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Index interlude fiction

Zero could stomach the floor shakes and the whooping sirens, but she knew that buildings never went completely dark like this. She dearly believed her parents should not yell inside the residence hallways even if the lights were out. This was no drill. Zero felt colder even as her heart thumped faster.

Zero breathed fear. She wanted it all to stop.

Were her parents fighting about the lights? How could an argument possibly make the lights work again? It must be a major failure. Or sabotage? Or the City Wreckers?

Zero ran full tilt into the community garage hangar. There were only two other people there, both technicians warming up speeders. The techs shouted at each other too, and that added to her confusion. Was this a general evacuation? At least the emergency lights were on in the garage ceiling. Zero altered her sprint to the family mooring zone. She could do the flight warm up sequence. She guessed father would want the speeder started.

Zero did not look over her shoulder until she was punching the access code into the speeder hatch. Then she turned and stared backwards at the hallway entry but there was no sign of her older sister, Misa. The garage filled now with the sounds of at least four speeders warming. The techs shouted some patter but they worked on vehicles parked at the front of the garage. Her father's speeder was two ranks back. Then the hatch cycled open and she hesitated in place. It would be better--reassuring-- if Misa helped her with the checklist.

Where were they? She turned around. Zero was a good sprinter but they were just behind her when they all left the lifts.

The whole garage shook and Zero pitched backwards into the interior falling over the hatchway edge. Her head smacked the speeder floor but the bright blue squigfoam coating softened the blow.

She scrambled back to her feet and leaned out of the hatch. Zero stopped breathing and bit her lip. There! Yes!

Misa emerged from the dust cloud coming from the hallway. Her older sister staggered with Mother slung sideways over her shoulders. Zero could not be sure, but it looked like Mother was out cold. Their faces and clothing were both dust covered. What had fallen? What was happening now?

Father and Oki limped out from the dust cloud gripping each other for stability. They were moving half as fast as Misa. Zero jumped out of the hatch.

"No, Zero! Stop!" Misa screamed above the rumble drone of speeder engines, "Start the speeder. You drive! We are leaving for the summer camp! Now!"

Zero spun and jumped back through the hatch. She ran between seats and threw herself into the pilot seat. She keyed on the comp and hit all three ignition toggles.

~Good girl. Now brace yourself. Take a deep breath.~

A voice in her head? Zero turtled her neck looking around. The garage outside the windscreen flashed into glare and a roar as something broke the garage doors. The boom that followed rattled the speeder.

As she squinted the glare died and she started panting again. Zero saw two of the warmed up speeders on fire. Then those craft exploded. Debris skipped off the windscreen. Zero screamed. Checklist items scrambled with the panic jitters in her head. Zero buckled in. She stared at the controls and turned on everything that she thought normally was on during a trip to camp. It all seemed to work. "Comp, prep for immediate flight. Emergency. Injured person to trauma care. Advise tower to release with no flight plan."

"No response from tower. Systems online. Two minutes to complete full check," said the comp board.

Zero huffed and twisted herself around to stare at the hatch. No one was inside the speeder. "Misa! Two minutes!"

The garage shook again. Zero wailed, "Momma!"

~Easy, Zero. Slow your breathing.~

?Voice from where? The datacomp offered, "Is the pilot injured? Do you require autoflight to trauma center? Be aware, there is a fire nearby and unusual vibrations in the flight frame. Hazard Control has been advised of the fire. No response from Hazard Control."

Zero unbuckled and dashed back to the hatch. Smoke filled the garage. She could not see anyone. She smelled the burning chemicals. "Momma! Misa!" She pounded her hand on the hatch edge. Tears spilled off her chin.

Zero heard a faint call. It sounded like Misa. She leapt from the hatchway and landed on the garage deck, staying down low where the air was more clear. Zero listened to the fires around her and the one speeder engine running. Hers. The thumps and rattles were distant for the moment. No other speeders warmed up in the charred garage now. That did not make sense.

~Go help. Stay low. Stay calm.~

She yelled for Misa; kept her face closer to the floor below the stinking smoke. A thin response from her right, she scuttled that way and found them. There was no sign of Father and Oki, but Misa lay breathing hard and bleeding. Mother was there, not moving. Their clothing was torn up. Blood. Pieces of metal were buried in Misa's legs. Zero felt her face twist in horror. "The ship is ready," was all she could think to say.

