice of his ploy, an act of compassion sends it all unraveling. Calver’s fate becomes unknowingly woven together with those of an expatriate scientist and a slandered patrician, where their independent ties to the rising power of distortion technology reveals a secret that threatens their very existence. At a sudden crossroads of duty and destiny, either turn will end in his ruin.
Year: 723 Post Cataclysm; Twenty-Five Years Previous
Attilatia Mitar watched the distortion lamp cast sparkles across her father’s black eyes as it whirred to life in his hands. She clutched at the lip of the counter, pulling herself to stand on tiptoes to watch more closely. It caused the beads from her dance Hukata to clink awkwardly against the stone. The garment was a mess of brilliantly dyed skirts. A horrid thing—not in any way pragmatic nor discreet for slipping past her mother on her way into her father’s workspace.
Ever dramatic, her father lifted the lamp toward the cavern ceiling of the lab as though it were a newborn. It would be but a simple globe of glass, if not for a synthetic chemical her grandfather formulated nested invisibly inside. She'd been told that a grain sized pellet of it was worth a fortune. That was silly. It took her only twenty minutes to make one. She'd gladly trade one for the right flakey bean puff.
“You see Atti?” her father said. The spectacled man had a slight, hunch-shouldered form appropriate for one who’d dedicated their life to looking through a microscope. “This lamp is now calibrated to distort flow within your selected tier and draw on its energy to create a constant stream of light.”
She pulled away from the counter, shifting her long black braid from her right shoulder to her left. What tedium. He said the same thing every time they created a new distortion lamp together. Chaos, her father tended to act more like a grandfather than a man in his thirties. And he spoke so slowly. Repeating himself over and over. A part of her knew it was done in an attempt to calm her, but that only made it all the more aggravating. Her father knew she was not the angry and impatient child everyone thought. He knew she was smarter than anyone gave her credit for and simply irritated that no one else could keep up.
“I know this, Dasha,” she pressed. “We have built many progressive models of the distorting lamps. I'm ready to build my circuit, eah?"
He chuckled, patting her hair as if to say, oh you delightful little thing. How patronizing. She crossed her arms. He might understand her better than most, but even he sometimes treated her like an infant.
Her father sighed, “Forgive me, Starshine. You have to remember that your Dasha still wakes up each day thinking he has a seven-year-old, only to rediscover he has a brilliant scientist instead. Distortion is… a sensitive thing. In the lamps we have something simple and something good. We want to keep distortion simple and good. With too much experimenting and in the wrong hands… Distortion may not be so good.”
He must have seen the look on her face, because he raised both hands in a placating gesture. “Be patient. We may build something new, but… not tonight.”
Why did he even invite her to the distortion lab if they were only going to do endless repetitions of the same fated thing?
“Why? Because you prefer a seven-year-old to a scientist?”
He chuckled again. “No, my sweet hakuni. We do not begin tonight because the moment your mother finds out you spent two hours in the lab with me when you were supposed to be practicing the Lethoto, she will put rocks in my stew.”
Attilatia’s mouth twisted. “You don’t believe my distortion circuit will work, do you?”
“I think it is an excellent idea in theory and I will not form an opinion before it has been tested.”
“Which is just another way of saying that you don’t believe it will work,” she muttered under her breath. If he heard her, he didn’t show it.
“Come now, Starshine. Best not be late. Your mother's work in Legislation was a monster today.”
She ignored him, feeling her temper begin to spark. “When can I build my circuit?”
“When you have mastered your Lethoto dance,'' he replied with finality.
The fated Lethoto dance. She wished their queens had never invented it.
Resentment seething, Attilatia grabbed the lamp from where her father set it on the counter. She turned it twice over in her palm.
“Careful-” he started.
She glared at him and slammed it onto the floor where it shattered, the precious liquid from its core seeping onto stone.
Her father, ever patient, sighed once, his only response to her action other than unbuttoning his blue lab tunic and setting it on a hook by the door. He lost some of his magnificence without the coat. He became plain—ordinary—like a beetle that shed a brilliant exoskeleton to reveal a colorless underbelly. Her stomach crinkled in regret, but she maintained her air of resilience.
