Friday, May 17, 2013

The Vermilion Years: Chapter 3

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 As I watched a pack of sand wolves gnaw the flesh off the impaled unmans, I felt a fell wind brewing. We needed to keep moving. Curiosity compelled me to dig through the cartographers' stash of supplies. A wireless telegraph machine turned on its side stood out to me. It had likely been toppled during an interrupted SOS. Rather than suffer idly through Fleurette’s incessant snoring, I decided to scour the camp for any clues that might explain what exactly occurred and who ordered them to make a map of the area.
My search turned up a relatively new carbon monoxide converter, which I stowed in my pocket. It looked to be a relatively strong CMC at that, able convert any camp into a safe haven filled with breathable air.  I’d already gathered the cartographers came from affluence due to the presence of liquor. I needed something else.

A shimmering package resting in the corner drew my eye. Luminescent fabric covered the unopened crate. The box looked to be some sort of a gift. I ginglerly tapped the colorful container with the tip of my claw. The moment my nail touched it, the container unfolded and began expelling hot steam. A projector whirred and lit up, rendering a three dimensional image of a tiny girl in an extravagantly frilly dress. A recorded message played. the lagging rather annoyingly, the audio played out of sync with the child’s lips.

“Greetings, ravenous rabble of Lyonnais,” the hologram bid sweetly. “You may find this to be a peculiar parcel. I have good news or a grave notice. Your small settlement has been designated as a strategic section in our tussle over turf with the malevolent monarchies. Atelier’s Alliance is ready for your reply. It is our humble honor to—”
The holo-mist message blipped out prematurely, its projector smashed to bits by the bolted knuckles on my left glove.

“Jean-Luc, that message was meant for Lyonnais,” Fleurette scolded groggily, apparently less asleep than I’d presumed. “You dare meddle in our political affairs?”

“What you overheard was a death sentence veiled as an offer.”

Fleurette picked up a smiling picture depicting another little girl that came with the package.

“What an adorable little mascot, they have,” Fleurette cooed brushing her finger over the curls of the rosy cheeked cherub. The AA used expensive fiber for their photographs, the kind that allowed raised and textured surfaces. When touched the image would feel exactly like whatever the image depicted.

“The Atelier Alliance appears far too sweet to be a threat. Stop being so jaded, Jean-Luc.”

“The world truly is an earnest place through the eyes of the naïve,” I said, skewering the photo with the middle nail of my cast-iron claw. “Innocence is the MO of Audette Atelier’s bloody organization.”

 “The darling angel is nearly as cute as Etienne was at that age. Is this the leader’s daughter?”

I flicked the photo off my claw and sliced it to bits in midair.

“That is the leader,” I informed solemnly. “Le Petit Président Audette Atelier. Your mistress will never reach her age, as that child is an Im, no different than I.”

“So was the messenger was an Im too?” Fleurette asked skeptically. “I recall there being a crowd of little girls in the picture you tore.” 

“Yes, at the surface, Atelier Alliance appears to consist entirely of young girls, but the truth much more disturbing. Audette is the only immortal in the entire organization. When the girls reach their teens, Audette amputates their limps and replaces them with short prosthetics. Helium orbs are placed in their larynxes to simulate a young girl’s voice. Cosmetic surgery is administered on a weekly basis.”    

“That’s unbelievably absurd,” Fleurette said bitterly. “If such a strange group indeed existed, Lyonnais’ militia would have nothing to fear from such laughable force. Lyonnais’ only concern is the growing unman population. A problem you failed to solve.”

“Unmans pose a nominal threat compared to the Atelier Alliance,” I explained, peering at the pile of unman bones stacked outside the camp.

“So what does this mean for Lyonnais?” she asked, beginning to feel the gravity of the situation.

“Death or enslavement,” I said.

All color faded from Fleurette’s face.

“But you can stop them, correct?”

I shook my head.

“If stopping an army of little girls is beyond your abilities, it’s no wonder you fight for nothing.

My claw hand shook, lusting to lob off the maid’s patronizing mouth. The sight of Audette Atelier must have truly riled me, as I had not seen my temper in a decade.

“Given my inability to die, the success of fight is not determined by my survival, but the survival of those who hire me. That said, I must admit that cannot sway a large scale conflict in any way. Once an opponent realizes I am unkillable, I’m simply ignored. I become nothing but a ghost on the battlefield.”

“That’s an excuse for you to do nothing and you know it,” Fleurette scoffed.

“I wouldn’t expect a human to understand,” I sighed, growing tired of the girl’s narrow perspective. “Immortality saves my own life, but it does little to save lives of those around me… or the city of Lyonnais.”

“I’ve had enough of your fatalism, Jean-Luc,” Fleurette snapped.  “Time has warped you a great deal if you believe an entire settlement is doomed by the passing whim of one little girl. Lyonnais will only fall if you abandon it. The unman will devour everyone, it’s only a matter of time. Forget Audette, if any Im dooms the city, it will be you.

I looked outside the cave. The sandstorm had worsened, its strong gusts had blown the unman remains away, leaving only the bones stuck the skewer. 