"Take Mother," Misa wheezed.

"Can you walk?" Zero did not think so. One of Misa's legs was twitching and the other looked broken.

"Zero. Take Mother. Fly to camp. I will wait for the rescue workers."

"Where's Father and Oki?" Zero shifted over and grabbed Mother's arm. This would be hard to do. Zero planned a route to protect her mother's head and stay down while getting her inside the speeder. Water jets started somewhere above them. Perhaps the fire fighting would help now with the smoke.

"They were behind me. I don't hear them. You need to get away now."

"I will search after Mother is in the...."

"Go now!" Misa snapped. "There is smoke everywhere. We have no breathing gear. Get out. Neither you nor I know enough med tech to help me."

"You have to come too. I can drag you next."

Misa's tears came now. "Father told me it is a Dwimmerlaik attack. City power is down. The fire will get worse. You must go. Do not wait for anything."

"I will be right back," Zero got both of her mother's arms and crawled backwards toward the speeder. Zero coughed and coughed but the water jets were helping. She arrived at the hatchway after what seemed far too long a time. The minor thumps and floor vibrations had not gotten worse. Whatever was happening now it was not near. Mother weighed at least half again as much as Zero. It took careful effort getting Mother inside the speeder and belted in. A small amount of smoke filtered inside the cabin but the working fan systems were keeping most of it out. She kissed her mother's face.

Zero rushed back to the hatch. The smoke was lighter. She jumped to the floor and crabbed along in the wet. Her sense of direction put her right on top of Misa but a hand skidded in the blood and water mix around her on the floor. Zero made a tiny shriek in her throat. "Misa. I have you."

~Easy. Deep breath now.~

Zero reached out and then a huge explosion went off in the garage. It grew and ripped across the back walls. The ripple overran her and the force of it thundered. Zero, Misa, flipped over and even the family speeder wobbled a foot towards the egress doors. When Zero struck the floor she knew she had failed. She slid a ways and thumped into something. Dreamless black claimed her.

Zero woke too near to a fire. She rolled back and forth smothering her charred clothing until the flames were only smoke. The emergency lights were all out. The burnt stench was everywhere. She couldn't hear the speeder running. The water jets had stopped.

She could not hear. She slapped her hand on the soaked floor. No sound.

She had to find Misa and get back to the speeder. Mother was belted in so she should be ok. She must get them all out. Zero crawled about calling, hoping that Misa could hear even if she could not. She burned herself several times bumping against metals that were much hotter than the floor.

~Go carefully. Rushing doesn't help.~

Again the voice! She noticed and managed her breathing. It might have been ten minutes. It certainly was not the hours Zero thought she spent searching. The air was so hot. She choked on every few breaths.

Misa was broken and dead when Zero found her. She curled around Misa and wept. Chills ran through her. It was all her fault. She was not strong or fast enough.

~You did very well. I'm proud of you.~

Zero realized she could hear herself sniffling by the time she stopped. Faintly, she heard the fires in the big space. ~Who are you, miss? Do you have telepathy?~

~I am not a telepath. Get ready to run. Keep your head down.~

And then she distinctly heard autosharp fire. Like a threedee adventure sound. Too close.

Zero listened hard for the drone of her speeder engine. Yes. That way. She gently kissed Misa on the cheek and started crawling for the flyer.

She found the speeder. The leading ground strut was crooked. The landing scuff pads smoldered but the speeder was still running. She ducked under the belly and found the hatchway and crawled inside. She worked the hatch controls with burnt fingers and cycled the hull closed.

Zero went to check on Mother; still strapped in and still breathing. Zero climbed into the pilot seat. The comp board flashed five different warnings at her. She read them and then ignored them. None of them were major systems. She shut off the distress beacon because the Enemy might target her by it. And then she shut off the autoflight because she didn't want to go high enough to become a visible draw for shooters.

She pushed the power settings up to where her father put them for flight. Remembering the bent strut, she did not retract the gear. The speeder lifted noisily. She guessed it was not going to fly long or far. Then she sent it forward through smoke and into the open.

