It had been more than a decade since Syteria had breathed the sweet air of Kappa, the world where she’d been born.
High above her, Rho—Kappa’s larger planetary sister—dominated the sky like a vast,malevolent eye. Its light washed out the hauntingly familiar stars struggling to make their presence known.
A leaden weight, as heavy as the armor plating of her tactical vest, took form in her belly. Her grip on the rifle tightened, each deliberate breath bringing it closer as if it were some talisman.
Syteria had been paired with Mara, a trusted eniseri veteran. Age lines and scars crisscrossed the older woman’s face. Her dark hair, clipped close to the scalp like Syteria’s own, was covered almost entirely by her helmet. Mara’s gloved hands rested lightly on her rifle. A soft wind stirred the leaves on the trees above them, sending shadows into play across her confident face.
They knelt at the edge of a clearing, in the cover and concealment of a downed tree, awaiting the order to advance on the lone shack with its pitiful column of smoke.
A stone well fronted an animal corral. The lowing of the beasts within, the odor of manure,the tinkle of bells worn by the animals in case they got lost all poked at her memory. Syteria had been born and raised in a place not so unlike this one.
She closed her eyes as flashes of her past surfaced: running barefoot through leaves; watching Rho rise and set; holding soft, downy hatchling in her hands.
Syteria shook her head and opened her eyes, darting a glance at Mara, checking to see if she’d somehow given something away. But Mara was watching the shack.
To keep her hand from drifting up to the monitoring collar, Syteria tightened her grip on her rifle’s stock. Maybe the collar would attribute the change in her breathing and body chemistry to nerves, to this being her first time. Maybe the Matrons who were monitoring this mission were too busy to notice.
A jolt of pain traveled up to pierce her temple. She winced, gritting her teeth.
Others might get a pass. They didn’t have her history of disobedience, her willingness to endure round after round of exhaustion, pain, and deprivation. Others willingly took the mind-altering drugs that poisoned the soul and stripped them of individuality. For whatever reason, they didn’t work as well on Syteria, a fact for which she was grateful, despite the price.
Another jolt followed as lightning coursing up and down her spine. She would have screamed,but the collar took her voice. It would not be returned until it echoed in unison with all the others.
She mouthed the required words: I am eniseri. I will obey.
Closing her eyes, she repeated the words again and again as the collar’s jolts tightened muscles until they felt like they might tear each other apart. Pain radiated from where her heart clenched painfully. She could no longer breathe. The muscles in her chest had stopped working.
I am eniseri. I will obey.
Oh please, stop. Let this end. She sent that thought, that prayer not to the Matrons, not to Rho’s ruling Matriarchs, but to the Kappan deity whose name she couldn’t even remember.
Syteria didn’t care how it ended. Dead on the grass was as good as any other option. Better perhaps. But in all these years, the Matrons had not granted her that escape.Only the well-behaved eniseri that were monitored less closely managed to take their own lives.
The pain stopped as if someone had flipped a switch.
It’d be a while before they’d use the collar again. Recovery from pain scrambled the signals. Until they returned to baseline, Syteria could enjoy a bit of autonomy. Or at least the illusion of it, for whatever that was worth.
Trembling, she dragged a gloved hand across her mouth and tugged the water tube forward. The sip of water refused to make its way down. She spat it onto the already wet ground beside her and sat back, waiting for the shaking to subside.
“Your first culling?” Mara asked, her first words to Syteria. The hours since their initial introduction aboard the Rhoan drop-ship had been filled with the uneasy silence of untrusting strangers.
A chilling gaze swept over her as Mara’s lip curled into a sneer. “Just remember why you’re here.”
How could she forget? She was an instrument, a means to wage war against her own people.
“Adults are your priority targets,” Mara reminded her. “Take them out first.Let the children run. Remember, we want them to run.”
She remembered. Every day and night, every time she had to do any of the vile,vicious things required of her. Syteria would never forget the mask of streaked greens and browns, the harsh sneering face under a helmet masked with leaves. Ten years ago, an eniseri had appeared out of the forest to snatch her.
Her twelve-year-old self had screamed and kicked and bitten, earning herself the first of many “therapies.” And now the Matrons expected her to take just-orphaned Kappan children and make them forget who and what they were. All so they could replenish the dwindling numbers in the eniseri crèches.
Eniseri numbers must’ve dwindled unexpectedly. Why else would the Matrons drop them off only in pairs?
Obey. Obey and live.
The life of an eniseri was better than death. There were worse fates than life as an interchangeable cog in the Rhoan machine. A machine that ran on the inviolable, infallible triumvirate of the Matriarchy: Unity. Uniformity.Stability.