Her father stooped to pick up the pieces of the lamp from the floor. Then, he went to the sink to wet a cloth.
“We succeed in life by balancing our passions with our duties” he said, cleaning her mess with the damp rag. “Your Lethoto will one day be the pride of all Tentika. Perhaps of all Azadonia.”
“And my distortion circuit will be the pride of all the world,” she argued back.
He set the cloth in the sink and reached to grab her hand with still-wet fingers. She did not take them.
“Come now,” he said, his hand dropping lamely to his side. “Let’s change out of your Hukata before dinner, before your mother puts our heads in a hole."
Dinner was absent of the usual warm conversation that rose between her and her father like the clouds of steam from their stew. Attilatia's stomach had yet to un-crinkle. She pushed her bread in circles around the bowl, ultimately soaking it. Perhaps some of the night's tension might drown with it.
“Atti, I saw the pool was dry. Did you not practice your water step today?” her mother asked.
Fates above. Attilatia shifted in her seat. She’d forgotten. An additional hour of water step was a standard after regular dance lessons every other day.
“I did not.”
Her mother pursed her lips, holding her teacup tightly to her chest.
“I spent thirteen hours working in Jenolavia’s administration today. Your Dasha produced distortion lamps for the next Kaidechi trade. You had one responsibility - the Lethoto. Do you mean to tell me that you have already perfected your water step?”
“She was in the lab, Teichi,” her father cut in to her defense, sipping his stew. “It was my fault. A few lamps broke. I thought we could use her help.”
“What place does a seven-year-old girl have in a distortion lab? Trade is a man's place. My daughter will be a politician. Politicians dance the Lethoto."
“She’s good at it," he said.
“And I might be good at tying my tipiana backwards and walking on my hands, but you wouldn’t see me going into the caverns that way.”
“Maybe you should.” Her father’s eyes glittered.
“Yes, maybe you should,” Attilatia parroted with a laugh, momentarily forgetting her anger.
Her mother swatted at her Dasha. “Hush, Chicoto! Three years I’ve been pushing for Jenolavia to take Atti on as her next child’s caretaker. I want to set her up for success. Playing with distortion can’t do that.”
Her father came to her rescue again and changed the subject. “Speaking of Jenolavia, what kept you so late this time?” He pulled at the hem of his shirt where it met his neck as though suddenly distressed.
Her mother grew serious. “We had a Kovathian engagement today,” she said.
She nodded. “And it got… ugly. They’re furious with Jenolavia’s refusal to sell our distortion rights.”
“Black hearted Kovathians.”
Attilatia’s eyes clung to her father. He looked different. Like he’d aged. Small beads of sweat sprouted from skin gone white as down. His eyes held a confused look.
“Dasha—” she started, but her mother interrupted.
“Can you blame them? It's potentially costing us millions. The incredible things we could do if we—”
“The incredible things we could destroy. And what if the Kovathians use distortion to start another Cataclysm? What then?”
“No need to get upset, I’m not taking their side. I just think Jenolavia could…" her mother trailed off. “Hakuni, your face,” she said, noticing what Attilatia had just moments before.
They watched in horror as her father’s face began to swell before their eyes, red and yellow pustules blossoming over stark white.
“The Strikapa!” Her mother clapped a hand to her mouth.
“Mother…” Attilatia started in panic.
“Preservation, help us. It came on so fast. Breath, Dasha, breathe!”
Her father wheezed, his panicked eyes darting about like they were trapped within his skull.
“Atti, run for the medical ward.”
Her father slid from his seat and slumped onto the ground.
“Dasha!” she cried rushing to his side. She reached for him, her fingertips nearly grazing his before her mother grabbed her square by the shoulders.
“No! Not you too. Just go, Atti. Hurry!”
Panic clutched Attilatia’s heart as she took a final look at the man on the floor, the likeness of whom in just a minute’s time transformed from her father to a monster. Biting her lip, she tore away from their home and into its adjoining tunnel.
