The air should’ve been filled with the sounds of diamond-hard claws on metal. Tes could feel the vibrations of the huge Dracori rending the metal beneath her feet, but the sound never reached her ears. It was a strange and different feeling, but she had had her share of strange and different feelings lately.
“ALIA(nearly there, almost through, prepare).” The charged word didn’t need the air to propagate, it burrowed into her mind regardless. Tes stood and gazed around her. The flat metal surface of the Exiles’ moon stretched out to the horizon on all sides, smooth apart from the hole which the Dracori was digging deeper and deeper into the guts of the metal moon. The blank expanse was broken only by the three Drya and their riders around her. In the alien surroundings, the riders at least, provided a comfortable familiarity; their varying shades of green hair marked them out as members of her tribe, as her figurative friends and family.
And some literal family, she corrected herself with a smile, watching her brother Krin step off of his beast. Krin reached for a bridle out of reflex, and the Drya leaned back and snorted, its mental occupant looking down with derision. Tes grinned as Krin blushed and turned away, and catching sight of her grin, he made a face at his sister.
“NOAH(is now finally the time after such waiting)? CHIA(my sister’s voice heard)?” His question comprised of charged words in the silence echoed in her mind, and Tes shook her head. After a long period of frustration, she had decided not to speak at all rather than to endure the annoying rasp of magic that charged words required. Her family had taken it in stride, perhaps willing to overlook it given how well-behaved she was in other areas. She had never, for example, tried to escape.
“RUM(Gossip and tales fly among us) DRKS(you take Drya between your legs as lovers). FAL(will you not raise your voice to deny it)?” Krin asked.
Tes grinned and gave her brother the finger, and he chuckled silently.
What an immature child. She thought affectionately. She was glad that he was here with her, and even more glad that he had made it past the fighting in the stars. Her friend Poa was there as well, and she had interacted with Ipt and Loo before too, but she shared a greater bond with her brother than anyone else in her life. It was Krin who had helped her adapt to every aspect of Terran life, it was Krin who had patiently walked her through understanding the power of magic that coursed through her veins.
He teased and joked and was irreverent, but he was always careful to avoid joking about things that mattered. He had never brought up the humiliating incident when she had used her Coricia at the table not knowing how private it was. He never poked fun at the fact that it had taken days for her hair to shift from the hideous black color to its natural beautiful green. He didn’t make fun of her for not always being a Terran, or that she only had one eye. If he knew where she had come from before, he thankfully kept it to himself. She didn’t want to know.
I suppose it’s here. Tes realized belatedly. It would explain why she knew so much about the moon, despite it being the first time she could remember being there. They had landed on the southern tip, which meant that the Dracori would be digging through the moon’s metal crust right into the sleeping rooms. She had wondered at the Duke’s decision to send a rookie Terran like her out on such an important mission, but it made sense now; she would have instinctive knowledge of the interior of the moon.
If I came from the Exiles’ moon, that means I’m an Exile. I was an Exile. Tes turned the thought over in her head, half-expecting to suddenly feel nostalgia or horror or pain. There was no emotion connected to the words, and Tes breathed a sigh of relief. The thought of betraying her adoptive mother and father was enough to almost break her heart, and imagining the look on Krin’s face if she turned against them was unthinkable. Whatever life she’d had before, she loved her life now.
Her parents had been shocked the first time she had come to them, indicating by signs that the magic that held her mind safely intact was beginning to unravel. She had let them know the second she felt stirrings of homesickness, some memory had begun pressing against the new life she knew.
“I am glad you warned us Tes, but….Why did you tell us this DAO(dearest daughter, little one)? Why not ESE(run away from us, leave us behind, try to escape)?” Her father had asked in his booming voice, his charged word jovial even though his face had been concerned. Even if she had spoke, Tes wouldn’t have known how to put her thoughts into worlds, and she had simply shrugged and put her hands in the shape of a heart. She loved her family, and they took care of her. She was forming friendships with her tribemates, and they were starting to accept her as one of her own. She was well fed and happy, and could see a wonderful future there in the village. There was even an adorable fruit merchant down the path who Tes fancied, and she was sure the girl showed off her cleavage on purpose whenever Tes came by to buy ingredients for dinner. What could that other life offer that compared, whatever life she’d had before Meo the mind-soother had worked his craft on her.
The vibrations in the ground beneath her changed, and after a few moments the Dracori’s head emerged, its eyes glinting with human intelligence.