Syteria took a sip, forestalling the urge to retch. The water, body-warm and stale, slid down her throat more easily this time.
“What’s Control waiting for?” she asked, her voice soft and uncertain.
Mara gave her a look that asked, What kind of idiot are you? or perhaps, You’re going to get us both killed. Mara shrugged the question off, gaze darting to the shack.Not even a breath of wind stirred.
“Last year one of them got me,” Mara said in that toneless voice of an eniseri veteran. “If they’re armed,they’re a target. Understand?”
“Don’t let them get near you.” A hard edge cut through Mara’s tone. It matched the look in the older woman’s eyes.
Syteria hads een that edge before—in the eyes of the Matrons. Mara, was close, very close,to becoming one of them. Perhaps as close as one mission, this mission.
“They’re feral little beasts,” Mara added.
Heartbeats crashed in Syteria’s ears accompanied by a rush of cold that seeped bone-deep.
“Feral beasts,” Syteria echoed. “I’ll be careful.”
Without these”feral beasts” the Rhoans would have to do their own fighting and dying. The Kappans were physically and emotionally better suited to fighting.Less to the dying, though, which made their use a double-edged sword. Without their technological advantage, the Rhoans never would have gained control of the Kappans.
Lying awake at night, Syteria’s mind had endlessly played with the question: What if the Kappans could advance enough to neutralize that technological edge?
The collar vibrated in warning.
Follow orders. Obey.
The mantra echoed in the back of her mind, drowning out the bird and insect calls filling the night. Rho had risen to its zenith. A silent drone circled overhead. Over her earpiece, the comm chatter slowed to a trickle, then died, leaving only the lull of static.
Syteria shifted, easing back onto one knee.
The shack was no more than a dark shadow. Its column of smoke had thinned, gray tendrils turning to vapors. It was so quiet she could make out the drip from a leaking bucket hitting the distant well-water below.
Syteria wet her lips and whispered, “How did the ‘feral beast’ get you?”
“One of the little monsters had a knife. Plunged it into my leg, right between the plates and into my thigh.” There was an edge of anger there, a tiny bit of it.
“What did you do?”
“Put a bullet in its brain,” Mara said, speaking as though it was something she did every day, something that didn’t haunt her at night.
How had Mara erased her true self? Like all eniseri, she’d been born on Kappa. How long had it taken to turn her into this monster?How many missions like this one, culling her own people? How much therapy? The questions died, unspoken. The scars on Syteria’s body were a testament to the severity with which such talk was punished.
“What if I’m wrong?” Syteria asked. “What if I kill a female?”
Mara reached for her spare magazine and flipped it so the ammunition nestled inside could be seen in the threadbare light.
“All our rounds are lethal, see? That means the Matrons don’t care.” She reseated the magazine in its pouch, shifted to a more comfortable position, and flashed a white smile. “This makes it easier for us. We don’t have to risk injury,or worry about collateral damage. You’ll see. Easy.”
“Easy.”The word fouled Syteria’s mouth. Once more, she reached for the water tube dangling off her shoulder and sipped. Even as it went down, the water failed to clear her revulsion. One bullet was all that it would take to end Mara’s life.But the Rhoans had taken precautions. A rifle aimed at an eniseri wouldn’t fire.
“Once the adults and older children are dead,” Mara said, “we’ll round up the rest and worry about separating the males from the females.”
Syteria nodded. It was a kindness, really—for the Matriarchy was, by their own definition, kind. It had little use for males of any race and no use for Kappan males. They were too aggressive, too hard to control. Unpredictable too. She’d seen what had happened to the few Kappan males the Rhoans had brought back. Seen enough to know her brothers hadn’t been one of the unfortunates that had been captured.
And then she’d forgotten what she’d seen, buried it deep and kept it hidden, lest it weaken her. The collar buzzed, vibrating against her bones, sending pulses in quick succession to stab and claw at her conscience and her body.
She would dispense, quick, merciful kindness. She would follow orders.
Adrenaline flooded her body until she became as taut as a bowstring held too long at draw.She trembled, craving and fearing release.
Release came over the earpiece as a mix of orders and expletives. It was followed by the boom of a low-yield diversionary device that hit the shack’s meager roof. It didn’t demolish the structure, but it did make its walls shake and the roof planks splinter.
A child’s cry joined another and quickly died. That the children were still alive was a given. It wasn’t like the Kappans to kill their own outright. Not even to deny them to the Rhoans. Every eniseri was proof of that.
Kappans fought viciously to save their offspring. Many fought to the end. It’s what made each culling so dangerous.
