CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
Under the light of Tarakk’s crimson and gold moons, Shakata raced through one of his people’s beautifully intricate cities along an unpredictable path. As he had practiced and played during many daylight hours, the vibrant young man sprinted across open spaces, leapt over gaps in his path and dove from heights his mother would never approve to tumble to safe landings. Unlike his daytime escapades, though, the night saw him darting from shadow to light to shadow again with definite purpose. He raced through the night to evade capture.
Scores of keen eyes worked to keep track of him as he moved through the temperate night air with the fluid grace and agility of a predator on the hunt. His tactical direction changes showed, though, the awareness of one being hunted. He knew the Argus drones were attempting to lock their tracking systems on him to facilitate his containment. The aerodynamic drones, their shape akin to a teardrop flying in an arc, sped through the air raising all the noise of a whisper. Their silvery gray skin did nothing to make them easier to see than to hear, but he did his best to stay aware of as many of the ones nearest him as he could.
What’s he up to? Kieren Sha wondered as she continued to watch him. Wondering and guessing, were all she could do until he deigned to talk again. He was being stubbornly silent, not wanting to give away any clues to his position by having their communications tracked. She thought it might not have bothered her so much if she were able to tear herself away from watching. She was trying to monitor his breathing, muscular activity and other such performance factors with passive scanning equipment, but was having almost as much difficulty getting solid data on him as the drones were.
“Stop going higher,” she whispered futilely. “Why does he keep going higher?”
His lack of concern for his personal safety was so aggravating sometimes that a part of her thought to curse him for worrying her, but she was quick to quiet such thoughts lest something actually come of them. Even if she refused to admit them, she knew her true feelings for him bore no connection to such dark thoughts. That was enough to make her resist dwelling on a momentary aggravation.
Kieren Sha glided about as silently as the Argus drones, though her own levitation was achieved by other means. She was determined to stay close enough to Shakata to help him in the event his confidence got him into more trouble than he could handle. As hard as he was pushing himself to outwit not only the city’s central computer system, but their own people as well, she knew that physical prowess would not be the thing to fail him.
She trusted Shakata, but all he would tell her about his escape plan was that he had figured out how to vanish from Oracle’s sight. She knew she had to see that. Shakata was easily one of the smartest people she knew, so she never sought to dismiss his ideas as crazy. Still, they did seem to involve an inherent pandemonium as often as not. Whatever his latest plan, he was talking about doing something that no one ever had. Oracle saw everything, after all. That was what it had been designed to do.
He kept running. He was still incredibly fast and strong, making leaps that surprised even her and showing no signs of fatigue. Kieren Sha was having to fight harder against the urge to intervene the longer she watched him. Even though she could not actually see him doing it, she knew he was smiling with delight at every increasingly risky stunt, flipping off of rooftops and running up walls.
When is he going to get to the part of the plan with the hiding? she wondered. Where are you going to hide from Oracle?
The answer failed to manifest no matter how many ways she asked herself the question. One thing that was becoming clear to her was that she was getting tired of holding her breath over him.
Magi cities were not just built by molecular machines, they were made of them. Every construct they had around them was a mixture of energized smart dust and energy fields, all part of synergistically integrated quantum computers. Kieren Sha could not figure out where Shakata was planning to hide in a city whose every molecule was essentially part of the network of artificial intelligences that managed the city’s functions.
Kieren Sha spotted a flurry of arms and legs charging through the night below her as a dozen slender figures ran and leapt in Shakata’s direction. Legion units were getting closer. She was sure they would refrain from shooting at him, attempting instead to get close enough to grab him and hold him for whoever was overseeing security.
Does he know Legion’s after him now, too? Sure, he has to know, she assured herself. He must’ve planned for Legion, too…Where did he--? “No! Fire and blood, I only looked away for…How did he get up there?” she asked as she levitated toward the tops of the tallest towers nearby.
Propelling himself through the warm night air, Shakata felt raw power coursing through his sinews. His breaths were controlled, long and deep, aiding his focus in guiding the potent energies that flowed through him. It was not mere muscle that moved him, nor dense bone that served to support the weight of his form any more than thick cartilage alone provided cushioning for his dynamic motions.
Fire, the vital energy of Life blazed within him. Like a wind, it went unseen, but he could feel it moving through his being, defining him. Fire fueled him, drove his surging blood, gave heat to his breath and flooded every cell of his body with vitality. He believed in the power and in himself as he exploded into the open air once more. Seventy-three feet above the ground was fun, but diving out into open air from more than three times as high gave him an unquestionable exhilaration.