It could’ve been worse for me, Tes mused as the Dracori emerged from the tunnel it had dug, I could’ve been gifted to Blue tribe like her. She had heard rumors that the blue tribe mind-soothers were so inept that they didn’t even bother trying for an elegant solution as Meo had, instead simply shackling the other gift-girl with something akin to amnesia. Barbarians. Tes frowned. She still didn’t quite see why the tribes worked together, as stupid as blue tribe and weak as purple tribe were. Her mother had tried to tell her how bad things had been even a few months ago, the constant skirmishes and turf wars, but Tes didn’t quite follow it all. She thought they should easily be able to crush the others, but that decision wasn’t up to her, it was the Duke’s call.
The blue prince who led them gestured with the claw of the Drya he was inhabiting, and the group slowly entered the tunnel, finding handholds in the claw gouges the Dracori had left behind her. Up so close, Tes could at least appreciate the power that the blue tribe held. The creatures were magnificent and powerful, and when their minds were bound to the mages, they had the cleverness of a human behind them. The Drya and Dracori, with the human passengers in their minds, were the blue tribes contribution to this mission, much as Tes and her fellow riders were the green tribes’. The purple tribe had expended perilous amounts of magic to send the entire team up through the green clouds, and it had left every man and woman of them drained, sluggish, and debilitated.
And vulnerable to attack. Tes thought, feeling around in the dark for a foothold in the dim tunnel. But I suppose the Duke knows best who we should attack. Her stomach suddenly lurched as the tunnel wall turned into the tunnel floor beneath her without moving. The feeling was disorienting, and Tes had no idea how it had happened, but from her lack of surprise she assumed it was something she knew in her past life. Gravitas? Tes shrugged it off as unimportant, carefully standing and testing her weight.
She made her way deeper inside, and it only took a few more moments before she reached the room. A thin membrane was stretched across the huge opening the Dracori had made; the metal healing itself from the wound the Dracori had given it. Tes swept her hand to one side, creating a sharp dagger of green magic to tear a rip, letting her pass through. Air hissed past her face, air that smelled too-clean. Fake air.
The Drya and riders entered the room without an issue as Tes looked around her. Although she kept bracing herself for some memory to strike her, she was blessedly detached at the sights. The sleeping room was gigantic, with more than enough room for the twelve large beds that lay in two rows. The Dracori was able to fit in one end of the room without being cramped, and though she was small for a Dracori, she was still as large as three men. Her small size was probably why they brought a Dracori-of-the-Wave, Tes realized, instead of a Dracori-of-the-Flame or a Dracori-of-the-Stone.
“How is there air here?” Ipt ran a hand through his dark green curls, and Tes noted that she could faintly hear his uncharged words.
“I don’t know.” The words seemed strange coming from the mouth of a Drya, but their mission’s leader, a blue Prince, had no other way of communicating, inhabiting the mind of the creature. “Not PRIL(of so much importance that we must focus on it). We will move STH(very quickly and very decisively) from here. One blue, one green, and take down any Exile you see. Tes, you and Jia will go COH(both in concert with each other, supporting and defending each other) to the heart of the moon. Stop the heart, then come back here.”
The Drya and riders left the room quickly by its single door, into the darkened hallways. Tes couldn’t be sure what was lurking in the darkness beyond, but she knew that the Exiles wouldn’t hesitate to kill and destroy those that she held dear.
“Krin!” Tes called out, and her brother turned at the doorway, eyebrows raised. Her heart ached at the thought of anything happening to him, and though it was the first time she had spoken since the day after she awoke, she couldn’t bear the thought of anything hurting him without her knowing how grateful she was. “Please…” she said quietly, “please be KIA(take caution and care, come to no harm and return to me).” She almost gagged on the magic that surged in her throat, but the look on her brother’s face was worth it. He grinned at her and gave a quick nod, and then he was gone.
Tes turned to observe the Dracori. She was looking around her with narrowed reptilian eyes, but she jerked her large head up and down once at Tes when she saw the girl looking.
“If you’re the other gift, they must’ve caught both of us at the same time.” Tes commented, letting herself lapse into the barbaric magicless speech that came naturally to her. “We were probably both attacking the Terrans at once. Probably even knew each other.” She didn’t feel any particular emotion about that fact beyond vague interest, but it was something to think about, that she and the mind inside the Dracori might’ve been friends, or sisters, or enemies. The large creature was looking at her with tilted head, obviously confused.