In a moment autosharp fire peppered the speeder and cracked the windscreen. Zero screamed hate at the Enemy out there and pushed the power settings higher. She could see now through the smoke drifts. There were lots of fires. The city lights were all out but dark masses hovered above. One of those Dwimmerlaik tethered floating Bugs sprayed gas down into a neighborhood. She'd seen that in her parent's news channel before. Cities that were dead. Dwim Bugs floating above them making the air bad for any survivors.

~Doing well. Stay calm.~

"Shut up I'm busy!" Zero nudged the controls hard over and plowed right through the center mass of the gas bug and out the other side with a thump and a boom. She saw the north peaks and headed for them.

The speeder held together but the noise was mind wrenching. The power reserves diminished faster than she knew they should. Then friendly flyers found her and matched her flight. She was guided to safe harbor an hour later and broke all the landing struts putting the ship down. The tough speeder ground to a halt. The passenger belt restraints held.

The room colors were dull. The seating fabrics were boring. The counselor had been kind but her words about grief and remembrance were tedious. ~Too many drugs~, Zero thought. She looked down are her bandaged hands. "Mother is dead. Tolerance Mukyu is dead." Zero rocked in the trauma cloister seat curled up with knees under her chin. Tears slowly dropped on her shirt. Again. "Everyone is dead. I should be dead."

~You should be alive.~

"This is a nightmare."

~Yes, it is.~

Zero stopped rocking. She looked around. "It is? Miss?"

The door cycled open and the Lady glided in wearing a strange hex textured coverall with shine and complights in a heavy belt rig. She walked up to Zero and sat down next to her. With ease the Lady tucked her knees up under her chin and curled her arms around them. ~We have done this many times.~

Zero resumed crying. She thought the hate for the Dwim would swell inside her and shut off her breathing. "You tried to help me, but I failed. Everyone."

~It happened a long time ago, Zero. Sometimes the nightmare comes back anyhow. Rehearsal therapy soothes the jitters and moderates the old pain. I feel the terror. It comes when I sleep badly. When you sleep. But like many things, we get better. We are strong. I have not had one of these for many years. It is the stress and shock of a new universe. These Imperials have knocked the world from under me. Like the Dwims so long ago. But I love my family still. I think you did well. Thank you for trying so hard.~

Ten year old Zero looked up at her. "I hate the Dwims. I was not brave. I like your hair. Is my hair going to go gold or did you do biosculpt to it?"

Zero looked down at her. ~Yes. I hate the Dwims too. Your hair will be spun gold. Lots of great things will happen to you. Thank you for being as brave as possible. Nobody's perfect, Chiyo. There is no right answer for moving past guilt.~ Zero put a hand on the child's head. Her little self unsprung and landed heavily in Zero's lap. The child's sobs muffled into the stillsuit shoulder and her small hands locked tight around the back of Zero's neck.

Zero woke sweating. She stared at the wooden ceiling of the inn. All the helplessness of her youth washed through her and she breathed it away. The nightmare's power was a cold mirror now rather than the rusty saw blade of her teen years. The doctors referred to therapy as martial arts for the mind; routine use soothed the trauma and worked the distress out of her thoughts. She could deal with being alive even while such important parts of her life had died.

Something moved around her. Zero saw the intricate shapes and trailing vapors whirling just above her prone body.

Her eyes narrowed in study. For a second, paranoia squeezed into her heart as she considered what magic threat was here to claim her while she slept supposedly safe under Imperial watch. But she realized her skin tickled in the same pattern as the flickers above her recumbent form. The oval path of mist was translucent and orbiting her crown to toe in moebius. She saw tiny sharpbats in the flow, looking like etched ceremonial fans as they pitched and capered in the mist flow.

The vapor was beautiful.

She found her center and slowed her heart. The Manifestation vanished with a touch of blue light. She sat up. Her sweat had frozen into glitter along her body. It was... enchanting and not as cold as it ought to be.

"Well." Zero admired her coating of frost sparkles and grinned with wonder, "That's Second Breath. Now what does the form mean? Fancy ghost sharpbats?"

The Imperials put some serious stock by Manifestation. The Dragon Blessing. Zero nodded to herself. This Empire life would be as hard as anything she had done, but it was all going to work out.

Now to make dreams pay off.


Page last modified on November 17, 2015, at 06:51 PM