His lean body twisted and stretched out in a fearsome predatory dive as his arc carried him away from the tower and he accelerated downward. His keen eyes processed colors for which only he had names as he targeted the polished oblong form that moved smoothly, silently through the unclouded sky below. He could not allow himself to miss, but only the next seconds would bear the proof of the accuracy of his mental calculations. If he had misjudged any factor between his own moving form and his moving target...
The tackle was solid, his broad chest slamming into the cool metal drone as his sinewy arms locked into a firm embrace. The force of his impact wobbled the drone’s flight, making it drop almost twenty feet before stabilizing itself. He laughed in triumph and relief, realizing that the hardest part was done.
With his body pressed against the Argus drone, he resisted gravity’s pull and clung to the drone like he was riding a dolphin. His muscles trembled as he held tightly, squeezing his slippery ride with only his arms, as he began to slide down the drone’s smooth, tapering form. Hovering quietly, he looked below his dangling legs to where Legion constructs walked the grounds around the towers and more Argus drones flew in overlapping patterns, sweeping the area with broad spectrum searchlights.
As his own temporary appropriation changed course and descended, Shakata slid free and, in its wake, fell to the Grand Canal that bisected the city. Gulping a final deep breath as he fell, Shakata tried to enter glowing ionic liquid smoothly, making as little splash as he could manage with his thick build. The electrolyte-laden water moved slowly, the current providing little challenge as he swam immediately to the waiting shadows. Clinging to the canal’s stone wall, Shakata remained still and compelled his thoughts to do the same. After another minute without finding their prey, the drones and Legion units moved off, expanding their search to different areas.
Shakata emerged from the canal, breathing freely again as he pulled himself up to the parallel walkway. The dusky man waiting for him stood just over seven feet tall, towering more than a full foot above the youth. His long black hair shimmered under the light of the moons, topping a form like a chiseled statue, clad in the black second skin of his sentinel armor.
“That’ll be far enough, boy,” the large man said sternly. “You’ve caused far more than enough trouble for tonight.”
“S’tai Andren Datis,” Shakata greeted him with a broad smile. “What a pleasant surprise. You didn’t have to come out so late just to say such sweet things. It could’ve waited till morning, General.”
“I wasn’t going to leave you to run loose to unleash pandemonium on the city after trying to shut down Freespace.”
“Pandemonium? That seems a bit harsh,” Shakata protested. “I just made Oracle’s security look bad…and you, by extension, of course.”
“That’s enough,” Datis told him, signaling to a trio of Legion androids to close in from the shadows. “Your ridiculous acrobatics are done for the night.”
“Considering how quickly you found me,” Shakata said, studying the constructs as they moved to encircle him, “the effort wasn’t nearly enough.”
As the first of the androids reached a hand out to him, Shakata grabbed its wrist and used a joint lock and a spin to send the artificial man flying into one of its duplicates. The third android lunged at the young man only to receive a powerful kick that sent it tumbling into the Grand Canal.
Shakata turned to face the remaining Legion units as they began to pick themselves up from the ground. He felt a push at the center of his back that sent him stumbling forward. Shakata tripped over the Legion units, all three of them landing entangled on the grass.
“And I was doing so well,” Shakata said as the androids lifted him to his feet, each holding one of his arms. “Nice move, General.”
“You left yourself off-balance,” Datis told the young magi. “You’re a disappointment. I’d love to hear how you managed to evade Oracle.”
“The game has complicated rules,” Shakata said with a smirk. “Besides, I’d hate to shatter your low opinion of me.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t trip over your own feet while launching yourself off rooftops.”
“That sounds familiar,” he said, looking up at the elder’s grim visage. “Have you been talking with my parents?”
“Not yet, but your stunts tonight will certainly fuel a lively conversation in the near future,” Datis said. “Maybe they’ll be able to impress upon you how single-handedly deciding to shut down Freespace is a gross overestimation of your individual rights.”
“I may have had the thought, S’tai Datis,” Shakata said, “but I made no effort to enact it. I strongly suggested that people spend less time immersed in Freespace. That’s all.”
“How can I deface something that doesn’t even exist?”
“You don’t know everything, child,” the angry s’tai growled down at Shakata. “None of us does.”