Purple tribe can’t do mind-soothing for shit. Tes snorted in derision, but she softened as the Dracori shook its head as if trying to clear an insect from its face. Poor girl probably doesn’t know up from down right now.
“It’s okay.” She reassured, reaching out a hand and patting the large creature on the flank. “Don’t try to remember. Just go with your gut and stick with me, and we’ll give the Exiles hell together, does that sound good?” The Dracori shifted, looking uncertain, but it nodded again, one giant nod. Tes didn’t know if the girl couldn’t speak through the Dracori’s mouth, or if she simply chose not to, but she was strangely comfortable as a companion.
She closed her eyes and tried to picture the Exiles’ moon in wide and general terms, nothing specific, just a gut feeling of where everything lay.
“It won’t have just one heart, there will be four of them.” She finally said. “That’s the impression I have. We would have to rip them all out to kill the moon, but I get the feeling that wouldn’t be good for us.” She opened her eyes to look up at her large companion, and the beast nodded and held up two claws.
“Two? Alright, if you say so. The closest one feels like it will be…there?” She pointed at one wall, and the Dracori nodded again. “Okay then. The Exiles are pretty rude, making these doors all too small for you to pass through them. Why don’t you help them out a bit?” It was strange to see a sly smile creep across the massive reptile’s face, but Tes grinned in response. The Dracori coiled up, then launched itself at the metal wall, and Tes laughed delightedly over the shrieking sound of metal tearing.
They were covered in engine lubricant and smears of thick black oil, and Tes sported an electrical burn on one shoulder, but both the woman and the Dracori were in good spirits as they moved from room to room. The two alternated forging pathways through the moon, the Dracori rending giant holes in the walls and Tes blowing them away with short bursts of magic. After they left each room they tore down the ceiling and ripped up the floor, leaving a gaping space three times its previous size before moving on. Behind them, the entire floor was open and wide, much more inviting than the claustrophobic little rooms had been before. There was no bright sun or warm breeze, but at least the ceilings were much higher. They had yet to encounter a lit room or any sign of an Exile.
It took them a few hours to make a full revolution of the moon, carving the once-many-rooms into one huge doughnut-shape in the process. By the time they reached the wreckage of the sleeping room where they had started, the Drya and riders were already back and waiting for them. They too were unharmed, and a small knot in Tes’ stomach unwound.
“Did you tear out its heart?” Their leader asked. Tes held up two fingers at the same time the Dracori did, and they looked at each other and grinned.
“Do you think this time for JOK(children’s games, playing about)?” The Drya snapped with the voice of their leader. “I did not know the moon had two hearts. You did well.”
Tes didn’t correct him. Leaving two of the moon’s four hearts would let air and light fill the moon, and more importantly it would keep the food-makers working. The Drya continued.
“We met no Exiles. Take the DRA(dracori) to the SPHEC(very core of the moon, it’s center) and deal what harm you may to the Exiles. Come back here when through.” Tes didn’t question the order, she just started moving, not bothering to see if the Dracori was following. A more prideful Terran might’ve questioned the blue Prince, asking why it was that she alone would make the first forray, but Tes showed her pride in the green tribe by obeying orders. Besides, this way she didn’t have to speak.
The Dracori had crouched down low at her side; now that they had a goal besides generalized chaos, she only used her claws when they came to doorways, prying the locked doors from their frames and widening openings just enough to pass through.
“Hold on a second.” Tes paused when they reached the room; gigantic and filled with tables. The Dracori sat down by the door obligingly, as Tes walked over to the line of alcoves on one side of the wall. There were glyphs in shining silver above each alcove, but she didn’t bother trying to read them, instead trying to not think about her actions. She let habit take her, and picked up a tray without really knowing what it was for. Moving from alcove to alcove, Tes set the tray down, moving her fingers across the glyphs experimentally and observing the results. Small cubes of unknown materials dropped onto the tray in each alcove, and Tes smiled as she scooped up a handful, shoving them in her pocket.
“You hungry?” She asked as they continued on, and tossed one of the cubes to the Dracori next to her. The beast snatched the snack from the air and munched contentedly as they walked, and Tes followed suit. They moved in silence through the hallways, every so often the Dracori would huff and Tes would toss her another cube. It took them another half-hour before they reached the wall.
It was lucky that they were moving as slowly as they were, or the wall might’ve caused some damage. One moment there was just another hallway with a door at the other end, and the next moment a long silver barrier had sprang up from the bottom of the room to the top, moving so quickly that the metallic snap made Tes jump as it closed together. Had the Dracori been halfway across the line, it might’ve actually hurt or killed the creature, and that would’ve been horrible.