“Doom has nothing to do with it, nor do the unman,” I assured her. “Lyonnais is a miscarriage in time, a city that died before it was born. It will fall sooner or later, with little difference between the two. Time has little regard for futile communities like Lyonnais. I share its lack of concern.”

The glossy look in the girl’s gaze made it clear to me that she didn’t appreciate my pragmatism. The land seen through the eyes of the mortal and that of the Im were identical, but the worlds we lived in could not have been more different. I knew that the movement of a single grain of sand does not change the landscape of a desert. That’s why Audette made herself the head of a massive organization. The actions of an individual means nothing in the grander scheme. True influence exists only in numbers. Dictatorships end with the death of the dictator. Immortality cements that rule. When a king’s reign lasts multiple generations, he becomes a god.

That kind of power never appealed to me. I found warmongering to be a fleeting and purposeless hobby. My actions were not inspired by boredom or pride like Audette’s. I had a far less superficial mission for my life, though my reason for embarking had been long lost to time.  Staring deep into my shiny metal mask, Fleurette’s indignant eyes beckoned what was left of my compassion. To her dismay, the only trace of humanity she discovered was her own reflection. Without warning, the maidservant dashed out of the camp, leaving a trail of tears behind her.

“Continuing alone, you will die,” I said, chasing after her.
“What does it matter to you?” she yelled back. “The life of a human is too short an insignificant have any importance. Now that I’ve seen you do it, I’m going to teach the militia how to kill the unman. Lyonnais doesn’t need a useless mercenary.”
I said nothing. It became apparent that my words hadn’t flown over Fleurette’s head, but though her heart.

I continued to trail behind her, despite the girl’s best efforts to shake me. The maid’s frailty did nothing to dampen her resolve. The girl trudged through the brutal sandstorm, pushed by a motivation known only to those with finite lifespans.  Though I lacked her sense of urgency, I followed anyway.  Fleurette’s resilience impressed me. While most of her tirelessness could be credited to the oxygen orb I’d inserted into her chest, her will seemed practically insurmountable.  I surmised that Fleurette had been more than a mere maid.

Once night neared, Fleurette took refuge in a large circular pit surrounded by tremendously large rock formations. While not nearly as safe as the cartographers’ camp, the shelter of spires kept the girl safe from the harsh sandy wind. Once she drifted to sleep, I perched on the highest rock spire to survey the area. It was at this moment that I realized Fleurette’s shelter actually was.

I leapt off the spire and landed next to the maid. The thud my landing caused forced her awake.

“Why can’t you just leave me alone!?” Fleurette screamed, shoving me away from her. “I thought you wanted to be rid of me. Tell me, what is that you wish to gain by watching an insignificant  human? Is this how you find entertainment in your empty eternity?”

“You’ve been traveling in the opposite of where you thought you were going,” I informed her coldly, extending the various blades out of from various orifices within my bronze and cast-iron armor.

“Whose enculing fault is that, pray tell?” she spat back sharply.
“Coincidentally, you’ve lead me exactly to where you wanted me to me,” I said, choosing to ignore her use of profanity.   

“And where might that be, Jean-Luc? BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO BE IN HELL.”

Thousands of high pitched squeals, gurgles and moans sounded off in stereo, reacting to the girl’s deafening outburst. Countless white eyes opened out of the darkness. The ground beneath out feet rumbled.

“This unman’s breeding ground,” I said, looking around. “Unmans dig out a crater and surround it with massive rocks. It’s the equivalent of human’s city. Since they require a thousandth of the oxygen your kind does, the unman can stay subterranean for long periods of time. This is where they congregate and come to sleep.”

“I a-awoke them, then…” Fleurette said shakily. “They are… rising from the ground. There’s so… many.”

Clumps of unman rose from the ground. Countless others slinked in from the surrounding darkness. The hideous hoard approached from everywhere but the sky. The shrill chorus created by their collective cries sent chills down my spine. The genetic abominations horrified every sense. In large groups the unmans’ smell became overwhelmingly pungent.  Reeking of embalmed cadavers, the scent had a jarring effect on the human psyche.

“Snap to it t-then, Jean-Luc. On with the slaying…”

I lowered my head.

“Your name is Fleurette, correct?” I asked tenderly, turning the mouthpiece on my mask into a smile.  The unmans’ staring would soon end, and their attack would commence.

The girl nodded.

“Your name means ‘flower’ in the extinct language, French. That ancient tongue is the ancestor of the one you speak. A flower was a type of plant that used to grow on Earth.  They came in various colors and shapes and smelled quite pleasing. We regarded flowers as a physical representation of beauty and considered them a symbol of love.”

“Why are you telling me this?”   

“You deserve to know how beautiful your name is,” I said, shifting my mouth back to a neutral position.

My kindness caused the girl to tremble.

“I’m… going to die, aren’t I?” she asked me in a small voice.

I nodded. There was no use lying to the girl. If it hadn’t been for my immortality, I too would share her fate. In mere minutes, Fleurette would be pulled apart by the slimy tongues of the unman.  
(To be continued)