“Then you don’t know that I’m wrong,” Shakta countered. “You just don’t like what I did.”
“You’re wrong to disrespect the power of the people to make their own choices,” Datis said. “It’s arrogant.”
“They’re making a bad choice,” Shakata said. “The same one every single day. I reminded them of a better option.”
“And you’re entitled to that opinion, even to express it, but not to force it upon others. Just because you think you’re saving everyone from themselves doesn’t make you right.”
“I see a problem they apparently don’t,” Shakata said. “I’m trying to help. What’s wrong with that?”
“Your methods,” Datis said. “You violated security protocols and put yourself and the patrol drones at risk by running around like a brain damaged monkey!”
“I didn’t take anything from anyone. I did what you said: I expressed my opinion,” the youth insisted. “That was the only way I could do it so they’d pay attention.”
“Don’t act like a child,” Datis said. “You know that’s not the way Freespace was intended to be used.”
“Then it needs a new name,” Shakata said. “With all due respect, S’tai Datis, with their minds entangled in the computer’s realm, it was the only way I could talk to them so they’d hear me. You know normal access isn’t open to me.”
“That doesn’t give you license to make others carry the weight of your burden. When delivering your message of discontent comes at the risk of disrupting the peaceful enjoyment of thousands of others, you lose justification.”
“Then my right of expression doesn’t carry much weight, does it?”
“No more than anyone else’s. Enjoying your rights stops when they interfere with the rights of others, but I don’t need to tell you that. You’re a pathfinder, far beyond the level of an initiate and even further beyond pretending ignorance,” Datis told him. “You penetrated Freespace and Oracle security without authorization. We don’t do that.”
“I didn’t keep anyone from living their pretend lives,” Shakata said, “but our people are capable of so much more. Phoenix long ago tasked the magi with cultivating ourselves to enlightenment, to achieve unity with the Infinite.”
“You’re telling us our purpose, boy?” Datis asked with a derisive laugh. “You presume much. S’tai know Phoenix’s will better than any other.”
“Then tell me, s’tai, if we were intended to isolate ourselves within a cybernetic realm, why maintain the Phoenix Radical at all?” Shakata asked. “What’s the purpose of all our exercises and meditations? What’s the point of Unity?”
“You and your wearisome insolence exhaust my patience,” Datis told him.
“Perhaps I should go then,” Shakata suggested. “If I’m going to be limited to trying to draw their attention from out here in the fresh air, my location won’t matter.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” Andren Datis said, turning his hand over to reveal the shimmering orb resting in his palm.
“An epai?” Shakata asked him. “Going to extremes?”
“Don’t act like you didn’t bring this on yourself, little one.”
“Oh, I see,” Shakata said. “We’re going to pretend as though I’m forcing your hand.”
“You need to be restricted till you can learn to stop squandering your potential,” Datis said. “Though, admittedly, that may be a long wait.”
Luminous images and lines of light appeared above the orb, changing in response to the swift gestures of Datis’ nimble fingers. Behind Shakata, a six-foot circle of light appeared, perpendicular to the ground and circumscribing an intricate geometry of dozens more intersecting lines of light.
“If you felt the same concern for all magi,” Shakata said, “you might have chosen to assist on tonight’s incursion.”
“Which raises an interesting point,” Datis said, his fingers pausing in their manipulations as he locked eyes with the defiant youth. “Where’s your partner?”
“Sorry, who?” he asked.
“Don’t insult my intelligence,” Datis said. “Sensors detected two intruders at the core and you two are never far apart.”
“Must be a computer error,” Shakata said. “I acted alone. See? This is me alone. I know you can count to one.”
“That’ll be enough of you for tonight,” Datis said. “Legion, confine him to an eden till further notice.”
“Acknowledged,” one of the Legion constructs said, the pair walking at the circle with Shakata in tow.
The trio vanished into the portal, the hypercube access following in their wake as it shrunk to a point and blinked out of existence. Andren Datis’ dark eyes searched the area around him as he used his epai to create another portal.
“I know you’re there,” he shouted, still looking about for confirmation he was not alone. “Be wise. Don’t make this worse.”
He felt a familiar warmth rising within his body. A powerful electric tingling spiraled up his spine as a ring of fire ignited on the ground, encircling him. Datis looked to the starry sky as his flesh became luminous and the fire erupted into a consuming vortex. Rocketing upward, the fire and Datis vanished. In his absence, the waiting portal shimmered and closed like the first.