“Would you have felt that, felt the pain? I mean the real you on the planet, the girl behind the Dracori?” Tes asked, curious. The Dracori nodded solemnly, its eyes wide, and Tes turned an angry eye toward the silver wall. They hadn’t encountered any resistance at all up until that point; even when they had torn through the heart rooms and ripped the Exiles’ moon’s hearts from their casings there had been nothing to stop them, nothing to fight them. If there was a wall in front of them now, it meant that the Exiles hid behind it.
“You think your silver wall will keep you safe from us?” Tes called, although it was more for show than because she actually thought the Exiles could hear her. No matter, they would hear her soon enough. She raised a hand and let magic course through arm, spiralling out in a streak of lightning at the silver wall. It arced and burst, the beautiful light reflecting and refracting in a hundred hues of green, but the wall remained unscratched.
Tes’ eyes narrowed, and she nodded her head to the Dracori. The beautiful creature coiled again and sprung, its heavy muscles flinging it forward, claws outstretched. With a crash and a small cry, the Dracori hit the wall so hard that the ground around its base buckled, but the wall itself stood firm. It hadn’t even been marked.
As the Dracori rose to its four feet, a snarl on its snout, Tes walked closer, investigating the floor where it had buckled.
Perhaps we can burrow under it… Her brief-lived hopes were dashed when she saw that the wall extended past the buckling, no doubt into the floor beneath, and beneath that even. So, the Exiles hide themselves in a pretty silver shell?
“We should tell the Prince of their silver wall.” Tes remarked briefly to her companion. “Are you badly injured?” The Dracori shook her head, but it was staring murderously at the pristine gleaming surface. She breathed in deep, and Tes realized what she was about to do just in time to stop her.
“No no!” She shouted hastily. “Don’t breathe a wave, not in here! You’ll fill the room with water, and we don’t know how to deal with that yet! Just let us report to the Prince, he’ll tell us what he wants us to do.” The Dracori stared daggers at the wall, but she begrudgingly let herself be led away.
“Um, excuse me.” The voice was incredibly polite and rather quiet, but both Tes and the Dracori spun on the spot as if it had been an explosion.
“Where are you?” Tes’ fingers buzzed with a lance of lightning waiting to be unleashed.
“Ah, this is hard to explain, but I’m not anywhere you can reach. You’re just hearing my voice right now, so you don’t have to worry about trying to kill me, we can just chat.”
“We can chat face to face if you pull down your wall.”
“Well, technically we can’t ever chat face to face, but that’s not important, because we heard your little baby dragon tell you to kill a bunch of us, so the shield is staying up I’m afraid.”
The Exiles can hear every word within their moon. Tes nodded to herself. That was good information to know.
“Are you their queen then?” She asked. “Why do you speak to us if you won’t bring down the wall?”
“The queen? Hmm I like the sound of that, but no, I’m afraid not. It’s a long story, but you can think of me as the mind inside of the Orbital. You can call me Blue.”
“What is an Orbital? The Exiles’ moon?”
“Probably. But anyways, enough chit-chat, I’ve got some impatient people on my side of the shield that would like me to tell you something they find very important.”
Tes folded her arms in front of her chest, and for lack of a better target, faced the wall. She didn’t know if the Prince would want her talking to the Exiles, but she had already learned valuable information, it couldn’t hurt to potentially learn more.
“I’m listening, mind-of-the-moon. When you are done speaking we will talk about you lowering your wall. Perhaps we can come to an agreement.”
“Not likely. Alright, so the first thing I’m being told to tell you is this: your real name is Tess.”
Tes blinked her good eye, tilting her head to one side.
“Yes.” She said. “I know. What of it?”
“Really? Wow I thought that would garner more of a reaction. Umm, alright, we’re all really confused over here now. We assumed that you had been brainwashed or something. Why are you helping the Terrans?”
“I am a Terran.” Tes lifted her chin, half in defiance, half in pride. “I help because I can, because I have power to help my tribe. Do I need a better reason?”
“Well that is a definite answer on the whole ‘brainwashed’ question, I suppose. Alright, Tess, I want you to think back carefully. Your squadmates love you, and they would really appreciate it if you snapped out of it and stop tearing Pivot to shreds. Do you remember your squadmates Tess? Aimee and Missy, Li and Jackson, Marcus and Alex and Preston? Do you remember your Captain, Jane Appet?”