The airborne drone painted the clearing with its searchlight. Mara moved up and took point.Syteria followed, coming to rest behind the thickest tree trunk she could find.
“Here they come,” Mara said, her voice tight. “Cover me.”
Syteria raised her rifle and thumbed the safety. She obediently put the center of the reticle on the shack door, right on the point where an adult’s center of mass would be.
Mara advanced, boots crunching the twigs and leaves beneath.
The shack door opened with a slow, deliberate swing, but no one emerged.
“Hold. I want them out in the open,” Mara said, her whisper carrying in the crisp, night air.
The stirrup and limbs of a crossbow preceded a rough, unkempt male as he crouch-walked into the open and turned towards them.
Syteria lowered her scope’s reticle until it framed a bearded face.
Breath caught in her chest. Blood froze in her veins. Muscles locked in place. She knew him.
The crossbow twanged and an arrow cut through the air.
The wet sound of flesh parting for the arrowhead was followed by the gurgle of blood caught in an unyielding throat. A sack of flesh and bone that had once responded to the name of Mara, dropped. The twitching and gurgling of Mara’s life faded,joining the unnatural silence that hung like a fog.
He looked up.Long, dirty hair fell back to reveal a determined face illuminated by the drone’s light.
They had been apart longer than they had been together, she and her brother. But it was him. She was certain. They shared the same rare coloring, green eyes and chestnut hair, and whenever she looked in the contraband mirror in the eniseri barracks, the features that stared back at her reflected him more than not.
His name—Aviel—formed on her lips without sound.
He ducked back into the shack.
The door swung open again. Aviel’s back was to her as he shielded a pregnant female who was herding two small children towards the other side of the clearing. He looked up at the circling drone. An unarmed observer, it posed no immediate threat.
Would Aviel know that?
Syteria ran towards them, heart pounding, rifle held low. If he was alive, maybe the rest of her family was too. She’d forgotten their faces, their voices, their names.But something remained, like a scent in the air, that, if followed, led to the source.
She stumbled as the Matrons ordered her to kill the adults. Their harsh voices buzzed in her ear.
Just short of the clearing, she ducked behind a tree, dug her gloved hands into the thick foliage, and bit down on a scream as she closed her eyes and pressed her face into the rough bark. There was only so much pain they could make her feel until her body simply shut down on its own. She waited for darkness to swallow her,to render her useless to them.
But it didn’t come.
Her rifle had swung to a stop at her side, its weight suddenly too burdensome to bear. She dropped the loaded magazine and cleared the chamber, tossing both into a thicket. She did the same with the spares. Then she released the buckle and the strap fell away. Numb fingers dropped the harness rig from across her chest.Whatever the Matrons did to compel her obedience now would be wasted.
Unarmed, she posed no threat to her people, or her family.
She worked the clasp at her chin, took the helmet off, and dropped it. Next, she yanked the earpiece, placed it atop a rock, and crushed it under her heel. A wind had risen, whipping about her, tumbling the pieces of broken tech into the soil.
Aviel had stopped on the other side of the well. The woman and children huddled behind him. He spoke, but the wind snatched his words before they could reach her.
Syteria would not reveal herself, nor plead for the chance to join them.
After what the Rhoans had done to her body, her brother would not recognize her anyway. The homing beacon in her collar and the tracking implant in her body still posed a threat. By following them, by joining them, she would only doom them to her own fate.
Vision smearing, she bolted in the opposite direction.
An eniseri gone rogue would entice the drone to pursue her instead. A traitor was the worthier target, someone to be made an example of, someone to break.
She ran,stumbled, fell. Without hesitation, she pushed herself up and ran again, fueled by the return of something she had believed lost forever, something she’d surrendered, something that had been extracted from her unwilling self,something that had no value to the Rhoans—her honor.
The air rushing past her whispered with her grandfather’s voice, There is no greater love…
She swiped at the branches blocking her way. Uncaring, she plunged through darkness, ducking and weaving through the thinning trees.
There is no greater love…
The drone passed overhead, floating like a specter above the treetops.
How much time she’d bought Aviel, or if it was enough to let him and his escape what was to come, she didn’t know.
It had to be enough.
Syteria stumbled out into a field gone fallow and almost made it across. Between one step and another pain bloomed at the base of her spine and took her legs out from underneath her. She rolled onto her back, chest heaving. Copper and iron spilled over lips stretched into a smile.
An honorable death at last.
Tears filled her eyes as Rho’s malevolent light went grey. Her breaths rattled like a rusty chain about to snap.
And then there was no more light.
And no more pain.