The trip to the medical bay would have only taken a matter of life-saving minutes, had Atti made it there. She couldn’t get within throwing distance, blocked by a surging crowd like an angry sea. Fighting, shouting, trampling. It was a scene incongruous with the ideals of her people— civilized, gentile, strong.
Atti found herself pressed against a wall at the back of the gathering cavern. She could not tell if her own sobs were silent, or so overpowered by the cacophony from the chaos before her that they were drowned out. She could not return home. A part of her was frightened she would not find the words to tell her mother she had failed. Her entire being was crippled by the knowledge that when she returned, her Dasha would be no more. So, she stayed until exhaustion overtook her for sleep, where she huddled on the floor.
Attilatia was ever followed by the fates of that day, The Weeping Day, as her people came to call it. Any who had come into contact with the water from the western vein, the same which ran through both the Lethoto pools and the distortion labs, were laid into the final cavern.
It was the first day she killed a man, inadvertent as it was. And it was the first day the Strikapa took hold. In meager time, their world changed forever.
Year: 748 Post Cataclysm; Current Day
Calver’s childhood teacher of the dowaga once said that the momentary happenstance of one’s life could be drawn back to a single attribute which they possess. Funny. It was not the possession of a thing, but the absence of one that brought him there. His tongue.
After all, Fankalo found the discretion provided by his inability to speak to be of value in conjunction with some of his… less subtle talents. And being Fankalo’s favorite errand boy was why he crouched at the northeast quadrant of Chira’na’s outer wall, prepared to destroy Mecha’s distortion shipment. It was all due to the absence of his tongue.
Calver’s forced stoicism faltered for a heartbeat at the thought, which flared like flint striking steel. It gnawed at him; a mad dog before he could put its muzzle on. That heartbeat’s falter was all it took for the creature which possessed him to be summoned, the Survivor.
The Survivor’s disembodied presence seeped forward in his skull like water trickling from the first crack in a dam. Its voice was cold and, though it came as a whisper, it felt like it echoed across the four winds.
“You will fail in this task… And you know what will happen then?… Let me do it. I lack the weakness you possess.”
A deep breath in. Another out. He held back its ever increasing wave of pressure against him by washing his mind with calm.
The voice was gone without a trace, like yesterday’s dream. Kretch. It was harder than usual to keep calm today. Considering the circumstances, he allowed himself some forgiveness. The fated distortion shipment was late.
Calver was all too aware of the fluttering in his stomach, the tightening he felt with each breath. Mecha’s locomotives were never behind schedule. They were governed by automated timetables. Why today of all days? He crouched in the shadows along Chira’na’s eastern wall, fearful to let his eyes slip from the hills at the horizon for even a second. It would come. Had to come. After eight years of planning, failure was not an option. He would not let Fankalo down… but needed to calm himself or else he might lose the chance to do this of his own accord.
Calver forced a deep breath in, another out, washing his mind with non-feeling. The air was ripe with the smell of earth and the tall grass around him. Things that would elude him again when he left the open air for the city within. He rolled his shoulders, tilting his head back to stretch his neck. Chira’na’s walls loomed high into the sky above him, their storm-colored stone stretching four stories into the ether. He frowned at them. Fates, he could only speculate at the sort of latent mentality rooted in a city with such walls. Walls, like man, so desired to serve a purpose. Without the possibility of an outside threat, their purpose could only turn towards keeping something in. After so many years as a slave, the thought made him shudder.
He could not deny the darkness nestled within the walls of Chira’na. It was more of a feeling than a tangible thing, but it existed all the same, harbored like a dormant sickness. He recognized it intimately. That same feeling had all but consumed him for the last fourteen years.
With those thoughts, his all too familiar desolation started to set in again. No. Not today. Today, he would void all emotion. He shook off his unease and crept forward, eyes fixed on the horizon again. He checked the straps which holstered his iron dowaga for the tenth time; prepared to run around the city’s outside corner when the time came.