“I don’t know them.” Tes shrugged. Behind her, a soft whimper caught her attention. The Dracori was backed into a corner, it’s eyes wide, shaking its head as if trying to dislodge a water droplet from its ear.
The girl in the Dracori was an Exile too. Tes realized. “The names must mean something to her, and the blue tribe mind-soother’s shitty soothing is falling apart.*
“Go back to the Prince.” She snapped, and the Dracori looked up at her, confusion in its eyes. “Go!”
“That’s not super helpful to the Drake, because I have speakers left in most of the rooms between here and there.” The voice said smugly. “But as a show of good faith, I’ll leave your pet Drake alone.”
“I don’t know these names.” Tess repeated with finality.
“Think, Tess, really think. Do you remember Julia? You two loved each other, true love, a love so deep that you were willing-”
“I should clarify, so that you understand me fully.” Tes held up a hand to interrupt the voice. She spoke calmly and evenly, staring into the wall since she didn’t know where else to look. “I believe you when you say these things. I know I had a life before. I am sure that it’s difficult for these squid-mates to see someone wearing the face of their friend, with the power and bearing of the green tribe. But I do not know those names. I do not wish to know those names. My name is Tes, and one day it will be charged with power and spoken throughout my tribe. Today is not that day, but it will be one day. Today, I will find a way through your silver wall. I will find you Exiles where you hide, and I will kill you all.”
Tes had never been more proud of Meo the mind-soother’s work. If there was anything that would test his improvements to her mind, it was this. And here she was, sound and whole, without the faintest trace of doubt in her head. She may have loved Julia in her past life, but the girl was nothing but a pleasant-sounding name to her now.
“The enemy of the green tribe is an enemy to me, and I am not the woman whose face you know. I will have no mercy on those who know think they know me, so it is only fair to warn you so that you expect none.” The silence stretched on for some time, and Tes suspected they were talking on the other side of the wall.
“You should hear the ruckus that caused over here.” The disembodied voice finally chuckled. “We’ve got people saying you should die, people saying we should let you in to see their faces, it’s a madhouse. The things humans do ’cause of emotion, I swear.”
“You aren’t human?”
“Thankfully not. If I were human I’d have some modicum of guilt about doing this.”
Tes had already braced herself for a fight based on the words alone, and judging by the hissing coming from the dark corners of the room, the voice had released snakes.
“That’s a really fine reaction time you have there.” The voice complimented. “I wouldn’t bother though.”
It took longer than she would’ve liked to admit for Tes to realize that there were no snakes in the room. The hiss was the sound of air being released into surroundings. It puzzled Tes until she remembered the rumors; Exiles died without air.
“If you’ve poisoned the air, know that you waste your magic.” She smirked.
“Well I don’t know about poison, it’s more of a knockout-….I’m sorry, did you say magic?”
“And now I will return to the Prince, and we will begin taking your silver wall apart.”
“Walls, plural.” The voice chuckled as Tes turned to leave. “And good luck with that.”
Tes had entered through the mangled doorway ripped open by the Dracori, but now on the other side of that doorway, in the middle of the room beyond, lay another silver wall.
No. No no no. Tes shot an experimental blast of magic at the wall that lay behind her, but just like the other, her lightning left no mark. She glanced at the walls to her left and right.
“You’re welcome to give them a try,” the smug voice of Blue seemed to read her thoughts, “but there’s another shield on either side. It’s more of a grid of shields than a line of them. The General saw you coming a mile away.”
“You’re lying.” Tes hazarded, but her gut was telling her that the mind of the moon was too smug to be lying. “If the walls form a grid, why wouldn’t you raise them all the second we entered?”
“Well first of all, silver-plated senstone is expensive, and we just didn’t have enough at such short notice. Secondly, the walls are hard to install. Really we barely had time to set them up in the center of the Orbital, and-…I’m being told to stop sharing info with you now.”
“Gods’ blessings.” Tes muttered, spinning slowly in a circle, trying to think of some method of escape.
“Oh but I don’t have to stop talking. I have some more messages to pass on from your teammates. You know, the ones you’re stabbing in the back? Let’s see, this first one is from Alex. She says-” Tes finally located the source of the voice, a tiny metal box in the corner of the room. It wasn’t made of the indestructible silver, and a lance of lightning was enough to shear it in half, plunging the room into silence.
Tes sat in the middle of the floor, surrounded by rubble, and waited for her Terran brethren to rescue her.