CHAPTER ONE

part I

SEVENTY YEARS LATER

 

“There was dark. And a terrible cold. An emptiness. It’s... hard to--there was a voice, a... a warning:

‘The ancients awakened. Uncover the three. Life’s only salvation: The Knowing. The Wielder. The Key.’

...that’s all I can remember. What does it mean?”

- Tanith Govend, Ninth Sage of the Adarai, 308.01.10.

 

Mars. Terra Meridiani. 2188. 308.03.11.

The night was quiet and the wind was still, as they scaled the farm’s boundary fence, virtually invisible against the gently pulsing lights of Aeris’ skyline stretching across the horizon. Only the sound of their quickened footsteps over the dirt and the occasional shimmer of optical camouflage against the night suggested they were even there at all.

They hurried down one of the many paths separating the countless glowing algae ponds radiating a mesmerizing blue-green neon light into the surrounding dark toward the electrical substation nestled in the center of the property.

From a distance, the whirr of the drill uncoupling the generator’s housing was faint, nearly indistinguishable from the eternal drone of the atmosphere-churning terra-mid to the north. The housing flickered in and out of visibility, as it was lifted off of the generator and placed gently onto the ground. As the unseen plasma torches began cutting into the security bolts, a murmur came from one of the cloaked figures. The cutting ceased. A siren whined in the distance. A pronounced stillness filled the air. But, after a moment, the siren faded, and the cutting resumed.

The security bolts began to glow orange, as the torches did their work under the eerie pond light. A moment passed, and a loud clang sounded from the other side of the station. The cutting stopped once more, and, after another muted murmur, one of them stepped softly toward the noise.

Then, without warning, three shots rang out over the quiet. The figures grunted, their cloaking shuttering in the air, as they were each hit with a tiny, circular device.

“Hey, assholes,” a voice boomed from the night.

The substation’s floodlights kicked on, as the three masked thieves crackled into visibility, their cloaking disrupted. Two of them were in a full panic, frantically searching their armor for the source of the malfunction, while the third simply retracted the plasma torch into his red armored gauntlet, pulled the sidearm from his hip, and began to scan their surroundings. 

“You should have a few words with whoever sold you those cloaking cells once you get back to town,” the heavily modulated voice echoed around them, “Because I was reading their thermal bleed before you even hopped the fence.”

The armed thief squinted behind his mask, searching the shadows between the glowing ponds.

“Now get the hell outta here before I call the Feds,” the voice rang.

Something shimmered in the dark to the thief’s left. He tightened his grip and slowly turned towards it. The light shifted again, and he fired.

The slug ripped through the air, and the voice shrieked. The thief broke out into a full sprint, charging towards the shimmer, shouting, “Get it up!” to his accomplices as he ran.

“You missed--ugh!” The voice was cut short as the thief smashed into the shimmer, sending him and the cloaked figure tumbling back into one of the algae ponds.

Roe crackled into visibility, coming up gasping for air, covered in pond slime. She wiped the green goop from her eyes to find the thief already wading through the neon glow back toward dry land and immediately trudged after him.

The thief pulled himself out of the pond to find his accomplices hastily shearing the last of the generator’s security bolts. He stood up, flicking as much of the sludge off of himself as possible, and yelled, “Let’s go! Now!” He turned back and quickly dodged, narrowly avoiding the butt of Roe’s algae-covered rifle.

She snarled and swung again, but the thief deflected and swiftly side-stepped behind her, grabbing the rifle and pulling up against her throat in a choke-hold. Roe struggled in his grasp, throwing her elbows into his armored torso to no avail.

His brittle voice rattled from behind his mask, “You should’ve stayed in bed, little girl.”

She tried to say something, a building rage in her eyes, but couldn’t, choking against the rifle. The thief let out a raspy laugh, “What’s that?” and loosened his grip.

Through her clenched teeth, Roe growled, “Worm...”

The thief chuckled, “Worm? Ha! You think I’m a worm, huh? That’s a new one.”

Roe tilted her head, looking up as much as she could in the struggle, “No...that’s...worm...”

The thief looked up. Something glinted in the night sky, and before he could react, the glint became a dive-bombing blur that careened into his mask. “Gaah--the fu--” the thief stumbled, nearly toppling over and allowing Roe to slip from his grasp.

Roe quickly glanced toward the substation, as her robot geococcyx, W0RM, fluttered onto her shoulder, and saw the other two thieves struggling to lift the heavy generator from its base, the shorn security bolts still glowing beside it on the ground. “Put it down!” she roared.

They didn’t, and one of them yelled, “Come on!” to their partner behind her. In a fury, Roe whipped around to face her attacker only to be met by the slimy butt of her own rifle.


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