The moment was like an outside corner of his fate, too— destined to bend one way or another depending on what came to pass by sundown. The Fates would be locked, like a die with a weighted side set to tumbling. All determined by the outcome of this moment. So long as he succeeded, that is… and so long as he kept the creature out.
Calver saw it then; the distortion powered locomotive. It careened into view from beyond the grassy hillside in the distance. The Mecha vessel carried over fifty thousand distortion pieces for the Nelfinden elite. One corner of his mouth twitched up as some amount of thrill pierced through his muted emotions. That shipment would never make it to the skywalk.
He took a final breath before breaking into a run, hugging close to the wall as he set his sights on the port gate where he would intercept Mecha’s machine. The shadow cast by the wall at mid-low sun was narrow—just over two feet wide. He glanced up every few moments to ensure none of the guardsmen on the ramparts had the unlikely thought to look directly down. They did not. The plan would work. The plan was without error.
He arrived at the port just as the end of the locomotive entered the gate. Timing himself carefully, he jumped into the gap between the third and second to last cars as the machine slowed. With nothing to hold on to, he braced himself with only his limbs pressed against either car beside him.
When the machine arrived at a full stop inside the walls, the guideway below him deactivated. Calver dropped down into its five-foot trench, landing softly beneath the belly of the car without a sound. He reached into his cloak to palm a small glass orb with a flat back. The device was a Mecha distortion lamp, one which he had tampered with, setting the flow influx to a higher tier which wasn’t compatible with its magnetic rotator. It would overheat and break down in a matter of seconds after activation. He’d also filled its inner capsule with nitroglycerine. At a glance, anyone would mistake it for a standard Mecha lamp. The liquid was colorless, invisible within the orb. The moment he activated it, however, what had been ordinary would create a show.
The last six cars held the Mecha technologies shipment Fankalo wanted eliminated. He'd tampered with eight lamps for good measure.
Calver moved quickly. He'd timed these machines' arrivals for months. Once the guideway deactivated, the port’s guards and employees would spill onto the platform to unload the shipment for distribution within two minutes. He avoided collateral damage when he could. That left him very little time to plant the lamps and escape into Chira’na’s northeast quadrant.
Large enough for some to consider a giant, Calver had to crouch in the guideway to complete the task at hand. He prepared to plant the first lamp on the end car when he heard a series of yells from the guard. His body stiffened, his tissues turned to timber. He scrambled to calculate where he’d gone wrong. There was no way he could have been spotted from his point of entry. He was entirely blind to their line of view where he crouched.
But the yells continued, escalating in a way that seemed superfluous for the sighting of a single intruder. The guard post administered an orange alert, indicative of a full-blown invasion. This had nothing to do with him. Calver relaxed slightly, but listened with bated breath to the crescendo of fast falling footsteps against the port dock above him. Shortly after the alarm started, it was silenced.
A scream pierced the air with direness that made his skin crawl. The Survivor weighed against him, relishing the sound like music. Calver cooled his mind, dispersing it again, and peered out from the gap between two cars to see what was happening.
At least thirty guards wearing Chira’na uniform had swarmed onto the platform and were battling brutally amongst themselves. Fates above, what was happening?
While they were all dressed identically, one grouping of the guards had a distinguishable level of skill in comparison. The skirmish was brief. One faction obliterated the other in under a minute. Blood splattered the cobbled stone of the port’s platform as the air filled with the stench and screams of battle. Calver’s own blood coursed like a tempest as he watched the combat unfold. Should he pursue or abandon the task?
He counted the number of men who remained to be at sixteen. Those among the victorious faction slowly separated and dispersed around the platform, securing the perimeter of the port. He cursed internally. That covered his line of escape into the city. They would see him, whoever they were. He would need to find a way to get back through the exterior port gate, as he’d come in.
Taking a steadying breath, Calver prepared to dip back under the machine and follow the guideway to the port gate when he heard one of the guards from the winning faction shout in the Tera’thian tongue.
“There! Beneath the furrow!”